Glasgow’s underprivileged children who show emotional resilience

Parenting and Children’s Resilience in Disadvantaged Communities
Authors: Peter Seaman, Katrina Turner, Malcolm Hill, Anne Stafford, Moira Walker
Institutions: The research originated from the Centre for the Child & Society at the University of Glasgow and was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Interventions to improve family functioning are now commonplace in disadvantaged communities. However, there has been little research about how parents navigate their way through the specific challenges of raising children in these areas. Neither is enough known of children’s perspectives on coping with risks.

The aim of the research was to find out what resilient practices “ordinary” parents and children living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods engage in to promote children’s well-being and to keep them safe from everyday risks.

Questionnaires, discussion groups and interviews were held with more than 200 parents and some 300 children in Glasgow.

Parents and children in the neighbourhoods faced many challenges including poverty and unemployment. Parents were most concerned about young people’s drug and alcohol misuse and threats from youth gangs.

Relationships: Many parents spoke of a decline in trust and reciprocity within the communities they lived. Nevertheless, parents, especially, and some children identified and valued many protective relationships. Other neighbours, siblings and teachers were seen as trusted network members.

Getting by: Low-income parents managed their budgets skilfully in order to protect their children from the effects of poverty. Many felt extreme pressure from the consumer culture. Lack of transport and low  income prevented children going on trips and outings, including those organised by school. Despite having a positive attitude to work, a sizeable minority of parents were unable to provide even the basics for their children. Parents were unable to supervise their children as closely as they would liked because they had to work longer hours to make ends meet.

Organised activity: Parents emphasised the importance of organised, supervised activities in keeping their children safe (especially when parents were at work) and providing them opportunities for skill and social development.

Discipline: Although, as they grew older, children would sometimes subvert parental authority, they recognised parents’ interest and rules as caring about them. Grounding was a popular response by parents to children who flouted parents’ rules. Alongside this study, other research concludes that taking a keen and detailed interest in children’s whereabouts – and providing them with firm boundaries on what is acceptable – benefits children growing up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. However, the data from this particular study also pointed to the capabilities of many young people to devise protective strategies to avoid gangs, drugs and alcohol abuse.

Hopes for the future: Parents had realistic ideas about their children’s educational strengths and they had great aspirations for them. However, parents rarely had the relevant social capital (that is, access to  the knowledge and social networks) that enabled such hopes to be realised. Overall, this study adds to the growing body of knowledge on childhood resilience illustrating that there is much that can be done, even when people present as socially, economically and culturally entrenched in adversity. In this particular study, it is clear that many families themselves can mobilise protective resources in harsh environments. 

It also offers an important contribution in seeking the views of parents and children, rather than either one or the other.

Limitations of the study: Access to families was through mainstream schools so families with disabled children attending special schools may not have known about the study.

As the researchers acknowledge, some families may not have chosen to take part. However, the findings of this study do not contradict other studies focusing on even more excluded groups, with whom social workers are more likely to work. Hence they can be taken as a fairly accurate indication of where targets for intervention should lie.

The research relied on self-reported interview and questionnaire data so may not always have accurately reflected what actually occurred. No practitioner views were sought as part of the study.


The research on which this article was based was published by the National Children’s Bureau. The Handbook of Resilience in Children, edited by Sam Goldstein and Robert B Brooks, published by Kluwer Academic in New York (2005), and Handbook for Working with Children and Youth, edited by Michael Ungar and published by Sage in 2005, give international overviews of resilience research.

Regarding direct practice application, most recently Resilient Therapy: Working with Children and Families by Angie Hart and colleagues.This draws on resilience-related publications, service user experiences and CAMHS practice to advise practitioners helping families living amid persistent disadvantage. This book comes out with Routledge next month. Further materials to use directly with children and families in promoting resilience include: Specifically for LAC, Robbie Gilligan’s Promoting Resilience: A Resource Guide on Working with Children in the Care System, published by Baaf Adoption and Fostering in 2001. A collection of workbooks by Daniel and Wassell published in 2002 by Jessica Kingsley includes The School Years: Assessing and Promoting Resilience.

