Here we’ll be looking at a range of things that early years staff should consider when working with young, or teenage parents, or their children. Some might be to do with factors about the parent’s possible history and background, the current challenges they face, or how they may be feeling about certain things. We’ll round off with a useful set of tips.
- How likely are you to find yourself working with young or teenage parents?
If you work with families or early years, you might well find yourself working with a teenage parent or parents at some point.
In 2020, a survey that we published suggested that 45% of nursery workers had worked with teenage parents at some point.
Whilst teenage pregnancies have gone down over the last ten years, in 2019, 20,300 women under 20 had babies. (If we include women in this, the number rises to over 100,000 – which is about 15% of all births in England).
There are no official statistics about how many teenage boys have babies, but estimates suggest that 1 in 10 first time fathers are under 25.
- Things to think about when working with teenage parents
When working with teenage parents, it’s important to remember the following.
Many ordinary teenagers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out their own ‘identity’. It’s a natural part of being a teen. But ‘coming to terms with a new identity’ also happens to be a challenge of new parenthood. This means that any teenager who also finds themselves becoming a new parent, can find it doubly difficult and confusing to figure out ‘who they are’.
Teenagers are often also keen to enjoy a new sense of independence, but this freedom is curtailed by the arrival of a new baby. Some teenage parents may also have to deal with a bit of social stigma or disapproval, which can be difficult.
All these factors added together can mean that a teen parent can feel vulnerable and low in confidence. So, some extra support to help them manage how they are feeling might be really helpful.
- The challenges that young parents might be dealing with, and why they might need extra support
There is no research to show that being young makes someone a bad parent. In fact, there is evidence to show that there are lots of positives to being a young parent. However, young parents can face a lot of stigma and judgement in society and they can face some specific challenges.
Research has shown that young mums are:
- More likely to have been excluded from school
- Less likely to have a higher level of education
- Less likely to have social support (This could be the case if they have no fixed home, are living in temporary accommodation, are separated from the child’s father, or isolated from peers)
- More likely to have experience trauma or maltreatment.
- 60% of young mums have experienced childhood abuse, 69% have experienced domestic violence, and 50% have previously been in care
- More likely to have mental health problems - up to 67% have a history of mental health problems, which is more than 3 times the rate of older women who become new parents.
- 63% more likely to be living in poverty
These kinds of difficult circumstances can have an impact on their baby.
- How the past might influence parenting approaches
If anyone has experienced disadvantage and adversity during their lives, it may mean that they have some unprocessed feelings of pain, trauma and loss. For teenagers, they have simply had less time to process these feelings.
Their relationship with their own parents or carers might have an effect. For example, if they did not have an attuned bond. Sometimes underlying feelings can also be triggered by the birth of their own baby. For example, it could reawaken a desire for a supportive mother if their own mother was absent. This might make it harder to offer the required support to their own baby.
It’s important to reiterate to young parents that such challenges do not make them bad parents. It’s just good to be aware of these things, so they can understand their own relationship with their child.
- Young parents and isolation
When young parents are able to connect with other young parents, this has been found to help improve both their and their children’s wellbeing.
According to research, many young parents have reported that most of their negative experiences stem from ‘social exclusion’. It’s much harder a mum or dad who are in their teens to find friends or contemporaries who can share their journey, or relate to what they’re going through in any meaningful way.
Not having social networks or the support of friends can lead to them lacking a ‘feeling of belonging’. It can also mean they miss out on connecting with others with the same interests or values. This can mean they struggle to develop a sense of meaning and purpose around their parenting role.
These are all things needed to create feelings of wellbeing. Supporting young parents through feelings of isolation can improve their mental and emotional resources, and leave them more able to be attuned to their baby.
- How young parents might feel about those trying to support them
1. Fears about the potential removal of their child
Young parents, like many other groups marginalised by society, have been found to mistrust professional settings and the staff who work in them. Therefore, they can be less likely to ask for help. Understandably, they can worry that their parenting skills will be judged, or that negative evaluations may lead to their infants being removed.
2. Feeling of being patronised by staff
Research has shown that sometimes young parents feel ‘patronised’ by the staff at services. This may be due to professionals thinking that young parents are still ‘children’ and treating them like this. So it’s important for an staff to keep this common reaction in mind when they engage with them.
It’s also important for staff to guard against making assumptions about the young parents they work with, for not all young parents they work with will react in the same ways. And sometimes, when, staff in childcare settings have been young parents themselves, they could see themselves in the young parents they work and expect them a) to be able to ‘get on with it’ if they did, or b) to ‘fall apart’ if they really struggled in young parenthood. So it is important for staff to try and see each young parent for who they are, and be free from pre-existing believes or experiences.
(If it’s a possibility, supervision can be really helpful in supporting staff to identify their own assumptions and to notice when they are being influenced by them.)
3. Being overwhelmed by engagement with multiple agencies
Sometimes young parents can be involved with a few different support agencies. This can get overwhelming, and at times might distract them from defining and focusing on the areas in which they require support.
- Tips for childcare settings on how to improve support for young parents
Sometimes small changes can be made to services to enable them to better support young parents.
Here are some tips:
1. If possible use the same staff members to work with the same young parents Some young parents may not want to be too involved with the staff in a childcare setting. It helps to allow enough time for trusted relationships to build with individual staff members, and when possible, to consistently use the same staff members to work with the same young parents. This should enable a sense of trust to develop, and the young parents will feel more secure.
2. Talk to young parents if they miss meetings
Staff can show young parents that they care about them by gently chasing them up if they miss meetings. This has been found to be a key part of building trust.
3. When appropriate, communicate by phone not post
Young parents mostly prefer communication via text rather than letters through the post, so this could be something that your setting considers, if it hasn’t already.
4. If any staff can personally identify with the experiences of the young parents, then keep this in mind
Young parents can find it easier to hear advice from other young parents. Other staff who were/are young parents may be able to recognise the challenges they face from their own personal experience. So you may want to bare this in mind, when selecting which staff to work with which young parents, or which key workers work with their children.
5. Encourage self care when required
Some young parents feel guilty when doing the important things required to look after themselves, their wellbeing, and mental health. Staff can normalise and encourage this!
6. Deliver advice in a positive way
Young parents can feel judged by staff, which can make them feel more stigmatised. Sometimes the way advice or guidance is delivered by staff can be worked on, in order to make these feelings less likely. For instance staff could be encouraged to use a ‘strengths-based approach’ a ie. by talking about what they have seen working well in the relationship - before talking about any problems or the child’s difficulties. This will improve the parents’ confidence and ensure they don’t feel criticised. Adopting a gentle and nurturing approach also works well.
7. Encourage young people to open up, and offer clarity as to what does and does not constitute a safeguarding concern
Young parents can worry that talking honestly about their difficulties may lead to their child being removed. Staff could be encouraged to be extremely clear and upfront about the criteria in which safeguarding referrals would be made, so that the young parents feel more comfortable talking about their difficulties and concerns.