Family Life Coaching: Part of the Family Science Toolbox
Margaret E. Machara, Ph.D., CFLE, Professor, Department of Human Sciences, Tennessee State University Debbie Kruenegel-Farr, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, New England College; and Kimberly Allen, Ph.D., CFLE, BCC, Professor, Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences, North Carolina State University
- Family Science and coaching psychology come together in family life coaching.
- Family life coaching utilizes research-based, theory-driven techniques to partner with families.
- Family life coaches empower families to achieve their self-identified goals and highlight the strengths and characteristics of each family.
Family life coaching (FLC) is relatively new to the Family Science discipline. Family life coaches bridge coaching techniques and Family Science knowledge. Coaches are Family Science professionals who partner with clients, using strengths-based coaching techniques rather than educational materials to help family systems reach self-identified goals (Allen & Huff, 2014). Through the use of powerful questioning, planning, and accountability, family life coaches guide families. In art, negative space typically refers to the area surrounding an object within a picture. The negative space brings clarity, distinction, and highlight to the subject. Similarly, the art of FLC is that families remain the focus, with the coach helping to clarify and highlight family strengths. Through coaching techniques, families are empowered to achieve their self-identified goals (Allen, 2016).
Family Science is transdisciplinary, with a focus on research, theory, and practice on families. Although related to other areas of study, Family Science has been established as a translational science that has now entered the evaluation and innovative stage, having already met the criteria of a specific discipline (Hamon & Smith, 2017). The National Council on Family Relations (2020) defines “Family Science” as “the scientific study of families and close interpersonal relationships.” NCFR recognizes and credentials Family Life Educators (CFLEs), who assist families by strengthening their knowledge and skills with a wide range of age groups and issues. Additional Family Science professionals can work in myriad environments such as, high school teachers of Family Science, consumer sciences teachers who instruct teens in aspects of dating, and cooperative extension agents who guide expectant parents through pregnancy and parenting. Head Start teachers help preschoolers develop lifelong building blocks for future education. Marriage and family therapists encourage open communication for couples. The work of Family Science professionals is as varied as families themselves, and Family Science professionals are essential figures in education and intervention during sensitive periods of family life.
Coaching has been successfully used in fields as varied as business, education, mental health, and medicine (Allen, 2016). Coaches with families have helped them cope with autism, oppositional defiant disorder, hearing and speech impairments, developmental delays, and diabetes (Broekelmann, 2012; Dunsmore et al., 2013; Feenstra et al., 2015; Graham et al., 2014; Hamren & Quigley, 2012; & Wacker et al., 2013). Research has indicated that clients who have received coaching attribute many positive outcomes to the coaching relationship, including improved self-awareness, a more balanced life, and healthier relationships (Francis & Milner, 2006).
Primary coaching techniques include promotion of self-discovery and self-direction, powerful questioning, and goal setting. Through discovering the strengths they have, individual clients can visualize a clearer path to accomplish the goals they set while avoiding obstacles that have previously held them back (Allen, 2016). The coach helps the client find opportunities in their personal narrative that can help them overcome obstacles (Passmore & Oades, 2015). Grant (2013) outlined a solution-based process that includes helping clients reframe their issue, clarify their goals, and monitor progress toward their goal while building self-efficacy.
Payne (2007) asserted that one of the most beneficial things coaches can do is ask clients a powerful question so that they can clarify the situation for themselves. Through the use of such powerful questions, coaches lead clients to self-discovery and self-purpose. Examples of powerful questions include asking about key strengths, how things are working, or what direction the client wants to go (Allen et al., 2019). Knowing which questions to ask and the optimal time to ask them enables the coach to assist clients in their self-driven journey. For example, asking clients to describe a period when they felt things were going well can help them identify what they feel is lacking. Once goals are set, asking clients to identify specific ways to know when they’ve completed the goal can help keep them focused and accountable. Wright (2005) discussed coaching as focusing on discovery rather than recovery. She referred to coaching as the method to draw aspirations and strategies out of clients to help them shape their own lives. Helping clients draw their own map via planning and goal setting encompasses two of the core competencies of coaching (Wright, 2005).
The fundamental approach of coaching is one of support, partnership, and accountability. Grounded in coaching psychology and utilizing the techniques described above, the coach–client connection helps individuals proceed with goals they value and set (Grant, 2007). The power remains with the partnership, not the coach (Kimsey-House et al., 2011), empowering individuals in their own lives (Seligman, 2007). Coaches hold clients accountable for progress toward those goals (Allen, 2016) because the responsibility for taking action must remain with clients (Wright, 2005).
