Dear Prime Minister:
Over the decades we have seen an erosion of family life. Families are struggling to cope, mental health is on the increase across all ages, aggression amongst the populace is rife and violence has become a popular way to deal with conflict. This is not a prescription for good emotional health.
Previous governments have set up various interventions to work with families who are struggling to cope. The Labour government introduced Parenting Orders and subsequently the Respect Agenda; The ‘Think Family’ project followed. They put ‘family’ at the core of their agenda by changing the department name to Children, Young People and Families. It seems that the government had recognised that parents are at the heart of family life. They introduced policies, which encouraged parents to take responsibility, enabling a greater chance for change. The Conservatives stayed with the theme and brought in the Troubled Families Agenda, building on the already successful Family Intervention Projects.
However, the one error in all of these early interventions is that the emphasis stays firmly on the children while parents continue to get side lined. Of course children need to be kept safe and that has to be paramount, however we shouldn’t do this at the detriment of looking at what is happening to the parents. Supporting agencies continue to focus on the child’s behaviour and very rarely support parents to change their own behaviour at an early enough stage. At present a meeting is held with the parents, as a tick box exercise, and then the focus is back on the child.
The recent disclosures of failings in Rotherham and Oxford around children being sexually abused makes lots of noise around the shortcomings of the agencies working to protect children, but we hear nothing about the failure of the parents to protect their young.
Of course no one wants to blame parents but we have enough clues when children are young to be able to work out which children are going to be more vulnerable for grooming, mental health problems, offending etc as they grow older. However, we do little to use this information to enable a different path.
Our early intervention vision is simple but effective. It is an intervention that encourages parents to remain the biggest influence on their children. However, it will help parents understand why they need support and how to provide that support effectively for themselves. At present we wait until children are showing difficult behaviour or there are clear signs of neglect before we take action. It is often too late and children are already suffering.
We have recently written a book called Parenting a Violent Child. The subject of child-to-parent abuse is one that has been sadly neglected and parents are now starting to talk openly about the difficulties in managing their children. Part of this openness has come from the Channel 5 series ‘My Violent Child’. Since the first episode in June 2014 we have received several emails from parents desperate for help. Some of them are finding it hard to cope with children as young as 2. These are the children who usually end up with a diagnosis, which does nothing to change the behaviour. Often these children go on to cost the taxpayer dearly. Our book helps parents to look at what they can do differently. It helps them to look at their own emotions and triggers. It is already helping to change children’s lives for the better.
On page 98 in the book we have devised a questionnaire, which encourages parents to look at how they deal with normal every day stresses of being a parent. It helps them to work out if they have a balance between being warm, firm and fair. It then looks at how they deal with their emotions as their child grows up and how they are looking after themselves. These are keys areas where parents who are experiencing difficulties struggle.
We would like to design several questionnaires for parents based on the one in the book. These questionnaires won’t just focus on children’s behaviour as all this does is put the blame on the child for what is happening. The parents can then absolve themselves of any responsibility. Our questionnaires will focus on the parent’s emotional coping strategies. Our vision is that a questionnaire will be given to parents at their children’s different milestones.
The first questionnaire will be when the mother is pregnant. There will be one for mum and one for dad. They will need to answer questions around how they are feeling and it will look at their ability to show empathy.
The second questionnaire will be around the age of 2-3. This is a testing time for many parents and one where they struggle to say ‘no’ to their child. It will look at how they manage with their own emotions when their child is being difficult. It will look at parent’s ability to be firm and fair and also whether they have support around them.
The third questionnaire will start to link in with school. It needs to be given to parents when their child has been in school for a year or so. This will highlight whether parents are accepting they have a part to play in what is happening with their child or whether they are starting to put blame elsewhere.
The fourth questionnaire will be in year 6 before their child moves from primary school to secondary school. This is a time when parents are usually more engaged with their child’s education than at any other time. It will look at whether parents are allowing their child to take responsibility and whether they are letting go appropriately. It will highlight their feelings , as their child becomes more challenging.
The fifth and last questionnaire will be around year 9 – before a child chooses their options for GCSEs. This is another crucial time for young people as they often start to doubt themselves. Parents are essential in enabling their children to feel valued.
Of course these questionnaires would be voluntary and the parents would be able to score themselves to find out how they are doing. For the majority of parents it will encourage them, as it will show them they are doing well. However, it will also help those who are struggling, and persuade them to access help. It would then give advice as to where they can get support locally.
It will be a tool for midwives, health visitors, nurseries and schools to use. It will take the emphasis away from ‘there must be something wrong with my child’ to ‘what can I do differently as a parent to enable change to happen?’ It will help parents to look at their own emotional knowledge and help them to understand themselves better.
Change needs to happen and there has to be a fundamental shift to give early intervention help to parents. Early intervention help does not just mean at birth and a few years after. Appropriate and effective early intervention is a continuation of support for parents throughout the stages of child development. Each life stage produces a different challenge for parents and many struggle with this on their own. Our vision will give parents the understanding, knowledge and support to change their own behaviour along their parenting journey. This in turn will have a positive impact on their families. This makes financial sense for the government and will help to build the foundation of good emotional health for all families.
The chance for change comes when you put down the magnifying glass and pick up the mirror
Islay Downey and Kim Furnish