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The best gift for children this Christmas


16 Dec 2019

Ben Lewing focuses on Christmas as a potential pinch-point for families, and the risks of increased pressure on parents leading to poorly resolved arguments and long-term impacts on children's development.

This article was originally published by Nursery World.

Christmas is an important time for families. For many it means spending quality time together, good food, crackers and gifts. But for others Christmas has a very different narrative – debt, excessive drinking and relationship stress.  

According to Royal London, parents spend an average of £137.50 per child on Christmas presents. This is staggering given that Office for National Statistics figures show the average family weekly food shop is less than half that at £60.60 and four million children in the UK live in poverty.  

For some families the combination of financial pressure and increased time together can make Christmas a very stressful and difficult time of year, putting strain on the quality of the relationship between parents. Evidence shows this can impact on their children.  

The impact of economic stress and parental conflict on children 

Conflict between parents is a normal part of life and can be constructive for children where they see their parents modelling positive conflict behaviours such as seeking compromise, showing warmth and humour and maintaining respect. For a child the best ending to a fight between parents is a warm and meaningful resolution with apologies.

Where children are exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict between their parents this can have a damaging and long-term impact on them.

This can lead to a range of problems, such as poor academic results, anxiety and depression, even suicidality as the child grows up. The evidence also shows that parental conflict can increase the likelihood for some of risk-taking behaviours such as drug use and early sexual activity. 

We know conflict between parents can also can ‘spill over’ into the relationship between child and parent. Parents who are in a hostile relationship are typically more confrontational and aggressive towards their children, and less sensitive and emotionally responsive to their children’s needs.  

Reducing parental conflict at Christmas   

There are moments when the risk of conflict between parents is higher such as on becoming new parents, when a child starts school or indeed when parents are separating. Providing support at these key moments can help families prevent a destructive impact on children.  

Christmas too can be a key point at which some families are more in need of support from someone who they can talk about personal relationships.

We need people working in family services who have the confidence, knowledge, sensitivity and time to have these sorts of conversations. Yet we know from qualitative research and the experience of pioneers that relationship difficulties are often seen as a private matter by family services and by parents themselves. In fact, the parents who are the most likely to benefit from support are often the least likely to ask for help. 

There are some specific types of support which have shown that they can help parents to reduce the impact of conflict on their children: developing an understanding of the impact of conflict behaviours, and what parents could do differently; focusing on stress management, coping and problem solving skills; and avoiding undermining the other parent. The evidence of how to help is growing.

Christmas should be a joyful time – especially for our children – with the real gifts of time, warmth, laughter and love. If we make reducing parental conflict everyone’s business, we stand a better chance of tackling parental stress and giving our children a better chance to thrive.

About the author

Ben Lewing

Ben is assistant director, policy & practice, at EIF.