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March 06th, 2017

What do you want to say to your daughter?

On Wednesday March 8th it will be International Women’s Day. This is a day that marks the huge advancements made by women and also is an opportunity to pause and look at where change still needs to be made. In the developing world of course there is much work still to be done in lifting women out of poverty, in healthcare, education and in improving the rights and status of women. But in the developed world also there is still a way to go before gender parity will be achieved.

I feel that those of us who are bringing up young women have a responsibility to educate our daughters to regard themselves and others with respect and to fight for equality for all, whether on the basis of gender or any other difference.

My daughter is my first born child. Before she was born my mother had warned me that boys were straightforward and that girls were much more complicated. To be honest that was not my experience. My boys taxed my parenting resources much more than my daughter. Perhaps I understood her better? Perhaps it was just personality differences? She is now, I hesitate to admit, old enough to be getting married. And as she is poised on that threshold I pause to reflect on what I want to say to her as she enters the next phase of her adult life.

As if that doesn’t make me feel old enough my son and his wife are expecting their first child in a few weeks, a daughter. As we wait to welcome her into the world I’m thinking about what I’d say to her too about being a girl.

What do you want to say to your daughters? What messages do you want to give them about being women? If you are their mother what does it mean to you to be a woman in the 21st century? If you are their father what do you hope for on behalf of your little girl?

Mums, being a girl today is not the same as when you were growing up. Some things have improved. Attitudes toward women are generally different and there are many more legal protections against gender-based harassment and discrimination. Domestic violence is now being talked about whereas it used to be a ‘dirty’ secret. But your daughters are also subject to different and more intense challenges and pressures than the previous generation. From about the age of 10 a girl’s self-esteem often goes into decline as she becomes more focused on herself, who she is and who she’s becoming; the pressure to achieve in the academic, sporting and arts arenas today is enormous. While you will also have gone through the process of recalibrating your identity and working out friendships, what you believed in and how you fit into the world, you will have been able to do it in the privacy of your own home without the full glare of the spotlight that is social media to hinder the process. Young girls are sometimes behaving in a way they feel they ‘should’, rather than in a way they would like. Peer pressure has taken on new meaning.

The stresses in a tween and teen girl’s life are so great now that eating disorders, self-harm and depression are more prevalent than ever before. Girls are growing up much faster. They are exposed to far more media and with it relentless messages about how they should look and behave. For girls how they look has become a constant obsession.

Girls tend to suffer much more from perfectionism than boys. Many believe that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. They can think that if they are not perfect they are unacceptable. We, as parents, may think that aiming high is a good thing but not if it turns into nothing is good enough. Perfectionism is a real problem when it prevents your daughter from taking risks, when she plays it safe, won’t put up her hand, won’t risk trying anything unless she’s sure she can excel at it. It stifles ambition, wastes her potential and causes anxiety and loss of performance.

Nowhere is perfectionism more obvious than in relation to body image. This reaches a peak in the teens but starts much earlier. Studies show that 3 year olds are very aware of their bodies and talk about being fat-some kids insult each other by calling others ‘fat’. We know that body dissatisfaction significantly affects feeling of self-worth and engagement with life. We also know that mums, as the same gender parent, can unwittingly pass on attitudes of dissatisfaction with their bodies to their daughters.

So what can parents of girls say to their daughters on International Women’s Day? Well this is what I want to say to my daughter (and my granddaughter):

  • You are loved for who you are, not for what you might achieve, and certainly not for what you look like. There is more to being a woman than how she looks and beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. I need to model this attitude and not talk about my body in terms of appearance but only functionality and I need to express gratitude for what my amazing body does for me.
  • Your successes will be measured by your efforts, not by your results. It is part of being human to make mistakes, to fail. That is ok. Struggle is what makes your brain grow. I need to model this attitude to failure when I make my own mistakes as well as how I respond to my daughter’s slip-ups. I need to respond calmly (and if I can’t then I should take some cool-down time) and connect with her before trying to teach her anything.
  • You deserve respect because you are a human being. And so does every other human being, no matter what their gender, what they look like, where they are from, who they worship or who they fancy.
  • And I would say it’s great being a girl.

You may have many other things you’d say to your girls. Let us know what you think they need to hear.

If you’re interested in exploring issues relating to girls come along to our Raising Girls Workshops.

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February 27th, 2017

Adolescence - Awful or Amazing?

