December 05th, 2017
As we head toward the Christmas school holidays many parents and children begin final preparations for the 11+ exams next term. You will probably have done lots of preparations already: your child may have done revision and past test papers, you may have purchased a clear pencil case, checked arrival times and made travel plans, made arrangements for siblings, planned a nutritious breakfast and early night …..
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 too nervous won’t help them. In fact some nerves are healthy as it makes use of adrenaline to spur on performance. But too much anxiety produces cortisol, the stress chemical, which can impede performance, especially memory. Some kids are temperamentally more anxious than others. Some kids you wish would show some sign that this is important….!
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”.
These well intentioned words might not hit the mark though. 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. We can use the remaining weeks (and beyond) to prepare our children, not academically, but emotionally.
We need to directly discuss our children’s anxiety about the approaching exams. It may not feel natural, it may even feel the wrong thing to do. But in fact 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.”
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.
Talking about feelings generally at home helps children develop emotional intelligence. This helps them developing exactly the kind of skills that will help children in their composition and comprehension papers. Researchers have found strong links between emotional intelligence and creative and critical thinking skills.
In these last few weeks you can really boost your child’s emotional intelligence by:
We can also teach children to manage anxiety in a few ways.
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.
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. (Juliet’s 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 develop emotional intelligence generally. And don’t forget about sleep and exercise….
November 14th, 2017
It is International Men’s day on November 19th. It seems an appropriate time for us parents to think about the type of men we want to raise our sons to be. Obviously not all men come in one model. Differences between individuals are usually greater than differences between gender and in the 21st century thinking may have moved on from a purely binary model of gender anyway. But whatever your son’s sexual orientation or place on the gender spectrum you probably have a picture in your mind, however unarticulated, about what a good man is. And there may be some differences when you think of your daughters as adults. Maybe.
Modern parents seek to avoid gender stereotypes, and quite rightly. We don’t want to restrict possibilities for our sons or daughters. But what are those stereotypical ‘male’ characteristics? My two sons are now adults and I’m glad they are ‘strong’, a quality often associated with masculinity. Women, of course, can be strong too but traditionally that strength was displayed differently.
Psychologists and linguists have noted that adults encourage this quality of strength or assertiveness in boys without even being aware of it by the way we talk to and play with boys and by how we direct their behaviour. There was a famous study called ‘Baby X’ which tested adults on how we treat babies based on what we think the sex is. The researcher Phyllis Katz said "We said this is Johnny. Just play with Johnny any way that you'd like. Or this is Jane. Just play with Jane anyway that you'd like." It was always the same baby. But when adults thought they were holding Jane, they held her gently, gave her dolls. When they thought the baby was Johnny, they played more vigorously and offered him a football. So while boys may be biologically more inclined to independently seek active solutions to problems (rather than ones based on communication and relationship) socialisation also plays a big part. We tend to use words with boys that are more associated with robust physicality; we tell them they are big and strong, whereas we have told girls they are pretty, quiet and good.
Assertiveness shows up in boys’ styles of communication too. Research (with one experiment involving taste tests of lemonade flavoured with salt instead of sugar and another based on receiving disappointing gifts) shows that boys will generally be direct to the point of rudeness whereas girls will be less honest to protect the other’s feelings. Researchers maintain this is because assertive language is more tolerated in boys than girls. When my older boy was little I worried about his strength and his physicality. It came out in aggression; he didn’t have words to express his strong feelings and he used his whole body to express himself, sometimes to the detriment of others or to his environment. But we learnt to use emotion coaching with him and now he has very good emotional intelligence. He can recognise, respect and process his own emotions; he can express his own feelings, and he understands those of others too. He is very good at recognising perspectives other than his own. He has learnt empathy. A very useful quality that he displays in abundance with his busy baby daughter and his exhausted wife!
An alternative model of masculine strength has been that men need to be stoical and hard and independent. Seeking help was weak. Batman did things alone. We laugh at the stereotype of men not asking for directions but it is not so funny when men don’t seek help with physical or mental health problems. One of the reasons given for much higher rate of suicide in men is their inability to express so-called weakness.
My younger son wasn’t so physical as a little boy but as he’s matured his strength has shown up in quiet determination. He has persevered to overcome the challenges thrown up by dyslexia and developed coping strategies around learning. He now has not one, but two, highly academic degrees and is applying that doggedness to seeking work in an industry which is challenging to break into. His resilience allows him to pick himself up after knock backs (or more often, no replies at all) to job applications and to tell himself that it hasn’t worked this time but next time it will. This involves a growth mindset which involves a belief in one’s own capacity to make changes. This is the antidote to pessimism and depression.
