Families with substance-misusing parents typically experience multiple adversities that can lead to detrimental child outcomes, but a Griffith University-led program has been creating positive change.

The Parents under Pressure (PuP) program was co-developed by Professor Sharon Dawe and Associate Professor Paul Harnett, specifically for embattled families, often involved in the child protection system.

It is the only Australian program with an evidence base for effective engagement and change in this group of families, which works by creating tailored support plans to help parents develop positive and secure relationships with their children.

“These families are not typical well-educated, middle-class families who practice mindfulness and meditate and have a lot of resources,” explained Prof Dawe.

Professor Sharon Dawe

“There’s lots of complexity, lots of chaos, and often overcrowding in homes, so being able to help those parents manage their emotions better through the PuP program is really important, as is knowing that will flow on to how they parent their kids.”

Dr Liz Eggins has been working closely with Prof Dawe to evaluate the success of the PuP program.

She said much research has been done with families affected by substance misuse to find out what treatments work, but little to confirm how those interventions work.

“Understanding how interventions work allows practitioners to focus their efforts on specific ways to foster change in families experiencing multiple risks,” Dr Eggins said.

Dr Liz Eggins

Dr Liz Eggins

“We’ve been looking at how parent psychological wellbeing and the capacity to mindfully parent has changed over time during engagement with the PuP program, and also how changes in parent wellbeing influence mindful parenting.

“By ‘mindfulness’ we mean being fully present in the moment – helping parents and children experience the moment-to-moment joys of childhood and supporting the parent-child relationship.

“The program uses informal and formal mindfulness strategies to improve emotion regulation in both parents and children, and parents develop emotional awareness to improve their self-regulation in everyday parenting situations such as tantrums or prolonged infant crying,” she said.

“Usually this leads to a much calmer child, and a much calmer parent.”

Around 6,000 families have now participated in the PuP program worldwide, with conservative cost-effectiveness analysis estimating social service savings of more than $3 million for every 100 families participating.

Substance misusing parents who engaged with the PuP program have showed decreasing levels of distress and increasing levels of mindful parenting from the beginning to end of treatment, indicating the importance of first working to improve a parent’s own psychological wellbeing before they have the capacity to parent mindfully.

International studies have also found benefits for diverse groups including high-risk expectant mothers and families engaged in community addiction services (United Kingdom), PuP for Dads (Scotland) and mothers engaged in residential treatment facilities (Ireland).