• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 06th August, 2013

Is changing parent’s behavior enough?

strong>Parenting interventions often seek to prevent children’s behavior problems by improving the way parents discipline their children and communicate with them. But what conclusions should be drawn when research finds that a program’s positive effects on parents are not matched by improvements in the way their children behave? The question is raised by an evaluation of the Parents and Children Talking Together (PCTT) intervention developed in the Netherlands for parents experiencing difficulties with their pre- and early adolescent children. The goal is to reduce problematic behaviors before they deteriorate further.Programs targeting parents of pre- and early teens are less common than those that focus on parenting younger children. Knowledge about their effectiveness, outside the US, is also more limited. With PCTT, the content centers on improving the structure and content of parent-child communication, including age-appropriate boundary setting and problem solving. During seven weekly two-hour group meetings, a maximum of 15 parents consider ways of establishing rules and consequences. They also practice techniques like family brainstorming to solve problems. A community-based trialA previous “quasi-experimental” evaluation of PCTT by the program developer compared intervention families in one city with a non-participant control group in another. It found communication between mothers and children improved in the participating families, but child behavior did not (Van As, 1999). By adopting a randomized design for the latest study, researcher Patty Leijten of Utrecht University and colleagues sought clearer evidence about the program’s effectiveness and the families most likely to benefit from any positive changes. Observation and survey data were collected from a community-based sample of 78 parents of children aged 9 to 16 experiencing parenting difficulties. These were recruited through newspapers and advertising. Half were randomly allocated to the program, while the control group were placed on a 12-week waiting list and invited to an information meeting on general parenting issues.Data collected after the end of the parenting course showed that participating parents, compared with the control group, showed significantly improved communication and problem-solving skills and that disciplinary behavior also improved. Parents in the PCTT group, showed less dominance towards their children and more affection. As anticipated, the biggest changes were found among parents with higher educational levels and parents whose children were at the top of the age range (14-16). However, the analysis found no significant change in the behavior of children whose parents participated, compared with those in the control group.So did the program “work”?The researchers conclude that, since it improved parents’ communication skills and reduced dysfunctional parenting, PCTT shows promise as an intervention for families where pre- or early adolescent children are starting to exhibit behavior problems. However, only time – and arguably more careful targeting - can determine whether the program is effective in the long-termThe sample of families for the trial was predominantly middle-class and Caucasian. And while there was strong evidence of parenting problems at the start of the trial, children’s behavior (measured using the Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) questionnaire) fell outside the “clinical” range of seriousness. Yet the lack of any beneficial impact on child behavior outcomes within a month of the intervention ending does not rule out PCTT producing improvements at a later stage. Stronger parenting skills might, if sustained over time, have a discernible effect in preventing young people’s mild behavior problems from becoming more entrenched. PCTT, therefore provides a case example of the importance of longitudinal research. Participation in PCTT by the control group parents in this study after their time on the waiting list would effectively prevent any extension of the controlled trial. However, some form of follow-up with the intervention families might still prove instructive. Future evaluations of PCTT could also usefully target families where young people’s behavior problems were more severe and fell within the range for clinical diagnosis. *********References:Leijten, P., Overbeek, G., Janssens, J. M.A.M. (2012). Effectiveness of a parent training program in (pre)adolescence: Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Adolescence, 35 (4), 833-842.Van As, N.M.C. (1999) Family functioning and child behavior problems. Nijmegen: UB Nijmegen.

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