I’m not writing in this way to show off about my sons, proud as I am of them. Because I have now overseen their growth from boys into men I have a perspective that we don’t have when we’re in the middle of the hurly-burly of family life. When I was picking up after them, and feeding them, and driving them to activities, and feeding them, and tending to scraped knees, and feeding them, and trying to teach them not to thump each other and encouraging them to do homework, I didn’t always have this long view. Often I was just coping.
But when we’re parenting proactively we “start with the end in mind” as Steven Covey says.[i] If the kind of man you want to raise is one who shows his strength in gentle ways then you will need to ask the following 4 questions:
[i] 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families
October 03rd, 2017
Well it’s October already and before we know it half term will be upon us. Where is this term going? One of the new mums in our Clapham group said that at the beginning of the school year she had resolved that they would get to school on time, having had breakfast, with most of the school uniform on, with at least some of the kit they needed, without her yelling at the kids… but that it hadn’t happened yet. Does that resonate with anyone else?
There are so many things that have to be accomplished, with very definite time pressures, which make mornings a real flashpoint and it’s definitely worse if mornings are not your best time. I can do anything late at night …but not early in the morning! Whether the journey is made on foot, bike, scooter, car or public transport, one step wrong now can put the whole day out for everyone.....
Well we have some ideas to help with that.
Rather than a time optimist! Take some time, by yourself, to work out how long it really takes to prepare bowls of cereal, butter slices of toast, pour milk or juices and make a strong cup of tea or coffee…. And mop up a couple of spills, feed the cat, prepare the lunch boxes, pack the reading folder, sign the form trip slip, as well as have a shower, get yourself and them dressed, find your hairbrush, toothbrush, any other brush, and your keys....
It can be quite illuminating – my guess of 60 minutes was more than 50% wrong. No wonder I wasn’t making it out in time and felt like a failure every morning. I was trying to achieve the impossible because I hadn’t allowed the right amount of time!
If you have a child under two, three, four, ten, factor in some contingency time for poo-ey nappies or meltdowns just at the point of departure. If you’re early you can always take your time counting the cracks in the pavement or practising tables!
There is one great thing about the journey to nursery or school - it happens at the same time, in the same way every day for several weeks! When we continue to do the same thing over and over again desperately hoping for a different outcome, it has been called insanity. So if getting ready each morning isn’t working for you, don’t get ready in the morning. Get ready the night before.
With the help of your children, pack school bags, lay out uniform or clothes, empty the dishwasher and lay the breakfast table. You can make it fun – time yourselves, do it to music, treat yourselves afterwards. Get practical – what do you all need in order to do this job well? More shirts? A place to keep shoes? A set of toothbrushes or hairbrushes downstairs? An emergency something somewhere?
The best advice I ever took and the least popular advice I give is to get up 15-30 minutes earlier than your children so that you can get yourself ready before you need to focus on them. Because you do need to focus on them, but in a positive way, not nagging them. More on that below.
Do you spend time most mornings ‘discussing’ who sits where in the car, who goes out of the front door first, who carries which bag, who holds whose hands? Ever been forced to run after a child who has simply run or scooted ahead, while leaving another behind? Before it happens again, sit down and start a positive discussion with the children about what needs to happen, and ask them how it could work.
Even young children come up with surprisingly useful, relevant and fun ideas. And they love being asked – it makes them feel more in charge of their own life. And then let them take responsibility for recording the details by writing down/ illustrating the plan – it doesn’t matter what it looks like. It matters that they buy into it.
It’s so easy to notice what’s going wrong in the course of the morning preparations. How could you fail to see that your kids are still in their pyjamas let alone beds un-made and teeth un-brushed with 15 minutes to go! Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been pointing out all these deficits to your children. In other words, criticising. Human beings have evolved to notice the negatives –it’s what kept us safe when we needed to pay attention to predators. But now it’s not very useful when we’re trying to motivate our young to get a move on.
What is much more motivating is to notice what they are doing right. Well what are they doing right I hear you ask? Well you might have to look for quite small things to begin with but when you focus on something you get more of it so pointing out small examples of good behaviour leads to bigger examples. One mum said “Stanley (nearly 5) is usually not very keen on getting dressed by himself and needs a few reminders that it is time to stop playing and to get dressed. This week after he put on his shirt by himself, I said : “Stanley, thank you for getting dressed so promptly today while I was helping your younger brother. I know the buttons can be quite tricky but you did them all by yourself and that was a great example for Robert.” He looked at me and said: “Now watch how quickly I can do my shoes”. The next day the whole process took less time and no extra reminders were needed.”
