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Children Are Suffering. What Can We Do?

Children are suffering. What can we do?

Kids Matter Director and Clinical Child Psychologist Dr Eli Gardner wrote the below article for the latest edition of Premier Youth and Children’s Work, expressing the severity of the effect coronavirus has had and continues to have on the wellbeing of our nation’s children…

“The current crisis is opening our eyes to the generational problems that have overshadowed the lives of millions of our children for decades. Intensive, well delivered support for vulnerable children to protect them and help them flourish at school and in life must be a priority going forwards.” (Children’s Commissioner, 2020)

I believe we, the church, can play a key role in delivering that support.

Roughly one in ten children in the UK will be diagnosed with a mental health problem every year. Referrals to child services have increased 78% since 2010[i] and statutory funding has decreased in equal measure, particularly for any early interventions. As a Clinical Child Psychologist, I have never seen a landscape as bleak as this in my 25 years of working; and that was before Covid-19 hit!

One does not have to think too hard to imagine the psychological impact of pre-existing familial trauma exacerbated by a situation where fraught relationships have no room to breathe. Increased reports of domestic violence throughout lockdown is one such example of a traumatic experience that can impair functioning in children right through adulthood if left unchecked, eventually resulting in multiple personal losses like substance abuse, suicide, broken relationships or teenage pregnancies (and the list continues).

Whilst Covid-19 is a new aggressor when it comes to irritating an already festering gap in support for vulnerable children and families, poverty is a pre-existing (and now confounded) aggressor and a significant contributor to worse outcomes for children and parents.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs the country at least £25 billion a year. This includes money spent on expensive mental health resources for children suffering with a range of behavioural problems and treatment for depression and anxiety in parents struggling to manage family life in the midst of adversity.

Poverty has an impact on parents’ ability to manage stressful events and can make good family functioning and strong parent-child relationships difficult. Parents who lack a sense of competence not only show less adequate parenting, but also tend to withdraw from interactions with the child and give up addressing problem behaviours altogether. We hear stories all the time at Kids Matter of parents who just want to give up, especially now with multiple children to home school.

Mental health problems resulting from adverse childhood experiences don’t go away. A vicious circle can begin, where: economic struggles result in depression and anxiety, making parents less capable of effective parenting and children act out; parents can’t manage the difficult behaviour, get more despondent and struggle to find/maintain employment…and so the cycle continues.

Once this vicious circle is firmly entrenched, it results in children growing up with low self-esteem and aspirations, having very similar problems to their own parents

Research has shown that parenting programmes are an effective way to prevent or reduce the incidence of child behaviour problems and a range of other of parental and child outcomes. However, recruiting and engaging struggling parents is notoriously difficult. To overcome barriers including transport and childcare, fear, stigma and distrust, programmes need to be local, accessible, relational and have ongoing follow up afterwards, which are all difficult to implement. And that’s where the church comes in.

As the largest voluntary body in the country, the church is an amazing resource – bursting with people who love Jesus and can be His hands and feet. There is a mandate within the church to show hurting people God’s love. However, we have to accept that many of us are in churches that are predominantly white and middle class and poorer families are not walking in the doors. If this is the case then we need to go to them and we need to be equipped with the right tool to do so.

There are many great programmes available now for churches to use and we have created a parenting one that we hope will serve the church well in engaging with hard to reach families, offering them a helpful parenting intervention and then drawing them into community within the church family. THAT’s the USP of the church. No clinician can offer that: friendship and community long after the programme has ended.

Kids Matter groups are run by volunteers from local churches and charities that aim to reach vulnerable parents in their communities. If the church does not know parents personally, we encourage them to work with links in their community such as: children centres, schools, nurseries and even local authorities and family courts who do know the parents and can bring them along to a taster session or personally refer them. Groups are typically 4-8 people in size and meet for six weeks, which is a manageable length of time. Free creche is provided. All our sessions are run informally, around a table laden with tea and cake. No flip charts or expert videos are used, and the material is delivered discussion-style with fun table based activities, role play and weekly homework.

The Kids Matter programmes are run in groups so that parents can benefit from the wisdom of other parents as well as making valuable contributions to other parents too. All our facilitators are trained to share of their own experiences and be open about their mistakes and what has not gone well in order to create an atmosphere of mutual support and learning.

After the intervention, the facilitator makes efforts to bring the participants together again for social events in the community thus helping to reduce isolation and provide opportunities for values learned in the group to be reinforced.

Kids Matter has reached over 1300 children in 48 deprived locations around the country, since launching in 2017. In spite of the challenges of a new, socially distanced society, we are confident that we will be able to continue reaching families with our programmes, based on its effectiveness to date.

We hear inspiring stories from parents all the time; here is one of our favourites (shared by a Kids Matter facilitator):

Our Kids Matter mum has come SUCH a long way. In the first session she sat and cried, and said she couldn’t parent well at all; now she is a new woman! Things have changed in her home. She has no TV in the morning before school or when her son is eating. He was refusing to feed himself and crying if he couldn’t watch TV (he is 5 years old) but now knows that if he eats, TV is a reward afterwards. She is no longer late for school (this was a very regular occurrence!) and even the school said they have noticed the difference. She is super confident, has applied for college, wants to volunteer at school and has been meeting up with some of our other mums. She is even bringing her friend along next week!

The relational part of our programme is so important! Currently, we’re using digital format (WhatsApp, Zoom etc.) and postal delivery to equip and encourage parents. We are also designing two new programmes to overcome the barriers of doing groups online and having children at home: Kids Matter Family Time (designed to be run with children present) and Babies Matter (in the pilot phase now) for new parents.

Many of our partner churches are asking us how they can reach families in lockdown when the need is overwhelming. And what if families don’t engage?

We don’t have all the answers, this is tough for everyone, but here are some ideas that we have seen working:

  • Start with the basics: how do you already reach them? Get to know your statutory services locally and let them know what you can offer. We need collaboration.
  • Make sure you keep those connections going, pivot to zoom/FB messenger/WhatsApp video if necessary.
  • Relational is best: if you do have a child/family worker, brainstorm with them how best to continue relationships in a safe way.
  • If you are reaching into a community for the first time, maybe with food parcels; keep track of who you are sending things to, start a relationship, build from there. Can your volunteers give them a call? Are there any additional resources you can add to your food bag to take it one step further?
  • Try to think just one step ahead, beyond food. Having a relationship with parents, hearing what their struggles are and signposting them, will mean their children are more likely to survive/thrive better and also to engage in education, which is so vital.
  • As soon as is allowed, try visiting, calling, supporting. Several of us charities have resources designed for this. Pick one or two and have them help. Don’t do it alone!

Please visit our website (kidsmatter.org.uk) if you’d like to learn more about how Kids Matter could help you reach and most in need families in your community. They need you and we are here to equip you to help them. (And thank you to the team at Premier YCW for including Kids Matter in your publication!)

[i] (ACDS, 2018)

Photo Credit: Photo by Fabiola Peñalba on Unsplash

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