August 28th, 2019
Your kids are about to start a new school year, maybe at a new school, maybe for the first time. No doubt you have lots of hopes for them. You want them to do their best, to thrive in the classroom and on the sporting fields, or in the art or music room and also in the playground with friends. You want them to try new things and find activities to throw themselves into with passion. You may hope that they’ll find a vocation which they’ll pursue throughout life, something that will bring them joy and sense of fulfilment. Above all you want them to be happy.
When kids go to school they enter into a world in which we parents cannot take part. Oh sure, we can and should be interested in what they’re doing but it’s their world. We can, and should, support from the sidelines, but they are the players on the field.
All parents want to know that their children are doing well and have had a happy day. So we ask them: How was your day? Enquiring after their day is so much better than not caring, being too engrossed in our own world, our emails, our texts and our to-do lists, our adult concerns, to connect with theirs at the end of the day. Connection is important.
But if you’ve ever asked your child that question How was your day? You may have felt dissatisfied with the answer. You may have felt it didn’t give much connection. It’s just a ritual that you go through. Every parent knows that the answer to How was your day? is ‘fine’. And the answers to follow up questions what did you learn? and what did you have for lunch? are nothing and I forget respectively, or interchangeably. Sometimes we ask the supplementary question who did you play with?
Don’t kids want to tell us about their lives? Well sometimes, no.
We need to listen to what they say without judgment, without lots of questions that imply failure, and without dismissing their concerns. We need to acknowledge and validate their feelings. We can’t take away all our children’s worries and it’s not our job to do so but we can help them to manage their feelings. If our children are talking to us we need to make time to listen (which isn’t always easy in our busy lives) and let them know through our words and body language that we are really paying attention. If they’re not talking we need to supply the words. I’m wondering if you felt a bit jealous when Taylor got that commendation in assembly; Maybe you felt left out when Jacob invited Raoul to go to his house; I sense that you’re a bit anxious about your piano exam; I guess it can be a bit irritating to have to include your younger brother in your game. You wish you could just play on your own; you’re a boy who likes to check things out first before you do something so you’re not sure about getting in the water just yet. Would you like to watch the others first and then get in? What do you need to make yourself feel safe?
But as well as encouraging them to share problems we want to know about the good things in our children’s lives.
Being interested in your child’s life shows you are a good parent. But you need better questions if you’re going to be able to make real connections. Instead of How was your day? , try asking them, “What was the best thing that happened today?”
Curiosity fuels connection.
August 05th, 2019
Most children and many parents get anxious about exam results day. It’s completely normal. For those with GSCE results, it’s the culmination of 3 years of studying, or if you’re waiting for A level results, it will have been an intense 2 years. As a parent you will have lived and breathed exams over the past 6 months and yet your role is not yet over as you still you need to help your child get prepared emotionally for results day.
There may well be a mixture of anxiety, fear, uncertainty and maybe even panic or perhaps excitement. All those emotions in hormonal and heat-exhausted teens makes for a lethal cocktail of feelings.
It’s wise to be emotionally prepared for results day in terms of what the possible outcomes may be. They may range from having exceeded expectations, through making the grades needed, or missing by a little, to not getting the grades you want. Your teen retorts “so you don’t believe I’ve got this!” and a cycle of defensiveness and anxiety ensues. The truth is it’s wise to plan for every eventuality from elation and celebration to the possibility of disappointment, if your son or daughter does not get the grades they hoped for. Keep the champagne on ice but also have available the websites or numbers you’ll need for information if a change of plan is required.(eg UCAS)
There are plenty of articles and blog posts abut preparing practically for results day and but few people talk about emotional preparation. In the run up to results day your role is to:
• Keep yourself and your child calm. Let them know you love and value them, no matter what their results
• Keep the connection and communication door open - make time on the day to be there for them to celebrate or commiserate
• In the run up to results day keep them busy and relaxed enjoying their hobbies and favourite pasttimes – for us it was always having fresh air and fun on the golf course or a family board game night
• Reflect back to them how they may be feeling, and show them you understand
Results day! If they’ve done well make sure you acknowledge the amount of work it took to achieve those grades. Make your praise descriptive. Point to specific examples of where your child made good choices and developed good habits around study and achieving balance with exercise and family time. This may not seem important now that the results are in but what you say now will affect their future attitude toward effort whether their future involves further study or not.
