Helpful Tips

Eight ingredients for a strong family

Family & Relationship Services Australia (FRSA) has published a recent fact sheet on Family Strengths  (FRSA Web_20Information Factsheet November 2012) drawn from an interesting Australian study on the qualities that make families strong.*
1. Communication: strong families have frequent, open and honest interactions
2. Togetherness: a sense of belonging and connectedness. This can be the knowledge that we belong to a special club or tribe or team.
3. Shared activities: families who do things together like playing games, sport or even reading to each other. I have three children: two avid readers and the sporty one who couldn’t tell the difference between a book and a boomerang. Connection can emerge from simply reading the sports pages in the daily newspaper to each other and if you are really pushed – even the TV guide.
4. Acceptance: strong families share some values but respect individuality and difference.
5. Affection: strong families are interested in each other often using small rituals which reflect love and concern. In our family we regularly sign birthday cards with the salutation “To my chudda”. Meaningless in any other family but in ours it grew from the two year olds early attempts at speech when he regularly saluted family members with “you my chudda”. Six months later when his language developed it was expanded to “we-lub-ee-chudda”. “Chudda” has lasted the distance as a significant landmark for affectionate connection in our family.
6. Support: strong families are comfortable in both offering and seeking support which is encouraging and reassuring.
7. Commitment: individuals within the family are loyal and dedicated to the family as a whole.
8. Resilience: strong families have the ability to bounce back from adversity.
Family structure makes no difference to the effectiveness of these qualities and applies to couples without children, stepfamilies and single parents as well as coupled parents with children. We need routines that support bonding in families like shared meals and making time to be together and the willingness to hear each other and respect our differences if we are to create strong families.

*Robinson E & Parker R (2008) Prevention and early intervention in strengthening families and relationships:  Challenges and implication, Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse, Issues Paper No. 2.

 

The impact of media on little brains

The debate about how much screen time is too much continues with research presented at the Australian Council for Children Web_6and the Media conference in Sydney in October last year.  Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University, Kate Highfield, suggests too much time in front of the screen playing the wrong kind of computer games can be responsible for developmental delay in children.  The Raising Children Network website recommends that children under two years have no screen time at all (including TV) and children under five years less than one hour a day. Too much screen time can affect language development, attention spans, creativity and social skills. It is suggested that even adults can be damaged by too much screen entertainment and should have no more than two hours per day.  Kate Highfield’s research found many of the apps purchased for children were just “drill and practice” games which lead to lower-level neural development and often include excessive rewarding that can create unrealistic expectations in children.  The good news is that apps that require input from the child such as ARTmaker and My Story can have a positive impact on development.  She gives some common sense advice to parents:

  • Have consistent rules and don’t buy computer games or gaming consoles if you don’t want a child to play with them
  • Some computer time per day is not damaging but can be problematic when these games displace other activities like sleeping, playing and making real friends
  • Offer meaningful alternatives to screen based entertainment
  • Pick apps based on the potential to create from scratch instead of rewarding practice
  • Help your child to self-regulate screen time.  Be clear about the range of activities available to your child each day
  • Treat screen time like junk food in a sensible diet:  it’s about getting the balance right.

Battersby L ‘Little brains suffer with too much screen play http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital -life-news/little-brains-suffer-with-too-much

 

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

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.

The” Good Enough” Parent

Web_17One of the feelings we often have as parents is Guilt. Guilt that we are not spending enough time with our children, guilt about the food we feed our children or even guilt about losing our temper with our children.
As parents we often forget that we are humans too, and that with our humanity comes mistakes. We can’t (and wont) always be the perfect parent that we want to be. Work, relationships, hormonal fluctuations, mental health issues, and financial stress can cause layer, upon layer, upon layer of stress that can impact on our ability to parent at an optimal level.
As a result we can sometimes only parent at a “good enough” level. That is we can only do the best we can do at the time under the circumstances. So, if as parents we are sometimes faced with adversity but the quality of our parenting behaviour is still adequate then our children should not be compromised.
In addition it is extremely powerful to admit to our children that “we got it wrong”.
It models to them that it’s ok to make mistakes, that it’s not the end of the world. In addition it teaches our children how to make amends in relationships and gives permission for imperfection.
So next time you are feeling guilt around your parenting be gentle with yourself and remember that sometimes you can only do the best you can do at the time and that is good enough!!

Bedtime doesn’t have to be a nightmare

According to the Advertiser last month (T.A. 15/10/13 page 9) children who do not have a regular bedtime are more likely to suffer behavioural problems.  Quoting from a University College London study on more than 10,000 children the paper notes that erratic bedtimes can cause a similar effect to jet lag and the longer youngsters go without regular bedtimes the greater the impact on their behaviour.

So how can we maintain consistent bedtimes?  Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Has your child’s sleep needs changed?  Perhaps cutting out a day time nap will ensure they will be ready to sleep at night.
  • Develop a sleep routine. Some families read a story, put teddy to bed, shut the curtains, turn on the night light, and sing a special song.  Once familiar with the routine let the child be the leader.
  • Ensure pre bedtime activities are peaceful and rest promoting.  Offering books or quiet toys to play with are probably more sleep conducive than jumping on the bed or riding daddy around the family room.
  • Make sure bed time is realistic.  If you can’t artificially darken the room when day light saving kicks in perhaps adjusting a slightly later bedtime might be effective
  • Let your child know it’s OK if they don’t want to go to sleep but they still have to go to bed.
  • Make bedtime a positive ritual.  Tell your child “I really like putting you to bed”.

Of course in any family there will be times when bed time has to be varied.  Accept occasional variations as normal and try to get back to a consistent routine as soon as practical.  I will post next week with information and strategies for parents with older children.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

Web_20From the moment our child is born we are setting boundaries for safety and well-being. As they grow, we gradually hand over responsibility in line with their developing maturity.

Which boundaries are negotiable and which are not? Are both parents on the same page?

When is my child old enough to have a mobile phone? Go to the park alone?

Often our own experiences growing up affect our ideas about boundary-setting and whether we want to do it the same or differently. Society has changed as well and children have access to the world via technology.

There are no simple answers to these questions, but talk to other parents and share your thoughts. Safety needs to be paramount, but so does allowing our children to make mistakes and learn. Decide what the non-negotiables are (which will need to be renegotiated over time!) and explain these to your child. Some parents find writing up the family rules to be helpful. Discuss the issues with your child that you are prepared to negotiate on and let them know what behaviours you would need to observe that would let you know they are ready for more freedom. When mistakes are made, renegotiate.
Children are much more likely to respect the boundaries if we are in a trusting relationship with them. This respect is earned from our positive role-modelling and honest communication.

How can we develop resilience in children?

Developing resilience is something we hear a great deal about.. ..but what exactly does it mean, and why should we foster Web_28resilience in our children?

Resilience is a word used to describe the ability to bounce back from bad stuff that life deals out to us all occasionally.

It’s important to develop resilience in our children because current research shows that it is one of the protective factors against mental health issues later in life. (http://www.catholic.tas.edu.au/Resources/documents/kidsmatter-1/risk-and-protective-overview.pdf)

According to Andrew Fuller (Raising Real People Creating a Resilient Family, ACER Press 2002) there are many ways to develop resilience in children but the most important include:

  1. Promoting a sense of identity by creating family times where all members are values for their differences.
  2. Setting age appropriate boundaries and being consistent in enforcing them.
  3. Encouraging children to feel valued by allowing them to have some age appropriate responsibilities.
  4. Develop diverse friendship groups in children by encouraging outside school interests.
  5. Creating and maintaining family rituals such as birthdays or goodnight rituals.
  6. Children are at school for a long time so be careful to select a school, if possible, that best matches your child’s “fit”.
  7. Have positive expectations for your child.
  8. If possible, link children up with a caring adult who is outside of the family.
  9. Foster and encourage curiosity and spontaneity not only in children but also yourself!
  10. Most importantly, nourish your own resilience and well-being so that you can show them how to live and love life.

How to name a child…

Now that all the fuss has died down after Kimye named their baby North West let’s take a moment to consider the current explosion of new and unusual names for babies. Just the other day I was introduced to 2 month old Jaloosie Batman and as my son said later “thank God AnglePark Piano is still available”!  (I say thank God he remains childless).

I am not saying that previous generations were not similarly innovative.   Who could forget Zowie Bowie and Moon Unit Zappa.  And my friend Louise claims an unmarried great aunt called Lorna Warner.

I wonder how the children manage their unusual names.  Do they have to constantly repeat them in introductions, do they have to endlessly correct spelling and pronunciation.

I had my kids in country NSW and we lived very close to an Ashram where we met lots of families.  I recall two children particularly because they were called Whizzee and Leafy Glade and were great friends with my own children.  The kids would play a game that involved cubbies made out of blankets over tables – an imaginary world where you could be anything or anyone you wanted to be.  I will always remember that Whizzee and Leafy Glade called themselves Colin and Philip respectively – at least when they were playing the game.

My mum’s advice when choosing a child’s name was “pick whatever you want –  and then shout it from the backdoor about a million times  –  if it still sounds good it was the right choice”.  I have tended to use James Thurber’s advice and keep it short and simple – although he was writing about naming dogs.  How did you choose your child’s name and have you heard some new ones?

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