Category Archives: Blog

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/

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 

Guest Blog: The Teenage Brain in Lockdown

We have a special guest series of blogs from Dr John Coleman on parenting teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This blog focuses on the teenage brain during this critical time of development for young people and the impact lockdown may be having.

Brain basics

Major change: The teenage years are a time of major change in the brain; 

New developments: Most areas of the brain are maturing and developing during these years; 

It takes time: This process is likely to start around puberty, but takes many years to complete; 

Ages and stages: We have learnt that, while the major changes take place in early to mid-adolescence, the brain continues to change and develop until the mid-twenties; 

Restructuring: During these years there is some restructuring of the brain; 

Pruning: As part of this there is some loss of brain cells, to enable the brain to become more efficient; 

Uncertainty: As a result, for a period there may be a degree of uncertainty and confusion; 

New skills: However, at the same time many new thinking skills are developing, allowing the young person to become more creative and thoughtful; 

The social brain: At this time there is rapid development of the social brain, leading to new skills in relationships but also to a preoccupation with the self and how the teenager appears to others; 

Hormone variation: Due to brain development there is much greater variation in hormone levels in the teenager than there is in the adult.  This can lead to unexpected swings of emotion and to possible difficulty in controlling feelings. 

How lockdown may affect the teenage brain

Exercise

Living in a constricted space may mean that the individual will be getting less exercise than normal.  Young people may be sleeping more, as the usual pressures of school are absent.  They may also be sitting in front of a screen for long periods.  However, the brain needs oxygen.  The more we move around, the more oxygen gets to our brains.  Lack of exercise means that less oxygen is getting to the brain. 

Routines

In the present circumstances it is all too easy for routines to disappear.   This is understandable, but a day free from routines is not helpful for teenagers.  Young people do need routines in the day.  Routines contribute to the growth and development of parts of the brain to do with structure and planning.   

Social isolation

Young people will be isolated from their friends.   This can be difficult to deal withContact with others of the same age provides support and is an arena for sharing experiences.  It is also valuable for brain function, as it supports the development of the social brain.  The internet and social media may help to mitigate the feeling of isolation. 

More intense family relationships  

Being together in the home will intensify relationships between parents and young people.  Conflicts may easily flare up over a range of issues.  Some may be over domestic problems, such as use of the kitchen, loud music or time spent in the bathroom.  Other conflicts may be more to do with health or lifestyle, such as bedtimes.   

Lack of privacy

Being together in lockdown relates also to the issue of privacy.  Young people need some privacy at this stage in their lives.  This may be hard to provide in the present circumstances, but some thought should be given to the importance of privacy for teenagers. 

Emotions  

In normal times young people may find it hard to manage their emotions.  Hormone variation plays a part here. During lockdown, living in a small space and cooped up with parents and siblings, emotions will be even harder to keep under control.   Teenagers may feel resentment or loss, and some may have higher levels of anxiety. The parts of the brain that regulate emotion may have a lot more work to do at this time.   

A sense of relief

It should be noted that some teenagers may be feeling a sense of relief at this time.  Being out of school may, for some, provide an escape from the stress created by school, such as tests, pressure from teachers and other possible tensions.   

Motivation

Under the conditions of lockdown it may be hard for young people to remain motivated in relation to school work or to planning for the future.   

Top Tips  - A Healthy Brain in Lockdown 

Exercise

Plan regular exercise or fitness routines for everyone in the familyIf possible, teenagers should move around rather than stay still for long periods.  Exercise can happen indoors as well as outdoors.  No one should sit in front of a screen for too long.  The more exercise and movement the individual engages in the more oxygen will be getting to the brain. 

Routines

A structure to the day is helpful for young people.  If possible, help them create their own routines and structures.   This will assist in managing the sense of imprisonment and isolation.  Routines will also contribute to the development of parts of the brain related to thinking, planning and problem-solving.  Routines also have health benefits, in particular in relation to sleep and nutrition. 

Emotions

Don’t be afraid to talk about feelings.  Try and keep everyone’s emotions under review.   If there is an opportunity for feelings to be expressed and shared, this will reduce the likelihood of explosions and uncontrolled outbursts.  If the young person can be given the sense that their feelings are being recognized and taken seriously this will assist with emotion regulation. 

Conflict

Conflicts within the family may well be heightened when families are thrown together.   It will be important to create processes in the family which will help to reduce such conflicts through open communication and acceptance of everyone’s needs.   Listening to each other and allowing a space for issues of conflict to be aired will help enormously. 

Communication

Although parents are likely to believe that teenagers do not want to communicate with them, this is a myth.  Teenagers do want to talk, but at times and in ways that feel safe to them. In the present situation communication – especially about worries and anxieties - is absolutely essential.  Brain development means that language skills are increasing, and this can be encouraged by open communication. 

New opportunities

Parents may be able to provide opportunities for young people to take on more roles in the family, such as looking after younger children, contributing to the domestic chores, and helping in other ways. Such things will give teenagers a sense of responsibility and will help them deal with some of the more difficult emotions. 

Screen time

It is inevitable that the digital world has become more important during lockdown.  This fact is just as applicable to adults as it is to teenagers.  In view of this normal rules and restrictions on screen time should be relaxed at this time.  There is no evidence that sensible use of the internet is damaging to the brain. However, adults in the family do need to keep an eye on what the young person is doing on-line.  Open discussion about this is to be encouraged, and parents should be alert to any inappropriate use of the internet.  

Motivation

Research has highlighted the fact that the teenage brain is especially sensitive to rewards. This may seem difficult to put into practice at present.  However, the more young people can be motivated by reward rather than criticism the more responsive they will be 

Parents do matter!  

Many parents have the view that they become less important as their sons and daughters move into the teenage years.  Everything we know tells us that this is untrue.  Teenagers do need their parents or other key adults.  They just need them in a different way from the way younger children need these important figures.   In the present lockdown parents and carers have an essential role to play in helping young people manage this stressful and unprecedented situation.  The support, the structure and the role-modelling that is provided by key adults are all important elements in the development of a healthy brain. 

Read more in the series

Read other guest blogs from Dr John Coleman in this special series during the current pandemic.

Listen to the podcast

Listen to the Parenting NI Podcast in conversation with Dr Coleman about teens & the pandemic.

Get more support

If you are in need of support with teenagers or any parenting issue please contact Parenting NI for free on 0808 8010 722.

Guest Blog: Teenagers and Mental Health during the Pandemic

We have a special guest series of blogs from Dr John Coleman on parenting teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This blog will explore some of the feelings that young people are currently experiencing and how to talk to your teenager about mental health.

It is hard to talk about mental health problems when everyone, no matter what their situation, is struggling with the challenges caused by the coronavirus. It is an exceptionally hard time for us all. Everyone will experience anxiety and stress as a result of these circumstances.

For young people there are particular issues that they are having to face. There is a huge amount of loss. This is partly because the normal structure of their lives has disappeared. But also because many of the opportunities and good things that they might have expected this Easter and this summer have simply been swept away.

It is not surprising that some young people feel cheated and angry. It is difficult to know what to do with such feelings. For a small number of teenagers these feelings will be expressed in behaviour that is worrying for those around them, especially their parents.

If you have a teenage son or daughter who is experiencing mental health problems, it may be difficult to get help in the normal way. Clinics are under huge pressure, and people in the helping professions are having to work extra hard to provide assistance to their clients.

I have heard of a number of young people who are really struggling at this time. I will just highlight a few of the situations that have come to my notice:

  • A 16 year-old girl who cannot stop crying. She cannot say why this is happening to her.
  • A 15 year-old boy who vandalized a neighbour’s car, something that he has never done before. All he can say is that he feels angry with the world.
  • A 17 year-old girl who has started cutting herself. She says she hates herself.
  • A 17 year-old boy who has gone to bed, and won’t get up and won’t talk to anyone.
  • A 14 year-old girl whose anorexia has got worse since the virus appeared. She says she needs to take control of her life as everything else is out of control.

It is very hard for parents

The suggestions I make here will not be easy. One of the key challenges for parents who are at home with their teenager will be to find a way of managing their own anxiety. The more anxious you are as a parent, the harder it will be for the young person to accept any help or support.

There is a reason for this. We know that young people worry about the effect of their distress on their parents. In most cases they want to be able to protect their parents, no matter how troubled they are themselves. They also go through a stage when they want to keep things to themselves. This is a normal part of teenage development.

Parents will be more able to provide help if they show that their anxiety is under control. It is so important to try and take a neutral position, as far as this is possible.

Here are some suggestions:

Acknowledging their distress

Find a way of letting your teenager know that you are aware of their distress, and that you want to help. However, it is important to avoid any words that can add to the teenager’s sense of guilt.

It is also important to avoid any wording that implies that you understand how they are feeling. Teenagers hate that, as they say it is patronizing. The usual response is: “You can’t understand me”.

So, what words to use?  

My heart goes out to you”.

“I feel so sympathetic”.

“I can see this is very hard for you”.

“I want to help, if I can”.

Reassurance

This is about letting the young person know that you won’t be shocked, frightened or damaged by their thoughts and feelings. One of the fears that young people may struggle with is the idea that their problems will have a terrible effect on you, the parent.

Somehow you have to find a way of letting the teenager know that, however shameful or frightening their thoughts, you are strong enough to cope. However bad it is, you can bear it, and you will try and help.

Being there for them

Another important message is that you will be there for them. They need to know that you love them, and that no matter what happens, you will do your very utmost to help. Teenagers need to know that you will stick with them, and you won’t reject them because of their distress.

If is possible, think about actions that will let the young person know you are wanting to offer support. Could you make their favourite food? Could you give them more responsibility in the home? Could you get out old family photos to emphasize good experiences that you have had in the past?  Could you play games with them that they would enjoy? Being available is the most important message.

Things it is best not to say

If at all possible, try to avoid begging or pleading with the young person. Try not to lecture. Try not to criticize. Try not to judge the teenager’s behavior.

Why do I say this?

Because all these approaches represent your views, and your agenda. At this time the teenager cannot cope with your agenda. The only way to open up communication is to find a way into their own agenda. And to show that you will be really, really listening to them.

Of course, this is not to say they will talk. But you can be sure they won’t talk if you plead, judge or criticize.

The role of the school

Although schools are closed at this time, many parents will have a contact within the school system who may be able to give advice. This may be a Head of Year, a pastoral lead, or a Head of Well Being. Schools vary in their support structures, but most will have some way of providing a link to helping services. Some may also offer telephone guidance for parents on the best steps to take if one of their students is showing mental health problems.

The very worst thoughts

The possibility of suicide is the worst fear of any parent. There are many myths about what to do and what not to do if you worry about this. It is also of course incredibly hard for any parent to open up this topic.

However, there are ways of showing that you won’t be shocked, and of showing that there are ways to get help if this is something the young person is struggling with. You might say something like:.

“I know people who are in distress sometimes do think about death, about ending it all. If you do. have thoughts like that, there are people you can talk to. You may not be able to talk to me, but there are others who will listen and try to help you”.

This does two things. It acknowledges the distress. It also shows that you are not frightened by the distress the young person is experiencing.

What next?

You will notice I have mentioned talking a lot. Since it may be difficult to get professional help at this time, finding a way to encourage your teenager to talk is something you may want to try.

The first thing to note is that they may not be able, or not want, to talk to you. However, if they can do so, that will be a good thing. So, you can try, and keep trying. If the first or second attempt does not work, just make it clear that you are always going to be available to listen.

Here are some things you might want to say.

“However hard it is, talking about your thoughts and feelings will help you.”

“ I know it’s difficult, but it is worth having a go”. “Putting your thoughts and feelings into words really will help you.”

“You may feel ashamed, or worried about talking.”

“It may be hard for you to talk to me, but perhaps we can find someone else you can talk to.”

If they can’t talk, don’t want to talk, or say it is a waste of time

If this is the case, here are some other options.

Perhaps your teenager might be able to send you a text or email? Or message you in some way about their feelings?

If this is not appropriate, you might want to suggest simply writing down thoughts or feelings. This might be a good start. Sometimes it is helpful to get ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper.

If none of that is possible another option is to try and find someone in your family network who might be a possible listener. If there is no one like that, then perhaps someone who is known to the young person in your social network.

What to say when you don’t know what to say

Because of the situation we are all in, it may be hard to know what to say when your teenager is clearly distressed. Keep in mind that you don’t have to say anything. In a difficult situation we often feel that we have to say something, we have to respond. In fact, just being there, being available to listen may be all that is needed.

Social media

There has been a lot of publicity about the negative effects of certain websites on the mental health of teenagers. Fears have been expressed that some sites encourage harmful behavior such as self-harm or anorexia. However, there is another side to this. Research has shown that, for some, the on-line world does provide support and reassurance. This is not true for everyone. But there are certainly those for whom social media enables them to get in touch with others who are helpful to them. The lesson for parents is that not all social media is harmful. If at all possible, try and keep an eye on what your teenager is doing online. Don’t be afraid to ask about this. The more you can keep the conversation going about what your teenager is doing online the better.

Talking and listening might not be enough

This will depend on the nature of the distress that is being experienced by the young person. For some circumstances talking will not be enough. You may want to know how to manage behavior that appears destructive or damaging to other people.

Firstly, it is essential for you to be able to set boundaries in relation to behavior that is harmful to your teenager or to others in the family. If you believe these boundaries are being crossed then you must act. This is the time to seek help from the emergency services. You can also call the helplines detailed at the end of the blog.

Secondly, there may be things you can do to keep people in the family safe. Identify any potentially harmful substances in the house, or any knives or weapons. Give some thought to the domestic arrangements around you. Ask yourself if there are things you can do to reduce the risk of harm to any members of your family.

More from Dr John Coleman

Read more on this blog, including available support and a quiz to get you talking.

Read more in the series

Read other guest blogs from Dr John Coleman in this special series during the current pandemic.

Listen to the podcast

Listen to the Parenting NI Podcast in conversation with Dr Coleman about teenagers and the pandemic.

Get more support

If you are in need of further support, contact Parenting NI for free on 0808 8010 722.

Guest Blog: Parents and teenagers at a time of Coronavirus

We have a special guest series of blogs from Dr John Coleman on parenting teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The first of the series will look at the general challenges families are facing at the moment and explore some of the emotions teenagers may be feeling.

Being stuck at home for weeks on end will be a huge test for all families. Even if parents and young people get on reasonably well, there will be many problems that arise because of being in the house or flat day after day.

Space

However small or cramped your home, try and find a space for a young person to feel that they can own. If they have their own bedroom, allow them more freedom than might be the case in normal circumstances.

Time – routines

One way to manage anxiety is to create daily routines. This is true for us all, but especially for teenagers. Do think through with your teenager how a daily routine can be created. This also applies to night-times of course.

A structure to the day

It is sometimes assumed that teenagers do not need structure. This is incorrect. In fact, a structure set by adults makes young people feel safe and cared for. Teenagers may argue against it, they may even say they hate it. But a major role for parents is to create boundaries and structure for teenagers. They need it.

Screen time

The simplest thing to say about this is – do not worry about screen time in these circumstances. We are all living through the on-line world. Teenagers need all the contact they can get with their friendship network. Also of course school work is now being delivered on-line. The digital world is a life-line.

Social media

The same goes for social media. What we say in normal times is true now. Do talk with your teenager about what they are doing on-line. Open communication is important. If you are worried about how much they are gaming, for example, do discuss this with them. Parents should keep an eye open, but also allow more freedom than would be the case in normal times.

Eating and sleeping

Things like eating and sleeping are often markers of how young people are coping. It is good for parents to be alert to how these things might have changed under these new circumstances. Don’t be afraid to discuss health issues with your teenager. Talking about such matters shows the young person that you care about them and their welfare.

Making sense of teenagers’ emotions

It is clear that teenagers are having a rough deal. Most young people will have lost all the usual structures. This experience is tough for them. Their expectations of what would be happening this spring and summer have been blown out of the water.

Feeling cheated

Although it may strange to some adults, it will be common for young people to feel that they have been cheated out of important experiences that they were owed. They may be missing the last term at school, or even the last part of their university education. They have also been separated from face-to-face experiences with their friendship groups. If you are young, these experiences loom very large in your world.

Feeling angry

Because of this, many will feel angry. Even if they recognize that it is no one’s fault, angry feelings can be over-whelming for teenagers. It can feel extremely unfair for this to have happened to them and their friends. It may be easier for adults to see the larger picture. Adults can recognize that this will be over at some time in the future. For teenagers, however, this will seem like the whole of their life that has been taken away from them.

Feeling anxious

There is also the question of worry and anxiety. Will my parents stay safe?  What about my grandparents? Am I safe from the virus?  Of course, adults will have these feelings too. Adults will worry about elderly parents, or have fears for their own health. However, the emotions of young people may be harder for them to cope with.

Teenagers and emotion

Why is it harder for teenagers to manage their emotions?

One reason is that at this age the structures in the brain that process and manage emotions are still changing and developing. These structures are not yet completely mature. Also, hormones play a part in helping us manage our feelings. The hormone balance for teenagers is more variable than it is for adults.

It is also important to recognize that young people will have experienced a real loss at this time. This is part of their life that they will never get back. It is very tough, especially at a time when they are changing and maturing. Adults will struggle with many challenges at this time. It is just important to recognize that the challenges for teenagers may not be quite the same as those for adults.

More from Dr John Coleman

Read more on this blog, including tips for parents and teenagers and a quiz to get you talking.

Listen to the podcast

Listen to the Parenting NI Podcast in conversation with Dr Coleman about teenagers and the pandemic.

Grandparenting during the Pandemic

Being a grandparent is normally a joyful experience, even if it provides challenges as well. Under normal circumstances, grandparents see themselves as a key pillar of support for families.

In our research, Parenting NI found that around 40% of grandparents specifically name support as their role in modern society.

This support comes in many forms, emotional, financial and practical. Despite this, many grandparents already felt isolated or lonely. While the pandemic is an extra difficult time for all families, it can also provide an opportunity to make a special effort with grandparents to ensure that they feel more connected. 

During this crisis many grandparents have found their lives turned upside down. Those who had particularly close relations with grandchildren may be unable to see them at all. Grandparents who provided childcare are no longer able to do so. This can be an extremely stressful addition to an already difficult time for them. It can also be highly stressful for children. Many children get important social and emotional support from grandparents. Being cut off from this, as well as worrying about the health of their grandparents adds to the worries they are already experiencing. 

In this short article, Parenting NI will provide advice and support for parents to ensure that grandparents and their grandchildren remain connected. Despite the physical distancing, there are many things families can do to support continued relationships.

What is grandparent’s role? 

The first step to supporting grandparents in this pandemic is establishing what they view their role as during normal circumstances. Are they providers of care? Do they support emotionally? Do they give practical help by cooking, household chores or DIY? Once parents understand what grandparents usually do, they can come up with inventive solutions.

Childcare

If they normally provide childcare, it might be a good idea for a regular telephone call/video call to be established. This is no substitute for real quality time, but it can still help children and grandparents. They get to see and/or hear each other and this can offer reassurance that they are okay. 

Baking and cooking

If they normally do other physical activities, there may be innovative ways to facilitate this. For example, dropping off or picking up baked goods along with a delivery of food is a nice way to stay connected. Children may feel more relaxed or excited about having cookies or traybakes made by their grandparents. Their grandparents may feel better about having to miss out on playdates. If your child is enjoying anything they made for them – remember to snap a photo to send to let them know! 

Video call activities

Alternatively, set up a video-call where grandparents can talk a child through planting seeds, starting knitting or other activities This can help children learn and allows grandparents to feel like they are giving help and support. An added bonus of this may be keeping children busy while parents are working, and in that way grandparents can continue to feel as though they are providing help for families. 

Writing letters

Writing letters is a good way for children and grandparents to keep in touch. This has a number of additional benefits. For example, it helps children work on their writing skills and spelling. It also provides a physical memory of this time, to be looked back on during happier times. Parents should encourage children to write about their day and feelings. Including drawings and artwork for younger children is another way to improve connectedness. 

During this difficult time, the best thing to do is talk. Talk to the grandparents, and see what they might like to try or do. Similarly, talk to children about what they would like to do to help their grandparents. Parents should be creative and supportive of ideas, and be patient with grandparents attempting to overcome technological hurdles. When the pandemic ends, parents will be glad that they made efforts to ensure that children and grandparents remained connected. It will help support their mental health, and may even result in a closer and more loving relationship. 

If parents are struggling with maintaining relationships, communication or any other related issue they can reach out to Parenting NI for help. Our support line remains active on 0808 8010 722. 

 

Improving Communication with your Child

Parenting NI understands that these are difficult and uniquely challenging times. We hope the advice and information in this article will be useful to your family during this challenging time. Even when this pandemic has passed these strategies should help to improve communication and reduce conflict in your home. 

Living in relatively confined circumstances can be challenging for anyone. If you and your partner are newly working from home and your children are no longer at school your home may feel very busy. Families, particularly children – often miscommunicate, unintentionally under the best of circumstances. This article will contain some information and advice on how best to maintain good communication during this crisis. 

Age appropriate

Obviously, there are different strategies that work for younger or older children. However, some things are universal. In their report for UNICEF, Kolucki and Lemish stratify children into three sub-sets – early years, middle years and early adolescent years. They outline four principles regarding how you approach communication with children, it should be:

  • Age-appropriate and child friendly
  • Address the child as a whole – and bear in mind their own personality
  • Positive and strengths-based
  • Talk about everyone’s needs, including those who are disadvantaged

Taking the current crisis as an example, children may not understand words like “pandemic”. They may struggle with concepts like “self-isolation. This lack of understanding may lead to a child or young person being frightened or confused. In older children, this might lead to them taking unnecessary risks or ignoring official advice. 

Parents know their children best – when attempting to explain a complicated idea to a child, use examples they are familiar with. Equally, if you find yourself struggling to explain, take this as an opportunity to learn together. Do not guess, instead look up answers together. Ask your child what they understand already and be sure to correct any disinformation. The UN recommends a strategy they call ‘Child-Friendly Honesty’ when talking about the coronavirus, for example. This means using language they understand, watching their reactions and being sensitive to their anxiety levels. 

Remember that children – particularly those who have access to the internet – may have read more than you expect. However, they may lack the critical thinking skills to determine fact from fiction effectively. There are plenty of reputable websites that can help dispel errors or misinformation like the BBC or the Government’s own websites. 

Everyday Communication

While it is important that children understand the current situation (to an extent), it is also important that the lines of communication remain open in a busy household. 

Family Lives, a UK-based family support organisation outlines three types of communication between parents and children. These are: 

  • Organisation of an event or activity, or to check arrangements; 
  • Bonding – genuinely sharing and learning about each other; 
  • Chatting – idle conversation about unimportant issues. 

All three sorts of communication will be important in the coming weeks. It is important that parents and children are aware of the types of communication and when they are appropriate. For example, it is okay for a child to interrupt a workday for an important conversation. It may not appropriate for them to attempt to chat, but that will take time to get used to so it is important you learn to work together.  Perhaps you could agree a signal that indicates you are on an important call or put a note out to explain that you are not available (unless of course in emergencies) for 10 or 15 minutes.  But most of all, understand that you are all adjusting  and that it is going to take time to find your new family ‘normal’.   

If you find for example, that your children continues to regularly attempt to talk during times when you have to focus, it is worth speaking to them during a calm moment. Attempting to explain while you are stressed is likely to have negative outcomes. Discuss with your child what your strategies are and how you are going to make it clear when you are unavailable, agree with your child what is reasonable and what is not, and be mindful that you follow your own guidelines. It is unfair for a child who is working on home-schooling to be interrupted with idle conversation, and then be told off for doing the same to you during work. 

What does good communication look like?

Good communication is the result of setting out a number of basic elements. Parents should remember that communication is a two-way process, and make sure to listen as well as talk. According to the Australian Department of Social Services, this will help to encourage children and young people to do the same. Listening is an active behaviour – pay attention not only to what is being said, but also how it is said. Look at body language and be positive and encouraging. It can be difficult to listen under stressful circumstances, but that makes it more important. 

Be clear with your intent

It is natural to be polite, or to seek to avoid conflict by your words, but if you have certain expectations of children it is important that they understand this. This is especially relevant for parents of adolescents. When talking to a teenager, remember that they are going through complex physical and social changes. When you add in the complications associated with the need for self-isolation this can become overwhelming. Nonetheless, experts have been clear that teenagers in particular are not following the advice regarding avoiding social gatherings6. While it might be easy to react angrily if you learn that your teenage child has been to a party or been seeing friends, this is not necessarily the best way to react if you want them to listen. 

Rebelliousness is a natural part of teenage life

In fact, brains develop during the teenage years to specifically be more likely to take risks. This does not mean that they cannot understand risk, that they do not care or that they cannot be persuaded to behave differently. Communication, based on listening and respect are a parent’s best tool to getting a teenager to avoid a behaviour. In the context of the coronavirus, explain in reasonable terms why you need them to socially distance themselves. Listen to their concerns and worries about the effect of this, and do your best to mitigate them. Stress that this is not a ‘normal’ circumstance, like staying late at a party or using alcohol.  

This won’t be forever

Remind them that this is temporary, and if practical offer them a reasonable incentive if they comply. This is not a ‘bribe’, but a mutually agreed reward for them to focus on when the temptation to socialise during lockdown is particularly strong. This does not have to be money – let them propose what they might like or offer family-based incentives like getting to choose a film, more screen time or having time when they are allowed to be alone to chat to friends digitally. 

Consistency

When communicating with children remember to be reasonable but consistent. If you explain the consequences of an action, and the children do not comply, you should follow through with any disciplining. This applies for any positive consequences too – do not let the unique circumstances reduce the fun or family time that you normally enjoy. It is just as important to fulfil the promise to make pancakes for breakfast as it would be to instil discipline. 

Having your own space

Time alone is important in maintaining communication as well. It is hard to keep your own composure if your family are constantly around, making noise and disrupting your already disrupted schedule. It is a good idea to plan time for each member to have time spent away – in another room, in the garden or the like. This gives them time to collect their own thoughts, and should help with communication later on. 

Finally, it is important always to not be too hard on yourself as a parent. These are uncertain times, and while it is good to aim for perfect communication, you must have a reasonable expectation of your own capacity. Do not judge yourself for mistakes, instead simply aim to improve from that point. If you feel overwhelmed, you can continue to contact Parenting NI on 0808 8010 722.