Family Life Coaching
Myers‐Walls et al. (2011) addressed the why, what, when, for whom, and how of Family Life Education (FLE). FLE is the practice of equipping and empowering family members to develop knowledge and skills (National Council on Family Relations, 2019). However, FLE training does not focus much on the skills to deliver FLE. Allen and Huff (2014) proposed FLC as a distinct domain because it is based on partnering with families to reach self-identified goals (why) by a coach, with a foundation in both Family Science and coaching psychology theories (what), who focuses on the present to reach future goals (when) for individuals, couples, or families (for whom) using coaching techniques (how). Allen and Huff explain the key difference of FLE and FLC is that educators most often use a structured course of study with educational goals while coaches view the client as the expert and partner with them to reach goals identified by the client. FLC is distinguished by the expertise and techniques used, with some overlap with therapy, mentoring, and consulting (Williams & Menendez, 2007). Because no client operates devoid of relationships, Bronfenbrenner’s micro- and macrosystems of the individual must be considered. A family life coach views the client from a family lens and operates in a supporting, collaborative role rather than occupying a place of power with the family. An FLC assists families in discovering their own strengths, obstacles, and goals while holding them accountable for their progress. The flexibility of coaching lies in its mission to partner with individuals to help them achieve their goals (Allen, 2016). The FLC process is similar to coaching psychology with one major difference—a family life coach has the expertise to also offer evidence-based education due to their Family Science knowledge (Allen, 2016). They may temporarily move from the coaching role into an educator role in specific situations (as a Family Life Educator); but only with permission from the client. If the client does not want an educator and the coach feels that progress cannot be made without different or additional assistance, then the coach would refer the client to other professionals.
Take the case of Katie (a pseudonym). Katie came to coaching because she was having difficulty getting her children to sleep. She had tried everything but nothing worked. She wanted to be a kind and firm mother but often found herself screaming and then feeling guilty. While working with her family life coach, Katie explored her strengths as a parent, considered previous situations when she had overcome parenting difficulties, and envisioned what success would look like. Soon, Katie identified for herself what needed to change, created a plan for how to make changes, and felt support and accountability from her coach. Katie began to make changes.
Because the family life coach also had a background in Family Science, with Katie’s permission, she put on her “parent educator hat” and provided Katie with an evidence-based educational handout about age-appropriate sleep strategies. This demonstrates the positive benefits of coupling Family Science knowledge with coaching practices. In addition, through conversation with her family life coach, Katie began to realize that part of the sleep issues were related to her and her husband not being in sync with their child’s bedtime strategies. The family life coach was able to support Katie through a family systems lens, supporting Katie as she and her husband set up a routine for the children. Ultimately, this process enforced positive parenting practices and improved her feelings of success as a mother.
FLC has found its footing and has been noted as an evidence-based prevention program in Family Science literature. Rotheram-Borus et al. (2017) noted that FLC is a viable and effective delivery system of family prevention science, as it promotes behavior changes, has long-term impacts, and has a popular nonstigmatizing approach to serving families. Individuals who offer FLC are grounded in Family Science, psychology, and coaching psychology theories (Allen et al., 2019). Family life coaches utilize research-based coaching strategies, build trusting relationships, and facilitate growth (Family Life Coaching Association, 2020). As with Katie’s case, the combination of coaching practices and family life expertise is key, although few coaches have had sufficient training in utilizing coaching techniques for families in particular (Machara, Kruenegel-Farr, Allen, & Feigal, 2017).
With an emphasis on partnership and collaboration with the client, family life coaches also share research-based information when appropriate (Allen, 2016). Their primary role is as a coach, helping families set their own priorities and timelines, not as an educator directing those goals. Family life coaches switch to educating families only with permission of the client, because the initial process is established from a coach–client perspective. Certainly, in situations where a family life coach feels the family needs additional services, referrals are made. All families can potentially benefit from working with a family life coach, not only families experiencing disruption or vulnerability (Kruenegel-Farr et al., 2016).
Finally, FLC can be utilized in conjunction with other modes of engagement with families to build skills more quickly and support families more completely (Center on the Developing Child, 2017; Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, 2014). The equal partnerships that family life coaches provide offer support as situations arise and build skills that foster resilience all while maintaining a focus on self-identified goals (Machara, Kruenegel-Farr, & Allen, 2017).
In the Negative Space
Family life coaches operate in the negative space of family functioning—the hidden, behind-the-scenes space. That is their strength. Rather than exhibit a power position, family life coaches support families in a side-by-side capacity, offering support where needed. Coaches are there to help clients set goals, to hold them accountable for striving toward those goals, and to celebrate successes when they meet their goals. Like a child riding a bicycle, families use the support of family life coaches to gain their own skills and confidence. Family life coaches are like training wheels, supporting the family only when needed to ensure the family moves successfully forward on their own journey. Operating in a negative space, family life coaches assist in ways that help them “disappear” when families begin to operate in their own positive spaces.
Implications for Practice and Research
Although family coaching is becoming more established and current research shows increased efficacy and positive results (Allen, 2016; Rotheram-Borus et al., 2017), more widespread research on the impact of FLC would strengthen the field. Further, there is no unifying credential as of yet for FLC. Both issues are areas for growth. Evaluation and documentation FLC would add to the growing body of research.
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