New parenting strategy tool helps to guide children's behaviour

Research shows that maintaining predictable routines and spending time with kids are some of the best advice doctors can give parents

Tamara Vineberg - 03 September 2019

Parents turn to pediatricians and family doctors for advice on how to manage their children's difficult behaviour. Now physicians can base this advice on a new tool that was developed in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta.

"We conducted a survey of general pediatricians and they said that this particular topic was an area of need because they provide information for their patients," says Cara Dosman, associate professor in the Division of Developmental Pediatrics.

Concerning behaviours can surface in many forms such as disobedience and dysregulation (tantrums, aggressiveness, inattention or sleep problems). Parents may need to be educated that predictable daily routines or spending time playing with their child will lead to improving behaviours.

If a parent has extra challenges such as health, food security or housing, these basic needs should be supported so they can focus on how to help their child. Parents living in poverty who received an educational program were better able to respond to their child's needs. "Research shows that responsive parenting helps shape brain development and child behaviour, so it's neat that clinicians can give parents advice that works, even in difficult circumstances," says Dosman.

She adds that the research evidence has changed over the last two decades to emphasize teaching children the skills to prevent problem behaviours and the importance of their relationship with their parents and coping with their emotions. "What has become evident is that preventing a problem is much more effective in reducing or eliminating the behaviour than giving punishment afterward."

Dosman and her colleagues have developed a tool for physicians to use. They divided parenting strategies into three groups: prevention, in the moment, and immediately after the behaviour. Using this framework when responding to parent concerns, clinicians can advise parents more specifically on how to provide authoritative parenting. The research team adapted Carolyn Webster-Stratton's Parenting Pyramid from The Incredible Years (a well-known parenting book) to provide a visual depiction of parenting advice. The pyramid shows five levels of parenting strategies to reduce problem behaviour, with the foundational skills at the base.

When parents use prevention techniques, consequences will be needed less often because the problem will occur less frequently. At the same time, they will be preparing their child for a healthy future by fostering the development of their brain and social-emotional skills. For example, parents can help their child name their feelings and coach them how to remain calm in a tough situation and, as a result, the child will learn how to regulate their own behaviour. "Prevention strategies often decrease problem behaviour immediately and powerfully-and can last long term," she says.

Dosman is hoping that pediatricians and family physicians will use this parenting tool for addressing behaviour concerns as a guide to help them in their practice. "We've had fun developing this and learning more in this field of development and behaviour because it really involves personal interaction with patients and their families and treating the patient as a whole person," she says. "We're excited about the framework because we know from clinicians that this knowledge has been needed."

View the tool here