Tuesday 30 June 2015

Getting Parents in the right mindset for the summer holidays

(This article appeared in The Weekend Telegraph 11 June 2015)

The long summer vacation is often greeted with mixed feelings. Whilst we love having our children home, months of unstructured and unproductive free time can be a frustrating spectacle for parents often resulting in bad behaviour and high stress levels. Children are demob happy at the end of exam season but it can feel as though the pressure and anxiety a child has been under shifts on to parents.
Finding a way to use the holidays so that children can relax but also learn some important life skills, will ease the tension at home.

Here are 10 ways to not only survive the next 3 months but also to have a positive influence on the adult your child will become:

1.    Aim for a ‘Holiday Plan’: How parents approach incendiary topics like bedtime, getting up, helping around the house & screen usage is key.  We learnt to Do As You Are Told, but our children have been taught to have opinions/views, argue/debate, weigh up & decide, so its best to tackle The Plan with a “Can we talk through how things are going to work this holidays?” approach.  Not only does this encourage collaboration, decision making and team playing, but once you have got your mutually agreed plan in place (which may include “No lectures or nagging please Mum”), it is easier to stick to it. Being irritated by a child’s lack of helpfulness is contagious and damages the home atmosphere.    If you’ve made a plan you can say “I’m cross because it is lunchtime, you’re still in bed and we agreed…..” “You & I had an agreement about computer time…” “I thought you said 3 beers….”
2.    Get a structure in place: After they have had an appropriate, well deserved rest and some post exam lie ins, aim to get a framework in place before the holiday kicks off. Some structure to the routine at home and some mutually agreed rules will improve the emotional climate and everyone’s behaviour.  Whatever you agree (Breakfast done & dusted by midday? Help yourself to lunch but clear & wash up? Family supper, everyone helps + no screens?) - get everyone to stick to it.
3.   Encourage healthy sleep patterns: 10 hours sleep is ample and it is advisable to help establish good habits.  Late night horror movies or on-line activities under the duvet until 3am, will result in late starts and persistent lethargy.  Daytime TV/screen time will zap motivation & enthusiasm because it interferes with dopamine in the brain.  Help your child to organise their day with screen-based activities as a reward after they have accomplished other things.
4.    Create a focus: During the weeks when children are on holiday, but parents are still working, help children to have a focus/purpose.  This could be volunteering or finding a couple of weeks paid work - a local farm/garden, shop/cafe, doing some bar work/waitressing, youth club, pony club, activity centre, cleaning holiday cottages, nannying, babysitting, looking after Granny, domestic chores – what about cooking the family dinner?
5.   Choices and Responsibility: Long holidays are an ideal time to get your child to take responsibility - social life, travel plans, bookings, arrangements and their own washing/ironing/packing. Thinking, weighing up choices & making decisions encourages future independence, problem solving and develops an “I can” attitude. Tempting as it is to micro manage/help/advise/do it for them, try and rein yourself in.  Remind yourself that without practice, children can’t learn how to make their own decisions. If they have always looked to adults for guidance, they become helpless passengers in their metaphorical car.   Easygoing compliance from your child is nice whilst you are behind the wheel, but when someone undesirable hops in, your eager-to-please-child will be easily led astray because they have no inner compass to guide them.
6.   Expect some mishaps: Letting go and allowing some (safe) risk taking gives children a chance to learn (from any mistakes).  The brain is gradually wiring itself up to have self-control but it is work in progress and can only develop via experience. How parents manage mishaps (at the pub, a party, festival or excursion) can offer vital learning - about accountability, establishing limits (alcohol, sex, drugs) & developing an emotional gauge, a conscience and a brake pedal.
7.   Keep talking: Keeping lines of communication open is vital, so your relationship and how you talk to your child needs to be as good as it can be.
a.    Try not to harbor resentments, a “I am still furious about what you did last week” may drive them underground and they will not confess when they next mess up.
b.    Limit the lectures and instead have balanced discussions.
c.     If they are off to a festival, a holiday with another family or off travelling with a group of friends, ask them where they stand on key issues before they head off.  The aim is to encourage an independent mind by getting them to articulate their values & views on what you would like them to think about.
d.    If you want to steer the chat to meaty topics like sex, porn, legal highs or marijuana arm yourself with facts and plan what you are going to ask – approach with caution, opportunities don’t come by that often. 
         8.    Encourage a new skill/experience:  The long summer holidays are a chance for your    child to develop a skill, an interest or pursue a hobby.  Many young people thrive on competition, being part of a team, getting physically fit or getting better at something – sport, music, art, riding, cooking.  This boosts confidence, self-esteem and self-worth in a way that Gaming, TV reality shows or Facebook does not. 
                      9.         Do something together: try and find an activity or sport that you manage to do regularly with your child over the holidays (camping, tennis, chess, golf, cycling, cooking, fishing, walking). Being together is important bonding time that is difficult to find during the busy school terms.
            10.   Make time for yourself: The holiday period is a long haul for parents so use teenage late starts to read, meet a friend for a cup of coffee, go for a walk.  Prioritise family mealtimes as a time you can enjoy being with your children.   It is a chance for them to engage and interact with all ages, be interesting and look interested in what others have to say, listen and be able to accept other viewpoints.  The best way these skills are imbibed is via experience and what is role modeled to them.  

