Wednesday Wisdom

June 07, 2023

Proactive Parenting

By Dr Kathy Weston

Proactive Parenting


Over half-term, I had the pleasure of travelling to Northern Ireland with colleagues to trial some new resources that the Tooled Up team has created to support children as they start venturing into the digital world. We spent the day with young tweens, so I wondered, how much would they already know? Would they be interested in what we had to say? How would they respond to the metaphor that we were about to present to them?

The metaphor that we had decided upon to usefully and accessibly convey the importance of remaining digitally savvy, hinged on the idea of pupils morphing into ‘digital detectives’. By the time these tweens hit late puberty, the digital world will certainly have gone through even more revolutionary reiterations. Whilst this is exciting, such innovation heightens the level of digital risk that children and young people may be exposed to.

Keen to always focus on life’s ‘controllables’, I know that we parents can’t possibly fathom which social media platform they will be using as young adults or what technology will exist in their daily lives. However, we can take firm steps to equip them with the mindset, self-talk, digital values and skills that will give them the best chance of warding off digital harms and sustaining their digital resilience.

As the pupils pointed out, there is a significant need for resilience. When I enquired, they fluently listed a series of challenges that they anticipate when engaging with digital technology. They reeled off words like ‘doxing’, ‘phishing’, ‘hacking’, ‘scamming’, ‘cat-fishing.’ Happily, they could also list all the things they loved about digital tech. When we discussed the skills that a ‘digital detective’ might need to remain vigilant online, they described characteristics such as: an enquiring mind, a passion for problem-solving, a commitment to look for evidence rather than make quick assumptions, a desire for justice and the ability to trust your instincts! You can see why this metaphor works.

Children don’t like to be exploited and they can find it exciting to look for ‘clues’ as to potential risk. In our workshop, they had to consider common online scenarios and pay attention to where their detective radar might sound an alarm! We need this generation of children to be self-protective, astute and discerning, robust and critical consumers of all that they see and read. In addition, and of the utmost importance, they need to have the safest of places to land psychologically, for the times when they will make digital errors, fall short of family digital values, get duped, tricked, hacked or mistreated online.

Without the safety net of warm parental communication, support and acceptance, children and young people are more vulnerable to online harm in the form of unsolicited contact from strangers, harmful content or inappropriate requests. We know from research conducted by Aiman El Asam, that children who are psychologically vulnerable offline are more likely to be vulnerable online too.

By emphasising the importance of being a ‘digital detective’, we can remind children that they are in control, that there are always ‘clues’ to look for within the digital world and we can encourage them to have confidence in their good judgement and overall ability to problem solve.

During the workshop, we nudged children to consider the modus operandi of those who might try to move them from communal to more intimate spaces online. They proved to be highly astute and able to recognise the peculiar persistence of one user, asking for a password or the name of their school. We also presented vignettes that helped children understand the psychology of cyberbullying. What is in it for the bully? And how can we be good upstanders witnessing such interactions? Cyberbullies can motivate other digital users to ‘pile on’ and this can be difficult to witness as a young person. Pupils were very able, through some simple narrative analysis, to work out that bullies were motivated by getting a response. We had time in the workshop to consider real-life scenarios where we had choices in how they might respond online to unkind commentary, the experience of being cyberbullied or excluded. Together, we listed all the things they could do, all the actions they could take within their own power, to move away safely from things that didn’t feel right.

We talked about another visual metaphor, that of wearing a ‘resilient raincoat’ when they go online (an invisible cloak that shields us from unkind words). Words don’t get through the raincoat. Instead, they ‘bounce off’ like raindrops and we remain secure and safe underneath. The workshop concluded with a digital poster competition where students were challenged to create a visual of takeaway lessons learned during the day; an exercise that also gave them practice in collaborative working.


Whilst Northern Ireland schools don’t have a half-term, elsewhere families have been on a half-term break and have been enjoying June weather. Some have visited coastal areas and some parents have emailed us to ask about water safety. This has undoubtedly been prompted by the dreadful tragedy at Bournemouth Beach in England over the holiday period where two teens lost their lives in the sea in one day.

