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June 06th, 2016

Cake and/or ice cream, to choose or not to choose

An article appeared in PsyPost (a psychology and neuroscience news website) this week about how children confuse simple words like ‘and’ with ‘or’ which had The Parent Practice team excitedly sending emails back and forth (don’t laugh it’s to your benefit!)

Apparently young children (under the age of 6 at least) confuse the word ‘or’ with ‘and’ so that when parents offer cake or ice cream children hear ‘cake and ice cream’.  Doesn’t that explain a lot?

Researchers in linguistics at MIT and a team at Carleton University have conducted studies with children between the ages of 3 and 6 and found that there are subtle differences between how adults and children clarify the meaning of sentences. Both adults and children test out the meaning of statements. Take the sentence “Max ate some of the biscuits.” Now suppose you find out that Max actually ate all of the biscuits. So the sentence “Max ate some of the biscuits” is still technically correct, but it would be more accurate to say, “Max ate all of the biscuits.”

Adults can make this distinction – we can compare the two sentences and consider the implications of using ‘all’ or ‘some’ and recognise that each alternative spells out a specific new meaning. But guess what? The researchers discovered that children can’t make the same distinctions as adults. When they hear ‘cake or ice-cream’ they are very much focussed on two of the three words! And the subtle and important implications of ‘or’ is missed.

What can parents do? Should we not offer children choices? Offering choices is generally thought to be a good idea as children at this age have so few opportunities to make decisions for themselves and can feel very frustrated and powerless.

But choices have downsides. If you have a child in this age bracket you may have watched them choose cake, only to be terribly disappointed with their choice later and wished they’d chosen ice cream… and have a meltdown. When a child realises that making a choice means giving up on something or losing something it takes maturity they may not have yet to handle the responsibility of that choice. Their pre-frontal cortex which governs perspective and the ability to weigh the consequences of decisions will not be fully mature until their 20s. Under the age of 6 the brain is still in its infancy and is largely governed by emotions.

So what do we do? Not give them any choices at all?

No. We think there is still merit in giving choices for under 6s (perhaps less for under 3s) but with this knowledge we can be very clear about the potential for confusion and support our children to handle the implications of their choices.

“William would you like some dessert? You can have yoghurt or fruit. You know that means just one. I’m going to put the one you choose on the table and the other one in the fridge. That will be for tomorrow. Which one for today and which one for tomorrow?”

William chooses fruit but later wants yoghurt. “Oh you want both the fruit and the yoghurt. That’s hard for you to remember that Mummy said just one. I guess you didn’t understand that and now you feel so disappointed. Maybe you wish you’d chosen the yoghurt.” This may seem like a big fuss, especially when it’s between two fairly healthy options but the parent is supporting the child to deal with disappointment by naming the feeling.

“Hannah, you’re going to have to think carefully about how you want to spend your birthday money. There’s enough there for you to buy one thing. You liked both the bubble factory and the butterfly mosaics but you can only choose one. I’m sure you wish you could have both. And when you choose one you might feel sad later that you didn’t choose the other one. If that happens come and tell me and I’ll give you a hug. That’s the tough bit about making choices. The good bit is you get to choose something that you really like yourself. You get to be in charge of this decision.”

Giving those pesky feelings a label helps strengthen the neural pathways between the emotional part of the brain and the logical part and at is the core of developing emotional intelligence.

Does your child get to choose sometimes? Does he sometimes change his mind? Does she want both? Next time there’s a meltdown tell them you know what it’s like to really, really want something when a few minutes ago you really, really wanted something else. It’s so confusing! Let us know how you get on.

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May 23rd, 2016

Preparing for exam season

While many of us are looking forward to half term, some families will be trying to combine having some fun with preparing for exams. What can we do to support our children in the lead-up to these important days, without adding to their stress? 

We all know that to ‘make a revision schedule and stick to it’ is a good idea in theory, but HOW can we do it in practice? What’s the right amount of revision? Too much, too little - how do we get the balance right? Our attempts to motivate them so easily slip into bribes and can also feel manipulative, so what can we say and do that will encourage our children to persevere and feel confident they can do what is required?  On exam day what will matter is to be organised, and to manage anxiety. Giving lots of encouragement through Descriptive Praise will be very important but below are three other ideas that we know will help, but aren’t usually mentioned. 

LET them do it their way and have a choice

And this doesn’t mean doing NO revision! Let your child revise his way rather than insisting he does it your way. Most children find it very hard to sit still and simply regurgitate facts and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful and not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – it doesn’t matter if these are wacky and not very serious. They just need to be memorable to your child. She remembers things differently to the way you do. 

