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KJSA logoParenting & family breakdown 

Parenting: Headlines

The foundations for virtually every aspect of human development – physical, intellectual and emotional – are laid in early childhood. What happens during these early years (starting in the womb) has lifelong effects on many aspects of health and wellbeing as well as educational achievement and economic status. The factors influencing children’s outcomes change over the life course but the consistent factor throughout is the role of parents and families.

Parents living in the more socially deprived areas of Kirklees had reduced personal aspirations and were seeking to get through each day as best they could. Despite this, they had high aspirations and expectations for their children. They wanted them to “do better than I did”, and get a good education and a good job.

Parenting: Why is this issue/group important? 

Parents are the most important “educators” of their children for both cognitive and non-cognitive skills1. Giving every child the best start in life is crucial to reducing health inequalities across the life course. The foundations for virtually every aspect of human development – physical, intellectual and emotional – are laid in early childhood. What happens during these early years (starting in the womb) has lifelong effects on many aspects of health and wellbeing – from obesity, heart disease and mental health, to educational achievement and economic status.

Parenting style also makes a difference. Parents who combine high levels of parental warmth with high levels of supervision are more likely to have children at age five who are more confident, autonomous and empathic. On the other hand, a “disengaged” parenting style is associated with poorer outcomes for children1.

The term “early intervention” is used to refer to the general approaches, and the specific policies and programmes, which help to give children aged 0-3 the social and emotional bedrock they need to reach their full potential, and to those which help older children become the good parents of tomorrow. The rationale is simple – many of the costly and damaging social problems in society are created because children are not given the right type of support in their earliest years, when they should achieve their most rapid development. If that help is not provided early enough, then it is often too late. In that period, neglect, the wrong type of parenting and other adverse experiences can have a profound effect on how children are emotionally “wired”. This will deeply influence their future responses to events and their ability to empathise with other people2.

Adverse childhood experiences can have a detrimental influence on a number of outcomes. Studies show the links between childhood maltreatment, such as childhood abuse, neglect and family dysfunction, and later life health and wellbeing. Adults who have adverse childhoods show higher levels of violence and antisocial behaviour, adult mental health problems, school underperformance and lower IQs, economic underperformance and poor physical health. These factors lead to high expenditure on health and social services, social welfare, and the criminal justice system, as well as lower wealth creation2.

Most children who are developing well at the end of their early years go on to exceed expectations in reading and in maths at the end of Key Stage 1. These results also show that children in the lowest achieving fifth in terms of their learning and development at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are six times more likely to be in the lowest fifth at Key Stage 1. Children’s experiences in their early years provide the essential foundations for both healthy development and their achievement through school. These clear links illustrate why it is important to ensure that children’s early experiences equip them with the skills that they need for life3. The most important influences on children’s early development are those that come from home. Children benefit most when they experience the consistent support and presence of caring adults – carers, parents or other family members – from the earliest possible age. Evidence shows that the most positive impact comes from families in terms of improved outcomes for children. This is followed by access to good quality early years provision which has the next largest impact on children’s development by the age of 5. The evidence strongly shows that this is particularly important for disadvantaged children, and often helps parents to develop effective home learning environments3.

Parenting: What significant factors affect this issue/group? 

There is evidence that relative poverty and low income has a direct impact on parenting and on children’s health and wellbeing. Income is strongly associated with types of maternal psychological functioning that promote self-esteem, positive behaviour and better physical health in children. For example, children who have low cognitive scores at 22 months of age but who grow up in families of high socioeconomic position improve their relative scores as they approach the age of ten. The relative position of children with high scores at 22 months, but who grow up in families of low socioeconomic position, worsens as they approach age ten. In other words, children of educated or wealthy parents can score poorly in early tests but still catch up, whereas children of worse-off parents are extremely unlikely to do so. There is no evidence that entry into schooling reverses this pattern4.

There is strong evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life. Family background, parental education, good parenting, and the opportunities for learning and development together, matter more than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life. The things that matter most are1:

  • A healthy pregnancy.
  • Good maternal mental health.
  • Secure bonding with the child.
  • Love and responsiveness of parents along with clear boundaries.
  • Opportunities for a child’s cognitive, language and social and emotional development.

The factors with the most impact in the early years include:

  • High quality and consistent support for parents during pregnancy.

And in the early years:

  • Support for better parenting.
  • Support for a good home learning environment.
  • High quality childcare.