Is your child racing towards the teenage years faster than you expected? Does that fill you with dread? Or are you looking forward to that greater independence? Either way a better knowledge of what goes on in the teenage mind will smooth the path of adolescence for both parent and teen. 

Parenting isn’t a one-size-fits-all science. You need to have a real understanding of the real child in front of you at the stage he is at now to know how to apply your parenting techniques and strategies. 

Unrealistic expectations are the source of much upset in families. 

When we understand our child’s stage of development we’ll have a better understanding of what’s reasonable to expect of them. Understanding what your child is capable of now doesn’t mean giving up on goals for the future but it will direct our efforts so we can give them the support they need to achieve what we want from them.

You are the experts on your children – you know what they like and don’t like, what are their fears, what makes them happy and how they’re likely to behave in different situations. But sometimes you might not understand why they do the things they do. And just when you think you’ve ‘got’ them, they change.

The perfectly reasonable child you used to know may morph overnight into an alien being when they hit puberty. If you’re both going to get through this turbulent period ok you need to understand what’s going on for your adolescent.

Hormones generally get blamed for the changes in adolescence and although they play a part recent research is showing that changes in the adolescent brain are responsible for much of the ‘strange’ behaviour.

From the ages of 11 to 24 the brain undergoes a complete remodelling. The way we think, remember, reason, focus attention, make decisions and relate to others all change.

There are dramatic changes in the frontal lobes — the area of the cortex behind the forehead

which acts as a command centre. Eventually the changes will allow the teen to regulate their emotions, think about risks in big-picture terms, exercise wise judgment, plan for the future and have empathy. But for now it is a building site, where parts will go offline for a while. That’s why adults need to have respect for the remodelling process and make adjustments for the fact that the adolescent mind is a construction zone.

While the frontal lobe develops, it’s the limbic region (emotional centre) that is more active. That’s why a bland remark or an innocent bump in the hallway can be interpreted by a teenager as intentional and they will respond with anger.

But the massive re-modelling of the brain’s basic structure in early adolescence is good news – the brain is thought to be especially receptive to new information and primed to acquire new skills during this period of exuberance.

Some brain development is driven by genes, some by use. Experience alters the structure of the brain at any age but progresses faster when young.

“…we know that the major innovations in technology, in science, in music and art come from adolescent minds. That’s because adolescents are literally biologically programmed to push against the status quo that adults have created and imagine a world that could be, and not just learn the world as it is. That’s why we need to see adolescents as the hope for the future.”
Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel

We mustn’t see adolescence as a period of aberration to be endured. It can also be regarded as perfectly adaptive – the teen is a creature highly adapted for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside. 

Understanding what’s going on for teens makes it easier for us to be compassionate, to not assume they’re doing what they’re doing just to wind us up. 

Teens tend to:

  • Be emotional/moody. You say “hello darling” and they say “what?”; you say “do you need any help with your homework?” and they say “I’ll do it, get off my back!”
  • Be impulsive and do risky, dangerous things. This is partly because of an increase in the production of dopamine — the hormone that creates our drive for reward. This is why teenagers gravitate towards thrilling experiences, as the dopamine release gives them a huge buzz. It’s why teens are often passionate about things. It explains, too, why they are impulsive: they concentrate on the forthcoming reward rather than the risk of an activity.
  • Be vulnerable to drugs and alcohol. The same quantity of drugs or alcohol has a much stronger effect than it does in adults.
  • Be developing as separate independent people with their own identity and values and be able to think for themselves - they are very focused on themselves and self-absorbed. They may express this new identity through their dress, piercings/ tattoos, hair, music, language, how they keep their rooms. They may argue a lot as they work out what they believe in.
  • Start moving towards independence, -going off on their own, not wanting to ‘report in’/not answering mobiles, not wanting to do ‘family things’, resisting rules. They may appear to reject family in the process of separating from them.
  • Be developing as sexual beings- with awkwardness, secrecy and appearance anxiety. They may be looking at explicit websites.
  • Prefer their peers’ company.
  • Not talk much, to family.
  • Want to sleep at inconvenient times.
  • Be unmotivated about school work or chores.
  • Always be on screens.
  • Prone to mental health problems.
  • Teens need:

    Understanding and compassion
    To hear that they are appreciated
    Coaching in organisational skills
    Help with decision-making, and considering other viewpoints
    Warmth and closeness
    Teaching and modelling self-soothing skills
    Coaching in friendship skills
    Family support –this is a stress buffer for teens
    Rules to keep them safe and to develop good habits, such as curfews, use of screens generally and especially social media, bedtimes, family time, chores, homework
    Help in understanding what’s going on in their brains

For more help in understanding the teenage years and some strategies for making the most of them come to our regualr workshops on Teenagers. Click here for more details.