When I was about eight years old and not a proficient swimmer, I jumped into the hotel pool on holiday to grab a red and white Fred Flintstone beach ball that had floated into the deep end. I can still recall what it felt like to descend and descend whilst bubbles rose above me and wonder what the large black item was coming towards me. It was my mother’s skirt as she entered the water to save me.

Even now, I have to be dragged into water, so the event left its mark. Upon reflection, the real issue was a lack of experience and training on my part as a child. I don’t recall swimming lessons featuring high on our family agenda. Our children will all experience interaction with pools of water, whether it’s at birthday parties, on holidays or on school trips and they need to be both skilled in water safety and able to recognise when someone else is struggling.

Drowning is preventable. Yet, more than 400 people accidentally drown in the UK and Ireland every year. It is the third-highest cause of accidental death in children in the UK. Worldwide, it is among the 10 leading causes of death for young people aged 1-24. Almost half of all accidental drownings happen in the UK’s warmest season, between May and August. Around 85% of accidental drownings occur at open water sites, such as lakes, lochs, ponds, quarries or reservoirs.

Open water swimming and water sports, such as paddleboarding, are increasingly popular. They can be relaxing and peaceful, facilitating a connection to nature that makes us feel good. But without adequate preparation, they can also be dangerous. In open water, the depth can be changeable, banks and river beds can be uneven, hazards may not be easily seen and there may be strong or dangerous currents. In short, it’s vital to plan any outing to open water carefully by having the right equipment (wetsuit, brightly coloured swimming hat, tow float, warm, dry clothes or a dry robe for afterwards, a warm drink and a buoyancy aid for activities), always going with a friend, knowing our limits and understanding both how to stay safe in the first place and how to seek help if needed. For more information, the Royal Life Saving Society website features a #BePrepared hub, containing everything needed to enjoy open water safely this summer.

According to the Royal Life Saving Society, over 55% of parents are not confident that their child would know what to do if they fell into open water. Eek! We need to take action to remedy that and not wait for the summer holidays to do so. This is a busy time of year as we are in the thick of exam season and beyond that look forward to holiday season, but slotting in time for chats, training or reflection on water safety is an imperative.

I recently spoke with a mum who was allowing her 16 year old to travel abroad with friends this summer to a resort in Europe. She was mainly concerned about their alcohol consumption. I would be concerned about that obviously, but also about the group’s knowledge of water safety; how to manage risk around water and how to help a friend who gets into trouble. I think it is imperative that these chats happen.

Post exams, young people can feel utterly invincible and parents may not want to dish out lists of rules at the beginning of a carefree summer. However, we have to be realistic. The stakes are high. Teens will be at heightened risk when visiting new places in hot countries. They will likely hit the beach as soon as possible and may not stop to consider how the water in that area operates, take the necessary minutes to assess if there is lifeguard support available on the beach or find out what various flags mean. Before they go abroad, they should know the emergency number in that particular country and have a few phrases written out for emergency circumstances that they can keep in their wallet or purse. A few little life saving tips can go a long way. Introduce them to the What3Words app too, so that no matter where they end up and whatever may go wrong, they can be found!

With my own teen hitting the waves with friends soon, I have asked him to learn the RNLI’s ‘float to live’ advice: If you fall into water, fight your instinct to thrash around. Lean back, extend your arms and legs. If you need to, gently move them around to help you float. Float until you can control your breathing. Only then, call for help or swim to safety. Watch their explainer video here. I have also talked to him about rip currents, which are involved in the majority of incidents attended by the RNLI. Rips can be difficult to see. But they can sometimes be identified by a channel of darker, choppy water on the sea’s surface. By choosing to swim in areas supported by lifeguards only, the risk of succumbing to rip currents is reduced, as they are more easily spotted and if anyone gets into trouble, help is immediately available.

We also have to be realistic about alcohol consumption and talk to teens about the risks of mixing alcohol and swimming. Alcohol and drugs are a factor in about 1 in 3 drownings. The disinhibiting effects of alcohol and drugs might trigger unsafe behaviour, such as swimming when it’s not safe to do so and can affect our ability to get out of trouble in the water.


Due to the pandemic, with pool closures and our ability to travel curtailed, many young people have not had the water experience that they need. Younger children might have had less than expected access to swimming lessons and may need extra supervision around bathtimes at home and when visiting hotels with pools.

