New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London has found that more ‘sensitive’ parenting in early childhood results in significant long-term savings to both families and the wider society.
The paper, published today in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, is the first study of its kind to show that the nature of parental care in early childhood predicts the longer-term financial burden to families and society when the child reaches adolescence.
The study measured what is known as ‘sensitive responding’, or a parent’s awareness of their child’s needs and their ability to respond sensitively to their verbal and non-verbal signals. This can take a range of forms, including responding to requests for help, engaging enthusiastically in day-to-day activities, and encouraging a child to achieve a task on his/her own.
174 adolescents from the Study of Parents And Children's Experiences (SPACE) study were drawn from two samples – one in which they were identified aged five to be at moderate risk of poor outcomes through having modestly elevated challenging behaviour, and a separate group that was at high risk due to more marked challenging behaviour. The study explored how their behaviour led to increased use of services like health and social care, extra school support, and out-of-home placements.
Participants were initially studied between the ages of four and six years old, in which three measures were used to assess the quality of the parents ‘sensitive responding’: child-led free play; a parent directed building task; and a tidy up task. Researchers then followed up with the participants in adolescence (10-17 years old) to establish behavioural outcomes and service use.
In the follow up, the study found a stark difference in the costs incurred between parents who sensitively responded during the tasks compared to those that were less able. Adolescents whose parents responded less sensitively when they were young cost on average £21,763, compared to only £1,619 incurred by those who were more sensitive. This higher cost was as a result of a range of increased need to use services, including more meetings with health and social care services, additional school support, as well as lost earnings from parents having to give up work to support their child and keep them safe.
The greatly increased cost held true regardless of family economic background - being raised in a less well-off household did not equate to more costs through less sensitive parenting.
Professor Stephen Scott, the study’s chief investigator from King’s IoPPN said,
“We found that a child from a well-off family can have everything they require materially, but if they did not receive emotionally sensitive care, they did less well on a range of outcomes. Sensitive parenting is the key to promoting the best possible happiness and adjustment as children head into adolescence – the happier and more well-adjusted they are, the less like they are to need intervention from services and this ultimately saves money.
Taking just ten minutes a day to stop what you are doing and join in an activity with your child and being really aware of their needs can have an extremely positive long-term impact on them. – Professor Stephen Scott
“These findings provide novel evidence for the public health impact of sensitive early caregiving, as well as the likely financial benefits. Sensitive parental care made a big difference independently of other influences like family poverty or parental educational levels.”
Professor Scott hopes that these findings can now lead to benefits for both parents and children. He said “There are very effective face-to-face and online parenting courses that can help all parents improve their relationship with their child, irrespective of background. Investment at local and central government level in providing access these courses will not only lead to more rounded, emotionally competent children but also save taxpayer money.”
This research comes at a welcome time, as building work begins on the new Pears Maudsley Centre for Children and Young People, due to open in 2023. This new state of the art centre will bring together King’s leadership in mental health research with clinical excellence to find solutions together, which will transform the landscape for children’s mental health.
This study was possible thanks to funding from the Health Foundation.
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