Is love all we need? One thing is certain: a child’s relationships are a key part of their positive mental health and development. Positive parent-child relationships, as well as good connections with siblings, extended family and friends, guide a child’s wellbeing through into adulthood.
From the moment they’re born, children need safe, consistent, nurturing and responsive attachments with adults. These relationships provide the foundation for healthy brain development, help protect children against maltreatment, and increase their ability to thrive (Australian Institute of Family Studies [AIFS], 2017).
In the video below (1 min 7 sec), psychologist Penny Sih discusses the latest understandings around relationships and the role they play in childhood development.
Strong, stable relationships with caring adults enable children to develop secure attachments with the people in their life. They allow children to develop a sense of trust and safety in the world around them. When adults are responsive to their needs, children begin to make sense of their world. This helps them to regulate their emotions, and learn to recognise and respond appropriately to emotional states in others.
Every parent wants the best for their child. However, social, personal or environmental circumstances can prevent someone from being the kind of parent they want to be. The interdependent nature of the parent-child relationship also means that challenging child behaviour, or the demands of parenting can unsettle the nurturing environment. Over time, these unsupportive and disrupted relationships can cause children to develop insecure attachment styles. These can lead to difficulties in social adjustment and problems with both physical and mental health. Children may become too trusting, making them vulnerable to damaging relationships both in childhood and later in life; or mistrustful, which can put a strain on their social relationships or even stop relationships from developing in the first place.
Practitioners have a key role to play in helping parents to manage their mental health and provide warm, consistent parenting during difficult times. This supports children’s mental health and wellbeing, even if the family is facing challenges. To do this, it’s essential for all practitioners to adopt a relationship focus in their work, and to engage parents in conversations around their children’s social and emotional wellbeing. But how can practitioners best navigate these tricky conversations, particularly with families facing multiple, complex issues?
Asking about children
The most important relationships in a child’s life are with their immediate family, including their parents/primary caregivers and siblings. This is especially true for infants and young children, who rely on their caregivers to meet their everyday needs. As they get older, extended family members, educators, and peers also play a part in supporting the child’s mental health and development – but the parent-child relationship remains influential through adolescence and into adulthood.
Child-aware and parent-sensitive practice in adult services recognises the need to ask clients if they are a parent; and ask parents about their relationship with their child. A child-aware approach acknowledges and considers the experiences of children, so that they don’t become an ‘invisible’ part of service delivery. For example, one in six women over the age of 15 years has experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of a current or former partner, and one in four has been subjected to emotional abuse (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2019; Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2016). By simply asking these women whether or not they had children in their care when they experienced the violence, a practitioner can take the first step towards understanding and reducing the impact of FDV on the child’s mental health and development.
In the podcast excerpt below (1 min 2 sec), Emerging Minds’ Workforce Development Manager, Dan Moss discusses what the child-aware and parent-sensitive approach might look like in practice.
One way to start these conversations is by looking for an ‘entry point’. Maybe the parent comes to you with an issue or circumstances that you think might also be affecting their child. Or perhaps the parent has told you directly that they’re concerned about their child’s behaviour or circumstances. You can also explore the child’s social and emotional wellbeing through open enquiry, or by sharing your concerns around the parental, family or social adversity your client is currently facing.
You can learn more about prioritising children’s needs in situations where there is FDV in our podcast, Child-aware practice in families where there is violence.
Children are also affected by the quality of the relationships around them. Family and domestic violence and parental conflict can significantly affect a child’s physical and mental health and development, even if they never directly witness the fights or abuse; and the violence and abuse of male partners can be especially damaging to the mother-child relationship (AIFS, 2017; Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt and Kenny, 2003). This is sometimes referred to as ‘maternal alienation’ (Morris, 1999).
A child-aware and parent-sensitive approach can help you to gain a genuine understanding of children’s and parents’ daily lives, and how factors (e.g. parents fighting after a child has gone to bed) may be impacting on a child’s mental health, without contributing to any feelings of blame the parent may have.
In the video below (48 sec), Senior Practitioner, Adult and Family Counselling, Aerinn Morgan describes how she remains child-focused in her family and domestic violence work.
