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Looking for a Parenting Support Course? What I learned from a year of studying parenting programs.

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As part of my research project to evaluate a parenting program, I first had to study OTHER well established parenting programs to get an idea of how I was going to plan my project.

What started as an innocent little hunt to find information on parenting programs, ended up in me writing a critical review on the most popular parenting programs that you can find today. These are the highlights of what I have found.

If you’re a parent or carer and are seeking help through a parenting program, I highly recommend that you carefully consider the philosophy of a parenting program before you sign up for it (you can also read books based on most of these programs without doing any sessions). Make sure that the theoretical foundations of the program align with your family values or are something you are interested in learning. Although some of the programs say they cater to ‘all’ parents or are ‘universal’, they certainly are not.

Because parenting programs are taught by ‘experts’, we can feel that these people know more than us. But, if the strategies taught to you in the programs don’t align with your family values, you may find yourself in a conundrum where you’re MORE confused and conflicted than before!

Two Types of Parenting Programs

There are two major categories of parenting programs. Behavioural Parent Training programs and Attachment-Based parenting programs. Both have their strengths. I won’t hide the fact that I heavily prefer the attachment-based philosophies, but read for yourself to find out which program or approach you might benefit from most.

Behavioural Parent Training Programs

Popular ones are Triple P, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, 1-2-3 Magic and Incredible Years.

Behavioural parent training programs were made popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They were designed by psychologists at a time when it became recognised that using corporal punishment (smacking, spanking) was far more troublesome than it was worth. The experts had to come up with some suitable alternative, so a style of discipline was developed to teach parents a system of rewards and non-violent punishments to elicit cooperation in children.

You are most likely familiar with some of the these strategies. They are rewards, like sticker charts, prizes and praise and ‘non-intensive’ punishments like planned ignoring and time-out.

No children were actually put in time-out for this photo, I asked her to pose.

There is a lot of evidence to say these types of parenting programs are effective. And for families who are experiencing stressful situations or have very little time or energy to exert on parenting issues, these programs may be the go. However, critics of behavioural parent training programs argue that there are problems with claiming these programs ‘work for all’. Cherry picking positive results of trials, low acceptability of discipline strategies (in other words, parents are not willing to use planned ignoring or time-out), considerably high drop out rates and not enough independent studies (for example, most of the studies on Triple P were done by Matthew Sanders, founder of Triple P himself. Hello conflict of interest??)

Nevertheless, Triple P and other behavioural parenting programs tend to get the majority of funding from governments in industrialised countries, because of all the research that has been done. So, in some places you can take these types of programs for free and for some families, these programs can be life changing.

Aside from the critics of the programs, there is also a plethora, and I mean PILES of studies against using rewards and punishments for disciplining children. A good book to read on the pitfalls of using rewards, is Alfie Kohn’s, ‘Punished by Rewards’, where he lists over 70 studies on why using rewards can backfire.

Planned ignoring is a strategy that has hardly any studies done on it at all! Yet it is common advice in behavioural parent programs. A top researcher on the effects of ignoring found that ignoring people is an emotionally painful punishment similar to physical pain. Studies on the use of time-out have declined over the past 20 years, yet it is still a method recommended in behavioural parenting programs. One study on 4-5 year old preschoolers who had been put in time out, found that the children had little idea why they were there, but reported feelings of fear, sadness and that their teachers disliked then. The researchers advised that time-out would not prevent future misbehaviours from reoccurring.

Okay, okay, can you tell I don’t recommend behavioural parenting programs? Put my opinion aside, because there are families who benefit from behavioural parenting programs and these programs are actually doing good in a sense that if a family is struggling, the strategies can be helpful for a quick fix. And some people find these programs are much less effort than what I am about to mention next.

Attachment-Based Parenting Programs (sometimes called relationship-based programs)

Some examples are Circle of Security, Know Your Child, Aware Parenting and Hand-in-Hand Parenting.

Attachment-based parenting programs are programs based on attachment theory. These programs have an emphasis on preserving the relationship and understand the idea that the secure foundation between a child and their primary carer is vital to a child’s healthy development. Prompt, nurturing responsiveness to a child’s physical and emotional needs are seen as very important.

Not all attachment-based parenting programs use the same strategies. So, if you want to go for an attachment-based program, you should find out what their discipline strategies or methods for responsiveness are, and if they align with your values, before signing up. For example, many of the behavioural parenting programs actually claim they are based on attachment theory… but they also advocate for ignoring your crying child, which goes against the idea of attachment theory.

Some attachment-based programs may recommend using punishments, like time-out when all other avenues have been exhausted and the parents are at their wits end. Other attachment-based programs, like Aware Parenting and Hand-in-Hand parenting, would not recommend using time-out. These programs have a completely different philosophy for understanding and responding to misbehaviours in children and help parents understand why we have such strong reactions to our children’s behaviour. These two attachment-based programs have a unique outlook on behaviour, as they recognise that crying, tantrums and play, are an inborn healing mechanism for dealing stress and trauma. Have a look at the programs philosophies before deciding which program to take or simply ask the instructors, they should be able to tell you.

Attachment-based parenting programs may not be practical for some families because they are not a ‘quick fix’ and it may be difficult for some parents to implement prompt responsiveness and being deeply in tune with their children.

One study compared two behavioural parenting programs with one attachment-based program. This study found that behavioural parenting programs had some immediate significant results. Parents who took the attachment-based programs only experienced some immediate improvements, not as significant. However, when measured 2 years later, the attachment-based participants continued to see improved results that were equal to the significant results of the behavioural programs. Interestingly, there were no further improvements in results for the parents who took the behavioural parenting programs while some of the initial positive results had even faded with time.

In other words, the attachment-based approach to parenting support was just as significant, but was not a quick fix.

Which is better?

It’s up to you.

In a sense, you can look at attachment-based parenting programs as having the short term inconvenience of learning new strategies and really digging deep to get to the source of your parenting journey, but with long lasting, deep and meaningful effects. Behavioural parenting programs can also offer benefits, but may just be a quick fix.