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Listening With Intention As Well As Attention

Listening With Intention As Well As Attention

Most of us like to think we’re good at listening, especially to the children we live and work with.
But really tuning in can be much harder in practice than in reality; my son frequently tells me at great length all about his progress on Roblox, and it not only makes no sense to me, but doesn’t interest me, and I confess that sometimes I notice myself making a half-hearted attempt to engage, while thinking about something else entirely.

But listening well – with intention, as well as attention – is important, especially at this time of year, when so many children and young people have some kind of change or transition on the horizon. Staying connected – emotionally, if not physically – to our kids during vulnerable or turbulent times is enormously protective of their mental health, even if they don’t appear to have much of an appetite for it.

How can we zoom in on the art of ‘attunement’? Here are three ways:

Practice ‘Active Listening’
“Listen, not with the intent to reply, but to understand”…

It’s more challenging than merely ‘listening’, because active listening requires us to steer away from and silence the internal chatter and stream of thoughts that usually come up for us: the need to reply, share what we might do, and the very common human urge to give advice.

Active listening between adult and child is a special kind of communication; it starts with the shared understanding that you, as the listener, are fully engaged.
We validate their experience, instead of defaulting to ‘everything’s fine’, ‘don’t worry’, ‘you’re being silly ’etc.
It means we pay close attention – to their non-verbal cues as much as their words – and feed those back to them in ways which affirm that we’re truly present.

Slowing down enough to listen deeply when most of us are conditioned to maximise our productivity 24/7 is no easy task.
But with practice, this way of connecting and communicating with the young people in our lives can be transformational – for us, as well as them.

Be ‘Person-Centred’
What this means when we’re listening to kids is that our energies remain focused on them.
We often feel assured that we’re already doing this, but if we look closer, we’re actually focused on what our own role is in the situation; How do I make this child feel better? How do I solve their problem?

It so instinctive to move into well-intentioned ‘fix-it’ mode when they present us with their discomfort or pain. And sometimes that may be necessary.
But not always, and while it can make for a short-term solution, it doesn’t build their capacity to become their own problem-solvers.
Person-centredness in action means connecting with the child in ways which focus on them, e.g. learning to understand their problem better, so they are better equipped to unlock the solution within themselves.
Our role is to support them through that process but, not be leading with our adult lens and imprinting that on them, but enabling the child to sharpen their own.


So catch yourself if you start administering advice or becoming ‘rescuer’.  
Instead, reflect what they’re sharing or what you’re observing back to them. Giving voice to that expresses that you’ve seen them, heard them, and want to understand them; that in itself can be enough.

But if they need more, invite them to reflect with you…W hat do they think is causing the problem? What does their idea of a solution look like to? What can they do to action that? Then, are they going to need your help?

Can you hear what ISN’T being said?
When young people don’t talk, does it automatically mean they don’t want to?
Not always, or at all, which is why it matters – especially as kids approach and progress through adolescence – that we notice what isn’t been said, not just what is.

Of course, they may simply have nothing they want to share with you in that moment.
But at other times, there are valid reasons they don’t talk; they may not expect to be taken seriously (the world is, after all, generally terrible at listening to children).
Or they won’t talk; they’re short on courage, or energy, or think it’s not the ‘right’ time.

Or they can’t talk; they’re struggling to find the words to articulate themselves. Recognising their feelings takes a level of self-awareness that is just not available at that time. Having the language to verbalise them in a meaningful way is a different skill entirely.
Chronic distress or trauma, experiences at any point in a young person’s life – can affect the brain in such a way that it can immobilise their capacity to speak at all. 

Young humans don’t always know that sharing what’s going on in their head with somebody else is a useful way to make sense of it.
But all humans, according to the science, subconsciously interpret far more meaning through non-verbal communication than we do from a person’s words…
So what changes when we really pay close attention to that?
What can you detect from the tone, pitch, or speed of your child’s voice?
What non-verbal cues do you notice? Do you become aware of slight shift in behaviours?

“LISTEN and SILENT are spelled with the same letters”.
I don’t know whose words they are, but when I stumbled across them recently, they silenced me for a moment 💚

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Banishing ‘Bad Attitudes’! A Reality Check On The ‘Disrespectful Child’

Banishing the 'Bad Attitude'! A Reality Check On The 'Disrespectful Child'

It’s very easy to feel triggered when the young people we work with, and/or live with, are rude or bad mannered; when they appear entitled, hostile, ignorant and all other things we call ‘disrespectful’.

