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.
January 16th, 2018
As a parenting goal cooperation should be the bare minimum we’re aspiring to. And indeed we often have loftier ambitions for our children. I asked my class yesterday what qualities they’d like to see in their children when they were adults and they said they’d like their kids to have the following characteristics:
Of course they wanted them to be happy and successful but the traits listed above were those that they thought would contribute to success and happiness.
We can encourage all of those qualities in our children but to do that we need to have a measure of cooperation. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect our children not to have feelings about what they need to do or want them to never express an opinion. (Although some parents have ruefully said they’d settle for some blind compliance.) But sometimes kids (and adults) need to do things they don’t particularly love doing. Of course as adults, with our more mature brains, we have greater perspective and ability to curb our impulses. Our ability to delay gratification and do something less palatable in the short term in the interest of a long term goal is greater than our children’s. (Maybe…)
It’s our job as parents to teach our children good habits that will last a lifetime. They need to do things like tidy their room or put their clothes in the laundry or brush their teeth or go to bed or do their homework or get off the computer or eat healthy food, which they may not see the point of. That’s why it’s our job. We need them to cooperate.
We all know that you can make a child do what they have to do using a stick approach. Maybe when you were a child you were threatened with punishments or withdrawal of privileges (also punishment) or were reprimanded and put down (punishment again) or even smacked (yep, punishment) if you didn’t do what you were told or expected to do. And you turned out alright. I’m sure you did. But you may nonetheless want to bring your children up in a different way.
And there are significant downsides to the stick approach. When a person holding a greater amount of power (the parent) uses that power to instill fear and to control the behaviour of a person with less power (the child) that is bullying. That’s not something we want to model for our children. When they think about it most parents agree that they want their children to grow up to be adults who, when faced with conflict, can use reason to persuade not just bludgeon others into their point of view. (Eg not Donald Trump.)
That doesn’t mean I’m advocating bribing your children to do what’s necessary for their own learning or for the good of the household. I’m talking about motivating your kids to want to do what you ask them to do. (Of course you need to ask them to do reasonable things for their own good not just get you a beer from the fridge when you’re watching TV.) Children have an evolved instinct to want their care-givers’ attention and approval. They want us to be pleased with them; they need it for their survival. I know it doesn’t always look like it but kids start off with a basic imperative to want to get things right and to please their parents. Though this can wane if their parents’ approval is not forthcoming.
So if we want our children’s cooperation one of the first things to work on connecting with them. Do you spend positive, fun time with your kids or is your time with them all about getting from A to B, doing homework, eating meals, doing chores and getting to bed? Do you end up nagging and chivvying or even shouting? If you don’t have a positive relationship there is less incentive for children to curb their own impulses to do what they want to do (difficult for their undeveloped rational brains) and instead do what makes us happy.
So let’s assume you’re prioritising spending positive times with them, playing, in conversation and doing things they like to do, not just ferrying them to enriching adult-directed extra-curricular activities. You’re giving them the message that you really enjoy their company. How else do you give your child the sense that you value them? Well, tell them. But don’t just say “you’re a great kid”. It has to be more descriptive than that to be credible. Instead appreciate them generally like: “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.” Or “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.” Or with more specific praise: “Thank you for remembering to feed the dog without me reminding you. You’re being very responsible about this dog.” “I know it’s hard for you to stop playing your new computer game when your time is up. It’s very compelling. It takes great self-control so well done.”
Against that backdrop it makes it much easier for you to influence your child. They are listening to you more. So when you have to ask them to do something use these 3 simple steps (simple to understand, not necessarily easy to do):
With these 3 steps you will be on your way to cooperation heaven.
January 08th, 2018
At The Parent Practice we usually like to focus on the positives. Not just because we’re a jolly little band but because it’s more effective for training. When we ask our kids to do things it’s more efficient to say what we want them to do rather than what we don’t want them to do. That’s because our brains conjure up images and they have a hard time processing negatives. So if I say ‘don’t think of pink elephants’ you will almost certainly be imagining a pink elephant. Likewise if you say to your child ‘don’t run inside’ he will be processing an image of himself running in the house. So instructions need to be positively framed. Instead say ‘walk inside’. Family rules also need to be positive for the added reason that lots of no’s feel very restrictive and may provoke rebellion. ‘Enjoy time on the computer after homework’ feels much less constraining than ‘No screen time unless homework is done.’
We also need to focus on the positives of what our children do because we get more of what we pay attention to. So if we notice and point out when they forget to hang up their towel or are mean to their sister but we don’t say anything when they put their book bag away or help unload the dishwasher then we can be sure to get more meanness and uncooperative behaviour. Children have evolved to do what gets their parents’ attention so we need to be careful what we prioritise with our words.
Another reason for positivity is that a positive connection between parent and child is the very best basis for discipline. Positive discipline teaches a child how to behave well rather than just not to get caught doing something wrong. It encourages self-discipline and the adoption of a set of values. Spending time with your kids doing fun things and letting them know how much you value them builds self-esteem and gives them a very strong incentive for accepting your influence.
But have you noticed that at this time of year with all the talk of resolutions how much they focus on negatives? How to get rid of excess pounds or drink less or spend less etc. While it’s not generally very motivating to focus on what we need to do less of there may be some merit in looking at some of the negative things we say in parenting so that we recognise them and can change. So many of the things that slip out of our mouths do so so automatically that we don’t even realise that we’re doing it.
So here are 4 things we shouldn’t say to our kids, what they sound like and why they kill connection: (before you read any further do realise that all parents have said these things –we’re human and we make mistakes but we’re trying to limit the number of mistakes we continue to make.)
Phew! Now go hug your child and tell them why you love them!
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