Growing up safely: how one parent's experience became a learning network

  • Research stories
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Regional Learning Network Growing Up Safely (VONK) sees the struggle of parents with the difficult sides of parenthood, and the shyness and sometimes embarrassment to talk about it. Professor Susan Ketner, experiential expert Ilona Slomp and filmmaker Mirjam Wijnja show how finding connections and starting a conversation can make all the difference.

'Every parent is annoyed with their child from time to time, but when does parenting become so difficult that an unsafe home situation arises?' Susan Ketner, is professor at the Integral Approach to Child Abuse research group at Hanze University of Applied Sciences, and one of the initiators of VONK. 'Growing up safely is an important theme for the government and professional organisations and it is given priority in all kinds of ways. Yet there is a taboo on talking about the vulnerability and complexity of parenting and the things that can go wrong. As a parent you don't talk about it and as a professional you don't talk about it either. And it is precisely by seeking a connection and starting a conversation that you can make a difference for a family.'

More power than numbers

Susan Ketner emphasises the importance of the connection between practice, policy, research and education and the input of parents and young people. 'In the network, we hear from professionals as well as from young people and parents themselves what works and what doesn't. In the research, we involve the people concerned as fully-fledged research partners. We don't come up with a thick research report. In meetings, through fact sheets, videos and podcasts, we show how professionals and students can start the conversation and make a difference. Stories of experience have more power than numbers.'

Darker sides of parenting

In recent years, Mirjam Wijnja has made three documentaries and a series of podcasts about 'the darker sides of parenthood' with Meinoud Sportel and learning network VONK. Mirjam had been a social worker for fifteen years when she started her own business as a social designer. 'I had the idea for the documentaries for a while when I was able to work on it for VONK. The main challenge was: how do I find people who want to tell their story? I never thought my phone would be ringing off the hook for two weeks, after the call on social media. That shows how alive the issue is and how people want to share their story. In the videos, parents and children tell their story without any context from experts. We show that it's not all that black and white, but that everyone with children knows the dark sides of parenthood and that these can be from light grey to pitch black. As a social worker, I waited fifteen years to ask young people: does what I'm doing work? You can learn a lot if you do ask that question and it makes for great conversations. Education is something that belongs to all of us. As a parent, you don't have to do everything on your own. In the first video, a mother says: "If everyone contributes to the upbringing, it relieves me of the duty of being perfect."

Resilient Parents

Experienced professional Ilona Slomp tells her personal story in the first documentary. She is the mother of two girls, the youngest of whom was born at 27 weeks. 'One in three parents develops PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after experiencing a complex birth story,' says Ilona. 'Every year, there are about 12,000 children in the Netherlands who are born prematurely, underweight or sick and often have to stay in hospital for months. My youngest daughter weighed 735 grams at birth. She spent eight weeks in the UMCG in the NICU, the intensive care unit for babies, and then another eight weeks in the hospital in Emmen. When she was home for a week, with tube feeding, I had to go back to work. On autopilot and sheer mental energy, I resumed my work as a family counsellor. Afterwards I found out that I had completely ignored my feelings. I wasn't sick, after all, was I? I also received little recognition from the company doctor. It wasn't until my eldest daughter started having problems that I started working on dealing with my own feelings. As a result, I started to look at care from a different perspective and as a result, my working method has changed. Because of my own experience and my professional background as a family counsellor within child and adolescent psychiatry, I realised that we need to be much more aware of the impact of a complex birth story on the whole family.'

Ilona founded Veer-Kracht Ouders (Resilient Parents) and gives workshops and trainings to develop more awareness about premature babies among healthcare professionals. 'The foundation for a promising start for your child is laid in the first thousand days. Investing in the psychological wellbeing of parents offers the child a more promising future.'

Growing network

Professor Susan Ketner: 'The VONK-network has grown, but it does need input to keep developing. Corona has limited the work on it, but we will keep the fire burning. I am looking forward to the first meeting of the VONK learning network about professional proximity and professional distance.’

More information about the learning network Growing up Safely VONK, the documentaries or the podcasts? Then please contact project leader Suzanne Kuik of the Academy for Social Studies of Hanze University of Applied Sciences, [email protected]

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