January 23rd, 2017
Are you amongst the thousands of parents who made a new year’s resolution a few weeks ago in connection with your parenting? Perhaps you resolved to shout less or to stay calm. So many parents tell us they want to be more patient. As we approach February are you amongst that very large group who are finding it hard to keep their resolutions?
If not, keep up the good work. If you are struggling, it’s probably because parenting goals are often not well defined or because the steps that would enable you to fulfil your goal aren’t clear. How do you stay calm when your child is ignoring you/beating up his sister/has forgotten his homework for the zillionth time?
Help is at hand.
If your goal is staying calm, and it is after all the ‘holy grail’ of parenting, then you need four things. Just four.
Could you start one quick practice this week to take care of your emotional self? Maybe start using an Appreciation Book –keep a lovely notebook on your bedside table and write in it one thing each day that you appreciate about yourself. Imagine you were writing it about someone you care for. Better still, get your partner involved and write one affirmation for each other. I know from personal experience that when you do this it really builds confidence and trust between you, and makes you much more forgiving of lapses (your own or your partner’s).
For example if you have a child who is cautious, who is inclined to reject new ideas, new people and new situations until he’s more familiar with it/them he may need a bit more preparation than another child. This was one mum’s experience:
William was always reluctant to go to school at the start of each term, even after the half-term break. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I would end up pushing him through the door with tears in his eyes. Until we talked. And he told me that he didn’t like the newness of the fresh classroom. He didn’t know where he would be sitting, he didn’t know what lessons were coming up, he didn’t know what the new lunch menu would be like. And when I saw it from his point of view, and took into account his temperament of finding change difficult, and being a highly regular child, I was able to make the shift from him ‘being a problem’ to ‘having a problem’.
We brainstormed how he could walk in, even when he wouldn’t be able to know what he wanted. We practised things for him to say, something to take in to show someone, just to get him through the door. That, in conjunction with accepting how he felt about the start of each term was enough. He went in with a little smile and a big breath, and hasn’t looked back.
This mum learnt not to make her child wrong or have him feel he was unacceptable as he was but she was also able to help him come to terms with and work with his own temperament. She couldn’t just wish him into being different but she could help him adjust his behaviour and thrive. We have a workshop next week on just this topic.
We know that keeping calm is a really hot topic for parents so we dedicate a whole class to it in our ten week positive parenting programme and there is a whole chapter on it in our book Real Parenting for Real Kids.
What action will you take to help your staying calm resolution?
December 02nd, 2016
As many parents and children head into the last weeks before 11+ exams, final preparations begin. There is a long list of things to check before the day itself – test papers completed, tick, clear pencil case purchased, tick, arrival time and travel plans checked, tick, arrangements for siblings made, tick, nutritious breakfast and early night planned, tick…..
Even with all your preparations, your child will probably still get anxious. This is the real thing; they have not done it before, they know it matters and they may well have picked up that you are nervous. They probably also know that getting nervous won’t help them.
You might take your child aside for a quiet word….. “There’s no need to be nervous, everything is going to be fine, and you just need to breathe and stay calm so you can do your best”.
This kind and practical advice might be reassuring. As the tummy flutters start you remember what Mum or Dad said, and you breathe and maybe it all settles down….
But hearing that you need to manage your nerves is not the same as being able to manage your nerves. Managing anxiety is a really important life-skill, and it takes more than a few minutes of pep talk……
We need to directly approach our children’s anxiety about the approaching exams. It may not feel natural, it may even feel the wrong thing to do. But it will help them if we say things like “I imagine as the exam gets nearer you may well be getting nervous, perhaps it is rumbling away and you’re not sure what to do about it” or “Maybe you’re scared about feeling scared about the exam, even though you have worked so hard on all those tests.”
