Web-only Feature

Web-only Feature

Parenting is Like Dieting

Ups and Downs, Failures and Successes

Internet Editor’s Note: Dr. Trammell and colleagues recently published an article in the Bulletin on “Counseling for Teens and Young Adults With an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis: Using Evidence to Inform Treatment.” You can find a free copy of the article: here.

If you are like anyone else who has attempted a diet, you know that dieting is best thought of as a long-term journey that frequently includes ups and downs, failures, and successes.  In many ways, the day-to-day trials of parenting are quite similar. Some days, we are really on top of doing all the right things, and then another day, we are screaming at our kids followed by a tub of shame-filled ice cream.

When it comes to hearing from and helping parents in the therapy room, the number of approaches seems to parallel the number of diets that “guarantee” results. Evidence-based practices, such as parent management training (Kazdin, 1997) and parent-child interaction therapy (Eyeberg, 1988), are obvious choices when possible, but so often the biggest challenge is getting parents beyond “the way my parents did it” or the ways they “used to do it.” Furthermore, while we will commonly hear people say, “and I turned out OK,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that type of parenting was effective in many of those situations. Nevertheless, oftentimes the bigger issue is that for most parents, their knowledge of parenting is not the key factor in determining their parenting behavior. They have the knowledge, but struggle with the implementation of the right skills. Here I will explore a few ways that you can use the metaphor of dieting with parents, as well as easy-to-teach, easy-to-implement parenting skills for your clinical practice.

Problem #1 – Parents Have the Knowledge, But Lack the Skill

When dieting we know we cannot eat cupcakes if we want to lose weight, but that doesn’t always stop us at the birthday party. Similarly, for many parents, they know giving in, arguing, screaming, or spanking are not the keys to their best days as parents, but engaging in the right behaviors day in and day out is challenging. In fact, sometimes the fact that they know they are not doing the right thing causes them to fall into a shame spiral about being a bad parent. This can be even more difficult because that shame frequently leads to negative parenting behaviors (Scarnier, Schmaker, & Lickel, 2009). Often, I remind parents that all of us make mistakes daily and the key is to keep working and keep practicing to be better. I also spend time discussing what it is that keeps them from doing what they know they should be doing with their kids and setting small goals around those things. For instance, “I know I need to spend more time with my child, but I am just so tired at the end of the day.” By brainstorming ways, a mother could achieve small successes, it will get her beyond the feeling of shame and into feeling empowered – an important first step to making additional changes down the road.

Problem #2 – We are Excited and Committed for the First Few Days and Then

As humans, we are creatures of habit. Amidst making behavioral changes, we are inevitably drawn back to a place of previous habitual behavior. In other words, even with strong intentions to change, still many people do not persist (Nilsen, Roback, Brostrom, & Ellstrom, 2012). As such, it is easy to lose the immediate excitement about a new diet or parenting strategy. Therefore, as therapists, the challenges for us are two-fold. First, we must get parents motivated to want to change their behavior, but second, and more importantly, we must continue to support them after the initial commitment has worn off. On top of this, my work over the last six years with voluntary, preventative parenting workshops in the community suggests that parents are unlikely to volunteer for a parenting class or come to therapy unless there is a major problem. That is, there is a tendency to be reactive, rather than proactive with seeking help with parenting strategies. This is problematic because once the “problem” has passed, parents are likely to fall back into previous behaviors, which is likely to stir up a cycle of problematic behavior from their kids. Instead, by explicitly discussing with parents this tendency to fall back toward those habits, we can prepare them and explore ways to overcome this tendency.

Problem #3 – Staying Committed Requires Immediate Results

Staying committed to any new regimen takes immediate results to maintain the hard work of those changes. We are drawn back to a place of comfort and ease, even if that place is unhealthy. Many behavioral strategies do not come naturally to parents and usually take practice to implement effectively. I typically remind parents that learning new strategies is just like learning any other new skill (e.g., riding a bike, playing a musical instrument) that takes practice to master. My recommendation for parents at the initial stages of therapy are always behavioral or communication strategies that require only a minor shift but have big impact. The positive impact reinforces the parent’s behavior to keep them engaging, particularly at the beginning.

Quick Scripts for the Metaphor of Dieting and Parenting:

  • “Remember parenting is like dieting, it is a long-term journey of daily ups and downs before you can see big changes. Take it one day at a time.”
  • “Just like with any diet you have tried, it can feel really exciting at the beginning, but then after days of hard work without much change, you will want to quit. Anticipate that feeling and just stick with it!”
  • “Dieting is hard. In fact, changing any frequent behavior is hard. And when you don’t feel “good” at it, it is easy to want to quit. So, you might be tempted to quit using the strategies we talk about because they seem hard or like you aren’t great at them.”

After reviewing the metaphor of dieting with my families, I use psychoeducation, but more than that, I model and coach them on essential parenting skills. Below are some of the things I have seen be most helpful.

Solution #1. Ask Them to Reflect On and Determine Their Parenting Legacy

This may seem strange, but I ask parents to reflect on and determine their parenting legacy. What is it that they want their children to remember them by? What are their values as a family or parent? Common parenting values include: raising responsible children, promoting kindness, honesty, love, developing independence, and so many more. The key is for them to come to two or three that are at the center of their parenting legacy. Although it isn’t a skill, this legacy is the framework for the way they engage in everyday parenting situations. Once they realize their overall goals as a parent, it makes it easier for them to stay focused on the skills we are learning and ways they can implement them without fretting the smaller things.

