Preparing the next generation
Recently I wrote about the finding at the beginning of November that loneliness has reached a high, particularly affecting 16-29 year olds.
Since then, a further study of over 500,000 parents, carried out by Ipsos MORI, commissioned by the Royal Foundation, suggests that parents of young children are also vulnerable. It appears that this group feels increasingly disconnected from support.
Looking after pre-school children takes its toll. It can feel draining at the best of times but when there is no distinct end in sight to the isolation, parents can understandably feel a sense of burnout. The role can feel lonely without the usual baby groups and children/ family centres to provide support. This reduced provision is usually a lifeline for many parents to recharge their batteries, share their overwhelm and concerns, to ask questions and seek reassurance.
As separation from family, friends and support networks takes its psychological toll, we see that,
loneliness among parents has risen from 38% before the pandemic to 63% presently.
This is worse in areas most highly deprived where 13% of parents say they feel often or always lonely compared to 5% in more affluent areas of the UK.
Building Blocks for the Future
Getting childhood right is hugely important as it provides the foundation for adulthood. Our children now will become the next generation of adults and it is up to us as a society to shape that. A happy child is more likely to be a happy, resilient adult. However, it appears that this connection between early childhood and adults of the future is not as widely known as we might think.
The Duchess of Cambridge’s survey earlier this year, Five Big Questions, explored what participants think influences development and what period of childhood is most important for children’s happiness. The research suggests,
just one in four recognise the specific importance of the first five years of a child’s life.
However, experts agree that,
“the first five years of a child’s life are absolutely critical for a child’s long-term life chances”. Neil Leitch of the Early Years Alliance
We need to start with helping parents by equipping them with the awareness, know-how and support to look after themselves first and foremost. This takes me back to my days of working with Milton Keynes Council, developing and facilitating the Just What We Need 12-week programme with parents across the continuum, from prevention to crisis management. When parents are able to care for themselves and take control of their own wellbeing, they are more able to fulfil the needs of their children; to create emotionally healthy opportunities to thrive.
Yet, according to the Royal Foundation’s research,
only 10% of parents take time to think about their own mental health despite the fact that 90% of people understand that their mental health and wellbeing is critical to a child’s development.
The correlation between difficult experiences in early childhood and key social challenges in life such as poor mental health, family breakdown, addiction and homelessness, is an issue we need to address.
When we consider that parenting is one hat that we wear. As an individual we still have fundamental human needs including connection with other adults, a sense of achievement and status (that is often enhanced by feedback) and security, that we can increase by seeking support. We are in need of friendship, meaning and purpose, control and positive attention for us, in addition to our role as parent.
The report identifies three main themes that emerge from the research:
- The need to promote education for parents about the importance of early years; the role of emotional and social development, particularly in the first two years of life.
- The need to promote opportunities for support networks for parents to enhance their mental health and wellbeing.
- Encouraging society as a whole to be more supportive of people in a parenting role. Acknowledging that it is challenging for parents to juggle priorities with conflicting demands on their time and the resulting exhaustion. Recognising that the experience of stress and feeling judged can impact parents’ mental health and wellbeing, often at a cost to themselves.
Depending on your particular role, you may have a variety of responses to these three areas. It is quite likely that the first theme is not an area you feel you can make a difference. But themes 2 and 3 are recommendations where I would encourage you to ask:
- What is your organisation doing to promote social and emotional connection between parents?
- What support is your organisation providing for parents to be able to look after their own wellbeing, for example equipping them with strategies to cope better?
- Is your organisation asking the right questions to find out about the experience of parents within its community and to identify what will help?
Even if you’re not a parent, you’re likely to come into contact with people who are. So this is relevant to you. Check in with them. Ask how they’re doing; how they’re making time for them; who they are coping with the juggling act. Even if this isn’t your responsibility, you can influence what happens, firstly by asking relevant questions and raising awareness.
We all, as a society, need to take responsibility for a future generation to reverse the increasing trend of rising loneliness and mental health problems. YOU can make a difference.
To explore your part in bringing about positive change, let’s have a conversation.
Ref: State of the Nation: Understanding Public Attitudes to the Early Years. November 2020.