Parenting orders encourage mums and dads to take responsibility for their children's behaviour. Today, the second of a week-long look at the work of the Wessex Youth Offending Team (YOT) finds out why parents are being sent back to the classroom...

MANY parents moan about the terrible teens, when their little angel apparently turns into a monster over-night.

Sulks and strops become the norm as alco-pops and body piercings replace Barbie dolls and Action Men.

While many mums and dads tear their hair out as their son or daughter goes through a tricky phase, some are struggling to cope with children who are really are out of control.

For the past four-and-a-half years, the mothers and fathers of youngsters who have got into trouble at school or with the police can be made the subjects of a parenting order.

Criminal and civil courts can impose the order to reinforce parents' responsibilities to their children and the community.

The order has two parts - one requiring the parent to attend group sessions for up to three months and one insisting that parents comply with specified requirements for up to 12 months.

A total of 35 parenting orders were made in Hampshire between September 2002 and September 2003.

Perhaps surprisingly, a further 100 parents attended group sessions voluntarily in the same period.

The sessions, run by the Wessex Youth Offending Team (YOT), cater for parents of children aged between ten - the age of criminal responsibility - and 17.

Islay Downey, parent support co-ordinator for the Southampton area, said: "We encourage parents to come at an early stage.

"Quite often we get a call from the police if they find they are constantly being called to a particular home.

"Any parent who is experiencing problems with a child aged between ten and 17 can come along.

"At the other end of the scale, there may be more extreme cases where a child has been in custody.

"For many parents, it is a bit of an eye-opener. They sometimes feel their own situation is horrendous and no-one else can possibly be in the same boat.

"But it is the parents themselves who are often the ones who can come up with the solution.

"Sometimes they feel the experts know what is best, but it is the parents who know their children better than anyone. Often they underestimate themselves and just that little bit of support can make all the difference."

Islay, based at the Wessex YOT's offices in Harefield, Southampton, added: "I have got children myself and I fully understand that people are desperate for their children to be seen in the best possible way.

"If your child is seen doing something antisocial, you tend to blame yourself. You start looking back and trying to work out reasons why your child is going off the rails."

Islay runs nine or ten parenting sessions a year, as well as a drop-in group every Thursday morning.

An informal support group is also held at a Southampton pub once a month.

Parenting sessions are run to the east and west of the city in Harefield and Lordshill, with between eight and 12 parents enrolled for each.

Islay said: "A lot of what we do is about relationships. Many parents say they have tried everything, and I believe them.

"Teenagers can become increasingly self-centred. A parent needs to change their reaction; it is often at that point that you start to see a breakthrough.

"Most of the parents who come on the group are lacking in confidence and feel completely browbeaten. I hope that by coming to the group they feel encouraged and empowered by speaking to other people and maybe trying to do something new.

"Parents sometimes drop out then come back after a bit of individual support.

"Most parents, given the choice, would probably prefer me to go and visit them at home, but they say one of the greatest benefits is meeting other people in the same situation.

"For some, it is quite difficult to come into a group and share personal stuff. Sometimes people need a little time. Often they then come back when they are ready."

Although Islay has to deal with the odd reluctant participant, very few parents cause problems.

"Most of them get hooked. You can see them warming to each other and becoming engaged with other people's lives," she said.

"I do what I can to engage their co-operation. Everyone is different, some people engage very quickly, others are there because of a court order."

Each session lasts two hours. Typically, the first half will be discussing how the week has gone, while the second could be a particular exercise.

Any parent who fails to attend is sent a warning letter but can be sent back to court if they breach any of the conditions of their order. Usually, more mums than dads attend the sessions although parents are encouraged to go along as a couple.

For Islay, there are often visible signs that the "classes" are working.

"I so feel for these parents. They come along to their first group and they are not happy," she said.

"To see them change is fantastic. I have had a few Christmas cards from parents who want to bring me up to date. It is so positive."

Often, it is taking that first step which is hardest for parents.

Islay said: "It is quite a scary thing for parents to ask for help. It is a very courageous thing to do.

"Very often, people have asked for help before; either through education, social services or their GP, but had not reached a certain threshold.

"Really there is very little out there for parents. You hear lots about children's rights but nothing about parent's rights.

"My one piece of advice for parents is to be consistent. If you are going to say you are going to do something, then make sure you do it."