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Paul McClure

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Parental bonding affects mental, physical, intellectual, social and emotional development and influences how well a child does in later life.

By responding to a baby with love, warmth and care, parents become a trusted person in that baby’s life. The bond that is created is not based on the quality of parental love or care but on nonverbal communication between a parent and newborn.

The bond between a parent and a newborn is based on nonverbal communication.

The first few days of a baby’s life are the perfect time for bonding to take place. A baby is innately wired to initiate bonding relationships at this time. Crying, cooing and making noises, smiling, searching for the breast, and seeking eye contact are cues to which a parent can respond.

A baby’s brain development, as well as their social, emotional, and cognitive development, depends on a loving bond with a parent or primary caregiver.

A baby’s brain development, as well as their social, emotional, and cognitive development, depends on a loving bond with a parent or primary caregiver. Studies have shown that parental inconsistency and a lack of bonding can lead to long-term mental health problems and reduced overall happiness.

When a parent responds consistently to a baby’s needs, it nurtures a growing child’s ability to express a full range of emotions.

It is a myth that responding quickly to a crying baby by holding and nursing them will result in spoilt baby.

It is a myth that responding quickly to a crying baby by holding and nursing them will result in spoilt baby. Babies that are held and comforted during the first six months of life tend to be more secure, confident toddlers and older children.

A poor parent-child bond can result in limited social, coping and problem-solving skills, tantrums, clinginess, being withdrawn, or aggressive behaviours. The negative effects of insecure bonding often impact a child throughout their developmental years.

Bonding promotes confidence, enables a baby to tolerate separation from their parents, and eventually helps infants learn how to soothe themselves which results in less crying and fussiness.

The parent-child bond is strengthened through this attachment and the life-long emotional connection that is established helps a child develop independence.

Research has shown that secure bonds developed in childhood produces adults that enjoy stable, satisfying ties with their intimate partners and are better at resolving relationship conflicts.

Like mothers, dads need to bond with their babies, too. So do siblings.

Like mothers, dads need to bond with their babies, too. So do siblings. All members of the family should take some quiet time to hold the baby, gaze into their eyes, talk to them and comfort them when they are distressed.

It’s important that dads bond with their newborn, too.

Some ideas that can assist with bonding include:

  • Regularly touching and cuddling the newborn. By cuddling a baby on the left side of the chest they can hear their parent’s heartbeat, making them feel secure.
  • Gently stroking the newborn during bath time or nappy changes.
  • Responding to crying to let a baby know that a parent is always there.
  • Rocking or holding the newborn, skin on skin, or carrying them in a carrier or sling to keep them close.
  • Wrapping the baby to simulate the security they felt in the womb.
  • Talking to the baby in soothing, reassuring tones which helps them recognise the sound of a parent’s voice. When talking to a newborn, look into their eyes and make facial expressions so they can connect words with feelings.
  • Singing to the newborn or playing soothing music.

Some parents bond more easily with their baby than others. It’s okay for a parent to not feel an instant connection with their newborn.

Studies have shown that about 20% of new mums and dads feel no real emotional connection to their newborn in the hours after delivery.

Studies have shown that about 20% of new mums and dads feel no real emotional connection to their newborn in the hours after delivery. Bonding can be especially difficult if a mother has had a caesarean section, or the baby was born prematurely and spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Sometimes the connection between parent and child can take weeks or months to develop, so parents shouldn’t feel guilty or anxious about not beginning the bonding process immediately.

It can take time – sometimes weeks or months – for the bond between parent and newborn to develop.

An overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, or depressed parent may not be aware of the positive emotional interaction that a baby needs to bond. Parents should do the best they can to engage in self-care and deal with negative emotions, so they are better equipped to bond with their child.

It’s important to remember that given the speed at which a baby’s brain develops, it is possible to repair the parent-child bond.

Parents are not perfect. No one can be fully present and attentive to their child’s needs 24 hours a day. It’s important to remember that given the speed at which a baby’s brain develops, it is possible to repair the parent-child bond by figuring out what the baby needs and attending to it.

By doing this, parents can re-establish the bonding process and may even strengthen the bond between themselves and their baby.

These suggestions may help to encourage the bonding process:

  • Take the time to enjoy being with a newborn by simply cuddling, singing, or reading aloud to them.
  • Consider things from the baby’s perspective. Imagine what they are looking at, feeling, or trying to do.
  • When it comes to eating, sleeping, and playing be flexible and respond to the baby as they need. Most newborns don’t have a fixed day/night routine.

Raising children to speak more than one language has many benefits but is not without its challenges.

A parent or parents whose heritage language is not English may want their child to speak that language. Bilingualism benefits the child, the family, and the wider community.

The benefits of bilingualism include:

Children’s brains are most flexible between the ages of zero and three, which makes them uniquely suited to learning another language during this time.

Children’s brains are most flexible between the ages of zero and three, which makes them uniquely suited to learning another language during this time. Two- and three-year-olds have started to recognise speech patterns they’ve been hearing since birth, increasing their vocabularies in the process. So, the earlier a second language is introduced, the easier it will be for the child to learn its unique sounds.

The earlier parents introduce their child to a second language, the better.

Parents can start their newborn on the path to learning another language by singing to them in a second language. Singing is a fun, creative way to help the child learn and remember words and sentence structure. Songs with cultural significance – such as those passed down generationally – can have extra meaning for a child.

It’s easy to begin teaching a second language in this way: choose a simple song, incorporate hand gestures, and use lots of facial and vocal expression when singing. Explain the lyrics and praise the child when they sing along or copy the hand actions.

This mode of teaching can continue until the child is six, with the song being changed to suit the child’s age.

To nurture bilingualism, children need to be consistently exposed to two languages.

To nurture bilingualism, children need to be consistently exposed to two languages. A popular approach is the One Person, One Language (OPOL) method, where one person in a bilingual household – usually a parent – always speaks to the child in one language. This approach is particularly effective where each parent speaks a different language.

For example, one parent speaks Russian, the other English. If each parent speaks a language in addition to English – one speaks Italian and the other Greek, say – they can teach their child both languages. Ideally, both parents should understand each other’s languages so neither feels left out.

The OPOL method can be adapted to suit individual families. Parents should create a plan to determine at what age the language should be learned, whether the child has a real need for the language, how frequently the language will be used by parents, and what other supports parents can access.

Using the OPOL approach, one parent speaks to the child only in their heritage language.

Alternatively, if both parents speak the same heritage language, they might want to make this the language used at home while the child learns English outside of the home.

There are many ways that parents can support their child’s second-language development, whether at home, through play and games, or involvement in community activities:

  • Read, tell stories, or play games in a heritage language and encourage the child to join in. Some examples of games might be ‘I spy’, ‘Who am I?’, or bingo.
  • Play music in the chosen language. Melody helps children to remember things.
  • Download word game apps in that language.
  • Look for schools, childcare centres, or bilingual or multilingual programs that support the child’s use of the language.
  • Have playtime with other children that speak the language.
  • Visit countries where the language is spoken, which will boost the child’s interest in the culture and improve their ability to speak the language.
  • Take the child to cultural activities so that they gain a better understanding of cultural heritage and identity.
  • Connect with family living overseas online or through video-messaging apps.
  • Incorporate language into the child’s interests. For example, through sport, music, TV shows, or cooking.
  • Watch movies or sports in the chosen language.
Second-language learning can be incorporated into interactions with extended family and activities such as cooking.

In addition to being a long-term commitment, there are other challenges associated with raising a bilingual child, including societal pressure to speak only English.

In addition to being a long-term commitment, there are other challenges associated with raising a bilingual child, including societal pressure to speak only English. Parents needs to continue to teach their child their heritage language despite this pressure, and keep their child motivated to do so.

They can do this by explaining the cultural importance and benefits of bilingualism and by including family, friends, and other resources such as bilingual playgroups.

Australia-wide resources are available to assist parents raising a bilingual child, including SBS Radio, which broadcasts in 74 different languages, and the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council (NEMBC), who advocate for media diversity and help people connect with their ancestry, language and culture, and help counter racism. Harmony Week is a community event held in March each year to celebrate Australia’s cultural diversity.

Each state also has its own resources that parents can access for support:

How the tragic death of Hannah Clarke and her children shone a light on this often-hidden form of domestic abuse.

Content warning: this article discusses issues of coercive control and domestic violence which may be triggering for some readers.

On 19 February 2020, on a quiet suburban street in Brisbane, Hannah Clarke was preparing to drive her three children – six-year-old Aaliyah, Laianah, four, and three-year-old Trey – to school when she was ambushed by her estranged husband, Rowan Baxter.

Brandishing a knife, Baxter doused Hannah and her children with petrol before ordering her to drive to nearby bushland where he set fire to the car’s interior. Restrained by seatbelts in the rear of the vehicle, the children were burned alive. Hannah managed to escape the vehicle but died later that day in hospital. After watching his children die, Baxter stabbed himself to death.

Hannah Clarke and her children were laid to rest in a single coffin. Photo: ABC News

The horrific death of Hannah Clarke and her children made international headlines and sparked a nationwide discussion about an often-hidden form of domestic abuse: coercive control.

Coercive control, otherwise known as intimate terrorism, is a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviour. These behaviours may not be present at the beginning of a relationship. They may develop over time, masked by flattery and charm.

According to Women’s Safety NSW, coercive control is about exerting power over a victim, undermining their independence and self-worth through fear and intimidation. It can manifest in abusive behaviours like isolation, emotional manipulation, physical or sexual assault, surveillance, humiliation and degradation, and financial control.

In 2020, Women’s Safety NSW conducted a survey of 72 victim-survivors of domestic and family violence, revealing that all had experienced psychological control and manipulation in their relationship.

This year the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) surveyed 15,000 women about their experiences of physical or sexual violence and emotionally abusive, harassing and controlling behaviour. Women aged 25 to 34 experienced the highest rate of coercive control in their relationships.

According to a 2021 AIC survey, women aged 25 to 34 experienced the highest rates of coercively controlling behaviour

The partners of 73 percent of women surveyed exhibited jealousy or suspicion in relation to their friends. 67 percent were constantly insulted and made to feel ashamed or were verbally abused and intimidated. In 65 percent of cases, abusive partners monitored the victim’s time and made them account for their whereabouts.

Sadly, just over one third of women who had experienced coercive control sought help.

Demonstrative of how insidious coercive control is, many women did not seek advice or support unless they had also experienced physical or sexual violence.

Anyone can experience coercive control. Here are 12 warning signs to watch out for:

  1. Isolation. A controlling partner will cut off or limit contact with friends of family. They may suggest shared phone or social media accounts, move the victim far away from family, spread lies about the victim to others, monitor phone calls, and convince the victim that their family dislikes them and doesn’t want to talk to them.
  2. Monitoring daily activity. Installation of cameras or recording devices, including in private areas such as the bedroom and bathroom.
  3. Denial of freedom and autonomy. Restriction of movement and independence, including not allowing a victim to go to work or school, restricting access to transportation, stalking, changing passwords on devices and social media accounts.
  4. Gaslighting. The abusive partner must always be right and will force the victim to acknowledge this through manipulation and lies.
  5. Name-calling and put-downs. These are designed to make the victim feel unimportant.
  6. Limiting access to money. Controlling a victim’s finances is a way to prevent them from leaving the relationship. It may include implementing a strict budget, limiting access to bank accounts, hiding money, stopping the victim from getting a credit card, and monitoring spending.
  7. Reinforcing traditional gender roles. An abusive partner will attempt to justify a woman’s role as homemaker and mother, often coercing the victim into doing all of the cleaning, cooking, and childcare.
  8. Weaponising the children. This can include telling children that the victim is a bad parent and belittling them in front of the children.
  9. Controlling health and body. The abusive partner may monitor eating and sleeping routines, require a victim to count calories or adhere to a strict exercise regime. They may control access to medical care and which prescribed medications a victim is allowed to take.
  10. Making jealous accusations. This is a way for a controlling partner to minimise a victim’s contact with others and make them feel guilty.
  11. Regulating sex. Abusers may demand how often they have sex with a victim, demand the victim take sexual photos or videos, or refuse to wear a condom.
  12. Threatening children or pets. This includes threatening to call social services to report neglect or abuse when there is none, threatening to make important decisions related to the children without the victim’s consent, and threatening to kidnap children or get rid of a pet.
Monitoring phone calls and texts and changing passwords on devices are telltale signs of coercive behaviour

Research has shown that victims of coercively controlling behaviour are attacked more frequently than victims of other types of domestic abuse and that coercive control is more likely to persist after separation.

