March 29th, 2020

How to implement a Child Arrangements Order during the Coronavirus…

A guest blog by Elizabeth Fletcher, Director at the Family law in Partnership; she has a particular specialism in resolving children issues.  www.flip.co.uk

The Family Law in Partnershop and The Parent Practice co-present our 3 part workshop 'Parenting After Parting'. 

Whilst all parents are struggling with the new reality of life with the Coronavirus pandemic, those who are separated parents with children moving between two households face particular complications in managing their child’s day to day life. As a headline point, parents should know that the government and specifically the courts know this and are sympathetic to the challenges.  It is for this reason that specific guidance has been introduced.

Separated parents have often worked hard, sometimes in spite of acrimony, to achieve a good arrangement that enables their child/ren to spend time with both of their parents.  Some of those arrangements will have required court input and may have taken months or even years to achieve.  They can be fragile arrangements which require a great deal of commitment on all sides to maintain.  Sometimes, one or both parents can feel like they lose out and this can lead to further feelings of anger or resentment. 

In such circumstances, a government instruction to stay at home and not to see anyone outside your household for an (as yet) unspecified period of time, can put a further strain on parents and children alike.  The government identified early on that its instruction to stay at home would not work well for the children of separated parents and provided an exception that children of separated parents may move between households.  Unfortunately, this was clumsily communicated and led to some misinformation.     

The President of the Family Division has now issued guidance on the matter which can be found here. https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/coronavirus-crisis-guidance-on-compliance-with-family-court-child-arrangement-orders/ 

Essentially, the Court has said “be sensible”.  Parents are still in charge and they must as always act in the best interests of their child. Therefore, while a child may move between households, they don’t have to.  If parents consider that their particular circumstances, given the risk of infection and the presence of any vulnerable individuals in either of their two homes, means that it would not be safe for their child to move between two homes, then they should not do so.  

The President rightly states “More generally, the best way to deal with these difficult times will be for parents to communicate with one another about their worries, and what they think would be a good, practical solution. Many people are very worried about Coronavirus and the health of themselves, their children and their extended family. Even if some parents think it is safe for contact to take place, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this.” 

The court has said in clear terms – Keep communicating! If this is tough to do directly, then use technology to help you.  Explore the advice that the Parent Practice has to offer to help you too.  The government and scientific advice seems to be at the moment that this could be a marathon not a sprint so trying to keep good channels of communication open now will help down the line.

 So where parents can agree, a court order can be varied for the period of the Coronavirus.  The best way to confirm any new temporary arrangement is in writing – a text or email is sufficient.  

If the parents cannot agree, then the parent who considers the contact unsafe must propose some other form of safer, temporary contact such as a video call.  If parents can manage it, they should provide this generously to help make up for the loss of face to face contact.  If the other parent subsequently brings this back to the Family Court in the future, then the court will consider what was the sensible course of action at the time in light of the government guidance to Stay at Home and whether the parent with whom the child resides enabled as much phone/email/video contact as they could to support the child’s relationship with the other parent.   

So in summary, if your child normally moves between two homes, think about the following:- 

  1. Is it safe for them to currently do so?
  2. If its not safe, what other temporary arrangements can you put in place?
  3. Keep communicating as the situation evolves about what the best arrangements are.
  4. Write down those temporary arrangements.
  5. How can support your child who may already be anxious about not seeing their other parent? 

These are difficult situations to resolve, but by keeping the channels of communication open, parents can support their children through this difficult time as well as continuing to facilitate relationships with the other parent. 

If you need any further information on this, please contact Elizabeth Fletcher at ef@flip.co.uk 

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March 24th, 2020

The hazards of self-isolation (and some ideas for surviving)

You think it’s dangerous out there? What about at home? Being cooped up with your family for extended periods. What could possibly go wrong?

All of us are experiencing change at a very rapid rate which can really throw us out of wack. Some of us will adjust faster than others. You may have a child who doesn’t adjust easily even at the best of times. That’s the one who struggles getting up in the morning (and going to bed at night) has trouble going into school, moving from one place or activity (or person) to another and who doesn’t like surprises. Well surprise, surprise, school’s out early and we’re all going to be at home for …we don’t know how long. Your child might think this is great ….for the first 24 hours!

