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Raising Boys

Much of the advice and support provided by Parenting NI regarding parenting and childrearing is universal. Both boys and girls benefit from things like clear communication, routine and secure attachment. It is important to recognise that every child is unique. This uniqueness is often the reason why a particular tactic or activity does or does not work with a particular child, rather than it be about their gender. Nonetheless, there are differences in the way in which boys and girls may need support from their parents and as the month of November includes international Men’s day (Thursday the 19th of November), this article will look at some advice specifically for parents and carers raising boys.

When thinking about parenting boys, there are two equally important aspects to consider. One is physical and developmental differences that come from biology. The other is more to do with the idea of what a boy or man ‘should be’ or might face growing up in Northern Ireland. Every society is different, and what is considered normal, appropriate or good behaviour for a boy will in part be a reflection of this. Additionally, every family is different, and so every parent will have their own morals and values for their children. As a result, some of the advice we give might not be relevant to your son or family.

The first question that any parent of a boy looking for advice or guidance on how to raise him may be asked is: ‘what kind of man do you want your son to be?’ Society has a range of expectations for men (and indeed women). It is therefore important for parents to know what particular characteristics they wish to encourage in their sons, as they grow into men. This means looking at behaviours and attitudes that you wish to build in your son that are not generic to all children. An example might be:

“I want my son to have a healthy respect for women, and to understand issues relating to consent”

Or

“I want my son to know that he does not have to be violent or aggressive in order to ‘prove’ his manliness”

Of course, most parents will want to ensure all of their children are respectful of others and not violent. However, there are aspects of these behaviours that are often specific to men. Boys will gain their understanding of what is required to “be a man” from a number of sources, but their parents and in particular fathers can have a major role to play. They can counteract any negative stereotypes or influences from society at large.

Scientists have found differences between male and female gender children present from the moment of birth. From as early as three months, male infants on average lag behind females on a range of developmental issues such as language and sensory development. Most of these gaps are closed by age three, but the existence of these differences (and the importance of the first three years of child development) show the value of being aware of gender-related differences in parenting. The distinctions in the way you raise your son will take different forms as they develop. Starting early down the path to a compassionate, respectful man will make the transition easier, but it is never too late.

Differences naturally have an impact on how a child develops. For example, boys tend to outperform girls in spatial awareness in early childhood. This may lead him towards activities that require good spatial skills like ball sports or climbing, and away from social or verbal games like participating in role-play. This might be typical, but as a parent, you are the one who can decide when or if your son is exposed to particular activities or encouraged to indulge his particular interests in them. A ‘nature and nurture’ approach is thus required to understand male versus female development, and account for problems that arise. It is a good idea to introduce your children to a very wide range of activities when they are young and encourage them to see the value in varied play. By not labelling activities as “for boys” or “for girls”, you can promote positive attitudes and grow their own sense of creativity. On the other hand, preventing them from taking part in something they express an interest in because it is not masculine may cause strife or confusion in the household. Additionally, consider what behaviours these attitudes will create as they grow and engage with other children. Your son might mock or refuse to play with another child who he sees as playing the “wrong” sort of game. Once these attitudes have been developed, they will be harder to change or refine later.

One common issue is male children partaking in overly aggressive play. On average, boys are more physically aggressive than girls in play. Normally children will disincentivise overly aggressive play by refusing to engage with a child who is ‘too rough’, and as a result that child will reduce their aggressiveness in order to reengage. Research has suggested that parents, and fathers in particular, can help boys learn to self-regulate by engaging in rough and tumble play in childhood. However, it is important that the parent sets the limits – stopping if they get too rough or start to try to cause real harm. By teaching your son to play within acceptable limits, you can help him to be less violent later. This in turn helps him to learn to solve problems without violence.

Keep in mind that some parents will find it harder to tell if ‘rough play’ is actually fighting. One study found that while boys could tell the difference between a video of rough play and a real fight 85% of the time, fathers or mothers who grew up with brothers about 70%, but women who grew up without brothers identified all videos as actual fighting . As such, keep your own experiences and internal biases in mind when talking about what you see as overly aggressive play.

If your son seems to be too violent in their play, this also presents a chance to talk to him and introduce empathy. While it can be frustrating or concerning – particularly if your son has hurt another child – remember to see this as a learning opportunity. In addition to whatever discipline you feel is right, take the time to speak to him about his actions and why they were wrong. For example:

“How do you think you made [the other child] feel?”

“Do you think everyone was having fun, while you were playing like that?”

“I know you were just playing, but remember that other people have feelings too, and your behaviour can hurt them even if you don’t mean to”

By stimulating this sort of conversation, you encourage your son to think about the wellbeing of others. It also makes it clear that talking about emotions is good, and this may help to prevent issues later in life where a man may feel uncomfortable talking about serious emotional distress. It helps him to see talking and communication are the way to resolving issues, rather than fighting.

Naturally, it is important to talk to your son about women and girls. This should be done in an age-appropriate way, including language they are likely to understand. As modern attitudes shift regarding the relationship between women and men, think about how you want your son to see women in society. You might presume that they will know by default to treat them with respect – not to catcall on the street, harass or otherwise intimidate. For many boys, this will come naturally. However, there is no harm is explicitly stating that such behaviours are not acceptable.

