Providing “optimism training” to parents of children with developmental disabilities who struggle with challenging behavior appears to go a long way, researchers say.

Behavior issues seen in children were more likely to subside for parents whose own attitudes were addressed while they were taught to implement positive behavior support as opposed to parents who were merely trained in how to address their children’s challenges.

The findings come from a five-year study looking at 54 families of children ages 3 to 6 with developmental disabilities who struggled with serious challenging behaviors like aggression and self-injury. Researchers specifically selected parents who were pessimistic about their children’s prospects.

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For the study, parents were asked to participate in eight weekly sessions. Half learned to implement positive behavior support while the other half received behavior instruction as well as so-called optimism training. This additional instruction helped parents learn how to identify and address patterns in their own thoughts and feelings. In difficult situations, for example, parents were taught to use positive self-talk like “this is a situation I can handle” as opposed to thinking “my child is out of control.”

While both groups ultimately saw fewer problem behaviors after parents participated in the sessions, the study published in the July issue of the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions found that those who received the added optimism training saw more benefits. Parents in this group said they were better able to implement the strategies they learned and, in turn, experienced a greater reduction in negative behaviors and observed an increase in positive behaviors in their children.

Moreover, both groups of parents were found to be less pessimistic after participating in the study.

“Parents who received the additional optimism training reported that they felt more in control at home, that they did not avoid going into the community and that they had higher hopes for their children compared to parents who did not get this added training,” said the study’s lead author, V. Mark Durand of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

What’s more, Durand said that the more optimistic parents helped their kids work through previously challenging situations like eating at the table or brushing their teeth while parents who did not receive the optimism training avoided potentially problematic activities.

Researchers said the findings are promising particularly given that instruction was limited to eight parent-only sessions, suggesting the method could have a big impact while being highly cost-effective.

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