Mental ill health can strike anyone. At any time of life. But, just as with physical health, there are definitely things we can do to promote good mental and emotional health. There is lots of research linking lifestyle and mindset factors to positive mental wellbeing – so if you want to foster a mentally healthy family life, think about including these factors:
There has been a lot in the press recently about the role of digital technology in children’s lives and whether kids are becoming addicted to screens and smart phones. There is no doubt that children are spending more time on digital devices and from a much younger age. Exactly what the impact of that will be on children’s brains is still not fully understood. But what worries me most is not what the screens are doing to our children but what our children aren’t doing because they are on screens. And the biggest loser is free play.
Free play is a special type of play that is child-led and child-driven. During free play, children (not adults) choose what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to stop. It’s not an organised activity – think bored Sunday afternoons building dens out of sofa cushions rather than tennis lessons. Free play has no externally set learning goals, it is self-directed learning fuelled by fun and curiosity.
Why is free play important?
Play is the most important thing a child can do. Play builds children’s brains. Babies are born with a brain full of cells called neurons which look a bit like pieces of string. By interacting with their environment and having experiences, these neurons become associated together and link up into pathways which store knowledge and skills. Through repeated experimentation, children learn the fundamental principles of the universe – that water flows and objects fall to the ground, that some things fit inside other things and that pebbles sink. No matter how many times a child sees a plane on the TV (or travels in one), she will really learn how air holds up flying objects by tying her dolls to makeshift plastic bag parachutes and throwing them down the stairs… Continue reading
Lots of parents find hosting play dates stressful. Especially when you don’t know the other parent/child well. Or when there is a risk of behaviour getting out of hand. Is it ok to step in and discipline someone else’s child? At what age can I expect the other parent to stay or just to drop off? What if there are tears or tantrums? Hosting play dates is, frankly, a bit of a minefield!
But play dates are really important for helping children develop social skills. Children only learn to share and play co-operatively and resolve disputes if they are given opportunities to practise. Learning how to be a good friend is essential for children’s social and emotional development. Friendships promote empathy and form a template for future relationships. Play dates provide a really important framework for children to socialise and build friendships outside school/nursery. And they can also be a great opportunity for parents to build friendships too.
Here are my top tips for hosting stress-free play dates and avoiding pitfalls: Continue reading
Change can be difficult for children. Children’s life experiences are much more limited than ours so they may not have learnt strategies for facing change confidently. And they often don’t have the reassurance of remembering previous occasions when they have faced big changes and adapted successfully. Young children, especially, thrive on predictability so can be stressed by even minor changes to their routine (see Helping children cope with change). Reading story books to help children cope with change can offer reassurance that change is ok and help start conversations about how children are feeling.
Here are my recommendations for reassuring and conversation-starting books to help children cope with change:
Reading books with children is a great way to start conversations about topics they might find difficult. Whether you have a shy child or just want to help your confident child develop empathy, reading children’s books about shyness helps children to reflect on big themes like courage, friendship and kindness.
Parents often worry about shy children missing out on friendships and opportunities. The best children’s books about shyness give the clear message that there is nothing wrong with being shy. But that sometimes shyness can get in the way of enjoyable or important things. And that sometimes, we all have to do something a little difficult in order to open the door to a new and wonderful experience.
Here are five sympathetic children’s books about shyness that tell stories about overcoming social anxieties to achieve something special. Continue reading
Christmas is a special time to share with children. But it also brings lots of challenges. Children can find it hard to cope with all that anticipation and excitement. And big emotions can lead to big meltdowns. Desperate for everything to be nice, parents often feel wary of disciplining children in case it ruins the Christmas spirit (especially in front of the in-laws). Add in lack of sleep, too much sugar and disrupted routines and, unsurprisingly, the results can be a bit fractious!
Here are my top five positive parenting tips to help you enjoy Christmas with children and manage any sticky bits. Continue reading
Is it just me who finds the consumer-focused gifts galore side of Christmas a bit dispiriting? Maybe I’m a bit of a Grinch, but I don’t believe the magic of Christmas is bought with a credit card. In my experience, all that present-buying and over-consumption can actively get in the way of the Christmas spirit. So, this year, I challenge you to give your children presence (not just presents) for Christmas.
What does that involve? It means not prioritising present sourcing, buying or wrapping over spending time with your children. It means not slaving in the kitchen for hours at the expense of relaxing with your children. It means slowing down and tuning in for some high quality family time.
Possessing an excessive quantity of toys and gadgets is not good for children. It isn’t number of toys that drives child development or wellbeing. Making up games from string and cardboard boxes is what’s good for children!
Being in a positive relationship with their parents in which they feel loved, wanted and valued is what’s good for children.
And stopping, chilling out and playing with children is good for parents too. Spending Christmas manically trying to meet unrealistic expectations is stressful. And stressed-out parents are less tolerant and more likely to snap – hardly conducive for the Christmas spirit!
So this year, take the easy route. Don’t compete for the best dressed Christmas award. Say no to that invitation. Buy the brussels sprouts precooked and just heat them up. Take short cuts that mean you can sit down with your children and play with them. Or snuggle up for a Christmas movie. Prioritise presence over presents. Spend time in the present moment with your children rather than fretting your time away buying stocking-fillers (and dreading the bill afterwards).
Here are a few ideas for how you can give the gift of time to your children this year. Continue reading
As parents, we all know that shouting isn’t a great idea. None of us embarked on parenting with ‘Shouty Mum/Dad’ as our ideal destination. But somewhere along the way, we get sucked into it. Especially when nothing else seems to work and the kids just won’t do as they are told. Most of us shout because we don’t know how not to shout.
Shouting simply models to children that raising your voice is an appropriate way to get what you want. Usually, it starts off as a last resort – we ask calmly, we ask calmly, we ask calmly again. And when we still get ignored after all that asking, we end up shouting.
But shouting can quickly become a habitual dynamic. The children learn that Mum/Dad doesn’t really mean it until they start shouting. And Mum/Dad learns that they might as well just go straight to shouting because that’s the only thing that ever works.
Whether you’re stuck in the shouty parenting trap or just keen to avoid it, here are some simple tips on how not to shout. Continue reading
As events remind us all too often, we live in a world in which bad things happen. And in this digital era of rolling news, graphic details about terrorist attacks, accidents and other tragic events can spread far and fast.
Wrapping our children up in cotton wool and protecting them from everything bad in the world isn’t really an option. Teenagers learn about catastrophes via social media news feeds alongside their friends’ latest selfies. Even if we prevent younger children hearing about tragic events directly, the playground grapevine can throw up a frightening and distorted version. Something as simple as a train station announcement about unaccompanied baggage can spark difficult questions from little ones about terrorism and who would want to kill them and why.
The best that parents can do is to ensure that distressing information is filtered in an age-appropriate way and help children develop the resilience and coping skills to bounce back quickly from difficult thoughts and feelings. Here are a few tips: Continue reading
The problem with parents is that they think they know best. To be fair, they often do. But when we are convinced of our own inevitable rightness, it’s tempting not to spend enough time understanding the problem and just jump in with a solution. Especially when we are stressed or pushed for time, we often underestimate the importance of process over outcome in children’s development and we forget the importance of listening to children.
I mean really listening to them. Buttoning up our own mouths and paying full attention to what our child is saying and how they are saying it. Listening not just to understand the words but also the emotions and intentions.
When we don’t listen in that active way, we tend to jump in with a solution that doesn’t necessarily fit. Or, we offer a good solution but our child is unable to connect with it because they haven’t gone through the process of being understood and calming themselves in order to reach that solution for themselves.
Close your mouth and open your ears
(As my gran used to say). When your child is talking to you about something difficult, or they are emotional, be quiet. Zip your mouth shut and listen not just to the words and their literal meanings but also to the way your child is speaking and what that tells you about how they feel. When there is a pause, briefly summarise back to them what you have heard (“I can tell you are really upset. You’re upset because Ellie called you fat.”). That will help your child feel heard. And if you haven’t understood correctly, it gives them a chance to keep trying to explain. Continue reading
Boredom is good for children because it stimulates curiosity and fires the imagination. At its best, boredom is a creative state that leads to new ideas and new play. And we know that good quality play drives children’s development and builds intelligence.
