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- Roman Kemp: The Fight for Young Lives
I feel very privileged to have been interviewed by #romankemp and the amazing production team to help make this documentary. It will be aired on BBC 3 on Wednesday 1st Nov, 9pm. I did not make the Final Cut because the focus is on young people and their views on mental health and the challenges they face. Roman has worked hard to really get inside the world that young people are facing today and their experiences of struggling with their #mentalhealth Roman and the team were deeply interested in understanding this complex area from a multiple range of views. Roman is advocating for 💯 coverage of Mental Health Support Teams. His campaign has gained traction and the #conservatives are listening. Roman, like me and so many other campaigners, workers and parents - wants to save young lives from #suicide https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/zvq6vj6 @romankemp and BBC have pulled together a comprehensive parent toolkit on supporting your child’s #mentalhealth - with top tips from many experts (including me) on talking with your #child or #teen as well as what to do and where to go for support or help. Please share with the adults you know - this information can #savelives and raises #suicideawareness and ultimately will help #suicideprevention
- Parenthood - Perfection is not the answer
I have spent my whole career as a clinical psychologist working with families who are struggling. Therefore the decision to have my own children was one I made fully aware of just how hard parenthood can be. With the risks of parenthood emblazoned on my mind, I perhaps rather naively believed it might be easier for me, as I had the knowledge, and hopefully the skills to navigate this territory. However, I quickly discovered, that no amount of studying or sitting alongside other parents could prepare me for the emotional hijack that occurred as my body and mind became absorbed in the world of my baby. Following the birth of my first child, my aspiration to be a perfect mother fell apart as I realised that pursuing perfection led me away from being the mother I needed to be. I had a lot more to learn! Blindsided by love I knew that having children was a huge physical and emotional experience and required a re-calibration of my world. However, I was unprepared for my deep obsession with my baby, excluding all else. I first discovered that to meet my baby’s needs, I had to let go of many things I usually tried to do well and, importantly, not feel like I had failed somehow. Easier said than done! In the early days, I couldn’t maintain a tidy house, a home-cooked meal, or attend to my other relationships, including my husband at the time. But being fiercely independent, found it hard to accept help, or even acknowledge just how tough I was finding it. In hindsight, I would have been less self-critical and let my vulnerability as a new parent create space for other important people to support me. Tip 1: don’t see needing help as a weakness. To be a good parent we benefit from other trusted people to support us. It really does take a village to raise a child. What my children taught me about myself The experience of parenthood has much to teach us about ourselves and life. On this journey our minds are often busy juggling questions about who we are, our approach to parenting and our own experiences of being parented. What bits of our childhood do we want to replicate, and which do we want not to repeat? We likely set out to provide our children with love and stability, however, life throws curveballs which may undermine our resources to do this. I remember losing someone very dear to me and nearly falling apart. During this time, my children were a balm and a burden. I could see them watching me, worrying about me. They tried to find ways to comfort me or get my attention through bold behaviours. I wondered how I could meet their needs whilst feeling so fragile, so afraid of further loss. In this storm of mixed emotions, I started to appreciate how my mindset and ability to reframe my experiences would be critical to how my children made sense of life and their emotions. Tip 2: approach your parenting challenges with kind curiosity. You may find opportunities to face some of your own fears; meaning you can then support your child to face theirs. The early years (0 to 5) The early years are all about raw emotion and parents play a crucial role in helping children cope with distress and learn about feelings. As uncomfortable as they are, difficult feelings are important and can tell us about what is happening in our child’s world. It is often easier to know how to respond and resolve physical pain or discomfort (I knew how to comfort my child if they had fallen and hurt themselves or how to feed them if they were hungry). I found it much harder to know how to respond when my child was in emotional pain. I learned I wanted to protect my children from these feelings, and at times attempted to do this by unintentionally dismissing them (“It’s not that bad”), distracting from them (“Some sweets will make you feel better”), or sometimes even punishing them (“Go to your room”). The hardest, but often most rewarding thing I have had to learn, is to be curious about my child’s difficult feelings and sit with them rather than deny or run away from them (despite the way they make me feel). When children are younger we can do this in how we use language. For example, when our child is angry, instead of using prescriptive language: “You should calm down”, we can use descriptive language: “You are feeling angry.” We can give our children a space to listen without judgement. In this space we can validate these feelings “It makes sense you would feel sad, you really care about friendship.” And then help work out how to meet the needs underlying these feelings “What can you do that will help you feel cared for by others?” This enables us to discover more about what is important in our child’s world. It also helps them learn to regulate and use emotions meaningfully. Tip 3: don’t be afraid of difficult feelings. Connecting to your child in their unhappy moments helps them learn to understand their feelings and gives you insight into what is important to them. Middle childhood (6 to 12) Parenthood shone a light on my tendency to over-emphasise mistakes, be quick to self-criticise and avoid risk for fear of messing up. I found myself disproportionally worrying about unexpected events and over-analysing my children’s struggles. I worked out that if I did not pay attention to my tendency for hyper-criticism and over-focus on the negative possibilities, it could rub off unhelpfully on my children. I got fed up with hearing my constant “Be careful!” or “Why did you do that?!?” dampening my kids' enthusiasm for life. Instead, I wanted them to be able to handle mistakes and setbacks and be open to trying new things, even if they might struggle initially. As our children learn through what we do, not what we say, I had to overcome my tendency to focus on getting everything right and be more open to paying attention to how I handle getting it wrong. On these occasions, I very deliberately asked myself these questions: What emotional response does the situation create in me (e.g. frustration, shame, anger, fear)? In order to cope with this feeling do I: blame others, minimise the issue or become overly critical/punitive? Can I sit with the feeling and consider: why is this important to me? Is my response proportionate or exaggerated? What can this situation teach me about myself, life, and others? How can I use this situation to learn and grow? As hard as it is admitting “I got it wrong”, especially to my children, I have found they love it when I say sorry. Apologising once things have calmed down means I can take responsibility for my part in a disagreement (“I am sorry for losing my temper”) and this frees us up to consider what went wrong and what we could do differently next time. My children have learned through these moments: It is okay to get things wrong, having difficult emotions is normal and if we talk together we can usually put it right. Tip 4: mistakes can be opportunities for our children and us to learn and grow. Adolescence As my eldest child has headed off to university, I am acutely aware of learning to let go. Allowing my teens to do what they can for themselves has sometimes left me slightly lost as a parent. I am a fan of Christine Carter’s principle of going from “Manager to Coach” – shifting from organising my older children’s lives to giving them the space to make decisions and develop their own skills and interests. I got this wrong for a while, trying to focus my teens on what was important to me. I have learned that just like when they were younger what they love best is me taking an interest in their world. I found this hard initially, but eventually embraced their more grown-up pursuits enabling me to revive some of my interests (my teens love live music too)! They often force me out of my comfort zone to take a few risks (“You’re so boring Mum, come on – surprise us!”) and their desire for new experiences encourages me to try new things too. They are keen to discuss challenging topics, meaning I’ve had to broaden my thinking and accept that I don’t have all the answers. If I can tolerate some of the feelings this brings for me (panic that my children’s lens on the world is so broad with the influence of technology!) I get the benefits of learning more about them and the world. Tip 5: the biggest gift for our children at any stage is our availability – time to just be with them in their world. A small daily window (even if it is just 10 minutes) of our undivided attention can help our children feel seen and understood and re-inject energy into our lives. Finally My struggles and acknowledgements of the less-perfect parts of my life and personality have helped me in my role as a psychologist and mother. They’ve given me a profound empathy, compassion and understanding of the complexities of parenthood and the challenges we all face. This has made me a more humble and honest person willing to embrace the messiness of life and privilege authentic relationships above all else.
