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Why We Must Say ‘Yes’ To Children Saying ‘No’

Why We Must Say 'Yes' To Children Saying 'No'

Most of us don’t want to – in fact, may dread – getting into conflict with the children we live or work with.
Given the nature of my work, many people are surprised when I tell them that me and my son argue quite a lot.
I do believe in the notion of ‘peaceful’ or ‘unconditional’ parenting, but I don’t think we have to be tied to it as complete philosophy.

Conflict and disagreements are a natural part of relationships and, so long as we manage and model them properly, I don’t think it’s harmful to expose kids to them.
On the contrary, I think it’s misleading and dishonest not to. Long into – and potentially for all of – adulthood, many people spend far too much of their lives predisposed to being a ‘people pleaser’ for fear of conflict. Let’s not insist that our kids become one too.
 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in raising children to co-operate. And to know how to behave appropriately in different situations. And to choose their own battles; we all know from the job of working, and especially of living with them that there are some that are just not worth fighting.
But I equally think it’s not our job to raise children who are easy to parent, or who are compliant learners etc.
And here’s why.

There’s a big difference between pro-social skills and mindless obedience.
There’s a big difference between a child being controlled – by threats, sanctions, fear, shame etc., (as so many in classrooms are, for example; ‘traffic lights’ and rain clouds are not as benign as we might think) – and one who has mastered the skills for self-control; skills that external measures – whether they be threats, bribes or window-dressed as ‘incentives’ – will never instil in a child.

A disagreeable or argumentative child may not always be good company, or easy to spend time with.
But I can confidently say that some of the environments that young people are experiencing have the capacity for harm.
Not all, but many secondary schools, for example, demand unnatural silence, rigid uniform checks, that whole classes accept punishments for misdemeanours which aren’t theirs, and timekeeping so tight that many adolescents must choose between emptying their bladder and detention.

These measures aren’t just immoral, they’re unsafe.
I attended some training in Child Exploitation recently, and it struck me that our kids are not just as risk of being groomed by criminals, but by childhoods which teach them to unquestionably submit to perceived authority and blindly follow instructions. They’re wonderfully pliable when they have no sense of their own voice, agency or autonomy.

I’m not suggesting we raise little anarchists, and I’ll say again that it’s healthy and necessary for children to possess the skills to manage their behaviours and their relationships independently.

But being able to lead with their own values, and not someone else’s, equips them to live a moral life.
Being able to carve their own pathway and not just follow the one that’s expected of them, armours them with resilience.
Being able to communicate and action their own beliefs makes for strong leaders.
And belief in their own autonomy equips them to protect and defend their rights; rights that, whether we like it or not, are theirs.
And to say ‘no’. Even when it means p***ing someone off.

So let’s not automatically see qualities like defiance, opposition or argumentativeness as problems.
They might just turn out to be a kid’s greatest asset.  

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Healthy Brain Biochemistry: Are You Making or Breaking It?

Healthy Brain Biochemistry: Are You Making or Breaking It?

My birthday fell in the middle of half-term, and once again I failed in my long-awaited plan to celebrate it somewhere hot and sunny.
Instead I aimed for the next best thing and visited ‘Dopamine Land’, an attraction in London which promises to fill visitors with happiness hormones, whatever the weather.
I can confirm that being accompanied by a small child helps you to overcome the self-consciousness of throwing yourself into an enormous ball pit or engaging in a full on pillow fight to the tune of nightclub music.

But today’s post is less about my half-term shenanigans and more about the impacts -positive and negative – of biochemicals on brain function and development.
The topic is surprisingly simple to understand, and can help us make sense of why the children we work, and maybe live with, can appear emotionally buoyant one minute and overwhelmed and struggling the next, even if – in fact, especially if – those struggles don’t make sense.

Dopamine is just one healthy hormone that makes children (and grown-ups!) feel good. Yes, an adult-sized ball pit works, but so do the simple pleasures of the sun on your face, singing in the shower, or finishing your exercise, even if you feel like you’re dying…

Just as good for humans is serotonin, a brain-balancing hormone released through slower paced activity. The serotonin toolbox contains mindfulness, being in nature, immersive creativity, or just taking some deep, slow breaths. It’s our mood stabiliser than brings about a sense of calm, peace and connectedness with the self.

Oxytocin is worth a mention too, coming from a sense of connectedness with others. We all need an oxytocin hit occasionally, whatever our age, especially when under duress. In children, this need is often the driving force behind comfort-seeking behaviours, even if they’re ‘too old’ to need reassurance, or it’s inappropriate to offer a hug etc.

But an oxytocin boost is nature’s way of assuring them that they belong, are accepted, and is often a much-needed antidote to shame, rejection or exclusion (or the fear of). Warm, positive eye-contact; a smile, a hand on the shoulder, a humorous exchange, or any pro-social gesture; can all help point the needle in the right direction.

