Helping parents manage challenging behaviour during the COVID19 lockdown – Some pointers for practitioners

Pointers on Parenting Under Pressure (POP-UP) team
Pointers on Parenting Under Pressure (POP-UP) team; Edmund Sonuga-Barke PhD, Johnny Downs MD PhD (King’s College London), Margaret Thompson MD FRCPsy, Jana Kreppner PhD, Hanna Kovshoff, PhD, Sam Cortese MD PhD FRCPsy, Cathy Laver-Bradury MSc RSCN, Catherine Thompson MSc (University of Southampton), David Daley PhD (University of Nottingham).

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The current COVID19 crisis is creating unprecedented challenges at every level of society. The closure of schools and restrictions on movement for both adults and children mean that many families face enormous challenges as they try and navigate new ways of living together. Bored children with excess energy not burned off at school, are more likely to play up and cause disruption within the family. In particular, the necessity for parents to home school, or ensure that their child is completing assigned schoolwork at home, is a significant challenge for all parents. Frustrated and worried parents may over-react to these challenges. Very quickly these sorts of behaviours can escalate into repetitive cycles within families leading to the breakdown of relationships and exacerbation of problems. Parents are likely to look to care professional for advice and support at these difficult times.

Here we provide tips that can help clinicians to support parents navigate these difficult times and help promote positive and cooperative behaviour within their families. We provide eight simple messages presented in a specific order designed to provide a pathway to more confident and effective parenting that will help to reduce conflict and promote good behaviour. The messages themselves are based on many years of experience delivering and evaluating parent training through the New Forest Parenting Programme although more generally our messages represent a distillation of commonly agreed parent training concepts supported by a large body of empirical evidence. If you would like information on the resources for parents please contact the POP-UP team at claire.ballard@kcl.ac.uk

Message 1: Parents need to keep things in perspective and stay positive.

  • If things are not going well with their children parents can easily start to feel down and worried that they are not a good enough parent.
  • This can reduce their parenting confidence and undermine their ability to manage their children’s behaviour.
  • It’s vital that you help them break out of this negative cycle of thinking. To do this you can help them –
    1. recognise that parenting is a real challenge and that nobody is perfect
    2. understand that small changes in the way they parent can really improve matters.
  • They also need to recognise that they need to look after themselves so they can keep a positive outlook by;
    1. making sure they take time out to relax and do things they enjoy
    2. reaching out to family or friends for social support and advice.

 Message 2 – Every family needs clear house-rules.

  • Rules are especially important when families are under pressure because they
    1. set out clear boundaries about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour;
    2. promote respect between family members;
  • Give children a sense of confidence in their surroundings.
  • Rules should be agreed first by adults and then the children should be brought on board.
  • Rules must be relevant in different ways to different people in the house.
  • Rules should be –
    1. Few and simple.
    2. Fair and realistic.
  • Easy to follow.
    1. Applied & followed consistently by everyone.
    2. Displayed publicly.
    3. Reviewed regularly.

Message 3: Children who feel confident in themselves and their place in the family are less likely to misbehave – parents can promote this.

  • In times when families feel under pressure – children can start to feel insecure.
  • These feelings can manifest as hostility and disruptive behaviour.
  • Parents should take time out to talk to children about their concerns and reassure them about their feelings for them.
  • Parents should also pay attention to their child’s positive behaviours and achievements including giving praise and encouragement to bolster self-esteem.
  • Finding things families can do together is a great way for parents to show how much they care, to praise and build their child’s confidence.

 Message 4: Good parent-child communication is the foundation to better child behaviour.

  • If children don’t know what a parent wants them to do either because they don’t hear what they say or understand what they hear then it’s unreasonable to expect them to follow instructions.
  • You need to highlight to parents that there are simple things they can do to improve communication.
  • There are two parts to this – first getting their child’s attention and then making sure they are understood.
  • To get their child’s attention parents should –
    1. move to same room as their child.
    2. remove distractions like phones or computers.
    3. make eye-contact.
  • To ensure their child’s understanding they should –
    1. speak slowly.
    2. Use simple short sentences – one idea or point per sentence.
    3. Check that they have understood.
  • To be a good role model parents should be –
    1. calm and firm – don’t plead.
    2. polite and respectful.