This sort of conversation can happen early in your son’s life. Advice for young boys who are teasing their sisters or female friends (particularly for being girls) can be to follow the “SEE” acronym:

– Stop: Respond in a calm manner. Tell him that personal insults are not acceptable;

– Empathy: Like with rough play, encourage your son to see the issue through the eyes of the victim;

– Educate: Help him to express his frustration or other feelings in a better way. Teach him to use words to describe his problems, but not to insult or harass.

Naturally, children will fight and this will often include insults or taunts that we as adults would deem unacceptable. Remember that your son may not realise that making fun of someone for their gender, or putting them down for being a ‘girl’ is wrong. As his parent, it is your role to teach him. If you see poor behaviour being displayed by others, point this out and talk about why it is inappropriate.

As your son grows the issue of respecting women as autonomous people may present itself. Teenage boys are under immense pressure to ‘show off’ and impress friends. This sometimes results in overly aggressive or inappropriate behaviour with women. Equally, there is a pervasive but incorrect attitude some young men have that a woman needs to be ‘argued down’ and that ‘no’ does not necessarily mean ‘stop’. In addition to being socially unacceptable behaviours, these attitudes can lead to serious consequences if not addressed. As a parent, you can and should talk to your son about what it means to get consent, and there is plenty of advice contained in our previous article “Talking to Young People About Consent”.

In many ways, raising a boy into a man is about forward planning. Parents cannot possibly anticipate every event or influence on their son, and he must take some responsibility as he grows for the kind of man he will be. However, if you have an idea of the types of values you want to instil in him and are watchful for signs of poor behaviour raising a “good man” is perfectly achievable for parents. There are many more issues than can be explored in one short article but keeping open communication and strong standards of behaviour can address many of them.

If you want more help or are worried about the behaviours or attitudes of your son (or any of your children) you can access support on the Parenting NI Supportline on 0808 8010 722.

Families Together Project in Antrim and Strabane draws to a close after five highly successful years in local schools.

The Families Together Project is a 5-year transformative project deployed in schools within Antrim and Strabane. The project was headed by Parenting NI in partnership with Action Mental Health New Life and with financial support from the National Lottery Community Fund. The project was initially deployed in six schools within Antrim and Strabane which included Sion Mills Primary School, Ballycraigy Primary School, Six Mile Integrated Primary School, Parkhall Primary School, St Catherine’s Primary School & St Mary’s Primary School. The project was able to provide support for an additional 4 schools across the two areas however unfortunately ends this November after five incredible years working within local schools.

A principal remarks on the project;

“It’s hard to imagine the school without them – they’re part of the school now and an important part of our annual pastoral action plan.”

Parenting NI has been providing parenting services across Northern Ireland since 1979 in the belief that effective parenting is the cornerstone of strong families, and that parents should be supported to enable them to provide children with a positive upbringing. Parents are a primary influence on their children and that influence can either be negative or positive depending on the quality of the parenting (Campbell, 1995). The Families Together project was designed around these principles in order to holistically strengthen these relationships. Strabane and Antrim were selected as the two areas for the project because of the high level of disadvantage. Primary schools within the most disadvantaged parts of Strabane and Antrim were invited to become partner schools with Parenting NI to form the Families Together Project.

Once a year, the Families Together Project would host a Family Fun Day in Antrim and Strabane with a variety of local agencies joining in to provide fun activities for families as well as information on local support services. The project hosted a large number of activities, parenting classes, parent & child workshops and counselling sessions for parents and their children within each school. These included the ‘Time for Parents’ Support and Counselling service and ‘Time for Me’ informal listening and signposting sessions and Time Together for the parents and their children. Families Together ran a variety of free parenting workshops for participating schools. These topics ranged from subjects such as Relaxation, Handling Children’s Behaviours and Healthy Choices. The programme ran numerous child workshops, a Parenting Café for parents to informally meet one another and a highly successful Walking Group.

One of the school principals remarks on the programme;

“I am struck by the diversity of needs and parents being engaged – not just those who are always targeted because of high needs, but also fathers and people of different social backgrounds. This is de-stigmatising.”

Over the 5-year duration of the project, the engagement of the schools and families involved in the programme has grown significantly. This has been particularly noticeable with families who lacked confidence in their parenting ability and self-esteem. Parenting NI and the Families Together Project are delighted to celebrate all the great work and engagement the parents, families, children and the teachers in each school have brought to the project over the past five years.

One parent remarked on the programme:

“It’s like a wee lifeline. A good experience – brilliant and highly recommended. I’m definitely more confident as a parent and I have a better support system.”

Homework – What is it good for?

Homework presents an unusual challenge for parents. It has been a fixture in education since the earliest days of standardised teaching. It has been around for a very long time – the British Museum has an example of a 2000 year old homework book. Like many things that have been around for a long time, it is possible that parents, children and teachers take it for granted that it is still important or necessary.

Homework is not uncontroversial, however:

  • A Stanford study found that 56% of students considered homework to be a “primary source of stress”. They said it led to sleep deprivation problems and left less time for socialising or extracurricular activities;
  • More than a third of parents don’t think homework in primary school is helpful, and 72% think prep work at school would be a better alternative;
  • A study of teachers found that they were split – some viewed homework as essential while others felt there were better ways for children to learn.

This article will look at the advantages and disadvantages of homework for families. It will examine the current NI guidelines on homework, and compare these to countries that are seen as having good education systems. We hope that this will encourage parents, schools and policy makers to consider if alternatives or changes may be warranted.

The Situation in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, there is no specific law regarding homework policy in school. Instead, each school is allowed to set its own homework policy. This policy, once it has been sufficiently developed is to be shared with parents. Homework policies should include things like:

  • How long a pupil is expected to spend on homework per night;
  • What is supposed to happen if children are getting too much;
  • What the school will do if children do not meet the required standard of homework.

A summary of the homework policy of every school is required to be included in their prospectus by the Education (School Information and Prospectuses) Regulations (NI) 2003. This means that prospective students and their parents should have a good general understanding of what will be expected of them with regards to homework at school.

The outcome of this system is that schools have different homework policies and expectations. For example, here are the time and content expectations for two primary schools based in Northern Ireland:

Primary School Example 1 –

P1 – 10 / 15 minutes

Guided Reading, Reinforcement of words taught in school Oral development of initial sounds leading to practise letter formations in Term 2. Phonic activities Activity homework e.g. oral / practical activities

P7 – 45/55 minutes

Independent Reading / Factual Reading, Mental Maths, linguistic phonics / Table facts / vocabulary, Written and learning homework (Mon – Thurs), Occasional homework based on other curricular area

 

 

Primary School Example 2

P1 – 15/20 minutes

Daily: Home Learning Activities, Phonics (from start of October), Reading, Maths facts

1 written Literacy or Numeracy homework from Term 2

 

P7 – 1 hour

Daily: Spelling, Maths Facts, Reading

3 written Literacy or Numeracy homework per week

 

 

Equally, the stated purpose of homework at school can vary. However, there tends to be a few generally agreed elements. Most schools include in the “aims” of their homework policies a desire to:

  • Keep parents informed of what students are learning at school;
  • Provide opportunities to reinforce and practice what students learn at school;
  • Encourage independent study among students.

These broadly represent the mainstream viewpoint on homework within Northern Ireland’s educational system. Building a partnership between the teachers/school, the student, and their parents is a key element of many homework policies. This is to be welcomed, but as we have established already, for some parents homework is a source of stress rather than the foundation of a partnership. Meetings between parents and teachers are supposed to explore ways in which parents can best support their child with homework.

The Department of Education runs a campaign called “Give your Child a Helping Hand” which focuses on the important role parents and carers play in improving educational outcomes for children. This is not exclusively aimed at homework but does include a series of tips and strategies for parents to support their child with any work they are required to do at home.

The average amount of homework per day across the UK is 2.5 hours a week, however the NI average around a fifth spending 4 or more hours a week on homework. NI students are also given some of the largest amounts of homework – around 25% are given 4 or more offline pieces of homework a day. A survey in 2018 found that the average time spent by NI children doing homework was 6.3 hours a week, the highest in the UK.

Supporters of homework might point out that the average GCSE and AS/A-Level results in Northern Ireland are the best in the UK. This is the result of a series of educational policies, choices and circumstances however and while homework policies might have an influence, it would be difficult to determine exactly how much.

Alternative Systems

While homework remains a central element of Northern Ireland’s education system, this is not the case in other countries. A notable example is Finland, widely regarded as having the one of the world’s best education systems. While some articles suggest that Finnish children have no homework, this is not exactly the case. Instead, Finnish students have significantly less homework than their American, British or Irish peers. Additionally, they spend less time overall per day in school, and have longer summer holidays. Many experts put the success of the Finish system down to the quality of teaching, and the esteem with which teaching is viewed as a career. Therefore, while less homework is one aspect of the Finnish system, it is not the central component nor the crucial element to explain its success. However, opponents of homework have pointed to the Finnish model as proof that homework is not necessarily required to achieve good educational results.

Some researchers and experts disagree with the idea that homework is not necessary. Prof Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education argues that homework has a strong influence on the success of children in the British educational system. She noted that students who did two to three hours of homework per night were almost 10 times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs than those who did no homework.

One country that has both a successful educational system and has very high levels of homework is Singapore. The country is often rated either top or near top globally for educational outcomes in reading, mathematics and science. The Singaporean system is rigorous – examination and testing is considered a major element and Singaporean students can expect to take several streaming exams to place them into particular types of school starting from the end of primary school.

While school days and academic years are fairly similar to the UK, homework is a much larger element in the system. Singaporean children spend up to 9.4 hours a week on homework by age 15 – compared to the world average of just 5 hours. The system in Singapore produces excellent results, but is also often criticised for putting too much stress on students. An OECD study found that 78% of Singaporean students were afraid of the impact of academic failure on their lives – compared to an average of 54%. In addition, Singapore’s focus on more traditional routine style learning (including lots of homework) has raised questions about the efficacy of the whole system and critics argue that students become very good at taking exams, but not necessarily being creative independent thinkers.

Primary v Secondary

One very important distinction that should be made about homework is between primary and secondary school children. As previously mentioned, there is some evidence that homework being set and done in secondary schools has a positive impact on GCSE results. Research has also found that for older children homework was linked to better test scores and outcomes. Additionally in the NI system, both GCSE and AS/A-Level work often requires independent work at home. Homework can also be seen as useful revision exercises for students who are taking significant examinations.

What about primary level? This is more contested, with some educators arguing that primary school homework does not improve academic outcomes and causes stress to both children and their parents1. In fact, one American research analysis found that for children aged under 11, there was no link between homework and improved academic achievement.

