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4 Exploring the explanations

At this point the emphasis of the discussion changes somewhat. We are going to use three case studies to illustrate some of the problems and difficulties that parents can face in their day-to-day lives. After reviewing the case studies you will be asked to reflect on some possible reasons and explanations for the situations outlined.

Anthea and Brian

Anthea and Brian live with their three children, who are all under 8 years old. A year ago, Anthea and the children left Brian following long-term relationship difficulties and felt compelled to seek accommodation in a refuge where they stayed for two months. Anthea returned home with the children but things have not improved. She says she wants to leave for good but is frightened of what Brian will do to her. She has become very depressed, to the extent that her GP has referred her to a psychiatrist who has suggested she should be prescribed antidepressant medication. The school has complained to Anthea that Chloe, the eldest aged 7, keeps missing odd days from school for which the school has received no explanation.

Paola and Carmello

Maria cares for her two grandchildren aged 6 and 3 – Lisa is at school and Roberto goes to their village playgroup each morning. Maria has been looking after them for part of the day since their mother, Paola, returned to work full-time three years ago. Paola and her partner, Carmello, are trying to earn enough money to move to a house with three bedrooms and with a garden for the children. Maria has made it clear that she is no longer prepared to provide childcare five days a week and the children have begun to complain that they do not like going to her house. In addition, the playgroup have complained that Roberto is not always picked up promptly by his grandmother at lunchtime.

Colin and Sue

Jack, who is 9 years old, lives with his father, Colin, most of the time and spends some weekends and holidays with his mother, Sue, who lives nearby. Jack was recently caught shoplifting, and the police who dealt with the matter were confronted by a very angry father who made all sorts of threats of what he would do to Jack when he got him home. When Colin calmed down, he claimed that he could do nothing with Jack and complained that Jack was always taking things from the home. Colin has to work long hours and has difficulty making childcare arrangements, using a succession of different carers to cover the time between school and when he gets home. Sue looks after Jack's half-brother, Joe, who is 3 and has cerebral palsy. She says she has her hands full with Joe and that Colin is Jack's father and he should sort things out. To compound these problems, last week the school threatened to exclude Jack because he had stolen some money from another child.

Help with parenting comes in a variety of forms, and in reading these case studies you may have already formulated some ideas about the kind of help that should be provided. However, before exploring opportunities for obtaining help and support, pause for a moment to consider some of the possible explanations why these families need help with parenting.

Activity 6: Looking at explanations

0 hours 45 minutes

Briefly look at each of the case studies again and write down the factors or reasons that seem most relevant to you in explaining why help might be required with parenting. Then categorise those factors or reasons as personal, environmental or structural. Before starting the categorisation (especially if you have had a break from your work) you may find it useful to look again at the comment for Activity 5.


The intention of the activity was to demonstrate that explanations for difficulties can often fall under a variety of headings. For example, in the first case study Anthea's needs could be defined by some people as sociological, medical or psychological. There is ongoing debate about whether depression is biological in origin or determined by sociological factors such as the immediate family situation. But for the moment it is possible, at least, to identify some personal difficulties with which the parents need help so that they can continue to care for their children as well as possible.

Environmental and practical considerations – how resources can be provided and what support networks exist in the community – are clearly of great importance to the family in the second case study. They need access to resources other than those the family can provide. This may be particularly difficult in isolated rural communities where public transport is not available and support services are scant.

There may sometimes be a temptation to focus too much on one aspect of children's behaviour, for example Jack's stealing in the third family, rather than assess children's overall needs, particularly when the behaviour is undesirable from the adults' point of view. The question which ought to be addressed, however, is ‘what does this behaviour demonstrate about the child's basic needs not being met?’ So in this instance it may be that the stealing is ‘attention seeking’, or reflects some emotional insecurity, or is born of a need to compete with siblings or other children. We are not suggesting that any or all of these factors lie behind Jack's behaviour; rather we are pointing out that a full holistic assessment of Jack's needs is the most effective way of exploring and explaining some of his behaviour.

From a theoretical point of view explanations of parenting problems could be considered to be psychological, sociological, economic, social, legal, geographical or of course – and here comes the main point of the activity – all of these. For in analysing the explanations of parenting difficulties, it is of vital importance to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, and not confine ourselves to one theoretical standpoint. Using one theory or set of explanations is inevitably limited and limiting.


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