Despite lots of practical and also emotional preparation, my son was overwhelmed by nerves on the morning on his 13+ exam. He turned as white as a sheet as we arrived at school, his eyes filled with tears, and he started shaking his head…. I so wanted to take these feelings away, I wanted him to feel better – not just for himself and for me, but for the results! I had to dig really deep to say “This is a very tricky moment, you have worked really hard and kept yourself very calm, and now it’s a few minutes away and the nerves have hit you hard and fast and big. Perhaps they have caught you by surprise and that is really tough….” This gave my son a moment to feel OK about not feeling OK, and I saw him trying to pull himself together, and I put my hand on his shoulder. We stood there for a few minutes, and then he dashed into the cloakroom to splash his face. And then he walked off to the exam hall.
The truth is anxiety is already present in our homes – so we’re not going to introduce it or make it worse by talking about it. In fact, when we NAME IT we have a chance to TAME IT.
Let’s give our children a chance to recognise and acknowledge their nerves, by identifying them and then supporting them to work their way through their feelings. We may still give the advice about breathing, but we approach it in a different way.
We can teach children to manage anxiety in a few ways.
First, we can model our own approach to nerves– verbalise how you feel when you’re doing something new or difficult or important, and show them how you handle this. (“I am so excited about driving Dad’s new car, and I am also worried. I think I need to get to know where everything is before I turn the engine on, and then maybe I should do a practice run around the block before we set off to Grandma’s house.”
Be open about the benefits of anxiety. Any performer will tell you that those tingling and jangling adrenaline-fuelled nerves are what can propel you further, keep you going and take to you to new heights – if you welcome and harness them. No nerves? That’s just not true.
Discuss how nervousness feels – can we visualise or describe nerves?
When I asked my sons, I was astonished how clearly they could express their fear! One son said he feels cold and wants to stay very still; he described it as feeling blue and fragile, like glass. My other son described his anxiety as red and bubbling and it makes him want to run.
And what are the early warning signals that things are building inside you? I realise now that I’m concerned about something when my fingers start twitching and I can’t settle to one task. Ask where in their body do they feel the nerves? Tummy, head, arms or legs?
We can refer to other people – it’s not just them. How does Tom Daley feel standing on tip toes at the end of a 10m diving board? They may look completely calm and relaxed – how do we think they manage it?
Talk about various calming techniques that may work for them. They may need a different one to those that work for us. Some well-known options are breathing, visualizing a serene and happy place, or a balloon floating into the distance, or maybe they need to sing or talk to themselves, or have a mad dance around the house to release tension? Whichever one catches their imagination, give it a go and practice it, often.
Obviously doing mad dances or tapping fingers or feet in the exam hall isn’t going to be an option, so it’s likely they will need some alternative calming techniques. (My son takes blu-tak into exams, he squishes it between his fingers in his pocket. )
The trick is to use these techniques early enough – hence the need to spot early warning signs.
So, just as with revision preparations, emotional preparations will help your child deal with exam nerves but also with anxiety generally.
November 24th, 2016
Christmas is coming – but many parents are counting down revision days rather than shopping days…..
Exams in early January cast a shadow over the festive season for many families. How do parents get the balance right, so their child enjoys a rest and gets the seasonal cheer and family fun they need, and is also ready for the Big Day in the New Year?
The obvious advice is to make a revision schedule and stick to it – but what is a good revision schedule for your child? And how do you stick to it?!
Each child needs different preparation – it may be the same exam, but the children are not the same! It’s hard to walk your own path, and hear that other families may be doing more revision, or indeed to hear them insisting they are taking a laid-back approach when you know your child needs more support.
Children today DO have to get used to taking exams. How can we find the right approach and avoid piling on pressure and overwhelming them so they can learn how to do their best?
There are lots of tips about revising – eating healthy foods, getting good sleep, using post-it notes or flashcards. And here are four ideas that will definitely help that you may not have heard before!
Take a tip from computer games!
Have you noticed how motivated your child is to play Minecraft or Jelly Splash? Why? Children love playing these games, and keep going back for more, because lots of clever people have worked hard to make them enjoyable. And, obvious as this may seem, when children enjoy themselves, they are willing to keep going and they improve their performance.
What does this mean for revision?! There are ‘educational’ or ‘revision’ games available, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Children thrive on feeling successful and being rewarded for their efforts as they are in computer games. Does that give us a clue? Does your child feel successful at revision? Do they feel acknowledged and rewarded for the effort they put in?! Mmmmm…..
