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Parents and children: The 21st century experience


At the IJBPE Editorial Board meeting earlier this week, a fascinating – if troubling – discussion took place about the degree of ‘separation’ to which many families across the world are subjected in the 21st century.

We talked about the separation of mothers in prison from their babies, and of fathers from theirs – and of the difficulties in re-establishing or, indeed, establishing relationships when parents are released from prison. We also talked about military families and the isolation of pregnant and new mothers from their partners and their families. Then we spoke of the parents who are separated from their young children owing to divorce; pregnant women arriving in this country seeking asylum who have not only witnessed or been the victim of horrors but who must now make a new life for themselves without knowing whether friends and relatives are safe. We discussed the mothers and fathers ‘separated’ from their babies and toddlers by depression, substance misuse and alcoholism; the parents who undertake long commutes to work so that they leave home before the children are awake and return after they have gone to bed……

So, has it always been thus? Or is parenting in the 21st century harder than it has ever been?

A couple of days after our meeting, I read headlines in The Times, ‘True scale of child mental health crisis uncovered’ and ‘Record number of youngsters in hospital with mental illness’. The Social Affairs Correspondent descried growing up today as ‘close to intolerable’. She quoted a clinical psychologist who explained that ‘growing brains are vulnerable because of the unpredictable surges of hormones that take place during the teenage years in particular’.

Possible causes of mental distress in children and young people were cited as parents working flat out, exam pressure at school, social media bullying, idealised body-images and lack of sufficient quality sleep.

So, it is certainly hard to be a mother or a father, and hard to be a young person in 2015.

All of the above is surely sufficient not merely to fuel, but to galvanise the drive for Early Intervention – not at the point at which children are already showing signs of psychological dis-ease, but long before this when they are experiencing that very first surge in brain development that happens during pregnancy and in the first two years of life. Never ever has there been a more urgent need to support parents across the transition to parenthood. And by ‘support’, I mean parenting education, ensuring adequate accommodation, a living wage and the presence of community resources to enable companionship and provide a safety-valve when parenting becomes just too much.

In the small town where I live, one aspect of community support is our local library, a run-down building but warm and welcoming where mums and dads meet twice a week for singing to their babies, and a children’s reading group. Local teenagers also ‘come in from the cold’ during holidays and while they often make a lot of noise, at least they’re not coming to any harm in a library. What’s happening to our library? It’s being closed and, yes, it is being relocated but to somewhere smaller, away from the town centre, off the beaten track.  

We have to get the point across that Early Intervention isn’t confined to health or social care services; it needs to infiltrate every aspect of the experience of families with young children in the UK today.

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