Parents as pupils

The relationship between the state and parenting in the UK can at times be awkward, confusing and negative. In more family-friendly Scandinavian countries, for example, governments recognise that parenting is a difficult job and make stigma-free training and guidance universally available. Here, the perception remains that the state only gets involved when things go wrong. Governments have shied away from positive parenting projects, possibly for fear of intruding on family autonomy. But are things about to change?

The government green paper Every Child Matters recognises the need to “develop more and better universal services, open to all families as and when they need them.” Part of this is a desire to develop parent training programmes.

Research repeatedly finds that children who behave very antisocially will replicate that behaviour into adulthood where they become at high risk of social exclusion. Recent research added to this by concluding that the costs of antisocial behaviour incurred by individuals from childhood to adulthood were 10 times greater for those who were seriously antisocial in childhood than for those who were not.1

So surely it is socially and financially imperative that a society keen to “blame the parents” for their children’s antisocial behaviour should seek to help them first before wagging fingers?

And help is at hand. Nearly five out of every six child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) teams now offer parent training programmes. While these are often pockets of good practice, one excellent co-ordinated and effective model is up and running county-wide in Essex.

The Incredible Years, a 12 to 14-week video programme for parents of children aged three to eight, was designed by psychologist and therapist Dr Carolyn Webster-Stratton, director of the parenting clinic and professor of nursing at the University of Washington, US. “It is an evidence-based programme which you can use for children with behavioural difficulties but that you can also use for any parent,” says Jeannie Gordon, clinical nurse (parenting) at North Essex Mental Health Trust Partnership.

Penny Ademuyiwa, a senior social work practitioner at the trust, says:”There are several programmes available in Essex, but we have adopted the Webster-Stratton model because it is simple and positive – it is about parents praising and playing with their children alongside managing their behaviour.”

The tactic of praising is not restricted to children, either. One parental evaluation reads: “We were continually praised, even for small good comments which made me feel I am not doing so badly as a parent.”

I sat in on a two-hour Webster-Stratton parenting group session (the ninth of a 12 week programme) run by Ademuyiwa and senior social work practitioner, Anna Dawson. Parents spoke openly about the difficulties they have with often just one of their children, and reporting back on the success of using the “strategies” they have learned about so far.

It can be daunting to talk openly in front of a group about anything, let alone your own perceived “failure” to control your children. But parents said that their initial fears swiftly vanished. “You can’t believe the relief knowing that you are not alone and it’s just not me who’s experiencing this,” says one. And the group relationship has prospered so well that they are organising a Christmas night out together.

To instil consistency Gordon led a three-year project to bring together all agencies providing parenting programmes to form the Essex parenting partnership which co-ordinated training.

“We wanted to make sure that the Webster-Stratton programme was delivered with the same structure and quality that it is in America. It gives structure but allows flexibility for your personality as group leader to come out. And it works,” she says.

Interestingly, only a few parents in the group I observed were referred by health or social services. “A lot of people’s difficulties are around very basic parenting issues – they don’t know what to do when their child is having a temper tantrum or won’t go to bed,” says Ademuyiwa.

Word-of-mouth is now the main draw – and this helps demolish any stigma. “It’s how we sell it, really. When people come along and they have fun and get lunch and stuff like that – it doesn’t feel like they are doing a therapeutic session,” says Dawson.

Evaluating success is difficult. Systemic psychotherapist Judith Bevan says: “It is measured by parental outcomes, which could be they just want the house to be more quiet. Interestingly, sometimes desired changes in the children do not show up so well because parents’ expectations change. Things that they were worried about at the start they soon realise are not such big deals.”

Gordon says:”When you have parents saying halfway through a programme that ‘I’m hugging my child now because I want to hug my child’ – that is unmeasurable.”

Although funded by the North Essex Mental Health Trust Partnership (who pay for Gordon’s post “which is purely parenting – I don’t know of any other post in the country which is similar,” she says) and the Children’s Fund (“who have been marvellous”), Gordon recognises that parenting programmes are in their infancy here. “I’ve just come back from Norway where group leaders are given 18 hours a week to prepare, run and evaluate groups. They give people the time and the status to do things right,” she says.

However, although seemingly ahead of the game in the UK, Essex isn’t resting on its laurels. It is taken the hardy step of developing a course for parents of children aged 12 to 16 years who have offended. “The ethos of the 11-week Supporting Together offenders’ parents programme is similar to Webster-Stratton, although we pay agencies to provide child care in the parents’ home while we transport the parents to the venue,” says Mike Kellett, an Essex police officer who is, unusually, parenting co-ordinator for Essex youth offending service. “Professionals have a sharp intake of breath when they realise I’m a police officer with primary responsibility for parenting,” he smiles.

The programme, designed by Kellett and Gordon, was piloted in Colchester and Basildon “and has taken off – so much so that I had to take a full-time role just to manage it,” says Kellett, who has just – again with Children’s Fund money -Êset up a project in Basildon for parents of children aged nine to 13 who are at risk of offending. “We started out to stop re-offending but we’ve progressed to try and stop offending in the first place,” he says.

Parenting programmes such as these in Essex and increasingly family-friendly government policy may well deliver a healthy and hopeful state of play.

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1 Stephen Scott et al, “Financial cost of social exclusion: follow up study of antisocial children into adulthood”, British Medical Journal, Vol 323, 2001

Learning power

Lessons from Essex

  • Get your management on board – and make sure supporting parents is a strategic target for your organisation.
  • Put in the resources – particularly time – as many groups have been able to start but not always able to continue, having to scrabble around for funding.
  • Have patience – it won’t happen overnight.
  • “Recognise that statutory services – and not just the seemingly government-preferred voluntary sector – are often best-placed with skills and experience to provide parenting programmes,” says Gordon.

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