Computer games work on giving the child something that they value and appreciate every 7 seconds. How much positive feedback does your child get for each revision session? Computer games also break themselves down into munchable chunks – a few minutes of intense work, then a shift of pace or perspective to refresh the previous skills.
Keep revision sessions SHORT and make them REWARDING – that doesn’t mean handing over smarties for every right answer, but it does mean giving LOTS of Descriptive Praise. Say something positive about their effort, any improvement and strategies they use, and for persevering and much more!
“I see you’ve used different colours to make that diagram more interesting and clear. This will help you remember it better.”
“You’ve been very conscientious about filling in your scores on the exercises. Now you can keep track of your progress.”
“I noticed you had a glass of water before we started. That was good thinking, it means your brain is ready to work!”
“You’re pushing yourself to do this, it’s not easy for you, and it will pay off over the next few weeks.”
“Even though you would rather we weren’t doing this, you realise it’s important we get it done. Your attitude towards these exams is mature.”
“I love that you are sticking with this, even when you don’t get the right answer straight away.”
LET them do it their way and have a choice
This doesn’t mean doing NO revision, but it DOES mean letting them have some input and autonomy in their revision. Given that there is no choice about IF they do it, then allow them to have some say about the HOW, the WHEN or the WHERE.
There isn’t one right way (your way!) to revise. Many children do not enjoy sitting still and repeating facts. In fact, trying to do so may be impeding their learning. Some children really do learn better when they are walking around the room, or squeezing, bouncing or hitting a ball. Moving can make learning more enjoyable as well as more effective - have you tried BEING a volcano erupting? It’s much more fun than talking about it…..
Does your child enjoy creating images? Then get them drawing shapes and flow diagrams using a whiteboard, blank postcards or even powerpoint, rather than using something already created by someone else. Yes, it takes a little more time, but the personalisation and engagement is key. Does your child like rhymes and sounds? They can create songs or poems to help them remember facts – it doesn’t matter whether they are rather silly songs or poems! The sillier the better in fact.
We get so worried that our children take revision seriously that having fun and doing it differently to how we would do it, doesn’t sit well with us. Just because your 10 year old works differently from you, doesn’t mean he’s not working or indeed it’s not working for him!
UNDERSTAND their reluctance
This is likely to be the first time your child has experienced this level of pressure or stress. It won’t be the last. That’s not meant to sound all doom and gloom, but rather this is an opportunity! Our job is to coach our children through this new experience and help them learn that they can manage it.
There is nothing wrong with a child who does not look forward to doing revision and would rather be doing something else..
Telling them off for not realising how important revision and exams are doesn’t work. And it probably isn’t true either. They probably do realise, as it’s unlikely we’ve kept it to ourselves. Equally, trying to persuade them that revision is really fun isn’t effective either. It’s simply not true, unless you have taken our first tip very seriously and it really is fun now!
So what’s happening?
Well, we may have come to believe that our child is lazy or defiant . Assuming they are lazy is untrue, although they may have been unmotivated to date. How hard have you seen them work, and for how long, when they’re really enthusiastic about something? It helps to remember that children want to do well, and they care about what happens and what we think of them. When they don’t think they can achieve or make us happy, they pull back from trying. They can do this two ways – either by noisily and defiantly claiming it’s all pointless and you can’t make them do it, or quietly and equally strongly by pulling back and making cursory, if any, efforts. The negative response they get from us hurts, but they believe it’s the best way to protect them from something worse – the feeling of failing and letting us down.
So what can we do?
First and foremost we need to model a positive attitude towards getting things wrong ourselves. Rather than berate ourselves for making mistakes, we can show our children a more healthy way to handle mistakes by talking about what we are going to do next to improve.
We can also explain to our children that our brains grow and get stronger through use, just like any other muscle, and actually the best exercise they can get is struggling to get something right and finally achieving it!
This is part of how our children develop a Growth Mindset – a belief that we can keep improving by working hard, trying different strategies and persevering.
