May 07th, 2018
While many of us are enjoying some warmer weather at last, many families will be trying to combine having some outdoor time with preparing for exams. What can we do to support our children in the lead-up to these important days, without adding to their stress?
Hopefully your child is moving into the countdown to the exam period with some preparation under his belt. Maybe not as much as you’d like. There’s no doubt more to be done but we need to encourage our children rather than lecture, nag or (whisper the word) bribe. This may not be one of those times where you’re prepared to let your child experience the natural consequence of his actions, or inactions. Our attempts to motivate them so easily slip into bribes which will feel manipulative. When children feel controlled they often rebel or they can become so withdrawn that they lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. Not great if we’re trying to encourage problem-solving. It’s also possible that they may seek to control things in turn and become very demanding and negotiate about everything.
So what can we say and do that will encourage our children to persevere, feel confident they can do what is required and manage anxiety? Giving lots of encouragement through Descriptive Praise will be very important but below are three other ideas that will help.
LET them do it their way
Your child may not be able to say no to revision but he can revise his way. Don’t insist he does it your (better) way. Many children find it very hard to sit still and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful, not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – all the better if these are weird and wacky. They need to be memorable to your child.
Brainstorm with children for solutions to problems –don’t just tell them what to do. This fosters creative thinking and problem solving abilities and helps them feel capable. When your child is stick on a problem, before jumping in with your ideas ask her what her suggestions are, descriptively praise her for using her brain/thinking creatively/problem-solving and then ask questions to help her evaluate her solutions.
EMPATHISE –give their big feelings a name to control them
This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some anxiety, and maybe poor behaviour. In fact exam nerves can be beneficial as they push us to perform at a higher level. Studies comparing amateur competitors with professionals show that both experience anxiety before an event but the professionals viewed it as a positive force, whereas amateurs thought it was detrimental to their performance. The same ‘reframing’ works for children taking exams. Teach them to harness the adrenaline to improve their performance.
Most parents want to take away worries and try to push them through to feeling better about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be fine soon, it will all work out” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, you need to get your head down and stop wasting time; getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”
Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.….”
This won’t make them feel worse, or put ideas into their heads, but it does make them feel connected and understood, which in itself is calming.
And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics don’t make children perform better.
LOOK BEHIND words or behaviour
Children want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and they really don’t want to disappoint us.
If they start to believe they can’t succeed or that we are not happy with them, they may pull back from trying. Some children will bluster and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put in much effort. After all failing when you’ve held something in reserve is better than bombing when you’ve given it your all, isn’t it?
Our best approach is to face this head on. “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full. What happens if it doesn’t work out? It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows more when you make it struggle with things.”
They can’t really answer direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment that they are wrong to be worried etc.
Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be revising. Make sure they do have some down time.
Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh –maybe get them a joke book. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too…. 2 joke books.
We hope whichever exams your child is facing go really well and that they learn something about coping with stress in the process. Do let us know if you come up with any great ways of counteracting stress in your family. Good luck!
May 01st, 2018
Have you ever heard that line? Has your child ever just blankly refused to do what you’ve asked? Is there anything more infuriating to a parent than sheer defiance? It pushes buttons for most parents and makes us see red. We’re supposed to be in charge, right? We feel really powerless when our child refuses to do what we’ve asked, and we realise they’re right….we can’t make them do it. When they’re very small we can bundle them into their buggies or car seats (although it’s a real struggle if they’re doing that banana back thing) and pick them up and remove them from the playground or pluck them out of the bath. But that ability fades quickly. My middle son was always tall for his age and he very quickly got to the point where I couldn’t man-handle him anymore so luckily that forced me to find some alternative methods for encouraging cooperation.
It’s not only true that we can’t make our kids do things but I firmly believe that it’s the wrong approach to even try to force them into compliance. Wise communications guru Michael Grinder says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power.” We do better when we use our influence rather than force partly because it’s much more effective in gaining cooperation but also because there are a number of downsides to using compulsion.
• If adults use their greater power to compel a child to do something they don’t want to do we are modelling a bullying approach to persuasion that they may well adopt themselves in their interactions with their peers and siblings, and even with us. How would you feel if your child said to a friend “You have to play my game how I say or I won’t be your friend” or to you “I won’t do my homework unless I get 2 hours of iPad time”?
• Or a child may respond to coercion by shutting down. She may become compliant alright but maybe also docile and unable to form or voice opinions.