                        In Brief…..
1.    Get a framework in place so the whole family knows the routine
2.    Agree screen rules & establish self-policing so you don’t have to micromanage
3.    Get your child inspired to roll their sleeves up & earn some money or volunteer
4.    Encourage them to take responsibility for all their plans
5.    Accept mistakes and see these as a chance to develop and learn
6.    Keep lines of communication open and don’t shy away from the difficult conversations (about alcohol, porn & drugs)
7.    Get them to give things a go & try new things
8.    Encourage them to spend time developing a skill, hobby or interest away from screens
9.    Find an activity that you can regularly do together with your child (tennis, camping etc)
10. Make time for yourself – parents set the emotional climate at home.  Enjoy family time & wind down on occasions

Top Tips for Teenagers

1.    If you want something from your parent (friends to yours, a lift to a party, money, stuff for school/uni) offer to do jobs at home and THEN ask for what you want (parents tend to co-operate reasonably well if handled correctly)
2.    Don’t allow yourself to be dependent on parents to do stuff you are capable of doing yourself (travel plans, finding a job, pursuing hobby, making arrangements).  Being independent feels really good
3.    Earn some money and reward yourself with something you really want to do (this also helps you to manage your own money and live within your means)
4.    Balance your downtime (gaming, social media, partying, hanging out) with doing something meaningful and worthwhile (learn to play a musical instrument, practice a sport, get fit, learn a skill like how to cook, help an elderly neighbor or relative, get a job).
5.    Gaming and on-line stuff is as addictive as alcohol/drugs – so balance screen time with getting out and about.  As with alcohol, you need to find your limit and know when enough’s enough (red flags are when you are feeling tired, irritable, lethargic, moody?).  Don’t become one of the millions of addicted gamers & alcoholics. Google the brain research and find out for yourself: your vulnerable brain wires itself up depending on what it experiences – and you wont know it is too late until it is too late. 
6.    On-line porn affects your ability to have a proper sexual relationship long-term because it kills your libido.   Suffering from erectile dysfunction in your 20s is not normal and should ring alarm bells.
7.    Your on-line activities and social media are hackable so if you are moving to a new school, off to uni or a new job, think carefully about your on-line persona.  Your parent should be able to see what you are doing, posting & saying on-line, and if that fills you with horror, it may be time to do some tidying up this summer. 

8.    Marijuana & Legal Highs are risky & may cause permanent damage (eg. irreversible incontinence or psychosis).  “Legal” does NOT mean safe and it does NOT mean that the drugs are tested or regulated.  Get on-line and do your research also be mindful that the government is proposing to ban all “substances with a psychoactive effect” – there must be a reason why?