Participation in remote parental training, both online and over the telephone, can significantly help parents lower their preschool children’s disruptive behavior, according to the new Strongest Families study from the Research Centre for Child Psychiatry at the University of Turku in Finland.
The findings show that the intervention increased children’s levels of empathy while reducing aggressiveness, noncompliant behavior, ADHD symptoms, and emotional problems.
The study involved 730 families with behaviorally-challenged four-year-olds. Once a week for 11 weeks, a personal family coach reached out to the parents by phone to offer parental training and support. The parents also studied positive parenting tips on the Strongest Families website. The control group received an information package supporting parenting skills and one phone call.
Parents in the intervention program were asked to notice and strengthen their children’s good behavior. The parents were told to ignore mild bad behavior and to anticipate transitional situations, as it is easier for a child to succeed in new situations when they are planned beforehand. Parents who had previously reported their child as being difficult received tools for solving everyday problems and learned how to value their child in a new way.
The findings show that during the 12-month follow-up, the behavioral problems of the four-year-old children reduced significantly in the families who participated in the intervention compared to the control group.
Specifically, there was a sharp improvement in the intervention group’s parenting skills as well as the child’s disruptive behavior, ADHD symptoms, anxiety, sleep problems, and empathy, compared with the control group. These results were found to remain stable throughout the 12-month follow-up.
The children’s behavior improved so much, in fact, that in the following year, more than 80 percent of the children in the intervention group were not re-selected for the program. In the control group that received more limited support, the percent was 66.
The results are significant as disruptive behavior in childhood is linked to mental health problems, criminality, substance abuse, and higher mortality in adulthood. Disruptive behavior that starts in childhood is also linked to adolescent intoxication, smoking at an early age, poor life management skills, and excess weight, which are central risk factors for health problems later in life.
The significance of these findings become even more apparent when compared to earlier cohort studies, which have suggested that behavioral problems are permanent in half of preschool children, said study leader and professor of child psychiatry Andre Sourander, M.D., Ph.D.
The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.