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Strengthening at-risk families: Why psycho-social support matters

© UNICEF Mozambique
Programs addressing health and education, for example, may not fulfill their full potential without a concurrent focus on psycho-social aspects.

MAPUTO, Mozambique, 18 July 2011 One definition of psycho-social support is the provision of love, care and protection. It is the support for the emotional and social aspects of a person’s life, so that they can live with hope and dignity. Psycho-social support for children is best provided by families and communities and, therefore, a need exists to strengthen the skills and competencies of families and communities to provide such support.

In many African countries, traditional family and community support systems have been eroded by AIDS, leaving children orphaned and vulnerable. So-called at-risk families, where one or more adult caregiver has died or is ill, need to be strengthened economically, socially and emotionally. There is a wide range of reasons why families may be plunged into instability as a direct or indirect result of the HIV pandemic. These reasons range from loss of employment, death, illness, depression, exclusion, abuse and exploitation to school drop-out, loss of inheritance and family assets and lack of time and space to be a child.

The psycho-social well-being of children, however, is underpinning all other processes for the long-term development and success of societies, and families need both material and psycho-social resources if they are to provide consistent, positive, nurturing and protective environments for children. In other words, psycho-social support means comprehensive care and support for families.

© UNICEF Mozambique
The psycho-social well-being of children is underpinning all other processes for the long-term development and success of societies.

Psycho-social support yields a series of important outcomes. The psycho-social well-being of families and individuals stimulate the development of their internal capacities in different ways. A sense of hope, optimism and belief in the future is generated. A sense of identity and belonging to community, family or a peer group is generated as well, leading to a feeling of inclusion. This often leads to a sense of self-worth, self-worth and self-esteem, as well as to trust in others and opportunities to participate in society. For smaller children, secure attachments are formed. Physical and economic security in turn yields a feeling of independence rather than dependence, whereas meaningful peer relationships, friendships and social ties are developed at the social level. Last but not least, psycho-social support can ultimately enhance a person’s access to opportunities for education, economic gain and spiritual and moral development.

One way of encouraging or providing psycho-social support is through strengthened community parenting or by creating cultural practices that protect and nurture vulnerable families. This can include simple measures or an adult simply providing time to talk to and encourage a child. It can also include the creation of safe spaces for children to ask questions and get honest responses. Empowering families to involve their children and listen to their views on issues that concern them is of great importance and can have a significant impact. Parents and adult caregivers also have an opportunity to provide positive childhood memories by allowing children to be children. In this regard, play is essential, as it leads to development on many different levels.

Overall, a shift may be needed away from a focus on curative and specialized services to a greater focus on social protection and meeting basic social and emotional needs in daily life activities. This includes respecting the rights of children, protecting them and fulfilling them. It also includes early intervention when a family is at risk and a greater focus on prevention of problems.

Psycho-social support is a key enabler for vulnerable families and their children to access social welfare, health, nutrition, vocational training and income generating activities. Other programs, such as those addressing health and education, may not fulfill their full potential without a concurrent focus on psycho-social aspects.

For more information, please contact:

Arild Drivdal, UNICEF Mozambique, tel. (+258) 21 481 100; email:  

Gabriel Pereira, UNICEF Mozambique, tel. (+258) 21 481 100; email:



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