• All human beings need to have some agency in their lives. Feeling like we have some control is essential for our happiness. The opposite experience, that nothing we do matters, that we can’t influence events, that our opinions or feelings don’t matter leads to helplessness, which is at the root of depression. All parents know that children start to exert themselves as toddlers and test the limits of their power. How parents respond to this is crucial for their happiness and for their ability to interact with empathy.
Of course parents need to be in charge. We have the mature brains and experience, perspective and impulse control (hopefully) that our children don’t have and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are safe and to teach them good habits for life. But we can do this without force. We can balance the need to keep a child safe with their need to explore and develop (whether they’re toddlers climbing on the sofa or teenagers connecting with their peer group). We can follow a necessary adult agenda and balance that with their desire to follow their own agenda. We can teach them right from wrong without making them wrong. There are limits to their power but they must have some power. It is the daily judgments on where to find this balance that makes up parenting.
So how do we use influence rather than force? Make very strong connections with your child so that they want to do what you ask.
• Make sure you spend as much positive time with your child as possible, just having fun. Not doing chores or acquiring accomplishments, but just enjoying an activity together. Make sure fun time is regular- schedule it or it won’t happen. Ensure your child knows how much you enjoy spending time with her.
• Sometimes the adult agenda has to prevail. When this happens acknowledge what your child would like to happen and how he feels. Sometimes they have to take medicine or do homework or stop doing something they’re enjoying. I know you’d really like to stay at the park for longer wouldn’t you? You were having so much fun on the swing and getting it to go really high. You love the feeling you get from going fast don’t you? It’s exciting. We need to get home so mummy can make tea but I know that doesn’t seem very important to you right now does it? You’re disappointed. I wonder if we can think of something to make it easier for you? I’ll think of something and you think of something and then we’ll pool our ideas ok? You had a really good idea of singing the Dingle Dangle Scarecrow last time. Maybe you could think of a different song this time?
• Use all your language skills - words, facial expressions and body language - to let your child know how much you appreciate and approve of them. Descriptive (evidence-based) praise will convey that much more credibly than conventional praise. I appreciate that you didn’t make much of a fuss when we had to leave the playground. Although you were sad you thought of something to make yourself happier. That’s what I call good problem-solving. Because we’re going home now I’ll have some time to play after tea. Would you like to think of a really super-duper game we can play before bath?
• Give choices where you’re happy with both outcomes. Would you like to come back to this park again tomorrow or shall we go to the one near Jane’s house? Shall we play UNO or snakes and ladders before bath? Would you like to do homework before tea or after? Would you like to ride your scooter to school or walk?
• When your child doesn’t do what he’s supposed to think about it from his perspective. Why didn’t he do it? Chances are there was an emotion behind his refusal. What was it? Was he angry or feeling bossed around? Describe it to him. Maybe it feels like people are telling you what to do all the time. I guess you’d like to say what happens sometimes. You’re right I can’t make you do anything and people shouldn’t try to make others do things. And all of us have to do things that we don’t really feel like doing in the moment because it’s good for us or good for others. It can be hard sometimes. Let him know the feeling is ok and he is ok even though he needs to do what he’s asked. Explain why you’re asking him to do this thing. State your values. We all have to go to bed so that our bodies get the sleep they need to be strong and so that our brains work well and we’re not crabby. Mummy too. Ask him how you can support him to do what’s required. Be patient. You’re raising a child and it takes time.
April 23rd, 2018
When someone offers as an explanation for a child’s behaviour that they were ‘just attention-seeking’ it is generally meant as a bad thing. All sorts of adults are used to explaining children’s behaviour in this way; parents, teachers and carers.
When a 3 year old has a tantrum in a supermarket, yelling and crying loudly and embarrassing her parent, she is certainly drawing everyone’s attention to her. When your 5 year old comes downstairs over and over again after having been put to bed she is interrupting your grown up time and seeking attention for herself. Doesn’t she realise you’re exhausted and the kind of attention she’s likely to get isn’t positive! When a 7 year old is disruptive in the classroom, getting in the way of the teacher’s class plan, it’s said he is just looking for attention. When a 9 year old constantly interrupts his mum’s efforts to help his sister with her 11+ exam revision he is definitely, selfishly, looking for attention for himself, isn’t he?
You’d think that when they enter adolescence and go in for much introspection and self-consciousness that attention-seeking would die down. But even a 12 year old who tells tall stories about people he knows or places he’s been is still trying to get attention, even if it’s from his peers now.
