Monthly Archives: February 2014

Dealing with an absent parent

When my son’s father decided four weeks before his birth that he didn’t want to be part of our lives I was devastated.  Web_7How would my son grow up without a dad?  What would this mean for him?  Would he feel abandoned?  What kind of a man would he grow into?

The hurly burly of the early years meant I didn’t have a lot of time to think about these questions with the reality of full time work and full time parenting governing my waking moments.

By the time my son became a very verbal four year old the first signs emerged that he felt different from the other kids in child care.  “So your partner works in the opal mines?” his caregiver asked me one evening at pick up time.  I realised that I hadn’t spoken about his dad at all.  Not in the positive, not in the negative.  Just not at all.  No wonder the kid had developed a rich fantasy life about this important missing person in his existence.

It was time to change.  I began by dropping dad’s name into general conversations.  I added information about him at opportune moments:  “you like riding your new bike – your dad was a dedicated bike rider”.  Gradually my son began to ask questions of his own, the most important being “so where is my dad?”

At four years a response like:  “oh, he lives in Canberra” was enough.  However his curiosity grew and eventually we had more specific discussions, not just about dad but also about our family type and what makes us a family.  I concentrated more on who was IN our family with readily accessible photograph albums and family stories rather than staying focussed who was missing.

The New Zealand based Skylight Trust* has more ideas to promote positive connection in families with absent parents:

  • Share positive character and personality traits that identify the parent
  • Give your child photos of the parent and maybe even possessions of theirs if possible
  • Memory scrapbooks with photos, positive stories and good memories about the absent parent help
  • Let them know they are loved and what a great son or daughter they are and even how proud of them the other parent would be if they were there
  • Avoid being negative about the absent parent
  • Keep connected with the absent parent’s side of the family if possible.  If this is not possible speak warmly and positively about what you know about the extended family.
  • Children and young people need to be told and reassured that their parent’s absence is NOT THEIR FAULT.  It hasn’t been caused by anything they did or didn’t do, say or even imagine or wish.

Should the absent parent ever return to the young person’s life keep your child’s welfare as your highest priority.  Look after yourself during this time and seek support from family, friends or get professional help as this can be an extraordinarily difficult time.

Even if the parent is absent because of domestic violence, they are incarcerated or there is a court order preventing contact with the family try hard to talk about these things in a matter-of-fact way.  Don’t make your own emotions part of what your child has to deal with.  Try being as even-toned as possible wherever the parent is and let the child have whatever age appropriate information you do have. (You might have to practice being even-toned in the bathroom mirror).

Does my son grieve? Does he yearn for the dad he never had?  Does he wonder what kind of a dad he will be?  Yes he does and it hurts.  Grief and loss is part of life and I cannot change that for my son.  I can continue to walk alongside him and support him while he feels his loss.  I can continue to provide healthy male role models and positive experiences for him while he figures out who he is.

My little boy is 18 now and becoming a man.  He still talks to me about important things for him and I glow when he talks about the kind of a father he wants to be one day.

How have other parents tackled this issue?  I’d love to hear.

*www.skylight.org.nz

A GreatStart for little ones

The Government of South Australia has released a new parent website developed as part of the Department for Education and Child Development Numeracy and Literacy Strategy.  Great Start is centred on everyday events in the family: Play, Food, Out and about, Growing, Getting ready and Celebrations.  Information is provided on why each activity matters and what it leads to in terms of numeracy or literacy development.  It also gives examples of the language parents could use when they engage in the activity with their child.

I found the Getting Ready section was a great reminder that putting your shoes and socks on is a learned skill and that I could have lots of fun exploring this with my 2 year old grandson.

The website is designed to be developed over time and it is expected that more new and exciting ideas and activities will be added keeping the content relevant and interesting to families.

You can find GreatStart at www.greatstart.edu.au

Helping children deal with strong feelings

I’m a big fan of emotion coaching, particularly when helping young children manage their emotions.  Emotion coaching Web_14is an approach to caring for children that values their feelings while guiding their behaviours.  It takes effort and patience and it’s not always easy – but there are big payoffs.  In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child*, John Gottman says this approach encourages healthy emotional development so that “children delight in the happy times and recover more quickly from the bad ones”.  I am a firm believer that helping children to manage difficult or complicated emotions is a big plank in raising resilient children.

