Parents and their children learn to reduce conflict, boost social skills
More than 2,000 families have passed through the doors of the UCLA Parenting and Children’s Friendship Program since it was founded almost 35 years ago. While each of those families faced unique challenges, they were all working toward the same goal: finding better ways to interact.
The program helps families accomplish that with small-group parenting courses for adults and parent-assisted social skills groups for children, says Cynthia Whitham, director of the program and a clinical instructor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
The first program is designed for parents and caregivers of children between the ages of 2 and 12 years who exhibit challenging behaviors. In weekly group sessions, Whitham and a team of social workers, psychologists and research assistants teach parents techniques to improve cooperation, establish smoother routines, stop yelling, and generally get along better.
At first glance, the strategies may seem familiar. Many parents know about the importance of establishing bedtime routines or setting firm limits, for example, but “what parents and caregivers often need help with is tweaking the things that haven’t worked in the past,” Whitham says.
A second parenting program, Parents of Early-Adolescents Conflict Education (PEACE), is geared toward parents who find themselves in frequent battles with their 12- to 15-year-olds. In dealing with adolescents, parents often have to rethink the way they talk to their kids.
“With younger children, parents can tell them what to do,” Whitham says, “but when their children start to mature, parents have to learn to make requests and start talking to them as they would to another adult.”
In addition to parent-child conflict resolution, the program also offers a specialized service for kids who struggle to make and keep friends. During the 12-week Children’s Friendship Program, children practice social skills with one another, such as making a good first impression, being a good sport and starting a conversation with another child. Meanwhile, their parents meet down the hall to learn how to support their children’s budding social skills.
“The friendship program helps children learn concrete skills to join a conversation, engage in play and develop mutual friendships,” says Shilpa Baweja, PhD, a psychologist in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and a member of the Parenting and Children’s Friendship Program team.
Research has shown that kids who participate in the program are less aggressive, more likeable and experience improved social status and self-esteem. “Those are all critical factors associated with preventing clinical depression and social anxiety,” Dr. Baweja adds.
After 30 years of involvement with the program, Whitham says she still sometimes tears up hearing stories from participants.
“Some children enter our program having never been invited to a birthday party, or they hosted a party and nobody came,” she says. “By the end of the program, parents tell us their child has been invited for a play date or they have made a new best friend — it’s good we keep the tissues handy.”