Many parents with young children need extra help from time to time, in the form of financial aid, childcare or emotional support. Although it is well known that support can relieve parenting stress, it is less clear whether support for parents has a measurable impact on children’s well-being. Our study[i] of 2600 families living in Scotland found a link between the availability of support for mothers during the early years and children’s later mental wellbeing.
In order to be able to discount other possible explanations for the association found, the study controlled for a range of other factors related to both low levels of family support and poor child outcomes. Even after allowing for other factors such as family poverty and lone parenthood, we found lower levels of behavioural and emotional problems among school-age children whose mothers had been able to access support during their child’s early years.
The study examined mothers’ perceptions of the availability of support via two different channels: informal social support networks from friends and relatives, and support from health and social work professionals. There is universal provision of professional support for parents in the UK (for example, from health visitors and via GPs), as well as a range of support services targeted at vulnerable parents. Nonetheless, families often perceive barriers to service access and engagement. These only partly relate to low awareness or practical problems. Importantly, they also reflect parents’ perceptions that available support is inadequate to meet their needs, and fears about interference and stigma.
In exploring the ways in which support for mothers improved children’s wellbeing, the study found that professional support and social networks acted differently. Greater access to help from health and social work professionals was associated with more positive parenting, which in turn reduced the risk of children developing behavioural and emotional problems. Good social support from friends and relatives did not affect parenting so directly. However, the positive effects of social support on mothers’ greater economic security and mental wellbeing led in turn to more positive parenting, which then benefited children.
The study also looked at whether support helped to protect children’s wellbeing when families were under particular strain. Access to professional support channels had the strongest buffering effect. Among families with good access to professional support, the study found a weaker impact of less positive parenting on children’s emotional difficulties, when compared with families who found it difficult to access such help. A smaller buffering effect was found for social support. Here, the impact of family money problems on children’s emotional difficulties was weaker among families with strong social networks, compared with families who lacked this type of support. Collectively, our findings point to the value of professional services and social networks in strengthening children’s resilience to adversity.
In conclusion, our study findings underline the importance of good social support networks for all families with young children, as well as the need to ensure good access to health and welfare services through building greater parental awareness and trust.
Further details can be found in the following open access publication (forthcoming): Alison Parkes and Helen Sweeting (2018) Indirect, and Buffering Effects of Support for Mothers on Children’s Socioemotional Adjustment, Journal of Family Psychology[i] This study used the Growing Up in Scotland first birth cohort, a nationally representative sample of families with children born between June 2004 and May 2005. For more information, see https://growingupinscotland.org.uk