We can also help our children understand their own reluctance by putting it into words for them – this is very different from asking them “What’s wrong, what’s the matter?” however kindly and gently this is asked. Even if they understood and could articulate it, they probably wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so. So, instead, try “I wonder if you’re scared about working hard and still not getting a good mark. It’s very difficult to push yourself without knowing whether you will get the result you hope.”
We absolutely can help our child feel better – but we can’t PUSH them to do so. We need to support them. That means we FIRST need to LISTEN to how they feel and then help them work their way through. They can’t hear our advice or encouragement until we have heard their concerns.
You could try: “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe you’re scared about what will happen after you’ve tried your best….”
If your child is getting frustrated and stressed, we know this doesn’t help so we are tempted to reassure them or brush their negative feelings away by saying: “Don’t worry, it will be absolutely fine, it will all work out, you’ve got this if you focus” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, it’s just a test, you need to toughen up and get your head down”
Instead try: “It’s hard to keep on going, particularly over the holidays. Maybe it feels like you’re not getting anywhere and at the same time the exam is getting closer….”
What’s next? Stay quiet! Let your child open up rather than diving in with a homily about how life works…… This moment is not about what you know, this is about what they are thinking and feeling. And it can be very powerful and illuminating. Sometimes we hear that a child has developed some muddled ideas about what is going to happen or not happen, and we can help clarify these. Sometimes we hear about practical concerns that we can help them sort out.
November 15th, 2016
Many people were shocked and some were dismayed by Donald Trump’s election as president of the USA last week. But unless you live in America you may not have expected it to have had much impact on your children. I was somewhat taken aback when one of the 13 year old participants on the behavioural change programme I facilitate in Sydney anxiously asked me if I thought we’d go to war now Trump was going to be president. I also heard an account on the radio of principals calling special assemblies in primary schools to assuage children’s fears.
Some parents will have real fears themselves around the election of a man whose campaign was characterised by vitriolic hate-filled statements directed against women, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, his opponent, the media and anyone who disagrees with him. The few policies he identified were inward-looking, protectionist and xenophobic. His utterances seemed impulsive, self-focused and lacking compassion for any other. So it’s not surprising that many worry that this man will be in a position of immense power from January 2017. I personally am very concerned at the display of such bullying tactics and the normalising of a hate and blame-filled discourse, not to mention his vulgar sexualised messages about women, judging them primarily on appearance.
If adults have these concerns then their children will pick up on the vibe of anxiety and may hear things that they don’t fully understand. They will draw their own conclusions if we do not explain to them what is going on and what we think will happen in a calm way, in words they can understand according to their age.
Some children will have been just getting on with their lives and may not have been really aware of the adult interest in politics but may now be hearing things at school.
Even if you think Trump may be the breath of fresh air that the US needs and embrace his policies there will probably have been aspects of his behaviour that you find distasteful. If your children have become aware of this it could be a great opportunity to communicate your values to them.
The family is the source of your child’s values. They see how you treat others, how you disagree with others and how you resolve disputes, how you listen to other opinions. Your rules will count for a lot as they are a statement about your values, a guide to what is expected and acceptable behaviour. But it’s what they see modelled that counts for most. They will see whether in this family we give everyone a say, whether everyone is treated respectfully. They will observe whether people who are different from them are regarded with fear and disrespect or interest, an attempt to understand and enjoy. If we treat our partners or our children with ridicule, treating them to put downs or sarcasm, or bullying tactics then our children will learn that that is how to behave. Whenever we discipline our children they take away from that interaction “this is how you deal with things that you don’t like.”
When someone in the public eye behaves in a way or makes statements that are contrary to our values we need to let our children know that we disagree with that stance or conduct without putting down that public figure.
About this time last year sadly we wrote about addressing children’s worries in the aftermath of the Paris and Beirut tragedies. Click here for our blog. Here are some other ideas about addressing your child’s worries and teaching values:
October 30th, 2016
The countdown to Christmas is now on! In the weeks before the festive season (8 weeks, since you ask) many parents will use the (potential) forthcoming visit of the portly gentleman as an inducement to good behaviour. Otherwise known as a bribe or threat. Don’t cringe –we’ve all done it. Who hasn’t said “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you don’t behave?” Which brings up the whole question of bribes, a standard-issue tool in the average parental tool basket, but one that has some downsides. So what is the difference between a bribe and a reward? Or is there no difference? Are they both problematic? This is an important question that we ponder in our classes and I distil years of thought on this issue for you below.