While some schools and parents have argued this should mean no homework ought to be set for primary school children, the issue is more complex. If we consider again the objectives of homework laid out in the homework policies of primary schools, it is clear that at least in Northern Ireland the “point” of homework is not only better test scores. It is meant to engage parents with their child’s learning and provide students an opportunity to develop useful independent study skills. The solution found by many schools and districts that have “done away” with formal set homework is to instead ask that parents and students do other relevant activities at primary level. This might mean reading or other tasks that are related to the work the child is doing in school. Research has found that it is the quality of the task, rather than the quantity that is important for homework.

Conclusion

In the end, there is no easy answer with regards to homework. This is because it cannot be properly removed from the wider educational system and examined without context. While a child in Singapore might benefit a lot from 9 hours of homework, a student in the Finnish system might do worse. When looking at changing and improving educational outcomes and personal development via homework, parents, schools and policy makers should take a careful approach.

Still, there is a strong argument that the current system could be improved. NI students, particularly those in Primary school are being given more homework than their peers in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. We know that this can cause stress, and that outcomes are not necessarily improved by giving them large volumes of work. While it is understandable and reasonable that every school sets its own homework policy, it might be worthwhile for a full review of the current system to take place. That way, parents will know what to expect, and schools will be provided with a yardstick to measure their own homework policies and have access to best practice.

Parental Experiences and Attitudes on Post-Primary Academic Selection during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented disruption to the education of children in Northern Ireland. While this has had a dramatic impact on all children, there has been a particular focus on those facing important exams. While sector-wide policies have been enforced for both GCSE and A-level results, this has not been the case for Northern Ireland’s unique third examination period – the post-primary transfer.

One key result of this lack of government mandated policy has been regional variation. While some schools have indicated that they intend to continue with selection without adjustment, several others have decided to either drop or amend selection methods for this year. This decentralised response to the crisis has left parents and children in a uniquely challenging situation, without precedent.

This paper sought to gather a snapshot of parental concerns and views regarding post-primary transfer in the pandemic period. The findings of this demonstrate a wide range of very strongly held views, and a lack of consensus on almost any aspect of post-primary transfer both in the pandemic and more generally. Parents were deeply divided on core issues such as:

• Whether the transfer test should go ahead this year;

• Whether the transfer test should exist at all;

• Whether academic selection by any means should be a component of Northern Ireland’s Education system.

Parents were often unambiguous and direct with their feedback. Those in favour of the transfer described it as “a necessary part of education” and said that altering it at this late stage was “deeply unfair”. However, some parents who opposed the tests described them as “almost a form of torture” and suggested that allowing the normal transfer process to take place in the shadow of COVID represented a “moral failing on behalf of the authorities”.

It is impossible to determine with such a small sample size how widely any of these beliefs are held. However, what is clear is that there are strong feelings regarding post-primary transfer that deserve to be examined in more detail.

To read & download the full report on Parental Experiences and Attitudes on Post-Primary Academic Selection during the COVID-19 Pandemic 2020, please click the button below. Published August 2020.

Read the report

Talking to Children about Race, Racism and Diversity

Recently, international incidents have brought issues relating to race and racism into sharp focus. All around the world, people have been talking about these issues and what they mean for society. If your children are old enough to hear and understand news and current events it is highly likely that they will have at least heard about some of these. They may know about protests, have heard slogans or seen images on the internet or on television. Race and racism, as well as diversity can be tricky subjects to explain to children. They trigger strong emotions and reactions and some families may prefer to avoid difficult or uncomfortable conversations. However, it is not necessarily in the best interests of your child to avoid the topic entirely.

Local context

While Northern Ireland remains a fairly racially homogenous place – the exact figures for ethnic minorities will be updated by the 2021 census, but the most recent data from the 2011 census suggested 98% of the Northern Irish population was white. This will have increased since then, but it is still accurate to say that white children from Northern Ireland will have fewer encounters with non-white children than their counterparts in England. 

This means that children here may be less familiar with people from a different ethnic or racial background. A study in 2014 found that living in ethnically diverse communities tended to reduce racism because it creates what was called “passive tolerance”. People had or witnessed positive interactions in and ethnically diverse group and were generally more positive about them. This can be challenging in Northern Ireland – particularly if you live outside of Belfast or an area which is more ethnically mixed.

What can I do?

As parents, it is important that you encourage and promote anti-racist views in your children. In addition to being a good set of values to promote, it also helps to counter any false or racist information that they may become exposed to outside your home. As parents, you should try to be aware of what sort of information your children are accessing, and help them to get a balanced and accurate view of the world. As with most issues relating to parenting and children – the best approach is usually clear, safe and open communication between parent and child. Taking the time to discuss racism and diversity with your child can help safeguard them from harm.

Understanding

Still – this can present its own challenges. The language of race and diversity can be complex, and the issues even more so. How should parents begin to discuss this with children who might seem too young to understand?

The first step is to not underestimate your child’s ability to understand issues relating to race. Caryn Park, a professor at Antioch University in Seattle noted that children as young as three are aware of race or skin colour and will often ask questions. Parents should respond in a way that makes it clear to children that it is okay for them to ask questions and talk about race. Children will probably become aware of events either locally or internationally and may have strong emotions. It is good to talk about those emotions and explore how events make you children feel.

Have the conversation

Another important step is making sure you, as the parent are in the right place to talk about these issues. It is possible that you are feeling fear, frustration or anger as a result of recent events. It is important that when you speak to your child about race you are able to be a calm, rational voice. This doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of anger or frustration – simply organising it in a way that helps you to communicate with your child. Parents should try to be role models in this. Your child will look to you in order to determine how to behave around people of different ethnicities and racial backgrounds.

Challenge stereotypes

When they are young, children will often comment on everything – including race. Parents should be careful not to link statements about race with a positive or negative. If a child notices a person’s skin colour do not try to prevent them from talking about it. Simply agree and move on. However, if a child makes a negative association with race, it is important that a parent talk about it. If a child says something disparaging or wrong about a race or ethnicity, try asking:

“Why do you think that?”

“Where did you learn that?”

Address incorrect stereotypes without getting angry. Remember that children often get information for a wide range of sources, but may not fully understand the context of what the learn. When your children are old enough (primary school age, for example) it can be useful as a parent to point out any negative stereotypes you notice and talk about why they are wrong. An example might be:

 “That joke was a little mean, making fun of the way someone talks. How does it make you feel?”

Occasionally, your children might ask questions that you don’t know the answers to. An important part of talking to children about any serious topic like race and racism is reflecting on your own knowledge and admitting to not having all the answers. Carrying out research together to better understand issues is a great way to strengthen your child’s understanding as well as your own.

Positive actions

As your child gets older, they will often have a better understanding of race and diversity. They will also have developed their own ideas, views and concerns. Experts suggest that parents can help by empowering teenagers who are upset or seeking to act by steering them to be positive agents of change.  You should encourage teenagers to helpful and positive messages on social media, for example and stay away from negative or destructive actions.

If you are worried about talking to your child about this, or if your child has expressed opinions that concern you, Parenting NI is here to help. You can talk to us about this or any parenting related issue on our support line 0808 8010 722.

The Importance of Self-Care

Parenting can be rewarding but also very stressful, and Parenting NI recommends that parents take regular time to look after themselves; self care. The Coronavirus crisis has made this advice more relevant than ever. It has been well established that the pandemic has had a negative effect on the mental health of millions of families under lockdown. The U.N warned of a ‘global mental health crisis’ as a result of the impacts of the virus. 

Mental Health

It is important for everyone to look after their emotional and mental health and well being, but as a parent this can sometimes feel extra challenging. Managing parenthood, particularly combined with home-schooling and working from home can leave little time for self-care. However, a parent’s mental health has a direct impact on their children. Parental mental ill health is linked to a number of negative outcomes in children later in life. This is not to say parents should feel guilty or ashamed if they need support for their mental health. Instead, parents should recognise that taking time to support their own mental health is good parenting. You are supporting your children by supporting yourself. 

This article will give advice on how parents can take time to manage their own stress and mental health even during particularly challenging times, such as what we have been experiencing in lockdown. 

Communication

Firstly, talking; this is such an important and often overlooked aspect of self-care. Talking about your feelings can help to regulate your emotions and process stressful situations. Talking to someone can help you to feel less isolated. Talking to a trusted adult, like a partner or close friend is a good way to deal with stressful situations. Be aware, however, that some mental health issues will require a professional to help you. Do not be afraid to seek that sort of help if you need it. 

Talking to your children is important too. It is highly likely that even young children will have picked up on mood changes or other signs that you may be struggling emotionally. Talking to them about how you are doing – in an age appropriate way – can help to alleviate their fears, feelings of self-blame and guilt. An added bonus of doing this is that it encourages your children to talk to you if they are feeling down. Open communication allows families to support each other. 

Exercise

Another key aspect of self-care is physical activity. Moving your body releases endorphins, helps you to sleep better and makes you feel energised. Even if you are unable to get outside to exercise, looking up a short video online and doing a mini-workout can help to improve mood.  Even better if you can do this with your children – why not enjoy a mini yoga session together or if you can get outside a game of rounders perhaps! 

Exercise can be something done with the family in a fun way. If you are able to play outdoors with your children, or go for walks everyone will really benefit. However, if you find that you need time alone to de-stress, consider leaving children with your partner or if they are old enough, at home. If this is not possible in your family, you can always exercise after the children go to sleep or while they work on school work. It is normal to need time alone for self-care for many people. 

Switch off 

Social media can be a great tool to keep in contact with friends and family. However, it is also a major source of stress for many parents. An important form of self-care, particularly for parents with anxiety, is to limit consumption of news and social media. An over abundance of information, as well as untrue or misleading stories can increase your anxiety and stress So take time to step away from the TV or your device that you use the most. 

Instead, seek out information on a more limited basis and only from reliable news outlets that you trust. Rest assured, you will not miss anything important by not refreshing your Facebook or Twitter timelines every ten minutes. 

Be Kind to Yourself

Finally, the most important tip for parents struggling with self-care is to go easy on yourself. Almost every family in the world is struggling to adapt to this new and unwanted change in routine. If you are doing your best, it is very likely that it is enough. Do not judge your own competency by what you hear about others, and simply do what you can to get through this.  

If you find that you are struggling, reach out for help. Many community and voluntary sector organisations are acutely aware that people are in need of support. Some of these people have never felt they needed support before, while others have found an already difficult situation has changed into something unmanageable. There is no need to suffer in silence – reach out for support if you need to. 

Parenting NI continues to provide help and advice for parents, so contact our free,  support line: 0808 8010 722 to talk through your concerns and find out about what might be available to you. 

Fathers and Social Isolation

This period of social isolation has been difficult for all parents. However, separated fathers face further challenges during the crisis. Getting sufficient contact time with children as a separated father is often complex – and the results even when contact orders are put into place may be unsatisfactory. The process of resolving contact cases takes on average 6 months, but may take as long as 22 months. However, even when a case is considered “concluded”, fathers often face breaches of contact orders requiring further legal actions.

Lockdown Guidance

The onset of the lockdown and social distancing has enhanced the issues faced by fathers. Initially, there was a lack of clarity with regards to seeing non-resident parents during lockdown. The government moved relatively swiftly to address this – on March 25th, two days after the imposition of the lockdown it was clarified that seeing non-resident parents counted as “essential” journeys. Minister Michael Gove stated:

“While children should not normally be moving between households, we recognise that this may be necessary when children who are under 18 move between separated parents. This is permissible & has been made clear in the guidance”

Nonetheless, the confusion caused by the conflicting advice has caused some ex-partners to withdraw contact with separated fathers. Parenting NI’s ‘Dad’s Project’, which works with fathers has been contacted by several fathers in this position. One father told us:

“I was seeing my daughter 3 night a week pre lock down. Initially when entered lock down I didn’t see her for 2 weeks, then kept her every 2nd week for a full week. Up until last week I hadn’t seen her for a further 2 weeks.

Over this period, I have found it stressful doing my work and my daughter has struggled to understand family and has found it hard adjusting to the ex-partners new home”

A further complication of this was the cessation of “normal” court proceedings. With the coronavirus safeguards in place, private and non-essential court cases were halted. The Lord Chief Justice has outlined his guidance for what court business could proceed. While some family cases were included in this, they were limited to:

“Non-molestation Orders; Applications under the Children (NI) Order 1995 such as Care Orders, Prohibited Steps Orders, Emergency Protection Orders and Secure Accommodation Orders; Declaratory judgments in patients’ cases; Child abduction.”

Contact

Contact orders – and private cases to establish contact in the event of a separation – have been either postponed or unable to start as a result of the crisis. Additionally, with limited resources in an already over-stretched judicial system the fathers Parenting NI supports expressed concern that their issues were unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Small numbers of ex-partners acting in bad faith have seemingly been able to use the crisis as a means to reduce or remove contact. The normal resources available to fathers in this time are under strain, making it harder to address.

A father said:

“Just before the lockdown at the end of February a new order was issued leaving contact as per the wishes and feelings of the children, thereby removing my right to contact with my children or any means of legal recourse against my ex-wife which I had.

Since then I’ve had no contact with my daughters aged 12 and 14. I contacted the court office and they just told me that my appeal is on file and would be dealt with when possible. Only very urgent matters would be dealt with by the Court until further notice. They just told me to wait until I hear from the Court.”

Even where a father has been able to maintain contact, the impact of the crisis has complicated normal contact. For fathers who had supervised contact via contact centres, there has been restrictions and even closures. While many contact centres have implemented innovative solutions to attempt to address these issues, they cannot provide face-to-face contact. Additionally, the regulations on social distancing have meant that fathers cannot avail of outdoor or leisure activities in the same way as before. If a father has non-overnight contact and a home that is not well suited to time with his children, the crisis has made it harder for him to spend meaningful time together. One example we received informed us:

“He is 4 years old and has limited understanding of what is happening and social distancing. I am holding off taking him to parks or busy areas until I am satisfied the risk has decreased considerably. This includes visits to my mother who is having to shield.”

Mixed Messages

One of the major issues has simply been a lack of clarity regarding the rules. The mixed messaging of regulations and the manner in which they have been reported by the media have meant that fathers are often uncertain as to what is allowed. This has created unneeded stress and concern for some fathers.

Fathers who are separated already face significant mental health challenges. One report found that they are more likely to have serious mental health problems, and feel more isolated than separated women. In addition, the Royal College of Psychiatrists notes that men who experience divorce or separation experience depression more often and it is more severe. Studies have shown that fathers who no longer live with their children experience poorer relationship quality with their children and experience more social isolation, greater conflict with former spouses, and suffer the loss of emotional support from former friends and peers compared to fathers who reside with their children. Lack of contact can exacerbate these outcomes and has negative impacts on children as well.

Support

Parenting NI continues to provide advice and support for fathers both through our general support line and specifically through the ‘Dads Project’. We feel it is more important than ever for fathers to be aware that support continues to exist even during this difficult period. Fathers can still ring the support line on 0800 8010 722 and be referred for direct help. In addition, they can access any of the following voluntary organisations:

Advice NI www.adviceni.net Financial support
Christians Against Poverty www.capuk.org Hardship/foodbank/white goods
Law Centre www.lawcentreni.org Legal information
Lifeline www.lifelinehelpline.info Support with end of life thoughts/actions
Family Benefits Advice www.employersforchilcare.org Advice with childcare costs and childcare options
Samaritans www.samaritans.org Depression, loneliness
Simon Community www.simoncommunity.org Homelessness
Family Mediation NI www.familymediationni.org.uk Family mediation
Aware NI www.aware-ni.org Depression/Mental Health

Finally, if a father is experiencing any other issues, looking at the Helplines Network NI website can point them toward an organisation that may be able to address it:
https://helplinesni.com/

Parents struggling with the additional pressure lockdown is putting on families

Leading parenting support charity launch findings from Parenting in a Pandemic Survey

A survey carried out with 439 parents in Northern Ireland shows many families are finding the current circumstances incredibly difficult. 78% of parents either agreed or strongly agreed that the pandemic had been difficult for them and their families. 74% agreed or strongly agreed it had been difficult for their children.

This crisis has presented a range of unique and challenging problems for families and parents. It has fundamentally altered society, and has forced many parents to adapt. Parents are particularly concerned about the stress and emotional impact and the loss of traditional routines, such as struggling to maintain bedtimes and structure during the day. 

Home schooling was another major cause of concern for parents. Half of parents felt that provision for their child's education had not be adequate during lockdown, with many describing feelings of guilt or anxiety about balancing home working and home schooling. Parents also suggested they were concerned about children falling behind as a result of lack of formal education. Parents are also unsure as to whether schools should be one of the first settings to return after lockdown, with 42% agreeing that schools should return and 58% feeling that they should not. 

A worryingly high number of parents suggested they were unaware of any support available to them. 63% of parents believe that the Northern Ireland government have not done enough to support and inform parents. 

Chief Executive at Parenting NI, Charlene Brooks, said,

"This is undoubtedly a very difficult experience for many families. Parents facing additional challenges such as lack of access to devices and poor internet provision, concerns about impact of isolation on mental health, and parents of children with additional needs have been hardest hit and in need of more support. It is therefore really concerning that many parents were unaware of support available to them. Parenting NI are suggesting that more should be done to make parents aware of existing help."

Interestingly, whilst parents are struggling there was a minority (just under 20%) who suggested that the crisis and associated lockdown had been, on the whole, a positive experience for their families. Some parents indicated that this unique period had offered them an unexpected opportunity to spend more time together and enjoyed strengthening their family bond. Reflecting on this Charlene said,

"I think in these most unusual times it has been encouraging to see families find the positives in this new way of life we have been adjusting to, spending more quality time together, sharing meals and generally bonding more as a family. At Parenting NI we would encourage families to consider if any of these positives can be made to maintained, even after the crisis is over. We hope that it might be an opportunity for employers, schools and families to work together to consider changes to working and education patterns and encourage a stronger value to be placed on parenting and families; which will have a positive impact on society as a whole."

Read the full report

Click to download the full report of the findings from the Parenting in a Pandemic Survey. Published May 2020.

Summary

Take a look at the key statistics from the Parenting in a Pandemic Survey. Published May 2020.

Blended Families

Parents who no longer live together – because of separation, divorce or bereavement – often face distinct challenges. One of these is attempting to re-partner. It is natural for parents who are no longer in a relationship with the father or mother of their child to seek new companionship. Around a third of all marriages in England and Wales are remarriages for at least one party. Many of these will include children from either one or both partners, and these marriages will themselves often produce further children. This creates what has been called a “step” or “blended family”. The definition of these families in academic literature is: 

“families in which at least one of the adults has a child or children from a previous relationship”

It is difficult to determine exactly how many blended families exist in Northern Ireland. The statistics for remarriages are not collected in the way they are in England or Wales, and the growth of co-habiting families without formal marriage means that even if we did have a more accurate number it would not tell the whole picture. We know that in the UK, they represent between 11% and 15% of families with dependent children. Regardless of the exact number, it is reasonable to say that they are a significant proportion of families in Northern Ireland. 

This article will seek to identify the key challenges faced by blended families, and give advice on how to address them.  

Challenges for Blended Families

Every blended family will face a unique challenge. Partially, this is because both families who are attempting to come together do so with different ideas, routines and backgrounds. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry noted that “the members may have no shared family histories or shared ways of doing things, and they may have very different belief systems which may include a different ethnic or educational background, or religion”. As a parent, you should be aware of the differences between your family and the family you are attempting to blend with. These can be very stark – for example, views on the role of faith or responses to teenage risk-taking behaviours – or relatively minor, like expectations regarding chores or pocket money. Keep in mind that your children will look to you for guidance and may resist that guidance from their step-parent 

Our advice in this situation is to attempt to prepare for these conflicts by talking to your partner, and if possible, your ex-partner. What you should seek to avoid is a feeling of unfairness which when added to the strain of adjusting to the new family dynamic can exacerbate conflict. This is particularly important if your family includes half-siblings. 

Areas of difficulty often include: 

Discipline

This has been identified as the number one issue faced in blended families. Stepparents should resist the urge to “establish” themselves right away. Instead, work with your partner to set up a baseline of boundaries that cannot be ignored. Beyond this, have a staged approach and a plan. Agree with your partner who will handle discipline, and how it will be implemented. Introduce stepchild disciplining gradually and ensure that as parents you are as united with your partner as is possible. Talk to the children and let them know the rules and consequences in this new family set up and how discipline will be handled.  

Step-siblings/Half-siblings

This is a highly complex area. For some children, they will have new siblings. These may vary greatly in age, gender and levels of contact. Nonetheless, it is a common concern among parents that they will fight or not get along. Children who acquire stepsiblings often feel jealous or left out. Their place in the family may also have changed from being oldest or youngest. Parents should understand that unlike their relationship with their own new partner, their child did not choose to have new siblings or step siblings. It is natural for them to take some time to get used to it, and they may never be as close to each other as you would like. Each parent should instead ensure that their own children understand the basic rules/boundaries. Beyond that, the most important thing a parent can do is spend time with your own children and talk to them about how they feel. There is good reason to be hopeful as well. Some research has suggested that siblings who share only one parent are as close (and in some cases closer) than full siblings. No matter how hurtful or difficult their initial reactions may be, understand that as a parent it is your role to help them adjust. Listen to their issues, and agree to reasonable action to address them. Be reasonable about language as well. Terms like step or half sibling may be a legal or biological term but may not be right in your home. Talk with all your children within your new blended family to determine what way they would all prefer to be referred too that will best suit everyone in your family. 

Roles

Beyond discipline, often stepparents will struggle with defining their own roles within the new family. If children already have an active mother and father figure in their life, a stepparent may have feelings of ambiguity in their role. This can lead to dissatisfaction, difficulties in the inter-parental relationship and other negative outcomes. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers regarding the role of stepparents. In some families, stepparents will have very clear and defined roles, while in others they will be more flexible. Successful blended families are those that develop structures, roles, norms, and interaction styles that are appropriate for each individual family situation. 

In conclusion, it would be encouraged that adults who wish to take the decision to move in with other adults talk to their children before hand and ensure that their needs are the priority before the decision is reached. Once the change has happened then parents should try to be understanding with children who are struggling with adjusting to the new family reality they face. Additionally, it is important that they are not too hard on themselves. Experts suggest it can take between two and five years for a blended family to fully settle. Do not be too hard on yourself if progress is slow, or if you are struggling. The three key elements for parents to remember are: 

  • Take your time. Don’t try to force a new dynamic. 
  • Decide what your roles will be, and communicate this with your children. 
  • Listen, and understand. Take your children’s concerns seriously and take steps to address them as best you can. 

If you are struggling with blending a family, you can always seek support from Parenting NI or other similar organisations. Parenting NI’s support line remains open on 0808 8010 722. 

Childcare and the Pandemic

Finding and being satisfied with your chosen childcare is complicated under any circumstances. During the pandemic, when almost all providers have been forced to close and children told to stay at home the situation has become even more difficult. As a parent, you have already delicately balanced affordability with good-quality care for your child. Most parents are happy with their childcare provider and were measured and careful in picking what was most appropriate to suit their needs and the needs of their child(ren) in the first place. However, financial and other pressures will have meant that they may need to have uncomfortable conversations with providers. 

This article will attempt to give you some ideas and support if and when you need to have this conversation with your childminder/childcare provider. Our friends at Employers For Childcare have also contributed to this advice. We would strongly recommend reading their articles on financial support measures for childcare providers/childminders to better understand the circumstances. These are regularly updated, and provide a useful source of information for parents and providers. 

Difficult conversations

Legally, you may have signed a contract. While the pandemic has created a unique set of circumstances it does not necessarily mean that you are released from the clauses of this contract. You may still be asked to pay a retainer fee if you wish to keep your childminding/childcare place. You can find further help and support on the Family Support NI website. In particular, the article COVID-19 Childcare Options and Associated Guidance. 

When having difficult conversations, it is important to remember to remain calm. The first thing is to have a plan for what you want to say, and how to say it. In this case, decide before contacting your childminder/childcare provider what you think is a reasonable and balanced solution to the issue. Remember that difficult circumstances are by definition, difficult. There is no magic bullet response that can resolve this and keeping a realistic goal of just improving the situation is important. 

Would you be happy to pay a percentage of your normal fee to maintain your child’s place? Are you able to pay or are you unable to pay at all? If you have a solution in mind it will be easier for you to communicate your concerns and come to a reasonable solution. 

Be understanding about circumstances

Secondly, remember to be empathetic. These are highly challenging times and it is understandable that many parents are finding it difficult to deal with the additional pressures. Home schooling, working from home and financial changes related to furloughing or having hours reduced will have an impact on your ability to cope easily with stress. When you arrange to speak to your childcare provider, remember that they are often facing exactly the same pressures.  

They are worried about keeping staff employed, staying safe and keeping their business from going under so that when we come out the other side of this pandemic there will still be childcare available to enable all to return to work. Additionally, you are unlikely to be the only parent who has contacted them about this. Try to put yourself in the place of your childminder/childcare provider and remain calm if they are not initially receptive to your concerns. 

Flexibility

Finally, be as flexible as you can. This situation is new, and rapidly changing. While you will naturally have a desired outcome it is important to keep in mind that this may not be achieved. Instead, react to the reality of the situation you are facing. Deal with things as they are, not as you want them to be or how you may fear that they will end up. Keeping awareness is important in dealing with a conversation that you find challenging. This means: 

  • Gathering of and clear perception of relevant facts and information. Don’t have this conversation without getting the facts first – read your contract, find out what financial support you may be entitled to, and speak to relevant services like Employers For Childcare’s Family Benefits Advice Service – Employers For Childcare have a helpline number you can call to get specific information about childcare. They are available on: 0800 028 3008 
  • Determine what is relevant – there is a great deal of information available. Much of it is not relevant. If you read reports or news articles, ensure that they apply to Northern Ireland and that you understand how they affect what you want to do;
  • Understand the dynamics of the relationship – remember that keeping a good professional relationship is important for your child. At the end of this crisis, you will want your child to return to their childcare setting in all likelihood; 
  • Self awareness – when and how our own emotions distort our perception. If you find yourself getting upset or frustrated, take a moment to collect your thoughts.  

If you make use of a childminder, you may be best supported by the Northern Ireland Childminder’s Association, whose website has support information for parents available here. 

If you are finding the emotional aspect of the conversation difficult, or you feel you need help with any parenting related issue, you can call Parenting NI on: 0808 8010 722