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:
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:
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
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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Getting ready to start school has very little to do with the alphabet and lots to do with practical and emotional preparation (see School readiness skills for pre-schoolers). Their first day at school can seem like a huge leap in the dark so help prepare children for starting school with these brilliant starting school books. Snuggling up with a storybook is a great way to familiarise your child with their new routine and address any worries in a relaxed and non-threatening environment.
Children thrive on predictability and change and many children do find change worrying. When there are big changes coming up, you can also help by keeping the rest of their lives as stable as possible (see Helping children cope with change). And make sure your morning routine is stress-free to help them arrive at school (and you arrive at work!) calm and collected.
Here are my top ten starting school books for preparing children for their first day at school (in no particular order). Continue reading
Whenever I run parenting seminars, there are always some parents attending who are there for ‘prevention’ purposes. By that I mean that they don’t have problems with their child’s behaviour (other than the general run-of-the-mill stuff we all encounter) but they are keen to get parenting right. They want to get tooled up with as much information as possible to make sure they are doing all the right things to make their children happy and successful.
On the one hand, this is great. Being passionate about child development myself, I want all parents to know about the forces that drive their children’s behaviour. When we understand where our children are coming from, it makes it much easier to respond to their behaviour in a thoughtful and intentioned way.
But sometimes, wanting to get parenting right can tip over into anxiety or perfection-seeking or neuroticism. I worry that some parents come to my seminars because they believe it is possible to do everything right in parenting. (It isn’t.) Or, that if they get their parenting right then that will guarantee their child’s success and happiness. (It won’t.) Continue reading
When you watch children playing, it is impossible not to be struck by how completely engaged and absorbed they are by what they are doing. Play is the epitome of mindfulness – being 100% in the moment and just going with the flow. Being truly present, without reservation, both in our actions and in our emotions. Children do it all the time.
When was the last time you felt truly in the present moment like that?
There has been a lot of theorising about how mindfulness can improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. Typical mindfulness activities include breathing exercises, meditation and yoga. But, as parents, one of the most valuable ways we can enter an engaged and relaxing flow is through playing with our children.
Now, I don’t mean the type of playing where parents are in charge. Not the type of play where you tell your child what to do or control the activity. I mean joint and reciprocal play where you are both equal and feed off each other’s ideas and signals. Like children do together.
The type of play where you tune into each other, suspend your typical roles and have real fun. Continue reading
When children’s mental or emotional health is challenged, parents are usually the first responders. And long waits for specialist services mean parents can sometimes be left providing support for considerable periods of time. Faced with a distressed child or a depressed teenager, it isn’t always easy to know what to do. Self-help books for supporting children’s mental health can be really useful – both as a tool for working through issues together with your child and just for helping parents to be better informed.
So, whether you are intervening early to prevent ill-health or coping with more serious problems, here are my recommendations of the best books for supporting children’s mental health. Specifically for parents tackling issues like anxiety, low mood and self-harming behaviours. Continue reading
Following the recent parliamentary inquiry into the role of schools in children’s mental health was a pretty grim experience. Just when I thought the stats couldn’t get any worse, a new clutch of horrific numbers would appear. Anyone who claims there isn’t a crisis in children’s mental health just isn’t looking at the figures. And although the final committee report is full of good intentions, the lack of hard cash to back it up (and the demographic bulge which is about to create a surge in teenage numbers) leaves me unconvinced that change is about to happen.
For those of you who missed it, some of the key statistics are below. Be warned, they are scary and I wouldn’t blame you if you chose to skip them…
- Calls to ChildLine reporting suicidal thoughts are up by 33%
- Self-harm hospital admissions are up by more than 50%
- 79% of children say they experienced emotional distress after starting secondary school
- In a school class of 30 children, on average, three will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder
- 1 in 3 young people do not know where to get help if they feel depressed or anxious
- Children’s mental health services (CAMHS) are experiencing unprecedented demand. Waiting times have doubled since 2010/11. 23% of referrals are turned away completely.
