This blog post was originally published on The Safeguarding Company website >> https://www.thesafeguardingcompany.com/resources/blog/safeguarding-during-the-christmas-holiday-season/
SAFEGUARDING DURING THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY SEASON
Children love the magic of Christmas but for some, it is not a happy holiday to look forward to at all. For some children and their families, there is no sparkle in the December festivities because it isn’t filled with happiness, family and friends, joy and peace. The sad reality is, Christmas can be a time when children struggle to cope with being ignored, bullied and abused.
Christmas can be a tough time for everyone because expectations are high and there is a phoney pressure to ‘have a good time’. But as many people will know, family relationships can be fraught, distant and a source of pain. The idealised images of happy families around the dinner table that feature in Christmas advertising and the media at this time of year are just that: unrealistic. Life is complex, messy and picture-postcard perfection is just a John Lewis or M&S film-set. Spending more time with their family and sharing special moments together can be idyllic for lots of children but it can be hell for those who live in challenging circumstances around abusive adults with chaotic lives.
There is a darker side to the festive season that we must address and that is recognising that some children are having a miserable time. For schools, this is a time of year, along with other holiday periods when it is difficult to monitor their wellbeing. December sees a spike in safeguarding issues and every year the NSPCC report increasing numbers of children phoning them for help because relationship tensions among families tend to come to a head over the Christmas break.
As the Children’s Rights Alliance for England notes in its 2018 report, high numbers of children are exposed to domestic abuse and it is also commonplace for children to be abused by a relative or close family friend as these are the people most likely to be visiting during the Christmas period and New Year.
What are the key issues?
12 SAFEGUARDING ISSUES
Children can be cut off from their usual support network of teachers and friends when school closes for the holiday and they have nowhere to escape to. Neglected or abused children can experience extreme loneliness because they are isolated from the outside world which can be made worse by the dark nights and freezing temperatures. They might not always be able to leave the house or their abuser, which can leave them feeling anxious and depressed.
Christmas is intense and a time of excess which can be so stressful that trauma and heart attacks in adults are more prevalent. Overeating, lack of sleep, emotional stress, excess alcohol, illegal drugs and anger can come together to create a perfect storm and children are often first in the firing line. Sometimes there is nowhere to hide from violent and aggressive family members who lose control. There is also the issue of parents allowing children to get drunk and take drugs.
Although many safeguarding issues come about by being around family members in the home this is also the time of year when many children are left by themselves for long periods and sometimes overnight. Not all children are blessed with home lives filled with responsible adults.
Children who are unsupervised are potentially put at risk of suffering or injury and the festive period is often a time when adults seek entertainment outside of the home. This could be a respite for some children, but they are still at risk as they are left to feed and fend for themselves and also look after younger siblings. Some children also have additional needs and are unable to cope, especially in an emergency.
Child neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK and robs children of their childhood. As Action for Children note, “When an adult doesn’t support them it means they can be unsafe, unhealthy, unloved and uncared for.”
Although schools try hard to poverty-proof, what happens beyond the school gates is impossible to control. Christmas places families under enormous pressure to spend money purchasing gifts, entertainment, and decorating. Sadly, many can’t absorb the financial commitments without going into debt. With ‘Dickensian levels of poverty’ for some, children may not receive many presents and start comparing what they do have to others. This might make them feel like they have done something wrong and that they are on the ‘naughty list’. Hearing about the fabulous gifts other children receive can make them feel inadequate and different.
We also encourage parents not to tell their Santa aged children that their expensive gifts were from Santa; otherwise, children may wonder why their friends received Ipad's and phones from Santa but they only received clothing or shoes.
Children’s Arrangements and Access
Children can get caught in the thick of things when families have split apart and this can be distressing. Separated parents can argue with each other about making Christmas arrangements and there can be disagreements about setting ground rules. Some may spend more on their child than the other and there are also concerns about controlling step-parents and abusive step-siblings when children spend time away from their usual environment.
Children may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation from people outside their families as a result of the relationships they have in their neighbourhoods, schools and online. Child sexual exploitation, exploitation by criminal gangs, involvement in organised crime groups, trafficking and radicalisation can all be more prevalent during holiday periods when children aren’t safeguarded by their schools.
A Change in Routines
During the Christmas break, we are often doing things that are out of our usual routines. Young babies and their families may be staying away from home with friends and family for the holidays and other people may be putting a baby to bed. This can be a safeguarding issue because a whole host of issues need to be addressed such as sleep position, co-sleeping, mattresses and bedding, room temperature, smoking and e-cigarettes. Safer sleep advice is available via The Lullaby Trust. If children are staying with relatives or friends over Christmas, remember that the top bunk of bunk beds can be dangerous for children under six. Safety items that families might have in their own homes such as stair gates and cupboard locks, might not be available where they are staying.
Visitors to a home may need to be reminded not to leave medicines in places where children can find them as they are the most common cause of accidental poisoning in children.
Staying safe over the festive period is a concern for every family and digital safeguarding is an important part of keeping children and young people protected. Gifts such as Tablets, Gaming Consoles or Smartphones can all be used to go online so it is important to think ahead about what safety features are available and set them up in advance.
The Safer Internet Centre also has some excellent advice in their Parents’ Guide to Technology and includes device-specific settings for different models. Explore more about parental controls here. Families may want to think about setting up a Family Agreement as suggested by Childnet International.
Young people with adverse childhood experiences (ACE) have been part of households with problems such as substance and alcohol misuse, child protection issues, domestic violence and mental health difficulties. Many still are. Research by mental health charity Mind has shown that people with mental health problems struggle with self-harm and suicidal feelings due to the pressure of Christmas and this places children and young people in extremely vulnerable situations.
Food and Drink
Safeguarding children also means keeping them out of the kitchen when a big meal is being prepared to avoid burns and scalds. One in ten children's accidents happen in the kitchen.
Families need to be vigilant that alcoholic drinks are not readily accessible as even small amounts of alcohol can poison young children.
Keeping everyone safe in the home is crucial, so candles need to be kept away from decorations and Christmas trees. Decorations shouldn’t be hung from lights and heaters because they can catch alight and burn easily. Christmas lights need to be turned off and candles and cigarettes extinguished. Smoke alarms need checking to make sure they work.
Around this time of year, there are temporary bargain shops and stalls that pop up often selling illegally imported toys that often don’t meet strict toy safety requirements and may pose a risk.
Toys unwrapped on ‘the big day’ leave a mountain of packaging and babies and toddlers can choke on small parts or swallow harmful parts of the toy including button batteries.
THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR?
The traditional image of Christmas is incredibly optimistic and it can be wonderful, but we must remember that it certainly isn’t a given for vulnerable children. It is, however, a foundational celebration that adds meaning to life and can deepen family bonds.
Safeguarding is the responsibility of everyone and at this time of year, we have to be extra-vigilant and offer support where we can and be proactive where we suspect or see the signs of abuse and neglect and seek the help of the police and social services. The rights of the child come first and all children have a right to protection from violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect.
Children have a right to feel safe and secure wherever they are spending their Christmas and, as Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says, their best interests should always be kept as our central consideration. All children should have the love, support and opportunity they need to reach their potential.
- The NSPCC are here to help 24/7 and children can call their Childline number on 0800 1111
- Help for adults concerned about a child can call 0808 800 5000
- Shout is the UK’s first 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere. It’s a place to go if you’re struggling to cope and you need immediate help. Text 85258
Written by John Dabell. Republished by Vikkey Chaffe November 2021
About The Author: John Dabell trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting his career in London and then taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, he has worked as an Ofsted inspector, national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. He now works as an Education Consultant, resource reviewer and blogger.