July 14th, 2020
Today there is a miniature schnauzer-sized hole in our lives which had been filled for 14+ years lovingly and (until recently) enthusiastically by our Ellie. She will be very much missed by my husband and I, our children and my family who all experienced her particular brand of devotion. (Even in her last days when she was very wobbly on her pins she would get out of her bed to greet my brother when he came round. He had a lot of love from her during a sad time in his life.) She will also be missed by my 3 year old granddaughter and that raised the question of how to explain death to a young child. Some children will have had the experience of death of a loved one perhaps recently because of Covid-19 or for other reasons. Different circumstances may require different approaches and how you talk to your children about loss will vary according to age and experience of bereavement but one thing will remain the same, we do need to talk about it.
If you practice a faith the conversation you have to explain death may be somewhat scripted for you according to the tenets of your faith about an afterlife. You might talk about your loved pet or relative going to heaven and being at peace there; you may say that they didn’t need their body any more but their soul has been reunited with those who have gone before.
If you don’t practice a religion and don’t believe in an afterlife you need to find other ways to help the child understand and come to terms with what has happened.
You may need to explain death to a young child. They may think death is temporary and reversible and they certainly won’t understand the inevitability of it. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life. Even if they don’t understand about death they will pick up on the feelings around them so may well feel sad or be worried themselves. Admit that you are sad but let them know that you are being cared for and keep them close. They will worry if you are apart from them. Keep routines as consistent as possible.
From about age 6 or 7 children usually understand that death is permanent but this is still a pretty egocentric stage of development so just watch out that your child is not blaming themselves in some way for the death –if only I’d been better behaved/looked after Fido better this wouldn’t have happened. About this age children start to question mortality and may worry that the people they love are going to die. They may become a bit clingier and more watchful if they are worried.
From about age 9 onwards children come to understand that death is inevitable and universal, that even they will die.
Let children take part in farewell rituals like funerals and memorial services. I have no regrets about allowing my children to say goodbye to their grandparents in this way. These rituals assist healing and they celebrate the life of the person or animal who has died. Talk to your child about how the deceased lives on in our memories. My grandfather died 20 years ago but he lives on whenever I use a family expression that originated with him. You could encourage your child to create a memory bank of the departed loved one with drawings, photographs and stories.
How to talk about death
At every age adults should be honest with children and the younger they are the more important it is to use simple clear language, avoiding euphemisms. Since young children think in very concrete ways it will not work to say that the person or animal you are grieving has gone into a deep sleep or passed away or gone on a journey or to a better place. It is better to say simply that they have died. Explain to a young child that this means they won’t see them anymore. Of course you can say that they are at peace. Adults tend to use language like this to try to soften the blow but it can lead to a child being afraid of sleep or journeys. We used to explain to my granddaughter that Ellie didn’t come on walks or even get out of bed much because she was very, very old but if you link death with age there is a possibility that they will get worried about anyone in their lives they think of as old–that could mean you! When explaining how death happens the amount of information you give will depend on age and temperament. Some children are just more curious than others. My son told our granddaughter that Ellie’s body stopped working rather than saying she died of old age.
If your school aged child is worried about those around him dying don’t be tempted to say you’re not going to die. There is a lot of discussion about death at the moment and they may have picked up that young people have died too. Remind them that not everyone who gets sick dies. We all get sick sometimes and mostly recover. All you can do is say that you are healthy (if so) and are doing everything in your power to stay safe and well. Without suggesting that you are about to leave them remind them how many people there are in their lives who love them.
If you are taking care of your own emotions your children will be able to grieve too and become more comfortable. Model your own coping strategies for your older children. Maybe suggest to your tween or teen that they could process their emotions by:
Above all talking about feelings is essential. It is very tempting for adults to want to make children feel better when they’re sad. All our euphemisms about death and our attempts to shield children from death presuppose that children can’t handle difficult feelings. This gives the message that these feelings are to be feared whereas feelings are what make us whole humans. Le them cry and feel free to cry in front of them. Use your words to describe the experience. "I know you're feeling very sad. I'm sad, too. We both loved Ellie, and she loved us, too. We’ll miss her funny little face. Do you remember how she used to run around the house like a mad thing?"
Remember that time heals but acknowledging pain helps the grieving process. Accept it.
June 28th, 2020
Ordinarily you may really look forward to the school holidays –ditching the routine, sleeping in a bit later, no home schooling hassles for a while, and dreaming about getting away to warmer climes.
However for many of us, the thought of a summer holiday by the beach is a mere pipe dream. This is no ordinary summer. As many countries transition out of Lockdown, parents are left pondering exactly how we play entertainment director; driving kids to some sort of activity, organising play dates whilst maintaining social distancing, and how we devise things for them to do at home while working ourselves is anyone’s guess. The thought of it may fill you with panic and dread. Do you end up abandoning your good intentions and let them have even more iPad time and wonder how on earth are you are going to get them detoxed from screens? Of course many of us have let our kids have more time on a device over this lockdown period, recognising this is a short term solution to save our sanity which may cause a long term problem.
Of course there is much that is good about modern technology - we’ve all been using it for educational purposes, for entertainment and for socialising, but we also need to limit the time kids spend in front of a screen because there are many other things they need to be doing, most importantly interacting with other human beings, discovering themselves and using their brains. Many video games encourage children to seek ever greater levels of stimulation with their hits of dopamine and their fast-paced action discouraging the development of sustained thought. All of this makes it less likely our children can focus for any length of time and solve problems in creative ways. And constant engagement with a screen makes for less engagement with parents which reduces the influence we have with them.
But our children don’t just need less screens, they need less adult organisation generally if they are to be able to think for themselves. Your solution to holiday ennui may be to enrol them in day camps, and indeed there are some very creative offerings out there. These can provide great opportunities to be physical and social and learn new skills, but if your child is always being directed by someone else, they can lose the ability to think for themselves. It is only in moments of quiet when they are not engaged in structured play, whether on a screen or not, that children learn to think for themselves and be creative.
Get your children used to thinking for themselves in these 5 ways:
So if you hear the dreaded words ‘I’m bored’ what should you do? Despite the look on your child's face nobody ever died of boredom. It's only when the outside stimulation slows that children can reach inwards to find their own creativity and initiative. Do empathise with them but don’t take over. Instead before the holidays arrive or as soon as possible have a family meeting to brainstorm some ‘blitz the boredom’ ideas.
Develop some rules about electronic usage in holiday time. But it’s not enough to limit your child’s time on a screen – you have to have alternatives.
We recommend you have a Boredom Buster jar filled with ice cream sticks. On each one you write down one idea for things to do, generated by the kids. Then when they say they are bored these ideas will jog their thinking. Here are a few suggestions:
You are only limited by your imagination, so get the kids thinking!
June 22nd, 2020
As I am writing this it is Fathers’ day in the UK and in the USA and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic it feels like a particularly good time to acknowledge fathers. All of us have had our worlds turned upside down by Covid-generated restrictions on our way of life. Some dads have lost their jobs, some have been furloughed and some have been working from home. Across the world many fathers have been in isolation at home with their families and spending much more time with their kids than usual.
And dads have stepped up.
50 years ago the role of a dad was to support his family financially. When a child was born he was waiting in the wings and his role in the life of the baby was from the sidelines. He did not go to ante-natal classes and was not expected to participate in labour or care for the newborn. He was not directly involved in feeding, bathing or changing the infant (and so did not have the opportunities for bonding provided by those activities), but he could put together the cot and the child seat, and he could go to work. As the child got older he might be involved in discipline and weekend activities. He would teach a child to throw and catch a ball but pretty much everything else was down to mum.
In the half century that followed women gradually got involved more in the paid workforce and in the 21st century the two parent working family is much more the norm. But still mostly it was the women who were taking on responsibility for the childcare. It would generally be mum who’d stay home if a child was sick. Mums would more often take care of homework supervision and organise playdates and birthday parties.
All families are different but there has been a steady rise in the involvement of dads in their children’s everyday lives. Until the pandemic forced fathers out of delivery rooms it had become much more the norm that dads were present and playing a crucial supporting role in the birth and were encouraged to bond with the baby from birth. There is evidence that dads who are actively involved and invested in the baby before they are born remain involved throughout the child’s life. I interviewed for our podcast a dad of a 4 year old and 10 month old who was already working from home before isolation was thrust upon his family and he thought that surely it was the norm these days that parents would share the childcare responsibilities equally. Whether or not that is the rule in all families with young children today there is much evidence that when dads get into the grunt work their relationship with their kids is much enhanced (to say nothing of what it does for their relationship with their partners).
At The Parent Practice we have noticed a marked increase in the number of dads actively engaged in our online positive parenting courses during isolation and families report that dads are taking responsibility for their children in unprecedented ways. Most report that they are loving the amount of time they have had with their families.
Since there is so much to be concerned about regarding isolation it is good to reflect upon this massive silver lining to the Covid cloud. Pre-pandemic it had been reported that younger fathers particularly were keen to spend more time with their families but that their work culture didn’t always allow it or they feared that their career prospects would be jeopardised by taking time off for childcare. Perhaps in the post-Covid era there will be a shift toward more flexible work practices for dads.
