Caring for caregivers: Supporting and empowering caregivers to ensure the best start in life for every child

As children’s first playmate and teachers, parents and caregivers play a very important role in helping their young children develop and thrive. There is growing evidence that children who have healthy emotional relationships with their parents and opportunities for playing and learning in their early years develop strong social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills that are key to their optimal development.

However, efforts to support children are unlikely to succeed unless they also support parents and caregivers upon whom children depend for nurturing care. The wellbeing of caregivers is an essential prerequisite for children’s wellbeing. Therefore, if we want children to flourish, we need to ensure that parents and caregivers are healthy, confident, and able to enjoy parenting.  Most importantly, we need to ensure that they are supported. As a result, early childhood development programmes should strongly integrate support for parents and their empowerment.

There is evidence that, when a child learns through play and develops alongside reliable, warm and stimulative parents, whose needs are also met and who have abundant support from their environment, the child will then unlock his/her full potential,” said Ms. Mila Vuković Jovanović from the UNICEF Serbia Early Childhood Development Team.

“In other words, the first years spent in prolonged stress that affects the parent and the child, acute and especially chronic crises (such as parental separation, unemployment or health problems) can deplete parental strength and resources and usurp the child’s development. The absence or availability of support will make a differenceMila Vukovic Jovanovic emphasizes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put additional demands on every child and every parent, highlighting the critical importance of supporting parents’ strengths, emotional wellbeing, and mental health, and ensuring that every child and every family has a “nurturing” orbit around them with both informal and formal support, embedded within the community context where families live. 

To support parents’ wellbeing and empower them to engage in playful interactions with their young children, UNICEF is implementing the Playful Parenting programme in collaboration with national and local partners and with the support of the LEGO Foundation. According to parents, the Playful Parenting programme has come at just the right time when they need support more than ever. As part of this initiative, UNICEF and partners are testing a new Caring for the Caregiver training package which focuses on helping parents manage stress, focus on self-care, engage in conflict resolution, organize daily routines, and share parental responsibilities.

The need for parental support is highlighted by three-year-old Viktor’s mother Tijana (Stari Ledinci, Novi Sad) who shared: “From the day we are born, we learn, and we are always somehow supported through this process: we learn to drive a car, at school we learn about what will become our profession one day; yet, when we get to the point where we are facing one of our most important roles in life – parenting, it seems as if there isn’t anyone to reassure the parent and tell them ‘You are not alone in this, let’s face the challenges together.’ So I think parents are yearning for support.”

A picture of a woman showing a snail on a leaf to an excited child.

Tijana described the additional challenges that arose when Viktor transitioned to a new kindergarten. Viktor was unhappy, had a short attention span, and could not find his place in his new group of peers. Neither Tijana nor her husband knew how to interpret and respond to their son’s behaviour appropriately. Furthermore, due to the pandemic, during Viktor’s adaptation to the new environment, as soon as he would develop a relationship with his kindergarten teachers, they were replaced with new teachers. At kindergarten, he would frequently cry inconsolably for a long time and was often uncomfortable with group activities. The educator’s reports were the same every day, and the parents’ stress levels kept increasing, and fatigue and insomnia became a part of families’ everyday life.

Tijana, Viktor’s mother, recalls: “We were beside ourselves. We felt as though we were trapped in a vicious circle until we met the kindergarten pedagogue, who focused on our strengths as parents. We followed her advice, starting from planning family routines differently, and witnessed the signs of progress in the first week following our initial meeting.

It means a lot to me that someone saw me, looked at me, and showed me the direction I can take and how I can act. Even after three years, I somehow even found time to watch my favorite TV series”.

A child’s involvement in adults’ daily routines is encouraging for the child as it shows that the parent has confidence in the child’s capacities, understands and respects the child, while also giving the child opportunities to learn about the world, build self-confidence and awareness about himself/herself and others. Viktor’s mum and dad, Tijana and Pedja, integrated play in all family routines, and included Viktor’s grandmother in these routines too. By making changes to their daily routines, they were better able to manage their stress while also supporting Viktor and engaging in playful parenting. They started to have meals together at the table, they rescheduled Viktor’s bedtime, and Pedja took over the bedtime routine – and across all of these daily routines, they found ways of integrating play and engaging in playful interactions with Viktor to involve him in these routines.

“I can see a huge difference now; we have found the way out, and we’re feeling better; our child has made so much progress. He speaks well, regularly eats in the kindergarten, and plays nicely with his buddies”, said Pedja.

“Seeing such great results so quickly after making a minor adjustment is truly amazing. Earlier, we were often trying to give parents some ready-made solutions or tips. In contrast, the Caring for the Caregiver programme made us more confident and focused on building upon parents’ strengths in response to specific challenges, based on the belief that a child will be well if mum and dad are well”, said Ms. Sandra Kampel Mitić, preschool pedagogical couch in kindergarten in Novi Sad.

Picture of a parent having a discussion with a childcare professional.

Due to the pandemic, many kindergartens have restricted parents’ access to kindergarten areas, which sometimes makes communication and counselling work with parents quite challenging. However, this is no obstacle for the parents and practitioners.

“I have realized that if a parent needs advice and support immediately, I have to find a way to deliver – sometimes we discussed stress coping strategies with the parents even under the tree outside the kindergarten.”said Ms. Sandra Kampel Mitić, preschool pedagogical coach at a kindergarten in Novi Sad.

The relationship of trust between early childhood development professionals and parents or caregivers has the unique and transformative potential to enhance parenting practices by building on parents’ existing strengths, and improve the way parents see and feel about themselves.  It is imperative that each community fosters what is the most beneficial for a child – a strong relationship with and support from their parents, who are in turn supported by their community.

Picture of a man holding a little boy's hand, while he balances on a post.

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