The Benefits of Parenting Self-Help

Groups for Rural Latino Parents


Scott Wituk

Wichita State University

Amy Commer

Wichita State University

Julie Lindstrom

Director of Walk Across America

March of Dimes, Chicago, Illinois

Greg Meisen

Wichita State University


A previous version of this paper was presented at the American Psychology Association Conference held August, 2000 in Washington, DC.


Latino parents and families, living in rural America face unique issues related to acculturation, language barriers, isolation and fewer support systems. Understanding that greater community based support systems would have a positive impact on these families; the purpose of the current study is to examine Latinos’ satisfaction with parenting self-help groups in rural communities and their effect on family relations, communication, and methods of discipline. Participants were 118 members of Parents Helping Parents (PHP) groups in one of seven rural Kansas counties. Latino members indicated that not only were they satisfied with their group experience, but that the group helped them strengthen their family by increasing their knowledge of child development, patience with their children, and how to cope with difficult situations.


One of the fastest growing ethnic populations in the United States is the Latino population. According to the U.S. Census, the Latino population has grown from 9% in 1990 (Census, 1990) to nearly 12% of the U.S. population (Census, 2000). By 2020 it is expected that Latinos will be the largest group of minorities in the United States, accounting for 17% of the U.S. population (Census, 2000). Latino families face some unique issues, such as economic pressures, separation from extended families, acculturation, and language barriers (Flores & Carey, 2000). These families, when also living in rural communities, may be faced with the additional struggles of rural life, which can lead to social isolation, depression, and increased family stress (Conger & Elder, 1994). For Latino parents living in rural communities, greater community based social support could have a positive impact. With this in mind, the purpose of this research was to examine Latinos’ satisfaction with parenting self-help groups in rural communities and their effect on family relations, communication, and methods of discipline.

Life in Rural America for Latino Parents

While Latinos represent a growing population in the United States, they face distinctive issues that traditional rural community support systems are often not prepared to address. Flores and Carey (2000) have suggested that the process of immigrating and acculturating can result in increased levels of emotional distress for Latino families, yet rural communities typically do not provide social services to assist them. Even if rural communities had more social services for Latino families and parents, it is questionable whether they would be used. Flores and Carey (2000) pointed out that Latino families are often intimidated by healthcare systems may be hesitant to seek assistance and reluctant to ask service providers questions. This may be due in part to findings that immigrant Latino’s may become overwhelmed and unable to cope in a new environment where they are unfamiliar with the language, predominant culture, or knowledge regarding access to available health and social services (Zambrana, 1995). Therefore, support and information from the extended family becomes increasingly important.  Often, Latinos rely on other family members as a source for problem solving, but due to immigration, the extended family may not be readily available and the desired geographical closeness may not be possible (Zambrana, 1995). 

Communication between Latino parents and their children can also become strained as children become acculturated more rapidly than their parents. Growing up in the United States, Latino children quickly learn American culture, customs, and language. As acculturation takes place, children may experience frustration at their parents’ “perceived inability to offer support and intervention on their behalf” (Flores & Carey, 2000). This culture change may also be “chaotic and disorganizing for youth, because they are attempting to develop a coherent sense of identity by learning and integrating differing cultural expectations, which at times may be in conflict or become a source of intergenerational conflicts” (Zambrana, 1995). Without ongoing communication, parents can lose connection with their children. This is of particular concern since Hayes-Bautista (1989) found that family ties weaken over time and generations among Mexican-Americans.  In fact, one of the greatest fears within Latino families is the fear of losing connection with each other (Flores & Conger, 2000).