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February 20th, 2017

Why aren't Girls Brave?

Does that headline make you cross? Is the feminist in you outraged? Are you saying of course girls are brave! My girls are brave. Boys don’t have a monopoly on courage.

Well, think about it in the context of school and work. Are girls as willing to put their hand up in class to answer a question where they are not certain they know the answer? Will girls choose to study subjects unless they think there’s a chance they’ll get top grades? Will they choose careers that they think they might not excel in? Will they put themselves forward for jobs if they think they are don’t have all the necessary qualifications?

Boys will.

It’s arguable that boys pay less attention than girls to what other people think for one thing, but even if they only reference their own evaluation boys will put themselves forward where girls will not.

It is well known that women are under-represented in board rooms and parliaments across the world and various theories have been put forward about women’s self-confidence. You may have heard of the Hewlett Packard report of 2014 which stated that men will put themselves forward for positions when they have 60% of the necessary qualifications while women won’t apply unless they have 100% of the qualifications.

Reshma Saujani suggests in her fascinating TED talk Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC9da6eqaqg, that we are teaching our girls not to take risks. That women have been socialised to aspire to perfection.

Perfectionism means that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Girls tend to suffer from it more than boys. Many believe that being perfect, whether in relation to school work, sports or extra-curricular activities or their appearance or behaviour, is not only possible but their duty. They can think that if they are not perfect they are unacceptable.

Does your daughter like to do things right or not do them at all? Does she screw up a drawing or piece of work that looked perfectly ok to you? Does she not take risks for fear of making mistakes/looking silly? Will she put up her hand in class? Does she suffer from learned helplessness, i.e. ask for help a lot so that if there is a failure it won’t be her fault? Does she give up easily? Does she attribute success not to her own efforts but to luck? Does she berate herself for making mistakes whether in school work or relationships? Are you afraid to tell her off because she takes it so badly?

Typically girls suffering from perfectionism engage in black and white thinking, critical self-talk, avoiding things as a means of coping, and generally negative thinking and reasoning. Perfectionism can actually lead to a drop in grades, anxiety and lack of sleep in the short term and missing out on opportunities over the long term. Not to mention the great loss to society of what that girl might have contributed.

Think about this in terms of body image. We know that girls and women often have quite unrealistic views about how they should look due in part to the preponderance of airbrushed and photo shopped images and exaltations to ‘look after ourselves’ in the media. Body image is very important to girls (and dominates their engagement with social media). Their obsession with it reaches a peak in the teens but starts much earlier (studies show 3 year olds are very aware of their bodies and talk about being fat-some kids insult each other by calling others ‘fat’).

Saujani claims that we are raising our girls to be perfect and raising our boys to be brave. She says we teach our daughters to play it safe and avoid failure while boys are encouraged to aim high, no matter the risks. Boys are habituated to take risks and are rewarded for it.

Saujani really caught my attention when she referred to the Mindset research of Professor Carol Dweck of which I’d been a huge fan for many years. She referred to an aspect of it I hadn’t come across before when she claimed that there was a difference between boys’ and girls’ mindsets, that girls(especially bright girls), when faced with a problem that was challenging were more likely than boys to give up. Boys found the tasks energising and were more likely to redouble their efforts. Dweck’s research included presenting children with tasks that were beyond their abilities and observing how they responded to those challenges. She found a difference between the children according to what words of encouragement the researchers used. The children who more likely to rise to the challenge of the beyond reach task were those who had been praised in an earlier task with words which addresses the effort they’d applied rather than any innate ability they might have. Eg they were told “Oh you did really well, you must have tried really hard” as opposed to the other group who were told “Oh you did really well, you must be really good at these.”

Interestingly the boys in the study appear to have embraced the challenge more and Dweck explains this by reference to their earlier school experience. She says that in early schooling boys usually get told off quite a lot! They get used to criticism and are often told to apply more effort. Girls, who are working hard already, are not being given the effort message.