Coercive control also has other negative consequences, beyond the violation of the human rights of women and children. It affects access to housing and employment, impairs the health and development of children, and is costly for women and the economy. In 2015-16, the annual cost of violence against women and children in Australia was estimated to be $22 billion.

The impact of coercive control on women is serious and may lead to injuries and homicide, poor mental health, reproductive health problems, and issues with alcohol and drug use.

Recently, there has been a focus on how Australia can best respond to the issue of coercive control, including calls for it to be criminalised.

Hannah Clarke had a domestic violence order (DVO) in place at the time of her death, after her ex-husband allegedly kidnapped their eldest daughter. He was due to appear in court on charges of breaching the DVO for allegedly assaulting Hannah weeks before he killed her.

But, for Hannah, a DVO wasn’t enough. Indeed, a 2018 national analysis of intimate partner homicides showed that about a quarter of men who killed current or former female partners were the subject of protection orders at the time.

This begs the question, if Australia had existing coercive control laws could Hannah’s life, and the lives of many other women, have been saved by earlier intervention?

At present, Tasmania is the only state that has criminalised aspects of coercive control: economic abuse and emotional abuse or intimidation. Other countries have already criminalised coercive control.

In 2015, the England and Wales became the first countries in the world to created a new criminal offence of ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ designed to capture behaviour that does not include actual physical abuse. Scotland and Ireland followed suit in 2019, with Scotland seeing more than 400 crimes recorded in the first three months after the law was introduced.

For now, absent the criminalisation of coercive control in Australia, it is important for society to continue having a conversation about it. Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) has produced a webinar about how services can support women and help them respond to their partner’s controlling behaviours.

When having a conversation with a victim-survivor of coercive control it is important to:

  • Have the conversation in a safe, comfortable space
  • Ask if the victim is okay and actively listen to what they are saying
  • Encourage them to seek help if needed and let them know they are supported
  • Trust that they are the expert when it comes to their situation
  • Check in with them regularly
Support a victim-survivor of coercive control by initiating a conversation with them in a safe, comfortable space

Getting out of an abusive relationship can be difficult, even more so when there are children involved. But it is possible, with a bit of planning.

This includes maintaining communication with support systems – family, friends – whenever possible, regularly calling a domestic violence service, practicing how to get out safely, and making a safety plan.

There are a number of Australia-wide support services available to assist women subject to coercive control or domestic violence: 1800 RESPECT, Australian Childhood Foundation, LifeLine, Relationships Australia, and WESNET.

It’s normal to experience grief when a child comes out as transgender. Here’s some ways that parents can navigate the process.

Ambiguous loss is the grief parents feel when they lose a transgender child to the process of transitioning. It’s called ‘ambiguous’ because it is not the concrete, tangible loss that follows the physical death of a child. For that reason, ambiguous loss may leave parents with feelings of unresolved grief.

Grief and loss are natural feelings when confronted with a child’s transgender identity because it shatters traditional images of gender. What it means to be a man or woman, girl or boy, informs much of our behaviour. This is especially true in family relationships, where roles are based on a set of pre-determined expectations for how we are supposed to act.

How a parent responds to their child’s transgender identity is critical to whether the transitioning experience is a positive or negative one.

How a parent responds to their child’s transgender identity is critical to whether the transitioning experience is a positive or negative one. It is essential that parents reframe the way they feel about their child’s transitioning, from regret and sadness to excitement about what the future holds.

