There For You: How parents are coping with loneliness in the pandemic and the help available
Loneliness among parents in Lancashire is real and rocketing, according to experts and people working in and around childcare.
With schools, nurseries, soft play centres closed and team events cancelled due to the pandemic, parents and carers have found themselves increasingly isolated and facing "burn-out" during 2020.
According to research from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's Royal Foundation, separation from family, friends and support networks during the pandemic is taking a heavy psychological toll on parents of young children - with 63 per cent reporting feelings of loneliness, compared with 38 per cent before the pandemic.
The study says the impact has been greatest on those living the hardest lives, with responses from those in deprived areas consistently showing higher levels of loneliness and less likely to have experienced an increase in community support.
And a lack of social support for parents has also added to the vulnerability of parents at a time of stress, with parents finding it hard to prioritise their own wellbeing.
Laura Brookes has been running Jollies Barn in Mere Brow for two years with husband Jonathan, and has been forced to close for much of the year.
She said she has been reduced to tears by messages from parents explaining how the closure of soft play centres has affected them.
She said: "One of the people who emailed me is a teacher who has children who come to Jollies. She is concerned about what is going to happen down the line, with parents who are stressed out and struggling with having nowhere to go and nothing to do with their children, and being isolated from friends.
"She is worried that there could be abuse situations arising from stressed parents."
She added: "I have noticed a massive difference in my child who is two-and-a-half. When we don't have anything to do, she gets cantankerous and frustrated very quickly. I find myself saying no all the time and 'don't touch', and it gets you down.
"It's not like the first lockdown when it was a bit novel, the weather was nice and you could go out and have a walk and explore."
Laura added: "You need to be able to go somewhere where you're understood as a parent.
"When you go to a soft play centre, for that small amount of time, the parent can sit down with a drink brought to them, they can have five minutes, and the child can let off steam.
"You might go with friends and get the support you need from them, or even if you go on your own, you might see someone struggling with a tantrum and give them a smile or pass a few words about how you've been there too."
The Royal Foundation study showed that while 90 per cent of parents see parental mental health and wellbeing as being critical to a child’s development, in reality people do very little to prioritise themselves.
Only 10 per cent of parents asked mentioned taking the time to look after their own wellbeing when asked how they had prepared for the arrival of their baby. Over a third of all parents - 37 per cent - expect the COVID-19 pandemic to have a negative impact on their long-term mental wellbeing.
Neil Leitch of the Early Years Alliance says during this pandemic, the focus has too often been on getting children back to school, rather than the support and childcare needed for families with young children.
He said: "Throughout this pandemic, while there was much focus on ensuring children could return to schools, support and guidance for the early years - from registered providers to parent and toddler groups to health visitors - has often been far less forthcoming.
"At a time when many parents of young children have been cut off from their normal sources of help, and can only seek limited support from family and friends, it is vital that the government recognises the value of the early years and ensures that the vital services that provide such important support to parents and families across the country are able to continue to do so."
What help is available?
Chorley-based charity High Five provides support for parents across Lancashire who have children with significant learning difficulties.
Trustee Helen Blakeley said: "Lots of our members have felt isolated and you feel isolated anyway, due to having a child with learning difficulties. My son was diagnosed at 10 months old, so my experience wasn't what I thought it would be.
"For me, from a personal point of view, the charity has been a lifesaver. It's given me purpose when I was furloughed and we have managed to keep our community together.
"It has been light relief in dismal times."
Usually the group, which works with around 70 families across Lancashire, would run activities and support group meetings at zoos or soft play centres, but Covid-19 restrictions forced this to stop.
Instead, the group has moved online, and has provided craft and activity kits for families throughout the year, often themed, such as a box of crafts related to VE Day in May.
They have also provided packages of food and drink and party supplies, have laid on quiz nights and ran an online festival in August, where they sent out packs containing glow sticks, face paints, tie-dye materials and had an acoustic musician playing online.
Helen said: "We finished with the hokey cokey and the superman song, so it was like a disco at the end. That was really good, great for the children."
The activity boxes have continued after schools returned, as many children are still facing periods of self-isolation.
Helen added: "This year it's been very tough to come up with new ideas and parents are always thinking "what can we do?" So when you get a box like this, it really helps."
Adult only activities such as a wine and cheese night and afternoon tea via Zoom have also been arranged.
"The main focus is the children, but we try to look after the adults too", said Helen. "Every parent needs their own time too, even more so with special needs children.
"They need a natter with friends, a chance to ask questions and share experiences.
"It''s been a link to the real world. We're able to see other people and know that it's not just us stuck inside."
One parent who is supported by High Five said: "It was great knowing we weren't alone - High Five felt like our own social bubble living the same life as us during covid when we were shielding'".
Another said: "The High Five activity boxes are amazing, we loved receiving them and the surprise of what was going to be in them - we enjoyed getting ready for the parties on zoom and took our minds off the isolation and boredom. High Five you truly are our oasis in the desert'
Virtual groups are also run by the Lancashire Healthy Young People and Families Service, which has supported more than 350 families since May.
Rachael Jackson from Preston, who has a six-month-old daughter called Lilly-Rose, said: “During these strange and difficult times, we have struggled to find any groups where Lilly-Rose and I can meet other new mums to socialise with and get advice and support, which has led us to feel very isolated.
“Our health visitor, who has been amazingly supportive, told us about the online baby groups that were run virtually. At first, I was very apprehensive as I am not good with technology and do not like being on camera. But the groups were really easy to access and there is no pressure to have your camera switched on!
“We have attended both the baby-led weaning and the Play, Chat, Read group. The leaders were very warm and welcoming and the groups gave us a lot of information and a chance to chat with other mums. We were also given a chance to ask questions that were answered by both professionals and other mums.
“We got a lot out of the groups and are excited to see what other groups are running.”
Virgin Care, which runs Lancashire Healthy Young People and Families Service on behalf of Lancashire County Council, launched the groups to support families who would otherwise have been attending face-to-face groups including baby clinics and parenting sessions.
The groups run weekly, fortnightly and monthly and are also recorded so parents and carers who can’t join live can still access the support and information afterwards.
Topics include infant feeding, moving on to solid foods, baby communication and speech and language, emotional well-being, settling in to school and night time wetting.
Michelle Lee, managing director of Virgin Care in Lancashire, said: “We have been absolutely delighted with the response to the virtual groups and they will definitely remain in place long after the pandemic is over to give parents the choice between face-to-face and virtual support. I’m really pleased that we have been able to create these online spaces for families to meet, get important advice and get to know each other in the face of these incredibly challenging times.”
County Councillor Shaun Turner, Lancashire County Council's cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: "These groups are a great idea and very popular. They're a way for parents to keep connected despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
"Whether it's getting child care advice from a health professional, or sharing experiences of being a parent, the groups provide vital support to families across the county. We're pleased that Lancashire Young People and Family Service (health visiting and school nursing) are providing these groups.”
How to find out more:
To find out more about the Lancashire Healthy Young People and Families Service, click here.
Updates are also posted on the Lancashire Healthy Young People and Families Service Facebook page here. Alternatively, speak to your health visitor.
To contact the High Five group, visit their Facebook page here.