Self-Help Groups

Several decades ago, it was posited that having social resources available in the surrounding environment was a critical factor for immigrants’ adaptation to their new environment (Fabrega, 1969). Parenting self-help groups may be one way in which Latino parents living in rural communities can connect with one another, discuss parenting concerns, and know that they are not alone. Research estimates that more than 25 million Americans have been involved in self-help groups at some point during their life (Kessler, Mickelson, & Zhao, 1997), that groups are effective for a variety of problems (e.g., alcohol abuse, cancer, bereavement), and can increase coping skills, life satisfaction, and contribute to higher self-esteem (Kyrouz & Humphreys, 1997). Although research examining Latino participation in self-help groups has been limited, there are several indications that groups may be a practical and useful mechanism of support. Research indicates that low-income Mexican-American parents were more skillful at trying new methods for dealing with problems (Zambrana, 1995).  A study of a Latino mothers self-help group found that sharing with mothers of the same cultural background and experience provided them with an outlet for their feelings, helped in building new relationships, and reduced isolation (Leon, Mazur, Montalvo & Rodriquez, 1984). Positive outcomes among Latinos were also found in a school based support group for parents. One of the groups, whose objective it was to “provide social support and mutual aid, enhance school involvement and personal empowerment”, was still meeting weekly, four years after its inception, had added a monthly, night meeting for working parents and had instituted English classes for members (Simoni & Perez, 1995). Part of the reason for these benefits may be linked to a “person-group fit” where new members feel comfortable in the group because they feel that they “fit in” with existing members, especially when existing members share a similar cultural background (Humphreys & Woods, 1993). One potential indication as to whether participant’s feel like they “fit in” with other group members is to assess their satisfaction with the group experience, how long they have participated, and whether they plan to participate in the future.

Latino parents living in rural communities often face a variety of issues that are often not addressed by traditional professional support systems. The purpose of the current research is to explore Latino parents’ perceptions of how the parenting self-help groups strengthen families, improve family communication, and promote positive parenting approaches among Latino participants. In addition, members’ satisfaction with and the extent of participation in the group will be assessed.


The Kansas Children’s Service League (KCSL) was established in 1893 in order to improve the health and well being of children in Kansas. As a statewide, private, not-for-profit organization, KCSL provides case management, emergency shelter, foster care and adoption services, and Parents Helping Parents (PHP) self-help groups available to nearly 13,000 families and children throughout the state. KCSL started to develop PHP groups in 1993 in order to meet a need in the state and to “provide a program that prevents child abuse and neglect by strengthening families…designed to assist parents who are at risk of child abuse by providing them with support to deal with the stress of parenting.” The 33 PHP groups in Kansas are free of charge and are designed for parents who would like to have the support of other parents experiencing stress in dealing with their children. Groups emphasize positive parenting skills, communication skills, positive discipline methods, self-esteem building, and emotional support. Group facilitators are volunteers who are screened and trained by KCSL staff. Training consisted of basic parenting information and group facilitation skills. The KCSL provides technical assistance to new and existing groups, group facilitator training and coordination, a newsletter on self-help group techniques, and access to a parenting library.

The KCSL asked the Self-Help Network of Kansas to conduct research regarding parents’ satisfaction with the group experience, what they have found useful, and the impact of the groups on members’ parenting. Due to the lack of research and attention given to Latino participation in self-help groups, for the current study a focus on Latinos participating in PHP was taken. The Self-Help Network is an action research unit located within the psychology department of Wichita State University. Since 1986, the Network has conducted research for the purposes of understanding, strengthening, and increasing the access to self-help groups. The Self-Help Network is also one of the largest self-help group clearinghouses in the United States, providing almost 15,000 referrals to more than 3,000 Kansas and national self-help groups and organizations in the previous year.


Participants were 118 members of PHP groups in one of seven PHP groups in rural Kansas counties with populations under 38,000 (Census, 2000).  Although surveys were distributed to all PHP, because the current study focused on Latino participation in rural counties, analysis was based on these participants. The overwhelming majority of participants were female (94%) as only seven participants were male. Most respondents were married (73%) and the average age of participants was 28, ranging from 18 years to 42 years of age. Grade school was the highest education level achieved by 36% of participants, followed by some high school education (34%), a high school degree (17%), some college education (9%), and a college degree (4%). The majority of participants were not working (60%), while 23% worked part-time and 17% were full-time employees. The number of children per household ranged from one to seven, with an average of 2.7 children per household. Most of the participants (94%) had household incomes well under the state’s median household income of $32,000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000) and 74% of respondents had household incomes under $20,000. 


A 40-item questionnaire based on the objectives and goals of PHP groups was developed. The survey was designed to assess participants’ experiences with PHP groups in four primary areas (See Table 1).  Cronbach’s alphas were conducted for each of the four areas in order to assess internal consistency: (a) strengthening families (alpha = .88) (e.g., I’ve received information and guidance from the group about how to cope with difficult situations as a parent), (b) improving communication (alpha = .83) (e.g., I feel that the communication between my children and myself is better since have been attending the group), (c) using alternative means of discipline (alpha = .74) (e.g., When I feel like I’m about to lose my temper with my child, I have learned more positive ways to deal with my child since attending the group), and (d) satisfaction with the group experience (alpha = .75) (e.g., I enjoy life more since attending the group). Questions were developed through a literature review of previous parenting scales and surveys and the self-help group literature. Group members were asked to respond to each question on a five-point Likert scale ranging from (1) “strongly agree” to (5) “strongly disagree”.

For ease of interpretation agree and strongly agree and disagree and strongly disagree are collapsed in Table 1. Questions were phrased in a non-threatening manner so that the survey focused on positive parenting skill acquisition.

Two open-ended questions were included to gain a deeper understanding of specific positive parenting skills, communication skills, and redirected disciplinary techniques (e.g., please describe two examples of positive parenting you have used with your child(ren) since attending Parents Helping Parents; describe one instance when the group helped you through a difficult situation as a parent). Finally, general demographic information was collected including, gender, educational level, race, employment, marital status, household income, support from other services for parenting, length of group participation, and plans for future group participation.


The KCSL provided the Self-Help Network a list of current PHP facilitators. Group facilitators were contacted by the Self-Help Network and explained the nature of the project and were provided directions on how to administer the survey to all members. In order to capture members who may not attend every group meeting, facilitators were asked to distribute the survey at more than one meeting. Following the initial contact with group facilitators, an informational packet was sent to them. The informational packet included a memo from KCSL explaining the project, an oral statement for facilitators to read to the members, a consent form, copies of the surveys in both English and Spanish, and a self-addressed stamped return envelope. Facilitators were contacted one week after they received the informational packets to answer any questions regarding the survey or its administration. Of the surveys returned, 64% were Spanish surveys and 36% were English.


Seeking Support: PHP Groups & Other Formal Sources

The PHP groups appeared to play a central role in the lives of participants, as 36% indicated that they had been attending for over 12 months and 61% of respondents indicated that they attended PHP group meetings at least on a monthly basis. In addition, 94% stated that they planned to continue to attend group meetings in the future. Participants primarily indicated that their experiences with PHP groups and other members were positive (See Table 1). Over 85% agreed or strongly agreed that they had received information about resources and services from the group that would be helpful to them as a parent. A woman, with a high school education and not currently working stated, “I am happy with the group because it’s helped me and my son.” A 27-year-old mother of three children said, “When I and my partner were put out of work, they helped with food and suggestions on how to get help.” Nearly 84% agreed or strongly agreed that overall, they were satisfied with the group. One member suggested, “They (meetings) are very helpful. And there are people here who have been through the same things I’m going through now,” while another member suggested, “Any situation is difficult, especially when it’s the first time. In the group you talk and plan for the family. The group is a lot of help.” Finally, nearly 70% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed life more since attending the group. For example, a widowed member with three kids commented, “thank you so much for this program. It has literally saved my life and my children.” Another woman said, “I’ve learned to take care of myself, also.”

The majority of Latino parents did not seek support related to parenting from other formal sources in their local communities. Sixty percent of the participants indicated they did not receive any other formal support for parenting, whether it was from counseling, parenting classes, or clergy. The lack of help seeking from other formal sources is also evident in the referrals members received to attend the group. Many of the participants (52%) had received notice of the PHP groups from a friend or relative, while relatively fewer referrals were from helplines (32%) or professionals (13%).

