Harvard Mental Health Letter

Parent training

Helping parents help troubled children

Sad experience has shown that the problems created by misbehaving children and delinquent adolescents cannot be solved by treating the children alone. They often reject or resist psychotherapy and behavior therapy. Group treatment — "boot camps," special schools, group therapy — can be ineffective or even harmful, because delinquents in groups are often the problem rather than the solution. Instead of changing, they may follow the most charismatic leaders and compete to show how reckless and aggressive they can be.

To help these children, mental health professionals have been turning to the family. Sometimes a child's problems are disrupting the family, and sometimes inept parenting or a bad family situation is affecting the child's behavior. Either way, behavioral parent training may be useful.

Parents of misbehaving children often underreact or overreact. They may ignore the behavior until it becomes intolerable, then become angry and punish the child harshly. The child concludes that bad behavior attracts attention, the parent concludes that being tough brings temporary relief, and the cycle begins again.

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