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May 26th, 2017

How do I talk to my child about terrorism and violence?

It is with great sadness that we are addressing this question again. The attack in Manchester is only a few weeks after the incident in Westminster on 22nd March. This attack on a concert venue attended by children and teenagers is a very shocking and terrible thing and we thought it might be helpful to look again at how to talk to your children about such events, particularly as there were children amongst the casualties this time.

How you address this will vary a lot depending on the age of your children and their temperament and your own values. While everyone will be appalled by what has happened there may be different aspects of it that you would want to highlight to your children.

Age

If your children are under the age of 3 then hopefully they are unaware of what is going on. I would always try to make sure that this age group are not exposed to the adult content of news programmes and the pictures on the front of the newspapers.

If they are 3-5 then I wouldn’t raise it with them unless they ask questions and then try to do it without scaring them unnecessarily. We don’t want our children to be assuming that people they see in the street are ‘terrorists’ or even ‘bad people’ and we don’t want them to be afraid to go to sleep or to go out or to be terrified of any family members attending concerts or sporting fixtures. Calmly ask them what they know and don’t add to the list of horrific facts. If you can see that they are afraid then admit that this was a shocking thing to have happened and that it is natural to feel frightened at first. You will have to find a balance, determined by your child’s nature, between not promising them they will always be completely safe which is unrealistic, and making them jump at their own shadow. We face this balancing act already when we talk to our children about ‘stranger danger’. (Although we recommend you don’t use the word ‘stranger’ so that children don’t learn to fear everyone they don’t know. Teach them about ‘tricky people’ instead.) You could try something along the lines of “sometimes people get very angry and they do very terrible things and they hurt others. They forget to use their words to sort things out. That’s why it’s very important to learn to talk about problems and not hurt anyone.” This is putting it into words that they can relate to.

This theme can be used with older children too but they may be able to handle more information about what happened and they may be seeing for themselves some of the details in the media. School aged children will probably be hearing it about it at school so it’s good to discuss it with them. Ask your aged 10+ children for their ideas about why it happened and what world leaders can do about it. What can we do about it? This is important to prevent them feeling powerless.

Temperament

Some of you will have kids who are oblivious to what’s been going on and you’re surprised to find that they knew about the attacks at all. Others may have been asking you questions endlessly and worrying about how it happened and being tremendously concerned for the families and perhaps for themselves, given that this has happened in their own country.

This doesn’t mean that the first child doesn’t have any compassion or doesn’t care. But it is an indication of different temperaments. The more relaxed child may not be able to relate to something that is beyond his experience and understanding. The latter child is just more sensitive than the former. It’s not good or bad –it just is. And we need to adapt our approach for each temperament.

For the former you may try to raise awareness a little if it feels appropriate whereas for the highly sensitive child you may be trying to temper it a little and to help him deal with his feelings. If you’ve got both in one family you may have to help one understand the other.

It will help to name the feelings overwhelming your upset child. Don’t try to brush it under the carpet or your child will not be able to tell you about his worries in future. “You are really upset, aren’t you? These events have really worried you. You’re a person who feels things in a big way and sometimes that is lovely and sometimes it can be hard for you. I know you felt really sad for those families of the people who were killed. I’m glad you care. Sharing your worries makes them a bit easier to deal with.” It may help to use some kind of ritual to acknowledge the lives of the people who have passed away such as lighting a candle. This will give your child something practical to do.

If your child is very worried that something similar could affect her own family don’t tell her there’s no need to worry but acknowledge her worries and tell her about the steps that are being taken by the authorities to protect us. Sometimes it can help for children to have a worry box. Get them to write their worries down on a piece of paper and screw the paper up into a tight ball and then put it into the box. Then put the box away somewhere (not in the child’s room) until the end of the week. At the end of the week unfold the worries and see that they have not come to pass. You can put them back in the box or throw them away –whatever the child chooses.

Values

This was of course a terribly wrong thing to do. But there is an opportunity here for us to teach our children something about difference.