There may be tears and tantrums and general lack of cooperation… and then there’s the kids. We need to be understanding of that in all of us, ourselves and our children. On top of our worries about the health of our loved ones there is much disappointment about the loss of things we now can’t do, and for us, overwhelm at the thought of managing children and partner at home, home-schooling and doing our own work.

All of these feelings are valid and need to be acknowledged. It will not work to tell anyone not to worry or be upset. Don’t say everyone’s in the same boat; you just have to get on with it. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to keep all your plates spinning at once. If you recognise that you are angry and accept that that is a valid response to the situation you are less likely to take your anger out on your child or partner/sibling/cat. Processing the feelings allows space for your higher order thinking brain to take charge and work out how to cope.

There is no manual for how to manage self-isolation well. We are all new to this and all families are different. But we know that to not only survive, but thrive, in this time of incarceration the adults will need to do a lot of planning. But not just the adults. Everything will work better if you get input from your children, at least the over 3 year olds. I recommend you call an Extraordinary General Meeting of the family. Depending on your children’s ages you might send out an invitation like the one here. (Thank you Victoria). Do provide super snacks.

Before you embark on elaborate timetables for your home-schooling and enriching activities take a reality check. If you are working from home you will not be able to get as much work done as usual. You will have to prioritise sleep if you are to keep well and keep your cool so you cannot work all through the night and work with the kids during the day. People get very weird after only four hours of sleep. School may have set tasks for the children or, if not, there are many, many educational opportunities available online with social media bursting with ideas.

If school has set online activities you may need to share devices. All of this will need timetabling and you may need to communicate with school about what is realistic for your family. Be nice! They’re feeling their way too. They will be adjusting their expectations about what’s possible just now.

Set your kids up to do their work by using a chat through beforehand. No matter what age it works to ask your child sufficiently detailed questions about the task at hand to establish that they know what to do (or if there are any missing areas of knowledge) before they pick up a pencil/keyboard. Then let them get on with it. Depending on levels of independence it might be a good idea to work alongside them, dropping in the occasional dollop of descriptive praise for concentration or effort. Then when they’re finished or reach a break point (previously agreed) get them to look at their work and find at least one thing to improve. I wouldn’t review the finished product but if you do keep your feedback positive.

Make sure your timetables include some downtime, some outside time, some exercise and some family time. This is the time to pull out the board games and play together or watch movies as a family. Perhaps more screentime than usual might be ok now –there’s plenty of good quality material available on a screen. Check out www.commonsensemedia.org or www.PEGI.info for ratings and reviews. The family that plays together stays sane.

Stay well

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March 22nd, 2020

Mummy I wish this virus thing wasn’t happening

That was Charlie, aged 5, on finding out that his friend’s party had been cancelled. Of course he was disappointed and at age 5 it is hard to understand why you can no longer do the things you want to do. Many adults share that feeling of disappointment as birthdays, weddings and holidays have been cancelled. We all wish ‘this virus thing’ wasn’t happening. But we’re the grownups and we have to deal with what is happening and we’d like our children to see us dealing with it in a calm way. Will we be able to look back on this time and feel proud of how we responded?

I racked my brains this week to think of tips that I could share with you all for making SHWK (Staying Home With Kids) easier. And I definitely will share the life hacks I think of and can pass on from other parents doing the same thing. But my experience is that parents are extraordinarily creative individuals. They know their children best and are able to come up with amazing solutions to quite complex and challenging situations…if they’ve got the headspace. And that means freeing up brain bandwidth for rational thought by allowing ourselves to process how we feel about it.

Every single one of us is dealing with a really challenging situation. Even if we stay well we will be impacted. At one end of the scale we may not be able to get toilet paper and at the other end we may have to close a business and lay off loyal staff. We may have to work from home and look after children at the same time. We may have to juggle care of elderly relatives as well. We may be health workers who are exposed to a much higher degree. All of that will bring with it anxieties and disappointments and frustrations, and perhaps feeling not up to the task.

If we’re going to find creative solutions to our problems we need to first address the feelings. This is what we need to teach our children to do and we have to model it ourselves too. We know from research using fMRI scans that when people try to suppress feelings their emotions are still occupying space in the brain. That research showed that naming the feeling helped to dissipate it. We also know that our brain needs to satisfy basic feelings of safety before it can even move on to higher order emotions, let alone rational thought and our sense of security is threatened at the moment.

