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