The essential thing to know about all of these hormones, or ‘neurotransmitters’, as they’re often referred to, is that they buffer the impacts of stress.
It’s easy to overlook just how negatively impactful stressor hormones are on the brain and body, especially young people’s. Firstly, most have not yet learned to self-regulate and therefore manage their own stress effectively.

But secondly, we often see the situation more through our eyes than theirs, especially during the turbulent adolescent period when young people can be especially reactive.

When they’re ‘challenging’, when they appear to regress, or struggle to make simple or ‘good’ decisions, we need to be questioning the likely ingredients of the biochemical soup that their brain’s sitting in; is this child really ‘old enough to know better’, being dramatic, defiant or downright reckless? Or are they simply at the mercy of excessive stressor hormones like adrenaline and cortisol?

It’s not just significant trauma, but low level stressors – even those beyond a person’s conscious awareness – and everything in between that can result in a hugely acidic cocktail of biochemicals. And if levels are chronically high, that can literally burn ‘functional holes’ into brain tissue.

What does this mean?

Any brain must be healthy for it to function in a healthy way, meaning we need to support a biochemical change before we can realistically expect change anywhere else; in behaviour, attitudes, engagement etc.
We may need to respond to young people in ways which can feel counter-intuitive; offering empathy when they’ve done something wrong, or breathing space when we want to hold them accountable etc.

But a brain in distress is a brain in distress – regardless of how irrational and disproportionate that may be to our adult brains – and it won’t work better, e.g. think clearly, reason and reflect, understand our perspective, learn from experience, or make better choices, until its biochemistry is back in synch. After the worst of meltdowns, you can be 48 hours and counting…

But we have a much better chance of working with, rather than against these kids’ development when we create the conditions conducive to healthy brain. Even if that entails patience (and peace).
Plus, the chances are that, by giving their brains time to re-adjust, we do the same for ours too; most of us know from experience that dealing with another’s distressed brain can be very stressful, and our neural chaos will only fan the flames.

So next time you can feel stress levels rising – yours, or your children’s – do what you need to do re-balance everybody, whether that’s giving it time and space, creating a playful situation, offering comfort or co-regulating.
It might feel permissive or indulgent but it’s not. It just helps brains – everyone’s – feel better. And when brains feel better, then they do better.

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The Dreaded Power Struggle… Why We Should NEVER Try To Win!

The Dreaded Power Struggle... Why We Should NEVER Try To Win!

A short and seemingly unsignificant exchange with my 10 year birthed the topic of today’s post. 
On the surface, the refusal to get out of bed – an occurrence which has directed the start of most days since school resumed- is a non-event; just one of a multitude of familiar episodes that risk sabotaging any intentions that any parent may have to be ‘gentle’ or ‘peaceful’.

While I managed to resist raising my voice, I did resort to threatening to pull the quilt off him, and in that moment, the relationship changed; we moved out of ‘You need to get up and ready for school’ space, and into ‘Who is going to win?’

Enter the age-old power struggle; always challenging, but sometimes seemingly impossible to avoid, not just for those of us who live with young people, but who work with them as well.

Despite the inevitable frustrations that power-struggles entail, it’s helpful to remember that all humans have ‘power needs‘; if we look through the lens of basic child development, an innate desire for control is the foundation for an infant becoming independent, from the day they’re born.

A developmental necessity it may be, but one that we often overlook in favour of the ‘I’m the adult so I’m in charge’ mindset.
Our need to be in control might be well placed, but that doesn’t mean that children’s own power-needs don’t diminish or disappear.
And when a child or adolescent is unable to get their power needs met in a healthy, productive way, the outcome is often power-struggle behaviours; figurative tug-of-wars that regularly go misunderstood because they get labelled – unhelpfully – as ‘manipulative‘ or ‘attention seeking‘ etc.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter who gets their ‘own way’; locking horns with the young people in our lives hijacks our time and attention – and theirs – and can quickly derail our plans, as well as undermine a healthy relationship with them.
In other words, nobody wins.

Thus, the ideal outcome is less to do with exerting our authority as the adult, but avoiding being drawn into power-struggles to begin with. Or at least extrapolating ourselves from them, without conflict.

Whether you are in, or just trying to resist the adult-child dynamic that feels like a power-battle, it can help to:

1) Recognise that these behaviours stem from the child’s basic need to feel safer and more secure in that moment – affirming to themselves that they can exercise influence and control.

2) Remember that these children are not your opponent… What does it look like to mentally ‘put your end of the rope down‘?


It doesn’t have to mean them ‘getting it their way’, nor you admitting defeat; in fact it shouldn’t.
Instead, the question to ask ourselves in these moments is “How do I partner with this person, so we work with, rather than against each other?”
Yes, that may mean compromise, but that’s usually still favourable to going into some kind of warfare with our kids, even if it isn’t the confrontational type.

