• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Wednesday 27th January, 2016

Thinking about thinking: one route to better parenting

strong>Having children can be one of the most joyful experiences of life. But it comes with challenges, and when children display difficult behavior, often parents need extra help. A Belgian parenting program teaches mothers and fathers to be more aware of their own thoughts and choices as parents, with positive results.The program, called “Lou & Us,” is unusual among parenting programs. Most programs focus on teaching parenting skills. Programs usually tell parents how best to react to their kids in certain situations, model good examples, or role-play positive parenting techniques.But Lou & Us deliberately avoids those techniques in favor of a much narrower focus on what’s called metacognition – being aware of one’s own thinking. By asking parents to focus on how they think about their parenting role and behaviors, the program attempts to increase positive parenting. It accepts that parents are capable of examining their own thoughts and actions, and it also assumes that metacognition is “the core process that promotes positive parenting.”The narrow focus has an added benefit from a research perspective. Most parenting programs bundle together different goals and approaches, and while such a bundle may be helpful to parents overall, it’s impossible for researchers to tell which of the pieces of the program changed parents’ behavior. Focusing exclusively on metacognition allows researchers to test the effects of just that one type of intervention.A short program at homeLou & US is also unusually brief, taking place over just three weeks, with three sessions each week. The program was delivered on a CD-ROM that the parents played at home. It showed animated clips of a child engaging in externalizing behaviors such as pushing a plate of food away and refusing to eat, or shoving other kids off a playground slide. At the end of each clip, parents were given four choices of childrearing behaviors to click on, and asked to guess the short- and long-term effects of these behaviors on the child.Each parent went through the program alone in the first week, as a couple in the second, and with their child present in the third. At the end of each week, they were interviewed by researchers. The aim of the interviews was to activate the participants’ thinking and awareness about being a parent without presenting criticisms or solutions, so interviewers asked questions like, “When you used the CD-ROM, at what points did you say that in a similar situation your partner/spouse would definitely have reacted differently from you?”The trustworthiness of study results is often colored by the fact that they often rely on parents’ self-report. In this study, to get an extra source of information, children (aged 4 to 7) were also asked to assess their parents’ supportive and controlling behavior. In a clever adaptation of the usual five-point scale, children were shown five increasingly large circles and asked to point to the one that matched how often their parents used a particular behavior.A pair of micro-trialsA Belgian study tested Lou & Us using two small trials in a French-speaking community. The goal was to see whether positive change occurred in parenting behaviors and children’s externalizing behaviors.The first study was a pre-post study involving 152 families. The second study was a replication of the first using a randomized design, in which 116 families were randomly assigned either to the program or to a control group receiving no intervention.To be included, children had to be between 4 to 7 years old with both parents living together. Same-sex parent couples, children with developmental or intellectual disabilities, and parents with mental health difficulties were excluded.Pre- and post-test data were collected by questionnaires. Parents reported on their own controlling or supportive behavior, their children’s behavior, their feelings of “self-efficacy” (that is, their beliefs about their own ability to be successful parents), and their ability to share parenting duties with their spouse or partner. Children rated their parents’ behavior. Remarkably, all families in both studies completed the trial, suggesting that parents found it useful to keep doing the program.Improving childrearing behaviorIn both studies, parents reported a range of improved parenting skills and beliefs over the course of the trial, including more supportive and less controlling childrearing behavior. In the second study, the control group reported fewer positive changes than the group that used the Lou & Us program. However, effects on precise outcomes were different in the two trials. Though the studies show positive results, they should be interpreted cautiously. The “micro-trial” intervention is very brief and sample sizes were small. In addition, both studies were conducted with comparatively well-functioning families who had relatively high levels of positive parenting before the intervention, so we don’t know how the program might work with families in more difficult circumstances. Furthermore, only mother-father dyads were eligible for the study, and it would be beneficial to see if the same approach would work with families in non-traditional setups.Lou & Us is likely to be most useful for those with higher metacognitive skills to begin with, though it would be interesting to see how this would translate to those with reduced ability and greater levels of need. It is based on a concept that is backed by solid research: by asking parents to focus on their own thinking and awareness of their parenting abilities, they have the potential to gain better control over their situation. This may help mothers and fathers to work out solutions for themselves with a less prescriptive approach than other parenting programs. ************ReferenceRoskam, I. (2015.) Enhancing positive parenting through metacognition with the program ‘Lou & us’. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 2496-2507.

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