A haven to raise private troubles

Sometimes young children need to talk through their troubles - and so do parents. A few Edinburgh primaries now offer counselling for both, writes Miranda Fettes

In the early 1990s, a 7-year-old boy went to his headteacher in England and expressed suicidal feelings. The headteacher listened and so started The Place2Be, a charity that helps primary children to deal with their problems.

Since then, 10 primary schools in Edinburgh and others in Durham, Nottingham, London and Medway have introduced a place where children can go to talk to a counsellor about anything on their mind.

Now a sister service has arisen, prompted by the realisation that parents and carers often need one-to-one counselling as well.

Edinburgh parent worker and psychotherapist Deb'bora John-Wilson introduced A Place for Parents in January. She now works with 10 parents across three primary schools in the capital, Longstone, Murrayburn and Canal View. A fourth, Balgreen, is launching the service next year.

If it appears that a parent needs help, the Place2Be project manager refers him or her to the parent worker (Mrs John-Wilson) and the three of them meet. The parent then has a series of six hourly sessions alone with the parent worker and a final session where the three come together again.

Weekly meetings may continue over a second term and even a third, depending on need.

"The most scary thing for parents is coming somewhere to talk about themselves," says Mrs John-Wilson. "Ninety-nine per cent will start off talking about their children, then branch off once the relationship is grounded and there's trust.

"When they do talk about themselves, it's almost always about themselves when they were a child - unfinished business."

Issues facing parents include loss and bereavement, drug and alcohol-related issues, past physical, emotional or sexual abuse, separation, divorce, depression, loneliness and isolation.

A fear of failing their children and difficulty in communicating with their families is often combined with a lack of self-confidence. Some parents have difficulty in trusting support services and others feel unable to understand and manage their children's behaviour and respond to their needs. Ultimately, they may feel inadequate as parents and wish to improve their skills.

"Often it's clear that the child and parent need to communicate with each other. When that happens, it's wonderful to witness. It's about that relationship and how it moves out of the school, into the home and into the community."

The Place2Be service is funded by the Scottish Executive, Lothian Health, Edinburgh City Council and the school. The ultimate goal, says Mrs John-Wilson, would be for every primary school in Scotland to offer both the children's and the adults' services.

"It works," she says. "Many parents have said A Place for Parents has helped them be a better parent; their awareness has grown and they have learned to listen to their child.

"They see how The Place2Be benefited their child. They say it's helping outside.

"I always say to parents that it doesn't pull rabbits out of the hat. It's about coming together and going on a journey. It's about listening. We learn and we move on with that knowledge."

Longstone Primary's headteacher, Irene Mirtle, believes the service is vital. "It's so important and it's such a crucial part of a school," she says.

"Before we knew anything about The Place2Be, we would sit in the staffroom and say 'We need to do something about this child'.

"Of course we work with children, but we're also working with their parents all the time. For A Place for Parents to come along was a natural progression. This is offering another service to the school community.

"The reason why it's so effective is it's based in the school and it's so accessible."

Mrs Mirtle and Mrs John-Wilson say more funding is needed to sustain and extend the services, pointing out the Scottish Executive's focus on mental health and early intervention.

"To see a change in a child is so wonderful," says Mrs Mirtle.

"It's all about raising people's self-esteem."

One Edinburgh mother who has been using A Place for Parents since January says: "I was nervous, confused, uneasy and anxious. I wanted to talk about things I'd kept locked up for a long time.

"Having someone to talk to helped me to sort out my past and move on. I feel like I'm back to being myself again. A weight has been lifted.

"It has helped my relationship with my child. I feel calmer with him. I know now when he needs some time with me.

"It has helped me to see where I can be now and where my kids and I can be in the future, instead of dwelling on the past."

Mrs John-Wilson says: "It's like letting the balloon go. Parents want to talk through things that they've often been carrying for years, deal with it and let it go. "


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