Children who have positive emotional health and wellbeing tend to have better outcomes in life. This workshop encourages parents of children to recognise the importance of their children’s mental health.
This workshop will:
Raise awareness of the effects on children with positive emotional health and wellbeing
Promote activities parents can use to enhance social and emotional learning
Equip parents with the skills to improve their children’s emotional health and wellbeing
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.
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:
School transport information;
How to obtain a school prospectus;
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.
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.
Last year, Parenting NI wrote an article on video games and your children, which is available here. In that article, we spoke about the impacts of video games on children. We also spoke the positive and negative effects games might have on your child or young person, and went thorough where you might get more information.
However, due to consistent calls on the topic to the Regional Parent’s Helpline, we realised that it would be useful if we gave parents an overview of the games their children are playing.
So, do you know your Battle Royales from your MOBAs? Do you know how much 100 “Vbucks” cost? Is your child or young person in a “clan” online? If you don’t know what any of this means – don’t worry! This article will go through three of the most popular games as of August 2018, and explain a few mechanics that are common in many games that parents should be aware of.
Roblox – PEGI rating “7”
If you have quite young children (particularly if they are still in primary school) you may have heard of Roblox. Launched in 2006, Robolox is what is called a “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” or MMORPG for short.
So what makes Roblox different, and what makes it particularly popular with younger children? Well, firstly, like all three games on this list Roblox is “free to play”. That means that in order to download and play the game, no money is required. This makes it accessible for children. Secondly, the unique element of Roblox is that is functions somewhat like an online version of LEGO. Players can develop their own games, which are hosted in a social media style list.
In fact, it is easier to understand Roblox not as a single, large game, but as a collection of many hundreds of smaller mini-games. You keep the same “character” in each of these games, and players can pay real money to customise their character. There are a wide range of “games” to play on Roblox. Unlike a typical game the quality, length and style of these games is varied. Many are copies of more popular games.
The appeal, particularly to younger children is the opportunity to play a sort of off-brand version of games that they may otherwise be unable to afford or that their parents are unwilling to purchase. For example, one of the most popular games is “Mining Simulator” based on Minecraft.
Gameplay – or what exactly players do in game – can vary widely. In one game, they may be building collaboratively, or attempting to work together to escape a maze. They may be pretending to be the manager of a company, or they may be fighting one another. Because of the simplistic and child-like graphics of Roblox, even potentially violent imagery is unlikely to be considered very offensive according to video games rating organisations.
Parents should be aware that while most games are harmless and the variety means that children have an opportunity to play many different types of games, there are issues with quality control. There have been incidents of inappropriate or obscene content and games. While Roblox attempts to keep this to a minimum, the volume of games (there are thousands of game types) makes this difficult. Not all games are free – some require a user to pay a fee (usually small) to access the game. However, because these games are user-created there are no specific rules about what must or must not be paid for.
If you have a child or young person who plays Roblox, then you have most likely been asked to purchase “ROBUX” before. As previously mentioned, Roblox is free to play the basic game. However, the game earns money by selling in-game items for your in-game character. These are often user-generated and have an enormous variety. These items are bought using in game money called “Robux”. There are a number of ways in which a player might earn ROBUX, but the primary method is purchasing for real money.
Keeping in mind that there are more than 6000 items) it is easy to see how Roblox can become an expensive hobby quickly, despite being “free to play”. In addition, the items for sale may or may not be suitable for younger children. Because of the exclusivity of the paid for items, there is prestige associated with having them in game. This contributes to the appeal for players, particularly young players who have limited access to the money to buy the items themselves.
A strong component of Roblox popularity is the social aspects of the game. While most online games will have some form of interactivity, the “massively multiplayer” aspect of Roblox is one of the primary draws for players. Each game type will have multiple separate games playing called “servers”. Servers are listed and players can join if they are open and have spare slots.
A player will not necessarily know the other players on their server. Each server (and game type) will be different, and as such may have different rules and regulations. Some basic rules apply over all servers, which Roblox have collected in their community guidelines. These are fairly extensive and ban things like swearing, sexualisation and bullying. It is important for parents to keep in mind that much of this moderation requires the behaviours being reported, and therefore can be inconsistent or slow.
Players can add others to a “friends list”, if they both have a Roblox account. While this is helpful for children or young people who wish to play together, there is no requirement that that they know each other in real life. Parenting NI would recommend parents get to know who is on their child’s “friend list”.