Taken together these responses suggest that many of the Latino group members in the current study relied on PHP groups for information and support regarding parenting and were not currently seeking support from many other formal sources in their local communities. While there are often obstacles for Latinos seeking professional support and information (e.g., language barriers, stigma, cultural differences), it appears that PHP groups were a means of support where members felt comfortable and were satisfied with their experiences. Based on a review of participants’ responses it appears there were several factors that contributed to their satisfaction. First, participants likely felt comfortable disclosing information about their parenting techniques to others who they knew were in similar situations. Related to this factor is that the groups were comprised of others who shared the common concern and were able to provide practical, useful information based on their own experiences. Finally, the group provided an opportunity for new members to disclose to others who would listen without the same judgments as when similar information is disclosed to family, friends, or even social service professionals. The importance of these parenting groups and satisfaction among participants is also supported by the high percentage of members planning to continue their participation in groups. If participants were not satisfied with their experiences during group meetings or felt they were not receiving support, they would have simply stopped attending the group, as they were not mandated to attend. Perhaps even more important is that members’ positive experiences in the PHP groups led them to refer others to the groups.

Strengthening Families

In addition to being satisfied with the group experience, many participants indicated that the PHP groups had helped in strengthening their own families by improving how they coped with difficult parenting situations, increasing their knowledge of child development, and increasing their patience with their children (See Table 1). Approximately 86% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had received information and guidance from the group about how to cope with difficult situations as a parent. One mother commented, “I now know what to do when my daughter throws a temper-tantrum,” while another stated, “When my daughter was bed-wetting, we were having a difficult time with it, but after talking with others in the group, we had ideas on how to deal with it.” Seventy-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that they had learned about child development and behavior from the group. For example, one father said, “My teenage son was expressing his anger through violence towards his mother. Talking through the situation with the group helped me identify some things that were said and done to trigger his anger.” Another group member stated, “I try to realize that they are children and try looking how I was at that age. I try not to be so hard on them.” Finally, 76% agreed or strongly agreed that they had become more patient with their children since attending the group. A married mother with three kids stated, “I started coming to this group three years ago and I’m glad I did, because I have learned to be more patient and positive towards my children.”

Raising children requires a lot of knowledge and skill. Support and information about parenting is not readily available to many Latino parents living in rural communities, even though they could be important in strengthening family relations and interactions between parents and their children. The examples provided by group members suggest that not only were they learning new information and skills, they were also using the group experiences at home with their children. By having a better sense of how to deal with various parenting situations, child development, and how to be more patient, group members were better equipped to parent their children.

Communication Between Family Members

Improving the communication among families is one of the primary goals of the PHP groups and it appears that many group members improved their communication with their children (See Table 1). Approximately 80% agreed or strongly agreed that the information presented at the group helped them better understand their children. A single, 24-year-old mother said, “ I talk with my daughter about her day. I’m spending time with my daughter and doing what she likes.” A thirty-year-old married mother commented, “It helped me when I joined the group to understand my son and what to do to listen to him.” In addition, 77% agreed or strongly agreed that the communication between their children and themselves was better since attending the group. For example, a stay-at-home mother of five kids described what she had learned as, “Open communication, patience, and love.” Finally, 65% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the relationship with their significant other had improved since attending the group. These results suggest parents generalized the listening and communication skills learned in the group to other relationships in their lives. It appears that participation in the PHP groups was not only beneficial to participants, but also their families, as participants were able to better communicate with others in their family, especially their children.

                                        Table 1

            Benefits of Parents Helping Parents Groups


% of Respondents Who…



Survey Questions…


Strongly Agree


Strongly Disagree

No Opinion


Satisfaction with Parents Helping Parents Groups




I’ve received information about resources and services from the group that might be helpful to me as a parent.







Overall, I am very satisfied with this group.




I enjoy life more since attending the group.




I’ve received information about how other group members have handled situations similar to the ones that I’m experiencing.










I regularly talk to other members of the group between meetings.








Strengthening Families




I’ve received information and guidance from group about how to cope with difficult situations as a parent.