If your child does not make their required grades, it’s important to acknowledge the feelings –both yours and your child’s - before you can discuss any solutions or next steps. Taking time to acknowledge the feelings without judgment or blame (this is not the time for ‘I told you to study’) is important to free up the rational brain. If your child is feeling shame or guilt s/he may act as if they don’t care. Name that feeling to show them it is normal and to help them move past it. If indeed your child could have worked harder shame will stop him from getting that learning. You want her to feel that she made a mistake but is not a bad person and she can learn from this and move forward.
Acknowledge to yourself how you feel as a parent. Are you confused? Was this result unexpected? Are you angry –because it was totally expected given the paltry amount of work your beloved offspring put in? No doubt you’re feeling anxious. There is a huge amount of pressure to do well in exams and it is easy to think that your child’s future has just slipped away from him. You need to acknowledge these feelings because if not they’ll fuel your responses and you will not be able to support your child in his moment of anxiety.
I’m sure all of us can recall incidents where we have had to deal with disappointments in life. Have you given up? Were you able to share with others how you were feeling? Were you able to give things another go?
S/he’ll be feeling pretty down. Some children will take failure to get grades or places at college or university as a massive knock back and really take it to heart. Some will make it mean that they are not up to scratch. It’s not uncommon for kids to give up at that point so parents need to respond carefully. If your child has got poor GCSE results but his place at school is secure then he needs to be able to pick himself up and move on with determination to do better. Even if there has to be a rethink about how he will continue his education he will need parents’ support to avoid him giving up. Parents can help build self-confidence and increase resilience and help him to see that increased or redirected effort will pay off.
Moving forward parents can help with ongoing studies by:
• encouraging and motivating young people by descriptively praising them, not just in the academic arena, but generally.
• avoiding evaluative praise so as to encourage a growth mind set (where he seems himself as someone who can grow through his own efforts) rather than a fixed mindset (where he sees his skills and intelligence as limited)
• developing resilience and a healthy attitude to failure –partly through using descriptive praise and partly by emotion coaching him (see below) and also by modelling a positive attitude to set backs and failures. What parents model around failure will count for a lot.
• encouraging independence in thought and action. Give him responsibilities which require skill and dependability. This demonstrates to the young person his own competence and builds confidence. He will learn to trust his abilities, to take risks and give things a go.
But in the immediate aftermath of the results parents need to respond with emotion coaching:
“You’re obviously really disappointed with these results Tom. I know you’d been hoping for better grades in History and Biology [and you needed As in those subjects to get into Exeter university]. Maybe you think Dad and I are mad at you. I’m disappointed with the results too but could never be disappointed in you. I know that you’ll be feeling really worried about what to do now and we’ll discuss that later.”
“Life throws up difficulties all the time and we will support you to deal with this difficulty. I have faith in your ability to show the courage and determination to get over this hiccup when you’ve had a bit of time to absorb it. Right now you might be thinking there’s no point in doing anything. You’ve really been knocked for six so you may be feeling a bit hopeless. You might be comparing your results with your sister’s too. It’s hard to follow in the wake of someone for whom academics seems to come so easily. [don’t be tempted to say “and if you’d worked as hard as she did you might have got somewhere…”] When you’re feeling a little less flat come and we’ll talk about what you can do next. This is one of those life blips that is going to require the kind of resilience you showed when you broke your shoulder and couldn’t play rugby for so long. You didn’t give up then and I’m sure you won’t now either”
Life is tough, and part of our job as parents is, not to shield our children from the rubbish bits of life, which we can’t do, but to build strong children who as adults can cope with whatever life throws at them. The first step is to just admit that this sucks and he feels rubbish. Only then can the child move on to look at solutions.
The one thing we can guarantee they will experience is change and so by emotion coaching we can help our child adapt to whatever changes may come their way.
Sending everyone positive vibes and a good dose of fortune for the 15th and 22nd August 2019!
July 02nd, 2019
The end of the school year and the onset of school holidays mean different things to different people. For some of us there may be a welcome respite from the demands of the school term schedule. For others school holidays may represent a scheduling nightmare as you juggle childcare arrangements with summer activities and work. End of term may equal end of routines and your usual order. You may have to be finding ad hoc solutions to your children’s needs which takes energy and may bring with it new anxieties.
