Parents really do matter in a child’s development

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By Dr. Philip Smith (Guest Opinion): Every once in a while there is actually a good match between “common sense” and the findings of psychological research. Here is one of those cases: the idea that parenting makes a difference in the lives of children and adolescents. Saying that parenting makes a difference — a big difference — is not saying it is the only thing that influences how children turn out. Peers, schools, genetics, whether families have the money to meet their needs, and so on all make a difference. But decades of research confirm that parents’ influence is pervasive across children’s development. 

What’s more, as parents we can “influence how we influence.” We can grow as mothers and as fathers, learning additional approaches and strategies to expand our set of parenting skills, and becoming more effective in supporting our children’s healthy development. That is why last Tuesday’s budget speech announcement that the Triple P Positive Parenting Program will be implemented in P.E.I. is such good news.

Triple P originated with Dr. Matt Sanders at the University of Queensland in Australia. Through over 25 years of research it has evolved into a comprehensive system of supports, utilizing different formats and ranging across multiple levels of intensity to meet parents’ differing preferences and needs.

Parenting has joys, and it also has challenges. It is normal for parents to experience challenges from infancy through the teen years. Triple P is designed as a resource for every parent. It is designed for parents in the broad population who could benefit from encouragement and practical tips, for parents whose families are at some risk of particular challenges, and for parents already experiencing significant difficulties with children or adolescents.

Part of Triple P involves a “Stay Positive” information campaign through online, print, and media outlets. Part involves topic-specific information sessions about everyday questions and challenges for parents, such as The Power of Positive Parenting, or Raising Responsible Teenagers. Part involves training existing practitioners to support parents in brief or intensive interventions, according to the need.

One reason for Triple P’s success is that it is highly respectful of parents. There are core principles of Triple P, including the importance of providing a safe and engaging environment, providing a positive learning environment, assertive discipline, reasonable expectations, and taking care of yourself as a parent. But Triple P also recognizes that there is not only one way to parent, and that parents set their own goals in accordance with their own values. 

Triple P has a strong evidence base for effectiveness. A  United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report has ranked Triple P first in terms of evidence-base out of 23 family skills training programmes. Of course, that doesn’t mean it makes a difference for every parent who takes part, but the impacts it does have on an individual and on a population level are impressive. For example, parents taking part in Triple P are likely to increase their knowledge, skills, and confidence. Parents taking part as spouses or partners tend to get along better with each other and reduce conflict as they develop those parenting skills. 

Most impressive is the list of Triple P impacts on child and adolescent outcomes, including reductions in disruptive behaviour, anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, substance abuse, delinquency, numbers of visits to physicians, and child and adolescent mental health wait lists. Outcomes also include increases in children’s and adolescents’ readiness to learn, productive classroom environments, successful management of ADHD, and management of physical health challenges such as obesity. When implemented on a population level, Triple P reduces child maltreatment and injuries and reduces the number of children placed in out-of-home care. Many of these beneficial outcomes will follow children into their own adult lives and relationships. Because of the population-level reductions that Triple P brings about in serious behavioural and emotional problems, it is highly cost effective, even in the short term. 

Triple P is not magic; it is not a panacea. There are ways in which an announcement of Triple P could have little impact if that announcement were not followed up, each year, with the required collaborations and resources. But when implemented comprehensively and carefully across the province, we can expect Triple P to make a major difference for the wellbeing of children, families, and our Island. And that is good news.

- Dr. Philip Smith is professor of Psychology at UPEI. He served as chair of a multi-organizational Working Group on Parent Education and Support that has recommended adoption of Triple P.

Organizations: Triple P, University of Queensland, United Nations Office on Drugs UPEI Working Group on Parent Education

Geographic location: P.E.I., Australia

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