• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 11th August, 2015

Parenting programs and children’s mental health: are we missing a dimension?

strong>Quality of parenting has long been recognized as a crucial influence on childhood behavior and overall mental health. But could parenting interventions increase their value by paying more attention to children’s choices, initiative taking and sense of autonomy? Preliminary research in Canada makes the case for further investigation.Drawing on decades of evidence linking authoritative parenting to better mental health outcomes for children, a team of Montreal-based psychologists note how warm, nurturing parenting (“affiliation”) and clear, consistent expectations and discipline (“structure”) have been acknowledged as key components. But they argue that a third important dimension – parental respect for children’s own ideas, feelings and initiatives (“autonomy support”) has received less attention than it deserves.Given reports that as many as one in ten young people in the United States and elsewhere may suffer from serious behavioral and/or emotional problems and that another ten per cent have mild to moderate difficulties, they theorized that there would be added benefits from support programs and interventions seeking to tap all three key dimensions of optimal parenting.The How-to Parenting ProgramTo test their theory, they decide to evaluate the program known as How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk (the “How-to Parenting Program”) which explicitly seeks to foster affiliation, structure and autonomy support. Although widely available and developed over 40 years, the program had received little empirical research interest.For their study, the researchers recruited parents and children with an average age of 9, attending seven public schools in Montreal. The parents took part in eight weekly sessions at schools, led by two trained group leaders. With the exception of shorter opening and closing sessions, the meetings lasted for two and half hours each.Each focused on a particular topic, centering on empathy as “the cornerstone of autonomy support”, but covering a total of 30 different parenting skills, using comic strips to illustrate the issues. These included listening to children, helping them with difficult or painful feelings, improving communication, reacting to misdeeds, praise and promoting autonomy. Separate questionnaires were completed by 82 parents and 44 children before and after the program, based on accredited constructs for assessing parenting style and child mental health. The researchers also devised and validated their own scale for assessing autonomy-supportive parenting skills and children’s perceptions of them. The results showed that parental skills relating to structure and affiliation both increased significantly following the intervention. There was also an increase in positive attitudes towards autonomy support, with parents making more use of relevant strategies after the intervention. Parents reported that their child’s mental health had significantly improved and that problematic behavior had reduced. Children’s replies also suggested that their sense of happiness, self-esteem and life satisfaction had significantly improved. Next stepsThese results, though encouraging, are from a relatively small-scale, preliminary study and need to be treated with caution. As the authors acknowledge, the absence of a control group means the positive results cannot necessarily be attributed to participation in the “How-to” program. The parents taking part (mostly mothers) predominantly held graduate qualifications. Half had family incomes above $75,000 a year, suggesting they were not necessarily typical of the general population.There is, nevertheless, a strong case for randomized controlled trials and other, further research. This should not only consider to whether the program is effective at improving children’s mental health in its own right, but also test the hypothesis that better outcomes relate to its focus on autonomy support, s well as structure and affiliation. Comparisons between the results achieved by “How to” and other, existing parenting interventions in addressing a range of child mental health issues would be potentially helpful. So, too, would be research examining whether positive results can be sustained over time.************Reference:Joussemet, M., Mageau, G. A., & Koestner, R. (2014). Promoting Optimal Parenting and Children’s Mental Health: A Preliminary Evaluation of the How-to Parenting Program. Journal of Child Family Studies, 23, 949-964. doi: 10.1007/s10826-013-9571-0

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