A helpline for parents

Aileen Kenny explores how the helpline values and supports parents in order to create a better world for children.

A woman calls crying, and says she is 'at the end of her tether'; her daughter is 'out of control' and has no respect for anything. She has tried to talk to her daughter and texts her but the teenager turns her mobile phone off and doesn't want to know. ParentLine Scotland talks to the woman about communication and who has the control in their relationship. The woman acknowledges what we are saying and agrees that the daughter seems to have all the control. We listen to the woman's concerns and discuss how she can take back control. Communication is important and we talk about the importance of setting boundaries and consequences and the importance of including her daughter. We encourage her to think about which battles are important and to look at areas which can be negotiated with her daughter to try and find a way forward.

CHILDREN 1ST has over 125 years' experience of working with children and families. We support families under stress; protect children from harm and neglect; help them to recover from abuse; and promote children's rights and interests. Through our national helpline, ParentLine Scotland, we offer a free, confidential helpline and email service for anyone concerned about a child, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, neighbours, friends and professionals. Since we launched in 1999, we have received over 114,000 calls and worked with approximately 40,000 callers. The helpline also operates the national support service for kinship carers.

ParentLine Scotland is able to give a vital perspective on the issues for Scotland's parents. Although we do not ask for personal details, we capture information about the issues callers phone about; what they have tried; and what support they would like. We also record other agencies which have been involved.

The importance of supporting parents

ParentLine Scotland makes a difference to parents, carers, children and young people and is committed to giving parenting the recognition and support it deserves by building the confidence and skills of parents. Anyone can phone regardless of who or where they are, and although we support vulnerable families, we are there for ordinary families with everyday problems. Supporting parents is the key to providing positive outcomes for children and young people.

Parents value the service highly, with 94% of respondents in an independent evaluation by The Helplines Association rating it very highly. Comments included: We would recommend the service to others and definitely use it again and ParentLine was there when I needed help, I had no one else to turn to and thought I was a bad parent. Thank you for giving me back my confidence.

Calls to the helpline provide a unique insight into the concerns and needs of parents across Scotland. In 2008, ParentLine Scotland carried out a survey over three months: it asked 780 callers to take part, 461 agreed to do so (CHILDREN 1ST 2008). The survey indicated that the main concerns in 50 calls to ParentLine Scotland in March 2008 were family relationships and separation and divorce. Many of the difficulties within families stemmed from relationships between parents and teenagers.

Why parents call

So why phone a helpline? Those in a parenting role can often feel guilty, criticised and judged. ParentLine Scotland is a safe place for them to share their experiences and discuss what they are doing well and what could be improved.

People call the helpline for many reasons including difficult relationships with teenagers, separation and divorce, bullying, family relationships, kinship care concerns, finances, postnatal depression and many other issues. Some of the problems have not changed significantly over the 13 years since we launched but the complexity of family lives has. Approximately 35% of our callers identify themselves as single parents, however this figure is likely to be higher.

During the year 2010/2011, we spoke to 3,001 callers. 494 (17%) of them mentioned abuse of some form, with a further 305 (10%) raising concerns about a child's safety, for example a neighbour calling about a child left at home alone. Child protection concerns account for (27%) 799 of calls.

Most of the men who phone are fathers who are separated from their children, and who are desperately trying to retain contact with them and want to do the right thing. Although they may be legally entitled to see their children, visits may be denied or made difficult by ex-partners. Fathers often call the helpline in tears and say they feel like giving up. We explore how they can support themselves; encourage them to be persistent in trying to keep in touch with their children; and signpost them to other agencies.

What parents find difficult

43% of parents who took part in the 2008 survey Why being a parent isn't easy (CHILDREN 1ST 2008)saidthatrelationshipswithchildren,andinparticulardealingwith challenging behaviour, were the most difficult thing about being a parent. Many parents revealed anxiety and worry about the safety and wellbeing of their children in today's society. They said things had changed significantly since they were children and, at times, they felt isolated with the lack of extended family and support to help.

They were also concerned about the increased presence of drugs in their children's lives: the prevalence of abuse and the impact of social networks on children. As one parent said, 'Pressure from the outside world on kids today is a huge worry... relationships, drink and drugs - it's difficult to know who they are talking to or what is happening.'

Parents commonly felt disempowered, and concerned that their children were entering a world with which parents were ill at ease. Many mentioned difficulty in communicating with their children, particularly fathers. Money was also a major concern, particularly for single parents. Many mentioned feelings of isolation, low self-confidence, and pressure from the media, the government and other parents. Many also said they wanted to 'get it right' for children and young people in their care.

From our research it is clear that parents find external pressures, such as the pressure to be the perfect parent, and personal and family issues such as loneliness and isolation, a considerable challenge.

Looking ahead

Ideally, we would like to offer more intensive support to families who need it. We have accumulated considerable information on what parents in Scotland are saying about bringing up their families. We see the benefits of offering additional support through parenting classes in a non-stigmatising, non-judgmental way and making these acceptable to all. We would like to see drop-in centres providing sessions on general parenting and on specific topics, and one-to-one advice face-to-face and online.

We would also like a culture in which parents are not seen as the problem but can seek help to improve their parenting skills and achieve better outcomes for children and young people. A central portal, which is universally recognised by parents and carers, where they can find support and information and details of relevant agencies through a central telephone number/website, is a good place to start. This would avoid agencies duplicating services and wasting precious resources.

About the author

Aileen Kenny is a helpline supervisor with ParentLine Scotland. She has worked with ParentLine Scotland for seven years and her responsibilities include recruiting, training and supporting volunteers on the helpline. She previously worked as a nurse and midwife and volunteered as a befriender with teenagers. She is in the final year of a degree in counselling at Stirling University.


ParentLine Scotland (2008). Why being a parent isn't easy. CHILDREN 1ST