Sean DugganChildren with severe behavioural problems are growing up with significantly poorer chances in life even though cost-effective parenting programmes can help to improve their future prospects, the Centre for Mental Health has claimed.

The Centre’s report, Building a Better Future, points to the benefits of early intervention in the form of parenting programmes, not only for children and their families but also for taxpayers and for society as a whole and calls for more investment in them.

In addition, the report outlines just how much poorer, on average, the life chances of children with serious behavioural problems are. For instance, they are twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications; six times more like to die before age 30; and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.

About 5% of children aged 5–10 have behavioural problems which are so severe, frequent and persistent that they justify diagnosis as a mental health condition: conduct disorder. A further 10-15% display less severe problems that can still lead to serious adverse consequences in later life. 

But positive parenting can protect children from developing severe behavioural problems and proven parenting programmes improve the quality of parent-child relationships, children’s behaviour and parents’ own wellbeing. 

Saving money

 These programmes can also end up saving public sector budgets – including education, health, social care and criminal justice – hundreds of thousands of pounds per child. The lifetime costs of conduct disorder are estimated at around £260,000 per child, whereas parenting programmes cost just £1,300 per child. Only a small improvement in outcomes is therefore needed to demonstrate good value for money and the evidence shows that, if well implemented, these programmes more than pay for themselves within a few years. For example, children with conduct disorder can cost schools up to an extra £3,000 a year.

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said: “This substantial piece of work from our experts at the Centre illustrates, in clear terms, the overwhelming evidence for investment in early intervention in the form of parenting programmes. Not only does it shine a light on the economic benefits, which make ripples across a number of different budgets in the public sector, but it looks at the important experience of parents.

“In our work at the Centre we research ways in which having a mental health problem can make lives harder, shorter and poorer. This is at its starkest for children with conduct disorder. Yet the solution is inexpensive and highly effective. So investing in cost effective parenting programmes is not only the smart thing to do, but the right thing to do.”

Lorraine Khan, associate director for children and young people at Centre for Mental Health said: “Talking to parents about their first-hand experiences has shown just how helpful these parenting support groups can be, when trying to manage persistently challenging behaviour in children.  Simple techniques picked up through well-run programmes make a real difference to families’ stress levels, often relatively quickly.

“What this work also makes clear is how many different professionals and services come into contact with children with behavioural difficulties and their parents. Clearer signposting to effective parenting programmes could change their lives dramatically. Our briefings will help them know how to encourage a parent to seek help and how to find out what support is available locally.”

The Centre for Mental Health has produced a series of 9 briefings for professionals on childhood behavioural problems to help GPs, teachers, nurses and housing professionals to identify children with behavioural problems and to know how to offer their parents the right help. They are available at:

Also available is a video, Wanting the best for my children: Parents’ Voices, made for parents, by parents to give a flavour of the benefits of parenting programmes for both parents and their children: