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Parenting Under Pressure as Practical Kindness

In this fifth blog for Mental Health Awareness week on the theme of kindness, Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke reflects on the development of a series mini-animations to help parents in the current pandemic – Families Under Pressure - and how they encompass kindness in their messages.

It’s rare for a clinical scientist, like me, to be asked to write about the relationship between a moral virtue like kindness (or any other virtue for that matter) and their own work understanding and promoting mental health. It puts us in the interesting position of having to consider, what are generally thought of as, impersonal scientific and/or medical concepts (like mental health) in the light of our personal understanding of an ethical and/or moral value (like kindness). It also forces us to make a full disclosure of the source of that understanding - in the interests of both our intellectual honesty as writers, and so the reader gets the full picture of any biases that might exist in what we write. To do this we need to do a bit of soul searching before writing. So here goes… there is no escaping the fact that my understanding of kindness comes directly from my Roman Catholic Faith – from which the concept derives a particular meaning and special significance. It’s importance to the Church can be seen from it being designated as one of just 12 human characteristics considered Fruits of the Holy Ghost. This knowledge, sits deep somewhere within the minds of most Catholics who, like me, were children in the 1960’s – a fact learnt off-by-heart during our daily class recitals of the Penny Catechism and reinforced by pictures of Gentle Jesus slipped into our little missals by our proud and hopeful mams on our first Holy Communion day. The notion of kindness I grew up with has two essential and complementary elements. The first is marked by compassion and a “quality of understanding sympathy and concern for those in trouble or need”. The second, is expressed as practical action “shown in affability of speech, generosity of conduct, and forgiveness of injuries sustained”. Both of these turn out to relevant to the current blog.

Last week we launched Families Under Pressure – a series of mini-animations giving research-based parenting tips to help families get through, what are for many, times of unprecedented challenges. The response from parents in the UK and beyond has already been overwhelming – with many 100’s of their comments on social media highlighting both the timeliness of the campaign and how the clips have encouraged them to reflect on the way they deal with their children’s difficult and disruptive behaviour and manage conflict in the home. Perhaps as importantly, they appear to have lifted the gloomy spirits of many parents who have seen them. If I’m honest with myself – this response, and the initial impact it may suggest, has as much, perhaps even more, to do with the way the tips are communicated in the clips, than the intrinsic merit of our messages or their formulation. Our initial strategy was to get parental engagement by combining a light-hearted, humorous and non-judgemental tone with voice overs by carefully chosen famous people (actors, sports stars etc) who are also parents. Thanks to our design partner TOAD this appears to have worked like a dream. The four young animators Esther Lalanne, Aysha Tengiz, Caitlin McCarthy and Giulia Frixione produced small things of great beauty, humanity and intelligence. The celebrities, Olivia Coleman, Sharon Horgan, Danny Dyer, Ron Bryden, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Holly Willoughby, Romesh Ranganathan and Shappi Khorshandi, have been generous to a T and, presenting the messages with great humour and sympathy.

The importance of compassion

The thing that really struck me on looking at the animations again as I write this blog on kindness was how the framing of the scripts, the skill of the artists and the presenters and the practical parenting tips combined to move us beyond our initial desire to be non-judgemental (a negative virtue) to communicate a positive sense of kindness linking compassion and practical action.

First, Families Under Pressure has a gentleness of expression and a compassion for the situation that families are finding themselves in. I think this sense of kindness is most explicitly expressed in tips 1 and 7 from Families Under Pressure. In tip 1 parents are advised to avoid social comparison and practice a type of self-compassion: first by giving them permission to allow themselves to accept that parenting is a tough challenge with which we all struggle (especially under the current situation) and, second, to value and protect their own sense of wellbeing so that they are in good shape to look after their children. In tip 7 this message is extended by highlighting the importance of both self-forgiveness when we fall short of our own expectations (in this case by losing our temper) together with a commitment to improve. It is most actively encouraged in parents in tip 3 where we are encouraged to show a loving concern for our children’s worries and insecurities and work to build their confidence and a sense of trust.

Practical kindness in work-a-day parenting

However, the gently knowing humour of the scripts, the skill of the animators and the familiar humanity of the narrators, means that this sense of kindness actually pervades the remaining animations too – those that deal with the second more active aspect of kindness - matters of behaviour management – the needs for rules and boundaries, clear communication, the use of strategies to lower conflict and reward and sanctions to promote better behaviour. In this way tips 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8, both embody and communicate how parenting is a form of practical kindness by parents for their children most specifically, and their families more generally. In this way they make clear that kindness is not just a feeling or an expression but a practical activity undertaken for the benefits of others. This form of practical kindness is planful and prudent and conducted with emotional self-discipline – aiming for the long-term wellbeing of children over short-term expedience. It may even need to involve actions that in the short-term seem corrective, such as the calm and consistent use of sanctions described in tip 8. Developmental psychologists amongst you will see that this practical kindness bears all the hall marks of what psychologists call authoritative parenting.

Reflecting on this all it seems clear to me that Families Under Pressure can be seen as a manifesto on parenting under pressure as practical kindness. Parents struggling with their day-to-day stresses and challenges (as we all have done) may feel that this is all a bit pie-in-the-sky and beyond them as people in their current circumstance – yet our experience of many years of evaluating parent training interventions for children with disruptive behaviour and ADHD tells a different story - that relatively small changes can help parents a lot.

families under pressure still

Reference: Modern Catholic Dictionary compiled by Fr John Hardon SJ. Eternal Life Publications (2000).

The Author:

Edmund Sonuga-Barke is currently Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Kings College London. He is Honorary Skou Professor at Aarhus University School of Medicine, Denmark. He is Editor in Chief of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Motivated by his own experience as a child of growing up with learning disabilities his research focuses on improving the lives of children and adolescents with neuro-developmental disorders such as ADHD. To this end, his work aims to develop new therapeutic interventions by employing basic developmental science approaches to study the pathogenesis of such conditions, their underlying genetic and environmental risk and resilience sources and their mediating brain mechanisms and developmental and mental health outcomes. For this work he was elected a fellow of both the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

In this story

Edmund Sonuga-Barke

Edmund Sonuga-Barke

Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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