Solution #2. Connection is the Key

From there, I encourage parents to use parenting legacy as they connect and create memories with their children. When I discuss connection with parents, I teach and model the behavioral concept of pairing. Pairing is a behavioral term that essentially rekindles the connection between parent and child. I tell parents, “Think of pairing as that important reconnection time of approximately 30 seconds to 2 minutes when you are back in proximity to your child (after being away from them for more than 2 hours – when they are napping, at school, overnight, or when you have gone to work and just gotten back home). Remember this time should convey the message “I love you. I missed you. I am happy to see you.” Even if you are tired or grumpy, if you practice pairing, you will start your time off positively, which is likely to impact the rest of your evening.”

Do’s and Don’ts of Pairing

DO tell them you are happy to see them. DON’T start barking orders or commands at them immediately.
DO commit to 30 seconds – 2 minutes of giving your full attention to them, with a happy (or at least content) facial expression. DON’T come home talking on your cell phone. Remember, you have been away from them. The instant you arrive at home, they want you. Just stay in the driveway until your call is over so you can give your attention when you arrive inside.
DO play with, hug, wrestle, kiss your child. Give them some physical form of affection to let them know you are happy to see them. DON’T jump right into consequences if your child has been naughty or had a bad day. There will be time for that discussion. Just don’t start your reconnection time with that.


In addition to pairing, I remind parents that children remember experiences and traditions. Take them somewhere that will be a memorable experience and photograph that experience as a physical memory. Start new traditions. Make every Monday “family reading time” or take-out night. The consistency is what they will remember long-term. If you have the consistent message of “Be kind,” two or three or five years from now they are likely to know that this was part of your parenting legacy (i.e., “I know mom…I have to be kind to my friends.”).

Solution #3. Use Behavioral Tools that are Easy to Teach and Also Get Quick Results

Effective instruction delivery (EID) is another behavioral strategy that is fairly easy to implement and often has immediate results (Garland, Hawley, Brookman-Frazee, and Hurlburt, 2008; Starkweather-Matheson and Shriver, 2005). Children prefer concrete, clear instructions. EID is the step-by-step approach to achieve that. Steps for EID include: first getting the child’s attention and being in close proximity prior to giving the instruction, then using a firm, direct tone when accurately describing the instruction, and finally waiting 3-5 seconds for the child to comply prior to repeating the instruction. Although these steps seem obvious, many parents forget to incorporate these steps into everyday instructions for their kids. In addition, one final part of EID includes praising for compliance. My work with parents has revealed that parents and teachers praise compliance approximately 20% of the time. In other words, the child complies with five requests before receiving any positive attention or praise from the adult. By encouraging and practicing each step of EID with parents, including the need for specific praise (for challenging tasks especially), the compliance rate (“listening rate”) for the child is likely to increase. This will have a positive ripple effect of less stress and frustration from the parent because the child is “finally listening,” when in fact, the parent is simply learning to be more effective at communicating instructions. Other strategies, such as child-directed play, three-step limit setting, and creating effective routines are also easy to teach and coach, with immediate results for most families.


Helping parents in the therapy room can be a complicated process that entails a variety of therapeutic skills. Using metaphors, such as dieting, can make teaching new parenting skills more relatable to clients. Incorporating behavioral skills and communication tips for parents that don’t take a lot of additional effort will increase the likelihood that they will stick with the hard work of making changes.

Dr. Beth Trammell is a licensed psychologist and supervisor of unlicensed clinicians at her private practice. Her 14 years of clinical experience has focused on working with children and adolescents with behavior and emotional disorders from ADHD to ODD to ASD. She also specializes in parent training and is the creator of Make Words Matter parent and teacher online training series. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Indiana University East where she teachers clinically-based courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level. She frequently consults with local agencies about behavioral management and diversity training. She has presented at national and international conferences about private practice, parent and teacher training, and effective teaching practices.

Cite This Article

Trammell, B. (2019, May). Parenting is like dieting: Ups and downs, failures and successes. [Web article]. Retrieved from http://www.societyforpsychotherapy.org/parenting-is-like-dieting/


Eyberg, S. (1988). Parent-child interaction therapy: Integration of traditional and behavioral concerns. Child & Family Behavior Therapy10(1), 33-46.

Garland, A. F., Hawley, K. M., Brookman-Frazee, L., & Hurlburt, M. S. (2008). Identifying common elements of evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children’s disruptive behavior problems. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(5), 505-514.

Kazdin, A. E. (1997). Parent management training: Evidence, outcomes, and issues. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry36(10), 1349-1356.

Nilsen, P., Roback, K., Broström, A., & Ellström, P. E. (2012). Creatures of habit: accounting for the role of habit in implementation research on clinical behavior change. Implementation Science7(1), 53.

Scarnier, M., Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2009). Parental shame and guilt: Distinguishing emotional responses to a child’s wrongdoings. Personal Relationships16(2), 205-220.

Starkweather-Matheson, A., Shriver, M.D. (2005). Training teachers to give effective commands: Effects of student compliance and academic behaviors. School Psychology Review, 34, 202-219.


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