So what are you or your children disappointed about this week? What have you had to miss out on –seeing friends at school or your usual yoga class? What has frustrated you or them? Not being able to get cereal or tissues or….? Your neighbours being even noisier now they’re all at home? What’s making you anxious? Worries about your finances or whether your child will fall behind in school? Sit down and talk to them about some of these feelings. This is not a negative moan-fest but it is a necessary airing of emotions to allow you to move through them. It will also give your children permission to express how they are feeling, which will in fact help the feeling to dissipate. See our blog on Talking to kids about Coronavirus and listen to our podcast for how to temper your anxiety so that you don’t make them more worried. One way to keep anxiety in check is to mention the good things that are going on too. One mum undertook to report one item of good news everyday for her son. eg cleaner canals in Venice and special hospitals in China closing because life is returning to normal there.

Then discuss how you are all going to deal with your feelings. Are you going to:

  • Talk about them
  • Journal them or draw them
  • Take exercise –run, dance, jump on a trampoline
  • Listen to calming music
  • Get out in nature
  • Do some sorting out/cleaning/building Lego
  • Meditate/listen to mindfulness apps
  • Play with/care for an animal

You may come up with other ideas.

Let everyone choose their favourite stress-buster and revisit this strategy frequently. Talk about it when you are choosing to deal with your feelings constructively. Yes, you will feel a bit strange. “I’m feeling a bit frustrated that Papa and Nana’s 40th anniversary party has had to be cancelled. I’m so disappointed because we’ve been planning it for so long. I’m going to let off steam by hoovering the living room. Can everyone give me a bit of space?”

Involve the children in coming up with solutions even if it’s not directly their problem. They are very creative and will feel a bit more in control if they can contribute to answers. “I’m disappointed we can’t go to Manchester to see Bella in her play. She’s been rehearsing for so long and I was looking forward to it. I wonder if Uncle Ben will be able to get a recording of it?” Child: Shall we face time them after it’s finished? We could even send her flowers like we did when Auntie Jo was sick. Bella will feel like a proper actor then!”

You may have to let go of some expectations as these thoughts about what should happen, how things should be or how children (and adults) should behave are the source of the feelings that then cause us to respond poorly. Don’t expect the first week of SHWK to be smooth…or even the second. Don’t expect to be your children’s teacher. As one school principal in the US put it: This is not home-schooling. This is an unprecedented emergency situation impacting the whole world. Home –schooling is a choice that you consider and plan for where you are your child’s school teacher. This is at best distance learning.

You may have seen the video that went viral of the mum ranting about her child’s e-learning burden and her feeling of inadequacy in keeping her children on top of the workload. Well ditch those expectations of yourself and your children and the in fact the school. They’re finding their feet in this new situation too.

Most of all ditch the expectation of being perfect. These are very imperfect times so we imperfect humans are just right for the job. We have shown ourselves over millennia to be adaptable so we will rise to the task…next week.

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March 16th, 2020

Be prepared for Coronavirus

With new information about the Coronavirus and the exponential spread of the disease arriving in our mailboxes and social media platforms and in print and broadcast media practically on the hour you may be reaching Coronavirus saturation point. Or because of the high level of uncertainty about this novel situation you may be relentlessly consuming as much information as you can. It’s normal to feel anxious about uncertain situations and this is a quite unprecedented pandemic.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Ali Binns, in her excellent article How to cope with anxiety about Coronavirus, explores the differing responses we are all having to the virus. Some of us are feeling very panicked and are rushing out to stockpile basic goods, avoiding gatherings and pulling our children out of school. While others are shrugging their shoulders and saying it’s just flu and carrying on as normal with the risk that they are not taking the steps they could to prevent the spread of the disease. Binns talks about a more measured response which shows concern but keeps the anxiety in check. This allows us to be prepared and to focus on what we can do to help ourselves and our families and neighbours.

There is a real possibility that families might find themselves in self-isolation or the children might be sent home from school or daycare for a short period or for much longer. The Easter school holiday break may be longer than originally planned but any plans you had to go away may no longer be possible. So you might find yourself in the company of your children for extended periods. How you prepare for this may make the difference between seeing this as a real nightmare or as an unexpected gift of quality time with your children.

