Category Archives: Blog

Parent’s Guide: School Transitions

Starting a new school can be a challenging period for parents, children and teachers. The importance of a successful transition (both socially and academically) is significant. It can be a critical factor in the child’s future progress and development (Fabian, 2015). Transitions involve a complex arrangement of different environmental, social and educational factors. It is normal for a child to be worried or excited about starting “big school”. It is also very common for parents to have concerns about their child.

Parents usually have concerns around:

  • Academic adjustment: Will my child settle into new school work? Will they flourish or struggle with the curriculum?
  • Social adjustment: Will my child adjust well to new social interactions and expectations? Will they make friends and “fit in” well?

What research says…

Adjusting to a new environment is an important part of any transition. Parents and children may view these adjustments differently. In a study of Australian parents and children entering primary school, Docket and Perry (2004) found that adults saw adjustment in terms of settling in to a group or interacting positively with teachers. Children, on the other hand clearly identified the importance of rules (and knowing them) as part of starting school.

Children may also be more worried than they need to be. An International study of children progressing to secondary education found that only around half thought the transition would be positive, but after the first year almost 70% said the transition was either “easy” or “very easy” (Water et al. 2014).  

One aspect that teachers have raised that was overlooked by some parents is the importance of a child being well-rested and well-fed before arriving at school (Docket & Perry, 2004). It was not that parents did not feel that children needed good sleep and food before school, but that they may underestimate the degree to which an extra hour of sleep or not skipping breakfast helps children to settle into a new environment.

Communicating with the school…

Teachers and the school generally are allies in the efforts to improve a child’s transition. Teachers, like parents, want children to be happy and to adjust well. Children thrive most when parents, and teachers work in partnership.  Parents should make every attempt to engage with schools and teachers as much as possible, and take their views and expertise into account.  Likewise, schools need to ensure their environments are welcoming and engaging for parents to come into.  Teachers need to know and understand the importance of working in partnership with parents and learn how to work successfully together.

Engaging with schools and communicating with your child/young person can help to make the transition easier for everyone. Children noted they feared that they might lose contact with former friends, get very strict teachers, or be subjected to bullying (Strand, 2019) in a new school environment. In a number of studies children noted significant fears were:

  • Not knowing the new teacher(s)/attitude of the new teacher(s) (Rodrigues et al. 2018, Strand 2019, Docket & Perry 2004);
  • Friends (Fabian 2015, Van Rens et al. 2015, Docket & Perry 2004).

Parents can talk to their child regarding their concerns about teachers. Some of these fears may be exaggerated and can be easily dealt with by reassuring children. Others may benefit from getting the opportunity to speak to teachers before the transition at events like open nights. If your child demonstrates a particular concern about one or more teachers, it may be worth exploring options to speak to them. The vast majority of teachers, even when under immense time pressures want children to feel comfortable in their classes and for their students to have a smooth transition. Partnership working with the school and teachers is an essential element of getting ready for a new school.

Making Friends

When it comes friends, it is beneficial in many cases if a child can transition with a pre-existing friend. However, this is not always possible. If you are concerned about your child’s ability to make new friends or deal with unfamiliar social interactions, paediatric behavioural health specialist Kristen Eastman (2016) gives the following advice:

  • Observe how your child socialises. You may notice behaviours that are holding them back and can gently encourage behaviours that help;
  • Model positive behaviour yourself. Children learn how to socialise in part from watching their parents. Try being more social when your child is with you if possible;
  • Role-play at home. If your child is older, you can talk through how to start conversations and make friends and practice at home. If you struggle with this yourself consider asking a friend or family member;
  • Encourage your child to take part in activities that are social in nature, like sports or clubs;
  • Reinforce and praise positive examples of social activity;
  • Set up opportunities like play-dates if age appropriate;
  • Don’t compare them negatively to more social siblings or yourself.

Helping your child to have strong social skills can dramatically reduce levels of stress in children transitioning to new school environments.

Making the Transition

Parents should take advantage of all opportunities to get to know as much as they can about the school they are sending their child to. The more you know about the school your child will be attending, the less you are likely to stress. If your child sees you as being relaxed about the new school, it may help to reduce their own feelings of unease. Additionally, being able to answer your child’s questions can help to make the transition less difficult. NI Direct provides a range of information regarding schools in Northern Ireland including:

  • Inspection reports;
  • School transport information;
  • How to obtain a school prospectus;
  • Extended services.

It might be a good idea to go through this information with your child. By doing so, you can de-mystify the new school.  You may also want to trial the school journey, particularly if your child is going into a new town or city and travelling by unfamiliar means such as bus or train.  Travelling the route together in advance and considering the options for which paths/ routes to take will help set your child’s mind at rest and will help them have less to be worried about.

Your child (and you) may still feel a level of anxiety, even after taking these precautions. Do not worry, and remember that in addition to the school itself, many support organisations exist that can provide help and advice including Parenting NI.

Build a strong support network around yourself and do not hesitate to seek assistance if you suspect you may need it. Finally, remember that for most children, transition to “big school” is exciting. Embrace the change as best you can, and encourage your child to feel the same.

Parents Guide: Gift Giving

Christmas is for many families an exciting time of year. For children, it is often (along with birthdays) a particular highlight. In addition to being off school, eating particularly delicious meals and spending time with friends and family, there is the expectation of gifts.

Every family is different – and children’s experiences and expectations around festive gift giving can vary greatly. What one child might consider a fantastic haul might bitterly disappoint another. As parents, it can be challenging to finely balance this. Financial pressures, peer pressure and difficulty understanding which exact version of game, which model truck or which outfit for a doll that your child wants can increase the stress of parents. This article will give parents a few tips on how to avoid conflict and how to react if your child expresses jealousy, unhappiness or disappointment in gifts.

Talking about Advertisements

Advertising can influence expectations, and in particular young children can fail to understand that advertisements are trying to get them (or rather, their parents) to buy a product (Oates et al. 2002). In particular, children under the age of 8 struggle to understand the purpose of advertisements, and see them as entertainment, information or helping viewers (Pine, 2007). In addition to this, children may not understand that advertisements may not accurately reflect the size, abilities or functions of a toy. This may lead to inevitable disappointment when an action figure cannot fly, a doll cannot converse or the like. There are advertising standards, which have tightened since the 1990’s, but with the gradual fusing of advertising and entertainment (particularly on social media) it can be difficult for children to know where one stops and the other begins.

Therefore, parents of very young children may want to talk to their children about what ads are, and what they are trying to do. If a parent notices their child watching a TV show, or a YouTube video with ads for toys (or with toys in the content itself), they should consider taking the time to communicate with their child. Ask them if they can tell the difference between the entertainment part and the sales pitch. By working together, you can ensure that children know what to expect from the toys they unwrap on Christmas day.

Manage Expectations

Children – particularly young children – have little ability to understand the true cost of the items they desire. As their parent, it is up to you to set a reasonable level of expectation in terms of money spent on gifts. This applies as much to gifts from “Santa” as it does gifts from their parents. Dr Dan Peters, a psychologist gives the following suggestions for helping to avoid difficulties:

  • Model good behaviour. Your children get their views about getting or giving gifts from you. Be careful about the language you use regarding gifts. Try to talk more about giving gifts, particularly to those in need. Try to focus less on what your children are getting.
  • Be aware of what your child is being exposed to. As previously mentioned about advertisements, children hear about gifts from friends, in school and in public. Make sure to challenge any ideas about what is or is not appropriate as soon as you hear them, in a positive way.
  • Don’t focus on presents. This is easier said than done. We live in a society that is driven by consumption, but your family can focus on the other aspects of the holidays. Talk to your children about what else they are excited about: spending time with family, food, putting up decorations and the like.

Reacting to negative behaviour

It can be extremely frustrating to hear a child say “I didn’t want this”, “Why did he get the good one and I didn’t?” or “Is that it?” It is entirely natural to be upset, but do not forget in the heat of the moment that it is a child saying these things. Instead of reacting with anger or expressing that frustration, parents should take this as a teaching opportunity.

Firstly, remember that for children, dealing with disappointment can be good for their development. Taylor (2011) notes that children who experience disappointment but are helped to overcome it develop better emotional control, higher levels of confidence and are more motivated. It is normal for parents to want to protect children from disappointment, and few parents will want their child to be disappointed with gifts that they spent money on.

However, as with other aspects of gift giving, dealing with disappointment can be beneficial if parents take the time to communicate with their child. If your child seems unhappy, ask them:

  • Why are you unhappy? What were your expectations?
  • Do they understand what they have, and have they allowed a small amount of negativity hid a lot of joy?
  • Is there anything they can do to address this themselves? Can they ask someone else for help?

Remember that your children develop their coping skills from you. If you are careful not to overreact to disappointment and to calmly express your feelings, they will find it easier to do the same. There are three things a parent should be careful to do if their child is reacting very negatively to a gift;

  • Don’t feed into a tantrum. If a child is struggling to control their emotions, take them away to a quiet place and help them to calm down;
  • Be careful not to escalate the problem. You understand the full context – how much it cost, how long you waited in line, how far you had to go. Your child often does not. Do not respond to their behaviour by saying or doing anything likely to further upset them;
  • Help them to understand – once they have calmed down – why what they did was not ideal. Be patient, and do not try to shame them for their reaction.

Conclusion

There is no simple way to avoid all disappointment at Christmas. Instead of focussing on having a “perfect” holiday season, parents should try to focus on what is in their control. They should take the time to enjoy their family, and move the focus away from getting presents.  Most importantly is to enjoy your time together as a family and make the most of all opportunities e.g. get out for a walk in the fresh air, play a board game or watch a family movie.  It is likely that these little things will be what your children remember most about when Christmas has been and gone. 

Parents Article: Cyberbullying

What is Cyberbullying?

In Northern Ireland 39% of Year 6 pupils and 29% of Year 9 pupils reported being bullied (Department of Education NI, 2011). While some of this bullying is what is considered to be “traditional” – verbal abuse, physical threats or exclusion – around two thirds of bullying is spoken or written (NI Direct, 2019). Much of this takes now place online or via mobile phones, which falls under the definition of “cyberbullying”.

Slonje and Smith (2008) defined cyberbullying as:

“aggression which occurs through modern technological devices, and specifically mobile phones or the internet.”

Cyberbullying is a real issue in Northern Ireland, as well. A report from June 2019 found that 22% of children in NI had recently had a nasty or unpleasant experience online. It was also significantly higher for girls – 27% – than for boys – 17% (BBC, 2019).  This type of bullying often presents a serious challenge for parents. This is because, unlike physical bullying the discreet nature of children’s usage of technology means that is can be much more difficult for parents, teachers or other supportive adults to notice it is occurring. Teachers in Northern Ireland described feeling a level of frustration in their attempts to deal with the growing and very complex problem of cyberbullying (Purdy & McGuckin, 2015).

Why Does Cyberbullying Matter?

Some have argued that because of a lack of physical presence, cyberbullying is “less serious” than traditional bullying. The advice to “just turn off” devices, block or ignore bullies however is insufficient. 

The effects of cyberbullying are no less serious than those of traditional bullying, though the two often occur at the same time. Grossman and Rapp (2016) noted that victims of cyberbullying were more likely to be:

  • absent from school;
  • depressed;
  • suffer mental health issues;
  • and other negative effects.

These may lead to negative physical health outcomes such as self-harm and in the most serious cases, cyberbullying has been linked to a victim being almost twice as likely to have suicidal ideation, and a perpetrator being 1.5 times as likely (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010).

One of the reasons that cyberbullying is particularly damaging psychologically is the fact that it is constantly in the child’s life. Unlike traditional bullying, where the home or other places might provide a “safe space”, with cyberbullying the victim may continue to receive text messages or emails wherever they are (Slonje & Smith, 2007).

Additionally, while children are usually very aware of who the perpetrator of traditional bullying is with cyberbullying, cyberbullies can remain “virtually” anonymous through the use of temporary/throwaway e-mail and instant messaging accounts, anonymisers and pseudonyms on social networking sites (Patchin & Hinduja, 2010). While children typically know (or suspect) who the perpetrator is, the layer of anonymity can make it challenging for parents or other authorities to identify them with certainty.

Another important distinction between cyberbullying and traditional bullying is the fact that the person carrying out the cyberbullying may be less aware of the consequences of their actions (Slonje & Smith, 2007). A report by Nottingham Trent University noted that cyberbullies are anonymous to the consequences of their actions online, which isn’t the case with face-to-face bullying. This may lower the barrier to entry into bullying behaviour, and explain why children that might never be involved in traditional bullying may take part in cyberbullying.

Importantly, the negative effects often harm the perpetrator of the cyberbullying as well. While the most serious harm is inflicted upon the victim, those taking part in cyberbullying also have negative outcomes. Nixon (2014) found that perpetrators of cyberbullying are more likely to report increased substance use, aggression, and delinquent behaviours. Therefore, it is important for parents to be aware not only if their child is being bullied online, but also if they might be taking part in it.

What Can I do as a Parent?

The PSNI give 5 tips – called Take 5 – to address cyberbullying. These are:

  1. Put down the mouse and step away from the computer….take 5 minutes to think!
  2. The internet and mobile technology are very powerful. But if misused, they can also be dangerous to yourself and others.
  3. When people act out of anger, frustration or fear things get out-of-hand quickly. Emotions create a situation where we click before thinking. We don’t think about how the person on the other end could misunderstand our message or our intentions.
  4. By not reacting and taking the time to calm down, we can avoid becoming a cyberbully ourselves. If you are the victim of bullying, speak to someone.
  5. What can we do for 5 minutes to help us calm down? Get some exercise, call to a friend’s house etc.

They also advise people to think very carefully about what they post online. Children should keep their online content private, but also be prepared for any images or messages they share to be viewed by the public. Talking to your child about the potential consequences of shared images or videos can be useful in preventing cyberbullying before it starts.

In addition to this, Family Lives, a UK family support charity suggests that parents look out for the following signs that your child might be being cyberbullied:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Withdrawal from family and spending a lot of time alone
  • Reluctance to let parents or other family members anywhere near their mobiles, laptops etc
  • Finding excuses to stay away from school or work including school refusal
  • Friends disappearing or being excluded from social events
  • Losing weight or changing appearance to try and fit in
  • Fresh marks on the skin that could indicate self-harm and dressing differently such as wearing long sleeved clothes in the summer to hide any marks
  • A change in personality i.e. anger, depression, crying, withdrawn

This is not an exhaustive list, but parents should keep an eye out for any sudden and unexplained changes in their child’s mood or behaviour. This is equally true if you worry or suspect your child is taking part in cyberbullying. In this case, it is important to talk to your child about the potential harm they may be causing. Children may lack the emotional intelligence or empathy to fully understand that the messages, images or videos they comment on, post or share have consequences. Your child may think that it is “just a bit of fun”. As a parent and an adult, you have the experience to explain the damage such behaviour can do.

If you discover that your child is the victim of cyberbullying, parents should:

  • Get their child to show them any distressing or messages, as well as any new messages that come;
  • Advise your child not to respond, and warn them that acting when angry can make things worse;
  • Tell them that the bullying usually ends when they seek help.
  • You should then see if the child knows (or suspects) who is bullying them, and contact the relevant adults. These might be teachers if it is a school colleague, a young group leader or other parents.

If you are concerned about your child and bullying, online or otherwise, you can contact Parenting NI for freephone on 0808 8010 722.

The full research article can be downloaded here. You can also listen to our accompanying podcast about bullying for some further information and guidance:

Parental Mental Health

In recent years, a great deal of work has been done both in Northern Ireland and more globally to combat the stigma associated with mental health issues. We now know that about one in five people will suffer a mental illness serious enough to require treatment throughout their lives (Mental Health Foundation, 2016). The exact causes of various mental illnesses are highly complicated – they are a complex mix of genetics, experiences in life and random chance.

Certain factors can make mental ill health more or less likely, or can increase or decrease the length of illness. One such factor is being a parent. Rates of clinical depression can be as high as 35% in mothers with young children (Smith, 2004). Being a parent is stressful, and when combined with other potential stresses like being a single parent, poverty or physical illness the likelihood of causing a drop in mental wellbeing, such as anxiety or depression is higher.

Being a person with mental ill-health is extremely challenging. There is an enormous stigma associated with being mentally unwell – despite concerted attempts to address it. Research has suggested that people with mental illnesses are among the most devalued of all people with disabilities (Lyons & Hayes, 1995). This is especially true of parents with mental illness. There is a perception that parents with mental illness are unfit or unable to parent their children (Bassett et al, 1999) in society. Such parents feel that the healthcare and social services systems treat them poorly.

Despite this, many people with mental illness have children. One study found that as many as 60% of people with serious, chronic mental illness had a child under the age of 16 (Smith, 2004). For those parents, there are a number of specific challenges, such as (from Bassett et al 1999):

* Their existence as parents was often ignored. Poor link ups between adult mental health and children’s services made it hard for treatment to acknowledge their parenthood;
* They feared losing custody of their children;
* If they were hospitalised, they were often traumatised by this;
* They are socially isolated;
* They worried about the care of their child if they became ill;
* They struggled to access help and support;
* They faced stigma.

For more information on the impacts and seeking support you can read the full report in the link below.

Read the full report

Click here to download the full article and find out more about the research around parental mental health. Our Support Line is also available on 0808 8010 722.

You can also have a listen to our latest podcast episode where we chat to Tinylife about their Positive Minds for Premature Parents project and talk to mums about their experiences with mental health after having a premature baby.

What’s next? What to do if your child’s exam results aren’t what you hoped…

Exams are often stressful, but waiting on results and then dealing with the outcome can also be just as stressful for not only young people but parents too.

With that in mind, it is important to note that in the majority of instances children/ young people in Northern Ireland do pass their exams, so it is important not to be too concerned until you know the outcome. Last year, 81.1% of children doing GCSEs achieved A*-C grades. For A-Levels, 84.5% achieved at least a C grade.

It is important to take time to read the results document thoroughly. GCSE grades changed last year, and often the results papers are confusing. If you have any doubts about the results, ask a teacher or professional who is familiar with them to confirm.

If exams are considered quite important, how can parents prepare for results? How can they help their children if they do not get the results they want? Parents have the benefit of a wider depth of experience, parents can reassure a teenager who might struggle to see beyond the result itself and help them consider the many paths that might be an option e.g. return to school, college, apprenticeship, university, work etc.

Less positive results might mean that they are unable to continue on the path they had seen themselves on. They may no longer be able to attend the same school. They may be worried about losing touch with friends, falling behind or being seen as a “failure”. It is important that parents provide them with emotional comfort right away after getting results that they feel are disappointing.

Parents can be an important emotional support for a young person who is unsure of how to react to bad news. BBC Newsbeat suggests a number of ways to handle poor results for young people, many of which can be applied equally to parents:

Find someone to talk to. This may be you as a parent, but be open to the chance that they will want to talk to someone more “neutral”;

Ignore the “noise”. When you get your results, open them in private and do not immediately compare yourself to your friends. Remember that each teenager is an individual, and what is “good” or “bad” for them varies. As such, a happy or unhappy child did not necessarily do “better” or “worse” than your own;

“Move On” it is important for young people to understand that while exams feel very final, life does indeed go on;

Be careful sharing the news. Only do so with people you know will be supportive, as anyone else may impact your teenager’s mental health.

The best time to discuss the future is when you have both had reasonable time to digest the implications. Once that is the case, you can sit down with your teenager and whoever else you might find helpful to plan. Keep in mind that it may be useful for both you and your teenager to seek out advice about next steps. This might be together, and it may be better apart. There are a number of organisations or people who can provide support;

*        The Schools careers advisory service, if they are available;
*         The Careers Service (available here);
*         A trusted friend;
*         A community worker;
       The Apprenticeships service (available here);
       Your local regional college.

In conclusion, it is important for parents to:

*        Remain calm in the event of disappointing results;
*        Reassure young people as they process the meaning of their results;
*        Give context and perspective about what it means for the future;
*        Provide help and support in a new path.

You can listen to our podcast episode on this topic or download the full article below.

Read the full report

Click here to download the What's Next? Article and find out more about the research around young people and exam results. Our Support Line is also available on 0808 8010 722.

“I’m Bored!” – Parents’ Guide to Beating Summer Boredom

“I’m bored” – most parents will be well acquainted with this phrase, particularly over the summer months. Summer holidays can be stressful and even more so when you feel the need to come up with more activities to entertain the kids. This article will give tips, tricks and advice for dealing with summer boredom. You can also download the full article to find out more about the science of boredom and whether it can be a good thing for children.

Dealing with boredom

It’s good to offer children the chance for unstructured play and letting them figure out what they want to do, but it can also be good to assist them from time to time. We recently asked parents on our social media for ideas of what to do to tackle children’s summer boredom:

Rainy Day/Sunny Day Boxes

Nothing is more frustrating – and boring – for a child than an otherwise perfect day to play outside being ruined by poor weather. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland we are well aware of how an unhelpful climate can put paid to best laid plans!

A “Rainy Day/Sunny Day” box is one way to beat the weather. Additionally, it is an opportunity for you and your child to spend time being creative together. Simply sit down together, and come up with a list of ideas of what do to on a:

  • Sunny day: Play outside, make a den/fort, go for a walk or cycle
  • Rainy day: Play a board game, scavenger hunts inside, baking/cooking together

Try to come up with as long a list as possible. These don’t have to be expensive – try to make use of whatever you already have. Then, when your child is bored, take out the list that corresponds to the day and let them choose something to do together.

Geocaching

If you and your family are the outdoorsy type, you might enjoy geocaching. Geocaches are small supplies that are hidden across the world, including here in Northern Ireland. Geocachers hide them, and then mark them websites or apps for others to find. Any device that can make use of GPS – including most smart phones – can be used to locate them.

When your intrepid little explorers find a cache, there will be a small logbook. They should write their names, the time and date when they found it in the book. They may also get a kick out of reading the rest of the book. Is this a cache that is well-known? Do they recognise any of the names? Are they the first to find this one? Some caches also include little containers that have toys or trinkets to take away with you. Make sure that you bring something to replace it – perhaps a pretty stone or seashell.

Geocaching sites are scattered across Northern Ireland –and you are unlikely to be too far away from one. Some of the more populated ones are Divis/Black Mountain, Castle Ward and Florence Court in Fermanagh.

“What’s on?”

Did you know that all 11 local councils in Northern Ireland put on events for families throughout the year? Many of these events are free and most don’t even require you to buy a ticket. These events range from family fun days, free play performances, musical performances and much more.

To find these, simply search your local council area and “What’s On”. Alternatively, click the links below:

Is being bored a bad thing? 

Being bored is a natural phenomenon as it would appear that it serves no purpose. However, there is some scientific evidence to suggest may not be all bad. If you are interested in finding out more about how boredom can be good for children have a read of the full article

You can also listen to our accompanying podcast episode now on Podbean, Apple Podcasts and Spotify

Active Dads: Parents Article on Dads & Exercise

Fathers play an important role in the lives of their children. Children who have supportive, close and positive relationships with their fathers do better mentally, academically and physically in life. In addition, studies have shown that children whose fathers embrace being a parent confidently have lower levels of behavioural issues as teenagers. Despite this, many fathers struggle with practical actions that they can take to have a constructive impact on their children.

One key area that fathers have been shown to have a particular role to play is physical activity. Parental levels of activity in general and supportive attitudes are important indicators of how active a child is. The most important single factor, however, is paternal activity levels. In other words, having a physically active father makes kids more likely to be active too.

Research has found:

  • a consistent relationship between the child’s activity level and the father’s activity level
  • results were the same irrespective of age or weight
  • children are twice as likely to be active if their mother was, but three and a half times more likely if their father is
  • dad’s physical activity had a bigger impact on girls than boys
  • children who have one parent who is supportive of physical activity are more likely to continue being active, and even more likely if both parents are

How do I do it?

The easiest and potentially most rewarding way to encourage physical activity in your children as a father is to include them where possible in the activities you do. The NHS has a helpful guide for how much physical activity is suitable for children of various ages:

  • Babies should be encouraged to active throughout the day e.g. When they begin to crawl, stimulating play is good;
  • Toddlers who are able to walk unaided should be active for around 3 hours a day. Active play, such as at a play park, ball games or skipping is suitable;
  • As children get older, from age 5 until 18, it is recommended that they are active for at least 60 minutes a day. This should be moderate to vigorous activity such as sports, running or other exercise.

Click here to read the full report. 

Parents and Exercise

Obesity and generally poor levels of physical fitness have been described as an “epidemic”. These can have severe, life limiting individual impacts. Unhealthy lifestyles cost the NHS around £5.1bn a year. Levels of obesity in children have been highlighted as a particular concern. Around 4.2% of children aged 10 to 11 in the UK are classified as obese. In Northern Ireland, as many as 40% of teens are overweight. We know that this is something that also worries parents – in the 2018 Big Parenting Survey, health was the second most important hope parents had for their children. Only happiness was more important, and they were often interlinked.

There are two major components to maintaining a healthy weight and fitness level. The first is diet, which is a complicated issue that presents a number of unique challenges. The second, is physical activity. Most parents understand that physical activity is important – but levels are reducing in young people. Less than two fifths of primary school children took part in an hour of daily physical activity, which is the level recommended by health professionals. Part of this decline is related to an increased use of technology, but it is not solely because of TV, phones and computers. Physical activity levels in children are linked to several influencing factors. 

Read the full article on the link below.

Read the full article

Download the article to read more about what research says about exercise.

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Reading with your Children

Reading to your children, particularly in the form of a bed-time story is one of the great joys of parenthood. 

Reading brings parents and children closer together, gives you an opportunity to spend quality time with your child and can also be beneficial for your own mental wellbeing.

Finding time to read with your children can often be a challenge, as well as how to get the most out of reading. Parents often put pressure on themselves to spend long periods of time reading with their child. However, research suggests that even 10 minutes of reading a day can have a dramatic impact (BBC, 2013).

BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity notes that it is never too early to start reading with your children. Even an unborn child can hear you after 18 weeks – and will recognise your voice. Reading to your infant in the early stages can help to build a strong, loving relationship with your child.

In addition, some parents are unsure if it is valuable to continue to read to children once they reach young primary age – around 7 years old. However, children themselves suggest that they would like reading to continue. A report in February 2018 found that only half of pre-school children were read to daily. Parents gave a range of reasons why this was the case – around a fifth said that they struggled to find the energy at the end of the day. Only 16% said that their children preferred to do other things (Flood, 2018).

A key question is, does it help them to learn? Does reading to your child help them to develop reading and language comprehension skills? A series of studies have been done with parents and children across the world to help determine what (if any) affect reading to your child has on their learning. The good news is, research which examined programmes to help promote books and reading to babies and young children demonstrate positive long-term effects on their development (Vanobbergen, 2009). In particular, children who are more familiar with books show improvements in reading, social skills, language development and other areas.

Another benefit of reading with your children is that it can reduce behavioural problems. A study by the New York University School of Medicine found that reading with children can reduce aggression, hyperactivity and difficulty with attention (Mendelsohn, 2018). One theory suggests that the reason for this is that children who are read to and engaged with are happier, and parents who read to their children enjoy this time. This helps to foster a positive relationship which has positive outcomes for mental health and behaviour.

Some studies have found that if parents are trying to improve their child’s own reading ability it may not be enough to just read to a child. Instead, a form of interaction that involves dialogue – children asking and being asked questions – has a more dramatic effect on their learning. It is important when reading to your child to name letters, make the sounds and otherwise encourage them to interact with the book or story. (Phillips et al. 2008). When reading to your child, answer the questions that they pose about the book. By doing so, you can help to teach them that print conveys information. Providing them with experiences of story-books helps to build a foundation that translates directly into a more formal reading situation (Saracho & Spodek, 2010).

These advantages can be particularly important for children who have reading difficulties, or who are behind in their learning. Children who had poor vocabulary in preschool showed improvement when they were introduced to new words and expressions via print and illustrations (Hargrave & Sénéchal, 2000). As with all reading, these improvements were reliant on active participation by the child in reading.

Some parents struggle because their children do not seek out, or do not seem to enjoy reading. Only about 55% of children said that they enjoy reading by age 15 (Clark, 2016). However, it is possible that at least part of the reason that some children do not enjoy reading because they find it difficult. Much higher percentages of children who are high-achieving at school say that they enjoy reading. Previous studies have outlined that early reading experiences, including shared reading with parents help promote stronger reading skills later in life.

PBS, the US public service broadcaster, gives three tips for parents seeking to encourage a reluctant reader:

* Hone in on your child’s interests. If you have an interest in sport, or a particular genre of material, choose reading experiences centred on those;

* Start small – pick easier to read, shorter reading experiences at first and build up to more substantial books;

* Practice “shared” reading. Make sure that you child is engaged and interested in the books you read together. Ask questions, and encourage them to ask about anything they do not understand.

It can be difficult to find the time and energy to read with your children. Especially if you are seeking to read in an engaged manner. However, the experts are clear that the benefits are dramatic. As with most parenting support, communication can be key to success. Talking to your children about the importance of reading, taking time to ensure that you are reading what they are interested in and modelling good behaviour by reading yourself are all useful in encouraging your child’s literary curiosity.

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Working Mums: Balancing Being a Mother and Employee

65% of the working age population in Northern Ireland are women, with 39% of those employed part time. Almost an equal amount are economically “inactive” due to family/home commitments.

Some mothers choose not to work, or to work less hours while they are raising children. However, for many other women, they effectively have little or no choice. If they did not work, they would not be able to bring enough income to support their families.

Despite these realities, the truth is that many mothers worry about the impact of their employment on their children. They are concerned that they might miss out on important developmental milestones or feel guilty that they are “putting work ahead of family”.

In 1984, 49% agreed with the statement: “A man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”. In 2017, just 8% of respondents agreed.

Although this suggests that society has begun to see working mothers as "the norm", many of the structural barriers continue to exist. Mums have the double pressure of managing a career and the home and family. Research shows that the majority of childcare and housework is still undertaken by women. 

Is it good for me?

Mothers will naturally worry most about the effects their work will have on their children first. However, it is important that they also consider the impact of going back to work will have on themselves. Parents who are stressed often find it more difficult to parent effectively, and being a working mother is likely to cause stress.

Some women will be very keen to return to a career they are passionate about. Others will be less enthusiastic about going back to full time work. A study in the United States looked at the impact on mood and happiness working had on mothers. It found that both positive and negative impacts are possible. Women who went back to work often felt more accomplished and self-confident, but also more stressed. The source of this stress was found to be juggling being a mother and an employee. Additionally, the researchers suggested that these stresses may be more heightened for mothers than for fathers, because they found women were more likely to process their role as a mother and an employee at the same time. Fathers on the other hand tended to deal with these roles one at a time. This is at least partially because mothers are more likely to be called in the event of a family problem – such as a sick child.

The Working Mother Research Institute conducted a survey in 2015 of working mothers asking how they felt. They found some unsurprising findings – that mothers that make less money are less satisfied for example. They also found that mothers tend to de-prioritise self-care when there are high levels of stress between work and home life. The biggest single contributing factor to satisfaction for working mothers was flexible working.

This conclusion was supported by a survey of mid-career working mothers in Ireland. They found that family structure and parenting responsibilities were central to predicting levels of stress. The more support working mothers had, the less likely it was for them to experience burnout. They also described the centrality of flexible working, and divided it into two forms:

Is it good for children to have a working mum?

Some older studies note there may be negative impacts. A 2010 Australian study noted that there was a link between mothers working longer hours and children watching more television. In turn, this led to increased weight gain in children and decreased exercise. The study found that women working longer hours had less direct supervision of their children and therefore often felt uncomfortable letting their children play outdoors, leading to more time watching TV.  Additionally, less time to cook meals caused an increase in the amount of “junk” food consumed.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in 2001 found that when mothers returned to full-time work before their child was 5 years old, risks of lower outcomes for their children increased. They suggested such children had lower educational attainment and more unemployment. The reason suggested in this report for these outcomes was that mothers would have less time for direct interaction with their children during these crucial periods.

However, the report also notes that there significantly less negative outcomes for mothers who work part time as opposed to full-time. Additionally, it suggested that when women work, it increases the household income which is likely to have positive impacts on children that were not measured in the report. Given the deleterious effects poverty has on families and children, it was proposed that any negative impacts of working could be outweighed by a mother’s work avoiding financial strain in later life.

The positives...

A 2016 LSA and the University of Oxford study found that children whose mothers worked had better social and “everyday” skills. These results included children who were considered to be “very young”. They found that where mothers (and fathers) were active and engaged in their parenting, children’s outcomes improved. Therefore, it can be suggested that a mother working is not necessarily negative for even young children. Rather, it can be positive provided that mothers are careful not to allow work to interfere with having an engaged parenting style.

A more recent study, conducted in 2018 looked at the positives for children of having a working mother. This extensive report looked at the impacts across a very large number of countries including the UK, France, Finland and the USA. Overall, it found a positive link particularly between daughters of mothers who worked and:

Higher levels of employment

Higher pay in employment

More supervisory
roles

They also found that sons of working mothers had significantly more egalitarian gender attitudes, and were more supportive of women’s engagement in the labour market. They also shared responsibilities better in household work. While girls were more likely to benefit, boys did not experience any negative impact from having a working mother.

Many mothers are concerned not only about the later outcomes of their children, but their emotional wellbeing as well. The feeling of guilt associated with working and missing time with children, particularly younger children is a major motivating factor of many mothers seeking to leave employment. However, a report by Harvard Business school found that children of working mothers are just as happy as adults as those whose mothers did not work.

A study in 2014 by the University of Wollongong in Australia found that children whose mothers worked more than 35 hours a week were more likely to pursue higher education as well. Unlike the earlier report by the JRF, this report focused on teenage children. It found that teens whose mothers worked full time were also less likely to leave school at 16.

“Formal” flexibility

E.g. flexi-time, part time working or contractual arrangements allowing mothers to predict when they would be able to take more/less parental responsibilities.

“Informal” flexibility

This referred to employers being more or less willing to allow for sudden changes in circumstances (like a child needing to come home early from school).

Both types of flexibility were considered helpful, but whereas mothers felt they should be entitled to formal flexibility, they felt they needed to earn informal flexibility. Either way, it is clear that the more flexible the working pattern, the better outcomes for working mothers would be. As such, when a mother is considering returning to work, she should seek out flexible working patterns if at all possible. The good news is that the law in the UK provides the right to ask for flexible working as long as you:

Are an employee, but not an agency worker (other than those returning from a period of parental leave) or in the armed forces;

Have worked for your employer for 26 weeks continuously before applying;

Have not made another application to work flexibly under the right during the past 12 months.

If you meet their criteria, your employer must legally consider your request seriously, and only reject it if there are good business reasons for doing so.

Striking a balance

It is clear that there are potential negatives and positives relating to being a working mother. It is inevitable that lower levels of supervision provide more opportunities for undesirable behaviour. However, the positives are significant – especially for daughters and for women themselves. Mothers who are already working should not feel guilty, and can reduce stress on themselves by considering any possibilities for flexible working. The best way to safeguard against any negative outcomes, will still enjoying the benefits of the positive aspects is to ensure that your parenting is not affected. If a working mother is careful to continue to parent in an engaged and active manner, there are few meaningful negative consequences to working.

The good news for mothers is that the evidence suggests that working or not working is not determinative. Research suggests that both can have positives or negatives, and that those negatives are not set in stone. Therefore, women should feel empowered to do what they feel is right for their children, their families and themselves. If they choose to stay at home, or to return to work, they should not feel guilt or fear about the impact it will have on their children. Instead, they should simply be aware of the realities and adjust their choices accordingly.

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