‘Press the pause button” sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done not to react to a tantruming toddler, a demanding tween or a ranting teenager.
This is one of the most effective strategies that people say they take away from Parents Plus courses, a set of five parenting and mental health programmes devised in Ireland by professionals with and for parents. Stepping back from moments of drama to consider what's really going on and the best way to address it results in a calmer parent and, consequently, a calmer child, and helps enhance the joy of family life.
It’s an approach that has worked for Dublin mother-of-two Sinéad O’Connor. She candidly admits she was at “breaking point” with her two daughters, aged five and three, whose behaviour she couldn’t control. “I was ready to get into my car and drive [away].”
So when she saw mention of “managing behaviour and tantrums” on an ad for a Parents Plus course in the older girl’s school in Ballyfermot, she thought “it has to be a sign from God”.
The programme is run in groups over eight weeks and straight away it was a relief for O’Connor, a single parent, to discover that she was not alone. “There are other people who are feeling the same overwhelming responsibility.”
The support and advice of fellow parents is key during Parents Plus programmes, which almost 400 professionals a year in Ireland and the UK are now being trained to deliver within their services or communities.
The group factor is huge, agrees Breeda Hallissey, deputy manager of Clarecare Family Support team in Ennis, which runs a number of different Parents Plus programmes.
“For parents who feel their child is very difficult, it can help them realise that there are things that their child is doing well and that other parents are talking about issues that they don’t have to deal with.”
Lisa Coote did the early years programme in Ennis while waiting 18 months for a diagnosis for her three-year-old son, Aaron, who is on the autism spectrum. It was a huge turning point for her and her partner, Niall Rooney, who were nearly afraid to leave the house with him at the time due to his frequent meltdowns.
After starting the course, she says, “I could see the difference in Aaron; his behaviour, how we could manage the tantrums better.” He was nonverbal, but one session about play interaction on the floor showed her how to encourage him to talk.
“We wouldn’t have thought to use that time to start our own speech therapy,” she says. “Within the eight weeks he was saying phrases and words he had never said before.”
What they learnt, she adds, “gave us the confidence to seek more answers, to push for a diagnosis and push to get into Aaron’s world”.
Parents Plus was founded in 1998 by consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Prof Carol Fitzpatrick and former social worker and The Irish Times parenting columnist Dr John Sharry, and became a registered charity under the auspices of the Mater hospital, Dublin, in 2001.
"The Parents Plus programme is as effective as the best international programmes I have seen, and outstanding because it has been developed collaboratively with parents and families in Ireland," according to Prof Alan Carr, director of clinical psychology training at University College Dublin.
He will present his analysis of the latest research on the effectiveness of Parents Plus at an international conference in Croke Park in December, entitled “Innovations in Working with Families”. In the run-up to that conference, we look at four Parents Plus programmes in a variety of settings.
Early Years programme, age up to six years
When Laura Ward, manager of Ballybay Community Creche in Co Monaghan, was asked to train to deliver the Parents Plus Early Years programme in 2012, she was sceptical.
"I thought it would be a 'time out' job, and that wasn't my thing at all. At that time there was a lot of Supernanny, and I didn't agree with that."
However, she says, the moment the training course started, "I got really into it and I am really passionate about it." Common issues: Fighting; sleeping patterns; routines around dinner time; children learning to accept "no"; and parents needing to find time for themselves. Key messages: Ward's favourite tip is pressing the pause button. "I think it helps all situations: it helps the child, and it helps the parents as well. Otherwise you go in gung ho, shouting and roaring, and you're more upset than the children are."
She also believes it is important that parents tune in to children. “The child may have a genuine concern and needs to know that they will be listened to.”
Donna Gray was exasperated by how her sons fought all the time. “I was pulling my hair out with the two of them,” she says of Alex and Jake, now aged seven and four. “They just couldn’t be in the same room together. The minute I’d leave they would be fighting over something.”
So when she heard about the course through the Ballybay creche she thought it would be good to listen to other parents’ perspectives.
Most valuable advice: "I got a good few tips," she says, including, "breathe before you step in". But a suggestion from another parent that worked best was, because the boys were always fighting over toys, to have a "share box".
They agreed to put toys in this box that both could play with, without any squabbles; they also each have an individual box of toys. This had an instant calming effect, and there are share boxes upstairs and downstairs.
“They get on quite well now and very rarely fight,” adds Gray, who recommends the course to other parents: “You’ll always get something out of it.”
Children’s programme, age six to 11
“Upskilling of parents”
is how Anne-Marie McGovern, a home-school liaison teacher in Ballyfermot, Dublin, describes the course that she has been rolling out through nine local schools. It is open to any parent but is also specifically recommended to parents with whom she, or partner agencies, may be working.
They try to get a balance between fairly confident parents who would just like a few extra tips and those who are “really in despair”, she says.
The courses are run on the shared campus of St Gabriel’s, St Michael’s and St Raphael’s, where McGovern works, where it is easy for parents to attend.
Common issues: Bedtime; morning routine; and tantrums. There are also many issues around coparenting.
Key messages: Feedback from participants is that "pressing the pause button" is one of the most valuable strategies, says McGovern. If the child is having a tantrum in the kitchen, walk into the living room.
“The more you react, the more the child is going to keep going,” she points out.