My dictionary defines a bribe as ‘an illegal payment made in exchange for favours or influence’ but that’s not how parents use the word. A bribe is something appealing which is offered prior to a behaviour as an inducement to the child to behave in a particular way. Correspondingly a threat is the promise of an unappealing event if the child does not behave as desired. A reward would be given after the behaviour in acknowledgment of that behaviour.
But as in many things in family life it’s all a little bit more nuanced than that. Let’s look at the language of inducement.
Bribe = “I’ll buy you these sweeties if you promise not to make a fuss about sitting in the shopping trolley.”
Reward = “You have been so patient while I was helping Ethan with his homework. You didn’t interrupt and just did something else for a while. Now you have earned a game of UNO with me.”
In the first example, the ‘if you do X you can have Y’ model involves a loss of parental control. The child is firmly in charge as the parent pays a price for what they want the child to do. One of the concerns parents quite rightly have is that this price goes up! ‘Bribe inflation’ means that the child will raise the stakes and may end up only doing what’s required for a treat and that treat will get bigger and bigger. “I won’t do it for 3 sweeties. I’ll do it for 4.” This teaches our children that they can manipulate situations with their parents and that ‘rules’ are negotiable.
Another issue with this model is that the inducement is portrayed as the coveted thing whereas the required behaviour is something to be endured only to earn the treat. This is problematic if we are bribing our children to do things we think are intrinsically good for them. And why else would we be requiring them to do it? Eg we say “you can play on the iPad if you do your reading/homework” or “you can’t have dessert unless you eat your broccoli.” or “you won’t get a story unless you brush your teeth”. While stories and dessert and iPads no doubt have intrinsic appeal we actually want our children to see homework, reading, eating healthily and brushing teeth as of value in themselves. We also set up all kinds of problematic eating associations if we use certain foods as inducements.
When we use bribes our children are unlikely to learn anything beyond the skills of manipulation and bargaining, and the emphasis is on behaving well purely for material reward. In fact we want our children to do what’s required because it is the right thing to do.
So if bribes are so problematic what can we do? Is there a place for rewards? We think so.
Some rewards straightforwardly come after the behaviour, as in our example. But sometimes we may want to set up rewards in advance, while being wary of the pitfalls of bribes. A different way of speaking is the ‘When you have done X you will have earned Y’ model. This language is much more intentional and conveys trust that the child will do as required. This is much less coercive and focuses on empowering the child herself to learn the value of the behaviour, rather than being centred on material gain. Rewards may often be the natural positive consequence of the positive behaviour e.g. having extra time to play because they got ready so quickly or staying dry because they remembered their raincoat. Importantly rewards are earned and they occur after the child has accomplished something.
“When I see you leave Tom’s house without any fuss when I collect you this evening as we discussed, you will be able to invite Tom to come and play at our house next week, as you’ll have shown me you know how to make a play date a real success.” (Empathise that it can be hard to stop playing if you’re in the middle of something fun and that it’s the parent’s timetable that always takes precedence.)
It’s important to have realistic expectations. Don’t expect your young child to brush his teeth or do his homework happily just because these are the ‘right things to do’. He will acquire those values over time and then he too will think they are the right thing to do. In the meantime you will teach him to do what’s required (repeatedly) by:
The behaviours become habitual over time and then are internalised as values. Two things to remember about rewards:
October 03rd, 2016
If you had a child start school or nursery for the first time this term I hope they trotted off happily without a backwards glance. But if they didn’t you may have felt helpless and even guilty as they grappled with uncomfortable emotions. Many parents feel it is their job to keep their children happy all the time. But we can’t do this. In fact it is our job to help our children manage these uncomfortable feelings, realise they are part of being human, we all have them, they pass, and in fact they’re not all bad because we can learn from them. Becoming aware of our own feelings is the first step in developing empathy for others.
