March 17th, 2019

A Mindfull or a Mind-Full Parent?

Guest blog by Daisy Seale-Barnes of 'Raise and Shine'. Daisy teaches parents in SE London and is a licensee of The Parent Practice

'Mindfulness’ is a term bandied around everywhere these days and, unless you have been living on another planet, it is unlikely to have passed you by. Yet I appreciate that for us modern parents, who often find ourselves living with epic ‘to-do lists’ mindfulness might sound ‘all well and good’, but like a totally unrealistic prospect in the context of the busyness of real life and simply like yet another thing to feel guilty about not doing.

But, as a parent who has been practicing mindfulness myself for 6 years now, I can confirm that not only is it entirely feasible, I would go as far as to say that you don’t have time not to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the emotional state that you need to effectively deploy positive parenting skills, and this means that you can deal with problems early as opposed to letting them swell into painful situations that take a long time to resolve and clear up. Invest now and reap the rewards later!

Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not actually about sitting in the lotus position for hours, nor do you have to try to ‘clear your mind’ (quite frankly, mine rarely shuts up!) and you don’t even have to become that irritating person who floats around talking in an ethereal monotone about how much meditation they do ‘man’! In reality, mindfulness is about mental training and it’s for everyone, just like you and me i.e. exhausted, time-poor parents!

The brain consists of an elaborate system of neural circuitry. Without mindfulness we are prone to spending too much time in the more primitive part of our brain that produces powerful stress responses, including the flight or fight responses. These evolved to help protect us from threats to our survival but don’t serve us as well in modern life. That’s because the same strong responses that helped protect us from predators are triggered when a child flicks a pea across the room!

Mindfulness is about training the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher order functions such as attention, emotion regulation, planning, abstract reasoning and complex problem solving. That’s the part of the brain that can help us be the kind of parents we want to be.

Mindfulness training works because, just like the body, which is strengthened and kept healthy through physical exercise, the brain is a dynamic organ that can be strengthened via mental exercise. Meditation is just strength training for the brain. Who wouldn’t want a strong, relaxed brain that can override the rigid, anxious, autopilot mode that often dominates when we are put under the stress that is part of being a modern parent?

Whilst meditation is very effective (and these days there are a whole variety of excellent apps for guided meditations including some designed specifically for parents) it can be considered the ‘gym’ for the mindfulness heavyweights. Since we parents sometimes even find it hard to find time to go to the loo let alone the gym(!) when time is short there are other more feasible ways we can approach mindfulness practice.

One example is a simple technique I teach called ‘The Parent Pause’. Next time you feel triggered by something your child has done (note the fast breathing, jaw-clenching eye-widening, muscle-tensing, anger-rushing), try to ‘catch’ yourself before you react. Then apply The Parent Pause by focusing your attention on a single thing (this can be your breath, your hands, an object in the room, anything really). Hold this attention for just a few seconds and take a deep deliberate breath with a slow exhale. You will just have created a little thinking space in which you can now apply a relevant positive parenting technique.

Central to this technique and all the others that I teach, is the ability to pay attention. That’s because studies show that for the neural networks and brain structures to benefit you have to bring to your full and undivided attention to the practice. In whatever form you are doing it, noticing is the practice and is what will work the ‘magic’ that grows this part of the brain. Quoting Google’s Chade Meng Tan, each time we notice our minds have wandered and we bring it back to the task it is like doing ‘a bicep curl for the brain!’ As with physical exercise though, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ so it is vital to keep practicing. But the good news is that neuroscience shows that practice produces almost immediate benefits.

It is this improved ‘staying power’ and ability to keep being aware that mindfulness training provides us with, which complements positive parenting so well. It is no use learning all the parenting skills in the world if, when we care for our children our minds are in five other places. Mindfulness keeps us present and helps us remember the skills we have learned when we really need them. In fact, mindfulness puts you in the perfect place to implement positive parenting skills.

