Social policy | Australia

27 January 2022

Parents are not getting the support they need from policymakers when raising their families, and this has to change, Trevor Mazzucchelli, Daryl Higgins, and Frances Doyle write.

Of all the ways that children’s development can be positively influenced, none is more important or powerful than the quality of parenting.

The pandemic has thrown parents, carers, families, and children challenge after challenge, with learning and working from home, isolation, and illness causing variety of problems, including mental health issues.

This has undermined positive, skilful, and confident parenting. Positive interactions between parents and their children lay the foundations for a range of child outcomes, including healthy brain development, language development, communication, cognitive development, and capacity for self-regulation, but the pandemic has stifled this development in many families.

So, what can policymakers do to help?

Decades of research show that evidence-based parenting programs create positive change for the entire family. For example, maternal depression treated with evidence-based parenting programs has been associated with improved parenting skills.

A recent paper by members of the Parenting and Families Research Alliance examined the benefits of making evidence-based parenting programs, provided they are accessible to all parents.

One prevailing and problematic attitude is social pressure to keep family life ‘private’, and the paper shows that this attitude needs to change. Policymakers need to facilitate a shift in communities to making families a collective responsibility, not an individual job. One advantage of such a shift would be that it could destigmatise the difficulties that some parents face.

More on this: Changing the story on child poverty

Evidence-based parenting support programs also give parents and carers knowledge and skills and could be expanded to provide families the help they need.

These programs can assist parents in being more confident in raising their children and more effective at teaching them the skills they will need to be successful throughout life.

Children, for their part, experience greater wellbeing as a result of these programs, become more competent at handling stressful events, experience fewer mental health problems, and perform better at school.

Parenting support programs have an extensive evidence base, yet their availability is often limited, and they currently reach only a minority of families. In Australia, for example, only 35 per cent of parents who had a child needing help for an emotional or behavioural problems reported that their needs were fully met.

Right now, evidence-based parenting support programs, as a way to improve the lives of parents and children, and to reduce child and youth mental health disorders, are under-utilised.

This needs to change, and it is more than a temporary fix – when they have the support they need, parents can change and improve their parenting practices in the long term with massive positive impact on children’s future outcomes.

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A variety of services and strategies have been found to be effective in helping parents be more effective and satisfied in their role of raising children.

Examples include media strategies that help parents know that they are not alone if they have challenges raising their children, or the availability of brief consultations with nurses, doctors, and teachers about common developmental concerns or child behaviour problems.

Evidence also shows that comprehensive information, advice, and practice obtained through a recognised parenting intervention, provided over the Internet, in a group with other parents, or face-to-face with a health professional such as a psychologist, can benefit families and children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how telehealth and online services are a viable way to offer parental support while in-person services have been limited.

Ultimately, parents need to have access to support and evidence-based programs, and they need to be able to do so in a non-stigmatised environment. Embedding evidence-based support in places where families already engage, such as schools or the healthcare system, is a good way to encourage them to seek support for their children.

Of course, policymakers face many barriers to supporting families, such as how evidence-based programs are funded, and who can or cannot access them wherever they are offered, but meeting these challenges is crucial for families.

If policymakers can build the capacity of current parenting support systems, whether it be in training, research, or funding, and expand that support into new areas, they are likely to transform society in a profound and positive way.

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