- Saying Goodbye: The University drop-off
I am dreading dropping my eldest son at University this weekend. I can’t quite get my head around it. Firstly, how has 18 years passed so quickly? Secondly, how do I drop him without burdening him with my emotions? I want him to remember this day without images of a tear-streamed mother putting a damper on the excitement of his next chapter. I also don’t want to ignore the specialness of this moment and how proud I am to see the man he has blossomed into. These mixed-up feelings are all too familiar. Surely, I should have gotten used to the dilemmas of parenthood by now? But I have come to realise it doesn’t necessarily get easier to know what to hide and what to reveal. When to hold on, when to let go. How to support your child in their vulnerable moments, when these moments are often your most vulnerable too. I should have all the answers. After-all, I’m a clinical psychologist who has been working with children in mental health services for over two decades. But the last 18 years with my own three kids has taught me I don’t, and maybe that’s a good thing. Learning to let my kids fail, feel pain, solve their own problems, do things their way and become their own person has been a huge challenge. Firstly, I know what can go wrong, and secondly, I have all this knowledge, which although helpful becomes difficult to apply when my own emotions are involved. My three children are all so different and as such, something that works for one, doesn’t work for another. My sons prefer a low-key approach, my daughter is high-drama and if I respond calmly to situations or her frustrations, it’s as if she feels I do not care. My calmness is reassuring to her brothers, but to her, it feels like I am not bothered. It’s like she needs me to have a big reaction to know I get it. I don’t want to go straight to a big reaction, it’s not my style! I can sometimes feel myself shutting down as she gets more irate, this often ends up with her behaving more extremely to get the reaction she is looking for. Finally, I snap and explode. She seems immediately content. I move to feeling the agony of saying something I wish I hadn’t. Hating myself for feeling so out of control, so angry. Rupture and repair. The number of times I have spoken about this with families I work with. It is such an important part of being a parent of building relationships – being able to own the bits where you have got it wrong, or maybe made things worse - finding resolution and opportunities for healing from hurt. The number of times I have hoovered outside my children’s bedroom doors, bracing myself for owning my bits, acknowledging my weaknesses and offering a chance to think together about what we could do differently next time. Saying sorry isn’t easy. Talking about the tough stuff, even harder. But it is often the conversations I have had with my children following a disastrous day out or a disagreement that have given us the chance to share our perspectives and learn why each other's emotions are important. To grow and learn about each other, and what we care about. This realisation was never more poignant than five years ago when my then nine-year-old daughter heard the news that her dad was having a baby with his partner. She was initially really excited. Having two brothers, she began to consider life with a baby sister and not being the only girl in the family. Around a week after receiving the news, I found her crying in bed. I crept in beside her in the dark and lay with her. “What’s up?” I asked. She said it was about the new baby between sobs. She didn’t want her dad to have a new baby. She was scared that it would mean he would love her less, that she would stop being so special to him. She asked, was it possible she might see Dad less, especially as the new baby would be with him all of the time? For me, these had been my own fears when I heard the news, so it took a lot of internal resource to put aside how I was feeling, and instead focus on what my daughter needed in that moment. I couldn’t take away this pain, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t struggle with some of the things she was starting to worry about. I wanted to be able to offer all the solutions, tell her it would be fine, not to be silly. I’d talk to her dad and make sure this didn’t happen. But I didn’t. I lay there, bearing the pain (which was crushing me too), staying calm and loving, sitting with it so she didn’t need to feel afraid or ashamed of her feelings. Honouring her world, her experience. For a long time, I lay with her in the dark, our arms touching, hearing her cry and feeling her rapid breathing; my quiet presence eventually soothed her. This moment was hard for me, I was also in emotional pain. But I was able to comfort my daughter by sitting with her feelings and showing my care for her in my body language and presence. I was honest about the fact that I couldn’t solve the problem or take away the pain; that I didn’t have all the answers. In doing this, I supported my daughter to feel that despite so much uncertainty, her feelings were understandable and bearable. After sitting with this pain, we were able to think together about what her feelings might be telling her, which bits to listen to and which to challenge. We worked out together that her feelings were telling her being loved by her dad is one of the most important things for her. That the new baby was making her feel scared that her dad’s love might run out or go just to the new baby. We could then think about whether these thoughts were accurate predictions based on her past experiences (thoughts are not facts). When we established that dad had not loved her any less following the birth of her baby brother who was now five, we could then explore how she could let her dad know this was her worry, so he did not unintentionally reinforce this fear. Earlier on, she had talked about not seeing him that weekend. Following our talk, we were able to work out that this course of action was based on fear, rather than helping her feel loved by her dad. She recognised she might need more quality time with him for a while, not less. I often think back to this moment in my daughter’s bed when seeing my children struggle or indeed find myself in emotional pain. It reminds me that often our children (and ourselves) do better if we do not rush them away from their feelings. That the overwhelming urge to solve the problem, provide the answer or just simply try to take the pain away – can prevent them/us make sense of the challenges they/we are facing and doing the very things that will help overcome the pain in the longer term. So this weekend at university, as I experience the pain of letting go and saying goodbye to my son’s childhood, I will not be able to entirely hide these feelings. But 18 years of training will hopefully mean I can give him what he needs on that day, the interest and excitement about his new world – and the belief he will be okay. I can also celebrate accepting that new chapters don’t necessarily mean less love or connection – they often provide opportunities for new ways of relating and a growth in the depth and maturity of the relationship – not just with him, but with my other children too. I will hold onto the courage my daughter showed in acknowledging her vulnerability of loving someone so much that you feel scared of losing them, accepting things will change, and make sure in letting go I hold onto the new possibilities the future holds.
- #Barbie #girlhood: Teens take mental health into their own hands
Girlhood is a trend that has gone viral on Tiktok and has captivated the hearts and minds of girls all over the world. Inspired by Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, girls explicitly name what makes girlhood unique on their TikTok posts in a way they may not have yet done. Whether you have watched Barbie or not, as an adult, you have a sense that ‘girlhood’ brings unique challenges to young people of this generation. My 14-year-old daughter’s dilemmas and preoccupations are similar to mine at the same age but somehow seem more complicated. Social media and increased expectations have made being a young person more multi-layered than ever. As a clinical psychologist working in children’s mental health services, I am seeing the fallout of these challenges on a daily basis. With the explosion in mental health difficulties in young people over the last few years - compounded by the lack of services to support these children and their families – it is still a surprise that it takes an average of ten years for a young person to get the mental health support they need. If you are a parent or a young person, this is ten years too long to wait. #girlhood – teens take mental health into their own hands Teenagers I talk to tell me that they don’t trust adults to give them the help they need; instead, they turn to the online world for answers. This is not just in the realm of mental health but also in other areas too. They also hugely rely on each other for support and advice. The challenge is that their fellow teens, whether they are known to them or not, may struggle to provide wise advice despite being able to relate to their challenges. The cost is that young people get stuck co-ruminating (making each other’s problems/worries bigger), key members of a group may take on the psychological burden of their friend’s struggles (often resulting in them struggling with anxiety or related difficulties), and young people may be sharing unhealthy and unhelpful ways to cope with difficult situations or distress (like self-harm). The challenge is that the teenage brain is wired to be more influenced by peer group (other teenagers) than adults (a biological throwback to Stone-age times when teens needed to flock together in order to avoid being eaten by a predator). So as wise as us adults might be – teenagers are more likely to listen to their peers than us. The Girlhood As a psychologist and a Mother I have been waiting for the time that adolescents might take the challenges of their time into their own hands… the moment the influencers realise that they can provide a narrative that gives a space for young people to be honest about their struggles and provide non-dramatical, balanced advice (so counter the way even as adults we are behaving on social media). 'The Girlhood: Written by girls, read by girls' seems to have done that with surprising ease this summer. The simplicity of the concept (girlhood, a blog dedicated to being able to share the highs and lows of being a girl, inspired by Barbie) is touching and brave. Two 18-year-old girls (in the USA) Mia and Sophie who have been through tough times have created what they see as a safe space online to share stories, offer hope, and provide balanced advice for shared challenges and feelings that many young people are facing at this time. Girlhood: The viral agony aunt site for teens blowing up on TikTok I have read the dilemmas that young people are sharing and can see how these dilemmas are totally relatable to so many teens across the world. I have been surprised by the balanced wisdom of the responses of the founders of the website and encouraged to see they offer real nourishment in their guidance. Based on their own experiences and learning, what is intuitive advice to them seems to be grounded in lots of the advice I might offer as a parent or in my role as a mental health professional. They cover topics and dilemmas like “How do I become okay with not having a lot of friends?” “I feel like I haven’t achieved enough?” “They have a separate group chat without me?” “My best friend got a boyfriend” “I don’t know how to get over my ex” “I like him but I don’t want to ruin our friendship” “I’m 19 have never been in a relationship” “Over these past few months, I think I’ve fallen for her” They take real questions from young people and offer guidance that encapsulates many of the things we would encourage as parents or in the self-improvement world. They are recruiting other advisors to support as they recognise the demand is outstripping their capacity. Whether these advisors are able to offer such grounded advice – time will tell. They make it clear at the beginning of their website what they are not (mental health professionals) and clearly signpost to organisations that can support if this is needed. It is important that Mia and Sophie get the support they need to hold so many of the world’s girls' worries and challenges – it can feel like a huge responsibility and pressure and they may get questions that they feel are out of their depth to answer (they say they signpost people to specialist help when this happens). I wonder if a voluntary sector organisation could team up with them to provide additional support for them. Step into their world Our young people describe feeling let down by a generation of adults who do not understand their issues and lack the mental health knowledge they have, based on their learning on this in school and their online interests. Most young people have someone they follow who provides mental health guidance or encouragement. The surge in interest in this site and @msgirlhood on Instagram suggest young people are desperate for good, relatable advice and help. As adults, we have a responsibility to find ways to step inside the world of our young people and consider how we can support them to make sense of the challenges they face. We need to understand what mental health is (not just something we talk about more) and how to give our children meaningful answers and support in the areas they are feeling alone and lost in. Loneliness is a huge challenge for the youth population - it literally kills. We are competing with an addictive online world that offers instant answers and round-the-clock availability – if we want to give our children a balanced experience of childhood we have to step up to offer them the opportunities they need to not only be supported by their peers, but us too. It is not an either, or, it has to be both. Having watched Barbie with my daughter, I was surprised by the different emotions it evoked in us. For my daughter, she described sadness, which surprised me. She said her friends felt that too. Is there something about the nostalgia these girls are feeling as they grow up too fast in a world preoccupied with values that don’t deeply resonate with them – but they get caught up with the social pressure to conform? It’s complex. I think we can have more conversations to help make sense of the complexity, without judgement. There are things for us to learn from our young people as they navigate the challenges of being a teenager in this ever-changing world. I wonder if we can see a similar phenomenon for boys – boyhood – something that gives the boys who have ended up following Andrew Tate, or other controversial characters, something to be influenced by positively and help make sense of where boyhood fits in with this changing world. Again, boys describe the complexity of making sense of who they are, and who they are pressurised to be or become. They face similar challenges and may need different ways of coping with them. Published by The British Psychological Society
- How to best support your child through difficult feelings - Belfast Telegraph Article
