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Close the door on guilt and stress

As parent education develops a sharper profile, Wendy Wallace examines the key issues and reports on the success stories. Parent Link groups, run under the umbrella organisation Parent Network, aim to give parents emotional support and practical skills. In the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest, Parent Link is thriving. Since 1990, 400 parents have taken part. Parents here have their fair share of stress. There is high unemployment, large numbers of parents coping alone, and a racially mixed community trying to live together.

"A significant number have chaotic and stressful lives, with ill health and other problems," says development officer Jenny Deeks, herself the lone parent of twins. Some who attend the courses reveal that they have been with their children 24 hours a day for as long as they can remember.

At a Parent Link session held in the staff room at Jenny Hammond primary school, mothers took it in turns to spend 10 minutes listening to each other. Judi Estabrook, 37, and wearing a ring that says MUM, can't think of anything to talk about. "I'm just drifting along in limbo. I did absolutely nothing all weekend."

It emerges that Judi feels depressed at the approaching birthday of her son Marc, who died last year from cot death at five-and-a-half weeks. She has two other children, aged five and three. Another child died seven years ago, in a special care unit shortly after birth.

"I'll tell you what I do feel like," she says, suddenly animated. "A little girl desperately looking around for a grown-up to come and make it all better."

All the parents in this group feel that they have benefited from the course. Thelma Bardouille has adopted a son, almost two years old when he came to live with her and her husband.

"I feel that if he'd been with me since birth I'd know what he was thinking, " she says. "The course teaches you to take time to consider his feelings, and I wanted to feed off other parents' experiences on things like dealing with temper tantrums."

Linda Bartlett has stopped calling her two daughters "the goody" and "the baddy". "I'd always thought - my parents did that to me and my brother and we didn't turn out any different to each other," she says. "Now I think it's wrong to label them."

Helen Buniak, 37, has two children of three-and-a-half, one of whom she is in the process of adopting. She says: "I've learnt to relax more. I don't have to be the best mum in the world any more. Before, I had terrible guilt."

Judi Estabrook adds: "When I first came to this group, I had no confidence in myself as a mother. One of the questions early on was 'what do you do well?', and I couldn't think of anything. As a Mum, my confidence is building again. "

These parents are in week 10 of their 12-week course. Groups are encouraged to meet informally after the course has ended, and interested parents can train as co-ordinators.

Parent Link in Waltham Forest is funded out of the adult education budget, to the tune of Pounds 40,000 per year. Pounds 13,000 of this comes from the European Initiative for the Prevention of Urban Delinquency. The money pays for co-ordinators' wages, booklets in several languages, and, crucially, creches while parents attend meetings.

Why does the education department support it? "It gives parents tools to do the job," said Mary Crowley, assistant education officer at Waltham Forest and a mother of five.

"People want to do their best but they're frantic sometimes. Parent Link doesn't make perfect parents but it gives skills and reminds parents of how it feels to be a child. I did the course myself and became a convert."

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