I learned about child development and behavior from the group.







I spend more quality time with my children since attending the group.







I am more patient with my children since attending the group.







I feel more confident about my parenting skills since attending the group.







I have learned more about what is considered child abuse and neglect in Kansas since attending the group.







I’ve received help in the group in setting realistic goals for myself as a parent.







I am less overwhelmed about being a parent since attending the group.








Communication Between Family Members




I feel information presented at group helped me better understand my child(ren).







I feel the communication with my child(ren) is better since attending group.







My relationship with my significant other has improved since I’ve been attending the group.








Alternative Means of Discipline




I have become more aware of positive parenting practices from group.







When I feel like I’m about to lose my temper with my child, I have learned more positive ways to deal with my child since attending the group.










I learned alternatives to angry responses to my child’s misbehavior from the group.







I learned alternatives to spanking from the group.





Alternative Means of Discipline

The final primary goal of PHP groups was to increase the use of alternative means of discipline among participants. Responses to several of the closed- and open-ended items suggested the PHP groups were having an impact on the way in which parents disciplined their children (See Table 1). Eighty percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had become more aware of positive parenting practices from attending the group and 75% agreed or strongly agreed that, since attending the group, they had learned more positive ways to deal with their children, when they are about to lose their temper.  A thirty-year-old with three children suggested, “not to spank, do time-out instead and count to ten before losing my temper.” Nearly 55% of group members agreed or strongly agreed that they had learned alternatives to angry responses to their child’s misbehavior from the group and 44% agreed or strongly agreed that they had learned alternatives to spanking from the group. For example, a 54-year-old mother of three children stated, “I’ve learned to use time-out as an alternative to spanking.”  Similarly, another member who was divorced with three kids commented, “I’ve learned new ways of positive reinforcement and punishment. Rather than a candy reward, I give verbal encouragement and rather than spanking I give a time-out.”


Self-help groups represent a growing phenomenon as individuals turn toward others who share a common concern for support and information. As a result of this phenomenon, there are literally tens of thousands of cost-free self-help groups throughout the United States with millions of participants.  The current study is one of the first of its kind to examine the benefits of parenting groups for Latino parents. Counter to original considerations that self-help groups were primarily a white, middle-class, urban form of help, the current study found that self-help groups are used by and are helpful to Latino parents in a rural setting. Latino members of PHP groups in rural communities indicate that not only were they satisfied with their group experience, but that the group helped them strengthen their family by increasing their knowledge of child development, patience with their children, and how to cope in difficult situations. In addition, group members told us that communication between family members improved and members were using alternative means of discipline with their children. As the Latino population in the United States increases and as resources in rural areas continue to diminish, there is an increasing need to explore how parenting and other self-help groups can become a more prominent part of a community’s system of support for Latinos and other minorities living in rural areas.

Professionals and self-help groups: Meeting the needs in rural communities

The need for additional health care providers in rural communities who are bilingual or non-Caucasian is well documented (Flores & Carey, 2000). While it is important not to ignore this need, there is also a need to develop settings that are not heavily reliant on professional forms of assistance, but rather the support of others who are in a similar situation. Self-help groups for minorities may compliment professional forms of assistance in several ways.  Unlike many professional forms of help, self-help groups are cost-free and not time limited, making them an increasingly attractive option as health care costs continue to rise (Meissen, Wituk, Warren & Shepherd, 2000). Secondly, self-help groups provide an opportunity to empower individuals, as they work towards helping others while helping themselves. Unlike traditional professional services where control, power and knowledge reside solely with the professional, self-help groups are largely based on the unique experiences of each member. Third, self-help groups may provide an avenue or entry point where members can learn about other forms of help and support in a non-threatening way. Previous research suggests that self-help group members become more competent in finding outside professional help and are more likely to seek out other forms of support and assistance than individuals not in self-help groups (Kurtz, 1997). With this in mind, self-help groups could be used as an entry point for other services provided by health care professionals in rural communities. As an “entry point” for additional services, self-help groups may especially be useful for minorities who are often reluctant to seek assistance from professional sources. Self-help groups can help members overcome language barriers and the stigma that is often associated with reaching out for help. Finally, rather than being viewed as a community problem, underserved minorities who help each other in a self-help group become a renewable community resource for others.

