Taking care of vulnerable children starts with empathy

When it comes to the difficult topic of child maltreatment, it’s easy to condemn. What might not be so easy to understand for parents who sacrifice the second car for the school fees or drive hundreds of kilometres each weekend taking kids to social and sporting events, is that even parents found guilty of neglecting their children want better lives for their kids.

I’ve often seen this in clinical practice. It’s not that struggling parents lack the will to provide a safe and loving environment for their children. What they are lacking are the skills, knowledge and confidence to create the kind of environment where children feel safe, loved and secure, where kids can grow up to become capable people ready to deal with the world and its challenges.

The lives of parents struggling to look after children can be full of turmoil and riven by poverty, a situation reinforced by social structures where a lack of opportunity is transmitted from one generation to the next.

But what these parents also lack is the ability to manage their own emotions and deal with their frustrations when their children act a certain way or don’t do what they are told. And this is something we can all relate to, to some extent and some of the time.

As these parents find themselves failing their children, their anger and disappointment with their inability to have at least some control over this part of their lives can be compounded by other problems such as substance abuse and a lack of opportunity.

So how can we do better for the children of these families when official reports of child maltreatment in most Western countries continue to rise each year?

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe that it’s the actions we take as individuals in our own homes that can lead to changes across the population.

It has been more than 35 years since a PhD thesis I wrote provided the first steps towards the development of the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, which has now reached families in 25 countries. During that time, a recurring theme has always encouraged me to maintain the faith that we, as a society, will always be heading in the right direction.

‘Profound effect across communities’

The one constant that unifies us is the fact that we all want the best for our kids.

What we have found in large-scale rollouts of Triple P is that the changes we can make as parents in the simple, everyday interactions we have with our kids can have a profound effect across the community.

This is because when we discover something that works, we have the urge to tell others about it.

Research has shown that the conversations about parenting that Triple P has triggered in the Irish Midlands, for example, have led to reductions in ineffective parenting across the population, not just in families who participated in Triple P.

More importantly, in the Irish counties where Triple P was available, the numbers of children with clinical levels of behavioural and emotional problems were drastically reduced, as were rates of stress and depression among parents. In WA, the Department of Local Government and Communities, through Parenting WA, provides support and information for parents and carers and embraces the Triple P program.

WA parents have already played a major role in the development of the Triple P evidence base. It was here a decade ago that Group Triple P, an eight-session variation of the program, was shown to produce significant results for parents and children.

More recently, a 10-year follow-up study of Group Triple P in Germany has found that the effects of Triple P remain long after parents participate in the program.

The good news and the bad news

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while we’ve been busy building an evidence base to show that Triple P works, we are a long way from the point where parents are clamouring to take part in the program.

Despite overwhelming evidence that their lives can be greatly improved, the paradox is that parents still feel bad about seeking help from a parenting program because participation might be seen as an admission that they’re failing as parents. I am convinced that once we reach the point when the notion of seeking help from an evidence-based program is considered as normal as going to the gym, we’ll know that as a society we are striving to do the best by our children.

For all of us, context is important. We are products of our environment, and the most influential of these environments is the family home, regardless of that home’s income level.

If good parenting is the clean water of mental health, then making the world a better place starts at home – for all of us.

Professor Matt Sanders is director of the Parenting and Family Support Centre at the University of Queensland and founder of the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program. He is guest speaker at free seminars in Maylands and Rockingham on Tuesday.

This article first appeared in The West Australian newspaper on Thursday, March 12.