If you are trying to work from home because of the virus and your children are home too that adds a whole new layer of difficulty of course. Working parents will be aware that the minute you open your laptop is usually the time your child has an urgent need. (Remember that BBC interview with Korea expert Dr Robert Kelly which was interrupted by his kids?) If there are two parents working from home one solution is to take turns in caring for younger children so at least you both get some work done during business hours and then recognise that you are going to be working the graveyard shift.

If your children are older there are a number of things you can do to make things go more smoothly. With great thanks to our clients (including Chloe who has been home with her 5, 10 and 12 year old for over a month in a small flat in Hong Kong) here are some ideas about how to manage this time… without completely overdosing on screens.

  1. If you’re trying to work as well as keeping children occupied or get them to do school work first of all match your expectations to your child’s age and temperament and be realistic about how long they can be quiet/occupy themselves. Work in small blasts through the day and expect to get most done after they’ve gone to bed.
  2. Talk to them at the beginning of your ‘confinement’ about the guidelines for this novel situation. Use your imagination and build in fun wherever you can. Maybe compare it to being marooned on a desert island. Obviously there will be different rules depending on whether there is illness in the family or you’re just home because school has closed. Set out what needs to happen in detail and get input from them. For instance where is everyone going to work? What happens if you get a work call? It may even help to run some role plays.
  3. Clearly school arrangements will determine how the day looks for your school aged child. If they are conducting lessons remotely you will need a laptop for that child and preferably headphones and a quiet space to work. Do you have enough devices/desk space/bandwidth? If school are just sending work home then that may need more supervision from you.
  4. Put in place some structure for the day as otherwise working hours and relaxation hours and weekdays and weekends can all merge together. It will help everyone to cope if they know how long they are going to be engaged in school work/productive activity and when they can have down time/access to social media. A written timetable which includes everyone’s activities may help.
  5. If you are not isolated for medical reasons then get out of the house when you can to allow kids to run around and take part in any extra-curricular activities which are still running but if you are confined to barracks and work is done then how do you keep them occupied? Involve your children according to their capacities in drawing up a list of things to do. Below are some suggestions beyond watching screens:
    1. Get the kids involved in cooking their lunch/supper etc.
    2. Put music on, give them a broom or dustpan and a prize for the kid with most in the pan. 
    3. Play Uno or other board or card games.
    4. Hide and seek/sardines/build a den
    5. Have a picnic, even if it’s your own garden or on a rug on the floor. 
    6. Even if you have a tiny garden or balcony, seeds are great and grow fast! Watering every day is a good discipline. 
    7. Jigsaws or Lego. If you can leave it on a table and keep going back to it that’s best.
    8. Read a book with them–use it to inspire drawing pictures, dressing up and acting out the story
  6. There is no doubt that kids, and adults, will get frustrated at being unusually cooped up together but you can present this as a wonderful opportunity to spend positive time together. Maybe describe it as a ‘staycation’. Notice and comment on good coping strategies they show, any helpful suggestions they make, signs of tolerating things they don’t like (like their brother’s humming) or coping with missing things they enjoy. Descriptively praise them for keeping themselves occupied, for not moaning too much about life inside and for helping out with tasks that need to be done. Empathise with their frustrations at not being able to do what they want, see friends or run about and be understanding about their annoyance with their siblings. Regard this as an opportunity to observe all the good things your child does and let them know how much you value them.

Stay calm and keep washing your hands!

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March 09th, 2020

Talking to your child about Coronavirus

The topic on everyone's lips and in our parenting classess recently has, not surprisingly, been the Coronavirus outbreak and many parents are worried about how to address it with their children. You would have had to be extremely isolated indeed not to have been aware of the general discomfort setting in as the Covid-19 virus has spread around the world. As panic stockpiling of toilet paper and other basics indicates, some adults are becoming very anxious so it’s no wonder if our children are worried about what they’re hearing. 

The first thing we can do to help is to be aware of what they ARE hearing. Never assume that your children aren’t listening to your adult conversations even if they seem to be preoccupied and not bothered. If you’ve been talking about it within earshot of your children or they’ve heard radio or TV reports about it or it’s being discussed at school then you need to address it with them in a way that they can process.

