UC study: focus on parents improves problem kids’ behaviour

31 May 2010: Helping parents to reflect on their own childhood and empathise with their child improves behaviour in problem children, University of Canberra psychology researchers have found.

The team followed two groups through Marymead’s intensive Circle of Security program, which focuses on teaching parents to reflect and to understand their child’s behaviour, rather than directly targeting the children.

“By teaching parents and carers to reflect on how they were raised and on their own parenting style, this program changes how they parent and has a noticeable impact on problem behaviours,” researcher Nicola Palfrey said.

“There was a clinically significant improvement in the children’s behaviour by the end the program, despite the focus being almost entirely on the parents.”

The Circle of Security program is based on a philosophy that a parent’s role is to provide a ‘secure base’ from which a child explores the world and a ‘safe haven’ they can return to. This helps children develop confidence, self-reliance and self-esteem and minimises the risk of emotional or behavioural problems in later life. Parents’ failure to support exploration and to meet their child’s need for comfort and protection can lead to emotional problems.

“By tackling emotional and behavioural issues at an early stage in a child’s development there are huge benefits. Research shows they are significantly less likely to suffer future psychological difficulties, which in turn saves society from major social and financial costs,” Ms Palfrey added.

The Marymead program teaches parents to identify and build on their strengths and address their weaknesses when responding to their child’s needs.

“Helping parents reflect on their experiences of being a parent, as well as how they were parented, means they increase their understanding of their own children. This builds empathy, and helps to break the cycle of difficult childhoods,” Ms Palfrey said.

“More often than not, parents participating in the program have had very difficult childhood also. This program helps break the cycle of difficult childhoods, and gives the children a chance for a different life. It also gives the parents the chance of delighting in their children, and celebrating them, rather than seeing them as problems.”

The research was conducted by Ms Palfrey, Elizabeth Challis and Mia Cotan and supervised by Lisa Oxman.

  • Ms Palfrey is available for interview.

Pam Cahir, CEO of Early Childhood Australia, will join US Circle of Security expert Glen Cooper to launch a new Australian version of the Circle of Security Parenting training DVD tonight at 5pm at the Marymead Child and Family Centre, Narrabundah.