Sunday, February 25, 2007

Unhappy families

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" -

from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

WHEN Karen Greechan's second son, Ryan, was born, she admits she was completely overwhelmed. "He was a totally different character from my first son, Conor," she says. "He had no patience and was incredibly independent. Where Conor would sit on my knee and listen to a story, he couldn't stay still for 10 seconds. He didn't sleep and demanded attention constantly, so Conor was getting ignored."

Having worked as a receptionist, Karen, whose husband often works nights, now found herself at home with her children 24 hours a day. Her relationship with Ryan, now four, was suffering, she was shouting all the time and Conor, now seven, was being ignored. "None of the techniques I had used with Conor worked with Ryan," she recalls. "I was sleep-deprived and depressed."

It's a scenario familiar to all those who struggle with the demands of family life, especially parents who have to balance them with other pressures, such as work, or the strains felt by the growing band of single parents. Then there are those who must contend with teenagers who swing from being the bright young person they always wanted them to be into sullen strangers.

The question is, to whom should parents turn at such times of stress? Sociologists say the decline of the extended family has made sources of advice harder to reach; professional advice is available, but few of us know how to get it, or if it will cost us money. And then there are the cultural obstacles: isn't turning to outsiders a sign of weakness and of parental failure?

After her experience, Karen has no such qualms. A chance meeting with someone who works for Children 1st led her onto a 12-week parenting course, which taught her new ways to communicate with her son. "They showed me how to ignore bad behaviour and reward positive behaviour. We had a star chart and, when he realised I would follow through, his behaviour and sleeping began to get better. Now the traits I saw as negatives have become positives. It is great he can do so much for himself. Of course, he still likes to get attention, but he knows Conor has to get some too."

But Karen was one of the lucky few, according to a survey conducted by Parents Across Scotland (PAS). It found most families feel under similar pressure but have nowhere to turn. The charity will present its full findings to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, when it will ask for more help to be made available.
What emerges strongly from the poll of 1,250 parents from across the social spectrum is that they are more worried than ever about bringing up their own children.

PAS coordinator Maddy Halliday says: "We are reaping what we have sown in terms of decades of underinvestment in youth services in the UK. We have been slow to support family development whereas other European nations have invested in their children. You only have to look at the provision of things like playing fields and youth clubs. They are not at the top of the priority list. Kids are more frustrated and parents feel more isolated than ever before in trying to deal with them.

"All parents have difficulties, with parents of young teenagers finding that even normal teenage behaviour can be extremely difficult. But what they are saying very consistently is that they are getting very little support. Being a parent is an interesting and challenging job but society tends to take it for granted."

According to the PAS survey, those seeking counselling services - 5% - are still in a tiny minority, but almost 80% would now actively consider it. Halliday detects a huge "cultural shift" taking place.

"People have traditionally felt very uncomfortable about seeking help for parenting problems," she says. "Those who use counselling services constantly praise them. There seems to be huge demand out there and if more people are going to start coming forward then we must make sure that the services are there to help them."

The survey's findings have come at a time when a series of other reports and incidents have created a picture of many British families in crisis, with parents often feeling under pressure and out of their depth.

Earlier this month, the UK found itself at the bottom of a Unicef league table charting the physical and emotional wellbeing of children in 25 industrialised countries. Only the US had more children living in households where the income was less than the national average. British children drank more alcohol than any others in the report and had the third highest rate of teenage pregnancy.

Girls as young as five are also being psychologically damaged by attempts to sexualise them, according to the American Psychological Association, which blames inappropriate clothing, toys and images in the media for corrupting childhood.

Meanwhile, at the extreme end of the spectrum, the teenage sons of black families in London have died in a series of apparently gang-related shootings.

Maggie Mellon, chairwoman of PAS, says: "I think there are more stresses on the family today. They are more likely to have both parents working and one parent living away from home. Life is lived at a faster pace and parents are told everything is their responsibility.

