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Sometimes "Just Love Them" Isn't Enough

People are endlessly fascinating to me – I’m a psychologist, after all. So although I find it somewhat frustrating and disappointing, I’m not really surprised when some people don’t understand what Triple P is about, or they question the need for it.

While many people (most people) are really interested in finding out more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to parenting, there are always going to be some who scoff or say parenting research is unnecessary. There’s also the idea that programs based on hard evidence, not guesswork, are no different to just muddling along and hoping for the best. Oh, and let’s not forget those who think parenting programs are only for 'bad parents'.

For example, the other day someone left a comment on one of our parent blogs along the lines of “children don’t need all this parenting stuff – they just need their parents to love them”.

I understand the desire to cut through the clutter to what’s important. I also agree that “all this parenting stuff” has become overwhelming in a world where a website takes half an hour to set up and anybody can have an opinion and present themselves as an expert. And I certainly agree that a loving, warm and secure relationship between parents or caregivers and children is the bedrock underpinning every other aspect of parenting.

PARENTS NEED MORE THAN JUST SLOGANS

But there are very real problems that can’t be easily solved by either ignoring them or giving parents simplistic so-called solutions. Sometimes, kids will behave in ways that make them a danger to themselves and others. And some kids will develop significant problems, to the point where the family needs professional help.

There’s no magic formula for working out which kids will develop significant behaviour issues. And while there’ll be some who say, “well it’s the single parents” or “it’s the poorer families” or “it’s the families from XYZ group”, here’s a statistic everyone needs to get their head around: while more than a third of children from low income families develop these kinds of problems, only 16 per cent of all children with conduct problems are from low income families. To put it another way, the vast majority of children with conduct problems, 84 per cent, are from middle and upper income families. (This is based on a survey of 3000 Australian parents, done as part of the Every Parent project.)

So, how does a loving parent deal with such problems? If they’re like most ordinary people, who haven’t had the benefit of parenting support, they probably fall into some typical parent traps. They try punishment, maybe in the form of yelling, or other harsh discipline. The child reacts. The situation escalates. The parent starts to notice more bad behaviour. The cycle continues. Sometimes, the parent, who is already stressed and uncertain, tries a different tactic or two, but without any specific plan or purpose. It’s a set up for failure: constant conflict, inconsistency, and not enough knowledge about what works or how to implement it.

Are these parents simply lacking in 'love' for their children? Are they 'bad parents'? Did they do something to 'deserve' a child with difficult and challenging behaviour? Of course not! They’re up against specific problems, for which they need specific skills. It’s not unlike how parents of a child with diabetes or asthma or anaphylaxis need to learn to monitor and manage those conditions.

Does learning specific parenting skills really help? Yes. When a child is showing oppositional and defiant behaviour (such as frequent aggression and tantrums) at the age of three, they’re at greater risk of:

  • Learning difficulties/academic underachievement
  • Leaving school early (either voluntarily or because suspended/expelled)
  • Substance use/abuse
  • Early sexual experiences (including becoming a parent while under 18)
  • Driving under the influence charges/other contact with justice system
  • Problems staying in employment
  • Being either the victim or perpetrator of a violent crime

No prizes for guessing that all of those things don’t just come at great cost to the individual and their family, but to the whole of society.

However, when parents learn the required skills, (for example, responding to behaviour in particular ways, using planned strategies) children have lower levels of disruptive behaviour. This has been shown in several large-scale meta-analyses of parenting programs based on social learning principles, for example herehere, and our own, here.  Such programs also help families to be closer, parents to be less stressed and depressed, and children to have a chance to rise to their full potential.

“BUT CAN’T YOU JUST HELP PEOPLE WHO REALLY NEED IT?”

Some families might just need a little support with one or two issues. Some parents just need some reassurance that they’re doing the right thing. Some families have multiple, complex problems and need more support. And those needs might change due to a change in circumstances, or the age and stage of the child. One thing we know for sure: the best way to reach families who are having problems is to offer support to everybody, and (with guidance only if needed), let people choose the support that’s right for them.

There’s more. And it doesn’t just refer to parents whose children have serious problems. Plenty of research has been done in the area of teaching children and teenagers to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour. It’s important to everyone, even adults, because it means being able to:

  • Manage strong emotions without lashing out or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Delay impulses and gratification (in other words, think about the long-term benefits of doing the right thing versus the possible short-term benefits of doing the wrong thing).
  • Use executive brain functions such as paying attention, planning, remembering, organizing, reasoning, and using information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.

One study found that the level of self-control children displayed when they were pre-schoolers predicted their health, wealth, and level of antisocial behaviour as adults, some thirty years later! This was even after allowing for factors like the education level of the child’s parents and the level of family socioeconomic disadvantage.

To avoid the long-term consequences that children can experience as a result of having poor self-regulation and impulse control, parenting programs can play an important role in helping parents teach childre better self-control over behaviour and emotions. This can be through the development of healthy, secure attachment, helping children learn language, social, emotional, and problem solving skills, and through teaching children to deal with strong emotions (such as disappointment, frustration, anger, and aggression.

“I DON’T CARE MUCH ABOUT RESEARCH”

But some people aren’t convinced by research. Maybe they’d change their mind if they spent time with parents at their wits’ end, who finally discover techniques and strategies that work. Or experienced the failure of programs that don’t work. Or would listen to professionals who get to see first-hand the results they can achieve by using proven techniques.

To pick an example, here’s how one Triple P provider described it: “You start to see that balance go from difficult back to manageable…to see that shift is really nice, and you can feel it in the atmosphere…it’s exciting for them to have that moment to realize: ‘you know what? I can make a difference, and I can – I can change, and have a nice – you know, enjoy my kids, enjoy the family’.”

It’s these personal stories of how lives have changed that have kept me on this journey for more than three decades.

WHAT REALLY MATTERS

I suppose there’ll always be some people who like to criticize – it’s just in their nature. But neither I, nor any of the thousands of people who are now part of bringing Triple P to families, think the answer is to sit back and do nothing. Because we know both the magnitude of the problems, and the fact that solutions do exist.

So we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing all along, which is continuing to research and improve upon the best and most effective ways to help parents, all parents.

Fortunately, most people see that as a worthwhile effort, and that’s what’s important.