Posted on December 11, 2013 by in

Parenting support and the value of a group approach.

Parenting – despite being around literally forever, in recent years this topic has become one of the most sensitive subjects around, and also one that courts some of the most controversial and conflicting advice. There are as many ways to parent as their are parent-child combinations, as each parent needs to adapt their style to meet the needs of each of their individual children, and to develop their unique relationship with each. That’s where I think many of the parenting “experts” fall short, often advocating one-size fits all strategies (e.g. Strict routines, Naughty steps, prescribed sleep training methods etc.) which advocate responding to a child’s behaviour often with little thought to what’s driving it. As a clinical psychologist working with children and families I hear about all kinds of difficulties encountered by parents as they try to do their best to raise happy, healthy children. Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of children and families, with “difficult” behaviour of one kind or another being one of the primary reasons for referral.

Parents contact psychologists looking for help with managing these situations more effectively and come looking for “behaviour management” strategies which they hope will “fix” things. Yet the more families I worked with the more I found that offering traditional strategy-based approaches to the issues of tantrums, sleep, fussy eating etc often didn’t seem particularly helpful in my clinical work. Very often parents were actually already aware of the techniques (having read various parenting books, watched numerous TV Parenting “experts” or had lots of advice from friends and family), had tried them without success, and were looking for an alternative solution. I soon began to find that it was often the reasons parents struggled to implement strategies that we ended up focusing on (often related to their own experiences of being parented and the impact of these on their own feelings about the issue at hand), and helping them to recognise and process their own, and in turn their children’s feelings, was what brought about change. As a result, working with these families often doesn’t involve helping them to “do” anything specific, but instead thinking with them about how they want to “be” with their children. I found that supporting parents to think about the impact of their own early experience on their capacity to parent as they would like helped them to feel more able to tolerate their children’s “difficult” behaviour and to become more sensitive to the emotions underlying the behaviour. Understanding behaviour as a communication of emotion seemed to help parents respond to their children on an emotional level (rather than simply reacting to the irritating behaviour) which in turn helped children learn to recognise, communicate and manage their feelings in helpful ways. Helping parents to think about what their child might be trying to communicate with their behaviour (usually a feeling), and encouraging them to tune into these feelings and to reflect them back to their child (by naming the feeling along with why they might be feeling this way) often appears to lead to an almost immediate decrease in parental stress and a greater confidence in managing so-called “difficult” behaviour. Understanding their child in this way helps parents to stay calm when faced with children communicating or “acting out” their feelings and needs in what are often developmentally appropriate ways. Responding to their child in a caring and sensitive manner helps the child feel like their parents are trying to understand them, which can further improve the parent-child relationship, and in turn their child’s behaviour as they learn to communicate and manage these “big” feelings more effectively. Over time this helps parents develop sensitive and positive strategies for managing their child’s behaviour which are gentle and effective as they are tailored to their own unique child and situation.

Whilst this way of working with individual families yields great results, and is a very rewarding way to spend your working day, I’m passionate about supporting as many parents as possible to become the best parents they can be. I believe that if this reflective, thoughtful, gentle and positive  approach was adopted by all parents, and not just ones struggling to cope with their situation, that a lot less parents and children would require professional support as many of the issues that lead people to our clinics would be avoided and parents would feel confident in their own capacity to do what’s best for their situation. And that’s where group support comes in! Offering group support allows more parents to access these ideas, and at a greatly reduced cost. Groups also provide parents the opportunity to hear from (and share with) other parents of similarly aged children which helps them realise they are not alone in their struggles, and affords the opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other. The supportive and empowering nature of the group experience often leads to close and lasting friendships which last long after the end of the group as parents meet other local parents with whom they now share a special bond, and this type of informal support is invaluable over the years ahead.

Although I am a trained facilitator of a number of popular parenting groups (Parents Plus Programme, The Incredible Years) the Solihull Approach Understanding Your Child (UYC) group is by far my favourite to run and I’m very excited to be introducing this group to Irish parents for the very first time! Rather than offering a range of behaviour management strategies on a weekly basis this group places more emphasis on the attachment and reciprocal relationship between parent and child, the child’s stage of development, and the importance of parents helping children learn to recognise and communicate their emotions. This tends to lead to a more positive and rewarding parent-child relationship. Attending the group empowers parents to develop their own individual strategies for parenting, which are sensitive and gentle – yet effective – but perhaps most importantly, which fit with their own beliefs and values about what it is to be a parent.

