Parity begins at home

Monday 08 November 2021
Young mother working on laptop with son in her lap

To level up for children, government needs to get its new support for parents right, writes Joe Lane, Action for Children’s Head of Policy & Research

For the last decade, when government has thought about how to improve children’s lives, it has usually focused on what more schools can do.

The diminishing benefits of that focus have become increasingly clear as the other services that children rely on – social care, SEND, or mental health services for instance – have become increasingly overwhelmed.

It shouldn’t need those services to be under such a strain for government to recognise the limits of what schools can do. It will always be true that children’s living situations, their families, and their parents will have a huge bearing on their quality of life and their ability to thrive.

The government has started to invest in families

The package of investment in children’s services in the Spending Review shows the government has started to recognise that there needs to be action ‘beyond the school gates’ if policy making is going to improve children’s lives. Investing in local authorities, the Supporting Families Programme, Family Hubs, and a Best Start for Life offer are all big signals government has started to see the diminishing benefits of school focussed children’s policy.

That schools can only make some impact on children’s lives will not be news to parents. The overwhelming majority of parents know just how important their role is. Which is one of the reasons parenting is so hard to get right and why parents often seek support.

Parents always face challenges – the pandemic has made them worse

At Action for Children, we provide direct help. We know first-hand how government could help more parents to give their children the best start in life.

Since the onset of the pandemic, our free Parent Talk service has helped hundreds of thousands of parents online including more than 15,000 through 1 to 1 conversations with family help workers. That includes supporting parents with issues relating to child development, education, and their own mental health.

Those challenges, though, aren’t unique to the parents we help. To dig into parents’ experiences nationally, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of UK parents to ask them about their experiences of Parenting Through the Pandemic. Three findings stood out:

1. Large numbers of parents have struggled with parental burnout

We asked parents about their experiences of parenting since March 2020. We asked whether they had experienced a range of symptoms of parental burnout - things like anxiety, disruption to sleep, or feeling isolated - as a result of the pandemic.

Overall, 82% of parents said they had struggled with at least one symptom. However, some groups were more likely to have struggled:

  • Women are more than twice as likely to say they have had more than five symptoms of parental burnout (19% versus 7%)
  • Parents of pre-school children (0-4) were 10 percentage points more likely to have had a symptom than secondary school aged children 86% versus 76%)

2. Most parents have needed parenting support in the last 12 months

Parenting challenges are not unique to the pandemic. While many parents have needed support with issues relating to covid since March 2020, many more of needed help dealing with the problems parents always face.

In the last twelve months, 61% of parents said they needed some form of support. Most commonly, that related to:

  • Their own mental health and wellbeing – 28%
  • Sleep issues – 25%
  • Their child’s emotional wellbeing 22%

3. Too many parents struggle to get the support they need

Most parents who need support get it. However, 1 in 7 parents who said they have needed support since March 2020 say they never found that help. That is equivalent to over a million parents struggling alone with issues where they know that some form of support would help.

More online parenting support would help

Phone showing a Parent Talk chat

Parent Talk 1:1 live chat

The government has set out its ambition to improve the support available to families – including a specific commitment to invest in parenting support over the next 3 years. Our experience of delivering Parent Talk shows that more online support for parents should play a key part in that ambition.

While online support isn’t right for every problem or every parent from delivering Parent Talk we know it can provide a judgement-free source of advice and reassurance to parents. That can help parents resolve issues before they escalate and to find the right source of intensive support if they need it.

As the government continues to look beyond schools to improve children’s lives, online parenting advice that is as easy to access as advice and information in other areas should play a key role in providing more parents with the help they need.