Could feeling more confident and connected parenting your teens be as simple as receiving text messages? Emerging research from the University of Auckland suggests it can.

A research team from the University’s School of Population Health has successfully trialled MyTeen, a world-first parenting programme for parents of children aged 10-15 years and delivered entirely via SMS text message.

“We know that adolescent mental health is a big issue in New Zealand and that parents play a big part in the lives of their adolescent kids,” says lead researcher Dr Joanna Chu.

“Parents want to do the best for their child, but parenting can sometimes be demanding, and there’s limited support out there for families with adolescents.”

Growing evidence suggests that programmes that strengthen parenting skills and increase knowledge on teenage development can have significant benefits on the parent-adolescent relationship as well as family wellbeing.

So with input from parents, the researchers developed the innovative text message-based MyTeen programme, which was tested in a randomised, controlled trial involving 221 parents and caregivers from around Aotearoa New Zealand. Participants randomly allocated to the MyTeen group received a daily text message for four weeks, while the control group received no texts. All participants completed a questionnaire at baseline, one month and three months after the trial began.

The texts contained positive parenting strategies based on the latest evidence, information about adolescent development and spotting symptoms of mental health issues, along with links to resources and helplines. Examples included:

Include your teen! Let them make decisions, and ask for their opinion. They may say no most of the time, but don’t stop asking.

It’s common for teens to experience strong emotions. Keep calm & acknowledge the emotion. Help them to understand & express how they are feeling.

Compared to the control group, participants who received the text message programme reported feeling more competent as parents, less stressed, and having better communication with their adolescent. This boost held at the three-month mark, two months after they’d received their last text message.

Dr Chu: “We were expecting an increase in parental competence, but we weren’t expecting we’d find so much significant effect in terms of communication and reduction in stress.”

And parents loved the programme: 90 percent found it “somewhat to very” useful and 98 percent thought it was a really good way of delivering the information.

“That really underlines the need to support parents, and the broad demand for support,” says Dr Chu

She says the beauty of a text message programme is that it addresses many of the practical barriers to attending group-based programmes, such as time, travel and childcare; although families with more serious issues will still need face-to-face therapy or other interventions.

The team is now analysing data from a mixed methods study looking at fathers’ perceptions of parenting adolescents and will seek more funding to roll out MyTeen at a larger level, as well as getting feedback from adolescents.

The project is a part of A Better Start E Tipu e Rea Resilient Teens and is co-funded by Cure Kids.

Read the articles:

Chu, J. T. W., Wadham, A., Jiang, Y., Whittaker, R., Stasiak, K., Shepherd, M., & Bullen, C. (2019). Effect of MyTeen SMS-based mobile intervention for parents of adolescents: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA Netw Open. Published online September 11, 20192(9):e1911120.

Chu, J. T. W., Wadham, A., Jiang, Y., Whittaker, R., Stasiak, K., Shepherd, M., & Bullen, C. “Sometimes you just need to see a ray of sunshine” – Development of MyTeen text messaging programme to support parents of adolescent: a qualitative study (Preprint)

Chu, J. T. W., Whittaker, R., Jiang, Y., Wadham, A., Stasiak, K., Shepherd, M., & Bullen, C. (2018) Evaluation of MyTeen – a SMS-based mobile intervention for parents of adolescents: a randomized controlled trial protocol. BMC Public Health, 18:1203