Focusing on strengths and hopes
As a practitioner, it’s important to recognise the parent’s strengths and the hopes they have for their relationship with their child. You can do this through hopeful conversation, which encourages the parent to identify and name their strengths, skills and knowledge, and to reflect on the ways they’ve overcome adversity in the past. These conversations recognise the times when adults have been able to parent in the way they would like, and how they have taken care of their kids in the past.
In the following video (37 sec), Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Sally Riley talks about the importance of parent-child connection for children’s development.
You can learn more about working with parents experiencing substance use issues in our e-learning courses, The impact of parental substance use on the child and Parental substance use and child-aware practice.
Hopeful conversations bring to light the connection between the parent’s hope for themselves and for the mental health and wellbeing of their children. In conjunction with a curious approach, they allow stories of strength and hope to emerge, as well as challenges and vulnerabilities that you can work with to help strengthen the parent-child relationship. Moreover, they recognise children as a motivating factor in the parent’s recovery.
In the next video (1 min 10 sec), Sandra* shares her experience of substance use and FDV, and what she wishes services had asked about her children.
*Not her real name
Most parents and children who have experienced adversity – particularly mothers who have experienced FDV – have rich stories of resilience. Opportunities for parents (and children) to share these stories can help support proactive safety planning and problem-solving, with a focus on the child’s mental health and wellbeing.
You can learn more about supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing in the context of FDV in our e-learning courses, The impact of family and domestic violence on the child and Family and domestic violence and child-aware practice.
Having difficult conversations with parents
You might be thinking, ‘This is all well and good, but I need something more practical for when I’ve got a parent sitting in front of me.’ The PERCS Conversation Guide is exactly that. This psychosocial discussion tool was created to support conversations between practitioners and parents around the impact of adult health issues or parental and family adversities on children’s daily lives.
The parent-child relationship is the first of five domains covered by the guide:
- Parent-child relationships
- Emotions and behaviours
- Communication and meaning-making
- Support networks
This domain explores if/how parents feel and stay connected to their child in the face of challenges, and how practitioners can increase parental confidence and promote a positive parent-child relationship (involving warmth, acceptance and stability).
Example questions are provided for each domain, to help you to engage with parents and sensitively explore the impact of the adversity on the child. Questions are designed to help the parent highlight their hopes, strengths, efforts, capabilities and positive qualities, in relation to each domain.
- ‘What’s it like being a parent to (child’s name)?’
- ‘How would you describe your relationship with (child’s name)? How do you think they’d describe their relationship with you?’
- ‘Have you noticed any differences in the way (child’s name) responds to, approaches and/or interacts with you during tough times?’
- ‘What aspects of the adversity impact on your relationship with (child’s name) the most? What do you think they’re noticing about this?’
These conversations may help to reduce some of the shame and stigma associated with parents’ experience of adversity, allowing them to honestly share their concerns.
Emerging Minds’ PERCS suite includes a generic conversation guide; a guide for general practitioners; and specific guides around parental substance use, family and domestic violence, and parental physical illness.
Early intervention in a troubled parent-child relationship is clearly beneficial, but research shows that strengthening this relationship at any stage during childhood or early adolescence can make a real difference.
The parent-child relationship flows in both directions. By helping parents to reflect on their children, their circumstances, and their parenting role, you enable them to strengthen the parent-child relationship and better support their children’s mental health and wellbeing. In turn, an increase in warm and consistent parenting can reduce difficult behaviours in the child, decreasing the parent’s stress and making the parenting role just that bit easier.
The following resources can help you to explore and strengthen the parent-child relationship through your practice.
Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). (2017). Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect (CFCA Resource Sheet). Melbourne: AIFS.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). (2019). Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019. Cat. no. FDV 3. Canberra: AIHW.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2016). Personal Safety Survey. Cat. No. 4906.0. Canberra, Australia: ABS.
Kitzmann, K. M., Gaylord, N. K., Holt, A. R., & Kenny, E. D. (2003). Child witnesses to domestic violence: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71(2), 339-352.
Morris, A. (1999). Maternal alienation: the use of mother blaming in abuse. Australian Journal of Primary Health, 5(3), 71-75.
Rioseco, P., Warren, D., & Daraganova, G. (2020). Social-emotional wellbeing from childhood to early adolescence: The benefits of supporting parents (research brief). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.