Therapy with parents and young children found to improve mental health

Katy Morton
Thursday, October 6, 2022

A new study shows that therapeutic interventions in the earliest months and years of life can help prevent and reduce mental health difficulties, both for parents and their children.

The review of existing research suggests engaging families in therapy early on in their child's life has a positive impact PHOTO Adobe Stock
The review of existing research suggests engaging families in therapy early on in their child's life has a positive impact PHOTO Adobe Stock

The comprehensive review of international research by the Anna Freud Centre shows the positive impact of therapy interventions on children under the age of five and their caregivers.

The review focuses specifically on psychodynamic and psychoanalytic interventions, covering 77 studies and including 5,660 participants. It was commissioned by the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP).

A psychoanalytic method focuses on strengthening an infant’s early relationships with parents and helps the caregiver to observe and make sense of the baby or young child’s experiences. It also emphasises how parenting difficulties can be passed down through the generations.

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on the psychological roots of emotional suffering, including self-reflection and self-examination.

The families in the studies who received therapy were experiencing significant and multiple psychological and social stressors on their parenting. These families were experiencing more than one problem including parental mental health difficulties, substance misuse, chronic poverty and social exclusion, maltreatment, community and domestic violence and trauma.

The aim was to get ‘beneath the surface’ of early difficulties in the parent-baby relationship and the emotional and behavioural problems that may be developing in the child.

The review found that early therapeutic interventions can offset negative outcomes associated with adversity and severe mental health issues during children’s early years, including the first 1,001 days from conception to age two. Researchers found the therapy significantly improved: 

  • Parents’ capacity to understand both their own and their child’s thoughts and feelings and how these may be connected (known as Parental Reflective Functioning).
  • Depression in the parent – primarily for mothers who were the main participants in the studies.
  • How the baby or young child behaves socially and emotionally.
  • The attachment relationship between parent and child, which is the basis for good mental health when the caregiver is able to be available and responsive to a child’s needs.

'We must improve services to support families whose difficulties are often very severe'

Chief executive for the Association of Child Psychotherapists, Dr Nick Waggett, said, ‘The first months and years of life are critical for shaping a range of health and social outcomes throughout someone’s lifespan. We must improve services to support families whose difficulties are often very severe and can have adverse impacts on the health and development of children.

'It is encouraging to see in this research how adversity and hardship faced by parents and their children can be dramatically supported by the right psychoanalytic interventions. We are encouraged that the Government in England is investing in family hubs as the heart of a vision for baby-centred services, designed to give every baby the best start for life. This new evidence highlights the importance of early-age psychological investment to help ensure the most effective services are provided.’

Becky Saunders, ACP child psychotherapist, said, ‘This report provides an important step forward in the development of our understanding of what works at scale to support the relationship between parents and their babies. I hope that, by increasing awareness that effective interventions lead to real change, improvements can be made to the funding and provision of services in the crucial early months and years of life.

'With the best will in the world, some parents struggle to tune into the changing moods and needs of their children, particularly when impacted by their own difficult or traumatic upbringing. Without psychological support and attention to parenting, some young children may then be deprived of parental bonding, and ordinary help from the rapport between parent and child, that they need to lay the foundations for good mental and emotional health.

‘This review shows how early therapeutic interventions have the potential to mitigate the impacts of adversity and severe mental health issues in this crucial period of child development.’

 

 

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