Sadly, over the last six years, 30 children under 10 from the UK have drowned in holiday swimming pools (like I nearly did) abroad. It is my understanding that this can more often than not be on the first day of the holiday, when parents are tired or held up at the reception desk and their curious child wanders off to check out the pool.

There are wider cultural issues at play too. Did you know that only 2% of regular swimmers are Black? Recent research from Sport England found that 95% of Black adults, 80% of Black children and 78% of Asian children in England do not swim and that Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. This is something that national swimming and sporting bodies are keen to address. After all, swimming is one of the only sports that is literally life saving. In 2020, open water swimming specialist, Alice Dearing, the first Black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games, founded the Black Swimming Association. Her organisation aims to make aquatic sports more ethnically diverse and to educate people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage about water safety and drowning prevention. Keen to find out what the barriers are to participation, Alice has been involved in commissioning a research project to explore why Black and Asian communities are frequently reluctant to swim.

Drowning children don’t cry out for help or wave to be rescued. They disappear, as I did, under the surface, often unheard. Basic water skills can be life-changing. Thankfully, there are various free resources online that can help to provide families with the confidence to be safe in, on and around water. For example, the RLSS’s online toolkit ‘Lifesaver – Lifechanger’ has four modules, introducing water safety and providing tips on how to stay safe around water at home, in the pool, outdoors and at the beach. It contains advice on what to do if you or someone else finds themselves in an emergency and how to perform a rescue from land safely. You can access the toolkit here.

​​At home, young children are most likely to drown in the bath or garden pond. It’s not only deep water that poses a threat. Children can drown in as little as 5cm of water. Babies and young children should not be left alone in water, even for a moment. Always supervise baths and empty the tub as soon as possible after use. Outside, always closely watch children in paddling pools and keep young children within arm’s reach of an adult. Empty paddling pools and any water containers as soon as they have been used. Stop paddling pools from collecting water by turning them upside down once empty. If you have a hot tub, cover it securely after use. Five children under the age of six drown every year in garden ponds in the UK. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents suggests covering your pond with a rigid metal grille or securely fencing it. Alternatively, repurpose your pond whilst the children are young by turning it into a flowerbed or sandpit.

When holidaying with a young child, it goes without saying that it’s vital to remain vigilant around swimming pools. It’s a good idea to check safety arrangements at your accommodation in advance (does the hotel pool have a lifeguard?) and exercise caution in booking villas without safety fencing. Holiday swimming lessons (if offered) can be a great way to build confidence and teach young children essential water safety skills. A working knowledge of basic first aid is invaluable – there are plenty of courses to choose from which will arm you with the skills needed in the event of an emergency.

A final word of caution. Inflatables are fun, popular products, which undoubtedly make for great photos. However, using them in the sea is extremely dangerous, as they, and whoever is sitting in them, can quickly be swept out to sea by wind and currents. Enjoy them in the pool instead.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Tooled Up members can find out more about water safety in the Tooled Up library. If we’ve inspired you to start planning your summer (or even day trips on sunny days), we have plenty of resources to help. Our summer packing lists for children and teens are a great way to cultivate useful life skills and build their confidence, and we also have a packing checklist ideal for any teen planning their first festival experience. Our ‘holiday’ section is packed full of everything from planners to beach science ideas for both children and teens. We’ve also just published our top tips for fun and quirky days out this summer and will soon be updating our useful list of holiday camps and activities (watch this space).

If your teen is thinking about going away on holiday alone for the first time this summer and you’d like to feel better equipped about talking with them about evaluating risk and making informed decisions, our recent webinar with Fiona Spargo-Mabbs OBE and Asha Fowells from drugs education charity the DSM Foundation, is a must watch. If you think it appropriate within your specific family dynamic, older teens might like to watch it with you and it can be used as a discussion prompt for further dialogue. It covers what young people and parents need to know about the risks of drugs and alcohol, factors that affect young people’s decisions, conversations and strategies for managing risk and staying safe and where to seek information and support if you do have concerns.

The end of exams will be welcomed by many families within the next week or so. Partying isn’t the only way to mark the occasion and it’s good to remind teens that there are many more options for unwinding and rewarding their hard work. If you need some inspiration, check out our list of 20 fun and varied activities.