Other factors impacting on the quality of outcomes for children based on parenting behaviour include alcohol and drug misuse, mental health, domestic violence and abuse, disability, and safeguarding. These issues are described elsewhere in the JSNA.

Parenting: Which groups or communities are most affected by this? 

As described, the most important factor identified has been socioeconomic status. High scoring children at 22 months from poorer backgrounds are caught up and overtaken by lower scoring children from wealthier backgrounds as they progress through the school system4. 

Parenting: Views of local people5 

Evaluative research conducted in 2009 in Kirklees5 engaged parents of children of a range of ages in describing their experiences of being parents and of the type of support they valued. Results showed that:

  • parents living in the more socially deprived areas of Kirklees had few, if any, personal aspirations
  • they were often simply seeking to survive and get through each day as best they could.

Despite this, they had high aspirations and expectations for their children. They wanted them to “do better than I did”, get a good education and a good job but despite these hopes had few effective strategies due to financial and other constraints. Strong informal networks of close-knit family and friends meant that parents often resisted the idea of any formal support.

Parents had concerns but their family’s health per se was not usually front of mind. Other issues were initially more concerning such as financial hardship, ability to provide for their children, general deprivation of area, children’s personal safety, street crime/gangs, drugs and getting in with the wrong crowd.

For some parents, the words “parenting” and “help” had acquired some pejorative connotations particularly amongst an audience who by definition may be more vulnerable and/or sensitive to criticism. It seemed to imply that they were in some way lacking in their parenting skills and in need of help. As such there was an inherent lack of trust for authorities and of formal support. Only those with very serious issues/problems (youth offending, court orders, etc.) accepted that more formal or intensive support was necessary and/or helpful and overall those who had experienced intensive support felt positive when receiving the support but disappointed with the length of support and follow-up received.

Some of the support needs identified by parents in Kirklees were already available. Specifically, the services provided by Sure Start Children’s Centres were of some interest to those with younger children who felt they could meet their support needs identified within the research, for example around health related support and activities for children.

In addition, Children’s Centres appeared to work well in challenging perceptions of traditional formal support. Parents identified the need to raise awareness of what is available, address existing barriers to accessing services (e.g. more active encouragement), provide “outreach” work in the community to explain what is on offer and provide this encouragement.

Parenting: What could commissioners and service planners consider? 

To have an impact on health inequalities there needs to be concerted action to address the social gradient in children’s access to positive early experiences. Expenditure could be re-focused proportionately across the gradient to ensure effective support to parents (starting in pregnancy and continuing through the transitions of the child into primary and secondary schools), including quality early education and childcare. All families need some information and support during pregnancy and postnatally but some require additional support. One example is the Healthy Child Programme, a universal, preventive programme tailored to the needs of each family with support provided to planners and practitioners to identify the factors in pregnancy and around birth that are associated with health and wellbeing outcomes for a child at five years. This type of universal pre and postnatal support is important because it has no stigma attached and levels of take-up are extremely high.

  • A shift to a primary prevention strategy which offers substantial social and financial benefits.
  • Give the Foundation Years from 0 to 5 (including pregnancy) at least the same status and recognition as primary or secondary stages with an objective which should be to produce high levels of “school readiness” for all children regardless of family income.
  • Provide good quality early years education and childcare proportionately across the gradient.
  • Rebalance the current culture of “late reaction” to social problems towards an early intervention culture, based on the premise of giving all children the social and emotional bedrock they need to achieve and to pre-empt those problems.
  • Combine this with outreach to increase the take-up by children from disadvantaged families.
  • Proper co-ordination of the machinery of Local Authorities to put early intervention at the heart of local strategies, including those seeking to raise educational achievement and employability, improve social mobility, reduce crime, support parents and improve mental and physical health.
  • Only evidence-based interventions should be supported.

Parenting: References 

  1. Field, F. The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults, December 2010.
  2. Allen G, Early Intervention: The Next Steps, An Independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government, January 2011.
  3. Tickell, C. The Early Years: Foundations for life, health and learning – An Independent Report on the Early Years Foundation Stage to Her Majesty’s Government. 2011
  4. Marmot M et al, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, The Marmot Review 2010.
  5. Support For Parents in Kirklees: September 2009. Quaestor/Andrew Irving Associates. 