Fortnite – PEGI rating “12”
If you have heard of any of the games on this list, you have probably heard of Fortnite. Fortnite is a shooter game, played in either first person (looking “though” the eyes of the player) or third-person (looking over the shoulder of the player) perspective. Fortnite was first released in 2017, reaching 125 million players by June of 2018.
While there are two main game “styles”, by far the more popular is “Battle Royale”. This mode pits up to 100 individual players into a last-man standing battle. Players can play alone (called Solos) or in squads of twos (Duos) or fours (Quads). Players start in a “battle bus”, a literal bus pictured above which flies over the playing field. Players jump (or “drop”) at a chosen point. Upon landing, they scavenge for items such as guns and armour and seek to be the last person (or team) alive. At this point, the game is over and a winner is announced. They can also build structures or defences in the game in real time.
Like Roblox, Fortnite is free to play the base game. Those seeking “skins” (costumes for player characters), “emotes” (animations such as dances) or other cosmetic items must purchase these with in-game money called “Vbucks”. VBucks range in price – because Fortnite can be played on the Xbox, a computer, on a phone or other platforms. They can be spent in-game on a rotating selection of items.
There are a number of subtle marketing tactics that are in play with in-game purchases as opposed to using real money. Firstly, any given item is only available to purchase in a random rotation. When a player sees a costume they want, there is an urgency to buy right away – or else they may have to wait an undetermined period of time for another chance.
Secondly, the fact that Vbucks are bought in blocks of hundreds, players usually have left over in-game currency. This creates a feeling that unused currency is “money wasted” and encourages further purchases of Vbucks to “make use” of the remainder.
In this way, the game makes buying items quickly and repeatedly very appealing to a player. It also helps to explain why a child may be insistent on day that a parent provide money, and seem relatively disinterested the next. Those who do not (or cannot afford to) buy items are sometimes mocked as “no-skins” or “nobodies”.
The popularity of Fortnite is intrinsically linked to “streaming”, this is the practice of sharing video in real-time of your game play with others. The two most popular websites for streaming are Youtube and Twitch. As of writing, there are more than 121,000 people watching Fortnite on switch and the most popular “streamers” are casting to an audience in excess of 29,000 viewers. The appeal of watching their favourite “streamers” is similar to watching a professional sport match. Those watching a stream can communicate with each other and with the person casting via a “chat” system. A sub-culture often sprouts up around a particular streamer. This can include in-jokes, common slang terms and other elements that are easily identifiable to those in the know, and unintelligible to those without.
Popular streamers are able to earn significant sums of money from donations, brand deals and advertising. The prospect of making money playing video games, along with having loyal fans explains why many children have begun to see “streamer” or “youtuber” as an exciting potential career. If a group of children or young people at school all follow the same streamer, it can become an important part of their social life. However, it is very important for parents to understand that while the video game is providing the background and content for the stream, the stream itself is not regulated in the same manner.
League of Legends – PEGI rating “12”
League of Legends, or LoL is a free to play Multiplayer Online Battle Arena or MOBA game. In this game, and others like it (Defence of the Ancients 2, Smite and Heroes of the Storm for example) two teams of 3-5 each players choose “champion” characters and battle for control of a map. League of Legends is arguably the most popular MOBA – with around 100 million active players per month. Like Fortnite or Roblox, League of Legends is free to play, and makes money by selling in-game items and characters.
There are around 140 different “champions” in League of Legends. Each has a slightly different play style –for example, one may be effective at long range or may be able to heal friends of damage. League of legends is an older game, first released in 2009. Its game play is also arguably more complex and challenging than Roblox’s most popular modes and Fortnite’s battle royale. As a result of both of these factors, the player base for League of Legends tends to be a little older. In all likelihood, if your child or young person is playing league of legends or another MOBA they will be in their mid to later teens. If they are playing League of Legends or other MOBA games, and are younger, parents should be particularly cautious.
Not every champion is available to play at all times. Each week, a different selection of champions will be available to play for free. If a player wishes to play as a champion who is not in the current rotation, they have to purchase them. In League of Legends, there are two types of currency, a standard and premium. These are:
“Riot Points” – this is the premium currency. These must be bought and can be used to purchase cosmetic items and champions.
“Blue Essence” – This is the standard currency, and is earned via playing the game.
By having some items available to purchase with points rather than only for real money, the developers can argue that they are not as exploitative as normal free to play games. One of the issues with this is that the quality and range of items available for purchase with premium currency is much more than with standard.
