When parents and teenagers don’t see eye to eye

It comes as no surprise that the teenage years can be trying. And while most families manage to get through this period more or less intact, even enjoying each other’s company, for some families these turbulent years can be tough; a time of constant conflict, distress and high-risk adolescent behaviour. These families need strategic one-to-one help so their adolescents can develop their independence in a constructive way, and find their own place in the world supported by positive relationships.

The ABCD N=1 research project investigated the impact of working one-to-one with families experiencing serious difficulties with teenage behaviour and family-relationships.

•    Would a parenting program result in changes over 6 weeks, delivered one-to-one?
•    Would participation assist parents to strengthen the relationship with their teenager?
•    What potential do such programs have for other parenting and childhood services?

High levels of conflict within a family often correspond to behavioural risk-taking among teenagers, ranging from alcohol or other drugs, unsafe sexual practices, to school difficulties and criminal behaviours. The N=1 intervention aimed to encourage adolescents to develop autonomy, but within safe boundaries.

ABCD delivered one to one

Parenting programs, such as the ABCD Parenting Young Adolescents program, guide and support families in group sessions. The ABCD N=1 research project wanted to find out if the ABCD program undertaken individually makes a difference when the family is already in a downward spiral of arguments, relationship breakdown and unrealistic expectations between parents and adolescents.

Four families participated in the N=1 research project. Facilitators presented the regular ABCD program to a family in six two-hour sessions, with one session per week. The families in the study addressed their specific risk factors. Parents aimed to improve parenting practices, adolescent behaviour and family communications, as well as consider their own psychosocial well-being. The families undertook video observation sessions at pre- and post-program stages, where a parent and the adolescent tried to solve a common area of conflict.

The N=1 research project included additional sessions for families still experiencing serious difficulties at the end of the regular six-week ABCD program. These sessions concentrated on adolescents setting goals, parents and adolescents overcoming conflict using a problem-solving process, and issues surrounding family rules and compliance. There were also supplementary sessions at weeks three and five involving direct participation by the adolescent.

The results of the program were then analysed and evaluated.

The families

The four families came to the program through information circulated in the community. They included parents and their adolescent children aged 10 – 14 years, living in the North and West Metropolitan Region of Melbourne.

Eligibility criterion included the ability to speak English, difficulties that were too severe to benefit from a group format, and agreement from the adolescents to participate in the project.

The four families came from differing ethnic backgrounds, included sole parents and had a range of educational backgrounds.
All the families had issues such as parent-adolescent conflict, problems with behaviour, and adolescents defying their parents or not doing as requested. Issues of particular concern included:

•    disagreements resulting in physical violence
•    adolescent stealing
•    adolescent lying
•    anger management and verbal abuse.

A real strength of the program was the flexibility of working one to one. According to facilitator, Dianne Ridley, reluctant adolescents were more willing to participate in their own home rather going to a community setting. Through the program, Ridley was able to observe parents and their adolescents developing a closer relationship: “They were talking more often, spending more time together, doing more individual things together, things which they had somehow left off the agenda for a while”.

Promising outcomes

As a trend, the individualised nature of the program showed promise in improving relationships and behavioural patterns for families in distress. Families reported progress towards the goals they had set prior to commencing the program.

Within families there were differing perceptions as to the success of behaviour changes and strategies to improve relationships; adolescents felt they were achieving changes or improvements, although parents’ opinions didn’t always correspond with this perception. Some parents experienced improvements and gains with behaviour and compliance with family rules, leading to improvements in their own wellbeing. Only limited improvements occurred in the level of conflict between parents and adolescents.

The research project identified that some parents under stress sometimes resort to demanding unrealistic obedience from their children or give in to a sense of helplessness when their parenting strategies fall down. N=1 sought to address the parents’ low sense of morale together with their understanding of reasonable rules, limits and personal expectations.

“One of the strengths was getting to know the family really well, being able to take longer with the program if you needed to. You could slow it down to suit the family’s needs better, and really tailor it around what the family required.”  Dianne Ridley, facilitator

Future directions

With such a small number of families involved in the project, the results are not entirely representative, and external factors may have influenced the perceived impact of the program. However, the project showed clearly that the ABCD program is worth pursuing as a one-to-one program for families experiencing complex or serious behavioural issues.

Kylie Burke, ABCD Programs Manager, explained, “Because this was a small pilot, we can’t yet definitively say it is an effective program to offer to families who are experiencing serious difficulties. There are some changes to be made but it is definitely worth doing some more research about the effectiveness of the program in this format”.

The program would benefit from modifications to the content and structure of the program, including:
•    additional sessions
•    more practice time and feedback for parents learning new strategies
•    specific strategies around rule setting, and more detail on how to use consequences with adolescents.

“At this preliminary stage,’ says Burke, “We think that a one-on-one version should probably be delivered over 10 sessions. Facilitators could look at the program after six weeks, assess where the families are at, and if a family is still experiencing significant difficulty then add another four sessions.”

For families that face increasing economic and social pressure, and where adolescents become involved in negative and harmful interactions, the N=1 research project shows considerable potential for meeting their needs and addressing longstanding difficulties with adolescent behaviour.
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Data and questionnaires
1.    Parents and adolescents completed questionnaires before and after the phases, addressing:

a.    issues in the family
b.    behaviour that caused conflict
c.    family beliefs about the relationships and their conflicts

2.    Parent questionnaires investigated:

a.    general family details
b.    child behavioural difficulties
c.    parents’ sense of competence, feelings of coping and effectiveness
d.    symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety

3.    Throughout the project, facilitators also collected data from families via telephone calls

a.    regular parent and adolescent reports
b.    perceptions of changes in parents’ and adolescents’ behaviour
c.    satisfaction with the program

Tools

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