Global Initiative to Support Parents (GISP) | #NoMatterWhat: Supporting Caregivers as First Responders in Crisis

If it takes a village to raise a child, what happens when life in that village is turned upside down by a devastating crisis or emergency? Where can parents and caregivers go when the sources of strength and support they rely on daily are suddenly no longer accessible? 

The theme of the World Humanitarian Day 2023 is #NoMatterWhat. On this day, the Global Initiative to Support Parents (GISP) shares a message of solidarity with parents and other primary caregivers across the globe as frontline humanitarian responders for their children and families. 

While the benefits and rewards of raising a child are immeasurable, the job of parenting well also means never having a day off. Even during the upheaval and panic typical of emergency situations—indeed, especially during such crises—parents and caregivers are the ones who stand between the child and the world to make sure basic needs are met, provide loving care, and ensure a safe environment, no matter what. As stressors and risks pile up during an emergency, the burden of care can become overwhelming. Yet the essential role of parents and caregivers remains largely overlooked and unsupported in crisis responses.

The global COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the critical role of parents and caregivers in keeping communities safe and functioning when essential services and institutions fail. The GISP was formed to maintain the high level of visibility for parenting and caregiving globally, and to call for action from governments and donors to promote universal parenting and caregiving support. One of GISP’s key initiatives is to focus the spotlight on crisis-affected contexts, in particular, for families facing complex threats with fewer resources to draw from.

Sharing and amplifying the experiences of existing evidence-based programs is one of the pillars of GISP’s work. Recent global and regional convenings have brought together implementers and researchers from all regions of the globe to share what they’re learning from interventions designed to support parents and their children and to offer lessons for future work in crisis settings. The following three takeaways have emerged from those conversations: 

  1. The need to offer flexible modes of delivery. 
  2. The importance of ensuring multiple levels of support are available.
  3. The need to center the perspectives of parents and caregivers themselves and build trust, starting from the initial phases of design. 

Offering Flexible Modes of Delivery

Because emergency situations are inherently volatile, frequent and unpredictable change is a daily reality. Each crisis poses unique challenges and needs. To survive the turmoil, individuals and families may also experience big changes in their own wellbeing—in how they relate to each other and how they engage with the world. To ensure that parents and caregivers have the support they need to navigate an ever-changing landscape with compounding threats, interventions must be flexible in both design and delivery. 

For instance, while parenting programs are typically delivered in person through home visits or group sessions, this may not be feasible in conflict-affected contexts or during a public health crisis when in-person gatherings are restricted. Such was the case for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in 2020, when they were forced to adapt a home-visiting parenting program for Syrian and Jordanian caregivers to be delivered remotely via audio-only phone calls as part of the Ahlan Simsim initiative with Sesame Workshop. This created a rare opportunity to evaluate a remote, phone-call based parenting program. The findings of the evaluation were  recently published by Global TIES for Children at New York University and provided important lessons for remote implementation in humanitarian and crisis settings.

The recently launched guidelines on parenting interventions by the World Health Organization reviewed the effectiveness of parenting interventions in humanitarian settings. They recommended that it is particularly important, in such contexts, that evidence-based parenting interventions or broader evidence-based interventions with a parenting component be made readily accessible to all parents and caregivers of children aged 0–17 years, in group-based or individualized formats and consider the impact on recipients’ mental health.

Ensuring Multiple Levels of Support

Just as each emergency presents different concerns and challenges, so does each stage of an emergency. A family’s most urgent needs—and the capacity of caregivers to absorb new information—may be limited during the acute phase of a crisis. At that point, light-touch interventions providing basic information, or tip sheets with parenting advice such as those disseminated by Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH), can be helpful. As events become more protracted and families stay longer in one place, more intense multi-session interventions may become feasible. 

