PICTURE the scene: a busy, crowded room, toys strewn across the floor, babies huddled together on play mats, toddlers running around. A group of mothers are having a cup of tea in the corner, snatching bits of conversation while ensuring that Charlie doesn’t bop Emily on the head again with the plastic rolling pin.
Church toddler groups provide a backbone of support for parents who are desperate to escape their four walls and another episode of Paw Patrol. Churches are one of the main providers of such groups in the UK, especially with the closures of government-run Sure Start centres.
To the average mother, the toddler group provides an opportunity to meet friends and an additional way to socialise their children. But for some — especially those silently suffering from mental illness, or on low incomes — the groups can provide a lifeline.
In recent years, mental illness among parents of young children in the UK has grown significantly. The Government estimates that one in five parents suffers from some form of mental illness during pregnancy or after having a baby, and suicide is now a leading cause of death within that first year. Cases of pre- or post-natal anxiety, pre- or post-natal depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder related to birth are increasing.
In addition to mental illness, food poverty is another, often hidden, struggle among parents of young children. The Trussell Trust estimates that one in five parents skips meals to feed his or her children. This means that, in an average toddler group of 20 families, between four and eight parents may struggle with either their mental health or their food provision.
IN SMALL but significant ways, church toddler groups are well-placed to be a first line of defence in the fight against parental mental illness and food poverty.
First, with regard to food poverty, toddler groups can signpost parents to services such as debt-management courses and foodbanks in their community. They can advertise such services and make information freely and easily available.
Churches should also think about how much they charge for toddler groups, and consider changing it to a “donation” instead. They could offer food to the parents when the children have their “juice time” (it may be the only thing that some of the parents will eat all day, as we have sadly discovered), or they could donate free fruit and vegetables for parents to take home.
Second, toddler groups are places where mental health can be talked about in natural, everyday conversations. Such conversations can help parents to feel less alone, and can be a crucial link to further support.
Volunteers are invaluable, especially if they do not have their own children to look after. They can help to serve the tea and coffee, hold a crying baby while parents have a drink, play with a child for five minutes to give the parents a break, or be on hand to listen. The ministry of putting a hot cup of tea into a mother’s hands should not be undervalued: it may be the only time that week when she feels cared about. Who knows the challenges that she may face at home and which she has not disclosed to anyone else?
Toddler-group leaders and helpers would benefit from going on a Christian listening course, or a basic counselling course. Just asking “How are you?” can help — and, if you get a generic response that, you suspect, is not genuine, take the time to look parents in the eye and say “Are you sure you’re OK? I’m a good listener.”
Volunteers should check in with people if they have been to a meeting with their GP, for instance, after a previously tearful week. They should be aware that some conversations within the group might be painful: for example, when a mother had a traumatic or difficult birth, or who struggled to bond with her baby.
Compassionate, reflective listening is an incredibly healing ministry. Volunteers should try not to be shocked by what parents might tell them. Respecting confidentiality and safeguarding is key; and so is having resources at hand to refer parents to if they need additional, specialist mental-health support. Creating opportunities for smaller-group get-togethers can also be beneficial, such as going for coffee, or a walk, where it is easier to talk one to one.
TRY to create fun, genuine, and joyful spaces where friendships can be formed, and where parents have a safe space to come and the chance to rest a while.
Most of all, basically, just be kind. Kindness matters, especially to parents who may be at a distance from extended family, or who do not have quality loving relationships in their lives.
And, lastly, value your toddler-group leaders, too. Very often they are parents themselves, who are sadly not immune to financial pressures and struggles with mental health. It can be a hugely rewarding ministry to lead a toddler group — but don’t forget to look after leaders, too.
Claire Kay is the mother of three teenagers from North Wales, and the founder of two peer-support groups for parents who have mental illness after the birth of their baby.