One of the major concerns that parents may have about League of Legends and other MOBA games is the toxicity of the community that their child is playing with. While all online games will have a level of unpleasant behaviour, League of Legends is renowned for having a particular problem with this. While the developers of the game have made consistent efforts to address this, the gameplay loop of league of legends is uniquely susceptible to problem behaviour.
If your child or young person is having strong reactions to their performance in video games, the best step a parent can take is to talk to them. Parents may justifiably feel that their child or young person is overreacting to a loss in a game, but should take the time to consider why they may be acting in this way. It is possible that they are simply upset about the game, but equally it may be a sign of more general frustration in life.
Asking your young person why they feel so emotionally invested and get so upset is an opportunity to talk about feelings and how to deal with emotions. Simply shutting them down and telling them to “get over it” may inadvertently cause more stress.
Payment and Parental Controls
You may have read stories in the media about parents who have gotten stung with large, unexpected bills because of their child’s in-game purchases. The main manner by which this happens is parents accidentally letting the game “save” their credit card details. In the same way that Tesco, Amazon or any number of online businesses can save details to make payment easier, so to can video games.
From there, it is relatively easy for children or young people to make further purchases. They may do this intentionally, but it is equally likely that they will click assuming that it will not work. The best way to combat this is to ensure that you do not tick “save my payment details” when making a purchase. Alternatively, many games allow you to make physical purchases of vouchers that can be redeemed online. If you use this method, no payment details are ever processed by the game.
Another important aspect of video gaming, particularly for younger children are parental controls. Some games have specific parental controls built in, but the easiest way to implement them is via the platform that your child or young person uses to play the game. In the case of the three games that are listed here, the “platform” is a PC, Xbox or PlayStation. Each has its own method of implementing parental controls. For a PC, this is a little more complicated, as parents will often need to install third-party programmes to monitor and restrict access to individual websites, games or programmes. Rather than suggesting a particular company, Parenting NI would advise parents to ask someone in their life who is comfortable with computers to help, or to ask for help from an expert.
For PlayStation and Xbox, setting up parental controls involves going into the settings on the consoles. On the Xbox, head to “Settings > Account > Family” and choose your child or young person’s username. From there, you will be presented with a number of options to restrict games based on age rating. On a PlayStation, go to “Settings > Parental controls/Family Management > Parental Controls”. Again, you will be presented with a number of individual options to restrict games and features.
Video games are a fast evolving medium. By the time that you are reading this article, it is entirely possible that all of the above games will have waned in popularity. Equally, there are thousands of games available, and your child or young person may be playing any of them.
It is important to try to know the names of the games that your child is playing. Games are regulated by the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, and are rated. Parents can go on to the PEGI website here, and can search for any game. This will give an overview of the content of the game, and help parents to determine if the game is suitable for their child. This system works like movie ratings, and Parenting NI would strongly encourage parents to check the ratings of every game that they know their child is playing.
The most effective step that a parent can take is communicating with their young person. While taking an active interest in the games your child or young person plays may be challenging, having a general understanding of what they play and what is involved will help allay fears and catch problems. It is unreasonable to expect a parent to have an in-depth understanding of every video game that their child may play. However, rather than seeing them as mystifying sources of concern, parents should see their children’s interest in gaming as an opportunity.
Instead of saying “this is a waste of your time” or “go outside and play”, which may lead to an argument, ask “what do you like about that game?”. Children will appreciate the chance to talk about their interests, and parents may learn more about what their child enjoys.
Getting children to go to bed on time can be a constant issue for parents. Debate and argument over when to turn the lights out is one of the few nearly universal struggles for parents. The fact that there are many different and often conflictual news stories, anecdotes and myths about what is the “right” time for a parent to insist a child sleeps only adds to confusion and concern. This article will look at what the research says about how much sleep is needed, and will provide a few tips and strategies for parents to help ease the process of getting children to go to bed.
The Science of Sleep
Everyone needs sleep. That much is established and uncontroversial. But, did you know that scientists aren’t sure why we need to sleep? A BBC article (Ghosh, 2015) which asks why we need to sleep notes that: “Scientists simply don't know for sure. In broad terms researchers believe it is to enable our bodies and especially our brains to recover.” The actual mechanics of sleep work roughly like this: Humans are diurnal, which means that we are awake during the day, and sleep at night. This is as opposed to nocturnal, like bats. Our natural inclination is to sleep during hours of darkness, and to be active during daylight. As any parent who has attempted to put a young child to bed during a long summer evening will be very aware.