Consultant clinical psychologist and author of new parenting book Happy Families, Dr Beth Mosley, shares her advice for how to support your child through life’s challenges. The emotional X-ray When our child is in physical pain, we observe their physical symptoms (e.g., temperature, visible damage, acuity of pain) and ask questions — ‘Where’s the pain? What kind of pain? Do you feel sick?’ These observations are our attempt to work out the underlying cause of our child’s physical symptoms and, most importantly, to establish what the best treatment for help is, if required. It might be that the illness will pass with the body’s immune system simply needing time to do its job. It could just benefit from rest and perhaps a painkiller (e.g., a cold virus, chicken pox, a blister). Other times, there may be something that requires treatment in order for the body to heal properly or stop a deterioration in health (e.g., appendicitis, badly broken limb, bacterial infection). As a parent, your anxiety about your child’s physical symptoms is to ensure that you take the necessary action for your child to receive the appropriate treatment. You wouldn’t want to use a painkiller to mask something that needed treatment and, left untreated, could be life-threatening (e.g., meningitis), or impact on your child’s recovery from an injury (e.g., a broken limb that requires a cast/surgery). Unfortunately, we don’t have an emotional X-ray and therefore, it’s harder to take this same approach with emotional discomfort or pain. We may see the symptoms of distress (e.g., crying, moodiness, withdrawal, not eating, self-harm). We might feel confused or have our own emotional response (just like when we see physical discomfort or pain) of anxiety or worry. We could ask what’s wrong or guess something is wrong, but we don’t necessarily have the tools or vocabulary to discover what the underlying cause of the pain could be, what it means, and the best course of action. Perhaps we unintentionally suggest the equivalent of a painkiller (e.g., distraction, watch a screen, have a treat, focus on the positives, ‘it will be alright’) to mask a problem that our child needs more help to understand, rather than distract away from or ignore. By doing this, we may accidentally reinforce the idea that emotional discomfort is something to be avoided if possible. Research has shown that those who are able to notice and tolerate their emotions do better in terms of their wellbeing. If we’re able to learn to tune into strong emotions, we can discover they may be telling us something about (a) what’s important to us; and (b) what’s happening in our life. By understanding this, we can try to establish what needs to change and if we need help from others to support that change. As parents, we can play a crucial role in supporting our children with: becoming more emotionally aware; helping them turn towards, rather than run away from or block, painful emotions; learning how to understand how emotions might give information about what’s most important to us. We can do this through sitting with the feelings alongside our children, exploring values, and using them to guide us on what to do next. Sitting with the feelings When my then nine- year-old daughter heard the news that her dad was having a baby with his new partner, she was initially really excited. Having two brothers, she began to consider life with a baby sister and not being the only girl in the family. Around a week after she received the news, I found her crying in her bed after I thought she had gone to sleep. I crept into her bed in the dark and lay with her. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. She said it was about the new baby between sobs. She didn’t want Dad to have a new baby. She might not like it. With my emotional guess-ray, I wondered if she might feel sad, angry, insecure (fearful of rejection) and possibly a little envy, as this baby would be with Dad every day of the week. With a bit more reassurance that I was hearing her and not judging her, she went on to explain she was scared that having a new baby would mean her dad would love her less, that she would stop being so special to him. In fact, she asked, was it possible he could stop loving her at all, especially as the new baby would be with him all the time? For me, these had been all of my fears when I heard the news, so it took a lot of internal resource to put aside how I was feeling, and instead focus on what my daughter needed right now. I couldn’t take away this pain, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t struggle with some of the things she was starting to worry about. I wanted to be able to offer all the solutions, tell her it would be fine, to not be silly. I’d talk to her dad and make sure this wouldn’t happen. But I didn’t. I lay there, bearing the pain (which was crushing me, too), but staying calm and loving, sitting with it so she didn’t need to feel afraid or ashamed of it. Honouring her world, her experience. For a long time, I lay with her in the dark, our arms touching, hearing her cry and feeling her rapid breathing; my quiet presence eventually soothed her. Many years after this experience, I listened to a podcast with professor and author Brené Brown, where she talked about a similar incident with her teenage daughter experiencing a break-up with her boyfriend. She, like me, had sat on her daughter’s bed, in the dark, wanting to take away the pain her daughter was going through. The whole time she was looking at the light switch on the wall thinking, ‘This is so hard; I just want to turn on that light and take away the pain’. But she didn’t. She understood sitting with her daughter in the dark at that moment was her main task as parent. So often we do not want our children to experience difficult emotions. Instead, we want to take this away or solve the problem. But learning to go through this emotion and understanding it’s safe to do this can help a young person develop resilience and a sense that when hard things happen, they have the skills to deal with it. As parents, we don’t have to pretend we know everything or that we’re always in control. The key is to show up, see our children and provide them with the reassurance that we can find a way through this challenge, even if it does hurt. When our children are in distress, the first thing we need to do is sit alongside them and acknowledge their feelings without trying to move them too quickly from the pain they’re in. The above is an extract from Happy Families: How to Protect and Support Your Child's Mental Health (Bluebird, £16.99) by Dr Beth Mosley. Published by Belfast Telegraph
- School concrete crisis – another blow to young people’s mental health?
For many parents and children this week may have had the familiar pang of those early Covid lockdown weeks. Unexpected news throwing the next few weeks (and maybe months) into disarray and dismay for many families. If you found home schooling and the Covid lockdown difficult – you may have found the news reports on the school concrete crisis surprisingly triggering – even if this crisis isn’t directly impacting on you. So, why is this so hard and what can we do as parents to protect our children from a disrupted start to the term? Just like Covid, safety is a key concern leading to the closure and partial closure of schools during the school concrete crisis. Naturally, this is a new anxiety that parents and children have not had to consider before: “Could my child be hurt by falling debris at school today?“ In a world of constant focus on the negative possibilities we find ourselves again in the hands of others to ensure that the risks and measures to mitigate against them are proportionate to the situation. It can’t be easy as government ministers and school leaders grapple between the risks of disrupting children’s learning and wellbeing versus their physical safety. A familiar dilemma during the pandemic. However, unlike when they made the Covid decisions, they now know the cost to children when their education is interfered with, as seen in the significant increase in youth mental health difficulties, school absenteeism and challenges in learning post Covid. Schools, services, parents and our children are still experiencing the fallout. Add to this the exhaustion that parents and school staff are feeling because of the increase in pressure on them to contain the additional needs of young people as well as manage the extra challenges they are facing in their daily lives (like the cost of living) – and you get a perfect storm for increased stress and challenges with mental health – for adults and young people alike. So, how can we protect ourselves and our young people as we continue to navigate the rollercoaster of uncertainties in this modern world? Firstly, it’s important to understand that as human’s our natural tendency is to focus on the negative, especially if we are already feeling stressed and overwhelmed. This can be as simple as what we pay attention to in the news as well as the words we hear and focus on in our own mind. These worries can often get stuck on a loop (rumination), trigger our stress response and leave us feeling distressed. Meaning worry can consume our energy at a time we need our energy to deal with difficulties and be available to our children. This becomes even more of a challenge if our fears and anxieties are not proportionate to the likelihood of the thing we are worrying about happening. If you are finding yourself worrying about things that you can do something about, try to step away from worry towards problem solving with these simple steps: Notice the worry (sometimes worry becomes so automatic for us we don’t even realise we are doing it!) Ask yourself “What am I worrying about?” The details are important. For example, if you are worried about school not starting this week as planned distinguish between childcare and work pressure worries and worries about the impact on your child’s learning? Write them down. This helps things feel more manageable and immediately soothes the brain. Quantifying worry makes it feel less overwhelming. What action could you take to resolve some of these problems. Write down lots of ideas. Consider What? When? How? Be realistic about barriers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others if you need it. Consider what can I do right now to address these concerns – complete these tasks. Consider what can I later. Write down your plan. Next time the worry crops up – remind yourself you have a plan, the worry has done its job