But the solution isn’t just about meeting somewhere in the middle. Sometimes all it takes to change the game entirely is a few simple adjustments to the way we communicate.
Because, when a child – any human, in fact – feels heard and that their needs are still recognised and validated – even if they can’t get what they want – it’s much more difficult (and far less necessary) for them to embroil you in a power-battle.

So instead of:
I know you’re unhappy, but I can’t do anything about the situation.

Try:
I can’t do anything to change the situation, but I do understand why you’re unhappy.

Instead of:
I’m not being unfair; you know that’s the rules

Try:
That’s the rule (or condition), but I accept that it doesn’t feel fair.

Instead of:
You can say whatever you want, but it’s not going to change anything

Try:
I’m sorry things aren’t going to change today, but I’ve heard what you’ve got to say.

Instead of:
I know you’re angry, but that’s the consequences

Try:

That is the consequence, AND (not ‘but’) I know that makes you angry.

As is often the case, these – and other versions of them – are easier on paper than in practice.
For a start, you might have to work at not sounding sarcastic.
And it helps to pay attention to our own discomfort when using these kinds of phrases; for example, the impulse to add ‘Yes, but’ (or versions of). 
‘Yes, but’ may feel like the start of a valid explanation, but there’s always a ‘No’ hidden in ‘Yes, but‘, which can exacerbate, rather than ease the struggle.

Or, if you find yourself wanting to fill the silence that usually follows these types of exchanges, resist if you can.
Silence should never be used as a ‘power-weapon’, but sometimes it’s a necessary – albeit awkward – part of avoiding being drawn back in.

It can feel like relinquishing authority or admitting defeat, but when we can keep our ego in check, our real power is in sharing power.

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High Hopes, Realistic Expectations: Why we don’t need a ‘Joyful’ or ‘Merry’ Christmas holiday

High Hopes, Realistic Expectations: Why we don't need a 'Joyful' or 'Merry' Christmas holiday

I’m not a scrooge by any means but, like many parents, when I hear a voice singing ‘It’s the most wonderful time or the year’, or even worse, ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day‘, I’m inclined to disagree. 

What we want from the festive holidays, and what we get from them -or even expect from it – can be seriously misaligned, but simply reviewing what’s realistic can be the difference that makes the difference between enjoying or enduring Christmas.

Have high hopes, absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with optimism.
But the holidays can be too easily spoiled simply because we expect more of these five qualities ⬇ than our kids are equipped to offer in the moment;

Gratitude
Having a kid who is ungrateful may be every parent’s nightmare, but for the sake of not ruining your own joy, be mindful of putting too much weight on your kids, simply because they’re being over-indulged.
Gratitude is not only a hard-earned skill – it’s referred to as a ‘practice’ because it does take practice – but, whether child or adult, we can only access our gratitude when we’re functioning well, e.g. from our logical, regulated brain.

I’m not saying turn a blind eye to lack of gratitude, but most us know from experience that being berated for not being grateful enough doesn’t make gratitude grow.
Instead, share with your kids how much you’ve noticed that there is for you and them to be thankful for.
Or gently remind them how fortunate and loved they are, without giving them a hard time for it.

Empathy
Who doesn’t want empathic children; kids who appreciate that not everyone has somewhere warm and safe to spend Christmas, with food in their bellies and people around who love them?
Or who can be mindful of Auntie Maureen’s feelings when she offers an unimpressive gift, instead of rolling their eyes or just asking if there are any more presents?

While it’s natural to find yourself apologising for your kids’ lack of manners or otherwise frustrated by their lack of consideration for others, empathy is another of those skills that takes mastery.
I’m not suggesting you give up on it; you can absolutely cultivate empathy at Christmas, but be realistic at the same time.
Give your children some time to think ahead about what others might be feeling or expecting from them, or to consider the time, effort and expense involved.
Coach them on the art of receiving.

But a child who’s just missed the moment to express empathy doesn’t mean they’re apathetic or uncaring, especially during festive overwhelm when their brain might simply have reached its maximum bandwidth already.

Self-Control and Regulation
Overwhelm can hijack the best of us over the holidays, but our little people simply don’t have the experience, the understanding of what’s involved in planning – or paying – for it all, let alone the maturity to know how to handle the change in routine and the general excitement.
Younger children especially (and lots of grown-ups, in truth) probably won’t have the self-awareness to recognise their growing unease or frustration, and often the first sign that they’re struggling at an outburst.

Over the festive period, think of your kids (and yourself!) like a coke bottle that’s constantly being shaken up.
Unless they’re continually releasing pressure gently and regularly, they’re going to blow eventually, so don’t wait for emotions to run too high. Nine times out of ten it’s too late by then.
Make sure you’re injecting their days with a bit of downtime, a bit of movement, outside time, quiet time, stillness. A bit of normality isn’t just ok, it’s essential!