Our sleep-wake patterns, called “Circadian rhythms” are regulated by light and darkness (National Sleep Foundation, 2018). This is why, for example, you can struggle to fall asleep if there is a lot of light in your room despite being tired.
While sleeping, people move between two states – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM).
These stages are broken down into further categories – NREM sleep has three (N1, N2 and N3) and REM sleep has just one. Very broadly speaking, REM allows people to process and store information from the day before and is important for memory. NREM is important for feeling relaxed and refreshed after sleeping. Both are vital, and the amount of time that you spend in both NREM and REM change as you grow up. For example, Adults spend about 20-25% of their sleep in REM, whereas a new-born spends around 80% of its sleep in REM (Nierenberg, 2017).
How much sleep do children and young people actually need?
The NHS (2018) gives the following times, which are based on the Millpond Children's Sleep Clinic’s recommendations:
4 week old: Daytime 6-7 hours and night-time 8-9 hours
1 year old: Daytime 1 hr 30 minutes and night-time 11 hrs 30 minutes
5 year old: Night-time 11 Hours
10 year old: Night-time 9 hrs 45 minutes
14-16 year olds: Night-time 9 hours More figures are available here.
Obviously, these are general figures and will not apply to all children as everyone is individual and develops differently. However, it is important that parents consider how bedtime might change according to their child’s age. For example, a 10-year old child, who has to waken up at 7.00 am and be at school for 9.00 am. In order to be at school for 9.00 am, a 10 year old child ideally should be asleep by 9.45pm. For some parents, this may seem too late, and others very early. As with all advice on issues relating to parenting, it is best to consider this in the context of your own child or young person’s needs. What these numbers do show however, is that children and young people have different requirements for sleep as they grow up. Although what complicates this, is that often simply “getting enough sleep” is not a matter of going to bed and waking up at particular times every day. As previously mentioned, outside and inside light can disrupt sleepiness. So can caffeine, screen time and other variables.
Melatonin, an important sleep hormone is essential in causing tiredness and entering restful sleep. However, teenagers face a hormonal challenge – adult bodies begin to produce melatonin around 10.00pm or 11.00pm. Teenagers on the other hand, often do not start to produce it until around 01.00am (Alaska Sleep Clinic, 2013). This means that simply attempting to force a teenager to go to bed earlier may not yield good sleep. Instead of trying to force a teenager to go to bed, a better alternative would be to try sleep promoting techniques. Things like putting away screens, not drinking caffeine after 2pm or even trying meditation (Cline, 2009) can help teenagers get to sleep when they might otherwise struggle.
It is also important for parents to understand this biological process which is going on in their teenager’s body. It may explain why their teen has the energy to stay awake very late playing video games or watching TV, but struggles to wake up in the morning! In 2012, a Telegraph article found that two thirds of children were not getting enough sleep in the UK. It suggested that the average 6 year old did not go to bed until 9.30. Even more worryingly, around a quarter of children said they struggled to concentrate in school and even fell asleep in class. Aside from the obvious concern regarding missing classes and learning, lack of sleep is associated with poorer memory (Harrison & Horne, 2000). This means that lack of sufficient sleep can have a negative impact on children’s educational attainment.
Parents need sleep too.
The importance of sleep is central to everyone’s overall wellbeing. Lack of sleep is a major issue, not only for children but for adults as well. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA declared insufficient sleep a public health problem. The NHS (2018) in the UK notes that 1 in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed. The impact of lack of sufficient sleep in children is more than just sluggishness and bad mood. The NHS (2018) warns that consistent nights of poor sleep can fog our decision making, cause us to be depressed and run an increased risk of physical injury. Lichtenstein (2015) notes that lack of sleep increases our risks of gastrointestinal diseases, like stomach ulcers and reflux.
What to do about sleep:
Still, even if parents have a strong understanding of why their child or teenager struggles to get enough sleep, there are often circumstances that are beyond the parents control. School or work start times can constrain even the most concerned parents. There are however a number of key steps that can help with setting bedtimes. The first is to start as soon as is practicable. It is much easier to introduce a bedtime with a toddler than to attempt to impose one on a teenager. Getting your child used to going to bed at a particular time when they are young reduces the stress later in life. This can be a real challenge – around 20-30% of children experience sleep problems in their first three years of life (Teng et al. 2012). There are a number of techniques however than can assist with helping get a small child to accept bed times. For example, Parents Magazine (2018) gives the following steps:
* Set a specific time – and stick to it * Give a warning * Offer a (light) snack * Give your child a warm bath * Get dressed for bed * Read a story with your child * Play soft music while you read * Provide a cuddly toy for the child to sleep with * Limit or get rid of bottles * Keep your last “good night” brief
The first point is arguably the most important. In line with the Authoritative Parenting Style (Explained here), consistency is a vital aspect in easing the difficulty associated with bed time.
