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.
May 25th, 2020
You may be aware that last week was Mental Health Awareness week in the UK and the theme for this year is kindness. Kindness is obviously not something we just want to look at in one particular week but something to encourage in our children throughout their lives.
Dictionaries define kindness as the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate and caring. I would also include empathy, since the ability to recognise how others feel is a prerequisite to caring, concern and consideration. These are qualities that are not necessarily innate in a person. Parents can encourage kindness in children. We can build the skill of empathy.
So why do we need to encourage kindness and empathy? Well one of the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that human beings are inherently social creatures. We need to connect to each other. We rely on cooperation to survive and thrive. There is much research which shows that cooperation, rather than competition, produces better strategies faster to deal with problems. It will be interesting to see what approaches affect the development of Covid-19 vaccines. There are many examples that have emerged from this health crisis of kindnesses from one person to another. I have loved the feeling of togetherness in my neighbourhood as people have greeted and looked out for one another. Many apps and online groups have sprung up offering to help those in need at this time and there have been many heart-warming stories of support.
We know that mental health is very much improved by small acts of kindness or connections, whether as the recipient or the person doing that act of giving. Research shows that kindness is the antidote to stress and it can increase happiness and self-esteem. There is evidence that small acts of altruism improve our self-image, and our behaviour. There is also evidence that kindness can improve our physical health and academic performance as well as prolonging our lives!
We want our children to learn to be kind of course so that they will enjoy good and meaningful friendships. By encouraging kindness in our children we can reduce the epidemic of bullying that is causing so much anxiety and depression in our kids. We also hope for a future where adults brought up on a diet of considering other’s perspectives may actually be able to solve the world’s problems better than those focused primarily on their own needs.
So how do we encourage kindness in our children? Michele Borba, in her book ‘Unselfie’, addresses just this and she offers hope when she says that “Kindness is contagious”. In her research she found that when children practiced simple acts of kindness it started a ‘kindness revolution’ in their community, changing behaviour and attitudes.
To teach children kindness the adults in their lives need to:
What this means is that adults need to demonstrate in their daily interactions with the children and others that they think about how the other thinks and feels. Don’t make this be something to beat yourself up about for not doing but tune in and notice the small kind things you do all the time like giving your upset child a hug. We do this on a daily basis in simple ways:
Let’s make kindness more contagious than Covid-19!
May 04th, 2020
In Australia, where I am sitting out the pandemic, schools are re-opening gradually in some states. In the UK there is talk of primary schools going back on 1st June. Reactions to that possibility will differ according to people’s different experiences of at-home learning during lockdown, their need to work themselves and anxieties about the degree of risk posed to physical health by reopening schools. Of course parents, teachers and authorities are concerned about the impact on our children’s education by keeping them away from face to face learning. But another important factor is the loss of social interaction they are experiencing at potentially formative times in their lives for acquiring and practising social skills.
Human beings are social animals and our brains are wired for social interactions which are essential for our wellbeing. Much of our brain evolution has occurred because of our social nature. We’ve all missed being able to engage with our friends and there has quite rightly been a lot of concern about the effect of loneliness on our mental wellbeing. The body perceives social isolation as a threat to a basic human need and it triggers a stress response but if stress hormones remain at elevated levels for too long they can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness and cognitive deterioration. So not having friends around is bad for our health.
But our children are likely to suffer even more than us as a result of this time of reduced social contact. Younger children do most of their learning through play with others and engagement with their peers in early years’ settings is crucial for learning the social skills that are the foundation for all their future relationships. Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Associate Professor at the Early Start centre at the University of Wollongong, says. “Ninety per cent of their brain is developed by the time they reach five years old. Missing out on early education experiences is going to have a bigger impact than, say, missing out on year 4.” Friendship skills develop over time so the over fives are still fine-tuning their social skills. When children play with and learn alongside others they learn these vital skills for life:
Our teens are also suffering disproportionately from social deprivation as in this period of development social interaction is of profound importance. In their excellent book ‘The Incredible Teenage Brain’ Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy explain that in adolescence social pain is experienced as strongly as physical pain. Some teens will have actually appreciated an opportunity to be away from the school setting if that has been a place of discomfort for them, either academically or socially. Introverts may have relished a home-learning environment that suited them better but even these young people are expressing a yearning to be back amongst their peers.
While we can’t have playdates just now there are things that parents can do to help our young children develop the social skills they need and to give older children the chance to practice these vital skills while in physical isolation and to facilitate non-physical social contact for our teens.
The following are social skills that all children need which can be practised in different ways at home:
Try to facilitate contact with friends using video based technologies but these have their limits for younger children. Littlies will need a lot of direction and perhaps setting up a shared activity like Play-doh so they can play ‘alongside’ each other. Older children can manage better with this form of contact. Teens may need more latitude in their access to the various platforms via which they can make contact with their peers.
