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
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 →
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 →
According to recent data by the NSPCC, there has been a 200% increase in the number of young people seeking counselling for exam stress. In 2013-14, a total of 34,000 contacts with Childline related to school worries and exam stress – putting school stress in the top ten reasons why children reach out to Childline. There is growing evidence that children and young people in the UK are experiencing a mental health crisis. And with England’s children being among the most tested in the world, it’s hard not to wonder if school stress is playing a part in this.
But are parents making this problem worse?
“I am about to take my GCSEs and I am under so much pressure as my parents are expecting me to do really well. I am going to revision classes and trying really hard but I feel like it is not good enough for them.” (NSPCC)
Two of the keys issues cited by young people experiencing school stress are not wanting to disappoint their parents and fear of failure. When parents push children hard at school (with the best of intentions), children can interpret this as a signal that they are not good enough. Which, perversely, can impact negatively on their actual performance.
As parents, we have high aspirations for our children. We want them to be successful and reach their full potential so that every possible door is open to them. But there is a fine line between encouraging children and piling on the pressure. Continue reading →
It is very normal for young children to experience separation anxiety when being left by a parent. Separation anxiety tends to emerge at about 8-12 months old and can be very intense (especially between the ages of 18 months and 3 years).
Typical behaviour includes crying and clinging and signs of distress when a parent moves out of sight or just too far away. Sometimes children cling to just one parent – this can be exhausting and emotionally draining for that parent and feel like a rejection for the excluded parent.
Here are a few tips that might help if your little one is experiencing separation anxiety. Continue reading →
If you are worried that your child’s anxiety is impacting negatively on his or her life then it’s a good idea to seek support. You’ll find some great advice for parents of anxious children on the Young Minds website, which outlines the different types of anxiety and how parents can help anxious children to develop coping strategies. There is also information for older anxious children and teens to read for themselves and clear factsheets written by The Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Young Minds have a parents’ support line (0808 802 5544) which you can phone to get one-to-one support on any emotional or mental health issue affecting children. For more general parenting advice – or if Bullying is a concern – then Family Lives also have a helpline (0808 800 2222). And, whatever the source of their worries, anxious children can get telephone support from ChildLine (0800 1111).
Being a parent of teenagers, I know there are fewer choices out there when you are looking for parenting advice on teenage issues. Whether it’s professional help you are seeking or peer group camaraderie, it’s hard to find quality trustworthy parenting websites for teenagers and not-yet-teens (but-already-acting-like-ones).
We all need a bit of advice every now and then to dig ourselves out of a parenting hole – especially when our children are going through the rapid and sometimes tumultuous changes of the teenage years. For first timers, The Beginner’s Guide to Parenting Teenagers is a good starting point!
When the tricky issues strike, you need to be sure your information is accurate, reliable and practical. Here is my round up of the very best parenting websites for teenagers and tweenagers – I hope you find it useful. (And if I have left any out – please let me know!) Continue reading →
When it comes to thought processes, one of the most important habits of mind that children can develop is optimism. Children who practise optimistic thinking are more resilient, they are less likely to give up in the face of challenge and they tend to interpret experiences in a way that gives them a sense of control and confidence.
Pessimism, on the other hand, leads to helplessness and withdrawal – it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t work, so there is no point in trying.
Optimism is not about temperament, it is a habit of thinking that relates to how we interpret events. And therefore it can be taught: teaching optimism is something all parents can do. Continue reading →
How are we going to tell the children? What are we going to tell the children? When are we going to tell the children? Believe me, I wish I had a script I could give you that answered those questions. Helping children through divorce and separation isn’t easy and there are no pain-free solutions. Being strong and calm and rational at a time when emotions are running away from you is a real challenge.
Having been on both sides of that conversation – as both a child and an adult – I do know that in the grand scheme of things there isn’t usually one conversation that makes the difference. Parents often focus on the initial ‘breaking the news’ moment but, in reality, it takes time for news to sink in and questions to rise and helping children through divorce or separation usually involves returning again and again to the same themes and issues and repeating the same messages until a new consistency is gradually established. Continue reading →
Introducing a new partner to your children can be daunting: there are life-changing implications for all involved. But it is a bridge that more and more parents and children (and new partners) have to cross.
It doesn’t help that fairy tales are full of wicked step-mothers and the TV is peppered with abusive step-fathers. Talk to a room full of parents and you will hear a wide range of experiences, from heart-warming accounts of blended families that have brought love and value to every family member’s life, to long-term estrangements, rifts and rejection.
When it comes to introducing a new partner to your children, there is no guaranteed way to ensure a smooth ride. But follow these tips and the chances of it working out will be greatly increased. Continue reading →
Change can be very stressful, even when it’s positive. Children thrive on predictability and routine, so helping children cope with change can be a real challenge. Even positive emotions (like excitement) can be overwhelming in large doses for children – just think how frequently the birthday girl or boy ends up in tears before, during or after the party!
Some changes (such as starting a new school, moving house or introducing a new baby or a new partner) we can see coming. Others come out of the blue. Helping children cope with change in a positive way can help set them up for greater resilience and adaptability in the future. We’d love to wrap our children up in cotton wool and protect them from life’s knocks, but we can’t. And we wouldn’t be doing them any favours if we could.
Helping children cope with change by teaching them coping skills equips them to deal with life and manage it’s ups, downs, and sudden jolts. Here’s a few ideas on how to do it. Continue reading →
When I was twelve, for a brief time my career ambition was to walk the streets. Things weren’t exactly great at home and I didn’t place a lot of value on myself. Having gone through puberty early, I was receiving sexualised attention from older males that I simply wasn’t equipped to handle. In my mixed up teen mind, I mistook this attention for the love I was craving. I was ripe for sexual exploitation.
Now, when I look back on my teenage years, I feel lucky. Not about the hard stuff that happened – but that worse didn’t happen. Fortunately, my basket of risk and protective factors had a few positives in it too. I was intelligent enough to be in the top sets at my comprehensive school so my peer group were generally less screwed up than me. I had middle class parents who, for all their faults, practised a baseline of supervision that kept me largely in sight in my most vulnerable years. And, despite a self-destructive streak a mile wide, I had a belief in happiness that was rooted in a carefree early childhood playing make-believe in a quiet country lane. Take just one of those elements away and I don’t think I would have made it. Somewhere, in a parallel universe is a me who ran into the wrong person and mistook grooming for love. Continue reading →