The moment her first baby was handed to her in Dublin’s Rotunda hospital seven years ago, Rachael O’Shea still remembers thinking, “oh s**t, it’s not just me anymore”.
“It’s the most strange feeling becoming a parent,” she says, that expectation you’re supposed to know what to do. A single parent and in her late 20s, she was still living with her parents in a busy north Dublin household, where her mother and sister had their own opinions on child rearing.
“You want to do it your way,” she says, but she was struggling as her daughter reached school age. There were rows every day and O’Shea felt like a failure as a mother. “At the time I was feeling so overwhelmed: ‘I am supposed to know this child and to mind this child but literally everything I do is an argument’. It was so wearing, so tiring, I was not in a great place.” It was far from idealised Instagram pictures of parenting. All she could think was: “This is horrible. There has to be a better way.”
Building self-confidence should be the focus of any parenting programme, so that parents become less reliant on the guidance of others
After her daughter started school in September 2019, O’Shea began to see information in different places about a positive parenting programme, known as Triple P, offered by the Preparing for Life programme in Darndale. She signed up in 2020 for an eight-week group course, which was delivered via Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It just worked amazing for me,” she says. The essence of it was to “slow down and take time to see what was going on for her”. Suddenly she could see patterns in her daughter’s behaviour that she had never been aware of before.
“It was when she was tired and I was tired. It was to be fairer to her but also to stand my ground.” It gave O’Shea confidence and insight in to how to do things better. “For me they were huge jumps.”
Growing up, she used to laugh at her mother’s mantra “knowledge is power” but after doing the parenting course, she understood. What she learned made her realise she wasn’t a “mad woman” unable to cope with her own child. She could identify and prepare for trigger points with her daughter to enable both of them to maintain routines and avoid arguments. It also gave O’Shea the confidence to explain to her family, in the nicest possible way, that this was how she wanted to do things with her daughter, who was used to getting her own way with each of the other members of the household.
Building self-confidence should be the focus of any parenting programme, so that parents become less reliant on the guidance of others, says the developer of Triple P, Matt Sanders. The “bombardment” of parenting advice on the internet has become, he believes, “a formula for creating the anxious parent”. They keep going online, often to dubious sources of information, to check whether or not they are doing the right thing. Whereas the aim of an evidence-based parenting programme is to empower parents, “so they can back their own judgment in the moment and do what they need to do”.
Sanders, a native of Auckland, New Zealand is talking to The Irish Times in a Dublin city-centre hotel, while on a visit from his home in Brisbane, Australia. Triple P (the Ps stand for Positive Parenting Programme) started as his PhD thesis in the late 1970s after he joined the academic staff in Queensland University. More than 40 years later, it is being used in nearly 40 countries and is ranked by the United Nations as the most researched parenting programme in the world. Ireland has played a significant part in that research with the trialling of Triple P as a universal public health initiative in the midlands, which was evaluated by the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at the University of Galway. Various levels of Triple P have continued to be used in family support schemes around the country and they are being incorporated, along with the Irish-developed Parents Plus programmes, in the Slaintecare Healthy Communities strategy that is being rolled out in 19 sites. The University of Queensland, which owns the programme, may be on the other side of the world but collaboration with 1,500 researchers across 500 institutions in 37 countries in the continuous development of Triple P has, Sanders reckons, “made it a much smaller world for people involved in the parenting field”. He believes cultural differences are trumped by the universality of issues when raising children.
“If you look at something like a kid throwing a temper tantrum, it looks very similar in downtown Tehran, Tokyo, Dublin, [or] over in London.” Parents hate being in the spotlight when their child kicks off in public and they tend to either cave in, or escalate to try to stop the behaviour, he points out, neither of which is a long-term answer.
In finding solutions to preventing and managing behavioural problems, Triple P advocates a calm approach, tuning in to the positives of what children are doing. It’s also about developing a resolve to manage your own emotions, says Sanders.
“Like when kids are screaming, you have to emotionally cope with that. If you have a policy of ignoring it or not caving into it, you have got to be prepared to deal with the escalation that will take place when kids are protesting.
“If you cave in because you can’t tolerate it emotionally, it makes it hard for your children to learn. You’re not being firm — essentially you are giving in, in a situation your children needed you to be strong and consistent. It’s amazing the difference it makes when children are growing up in an environment that is stable, predictable, with clear boundaries and limits; they know what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”
But creating a family bedrock can be easier said than done. It’s why Sanders says —more than once — how it should be regarded as “healthy, normal and desirable” to take parenting courses. They want to banish any residual stigma that looking for help when raising children is an admission of failure. However, he continues, “the leaving of parenting support is just as important as the accessing; you don’t want people to become over-reliant”. Ideally parents who have done a parenting course can use their own experience, knowledge and wisdom when a younger sibling arrives. Although, of course, no child is the same and enlargement of a family changes the dynamics.
