change the world badge

change the world badge


Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Are "Coaches" the Same as Psychologists or Psychotherapists?

Anyone can ask a friend for advice, and many friends will give it. The advice may be right or wrong, the friend may or may not know what she is talking about—but it is pretty certain that a friend will not ask for a fee or for agreement to a contract before she gives her opinion.

Today, quite a few people ask for advice from a “life coach”, a “parenting coach”, or one of several other recently-invented kinds of coaches. These coaches may or may not be more knowledgeable than a friend is, and their advice may also be right or wrong. But it is pretty certain that the coach will want a fee, and the coach may also ask for a signature to a contract that protects the coach’s interests. Psychologists, counselors, mental health professionals, clinical social workers, and other licensed sources of advice and help also get paid and often do use a contract to state agreed-upon protections for both parties.
So what is the difference between coaches and mental health professionals? I don’t want to suggest that every member of one group is vastly different from every member of the other, but I do want to point out that coaches may be people whose qualifications are far below those of even a low-level licensed mental health practitioner. I’ll give two examples--  again, I emphasize, not characteristic of all coaches, but showing the worst possibilities.

I’ll begin with Debra “Kali” Miller, an Oregon psychologist whose license was revoked by her state professional licensing board (see for further details and sources). Miller’s conduct was brought into the open when a boy she had been treating, and whose family she advised about how to act toward him, attempted suicide and was taken to a hospital. There, he told staff how he had been made to crawl on the floor, to be fed with a baby bottle, and to be isolated for periods of time, as advised by Miller’s mentor, Nancy Thomas, a foster parent and self-appointed instructor with a lucrative system of camps and family advice. The board objected not only to Miller’s unconventional and dangerous practices, but to her failure to diagnose the boy’s depression and her use of a highly unconventional belief system to attribute all difficulties to “attachment disorders”. But were Miller, or Nancy Thomas, impressed by this turn of events? No, indeed; instead, Miller now presents herself as a “parenting coach” and is welcomed as such on the Nancy Thomas website. The fact that she has been disciplined and may not practice her profession in Oregon because of her conduct is nowhere mentioned. Now she is a coach, and all that unpleasantness about the suicide attempt is left behind.

For a second example, let’s have a look at one Dorcy Pruter, inventor of a “treatment for parental alienation” (hard to know where to put the quotation marks here, as all the words are questionable). The statements I am about to make here are based on court documents on display at Pruter was sued in U.S District Court in Wyoming in 2015, by her former client Theresa Breen, who had hired Pruter to help with a high-conflict divorce and custody disagreement. Pruter states in the trial transcript that she was a high school graduate without any college education and took courses offered by various coaching companies. She started a business called the Conscious Co-parenting Institute. A contract between Breen and Pruter is available. In it, this high school graduate agrees to “provide consulting services to compile evidence, create timelines, and write scripts to provide to Clients (sic) legal team referencing her legal custody dispute between Client, her former spouse and other professionals in her specific custody case.” This was to be done to some extent “on spec”, with Pruter receiving 20% of any settlements or awards. The agreement also stated that Pruter and her company were held harmless financially against any claims arising out of the contract.

Now comes an interesting part. The agreement also covered an Acquisition of Life Story Agreement, wherein Pruter established claim to the use of Breen’s life information for academic research or any other purposes. Indeed, for Breen to use her own life story, she would have to ask permission of the Conscious Co-parenting Institute. Interestingly, in comments on this case, the psychologist Craig Childress noted that as Pruter was not a licensed psychologist, she did not need to conform to professional ethics as presented by the American Psychological Association.

These two examples show that it is quite possible for individuals to market themselves as coaches either without professional training or with serious disciplinary actions by professional licensing boards in their backgrounds.  As a result of these facts, professional psychologists and other practitioners are concerned about the quality of assistance given by coaches. Judith Gebhardt, writing in the American Psychologist, examined some of these issues in an article entitled “Quagmires for clinical psychology and executive coaching? Ethical considerations and practice challenges” (2016, 71, 216-325).  