This week it was my turn to collect my two year old grandson from childcare.  He was delivered there in the morning by his dad who starts work late and is able to punctuate the 30 minute car trip with time for news, a stop at the park and the occasional chocolate treat.  When I arrived late in the afternoon the toddler looked at me and burst into tears.  I decided to use this occasion for emotion coaching.  I stopped and knelt at the doorway and stated quietly “you’re sad to see me”.  He cried “I want my daddy”.  I responded “you’re disappointed that dad isn’t collecting you”.  He ran into my arms and buried his head into my neck and sobbed noisily for about 20 seconds.  Then he cheered up, took my hand and led me from the room.  This happened while one caregiver attempted to distract him from his sadness by saying “It’s all right – you love Nanny” and another enticed him to continue to play with a toy horse.  He wasn’t distracted and I think he knew what he needed – time to feel distressed and have his feelings identified and acknowledged.

We don’t always get it right when we are helping our children to understand their emotions.  And that’s OK.  Our job is to keep guessing and be a partner in their learning.  The more we do it the easier it gets.

There are times when emotion coaching is less useful:

  • When you are in a hurry – emotion coaching takes time
  • When you are too upset yourself to be effective
  • When the emotion doesn’t match the situation:  crying for no apparent reason – the child might just be tired or hungry
  • When safety is more important

Once we are comfortable in helping children identify their emotions we can use this information to set limits and problem solve with them.   Your child might be upset that their favourite classmate sits with someone else.  Once we have acknowledged the disappointment that goes with this situation we can help with problem solving by asking “who else in your class looks like they might be fun to know?”  Brainstorm some ideas.   The idea is to help but not take over and allow your child to choose a solution.

*1998 Gottman J.M. and DeClaire, J. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Simon & Schuster

Helping Your Teen Manage Entry to High School

 

Many young people find starting high school a time of mixed emotions:  excitement, fear, confusion, curiosity and Web_21adventure and most admit that starting a new school experience can be a bit scary.  They may feel lost and confused, miss their old primary school  friends and worry that they might not fit in.  Expect your young person will have to cope with changes and some might be challenged as they adjust to differences.

Most students will be negotiating body changes in response to puberty.  As this is an individual journey your coltish young person might share classes with students who look like they have left their wives and kids in the car park!  High Schools are much bigger, anonymous places than primary school where everyone knew your name and school systems with different classrooms and different teachers add an extra challenge.  Friendships change and even established friendships can be challenged in the high school melting pot as students tackle one of the primary developmental tasks of establishing identity.

If you find that your student is irritable and short tempered, being withdrawn, changing behaviour by being disagreeable or rebellious or articulating stress through pain in the tummy or head or school refusal these might be signs that your teen is not coping.  While many students exhibit some of these behaviours anyway, if these signs persist after the first few weeks it’s time to speak to the school to help address the source of stress.

Parents also might find this a stressful and confusing time while they are juggling work and family commitments and figuring out how much help and support to offer the new high school student.  Here are my favourite pieces of parental advice drawn over the years from our parenting groups:

  • Remember that despite their emerging sophistication students still need to hear you say you love, approve of and support them
  • Provide reassurance by normalising some of the confused and unsure feelings and perhaps sharing your own high school experience
  • Celebrate their strengths:  they need to be reminded of what they do well while they tackle challenges
  • Be a supportive listener and don’t give advice too quickly:  help them problem solve and encourage thinking for themselves
  • Be patient while your student tackles the challenges of first year high school and remember that being organised is usually a learned skill
  • Get to know the school community – other parents can be your best resource.

What can I do about School Anxiety?

Initiating conversations with your child or young person around school anxiety can be difficult, but some good conversation starters can be open questions such as “How are you feeling about starting school?”, Are you thinking about what school might be like this year?”,… Followed up with -”It can help to talk about it”.
Emotion coaching your child or young person is important to enable feelings to be named and explored. This may mean making an observation such as “You look like you feel worried/sad/angry/upset. Is that right? “If the answer is yes, then you can follow that up with a question about what the worry/sadness/anger is about.Web_29
It’s important then to acknowledge these worries by saying something like” I can see why you feel that way” but follow that up with some ideas around resolving them by saying “Have you got any ideas about what you could do to stop those feelings…let me know if you need help coming up with a plan.”
Developing self understanding in your child or young person can be encouraged by asking questions that help them to look beneath their level of understanding so questions like “What has made you feel that way? or “ Why did you make that choice?” This can have your child or young person begin to think about what the underlying cause of their anxiety and then develop the ability to respond to what is going on.
Sometimes talking about expected feelings can help so asking your child or young person if they expect to feel nervous/worried when they start or return to school can be followed up with “How do you think you’ll manage that?” and then..”If you do start feeling worried, what is something you can do to make yourself feel better?”
Remember that your goal as a parent is to help your children put together the puzzle that is feelings and past experiences and develop skills to give them some control over them which in turn will lower their anxiety.

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