Engaging on the 'Front Line': Exploring How Family Support Teams Construct Meaning in Their Work With Young Mothers

Research in Practice
Tuesday, January 2, 2018

This paper explores the provision of family support services for young mothers within a Sure Start children's centre.

Young mothers can find listening to and spending time with their children a challenge. Picture: Christin Lola/Adobe Stock
Young mothers can find listening to and spending time with their children a challenge. Picture: Christin Lola/Adobe Stock
  • Author Maggie Leese
  • Child and Family Social Work, (2016)

Young mothers can be subjected to an increased level of surveillance and stigma because of their young age and the perceived link between parenting skills and children's behaviour. Family support workers can find themselves in the role of building supportive relationships with young mothers while also making judgments about the quality of care they are giving to their child. This dual role can have a negative impact on the relationship between the worker and the mother and can be a barrier to mothers' successful engagement with support services.

The study used qualitative data from interviews and focus groups with early years practitioners, family support workers and managers. It focused on practitioners' experiences of supporting young women who were attending the teenage mother support group at the children's centre.

Challenging the negative perception of early motherhood

There are often negative perceptions of teenage motherhood, which can create a barrier to engaging young mothers in support. Participants rejected the narrative that defines teenage motherhood as "problematic" and tried to reconstruct this in a more positive light. They did this by identifying mothers' strengths and building on these to bring about changes.

Participants acknowledged that for many young mothers, listening to and spending time with their children was a challenge. Many were living in challenging situations, including experiencing poverty, poor housing, previous childhood abuse and depression. The young mothers often assumed that if they asked for support it would be an admission that they were unable to care for their child and they would be labeled as "bad" mothers. They also feared that their child would be taken into care.

Gaining a view of the family's needs

Over time, participants were able to build supportive relationships with the young mothers. This enabled them to gain a more holistic view of the family's needs, which were often centered around parenting skills. Children's centre staff encouraged the mothers to complete a parenting course, but they were often reluctant to attend. Participants suggested that some parenting programmes are based on a deficit (rather than strengths based) approach and lack an understanding of how young mothers' challenging circumstances influence their ability to parent. This deficit approach can lead to young mothers feeling labelled and stigmatised. Despite these difficulties, participants discussed the opportunity that parenting programmes presented in identifying issues and concerns that were not at first apparent.

Safeguarding children

Although workers were committed to developing positive relationships with the young mothers, the needs of the child remained central to their work. Participants identified the importance of having plans that are achievable within the context of the individual family to avoid setting mothers up to fail. A crucial element to the success of these plans was a relationship based on honesty. However, this was often difficult to achieve because of a mothers' reluctance to discuss their struggles. In addition, workers were often reluctant to discuss their concerns about the home situation because they feared that this would have a negative impact on their relationship with the mother. In some cases, this led to them withholding information from their managers and delaying making a referral to social care. Some described how they were providing an "unrealistic" level of support to young mothers, for example by visiting them before and after work. This practice of visiting families outside the working day can lead to "unreported and unsupported risk taking". Participants identified that it was only during supervision sessions that they realised that they were doing too much and that the mothers themselves were making little effort to improve their situation.

Implications for practice

This paper highlights the importance of workers developing supportive relationships with young mothers. This helps young mothers to engage with professionals so that they are more likely to access appropriate support. To build a supportive relationship, workers need to identify young mothers' strengths and build on this to bring about any necessary changes. Workers need to be alert to young mothers presenting themselves in a positive light and failing to discuss areas of concern. Further assessments may be necessary where support needs are identified and there is resistance to accessing these. Good supervision is crucial to give workers space to reflect on the family's situation, be honest about their concerns and ensure that the child is at the forefront of their minds.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on early help. Click here for more


Related resources

  • Foundations for Life: What Works to Support Parent Child Interaction in the Early Years, The Early Intervention Foundation, 2017
  • Early Help: Whose Responsibility?, Ofsted, March 2015
  • LARC 1-6, Local Authorities Research Consortium, 2007-2015

Related resources by Research in Practice

  • Signs of Safety - sharing the learning, May 2017
  • How do you know if your early help services are working?, Leaders' Briefing, 2016
  • Commissioning early help: Strategic Briefing, 2013
  • Safeguarding in the 21st century - where to now, Research Review, 2010

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