Parenting: Date this section was last reviewed

09/07/2013 (PL)

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Family breakdown: Headlines

1 in 10 adults in Kirklees are either divorced or separated.

2 in 5 children experience family breakdown, at least half of which occurs by age three.

Family stability in the UK and Kirklees has been in continuous decline for four decades, and adults and children today are increasingly faced with the challenges of families which are dysfunctional (often because of mental health issues), fractured (through separation or divorce), or fatherless (15% of babies are born into homes with no resident father)1.

This is especially the case in the most deprived groups in society but family breakdown is also affecting people across the socioeconomic spectrum, however this section focuses on the breakdown of relationships where dependent children are present.

Family breakdown: Why is this issue important?

Relationships can break down for a number of reasons such as personality and relationship problems, illness, drinking, physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial or work problems, neglect of home and children5. The impact of the actual event of breakdown can cause other problems such as stress. Stress incurred through divorce negatively affects almost every adult who goes through the experience, but the effects will differ substantially from person to person. The fact is that marital dissolution is a crisis and a profoundly stressful life event for many people.

It is within the family environment that an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological development occurs. It is from the family that individuals learn unconditional love, understand right from wrong, and gain empathy, respect and self-regulation. These qualities enable individuals to engage positively at school, at work and in society in general. The absence of a stable, nurturing family environment has a profoundly damaging impact on the individual, often leading to behaviour which is profoundly damaging to society. Family breakdown is particularly acute in the most deprived communities. It is in these areas where the highest levels of worklessness, addiction and offending can occur2.

The 2011 Census showed that out of the 330,768 adults living in Kirklees nearly half (47%) were living in a couple (married or civil partnership), 1 in 8 (12%) were cohabiting, 1 in 3 (32%) had never married or been in a civil partnership and 6% were widowed.

1 in 10 (10%), i.e. 34,000 people, were either divorced, separated or married/in a civil partnership but not living as a couple. These figures reflect the position on Census day, not the number who have ever been divorced or separated.

National data shows that:

  • The number of lone parent families has risen consistently from 0.5 million in 1970 to 2 million in 20092. Locally, in 2011 there were just over 12,500 households in Kirklees who had one parent and one or more dependent children; 9 out of 10 of these were female8.
  • 40% of children experience family breakdown, at least half of which occurs by age three2.
  • By the age of 16 nearly half (48%) of children will be living in a home with only one paternal parent3.
  • Amongst married couples, divorce is concentrated in the early years of marriage: 1 in 7 couples divorce between the 2nd and 6th wedding anniversaries4.
  • Unmarried cohabiting parents remain at least twice as likely to split up across every category of income and education2.
  • The number of divorces in 2010 was highest among men and women aged 40 to 446.
  • In 2010, 20% of men and 19% of women divorcing had their previous marriage end in divorce6.
  • Locally since 2001 the proportion of people who are married has dropped 5% to 47%, and cohabitation has increased by 2% to 12% in 20118.

Divorce rates have changed little in 25 years and may now be falling. Divorce tends to be concentrated in the early years of marriage. One third of all the divorces that are going to happen do so during the five-year period from the 2nd to the 6th anniversaries. Annual divorce rates peak during the 4th, 5th and 6th years of marriage and then decline steadily over time4.

The likelihood of staying together for life has fallen from 75% amongst couples marrying in the 1960s, to 65% amongst couples marrying in the 1970s, to 55% amongst couples marrying in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s2.

Family breakdown: What significant factors are affecting this issue?

Half of couples divorcing in 2010 had at least one child aged under 16 living in the family6. A breakdown in the parents’ relationship or significant ongoing conflict in the home (whether or not this leads to a relationship breakdown) can have a negative impact on a child’s outcomes. This can be through the direct effects of conflict and indirectly through a reduction in parenting capacity. Children react in many different ways, becoming aggressive, anxious or withdrawn, which in turn can have an impact on behaviour, mental health and educational achievement1. However, these negative impacts are not evident for all children of separated parents and research has highlighted that the nature of parental conflict, parenting quality and the number of changes in family structure can play a role in how children are able to handle conflict7.

Stress is one of the major factors impacting upon an individual’s ability to maintain their health. We all experience stresses or “life events”, the effects are magnified for those individuals and social groups that have limited social support, a limited ability to control one’s social situation/environment, poor social networks, and low levels of social integration.