Mindfulness is in essence all about noticing in a friendly, non-judgemental way. Descriptive praise, one of the fundamental skills of positive parenting, is about noticing the good things our children do. Likewise, emotion coaching, another core positive parenting skill involves really listening to our children in a non-judgmental and focussed way – and what is that if not ‘mindful listening’? And importantly, mindfulness helps us stay calm in those trickier situations when we are being challenged so we can respond rather than react wildly.

But please don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim mindfulness offers some kind of panacea. We’re all human: we make mistakes. What’s more, we are parents and our children are in a unique position to push our buttons! Yet, when we do lose it mindfulness allows us to embrace our imperfect selves and frees us to ‘hit the refresh button’ and respond to our lives with clarity and balance once again.

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March 04th, 2019

Changing screen habits, positively.

Did you know that the UK Chief Medical Officers recently published a report advising us to control our children's screen time use – suggesting banning screens at mealtimes and bedtimes and making sure children don’t have more than 2 hours on screens in one sitting?

You might be thinking how on earth do I do that? And you might also be thinking when they’re safely occupied in front of a screen is when I get everything done!

Of course we know it's a good idea to encourage kids to spend time outdoors getting fresh air and exercise. We all know about the problems of obesity. And we may be aware of all the benefits of fresh air and being in nature in combatting anxiety. We know our kids need to get adequate sleep to function well the next day and to aid brain development and avoid depression. We may also want our kids to be interacting with human beings IRL (in real life) instead of staying glued to a screen all day. But I know that this new advice will throw up all sorts of questions and challenges for many parents.

For a start, 2 hours each day may not seem very long if your child already exceeds that limit, especially if you include homework time.

Just how are you going to change current patterns and reduce time in front of a screen?

What are you going to do or say that's not going to cause World War III?

How are you going to deal with claims that you’re the worst parent in the world and it’s so unfair!

If you’re separated from your child’s other parent how on earth are you going to make this rule stick, given that they don’t seem to have any rules?

It's no fun having to play 'policeman' just as you come home from work - you're tired, looking forward to some relaxation and quality time with the family. No-one wants arguments, do they?

My book ‘Real Parenting for Real Kids’ tackles just this challenge in the chapter ‘Their Digital World’. This whole chapter is dedicated to screen time usage with extra tips and advice on how to get kids into good habits and values in a digital world without friction.

In this book, I teach several essential skills to enable you to bring out the best in your kids. Using case studies and examples I show how these skills can be applied to real life situations such as this.

You can learn to make small changes to the words you use and ways you respond and discover how easy it can be to change your child's behaviour.You can read more about my book here.

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February 24th, 2019

4 Secrets to Being a More Flexible Parent.

The key to good parenting is having the flexibility to throw away the approaches that aren’t working and think about what does work for your child.

If you’ve tried the ‘naughty step’ and you find that you’re having to wrestle with your child to get him to sit there and he seems to find it a great laugh can you let it go and try something else?
Instead consider that his sense of self is fragile and he’s trying to protect it with bravado. Of course, he doesn’t want to sit in the place that confirms his identity as a bad person. He wants to be a good person and needs your support to get things right and fix his mistakes.

When you scold your daughter for being mean to her younger sister and she cries and follows you around rather than staying in her room where you’ve told her to think about what she’s done, can you let it go and try something else?
Instead can you try to connect with her before correcting her behaviour? Let her know that you know she’s a good person who made a mistake. Help her to understand the feelings that led to her behaviour and show her other ways of dealing with those feelings. Eg use role play to rehearse how to tell her sibling how she feels.

When your 13-year-old won’t get off the computer and lies to you about how long he’s been on it and that he didn’t have any homework can you resist the urge to ban the computer for the rest of the week?
Can you understand the compulsion he feels about his game and being able to chat with his friends about it the next day? Do you get that this is an area of his life where he feels successful? Does his need to discuss the finer details of the game with his mates make sense as part of belonging to the group which characterises this stage of development? Do you have the flexibility to think in terms of problem-solving discussions rather than rigid sanctions? Obviously, the homework needs to be done but explaining the reasons for your screen rules and showing understanding about his impulses would help.

