Just how much a child is put at risk by their parent’s mental health difficulties depends on how much support the family has.
A new analysis shows early childhood educators are especially valued by parents with mental health difficulties, who are less likely to have other trusted adults to turn to for advice about their children.
The finding, released recently by Australia’s Parenting Research Centre, reinforces the valuable advisory role that professional educators can hold in the lives of all families, but particularly those where a parent is experiencing poorer mental health.
These adults are more likely than other parents to interact with early childhood and school education staff around decisions and advice for their children.
Drawn from a larger survey of 2600 Victorian parents, this outcome could become an even more valuable insight for services when combined with Amplify’s recent two-part coverage of parent communication tools (part one, part two).
About the parent survey
Parenting Today in Victoria surveyed 2600 parents of children aged from birth to 18 years old. Conducted by the Parenting Research Centre with Victorian Government funding, the study has filled important gaps in knowledge of how parents are faring and the relationships they have with their children. It provides valuable information from one of the largest groups of fathers ever surveyed on parenting.
Read the full Parenting Today in Victoria research report. Watch this video for a summary.
Anxiety, depression, distress
Poor mental health can affect parents in any community, at any time, and takes many forms. This finding prompts educators to consider that the parents who are asking them for advice may be more vulnerable than others. There are opportunities to offer deeper support and build strong relationships which will benefit children well beyond their enrolled time at the service.
The study found nearly 60% of parents with poorer mental health actively seek help from educators compared with 43% of parents with better mental health. In addition, 74% of parents with poorer mental health look to educators for information or advice compared with 66% of parents with better mental health.
“This analysis shows that educators are an important source of support for parents with mental health difficulties,” said Parenting Research Centre Principal Research Specialist Dr Catherine Wade.
“They are particularly important because parents with poorer mental health – especially those experiencing current psychological distress – are less likely to have someone close to them that they turn to when they have problems in their lives.
“They are also less likely to seek information or help about their child from family members – including their own partners.”
More than a quarter [of parents surveyed] said they were experiencing moderate to serious psychological distress
Mental health difficulties common
The Parenting Today in Victoria Study of 2600 parents found that mental health issues among parents were common. While most parents reported good mental health, two in every five had experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety or substance addiction since having children. More than a quarter said they were experiencing moderate to serious psychological distress.
This new analysis of the main parenting study shows that despite being more likely to seek help from educators, parents with poorer mental health feel less comfortable doing so than those with better mental health.
Those parents are also slightly less likely to be satisfied with the help they receive (79% compared with 83% of parents with better mental health). But overall satisfaction with educators is high.
parents who struggle with mental health issues are less likely to be confident and effective in their parenting role
Educator outreach crucial
How can educators ensure they keep communication channels open for parents most in need? Awareness is key, say the researchers.
“When education staff recognise the barriers these parents face and have mechanisms in place to support them, this has enormous potential to help the entire family,” Dr Wade said.
“Just how much a child is put at risk by their parent’s mental health difficulties depends on how much support the family has.
“We do know that parents who struggle with mental health issues are less likely to be confident and effective in their parenting role. This affects how patient or critical they are how much time they spend playing with their children.
“If we can embed evidence-based information and support about parent mental health into the places where parents go for information – including schools, early education centres and playgroups – we will increase the positive impact for both parents and their children.”
About the Parenting Research Centre
The Parenting Research Centre helps children thrive by driving new and better ways to support families in their parenting. It works with governments and community organisations in the fields of health, education and welfare to put the best evidence on parenting support into action.
Meet the author
Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.