Families at breaking point

25 April 2023
Family mediation

As the cost of living crisis continues, Lauren Burr, Senior Family Outreach Worker, reflects on how much pressure it's putting on families, relationships and wellbeing - and how we can help families get back onto a stable footing.

Relationship breakdown is the biggest national cause of homelessness.

More than a third of all homelessness in Scotland is caused by conflict at home, and that shoots up to 80% among under-18s registered homeless. If we’re going to end homelessness, we have to tackle the roots of family breakdown, and make sure people have the best possible chance to deal with conflict in healthy, sustainable ways before their family reaches breaking point. 

That’s why for over 15 years, Cyrenians has offered family mediation, conflict management and early intervention services. And it really works. Last year, out of the 230 people we worked with in Mediation and Support, not one young person has left home into homelessness – 84% were able to find ways to stay at home safely, and the remaining 16% moved out in a managed way, with support from us and their families.  

But the need for our services is really high, and it’s climbing. Right now, we can only take on two out of every three families who come to us for help.

So why are things getting so bad? 

Some of it is the lingering effects of the last 3 years of Covid-19. Lots of us spent a year or more cooped up together inside, with worsening mental health and social isolation, often dealing with the trauma and loss of the pandemic – mental health and wellbeing services across Scotland are dealing with huge demand, and we’re not the only ones with growing waiting lists. 

At the same time, we’re seeing huge impacts from the ongoing cost of living crisis on family wellbeing. When we ask families what they need support with, more people than ever before now name financial strain as one of their biggest concerns. A few years ago, people were much more likely to ask for help with practical support around education, work, community engagement, developing skills to manage anger and understanding how relationships work.  

But, in a time when 1 in 10 Scottish families think they may not be able to pay their bills or mortgage in the next 3 months and the cost of food is climbing faster than it has since the 1970s, it’s not surprising that money worries are at the top of the list. 

Conversations around the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis often focus on direct financial harm – spiralling debts, rent arrears, food insecurity – and all of those are huge concerns in and of themself. But less attention is paid to the knock-on effects that all these pressures have on families, and young people particularly. 

When things are tight and parents are trying desperately to hold it together, money becomes a fraught topic. Conversations around money can quickly blow up into big fights – for teenagers, being refused seemingly simple things like time online, new clothes, money to hang out with friends, or food they like can be hard to handle, while parents are often frustrated and angry at their child’s lack of understanding of how much things cost. 

Young people often don’t know how much things like food, heat and rent really cost – and to be clear, they shouldn’t have to be in a position where they need to worry about that. Most parents want their children to feel safe, in control, and not have to worry about money. But that’s hard to achieve when they themselves are in a situation that’s increasingly insecure. 

In Mediation and Support, we use the SHANARRI indicators for wellbeing – the essential elements are that a young person feels Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible and Included. But the cost-of-living crisis is having huge impacts on all those things. It’s getting harder to afford the basics – adequate food, a stable home, space to be active – for a safe, healthy life. With so many activities effectively locked behind a paywall – even getting out of the house too often ends up costing money – opportunities for young people are getting closed off. And with stress building, frustrations deepening, and everyone struggling to cope, things snowball fast.

People blow up faster, talk less, and shut themselves off – and family breakdown can be a looming threat. 

When everything seems to be going wrong, it can be hard to know where to start.

Finding a way out of crisis can be a full time job, and it’s hard to find the energy or the confidence to start unpicking it. Some of the most important work we do is to help put out these fires, so that families can focus on what matters – looking after themselves and each other. 

It makes a big difference to be able to pay off someone’s rent arrears or top up their meter, but it makes a bigger difference to help them get the confidence, support and knowledge to keep on top of the bills long-term, and that’s what donating to Cyrenians supports. It’s not enough to offer a temporary sticking plaster – our job is to move people back onto stable ground for good.

That can look like making sure they have access to every penny of support they’re eligible for; going along to meetings; liaising with people like landlords, schools, the DWP and energy companies; making sure they know their rights and can confidently advocate for themselves; and most of all, providing a listening ear and the active support to break things down into manageable, solveable problems. 

With solid ground back under your feet, there’s space to really figure out how you’re feeling, communicate, and reconnect.

With our support, families have space both to work through what’s stressing them, and also to spend some low-pressure quality time together. While you’re on the edge of crisis, quality time is the first thing to go, but it’s a vital part of healthy relationships. Through partnerships with places like Edinburgh Zoo and Dynamic Earth, we can offer all the families we work with the space and time to just have fun, get to know each other again without the weight of the world between them, and to build more happy memories. 

One of the best ways to prevent cycles of homelessness and trauma before they start is to make sure young people have a safe, supportive family around them. When you donate to Cyrenians, you’re helping us provide the resources and support to tackle homelessness before it starts – and help whole families build a positive future.