Study identifies effective parenting strategies to reduce disruptive behaviour in children

Most parenting programmes aim to teach parents how to reduce their children’s disruptive behaviour. New research looked at more than 150 studies of these programmes, finding differences in what works best according to whether or not children already showed behaviour problems.

The work was conducted by researchers at the University of Amsterdam, Cardiff University, University of Oxford, and Utrecht University. It appears in the journal Child Development, a publication of the Society for Research in Child Development.

“We found that when severely disruptive behaviour had already emerged in children, a combination of teaching parents how to manage behaviour along with relationship-building strategies was more effective than just teaching parents how to manage behaviour,” explains Patty Leijten, assistant professor of child development at the University of Amsterdam, who led the study. “However, when disruptive behaviour had not yet emerged as a problem, teaching parents both strategies was not more helpful than teaching behaviour-management strategies alone.”

Severely disruptive behaviour was defined as openly uncooperative and hostile behaviour, including frequent temper tantrums, excessive arguing with adults, and deliberate attempts to annoy or upset others. Behaviour-management strategies include praise to increase positive behaviour and negative consequences like timeouts to reduce disruptive behaviour. Relationship-building strategies include encouraging parents to be sensitive to their children’s needs.

The researchers looked at 156 studies on the effectiveness of parenting programmes for reducing disruptive behaviour in children ages 2 to10; the studies involved more than 15,000 families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds in 20 countries. Because the programmes varied by whether they taught parents just behaviour-management strategies or both relationship-building and behaviour-management strategies, the study could compare the effectiveness of these commonly used approaches.

“Policymakers and service providers should be aware that different families may need different strategies to reduce disruptive behaviour in children. Programmes designed to prevent severe disruptive behaviour and to treat severe disruptive behaviour may require different approaches,” suggests G.J. Melendez-Torres, senior lecturer in social sciences and health at the University of Cardiff, who co-authored the study. “Adding relationship building to behaviour management may benefit children who have not yet developed severe disruptive behaviour in other ways, such as encouraging better overall communication between parents and children, but it doesn’t help reduce disruptive behaviour in these children. However, for children who have already developed severe disruptive behaviour, adding relationship building to behaviour management is key to reducing these problems.”

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The study was funded by the UBS Optimus Foundation and the Research Institute of Child Development and Education of the University of Amsterdam.

Summarized from Child Development, Are Relationship Enhancement and Behavior Management “The Golden Couple” for Disruptive Child Behavior? Two Meta-Analyses by Leijten, P (now at the University of Amsterdam, formerly and the University of Oxford), Melendez-Torres, GJ (now at Cardiff University, formerly at the University of Warwick), Gardner, F (University of Oxford), van Aar, J (University of Amsterdam), Schulz, S (now at Utrecht University, formerly at the University of Amsterdam), and Overbeek, G (University of Amsterdam). Copyright 2018

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