Let’s hope our physical isolation will let up a bit soon and make the most of the time we have for family togetherness.
April 10th, 2020
The Coronavirus crisis is forcing every one of us to adapt, to pivot and to accommodate new norms. We are all dealing with challenges and there will be days when we are responding calmly and with compassion and humour and other days when we feel anxious, angry or despairing and our responses then may include snapping at our loved ones, micro-managing our families or retreating to our beds. We may be surprised by our responses.
What are you learning about yourself? There may be huge opportunity for growth here. The disease and the necessary limitations imposed in order to limit its spread may provide a real opportunity for us to develop self-awareness in a way we haven’t encountered before.
Stress testing is a term that is used both in the medical world and in engineering and it involves putting stress on the heart, or a piece of concrete, to see how it performs when challenged. A cardiogram is performed to see what the real state of your heart and blood vessels is and to reveal potential weaknesses that may not show up in ordinary life. We’re being stress tested right now and it may reveal the true state of our emotional health. As with the results of an ECG this gives us a chance to take action about our mental health.
We’re being confronted with our emotions more than ever before. This is an opportunity to examine how I am dealing with my feelings –do I reach for alcohol to numb or TV to distract or do I plough into work or exercise furiously? Am I rowing with my partner and snapping at my children? Has my response to this crisis been to reach out to others or to retire inwards? Do I feel as if there’s nothing I can do or can I see that I am doing something just by staying at home. Do I feel I have to do everything myself or am I relying more on others? Am I prepared to ask for help when I need it?
For myself I found that when the crisis really took hold in Europe and I became aware of how wide-ranging the issue was I was filled with anxiety, not for myself particularly because I am not in any of the categories that we were being advised were vulnerable to the virus, and I thought I might be able to weather the storm financially, but for the world generally. I was filled with sadness which then became despair and I felt real bone-aching tiredness. Then I found there were things I needed to do for my business and for our clients whom I could support. Once I started feeling as if I could be useful I found a new sense of purpose and less hopelessness.
Pay attention to whatever feelings come up for you –be curious about them. Curiosity leads to compassion. There’s been a lot of judgment in mainstream and social media about people who engaged in panic-buying and those who don’t seem to be observing social distancing. It’s been characterised as selfishness but maybe there is fear behind those actions. As parents we need to think about why our children behave in ways that aren’t acceptable and we can model that non-judgmental, curious approach when considering the behaviour of strangers too. People who have experienced past hurt have fear built into their systems and that fear response gets triggered easily. Their response in the present reflects their past experience (which may be hidden even from themselves). When we don’t know what’s triggering us we tend not to be as flexible in our responses.
A great gift we can give our children is self-awareness and self-compassion. When we are conscious of what we are feeling and we learn to tolerate those feelings we can manage our responses better. If we can sit with our own feelings we can respond effectively to our children’s feelings.
Parental stress has a huge impact on children so the best thing we can do for our kids is to take care of ourselves. I know it’s difficult if you are working from home and looking after kids at the same time but think of the time you’re saving by not commuting! Build some time for yourself into your day even if it’s only half an hour in the bath with music and candles.
My advice would be to talk to your children about your own feelings, and the steps you’re taking to deal with them. I’m tense –I need time to listen to some calming music. Acknowledge vulnerability but don’t make it the child’s problem. When we explain to our children how we are feeling it helps them to understand us and themselves. It makes it less likely that they will make our response be their fault. Otherwise they feel the tension in the air and they make it mean they are wrong. You can say: I’d love to spend time with you but I have to make a work call in 20 minutes. Can we play a quick game of table tennis? That would really help me be calm. That helps the child not to feel wrong but also to feel they can make a contribution.
As well as discovering our internal emotional world what else are we learning?
What internal resources am I finding in myself? Am I actually stronger than I think? Have I got through days of home schooling and achieved something that is in fact good enough? Have l mediated between squabbling siblings, got kids to bed more or less on time and put food on the table? Have I done all this with no preparation but just rose to the occasion because it was required of me?
You’re probably discovering what’s really important to you as so many things have been taken away. Have you found you didn’t really miss some of the things you did regularly, like clothes shopping? Have you found that you can communicate perfectly effectively without spending hours in face to face meetings? Have you found you really do miss the freedom to move about and take in fresh air? Do you miss the gym or has Jo Wickes taken over for life?
You are probably clarifying what and who you value and respect. Is it the Instagram influencers or the people in high status (well paid) jobs or is it the health workers and teachers, the shelf-stackers and truck drivers? Are you finding you really value principles like courage, altruism, solidarity, a sense of community and resourcefulness?
What values would you like your child to take on as a result of this crisis? We can be having meaningful conversations with our children and pointing out to them the examples of admirable behaviour that we see. You might even ask your children what changes they would like to see in the world after Covid-19 has gone away.
March 29th, 2020
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:-
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
March 24th, 2020
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.
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