of helping you to take action, so you can let worry go. There will be many things that you are worrying about where you may not have any influence or control over the outcome (like whether your child’s school will open or close unexpectedly). Simply trying to block these worries or unhelpful thoughts does not help. Often talking them through with a trusted other can help put them in perspective. We may be having a disproportionate worry about a very unlikely event. We can therefore let it go and change the focus of our attention onto something else – often just moving our bodies and doing something grounding and physical can help our bodies and minds feel more settled. It maybe that our anxieties are well founded and the difficult feelings we are experiencing are justified and important. They often reflect concerns we have because our values, what is important to us, are in jeopardy. So, for example, hearing my child’s school may be shut can immediately make me feel sad for my child that their first day in their new school is not going to be what they had planned for, that they will miss out on learning with their classmates and will struggle to engage with online learning which could impact on their future. Feeling sad, even angry about this, is warranted. However, it is what we do with the sadness and anger that is important. Do I use it to find ways to move towards what is important to me (talk to my child about their disappointment in a balanced and validating way, help them think about ways they can connect with their friends or other important people so they don’t feel isolated) or away from what is important to me (spiral into a place of helpless frustration, push others away, become focused on self-criticism and fears that I cannot cope with giving my child what they need, blame others). As our feelings spiral it's important to remember that this crisis is different to Covid. A lockdown for our children meant no physical contact with the outside world. The current crisis means an impact on schooling for some children, but young people are still free to meet up with friends and family and take part in all the activities they usually enjoy. If your child is having to do online schooling, find ways to help them engage with friends and activities in person so they are reminded that this is not the same as lockdown. For most of us our work was also impacted during Covid and although that meant it was easier to stay at home and look after our children, it also meant a lot of people were dealing with loss of income and fears of redundancy. Although some people’s work is less accommodating many employers are familiar with supporting working from home, so likely to be flexible during these unexpected changes. Family and friends are also more able to help out, in a way they were unable to during lockdown if working from home is not an option for you. This time will pass. We now know that as difficult as these things can feel at the time, they pass, and things go back to normality. Explore with yourself and your children the important things you learned about during the lockdown, the strengths and resilience you showed despite how hard it was, so that you can remind each other how courageous we can be in the face of challenges. Often our availability as parents is highest on our children’s priority list, so spending small bits of quality time together (even if it is just a walk or 20-minutes watching your child’s favourite TV show together) can make a huge difference. Look after yourself and each other. Additional disruption and increased stressors, mean that we need to give ourselves and each other more time to do activities that help us de-stress and stay connected with others. The world is becoming increasingly focused on unrealistic expectations of how we can keep performing despite the challenges we face. It can also be a brutal and critical place where blame is banded around with little consideration on the impact of a person’s limitations as a human being. The challenges we are all facing are complex without easy answers. Let’s honour that complexity and work together to support each other and our children as we face the next few weeks and beyond.
- Expert reveals how to help your child beat the back to school blues - Mirror Article
The new term can bring challenges for kids and teens, so discover how you can help with this back to school mental health toolkit from psychologist and child behavioural expert Dr Beth Mosley. The kids are back to school this week and if your mornings are once again a flurry of lunch boxes, uniforms and unwashed PE kits, you certainly won’t be alone. But amid all the hubbub, the end of the summer hols and the start of a new school year can be a tough time for children of all ages. “When kids go back to school they face lots of change – new teachers or a new class, for example,” says Dr Beth Mosley, a clinical psychologist and child behavioural expert with more than 20 years of experience working with families and young people. “They have to deal with things outside of their control. This is difficult for everyone, but for children in particular, and can lead to stress, anxiety and sadness – the back to school blues, in other words.” School can bring certain pressures. “There’s academic pressure to do well and get good grades, which can be hard for those who struggle with learning. Then peer pressure can be tough too. “It’s complicated juggling so many relationships with classmates, friends and perhaps others who aren’t very nice to them,” says Dr Mosley. There are more instances of school stress in youngsters after the pandemic. “Many kids are playing catch-up, having missed out on normality during lockdown, be that in academic learning or social skills,” says Dr Mosley. Here, she shares the most common issues going back to school can bring – and the mental health toolkit to help your child through it. Social Anxiety There are challenges to being in a peer group. As a parent your job is to help your child build the skills and confidence they need to be friends with other children. The best way to do this is to get inside your child’s world. Acknowledge they may socialise online too, and that’s OK. Don’t dismiss social media, but ask them about group chats and posts – who are they talking to, if they are happy with what is being said, if they feel included or excluded. Remove judgment and be curious. They’ll be more likely to talk to you about any issues. Primary kids: Speak to the school. Ask to buddy them up with another child, or enlist the teacher to help them build social skills. Organise play dates at home too. Secondary kids: Be present and available to take them to social events. Be willing to have their friends over too. Academic Confidence Children all have different strengths and weaknesses but often we focus on the things they’re not so good at, expending energy on trying to sort them out. However, when you have a child who’s struggling with something – maths, for example – they may be brilliant at something else, such as building a BMX track or relating to other people. Remind your child of their strengths. If you find your child struggles academically, of course you’ll want the school to provide the support they need – but make sure they do lots of the things they do well too, like sport or drama. Encouraging other elements of their skill set, and the things they enjoy, will naturally build their confidence. Primary: Younger children can have sensory overload. Try dealing with whatever they are struggling with away from the bustle of school, in the calm of home. Secondary: Sport can help children learn that practice, taking risks, and even failure are all fine and just a natural part of life. Bullying Having a sense of belonging is key to good self-esteem. Bullying and discrimination can have a big impact on a young person’s mental health. Most schools have a zero tolerance policy on bullying. Don’t be afraid to talk to them so things are put in place to ensure it doesn’t continue. These days, online bullying makes the issue more complex. What we know, however, is that if your child is being bullied online they’re probably being bullied in real life too. And vice versa. Firstly, young people need to hear that feeling upset is a very natural response to being bullied. Be sympathetic, then help them understand that not all friendships will be like this. Being bullied can make a child fearful of making new relationships, in case the same thing happens again. But the key to feeling better is to find other opportunities to engage in positive relationships. Help your child work out who the safest children are to build these relationships with. Primary: Chat to other parents in the playground and organise playdates. Secondary: Help your child take part in activities where they might find others with similar interests outside, as well as inside, school. Separation Going back to school means being away from family, and this can be hard. So agree something you and your child will do together when they get home from school in those first few weeks. Try to be more available on those evenings so they feel like they’ve still got a bit of you. Keep it simple – watch TV or play a game. All they want is your undivided attention. Primary: Make something together, be it a block tower, biscuits or dinner. Secondary: Watch their favourite TV show with them and show an interest in what’s going on. Grab some popcorn and spend time together. Sleep It can be a challenge to get back into a sleep pattern, but not doing so can mean a tired first few weeks, which has a massive impact on children’s ability to cope with stress. If they're going to bed at 10pm, they won’t suddenly fall asleep at 8pm, so try bringing bedtime forward in small increments, getting them to bed 15minutes earlier each evening until they’re back in a reasonable routine. Primary: Put yourself back in charge of bedtime. Make it nice with bubble baths, stories and cuddles. Secondary: Talk to your adolescent about creating their own bedtime routine – what would they like to include? This could be a new book or a pillow spray. Reduce screen time after dinner to help them wind down. Article written by Hannah Britt Published by Mirror
- How can I improve my teenager’s low mood? - Independent Article
Psychologist Dr Beth Mosley tells Lisa Salmon how better communication, tackling negative thoughts and improving rewards can lift a teenager's mood. If there’s one thing associated with teenagers more than anything else, it’s moodiness. But although low mood is extremely common in teens, what’s just as common is that parents don’t know what to do about it. Adolescence is the highest risk period of life to experience depression, and half of adult mental health disorders start before the age of 15, says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Beth Mosley, who provides specialist mental health support to children and their families. “Seeing the signs of low mood in your teen can be worrying if you’re a parent,” she says. “The questions you may ask are likely to be, what are the usual highs and lows of adolescence, and what is something to worry about? Why might my teen be struggling with low mood, and most importantly, what can I do as a parent to help if my teen is feeling down and showing signs of disengaging with life?” Mosley, the author of new book, Happy Families, which is about the most common issues affecting children’s mental health and how parents can help, says although everyone will, at some point, experience low mood, sadness, irritability and loss of interest in things they enjoy, usually such feelings are linked to problems in life. But changes associated with puberty, and brain restructuring, mean adolescents are especially vulnerable to mental health problems, says Mosley, who explains: “These changes increase the possible impact of life stressors and, thus, their vulnerability to mental health difficulties. “The brain changes in adolescence mean teens feel emotions more intensely – both the highs and lows – meaning it’s not unusual to see them experiencing waves of low mood, particularly in the face of challenges.” She says if a teen’s low mood doesn’t go away, and prevents them doing the things they need to, like schoolwork and spending time with others, it would be wise to consider seeking help. The teen’s school may be able to suggest local support. But she adds: “Whether your teen experiences passing or more persistent low mood, the good news is that the brain is flexible and ripe for learning in adolescence, so there’s a lot we can do to support our teens when they’re experiencing low mood. “Importantly, this support will likely improve your relationship with your teen, and help protect them from developing mental health difficulties in adulthood.” If your teenager’s mood is low, these are the things Mosley says might help them… Encourage them to do what’s important to them When someone feels low, they tend to do less of what’s important to them, meaning they get less rewards from life and feel lower, Mosley explains. This is the low-mood cycle. Conversely, by doing more of what’s important to them regularly, they get more reward from life and start to feel better – this is the feel-good cycle, she says. So rather than a teen waiting until they feel better to do the things that are important to them, low-mood teens should do them now to break the low-mood cycle. “Determining what activities they can do more of and what unhelpful activities to do less is a key first step,” says Mosley. “You can support your child by providing more opportunities to do what’s important to them and increasing access to rewards. Give them practical support to do the activities they enjoy, provide encouragement.” Communicate better with them Mosley says that low mood can make it difficult for teens to communicate, but parents learning key communication skills can support how they communicate with their teens and, in turn, help improve their mood. She says being careful how you say things, through tone of voice and nonverbal body language, is important, as teens are more sensitive to criticism and negative social feedback. But there are six communication skills in particular that parents should try to use. They are… Picking the right time to have a conversation. “Open and honest conversations are most likely to happen when we’re feeling calm and not under pressure,” says Mosley, explaining that it’s important to be aware of when your teen isn’t in the right frame of mind for a difficult conversation, and to learn to respectfully pause the conversation and reschedule it for a better time. Starting a sentence with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’ can make a huge difference, explains Mosley, who says starting with ‘You’ often has a blaming tone and makes the teenager defensive and stops them from listening, whereas starting with ‘I’ can explain how you’re feeling, which can’t be disputed and starts a whole different conversation. Instead of over-generalising and using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’, Mosley says it’s much better for parents to be specific and provide an example of a recent event, rather than things that have happened over months or years. She says over-generalising is more likely to make teens feel awful, and less likely to spark a collaborative conversation. Imagining how a young person might feel in/about a certain situation can also help, she says. “Understanding someone else’s point of view, and expressing this to them, can make it easier to have a collaborative conversation and avoid an argument,” she explains. “When we’re particularly worried about our children, thinking about how they feel can sometimes help us connect with them.” If you go into a conversation with your child knowing what you want from it but being aware you might not get it, be prepared with some alternative solutions, Mosley advises. “Having a few solutions in your back pocket before you go into a discussion enables you to show you’re willing to compromise so you don’t get stuck in a stalemate situation,” she says. Although you may not initially get the response you hoped for from your child when you try a new way of communicating with them, it’s vital to persevere, stresses Mosley, who explains: “With these communication hacks we should begin to see communication with our children become healthier and more productive.” Tackle your negative thoughts and help your teenager do it too Mosley advises parents to reduce the habit of getting stuck in negative thinking by trying these tactics, which she suggests should be shared and modelled to teens. Remember it’s just a thought and it doesn’t mean it’s real. “Remind your teen that thoughts are not facts, they are ideas and they don’t predict the future,” says Mosley. Let negative thoughts come and go, rather than fixating on them and becoming overwhelmed, she advises, and take the power out of the thought by sharing it with others. “Getting another viewpoint can stop unhelpful thoughts growing in magnitude,” she says, and suggests parents provide opportunities for teens to share their thoughts with them, on car journeys and walks etc. As many young people get stuck on social media, dwelling on distressing thoughts, Mosley suggests: “Help your teen notice this cycle and learn the art of moving to another activity, even if it’s just moving to a different room or doing some physical activity.” She adds: “If your teen is feeling negative and self-critical, move away from nagging and towards helping them refocus their energy on something they enjoy and/or resolving the underlying problem.” Article written by Lisa Salmon Published by Independent
- How to ease your child’s tantrums and stop yourself having one too - Pan Macmillan Article
