Parenting support is fairly easy to find when your children are young. But as they grow up there seems to be an assumption that parents become more experienced and their need for support lessens. But, says John Hawkins, head of services at East Sussex Youth Offending Team, pivotal periods are when children move from primary to secondary school and then during adolescence as they turn into individuals parents often do not recognise and may not know how to deal with.
“It is telling that a criminal justice initiative is leading the way on developing and improving support for parents of teens,” he says.
The initiative he is referring to is the parenting support that all youth offending teams are required to offer to those on parenting orders (see Legal Intervention, bottom). In 2000 East Sussex Yot set up a partnership with voluntary organisation Crime Reduction Initiatives (CRI) to deliver its legal requirement. CRI works with local communities to help tackle substance misuse, crime and antisocial behaviour.
The first referrals were parents of children who had a criminal record and were known to the Yot and, in some cases, had also been known to social services for some years. It was this fact that influenced Hawkins’ decision to approach CRI to work with the Yot.
He says: “Some of the parents we were working with on parenting orders had a history of working with statutory agencies. The chance to work with a voluntary sector partner, albeit under the terms of the parenting order, did subtly change the relationship. I believe that many parents know they have to do the work but it isn’t quite the same doing it with a voluntary agency.”
John Dorkings, parent support worker at CRI, agrees: “We tell them we are a charity and are charged to work with them but point out we are not part of the Yot. It does help.”
Initially, they worked only with those on parenting orders but it has become clear that if you negotiate with parents many will undertake the same programme on a voluntary basis. Often, courts will shun parenting orders if the report on the young person in front of them for a criminal offence says the parent agrees to support on a voluntary basis. “This gives them the incentive to co-operate,” says Dorkings.
One-third of the cases the team deals with are on parenting orders. But there is a better chance of building a rapport quickly with the two-thirds who are supported voluntarily than with those who have been lectured by a magistrate, says Dorkings. “They feel they are being punished because they have a parenting order, even though it is meant to be a supportive process. So if we don’t have to do that it’s seen as a positive step.”
Hawkins agrees: “With most parents on parenting orders you have to work through any resentment first.” Once this has been overcome, the most common response from parents is relief that they have someone to talk to. Having a child in trouble with the law is not something parents are proud of, so to have someone come in and help can be supportive, says Dorkings.
Rather than start with the child, the work starts with the parent. As Dorkings says: “When mum changes, the house changes.”
The root of a child’s antisocial or criminal behaviour is in the boundaries that are set at home. “Parents feel unable to set boundaries and we know children like them even though they kick against them,” says Dorkings. “They have almost lost control of the house and we tell them to go back and gain control, set house rules.”
The major feature they have observed is a trickle down from generation to generation. Parents only have their own parents to look to for guidance, so work is often about trying to break patterns. In some cases workers see the grandmother, mother and daughter during the parenting support.
Dorkings says: “A lot of women are mid-30s, on their own, never had any parenting advice just what they have picked up, doing the best they can. Often, parents have had a bad childhood of their own so they are carrying their own agendas into the house. They cannot see their child’s needs because they have too many of their own.”
Parental skills can be hindered by unresolved issues from the past. Dorkings says: “We see people in their own homes, so immediately we are saying we take you for who you are and we are making no judgements about you. That act is quite effective because so often all their experiences of establishments have been to go to an office and talk to the police or school.
“We are trained to build a rapport so the parents feel someone is there who can understand where they are coming from.”
In the early weeks they look at how the house is run – for example, who does chores such as the washing up, whether the child puts their dirty clothes in the clothes basket or leaves them on the floor for the mother to pick up. By changing these small matters, parents are put back in control.
As the process goes on they start to work on parents’ more deep-seated problems. Underlying this is the human givens approach, a psychological method that assesses which physical and emotional needs are not being met. These could include the need for security (stable home life), the need for a sense of autonomy and control or the need to feel competent (the antidote to low self-esteem).
Key to this approach is dealing with emotional arousal, because this leads to abnormal behaviour, such as anger. So work focuses on bringing down emotional arousal. Dorkings says: “With a parent you can see that if she has difficulties at home her whole life is in this rarefied level of enhanced emotional strain so we work hard at showing her what she is doing to herself and teach relaxation techniques.”
If people can be taught to relax when they sense the trigger they can then defuse moments of high drama – and that changes the dynamics in the house.
The benefits can extend to younger siblings, says Hawkins, and there is a hope and expectation that the skills given to the parents will help them too.
Now the plan is to use parenting support to tackle problems at an earlier stage. Hastings was one of the areas recently designated as a trailblazer for tackling antisocial behaviour, receiving £25,000 government funding in November. Rather than use the money on employing another enforcement officer to give out more Asbos, it will be used to intervene earlier and the strategies and interventions that they have already found to work best will be used with those parents whose children are involved in antisocial behaviour.
Hawkins says: “This resonates with the overall preventive approach which on the whole is better, particularly where parents are asking for help.”
Parenting orders were introduced in 1999 under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
They are given to parents of young people who offend, truant or who have received a child safety order, antisocial behaviour order or sex offender order. They last three months and can be extended to 12 months.
Parents must attend counselling or guidance sessions. Failure to do so can be treated as a criminal offence and the parent can be prosecuted.