A new program funded by Australian Rotary Health has been found to reduce stress in toddlers by teaching parents how to control their own responses to their child’s emotions.

Associate Professor Sophie Havighurst from the University of Melbourne was awarded a Mental Health Research Grant from 2015-2017 to test the effectiveness of the Tuning in to Toddlers (TOTS) program.

The aim of the program is to teach parents skills to help children understand and manage their emotions.

“Toddlers often have challenging behaviours, that is partly determined by their innate temperament,” Associate Professor Havighurst said.

“Toddlers with higher negative reactivity – irritable, grumpy, intense emotions – are more likely to have behaviour problems 15 months later, but this depends on the way parents respond to emotions in their child.”

306 families with children aged between 18-36 months were included in the study, where comparisons were made between families who received the TOTS intervention and families who did not.

The study found that at 12-months follow up, parents who had completed the TOTS intervention reported being less emotionally dismissive with their children, were more empathic, and increased their skills in being able to talk to their children about emotions.

In addition to this, they reported that their children were more socially competent and had fewer behaviour problems.

“Biological measures of stress using hair cortisol showed that children whose parents did receive the TOTS intervention had lowered stress cortisol at 12 month follow up.”

“The study of TOTS is one of the first to show that changes in biological markers can occur from parents learning these emotional coaching skills.”

Parents who had received the intervention also had lowered stress cortisol, although these findings were not statistically significant.

“These findings suggest that the program was effective on a number of levels for parents and children and provides support that a parenting program focusing on emotions, delivered when children are still very young, can be effective in preventing problems and promoting optimal family conditions for children to develop within.”

Associate Professor Havighurst also noted in her findings that parents of toddlers often think their children do not understand emotions.

“They may be surprised that talking with their toddlers about emotions can be calming for their child and that the child is curious and keen to learn about emotions,” Associate Professor Havighurst said.

Tuning in to Toddlers is a world-first emotion-focused parenting program for toddlers that focuses on delivery to all interested families, not just those having difficulty.

To find out more about TOTS and related programs for children visit the Tuning in to Kids website.

Associate Professor Havighurst and her team are now considering ways to make TOTS available to parents online.

 

Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 or jessica@arh.org.au