All of these examples in some way are a bid for attention, an attempt to connect with another. But there are two problems with an analysis of behaviour that minimises it as ‘just attention-seeking’ or assumes that it is a sign of a flawed personality or even as a poor strategy:
1. It misses the real reason for the behaviour and prompts ineffective responses from the adult
2. It misunderstands and dismisses the child’s very real need for attention
The human baby is born in a very immature state. It is completely vulnerable and utterly dependant on the adults to care for him. He needs the attention of his parents in order to survive. When we first become parents we’re very aware of this and the huge responsibility it brings. My granddaughter has just celebrated her first birthday and her uncle wrote to his brother in a typically brotherly jokey fashion to wish the child a happy birthday but also to congratulate the parents on keeping her alive for a whole year!
So children are born with an instinct to connect with their primary carers, to get their attention. Once their basic physical needs of safety and nourishment are taken care of the child also has a very strong need to connect with others, to belong. Since the 1950s through the work of John Bowlby and Margaret Ainsworth we’ve been aware of the need for a child to be securely attached to a primary caregiver to create a sense of safety and stability. We are all born with the drive to form attachments. Babies try to connect with their primary caregivers from the very first moments of life. Attachments are formed in infancy by carers meeting a child’s physical and emotional needs. If a baby’s caregiver recognises and meets those needs consistently in the first year of life, then the baby begins to trust that their needs will be met. This trust creates a secure attachment, which gives a child a safe base from which to explore the world around him and return to when he needs comfort and safety. If children do not have secure attachments this can show up in anxious or angry behaviours. They may try to get their needs met by being loud, demanding, clingy, aggressive or controlling. These are the behaviours generally described as ‘attention-seeking’. Sometimes children also withdraw until it is safe to make their needs known. And sometimes their needs get missed.
So children need the attention of the adults in their lives and they are not wrong to seek it. They are trying to meet a need. It is up to us to teach children more palatable ways to get our attention. The fact is that we tend to pay more attention to the behaviour we don’t want to see than good behaviour. When our kids are sitting down quietly to do a drawing we just get on with our ever-expanding to-do lists and don’t pay much attention. But if one child screws up the other’s drawing we leap to attention. We’ve just taught them how to get our attention.
So how do we respond to those sorts of behaviours described at the start?
First by trying to understand why it is happening. Bonnie Harris puts it this way: Your child is having a problem, not being a problem. The tantruming 3 year old wants something and doesn’t have the maturity or the vocabulary to express herself appropriately. She needs help from the adult to calm down. She needs be understood, not to be judged. The demanding 5 year old may be seeking connection because it has been broken. Parents may have been cross with her or distracted with other things. The disruptive 7 year old may well be trying to deflect attention away from the fact that he is struggling with the work; he may be having difficulty focusing or processing. The interrupting 9 year old is looking for assurance that he matters. He measures your love in the time you spend with him and right now that time is directed toward his sister. He doesn’t have the perspective to understand the importance of entrance exams, at least not when his own needs are threatened.
• Empathise. When your 5 year old comes downstairs, again: You are having a hard time settling down tonight. Maybe you think you’re missing out on something fun. You want to be with mummy and daddy.
• Say what needs to happen. Mummy and daddy need to have a meal and to do some grown-up chores. You need to get a good night’s rest so you’ll be fresh tomorrow. It can be hard to settle sometimes. Mummy will help you think of some things you can do to help you get to sleep. I will come and check on you when I’ve had my dinner.
• Give attention in the right places with lots of descriptive praise .
So the next time you hear yourself describing a behaviour as ‘just attention-seeking’ say yes, and what does my child need?
March 08th, 2018
Today is International Women’s Day and there have been many reflections on how far women have come since this day was first instituted and how far we have yet to go. 100 years ago Britain gave the vote to some women, lagging somewhat behind its Antipodean cousins, but ahead of the poor girls across the Atlantic and well ahead of most of our European friends. But Britons and Aussies cannot congratulate themselves too quickly while there is still such sexism and gender disparity in pay and so many examples of sexual harassment and violence towards women in these so-called developed nations.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement have shown examples of great courage and the sisterhood banding together to fight injustice. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes women are not supportive of each other. In Australia (from whence I write) there have also been Harvey Weinstein-type exposes of TV personalities and there was recently a scandal with a politician having an affair with a much younger staffer (who’d have thought?) in response to which the Prime Minister made a highly moralistic speech and banned sex between ministers and their staff. This was said to be to correct the power imbalance between men and women in the hallowed halls of parliament. Shortly afterwards a female politician who was being grilled in a Senate committee responded to questions by threatening to name young women in the opposition leader’s office “about which rumours in this place abound.” This kind of ‘s- -t-shaming’ is hardly pulling together for the common cause. And it’s not confined to the ranks of politicians.
I am often dismayed to note how quickly women judge each other. Of course judgment abounds online and any chat room will show up many examples of blame and criticism in the very forums that are meant to provide support for their members. But it exists in the face to face world as well. Have we yet got beyond the position where stay at home mums judge working mums (why did she even bother to have a child?) and working mums judge stay at home mums (she’s just letting her brain atrophy) for their choices? We know that women are often the harshest critics of other women’s appearance. ‘Fat-shaming’ is not confined to the teenage years.
Well this is a parenting blog so you’d expect us to have something to say about how we bring up our children in the face of this. Our advice may seem an old-fashioned kind. We have to raise our children to be kind and respectful. Both our boys and our girls. Of course we need to raise our sons to be respectful of women, to really value the work they do and to reward appropriately with pay commensurate with their input, to encourage them to ask for the pay rises and the promotions they deserve, to give them full credit for their ideas and to recognise their contributions even if they are not pushing themselves forward. Of course we need to teach our boys to respect women’s bodies and their ability to decide what happens to them. Of course we should teach our sons to relate to women as people instead of just objects of sexual gratification.
I was heartened to hear about a new film being released this year about Mary Magdalene, a more historically accurate account which portrays her as a fully-fledged apostle with a brain and a spiritual instinct, not as a ‘fallen woman’ as she has so often been cast or as the ‘love interest’ of Jesus. (Ironically the film was to have been produced by Harvey Weinstein.)
But as well as raising our sons to have respect for women we also need to teach our girls to be kind to each other.
How do we do this?
Those readers familiar with our work at The Parent Practice will know that emotion coaching is a very powerful way of connecting with children and that connection makes it possible for us to have influence with them. Also when we show our children compassion and kindness they will be compassionate and kind to others. When we respect how our children feel they will learn to respect others.
We teach respect and kindness in 5 ways:
1. We model it in our interactions with our children and with others. We say things like “Harry seems cross today. Maybe he didn’t have a very happy day at school. Let’s give him a bit of time and then maybe we can see if he’d like to play this game too. Do you think that would make him feel better?” And we can also say “Did you hear how happy grandma was about that card you made her? She had been feeling a bit sad since her friend Beryl died but I think that cheered her up a little.”
2. We require it of them. We have rules in our homes that say “in this family we are kind to one another. We try not to hurt with our words or actions. When we do hurt someone we make amends.”
3. We coach them to deal with their own feelings. This means acknowledging how they feel. It also means helping them to find strategies to deal with their feelings of upset in ways that are respectful of others. Maybe they can listen to music or jump on a trampoline or do a drawing or punch a pillow or even clean their rooms! Just a suggestion….
4. We teach them to recognise how others feel. We can also help our children tune in to feelings by reading books and watching films with emotionally charged content. Pause and ask your child “how is that character feeling; how do you know he’s feeling that way; what might he do next, given how he feels?” You can ask “have you ever felt that way? What were the physical sensations you had? What did you want to do?”
5. We notice and comment descriptively when they do something kind or treat someone with respect. “Even though you were upset about not being able to have your phone in your room you spoke politely to me and you kept the rule. I appreciate that.” “That was kind of you to share your ice cream with Jamila when she dropped hers.” “I like the way you included Stella in your game.”
Raising children has never been easy but this generation of parents are incredibly well informed with great resources and have behind them great examples of activism to inspire them. It gives hope for a future generation of respectful adults.
February 06th, 2018
Half term is coming up and we all look forward to a brief respite from the school, routine. However the first flush of enthusiasm can quickly die away with the realisation that our children may be spending too long on screens and we are using them as a babysitter.
You may be wondering:
“How much screen time should my children be having?” and
“How do I control my children’s screen usage?”
Managing screens is not about coercion and control as that can only lead to long term problems. The answer lies in connection and communication.
If you think about keeping your kids safe around a swimming pool we can protect them from falling in by putting up fences and setting alarms and using padlocks and banning them from going near, but the most important thing to do is TO TEACH THEM HOW TO SWIM.