Fun-Curbing (even if it’s well intended)
Too many sweets, too much fizzy pop, too many late nights and just ‘too much’ in general… Averting a meltdown can mean not giving your kids so much freedom that they end up running wild and eventually making life miserable for everyone.

But it can be just as difficult if you curb the celebrating so much that they feel like they’re denied all the liberties that everyone else is enjoying.
For your sake as well as theirs, remember ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation itself’.
A later night than usual won’t do most kids any harm if they can sleep in a bit longer tomorrow. One chocolate bar when they’ve already brushed their teeth won’t give them a mouthful of cavities.

We all want a marvellous Christmas holiday but if the pressure for everything to go perfectly, for everyone to get along and for our kids to fill our hearts with joy is too immense, we can just end up wishing it all away too soon.
Occasionally the key to everyone having the best time possible is to loosen our grip – just a little – and not needing control of everything.

Joy (or lack of)
When we’ve worked so tirelessly to achieve the dream Christmas, it can be wounding when it falls flat; the presents our kids REALLY wanted have already lost their appeal, the plans that were made with great excitement are now met with indifference…
It may feel defeatist to lower expectations, but not if setting the bar too high simply fuels disappointment.
Christmas coming round only once a year means than none us gets very much practice at it, and the nature of childhood means that the kid who gleefully shared the last one with you might have morphed into somebody quite different this year.

Celebrate satisfaction. It doesn’t mean you can’t hope for – or even have – the most magical, precious Christmas of all time.
But insisting on it can quickly sap the joy from what should be, could be, and otherwise would be, a lovely time… As long as we’re willing to rest in the present when the worthwhile moments happen, and trust that those not worth resting in will pass.

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Raising Kids With Empathy… Why It’s Harder Than You Think

Raising Children With Empathy... Why It's Much Harder Than We Think

With some reluctance, I bought my son a mobile phone for his tenth birthday recently. I don’t like the ease at which he can access a screen, but it’s helping his independence and, I confess, allowing me a bit more freedom myself.

So while I was at a friend’s house last week he was able to call me, and he did because I wasn’t home ‘on time’.
My friend was touched that he was worried about me, but what I saw is the sign of the times.

Even the most self-assured kids are far more prone to anxieties than they deserve to be; mistrust in the world, lack of faith in their ability to cope or adjust to change have become an epidemic; I just read that school-based anxiety has taken 17% of students out of secondary school in Northern Ireland.

And I get really frustrated when the ‘solution’ being peddled is the threat of fines; it’s a sticking-plaster approach (and an inhumane one) that’s not at all interested in why so many children exist in a chronic state of unease.

Whatever and wherever a child is struggling to feel confident in their world, the missing ingredients are usually acceptance and empathy, because these – what I refer to as ‘A&E’ – are game-changers.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as being empathic and accepting, but the truth is that it’s second nature for all of us to some extent to fail at it.
Honestly, how accepting are we when someone cuts us up in the traffic or jumps the queue? How readily do we form an opinion about a person’s terrible dress sense, he who constantly interrupts or she who always drinks too much as the staff Christmas party?

And it’s this propensity to see the situation through our own lens and not the other person’s – to value our version of what’s acceptable and what isn’t -which can get in the way of understanding and supporting our child when, whether we accept it or not, they’re in distress.

All of us know a fellow human who is fluent in non-acceptance, in not understanding, and not actually wanting to understand the emotional world of another. And sometimes, if we look closely, we might recognise that quality in ourselves as well.

Because the reality is that ‘A&E’ is far easier in theory than in practice, especially when the child in front of us doesn’t have the capacity to see the world through our sense-making eyes; I live and breathe this stuff, but on plenty of occasions I’ve accused my son of being ridiculous, making a mountain out of a molehill, or expecting too much of me.

When it’s logical and well-intended, judgement comes especially easily. But the fact remains that, whether a person is a child or adult, NOBODY feels safe being judged, regardless of whether it’s the intention or not.
Nor will ANYBODY change what they think and feel, just because someone tells them to.

We don’t have to accept our child’s attitude or behaviour to accept their experience.
But what happens when we are willing to suspend our own version of events and connect with their reality?
Do you remember what changed for you the last time when – instead of being judged or dismissed – you felt seen and heard, that your truth was your truth, and it mattered?

Nothing changes if nothing changes, and our kids can’t just change to fit the needs of their grown-ups. That’s not how brains work.
Whether it’s our kids’ thoughts or decisions, actions or attitudes, behaviours or beliefs, these things are always a by-product of brain activity, so changing any of them means changing what’s happening inside their heads first.

Acceptance and Empathy always works in favour of their brain. So, whether they’re at home, at school, or anywhere else, resist problem-solving or perspective, rationalising or minimising as your first port of call.
Insist on making them FEEL emotionally safe and connected. See what changes then.

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Who Has A Dysregulated Child? Or Do They Have A Dysregulated Grown-Up?