The process of transitioning often challenges parents’ traditional gender role stereotypes

It’s essential because transgender and gender diverse people experience incredibly high rates of mental health issues. LGBTIQ+ Health Australia’s April 2021 report provides some alarming statistics. Of 14 to 25-year-olds surveyed, 48% had attempted suicide, 79% had self-harmed, 74% were diagnosed with depression and 72% with anxiety. A staggering 90% of transgender people aged 14 to 21 reported high or very high levels of psychological distress.

Given these statistics, it’s clear that for transgender children family support can be the difference between life and death. This is supported by research which shows that gender-affirming behaviour by family members has a hugely positive impact on mental health.

Gender-affirming behaviour by family members has a hugely positive impact on mental health.

Parents act as models to their children, based on socially and culturally constructed gender roles. Before a child is born, parents have started planning the child’s future and, usually, it’s gendered. So, having an emotional response to such a big event as a child telling their parents they’re transgender is normal. It is reasonable for parents to grieve the loss of an imagined future.

Embracing a child’s nominated gender has a hugely positive impact on their mental wellbeing

A 2020 study looked at whether parents had an emotional experience, like mourning, to their child’s transition. It was found that parents’ reactions followed the typical grief response. Not understanding what their child was going through led parents to experience feelings of denial, fear, anger, and powerlessness.

What the study revealed was that parents who best overcame their grief had a support system in place. Involvement in transgender advocacy groups reinforced the fact that, despite being transgender, their child was the same child they’ve always known. Importantly, realising their child was happy with their chosen gender had a positive impact on parental resilience when dealing with the transition process.

Research shows that children who come out as transgender already have a strong sense of their identity … They know who they are because they’ve always felt like that.

Research shows that children who come out as transgender already have a strong sense of their identity, usually from a very early age. They know who they are because they’ve always felt like that. It is important that parents understand that children change their gender to fit their identity, their identity doesn’t change because their gender does.

A child’s identity does not change just because their gender does

While there may be things that parents had planned to do with their child that they can no longer do, they will discover many new and different ways to bond with and love their child such as joining their experimentation with new clothing, helping them choose a new name or pronouns.

It is possible to remain loving and supportive while simultaneously experiencing loss, sadness, fear and confusion. Working through these feelings takes time. Just as a child needs compassion and support to navigate the transitioning process, so do parents.

Here are some ways parents can support themselves and their transgender child:

  1. Don’t give in to fear. Fear can cause parents to push back or reject their child. This fear is underpinned by love, driven by a concern that the world is a harsh place for transgender people. Make sure the child knows they’re loved and supported.
  2. Encourage exploration. Gender exploration is a normal part of a child’s development. Give children the freedom to explore their emotions about gender before they consider a permanent change.
  3. Education is key. Get familiar with the information that is out there about gender expression. There are a lot of online resources available, such as Transcend, QLife, Rainbow Door, queerspace, and Transgender Victoria (TGV).
  4. Create a safe space. Transitioning takes a long time and can be difficult. Encourage the child to openly discuss their feelings so they feel safe and protected as they transition.
  5. Families need to transition, too. Each family member must shift their thinking and understanding. Take the time to process these thoughts and any feelings of loss.
  6. Seek help. Ensure access to a team of medical and mental health experts. Identify allies at school, so the child knows where to go for support if they are bullied or excluded.

Yes, having a trans child means questioning personal views on gender. And, yes, it usually involves a lot of – sometimes uncomfortable – discussions with friends, relatives and complete strangers about the process of transitioning and what it involves. These conversations can evoke strong feelings in others that parents should be prepared for.

While the world might not always be understanding, parents can be.

But, while the world might not always be understanding, parents can be. A child might wear different clothes and go by a different name, but they’re still the person you know and love.

An understanding parent makes a world of difference to a transgender child

It’s important to remember that a parent’s grief and loss is theirs, not their child’s. Accept these feelings for what they are: natural and normal reactions. Parents need to work with their feelings, not against them.

At the same time, parents need to support, comfort, and maintain an open dialogue with their transgender child as they work through the process together. Recognise their child’s bravery and show gratitude. Parent and child will be so much the better for it.