Fundamentally parents need to keep an eye on whether what they’re doing is effective or not. “If it’s not, you need to pause and reassess the situation. It could be you are not doing it right, or not doing it consistently or maybe, in a couple relationship, both of you are not doing it.”
Think about it from a life skills perspective, he says. “Probably the most important thing the parent is learning is to be reflective as a parent and take stock periodically. As kids are getting older, you can take stock with them too.”
I last spoke to Sanders in 2011, on that occasion by phone from Brisbane, ahead of the midlands universal Triple P trial. Various levels of the programme were offered to all families in Longford and Westmeath with a child aged seven or under. Subsequently, a randomised control study conducted over three years showed that the number of children with emotional and behavioural problems significantly reduced in the Longford-Westmeath population as a whole, when compared to a similar area where the programme was not delivered, and the mental wellbeing of parents increased. Intriguingly, even families who hadn’t participated in a course seemed to benefit, which was attributed to the sharing of information by those who had among friends and relatives.
At the outset of that trial, Sanders likened the programme to “immunising” a community against avoidable parenting issues, using a verbal noun that, one pandemic later, has new resonance.
“As long as it is not a single dose,” he laughs now. After taking a parenting course early on, people might need a “booster” when children hit their teens. Originally developed to help manage and prevent behavioural and emotional issues in younger children, Triple P later produced a version for parents of 12-16 year-olds and just recently, after 10 years of development and research, has launched a “baby” programme to support the transition to parenthood.
Sanders believes people need access to parenting programmes in every phase of their child’s development and that there should be a mix of universal and targeted programmes. Parents with children with additional needs, for instance, are likely to need extra support.
‘If you do it well, it just makes a whole difference to your day and your whole relationship’
“The stress of parenting those kids generally is higher than parenting kids without special needs which is why we have developed variants of the programme like stepping stones for parents in that situation.” Another variant that has proven effective is one on resilience, to tackle the issue of children being victimised or bullied at school.
“The data on school-based anti-bullying programmes isn’t very convincing, particularly in adolescent age groups, where kids who have been chronically victimised then go through school-based anti-bullying programmes and it often makes it worse.” Instead, Triple P has found that if you train parents in how to teach their children the skills they need to make friends and deal with peer provocation, “it has a hugely beneficial impact on children, bullying reduces”.
Acknowledging that targeting the parents of bullied children might seem like victim blaming, he explains that they came at it from the point of “how do you empower the victim to deal with situations [in which] at the moment they are inadvertently, completely unintentionally, reinforcing the bully for whatever behaviour they are engaging in?”.
The passing of four decades hasn’t dimmed the passion of Sanders, a father of two adult children and grandfather of five, for supporting parents. He remains the “master trainer”, which means he personally trains all trainers, who then go on to train practitioners to deliver the courses in communities.
Before Covid, he did all that training in person. Now he can do it online, which is a one-time pandemic necessity that has also made the delivery of all Triple P programmes more flexible, broadened their reach and made the involvement of fathers easier. It’s understandable, he says, that it is predominantly mothers who gravitate towards parenting programmes.
“Women still spend a much higher proportion of their waking day involved in looking after children than their partners do. It is not that their partners’ role is not important, it is, but it’s a non-equitable distribution of labour in raising children.” Their research has shown that where couples are in conflict over parenting and the mother does a course but her partner doesn’t, that conflict tends to reduce, “so it doesn’t require both parents to do it always”. But online options make it easier for fathers, as well as mothers of course.
A trial in the US last year compared in-person delivery of Triple P for parents of children with early onset conduct problems from about ages three to eight. On the basis of parent and teacher reports as well as observational reports on the children’s behaviour in a 12-month follow-up, the two interventions produced equivalent outcomes but the online intervention was much more cost effective.
Covid lockdowns also reinforced for governments the importance and value of honing parents’ capabilities in raising the next generation, suggests the chief executive of Triple P UK and Ireland, Matt Buttery, who is accompanying Sanders on the visit. As schools and most children’s activities and services closed, every single aspect of children’s lives fell back on parents.
In Dublin, O’Shea believes the first parenting course she did still stands to her and her eldest daughter, along with Triple P seminars she attended later on good bedtime routine and raising resilient, confident and competent children. “If you do it well, it just makes a whole difference to your day and your whole relationship,” she says. Her daughter is much more open and O’Shea recognises that little traumas are big deals in small children’s eyes.
Once her daughter started sharing problems, “it made a huge difference because she wasn’t dwelling on things for two weeks. And we could come up with a solution together”.
O’Shea now has a one-year-old daughter as well. While she was nervous about the six-year age gap, she felt if she could make sure she could give her older daughter a little bit of “Mam” time all would be well. And it is.
“There’s still drama and there’s still sibling rivalry” but being more aware of their needs makes it much easier. She keeps reiterating that while it was small things she learnt to do, “they are small things in a big picture that make a huge difference”.