Life experiences shape us all. Individuals are often keen to help others going through similar life events, such as major life transitions, difficult circumstances, such as money problems or job loss, and experiencing illness or loss. This support is often rewarding for the individual as they feel people are benefiting from their experiences, and also the recipient feels two benefits: firstly that people have been through this before and also reassured by the fact that someone really understands the situation that they are in7.

Family breakdown: Which groups are most affected by this issue?

Low-income families, especially those in poorer neighbourhoods, are exposed to a variety of experiences that place extraordinary stress on the couple and family relationships. In addition to the constant stress of making ends meet financially, and of working in unstable, low paying jobs, and being at more risk of being in poor quality housing, domestic abuse is also more prevalent in low-income households4.

Dependent children are significantly affected by family breakdown4. How a child or young person will react to a separation of their parents can differ greatly, and there is no such thing as a “usual” response. Many children get through the whole process relatively easily (of course this also depends on the situation and how the parents are handling things), whilst others struggle a lot more. Similarly, some children will change the most during the initial phase of the actual separation, and return “back to normal” soon afterwards, while some children will only show changes in behaviour in the long run7.

On top of the emotional impact, separations often force lifestyle changes upon the child or young person. They must adjust to only having one parent around at a time, and possibly even moving house or changing schools, etc. These lifestyle changes bring additional stress with them, and can make coping with the separation even more difficult.

Amongst UK families with dependent children, the highest rates of marriage, and the lowest rates of cohabitation and lone parenthood occur amongst Asians. In the census year 2001, 85% of Indian families with dependent children were headed by a married couple. At the other extreme are the various groups classified as “black” in which 50 to 60% of families are headed by a lone parent, typically the mother, and another 10% are headed by a cohabiting couple4.

Disability puts additional pressure on families, particularly when associated with children or when the onset has been sudden. As well as the psychological and financial pressures, access to the support systems, which should assist, is frequently an additional source of huge pressure, further stressing the family unit4.

Family breakdown: Where is this causing greatest concern?

There is no specific pattern that highlights areas within Kirklees that are most affected by family breakdown. Povery is a key issue but key differences between ethnic groups would make using poverty as a proxy indicator inappropriate and the effects of breakdown can dramatically affect an individual or family irrespective of previous social status or household income.

Family breakdown: Views of local people

There is currently no local intelligence on this issue. National research on children’s perspectives on parental separation highlights that children want to be told what is going on when their parents separate and some want to be consulted and involved in decisions about their living arrangements. This can also improve outcomes for those children7.

Family breakdown: What could commissioners and service planners consider?

  • Improve services to tackle growing mental health problems causing family breakdown.
  • Invest in relationship support including community-level support.
  • Better facilitate family stability and minimise family breakdown by encouraging healthy family relationships.
  • The importance of parenting and parental relationships, co-operative parenting post-separation, and social support suggest the types of services and interventions that are needed to support children and their parents, both at the time of family breakdown and in the longer term, include:
    • facilitating communication between parents and children
    • helping children to manage transitions and develop coping strategies
    • facilitating children’s networks for support
    • maintaining school and community links
    • enabling conflict management and reduction
    • parenting support to encourage “good” parenting
    • facilitating contact with non-resident parents.
  • Focus on the first three years of children’s lives and assist families during other periods of vulnerability (which may be prolonged e.g. when disability is a factor).

Family breakdown: References

    1. Field F, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances; December 2010.
    2. Callan S. Centre for Social Justice, Breakthrough Britain, Family Breakdown; 2006.
    3. Marmot M et al. Fair Society, Healthy Lives, The Marmot Review; 2010.
    4. Callan S. The State of the Nation Report: Fractured Families. Social Policy Justice Group; 2006.
    5. Amato PR, Previti D. People’s Reasons for Divorcing: Gender, Social Class, the Life Course, and Adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, Vol. 27, No. 5, pp 602-606; 2003.
    6. Office for National Statistics, Divorces in England and Wales 2010 - Statistical Bulletin; 2011.
    7. Mooney A et al. Impact of Family Breakdown on Children’s Well-Being; Evidence Review. Research Report DCSF-RR113. DCSF/Institute of Education; June 2009. Institute of Education, University of London.
    8. Centre for Welfare Reform. Peer Support; 2011.

Family breakdown: Date this section was last reviewed

22/07/2013 (PL)