Overwhelmed parents struggling to support their overwhelmed children.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the difference between attribution and contribution in terms of research. It is extremely challenging to claim one attributing factor is solely responsible for a particular outcome. What is much more likely is that there are a series of contributing factors that have resulted in something happening. We do after all live in a complex ecosystem.

This lens has helped me think about a particular issue that came to my attention early this morning, as I woke to the latest news bulletin…

“School suspensions have risen overall since Covid – up 30% in 2021-22 compared with 2018-19”

For those of you not familiar with the term suspensions, this is where a child is removed from school temporarily because of misbehaviour.

A rise of 30% is quite significant, especially as the number has gone up more sharply among disadvantaged children (up 75% v 4% for those not in poverty). Both children with social workers and children with special needs were four times more likely to lose learning through being suspended. This should be considered in the context that the government guidelines state that 'schools are not allowed to suspended or permanently excluded a pupil because they have a disability or additional needs the school cannot meet'. Further to this the first time more than half of all suspensions in 2021-22 involved children from poor backgrounds, who were 3.7 times more likely to be sent home than other children.

There will be multiple contributing factors to the increase in suspensions, not least teaching staff being assaulted and school leaders holding a responsibility to keep their workforce and other children safe.

However, there was another interesting piece of research released this week about parent mental health. This study led by Unicef revealed that parents have been struggling with their mental health, with 49% reporting they had felt overwhelmed, 43% anxious, 36% unsupported and 26% lonely all or a lot of the time in the past 12 months. The study also revealed that those on lower incomes are most likely to be affected.

I stress that it is important here not to claim cause and effect between these two studies, but it is interesting to note that at the same time parents are struggling with their mental health we also see sharp increase in children from disadvantaged backgrounds being suspended, which is likely to be as a result of a behaviour issue.

In the Unicef study, parents shared that the rising cost of living (83%) was the most common reason parents felt it was harder to be a parent now than previous generations. More than two-thirds (68%) of parents said it was harder due to a lack of childcare, 64% felt there was less time to spend with children.

This raises a really challenging issue for those children who have found themselves in ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ mode in school, which has resulted in a suspension. When children struggle to regulate themselves, what they really need is an adult to provide the attachment/connection required to allow for their brain and body’s return to a sense of safety/ease. If parents are anxious and struggling themselves, it might be difficult to meet that child’s emotional needs.

It would be easy to suggest that the solution lies in more mental health services; to a certain extent that may be true, but there is an simpler option. For those of us that have the capacity, simply be mindful of those parents in your life who just might need someone to provide the connection required to allow for their brain and body’s return to a sense of safety/ease, in the same way their child needs it. This could help give the parents the emotional capacity to focus on supporting their kids.

The situation that schools find themselves in is perhaps more challenging. Leaders have to carefully consider what is in the best interest of the child concerned, their workforce and other children in school community. Keeping people safe is important, whilst also considering the cycle of suspension many children and young people find themselves in. With overwhelmed parents struggling to support their overwhelmed children, what is the role of educators and actors in the wider system to break these cycles that are not really working for anyone, especially the most disadvantaged.


School suspensions rise sharply among disadvantaged children in England, Guardian 13th September 2023

Millions of UK parents struggle with mental health, survey suggests, Guardian 11th September 2023