In a thematic meeting on playful parenting in crisis convened by International Step by Step Association (ISSA), Gabriella Brent, Head of Programmes at Amna, explained that the refugee-led organization was set up to provide safe and meaningful psychosocial support for displaced communities while they are still on the move. Amna uses a whole-family approach to community healing working directly with refugee families in Greece and through partners in 11 countries. By promoting joy and a sense of belonging through play amongst children and caregivers, Amna’s Baytna program aims to restore a sense of safety, alleviate the negative effects of stress on families, and support child development along the migration journey.

Each family also brings their own strengths, and they experience crises differently. Caregivers may need access to supports of differing intensity over time and in alignment with their family’s specific needs. During a virtual panel on parenting in crisis convened by GISP and the Global Parenting Initiative, Dr. Aala El-Khani, a humanitarian psychologist working with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), emphasized the need for a model of “multi-level caregiver support” noting that while all families can benefit from basic parenting information, some families will need more focused interventions and still others will require targeted trauma recovery interventions.

Global Initiative to Support Parents (GISP) | #NoMatterWhat: Supporting Caregivers as First Responders in Crisis
Source: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Centering Caregiver Voice and Building Trust

Finally, implementers and researchers alike strongly recommend centering the voices of parents and caregivers and developing collaborative relationships with families and local organizations starting from the initial phases of program development. This will ensure that interventions are culturally grounded and responsive to caregivers’ beliefs and needs. 

Collaborating with local community-based organizations and NGOs is a critical step to ensure appropriate adaptation and translation of materials before dissemination. Active engagement with Ukrainians was essential in developing the emergency guidance disseminated to displaced families and their hosts by PLH and partners. “Being attuned to participants’ own perceptions of their needs led to the addition of topics on grieving, secondary trauma, and survivor guilt,” according to a case study on the emergency parenting support response in Ukraine.

Cultural sensitivity is necessary too when promoting intergenerational play-based interactions, which can help to reduce stress for children as well as caregivers. In a presentation on the first play hubs set up for Ukrainian children, Giulia Cortellesi, Co-Director for the International Child Development Initiatives, pointed out that while play happens in all cultures, it can take many different forms and follow different sets of norms. Local community-based organizations are best placed to ensure play activities are rooted in local practices and beliefs, but an intercultural approach is necessary when operating play spaces that bring families with diverse backgrounds together.

Improvements in caregiver wellbeing also depend on building a positive, trusting relationship between the staff or volunteers delivering the intervention and the families concerned. In the case of IRC’s adaptation to phone-only delivery, a key finding was that “a positive, non-judgmental, and comfortable rapport between caller and caregiver is critical to achieve reductions in depressive symptoms,” said Khayam Husain, Co-Founder of Karachi Relief Trust, explaining that teaming up with the principals of local government schools was invaluable during the emergency response to catastrophic floods in Pakistan. School principals came to serve as cultural mediators when disseminating parenting tip sheets to impacted families, enhancing the effectiveness of the coaching provided to parents and caregivers.

Conclusion—One Size Does Not Fit All

Returning to the question posed at the top of this post, where do crisis-affected parents and caregivers turn when they can no longer count on their go-to sources of strength and support? 

Emergency situations are far too varied and complex for there to be a global, one-size-fits-all answer. But here’s what we do know: 

Based on her experience delivering family skills interventions through the UNODC, Dr. El-Khani says that parents and caregivers are highly motivated and already seeking out help in crisis contexts. They need an enabling environment that serves to reduce the many stressors competing for their attention, plus additional support to shore up their own wellbeing and mental health. By supporting parents and caregivers as essential first responders in crises, parenting programs can offer the space, tools, information, and resources necessary to regain a sense of safety and help rebuild their “village” or network of supports. Working together, parents and caregivers can lead the way if we stand by them no matter what crises emerge.

Read more about parenting in crisis here.

By Mari Ullmann, Technical Advisor, Parenting in Crisis for the Global Initiative to Support Parents (GISP) and Shekufeh Zonji, Global Technical Lead for the Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN).