Co-Parenting in the time of COVID-19

The government has outlined strict instructions for all residents in Northern Ireland. It has made clear that everyone should stay at home as best they are able. For many families, this will be logistically simple. However, what is the advice for parents who are co-parenting? Are you allowed to bring a child to their other parent’s home? Even if it is legal, is it advisable? 

This short fact sheet will look at the government’s own advice, as well as academic studies on the importance of seeing both parents. 

Firstly, the government has specifically answered the question regarding seeing children in co-parenting arrangements during the crisis.

In short, yes, your child should keep any normal contact arrangements they had before in terms of visiting houses. However, children should not:

  • Visit with other family members except where those individuals live with their parent
  • Have visitation outside of the home.

Some parents are concerned that they may be doing more harm than good during the pandemic by moving children from house to house. This is understandable, and should a more stringent Wuhan or Italy style lockdown come into place this advice will need to be reviewed. However, it is important for parents to remember that being unable to see a parent has negative outcomes for social and emotional development.

This is a more long-term impact, but even short term absences can cause trauma. A study looking at children of refugees who were separated from their parents cause children to have feelings of anguish, despair, guilt, blame and depression – negative emotions that disrupt how they learn life skills. While you as an adult may understand the logic of changing routines, children may struggle to cope.  

A break in the parent-child relationship can cause difficulties in later life. We do not yet know how long the changes to social distancing and isolation will remain. As such, we should strive to maintain parent-child relationships as much as possible during this time of stress. A poor parent-child relationship has a direct connection to the likelihood of later life depression and anxiety.

Remember that this is an extraordinary time, and your child is already likely to experience heighten levels of stress. A disruption to their normal routine – not being able to see their other parent – may be more impactful now than under normal circumstances. Being able to see and spend time with their mother or father can reassure them that they are not in danger. Parents should make extra effort where possible to communicate directly in the current circumstances. Some advice for separated parents during this pandemic are:

  • Stay healthy. Limit your own social contact and wash your hands regularly. Your own contact with your child is at risk if you are unwell.
  • Be present. Your child will have many questions, and some will be uncomfortable. Listen to their concerns and answer honestly as best you can in an age-appropriate way.
  • Meet your obligations. Do not assume that the crisis means normal contact rules do not apply. There is no reason to create extra toxic conflict at the worst possible time.
  • Adapt. There will have to be reasonable adjustments and compromises. Try to meet these and remember – this is temporary. 

If you are struggling, remember that you can contact Parenting NI on 0808 8010 722.

Advice for School at Home

A new challenge

These are unprecedented times, and as a result many families are finding themselves in extremely challenging circumstances. One of the most obvious new trials is that the many thousands of families who do not home-school suddenly have children who are no longer able to attend school. When combined with many parents working from home in roles that previously required presence in the office, this naturally poses difficulties.

This article will seek to give parents advice regarding establishing new routines for their children. There are a number of official sources that you should also consult, and they will be listed at the bottom of this page. We would encourage you to prepare yourself as best you can.

What can I do?

The first thing to remember is: You are not school. This is temporary. Do not put yourself under undue pressure to “meet” the educational standards of professional schools. It takes years to qualify as a teacher. People are paid very well to determine the curriculum and how best to deliver that. No one is expecting parents to perform the same, particularly those who are also trying to juggle working from home with supporting your child’s or numerous children’s education. Remember that all children are experiencing this, and your child is not comparatively disadvantaged by default.

Nonetheless, there are some things that are important. If your child’s school is making use of online materials for teaching, make sure that they make good use of these. If they have a set work schedule, then parents should endeavour as best they can to follow this. It is important where possible for children to maintain a routine and link to their school during this time.

When seeking to establish a temporary “home school”, parents should involve children in the decision-making process. This is a confusing and difficult time for them, but allowing them to help decide how much studying, what form it will take and what they will be learning about can help keep them calm and engaged. Start by laying out the subjects that they will need to keep on top of. They should aim to be covering a number of topics generally, like maths and English. Beyond this, you can be creative in what they learn about.

Other types of learning

Remember that you can learn in all sorts of ways – not just worksheets. For example, here is a page from the American Chemistry Society all about how to teach chemistry via baking. Additionally, here is a page all about teaching basic maths with LEGO. The internet provides a wide range of useful resources that cover practically any subject your children can think of. Have them draw up a list of the things they would like to do or learn, and then sit down as a family and decide which may be possible and which you will do.

Children will naturally be less focused and engaged than in school. Some of the learning from your own experience working from home can transfer – establish a routine. Get your children get up at a reasonable time, get them dressed and have breakfast the same as you would if the were going to school. This will help them to take the new routine seriously. You don’t necessarily need to put them in uniforms, but it may be harder for them to concentrate in pyjamas.

Environment

Having a distinct place to “work” is helpful for your concentration and helps to establish a distinction from home and school. Some families set up temporary “school” rooms, complete with decorations and even a “school charter”. This outlines commitments and aims of the “school” setting, and gives children a list of rules to focus on.   Although this may not be possible in all houses and a work station at the kitchen table can work equally as well. Work with your child to make their “classroom”, ask them what they think makes a classroom special and provide as much as you can. Be creative and have fun. Most children have a schedule that they follow in school, so having a version of this can help them to adjust to the new way of learning.

Check up on them regularly. This is not only to ensure that they are still working, but to let them know that you care about how they are doing. If they seem to be struggling, talk to them about their issues. Remember that every child has different needs and learns at a different pace. In the same way that a teacher might have to spend more time with a particular student, do not be surprised if you have to work slightly more with one child. This is normal, not a reflection on you as a parent and makeshift educator!

Opportunity for relationship building

Keep in mind that this is an opportunity to spend time with your children doing things you might otherwise not have been able to. Of course it is highly stressful and difficult for families, but it is important to take advantage of any positives you can. Learn together, talk about the information that you have gotten, go on long walks together and talk about the environment, the weather, the possibilities are endless and it will encourage your children to pursue any interests they have.

Obviously parents who are working from home will need downtime where the children work independently. It is worthwhile talking to them about this in an age-appropriate way. However, whenever you can Parenting NI suggest getting involved in the activities your children are taking part in. Crafting and artwork is a good way to encourage learning. Don’t hesitate to make your own painting or recycled object art. You may well find that it is more enjoyable than you think.

For the time being, children are allowed outside. While it is not advisable for them to interact socially with friends or go to busy places like parks, they can still play in gardens or go for walks. Remember that regular break times are important in schools. Build these into your new routine to give your children a chance to play and relax.

Finally...

The most important advice we can give is for parents to not be too hard on themselves. Know your limits, and if your children spend a day watching TV or a few more hours than usual during the week looking at screens do not despair. While it is important to ensure that not every single day is spent this way, there is no benefit to a parent getting upset or frustrated and giving up. Remember tomorrow is always a new day.

If you require further support, you can access the Parenting NI Support line on 0808 8010 722.

You can get further information regarding governmental advice from:

Parenting NI Statement Regarding COVID-19

Update from Parenting NI 

We are living in unprecedented times and it is important that we all look after ourselves and each other in these challenging circumstances.

Parenting NI provides support to parents and families throughout Northern Ireland, and the health and well-being of our staff as well as those in the communities which we offer services is of the utmost importance. Therefore we have made the decision to temporarily suspend direct services, effective as of Friday 20th March. These services will include programmes, Families Together services such as walking groups and parenting cafes, focus groups, home visiting and the Dads Project services such as Dads Talk and programmes.

We will continue to provide support via our Support Line which can be contacted on freephone 0808 8010 722 during the usual opening times of 9:30am – 3:30pm Monday – Thursday and 9:30am – 12:30pm Friday.  Our website which has a wide range of tips and guidance will be updated regularly and our Parent Support App will also still all be available.

At this stage, direct services (such as programmes) due to start week commencing 20th April will proceed as planned. However, as the situation continues to change quickly, we will continue to follow the guidance and advice of the Public Health Agency. I would encourage parents to keep an eye on our website for the latest on Parenting NI services in the coming weeks and also follow our social media channels which will continue to share information and support for parents.

Rest assured that Parenting NI will continue to explore new ways that parents can access support during this period. At the moment our priority is to safeguard parents, families and staff. We appreciate your understanding as we take precautions in part of the wider public effort to reduce the impact of the virus.

Further information

In line with government guidelines, and to protect the wellbeing of families and our staff, Parenting NI Head Office  will close from 5pm on Monday 23rd March until further notice. Parents and families will continue to be supported by telephone/web chat and email. With the closure of schools and children being at home, where needed, staff flexibility will allow the needs of those parents who may wish this support to be outside our normal hours of working. This will be agreed between the staff member and the parent.

The teams will also provide families with resources on family activities, Top Tips, practical support and tips on emotional wellbeing as well as ongoing weekly support either via calls or email.

Feedback from parents on this provision has been hugely positive as the team continue to provide this valuable service.

All parents have been informed of the postponement of programmes and workshops and will be made aware of new dates of commencement when the time is right.

We are still available to take referrals based on this temporary means of providing support from all professionals across Northern Ireland. We would ask that all referrals are made via email to our help@parentingni.org address. Referral forms are available to download and further guidance offered here.

Take care,
Charlene Brooks
Parenting NI CEO

Talking to your children about COVID-19

Read Parenting NI's latest article with advice on talking to your children about Coronavirus, including videos on the importance of hand washing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking to your child about COVID-19

The current situation regarding the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 and Coronavirus is a deeply concerning time for everyone. No one is sure what is going to come next, or how families or indeed communities will cope. We do know that the majority of people who are infected with the disease are going to make a full recovery. Nonetheless, world leaders have made it clear that the virus will mean significant changes to our lives, at least in the short term. These will almost certainly include “social distancing” measures such as:

  • The closure of schools, childcare and universities
  • Cancellation of large events
  • Restrictions on travel or other activities

Inevitably, children and young people will hear rumours about these actions. Children, who are often less capable of critical thinking than adults may be more likely to believe hearsay or false information. This applies to information about the virus itself and the measures that will be taken to combat it.

What can parents do to address their children’s concerns?

Even after the current pandemic, it is important that parents can talk to their children and young people about major crises like this in the future. This article will give advice to parents about how to reassure children, even when you do not have all the answers yourself.

The World Health Organisation has put out the following advice for parents:

  • Respond to your child’s concerns in a supportive way. This is a time when they will need more love, reassurance and attention
  • Maximise time for children to play and relax
  • Keep your children close to you physically if you can (but do not break quarantine or self-isolation)
  • If you cannot be physically present with children, use technology like video calls and phones to stay in regular contact
  • Keep a regular routine, even if your “normal” is disrupted
  • Be honest with your children regarding information. Focus on age-appropriate information about what they can do to reduce risk

Communication

At Parenting NI, we regularly advise parents that the best way to help your children, your families and yourself is communication. Fear often stems from a lack of understanding and knowledge, and talking is the best way to address this. All communication with children and young people should be age appropriate, but our advice for parents during this pandemic and future public health emergencies is to:

  • Talk to your child. Find out what, specifically, they are concerned with. Are they worried about themselves? About you? Perhaps they understand certain people (like grandparents) are more at risk
  • Once you understand what they are worried about, you can better reassure them. There is no need to lie or pretend that there is no risk whatsoever. Instead, calmly explain the facts – that most people will be okay – and that the people in charge are doing their best
  • Focus on what they can control. Speak to them about hand washing, coughing into elbows and avoiding unneeded physical contact (but don’t refuse cuddles unless one of you in unwell)

Young children may not fully understand why certain actions are important. Some resources might be useful depending on the age and stage of your child. These address the pandemic in a fun or at least less frightening way. These include:

A very catchy song (in Vietnamese) which has spread widely about washing your hands