The spread of this virus is something that is still unfolding and we don’t know what the scale of it will be. It will certainly have some effect on the lives of ordinary families even if they do not contract the disease themselves.

  1. Be informed. This is an unprecedented public health emergency. As usual in the internet era there is misinformation swirling about so do make sure you get your facts from a trusted source such as government websites. When I first wrote this blog 10 days ago there had been over 100,000 cases worldwide with 206 confirmed cases in the UK and 2 deaths (both elderly people). As I’m revising it on 16th March those numbers have all increased, with 1543 cases and 55 deaths in the UK. The numbers worldwide are difficult to estimate since testing and reporting varies across the world but there may have been upwards of 182,000 cases. Mortality rates worldwide are hard to gauge given the discrepancies about numbers of cases. But it is agreed that those who are elderly or who have immune system issues or underlying health problems are more at risk. Very few children have died from the virus. The risk of contracting the disease is higher if you have recently travelled overseas. In China where the virus originated 67,000 of the 80,860 patients have recovered.

Ask the children what they know about it already and give information according to their age. The questions they ask will help you to make what you say relevant for them.

 

  1. Listen to your children’s concerns. Obviously one of our main concerns is not to make our children needlessly worried. They need to know that the adults can and will keep them safe. But it will not help any anxiety they are experiencing to dismiss their concerns. Don’t tell them not to worry.
  • When –if your child brings it up do respond to them there and then if at all possible. If your child has brought it up at an inconvenient moment such as when you’re dropping them off at school or at bedtime (very common, in my experience) then bear in mind that if you put off the discussion they may be carrying around their concerns so will not be able to focus at school or get to sleep. If it’s just not possible then assure them that you will talk about it as soon as you can. If they don’t raise the subject it might still be a good idea for you to introduce the subject calmly so that you can set the tone before they hear rumours elsewhere which worry them. Choose a time when things are calm and you will be uninterrupted.
  • How –stay calm. We know that anxiety is very contagious so it’s important that you get your own feelings in check before having a conversation with the children. This is particularly important if you know your child is of an anxious disposition. If you’re aware that you seem stressed acknowledge that and let them know that you are handling your feelings by getting proper information and by using your usual stress-busters such as going for a walk, listening to music, taking a bath or meditating. Give your children hugs and accept hugs from them too.
  • What to say –acknowledge their fears and don’t make false promises. If your child is worried that people they care about might die acknowledge that some people might die from the disease but that it is rare, less likely when people are healthy and that there are things people can do to protect themselves. Explain that most people who experience symptoms will get better on their own. “I can see this is really bothering you. Of course you don’t want anyone to get sick. I’m glad you care. Mummy and Daddy and Gran and Grandpa are all fit and healthy so we should be ok. Papa and Nana are old but they are generally well and they are keeping themselves at home mainly so there is less chance of picking up the virus. If any of us do get sick the doctors and nurses will take good care of us.”

 

  1. Give control. Much anxiety comes about from feeling we can’t influence events so it will help to empower children as much as possible and let them know how you as a family plan to deal with things in the event that someone gets sick or if you need to be quarantined or if their school closes. Let them know that the government has put in place plans for dealing with the situation. What they can do is follow basic hygiene procedures. Revisit proper handwashing and how to catch a sneeze or wipe a runny nose properly in a tissue and throw it away. Remind them about coughing into their elbow rather than their hands.

 

  1. Although the virus originated in China this does not mean that Chinese people are at fault. Challenge any racist views you hear and encourage your children to be compassionate and respectful. Depending on their age you may want to make them aware that there are racist views circulating and let them know that in your family you don’t subscribe to these and that they are based on misinformation.

Keep well.

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March 02nd, 2020

Zero tolerance for intolerance

A couple of weeks ago an Aboriginal Australian mum put up a video of her son on facebook. It went viral. The video showed the aftermath of a bullying incident involving her 9 year old son who suffers from a form of Dwarfism. The video is heartbreaking. Quaden buries his face in the car seat and cries uncontrollably. He asks for a knife with which to kill himself. His obviously distressed mother tells the camera that her son has, in fact, attempted suicide before. "This is what bullying does," she says, "Can you please educate your children, your families, your friends?"

