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.


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.

Parenting in Challenging Times

If you have young people in your family who hurt, intimidate or abuse you there are two parenting programs which may help you regain control in your family and increase your conflict resolution skills.

Centacare will deliver the  8 week Who’s In Charge parenting course for parents of children 8 – 25 years in 2014 in metropolitan Adelaide.  Web_2The course is based on the work of Eddie Gallagher, a Victorian social worker and one of the first parenting specialists in Australia to acknowledge adolescent violence in the home.  The course addresses parents’ feelings of guilt and isolation, clarifies boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, develops family capacity and identifies practical strategies for change in a positive and supporting environment.

The Who’s In Charge course is for parents who feel constantly challenged by their children’s behaviour.  It  also addresses threatening behaviour, emotional and physical abuse, dealing with powerful emotions including anger and rage and builds individual plans for safer families.

If you are troubled by your adolescent’s extreme behaviour this is the course for you.

Contact Centacare for information about the Who’s In Charge course in 2014.

If you want to know more about the work of Eddie Gallagher please click on the link http://www.eddiegallagher.id.au/

2014 will also herald a new program to address young people’s violence and abuse in the family.  The Walking on Eggshells Project will be piloting Step Up for SA beginning March 2014.  The group program is based on the successful Step Up – Building Respectful Family Relationships program developed by Lily Anderson and Greg Routt in the USA and has been adapted for South Australia offering young people and their parents a 13 week cognitive-behaviour intervention program.  This program uses a Restorative Practice model of accountability, competency development and family safety aimed a decreasing violent behaviours and increasing pro-social behaviours.  The program has a two-fold focus:

  • to help young people learn about the impact of violent behaviours in the family and adopt pro-social behaviours
  • to assist parents with skills to support behaviour change in the family.

The pilot program starts in early March 2014 at Hindmarsh.  For further information and referral contact Rosalie O’Connor, Step Up for SA Co-ordinator at walkeggproject@optusnet.com.au

If you want to know more about the work of Lily Anderson and Greg Routt go to www.kingcounty.gov/courts/stepup/Curriculum.aspx

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.

5 Ways to Stop Biting

No_BitingWhen 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:

  1.  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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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.

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