Although this has just happened there will no doubt be speculation that this atrocity was carried out by Islamic fundamentalists and indeed an ISIS-related website has claimed the attacker was “a caliphate soldier” although the person responsible grew up in Manchester. Even though such extremists do not represent the majority of peace-loving people who practice Islam many negative words have been and will be said about Muslims. Those of us who are not Muslims can teach our children that most Muslims are good people and that they don’t need to be afraid of anyone wearing a hijab or otherwise looking a bit ‘foreign’. We can teach our older children that the aim of organisations like IS is to make us afraid and to stir up dissension between faiths and that is exactly what leads to conflict. Encourage them not to give these bullies the satisfaction. Tell them that you will be going about your daily lives and will not alter what you do because you are not afraid and that you will be kind to any Muslim person you see who must be feeling very uncomfortable. If you meet a person wearing Muslim dress smile at them and tell your children why you’re making a point of that right now.

If you are a Muslim parent you may be feeling anxious for yourself and for your children. You may be feeling very angry about what is being in done in the name of your religion and tarnishing you in the process. You may have experienced prejudice. You may be clear what to say to your child about these events but wonder how to explain bigotry. It must be very difficult to explain to your child that others may judge and treat him unfairly because of his religion. I can’t tell you exactly what to say but I would acknowledge his pain and fear and tell him that the Quran values people of all faiths.

Whatever our faith, colour, physical abilities, social standing or level of education we can teach our children to respect themselves and others by how we interact with them and others. We can teach them not to fear difference or the unfamiliar by our modelling and by exposing them to different experiences and people.

Fear comes from lack of understanding and from feeling powerless. We can help our children to see that they can make a difference by taking small steps to build trust between different peoples. Taking positive action to address these problems and make the world a better place helps empower kids. When people of minority groups feel a sense of belonging in their community they will have no reason to act out their disaffection and they can feel accepted enough to speak out against prejudice. Whether Muslim or non-Muslim talk with your child about how he or she can take a stand against intolerance. Talk to them about how this may be difficult to do if their friends are bad-mouthing Muslims. Practice with them how to say something like “I don’t believe that.

This was another terrible thing to happen. And I believe that parents need to re-commit to raising children committed to not fearing people who are different and to talking through problems. This may be a learning process for you too if you’ve grown up in an environment with little exposure to difference races or faiths. Let your children know that you are expanding your own horizons!

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May 23rd, 2017

The Antidote to Meanness

A parent in our Thursday morning class in Barnes raised this issue recently and we wondered what issues others were experiencing around friendships. We know parents want to know about solutions to friendship issues as our Friendship workshop keeps selling out!

Our client had said that her daughter Holly* (aged 7) had a friend, Emma*, over to play and Emma told their neighbour’s little girl Laila* that Holly didn’t like her. Our mum said this wasn’t true but Holly had said that Laila sometimes made quite a lot of noise in the flat above them which could be annoying.  Laila was upset and so were her parents. Initially the mum wanted Holly to apologise but she didn’t want to force an insincere apology and Holly thought that was unfair as she hadn’t done anything wrong. The mum said she thought about it from her 7 year old’s perspective and realised that it was a big ask for her to understand the unintended impact of her words. She acknowledged that Holly felt betrayed by her friend Emma’s breach of confidence and she decided to tell her friend (gently) about the effect of her words. Holly could see that sometimes words have unintended hurtful consequences. Her mum wisely said that saying sorry in this case was not an admission of wrongdoing but an acknowledgment of hurt caused. Apparently they compromised with Holly spending the afternoon happily with Laila keeping her entertained. Our mum said “Parents soothed, children happy, something learnt. Result!”

This was quite a complicated scenario in a little girl’s life but it’s not all unusual for a girl to tell another girl that someone else doesn’t like her. It’s one of the forms of verbal meanness that girls go in for (and girls are pretty adept with words). Boys can be mean too but at this age they are generally more physical.

At the age of 7 girls are often playing in friendship clusters or they may be beginning to make best friends. These friendships are often quite transitory as girls try on different kinds of friends and this kind of experience, while painful, teaches them a lot about what to look for in a friend. If your daughter has had this kind of experience it’s a great opportunity to talk to her about what it means to be a good friend. We usually recommend that parents do an exercise with their girls like creating an advertisement which lists all the attributes wanted in the prospective friend. It’s a fun thing to do but it also gets your child thinking about what they expect of their friends but also what they know they should be doing as a good friend themselves. If you write down a list of good friend qualities you can keep the list somewhere prominent to remind you to notice and comment any time you see your own daughter displaying any of them.

Chief amongst the qualities of a good friend is kindness. Kindness is not something which is simply innate in children –it is a teachable skill. We can and should teach our children to be kind. This is essential in a world where bullying is so prevalent. Kindness is the antidote to bullying. Empathy is when children know and care about what another person is feeling and when you feel someone else’s pain kindness follows.