It’s November and the 11+ exams are looming and your daughter isn’t studying. Other parents in the year are offering their girls ‘incentives’ for good grades. Can you resist the urge to bribe your daughter?
Do you have the flexibility to think about empowering your daughter to take charge of her own learning by asking her what her goals are rather than making her grades be your achievements?

It takes some flexibility to give up on parenting practices that we think of as being set in stone. Sometimes our default settings feel like ‘instincts’. In fact, they are learned behaviours. These were the responses that our parents adopted, that we see other parents using and that we read about in parenting chat rooms, blogs, articles and books. But if these approaches are causing resentment, if your child is digging his heels in or you fear her self-esteem may be suffering, then do you have the courage to try something else?

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February 11th, 2019

Love is in the schedule

On Thursday it is Valentine’s day. You may not celebrate the day.  Even if you are in a relationship. Plenty of people think it is overly commercialised and an opportunity to extort money for cards, flowers, chocolates and dinners at prices vastly inflated compared to the rest of the year. You may feel you have no use for red, scratchy lace underwear or perfume that doesn’t suit. 

Ok so I’m being cynical. Maybe you relish an opportunity to celebrate your love for your partner and having a day set aside for it may be a good way to remind you of it and rekindle the old flame. 

When we go from being a couple to being a family many of us find there is no time to spend on our partners any more. Romance dies along with sleep and we find ourselves griping about the things the other forgets to do as the items on our own to-do list breed and multiply. A night out becomes prohibitively expensive when you add in babysitting and if you try to have a date night at home you may find yourself asleep on the sofa by 9pm. The things that we used to find endearing may now seem really irritating. The foot massage you used to give each other is replaced by the weekly nit check and daily search for matching socks. 

Our children so often become our priority and our couple relationship can take second place. Between work and the kids it can be hard to find any time for ourselves or our couple relationships. This is a big mistake. The relationship you have with your partner is the foundation on which your family relies. It is the template on which your children will model their own future relationships and sets the tone for the sense of belonging in the family. Having someone else to tag team with in the parenting race also makes it much easier. When parents are united about values and discipline the children feel more secure and push against the boundaries less. Of course the adults may have some differences in their styles of parenting, but what’s important is that both mum and dad present fairly similar expectations and limits. 

Here are some ways to develop a united front with your partner 

    • Schedule date nights where you don’t talk about the kids.
    • Set aside (other) regular times to communicate with your partner –discuss what your values are and what you want to happen. Work out your differences in private so that you can be consistent in public.
    • Where there is disagreement, compromise –consistency is more important than the actual rule
    • Acknowledge each other’s strengths. (I recommend the practice of writing down one descriptive praise for each other each day in a little book.)
    • Say positive things to/about your partner in front of the children. Speak to and about the other with respect. Your children will take their cue from you.
    • Be affectionate with each other in front of the children. (Yes they’ll say yuck but it will make them feel secure!)
    • Don’t criticise and try not to argue with your partner in front of the children. If you do disagree do so respectfully.
    • Don’t play good cop/bad cop: Check in with other partner before promising something to the children and if your child comes to you when you suspect they’ve already asked their other parent, ask them “what did mummy/daddy say?” and go along with their decision
    • Don’t compete to be the better parent. Remember that even when your partner is parenting differently from you s/he has the best interests of the children at heart.
    • If you’re not together with the child’s other parent then communication may be difficult. Children can cope with different rules and approaches in different households but be sure you never denigrate the other parent. 