Got A Dysregulated Child? Or Do THEY Have A Dysregulated Grown-Up?

“I’m ok, you’re ok”, or so the saying goes.
But what if you’re not ok or your kids are not ok? Because the alternative, “It’s ok not to be ok”, will only take you so far.

We can’t know (or practice) enough about emotional regulation, self-regulation and more importantly ‘co-regulation’: the art of bringing a dysregulated child into your regulated state, rather than joining them in theirs.

Co-regulation sounds easy when things are going well.
But the general demands of life knock most of us off-course on a regular basis, before we even add our child’s meltdown or anxiety attack or angry outburst into the mix.
Thus ‘co-regulation’ can go out of the window when it matters the most.

Instead we can end up in overdrive ourselves, matching our overwhelmed child with our own state of overwhelm; shouting, being irrational, panicking or just feeling defeated and disconnecting.

There seems to be a lot of dysregulated kids (and parents!) around at the moment.
The niggles with school transitions are starting to show up, festive excitement is building, and the cold dark weather means that many aren’t getting the time outside that helps their nervous systems to regularly reset.

So today I’m sharing five tips for self and co-regulation that are worth keeping on the mental shelf for those dysregulated moments:

    1. Stay Self-Aware
      Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the truth is that most of us aren’t regularly checking in with ourselves.
      If we’re already juggling too many balls, carrying the weight of other people’s ‘stuff’, or feeling triggered by another stressor, it doesn’t take much to tip us over the edge.
      Furthermore, our kids tends to subconsciously pick up on our emotional states and mirror them back to us, creating all the ingredients for the kind of experience that doesn’t serve anyone.

    2. Stay In Empathy
      This can be especially difficult when the source of your child’s complaint is that they can’t have pizza for breakfast, or another set of football cards to add to the 7000 they already own, or can’t rock up to school when they feel like it.
      It’s easy to just dismiss our child as OTT, being silly or ‘ridiculous’.

      You’re right, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that your child is in distress or pain, regardless, and for as long as their nervous system is in disarray, they won’t be able to regulate or calm down.
      Forget about the details and just connect to your child’s truth in that moment.

    3. Don’t Try To Problem-Solve
      It can be very distressing witnessing our child in distress, and so very easy to move straight into ‘How do we make this stop?’ territory.
      But your child’s brain is not in problem-solving, logical or decision-making mode (which explains why they can fiercely resist everything we offer to make things better).
      Trying to fix it right there and then is usually futile.

      Instead, hold in mind that your child’s subconscious brain is activating its own panic-alarm, so before anything meaningful can change, it needs to feel safe again.
      Focus on connection, comfort, reassurance, or just staying close, and leave problem-solving for later (bearing in mind it can take 24 hours or more for them to ‘recover’ from these episodes!)

    4. Really Listen
      Our kids can say and do very alarming things when dysregulated; they might throw the worst insults or share their ugliest thoughts or beliefs. I’m not suggesting you dismiss those things; only you can make the call as to whether it needs further attention or input.
      But when we get hijacked by what’s being said literally, e.g. by trying to talk them out of that bad feeling, we don’t usually connect with what else is being communicated.

      Dysregulation is often coded behaviour for words our kids don’t have; I feel vulnerable, I’m fed-up, I’m lonely, I’m scared, even just hungry or tired.
      What’s not being said? That’s often the window into what your child needs most from you in that moment.

    5. Don’t take it personally
      We might find ourselves subject to all kinds of criticism during these episodes.
      While it is possible that our children might mean what they say, by and large, they don’t: even if they feel it at the time.
      Either way, we can get drawn into defending ourselves instead of emotionally connecting with our child.
      Hold in mind that yours might be spending a lot of their life, e.g. at school, keeping a lid on particular feelings or supressing impulses, and they eventually have to come to the surface somehow.

      And when they do, it’s often in the presence of the person they feel safest with; this is when they can finally let everything go.
      Instead of feeling hurt if they’re ‘good as gold’ or ‘seem fine’ everywhere, or with everyone else, it can be an inverted compliment; “I can show you the worst of myself and know you’ll still accept me, love me, hold space for me, make me feel safe again” etc.

Of course, our children need to learn more effective ways to understand and communicate their difficult feelings, and to manage them by themselves.
And they can. Just now right now. 

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Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Attention-Seeking’

Why There's No Such Thing AS 'Attention-Seeking'

Some years ago I was working with a group of adolescents, one of which managed to bring the group to a complete standstill. Were they being aggressive, outwardly disruptive, or confrontational?
No. They simply started tapping the radiator every time someone started speaking.

Enter the not-so-wonderful world of ‘Attention-seeking’.  

Most of us are familiar with it in some shape or form: ‘fake’ crying, the silent treatment, saying things to elicit a particular reaction from an adult.
And how do we often respond?

