Don't blame the parents, help them

 

The Triple P programme aims to support parents to raise confident, healthy children, benefiting the family and, in turn, society, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

WHEN YOUNG people are in the news for all the wrong reasons, be it underage drinking, violence, drugs or dropping out of school, there are always commentators queuing up to say: “I blame the parents”.

At the same time, it is often pointed out that babies arrive without manuals and that raising children is the hardest job parents ever have. So you might think that parenting support would be more widely offered – and accepted.

Yet, paradoxically, there is still reluctance among parents to be seen to be looking for outside help in dealing with their children. There is a lingering belief that parenting training is only for dysfunctional families.

Persuading people that preparing for parenthood is a normal, healthy thing to do has become a life’s mission for Australian clinical psychologist Prof Matt Sanders. He founded a positive parenting programme called Triple P, which began as part of his doctoral research in 1978 and was initially a home-visiting scheme to help aggressive pre-school children.

As it evolved into a universal programme, extensive scientific research proved its effectiveness – giving parents the skills they need to raise confident, healthy children benefits everybody in a family and, in turn, society.

Nearly 17,000km away from Sanders’ home city of Brisbane, all families in Longford-Westmeath with a child aged seven or under are now being offered the chance to avail of Triple P for free. Why Longford-Westmeath, you may ask, and why Triple P?

The project started in the Midlands because local services not only identified but also responded to a need and desire for parental support. Nine organisations, including the HSE, collaborated to form the Longford-Westmeath Parenting Partnership and went looking for an evidence-based programme that it could implement across the community.

People are bombarded with parenting information, says Conor Owens, director of the Triple P programme in Longford-Westmeath, but they want something that is proven. Triple P, which is used in more than 20 countries, had sufficient weight of proof to convince the partnership that it was the one to use. According to Sanders, offering Triple P is like immunising the community. “You prepare parents, make families healthier and prevent problems before they happen.”

Its multi-level approach also appealed (see panel). Parents can participate at whatever level suits their circumstances, which safeguards against “over-servicing” the need, as Owens puts it. “Our experience to date is that parents are very accurate – they know what they need.”

Sanders was in Ireland for the launch of the programme last September and he is back this week for ongoing monitoring of the initiative, which is being evaluated until December 2012 by the Child and Family Research Centre in NUI Galway.

Triple P is not about being preached at or being told how to parent, says Sanders, in a telephone interview from Brisbane ahead of his visit here. It is for parents to determine their goals and values for their children – the programme provides the tools and the options to help achieve these.

Most parents, when asked what they want for their children, say the same thing, he explains. “They want their kids to be co-operative, respectful of them and others; they want them to have good friends and feel good about themselves.”

There is a common thread that runs through all the social worries we have about children, such as drugs, violence and teen pregnancy, and that is that “parenting matters”, he says. “If we can strengthen the knowledge, confidence and skills of parents in the task of raising their children, we probably have the potential to shift a number of the major concerns that we have about kids and, at the same time, end up with a double whammy benefit” – for the parents themselves.

Research shows that when people learn positive parenting skills, they are often less depressed, less stressed, there is less marital conflict “and we have even got data showing that working parents function better at work”.

It is easy for people to take potshots at parents when things are going wrong with children, he says. “It is quite another thing to have anticipated many of these problems, to have planned a strategy that says all parents at some point are going to require support in some instance with their children.”

While the recession is putting many families under financial pressure, parents need to “insulate their children” against the worst effects, he warns. “In times of stress, parents have to step up to the plate to make sure their kids are not damaged through the process.”

As with any upheaval in life, children are very influenced by how parents cope. Therefore it is important to remember what enables parents to cope well, such as adequate social back-up, partners supporting each other and reminding ourselves that what we are going through is temporary.

“When children are given a high priority in a parent’s life, the effects of poverty and other forms of disadvantage are nowhere near as strong as when parents lose it,” Sanders stresses. If we neglect children’s needs during times of high stress, it can rebound to cause more difficulties for everyone. “When kids are out of control, and they develop significant behavioural or emotional problems, this is one of the biggest sources of stress in a parent’s life.”

If families are under pressure and worrying about their economic future, there is likely to be more conflict. Children react to this by being “difficult, demanding and explosive and that compounds the stress and worry and it becomes a vicious cycle”.

The challenge is to maintain a sense of optimism. “The doom and gloom merchants make it difficult,” he says. “It can feed off itself, so everything seems darker and worse than it is.”

So while parents have an important role in determining whether the effects of stress and the economic downturn “turn into really bad news for children”, we as a community need to recognise that during particularly difficult times, parents often need an extra hand as well. “If you neglect the needs of parents and children,” Sanders adds, “society as a whole suffers.”

Prof Matt Sanders is giving a free public talk entitled Parenting in Difficult Times on Thursday, June 9th, in the Radisson Hotel, Athlone, Co Westmeath, at 8pm.

For details about Triple P, see triplep-staypositive.net or tel 090-6434070.

TRIPLE P IS A TOOL KIT: DIFFERENT TOOLS WILL WORK IN DIFFERENT SITUATIONS

When Denise Donegan heard about the Triple P parenting courses in Athlone, she was determined that her husband, Joe, would do one with her.

“I felt for something like this to work, the two people have to be coming from the same position. It would be hard for me to come home and tell Joe all about it and show examples with the same enthusiasm that you would get in the class.”

