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Mental health and well-being of caregivers: Key to successful families

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Babies look to their caregivers from the moment they are born to support them in learning, developing and thriving. For a child’s brain development and well-being, it is vital to have positive relationships with their caregivers. Caregivers play an important role in the development of children’s cognitive, emotional, and physical health. Parenting isn’t an easy job, and caregivers know that it’s not an easy job.

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The quality of parents’ caregiver skills is affected by their personal and professional experiences. ECD programmes and parenting interventions must not only focus on children’s holistic development, but also caregivers. ECD interventions that target caregivers (e.g., providing information about positive caregiving practices, or supporting the well-being of parents) have shown to improve outcomes for children. This can be done via phone calls, text messages, or in person. These interventions can provide a greater return on investment because they support the entire family. Evidence is emerging that ECD programs are not only beneficial for children, but caregivers as well. ECD programmes can also improve mental health outcomes.

ECD programmes are important in supporting well-being of both caregivers and children around the globe. These examples often focus on play as a key tool to support caregiver and child mental health. In Ghana, for example, NGO Lively Minds taught mothers of five- and four-year-olds how to teach children using child-friendly games and teaching techniques. It stressed the importance of education as well as play. This intervention improved the cognition of children and boosted mothers’ self-esteem as well as their mental health.

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The NGO Plan Uganda provided peer-led group sessions in Uganda on childcare and maternal health to fathers and mothers. It also offered interactive activities and home visits for personal discussion. Children who had their parents involved in the sessions had better cognitive outcomes than those without parents. Their mothers also reported lower rates for depression. Learning through Play Plus, an initiative in Pakistan that aimed to empower caregivers through playful learning techniques, was launched. This intervention resulted in a significant improvement in the socio-emotional development of children and a decrease in maternal depression.

A survey of Egyptian, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates families who watched Ahlan Simsim, a local Arabic-language version Sesame street for children in Syria response region, found that 79% of them said the show’s emotional vocabulary lessons had helped them to identify their emotions. Eighty-five percent said that the show’s lessons helped them manage their emotions during difficult times.

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These examples show that children’s outcomes were better in both the educational and emotional spheres. Importantly, ECD interventions did not only affect children, but also caregiver mental health.

To promote mental health and other developmental outcomes, governments should act quickly to support caregivers and children. This is especially important for humanitarian situations where children, families, as well as communities, need to be supported immediately in order to deal with the long-term and immediate repercussions of crisis. WE and UNHCR jointly established Blue Dots hubs at the border crossings to Ukraine. These safe spaces provide information and services, including counselling and psychosocial support for children, parents, and caregivers. They also offer referral services to help families of refugees who have been victims to violence.

Like the example above, families must have a multifaceted approach to support their mental health. This means that they need to be reached through multiple channels. ECD should complement, not replace, other targeted mental health interventions. ECD advocates are calling on actors to:

Prioritize the caregiver support component of ECD programs to give all caregivers awareness, skills and support to foster nurturing relationships with their children.

All ECD programs should have strong mental health components, which address both caregiver and child mental health.

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Invest more in dedicated mental health support and psychosocial support (MHPSS), programs for children and caregivers, especially in crisis situations.

Sesame Workshop and WE are just a few of the many organizations working around the globe to highlight the needs of children under five years old. Supporting children does not mean supporting caregivers. ECD programs can and should be used to support the entire family. They can also have long-lasting positive effects for the entire family.

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