Why we need targeted parenting interventions

Published 29th September 2020

By Dr Katie Buston, Senior Investigator Scientist in the Relationships programme. Katie’s research focuses on fathers in prison, parenting interventions, vulnerable parents and family relationships.

Our recent paper argues the case for parenting interventions targeted at marginalised parents. Our conclusion is that policy makers should not shy away from offering high quality, evidence based parenting programmes to groups of marginalised parents: such programmes will be welcomed by some, and, on the basis of our work looking at particular programmes, much of the content will be liked and regarded as useful. Whether or not the programmes we looked at actually facilitate more positive parenting was beyond the scope of our analysis. But practitioners should be heartened that those parents and parents-to-be that we talked to highlighted how they thought aspects of the parenting courses they participated in would help them be the kinds of parents they want to be – the best parents they can be - often in the context of having had difficult childhoods and having experienced negative parenting themselves.

“It’s ingrained in my head that I will do everything that I possibly can to have one of those lovely mother/daughter relationships that people that I know have”.

Reaching ‘hard to reach’ parents

The programmes we looked at were for young fathers in prison, and for mothers who had been identified as having additional support needs in pregnancy, perhaps because of mental health problems, addictions, or because they have been in a violent relationship. Our work involved interviewing parents and parents-to-be that, often, similar studies do not manage to recruit to take part in their research – men and women who are often tagged as ‘hard to reach’ in the research world but who we were able to meet and interview in our well-resourced studies conducted in collaboration with organisations such as the Scottish Prison Service, and the NHS.

Many of those we spoke to talked about their own, difficult, childhoods and about how they wanted a different future for their child. The opportunity for them, or their partners in the case of some of the men we talked to, to participate in Being a Young Dad, Enhanced Triple P for Baby or Mellow Bumps was welcomed, and they told us about how they or their partners had enjoyed the course and found it useful.

What was particularly interesting were their reflections around how they thought the programme might help their efforts to parent their child in the best way that they can, something that was often bound up in their childhood recollections of negative parenting, and how they wanted to parent differently themselves.

Of course, not all of those we interviewed looked back on their childhoods in this way, and it was certainly a complicated picture amongst those who did, with lots of understanding and compassion around how their own parents may have been doing the best that they could while experiencing harsh situations themselves. Most painted a picture, however, of unhappy and unstable childhoods; parental addictions, neglect, sexual abuse, experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse, lack of love and safe boundaries, periods in the care system, and harsh, violent or absent fathers or father figures were all talked about.

Helping parents be the best parents they can be

Our work is important because arguing for parenting interventions to be targeted at marginalised parents has sometimes been seen as a blame game – instructing these mothers and fathers to get training in being a better parent, somehow implying that such parents might be ‘poor parents’ responsible for all manner of societal ills. By talking to expectant and actual mums and dads who are or have been in prison, who have experienced chronic and serious mental health issues, have addictions, and/or have experience of domestic violence or homelessness, for example – some of the ways parents might be described as marginalised - we can highlight their experiences and thoughts about the programmes they or their partners have opted to take part in. We can show the positives of these programmes, from their perspectives.

While it is widely recognised that a more equitable society is the solution that will most likely make parenting an easier job for those facing multiple daily challenges, provision of good parenting interventions is a relatively low cost, easily achievable option which could be part of such a wider strategy to help parents be the best parents they can be.

The mums and dads taking part in our studies talked about the courses they/their partners had attended reducing their doubt that they could be the kinds of parents they wanted to be and giving them more confidence that they could and would parent their children in positive ways. Hearing about the experiences of others participating in the same programme, and the experiences of the facilitators too who were often parents themselves, was valued. Realising that others have similar backgrounds and share the same sorts of concerns around being parents was also regarded as important. Better understanding and being able to think through past influences on current situations and ways of parenting was seen as a positive feature of the programmes they had taken part in.

Of course, the parents we talked to had all opted to participate in these programmes, so may not be typical of all parents facing fundamental difficulties in their lives, but their feedback is noteworthy and encouraging.

Parenting programmes targeted at those parents who might be experiencing disadvantage could be a useful tool in the box, making parenting a less challenging and more positive experience.

The case for targeted parenting interventions with reference to intergenerational transmission of parenting: qualitative evidence from three studies of marginalised mothers’ and fathers’ participation in parenting programmes by Dr Katie Buston, Dr Rosaleen O’Brien and Dr Karen Maxwell, is published in Child Care & Practice.


First published: 25 September 2020