Others work mentioned in this article are: Quinton and Rutter’s Parenting Breakdown – The Making and Breaking of Intergenerational Links, published by Avebury in 1988, and Pollitt’s most recent policy analysis of the public sector, Running Out of Or Running Into Time?, a seminar paper which was published in 2006 by HSPRU, University of Sussex, Brighton.

Angie Hart is professor of child, family and community health at the University of Brighton, and academic co-director of its community university partnership programme. She is also a psychotherapeutic counsellor and research practitioner in the local child and adolescent mental health service, and the parent of three children with special needs, adopted from the care system.

Resilience in disadvantaged communities
Most research on resilience in disadvantaged communities has been undertaken in North America. The sociological/social policy approach taken by Seaman and  colleagues, including perspectives from both parents and children, is relatively rare in the UK. Foundational work on resilience in the UK which has provided many useful concepts picked up by other researchers includes a study of children from the care system by David Quinton and Michael Rutter in 1988.

The overall message of the research by Seaman and colleagues is that families are doing well in difficult circumstances, but that support could be targeted to the following areas, all of which are in keeping with the principles of the common assessment framework.

Promoting protective relationships
Alongside this study, many others have identified positive role models as resilient agents in children’s lives. Indeed, this was found to be key in some early studies of childhood resilience.

Building up what has been termed by Hart and colleagues a “virtuous network”, where the team around the child works hard to identify key individuals (for example, neighbours, a local teacher or social worker) as continuous anchor points over time is useful. Hence identifying positive relationships, including broken ties that might be mended are crucial elements in assessments. Facilitating these, and then helping disadvantaged children develop continuity of relationships, including with practitioners, could be termed resilient practices.

Fragmented service provision can thwart the best intentions of practitioners to provide such continuity. Short-term practice and case management approaches are part of this. However, given the weight that research consistently puts on the potential for relationships outside the home to act as buffers against adversity, concerted policy and practice efforts should turn to improving continuity of relationships, including professional ones.

The value of tight discipline
This study supports the view that, even when children ignore parental authority, detailed attention to children’s whereabouts sends out a strong message that parents and other adults care about them. This research confirms two views from other resilience literature: that parents living in poor neighbourhoods are best supported by  practitioners who promote firm application of rules and control of children’s whereabouts; and that parenting support courses can help parents who struggle to do this.

Help with getting by
Welfare policies to tackle income inequalities do not in this part of Scotland release families from relative poverty. Even in this study of “ordinary” families, the sophisticated skills that people need to manage a tight budget and debt were strongly evidenced. In other studies of even more disadvantaged families, financial worries correlate strongly with depression and anxiety. Practitioners’ efforts should focus on helping adults with mental health difficulties, low literacy and learning difficulties manage their financial affairs.

Hopes and aspirations
The finding that parents want the best for their children, but lack the necessary social capital to help children move into higher education and so on, gives practitioners (who have far greater social capital) a clear role. Specifics include affirming parents’ aspirations for their young people, exploring and then mapping out possible career paths early on in childhood, and returning to the discussion at other times in the developmental process, facilitating access to elites by seeking out work and educational experiences on their behalf; introducing social mentors/socially mobile role models, and helping them access funding and wider support for higher education.

This study supports the argument that, although practitioners may feel unable to achieve deep-rooted structural changes for families (such as a change of neighbourhood), there is much that they can do to promote resilience. This knowledge helps workers be more effective, to have a sense of personal power and combat disillusion in the workforce. It can also assist them in mobilising politically to achieve change by speaking up at a team level, responding to policy circulars and so on.

Finally, in delivering interventions suggested in this article, two key messages for practitioners from cumulative resilience studies may help: first, when something is lacking (such as positive role models), it can have even greater impact than we think; and second, small changes in one part of a social system can set up positive chain reactions that result in social transformation. So what might seem to practitioners as modest, even insignificant, achievements may in fact signal major turning points.

This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “Emotional reserves”




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