DESCRIBE how they feel – name it to tame it!

This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some anxiety, and maybe poor behaviour.

Our instinctive reaction is to reassure and try to push them through to feeling better about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be fine soon, it will all work out” or “You poor thing, this is just awful and unfair” 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, getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”

Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. For example: “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….”

This doesn’t make them feel worse, or feel anything they don’t already feel, but it does make them feel connected and understood. This in itself is calming. Take care not to add “but….” afterwards because this undoes everything you’ve said so far. It’s usually best to keep quiet and hear how they respond.

And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics don’t usually make children perform better. 

UNDERSTAND their reluctance

We can understand how they feel about revising, and still require that they do it. But we need to understand why they don’t want to do it – we often start with the assumption they are lazy, not taking it seriously, etc, and when we approach it this way, it ends up negative and confrontational. And ineffective!

Children want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and they want to please us, though sometimes it may not seem that way!

If they start to believe they can’t succeed, and that we are not happy with them, they pull back from trying. Some children will bluster this out and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put in much effort.

Our best approach is to face this head on. So, try “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full, and not know whether you will achieve what you hope for. It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows the more you make it struggle with things.”  This isn’t the time to go on to lecture about how this is how life works, and they have to learn to knuckle down and get on with things…..

Their real concerns don’t come out with direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment in the question that they are wrong to be worried etc.  Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be working as they are.

Make sure they do have some down time.

Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh –maybe get them a joke book. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too…. 2 joke books. 

How does your child react to stressful situations? What do you do to inject calm? Let us know your thoughts.

 

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May 11th, 2016

Friendships

Friendships can be lovely - affirming, supportive and nurturing; they can bring a child out of themselves and challenge them to try things they wouldn’t on their own; friendship groups can give a sense of belonging; friends can provide emotional support; good friendships provide an opportunity for a child to air their views and work out what they believe in. Being with friends teaches trust and intimacy; negotiating with peers teaches communication skills; learning how to break up and make up is also useful. Friends can help kids through tough times.

Friendships can also be troublesome if they don’t go well. Children fall out with each other, some kids find it hard to make friends and some are bullied.

Have your children ever experienced any of the following issues?

  • Being excluded
  • Teasing/bullying, unkindness, meanness, name calling, put downs – children say things like ‘you can’t be my friend’, ‘you’re not in our club’. There can be quite personal slants –they call each other weird, fat, stupid, beanpole, shorty, gay, and criticise or make fun of their clothes, hair, the fact that they wear glasses, have freckles, a funny nose etc
  • Betrayal of confidences
  • Being the subject of rumours
  • Peer pressure, inappropriate friends/behaviour
  • Children being too bossy or aggressive, or not assertive enough
  • Not having friends. Sometimes kids have developed behaviours which aren’t conducive to forming friendships – they are insensitive to others, unable to read cues, coming too close, shouting too loud, grabbing, not knowing when to stop talking, moaning or complaining, being too needy/pleading, having a strop when things don’t go their way.

You can foster good friendships by:

  • Providing opportunities for children to be with other kids their age –neighbours, relatives, friends from activity groups. School will be the main meeting ground but if things go wrong in your child’s school peer group its good if they have friendship groups outside school too.

“Having a good friend will lessen the harmful effects of bullying. If you are excluded by the general peer group but have a friend who is saying, ‘you are not so bad as they say you are’, this can be enough to satisfy your need to belong. You will not be damaged if somebody special is valuing you, even if you are not valued by everyone.” Dr Michael Boulton, child psychologist, Keele University.

  • Modelling being with your own friends and being friendly with your partner. Model loyalty, empathy, taking into account the other’s perspective, constructive dispute resolution and managing your feelings.
  • Not criticisingunsuitable friends’ -this may make them more appealing. You can probably limit your young child’s association with other children but as they get older this is harder to do. Your children are likely to adopt your values and be influenced by you if they get plenty of positive input from you. Point out what you don’t like about the friend’s behaviour rather than saying you don’t like them.
  • Helping children develop social skills. We need to remember that each child has their own temperament and this will influence how they approach social events, and other people. For example: a child who is reactive will hang back in any new situation and be unwilling to throw herself in until she is ready. Rather than dropping her into different environments in the hope that she will get used to it, we need to help her prepare for such situations. Is your child an introvert? She may prefer to be by herself or with just one friend rather than a crowd or she may need downtime after social events.

Use Descriptive Praise on an on-going basis to help your child value themselves and to highlight specific qualities that will help in friendships such as loyalty, good listening and sharing.

Play games with your children to encourage skills such as listening, turn-taking, being a good sport, using self-control, handling their feelings, considering other people’s feelings, following rules and instructions, looking for solutions and developing strategies for dealing with problems.
Role play
how to join a group of children, different ways of saying hello and asking to join in.  Hi my name’s…what’s yours? I like your ‘Inside Out’ notebook. Do you like Joy?  Practice also what to say if the child says “No, you can’t play”.

You can also use role plays to help your child work out how to stand up for herself without hurting anyone else. Practice saying something like “I don’t like it when you take my things. Stop that!”  “I want to play with you but I don’t like this chasing game –it hurts when you get slapped.”

You can teach kids to read social cues from words and body language and how to gauge their impact on others and adjust accordingly, including the amount of space a person needs. Get your child to read your face and say what you’re feeling. Ask what you’re likely to do next if you’re feeling that way. Have fun with it!

Sharing demands a level of social understanding which comes with maturity. It means caring about what the other child wants as well as what he wants. Don’t expect too much of this from younger children. Show children how to take turns by playing games and by example. “I’m going to let you have some of my ice-cream because you dropped yours and I can see you’re sad.” Sharing toys provides the first experience of negotiation. First, recognise ownership so the children feel the situation is properly understood. For example: “I know it’s your car and it’s for you to decide. Hannah’s really sad. If you’d like to play with her toys sometimes maybe you could let her play with yours?”  Then let them sort it out as much as possible. “Sam’s really upset. Can you think of anything else he might like to play with to cheer him up?” Descriptively praise sharing and turn-taking whenever it occurs.

Good friendships aren’t just a question of luck –show your children how to nurture them.

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April 14th, 2016

What opens kids’ ears?

Before writing Real Parenting for Real Kids we surveyed our clients and asked them what their current goals were with their children. The majority said that they wanted more cooperation. Probably you too want your children to do what you ask, not just so you can have an easier life but because it’s your job to train your children into good habits for life. And for that you need some cooperation. 

You may wish your child was more polite or would eat his greens or go to bed and stay in bed or focus more on his school work or try harder at swimming or would try again when he failed or do more around the house or get off his Xbox when you ask him to or get dressed promptly in the morning. You may wish your child would show more consideration for others or take responsibility when she does something wrong or wouldn’t flare up and bite your head off when she is upset about something. You may want her to do her eye exercises or stop sucking her thumb or to put her clothes in the laundry basket or to look people in the eye when they talk to her. To teach your child good habits and attitudes you’ll need them to cooperate with you. 

That doesn’t mean your child can’t have an opinion or feelings about what they’ve been asked to do. I usually suggest that we don’t want to be breeding mindless automatons, but some of the parents in my classes admit they would settle for some blind compliance! If you’d like your child to listen to you more this is the place to be! Nothing opens the ears of a child (of any age) more than the skill we’re exploring here –Descriptive Praise. This is magic. 

Praise, you think. That old hat! I know about praise. I try to praise my child but frankly he’s not often doing anything particularly praiseworthy. And I think kids actually get too much praise these days. Isn’t that what leads to this sense of entitlement everyone worries about?

Well yes, and no. If children are given meritless and meaningless praise all the time not only does it not have the desired effect of improving self-esteem and encouraging good behaviours but it does in fact lead to an expectation of constant praise and the worry that if they’re not being praised they must be rubbish. This is a result of the WRONG KIND OF PRAISE. 

Descriptive praise is praise, but not as you know it.

Children cooperate when there is real connection between them and their parents. There is a biological imperative for a child to want to please their parent. I hear you scoff. That basic instinct can fade if the child no longer believes he can please his parent. If he hears a lot of criticism (so easy for us to lapse into this) then he will lose focus on doing what gets approval. The onus is on us adults to make the change and start noticing and commenting on the small things children get right. It’s no good just saying ‘well done’ or ‘good job’, ‘clever girl’ or ‘awesome’, ‘brilliant’ or ‘fantastic’. That kind of praise will have no meaningful effect and can make a child dependant on external approval. 

Since we get more of what we pay attention to we need to notice the good stuff, rather than commenting on what’s gone wrong. Instead we need to describe to our children what they are doing right so that they can absorb that behaviour as a value and learn to self-assess. “Harry, you’re carrying that plate really carefully with your eyes on your hands. That way nothing has spilt.” “Georgia, you were really cross with Jack for turning off your video but you didn’t hit him or even yell at him – you told him it was your turn and you even gave him something else to play with. That shows me you understand that Jack finds it hard to wait. You’re teaching him patience.” 

Descriptive Praise shapes behaviour more than any other tools in our parenting toolbox. We still need to have rules and we need to give instructions carefully to maximise cooperation and when our kids don’t want to do what we’re asking we’ll need to be able to empathise but Descriptive Praise is the magic that opens kids ears. 

For more tools on getting the best out of your children, click here to pre-order Melissa Hood’s book Real Parenting, for Real kids at the discounted price of £13.99 until the launch date of 27t April 2016.

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March 21st, 2016

Anyone for chocolate? How do we learn self-control?

Even families who aren’t at all religious may practice certain rituals around Easter that fall on opposite ends of the consumption spectrum. At the beginning of Lent I know many who take the opportunity to ‘give up something for Lent’. At the end of that period there is often a great glut of consumption with chocolate overload. My gym is preparing us for this overindulgence now by exhorting us to burn calories in preparation!

So, knowing that modelling is at least 80% of parenting, what does this tell our children about self-control?

It is a good idea to teach children about moderation in consumption, or delayed gratification if not complete self-deprivation and maybe Lent is as good a time as any to do it. But maybe you want to introduce such ideas throughout the year rather than just one month?

My son had a highly impulsive temperament as a little boy and got into trouble a lot because of not stopping to think about his actions. On one memorable occasion he and his cousin dropped pebbles off the balcony of a high-rise apartment, not considering the consequences of that action. They didn’t think that the cars parked below might be damaged and that costs would be incurred and people would be upset. The parents were sorely tempted to come down hard with punishment and shouting (there had been plenty of that on previous occasions) but by then we knew that approach would have led to resentment without any learning. Instead the boys were (relatively) calmly held accountable and required to make amends and so took a step toward gaining some perspective and some self-control.

Here are some ideas to encourage children to be able to make choices for the future that depend on some sacrifice in the present, to show self-control:

  • Start with realistic expectations. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with perspective and impulse control and this is not fully developed until early adulthood so don’t expect young children to be very good at not sucking their thumbs for the sake of their future orthodontic health! Our children can learn self-control if we are non-critical teachers.
  • As always what we model counts for so much. What do they see us doing in the way of saving for coveted items or putting time into a project that will benefit us long term, such as study? When we slip up in the pursuit of our goals do they see us giving up or accepting that we’re human and trying again? Rather than berating our lack of will power we can talk about what strategies we’ll use to get back on track. We may need to draw attention to what we do so that they take on these family values. Cringey, I know, but this is how children learn from us.
  • After you’ve set a good example, what do you require your children to do? Many families will have rules like homework is done first before screens can be accessed. Some families will have tripartite pocket money systems whereby children must save some and give some away as well as being able to spend some.
  • Notice and comment whenever your children show self-control. Eg “You were really cross with Jason just then but you didn’t hit him. You told him loudly that you don’t like it when he messes with your Lego.” “You made a healthy eating choice when you only took 2 biscuits, even though those are your favourites.” “That was a good strategy to do your Biology homework first when you were fresh. I know that’s the most challenging at the moment.”
  • Encourage self-control by showing it to the children. When they do something you don’t like, push the pause button and consider the reason for the behaviour. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren’t trying to get at you. What did they really need in that moment and how can you help them repair the situation?
  • Describe how they feel in words so that they develop stronger connections between the emotional part of their brains and the logical part. Impulse-control depends on being able to access your cool brain and tell yourself, yes I’d love to play Minecraft all day but it takes away from time with my family and friends. Describing to them how they feel gives them a measure of control over those feelings. Name it to tame it.
  • Developing self-control depends on having opportunities to make choices. This means parents shouldn’t micro-manage but step back and allow children to learn from their choices. Sometimes asking questions can channel a child’s thinking in the right direction better than telling them what to do.

In a world where many act to fulfil only their own desires and get into difficulties by not stopping to think teaching self-control is an amazing gift for your children.

For many more ideas like these look no further than Real Parenting for Real Kids: Enabling parents to bring out the best in their children (published on 27th April 2016). www.theparentpractice.com

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March 07th, 2016

Why are they so weird? Understanding Teenagers

Up until the 20th century, children entered adult society earlier and were surrounded by adults providing examples - they worked alongside adults. Now teenagers learn from their peers and the media as well as from adults. 

The notion of adolescence as a separate category only really emerged in the 1950’s when there evolved a separate culture of music and fashion. The period of adolescence has now been extended by prolonged economic dependence with children living at home often well into their twenties. 

Puberty is occurring earlier due to improvements in nutrition but there is some doubt that emotional maturity happens any earlier. Our kids look like adults which affects our expectations of their behaviour but in many ways they are still immature. On top of this there is much blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood with our Peter Pan culture and love of all things youthful. 

Sometimes parents are really taken by surprise when their previously lovely child metamorphoses into an alien being, complete with strange language, belligerent attitude and risky behaviours. 

Why are they so weird?

So what causes this transformation? Hormones have always taken the rap of course but research in recent  years shows that the brain restructuring that happens in adolescence is also to blame. 

Teenagers’ brains go through changes which allow them to develop enhanced powers of perspective, criticism, abstract thought, hindsight and memory; these can create difficulties for them and affect their behaviour. They develop new awareness of existential aloneness and self-consciousness emerges. A dip in self-esteem is the norm and many teens experience depression. Adolescents go through many obvious physical changes during puberty and become tremendously self-conscious about their bodies. They are so aware of the changes that are so apparent that they assume everyone else is looking at them too. Parents can get frustrated with this apparent self-absorption. 

Teens develop a very strong desire to spend time with their peers, sometimes rejecting family in the process. Friends are very important to allow teenagers to sever links with family before finding the emotional nourishment of a mate. Over-dependence on peers can be a problem for teenagers who don’t feel sufficiently appreciated at home. It’s very easy for parents of teenagers to fall into habits of criticising as parents are nervous about teen behavior and choices. When teens feel appreciated at home they still adopt family values on important issues of health, safety, education, career etc. 

Teens take risks. Sometimes unhealthy risks. This is partly because the changes in their frontal lobes make it hard for them to evaluate risks. Much risk-taking behaviour takes place in the presence of their peers. The urge to fit in with or impress their peers makes it even harder to weigh the risk of the behavior they are contemplating. 

Teens argue. They need to as they work out who they are and what they believe in. 

It is the job of a teenager:

  • To take steps towards independence
  • To achieve clearer emotional separation from his family
  • To emerge as a separate independent person with his own identity and values and be able to think for himself
  • To be competent and responsible for his own needs, feelings and behaviours
  • To develop as a sexual being 

It is the job of a parent:

  • To support and affirm moves towards independence and the development of a sense of identity
  • To continue to provide values and boundaries
  • To expect responsible thinking, problem-solving and self-determination
  • To accept the teen’s feelings and opinions (this doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them!)

Negotiating adolescence 

For a (relatively) smooth ride through adolescence parents need to:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. The onus is on the adult to make sure channels of communication remain open. It’s not enough to say my teen won’t talk to me.
  • Teens do listen when parents avoid criticising, nagging, judging, lecturing and advising. Ears open up when young people expect to hear positive things.
  • Teenagers need to be appreciated probably even more than younger children as their confidence takes a real hit at this time. Make sure praise is credible and meaningful. “I noticed that you’ve been setting your alarm clock to get yourself up a lot lately.” “I really admire the effort you’re putting in with your piano practice. It’s not easy to keep going with something when success isn’t instant.” “This is the third time this week you’ve remembered to lay out your clothes in the evening. Your organisational skills are really improving.” “You put your games things in the wash straightaway. That way they’ll be available when you need them next. You’re becoming much more responsible for your own things.”
  • When adults actively look for the good things in their teens they can see the humour, passion and intelligence of the emerging adult, and maybe occasionally some responsibility. Don’t miss it!
  • Always assume your teen is trying to get things right and will make mistakes. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He had a reason for doing what he did. (Although he may not know what it was.) It’s the parent’s job to look behind the aggravating/dangerous/inappropriate behaviour for a possible reason.
  • Parents need to provide boundaries even though teens don’t want them/think they need them. Empathise that that is a pain and that parents are mean control-freaks.
  • Empathise a lot. Understand how it feels to be them. Acknowledge that they feel stupid, fat, ugly, unpopular, frustrated, angry, disappointed, hurt, betrayed, misunderstood….etc.
  • Teens will talk, and even share problems, if they don’t get judged or yelled at. Of course parents shout when taken by surprise but as soon as they’ve calmed down they need to put judgment to one side and help your child to problem-solve. They need help from your mature brain. 

Good luck and enjoy your awesome adolescent.

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