The British Red Cross has put out a handwashing video on TikTok

@britishredcross🖐🤚 + 💧+ 🎂🎵 @who ##coronavirus ##foryou ##foryoupage ##fyp♬ Happy Birthday (Samba Version) – Karaoke – Best Instrumentals

Our Parenting Champion, Alliance Belfast City Councillor Sian Mulholland has tweeted a fun experiment with her son to show how soap and washing our hands protects us from germs

While the exact measures taken in every country will be different, some advice is applicable no matter where you are. The Irish Department of Health has provided a useful and easy to read guide on talking to children about the pandemic, which is available here. One of the key points in this advice is ensuring that children can differentiate between baseless scaremongering rumour and genuine advice. It may be helpful to review our article on fighting ‘fake news’ if this is something you are worried about!

Time at home

Inevitably, children will have to spend more time at home as a result of this pandemic. Schools may be closed, and normal activities such as sport and youth groups will be cancelled. This might result in concerns among parents. Some schools will provide online/take home work, and depending on your area they may have digital classrooms. Remember to liaise with your school, talk to the teachers and the principal to find out what their current plans are, but be aware that these may change at a rapid pace.

If parents are concerned about children spending a significant amount of time at home, try to establish a routine. Reading books, perhaps rented from local libraries if they are still open, or downloaded if possible can be a useful substitute for normal educational behaviour in the event of an emergency. Playing board games, getting outdoors as often as you can and spending family time together is also important.

Looking after yourself

Equally however, parents must remember that these are very unusual circumstances. Normal rules do not necessarily need to apply. Do not be too harsh on yourself if children spend more time on screens than usual. In fact many useful resources may be found online which may be helpful for them during this time. Do not over worry about educational outcomes at the moment, and understand that every child will be in the same boat. Parents and families will already be under immense stress, and it’s important to look after your own emotional health and well-being.

Remember to take care of yourself as a parent, as well as of your children. There is no reason to panic unduly, and remember that how you react is likely to have a direct impact on how your children will react. If you remain calm, but take reasonable precautions, your children are less likely to feel anxious or concerned.

Parents concerned about the effects of technology on their children, don’t feel they get enough support

Leading parenting support charity have launched the findings from the second Big Parenting Survey with a specific focus on technology’s impact on modern parenting

A survey carried out with 1,358 parents across Northern Ireland in the 2019 has found that parents remain concerned about their children’s future. 69% of parents are more worried than hopeful about parenting in the future – a 3% increase compared to 2018’s figures. 82% of survey participants said they do not feel parents get enough support, showing no improvement compared to last year at all.

Parents expressed deep concern about the role technology plays in their children’s lives. 75% felt is had a “significant” impact on their children’s wellbeing, 71% found it difficult to monitor and only 23% felt they get enough support on technology. Parents expressed particular concerns about smartphones and social media.

Jenny Smithson, a mother to 3 daughters, spoke of her parenting experiences,

“Smartphones and social media are incredibly concerning for parents. My girls are dabbling on the edges for now - going on YouTube, playing a few games, researching for school. However, I still wonder about how we equip them for this place full of great possibilities and knowledge, but where there are many dangers.

“I don’t want my girls to be caught in the trap of living out their social interactions online, of comparing their lives, relationships, and bodies with the fake world that these things celebrate. I know that the main responsibility for protection in this area (as in all areas) lies with us, the parents, and so I feel that any support that can be provided for parents is really valuable.”

Maria Rogan, Director for Training and Development at Parenting NI said,

“This year’s findings, mirroring last years, remain a deep cause for concern. Parents have made it very clear that on a range of issues – mental health, technology and childcare to name a few – not enough is being done. A pervasive feeling of worry has taken root in Northern Irish parents, and policy makers need to act urgently to address their concerns. The return of elected, locally accountable government offers a chance to improve things, and we call upon all parties to act swiftly.”

Read the full report

Click to download the full report of the findings from the Big Parenting Survey 2019. Published February 2020.

Executive Summary

Take a look at the key statistics from the Big Parenting Survey 2019. Published February 2020.