    Involving an absent or disinterested partner

    • Consider why they’ve checked out. Are they working very long hours? Why? Is this a financial necessity? Do they feel more successful/ comfortable at work than at home?
    • Ask for their support, opinions, input on family rules, outings, holidays etc without criticism. Be honest with yourself and question whether your style of involving your partner in the past has largely been to nag and criticise them.
    • Ask for your partner’s involvement in small ways at first where they are likely to feel successful and enjoy the experience such as taking the kids to the park for a short outing. Build up to them taking a full share of the less pleasant aspects of parenting over time. Be appreciative even if you still think they should be doing more. 

    Healthy ways to deal with conflict:

      • Acknowledge and reflect back your partner’s point of view to him/her, especially where this is different from yours
      • Don’t criticise, but make requests and state your needs. eg I need more help around the house. Please can you take out the garbage each week.
      • State how you feel using ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements – “when you leave the kitchen in a mess I feel as if you expect me to clean it up and I feel taken for granted.” not “you always leave the kitchen untidy –you really take me for granted.”
      • Confine yourself to the matter under discussion –don’t bring up history. Don’t use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’.
      • Avoid defensiveness ie denying responsibility for a problem. eg Steve has a sharp intake of breath after Maggie just braked hard in the car. She says: there you go again being a back seat driver! Accept some personal responsibility for at least part of the problem. “Sorry! That was a bit abrupt.”
      • Avoid stonewalling - where the listener withdraws from the interaction and doesn’t respond. It indicates an emotional withdrawal from the relationship. If you feel the need to withdraw ask for a break and agree upon a time to resume the conversation. 

      So take some time this week to focus on your other half and remember why you got together in the first place. Tell them what small things you appreciate about them.

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      January 21st, 2019

      How to stop a child from doing what you don’t want them to do

      A few days ago my 21 month old granddaughter came over to visit with a friend of hers. They were accompanied by both their mothers and had come over to swim in our pool. (Don’t gasp Northern hemisphere readers –we’re currently experiencing a heatwave in Sydney!) The two little girls enjoy each other’s company and were running around excitedly and revving each other up. When one started screeching the other one thought that was a hoot and joined in. The two mums were doing their best to stop the noise. They shooshed the girls and said “no shrieking”, “stop making so much noise,” but to no effect. I realised why. I could see that the toddlers were having so much fun letting off steam after being in the car and now they had lots of space to run around in. And they were getting lots of attention from their mums. My daughter in law and her friend, in their embarrassment, were giving too much attention to the very behaviour they didn’t want. Toddlers are fairly easily distracted so it wasn’t difficult to refocus their attention on something else and so end the noise. As soon as the adults paid attention to something else that is what the children wanted.

      Children are hard-wired to get our attention. They have evolved that way because they are born in such a vulnerable state compared to other animals. They are utterly dependant on adult attention for survival. And nothing gets adult attention like crying or shrieking. Whatever we pay attention to we will get more of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention when our children cry but if we give too much attention to undesirable behaviours we’ll get more of what we don’t want. Many a parent of a small child has fallen into the trap of laughing at something that seems cute the first time only to realise that if repeated that behaviour quickly palls or other people won’t be quite so entranced by it. I made the same mistake when L first threw something out of her highchair by reacting too much –she thought it was very funny and did it again of course. Subsequently when she threw things we just left it and distracted her with something else. She soon stopped doing it.

      Adults are used to responding to poor behaviour by saying “No, don’t do that. “That’s silly”. Or “Naughty!” Sometimes we might shout or punish or if the behaviour is really unsafe, such as when a child darts into the road, we might smack out of fear. These responses are supposed to dissuade the child from repeating the behaviour but often they have the reverse effect. Even an older child is very keen to get parental attention and if they can’t get it through positive behaviours they will seek it any way they can. Many time-poor parents inadvertently give too much attention to negative behaviour and not enough to the good things the child does.

