Help or hindrance?

Most would agree that
disadvantaged young parents often need help with parenting skills. But it is
easy to alienate one or other parent in the process, finds Sarah Wellard.

up children is no longer something that we are expected to just get on
with,  but a set of skills and knowledge
to be mastered. For policy makers looking for cheap and effective ways of
dealing with problem families and improving the life chances of disadvantaged
children, parenting education is an appealing option.

Parenting programmes
are a key element of the government’s teenage pregnancy strategy. Every year
25,000 babies are born in the UK to teenage parents, one of the highest rates
in the developed world. These children are at greater risk of developmental
delay, low educational achievement, behavioural problems and abuse, than the
children of older mothers.

Jane Barlow and
Esther Coren from the Health Services Research Unit at the Department of Public
Health at Oxford University have reviewed the research on individual and
group-based parenting programmes.1 They conclude that these
programmes can be effective in improving outcomes for teenage mothers and their
children. Of the programmes reviewed, Barlow and Coren found that group
approaches produced the most positive changes. Barlow says: “It is clear that
it is helpful for people to be in a group with other parents. Outcomes for
parents depend on the skills of the facilitators, such as being respectful and
empathetic and having a sense of humour, rather than the specific content of
the course.”

Hilary Pilcher is a
teenage pregnancy and parenting midwife who aims to put these principles into
practice. She works in the Scunthorpe area as part of the local teenage
pregnancy strategy. She offers one -to-one and group support to young mothers,
their partners and families, together with a playworker. The group work is
semi-structured, and she tailors the programme to issues which young parents
raise in discussion. Pilcher says: “It’s about listening and being aware of
where the young person is at, emotionally and psychologically, and responding.
The principles of working with teenage parents are exactly the same as with
young adults, except that it usually takes longer to develop a relationship of trust.”

Debbie Cowley,
practice development manager at Parenting Education and Support Forum (PESF)
agrees that the attitude and skills of the facilitators are key. She says:
“Facilitators need to acknowledge that parents are experts on their own
children. That’s just as true for young parents as for older ones, but people
often feel they have a right to talk to young people in a certain way. Young
people often feel criticised and patronised.”

She says that while
young parents may benefit from attending mixed parenting programmes alongside
older parents, there’s a strong case for separate services. She says: “Ordinary
services don’t always appeal to young people. It’s about looking at what their
needs are and responding; for example, meeting other young parents. But not
everyone wants a group. A drop-in, talking over the phone or going to people’s
homes might be more appropriate.”

Young parents are
more likely than their childless peers to have a background of poverty, low
educational achievement, or family conflict or to have been in care. Deena
Haydon, principal officer for research and development at Barnardo’s, is
developing a resource pack for professionals working with young parents on
behalf of the Teenage Pregnancy Unit. She has been talking to a number of young
parents about what they need.

Haydon believes that
service providers need to look holistically at the needs of young parents who
are themselves vulnerable. She says: “It’s simplistic to think it’s only about
help with parenting skills. The issues the young people identified were around
self-development, education, training and careers, knowing about household
skills and budgeting and having appropriate accommodation, as well as
parenting. They also wanted other young parents involved in setting up and
running services.”

These kinds of
concerns are reflected in a series of pilot programmes for young fathers being
set up by the Home Office’s Family Policy Unit. The aim is to develop model
projects in Birmingham, Sheffield, Norwich, London and Newcastle based on
existing best practice, which can then be refined and replicated elsewhere in
the country. The rationale behind the work is that a father’s involvement can
make a big difference to children’s lives. Apart from the obvious social and
emotional benefits, children who stay in touch with their father tend to
achieve more at school and are less likely to offend. Yet one year after the
child’s birth, only 50 per cent of the fathers of children born to teenage
mothers are still in contact with the child.

Kevin Lowe, assistant
director for training and development at the Trust for the Study of
Adolescence, and co-ordinator of the young fathers’ projects, acknowledges that
contact is not always in the child’s interests. “Contact is a good thing
provided the father can offer something positive. Some are just not able to do
that,” he says.

Lowe says that the
projects will embody five key elements, energetic outreach, one-to-one work
with young men, semi-structured group work, peer support and work with professionals.
Outreach work with hospitals and midwives is vital to identify the young
fathers in the first instance, and also to try to challenge some of the
unhelpful stereotypes about young fathers. Lowe says: “There’s a strong view
that all young fathers are feckless and irresponsible. By no means all fall by
the wayside, but the odds are heavily stacked against them. Young women and
their parents don’t necessarily see them as having a role, especially if they
don’t seem the most attractive prospect at the time. They feel that they’re not
wanted and they don’t feel terribly good about themselves if they can’t be a

Evidence from earlier
work in Norfolk indicates that some young men benefit from group work focusing
on parenting issues, and that peer support can be a powerful influence for
good. Lowe says: “Young fathers can be a great resource to each other and the
best advert for the service.” The most vulnerable young men may also need
one-to-one help to deal with personal issues. They may also need guidance with
practical issues to do with parenting and setting up home.

Young fathers and
young mothers may need support before they are able to benefit from being part
of a group. Barlow cautions against seeing parenting programmes as a panacea.
She says: “We know there is a group whose very difficult problems aren’t being
reached. Some 30-50 per cent of participants don’t show any change. Large
numbers drop out or don’t go along to programmes, sometimes because of personal
difficulties or because they don’t expect to get anything good out of it.
Parenting programmes need to be seen as part of a range of interventions.”

Unpublished research
from the Oxford team on unintended consequences of parenting education
underlines how vital it is proceed with caution when intervening in family
life. Initial findings suggest that where only mothers attended the programme,
their participation can lead to increased tension with partners. Many of the
women interviewed spoke of the difficulties they faced at home when trying to
apply the techniques they had learned on the programme, including gaining the
support of their partners.

As with all social
interventions, there is a risk that the good intentions of practitioners may
blind them to the potential for harm. Although PESF have plans in the pipeline
for quality standards and a core curriculum for training parenting
facilitators, parenting education and parent training is still something of a
regulation-free zone. Anyone can call themselves a parent educator and set up a
course. In practice, parenting education is provided by a wide variety of
professionals including health visitors, social workers, youth workers and
psychotherapists, as well as parents who have themselves participated in
parenting programmes. Some have received specific training but others have not.
Consequently, the quality of parenting education is variable.

Cowley says: “There’s
lots of good practice out there, but there’s also the danger of making young
parents feel worse if people try to tell them what to do.”  

1 Coren,
Barlow, The Effectiveness of Individual and Group-Based Parenting Programmes
in Improving Outcomes for Teenage Mothers and their Children, A systematic
review of the literature
, Oxford, 2001

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