Because dads’ involvement matters.
It is well documented that having an active, engaged, involved father in their life really makes a difference to outcomes for a child.
Showing up is half the battle, whether a father lives full time with his children or not. A father living apart from his children needs to be more creative but as isolation has shown we can be resourceful when it comes to the vital task of staying in touch. We can write, send pictures or photographs, use video calling platforms (who isn’t an expert in Zoom now?) and phone. “Even if you’re not in physical proximity, knowing your dad cares and wants to be involved to the extent that they can is really important,” says Marcy Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin. (Quoted in Fatherly) And she reminds dads that providing for their kids also goes a long way.
When dads are positively engaged in everyday activities with their kids and warm and emotionally involved, feeding them, playing with them, putting them to bed, reading to them, supervising homework and attending school events, having conversations with them, providing emotional support and positive discipline, etc the following outcomes can be predicted:
If you’re physically present with your kids the next level up is being engaged and warm and this is what matters if dads are to impact the above areas. Playing with kids is good for building relationship but also for teaching them social skills and for cognitive development. Dads are particularly good at allowing children to take risks; their play tends to be of a more physical variety which allows the child to develop physically, to learn where the boundaries are and to trust themselves and dads communicate the value of exploring which builds creativity. When dads give the message that the child is capable of a task, the child believes that he is capable and also enjoys and values the task.
Children are watching their dads all the time. Boys model themselves on their dads and girls form their expectations of how men should be by watching their dads. So be sure you are that man for them.
Remember that dads matter and keep up the good work.
June 15th, 2020
3 weeks ago George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a white police officer during an arrest, by kneeling on his neck. His death triggered demonstrations and protests in citiies around the world against police brutality, racism, and lack of police accountability. This week another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot dead by police officers in Atlanta. Now, if never before, parents are faced with explaining to their children the issues raised by these events.
In other countries there have also been repeated incidents of police brutality towards people of colour and deaths in custody. During the Covid-19 pandemic people of Chinese descent have been faced with racist taunts. Racism is rife across the world. If you are a person who has experienced racism, if you have been afraid of the police or anyone else because of the colour of your skin, if you have had to explain to your child why they should not run from the police or that they are likely to be stopped and searched just because of how they look, if you have had to endure taunts or discrimination or been denied opportunities or been made to feel that you don’t belong then this may be sadly familiar ground. If you are from an ethnic minority your children may feel afraid and angry and that life is unfair. I don’t presume to know what that is like but I know it will be important to validate these feelings and allow them to vent. Racism is unjust and hurtful but we can also teach our children that they have a voice and can change things.
None of those things may have happened to you but you may want to ensure that it no longer happens to anyone else. Caucasian parents need to not let guilt about what’s happened in the past, or discomfort about what is still happening, stop them from raising children with better attitudes for the future. If the protests across the world are anything to go by many people, white or black or Asian, have had enough. If you share that view you may want to teach your children to be anti-racist. How do you do it?
Your approach will vary according to your child’s age and your lived experience, including your current neighbourhood. I am a Caucasian who grew up in Singapore in a multi-cultural community where my friends were mainly Chinese, Malaysian and Indian and one or two Europeans. I saw difference all around me but was only interested in whether or not my friends wanted to play. The more your child is exposed to people from different backgrounds, the more they’ll get used to the idea of different races, and the more comfortable they’ll become with people from other ethnicities. This was an important factor to us when my husband and I were choosing what schools we wanted our children to go to in the UK. Surrounding yourself with diversity is a strong step toward breaking down the ignorance behind the fears that feed racism.
We can also be thinking carefully about what books our children read and films they see and toys they play with –are they seeing people of different races portrayed in familiar situations? What ideas are they picking up about who occupy positions of power? Eg are the princesses or the heroes in the films your children watch all white?
Children are aware of race from an early age –from as young as 3 months old babies show a preference for people from the same race as their primary carers. Quite young children pick up attitudes and behaviours toward people of different races from those around them even if they don’t hear overtly racist comments. Most people don’t intend to be racist but may unconsciously model beliefs about a person’s capacities or their place in the world on the basis of race. It’s not racist for a child to notice differences such as skin colour but what we want to be careful of is any value judgments that are being attached to those differences. We need to challenge these, not with criticism, but by gently helping the child to see that stereotypes aren’t true. At any age we can have conversations with children about fairness and hurt. By primary school age children have a well-developed sense of fairness so we can tap into this. We can be talking to them about racism and white advantage as part of a wider conversation about fairness and teaching empathy.
As well as celebrating differences eg by taking part in festivals and sharing food, music and dance we want to be pointing out to our children the many things we have in common as human beings.
