When Prunella Briance placed an advert in the Times in 1956 calling for a new association around childbirth, she couldn’t have known that six decades later every local area in the UK would go on to offer antenatal classes. These classes brought a greater understanding to millions of parents, and are almost a rite of passage these days. But when new parents leave the maternity ward, this support can drop away at a critical moment on the parenting journey.
82 local authority areas now have a unique opportunity to turn this around. Through a combination of the Family Hubs and Best Start for Life funding, areas from Cornwall up to Northumberland have an exciting opportunity to work more closely with parents than ever before.
At Triple P, we speak to parents frequently about family life and whether they feel they have access to the help and support they sometimes need. Whether that’s for commonplace issues like bedtime struggles and fussy eating, or more complex challenges like identifying and supporting children with SEND, managing anxiety or encouraging emotional regulation.
The impact of Covid-19 has been stark – 50% increase in mental health disorders and falling school attendance rates, due to crippling anxiety, paints a bleak picture of the outcomes for young people. As local services, education settings and wider support networks were closed off to parents during the pandemic, a shift has perhaps begun in our culture about the critical importance of parents – as first educators but also in their children’s social, emotional and behavioural development. It’s fair to say however, that there is still a long way to go to create a culture where parents feel it’s okay to ask for help with their parenting.
Parents have told us that using a ‘service’ sounds ‘scary’, that they worry ‘where their information would go’ and that there is ‘a certain stigma attached’. This was a far cry from their memories of antenatal classes, where they perceived the help as factual support, and felt encouraged to form relationships with other parents who they felt they could share problems with.
Recently published research in the Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies journal shows that prior participation in parenting interventions was the strongest predictor of future engagement. So if we can engage parents in proven evidence-based parenting support early on, the argument is they are more likely to reach out for help later on.
The evolution of Family Hubs has got to be the starting point for improving engagement and reducing stigma for parents of children of all ages. Local authority teams, particularly those interacting with parents and families in their role, are often drawn to civic life because of a deep desire to help others. The pandemic made their work increasingly complex, but all the more important. Attracting parents back into community circles, and making parenting support more accessible and acceptable, will go a long way to improving the social, emotional and academic life of children.
We know parenting programmes can ease mental health problems and treat behavioural disorders. Local authorities already offering these have seen excellent outcomes, with Triple P programmes delivered in more than 60% of English LA areas. From Portsmouth to Gateshead, Suffolk to Herefordshire, and across our largest cities, our parenting programmes achieve positive results not just for the Supporting Families initiative and in Early Help, but across SEND, mental health and reducing parental conflict, too.
How do we build on this excellent practice and the wider more intensive services and destigmatize asking for help once and for all?
- Well, where there are antenatal classes, make sure there are parenting classes next door. Make sure every pregnant woman leaving hospital knows about the parenting support at their local Family Hub. Encourage them to attend – kick-starting that ‘past participation’.
- Where possible or relevant, make clear that parenting classes are ‘independent’ to alleviate concerns about ‘social services’ involvement.
- But perhaps most importantly ensure the offer fits around the busy lifestyles of parents – with delivery options in-person, virtually or self-directed online – as well as at an intensity that meets their family’s needs.
As LGIU themselves said at the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) 28th National General Assembly recently – go to where parents are. We agree, and are excited to play our part in making Family Hubs a judgement-free place that parents want to be.