I actually get a little triggered by the word ‘respect’, not because I don’t believe in it, but because I’ve witnessed many people, mainly grown-ups, demand respect, mainly from children, in very disrespectful ways.
In an ideal world, genuine respect is a two way street; it shouldn’t really be demanded at all.

Perhaps for this reason, I don’t get particularly triggered when, for example, my own child talks to me in ways I know others would perceive as ‘disrespectful’.
Not because I’m over-tolerant or permissive, but just because I think there’s often more to our interpretation of ‘disrespect’ than we realise.

In my experience, disrespect is frequently a very ‘surface’ problem.
However, once we’re triggered by it, we seldom pause to question it, and then our reactivity can obscure what else might be going on; for example, whether what we think of as ‘rude’ is simply a by-product of tiredness, hunger, boredom, overwhelm or stress.

I’m not saying that those things make it acceptable to be disrespectful or to talk to someone like s***. 
But how often do we end up fanning the flames in these moments, instead of resolving the problem in a meaningful way?

It’s not always easy, or even possible, but when we can stay out – or step out – of taking it personally, of defaulting into a ‘How dare this child talk to me like that?‘ mindset, we can instead ask ‘How do I help them to recognise their feelings, and then communicate them in more effective ways?’ 

Reality check; plenty of adults can’t do this.

It’s not true in every case, of course, but by and large, children learn to be respectful by being treated respectfully. 
We may forget that their communication style is a typical reflection of how others talk to them; that their behaviours are they way they hold up a mirror to their adults’ behaviours.

Usually, those adults are within the child’s immediate circle, family members etc., but the truth is that maybe we don’t always talk to the young people in our worlds in ways which can be described as ‘respectful’ either. 

Being what you want to see’ doesn’t mean undermining our own authority or being permissive. We can be both emotionally intelligent and practice healthy boundaries at the same time.

IMO, the development of respectful children requires two distinct conditions, which, while they’re both achievable in time, are still an invite to check whether our expectations about how children ‘should’ behave, interact and communicate need some adjustment.

1) Young people need to foster an intrinsic belief in the value of being respectful. Directions, force or command may achieve compliance, but that’s quite different from genuine respect. 

2) Pro-social skills, because possessing a respectful attitude doesn’t automatically equate to ‘respectful behaviours’; they entail a sophisticated set of competencies, such as good communication, impulse control, empathy etc. which inevitably take time and practice to master.

Not instantly cutting ‘disrespectful’ children down to size can be counter-intuitive, meaning we may need time and practice ourselves to work on our impulse control and communication style too.

But when we can respond with awareness, instead of reacting without it, we are much better equipped to meaningfully coach our young people about what respect looks like, sounds like and feels like.

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Our Power Is In Our Presence, Not Just Our Practice

The Power Is In Our Presence, Not Just Our Practice

My 10 year old left his school shoes at a friend’s house yesterday and had to go in his trainers today. He asked me to explain this to his class teacher, even though they have a good relationship and his teacher is kind and understanding. 

The impact of relationships generally goes undervalued and underestimated; the quality of those relationships – or lack of – can be the single most helpful, or the single most harmful, ingredient in children’s social and emotional growth, self-esteem and resilience.

And yet, for many CYP professionals, fostering strong relationships can feel like a permissive and pointless deviation from the task at hand. But here’s why they’re not…

Stephen Covey once said that “reducing children to a test score is the greatest form of identity theft we can commit”.
But as children, in secondary settings in particular, are increasingly subject to militant practices, sending them to isolation or excluded for ‘behaviour violations’ such as having the ‘wrong’ hairstyle, shoes or pen etc. the problem has become about much more than scores.

Compliance and conformity is actually quite distinct from self-control, which IMO is the real goal we should be aiming for.
But today’s musings against high-control measures – in any setting, not just in schools – are less to do with power and control, and more to do with the unappreciated damage they can easily inflict on our most powerful and influential resource: the child-adult relationship.

This is why there is vulnerability for my son is pro-actively asking for help or acceptance, despite being blessed with a warm and accepting teacher.
Not so long ago, in a different situation he asked a different adult – one who was in a supporting role – for help.
But instead of being helped, he was berated for ‘not listening’.
Most likely an insignificant remark from an overstretched professional, it still only had to happen once. From that day on, asking for help became associated with being helpless.

And this brief exchange also compounded a different memory, one that’s etched in his mind as the ‘the worst moment of his life’.
He’s a pretty resilient kid overall, and like most, is not unfamiliar being with told off, more so by me than anyone.
The experience that crushed him was not being ‘told off’ per se, but admonished by a grown-up who made a point of embarrassing him in front of other children, when they could have chosen discretion.