Research suggests that instituting a consistent nightly bedtime routine is beneficial in improving multiple aspects of infant and toddler sleep, especially wakefulness after sleep onset and sleep continuity. It also improves maternal mood. (Mindell, 2009). Parents who are still struggling with bedtimes can also avail for support from Parenting NI’s Support Line (0808 8010 722).
Another issue faced by parents is that as their child gets older, it becomes increasingly difficult to impose bedtimes. “But my friends get to stay up and watch …” or “I have to go to sleep way earlier than everyone else!” are familiar refrains. As shown previously, the levels of sleep needed change as a child matures. Therefore, parents shouldn’t be afraid to be flexible within reasonable limits as their children grow up. Additionally, every child is different, and parents will have a good how much sleep their child needs. The later-life impacts of setting bed times can be dramatic. One study found that adolescents with later (after 12 midnight) or no parent-set bedtimes were 24% more likely to suffer from depression and were 20% more likely to have reported suicidal ideation in the past year than adolescents with parent-set bedtimes before 10 pm (Short et al. 2011). Therefore, while it can be difficult to introduce and stick to a bedtime, the improvements are often dramatic.
Another aspect of sleep time that applies to children and adults is screen time. A study found that on average, children with three technology items in their bedroom received 45 fewer minutes of sleep than did children without these items in their bedroom (Calamaro et al. 2012). Additionally, the blue-light emitted by screens can cause our brains to misinterpret light and dark cycles and make sleep more difficult. Thus, parents can improve the likelihood of sleeping by removing tablets, phones or other screens around half an hour before bed. In the end, what works for one family with regards to getting to sleep might not work for another. Parents are encouraged to try these strategies, or seek help to find what works for them and their children.
Having a small snack between meals is a regular occurrence for children. But do you know how much sugar content is in the snacks you give your children?
The issue of children's sugar intake is one that is well publicised. This year has already seen many calls for reducing the amount of sugar children consume in the media; including a campaign from celebrity chef and father of five, Jamie Oliver, on banning sales of energy drinks to children.
In this special feature, we explore the state of snacking and the challenges parents face in providing healthy snacks for their children.
A staggering 25% of children aged 2-15 are classified as overweight or obese. This is a serious and growing problem, which the World Health Organisation notes is a "double burden" due to health issues and obesity in childhood increasing the same risks in adulthood.
However it can be difficult to provide children, particularly young children, with snacks between meals that are both palatable and healthy. A recent study by Public Health England found that primary-aged children have up to 3 sugary snacks per day.
It goes without saying, that most parents are aware of the risks that being overweight or obese give their children. No parent seeks to let their children become overweight or are apathetic to it. The difficulty for parents lies in finding healthy alternatives to snacks, particularly for younger children or fussy eaters.
The problem is not with snacking itself but rather with the content of those snacks. Fat and sugar content of foods consumed at snack times are a serious cause of concern for children and parents.
The State of Snacking
Current World Health Organisation advice suggests that around 5% of our daily calories should come from sugars. For a boy aged 10, that works out to about 100 calories a day and slightly less for a girl of the same age. 1g of sugar has about 4 calories, so children of this age should have no more than 25g of sugar per day. One can of Coca-Cola has about 10.6g/42kCal (sugar calories only), or almost half the total a child should have per day. When you add in a fun-size Mars bar at 8.g/32kCal you are rapidly approaching the daily total with just a small snack.
Additionally, many children start their day off with a sharp intake of sugar from popular breakfast cereals.
- Frosties (11g/44kCal per bowl from sugar only) - Coco Pops (10.5g/42kCal from sugar only) - Cheerios (6.2g/24.8kCal from sugar only)
This takes up a significant chunk of a child’s daily sugar amount. It quickly adds up when combined with a mid-morning and after school snack. That's without including any sugars in their lunch of dinner. It is easy to see how parents can accidentally allow children to go over their daily limits in this way.
The most deceptive are those snacks that seem to be marketed as healthy. Such as yogurts, fruit juices and cereal bars. At first glance seem like easy and healthy alternatives to candy or fizzy drinks. In reality, these snacks can be just as full of sugar.
