Becky Saunders: How volunteers with parenting wisdom connect others to support

24 Oct 2019 Voices

Becky Saunders from Home-Start UK explains how volunteers with experience can act as bridge between other parents and the services and support available to them. 

Parenting is deeply private and personal. It is fraught with powerful emotions as we are faced with the vulnerability and dependency of the youngest in society and their need for us to help them make sense of their world. 

Parents are assailed by messages about their role, implicit and explicit, from society and the latest theories and practices, and from their own internalised experiences of childhood. Self-doubt in the face of stress, and the pressures of our daily lives, leaves many vulnerable to seeking answers which in themselves feed cycles of comparison and insecurity. 

In our increasingly atomised communities many parents can feel alone with the dilemmas and concerns they are feeling. 

We need to ask ourselves how can we strengthen the networks of support and relationships of trust that facilitate parents to navigate these challenging times? How we can promote face-to-face contacts where flexibility, responsive sensitivity and being alongside offer a model for finding a more sustainable pathway to felt security? 

And, when support for parents - be this specialist, targeted or universal services - is patchy and overstretched, what might be the role of civil society in addressing these concerns? 

Real-life parenting

Families have been disproportionately impacted by rising housing costs, the high costs of childcare for working parents, and changes in welfare benefits, with more than 1 in 4 growing up in poverty, rising to 47 per cent of those in lone-parent families. 

Unhelpful comparisons between the glossy and happy images we see on social media and our own messy and far from glossy experiences can exacerbate feelings of shame. A recent survey of parents by Home-Start UK showed 60 per cent of parents saying they feel pressure from social media to be the “perfect parent”, and more troubling, half said that fears of being seen as a bad parent would hold them back from asking for help when they needed it.

This can be especially acute when mothers and fathers face difficulties around their mental health. Home-Starts report that on average parents who do seek help struggle for over seven months before reaching out for support. The private pain and struggle endured in place of embarrassment and concerns about being judged as a parent. The vast majority of parents identify that their own struggles have an impact on their ability to cope as a parent or on their relationship with their partner.

This is why Home-Start has launched the #RealLifeParenting campaign to help parents talk about their experiences, and to challenge the barriers to seeking help.

The power of a voluntary relationship

For parents experiencing mild to moderate mental health difficulties, those lacking in confidence, or struggling to manage in their basic household tasks, a home-visiting volunteer can provide an invaluable service, helping parents get back on track, and enabling specialist resources to be deployed most appropriately to those with more urgent, severe or enduring needs. 

In addition, a home-visiting volunteer service, comprised of individuals who have themselves been parents or who have had parenting experience, can reach parents in a unique way: in their homes, with no particular immediate agenda, peer-to-peer, and able to build a relationship over time through regular, unhurried, weekly visits, spanning many months or sometimes a year or more. They are able to form alliances with those less likely to engage with statutory supports, offering a light-touch, responsive and attentive approach over time to facilitate parental engagement. 

A pro-active resource of well trained, organised and supported volunteers is able to make a bridge between available services in the community and the parents who might otherwise not reach them. They can also support parents to move from feeling overwhelmed and return to feelings of self-agency and authority in their parenting. 

A voluntary relationship means walking alongside parents, offering a listening ear and practical support, as parents find new ways of approaching problems, or make connections in the community to access health appointments, play-activities, or group supports.

A life-changing impact

Home-Start’s latest impact report shows that following this kind of support parents report an improvement in their ability to cope with their mental health and in their self-esteem. Parents talk about the power of the personal connection with their volunteer which often is the most important factor to them.

For many parents the positive and lasting impact of a Home-Start home visiting volunteer leads them to go on to volunteer and pass support on to another family. One-in-nine of our volunteers have themselves received volunteer support at a time in life when they needed it.

For the volunteers too this carefully supported, well-paced, boundaried, and relationship based activity has benefits. Volunteers gain important skills, and grow in their own confidence.  Home-Start’s research into the benefits of volunteering shows that volunteers themselves see improvements in health and wellbeing, in their self-confidence, and in their perceptions of both their physical and mental health.

Voluntary support isn’t the answer to every challenge that parents face, and it cannot be a substitute for the vital services that families, parents and their children need and which are under pressure. However, voluntary support can and should be a central and integrated part of the supports available.

In a world where relationships are increasingly fractured, we cannot underestimate the power of people taking time together and sharing ordinary common experiences, of listening attentively, and of just being there for someone in their daily lives. 

Becky Saunders is head of policy & development (family mental health) at Home-Start UK and is also a child and adolescent psychotherapist

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