• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Wednesday 17th September, 2014

Angry young kids: how parent training may help high-risk families

strong>New research suggests that training parents referred to Child Protective Services to act more nurturing and less frightening can help children control their anger and sadness during challenging events.Children referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) have often experienced abuse, neglect, and poverty. Their parents often have not been able to give them the kinds of nurturing interactions they need to develop the ability to regulate their emotions. So maltreated children often have trouble controlling their frustration in challenging situations. The important attachment relationship between parent and child is often insecure and disorganized, and the children frequently have problems with their behavior and their ability to cope with stress.So what types of interventions could help families who have been referred to CPS, so that these children can develop better emotional competence? A US-based team tested a program designed to help parents change their behavior, with promising results. A parenting program for very high-risk familiesParents have an important role in the early years in helping their children to learn to control their emotions. When all goes well, they act as “co-regulators,” teaching infants and toddlers what emotions are appropriate by soothing and interacting with them.In families referred to CPS, however, this relationship typically hasn’t gone well. So researchers investigated how 10 training sessions could help parents improve their ability to co-regulate with their child and subsequently reduce the child’s experience of negative emotions. 117 children under the age of two were enrolled in the study and then randomly assigned either to a program helping parents to co-regulate (Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up, or ABC) or to a control intervention, which focused on training parents in other, non-emotion-related skills (Developmental Education for Families, DEF). “How are you doing, sweetie, are you OK?”In the intervention group, parents were encouraged to focus on three areas. First, they were shown how to “serve and return” with their child. For instance, when a child “serves” by banging blocks together, the parent “returns” by responding immediately with positive attention. This is a way for parents to be in tune with the child, to follow their lead and respond appropriately. Second, parents were taught how to act nurturing when their child was distressed. For instance, the parent of a crying child might say, “Sweetie, are you ok?” and give them a cuddle. Finally, the intervention was designed to help parents avoid behavior that is frightening to children, including shouting, threats, hitting, and rough play that goes beyond the child’s comfort zone. The 10 sessions followed a manual, with sessions focusing on different behaviors and then sessions reflecting and celebrating parents’ change in behavior. During the sessions, coaches provided “in-the-moment” and video feedback to help the parents identify how they were positively interacting with the child and to show ways that they could bond more. A year after receiving the training, the researchers followed up the families and the children were asked to complete a series of challenging tasks. The parents were told that the tasks were too difficult for most children to complete on their own but that they should let the child attempt it and help them only if they needed it.The sessions were videotaped and coded by independent researchers for expressions of anger and sadness by the child.A promising resultThe researchers found that the children of parents who had received the emotional regulation training showed less negative emotions during the challenging tasks compared to the children from the control group families. This suggests that even a relatively short intervention with parents can help children in extremely high-risk families develop important emotional regulation skills. The fact that the families were randomly allocated to the two groups and that the child’s emotional expression was measured by observation, rather than parental report, are two strengths of this strengths of this study and help to validate the program’s usefulness in improving children’s emotional competence. For further researchThis study leaves several questions unanswered. Because the children were less than two years old at enrollment, they were too young to complete a pre-assessment. As a result, there is no report on the children’s emotional abilities before the training. This means we don’t know how the children’s behavior changed from start to finish as a result of the program. Rather, we see that the ABC program was more effective than the control program in helping children self-regulate. The researchers also did not have access to information on the details of the child’s referral to social services. Therefore, no analysis could be done based on different levels or types of maltreatment, a factor likely to be related to the child’s early regulation abilities.Lastly, this study did not have a comparison group of low-risk children, so we don’t know how the emotional competence of the ABC intervention children compared to that of typical children. This program is designed for extremely high-risk families, but emotional regulation skills are important for all children. It is possible that many parents would benefit from a similar intervention. *********Reference:Lind, T., Bernard, K., Ross, E. & Dozier, M. (2014). Intervention effects on negative affect of CPS-referred children: Results of a randomized clinical trial. Child Abuse and Neglect. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2014.04.004

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