Marsha Wood is Research Assistant at the IPR. This post draws on research she conducted alongside Dr Luke Martinelli and IPR Honorary Professor Sue Maguire in collaboration with Action for Children, which highlights a neglected area of public policy – the support needs of young parents. This work was published in a new report calling for urgent attention in this area not only for teenage parents but also those who become parents between the ages of 20 and 25 – a group who have, until now, received limited attention in research and public policy.
In recent years, interest in teenage parents has fallen away. This is largely due to the reduction in the teenage pregnancy rate in the UK between 1999 and 2010 as a result of the success of the teenage pregnancy strategy. This means that there is very little up-to-date research that looks at the lives of teenage parents across the UK and even less so on the ‘forgotten ages’ between 20 and 25 years old. Past focus has been mainly on teenage parents, in particular, neglecting the vulnerabilities faced by those who become parents aged 20-25.
Action for Children commissioned the Institute for Policy Research to conduct a literature review on vulnerable young parents under the age of 25 in addition to analysis of the Next Steps survey. This research along with findings from focus groups with young parents conducted by Action for Children themselves highlights that many young parents are struggling to cope with issues such as education, work, money, housing and poor mental health as well as the conflicting strains and joys a new baby can bring. The study shows that young parents are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and this is not limited to teenage parents; it is also the case for those aged between 20 and 25. Young parents, like any other parents, want the best for themselves and their children. But for some, their circumstances combined with their age can throw up challenges. These challenges have an impact on the children of young parents too. Children born to young parents can experience a range of negative short and long-term outcomes. The report from the research highlights how young parents between the ages of 20 and 25 struggle with similar difficulties to teenage parents yet are eligible for less support.
The findings of the research lead to a number of policy recommendations outlined in the report. For example, it is argued that Care to Learn (a Government scheme that helps teenage parents with childcare and travel costs while they study which is currently only available to young parents in England aged 19 and under) should be extended to all young parents who are their child or children’s primary caregiver up to the age of 25 and also to all young parents aged 19 and under who are on apprenticeships, or who wish to take up volunteering. This is key to break down the barriers young parents face in accessing education. The report also recommends that those out of work and struggling to understand their benefits entitlements should have access to work coaches at Job Centres who understand the difficulties they face as young parents and what might help. This should help more young parents return to education and work when they’re ready, with the option of a career they are interested in. It is also recommended that the Government should also review its working age benefits freeze in light of the impact on children and families.
The research has lead to a number of other recommendations outlined in the report including the protection of key support programmes for young parents such as The Family Nurse Partnership and dedicated support groups for young parents, as well as the Children’s Centres that often host them, which should also be allowed to grow to support young parents up to age 25. It also argues that Personal Advisors for care leavers should be well trained in areas such as attachment parenting to support young parents who may find it harder to bond with their babies if they experienced trauma in their own childhood. Furthermore, it stresses the need to address the issue of poor quality housing for young parents which has been found to be linked to maternal depression and poor child health outcomes. It also recommends the need to conduct more research and increase policy attention on experiences of domestic violence amongst young parents. In addition, the need to improve mental health support for young parents is considered paramount.
Supporting young parents means changing the narrative. It means looking at young parents – their experiences, their achievements and their struggles – in a more positive light. It means looking at how to help them realise their potential, and the potential of their children, rather than only focusing on what might go wrong. The Action for Children and IPR research findings show the need for a holistic approach, supporting parents across the interconnected areas of education, employment, housing, mental health and wellbeing. Young parents can make capable and confident mothers and fathers, if they have the right support to do so.