Pillars of Parenting: Exploring Adoptive Parents’ Lived Experiences.

Assignment type: Research Project (Small Scale Research Project, Year 1)
Authors: Alex Gregory, Nikki Samos, Leanne Curreli, Cath Lowther and Hanna Kovshoff
Submitted: Spring 2017

Flawed social, care and education systems have been linked to a high incidence of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and lower educational attainment for children who have been looked after (Jackson & Martin, 2004). Rather than failing care and education systems, an alternative theoretical explanation for poorer outcomes observed in looked after children, Cameron and Maginn (2011) propose that these children experience “’rejection’ in general and ‘parental rejection’ in particular” (p. 46). This conclusion is based on Parental Acceptance-Rejection Theory (PA-RT), which highlights the need for children to receive positive acceptance from their parents to avoid negative impacts on mental health and well-being (Rohner, Khaleque & Cournonoyer, 2004).

Attachment theorists would also argue that secure relationships between children and their caregivers are crucial for the healthy development of children. They describe the emotional bond between caregiver and child as necessary for survival and essential for mental health (Bowlby, 1969). When children are separated from loved ones, or hurt or threatened by their loved ones and taken into care, insecure attachments to caregivers may, at least in part, contribute to poor social and emotional outcomes (Waters, Corcoran & Anafarta, 2005). Attachment theory, therefore, is also a useful framework to understand and explain the importance of developing secure positive relationships with caregivers.

Pillars of Parenting (PoP – Cameron & Maginn, 2009) is an intervention based primarily on the PA-RT theory, but also draws on attachment theory. It aims to provide individualised emotional support to caregivers to help them meet the attachment needs of children who have been fostered, adopted or in residential care. Pillars of Parenting focuses on emotional warmth, namely communicating acceptance to children, as well as “the knowledge and skills to understand and respond appropriately to the emotional, behavioural and attainment difficulties that are exhibited” (Cameron & Maginn, 2011, p. 48). In addition, Pillars of Parenting draws on the Cairns (2002) model of trauma and loss and strengths-based psychology (Seligman, 2002).

The PoP intervention provides group training for caregivers in the psychological theories underpinning the significance of emotional warmth, as well as child-focussed consultations with a psychologist to develop and implement individualised support strategies. Whilst historically the PoP programme has predominantly been used with professional child carers in foster care and public care institutions, it has recently been used to provide support to groups of adoptive parents. Adoptive parents may be in need of parenting support due to the potential attachment needs of their children as a result of perceived or experienced rejection from their biological parents. Furthermore, Bird, Peterson and Miller (2002) suggested that adoptive parents who actively seek and receive support are more likely to report low strain and stress levels alongside higher self-esteem and parenting mastery. Moreover, with appropriate support, the risk of adoption disruption is less likely (Sturgess & Selwyn, 2007). This is particularly important to minimise, as this may cause further attachment difficulties and experiences of rejection for adopted children and young people.

Professional caregivers, foster parents and adoptive families may have similar experiences of caring for children and young people who have been separated from their biological parents, or previous sets of caregivers, and thus may present with attachment needs which require support to address effectively. However, adoptive parents and families differ from caregivers of children in residential and foster care as these latter children may only be temporarily under the duty of care of the Local Authority (The Children’s Act, 1989), whereas legal guardians are permanently responsible for the care for adopted children. These differing caregiving situations may mean that adoptive parents’ experiences of the PoP programme may vary to foster and residential carers. Therefore, the aim of this study was to gain an understanding of adoptive parents’ lived experiences of the Pillars of Parenting programme.


Ethical approval for the current study was obtained through the University of Southampton and relevant Local Authority ethical and research governance panels. A qualitative interview design was employed. Participants were a purposive sample of three adoptive parents who were receiving support through the PoP programme, facilitated by an educational psychologist in a Local Authority in the south of England. During a routine group consultation session, parents were invited to participate and provided with information sheets and consent forms. Parents then contacted the researchers directly via email to confirm their agreement to participate. A response was subsequently sent back to parents, to agree a mutually convenient time and location of their interview. Semi-structured interviews, containing five questions with prompts, were conducted in a Local Authority approved private space and took no longer than 45 minutes. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, removing any identifiers in the process. Digital recordings containing identifying information were subsequently destroyed.

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was used to analyse the data to explore in detail how parents made sense of their experiences of the PoP programme. IPA is a qualitative method first introduced by Smith (1996) as a means to explore internal cognitions (like attitudes, beliefs and intentions) while acknowledging that to do so requires both a consideration of the meanings ascribed to events by individuals and an interpretation by a researcher. IPA considers individuals’ “lived experiences”, the sense made of those experiences and an “exploration” of these experiences “in detail” by a researcher (Smith and Osborn, 2003, p. 53; Smith, 2004, p. 40; Smith, et al., 2009).

As Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2009) suggest, IPA research should include participant approval of the data analysis stage, and after data had been collected and collated, the researchers came together to discuss initial thoughts and create a pen portrait for each participant. This was a description of their experience of the programme, which was shared with the participants by phone to gain approval of our interpretation of their individual experiences. Once each participant approved their individualised phenomenological account and interpretation, the transcripts were then re-read to identify commonalities in experience. For this process, the researchers came together to draw key themes from the data.


Two super-ordinate themes emerged from participants’ experiences of the PoP programme; Support and Knowledge, each with two subthemes. Overall, experiences were largely valued by parents.


Support incorporated accounts of feeling and being supported with advice by both professionals and other adoptive parents in PoP. This super-ordinate theme was therefore divided into two sub-themes; ‘professional support and advice’ and ‘peer support and understanding’. Regarding ‘professional support and advice’, it was felt that specific support received from the Educational Psychologist (EP) was largely valued. For one parent in particular, the relationship with the EP was described as more valuable than the support of their peers. Consequently, this parent desired more one-to-one support for more targeted intervention to address their specific difficulties.

In the second sub-theme ‘peer support and understanding’, all of the participants emphasised that adoptive families were a distinct group to biological parents or foster and adoptive carers. Therefore, sharing experiences and having an opportunity to develop relationships with other adoptive parents provided them with social support, understanding and empathy, a sense of belonging to the group, and learning opportunities, such as sharing parenting strategies. However, the peer-support experiences of each parent differed as a function of the severity of their child’s behavioural issues or difficulties they were experiencing as a family. Consequently, one of the three parents described that one of the most useful aspects of the intervention process was to actively seek peer-support in response to those difficulties, while the other two parents found the intervention process most useful as a preventative approach that could be used to help identify and anticipate potential future difficulties. This distinction in experience is important because a parent’s emotional availability or learning capacity may be reduced when experiencing difficulties or in times of crisis, due to the ‘narrowing’ impact of negative emotions such as stress and anxiety on learning, coping, and emotional capacity (Rathunde, 2000). Moreover, this may have meant that the parent experiencing higher levels of distress was less able to relate to the experiences of the other parents and therefore may have found the social support aspect of the intervention less valuable.


The second over-arching theme was ‘knowledge’ which incorporated accounts of learning through applying psychological theory to practical elements of parenting. Parents also described a process by which they used the information learned on the course to compare and contrast their child’s development to typical milestones or the development of the other adopted children. Knowledge incorporated two subthemes; ‘knowledge is power’, and ‘questioning normality’. Regarding ‘knowledge is power’, the parents felt that receiving psychological knowledge through the consultation and workshops of PoP, as well as through sharing similar experiences, helped with their reflection and awareness. They also described developing their confidence, behaviour management strategies and consequently, their parenting. They particularly described a process, through PoP, of becoming experts in their own right.

‘Questioning normality’ included accounts of comparing their child to ‘typical’ behavioural and emotional development. This was incorporated into the PoP sessions and was described as valuable for these parents as it enabled them to identify whether the issues they were experiencing were also experienced by ‘typical’ families or specific to adoptive families. Moreover, sharing experiences with others helped parents normalise their experiences in the context of adoption, which seemed to provide them with comfort and reassurance and thus validation of their experiences.


The accounts of parents who were involved with the PoP programme were permeated with reference to the valued experience of developing psychological knowledge, which is supportive of PoP’s aims (Maginn & Cameron, 2013). Within this small-scale study, two main themes emerged from adoptive parents accounts of PoP – support and knowledge. Within these themes, parents referred to the ways in which they were able to apply their new-found knowledge in relation to their individual experiences. This supports findings by Atkinson and Gonet (2007) who suggested that adoptive parents found practical advice powerful in helping them grow into their parental role.

The support experienced by adoptive parents is consistent with previous literature related to social identity theory (Tajfel, 1982). Burke (2006) states that “a group exists psychologically if three or more people construe and evaluate themselves in terms of shared attributes that distinguish them collectively from other people” (p. 111). Through PoP, these adoptive parents may have developed a group identity, which could serve to make the social support aspect of PoP valuable. However, one parent had differing experiences to the rest of the group and this could have affected their sense of belonging and connectedness to the others (Baumeister, 2005).

Future research

As our study only had three participants in the same intervention with the same EP, future research may want to use a larger sample of adoptive parents undergoing the intervention with a different EP. It may also be beneficial to conduct future research with an EP who is independent to the research project in order to limit any social desirability effects on the part of the participants. Furthermore, it may be interesting to consider how foster and residential carers’ experiences of the programme differ from adoptive parents in terms of any similarities and differences and to explore, through the evaluation of child outcomes, whether this intervention is effective for all three groups of carers/parents and their families.


Our study has shown that many aspects of PoP were found to be valuable for this particular group of adoptive families, including the application of psychological theory to practice. Therefore, not only does this show the importance and value of interventions for parents of children who have been in care, but it identifies a unique role for EPs to deliver such interventions. Through training and consultations, EPs can help newly adoptive parents develop an awareness of the potential impact of parental rejection on their child, and learn how to develop secure attachments and improve well-being for their child.


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