Another great thing about this group is that unlike many other parenting programmes, this group is not just for parents who are struggling with their child’s behaviour. Although it can be helpful for those with mild-moderate difficulties (and is often run in child and adolescent mental health services in the UK for parents referred to such teams) the group is designed in such a way that it is applicable, and very useful, to everyone who wants to know more about parenting, children’s development and who would like to gain a better understanding of their children’s feelings and behaviour. It is very well received by the parents that attend, and I’ve regularly heard parents report that it has impacted positively on all their relationships, not just with the child they had in mind when signing up! One of my favourite pieces of feedback was a letter I received from a 12 year old girl who’s mother had been referred to the group to support her relationship with her two youngest children (aged 2 and 3). She wanted to let us know how pleased she was to see how much more patient, attentive, understanding and thoughtful her mum had become since starting the group, and thanked us for giving her mum the opportunity to become the parent she had always wanted her to be. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group when she read it to us (she wrote it while meant to be studying – she had a day off school but her mum didn’t want to miss the group!) and it really hit home how far reaching these apparently small changes can be. In the groups I’ve run, parents with older children often comment that they wish they’d attended years ago, and course graduates tend to become excellent referrers to future groups as they want all their friends and family to benefit as they have!

Here are some comments made by previous UYC group attendees.

  • “I understand my daughter’s feelings more, and have a better understanding of her age and stage of development.” – A Mother
  • “I have learnt that I do not have to win every battle and that any problems we’re not just about my child, but how I handled them.” – A Father
  • “Since doing the course I don’t feel like I’ve ever kind of hit the panic button as I used to… I just didn’t know what was  going on. I feel I’m very much in tune with him now…and I really enjoy that…I feel I’m more sensitive. I know now he likes to be close and touchy. And it’s just brilliant, I can pick up on that now.” – A Father
  • “Brilliant course!! Made friends. Really enjoyed myself! Thank you!” – A Mother
  • “I try to get with their level and get them to understand me…as as you get the connection it’s like there’s a complete change. There’s never a stress… It has made such a difference.” – A Father
  • “They really noticed the difference. One guy said he couldn’t believe how peaceful the house was. It’s great to hear those things.” – A Father

The group has also been the subject of research, and studies into the effectiveness of the Understanding Your Child course showed improvements in child behaviour (a decrease in hyperactivity and conduct problems and an increase in pro-social behaviour) and a reduction in parental stress as well as significant increases in self-esteem and parenting sense of competence (Bateson, Delaney & Phybus, 2008; Cabral, 2013). The qualitative and quantitative findings corroborated each other, demonstrating the impact and effectiveness of the programme and supporting anecdotal feedback on the success of UYC parenting groups. Another evaluation of the views of over 200 parents who have taken part in the UYC courses in the UK showed that 95% of parents found the course highly satisfactory (Johnson & Wilson, 2012). Parents increased their knowledge of strategies and solutions for responding to children’s behaviour, they improved their interactions with their children and were better able to recognise and respond to their own and their children’s feelings.

Understanding Your Child explores issues such as:

  • Having fun together
  • How children develop
  • Exploring feelings
  • Behaviour difficulties
  • How to recover when things go wrong
  • Communicating with your child
  • Parenting styles
  • Sleep patterns
  • Anger and temper tantrums

I am delighted to be offering Ireland’s first Understanding Your Child group (along with my colleague Dr Eimear Cunningham, another clinical psychologist) in the Novara Centre starting on Friday 31st January 2014. The course runs for 2 hours, once a week, for 10 weeks (with a break for midterm – Friday 21st Feb) with a special introductory price of €200 per person (€300 per couple). Spaces are strictly limited to ensure a supportive and interactive environment. To book a place or to request further information please contact me on 085 706 6532 or email

We hope to see you there!