Speech by Minister Frances Fitzgerald Launch of ‘How Families Matter for Children’s Social and Emotional Well-Being’: Findings from Growing Up In Ireland
8th March 2012 – Dublin Castle
I am delighted to officially launch this report ‘How Families Matter for Children’s Social and Emotional Well-Being’ which is the latest publication from to emerge from our flagship research study ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ - the National Longitudinal Study of Children.
This coming Friday marks the first anniversary of this government. While my Department of Children & Youth Affairs has a few months to go before it reaches that landmark, I feel this week, nonetheless presents an important opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved over the past 12 moths.
For my part, as Ireland’s first-ever senior Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, I hope that through establishing a full government department I have managed to bring a seamless new approach to policy development and integrated service provision for children; with the ultimate objective of ensuring children are cared for and protected and that they have the best possible start to life.
But as I’ve often said before, in order to improve outcomes, in order to design and develop effective policies and services that make a difference, then as a first step, we need to better understand our children: their lives, their experiences, their expectations.
The ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study is central to this. The quality of the data and findings emerging from this research is providing policy-makers and service-providers with a rich seam of knowledge on the contemporary Irish childhood.
So as I’ve done at previous similar events, let me take a moment again to express my deep appreciation to all those involved in the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study including my own Department’s Research Unit, to the teams from Trinity College Dublin and the ESRI.
Moving onto today’s report, this is the final in a series of three reports stemming from the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study of over 8,500 nine-year-olds. Last November, I jointly launched the first of these reports, ‘Overweight And Obesity Among 9-Year-Olds’ along with my colleague Minister for Health Dr. James Reilly. In January, along with the Minister for Education & Skills Ruairi Quinn TD, I launched a very significant report on how out-of-school activities influence children’s leaning in school.
Today’s report is equally as important, focussing as it does on children’s social and emotional outcomes.
The first thing I would like to say is that I am glad to see that the majority of nine-year-olds are developing well without any significant problems in this area of their lives. I think this is an important point to stress.
However, there are some findings in this report that demand that our attention:
- One in five nine-year-olds have been classified as showing significant levels of emotional or behaviour problems;
- Girls are more likely to have problems of an emotional nature (like feeling anxious or sad);
- Boys were more likely to have problems of a behavioural nature (like fighting with others or being hyperactive);
- Certain characteristics of the child, such as the presence of a chronic illness, make children more vulnerable than others to experience these problems.
Perhaps, the most striking finding to emerge from this report for me is just how instrumental parents and families are for child well-being and this cannot be overstated enough.
The style of parenting adopted was associated with social and emotional outcomes. Children whose parents used an authoritarian parenting style had more difficulty, as did children whose parents were neglectful.
Exposure to conflict in the home, both conflict between parents and a conflicted parent-child relationship was also found to be especially damaging for children.
I am also struck by the finding that parenting can have just as great an impact on a child’s life chances as family structure, income or social class. So while coming from a lower socio-economic background or single-parent family may increase a child’s risk for poorer social and emotional outcomes, this risk can be mediated by good parenting and good family processes.
In some sense, this report confirms what we already know. Put simply, good parenting and good family processes will increase the likelihood that children will have better life chances. Bad parenting can do just the reverse.
And so the question for this Government is this: what can we do to help parents ensure their child gets the best start in life?
It is with this in mind that I have prioritised support for parents and families, in particular those who may be facing periods of difficulty or trouble. It is important that we equip parents with the personal resources and skills they need to foster positive family environments in which children can develop optimally.
Recent years has seen significant investment by philanthropic organisations in ‘pilot’ projects and services aimed at improving outcomes for children and families around the country and in particular focusing on interventions which impact on the lives of children at critical points. One key element of many of the pilot projects was the delivery of parenting courses. My Department will work closely with philanthropic organisations to actively progress and mainstream the key learning emerging from these projects.
I am also very supportive of the need to increase positive parental engagement in early childhood care and education. I recently announced that my Department has begun work on Ireland’s first Early Years Strategy. Only yesterday I secured Government approval for the approach I am taking in developing to this Strategy as an innovative and dynamic blueprint for the future development of Ireland’s Early Years sector aimed at providing a coherent approach to seeking to improve the lives of children from birth to age six.
A key element of current early year interventions has been the universal, free pre-school year. Protecting and, if possible, further developing the universal free pre-school scheme has been a key priority for me and in the recent budget I secured an additional €9.8 million in funding to maintain the universal free year which will see an increase of some 3,000 in the number of children participating in the programme next year.
As Minister, I am currently overseeing an ambitious ‘change agenda’ in the HSE Child & Family Services, aimed at improving service capacity and consistency. A key element of the ongoing ‘change agenda’; is this enhanced focus on early intervention and family support services.
The purpose of early intervention and family support must be to identify and intervene as early as possible; and through ‘proportionate means’, so as to address risk factors such parental substance misuse, mental health concerns or domestic violence and ultimately prevent children from having to be taken into care.
To support the development of family support, I envisage the rollout of a number of positive service developments over the course of 2012. The current HSE Service Plan includes objectives for the increased use of supervision and other protective strategies to maintain children at home safely. To this end the HSE is progressing the implementation of new risk assessment models, while it has also commenced work, with support from my Department, on a new Family Support Strategy. This new Strategy, which will be critical to the workings of the new Child & Family Support Agency which will be establised in 2012. This Strategy will underpin the design of new service delivery models aimed at providing support at the earliest stages of emerging difficulties.
I would also hope that the concept of ‘proportionate means’ will be given constitutional strength and underpinning when the proposed constitutional amendment on children is put before the people later this year.
The data available in the Growing Up in Ireland study provides an important source of information to improve our understanding of children’s lives generally. For this reason, I welcome this report and I look forward to discussing and using the findings to advance policy in all areas affecting children’s lives.
I would like to conclude by thanking and congratulating the author of this report, Dr. Elizabeth Nixon along with the team of researchers who carried out this Study. I would also like to thank Officials in my Department, the Department of Social Protection, the Central Statistics Office and the Department of Education & Skills for their role in managing and overseeing this Study.
Most importantly I would like to acknowledge the commitment and contribution of the parents and children who have all generously given their time to participate in this phase of Growing Up in Ireland. Without the time, experience and insight they have given, the Growing Up in Ireland study would not be possible.
And finally, I am delighted that An Taoiseach, Mr. Enda Kenny, T.D. will be joining us shortly as we reflect on the Growing Up in Ireland and the role this can play in changing children’s lives. I do hope you can join us.