Parents also find that positive attention works; catch your child being good. Prevention strategies are also looked at; recognising when bad behaviour is likely to kick off. For example, if children are likely to act up in the supermarket, give them little jobs to do – or say, “I am really looking forward to seeing how good you are at helping me with the shopping” – rather than warning “don’t do this” and “don’t do that”.
Single parent Sinéad O’Connor was at the end of her tether about the behaviour of her daughters, five-year-old Khloe and especially three-year-old Millie.
“The tantrums were getting out of control and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed,” she says.
Most valuable advice: "What really worked for me more than anything else was me taking a step back. Initially, when the tantrum started or the behaviour started I would have gone in guns blazing – screaming and losing the head.
“Let her have her tantrum. When she’s calmed down and finished, then we can talk about it and resolve the issues, well, try to resolve the issues.”
Is it a calmer house since she did the course? “It is and it isn’t,” she says honestly. “You are always going to have your bad days. I’d say 80 per cent of it has calmed down. I definitely have a grasp on managing the behaviour, and a better understanding of it.”
Fina Doyle is a social worker with Teen Counselling, and some of the parents who are on the Parents Plus programme she runs have adolescents who are on the waiting list for counselling.
Sometimes parents have got so much out of the programme and things have improved so much at home that they decide the teenager no longer needs counselling.
Parents work hard within the group, she says. They are encouraged to look at things from both their own and the teenager’s perspectives. It is a strength-based programme, focusing on the positives in any given situation.
“That is really empowering and really encouraging for people,” she says. “As a practitioner, it is a lovely way to work.”
Common issues: "Very mixed," says Doyle. "Sometimes it would be general stuff: not getting on, not talking; then more severe difficulties, behaviour problems, teens not coming home at night."
Some parents may have a teenager with a diagnosed disorder “but that’s the beauty of the programme, it still applies”, she explains.
Key points: "That parents really matter in the lives of their teenagers," says Doyle, even though they are separating from their parents. They may start doing things that their parents don't like, but that's normal.
The importance of being a positive parent and really getting to know your teen is also stressed.
“The golden rule is respectful communication and there are lovely tips around that,” she adds.
Suzie’s* son was always “quite a lively child” but “once he hit the dreaded teens and went into secondary school, the behaviour really started to kick off”, she says.
He had been diagnosed with dyslexia but she felt there was something else and took him to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. He was difficult to manage and she was looking for support, so a psychiatrist gave her a leaflet about the Parents Plus course run by Teen Counselling.
It was a relief just to meet other parents and realise her son wasn’t so bad in some respects, she explains.
“It was very well run and gave us lots of tools – how to communicate better, how to discipline – standard stuff that you might know in your head but when it actually comes to doing it, it’s not always easy to be calm and the perfect parent.
“We did practical, hands-on stuff. I might go in and say that this week he did x, y and z, and they’d get me to role play it and I’d get solid, practical tips on what I might try. I found that really helpful.”
Most valuable advice: When your child gets to the teenage stage, it is no longer about telling them they have to do something; it is more about negotiation.
“They need to feel they are being listened to rather than feel you are laying down the law,” says Suzie. “I certainly learnt from that.”
Also, you have to be alert to the one time they might be ready to communicate rather than just grunt, and to look after yourself so that you can be an effective parent.
“It never occurred to me before the course that he is a teenager so I can literally walk out and go for a walk; I don’t have to stay there and listen to the rants.”
It is also important to create opportunities to do a fun activity with teenagers. “I think I was stuck in the nagging parent role.”
A big thing for her was “my son didn’t want to be seen dead with me . . .” But she was assured that that is normal “and that really helped”.
Things were definitely better between them for months after the course but now she feels they are falling back into old patterns. However, she has found it helpful to continue to meet up with some of the group.
“As a single parent, it is quite nice to have that sort of support. I wouldn’t necessarily get it from other people.” *Name has been changed
Parenting when separated programme
"It gets them to reflect on their role as parents and not as victims of a broken relationship," says Deirdre O'Sullivan about the course for separated parents she runs at the Wicklow Child and Family Project in Wicklow town.
Although separated parents want the best for their children, they can get caught in a situation where they are doing inappropriate things and telling children things they shouldn’t hear.
“The children know about maintenance, they know about court dates. In some cases I have had children say to me ‘Mummy is taking all of Daddy’s money’,” says O’Sullivan.
While you couldn’t have former partners attending together “because their issues would impact on other people in the group”, she explains, it’s recommended that one parent attends and then the other parents goes to the next one.
“Where that doesn’t happen, you find the parent who has attended becomes very child-centred and doesn’t tend to focus on the emotional baggage. They don’t ‘buy into’ conflict situations; they don’t speak inappropriately around the children; and they are very much focused on the children being in this situation because of them.”
Common issues: "Some are quite complex," says O'Sullivan. "We have had fathers who have had no access to their children for a number of years." Communication is another big issue, as is parental isolation, particularly for the non-residential parent.
Key points: "Keep the children at the centre; look after yourself and seek help." They also have to accept that they can't dictate what goes on in the other house when their children are with the other parent.
“The programme is not a magic wand,” she tells participants, “but there will be some sort of salve on the problems if you use the tools you are given.”
For more information about the programmes and the December 3rd conference, see parentsplus.ie