THE BLOG

Why Do Families Matter?

17/02/2016 09:04 | Updated 17 February 2016
  • Peter Fonagy Chief Executive Officer of the Anna Freud Centre

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We fret about families - dysfunctional, chaotic parents; parents who work too hard, or parents who are not working enough. Parents who pressurise their children too much; parents who take no interest in their children's education. There is no end of voices telling parents that they should be doing things differently.

Meanwhile, parents are doing their job in choppy and ever-changing waters: social media, screen time, an ever-more competitive global economy, early sexualisation, the bombardment of advertisements and images of the perfect body. What's more, parents are often negotiating all this with less support than ever before. It takes a village to raise a child, the old saying goes, yet most parents would be happy with a just supportive grandparent in the neighbourhood.

As a society, we constantly worry about and problematise parents and we do this because we all know how much families - whatever form they take - matter. Perhaps the most powerful and convincing accounts of why families matter come from children who know what it's like to not have one, or to have lost or been temporarily separated from one. As Haneefah, who moved into care when she was 14, has described to us: "What I fundamentally needed, and craved, was the enduring commitment and constant physical presence of another person throughout. Perhaps this is why, I noticed, so many of us orphans had such vivid imaginations - it was the desire to create love and security where otherwise there was none."

We should take the evidence of young people like Haneefah seriously. For all the charges we level at modern families, they are the most powerful tool we have for supporting our children's mental health.

There are some really innovative and inspiring services that provide support for children that we can all learn from. One such programme works with anxiety, one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health difficulties in children. In England, at any one time there are about 290,000 children suffering from anxiety. It can often develop into depression, it can be highly distressing for children and their families, and there can be life-long consequences.

The good news is that we have some incredibly effective treatments, and one of the national leaders in this field is Professor Cathy Creswell at the University of Reading, whose work involves training parents to treat and manage their children's anxiety. In an eight-week programme, parents receive about five hours of training in cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety; it provides parents with skills to manage their children's anxiety. We are too used to looking at families as the problem when we should be looking to them as the solution.

The Anna Freud Centre's Family School has recently opened and seeks to use the power of families in the same way. A specialist unit for children aged between 9 and 14 who have been excluded from mainstream school, The Family School brings parents into the classroom itself, to help them work together with their children. Using the most up-to-date practice to treat behavioural and mental health difficulties, the school helps children rekindle their natural ability to learn and progress with the help of their families. Changing the family is changing the child. There are others leading in this approach; Crispin Day's Family Partnership Model focuses on building working relationships with parents and families to help them overcome difficulties and create healthy environments for their children. The vast majority of parents want to do the best that they can for their children, but achieving this in practice is not always easy without help.

Families shouldn't feel blamed; they should feel strengthened by this emphasis. The knowledge that they can effect the most radical changes in their child's behaviour speaks to their enormous influence on the young mind. We don't have to look far to identify causes for the challenges most children face. The demands that we put on children to perform educationally, to organise themselves, and take control of their lives from an early age, is a big ask. Our biology makes us dependent on wise older adults in achieving our psychological potential.

A hundred thousand years ago, there were at least four adults to look after each child; the ratio has dramatically shifted and families are bearing the burden of socialising children. We need to support them because they can do so much. As Professor Creswell says: "if a child has a rash, we consider the parent who consults a doctor and applies the cream they're prescribed as responsible and caring, we don't blame them for the rash." We should have the same attitude to families seeking to support their children's mental health. Bringing up children is simultaneously one of the most natural, most mundane, and most difficult tasks we are charged with. Providing nurture, support, containment and guidance for human infants and their phenomenally fast-growing and complex minds is a social responsibility that we all collectively share.

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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