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Q&A with Jane

Jane is a qualified nurse and health visitor, specialising in parenting for the past ten years. She is also mother to three children.

These are Jane’s answers to six of the most commonly asked questions by parents during a recent NSPCC survey about how parents feel about the summer holidays.

When is it ok to leave your children on their own?
How do you cope when your child’s friends are given more freedom than you feel comfortable with?
How do you teach a child about stranger danger without scaring them too much?
How can I manage my child’s temper tantrums?
What is your number one tip about keeping kids safe in the holidays?
What to do if you’re worried about a child?

Jane says: I hope you have enjoyed the summer so far, and the good weather (when we’ve had it!). Thanks to everyone who took part in the survey. There were a lot of really interesting questions and comments, so, to answer as many as possible, I’ve combined some into one. As promised, we have kept your queries anonymous.

This first batch reflects the top six questions you asked – look out for more next week!

Finally, I just want to remind everyone that the NSPCC helpline is here 24/7, if you are ever concerned about the welfare of a child or need support, you can read our online advice or talk to one of our counsellors on 0808 800 5000, help@nspcc.org.uk or text 88858.

Read more advice about leaving children home alone and staying safe out and about.

When is it ok to leave your children on their own?

Being a parent isn’t easy and there is no simple answer to this question.

There is no legally defined age when it is safe to leave children either out or at home, alone. As a parent you have to judge if your child is mature enough to cope safely without supervision. That will depend upon each individual child and the circumstances they are left in. I can understand why parents feel anxious, and it would be great to say "after this age, it’s fine" but children and their situations vary so much, this is not possible. However, if you have thought through the risks, taught your child what to do if you are not there and your child is ok with the plan, spending some time taking care of themselves is a step in developing their independence. We recommend that children under 12 are never left at home alone for more than a very short time. You can find out more about why we say this in the free NSPCC booklet Home Alone.

One parent asked whether you can get into trouble for leaving your child alone if you need to pop out for a short time. In practice the answer is that you probably won’t but you should be aware that if something happens to your child, you will be the person held responsible. Working out risk isn’t just about how likely something is to happen (this could be quite low) but how severe the consequences would be if it did.

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How do you cope when your child’s friends are given more freedom than you feel comfortable with?

Different levels of freedom can lead to arguments with your child and disrupt relationships with other parents. Sometimes it is useful to review your own expectations against what everyone else is doing. Are you being over-cautious? Are other parents aware of what their children are actually doing? Are they just going along with what they believe ‘everyone’ does? Getting to know the parents of your children’s friends can make it easier to have these conversations, you may well find they feel the same as you and appreciate the chance to talk about it.

You know your child better than anyone else and are able to judge their levels of maturity, responsibility and independence and from this, assess the freedoms and boundaries that will keep your child safe.

Be clear why you have set these boundaries, and discuss these with your child, explaining your view. You will need to agree a plan with your child as to how they manage situations where they are being invited to break these boundaries when away from you. Help them think this through. They will not want to ‘lose face’ in front of friends. I know of one family who agreed a ‘code’ whereby a child asked to phone home to ‘check on my aunt who’s not well’ as a signal to mum that they needed to come home and avoid a situation where they were breaking a boundary.

Read more about older children’s independence and staying safe out and about.

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How do you teach a child about stranger danger without scaring them too much?

I agree that the ‘stranger danger’ messages for children can be unnecessarily unsettling. Children will meet many ‘strangers’ as they grow up and very few will pose a threat. What is more helpful is to understand how to recognise a situation that may be unsafe and what the child can do to look after themselves in these situations.

You should teach young children not to accept food or drink from, or go with, other people without your permission. Encourage your child to let you know if anyone is insisting they keep something secret. Secrets, lies and ‘white lies’ are confusing for young children. Encourage your child to talk to you openly even if it does mean occasionally ‘surprises’ for you are ‘spoilt’ (if you are good at acting, you can still enjoy the surprise!).

There is a danger that we increase children’s fear and sense of being a victim by only telling them what they shouldn’t do. It is also important to talk about what they can do if they feel unsafe , like making lots of noise and telling everyone around them what is happening. If they are with you or someone they trust, this will raise the alarm. If they are not with you, this may also alert other responsible adults to come to their aid. If the child can see a person they know (a neighbour, parent of a friend, an adult from school ) or someone in uniform ( a police officer, ‘lollipop’ crossing person, shop assistant) or even just another parent with children, they should ask that person to help them and to contact you.

If a child ever needs to follow this advice, you will need to comfort them for being afraid and praise them for being sensible and getting help. I know that when this has happened to my children, I have been pretty shaken and upset myself. Think about your child and deal with your distress later, if you get upset in front of them they may not speak out again next time.

Read more about staying safe out and about.

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How can I manage my child’s temper tantrums?

I loved that advert where the child started a tantrum in the shop and the mother lay down on the floor and screamed and kicked too! I often felt like doing that when my children were little.

A tantrum is one way a child learns to regulate their feelings, but they are physically and emotionally draining for you and for them. Tantrums are usually extreme, and need an audience, so the advice I prefer is: ensure the child is safe and unlikely to hurt themselves, and then ignore them. This isn’t easy! The temptation can be to shout back, or give in to their demand. I found that repeating to myself ‘stay calm, stay cool’ helped me. Also, reflecting back to the child that you know what they are feeling can help calm them: "I know you are angry, but when you have calmed down, we can have tea/read a book/go to grandmas…." Learning to recognise when a child might have a tantrum and avoiding this by moving on or distracting them can help: "no, you can’t have that, but come and help me choose some pasta/post this letter…"

After a tantrum, it’s good to praise a child for calming down.

One parent told us “my three year old still has full blown temper tantrums. She has more of these during the summer holidays, probably because she is not stimulated enough with not being at nursery as I also have a baby to look after.”

Here are a few suggestions for managing pre-schoolers during a break from their usual routine:

Create a routine that’s similar to what they are used to. Your child might not be able to tell the time, but routines help many children manage the day and anticipate what’s next.

Offer a small selection of toys at a time, as too much choice can be confusing for small children, who have a limited attention span.

Aim to play with your child one-on-one for at least one hour each day. Try getting things ready the evening before, or just join in with whatever they are doing.

Plan social activities for your child with a friend and their mum or dad – this means you get some social time, too.

Try to do something active every day – exercise helps children sleep, eat, and grow, Just walking up the road and back, or to the shops, can become an adventure.

The free NSPCC booklets ‘Encouraging better behaviour’, and ‘Keeping your cool’, might be useful, too, as they have lots more advice about managing young children, and coping with stress.

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What is your number one tip about keeping kids safe in the holidays?

For me, the most important way you can keep your children safe is by planning ahead. With children you need multiple plans. You need to plan for the weather being good and bad, for if they are well or poorly, staying in or going out, being active or restful. You need to have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C; and be willing to change at a moment’s notice.

If you have to work you will need to make definite arrangements for supervision of your children. Friends and family may be your main source of child-care, provide emergency back-up or occasional support. You may need to pay for child minders, holiday clubs or camps. Planning ahead allows you to check out services, save and budget for any costs, prepare yourself and your child and be confident about safe arrangements for when you are not there.

Planning will help you ensure that when you are able to spend time with your children, you can use this to maximum effect. A special day out when you can give your children your undivided attention will be more memorable than weeks of boredom drifting around at home.

Make some plans and have fun together!

Check out our page on keeping children safe at organised activities for more advice.

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What to do if you’re worried about a child

A number of parents asked what to do if concerned about a child’s safety or welfare. If you are worried about a child please contact us - don’t wait until you’re certain. It is free and you don’t have to say who you are.

Our trained counsellors have extensive knowledge of the child protection system and can help you determine if you are right to be worried. If so, and you provide them with sufficient information about the child, they can take responsibility and refer the case to children’s services or the police so that you don’t have to.

We are also on hand if you want support or guidance on keeping your own child safe – half of calls to our counsellors are for advice.

You contact us by calling 0808 800 5000, texting 88858 or emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. For further information go to www.nspcc.org.uk/helpline.

If a child is in immediate danger you should call the police on 999.

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