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. How 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.
A new smartphone app has been launched to help young people and parents better understand the law around sexting, cyberbullying and the age of consent. Developed by Victorian Legal Aid, the app can only currently be used on Android devices but will soon be available on iphones. The app is an engaging and interactive way for young people to be more aware of the risks involved in sending and receiving sexual photographs or cyberbullying.
“Below the Belt: Sex, Selfies and Cyberbullying” can help us all understand that our digital footprint lasts a lifetime!
Sadly bad stuff happens in life. In fact every day as the news is broadcast across television, internet and other news media sources; children are seeing and hearing about events that may have them asking questions.
As parents we naturally want to protect our children from tragedy ,however rather than avoiding explanations, or brushing them off with “you don’t need to worry about that“, it’s important to begin conversations with children by focussing on making children feel safe in their immediate world , rather than their fears associated with the events they may have seen or heard.
Some of the best advice I have heard in this area was by a man called Fred Rodgers (an American educator) who once said , “When I was a boy and would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me ,”look for the helpers, you will always find people helping”.
So following on from this valuable advice – looking for the helpers amidst the tragedy, is a good way to begin conversations with children about bad stuff. Initially try and find out what your children already know, they may know a lot or very little about the event, either way it’s a good starting point for conversations. Children may be experiencing a whole range of emotions ranging from fear, anger, or sadness. Using age appropriate language the focus needs to be kept on building their sense of safety and security and making sense of the world around them, whilst at the same time acknowledging their emotions.
So for example a discussion regarding the recent train tragedy in Spain might be:
“A very sad thing happened in a country called Spain where a train was going too fast and crashed into a wall. People were hurt and some people died. But many people were taken to the hospital where the doctors looked after them and made them better. Trains run all the time and this was a very unusual event. Usually trains are safe and fun to travel on. The police are helping to find out why the train was travelling too fast so that we can be sure it is safe to travel on trains again. The police here make sure it is safe to travel on our trains and even keep us safe in our neighbourhood.”
It’s important to focus on all the people who do help to keep us safe. You could mention police, ambulance officers, teachers, and football or netball coaches, even babysitters all keep us safe in different parts of our life. Talking to children about the people who keep them safe and then doing some “what ifs” there was an emergency, who would keep them safe, can reassure and help your child develop resilience.
Sadly bullying is, and always will be a part of life. But when it happens to our precious child who is blissfully unaware that not everyone loves and adores him or her, it is distressing.
As parents we naturally want to defend and protect our child from hurt. However the harsh reality is that we can’t and won’t, always be with our child to do that. So its more about equipping our children with life skills to manage this behaviour. Doing some “What would you do if….” Conversations can give you some insights into how well equipped your child may be to manage bullying behaviour.
The main message to get across is to tell an adult or someone who can intervene. If your child discloses to you then its important that you take them seriously, make an appointment to speak to their teacher and discuss a plan of action. If you do not get a satisfactory response from their teacher then take it further with another staff member but try to avoid going directly to the parent of the bully .
If children feel safe enough to they can be encouraged to stand up to the bully using “I messages” such as “I don’t like it when you say that, please stop”.
Research is showing that the ‘bystander effect” is a deterrent to bullying behaviour. So conversations with your child around “what would you do if you saw someone being bullied” are also important. Talk with them about standing up for someone, or if they are too afraid to do this for fear of recrimination, to at least show the person being bullied in some way that you don’t agree with the bully by smiling , emailing, sharing, texting, or even sitting next to that person.
When your child bites another we often react with shock and disappointment and other parents around us are appalled and disapproving. Biting is no worse than swearing, hitting or pushing however the parental response is often out of proportion to the “crime” of biting. Biting is one way young children communicate so if you have a “snappy” toddler here are 5 things to consider:
- Your child might be expressing emotions for which they don’t have words. Start emotional literacy early giving children words for their feelings and using them in everyday language: “I feel uncomfortable when you lean on me like that”.
- Young children use their mouths to experiment with their world. Be vigilant and get in early before your child bites. Know your child’s warning signs and gently remove them from the situation when biting seems a likely response.
- Biting is a useful tool for defence particularly when there is competition. It works. Reduce competition for coveted toys and parental attention particularly when other children are around.
- Your child might be using biting to gain power and control over complex situations they are not developmentally ready to deal with. Sharing and turn taking are difficult tasks to master; even adults are challenged some times. Help your child to understand biting isn’t useful and share your skills when you have to wait or share: “sometimes when I feel impatient and have to wait I sing a little song to myself to pass the time”.
- Be positive and watch for good non-biting behaviour. It’s the old advice: catch them being good and give them really solid information about how they are being good: “when you told Jacob that it was your turn for the toy I felt really pleased that you used your words. “
Be patient. Like most difficult childhood behaviours biting will pass as children grow and enter the next developmental stage of emotional 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.
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:
- Promoting a sense of identity by creating family times where all members are values for their differences.
- Setting age appropriate boundaries and being consistent in enforcing them.
- Encouraging children to feel valued by allowing them to have some age appropriate responsibilities.
- Develop diverse friendship groups in children by encouraging outside school interests.
- Creating and maintaining family rituals such as birthdays or goodnight rituals.
- Children are at school for a long time so be careful to select a school, if possible, that best matches your child’s “fit”.
- Have positive expectations for your child.
- If possible, link children up with a caring adult who is outside of the family.
- Foster and encourage curiosity and spontaneity not only in children but also yourself!
- Most importantly, nourish your own resilience and well-being so that you can show them how to live and love life.