A lot of the quiet, persistent issues within families – the things we push to the back of our minds, just to get on with our day – go unspoken.
When they’re raised, often they go off with a bang. The pressures mount up, the cracks widen, and suddenly it all tumbles out.
It can take one drink too many, or the financial strain of Christmas, or the distance between children and separated parents, or the loneliness of a single mum… Suddenly the problems pour out because it all finally feels too much.
But it doesn’t always have to go this way.
Since 1869, Family Action has been building stronger families in Britain. Today the charity supports 45,000 families through over 135 community-based services. Thousands more are supported financially through a national small grants programme.
Now, the charity has launched The Family Monsters Project. To shine a spotlight on family pressures in Britain today. They are tackling these ‘family monsters’ by encouraging open discussions of everyday struggles, big and small, before they mount up.
It’s a bid to get us all to just talk more. Talking is so often overlooked when the easier option is to simply bury our heads in the sand.
People Who Do Things sat down with the charity’s Chief Executive, David Holmes. He told us why the time to spark a national conversation on family pressures, regardless of your background, is now:
Family Action is 150. But one of the things I’ve found profoundly shocking is that a lot of families today are grappling with the same issues they were grappling with 150 years ago. Maybe we don’t have the workhouse anymore, but we do still have lots of families in really difficult circumstances trying to find ways out of complexity.
The country seems to be talking about so many things at present – Brexit particularly – but can’t we find a space to talk about the family? And to use our shared experience to acknowledge and admit the fact that not all of family life is perfect?
We live in a culture where we tend to only talk about success and perfection, but actually family life isn’t always like that. This isn’t an invitation to be miserable, it’s an invitation to get real. If we talk about the stuff that is hard, it’s easier for people to realise that these experiences are not life-defining, that there are ways through them. Isn’t that better? Isn’t that more real? That’s what this conversation is about: talking about family pressures, confidently, more openly, and getting them out in the open.
Let’s take finances. In February, 52% of families polled by Family Action stated money worries as their largest monster. The charity work extensively with people in debt to help them with access to both financial education and budgeting tools.
So how does simply talking about money worries come into this?
Specifically, with debt and money worries, it’s talking about it before it becomes so serious and so crippling that it becomes an issue that really impacts on your wellbeing and mental health. For some people, what is the debt really a cover for? What else is going on in people’s lives that prompts their money situation to worsen?
Is it about the fact that actually, they don’t have really good access to welfare advice? In Bradford, we run a really big welfare advice service and we’re working very actively with people there to help them get the benefits etc, and the allowances to which they are entitled. And sometimes, it’s just that people need to know what exactly is available.
If they’re in debt, it’s about helping them so they can come to an arrangement with their creditors and we can then manage that so they don’t only see interest getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and all they can do is minimum payments on their credit cards, and the debt never reduces. There are always practical things you can do to help, but you have to recognise there’s a problem. The response has to be proactive. I think anything that stops people from getting these high-interest loans is imperative.
Such debts and reliance on loans skyrocket in the Christmas period. Targeting by payday loan companies is nearly always predatory, something MPs like Stella Creasy have written and campaigned against extensively. This January, the Labour MP Rachel Reeves published an open letter condemning loan firm Provident for their Christmas offering of 535% APR loans. So, how do Family Action help those for whom Christmas adds another layer of financial burden to an already precarious situation?
One method is a toy appeal. The charity works with corporates to buy and wrap toys for children who otherwise wouldn’t get a Christmas present. Last year they distributed over 8000 toys:
The brilliant thing about it is that it’s personalised. So our services (and we have about 150 around the country) will send us a list centrally of the number of presents they need – with gender and age of the children we need to buy for- and then we give that to the corporates. So we’re saying “buy a present for a six-year-old boy or a nine-year-old girl” using an indicative amount so everyone’s presents are of similar value. It doesn’t have to be that people with no money then have to worry about Christmas as well.
But of all the ‘monsters’ polled, financial problems were swiftly followed by work/life balance and a lack of time spent together, with children. Relationship issues were another significant contender.
So, while for most families the monsters are financial, they are almost never exclusively so.
A “family monster” can be anything from addiction to mental health issues. From parenting stress, to elderly relatives living with dementia. Maybe you’ve moved away and feel guilty you can no longer support your family in person. Perhaps one child demands more of your care than another, and feelings of guilt, resentment and abandonment have arisen on either side of this situation.
Whatever your situation, no family is exempt from issues surrounding relationships, health and work. To fully understand the project, I’d urge anyone to watch the 90 second Family Monsters film by Family Action. It beautifully summarises what monsters are, and how we can stop them from taking over our lives by simply talking.
HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED!
A big congratulations to Family Action too for their Gold Medal and Best Artisan Garden prize at Chelsea Flower Show!
To learn more about Family Actions other services, including the wonderful work they do with parents and young carers, visit www.family-action.org.uk.