Gebhardt noted that “Clinical therapists work under clearly documented governance rules and explicit ramifications for malpractice, including reporting of noncompliance and breaking confidentiality. In comparison, coaches operate in a nongoverned profession where the ICF [International Coach Federation] acts as a credential-granting and self-anointed entity, with no oversight body, for example, a state or federal regulator. … Although the coaching profession has taken steps to address ethical breaches, self-oversight and self-management merits attention. …it is still the words from Sherman and Freas  (2014) that seem most appropriate: ‘It’s the Wild, Wild West!’  for the coaching industry and practitioners…” (p. 226).  (Although Gebhardt does not mention this, the ICF seems to be functioning like other quasi-professional groups, e.g. the American Psychotherapy Association, which provide impressive-sounding diplomates and certifications for very little in the way of training or accomplishment.)

I have no doubt that some coaches are exactly the right source of help for some clients, and no doubt someone can provide two examples of excellent coaches to match my examples of two poor ones. I am writing this simply to say caveat emptor--  it’s a client’s responsibility to make sure of the quality of services sought, most especially if that client is making decisions on behalf of children or other vulnerable persons. Craig Childress’ statement that a coach does not have to conform to ethical guidelines tells us much about the possible outcomes of choosing a coach over a licensed mental health professional.



  1. Let us not forget Katharine P. Leslie, based in North Carolina, who promotes Holding Therapy and Nancy Thomas parenting. She states that she has PhD in psychology but appears not to hold any license in her state. Her website shows she lays claim to several lame “certifications”: 

    certified Family Life Educator
    certified performance expert
“...Dr. Leslie does not provide clinical or counseling services”


While some “coaches” might give halfway reasonable advice on occasion, you can always count on Leslie’s next utterance to be vile. They also reveal that she appears to do therapy.

    Here are a few Leslie quotes:

    If I’m in the parent-child relationship … we have to word things a little bit differently. We can’t do this praise thing … Our kids will do this: “Look at what I drew, Mom!” And what do we do? “Oh, honey, that’s great.’ Not me. I say, ‘Yeah? And? What do I care? That’s nothing to me.”


In the old framework, we include the [adopted] child as if the child is a family member … When I say to parents no, you don’t treat the child like your other children — your other children have earned that place in your family — this child has not.


[Leslie]: Since I’ve had [my adopted son] on boardership, he has come up to me several times, because I actually gave them this list. I said, “In case you guys are wondering what it is you’re supposed to be giving to me, here it is.”
[Audience member]: By giving him the list and the way he responds to you, do you feel like it’s a genuine response?

    [Leslie]: I could give a shit.

    I also told [my three oldest adopted children] I was going to stop hiding my relationship with [my youngest adopted child]. I’m not going to sneak her into my bedroom to hug her and kiss her up all over. Nope. Just going to do it right there in the open! Because they all tell me anyway, “You love her best.” And I say, “You got that wrong. She loves me best. She’s the one who loves me. You guys don’t. … She’s coming to me, I’m not going to her! She pulls her plate and chair over by me at dinner time. “Feed me again, mom.” … She comes to me. She loves me best. It’s all about me!”


Typically we have them fill out [the RADQ] before they start therapy.

When I’m working with families with very young children, we have put in place the regression interventions very quickly…

    I told one kid just recently, “Don’t. Stop calling your parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ And stop telling them you love them. You don’t! Stupid...”

I’m sitting with the girls … and I said, “So. I thought you should know that I talked to your parents, and they are having a perfectly lovely time without you. They’re just loving it. They’re having the best time of their lives.” … Their faces freaked me out. It was like how could you not know that, that your parents are happier without you? 

More here:

  2. Coaches are seldom qualified, often harmful, and usually charge more. Time to stop the abuse!