Friday, 2 January 2015

Childminders and children with absent parents

Childminders are often asked to support children from broken or fractured homes or children who do not live in a ‘traditional’ family unit.

Childminders are in an excellent position to be able to offer a very flexible environment for all children and their families and should constantly reflect on our provisions to ensure we continue to provide a service which is appropriate for the needs of the children in our care at the time.

Families become damaged or fractured for many reasons including having a parent who, for example…
• Is in the armed forces and goes away on tour for extended periods;
• Lives in prison;
• Has died;
• Has left the family home and no longer plays an active part of the child’s life;
• Has left the family home and sees the child every other day on a rota;
• Works away during the week and is only home at weekends;
• Lives a long way away from the family home and wants to be involved but struggles because of distance.

Such living arrangements can cause a lot of challenges both for the parent who is on their own caring for the child and for the child himself. We need to understand the pressures on the child and their family so they can effectively support them through difficult periods.

How children react

When a child is struggling with frequent moves (such as the regular 2 year military deployment cycle) or missing an absent parent, practitioners might notice that they find it hard to appropriately express how they are feeling and either go quiet or act out the upset in their head through behaviour challenges. Similarly, children dealing with the loss of a parent might suddenly cling to the parent who is at home and not want them to leave in the morning or cry and need a cuddle from their key person during the day for no apparent reason.

Many practitioners find that the child is likely to be withdrawn and more overtly emotional as they remember their absent parent and worry about where they are and what they are doing.

Supporting the child

Managing misunderstandings - media reports about war, prison conditions etc can leave children uncertain about what is happening to their absent parent. Plus as we all know children are very good at ear wigging and getting the wrong end of the stick about things that are said around them. The practitioner needs to be alert to such misunderstandings to try and support the child to more fully understand what is happening around him.

Knowing where the absent parent is - it can often help if the child is able to visualise where their absent parent is geographically… working with their families, childminders might help the child to put together photo albums or maps showing where in the country or abroad they are currently living.

Communication - if absent parents are able to send postcards or letters and photographs children should be encouraged to share them with other children in the provision so the child whose parent is away feels special. Children might like to write to their absent parents and this should be encouraged. Little pictures, letters, cards, photos etc can all be sent from the child either by letter or email (with written permission from the resident parent first). If the provision has access to Skype the child might even be able to chat to their absent parent every so often to help them feel closer to home.

Managing grief - if a parent has died or left the family home without warning and is not coming back the child might respond well to grief counselling and this should always be advised. Meanwhile practitioners can support the child by finding out what the resident parent says has happened so everyone tells the same story. There are books and other resources available which might be useful and practitioner bereavement training is recommended.

Being sensitive - there are, as discussed earlier, a lot of reasons why parents might be absent from home. One of these is that they might have been sent to prison. If this happens to a child’s parent in the provision you might need to consider carefully how you tackle certain subjects. For example, if you are doing a ‘people who help us’ theme it is possible the child and their family will not have positive feelings about the police service!

Developing emotional vocabulary - the practitioner needs to spend time working with the child to develop his emotional vocabulary so he can say how he feels. This will support him to speak and role play rather than exhibit unwanted behaviours.

Being honest - most of all practitioners need to be honest within the child’s level of understanding – their absent parent loves them very much but because of circumstances / their job / their relationship etc they cannot be here at the moment. The child needs to understand that the parent is not absent because of something they have done or said.

Role play - one of the best ways of supporting children is through role play which helps them to make sense of what is happening around them. Children should be encouraged to dress up and take on various personas in their play. By doing this they will act out different roles and scenarios and work things out in their heads.

Physical and war related role play

If children are from a military background practitioners might find they want to role play their father or mother’s work and might appear with toy guns or services related small world toys. Having worked with children for many years I would also say that some of them can make guns out of just about anything if they are that way inclined, including their fingers and a couple of pieces of Lego™ joined together.

Each childminder needs to reflect on their own feelings about allowing children to role play using toys which can reflect the violence in our world. Plus, of course, you need to consider where the line will be drawn – are water guns ok? What about ‘Star Wars’ figures or characters linked to popular children’s films? How about if the children want to play pirates – are knives and cutlasses ok?

This is an interesting article from which will help you with your decision making.

Family reactions to separation

Families react to separations (divorce, death, working away from the home etc) in different ways. For example, research has shown that if parents have warning that they are going to leave the family home, maybe for a prison sentence or if there is a divorce pending, before the parent goes away they might start to withdraw from family life as they mentally prepare for the trials ahead. This may cause young children to think they have done something wrong… why is mummy or daddy not responding to them in the same way as they did before?

Similarly practitioners might find that children are being told stories by separated and divorced parents which are causing them upset. Some children are used as puppets in such situations and practitioners might find, temporarily, that their provision is the only safe haven the child has during the week.

Supporting children’s families

As childminders we are aware that it is not only the children who need ongoing support… we are often used as sounding boards by parents as well and the childminder / parent relationship can often become blurred as emotions run high. The parent left at home might be struggling or not coping as well as normal because of financial or other worries which will make the situation even harder.

Childminders are in a very difficult position – parents come into our homes and trust us to care for their children. They also have to tell us various personal details so that we can understand how to look after their child. At the same time, many childminders find that parents lean on them quite heavily in times of family crisis, sometimes expecting them to take sides.

While we strive to be flexible, an hour of heated or upset discussion at the end of a busy day, a third late paid invoice, a trying day with a difficult and very upset child followed by a parent who doesn’t appear to want to go home … can cause them serious family issues themselves!

It is important to remain as professional as possible. The childminder needs to ask the child’s family what s/he can do to support them and understand that they miss their absent partners too… they might appreciate someone to talk to or a shoulder if they are feeling a bit tearful.

However, at the same time, a certain professional distance must be maintained and the childminder must never take sides in a family argument.

Sharing information with absent family members

Newsletters, photos of the child at play and information from daily diaries / developmental notes can be emailed. Children’s art work can be scanned (by the children if they are old enough) and sent to absent parents and children can use the internet to chat with their absent parents (as appropriate).
However, before this happens the childminder must have written permission from the child’s resident parent and must be registered with the information Commissioners Office ( before information is shared electronically.

If the parent returns

Some parents are not going to come back. Words like ‘gone away’ and ‘with the angels’ do not help a child whose parent has died to understand that he is not coming back. I have talked about death in a previous blog here.

Similarly, parents who have left the home for a lengthy prison stay or who have moved across the country after a divorce will be less visible in their lives and in some cases might never return.

When / if the parent does come back there will be a huge rush of emotion and excitement, perhaps tinged with the worry that they are likely to go away again. The absent parent may find that they struggle to adapt to the new family routine which can cause further upset to all concerned.

There are agencies to support parents and their families and childminders should keep the details handy. Many childminders have an ‘information file for parents’ or similar folder which contains leaflets about local support services and a list of relevant books and agencies which might be useful. More information and advice can be found –
• Benefits advice from AdviceUK.
• Benefits for forces personnel from
• Citizens Advice Bureau .
• For children whose fathers are deployed contact SSAFA or the Royal British Legion.