If you’ve been feeling guilty that you can’t assuage your child’s upset there are two things that may reassure you:
Parents are good at guilt. It may be the most common emotion we experience around parenting. I have the feeling that mums experience it more than dads but maybe that’s because I’m a mum. What do you think, dads?
What do we feel guilty about?
When I asked a group of parents they said they felt their role was to provide the best for their kids and a lot of their guilt was when they didn’t live up to this standard. What does that mean?
My test group said what it meant to them was providing:
What does it mean to you?
Expectations of ourselves as parents are very high. It starts early and can be fuelled by information available on the internet. We may plague ourselves with questions like: Did I do the wrong thing in allowing my baby to cry/not wearing him in a sling/not co-sleeping?
Access to information is now unprecedented and we don’t have to look far for evidence that we are screwing up our kids! Ericka Christakis, Early Childhood Educator and Harvard College Administrator speaking at the Aspen Festival of Ideas in 2012 said “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age’, where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy”. She referred to the fact that the British Medical Journal not too long ago prohibited the word ‘accident’ in their reporting, because they argued that really are almost no accidents, ie incidents are avoidable. The logical conclusion is that it is the job of parents to avoid them.
Christakis continued, this view is that if you look at the antecedents for almost all bad things that happen to us in life, including famines and droughts, and children getting hit by cars, and suicide, that these are really preventable injuries. She said this leads to a huge shift in how we view childhood, because if we're starting to think that all these bad things are preventable then every time you decide not to put a helmet on your child when they're riding a scooter on the pavement you start feeling like a neglectful person. It creates a lot of anxiety to live in a world where we feel so responsible as parents.
At the same event Lawrence J. Cohen, Psychologist and author of Playful Parenting added “There's a taboo against putting a price on the safety of your child. And I think we have the same taboo on [aiming] at anything less than the absolute pinnacle of success, and if we don't then we're short-changing our children.”
This sense of responsibility and attendant guilt is fuelled by a propensity to criticise parents.
Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs noted that “We're so culturally prone to beat up parents”. If you go onto any online platform for parents you will see a lot of blame and judgment for parents, from other parents!
It’s worth noting here that there is a difference between shame and guilt and how those emotions make us behave. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, a judgement about myself as a person, whereas guilt is the feeling I get when I’ve done a bad thing, a judgment about my actions. When we feel shame we can feel worthless and then may lash out or try to avoid the situation. Feelings of shame are very linked to our sense of self-worth –what we believe about ourselves and our value. “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be” - Gandhi. Your thoughts about yourself shape your reality.
When we feel guilty about our actions we tend to experience regret and want to make amends. We think “I am a good person who made a mistake”. Guilt could actually be a good thing if it is a catalyst for change
Sherry Bevan, author or The Confident Mother, said “When we feel guilt, there is always a reason. The purpose of guilt is to tell us that we are hurting someone or doing something wrong.” She quotes Audre Lorde’s from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, “Guilt is … a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”
Shame is not useful if my feelings about myself stop action.
It may be helpful to reflect on the reason for feeling guilt and decide what you can do to stop feeling guilty. Sherry mused “Assuming of course you want to stop feeling guilty. I sometimes wonder whether some people don’t enjoy feeling guilty. As if they enjoy being punished or feel like they deserve to be punished. Perhaps for some former ‘crime’ they committed”.
If you are feeling guilty about something, first get clear on what exactly you are feeling guilty about. Then ask yourself whether your guilt makes sense? If somebody else was in the same situation and said "I feel really guilty about xyz", would you think their guilt was justified?
If the answer is yes, what can you do to stop the guilty feelings? Are you expecting too much of yourself or of others? Are you trying to do too many things at the same time? And if the answer is no, if the guilt isn't justified, stop wasting time feeling guilty.
When you think of guilt as a catalyst, it stops being negative and you can use it to make a change for the positive.
My friend Caroline Ferguson who is a wonderful mindset trainer, suggests doing the following when we feel guilty:
My last practical tips: