September 20th, 2020
If you live in the northern hemisphere your children have recently started a new school year. Some of them will be doing face to face learning (maybe after a long period away) and some will be learning from home. Some will start off doing in-school learning and then find themselves at home again for a period if schools are closed in response to an outbreak. Like all of us children find this constant change very unsettling and this upset may emerge in defiant behaviour. When we clamp down on the behaviour without addressing the underlying emotion not only will the behaviour remain but we will have caused a bit of disconnect with our child just when they most need to feel the security of connection with us.
Adults often think that the way to be in charge is to make every decision and brook no argument or even discussion about it from children, especially if that is how we were brought up ourselves. We often feel that when a child ‘talks back’ they are disrespecting our authority. Rarely is this their intention. There may be many reasons for uncooperative behaviour and the best thing we can do is to try to consider our child’s point of view and to gauge how they feel. If behaviour is unacceptable this approach is not to excuse it but to understand it and to know how best to respond to it.
This week I witnessed some very extreme behaviour from a little boy who was going through a very difficult time. His mum was in hospital and his dad was away from home and prevented from returning because of Covid restrictions. Arrangements for his care were piecemeal and he was not consulted about any of them. It is to be expected that adults need to make those kind of decisions but the result was a little boy who felt like his world was spinning around and he had no control over anything.
His way of expressing his upset included banging his feet on doors, up-ending rubbish bins, pulling electrical equipment out of the wall and trying to run away. When outside he uprooted several plants and turned the hose on me! Lucky it was a warm day…
It is not uncommon for children to feel really powerless and sometimes their response is to try to seize power wherever they can. For very young children the easiest areas to exert control are around food or using the toilet.
It is completely natural for all of us to want to have some autonomy in our lives. Humans are hardwired to seek to make choices according to our own free will. We hate being forced to do things. From around the age of 3 we discover the limits of our power and often find that hard to accept. The ‘terrible twos and threes’ can be characterised by a battle of wills. Young children don’t get to decide where they go, what they eat, who they interact with, what they can touch and when they bathe, brush teeth and go to bed or how many stories they can have. They can be very vocal in expressing their rage. Of course in adolescence there is a further drive for independence and this can again cause conflict with parents.
As we mature we accept some limitations on our power. As adults we accept some compromise on our freedoms as a trade-off for other benefits. For example we accept the need to wear seat belts and observe speed limits as part of the contract of using the roads and keeping us safe. This acceptance depends on a mature brain which can look to the future and make judgments about the perceived future benefit of accepting the current restriction. Of course not everyone makes the same cost/benefit analysis. Consider the different responses to Covid restrictions, like mask-wearing.
Preventing powerlessness from leading to defiance
Parents can help children process and move through their emotions. They can help them accept the limits on their autonomy. And they can help a child or young person feel that they have some say in their own lives too.
Research tells us that naming emotions helps a child to process and move through an emotion. fMRI scans show the emotional centres of the brain light up less when the feeling is labelled. Recognising that your child is frustrated by whatever it is they cannot do will help them to feel understood. Once the feeling is acknowledged the child does not need to keep expressing it through their words or behaviour. Even if the parent seems to be the source of the frustration, because they are forbidding the desired activity, by recognising how the child feels there is still connection between adult and child. “You are so cross that mummy won’t let you climb up on the bookshelves. It’s my job to keep you safe but I know you really love climbing.” “I know you’re really annoyed that I won’t let you go to the music festival with your friends. You think my concerns are unreasonable. I know you think I should just trust you. Actually it’s not you I don’t trust….”
Let your child choose whenever possible. They may not be able to say whether homework happens but they might be able to choose when, where and how it takes place. They can choose whether to brush their teeth before or after they get into pyjamas. They can choose what clothes to wear, even if it’s not your taste… most of the time. Many young children hate being picked up and we do want children to have autonomy over their bodies so it can work to give them a choice. “We have to go home now so you can choose to walk or skip over to the car on your own or I can give you a piggy back.”