So herein lies the solution for parents of girls:

  • build self-esteem through giving LOTS of descriptive praise and providing opportunities to establish competencies (in other words let them try things, and fail)
  • make your praise focus on effort rather than on achievements,
  • encourage risk-taking,
  • talk to your daughters about the risks of perfectionism and the advantages of being brave,
  • model healthy attitudes toward mistakes. When you make a mistake don’t beat yourself up about it but acknowledge the mistake and if possible why it was a mistake. Then, where appropriate, take steps to remedy it. Articulate what you are learning from your mistake and show that you are not diminished by your mistakes but can profit from them.

Healthy self-esteem is a direct result of the child seeing that she can make mistakes, solve problems, struggle and come out triumphant, and that her value as a human being is not contingent upon her results.

Messages to encourage a healthy mindset:

  • Great, that tough sum will make your brain grow!
  • Did you challenge yourself today?
  • I love that when that first strategy you tried didn’t work you tired a different tactic.
  • I’m doing this crossword to make my brain do something different.
  • You didn’t give up when it was tricky learning to ride your bike. You persevered and you found ways to help you
  • balance.

The Parent Practice runs regular courses on Raising Boys and Raising Girls.

Click here to see when the next ones are running

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February 12th, 2017

Six Steps to a Successful Skiing Holiday

Children love snow and they love being active. So the family skiing holiday is a guaranteed winner, surely?!  Not always. Although a skiing holiday with children has great potential for physical fun and family bonding, it also has the potential for frustration and disappointment…. So here are Six Steps to a Successful Ski Holiday this year

(1) BE REALISTIC

A family skiing holiday is NOT the same as pre-children! We may dream about hours on the slopes, relaxing over lunch or in the sauna, but children have different requirements and agendas. Some children may be able to adapt to change of routines, but others will struggle. Less adaptable children may be feeling out of their depth in a new environment, with different language, different food, and a new level of tiredness, let alone other physical effects of altitude, dehydration, chapped lips, sore legs, blisters…..

Your child is not trying to ruin your holiday – she’s not BEING a problem, she’s HAVING a problem. Can you anticipate which bits might be trickier for your child and plan ahead to help her?

(2) BE FLEXIBLE

You want to maximise your time on the slopes but consider whether you also have other priorities for the week together than improving your own technique? If this is a rare opportunity to spend time with your child away from school, in the fresh air, without 4G or wifi, make the most of it!

We want our children to be competent and safe on the slopes, and we also want them to enjoy skiing holidays. Spend some time with them doing the more childish snow activities at a more childish pace – it will be good for you too!

(3) BE PREPARED

You will inevitably spend time preparing practically - collecting kit together, booking lift passes, hiring equipment etc. You can also prepare on another level. What areas may cause problems, or have been tricky in the past for your child? Typical hot spots are putting on boots, carrying skiis, using the chair or button lift, settling into ski school….. Or arguments about who sits where on the train or plane…..

Rather than hoping that nothing goes wrong, prepare with a Family Ski Meeting, and discuss together possible challenges. Encourage the children to contribute solutions - they can be quite ingenious!

(4) GET PHYSICAL

Some of the challenges of skiing with children involve struggling with helmets, lift passes, chapsticks, goggles, under time pressure or in the cold or heat. Before you go practice beforehand at home. Help them practice putting their own coat and gloves on, decide which pocket has the emergency smarties and tissues, and have some fun pretending to get on a sofa chair lift, bringing the imaginary bar down, or waiting at the top or bottom of a slope until everyone is together, playing a snow-themed word game to keep the mood up!

(5) LISTEN

Obviously the plan is to have fun, but children will also feel tired, worried, confused, anxious, unsure, incapable, hesitant, frustrated, vulnerable, embarrassed, uneasy, discouraged, disappointed….. It doesn’t mean they’re ungrateful! When we try to change how a child feels – by dismissing or belittling or ignoring the emotions, or reassuring them, the unacknowledged and unresolved emotions continue to swirl around and eventually burst out into behaviour.

Connect with how your child feels, and help them re-direct what they do.

Rather than: “Don’t worry about how high up we are, these lifts are perfectly safe.”

Try:  “It can feel scary to be up so high, we’re not used to it. Where shall we look?”

Rather than: “everyone is tired, but no-one else is complaining.”

Try: “I hear how tired you feel, I bet your legs feel really heavy…. wouldn’t it be nice if we could just snap our fingers and find ourselves tucked up in bed?!”

Acknowledging how they feel does NOT condone any negative behaviour. It DOES mean we stay connected and we help them learn to manage their emotions so the behaviour can improve.

(6) ACKNOWLEDGE EFFORT AND IMPROVEMENT

Encourage them to repeat particular behaviours by descriptively praising them.

Notice any effort they make, and any improvement. Recognise any coping strategy they try, and acknowledge them for being brave, resilient, flexible, persistent, determined, also for paying attention, remembering, being organised or helpful and for not complaining (too much!)

“You are hardly complaining at all about the cold.

I know you’re not sure that skiing is really your thing but you’re trying to do the snow plough just the way your teacher showed you. I saw that you were really paying attention while he was talking. Then you watched carefully while he showed you and you had a go. I love that you’re willing to try – it shows a wonderfully positive attitude!

 “When the instructor asked you to wait for the little ones to go first on the magic carpet you stepped back. That was patient because I could see you really wanted to have another go. You are getting good at following instructions and controlling your impulses.

“I noticed you got all your kit together last night and remembered where to put it all. That made this morning easier!”

 “I like that you are being so responsible about your helmet. It’s tricky to do the strap but you’re persevering with it.”

Avoid comparing siblings on the slopes or encouraging competition. Instead focus on their individual effort and listen to any frustration about mixed abilities.

 “I love the way you pick yourself up and brush off the snow and just get straight back to trying your hardest”

“I can see those parallel turns getting closer and closer together each time you come down the slope, keeping working on them like this and soon they will get easier!”

“It’s hard for you, Jack flies down the slopes and you want to be as fast as him.”

“When Sally gets scared and we all have to stop, you feel frustrated with her because you want to keep going.”

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January 23rd, 2017

Four Secrets to Staying Calm.

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. 

  1. You need to look after yourself. Yes, I know you know that when you’re taking care of your own physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual needs you are in a better place to parent positively. But that doesn’t mean you are prioritising it does it? Perhaps you still see it as indulgent. Perhaps you feel you can’t afford to spend the time on your own fitness or social needs or just spending a bit of time doing what you like? Can you afford not to? If you feel like you’re the least important member of the household (and that’s how you’re treating yourself) how are you going to feel? Might some resentment creep in? Will your temper be short? How compassionate can you be to others if you aren’t to yourself? And what are you modelling? Just saying… 

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). 

  1. You need to understand your child. We can be the best possible parents when we’re mindful of the individual characteristics of our children, when we really understand the stage of development they’re in right now and their personality traits as well as the emotional drivers for their behaviour. When we take those things into account we can tailor our approach so that it fits perfectly. When we adjust our expectations and accommodate individual temperaments or ages that’s not pandering –it’s providing the conditions in which our children can thrive. Think of your children as prize orchids and give them the conditions they need to flourish!

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. 

  1. You need to have strategies. Even if we start in a zen-like state we need to have some strategies to call on in the face of poor behaviour. We need to know what steps we can take when our son hits another child in the playground or our daughter has a tantrum in the café or we’ll soon lose our calm. Parenting in public often doesn’t go well so sometimes the best thing you can do is apologise if necessary to any other parents/children involved and take your child home to deal with the incident when you’re both calmer. A forced sorry from your child won’t satisfy the other child and it won’t teach yours anything. When you’re both calm the first thing to do is connect –try to see what happened from your child’s perspective. What were they trying to achieve? Only once your child’s feelings have been expressed can you move on to the teaching part. Then you can discuss the impact of his actions on others and ask him how he could have done things differently. See our Parenting Guide ‘Firm but Fair. Positive and Effective Discipline’ for more. 
  1. You need to act sooner. When you’ve asked your daughter 3 times to get off the computer and go and have a bath and its 20 minutes later and she still hasn’t exited the programme and you’ve ended up yelling… you know you needed to act sooner in a more direct way. She needed help to do what was required. Computer games are designed to be very compelling –even the grownups find them hard to put down. When we act before we lose it we are, of course, much more effective. When we lose it, the ‘it’ we lose is our self-control and children’s respect. 

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?

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December 02nd, 2016

Handling anxiety around the 11+

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…. 

Maybe. 

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.

 

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