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Parents of young children face days filled with demands and challenges, often on little sleep and frayed patience. A study at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) aims to help parents of young children learn how to overcome their challenges by developing parenting skills that create a healthy environment for the whole family.

The goal of the Parenting SOS study is to reduce childhood obesity by helping parents enhance skills related to managing stress, using positive discipline, developing family routines, and reinforcing healthy behaviors and habits. Shannon Thorn, one of the parents in the Parenting SOS program, said she would definitely recommend the project to friends with young children.

“I don’t know anybody with small kids whose lives are completely free of chaos,” she said. “Unless you are that person, I think you could really benefit from Parenting SOS. There’s really nothing to lose at all.”

The parenting focus jumped out at Thorn when she saw a flyer advertising the study at the Durham Regional Library. Thorn lives in Durham with her husband and three children, ages 5, 3 and 1. She juggles her career as a freelance medical editor with full-time motherhood. She felt she needed some guidance on the transitions her family has encountered recently, and the Parenting SOS approach appealed to her because of its focus on the whole family.

“It seemed like a whole person kind of approach, and didn’t seem like a discipline approach to parenting,” said Thorn. “I liked that the project was looking at the whole family and family health and using lifestyle changes to approach being a happier parent, having happier kids, reducing stress, rather than if your kids behaved.”

Thorn joined the research project in 2009 and began attending meetings with other parents in the study. Each meeting focused on a different topic and combined brief lessons with discussion among the parents. The meetings started out at twice a month, and switched to once a month after the first four months.

“I like that I am able to go to this group, and I get to talk to other parents,” she said. “For me, that’s probably the best thing, is getting the other parents’ perspectives and finding out from other parents what they’re dealing with.”

Thorn said she’s been thrilled with the results from the ‘kids’ program’ that occurs while the parents are in meetings. Trained physical activity and nutrition experts lead the kids in a variety of activities focused on fun and healthy habits. Thorn said she’s amazed at what her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son have learned in their group.

“They are always really excited about what they learn there,” she said. “Things that I try to teach them really get through when they learn the same things there.”

Thorn said her children have learned about “Go, Slow and Whoa” foods, which has helped them identify what foods they should eat only in moderation. She made a recipe with the kids not long after their activity, and the kids named whether each ingredient was a Go, Slow or Whoa. When she went to add in vegetable oil, her daughter said, “Wait, mom, that’s a whoa food!”

The meetings have helped Thorn learn new ways to incorporate healthy foods into her kids’ diet as well. She said she couldn’t believe her very picky 3-year-old loved a pineapple-kale smoothie so much that he wanted to bring her one to try after the kids’ class was over.

If you are interested in being a part of the next wave of Parenting SOS, contact Amber Vaughn at or 919-843-0603.

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