Society, and frequently, our own experiences of childhood, have long since advised and conditioned us to turn away from attention-seeking; giving attention to an attention-seeker is ‘rewarding’ the behaviour, and we should ‘ignore’ it instead.

These beliefs are actually quite wide of the mark: outdated, unhelpful and largely inaccurate, and it’s time to challenge and demystify them. 
I’ll start with this; we should never just ignore attention-seeking. And here’s why…

At birth, we listen out for an infant’s cries. That newly born brain is a blunt instrument but it’s effective, reminding the care-giver to stay close, not to forget about them or to lose them.
That baby isn’t making a conscious choice, it just knows how to tell the world ‘see me, hear me, meet my needs’. 

And that is attention-seeking: a primitive survival mechanism that helps keep them alive and feeling safe in the world.
I know, your attention-seeking child isn’t a baby anymore. They need to get their needs met in more appropriate ways.
But right in that attention-seeking moment, just see what you have in front of you: a child telling you they have unmet needs.

Attention-seeking may not be the most sophisticated form of communicating them but, as frustrating or infuriating as these behaviours may be, being ignored or chastised WON’T teach a child better communication skills.
The very real risk of ignoring children when they seek attention is that – albeit unintentionally – we can instead teach them that their needs aren’t worthy of being met, that they aren’t important enough to be noticed.
And that has inevitable impacts on self-esteem and mental health.

If we want to change attention-seeking behaviour, IMO, the first change to make is ours. 
And that is so throw out the term ‘attention-seeking’ altogether. WHY?

Start with this; if our kids tell us they’re hungry, or cold, or in pain, what do we do?
We respond. We give them what they need.

Children seek attention because they need attention. 
See an attention-needing child. Or a connection-seeking child. Or an attachment seeking child. But unburden them of the accusation of being an attention-seeker, and all the negative connotations that come with it.

Of course they need to learn more effective and pro-social ways of expressing their needs.  And we can always support them to do that; in fact we must.
But our kids will only be receptive to learning those skills when their ‘thinking brain’ is engaged.

And while they’re in attention-needing mode, it’s not.
Hold in mind that first cry, the relief when the new-born arrives and declares ‘I’m here! I don’t like this. Make me feel better. Attend to my needs’…
And know that that, regardless of the three, or ten, or fifteen year old body in front of you, that primitive part of the brain is doing the work right now, just rather inarticulately.

Giving attention to your attention-needing child can feel counterintuitive. 
And it won’t always be met with the approval of others who favour the ‘ignore it or you’re rewarding it’ approach. Ignore them.

We don’t need to defend or explain our decision to let our kids know that we’ve seen them, we’ve heard them, and that their needs matter. And that is what really deserves our attention 😉

PS) If you’re a parent in need support tailored around your individual circumstances, my 1:1 sessions are designed to do just that. Just ‘Enquire’ here! 

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‘Managing’ Behaviour Rarely Changes Behaviour… And Here’s Why

'Managing' Behaviour Rarely Changes Behaviour... And Here's Why

As if returning to school after six weeks off isn’t hard enough, the difference between the work in Yr 4 and the work in Yr 5 is testing my 9 year old, who’s just made the transition.
It’s no surprise that I’m finding him more challenging – or, more accurately, ‘challenged’) than usual; I’m noticing less cooperation, more reactivity, a shorter fuse, and unnecessary hostility all round.

Difficult-to-manage behaviour is not uncommon, a topic explored in the recent BBC documentary, ‘Helping Our Teens’. But some settings are not yet convinced that a focus on understanding behaviour, rather than managing it, is the way forward: an approach that expert Marie Gentles brought to the school followed by the documentary. 

Nobody’s saying that behaviour problems don’t need addressing. They do, of course.
But it can be very easy for any setting to default to ‘Behaviour Management’ policy, without questioning whether that’s actually helping (or, in fact, hindering).

And in that process, what’s so often missed is that ‘bad’ behaviour is not really the cause of the problem, but more accurately, a symptom of the real problem. 

That always comes back to what’s going on in the child’s brain; all behaviours have their roots in brain activity, and once we understand what’s going on inside, we can usually make much more sense of what we see on the outside.

Those that know me well know that I like talking about brains, and “The Brain Behind The Behaviour” is the very subject I’m talking about at Lightbulb’s SEMH Conference on 4th October.

Behaviour change (in adults as well as young people; it’s the same process for all of us) is the result of a changed brain; change you’ll rarely affect simply by repeatedly excluding young people, which is unfortunately the go-to response in far too many settings.

On the contrary, punitive measures often serve to reinforce the child’s negative self-identity, leading to more problem behaviour, not less.

Explaining ‘The Brain Behind The Behaviour’ would be rather too ambitious for one blog post (it’s a training session for a reason), but whether we’re practitioners or parents, it can make the choppy waters easier to navigate if we hold these three principles in mind:

All behaviour is a form communication.

