Conversations that Build
by Mr Adam Lear
Head of Junior School, Dee Why Campus
In the last week I’ve had the opportunity to attend presentations by two esteemed experts in the field of child well-being. The first was Leonie Smith (aka “The Cyber Safety Lady”) speaking at an evening for parents at St Luke’s Grammar School. The second was a webinar with Dr Justin Coulson, on the topic of “A Guide to Bullying – Building Positive Connections.” Both speakers were excellent and possessed a broad perspective on the issues as well as practical tips and advice on how parents and educators can support children as they explore and grow in the current context. If there is an opportunity available, I highly recommend any parent glean what they can from either speaker’s knowledge and experience.
Consistently, the message given is that the best approach carers can take to keep children safe in online and face-to-face relationships is to help the child learn to have open conversations with an adult. The operative word here is ‘learn.’ We must remember that growing children are still learning why it’s important to tell the whole truth, to manage their emotions in difficult conversations and to reflect on the implications of their own and others’ behaviour. They are trying things out in conversations, perhaps even subconsciously. What happens if I use this tone? What happens if I don’t tell them about that part? They emphasise the parts that pressed their buttons and they use all sorts of strategies when they feel vulnerable in a conversation or they can’t remember something. Also, they have limited life-experience, so their perspective won’t be the same as their peers and it will certainly be different to that of an adult.
This is not to say their voice has no value. Far from it! On the contrary, a child whose feelings are validated by an adult will realise they are on the same side, developing trust and security which promotes greater openness. Responding by saying something like, “Wow, that must have been really upsetting for you,” can reassure a child that they are understood and this can let them know that they don’t need to enhance a story with untruths or protests to get our attention.
However, we also have to remember that what a child has said is perhaps the best they can do with the less-well developed processing and communication skills they have available to them. Without dismissing their concern, we can help children learn to re-evaluate the severity or impact of what has happened thereby developing perspective, fostering empathy and inspiring hope. We can demonstrate and explain how emotions can be regulated and communicated respectfully. We can give them words to say next time or teach them how to use humour to defuse a situation. We can help them learn how to apologise and how to forgive. As with all new skills, it can be helpful to give very clear instructions, examples to follow (such as a phrase they can use), as well as checking in later to hear how it went and offering encouraging feedback. Like anything, we shouldn’t expect them to master these skills the first time, but with practise, they will improve.
Dr Coulson advises that we should be deliberate about the way we respond to children’s reports, particularly when they are feeling hurt or upset. He suggests that parents can use what he calls The Five A’s:
1. Affirm - show empathy and encourage them. Tell them, “It’s not your fault.” Don’t promise that you won’t tell anyone else, as you may be required to do so.
2. Ask - Once the child has calmed, ask the right questions about the incident to get the information. For example: When did it happen? Where did it happen? What was happening before the incident began? Have you asked the other person to stop? How did they respond?
3. Assess - To what degree is the child safe/unsafe? What can we and what can we help the child do to mitigate risks?
4. Assist - How can we respond to the information we have to help the child to feel safe? What reporting mechanisms will be available to the child moving forward?
5. Advocate - Make sure the child knows we will speak for them in a way that will help those who can help them to do so.
Supporting a child through their turbulent years of growth isn’t easy and just as they make mistakes and get hurt, so do we as parents who are trying to help. Be kind to yourself as a parent and link in to the resources available to help you. Recognise that you are not alone in wanting the best for your child and be patient as your child learns how to talk to you in a way that makes it easier for you to help them.