We can teach our children empathy in these ways;

  • As usual we start with modelling. What are we doing to demonstrate kindness and empathy? Do they see us opening doors for others, helping someone with heavy packages, smiling at or talking to someone who might be a bit lonely, thinking about what needs others might have that we can help with? “Auntie Jo and Uncle Matt are moving house on the weekend. Let’s see if we can give them a hand.” Be explicit about what you’re doing. “You may have noticed me chatting with that lady on the bus wearing a headscarf. She’s a Muslim woman and I think it’s important to make Muslim people feel welcome in our community at the moment when there’s a lot of fear and hatred being directed at people of their faith.”
  • Parents who use emotion coaching are giving their children an empathy head start. When we acknowledge feelings we help our kids to recognise and name their own feelings and the feelings of others. This is the first step toward empathy. “Harry’s feeling really out of sorts tonight. I think he didn’t have a good day at school today. What can we do to make him feel happier?” Encourage your children to see things from the other’s point of view. They won’t be able to do this until any feelings of their own have been heard.
  • Descriptively praise any small acts of kindness and point out the positive consequences of your child’s acts of kindness, including the benefit to the child. “When you asked Grandma about her weekend I could tell she felt cared for. Did you see the way she smiled? I bet that made you feel good.”
  • State your expectations and your values. “In our family we treat each other with kindness. I’m guessing you were feeling really cross when Mariam stepped on your dinosaur and it’s unkind to call someone a ‘retard’. That hurt her feelings. When you feel calmer I will help you think of a way to make amends.”

It’s possible Emma didn’t mean to be unkind to Holly. She may have wanted Holly to be her friend exclusively and to keep Laila out of the picture. She may not have been thinking about the consequences for Laila as she was focused on Holly. When we think about the reasons for an apparently unkind behaviour, rather than just punishing it, we can be more effective in changing behaviour. Maybe Emma needs to feel more confident in her ability to make and maintain friendships. She may need help understanding that having a third friend in a group doesn’t devalue the friendship between two. Then she wouldn’t need to undermine others. Emma can be taught good friendship skills.

 

*Names have been changed

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May 09th, 2017

Two words for success in life and parenting

Ann Magalhaes, who runs our classes in Rye, New York, was listening to a radio programme in which the interviewee was Norman Lear, writer and producer of sitcoms, who was just shy of his 94th birthday.  Mid-way through the interview, he was asked if he had any tips for getting to 94 as spry and as successful and happy as he is.  This was his response: 

[It] may be as simple as any two words in the English language – over and next.  And we don’t pay enough attention to them.  When something is over, it is over … and we are on to next.  And if there was to be a hammock in the middle … between over and next, that would be what is meant by living in the moment.” 

Ann said as a parenting educator this hit home!  At The Parent Practice we encourage our clients not to linger on the ‘bad’ things our children have done.  We often stew about slammed doors, muddy shoes in the hall, rolled eyes, tantrums … and we find ourselves staying angry or resentful about things that have already happened.  Those of you who have ever asked a teenager to un-slam a door – well, you know how that goes! 

Over and Next serve as a reminder that what happened is over and now it’s time to move forward with some learning.  It’s now, as Lear says, ‘hammock time’, that split second between your child’s emotional outburst and your response – the magical moment that enables you to connect with your child without anger, judgement or blame.  It is the time to be present — take a deep restorative breath and remember that what happened is now over – and you get to choose how you handle what comes next.  When we can get into the habit of responding this way, we no longer have to lose it with our kids!  As Steven Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective Families) suggests, we can push the pause button and decide on a more constructive response.   

Next is all about supporting your child in a constructive and positive way to learn a more appropriate behaviour; to make amends; or simply to solve whatever problem they are facing that day.   This way, your child can start to think about what he or she can do the next time they are feeling that same emotion, so that they are empowered to deal with it in a more effective and positive way. 

‘Hammock time’ is a moment to decide to build a deeper connection with your child.  It is about practicing living in the space between over and next – the space where you can listen, encourage and love. 

The key to making use of hammock time lies in these 5 things:

  • We have to take steps to reduce our stress levels and to look after ourselves
  • We need to understand what makes us lose our cool
  • What makes kids do what they do
  • What makes us react the way we do
  • We need to have strategies to teach our children to behave differently 

Taking good care of ourselves is not being selfish or self-indulgent – it is taking care of our needs so that we are better equipped to support our families. Try thinking of it as on-going professional development for your job as a parent. When we’re calm, we can access the parenting skills we already have, and the ones we’re learning and working on.
What can you do to look after your physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing?