Get your child’s input on matters that concern them. When setting limits for screentime for instance you could first set out your values around screens and then ask the children what they think the rules should be.
So if you find your child resisting the things they need to do consider how it seems from their perspective, acknowledge how they feel about it and ask for their ideas on how to make what they have to do more palatable.
September 13th, 2020
If your children have just gone back to school and are feeling a bit anxious about it all they may benefit from a boost to their confidence from a surprising quarter –housework. You may have been thinking that now that they are back at school and have their studies to focus on you should let them off doing jobs around the house. Don’t.
Chores are more than specific pieces of work done out of duty - doing them benefits the whole family as well as the individual child both in the present and for the future. Children who contribute to household tasks develop the following desirable attitudes or qualities:
Studies have shown that involving kids in household chores from an early age gives benefits across their whole lives, such as completion of education, getting started on a career path, IQ, relationships with family and friends, and not using drugs. The researchers determined that the best predictor of young adults' success in their mid-20s was that they participated in household tasks when they were three or four.
Even though parents say they believe in the value of chores many of us don’t ask kids to do them at all because
Even quite young children can do jobs. 3-4 year olds can wipe down a table and wash brushes after a painting session, put away toys after play and put clothes in drawers, thus learning that there are consequences to their actions and they need to take care of their own messes and look after their own things. They can pull up a duvet and put a pillow on the bed, can put laundry in a hamper, sort clothes into darks and lights, feed (or help to feed) a pet, lay a table, take everyone’s plates over to the sink and even help vacuum and wipe down a sink after tooth-brushing. Doing these tasks will require teaching in small steps and supervising.
5-8 year olds can do all of the above a bit more independently and help unpack the dishwasher, assist in washing the car, put away groceries, fold washing, water plants and some dusting (watch the precious ornaments!) and gardening work such as raking and weeding (you may need to identify which ones are the weeds).
8-12 year olds can add to that list emptying the washing machine and hanging washing on the line, washing dishes and pots and pans, putting rubbish bins out on collection day, cleaning up after pets, helping with food shopping and preparation, wiping down kitchen benchtops and bathroom surfaces and bathing independently.
Teenagers can also gradually take responsibility for planning and preparing simple meals, cleaning the fridge, toilet and shower, caring for younger siblings and ironing.
The best way to get children involved in contributing to household tasks is to change parental attitudes to and language around them. Move away from a coercive approach to one based on connection and motivation. Maybe don’t call them ‘chores’, but ‘responsibilities’ or ‘contributions’. I found that when I changed my language around tasks my children were much more willing to engage with them.
When my son started secondary school he was feeling very nervous at moving to a much bigger environment. It seemed counterintuitive to give him more responsibilities at a time when he was already dealing with so much but it really helped him believe in his own capacities.
August 27th, 2020
The next return to school will be like none other. Most children have been learning from home for months in the UK. Some went back in whole or in part at the end of last term. Some have not been in face to face learning since March.
A few 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.
In September all school children, including those with special needs will be expected to return to school. Attendance will be mandatory. Schools have had to adjust quickly and put a range of measures in place with extra cleaning protocols and to try to keep children apart by keeping classes or whole year groups apart in separate ‘protective bubbles’ and by having staggered break times as well as reducing parent contact at drop offs. Many parents are concerned about how all this will work 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 current science (and this changes all the time with experience) seems to suggest that healthy children are less likely to contract or pass on the disease than adults and they experience less severe symptoms if they do fall ill. When they do get ill it seems more likely that they have contracted it from an adult rather than another child. In some countries they have taken the view (based on differing amounts of virus in the community) that social distancing measures for 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 be anxious about sending your child back to school for reasons of logistics (issues with transport or contact with other people en route) or health (either theirs or that of another member of your household). But when your child goes back to school 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.
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.
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