Very young children take their cues from their parents about how to react to people so if they see that you welcome someone they will too. Ideally young children would not be exposed to the news but if they have heard something about recent events you will need to explain in very simple terms what has happened. “A police officer killed a man who had black skin. That was not ok. The police have to follow the law, the same as anyone else. A lot of people are very angry about it. We should be angry when something is wrong. It is wrong to treat people differently because of their skin colour. People are marching to let the government know they want things to change. That’s what we can do when we’re not happy about something in our country.”
If your older child asks why the police officer killed this man this is a good opportunity to talk about how people handle anger and how important it is to use words. From the age of 7 we can be talking to our kids about how they feel about fairness. Relate it to their experience. Would it be fair if everyone except you could have ice cream? What if only people with red hair were allowed to play football? You can ask questions to engage them in ideas including about what they can do when they see unfairness to themselves or their friends or in the wider community.
Don’t feel you have to have this conversation in one go and don’t feel you have to know all the answers before you begin. The fact that you are engaging in this conversation with your children will be raising their awareness and taking some important steps toward raising an anti-racist generation.
June 09th, 2020
It’s June and restrictions may be easing in the UK but families have been cooped up under one roof without the respite offered by schools for 11 weeks now. Siblings have had to endure each other’s company, have had to put up with each other’s annoying habits and have had to compete with each other for scarce resources, whether that’s a laptop, the kitchen table space or a parent’s attention. There may have been more fighting in your household as brothers and sisters have vented their emotions on a convenient scapegoat. Tensions have been running high as children have their own anxieties and frustrations and pick up on adult stress in the atmosphere. Children with immature brains and lack of experience at self-analysis won’t understand that it is actually the fact that they are missing their friends or playing sport or worrying about getting into university or being bored or even missing the routine of school that is irritating them rather than the really ANNOYING way their brother is slurping his drink! Although does he really have to be so gross?
You may have found yourself shouting at the kids more than usual, stepping in to sort out conflicts, separating them, banning the TV/iPad/games console. It’s not surprising that we’re focused on the fighting because it really demands our attention. We want it to stop. We definitely do not want to be going into A&E right now with a head needing stitches. But in fact we need to invest our time in laying the foundations for siblings to get on better with each other rather than putting all our energies into reacting when things go pear-shaped.
If the lifting of some restrictions is the light at the end of the tunnel for you perhaps it will give you the energy to have a fresh look at how your children interact and what you can do to help them get along.
Here are 7 ways you can help your children to get on better:
During this time families have been together far more than normal and if you’re finding it’s fraying a bit around the edges try some of these 7 steps for sibling harmony and enjoy being together.
June 01st, 2020
The next return to school will be like none other. Most children have been learning from home for about 10 weeks in the UK. Some parents have loved the opportunity to individualise their child’s learning and to spend some real quality time with their kids. Others have found it incredibly difficult to supervise home learning while working themselves or caring for younger children. This is not a moment to compare your parenting with others’ and feel bad if you are longing to send your kids back to school. Each family has different circumstances and how home learning has impacted you will have depended on multiple factors like your children’s ages, educational needs and abilities, their temperament, your work and childcare commitments, your own wellbeing and your support structures.
On the 24th May the UK government announced phased returns to school starting on 1st June with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 and for years 10 and 12. Schools have had to adjust quickly and put a range of measures in place with extra cleaning protocols and to try to ensure social distancing by reducing the size of classes and having staggered break times as well as reducing parent contact at drop offs. Many parents are concerned about how social distancing can work for younger children and there is confusion resulting from conflicting scientific advice.
I have no medical expertise and don’t purport to offer opinions on that but I know in each country with easing of restrictions we are constantly making assessments about balancing risks. In this case the risks we’re weighing up are the damage to education and social learnings from remaining out of school versus the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. The science seems to suggest that healthy children are much less likely to contract or pass on the disease than adults and they experience less severe symptoms if they do fall ill. In other countries they have even taken the view (based on differing amounts of virus in the community) that social distancing measures for young children are unwarranted.
Of course there are many different views circulating and a high degree of confusion and anxiety about children returning to school. One of the things we have all had to get used to in the era of Covid-19 is a much higher degree of uncertainty and for many this is very hard to cope with. There are reports of disturbed sleep, higher rates of intense dreaming and more dependence on alcohol.
You may decide that you are not sending your eligible child back to school for reasons of logistics (transport issues, siblings not eligible to return) or health (either theirs or that of another member of your household). But if your child is going back to school this week or later there will be some things you can do to help them settle back in happily:
Of course point to the good things about going back to school and smile! Let your child know you will miss them and look forward to hearing all about their day at home time.
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