To make sure you get into action:

TAKE one small step – rather than applying to run the marathon next year, join a local fitness class or download some running tracks and set off for the local park.

COMMIT money – if we pay up in advance, we’re less likely to back out on the morning.

SCHEDULE it – the act of writing it into our diary makes it more likely to happen.

FIND a friend – either persuade a friend to join you in your run or trip to the museum, or ask them to act as a ‘stand’ for you which means you give them permission to call you and find out how it went. 

It may help to use some calming techniques in the moment too so you can access your ‘hammock’ moment.

VISUALISE You can either visualise the stress and get rid of it or visualise something very calm and soothing.

VERBALISE Use a mantra to help you calm down. “Breathe and relax.” Or maybe “That’s over. What’s next?” Counting to 10 also works. 

MOVE Take deep breaths, do something physical like go for a walk, splash cold water on your face or hands, get a massage, leave the room.
Understanding why our kids do the things they do and why we respond the way we do is the subject of chapter 7 of our book, Real Parenting for Real Kids.

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May 01st, 2017

Steve Biddulph blames British parents. Really?

You may have heard that celebrated author and psychologist Steve Biddulph has been in the UK to promote his new book about raising girls: 10 Things Girls Need Most to Grow Up Strong and Free. We look forward to reading it as we admire Biddulph’s previous works. Watch this space for a review soon. 

But the launch of this book  has been attended with some controversy as Biddulph apparently blamed parents  for the mental health epidemic among young people that is sweeping Britain today. It is certainly true that there has been a massive increase in mental health issues amongst our young people in recent years, especially anxiety and depression. In a NHS survey in 2016 girls as young as 12 were found to be self-harming and one in four girls in the age group 16-24 had self-harmed. So there is definitely a problem. 

But is it really parents’ fault? And even if there are things parents could be doing differently how useful is it to blame them? In my experience most parents already feel guilty about their parenting. Have a look at our blog from last year about this. 

When Biddulph was being interviewed for a piece in the Times by Lorraine Candy (a mother herself) he acknowledged that if I’ve made you feel bad I’ve failed. 

He’s right. Making someone feel guilty does not promote change. 

In my 18 years of adult education (and six years of working with adolescents in a behavioural change programme) I have learnt a few things about how to encourage people to make changes in their lives. Parenting is a very sensitive subject and suggestions that we might raise our children differently aren’t always well received. Parenting is very personal. 

I find parents without exception want to do the best they can for their children. Usually we raise our children according to a set of principles we inherit from our own parents. Even when we’re actively trying to adopt a different approach we often default to what feels instinctive because we’re so used to it! My experience is that when parents understand more about child development and how a child’s maturing brain dictates behaviour and when they get insights into their own child’s temperament they are happy to modify their approach. Parents, like all of us, have open minds and are ready to learn when they don’t feel blamed or judged. When they do feel blamed they become defensive. 

Funnily enough the same is true for our children! So when we’re trying to discipline them we need to remember our purpose; to educate. Discipline comes from the Latin root ‘disciplinas’ which means ‘teaching’. If our actions don’t serve to teach then they’re pointless, and sometimes harmful. Kids can’t learn if they’re stressed or feeling bad about themselves. Since young children live very much in the moment they don’t understand that what they’re feeling right now is not a permanent condition. So if your discipline leaves them feeling shame they will be consumed by that feeling and not open to learning. 

Steve Biddulph is an evangelist and passionately speaks in forthright terms. In fact he was not directly blaming parents for the poor mental health of our young people. He was saying that circumstances in Britain (cost of housing requiring two parents to work, working culture of very long hours, pressurised exam-focused educational system which begins at a very young age etc ) are not conducive to good mental health. But reassuringly he thinks that just a 5% change in the way parents do things can make a huge difference to their kids. He also said that working parents who have limited time with their children don’t want to sully the time they do have by disciplining their children. This is mistaken (but not surprising) thinking. Biddulph says parents need courage to discipline. But we think what parents need to know is how to discipline in positive ways –you don’t need to be so brave for that and you can be confident that it works to teach kids without humiliation or shaming. 

For discipline without shame and many proactive ways to shape children’s behaviour have a look at our book Real Parenting for Real Kids.

 

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