Joe admits he was a bit reluctant and apprehensive. “Wrongly, the male perspective would be that it is something the mother has to know. Obviously it is a two-person role, parenting. After the first class I was totally sold.”

Some of the ideas they picked up during the course, which they did at the end of last year, have made a huge difference to life in what is a very busy household.

They have three children, Ben (seven), Seán (five) and Hazel (four), with a fourth on the way, and they run a Spar shop in Athlone which, as Joe says, “is a bit 24/7”.

The eight-week course involves four two-hour group sessions, three weekly phone calls with a facilitator to discuss the implementation of some of the tips, and then a final group meeting to review what has been achieved.

The Donegans both learned the value of giving children attention when they look for it, instead of brushing them off with “I’m busy now”.

“It only requires maybe a short two minutes and they are satisfied and go away,” says Joe. “You might spend two minutes telling them to go away without giving them that attention!”

Denise says her priority coming back from work used to be getting the dinner on first before attending to what the children had to say. But they would be pestering her and everybody would be getting irritated.

Now when she comes in, she takes five minutes on the ground with them, letting them tell her their news of the day or show her a picture. “Then they go off and potter around – they want to see their toys having been out of the house all day – and I can go off and get the dinner done.”

Another “huge thing” was devising a routine to get everybody sitting around the table at dinner time. When the meal is almost ready, they call the children – each by name – and give them time to get their hands washed, go to the toilet and then there are no interruptions during the meal.

Morning time in their house has also vastly improved. Denise used to find that by the time she had got the children up and out, she would be “highly strung” when she arrived at the shop for work.

They realised they were not leaving enough time for the children to do everything. Now they get up 15 minutes earlier and promise playtime for 10 minutes just before they go out the door – if everybody is ready.

Expecting children to know what is and isn’t allowed without ever having explained things properly is another topic covered by the course which helped the Donegans. They had a family meeting and drew up half a dozen house rules between them.

“Because it’s positive parenting, it’s not ‘Don’t run in the house’, it’s ‘Walk in the house’,” explains Denise.

“We ‘Talk nicely’ as opposed to ‘Don’t shout’,” says Joe, adding: “You know it’s working when the children tell you, ‘You’re not talking nicely, Daddy’!”

For Anne English, her seven-year-old son’s refusal to eat his dinner was a big issue in their home – he just picked at his food and arguments ensued.

However, as a Montessori teacher for more than 20 years and mother of two boys, “I suppose I thought I knew it all”, she says with a laugh. “But I didn’t.”

She signed up for the eight-week course more out of professional curiosity than anything else. One of the tools suggested during the programme was a behaviour chart with a rewards system.

“I thought, he’s too old for that, it will never work,” says English. “But do you know what? It did.”

Within two weeks, all was harmonious at the dinner table in their home in Lisryan, Co Longford. “It is like he has grown up over night.” She also picked up ideas to use in her work with children.

The rewards offered to Colum for improved behaviour included an extra story at bedtime or going to the park.

“It was brilliant – it was time we spent together because I would be extremely busy.”

When she asked him what he would like as a reward at the end, he said he would like to bake a cake with her.

“I don’t bake. My mum never did it and I suppose I didn’t learn from her and it was the one thing he wanted to do,” she says. “How guilty did that make me feel!”

She wishes she had known about Triple P years ago, after the birth of their first child, who is now 15, and is recommending it to other parents. “It is so simple, so ordinary – everybody can do it.”

Since the launch last September, more than 1,000 parents in Longford-Westmeath have completed some part of the Triple P programme. It is estimated that there are 8,000-9,000 families in the two counties who have at least one child aged seven or under.

Caitríona Corcoran is co-ordinator of the Community Mothers programme in Westmeath and one of almost 100 people in the region who have been trained to deliver Triple P.

They include public health nurses, childcare leaders and community development workers, who are all incorporating it into their work.

Corcoran, who is a facilitator for the group courses, says parents are often very nervous coming in.

“They think they are the only person in the world who is having these problems. The first realisation is that they are not alone – no matter where you come from, what social background you have, the same issues arise.”

Parents are asked to focus on one child and on one specific misbehaviour in the first class, she explains.

“If that works, it is going to give them more confidence. Triple P is very much about a tool kit – different tools will work in different situations.”

As the course progresses, she adds, “they begin to enjoy their children more, they are less stressed – you can see a weight being lifted off their shoulders”.

TRIPLE P: WHAT IS IT?

Triple P is an evidence-based, positive parenting programme which was founded by Prof Matt Sanders in Australia, and is now used in 22 countries. People are not told how to parent but are offered tips and they can decide what might work for them.

It is provided at five levels and parents can choose what they want to avail of:

Level 1: Parenting information campaigns.

Level 2: A series of three one-and-a-half hour seminars covering common parenting concerns, such as “raising confident, competent children”.

Level 3: One-on-one skills training to deal with a specific behavioural issue, provided in up to four sessions of 20 minutes.

Level 4: A broad focus, eight-week group course, including one-on-one support provided via telephone consultations.

Level 5: One-on-one support for families with additional needs such as marital conflict or parental depression.

Triple P’s five principles of positive parenting are:

1. Providing a safe and engaging environment for children.

2. Promoting a positive learning environment.

3. Having an assertive discipline strategy.

4. Having realistic expectations.

5. Parental self-care.