Message 5: Using rewards selectively can help parents encourage better behaviour in their children.

  • Parents can use rewards to improve their children’s behaviour and the extent to which they will follow agreed house rules.
  • Encourage parents to be –
    1. relevant but reasonable – giving rewards their child values but they can afford – stickers or points collected up for a special event or small treat.
    2. fair – using a similar approach with all children.
    3. selective – giving rewards only when children behave in the expected way.
    4. clear – making sure children understand what is being rewarded.
    5. timely – rewarding as soon after the desired behaviour as possible.
    6. “as good as their word” – always following through on what is promised.
    7. motivating – encouraging “trying” to follow the rules as well as “succeeding”.
    8. a team – with both parents (if there are two) using the same approach.
  • Encourage parents to record rewards (stickers or points) on a chart which is displayed publicly (on the fridge for example).

Message 6: Simple common-sense strategies can limit parent-child conflict.

  • Frustrated and/or worried children are more likely to be oppositional and defiant.
  • Some children are naturally more easily frustrated and reactive. Children with autism or ADHD, for instance, might be like this, through temperamental differences.
  • Home schooling may be a significant source of parent-child conflict in these times, and parents may need support to develop strategies to help their children learn in a calm and supportive way.
  • There are things parents can do to reduce the likelihood of such reactions and/or manage them when they arise.
    1. they need to try as best they can to keep their children occupied.
    2. they should agree routines and plans for each day with their child. If plans must change then clear explanations should be given.
    3. parents should try to avoid tasks and situations they know their child will find frustrating, upsetting, provoking or just too exciting. They should try to get to know what these are.
    4. if despite all this planning the child starts to get upset parents should be encouraged to use distraction. For instance, talk about something the child will find funny.
    5. they should create a safe and secure space where they can take their child if things really get out of hand.

Message 7: Parents can be helped to avoid over-reacting to children’s misbehaviour. 

  • Acknowledge that parenting can be an emotional business and that most parents do sometimes get upset with their children and do or say things that they regret.
  • Emphasize that parenting is most effective in reducing conflict and promoting better behaviour when it combines a sense of calm authority with kindness and respect.
  • When children see parents lose their temper they may lose confidence in, and respect for, their parent which may increase their levels of oppositionality.
    • To avoid this, parents should;
      1. avoid situations where they know they find it hard to keep calm.
      2. use a firm, steady and respectful tone of voice – not critical or harsh.
      3. take a breath and collect their thoughts before continuing when they feel themselves getting upset. Counting to 10 can help.
      4. Be prepared to walk away to a safe space if they really get upset.
      5. if they experience anger management problems they should be encouraged to seek specialist advice.

Message 8: Sanctions, used as a last resort, can be put in place to encourage children to follow rules.

  •  If rewards appear insufficient to encourage better behaviour parents may decide to use sanctions such as taking away something that their child values when they break rules
  • Such sanctions should be used only as a last resort to discourage persistent rule breaking.
  • Before starting to sanction, everyone in the family should know and agree with the plan.
  • Sanctions should be practical, fair, time-bound and relevant.
  • When administering sanctions parents should do so with a sense of calm authority.
    • They should –
      1. calmly remind the child what rule they broke and the agreed sanction.
      2. resist getting into a negotiation.
      3. match the sanction to age and temperament of the child.
      4. be consistent – always follow through on what you say you will do.
      5. avoid overusing sanctions – they can become ineffective and be perceived as oppressive.

Click here to see the evidence for the New Forest Parenting Programme.

Discussion

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Very clear, sensible messages

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Very useful and practical.

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