In a guest blog, Professor Beth Neil, Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of East Anglia discusses her Contact in Lockdown research. Professor Neil discusses how children and their birth families are keeping in touch during lockdown, and also offers some recommendations for grandparents and professionals during this difficult time.
Our “Contact in lockdown” research project, funded by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, found that after ‘lockdown’ started almost all face-to-face birth family contact had stopped for children in care, kinship care and adoption. Where children had previously been seeing their parents in person, this often changed to video calls, which were experienced very differently depending on the child. There were four factors which seemed important.
Firstly, how comfortable the young person was with technology. For example, one grandparent said her grandson was used to gaming and other online activities, and so was far more familiar with technology than she was.
Secondly, the child’s age and ability was a factor. Many people said that younger children found it hard to interact with parents on video calls: “The boys struggle with what to say to her, get over excited, and act silly.” Some grandparents felt that disabled children could not benefit from video calls, but this did depend on the individual child. For example, a grandparent whose grandson had complex disabilities said “[he] smiles and giggles when he sees his family, especially when they play hidey boo with him”.
Thirdly, carers reported that children could enjoy video calls more when they were more interactive: “We try and make it as much fun as possible allowing them to do dances and tours of their rooms etc. They are able to show things they have been doing – makes it a bit easier for them.”
The fourth factor was how well the child generally got on with their parent. Grandparents often felt that although video calls could be reassuring, children missed the physical contact with mum or dad, with one saying: “She wants to see him properly and have a cuddle.” Although, conversely, where children had a difficult relationship with their parents, some grandparents didn’t want to have video calls as they felt their home was their grandchild’s “safe space”.
A unique feature of contact for grandparents was that they were trying to balance the needs of two generations in their family – their son or daughter who was the birth parent, and the child. Many grandparents were trying to offer increased support and reassurance to their son or daughter (and other grandchildren living with the birth parent), but this could create problems with managing boundaries: “I do find it difficult the amount of extra texting my daughter does now, asking me to send her photos of her son … I cannot keep up the responding on a DAILY basis as it is too much for me mentally”.
My key advice for grandparents around contact would be firstly to talk to the children and try to find out what they are thinking and feeling about contact with their other family members. Talk to your child’s birth parent/s to find out what can work for them too, to agree how any new form of contact is going to work and to plan how you can work together so children don’t feel torn between the two branches of their family. You might be able to suggest things to the parent they can do to engage children in digital contact, such as reading a story to them or playing some sort of game, and you can help parents see it as normal that young children can only mange a short length of time on video calls.
For professionals, try to check in with grandparents to find out what support they may need at this time – with contact but also with the other demands brought about by the pandemic (like pressures of home schooling or the impact of lockdown on everyone’s wellbeing). When it comes to digital contact, recognise that some grandparents might need help accessing and using digital technology, and also in managing the complex emotional and family boundary issues that arise when contact is within the family.