But boredom is good for children only when it results in children using their imagination to rise to the challenge of boredom. If they always turn on the TV or reach for tech as an easy chewing-gum boredom filler, then that spark of imagination is lost.
Imagination is vital for children of all ages. It stimulates children to explore their environment in new ways, which in turn leads to learning and skills development. Imagination also enhances social skills – after all, empathy is really just the ability to imagine being in someone else’s shoes.
And, because imagination is an internal resource – a habit of mind – it is something that children need to develop through practice and repetition. Adults providing imaginative activities for children is never as effective as children inventing their own.
Here’s how parents can harness the power of boredom to support children’s development: Continue reading
You might not want to hear this. If you have a child aged 11-16 years, it is highly likely they have already viewed pornography online. The majority of that age group have watched porn. Almost all of them saw it before their 14th birthday. We’re not talking about soft-focus, women in provocative lingerie poses. It’s likely to have been graphic and possibly aggressive. Talking to teenagers about porn might be awkward, but it is essential for their wellbeing that parents do it.
The average age that boys first see porn is 11 years old. And with children spending more and more time unsupervised online, that’s getting younger each year. Many 8-year-olds report having seen explicit imagery online (accidentally or otherwise). Children can be shocked and confused by what they see but often won’t tell an adult about it for fear of reprisals.
In the face of patchy sex education provision, many teens turn to porn to learn about sex and explore their sexuality. Problems can arise if they think what they are seeing online is realistic or that they should be copying that behaviour. Pornography gives a very distorted view of sex, bodies and relationships and often depicts apparently non-consensual or aggressive acts. Parents talking to teenagers about porn can help them put it in perspective. Continue reading
Managing children’s online activities and digital experiences is a huge part of modern parenting. There are lots of positive parenting strategies that can help you set time limits around your children’s screen time (see Positive Parenting in the Digital Age). But when it comes to technical knowhow for keeping children safe online, these are the websites I go to for unbiased, easy-to-understand information. Continue reading
Concerns about managing children’s screen time and the impacts of technology on children’s wellbeing are high on the worry list for modern parents. But most advice on positive parenting seems to have been written in a golden age when wrestling iPads off children just wasn’t an issue. So how can modern parents adapt positive parenting techniques to help manage children’s tech time?
The problem with children using technology is that tech use tends to expand to fill all available time. That can displace many other valuable activities that are vital for children’s healthy development. Like running around. And face-to-face communication. And physical play.
Tech is an easy boredom-filler. But boredom is an essential driver in children’s development through which they learn creativity and self-sufficiency and new ways of interacting with their environment.
And it’s not just children’s use of technology that’s at issue. Digitally-distracted adults are less able to provide the connection, attention and eye contact that help children develop healthy brains and essential life-skills. Parents and children are now spending more time in each other’s physical proximity but we are talking to each other less. Continue reading
I’ll get the Mum gloat out there straight away: this year, my son qualified to row at Henley Royal Regatta. For those of you who aren’t rowing parents, this is a really Big Deal. It was the culmination of a hard year of training.
Or, as my self-congratulatory Facebook post put it:
120 6am omelettes cooked; 200 rower’s lunch boxes packed; 300 bowls of pasta made; 450 homemade protein flapjacks baked; 100 dashes to the supermarket because “we’ve got no food!”…. One day in a silly hat at Henley. Very proud
I can’t take all the credit, of course. In addition to the sheer number of hours, sweat and tears my son put into it, he also had access to a brilliant Junior Rowing Coach. And his coach’s mantra for success is to focus on processes not outcomes.
‘Process not outcome’ is an idea that you see everywhere in elite sport. Sprinters on the start line train their minds to focus not on what it will feel like to win (which is a distraction) but on each sequential movement they need to make between the start and finish lines.
And remember Johanna Konta’s eerie calm under pressure at Wimbledon this year? She bounced that ball so carefully and rhythmically before every serve, bringing her mind fully onto the shot she was about to play.
Which got me thinking about parenting and about how often we tie ourselves in knots focussing on the outcomes we want for our children rather than the actual moment we are in. Read more…
[This week’s blog post was published on The Huffington Post, just for a change!]
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