Other parents know best

A peer-to-peer training scheme is helping parents of children with mental health issues. Chloe Stothart reports

A peer-to-peer training scheme is helping parents of children with mental health issues. Chloe Stothart reports

(Pictured: Caroline Penney, specialist trainer at Being a Parent)

Project details

Project name: Being a Parent

Aims and objectives: A parenting class, run by other parents, uses psychological therapies to help those with children exhibiting mental health problems.

Numbers of service users: 198 parents

Cost of project: £250 to take a parent through an eight-week course.

Launched: 2006

Like many inner city areas, Southwark in south London has high levels of child mental health problems. Ten years ago, a study of 253 under-16s in the borough found nearly 72% had at least one moderate to severe mental health problem, and nearly 37% had three or more.

In response to this, Caroline Penney, a specialist trainer with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, set up a parenting programme for those with children aged two to 11. “A lot of children in Southwark do have mental health issues or will get them, possibly because the parenting is not brilliant or because of the environment they live in,” she says.

The eight-week course covers general parenting skills but also relies on some specialist psychological therapies that have been found to help reduce or prevent mental health problems in children by helping parents cope with the stresses of parenthood and modify their child’s behaviour.

Unlike many parenting programmes, Being a Parent is taught by other mothers and fathers who have been through the classes themselves and have faced up to similar parenting problems.

Less stigmatising

Penney thought that a class taught by parents would feel less stigmatising than one run by children’s services professionals. She was right. Not only do they help to make the participants feel at ease, but they also spread the word. “By empowering local parents to run those groups we get to many more parents that way,” she says. “It is led by someone who has come from the same community, their children go to the same schools – that builds the community up.”

The Institute of Psychiatry’s evaluation of the scheme, which began in May 2009 and will end in March 2011, has found parental stress fell and children’s behaviour improved after the course was completed. There was a 43% fall in parents whose stress level could merit clinical help while the number of children whose behaviour was in the clinical range halved. These improvements “compared favourably” with similar trials involving professional therapists, according to the evaluation.

The dropout rate was also low, at 13%. Dr Stacey Thomson, a post doctoral researcher on the team at the Institute of Psychiatry, said a dropout rate of 20% plus would usually be expected.

The course is open to all parents, but so far up to 70% of those involved have children with behaviour that could merit a clinical intervention. A few of the children do have diagnosed problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder being the most common, but most do not.

Parent trainers undergo 10 more days of training to run classes and are paid about £450 to run an eight-week course. To ensure all is well, the sessions run by the parent-facilitators are supervised every fortnight by Penney and her job-share partner.

The stigma associated with parenting courses was a hurdle to overcome for participants. “When it started people were a bit more suspicious but now I think they know it is a good course,” Penney says. “They know they won’t be made to feel a disaster and will get good skills and enjoy it.”

Some parents, particularly those who had difficult childhoods themselves or who find parenting a struggle, might find it painful or difficult to analyse their own upbringing as part of the course. The key to helping them is the supportive environment, says Penney.

Secure funding

However, perhaps the biggest challenge was attracting secure funding. Until Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity gave a two-year grant of £225,000, the project had led a hand-to-mouth existence.

The programme also receives about £50,000 from Southwark Council. The money covers all costs: venue hire, a crèche, refreshments, facilitators’ payments, two part-time outreach workers who publicise the course to parents, two part-time trainers and an administrator and the evaluation of the project by the Institute of Psychiatry. It costs about £250 to take a parent through the eight-week course, which Penney believes is cheaper than many other parenting courses. So far 198 parents have completed the course and 24 have trained as facilitators.

Penney would like to roll out the scheme nationally, after she has gathered evidence over a longer period. A group of parents has already met welfare reform minister Lord Freud to discuss this. No pledges were made about funding a roll-out, but it was felt compatible with the Big Society idea.

“My job now is to think about how to take that forward,” Penney says.

Case study: ‘I feel like I’m sharing what worked for me’

While running a parent and toddler group, Nichola Williams, 28, decided she would like some training on her own parenting skills.

As a mother of five children, aged between two and 11, she admits the free crèche and two hours’ break from the kids was an attraction, but she says she learned a lot from Being a Parent. It boosted her confidence in the things she did right, and taught her new techniques that improved her children’s behaviour.

Her middle child threw tantrums and she felt she was “constantly telling him off”. But his behaviour improved massively after she guaranteed him her exclusive attention for at least 10 minutes after school every day.

She learned to praise her children, which turned out to be especially beneficial when she wanted them to get dressed rather than play or scrap with each other.

After the course, the trainers asked whether she would be interested in becoming a facilitator and she has now run three courses.

“I am so glad I did it,” she says. “I feel like I am sharing what worked for me; I do not feel like a teacher.”

Parents in her groups have many issues. They range from children who refuse to sleep in their own beds to those displaying aggressive behaviour. One mother, who thought her son’s aggression was due to autism, learned to ask him about his feelings, using pictures to draw the information out of the reticent boy. He was later referred to child mental health services.

“She needed a lot of extra help; more than we could give. But the techniques we taught her really worked,” says Williams. 

Putting it into practice

● Use parent-trainers who are part of the community themselves and can give positive recommendations of it.

● Ensure the parenting programme is linked in with other children’s provision so it is part of the local community rather than a parenting course parachuted in from nowhere.

● Employ outreach workers to advertise the course in children’s centres, schools and other agencies.

● Ensure the environment is supportive for those parents who may have to face up to their personal history or issues in order to help their own parenting.

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