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Behavioral Parent Training (BPT) for Transition Aged Youth

We sat down with Becca Edwards Powell, a TAP clinician who specializes in Behavioral Parent Training (BPT) interventions. BPT is more often known as an intervention for parents or caregivers of younger children; however, it is receiving increasing support for other populations. Becca has particular experience and passion for working with the parents or caregivers of transition age youth (16-25) who are struggling to achieve independence or reach transition milestones (e.g., completing school or maintaining a job). We asked Becca to answer 5 frequently asked questions about BPT with the transition age youth population.

Q) What does a "parenting intervention" look like when there are adult children?

A) Based on data from the federal Current Population Survey, 52% of adult children are living with their parents. This is the most since the Great Depression! This means parents often play a significant role in the lives of their young adult children, including providing financial, housing, emotional and other types of support. Parents of transition aged youth (TAY) often have questions about when and how to moderate or taper that support. Parenting interventions with youth are therefore focused on teaching parents specific strategies to first develop an intentional, consistent, mindful approach to helping their youth and then implement needed strategies. Such approaches often rely on principles of behaviorism, such as reinforcement of desired behavior, consequences for undesired behavior, and shaping of behavior change over time.

We are also aware of a growing generational gap between youth expectations of parenting support and parental expectations of their responsibility. We hear parents use phrases, such as “my parents never would have done this for me”, whereas youth say things like “this is what I need from my parents to succeed.” Behavioral Parent Training (BPT) can help parents or caregivers navigate these differing expectations that can create significant conflict; sometimes this means meeting in the middle, other times it involves increasing transparency and direct communication of what parents are or are not willing to do.

Q) With adult children, wouldn't it be more effective to have them in their own treatment instead? Aren't we mostly past the phase where parenting interventions are the most useful?

A) Young adults with mental health concerns often benefit from their own treatment. However, the benefits of individual treatment for youth can be enhanced by structuring their home or family environment to promote success. There may also be times in which the young adult is unwilling or unable to engage in treatment. If parents are still influencing decisions and providing any kind of support (financial, housing, or emotional), then parenting is still happening! In these cases, parenting support and interventions can still be useful.

Additionally, BPT can help parents feel confident in their ability to communicate and consistently implement expectations in the home or in the relationship. It can help reduce parent or caregiver anxiety, frustration or even grief surrounding their youth. Though culturally we discuss the “hard part” of parenting to be behind you once youth reach the age of majority, parents of struggling TAY often find this to be untrue for them. Parents of youth who are experiencing difficulty with the transition to independence often feel exhausted and perhaps even burned out. BPT can provide support and strategies for decreasing feelings of being overwhelmed, ineffective, and helpless during such a difficult parenting time.

Q) My adult child is struggling with transitioning to adulthood- getting a job, staying in school, transitioning to independent living- and I/we aren't sure what to do. Can BPT be a helpful intervention?

A) Yes, especially now! It is important to note that COVID has increased a lot of the problems that were already occurring for TAY - it’s currently estimated that roughly 20% of young adults are not in employment, education or training (NEET), as compared to 13.5% pre-pandemic. In addition, college dropout rates are consistently around 40%. This means a lot of TAY are turning to parents for support. BPT interventions teach parents how to increase wanted behaviors in young adults by using positive reinforcement. Simultaneously, BPT assists caregivers in identifying how to respond to behaviors that interfere with becoming independent. BPT will teach and encourage more effective parent responses for promoting independence and self-efficacy in their children.

Q) My adult child has significant mental health concerns, and I/we are unsure of where to set our expectations for them given these struggles. We want to be supportive and also help them transition to independence. Does BPT address this in any way?

A) Parents and young adults alike can feel trapped by the youth’s mental health struggles, and they often see typical young adult development (going to school or having a job) as unobtainable. This can lead to youth behaviors of avoidance and helplessness, as well as caregiver behaviors stemming from hopelessness - which can range from checking out emotionally to overaccommodation or overfunctioning for the youth. The BPT program at TAP is mindful of challenges that come with mental health problems in young adults, and there is rarely a “one size fits all” approach to such concerns. BPT works with parents to both set expectations and contingencies that meet the young adult where they are, taking into account the youth’s age and capacity, while also encouraging them to achieve whatever degree of independence that they are capable of obtaining. BPT allows parents to meet with specialists that can help them determine what their young adults’ capabilities may be and how best to support the youth to reach their potential.

Q) Can BPT be helpful if only one caregiver participates? What happens if I would like to engage in a parenting intervention and my partner does not?

A) BPT interventions are most beneficial if all adults involved in parenting participate in sessions and when there are reasonably consistent approaches to the youth within the parenting “team”; however, change is still possible if only one parent is able to learn and implement the strategies of BPT. There are benefits for the participating caregiver such as determining their own parenting limits, gaining skill sets to navigate their portion of the parenting, and a place to understand and have self-compassion for the difficulties of their own parenting load.

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