"They worry about obesity, education, disorder. Where they used to play out on the street, that's frowned upon now, so parents feel they have to keep children in. Then there's exams and careers and alcohol and drug abuse to worry about. And people no longer live in extended families, so when trouble does flare up there's no one to turn to."

Although parenting workshops can be accessed through organisations such as ParentLine Scotland (run by Children 1st) PAS and local authorities, and family therapy through health visitors and GPs, provision is patchy.

Where such services are available, users say they are effective. Carolann and Ally Banks knew they needed outside help when their teenage son started lashing out at the rest of his family. Frustrated by learning difficulties, Jonathan, now 16, often became difficult to restrain as he experienced terrifying explosions of anger.

With his sister Katie, 14, also demanding attention, the whole family reached boiling point. "There were constant outbursts and screaming as Jonathan and Katie fought with each other," says Carolann, a former nurse, who lives in Edinburgh. "We got to the stage that we were desperate."

That was almost year ago. But, just as things hit rock bottom, the family were put in touch with the Amber project, a mediation service for families with 16 to 24-year-olds who are finding life at home difficult.
There, mediators talked to the family members, individually and then all together, so they could discuss their different needs before drawing up a contract.

"I have learned now how to walk away from the temper tantrums, to give them 15 minutes to calm down before trying to find out what triggered them," said Carolann. "It's really hard, but I know now not to shout back but to talk softly, in a whisper even, so they have to stop screaming to hear what I'm saying, and things have improved."

Professor Lynn Jamieson, co-director of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at Edinburgh University, believes parents' willingness to seek outside support may be influenced by reality programmes such as Supernanny, which show how professionals can help deal with tricky situations. But she adds: "Although parents are saying they would be willing to consider counselling, not many of them have actually accessed it, which suggests to me there may still be some stigma attached to the idea of looking for help."
Jamieson believes the pressures on parents today are different, although not necessarily greater than those on previous generations. "With a high proportion of mothers acting as providers, parents do feel more time-pressured. And we have such a high standard of living, our expectations of what we should achieve are raised. Where once if your children were well-fed, clean and well-clothed, you were doing okay, now parents feel they should be enriching their children's lives in other ways."

She believes groups where parents get together to pool their parenting tips can provide the most effective support where resources for counselling are lacking.

Others warn against a one-solution-fixes-all approach, however. They stress the need to customise the way we treat youngsters according to their individual needs - and that their parents are best placed to identify and react to them, not outsiders.

Nick Seaton, chairman of pressure group Campaign for Real Education, believes parents are having their confidence shaken by the kind of TV programmes identified by Jamieson. "These programmes suggest all parents should think along the same lines and those are not necessarily the best lines. Ideally, parents should work these things out for themselves. Every family has a different set of circumstances so different approaches will suit them. It is much better that people tailor their behaviour to their individual circumstances than that they take on parenting styles that don't work for them because they are made to feel they are better.

"Of course, parenting workshops and family therapy may benefit a few people, but others, who are doing a good job, may become alarmed by them and start thinking they have been doing things wrong. I think the vast majority of parents understand very well how to bring up their children."

Maureen Watt, an SNP MSP in the north-east, is one of five politicians who have agreed to speak at a special meeting at the parliament this week to discuss the findings of the PAS survey and look at how resources can be improved.

As a mother of two teenagers - Stuart, 15, and Kirsty, 14 - she is well aware of how demanding parenting can be. "People shouldn't think it is an easy job. It's very challenging and there's no real training other than how your parents brought you up," she says.

Her solution? "I think the key is to keep the channels of communication open and never to stop giving them hugs."


Source: Scotland on Sunday

Comment: I attend Family Therapy at Couple Counselling Lothian this service has been invauluable to my in my emotional healing and helping me heal my childhood traumas. So Big thanks to Nick and Sue from Family Therapy at Couple Couselling in Edinburgh. :)

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