SINGAPORE - Help is at hand to guide parents in those difficult, sensitive conversations - like poor grades - that will inevitably come up with their children aged seven to 12.
Bramble, a mobile app started by four Singaporeans, plays both therapist and mediator to keep discussions loving and productive, with the help of machine learning.
Parents and children pass the phone back and forth as they take turns to talk, as the app suggests statements and prompts responses on topics like stress, expectations and managing emotions.
A session on the app takes about 20 minutes. During the conversation, the app guides parents and children in clarifying their thinking and empathising with each other, and then in coming up with a simple plan - like committing to one small thing to make homework easier in the future.
Prompts include, "I noticed that...", "I would rather..." and "Let me repeat what you just said to check if I understood."
It also gives children keywords like "embarrassed" and "sad" if they need help to express how they feel.
"We hope to emphasise the importance of empathy and feelings in the process of communication," said Bramble chief executive Chew Chia Shao Yuan.
Bramble is built on the insights of child psychologists such as Dr Haim Ginott and Dr John Gottman - "namely that when you communicate with empathy, you nurture your children's ability to express and regulate their feelings healthily, equipping them with social and emotional skills".
The team is advised by therapists and psychiatrists in Singapore and Boston, where Mr Chew Chia is studying computer science and global health and health policy at Harvard.
Launched in August and free for download in Singapore, the app sees between 10 to 20 new users a week. The team said the feedback so far has been positive, with some parents saying Bramble has allowed them to express themselves without accidentally hurting their children.
Bramble's other co-founders are Ms Bernadette Clara Yeo, Mr Chua Jiahao and Ms Lim Pin Xiu. All of them are 25, except Ms Lim, who is 23. Brought together by Mr Chew Chia, the four friends started working on Bramble full-time in 2019.
Mr Chua studied computer science and engineering, and together with Mr Chew Chia, is in charge of the software. Ms Yeo majored in early childhood and special education at New York University and taught in public schools in Brooklyn in the United States.
Mr Chew Chia cited American psychologist Thomas Gordon's observation that parents are blamed but not trained.
"From speaking to parents, we realised there's a gap between what they cognitively know and/or want to do, versus what they're able to do in the moment of a heated conversation," he said.
"That's why we want to design the app to be situation-responsive, meeting parents and kids wherever they are and gently guiding them through alternative paths if a particular strategy isn't working."
For instance, parents may be susceptible to all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophising, which impacts how they interact with their child.
Instead of nagging their child, parents can indicate on the app that they worry about their children's exam results, for example.
The app will then ask what is on their mind when they feel nervous.
Parents may be worried that receiving bad results means that their child will not succeed in life.
The app will respond by acknowledging that the parent wants the best for their child, but highlights that it is not just a case of "I'm successful" or "I'm a complete failure".
The app then nudges parents to acknowledge to the child that there are many things between being a success or being a complete failure, and to emphasise that there are many ways to be successful. The parent is also advised to reassure the child that he is not "doomed" by one bad exam.
The team aims to make Bramble a trusted and accessible source of guidance for family communication, and to expand to help children in other age ranges and countries.
There is some awkwardness in using an app for a very human activity - talking to one's child - as some parents have shared, but the team hopes the app's use will be normalised.
Mr Chew Chia said: "We have beliefs or expectations about what talking to your child might look like and most of us probably want the rosy image of an effortless, loving conversation.
"My hope is that Bramble is eventually seen as a tool to bring families to that reality and there's less stigma surrounding what support it might take to get there."