The same is true for screen safety. The more we nag and shout and blame and criticise and forbid and take away and threaten, the more children will push back and try and regain control. It may work to get them off the gadget in the moment but does nothing to help them long term to enable them to exercise self-control around screens. Children do need limits and boundaries and they are not YET able to set these from themselves so we need to do it for them. The trick is to set ones that will work, that we feel comfortable and competent to implement. We also need to remember that our role is to teach self-control.
Rules for the Digital Jungle:
If they do break the rules we usually take the gadget away and punish them for getting it wrong. This sort of works in the moment, BUT they are may be defiant and FURIOUS with us. A better approach is:
“The rule is that you play on your ipad after kumon and the positive consequence is that you get to play the next day. (Or better still ask them what the rule and reward is.) As your kumon sheet is untouched and you’re on the ipad, remind me what is the consequence?"
“I don’t get the ipad the next day!”
Exactly! And when they lose access they may feel guilty and angry… and that’s ok. Our job as parents is allow them to feel that disappointment and anger, empathise but not back down.
January 30th, 2018
Many parents say that the ‘masculine’ characteristics they admire and want to encourage in their boys are courage, strength, responsibility, single-mindedness, straightforwardness, a ‘can-do’ attitude, solution-orientedness, good humour and energy. But parents also often say they also want their sons to do what they’re asked!
It’s easy to get into power plays with boys, to go head to head with them as they assert themselves and we adults wield our power to subdue them. We talk about not ‘letting them get away’ with stuff and we feel we need to show them who’s boss. Boys are naturally drawn to hierarchy -they love lists and systems and leagues and they are naturally competitive. But if adults compete with their boys for power or get drawn into battles with their sons their discipline fails. It fails at its essential purpose, to educate and to encourage self-discipline.
Discipline means a body of knowledge or ‘to develop behaviour by instruction and practice’. But in common parlance discipline has become synonymous with punishment. When the lady on the underground glaring at your child swinging from the poles in the carriage hisses that “what that child needs is some discipline” she doesn’t mean coaching and encouragement. She means a good clip round the ear!
Discipline is different from punishment in several ways.
Involves something that hurts
Delivered in anger
Purpose: to teach, to help the child behave differently next time
Goal is self-discipline
Purpose: to be right, the child is wrong, to get revenge
Goal is obedience
Based on respect
Based on fear, humiliation
Leads to improved behaviour and self-discipline
Results in resentment, rebelliousness, furtiveness and loss of self-esteem
When we discipline we are teaching our children how to negotiate with the world. We may inadvertently teach our boys to be bullies if we use our greater power to coerce them into doing what we want. Do we want them to learn to get their way by using force or manipulation? Instead don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use their words to negotiate and to problem-solve?
We always say to parents ‘don’t pick your battles’. Don’t use the language of battles at all. Battles are between enemies and the outcome is a win/lose one. Change this to a win/win model. This is what you get when you teach your sons to problem-solve.
Adults do need to be in charge because we have greater experience, perspective and more mature frontal lobes. But if we are over controlling we will create resentment and resistance. We do need to teach them right from wrong, of course, but that can be done not through making use of our greater power, but by using the influence that comes from a really positive relationship.
Boys can be very physical, very active and very loud. Sometimes parents feel the need to shut this down. But actually all that wonderful energy can be redirected, channelled into healthy activities. If your son loves to be active, use that to connect with him. Play his games with him. Gail (mother of a boy and a girl) said “Frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than play football but he loves it so much. When I get dirty with him and am hopeless at it he really loves it. Not just because he’s better at it than I am but because I’m entering into his world and he feels valued. His behaviour is always excellent afterwards.”
Rough and tumble is a brilliant way of communicating through your son’s favourite medium –being active – and it provides a great opportunity to connect and have fun as well as teaching boundaries around physicality, such as stopping when anyone says ‘stop’. It also encourages laughter and is a great way to release tension. Gail recommends it as an alternative to family therapy!
When you spend positive time with your son doing things that he enjoys (not homework or cleaning his room) you find out more about him and build connections with him. Boys don’t usually love sitting, eyeball to eyeball, having deep and meaningful conversations. The best conversations usually happen organically when you’re engaged in an activity together. Steve Biddulph calls this ‘sideways talk’. The best conversations I’ve had with my two sons have been when we’ve been walking the dogs or doing the dishes.
It may seem a very soft or at least tangential approach to discipline to play with your son and chat to him. But this is where connections form and without connection and relationship he has no incentive to do what you ask of him. Then all you’re left with is a form of punishment based on fear and humiliation. No self-discipline arises that way.
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