Dr Beth Mosley, author of Happy Families, on how to deal with your child's tantrums. NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Beth Mosley's new book, Happy Families, takes an honest and accessible approach to children’s mental health, arming parents and carers with the tools they need to tackle a child's anxiety, low mood, difficult behaviours and tantrums. Here, she offers advice on how to deal with tantrums – and keep calm while doing it. My eldest son is now 18, but I can still remember the moments of complete meltdown as a child, throwing himself on the floor, having tantrums, crying, screaming, hitting out; me trying to work out the quickest way to get things back to normal and not erupt into a meltdown myself. Emotions are contagious! Younger children are less able to communicate their feelings with words; therefore, the clues to their emotions are often what they do with their bodies (their behaviour). Often these behaviours give us an insight into an underlying physical or emotional need (hungry, tired, sad, angry). In order to be effective these behaviours need to create an emotional response in us as parents and carers so we can respond and help meet the need (e.g. my child is crying because he has hurt himself so I will provide comfort and care). The challenge for any parent is that this emotional response (particularly to behaviours that seem disproportionate or make no sense – like tantrums) can make it hard to stay calm and may even trigger the equivalent of a tantrum in us. This is especially likely when we are tired, frustrated and juggling an array of demands. So, how can you help your child, and yourself? Some brain basics Clinical professor of psychiatry Dr Dan Siegel and paediatric and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Tina Payne Bryson talk about the brain being like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs. The downstairs is where our emotions live. It is also the alarm system in our brain, detecting when things are unsafe (fight-flight). When we are born this part of the brain is well developed and works automatically. The upstairs is the thinking part of the brain, where language develops as well as our ability to organise ourselves, problem-solve and describe how we are feeling. The upstairs part of our brain takes about twenty-four years to develop! Our ability to use our feelings and thoughts to make sense of situations and decisions about what we do next is what sets us apart as humans. The strength of the connection between the downstairs and upstairs brain is critical to this ability. Imagine a staircase which connects the downstairs (emotional) brain and upstairs (thinking) brain. This staircase enables the emotional and thinking parts of the brain to share information. If the downstairs brain is getting over-excited or upset, the upstairs brain can work out what’s needed to resolve a problem, take action and signal to the downstairs brain to calm down. ‘As parents and carers, we play a key role in helping our children make the link between their feelings, their needs and how to use language to communicate.’ As parents and carers, we play a key role in supporting the development of this connection through helping our children make the link between their feelings, their needs and how to use language to communicate. When the downstairs emotional brain gets overly activated the upstairs brain disconnects from the downstairs brain (a term coined 'flipping the lid' by Siegel and Bryson). This is the brain's way of protecting us from danger. It prioritises acting quickly because it knows in a dangerous situation it needs to (e.g. to jump out of the way of a moving vehicle). In these moments the downstairs emotional brain takes over our bodies, meaning that we may behave in ways that protect us in a dangerous situation (shouting, crying, hitting out, running away), but could add to distress in a non-dangerous context. Importantly, the upstairs brain is offline at this time, meaning we can’t listen to logic or engage in problem solving. What does this mean for a tantrum? When our children are experiencing a tantrum their downstairs (emotional) brain has taken over and they need help from those around them to reconnect the upstairs (thinking) brain. This helps in the immediate moment of quickly calming our child, but also helps in the longer term, as it helps reinforce the staircase, so that our children’s brains get better at connecting their emotional and thinking brains (emotional regulation). How we make our children feel in these moments is going to be critical to how quickly their flipped lid (upstairs brain) settles back down to re-connect with their upstairs brain. How to deal with a tantrum: connection before correction Try these four simple steps next time your child, no matter what their age, has a meltdown: Notice Take a deep breath. What is happening for your child right now, from their perspective? What is happening for you right now? How are you feeling? Is your lid about to flip? What can you do to help yourself calm down (e.g. breathing deeply, moving to a quieter place, asking for help). Connect Stay calm. Keep your body language and facial expression relaxed and use your voice to show interest or care. Remember you’re trying to soothe the downstairs brain. Your child needs to understand they have got your attention. They are safe. Come down to your child’s level. Use physical touch if that is helpful for your child. Your child may need a reduction in sensory information to help them regulate (being in a quieter environment). Validate With curiosity, rather than judgement, try to put into simple calm words what your child might be feeling “You’re feeling angry because you can’t have the cake, I understand?” By naming what our children might be experiencing and showing we care we are helping them make the link between their feelings, their needs and their thoughts. We are helping them learn to put words to these experiences. It helps your child feel understood. It calms the downstairs brain: 'name it to tame it' (Siegel). Collaborate You will notice when your child’s lid is back on. They should be calmer and able to accept your care. You may notice they are listening to you. It is at this point you can now resolve the problem “Maybe you can have some cake, after dinner? Shall we go and see Grandma now?” For older children when you are in this zone you can come up with ideas together to help for the next time they feel overwhelmed: “Would it have helped if I had given you a few minutes on your own to calm down?” What’s realistic? You don’t have to use this approach all the time, just enough that your child can start developing the skills. If you imagine in these moments you are lending your child your upstairs (thinking) brain, to soothe and help their downstairs (emotional) brain feel safe and understood. Importantly, to do this, we need to find ways to look after ourselves as parents so that we can keep our own lids from flipping and unintentionally adding to the drama of the moment. Think of the things that help keep you calm and your resource bucket topped up. Be aware that certain things can increase the sensitivity of the downstairs brain to stress (for both you and your child) including: lack of sleep, hunger, feeling isolated, traumatic experiences, neurodevelopmental diversity. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from trusted others if you are having a challenging time. Feeling supported and cared for by others can help give you the resources to support your child when they need you the most. Published by Pan Macmillan Happy Families by Dr Beth Mosley MBE Happy Families takes an honest and accessible approach to children’s mental health, from ages four right up to twenty-one, arming parents and carers with the tools they need to tackle anxiety, low mood and difficult behaviours, as well as the hope and reassurance to actively make a change. With techniques based on cutting-edge science, evidence developed over twenty years of working in the NHS as well as her own experience as a mother of three, Dr Beth will help parents to make sense of what their child is going through – and show them how they help their children to survive and thrive. Buy the Book
- Happy Families Book - No.1 for Hot New Releases!
Today is a big day for the book. Bluebird have just emailed to say it has jumped to Amazon number 1 for Hot New Releases! This is so unexpected with no promo yet! Early copies are out and some wonderful feedback coming in as well as requests for articles and podcasts! @annamathur very kindly reviewed on her Instagram story line yesterday - which was my first chance to see what the book looks like in print - as I haven't seen one yet! It looked great! And she described it beautifully. So proud! Also, so grateful as it meant some new followers on Instagram. I am new to social media and my presence is therefore low! I have a lot to learn in the coming weeks to help lift my profile and reach more parents interested in supporting their child's mental health. Time is the problem - juggling the NHS and these exciting new endeavours is a challenge. But both complement one another in many ways as so much of what I am doing in both areas helps build my motivation and enthusiasm to keep supporting others in whatever way I can. Finally, I have been delighted by the level of International interest. The Happy Families book is now to be published in eight different languages - with publishers in Europe, the middle and far East and the USA. It goes to show how across the world parents are so desperate to get accessible and relatable help to support their children. I am honoured to be able to provide it in this way. See 'Happy Families' on the book section of my website.