Identifying with others in self-help groups

The current study continues the discussion about identity or “person-group fit” in self-help groups and how it relates to minority participation (Humphreys & Woods, 1993). Sharing a common concern or problem is one way in which group members identify with one another, but it is clearly not the only way. Groups that develop a critical mass of a specific population, whether it is a certain race, gender, or age will naturally have group norms and expectations that may not relate as well to new group members who do not share the same characteristic. In the current study, while groups were open to anyone sharing parenting concerns, a large number of participants were Latino mothers. These groups evolved from “parenting groups”, to “Latino mother groups” that, still focused on general parenting issues, but also developed norms and expectations that were specific to Latino mothers. Thus, new Latino members apparently felt more comfortable attending the group and that it fit their needs, but the opposite may have been true for new non-Latino mothers.

It is possible that identity with other group members will play a larger role in the self-help group movement with groups becoming more specific to certain populations (e.g., African American Cancer Recovery Group, Spanish Speaking Alcoholics Anonymous). While it may at first seem counter to the self-help ethos (i.e., groups are open to anyone who shares the concern), self-help groups that evolve for specific populations may, in the long-run, produce better outcomes as members are more likely to return to group meetings if they can identify with others in the group. Future research is needed to explore the concept of identity in self-help groups and how it relates to group participation, member outcomes, and the development and survival of self-help groups.

Need for additional research involving minorities in self-help groups

For years it was assumed that minorities did not participate in self-help groups (Kurtz, 1997). This study contradicts that myth, as most of the members in the current groups were Latino mothers in parenting self-help groups in rural Kansas.  The current study builds on existing research examining the benefits of self-help groups (Kyrouz & Humphreys, 1997) by providing evidence that they can be a useful, practical source of support and information for Latino parents. Yet, as with any research, a number of lessons learned could be addressed by future research. First, the current research focused on a limited number of Latino parents in small midwestern communities. Future research may want to explore the generalizability of these findings to other parenting groups, especially those that may not be Parents Helping Parents groups. Unfortunately, research examining self-help groups in other parts of the county is limited as there is no national comprehensive database of self-help groups or statewide clearinghouses in most states. Secondly, research is needed to determine whether similar results would be obtained with other sub-populations especially, if underserved. Finally, self-help groups are more prolific in rural areas than one might first speculate. Almost every rural community in the United States has an Alcoholics Anonymous group. People in rural areas readily drive to larger neighboring communities for almost anything including a self-help group. Additional research examining the cultural and community impact of self-help groups in rural areas could improve our understanding of how to facilitate the development and mutual-help based approaches in rural areas.


As the United States becomes more diverse, it is likely that self-help groups will follow the same course. Rather than continuing the discussion as to whether minorities participate in self-help groups, we believe it is time to address a new set of questions. How does minority participation in self-help groups change the concept of self-help? What cross-cultural relationships are formed in self-help groups and how does that affect race relations? What particular outcomes are associated with minority participation in self-help groups? What is the process of starting self-help groups by minorities, particularly in rural areas? By beginning to explore these and other questions we believe additional progress can be made in developing groups that adapt to our changing rural and minority communities.


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Please send correspondence to:

Amy Commer, Self-Help Network of Kansas, Center for Community Support and Research, Wichita State University, Box 34, Wichita, Kansas 67260-0034

Telephone: (316) 978-3887, Fax: (316) 978-3593, E-mail:

Note: Scott Wituk is a doctoral student in the Community-Clinical Psychology Program at Wichita State University. Amy Commer is a doctoral student in the Community-Clinical Program at Wichita State University. Julie Lindstrom is the Director of Walk Across America for the March of Dimes, Chicago, Illinois. Greg Meissen is a Professor of Psychology at Wichita State University and Executive Director of the Self-Help Network of Kansas.