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A year of 'Families Under Pressure'

Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke

02 August 2021

It’s now been over a year since the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at Kings, South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Maudsley Charity teamed up with celebrity parents, talented animators and digital innovators to produce 'Families Under Pressure' – eight animations designed to provide support families during the rigours of the first lockdown by providing bite sized evidence-based parenting tips. Below, Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke takes stock of progress over the last 12 months.

The creation of 'Families Under Pressure' was motivated by concerns, now largely confirmed by the data, that the stress, pressure and social isolation imposed during the initial period of extreme lockdown would lead to increased levels of children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties. This would in turn create new, or exacerbate existing, challenges for parents, many of whom themselves would be facing unprecedented threats to their own mental health.

At the same time the situation of families facing these challenges was being complicated by the fact that child mental health and special educational services, normally there to provide them with support, were also being seriously disrupted by both lockdown and the diversion of staff to front-line COVID work.

Evidence-based advice & support

families under pressure still

Given these ongoing and very serious challenges for families, we set ourselves the goal of finding a way to get basic evidence-based advice and support to parents in an attempt to ameliorate, at least some, of these negative lockdown-related risks. From this Families Under Pressure was born.

Of course, at the time, we expected (or at least hoped) that the specific need for which Families Under Pressure was created would be relatively short lived, as the pandemic eased. Little did we know at the time, that families would in fact face a lockdown roller coaster as more or less strict limitations of family activities and travel were imposed either locally or nationally in response to the waxing and waning of infection rates. This meant that the need for the sort of advice provided by Families Under Pressure did not in fact diminish over time and may have grown.

Following its launch, Families Under Pressure was distributed far and wide. It is estimated that the animations were watched by millions of parents. This was achieved by using a range of different media platforms including mumsnet and Channel 4 to disseminate them. One particularly effective tactic was to use the social media activity of the celebrity parents who narrated the animations, people like Danny Dyer, Olivia Coleman and Holly Willoughby, who had many millions of followers.

Initial feedback from parents about Families Under Pressure was very encouraging with the simple, light-hearted and non-judgemental style being especially appreciated. Different parents valued different tips to different degrees – some especially appreciating our tips for communicating clearly, others our focus on house rules while still others particularly appreciated the advice on how to use reward and sanctions to promote better behaviour.

Building on our momentum


There have been a number of exciting developments in the last 12 months that have extended the reach of Families Under Pressure. The scripts have been translated into German, with local celebrities doing the narration. The Government of Western Australia Health Commission has used Families Under Pressure as the spine of their dedicated multi-media child mental health campaign creating different length version tailored to different platforms and uses – including a terrestrial television campaign.

We have also used them as a core element of what we have termed “parent boosters” in a new parenting app called Parent Positive which is being trialled in SPARKLE (Supporting Parents and Kids through Lockdown Experiences) – a UKRI funded randomised controlled trial implemented within an ongoing cohort study of the effects of lockdown on children’s mental health led by our colleagues in Oxford, Cathy Creswell and Polly Waite. Although we don’t know the results of this trial yet, the fact that we were able to recruit over 600 families into the trial in less than 3 months highlights the continuing need for parenting advice that exists in the community even at this stage on the lockdown cycle.


Looking forward, while we pray that in the UK at least, we have seen the worst of COVID-19, I feel it’s likely that the sort of parenting advice provided by Families Under Pressure will be of value to parents in a post-pandemic world; either in its original form or as part the Parent Positive app. I will therefore be looking to work with colleagues to develop a viable platform for the dissemination of Families Under Pressure as widely as possible to parents who might benefit. This could include its translation into additional languages being considered so its benefits can be shared with parents across the globe.

King’s IoPPN, in partnership with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Maudsley Charity, are in the process of opening a world leading centre for children and young people mental health. The Pears Maudsley Centre for Children and Young People is expected to open in 2023 and will bring together researchers and clinicians to help find solutions that will transform the landscape for children’s mental health.

In this story

Edmund Sonuga-Barke

Edmund Sonuga-Barke

Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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