- Our job as parents: The co-pilot
Our babies are born with an automatic regulation system that helps them survive. They cry, suck, breathe, blink, throw their arms and legs around, sleep and wake-up. As our children grow they begin to develop the ability to regulate themselves, both physically (e.g. being able to control when they go to the toilet) and emotionally (being able to feel and understand emotions whilst not always acting on them e.g. not hitting your brother when he has annoyed you). Essentially they go from auto-regulation to self-regulation. As co-pilot parents, our special task is to help our children develop these skills (both physical and emotional). We support them learning to sit up, crawl and walk. We help them learn to feed themselves, and later prepare their own food. We also help them learn to tolerate difficult feelings and express what their emotional needs might be (e.g. “I am feeling really sad because my hamster died, I need a cuddle”). Essentially, we are our children’s co-pilots. We co-regulate them to help them build the skills to self-regulate. We tend to do this naturally as parents. Think about your child wanting a toy in the toy shop they cannot have. You may distract them by moving them to something else. You may negotiate with them - “Oh this would make a lovely birthday present, shall we tell Grandma?” - or you might validate how your child is feeling, “Oh I can see how upset you are because you want the toy, but not today”. Here we are trying to down-regulate our child so their feelings don’t escalate into distress that becomes unmanageable. In other situations we might need to up-regulate our child and get them excited about something they do not want to do. Going to a play-date they are worried about or a first sleep-over. We are likely to talk in an excited voice and go through all the positives that might happen to excite or encourage our child to be more motivated to give it a go. All of these little interactions we have with our toddlers and children every day, our tone of voice, body language, the words we use, build up our children’s ability to link feelings, thoughts and actions; and as they grow and develop they are able to do this for themselves more and more. Sometimes as a parent we might not be the most helpful co-pilots. We might co-escalate instead of co-regulate. We may start shouting or get cross with our child for being distressed, “I can’t cope with this right now, you always do this at the worst possible time!” We might be pre-occupied or our own stress system might be triggered by our children’s distress and we find ourselves shutting down and not providing any response. Sometimes we might swing between the two, which can feel really confusing for others. Often our own experiences of being parented will be reflected in the way we co-regulate our children, or even other adults. Our child’s temperament might make it harder for us to be attuned with or responsive to them. My sons are very easy to co-regulate, they probably need up-regulating more than down-regulating and they seem to be easy to comfort. This suits my approach well. However, my daughter has a completely different way of communicating emotions. She tends to escalate her feelings very quickly and be less responsive to a calm approach. We therefore have more challenges together, because she often sees my response to her distress as not being big enough; she sees my calmness as me not caring. Many time over the years I have ended up finding myself failing at being a good co-pilot as I have become as distraught as her as things escalate between us. I have learned that I have to pay more obvious active attention to her when she is distressed, and then really explain out loud what is happening and how I care, so she understands that I am seeing her and not ignoring her pain. I am just trying not to escalate it. Our children will rely on other people in their lives to help them learn these skills through co-regulation, grandparents, older siblings, school staff, friends. Indeed, even as adults we are likely to rely on others at times to help us co-regulate. Some people might be better at it than others. We might have relationships which we turn to when we are distressed because we know in that moment that person will help us co-regulate; they will give us space, connect with us, validate our feelings and help us feel understood. We may find our children even do this for us. When I am openly distressed quite often it is my daughter who is most responsive. She might put the kettle on and make me a cup of tea. A gesture of her caring and wanting to help. It might be your partner or friend. Whoever it is you will recognise that moment when someone has helped co-regulate you, rather than adding to or diminishing your distress. Reflection Think of yourself as a co-pilot, supporting your child with their daily tasks and feelings. What kind of co-pilot are you? Do you tend to take over and get the task done? Do you take a back-seat and let them take the lead? How does your style of co-piloting change when you are experiencing stress? Do you tend to go to one or other of the extremes above? Think of your child/children. Does he or she tend to need your support to down-regulate? That is, if they are distressed or excited, do they rely on you to help calm them? What kind of situations do they need this in? Does he or she need your help to up-regulate? That is, do they need you to encourage them or provide the energy or motivation to do things they are reluctant to do? What kind of situations do they need this in? What situations do you find yourself co-escalating (increasing your child’s distress unintentionally)? What things might you do or say that despite your best intentions escalate distress? For more practical tips on co-regulation, go to the blog: ‘The gym: a surprising place to reflect on parenting’
- The school fight. Tuning into making sense of why and what next?
A little while back, my then 8-year-old son’s school phoned to let me know he had got into a fight at lunchtime, hurt another child and had refused to apologise. I was shocked, embarrassed, worried what the other parent would think and if the child was hurt, and angry with him. Later that night, when we were both calm and playing a card game he likes, I decided to put aside my desire to tell him all the reasons he shouldn’t have done what he did and get into his world. Understand what had happened and why, to help us consider what next (he had said he wasn’t going back to school tomorrow). He described the school fight incident and how another boy had been saying mean things and ruining a game of football for him and his friends during lunch-break. Because the other boy wouldn’t stop, my son exploded and hit him. Recounting the story I could see his distress and anger. I said kindly “It sounds like you were defending something that is important to you, playing with your friends, but it went wrong when you hurt the other boy?” He agreed. I could see that friendship, and the sense of being part of a group was important to him. His desire for acceptance. I asked him more about what it means to have good friends? To be part of his football team and his friendship group? The more he talked the more it became clear, this was one of the most important things to him. I then asked him about what makes a good friend in his mind - loyalty, having fun, being fair, saying sorry, getting each other, being a team – were all of his ideas. I said it made sense that he got so angry when someone else was doing something that felt against what was important to him. I asked if the way he responded, with a hit, followed his own views on good friends. He said “No.” I asked: “Does that make you feel worse or better in the long-run?” “Worse”, he said, “and now I don’t want to go back to school.” Me: “If you don’t go back to school will that solve the problem and help you have good friends and a sense of belonging?” Him: “No, I will feel more alone.” Me: “So what can you do tomorrow which helps you be a good friend and feel better about going back to school?” We then were able to come up with a plan together for the following day which involved an apology and a discussion with his teacher to consider ways he can walk away from situations where he might be being triggered, and if necessary get help from an adult. By sitting with and looking more closely at the feeling (anger, sadness, shame) we were able to trace the feeling back to a value and then help him (a) understand himself better, and (b) use this information to guide what he did next (reach out, apologise) – rather than just relying on the feeling on its own to inform what next (not go to school, fall out with friends). This approach is not about making excuses, but instead is about accountability.