Early intervention to help parents manage behavioural and emotional problems in early adolescents: What parents want


Parents of 468 children aged between 12 and 14 years in ten high schools in a city in regional north Queensland and metropolitan Melbourne participated in a survey of early adolescent behaviour. The major undesirable behaviours experienced by parents were fighting with siblings, talking back to adults, moodiness, and school difficulties. Frequently listed desirable behaviours that were experienced were related to housework and communication.

Parents indicated a desire for education to help them assist their teenage children develop more appropriate behaviour, and in particular in regard to better managing their emotions. The findings are discussed in the context of the challenge of designing and delivering effective early intervention programs to large numbers of parents of early adolescents.


Alan Ralph
School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD

John Winston Toumbourou
Centre for Adolescent Health, University of Melbourne, VIC

Morgen Grigg
School of Psychology, James Cook University, QLD

Rhiannon Mulcahy
School of Psychology, James Cook University, QLD

Michael Carr-Gregg
Consultant Adolescent Psychologist, Albert Road Centre for Health, VIC

Matthew R Sanders
Parenting and Family Support Centre, University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD


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early intervention, adolescents, parents, behavioural problems, emotional problems


PP: 156 - 168


Family support and associated parenting practices are significant predictors of positive adjustment in childhood and adolescence, and indirect evidence suggests that family support is also a protective factor for adolescent substance abuse and conduct problems (Cauce, Reid, Landesman, & Gonzales 1990; Cohen & Wills 1985; Wills, Vaccaro & McNamara 1992). In contrast, dysfunctional parenting practices place children at risk for developing conduct problems (Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992), and are among the strongest predictors of later delinquent behaviour (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber 1986). Family conflict and dysfunctional parenting practices are also related to a wide variety of adverse developmental and behavioural outcomes in adolescence including drug abuse, poor school achievement, and truancy (Sanders 1995).

As a child matures, poor regard for family norms of appropriate behaviour typically extends to disregard toward school and wider community expectations. The violation of these expectations and codified standards often results in criminal behaviour and legal sanctions by late childhood and adolescence. There are also adverse effects on a young person's employment opportunities and their capacity to maintain appropriate social and personal relationships. Without consistent and fair consequences for violations of family rules, a child will increasingly engage in defiant and antisocial behaviour that sets them further on this socially dysfunctional path.

Patterson and his colleagues (Patterson 1982; Patterson, Capaldi, & Banks 1991) identified two developmental pathways that explain the emergence of anti-social/conduct behaviour problems in childhood. The 'early-starter' model becomes entrenched in the pre-school years, and family-based intervention that addresses the risk factors associated with parenting practices has demonstrated the potential to provide parents with effective strategies for child management which preserve parental authority in a consistent and nurturing manner.

One such intervention is the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program (Sanders & Markie-Dadds 1992), which was designed as an early intervention program for this group of children and proven remarkably effective (Sanders, Markie-Dadds, Tully, & Bor 2000). However, a significant number of children do not exhibit problem behaviour in early childhood, but become part of a late starter group, with problems emerging in early adolescence (McMahon & Estes 1997). Interventions aimed at reducing adolescent antisocial behaviour and delinquency have typically been based on a treatment model, although there is currently only limited evidence of its effectiveness once adolescents have developed severe and pervasive antisocial behaviour patterns. There has been some limited success with family interventions with severely conducted-disordered youth (Chamberlain 1990; Henggler et al, 1998). However, these programs have had little impact on the prevalence of juvenile crime at a population level and the Pathways to Prevention Report (National Crime Prevention, 1999) defined the need for a developmental approach to crime prevention which is now beginning to influence developments in the field.

One family factor that is hypothesised to contribute to children entering this late starter trajectory is where adolescents experience problems in the normative task of individuating from their family of origin. Adolescents may face particular problems where parents become over involved in making decisions and completing tasks that should increasingly become the adolescent's responsibility. Attending to and promoting increasing adolescent involvement in this context appears to be an important dimension of parenting. Related concepts include Baldwin's distinction between 'emotional involvement' versus 'detachment', Parker and colleagues' identification of 'overprotection', and Ainsworth's notion of 'responsiveness', where parent and child behaviour become linked or enmeshed (Maccoby & Martin 1983: 37-38). Efforts to study parents' efforts to individuate from the adolescent have been hampered by a lack of appropriate research instruments. Clinical evidence suggests that adolescents face particular difficulties where attempts to individuate from the family of origin are resisted by parents (eg, Stanton, Todd & Associates 1982).

One major challenge facing those planning early interventions with parents of pre-adolescent children who may be on the late-starter developmental pathway is to actively engage the parents before problems become severe. The transition from primary to secondary school around the age of 12 or 13 years is often a time of apprehension and anxiety for parents who may then be more receptive to receiving advice on adolescent and parenting problems at this time. Making parenting programs universally accessible through schools will normalise the parent preparation process, as schools provide a convenient and appropriate community-based contact point where parenting issues can be legitimately discussed. One of the identified barriers to participation in parenting programs is a lack of perceived personal relevance by parents concerning program content (Prinz & Miller 1996). To maximise parental engagement, it is therefore critical to have information about the issues parents perceive to create most difficulties for them so as to provide face validity for program content.

The current study reports the views of a sample of parents with a child enrolled in the first years of high school, aged between 12 and 14 years. One focus of the study was to determine the issues causing difficulty for parents of young adolescent children making the transition from primary to secondary school, and to ascertain whether these issues are similar for parents in a large metropolitan urban setting compared to parents from a smaller more regional city. This information was deemed critical for the design of early intervention programs that might be expected to assist most parents mediate the behavioural trajectories of children at risk for developing severe antisocial behaviour in later adolescence and early adulthood.

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