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Andrea Leadsom MP: Better early years intervention can help create a generation of emotionally secure children

Leadsom Andrea

Andrea Leadsom is the Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire. Follow Andrea on Twitter.

In the aftermath of the 2011 riots David Cameron was quoted as said "we’ve got to get out there and make a positive difference to the way families work." The anniversary has just passed, and much consternation remains about the so-called troubled families at the centre of the disturbances.

The worst of the rioters are charged with being void of respect and values. It is a fair accusation, but this is not simply learned behaviour from TV shows or the selfish aspects of our social culture.  It's far deeper rooted than that.  In fact, from the first day of a baby's life, the quality of the affection and attention he or she receives from their adult carer (usually Mum) literally shapes the way the brain develops, with profound consequences for how they will develop later in life.

It was striking and disappointing that few recommendations of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel proposed any antidote to what they identified as the primary cause of the riots: "poor parenting". Louise Casey, who leads the Government's excellent initiative to try and turn around "troubled families" acknowledged when I met her that in an ideal world, we would have a far greater focus on prevention to try and avoid the chaos caused by young people who themselves have suffered a lack of loving attention.

The fact is that an insecure parent-infant relationship can lead to many emotional and social difficulties later in life, so correcting this should be a top priority for any government. Called "bonding" or "attachment" between parent and baby, this critical development point in a baby's young life will predetermine his or her lifelong outlook.

The baby that is securely attached to his carer will generally be able to cope with life's ups and downs, and will develop an inate sense that the world is "a good place". The baby whose carer is depressed, over-anxious, or who has issues with substance misuse, domestic violence or severe mental health problems can often not achieve that essential secure bond. This baby, at best, will struggle to deal with his own emotions, may have trouble forming friendships or keeping a partner or a job and has a far greater likelihood of later mental health problems. At worst, a baby whose earliest relationship is frightening, chaotic or very inconsistent will have a predisposition to high risk taking behaviour. Our prisons, our homeless hostels and our psychiatric hospitals are full of the evidence of poor early attachment.

Neuroscience backs up the theory of attachment. The human brain is not fully formed at birth. For the pre-frontal cortex to fully develop, the baby needs to engage with an attuned and sensitive caregiver who is responsive to her needs. When this is not the case, the brain's development will be affected and in extreme cases of neglect, brain scans show parts of the brain have simply failed to develop.

What does this have to do with the riots, and why should we care?

An adult who experienced poor or insecure attachment as a baby will find it more difficult to empathise, form relationships, or experience guilt. Many looters openly spoke of their lack of remorse towards their actions. Shocking though that is, there could well be a way to help stop this happening again.

Early intervention therapies are used to harness a stronger relationship between a baby and their caregiver, often Mum. Places like OXPIP and NorPIP, two charities set up to support families that are struggling to bond with their babies, use Dyadic Psychotherapy (involving a therapist working with the Mother and baby) in order to develop and nurture the relationship, with amazingly positive results.

Thankfully there are some real rays of sunshine in the field of early years intervention since the riots, not least the launch of the new charity, PIP UK and the completion of a report for the Departments of Health and Education into what more we should be doing to support the period from conception to age two.  PIP UK's vision is to establish a network of parent infant partnerships (PIPs) across the UK. PIPs will work mainly through Children's Centres to deliver parent infant psychotherapy to those families in greatest need.

NorPIP's conference "Two is too late" held in May 2012 brought together professionals and policy-makers with a shared belief that early years intervention will have a profoundly positive impact on society. David Cameron has since publicly lent his support to the work of PIPs and this recognition is fantastic progress, but there is still a long way to go to help many of the struggling families across the country.

In trying to understand the riots, the Government have rightfully turned their attention to the family unit. Lousie Casey’s troubled families report highlights that when Mum has a mental health problem, or when housing is poor and overcrowded, families are more likely to become "troubled". In taking self-referrals from post-natally depressed mothers or receiving them from concerned health visitors and social workers, PIPs can help to mitigate these conditions and thereby promote a generation of emotionally secure children.

The work of PIPs will not only address the Prime Minister’s call for action, but perhaps go some way to achieving a step-change in the perception of mental health support. It is fantastic that many in government are showing an interest in evidence-based attachment therapies and parent infant interventions. Poor attachment does not discriminate against class or wealth; it can affect all corners of society. For young people to develop a stake in society and show better respect towards one another, the time to act is now if we want to make a difference for the next generation.


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