If you’re having one of those reactions spare a minute to think how children respond to disruption in routines. Like us, some will be relieved and some will be feeling anxious. Most children absolutely thrive on structure and routine but some will find school brings with it stresses and they welcome the break from that. Some children have very regular temperaments; they like a schedule and they want to know exactly what’s going to happen today. Others can just go with the flow. Many children benefit from having less structured time to just chill and use their imaginations. Some have lost the knack of entertaining themselves.
So in planning the school holidays as parents we need to factor in many different things:
Phew! The parental juggling act!
Whatever your individual holiday arrangements look like you will greatly benefit from rules and routines. These may look very different from the term time routines and they may vary throughout the holiday period but it will help to have some routines.
What do you need rules about?
Well that’s up to each individual family but if an area of family life isn’t going very smoothly currently it’s usually a sign that a rule is missing (or not being upheld). You will probably still want to have rules for the following areas even if they’re different from term-time rules:
What makes a good rule? Ask yourself:
Below are some examples of family rules. These have been illustrated and signed by the children which gives them ownership over them.
How will you uphold your rules?
Rules are necessary but they are a blunt instrument and they won’t work without relationship. Your children will be motivated to do what you ask if you spend as much positive time with them as you can and they know you value them and you understand them.
Have a great summer holiday.
June 03rd, 2019
Do you live with a teenager? Or do you have children that you get on with pretty well right now but are worried that this harmony may disappear if they morph into Kevin the teenager? Teens get a pretty bad press but it’s not a given that when puberty strikes your child will turn into an alien creature who bites your head off when you ask how was their day.
I am running a workshop on Teens and Boundaries tomorrow evening and when I was preparing for it I reflected on how the teenage years were in my own family. My three now-adult kids did not conform to the stereotype of rude, self-absorbed, risk-taking, idle adolescents. If you ask teenagers about their parents you may be surprised to find a stereotype there too. We don’t listen to them, we don’t understand them, we think we can control them (and we can’t), we think we’re funny (and apparently we’re not!) and we are SO unreasonable.
Of course adolescents are not all the same, any more than their parents. Some we have to force into the shower, some we have trouble getting out of the bathroom; some won’t do their homework while others are super diligent and work themselves into a lather about school work; many find it hard to get up in the morning but are on social media half the night; many will forget mathematical formulae but be able to recount word for word the script to their latest favourite movie; some will spend their free time lolling on the sofa while others are into every sport imaginable; some will hang out with their gang while others have just one bestie, and some have trouble making friends.
But one thing that all adolescents do have in common is great change going on in their lives. Their mission (and they can’t not accept it) is to transform from a child into an adult. This means figuring out who they are for themselves; they are no longer just a child, a member of your family. They have to work out a new adult identity, a set of beliefs and opinions, separate from parents and younger siblings, and learn to make decisions independently. And the hormones and brain changes of adolescence don’t make it easy.
Living with a teenager is much easier for our teens as well as for us if we accept the following realities:
Teens need their parents’ support to navigate through these turbulent times. They need us to be understanding and compassionate. They need us not to take it personally when they are hyper-critical of us (not easy with the sensitivities that can come with middle age) and to read every failure to do what we ask as a sign of disrespect. We have to think about other possible reasons for them not taking a shower/finishing their homework/ feeding the dog how and when we want them to. We have to support them in their mission to become responsible adults by giving them the right amount of independence. How much control we let our kids have is a judgment we make of each individual on a daily basis and it isn’t easy. We will get it wrong. Often.
Finally to parent a teenager successfully is about accepting that it is more about long term influence than short term control. Hopefully we will have laid the foundations of good communication and connection when they were younger (and if not, it isn’t too late). If there is a positive relationship between us then our teens will accept our influence, eventually, if not in the moment. That connection lies mainly in our listening to them, accepting their perspective, assuming their good intentions and acknowledging the good things they do. Even if we have to uphold a rule they don’t like if we explain our values respectfully (and they see us living by those values) then they will accept it if we empathise and acknowledge their perspective. “I know you think I’m being unreasonable about insisting you come to Granny’s on Saturday when you’d rather go to Sophie’s. I know it’s important to you. I get that. I want you to come with us because Granny hasn’t seen you for a long time and in this family we care about each other. How about I drive you around to Sophie’s after the lunch?”
I was lucky enough to discover The Parent Practice skills before my kids hit their teens and it was a lovely period for us where I really enjoyed their ideas, their sense of humour and their energy…if not their music…H
May 20th, 2019
Yesterday there was a general election in Australia and the Labor party was widely predicted to win it. They had gone into the election with an unusually detailed set of policies for social and tax reform. In a shock result they were defeated and of course today analysts are poring over the loss to try to understand what happened.
You may wonder why I’m talking about an election result, particularly at a time when people across the world are expressing disenchantment with politicians. Well it’s because an election gives us a great opportunity to explore loss, defeat, and failure. In the developed world we are very focused on winning and certainly the new government and its supporters will be celebrating but if we don’t pay attention to failures not only are we likely to make the same mistakes again but we miss an opportunity to see that it’s not the wins or the losses that define us but what we do thereafter.
The leader of the ALP made a very gracious speech accepting that his party had lost, in which he acknowledged the hurt and the loss of the vision he had for his country, he congratulated the prime minister on his win and sincerely wished him and his family well and good fortune and good courage in the service of his country and he said that all had a responsibility to respect the result. He thanked many people who had helped in the campaign and he generously stood aside to make room for a new leader to lead the party to a future victory. He was very focused on the idea of success next time.
There is much to learn from this for our children. Children, like adults, experience failure on a daily basis and it is up to us as parents to teach them how to regard losses.
There are some very different approaches to failures. In one approach failure is just not an option. Success is defined by winning or high grades or scores and that is regarded as the goal, if not the only acceptable outcome. The focus is relentlessly on results. When a child comes home from school and we ask “How did the spelling test go?” we mean “what was your score?” The first question we ask after a sporting match is “Did you win?” Asking “what level are you on in the reading scheme?” rather than “did you enjoy that book?” is prioritising their place in the hierarchy over appreciation of stories and words and the truths expressed in them. This tells our children that winning matters, above all else. It prioritises results over enjoyment of the activity and whatever they may learn from participation in that activity. Coming first is more important than collaboration; your friends are your competitors; you have to do what it takes to get an edge over them. It sends the message that I am most interested in the end result. It is your performance that gets my attention and my approval. We unintentionally give the message that our regard is conditional.
When this happens not only can our children experience tremendous pressure and stress but they also do not learn to cope with failure. They do not learn that there is anything noble in defeat. They learn that it is to be avoided. And since it can’t be avoided they may learn to cover it up. They may learn to cheat so that failures can’t be seen or they may not be able to admit failures to themselves, thereby taking away any opportunity to learn from them. They develop a fixed mindset. This is the term coined by Professor Carol Dweck to refer to an attitude to learning characterised by a belief that intelligence is innate and fixed. People with fixed mindsets attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Students who hold a fixed mind-set, are concerned about looking smart with less regard for real learning. They have negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability. They think that a person with talent or intelligence does not need to work hard to do well.
In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed explores two different approaches of industries to failures. He looks at how the aviation industry looks at any aircraft failure, especially crashes, very closely to see what can be learned to avoid future problems. He also looked at the medical profession where in surgery in many countries a culture of cover up has developed with a failure to admit mistakes. The different approaches stem from an attitude toward failure.
Sometimes people who find failures difficult don’t cover up their failures but embrace them. Since success gets so much air time they may believe that everyone else is successful, especially if they believe the carefully curated pictures of lives on social media. That makes one’s personal failures doubly difficult since we think we’re the only ones getting it wrong, when in fact failing is the norm. They believe that they are failures and their low self-confidence prevents them from trying anything new or persevering with anything difficult. They believe that they can’t do it. They may protect themselves by living within very narrow parameters and not exposing themselves to failures, whether socially, academically or in professional life. Some protect themselves further by self-criticism –we make sure that there is nothing our critics could tell us that we have not already fully taken on board.
The defeated politician I mentioned at the start modelled a different approach. This is a model of a successful life as one in which we live with purpose and we throw ourselves into projects that give our lives meaning. We do our best and if that doesn’t achieve a goal we acknowledge the hurt and we have the courage to look at it and learn from it. And then we go forward with self-compassion, hope and determination to try again. All of this depends on having a growth mindset where effort is respected and failures not feared.
We can create this model for our children in the way we approach results and talk about failures. Above all else our children need to know that making mistakes (including in day to day interactions with others) is part of being human. We need to model a failure-tolerant attitude that includes:
So go forth and fail with equanimity and with grace!
March 17th, 2019
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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