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Source: University of Canterbury

24 August 2020

Some parents are not coping with their young children’s challenging behaviour, and even experienced teachers are struggling, according to Dr Cara Swit from the University of Canterbury’s (UC) School of Health Sciences.

  • Dr Cara Swit is a specialist trainer in educational and developmental psychology in UC’s College of Education, Health and Human Development with a particular focus on early intervention for aggressive and bullying behaviour in young children.

Dr Swit was to be the keynote speaker at the New Zealand Bullying Prevention Conference at UC this month; the conference was cancelled due to Covid-19 level 2 restrictions. She intended to share her research on teachers’ and parents’ perceptions of bullying behaviour and ask whether young children’s behaviour is ‘aggressive’ or ‘bullying’, which she defines as repetitive behaviour with a power imbalance and the intention to harm.

Surprisingly, given the awareness of bullying in schools, Dr Swit is one of the few researchers in Aotearoa New Zealand focusing on young children’s bullying behaviour and effective early intervention strategies. She is also the only New Zealand representative on an international consortium of 15 countries on parental burnout.

She has been spending time with parents and teachers as part of the pilot for a new three-year longitudinal study to gather evidence on how young children’s behaviour impacts on the health and wellbeing of parents and teachers. The study was sparked by some worrying trends Dr Swit observed in classrooms.

“Anecdotally what we hear is that young children’s challenging behaviours are causing stress and burnout to teachers and parents, but we are just starting the research that may link children’s challenging behaviour to teacher and parent health and wellbeing,” she says.

“It seems that parents are really stressed. They’re saying, ‘the strategies that worked before don’t work anymore and I’m at a loss – what do I do?’ I work in the early intervention space and most of the educators I work with are very experienced and they are just not coping. They are at a loss.”

While parents need to model pro-social behaviour for their children, parents also need to practice greater self-compassion, Dr Swit says.

“Let’s be realistic, we are trying to juggle a lot; full- or part-time work, parenting, extra-curricular activities, social events, day-to-day chores, while being the best parents we can be. We need to have conversations about the challenges that come with these expectations.

“What is really interesting and sad is how many parents are going to sleep at night feeling guilty; feeling like they could have done more that day as a parent. I have the pleasure of watching them interacting with their kids and they are great parents.”

Part of the problem, she says, is that parents compare themselves and their children to others, a tendency that doesn’t lessen as children get older – and may even get worse.

“Parents tend to put on a brave face. But if you sit down and speak to them, they are very open about their feelings. We need to start talking about the challenges of parenting, normalising it and recognising that parenting is hard.”

The good news, however, is that when parents use the interventions recommended by Dr Swit, they see positive change. “They have a sense of efficacy, they think, ‘I can do this’.”

What can parents do about bullying towards their child, or by their child? Dr Swit recommends resources she has created for the Education Hub such as What is bullying?

“Parents need to be clear on what bullying is, what the signs are, and take the time to dispel any myths they have learnt about bullying,” she says. “Bullying can be physical, verbal, social or online.

“Parents need to take action in an appropriate way by talking with their child, reporting bullying behaviour if necessary and following up to ensure that interventions have been effective.

“Bullying is a serious problem, and potentially very harmful. All children deserve to feel safe and protected in their learning environments and communities.” 

Read more:

Early childhood educators’ and parents’ perceptions of bullying in preschool by Dr Cara Swit, in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology.

Health Sciences at UC:

UC’s Bachelor of Health Sciences has six majors – Environmental Health, Health Education, Māori and Indigenous Health, Psychology, Public Health, Society and Policy. We also offer a large number of postgraduate qualifications with specialisations and endorsements in Child and Family Psychology, Nursing, Health Information Management, Counselling, Palliative Care, Environment and Health, Health and Community, and Health Behaviour Change.

The programme covers important and timely topics such as mental health and wellbeing, sexual health promotion, environmental health, communicable and non-communicable diseases, Māori and indigenous people’s health, health through the life-span, and evidence-based policy and decision-making. 

UC offers postgraduate health certificate, diploma and Masters programmes as well as a PhD in health sciences.