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The role of family in child development

The United Nations’ International Day of Families is celebrated each year on 15 May, providing an opportunity to recognise the importance of families in society, regardless of their structure. With the health and wellbeing of the world’s population being on everyone’s mind due to the outbreak of COVID-19, there is no better time to reflect on the importance of family and the role it plays in our lives.

The definition of a ‘family’ changes according to your experience and culture and, as new social dynamics emerge, family structures everywhere have transformed significantly, redefining the notion of the family and its members. But, while the definition of family may have evolved, its value remains as important today as it has ever been.

For children in particular, caregivers in a family unit are essential to their development, their sense of security and their ability to create and sustain healthy relationships in the future. It is after all family members who provide basic needs like food, shelter and nurturing. But the role of the family extends beyond those basic needs too, helping to create a sense of belonging and community, a support system, security, and education.

The family role as an educator is a crucial contributor to child development. We are “teaching” our children from the day they are born, not only developing their capacity to learn but also how to self-regulate, how to relate to others, how to understand the world around them. As caregivers, we teach children what is culturally and socially acceptable, we pass on our views, experiences and often spiritual guidance, so that by the time a child reaches school age they are broadly equipped to make the most of the learning opportunities available to them and form successful relationships with their teachers and peers.

Recognised in the Copenhagen Declaration 25 years ago as the basic unit of society, the role of families in society is more significant today than ever. The ‘original and best department of health, education and welfare’ according to philosopher Michael Novak, it is families who nurture the emotional and physical needs of their members, in turn enabling each of them to contribute positively to their community and its economic and social development. This has been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic where families have borne the brunt of the crisis, providing care, teaching their children and continuing to manage work and contribute to the national economy.

The benefits of the family for individuals and wider society are clear, but what about families with insufficient social, emotional and financial resources, where the stresses on the family are greater than the individuals in it can bear? As a society are we more inclined to blame families when they are struggling or to support them, do we view them as troubled or troubling? As well as current stresses in the family, caregivers bring to the family their own experiences of being cared for, for better or worse. Our resilience develops in the context of our relationships, whether we are adults or children.

At The Centre for Emotional Health we recognise the importance of the relationship between family support workers and caregivers when navigating family challenges and enabling change to happen. We understand the wide range of feelings and needs of families and the impact of these on relationships and behaviour. Some needs are practical, such as the need for sufficient income or adequate housing, but others such as self-worth, self-efficacy and the need to be valued and loved are equally important. The Nurturing Programme offers a restorative approach, combining warmth and nurture with clear boundaries and expectations. It provides tools and strategies that we can each draw upon to navigate and improve relationships with family members, as well as others outside our families with whom we interact. Small changes in how we notice and appreciate each other, how we listen and communicate, how we manage boundaries and nurture ourselves and those around us, can make a huge difference to our relationships, whether at home, at school or at work.


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