Whether they are hostile, rude, confusing or challenging, all behaviours can tell us something about the young person. They may not be making an intentional or conscious effort to communicate, but when we reframe ‘a problem child’ and instead see a ‘child with a problem’, we usually see more of what’s driving the behaviour, rather than just the behaviour itself.

And that’s always the place to start from. Otherwise, you’re just sticking a plaster over it.

All behaviour is an effort at a relationship.

This can feel wholly counterintuitive, especially when faced with hostility or aggression, but here is a child who is still intentionally connecting with you. Apathy is the real pointer of zero interest in a relationship.

Some young people will be emotionally hijacked. Some will be on more familiar ground by being oppositional (you don’t have to risk rejection if you reject first). Some simply won’t have yet mastered the skills to communicate more effectively.

But there’s always an offer of some kind in those behaviours – albeit, an inarticulate one – that we can use (as long as we don’t become emotionally hijacked ourselves).

Be what you want to see (it always starts with us).

We’re only human and we can’t just switch off our own feelings and responses to unsavoury behaviours. We’ll never get it right all the time.

But very often, it’s an environmental factor that triggers behaviour problems; being shamed (intentionally or not), not listened to, shouted at, etc. In the words of Bruce Perry ‘A dysregulated adult can never help regulate a dysregulated child’. Thus, changing a child’s behaviours often starts with changing our own. 

The systems so many of us work in can render us pretty powerless; firstly, in what we do to children. But ‘being done to’ won’t build a better-behaved brain. 

Secondly, in what we ask children to do for their adults. But whatever the ‘consequence’, a child can’t do what their brain isn’t capable of.

Where can we find the space to do with them? Because it’s the relationship that makes the difference.
And that is always step one of building a better behaved brain. 

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The Simplest Resource That Solves Most Problems… And We ALL Have It!

The Simplest Resource That Solves So Many Problems... And We ALL have It!

Today’s writing is inspired by a conversation I had during a 1:1 session with a parent last week. It’s a subject that comes up in many of the conversations I have: TIME.
Whether it’s our child experiencing ‘the problem’, or us having a problem with our child, many of the most effective solutions simply mean letting time pass or involve being patient.

Childhood really doesn’t last very long, and yet we are so often in a hurry for them to grow up: The frustrating or annoying moments when we want them to do more for themselves, to mature faster, to finally master the skill we’re trying to teach them.
Or because they simply refuse to do what they’re perfectly capable of.

But when are those most important times, when we can -and should – bide our time; when it’s time to let time do its important work?
Here are three of them…

WAIT: When your kids come to you with a problem
Sometimes of course, their problems are easy to solve.
But often they’re not, especially those situations which involve uncomfortable emotions like sadness or pain, worry or fear.
Our most instinctive response is usually to go into ‘fix it’ mode.
Or, when we can’t fix it, we might default to minimising the problem or sugar-coating it with ‘at least’s’ and positive perspectives instead.

It’s always well-intended, but we what we can inadvertently do in these moments, very easily, is express to our children that we’re not taking their experience seriously, that we’re not really listening, that their problem isn’t valid.
The most powerful thing we can usually do is stay out of problem-solving, or ‘don’t worry’, or ‘yes, but‘, and use what I call the ‘A&E’ technique.

‘Acceptance’: Validating what our child feels and that it’s ok to feel that way.
‘Empathy’: Connecting with their experience, without trying to change it (or at least before we try to).

Resisting the urge to make the problem go away can be very uncomfortable, but for the child, it can be healing all by itself to just be able to feel whatever they need to feel, for as long as they need to feel it.
(BTW it can be healing all by itself to just let OURSELVES feel whatever we need to feel, for as long as we need to feel it)

WAIT: When your child (or their parent!) is in a state of emotional overwhelm
When they’re in a state of emotionally hijack or distress, their ‘thinking brain’ isn’t online; in other words they’re not receptive.
Give them time to compose themselves.
There’s no point trying to address the situation until their brain is working properly again, no matter how great the urge to ‘nip it in the bud’ or resolve the situation.

PAUSE. Even when it feels like doing something is better than doing nothing, like you’re being a passive parent, like you’re ‘letting them get away with it‘. You’re not.
It’s far better to take the time needed to work out the deeper meaning behind the behaviour or attitude, and deal with that – properly – than firefight the symptom and most likely add conflict to the situation as well.

WAIT: When your beliefs about what they ‘should’ be developmentally capable of may be inaccurate.
The world tells us a lot of lies about this…
Should they be able to sleep alone and in their own bed from infancyNo.
Humans are the only mammalian species on the planet that births their young, and then doesn’t co-sleep with them. Developmentally, adolescence marks the stage when young mammals are ready to leave the nest (and thus do so of their own accord).

Should they be able to ‘make good choices’, or manage their behaviours and regulate their emotions by the time they start school? No.
4 and 5 year old brains have an awful lot of maturing to do.

