Maria Caulfield is MP for Lewes.
Every day this week, ConHome is focusing on what local and national government can do, in policy terms, to strengthen families. As Fiona Bruce said in her article which launched the series, a strategy to prevent family breakdown is the missing link in creating a fairer society. Children who grow up in homes where they experience safe, stable and nurturing relationships are at a huge advantage over those who do not. They are far more likely to have the secure foundations which enable young people to stride out into the adult world with confidence.
For far too many children growing up in the UK today the reality of their family lives falls far short of this. Almost half will have experienced the breakdown of their parents’ relationships, often a painful and destabilising process, and between one in ten and three in ten children live in families where their parents say they are in unhappy relationships. A growing body of academic research and survey data points to the fact that both relationship breakdown and couple conflict – violent or non-violent – are major causes of poor mental health in children.
As Damian Green said in The Times, when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, “A child’s emotional and educational success is underpinned by the relationship between their parents. Warring parents, whether together or separated, have a hugely negative impact on their children. When exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict, children are at risk of being held back in their education and in later life.”
This is because, as a government-commissioned Early Intervention Foundation review concluded, inter-parental relationships are a significant factor in determining children’s mental health. When these relationships are chronically distressed, children living in the hostile environment that ensues are at greater risk of developing anxiety, depression, aggression, conduct problems, suicidal tendencies and poor physical health. (They are also less likely to be able to hold down their own future relationships.)
It is therefore unsurprising that in a recent ChildLine report problems with family relationships – ‘conflict/arguments with family members, parents’ divorce/separation’ – were identified as a leading reason why children contacted the service.
However, as Iain Duncan Smith pointed out on this site last week, relationship problems need not be intractable. International research has shown that interventions which improve parents’ relationships can prevent family breakdown, reduce unresolved conflict and reap a significant benefit to children’s mental health.
I was therefore encouraged by the Department for Work and Pensions’ recognition of the need to tackle parental conflict to improve child outcomes in their 2017 Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families report. However, a response to these wider relationship factors is still inadequately prioritised in children and young people’s mental health provision. The Prime Minister’s reference to the “burning injustice” faced by those suffering from mental health problems – an injustice which “demands a new approach from government and society as a whole” – surely presents an important opportunity to remedy this lack. The weight of the Government’s own research evidence indicates that this new approach should include a substantial growth in the provision of effective relationship and family support. There are, however, grounds for concern that the already slender tranche of funding to relationship support providers may be cut further, despite Government commitments to augment it.
Yet where children and young people’s mental health (CYPMH) difficulties are rooted in the negative effects of their parents’ conflict, this should lead to more frequent and systematic referrals of parents for relationship counselling, or the availability of couple counselling within CYPMH services themselves. There should also be training in this area for professionals and frontline practitioners in this field. One couple counsellor based in Hackney CYPMH services says, “This is not about blaming parents for their children’s mental health problems, when they are struggling in their relationships they are often desperate to get help themselves.”
Given what we know about the roots of mental illness, we must also ensure early help is in place to support families and to prevent children and young people from developing mental health problems in the first instance. We need to help individuals and families develop stronger relationships, and offer early intervention support when cracks first appear. This is why family hubs – statutory, private and voluntary services that work in partnership to provide a one-stop shop for families where they can access mental health services, troubled families interventions, relationship support, father involvement and parenting programmes – are so vital.
I am not calling for a massive uptick in mental health spending, but for a refocusing on prevention and for more holistic, family-based interventions. A green paper on children and young people’s mental health problems will shortly be published by this Government. If family relationships do not feature prominently in its pages, and they are ignored in the new approaches that have been promised, I very much doubt we will deliver the improvements that are desperately needed. Yet in this area, where so much is at stake, failure is not an option.