The big picture

Helen Barrett reviews the evidence on parent training.

Few people nowadays hold the view that parenting comes
naturally. Rather, media reports of crime and antisocial behaviour
constantly bring to mind the need for greater and better parental
control. The question is, how might this be achieved?

Summing up findings from parenting research, the National Family
and Parenting Institute (NFPI) recently came to the following
conclusions. First, the research gave an overall impression of
confidence in the potential long-term capacity of parent training
programmes to reduce criminal activity and antisocial behaviour,
particularly in children who have been very difficult to manage
from their earliest years. Second, this confidence was generally
underpinned by belief in the idea that the earlier interventions
are made, the more effective they are, though intervention effects
may take some years to emerge. Third, there appeared a growing
consensus among researchers that programmes which involve both
parents and children and which are run across more than one
setting, for example, both at home and in school or in other
community venues, were likely to produce more stable and more
wide-ranging changes in behaviour. Fourth, as in studies of therapy
outcomes, there appeared to be some consensus that warmth and
empathy on the part of programme deliverers was a key ingredient
for success. Fifth, a number of reviews suggested that programme
deliverers must avoid stigmatising participants, making them
dependent or creating false hopes and expectations; the latter have
been associated with greater vulnerability to subsequent mental and
physical ill health.

In other respects, findings were less clear. Some studies
suggested that guidance and support to mothers (home visits, for
example) either prior to birth or later than six months
post-natally are of value.

There was some indication that input needed to be tailored to
suit parents’ needs, that is, that different blends of
practical, emotional, factual and material support are needed if
harder-to-reach parents are to be successfully recruited and if
their commitment to programmes is going to be maintained, although
the exact nature of these blends was not clear.

Where courses are hard to get to and parents have child care
difficulties, almost all programmes have difficulty retaining
participants. However, few studies evaluated reasons for dropping

The NFPI noted that many questions about UK parenting courses
have only been partially addressed, if at all, because most
published evaluations are either based on American, Australian,
Canadian or other non-UK samples or have been carried out using
methods which have been developed outside the UK.

While there is no obvious reason to suppose that UK
parents’ practices and needs are very different from those of
parents in other countries, it is not clear that methods developed
elsewhere are the most appropriate. Further, the lack of an ethnic
minority perspective in most studies has meant that very little is
known about how parent training courses might need to be adapted to
suit the needs of parents from diverse, multi-cultural communities
in the UK.

Traditionally, parents in the UK have drawn largely upon
informal networks to develop their parenting skills, with
additional, not insubstantial, support from more formal networks
including health visitors. Currently, no large-scale, systematic
studies of routine health visitor input are available and little is
known about which aspects of informal networks protect against
negative outcomes.

Policy-makers and professionals agree that specific groups of
parents are associated with poor outcomes for children. These
parents, however, are likely to be key players if negative cycles
of disadvantage are to be short-circuited.

Helen Barrett is a researcher for the NFPI and is
research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of

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