Some families will use a pasta jar to visually record these small acts of good behaviour. One pasta piece (or other token) goes in the jar for every good behaviour (and none come out). We recommend a team jar for all the children to encourage collaboration. If they help each other get ready they can earn extra pastas. Make sure the jar fills up quickly and when it is full do a fun activity together.
You will be so much more effective if your preparations take into account your child’s temperament. If you have a child who is doesn’t transition well from one person, place or activity to another then he will need more time, more preparation and more encouragement than a more flexible child. Wishing he were different won’t make your mornings any easier and will make him feel like a bad person, or at least a difficult one. Your child isn’t a problem, although he may be having a problem. You can help with that.
It will ease your frustrations so much if you realise that your child’s agenda is just as important to him as yours is to you. We can help our children move away from what they want to do and take on our agenda but it will need lots of descriptive praise and some empathy.
Acknowledge how it is for your child if he’s not a morning person/would rather be reading/playing with Lego/staying in bed. Or if he isn’t really into school right now. Just letting your child know that you understand how she feels is often enough for her to let go her resistance.
We’re sure these 6 tips will help your preparations go more smoothly. Enjoy your mornings.
September 18th, 2017
Has your child just started school? Some kids will be sailing in and making a beeline for the ‘creative corner’ or heading off to play with other kids without a backward glance, while others will be hanging back tentatively or even having to be extricated, crying, from their parent’s leg. I hope the latter isn’t you but if it is you may be asking why can’t my child be in the first category, or even the second? Of course the answer is, to some extent, temperament, but the other factor that may have a bearing is age. If your child has a summer birthday they will of course be one of the youngest in the year and therefore less mature physically, socially and emotionally.
All my own children were born in the summer, Gemma having the latest birthday, in August. But after a briefly tearful start she got on the best while her May and June born brothers struggled more and their immaturity showed up more clearly. So what are the factors at play here? From my example you might conclude it was gender but as usual it is the convergence of many things. Gemma was, and is, an extrovert who is socially adept. She was also academically able. Her brothers are introverts and both dyslexic so found life in the classroom harder. Environment makes a great deal of difference as you’d expect. Christian’s struggles in the classroom and his avoidance strategies were mistaken for misbehaviour and he got in trouble a lot thus reducing his self-esteem and causing more poor behaviour. Whereas Sam’s difficulties were recognised and he got the help he needed. It doesn’t help if your young child is actually tall for their age, as mine were, as adults’ expectations are often pitched too high.
Research has shown that kids who are young in their year do less well academically and are less confident than their older peers. And the impact of month of birth persists into higher education https://www.ifs.org.uk/wps/wp1006.pdf
Children who are less physically mature can also have a disadvantage in sport and may get disheartened while playing against their more coordinated, stronger peers. They will need encouragement to keep trying.
That is the lottery of the educational system as it is currently but since we know our younger kids are going to find it harder we can be prepared for that and help them.
And what about temperament?
If you have a child who is intense, sensitive, reactive, persistent, slow to adapt, high energy and can be a bit negative in outlook he is going to need a lot of support to manage school. If he is also an introvert he will need quiet time to restore his energies. Our temperaments are our default position for how we react to the world but they are not cast in stone. Parents can help children to appreciate their temperaments and learn to manage them. So for example, when your child says she wants cake at bedtime and she’s already brushed her teeth, you can say “You really, really want that cake don’t you? When you want something you’d like to keep going and going until you get it. That’s called persistence and that can be a wonderful quality. For instance if you wanted to get good at playing netball (insert whatever activity she’s keen on here) you’d practice and practice your ball skills until you mastered them. It’s really annoying for you that mummy has said you can’t have the cake. It’s my job to look after you and make sure that you stay healthy so sometimes I have to say you can’t eat something you’d like to or that you need to go to bed or to put a jumper on when it’s cold…. Do you remember we talked about how your brain works? This bit at the front tells you what’s sensible to do. But the bit in the middle tells you what you’d like to do. So your middle brain is yelling cake, cake, cake (ham it up here) and your front brain can hardly be heard saying ‘do what mummy says’. As you get older your front brain’s voice will get stronger and mummy and daddy will help you to listen to it…..This morning my middle brain was saying just ten minutes more sleep but my sensible front brain told me I needed to get up or we wouldn’t get to school and work on time.”
At four years old all children have immature ‘front brains’, that’s their pre-frontal cortex which regulates the emotions and impulses originating in the ‘middle brain’ or limbic system, and it really helps them to understand a little bit of how their brain works. It also helps us to stay calm when we realise that a poor behaviour is likely the result of an impulse or a feeling, not as a result of a character flaw. And when we stay calm our children do too. Less stress in their lives makes it more likely that they can handle school well.
Good luck with the next few weeks and we wish your child a very happy school life. Look out for our workshop on Raising Boys on October 3rd Raising Girls on October 31st.
September 11th, 2017
Anxieties are very much on the rise in children and young people. 2.2% of children aged 5-10 (about 96,000) and 4.4% of children aged 11-16 in the UK have an anxiety disorder.(http://www.youngminds.org.uk/training_services/policy/mental_health_statistics )
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, a worry or fear. Children can be fearful of many things, some of them imaginary and many of them irrational. It can be hard for an adult to understand their fears.Many worries are a normal part of growing up.
0-2 years – infants and toddlers are often afraid of loud noises, strangers, separation and large objects
It’s very common for young children to experience separation anxiety from about 8 months. They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or carers. This normal stage of development tends to ease off at around age two to three.
3-6 years – young children are frequently afraid of imaginary things such as monsters, the dark, sleeping alone and strange noises
It’s also common for pre-school children to develop specific fears or phobias of certain animals, insects, storms, heights, water, and blood. These fears usually go away gradually on their own. Gentle gradual exposure to the feared object can help.
7-16 years – older children have more realistic fears such as injury or illness, death and natural disasters, school performance and their future, social anxiety, identity and belonging.
Throughout a child’s life there will be times when they feel anxiety.
What makes a child anxious?
Some causes are down to temperament and some can be attributed to a child’s environment.
When is anxiety a problem for children?
Sometimes anxieties are very big, very frequent and very consuming.
Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their day-to-day life. Example: a 10 year old girl who is so afraid of being on her own that she won’t sleep in her own room but sleeps in her parents’ room. This is obviously disruptive to both her parents and her.
Paul Stallard, Professor of Child and Family Mental Health at the University of Bath says “If you go into any school at exam time all the kids will be anxious but some may be so anxious that they don’t get into school that morning…. Some will sit in an exam and their mind freezes and they can’t get anything down on paper. This is when anxiety starts to interfere with what children need to do or would like to do in everyday life.”
Severe anxiety can affect children’s self-esteem. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious. Anxiety disorders that start in childhood often persist into the teenage years and early adulthood. Teenagers with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop clinical depression, misuse drugs and feel suicidal.
This is why you should get help as soon as you realise it's a problem.
What are the signs of anxiety in children?
When young children feel anxious, they cannot usually understand or express what they are feeling. They may become irritable, angry, tearful, clingy, withdrawn or have difficulty sleeping, waking in the night, wetting the bed or having bad dreams. They may start or revert to thumb-sucking, tics or stammers, hair pulling or nail biting. They may experience eczema or headaches or stomach aches. They may engage in ritualistic, repetitive or obsessive behaviours. They may ask many, many questions, not because they really want the answers but because they’re seeking connection.
Older children may:
What can parents do?
It doesn’t work to tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of, not to be worried or to pull themselves together.
This helps children cope with their uncomfortable feelings, to understand them, be able to verbalise them and to find ways to manage them or alleviate them. Emotion coaches recognise and respect children’s feelings and reflect back to the child what they are experiencing. Giving the emotion a label helps the child to manage it. Name it to tame it. Help the child recognise the physiological signs of anxiety so they can identify the emotion and take steps to manage it. “I know you’re feeling nervous. Does your tummy have butterflies in it? Shall we try taking some deep breaths?”
When your 3 year old won’t go to bed because she’s afraid of monsters don’t say “don’t worry about it” or “don’t be silly-monsters aren’t real.” This will not work. You could say something like “even though monsters aren’t real they can feel very real in the middle of the night. I can see how frightened it has made you feel because you’re crying.” This won’t dismiss her feelings but nor does it suggest that there is actually something for her to be afraid of. Sometimes it can work to get her to shrink the monster or give him a funny face. Some families will work with magic ‘talismans’ that can ‘magic’ away monsters –these can be any object that can be invested with magic properties.
Alicia Eaton (Words That Work: How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything) suggests using a worry box. She describes worries as emotional messages that our minds send us to take care of us. This is ok where you can take action about the worry such as revising more for an exam. But it’s a problem if there’s nothing you can do. To make the message go away we need to acknowledge receipt –trick the mind into believing action has been taken. Get your child to write down or draw their worry, fold up the paper and put it in a box. Keep the box out of sight, not under their bed. At the end of the week review the worries-most will have taken care of themselves or won’t have materialised. Acknowledge that they didn’t occur without saying “see I told you there was no need to worry.” The child can then decide if they want to put the worry back into the box or throw it away.
You can help by preparing children in advance for new situations; talk through what’s going to happen and maybe practice in role play.
Encourage children to feel capable by giving credible descriptive praise for the strategies they use to cope with life. “I like the way you tried again when your first attempt didn’t work. Looks like you’ve found a solution.” Do this all the time. Give them lots of opportunities to be independent and support them by training in small steps.
One of the things kids worry about a lot as they get older is school performance. Parents need to make sure that in their efforts to encourage they aren’t adding to their child’s stress. Make your focus be less on results and more on effort and tactics used. Don’t ask ‘did you win?’ when they’ve played a match. When kids think all their parents care about is results they get very anxious. “I like the way you took some deep breaths when you were getting annoyed by Simon’s singing. That way you’re calming your body and your brain.” Showing your child that he has strategies for coping with life/ difficulties gives him confidence/makes him less anxious.
When kids make mistakes or fail let them know that mistakes and struggles are a normal part of learning and an indication that their brains are growing. Model an attitude of ‘what can I learn from this?’
Consider environmental factors
If you think your child is suffering from greater than normal levels of anxiety consult your GP.
September 04th, 2017
Some schools will be starting up this week and as kids begin the new school year of course parents will be thinking about how to motivate and encourage their offspring. We want our children to develop confidence so that they will be willing to give things a go, to try hard and to persevere if when things get tough. We want them to put themselves forward for things where they may discover new talents and enthusiasms. We want them to have courage and drive and self-control and be willing to follow their own dreams and maybe try a different path than that taken by the majority.
And whenever we mention using praise to build confidence someone will say “but I don’t want my child to become conceited or too self-focused”. And quite rightly.
Our instincts in this direction are backed up by research that shows that children who are ‘other-focused’, that is empathetic, are happier, bounce back from adversity faster and have better academic outcomes, apart from just being kinder and nicer to be around. Study after study has found that kids with good emotional intelligence (which includes empathy) are not just better adjusted emotionally, more popular and more sensitive but they are also physically healthier and perform better academically than less empathetic children.
In 2012, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found a direct connection between empathy and learning capacity. Children who receive empathy and are taught to empathise, especially from an early age, develop a higher capacity to learn. Part of the reason for this is that empathy is an especially effective antidote to stress which negatively affects learning and brain development in children. It affects the prefrontal cortex which manages non-cognitive skills like self-control as well as memory and reasoning. Children who are coached in emotional intelligence techniques are also more resilient which allows them to quickly refocus on learning.
Michelle Borba, in her book, Unselfie, talks about a generation of kids who are all about self-promotion, personal branding and self-interest to the exclusion of others’ feelings needs and concerns. She calls it the ‘selfie syndrome’ and claims that there is a rise in narcissism and a drop in empathy in today’s young. There is an observable increase in bullying and some evidence of greater cheating as they focus on winning at all costs. We also know that there is an increase in mental health problems, especially anxiety, and with that empathy wanes.
In the last few days I’ve had several conversations with family and friends who all work in very disparate fields about difficulties working with colleagues. At the root of each situation the problem appeared to be ego – the colleague in the different situations was non-collaborative, self-promoting, obstructive, undermining others or unwilling to accept feedback as they focused on themselves.
It is clearly better for society at large and indeed for our individual children too if we can develop healthy self-esteem without risk of producing kids with inflated egos. We want our children to promote themselves (particularly girls who haven’t always done so in the past) but still want them to be collaborative. We want them to pursue their goals and interests but not at the expense of others’. I think we want all our children to believe in themselves but not necessarily to think they are better than others.
How do we get that balance right?
In a seminar to the leaders of a global manufacturing company with a strong engineering base Daniel Goleman put forward a strong business and scientific case for emotional intelligence as the active ingredient in strong leadership which he then wrote about in the Harvard Business Review. His research showed that when it comes to the top echelon leaders, companies find that 80-90% of the competencies that distinguish star leaders are built on emotional intelligence. Being able to understand someone else’s perspective is vital for negotiating with and managing others. In a nutshell if your child develops emotional intelligence skills he will have a competitive edge for the future.
Hope this year is a great one for you and your children.
Melissa and Elaine
 John Gottman: The heart of parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child 1997