Thousands are in need of parental support following a year of lockdowns and uncertainty, but GPs can help.
There has been a surge in families seeking guidance for their parenting amid ongoing mental health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evidence-based online parenting program Triple P has reported a 50% increase in Queensland families accessing the State Government-funded program from last July compared to the previous year, while more than 15,000 Victorians have used the resource since it was introduced last May.
Australian and international research has also confirmed a rise in mental health concerns – notably in children and young people – following last year’s pandemic and the restrictions that have been enforced to reduce its spread.
RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health Chair Dr James Best told newsGP parenting programs are helpful resources to assist GPs in supporting their patients.
‘Parents really just want to be able to support their kids – the vast majority of parents are like that – but some of them struggle to do so more than others,’ he said.
‘A lot of this happens behind closed doors.’
He stressed it is not about medicalising or medicating children, but about providing guidance and structure.
‘We can give them support that might include parenting education, guidance and coaching,’ he said.
‘It’s simple things like trying to reduce the negative language or shouting, trying to bring the temperature of the parenting down so it’s more of a nurturing role.
‘This is what will help kids who are struggling emotionally.’
Other research has also indicated children have struggled over the past 15 months.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported contacts to mental health services Lifeline, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline in September 2020 increased up to 21.3% compared to 2019.
Meanwhile, the COVID-Unmasked survey found 15–20% of children had mild-to-moderate emotional or behavioural difficulties such as tantrums, fears, worries, clinginess, low mood and sleeping difficulties.
As a result, Triple P International Country Director Carol Markie-Dadds said the pandemic has brought significant stress for families, especially parents.
‘Whether it was financial stress or other stressors, and then the lockdown with everybody close together, that can be a bit of a pressure cooker situation for some families,’ she said.
‘It’s very difficult for parents to be supporting and guiding their children’s behaviour and development if they’re not feeling in control and calm themselves. When parents are stressed and depressed it’s really hard to be consistent and positive and to support their children.
‘Since COVID we’ve had a 50% increase in uptake and that has been maintained.’
Ms Markie-Dadds said ongoing effects are being felt, such as school avoidance and anxiety, but there is support available.
‘We can all learn resilience skills, to get back up and cope with these setbacks,’ she said. ‘It’s all about providing good, calm role models from parents, and providing clear information in the word level of children.’
GPs are in a key position to assist families, she said, given they are often ‘the first port of call’ for any behaviour, mental health or development concerns from parents.
She said the Continuing Professional Development (CPD)-accredited Triple P training course is free for Queensland GPs and can help to build skills in parenting structures that create a safe, loving and predictable family environment for children through boundaries, rules, communication and consequences.
‘It can help so they’re confident in discussing children’s behaviour with parents, and having difficult conversations about children’s development and progress,’ Ms Markie-Dadds said.
‘When children are presenting with emotional and behavioural problems, national and international guidelines recommend parent education support programs prior to any medication.
‘This is a first-step treatment approach for children presenting with disruptive or conduct behaviour or anxiety. Often brief, targeted support early on in the child’s life leads to lifelong benefits for that child … if they learn the coping and self-regulation skills early, then it sets them up for success.’
Dr Best believes while Australia has coped well during the global pandemic, the ‘hard and fast’ lockdown responses to the virus led to significant consequences for vulnerable people such as single parents, people with mental health issues, children in out-of-home care, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
‘All of these people who are most vulnerable are the ones who are going to be most susceptible to these societal changes that we have purposefully adopted – for very good public health reasons – but it has had other consequences,’ he said.
‘We have to be aware it has had very profound impacts on families in other ways.’
Dr Best said the role of GPs – who see patients and their families over long periods of time and maintain strong connections – is an underrated resource.
‘We are perfectly positioned to give emotional support to families. It’s about giving people help and we are the best people in a position to do that,’ he said.
‘They keep wanting to put all these resources into tertiary services. Primary care is where you get bang for your buck.’
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