Should we worry when our child isn’t co-operative or compliant with grown-ups? No.
The developmental nature of growing up requires them to make their own decisions, think for themselves, disagree, or choose their own course of action – even if that goes against ours.

If only in the spirit of compassion, empathy – and for the sake of our emotional state – let’s remember that plenty of adults can’t do what the world sometimes expects children to do.

So next time you find yourself hurrying yours to be and do more than they’re offering in that moment, just wait.
Because Mother Nature may have made different plans for your small human.

Wait until they’re more receptive to talking, listening or problem-solving.
Wait until they are genuinely old enough to ‘know better’.
Wait until you’ve had time to compose yourself and give the situation some breathing space.

If you need more personalised support with a parenting dilemma, you don’t have the time to ‘wait’, or you need more tricks up your sleeve than patience, 1:1 support is available!
More info here or enquire here. Or just email jo@wellwithinreach.co.uk if that’s easier.

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Why ‘Are These Ready?’ Is Not The Question To Ask…

Are These Children 'Ready'? Why It's Not The Question We Should Ask

This week is the final week that my nine year old is in year 4 and, although it’s nowhere near as profound as the primary-secondary transition, he’s going from the top – a mixed 3-4 class – to the bottom – a mixed 5-6 class.

This got me thinking about the subject of today’s post, and reminded me of a training session I was delivering for a in a school.
The head teacher said something that left a very deep imprint on me: “We are not really interested in whether our children are ready for school. We’re more concerned about whether our school is ready for children.”

Children’s readiness is often misunderstood because they have a wonderful capacity to adapt. The gift of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to shape itself according to the environment it finds itself in – means we sometimes assume, wrongly, that children are more ‘ready’ than they are.

As adults, our readiness for change of often guided by our own choices: changing jobs, moving house, taking on more responsibilities.
But with children, the role of their choice or agency or autonomy in the matter is rarely considered.
Instead, we may be thinking that, developmentally, they’re ready; an assumption that the child’s own anticipation and excitation can, sometimes inaccurately, suggest.

But there are many contradictions in the world about what a child’s readiness– their emotional readiness, in particular – should look like.

If you just think about babyhood for example, where did this idea come from that they should be ready to sleep alone and in their own bed from infancy? There isn’t a mammalian species on the planet, apart from humans, that births their young, and then doesn’t share sleeping space with them.

But, all the while they’re so reliant on that dependent relationship, the innate urge to become independent is also alive and kicking, right from those earliest days. Children wouldn’t develop beyond infancy if they weren’t hard-wired to exert influence in how they interact with the world.

And yet, as parents or practitioners, we’re very often expected to work and raise children in ways which, in effect, go completely against this neurodevelopmental process; there may be little room for them to make their own decisions, to think for themselves, to disagree, or choose their own course of action.

Far too many children in the education system are so tightly managed that they have no agency or autonomy at all.
Until, at the age of 13, they’re then expected to ‘be ready’ to decide what they want to do for the rest at their lives. How can we expect them to be equipped to make such important choices, with so little practice?

At whatever age they are, and whatever we might want or expect children to be ready for, the truth is that young brains don’t fully mature until between the ages of 28-31. (More info on the Adolescent Brain CPD on this page).

And even so, that doesn’t guarantee anything; as adults (i.e. 30+) there’s plenty of occasions when we get hijacked by a ‘badly behaved brain’ because we’re not ready to deal with a situation. We might curse behind the wheel, let our impulses get the better of us, or say something unkind or unhelpful because it feels good at the time.

It’s one of the numerous reasons I can’t endorse many systems of ‘behaviour management’ or ‘zero tolerance’ in schools and other settings.
The expectation that children – as soon as they start school, no less! – should be ready ‘make good choices’, to control their behaviours, to manage their relationships, to regulate their emotions – is wildly unrealistic.

And unfair, not just on the child, but the adult expected the manage the child who can’t manage themselves.

So in the spirit of us Being Ready For Children, and not the other way around, hold in mind that just because they look ready, and even feel ready, it does not mean they are ‘ready’.
Nor does being ready now assure that readiness will remain.

But we can -and must- be ready for them:

✅Ready to be the emotionally available adult that they still need to feel secure.

✅Ready to nurture and reassure, especially when they have a wobble, when friendships changes, or when the shine wears off, etc.

✅Ready to remind them that they’re still a competent, capable human being when the weight of others’ demands and expectations gets too heavy.

✅Ready to give them autonomy, agency and independence wherever we can, so we work with, and not against, how Mother Nature intended.

✅Ready to accept that adapting to change isn’t easy, and so they can (and should!) be forgiven for being a perfectly flawed human while they do.

If this resonates visit  this page  for info on related CDP, such as:

  • Re-empowering the Powerless Child
  • Ending Well: Supporting Children with Loss
  • The Turbulence of the Adolescent Brain
  • Ready To Fly: Building the Resilient Brain

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