Parents' views of equal protection: a health visitor's research

Christopher Sweeney writes about his and public health lecturer William Spence’s research into parents’ views of equal protection and why, as a health visitor, he is passionate about the need for legal reform.

As a health visitor in Scotland, I am often asked for support and advice by parents who want to talk about how best to deal with the daily challenges of parenthood, including how to effectively set boundaries and handle children’s challenging or distressed behaviour. Research shows that my health visitor colleagues are the professionals most asked for this kind of advice.

This is what prompted me to carry out research with parents as part of my Master of Public Health degree at the University of Glasgow. My aim was to understand how health visitors like me can support parents through the changes to Scots law currently proposed by the Green Party MSP John Finnie. The Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill aims to provide children in Scotland with the same protection from assault as adults, removing the legal defence of ‘justifiable assault’ and bringing Scotland in line with recommendations from the UN and international research about the impact of physical punishment.

We carried out our research between May and June 2018, by putting together a focus group, identifying themes from the discussion, and using these themes to survey 179 parents. Our results showed that:

  • 23% of those taking part in the survey reported using physical punishment on their children. Of these, two-thirds said that a change in the law would lead to them either reducing their use of physical punishment or stopping altogether, suggesting that the Bill will lead to an immediate reduction in violence towards children in Scotland.
  • 70% believed that physical punishment is not necessary and not effective as a parenting technique.
  • Only 37% of parents in the study believed that the current law is clear, demonstrating that many parents are confused over existing legislation and there is need for clarity.

There is a need for all professionals who work with children to support the Bill due to the wide body of evidence linking physical punishment with increased childhood aggression, anti-social behaviour, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and the risk of escalation into serious abuse.

Our results also demonstrate the importance of a concerted effort to communicate with parents when the law changes, and to make sure they feel that they know where they can access help and support in the future. We also believe that there is a need to include Dads in any future information campaigns. Mothers in the study were six times more likely to have heard of the Parenting Support programme offered in Glasgow, suggesting that current parenting information is not always reaching fathers.

Supporting parents

In order for the Bill to achieve the aim of reducing violence towards children, the Government needs to recognise the fundamental role that health visitors will play in achieving this clarity by sharing information and advice. Health visitors can support parents to use alternatives to physical punishment, adopt coping strategies to avoid lashing out in frustration, and understand the potential harm caused to children because of physical punishment. My colleagues and I are therefore keen to work closely at implementation stage to ensure that health visiting teams have the appropriate resources and training to support parents following the legislative change.

This Bill can and will make a difference to the lives of children and families in Scotland. As a health visitor I think it is important to clarify the law and bring legislation in line with what we know works and what families are telling us.

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