Trust is built in small moments, but it can be destroyed irreversibly in a split second.
Making an example of a child – or their behaviour – can seem like a good idea at the time, but it’s a power any adult should wield with great care. Whether it’s our intention or not, the wound of shame and humiliation runs deep, often with permanent effects.

Yet this brief story is pretty insignificant compared to the epidemic that’s raging in many settings, where ‘high standards’ are equating to ‘high-anxiety’, matched by soaring rates of emotionally-based school avoidance and mentally unwell children. Is it so surprising?

The moment those children arrived in the world as babies, their new-born cry signified their most primitive human need; connection. Our survival depends on it, and it’s hard-wired in, meaning it stays with us all, for life.
But instead of receiving that connection, many kids get rejection, called ‘exclusion’ or ‘isolation‘ and the like…
Plenty of young people do comply, but at what cost?

What is often mistaken for ‘good choices’ is simply fear walking, and it stands to reason that control measures which rely on anxiety and fear are never going to bring out the best in anyone, child or adult.
They also work spectacularly against Mother Nature at the adolescent stage, when she’s ensured they’re neurobiologically primed to spread their wings of independence and personal agency.

Thankfully, plenty of us aren’t practicing in these high control or anxiety-inducing environments. We may already be relationally aware, of person-centred or trauma informed. And that’s where true power really lies.
We sometimes forget that we are human beings first, and humans doing second. And this is why we must, must, must lead with our relationships.

If, somewhere else in their lives, the young people you support are exposed to measures of ‘discipline’ which seek to control or shame – even if not in your setting – it may be that your nurturing relationship with them is the much-needed antidote.
Yes, we make a difference through the quality of our practice, but we make the biggest and the best impact with the quality of our presence.
It’s as easy as ABC; Acceptance, Connection and Belonging.

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This Is Not A ‘Travelling With Kids’ Blog Post…

This Is Not A 'Travelling With Kids' Blog Post...

Discovering a new part of the world is one of my favourite things, so over the holidays I took my 10 year old on a Portuguese road trip. He hasn’t caught the travel bug yet, but he loves transport of all kinds, which helps a lot.

What really didn’t help matters was the realisation that, while we made the journey to Porto, my luggage had not, and was still firmly on UK soil.
I spent two days juggling multiple attempts to locate my bag before we moved onto Lisbon while dragging a child around an unfamiliar city in the pursuit of a shop that sold underwear, all the while maintaining that this situation was ‘not going to spoil our fun’.

Finally reunited with my belongings, we went on to travel 700km, seeing five different places and staying in three of them.
Despite its rocky start, I’m conscious that what was a largely fun seven days for my child would have been intolerable for others, but it was still inevitably peppered by some challenging moments.

However, I’d anticipated far more than actually materialised, or we overcame them far quicker than I expected and, while this blog post isn’t strictly about ‘travelling with children’ or even ‘being resilient’, I did learn a few things from both pursuits that are worth sharing.
Here are five things of them.

1) Five hours on an overnight coach was not the hell I expected
We couldn’t fly locally, so National Express got the job of transporting us on a tedious overnight bus to Gatwick airport. I wouldn’t have got away with this on the return journey, but my son slept most of the way and then navigated the airport experience at 4.30am like a pro.
I was proud of him. Even if he did then order a sandwich which cost £9 in an airport restaurant, which he then couldn’t eat. A sleep-deprived brain easily confuses his tiredness for hunger, I discovered; a bag of crisps would have been fine. Lesson learned.

2) “Fake it until you make it” can avert a panic attack
Despite having flown several times, my 10 year old’s brain is increasingly capable of catastrophising about what could go wrong at 38,000 feet, and a flood of panic surprised him on take-off. I’m sure sleep-deprivation helped.
Telling a person (of any age) not to worry, or ‘it will be ok‘ seldom reassures, but it’s also very easy as the parent of a panicking child to catch their anxiety, rather than exuding calm. Not being the most relaxed air passenger myself, I had to work pretty hard at this.

I’d heard about a technique where you repeat ‘you are safe, you are loved’ to a child when they’re in panic mode, which I was only half-convinced by; feeling loved isn’t much use to a brain that’s imagining the wing falling of the plane at altitude.
But feeling safe is. A few minutes of deep, slow breathing, while repeating ‘I am safe’, and my son’s nervous system started to believe what he was telling it. The panic passed.
And now he has a tried-and-tested technique for controlling anxiety at his disposal which he can use all by himself. Double win.

3) When encouraging your kid to work against you actually works in your favour…
The beautiful river Douro runs through Porto, but getting from its banks to the top of the city means climbing 226 steps. It makes for a beautiful view but, but the willingness of the legs needs to be matched by the willingness of the mind, and I was expecting (perhaps justified!) complaints and resistance.
We conquered those steps six times during our two day visit, and instead of objections I got an opponent who was determined to beat me every time. If ‘losing’ is the price for avoiding drama, distain and despair, I’ll willingly pay, thank you.

4) Rest and recuperation can replace boredom
We made two three hour train journeys during the week, and I fully anticipated having to manage and alleviate a multitude of boredom related complaints.
But the truth was, my son needed the down time as much as I did; it was a relief for both of us to do nothing and say nothing to each other for a while. An ongoing supply of snacks turned out to be more valuable than playing Roblox than I expected, even if that meant buying wildly overpriced crisps that we didn’t even need from the refreshments trolley. It was a reasonable exchange for a peaceful journey which I gratefully accepted.

5) Keep a reward for the end
The capacity to wait for reward isn’t easily mastered in the 21st century childhood and so I’d argue that all of our kids need help mastering the art of ‘delayed gratification’. While seldom fun (for child or parent), the opportunities to practice patience, tolerate boredom and accept ‘not yet’ help kids to master very important skills.

Having something to look forward to is a useful antidote to discomfort, and so our final leg of the journey took us to the beach and pool. Throughout, I was continually (and rightfully, to be fair) reminded by my son that, having participated in ‘my’ part of the trip, I was now duty-bound to participate in ‘his’; the pool was much too cold to enjoy, but I got in, the sea was too choppy – and chilly – to swim in, but I tried.

Because – modelling resilience and leading by example aside – however an experience has played out, the way it ends tends to be how we remember it, so I wanted to get this bit right.
It was not perfect by any means, but the imprint left by the sun, the sea, and the cold-resistant parent who at least tried to be brave, are deeper than those left by the bracing Atlantic waves or the freezing pool.
And the luggage made it home.  

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My Kitchen Ceiling Imploded… Lessons In Not Paying Attention

My Kitchen Ceiling Imploded... Lessons In Not Paying Attention

I’ve had a persistent drip of water coming through my kitchen ceiling for weeks.  After much investigation and repairs from my plumber and my plasterer, it seemed to be fixed.
You’ll know why I’m sharing this in a minute…

Yesterday, I trained a group of foster carers in ‘The Brain Behind the Behaviour’. One of the important aspects we covered is that behaviours that often look explosive or that ‘go from 0-10’ are rarely as sudden as they look.
More often they’re just the endpoint of accumulative frustrations, worries or other triggers that aren’t apparent on the outside.

So I was washing the dishes last night, there was a ripping sound above my head and the kitchen ceiling imploded. It turns out the bath was fixed but a different pipe had been slowly and invisibly seeping into the plaster boards for months.

I’m not specifically talking about young people’s behaviour here, but it was like my ceiling was proving a point. There are consequences to trying to sustain too weight and pressure for too long.

We all know the mantras around ‘be kind to yourself’, but it doesn’t resonate much with many of us (myself included), and the busyness of life often means that it’s way down on our list of priorities.
But, whether it’s a young or adult version, there is a human equivalent to what happened to my kitchen ceiling last night.

However, this isn’t just a reminder about about needing to unburden ourselves or let things go.
It’s also a reminder that how things appear on the exterior isn’t always an accurate reflection of reality, and this is increasingly true for the children we live and work with as well.

It’s easy to look back on our own childhoods and think they have it easy, and in lots of ways they do.
But they’re generally force-fed huge amounts of ‘learning’ in school which has absolutely no foundation for how their brains are designed to develop and learn.
There’s a continual expectation for them to push themselves and ‘achieve’.
And the relentless pressure that the world of social media entails for our kids is a different story entirely; one may of us are immensely grateful didn’t feature in our own youth.

It’s the sharp end of the stick, of course, but in another of my sessions this week, I was working with a group of adolescents with such acute anxiety that they were no longer in mainstream school. It was a stark reminder about the price that some children pay for being loaded with too much to carry.

Sometimes things look fine and feel fine, and so when our kids tell us they’re fine, they probably are. Probably.

But the truth is that when I was atop of my ladder with my paint brush, I noticed a couple of new cracks in my ceiling.
And I dismissed them; I – or, accurately, my plumber – had fixed the problem after all, so I chose to ignore them.    

If I had been paying closer attention, I might have noticed things weren’t quite right, before my kitchen ceiling fell down.

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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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