- During one week in March 2017 there was not a single bed available in the whole country for an inpatient admission for a child/teenager in mental health crisis
- Only 40% of parents are confident they could identify mental health problems in their child
It’s not pretty reading, is it? Continue reading
Brain-based parenting: The Neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment (by Daniel A. Hughes & Jonathan Baylin) tries to do something truly amazing – to explain the chemical and emotional brain mechanisms that interact to create and sustain the loving bond parents feel for our children. That magical bond that makes us love every inch of them, that makes us prioritise our children’s needs over our own and keeps their wellbeing central to our thoughts and fears. And that stops us throwing them out the window when they are at their most annoying and antagonistic. This is magical territory indeed.
This book covers some really crucial topics – like the importance of parents’ emotional self-regulation in parenting effectively and the negative impact of stress on parents’ ability to tune into their children empathetically (and remain the ‘adult in the room’). There are some fascinating insights into the roles of oxytocin and dopamine in building the parent-child relationship and ensuring the parent gets pleasure from it (and therefore wants to engage even more). And a truly wonderful “caregiving formula” comprising playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy to optimise a reciprocal and nurturing parent-child relationship. Continue reading
Guest post by Martine Lambourne
Of late, my most important conversations happen in the bath. Sometimes I find a magic window in my busy household and enjoy 20 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, immersed in Epsom salts, lavender oil and bicarbonate of soda. This combination is supposed to release toxins. I have no idea if this actually works. I emerge from the water, wrinkled as a prune. Happy as clam. Totally reinvigorated.
On other occasions, my ‘alone time’ seems to attract more company than one would think possible. My daughters, if not otherwise distracted, will seek me out and share my bath time in more ways than one. My youngest can disrobe startlingly quickly (this is in amusing contrast to the sloth-like pace at which she gets dressed in school uniform every week day morning, especially when we are running disastrously late). She is so silent and adept at this practise that the first I am aware of my bath time interruptus is her ninja like descent. Tom Daly would be stunned at the lack of splash. A sudden slippery seal pup squealing her delight at surprising mummy. I love these times. Top and tailed in our too small tub, and fashioning foamy hairstyles with gravity defying aplomb. We also have some very serious chats.
Today’s discussion was all about Daddy. And competition. And how much it sucks to lose. Continue reading
Regular readers will know that I am passionate about play. Play helps children organise their brains and wire up their neurons. Children need room to roam, physically and imaginatively, so their opportunities for play are as wide and as varied as possible. That’s how they develop flexible and adaptive brains that can rise to challenges and solve problems. Good quality play builds intelligence.
If children’s play is confined to a particular type or activity or location then they can miss out on that full range of developmental opportunities.
Parents’ desire to keep children safe is natural and right. But, in the modern world, keeping children safe often equates to keeping children indoors. That increased time indoors (in often sedentary or low-movement activities) is having a direct impact on children’s physical development and future health. But it also impacts on their brains. Continue reading
Sadly, more than half of UK children will experience bullying – either as victim, perpetrator or witness. Most bullying is quickly dealt with and most children bounce back from it. But for some children being bullied can have long term damaging consequences. And in this age of digital connectedness, there are fewer safe spaces: cyberbullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Finding out that your child is being bullied can provoke some very strong emotions in parents. But an emotional reaction is seldom helpful – either in supporting your child or in resolving the situation. Bullying is an issue that is always best dealt with calmly and in a considered way.
So, if you are unlucky enough to find yourself dealing with bullying, before you jump in with solutions take a step back, be sure to listen empathetically and have a look at these expert websites for sound advice on the best ways forward. Continue reading
Self-esteem comes from children feeling accepted, competent and effective. Parents cannot directly create those feelings in children – feelings are subjective and everyone is different. But what parents can do is to provide experiences and feedback that make it likely that their children will draw the conclusion from their experiences that they are accepted, competent and effective. Building children’s self-esteem is about creating the right conditions for children to feel good about themselves and helping them interpret their experiences positively.
Feeling accepted is about children feeling loved and wanted and valued unconditionally for who they are. Feeling competent is about children believing they can do things for themselves and are good at stuff. Feeling effective comes about when children see the connection between effort and progress and how their actions make a difference.
So what can parents do to help children have those feelings? Here are some simple ideas for building children’s self-esteem. Continue reading