Behavioural parenting strategies ‘overused’

Majority of parenting programmes focus disproportionately on problems according to a leading child psychologist

Sarah O’Doherty, child clinical psychologist says parents need to communicate regularly with their children. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah O’Doherty, child clinical psychologist says parents need to communicate regularly with their children. Photograph: Getty Images


Parenting strategies such as the so-called “naughty step”, star charts, reward systems or sending teenagers to their rooms to curb bad behaviour are overused or used incorrectly, a leading child psychologist has said.

Such strategies can in fact make matters worse, according to Sarah O’Doherty, child clinical psychologist. There is too much focus on the 10 per cent that is behavioural issues, rather than the other 90 per cent where you should be focusing on building a strong relationship with your child, she says.

“You have to communicate regularly with your children, know what is going on, to understand what can lead up to behavioural issues.” She says building a strong relationship “base” with your child means that when something does go wrong you have that relationship “in the bank”.

“Most parenting programmes focus disproportionately on the problems – such as the toddler’s temper tantrum in the supermarket, or the teenager staying out late,” she says “instead of looking at the huge bit under the iceberg – what needs to be done on a daily basis to manage behaviour.”

O’Doherty, who is also a regular contributor to The Irish Times, says you have to match your parenting strategy to the particular situation. “Quite often parents reach for a book on parenting when something goes wrong, but they do not match the right strategy with the problem.”

Parents should also examine their own behaviour and how it affects the child. “Most programmes on parenting seem to be about the child’s behaviour, but how you manage your own behaviour as a parent is also very important,” she says.

O’Doherty sounds a note of caution about parents or children who say: “my mother/father or son/daughter is my best friend.”

“You can’t be your child’s best friend,” she says, “because you can’t discipline them then.”

She says many parents are afraid of bad behaviour, but it’s part of a child’s natural evolution, and any book on child development will explain that to you.

O’Doherty, who will be giving a talk on a range of issues involving parenting in Portlaoise next Wednesday, October 22nd, as part of the Irish Times/Pfizer healthy town project, believes the increasing amount of time children spend on screens, including phones and laptops is a problem.

“Screen time in itself is not bad, but it is taking away from other important things such as socialising, contact with parents and other members of the family and doing other things such as taking exercise.”

She will advise parents on strategies to cope with this problem at the talk and also explain the importance of physical exercise for a child’s mental, physical and social development.

The talk which takes place in the Killeshin Hotel, Portlaoise starts at 7 pm and is free. However, if interested it is advisable to register in advance. To register phone Rachel Ahearne at WHPR on 01-6690030 or email

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