If we want to help children in Quaden’s position we need to stamp out bullying. Whether a child is bullied because of a disability or because of the colour of their skin or for any other spurious reason Quaden’s mum is right – it does involve educating people and that won’t happen overnight so we also need to build up our children’s resilience.

How do we eliminate bullying? Well as usual it starts with the adults. We need to ask ourselves some searching questions. What are we modelling for our children when:

  • we elect politicians whose modus operandi is to force their will upon and treat others with contempt
  • they witness us deal with our disagreements in ways that involve violence or psychological control or criticism and contempt
  • we stand by when others bully. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept
  • we don’t teach our children to stand up for others but let them think it’s none of their business when others are being hurt
  • we use coercion at home to get our kids to do what we want them to do

The definition of bullying is ‘the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power’. We adults obviously have more power than children and we have a duty to ensure that we don’t use our power in a coercive way, to hurt or control. We need to be very careful that at home we are showing our children how to get their needs met through discussion, not by just bulldozing the other. Have you ever said, “You’ll do it because I say so” or “because I’m the boss”? Instead we need to use respectful and consistent disciplinary tools.

How do we get our kids to be strong and pick themselves up after setbacks? Is resilience something that can be taught?

Emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, empathy for others and resilience, is not something that we are just born with. It can be taught and we must teach it if we are to raise our children to not be bullies themselves, to protect others from bullying and to respond well if they are bullied themselves.

Empathy is taught at home by parents showing empathy to their children (and to others).

  • When kids are upset we need to not dismiss or deny or minimise their feelings. Don’t say “it doesn’t matter” or “you’ll get over it”. It does matter to your daughter that she wears the Elsa outfit today. Empathising doesn’t necessarily mean she can wear it
  • Leaping to the defence of the teacher or the child with whom they’ve fallen out won’t teach our children to consider others. We need to first show we understand their feelings before they can do the same
  • When they’ve behaved in ways we don’t like we need to ask ourselves “what was the emotional driver for this behaviour?” That’s not to excuse but to understand it. It may be that after you have acknowledged your child’s feelings they will need to make amends in some way
  • Let them hear you speculate with compassion about how the homeless man you encounter came to be living on the street or why the road rage guy is behaving like that
  • Read books or watch films where you consider how the characters feel
  • Talk about your own feelings (without burdening your child), those of your partner and your family and friends. “I’m going to ring Grandpa. I think he’s been feeling quite lonely recently.”

Before a child can develop empathy they need to have an awareness of their own feelings and the fact that someone else may have different feelings than their own. This will start to develop about the age of two years. Children have an innate capacity for empathy but it needs to be nurtured. Parents can help a child develop the self-awareness necessary for emotional resilience by putting feelings into words for them from a young age. Describe to your child how you think he is feeling. This gives them a vocabulary for emotions but also validates the feeling. When we do this repeatedly it gives the child the message that in this family we care how other people feel.

If your child has had a bullying experience you will need to acknowledge how that feels. Use ‘sensing’ words rather than ‘knowing’ words. “I’m guessing that felt awful.” “Maybe you felt really isolated when that happened. Perhaps you were scared.” “I wonder if you felt betrayed when no one helped you.”

Standard advice for kids who are being bullied ranges from “walk away” to “go tell a teacher” to “stand up for yourself”. None of these methods works all that well. Walking away might be sensible in some circumstances as it deprives the bully of the reaction they were looking for but it’s not always possible. Teachers are not always trained to deal with bullying and if they do anything it is usually to tell off or punish the bully which guarantees reprisals later. Telling a child to fight back will not only get them in trouble but it is encouraging exactly the kind of behaviour we’re trying to get rid of. The best approach for an individual is to have a form of words ready to take away the bully’s power to hurt. Examples of retorts to verbal bullying are: “Why should I care?” or “I hold a different opinion”, looking uninterested. Brainstorm for ideas of what to say with your child and practice saying them together.

Resilience also involves feeling confident and believing that next time you can handle things better. That means having a strong sense of one’s own capacities which is nurtured by parents consistently pointing out to children their strengths.

But the best remedy for bullying is to have a united community approach that we will not tolerate seeing unkindness to others, particularly those in a position of less power.

 

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