- One pot of Original Strawberry flavour Yoplait, contains 18g of sugar (72kCal) - A 156g Tracker Peanut bar, there is 7.3g (29.2kCal) - A 200ml carton of Apple Juice has 20.7g (82.8kCal)
Ironically, this can mean that a well-intentioned parent could swap their child’s Coke and Mars bar with a yogurt and apple juice and increase their sugar intake.
These figures are not as simple as they initially seem. There are many types of sugar, broadly categorised into Brown, White and Liquid. There is also a difference between naturally occurring sugars (such as Fructose in fruit) and added sugar. Additionally, there is a massive range of words, phrases and terms associated with sugar in food. Even the most conscientious and health-conscious parents can struggle telling dextrose for lactose, or simple and complex carbohydrates.
Different types of sugar affect bodies differently. For example, glucose is the most basic form of sugar, is essential for energy in the body. All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose by the body to provide energy to cells. It is therefore the epitome of “simple” sugars. Beyond this, there are natural sugars and added sugars. While too much of either can bring problems, the primary concern for parents should be the amount of added sugars, such as sucrose.
The good news is that levels of sugar consumption per capita in the UK are falling. In 2014 the Institute of Economic Affairs noted that per capita consumption had fallen by 16% between 1992 and 2014. Additionally, some companies have begun to reduce the total amount of sugars they add to their products. For example Kellogg’s announced in November of 2017 that it would cut the sugar added to Coco Pops, Rice Krispies, and Rice Krispies Multi-Grain Shapes by up to 40%.
Despite this, levels of obesity and childhood obesity have been rising. Dealing with weight issues in children is not a one-step solution – it involves increasing exercise, education and diet. Parents can help their children by choosing healthy and less sugary snacks for them. Snacks are not necessarily getting more sugary, but increasingly parents feel unable to determine what foods have “the right amount” of sugar.
"Our child just doesn't like healthy food."
"We're tired of fighting with the kids at meal times about eating their vegetables."
"I want to make sure they eat something!"
"Just let them have sweets, you have to let them enjoy their childhood."
"I like making my children happy with treats."
"I've tried to try and get my child to eat fruit and veg, I don't know what else to do."
Whilst somewhat flippant, these are some common reasons why parents give their children snacks. It is not that parents think they are healthier; it is that they struggle to find a compromise solution that works for them. It isn’t that they think it is good to give children excessive amount of sugary snacks; it is that some snacks that are marketed as “healthy” contain excessive sugars.
Research conducted on behalf of Yazoo in 2017 found that while 77% of parents felt guilty about the amount of sugary snacks they provided to their children, British parents give their children unhealthy snacks 21 times a week on average. So-called “pester power”, or children asking for such items can have a dramatic impact on parents. This is particularly true for parents who are stressed or time-limited in other ways, such as long working hours or during times of emotional distress such as parental separation.
Other factors include parents having less time to prepare or cook healthy snacks. In addition, the range of snacks available and children's desire for them creates an attractive solution. It can also be difficult for parents to seek support with healthy alternatives due to being fearful of being judged for the food choices they make.
In a 2008 study, 75% of parents underestimated the size of an overweight child, while 50% underestimated the size of an obese child. Even more surprising is that a similar study found that healthcare professionals had nearly the same difficulty. Parents therefore should not feel shame for not recognising the issue sooner; instead, they should be more aware that of the issue, its causes and most crucially of support that is available to counteract it.
What to do
The issue of helping your children to snack healthier, and to reduce sugar intake can be confronting. However, there are a few suggestions that parents can implement in order to make a start towards improving the quality of the snacks they provide.
The Mayo Clinic suggests that parents simply do not keep unhealthy snacks in the house. Children as less likely to ask for such items if they are not freely available – and via this solution, snacks and desserts that are unhealthy become special treats rather than daily food.
The NHS’s Change4life campaign notes that sugary drinks are often the biggest individual source of added sugars to children’s diets. As such, they suggest a swap to diet versions, no added-sugars versions (such as dilutes), low-fat milk or water.
New South Wales in Australia’s government makes the suggestion that parents ought to set limits on the number of sugary snacks for children. They also state that parents should explain why these limits are being imposed, and Parenting NI always suggests communication is important.
Any changes, particularly if they are significant or if your children are older should involve the children. Such strategies, where the parent involves the child and explains the reasons why they are doing what they are doing are more likely to succeed.
It is never too early or too late to improve the nutritional value of the snacks provided to your children. If you need help or support, or want further information regarding how to improve, reach out to one of the many organisations below who can assist you.