'Nurturing Healthy Minds Together', a new analysis published by the National Children’s Bureau this month, reveals how trust can be built both within families, and between families and practitioners.
J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, once said “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust”. Those working in mental health support would probably agree.
"Mirror neurons in the brain show that how we act and interact with our children explains their copy-cat behaviours."
We know it is the positive and optimistic bond between people that is the magical, and often elusive, quality in so much of what we do. And nowhere is the importance of trust more important than in work supporting the emotional wellbeing of very young children and their parents.
Nurturing Healthy Minds Together, an analysis by the National Children’s Bureau, stresses how this trust can be built – both within families, and between families and practitioners. The report looks at the published literature and UK policy framework around supporting parental engagement in work to promote the mental health and emotional wellbeing of very young children – from conception to reception.
Trust between parents
At the core of the report is the fact that the parent-child relationship is the key to improving early mental health. Secure attachment – where the child feels protected and is confident in the positive bond between themselves and their parent/ carer - supports healthy cognitive and emotional development in young children.
The report, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, supports the view that babies’ brains are wired for connection. The way parents and primary caregivers interact with babies and infants literally shapes their brain development.
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We now know that ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain mean that how we act and interact with our children explains their copy-cat behaviours. The small, day-to-day interactions with babies and very young children can make the greatest difference, so building parental/carer capacity and confidence on how to increase positive, attuned and responsive interactions with their children is the key to reaping mental and emotional benefits for both.
Sharing what might traditionally have been seen as ‘specialist’ knowledge on brain development with families is shown to be an effective way of enabling parents to reach their full potential and identify their own needs for support and advice.
Trust between parents and practitioners
But supporting parents to play their part, requires a positive relationship between them and the practitioners and services reaching out to provide support.
Engaging with interventions to support very young children’s mental health can be a daunting experience for parents who may face logistical and emotional barriers to getting involved, especially if they are disadvantaged and vulnerable.
However, once trust is established, parents value the support and can notice the positive impact on their own mental health, as well as their child’s.
Research highlighted in the report, released to coincide with Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, finds that effective parental engagement is often built on mutual trust and includes:
- Respect for the value of parents’ knowledge, skills and lived experiences.
- Collaboration – giving parents have an equal voice.
- Opportunities for learning and development.
Once a trusting relationship is in place, parents’ contribution can blossom beyond just taking an active part in their child’s mental health development. Some of the roles that parents have led within early years and mental health services include providing peer-to-peer support, as parent champions, and collaborating with commissioners and practitioners on issues of wider service design and delivery.
Infant mental health support requires resources, now more than ever
While there is an intention to provide a broad ecosystem to support the emotional wellbeing of babies, young children and their families, despite the range of support on offer, consistent provision of services and take-up is often low.
The simple fact is that effective parental engagement requires proper resourcing, and that has never been as important as now, when COVID-19 means that many parents and children are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.
The necessary restrictions on freedom and subsequent changes to daily lives, as well as the economic impact, has been challenging for many families – particularly the most vulnerable. Babies are arriving into this world without the support of their wider family circle, and the emotional wellbeing of many parents and children has been undermined.
While the full extent of their mental health needs will only become clear in time, it is likely to increase. Now is the time to seize every opportunity to bring conversations around infant mental health and authentic parental engagement to the forefront of the minds of decision-makers, commissioners, researchers and practitioners.
Investing in supporting the child and parent relationship, and in building the trust between practitioners and parents has never been more important.
Annamarie Hassall is Director of Practice, Programmes and Fundraising at the National Children’s Bureau.
Nurturing Healthy Minds Together - Exploring how services and parents can work in partnership to support the social and emotional development of under-5s is available at: www.ncb.org.uk/nurturinghealthyminds