Promoting the Social and Emotional Health of Children: Where to Now?

By Barlow, Jane; Underdown, Angela | The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Promoting the Social and Emotional Health of Children: Where to Now?


Barlow, Jane, Underdown, Angela, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health


Key words

Children; emotional health; social welt-being

Abstract

In advanced industrial societies such as the UK, the burden of disease is shifting from physical to mental health problems - emotional and behavioural problems currently being the major cause of disability in children. Evidence concerning the role of parents in promoting children's social and emotional health, in conjunction with the benefits of supporting parents in this role, has focused attention on the need for greater clarity concerning the role of both parents and governments in supporting and protecting children's social and emotional health.

This paper examines the evidence base concerning children's social and emotional development and suggests some steps that may be necessary to ensure the future promotion of children's social and emotional health.

INTRODUCTION

In advanced industrial societies such as the UK, concerns about the social and emotional health of children are beginning to take precedence over concerns about their physical health - emotional and behavioural problems now being the major source of disability in children.1 Recent evidence concerning the crucial influence of the early environment on children's social and emotional development has highlighted the particular importance of 'good' parenting. This paper suggests that emerging evidence concerning the central role of parenting in children's later social and emotional health, in conjunction with evidence concerning the benefits of supporting parents in this role, is highlighting the need for greater clarity concerning the responsibilities of parents and the role of government both in supporting parenting and in preventing the sort of parenting that may be deleterious to a child's future social and emotional health.

The first part of this paper examines the role of parenting in relation to children's social and emotional health, and evidence concerning how parents can be supported in protecting and nurturing these aspects of their children's development. The second part of the paper examines some of the policy changes that are being proposed to continue promoting these aspects of children's health and future steps that may still be necessary to ensure the continued promotion of children's social and emotional development.

CHILDREN'S SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT

The recently published Public Health White Paper Choosing Health acknowledged that while most children now enjoy a healthy and positive start in life, too many have poor physical or emotional health as a result of factors such as poor parenting.2 This is the first ever Public Health White Paper that has highlighted the importance of promoting children's social and emotional health, and the importance of parenting in achieving this.

Emotional and behavioural problems, which are a reflection of children's social and emotional health, are now the foremost cause of functional disability in children,1 and concern has increasingly been expressed about the number of children in the UK who are exhibiting evidence of such health problems. Bright Futures, the report from the Mental Health Foundation,3 describes the incidence of these as follows: "there are approximately 14.9 million children and young people under twenty living in the UK, representing 25% of the population. It is calculated that at any one time, 20% of children and adolescents experience psychological problems."

Evidence concerning the role of parenting in children's social and emotional development has been increasing over the past two decades. For example, one study showed that parenting and family interaction factors accounted for 30 to 40 per cent of the variation in children's anti-social behaviour.4 In addition to the effects of poor parenting, such as abuse and neglect,5,6 there has been an accumulation of evidence over the past few decades about the importance of positive parenting. …

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