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September 18th, 2017

School success –how does age and temperament influence it?

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.

  1. One of the things we need to be particularly aware of is their need for sleep. If your child started school last week he may be doing half days at the moment because the school recognises that they will be very tired. You may also have seen some fallout at home as a result of tiredness, some ratty or regressive behaviours. We can be compassionate towards our littlies while still guiding their behaviour and being clear about our values. They hate to be told they are tired (especially when they’re dropping) so be sure not to make early bedtimes sound like punishments for poor behaviour. Just be clear that while they are getting used to school it will take a lot of energy and they need sleep so they can be alert and enjoy school. Sleep is sacrosanct in the first few weeks, at the very least.
  2. We can also make sure that their energies are focused on settling in to school and reduce other stresses in their lives. Try to make sure there aren’t too many other activities going on. Keep playdates for the weekends and don’t start too many extra-curricular activities until they are well settled. Make sure that they are getting plenty of time when they can play, run around and burn off steam and just to chill.
  3. Keep family routines as consistent as possible. Put on hold any ideas about moving house or any other big changes like going back to work wherever you can.

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.

 

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September 11th, 2017

Childhood anxiety

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 )

Normal worries

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.

  • Some children are more prone to worries and anxiety than others. A highly reactive temperament means a child is predisposed to anxiety. But that doesn’t mean it determines how the child behaves forever. Parents can support children to manage their personality and to develop coping mechanisms.
  • Children who have had a traumatic experience, such as a car accident or house fire, may suffer with anxiety afterwards. Some children who experience stress at an early age remain with elevated stress levels.
  • Family arguments and conflict can also leave children feeling insecure and anxious.
  • Children often find change difficult and may become anxious following a house move or when starting a new school or even if parents are using very inconsistent parenting approaches.
  • School can be a very anxious place for some, especially those who find school work difficult or social life tricky.
  • Playing certain computer games can trigger adrenaline rushes which may not get burned off if the child doesn’t get out and move around.
  • Sleep deprivation is a cause as well as a symptom of anxiety and diet can play a role too, especially caffeine and sugar and not getting enough water.
  • Parental anxiety plays a big role in a child’s worries. If a child’s role models tend to see the world as hostile or dangerous, they may learn to feel the same way. A parent’s anxiety may show up in micromanaging or over-protecting. Heather Shumaker, in her book ‘It’s OK not to share’, says don’t tell children to be careful because children naturally have an instinct to be careful - It’s hard-wired into them. Parents need to trust their child to use that instinct, or the child never starts to use it for themselves and they eventually lose it. Instead we need to say “Do you feel safe?” which encourages them to listen to their own body and answer for themselves. Parents also need to be aware of our own attitudes to life and what makes us anxious. We need to recognise our own fears, tackle our anxiety, practice relaxation techniques, and reduce stress in our lives. When we do this, our anxious child can see that some anxiety is normal, and it can be managed. 

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:

  • lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges and may avoid everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • have problems with sleeping or eating
  • be prone to angry outbursts
  • talk about their negative thoughts or the bad things that are going to happen
  • engage in comfort eating

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.

Emotion Coaching

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.

Prepare

You can help by preparing children in advance for new situations; talk through what’s going to happen and maybe practice in role play.

Build confidence

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.

Failure

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

  1. Food –can affect stress levels and create mood swings, especially toxins like caffeine and sugar
  2. Exercise –regular exercise soaks up excess adrenaline and releases endorphins
  3. Laughter –do a lot of it
  4. Relaxation –teach your child relaxation and breathing techniques

If you think your child is suffering from greater than normal levels of anxiety consult your GP.

  

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September 04th, 2017

Confidence vs Ego

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.[1] 

In 2012, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found a direct connection between empathy and learning capacity.[2]  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?

  1. Well we need to make sure we are using realistic praise based on facts. That means descriptive, not evaluative, praise. So avoid “Brilliant darling, you’re amazing” ,  and go for noticing and commenting on what they get right, including the attitude they show, improvements they make and strategies they employ. It is not about results as much as focusing on efforts. Instead of saying “you’re so clever” try “I’m so pleased to see you’re not giving up with that sum. Fractions can be tricky, but you’re persevering.”  “Because you’ve been practising your guitar chord changes you’re able to make them much more fluid now, don’t you think? I’ll bet you’re pleased with yourself.” “When you stood up for Kim when those girls were teasing her, that took courage. You weren’t prepared to stand by and allow it to happen. That was real friendship.”
  2. And what are we praising them for? We get more of what we pay attention to so maybe we can think about what qualities we want to encourage in our children. For some it will include humility, for acknowledging others’ efforts and contributions, for kindness and generosity and treating others fairly and with respect. And of course we need to be modelling these qualities ourselves if we expect to see them in our children. No pressure!
  3. When we are descriptively praising we need to avoid comparisons. Let your child know what you appreciate about him as a unique individual, not in comparison with someone else. Tell him this is his best effort –not that he is the best. “Your good result in your spelling test reflects the hard work that you put into it. This is the best you’ve done so far” not “You got a better score than Luke.”
  4. Build empathy in children by showing it to them. Let them know you understand and care about their feelings by describing them. “You seem really stuck on this problem. It can be hard to think of solutions when you feel like that. Last week when you had those spellings to learn you really persevered and had some creative ideas for remembering them. As I recall you found it helped you to move around while you were memorising. You got them in the end”.   “I know sometimes it’s hard to get started on your homework/music practice when you’d rather play your new game. Those computer games are designed to be really appealing and when something’s new it’s even more tempting”.   This builds self-awareness, the first step toward perspective taking and empathy.

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

[1] John Gottman: The heart of parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child 1997

[2] http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/empathy-and-learning/

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