      This week I’ve been preparing an in-service training for mentors on an adolescent behavioural change programme and realised the same negative patterns occur in the classroom too. When my son, (L’s father) was a little boy he struggled in the classroom because of dyslexia (at that time undiagnosed). He would distract from tasks that were too challenging for him by disruptive behaviour and would get in trouble. He was given demerits and detentions. In the Reception class he had a little book in which his teacher recorded all his missteps, every little (and large) misdemeanour and this was presented to me. When he was in year 1 his punishment on one occasion was to be sent to sit in the Reception year. The idea was to shame him into behaving. All of these sanctions were designed to inform him, and others, of his misdeeds to shame him in the hope that this would change his behaviour. It didn’t. But his self-esteem plummeted. And with that came more poor behaviour.

      Paul Dix in his book ‘When the adults change, everything changes’ tells the story of Chelsea who had a chart at school that recorded in two columns all her good and bad behaviour and she formed the view that one cancelled the other out, that if there were more good behaviours at the end of the day she was ahead. Dix recounts that when Chelsea was a young teenager and got in trouble for staying out past curfew she sought to wipe the slate clean by tidying up the house and pronounced “You can’t get me –look what I’ve done.” She did not learn to be accountable for her actions with this behavioural ledger.

      Likewise my son’s sense of self was so vulnerable that when his teachers shouted at him he made lied or made excuses for his behaviour and wasn’t able to accept responsibility. This isn’t what anyone intended.

      What does work?

      Paying attention to the child or teenager’s good behaviour gives our kids the attention they need. It makes it more likely that that behaviour will be repeated. It builds strong connections between us and our children which strengthens our influence –they are more likely to do what we ask. Then when they are doing something we don’t want they are more likely to listen to us when we (calmly) explain why that behaviour isn’t ok.  If kids get lots of messages about what they’re doing right their view of themselves is that they are capable and valued. This helps them be resilient and less anxious. Then when they get something wrong they can take responsibility because they see themselves as basically good humans who sometimes make mistakes. We can have problem-solving conversations with our children that help them clear up their mistakes without loss of self-esteem.

      To get into the praise habit have a look at our video on the pasta jar. Enjoy catching the good stuff!

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      January 05th, 2019

      24 Positive things to say to Kids

      New Year’s resolutions are a bit old hat aren’t they? Do you have a negative response to the idea of forming resolutions to live a better life, to be a better person? That implication that you are somehow deficient as you are now is a bit life-sapping. Maybe you don’t want to tell anyone about your new resolutions because you fear their judgment when you fall off the wagon. If you expect to fail at your resolutions maybe they’re the wrong resolutions, or maybe you need a bit of help with them. Research shows that many resolutions have foundered by 14th January, just a week away! This is mainly because our goals are unrealistic or vague and we fail to recognise that it will take time and effort to change our habits. We may also not delve into why we want to make the proposed changes in the first place. Without this meaning for the change we won’t be able to sustain motivation.

      If you do, privately, want to bring up your children to be good people and you recognise that the job of parenting would actually be made easier and more pleasant by not yelling at them, then maybe just one simple resolution would be good for you –STOP SHOUTING. But resolutions which are about stopping doing something, like giving up smoking or reducing the amount you eat or drink or the amount of time you spend on a screen are notoriously difficult to fulfil. For a goal to be really worth your time, you must move towards something you do want, rather than just move away from something you don’t want.

      Check your feelings

      If you want to speak more positively to your children you will need to do something about those feelings that caused you to yell at them in the first place. Resolve to be kinder to yourself and look after your physical and emotional wellbeing better. When you lose it and you shout how were you feeling? Did you feel disrespected or powerless or stupid or ignored? If you’re feeling like that no WONDER you shouted!

      Check your thoughts

      Looking after yourself better and recognising your feelings will help stop them from dictating your behaviour but you may also be able to prevent yourself from feeling that way by changing what you were thinking about what happened.

      If your 11 year old boy comes home from school and drops his filthy sports kit in the middle of the hall and announces that he’s not doing his Maths homework ‘because Miss Jenkins stinks’ and you think he’s going to ruin his academic chances and his future because of a silly whim and he’s taking you for granted and you’ve failed to teach him to consider others…. then you’re likely to feel panicky and disrespected. And if that’s how you feel you’re likely to try to assert yourself and grab control of the situation and deflect blame from yourself. And you may yell.

      If you reframe your thoughts about your children’s behaviour it will have less potential to push your buttons. I recommend that whenever you feel your buttons being pushed you take some cool down time. Tell your kids what you’re doing –this is great modelling of handling emotions in a mature way.

      When you come back to your kids in a new calmer state before dealing with the behaviour seek to understand why they did what they did and describe it to them. Did your son drop his gear in the hall because he was caught up in an impulse to race off and do something fun after his busy day? Did he forget that he’s supposed to put his stuff in the laundry basket? Does he feel challenged by the current topic in maths? Does he feel defeated by the task? Does he believe that there is nothing he can do to improve things? When you reframe your thoughts about your child’s behaviour there’s a good chance you can be calmer.

      How can you fill the void created by the absence of shouting? Create a new habit of speaking positively. Creating a bank of positive phrases will help you to pull them out even when provoked. So here are 24 things to say to kids (adapt for your family) to take you to the end of January.

      1. You look a bit concerned. Do you want to talk?
      2. For you to speak to me like that I’m guessing something is really troubling you.
      3. Thank you for looking at me when I’m talking. That’s polite.
      4. I noticed you have made a start on cleaning up your room. That probably felt a bit overwhelming but you seem to have divided it up into tasks which is a good way to tackle it. I see you’ve returned the plates and glasses to the kitchen.
      5. Thanks for ringing to tell me your rehearsal ran on and you’ll be late. Now I won’t worry.
      6. I love it when you tell us stories about what happened at Scouts. You do a perfect impersonation of Akela. You really have observed the way he speaks very accurately.
      7. It sounds like you felt left out when the others were talking together about the movie they went to. Maybe you were wondering why they didn’t ask you to come too?
      8. You’ve been practising your chord changes in guitar. They’re getting more fluent I think, don’t you?
      9. I was thinking of you today when I was walking the dog. I saw some daffodils just poking out of the ground and I was thinking that Spring is coming and how you love it when the flowers come out.
      10. I love the way you’re such a good friend. You took a lot of time to help Toby go through those Biology notes that he missed.
      11. Child loses mouthguard for the 3rd “I guess you’re feeling really bad about losing it. Maybe you’re worried that I’ll be cross with you. You’re probably thinking about how much they cost.”
      12. You were quick getting into your pjs so we’ve got time for a bit of play before bed.
      13. Lexie, you’re being very gentle with the baby. Look how he’s smiling at you. He loves it when his big sister cuddles him gently.
      14. Tell me that joke about the frog and the ducks again. I want to tell it to Daddy when he gets home.
      15. You’ve got 6 of the 7 letters in ‘because’. Can you take a guess what the 7th letter is?
      16. It probably feels like your brother always has his way about the computer. Maybe we need to work out a plan so you both get an equal turn on it.
      17. You’ve been sounding out your words so carefully and practicing really hard so you’re able to read more and more –you can read stories and interesting facts on the computer or in books and know what the signs say and you can order from menus by yourself.
      18. I appreciate it when you speak to me calmly even though you’re really mad. I know this matters to you and I’m really trying to understand your perspective so it really helps that you’re not yelling.
      19. Even though I know how much you hate being woken up in the mornings you haven’t complained. You probably feel very cosy and warm under your duvet but you managed to say Good Morning to me.
      20. You’re remembering to use your knife and fork and you’ve cut your food into bite-sized mouthfuls.
      21. When your little sister was struggling with her zip just then you didn’t laugh at her. You know she’s learning just like you did.
      22. You’ve written your homework clearly in your diary. How sensible - now you know exactly what to do.
      23. Thank you for remembering to hang your blazer up when you came in. It will stay a lot cleaner on its peg.
      24. Just then you asked your brother to move over in a polite way. 

      I hope you have a very happy, positive and calm 2019!

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