By the time a parent seeks help for a child with behavioural problems such as oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, or severe anxiety, they can already be at the end of their rope. Yet what many find when they look for help is long waiting lists that span months or even years. For families already struggling, that wait can seem interminable.

The Strongest Families Institute, a non-profit organization based out of Halifax, is helping to change that.

Co-created by presdient and CEO Patricia Lingley-Pottie and Dr. Patrick McGrath, the program is unique in Canada in that it offers not therapy, but an educational program to teach parents and their kids problem-solving skills so they can begin to address the problems they’re having.

Over the course of 11 or 12 sessions, participants go through several lessons using reading materials, notebooks, and instructional videos. They then have weekly phone calls with coaches who help them to fully understand the lessons, while also motivating and supporting them.

In the childhood anxiety program, families are taught skills such as relaxation and belly breathing, how to stop negative thought cycles, and how to gradually expose the child to their anxiety triggers so they can overcome them

In the behavioural program, parents are taught how to use positive parenting to decrease antisocial behaviours and increase pro-social behaviour.

“This is a program that has a long term impact because we’re teaching families and children life skills they can use long after the program is over,” Lingley-Pottie says.

What’s even better is that families can start right away, from the comfort of their own home. They don’t have to travel great distances to attend appointments, and they can complete the work on their own time, instead of adjusting their schedule to fit with a clinic or doctor.

“That’s one good thing about distance e-health type of services is that it is so highly accessible.

We designed Strongest Families to overcome barriers to care,” she says.

Lingley-Pottie says the weekly phone calls with coaches are vital to the success of the program, but because so many overwhelmed parents struggle with finding a time that works for them, they can schedule their calls at almost any time of day or night, depending on what suits them.

“The programs work according to their pace, which is especially important for single parents with little support, who may have their own depression issues. We work with them, and customize the intervention to meet their needs,” she says.

It’s also cost-effective because the program’s coaches aren’t psychiatrist or psychotherapists. They are staff who have been trained to follow a script, guiding participants through the program.

“This is very protocolized. The coaches don’t pull in their outside experience. They specifically focus on teaching the skills that have been proven to work,” says Lingley-Pottie.

At the same time, it is also flexible enough to allow families to go at their own pace so that they move onto the next weekly goal when they feel confident they have a handle on the last one.

It’s a program that Lingley-Pottie say works, with more 85 per cent of participants reporting the program helped them manage the problem they sought help for. What’s more, fewer than 10 per cent of participants drop out along the way.

“That is really unheard of because generally dropout rates in child mental health are anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent,” she says.

“Parents and kids are sticking with it probably because we’re making it so accessible.”

Strongest Families is offered for free to participants through provincial funding in Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s also available in some areas of Alberta and Ontario and has even begun to expand to Finland and Vietnam as well.

Lingley-Pottie says the program helped over 3,000 Canadians families last year, but what she really hopes to see is Strongest Families expanded throughout Canada, so that families don’t have to wait months for the help that they need right now.

“This really is avery cost-effective access solution,” she says.