Parenting NI Support Line Win Brendan Bonner Award for Innovation at Helplines NI Awareness Day

The leading, local parenting support charity has been recognised for innovation in their Parenting Support Line with a special award from Helplines NI.

The Helplines Network NI held their annual NI Helplines Awareness Day at Parliament Buildings on Wednesday 5th February 2020. The Network, which was founded in 2013, is a member-led organisation of over 30 helplines operating across Northern Ireland brought together by the Public Health Agency (PHA) who recognise the value of helplines.

The Network members provide a variety of vital support services including information, advice, counselling, crisis intervention, a listening ear and befriending, covering a wide range of needs and issues.

The event celebrated the impact and value of helplines in Northern Ireland. Parenting NI were delighted to be the first recipients of the Helplines NI Brendan Bonner Award for Innovation, which was presented at the event in the Long Gallery at Stormont.

Parenting NI has provided information, support and guidance to thousands of parents primarily through its Helpline for 41 years. Despite losing funding to deliver the Regional Parenting Helpline in early 2019, the charity re-evaluated the delivery of the invaluable service and continues to provide a Freephone Support Line which acts as a portal into a range of Parenting NI services, as well as offer specialist support on more complex issues that parents share.

On receiving the award, Director for Family Support Services at Parenting NI, Muriel Bailey said

“We are over the moon to have received this award from Helplines NI and Public Health Agency. The Parenting NI team of staff and volunteers are incredibly dedicated and committed to supporting parents and ensuring they have access to high quality services.

Our service has developed and diversified further to ensure it meets the changing needs of families across Northern Ireland, using technology and digital solutions, such as the first of its kind Parenting Support App, podcasts and online resources. Parenting NI are delighted to have been awarded this accolade and wish to thank those who support the charity’s work. Our vision of the future is one where parenting is highly valued and we will continue to provide support for parents in order to ensure this becomes a reality.”

 

 

 

 

Photo Exhibition Focuses on Fathers at Stormont


The Parenting NI Dads Project has an exhibition of photographs, ‘Men as Dads’ on display in The Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings. (Back left to right – Derek Doherty, Cahir Murray (Dads Project Coordinator), Kenneth Dunlop, Catherine Kelly MLA, Chris Eisenstadt (Parenting NI Policy and Research Officer). Front left to right – Mura McKinney (Men as Dads Photographer) and Paul McCorry. 

The ‘Men as Dads’ Exhibition is a collection of images which portrays positive images of fathers. Local charity Parenting NI and their Dads Project worked on the project with local photographer, Mura McKinney, to help celebrate dads as positive role models and the unique contribution they make to their children’s lives.

Photographer Mura McKinney who offered her skills and time to Parenting NI and the Dads Project to take on the ‘Men as Dads’ project.

The Parenting NI Dads Project is a National Lottery Community Fund NI funded initiative which supports dads in Northern Ireland, in particular dads who are separating or separated. The Dads Project promotes dads being engaged and involved in their children’s lives, helping dad’s to develop more confidence in their parenting ability and to build positive connections with other dads in a similar position within their community.  

Cahir Murray, the Dads Project Coordinator, said,
“This has been a fantastic way for us to creatively explore the positives of being a dad in Northern Ireland’s society. We wanted to help dads build up their understanding of their value and the important role they have as fathers.

It was great to have some of the dads who have been involved with the project in the pictures and giving them the opportunity to confidently highlight what they love about fatherhood.”

Dads Project Coordinator, Cahir Murray, looking at one of the images in the exhibition with dads Kenneth Dunlop and Paul McCorry

Catherine Kelly MLA launched the exhibition at Stormont this week and said,
“I’m delighted to be able to help launch ‘Men as Dads’ Exhibition here in the Long Gallery.  The photos of the dads and their children depict the special bond of a father and his child.  

I believe it important to support this project and commend Parenting NI on their work with the Dad’s Project and I encourage everyone to visit the Exhibition as it travels across the North this year.”

The exhibition will be on display in The Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings until 10th February 2020. Following its launch in the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry late last year, the exhibition will be touring around Northern Ireland throughout 2020.  

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: