Sunday 4 September 2016

The next stage: How can parents continue to have a positive influence over their children as they grow up?

Many families face transitions at this time of year: new schools, leaving school, embarking on a GAP year, starting university or a new job.  When change is accompanied by optimism and excitement, then things tend to roll forward without mishap, but some parents may be faced with a child who is dragging their heels or behaving out of character. Bad moods and apathy are driven by feelings of anxiety, fear or uncertainty.  Emotions are contagious, so we have to be careful that we don’t get hooked in to their angst.  We also need to remind ourselves that our frustration, worry, irritation or pity is guaranteed to light the touch paper.

One of the myths dispelled by brain science is that the teenage years start at 13 and miraculously end at 20.  In fact, the adolescent brain starts its overhaul at around 10 and remains work in progress until the mid 20s.  One of the main side effects of this neural refurbishment is poor cognitive function, trademark teenage behaviour and emotional meltdowns. 

The end of the summer holidays can be a mixed blessing for parents, with back to term-time routines and handing the responsibility for childcare back to school.  For those parents with school leavers, the buck now stops with you and that can feel scary. 

School offers structure, nurture and safe boundaries, where children are cajoled, pressured, advised and steered forward.  However, once those parameters drop away, many teenagers have the impression that they are ready to drive solo.  Parents, on the other hand, are unlikely to feel that it is time to dispense with L-plates when their school leaver has never been trusted with a simple roundabout, let alone Hyde Park Corner or the Birmingham interchange. 

A child’s motivation is extrinsically provided at school by deadlines, examinations, routines and goals.  Take that structure away and replace it with the freedom to do-as-you-please (Gap Year or University life) and you can expect to see a rise in emotional hijacks and decision paralysis.  So making simple plans, writing a To Do list, doing admin, making choices and feeling intrinsically motivated can be woefully lacking.  An untidy bedroom is a clear indicator of what’s really going on behind the scenes in the mind of a child.

Parents can play a vital role in stoking levels of motivation and sparking some interest in life by the way they engage with their child at this time.

1.   No lectures, most importantly ones which allude to how much time/money/effort has been invested in education/holidays/hobbies and now this…... 
Instead, if you have things which you are burning to say, wait until you have had some time to think through the questions you would like answers to and formulate your conversation around those.  Areas of the adolescent brain responsible for sparking ideas, being creative, making plans, weighing up choices, linking actions to consequences are work in progress and improve with exercise.  Giving advice supplies ready-made answers, stokes levels of frustration, uncertainty and ruins the atmosphere at home. 

2.   No micromanaging.  Resist the temptation to do anything which they are capable of doing themselves:  no picking up belongings, no tidying bedrooms, no putting ironed clothes neatly away, no changing sheets, no rescuing wet towels, no bookings, no arranging plans, no researching.  But do continue with family routines and rituals:  meals, making family social arrangements, doing laundry (if it is presented to the washing machine).  Becoming independent of your parents and doing all manner of personal tasks for yourself boosts levels of self-confidence and efficacy.

3.   Firm boundaries.  Try not to allow family life to become de-stabilised by one child.  Most parents find inertia hard to tolerate, but setting a limit on it can help.  “Its ok for you to take some time to make some decisions, but in….weeks time your allowance will stop.  This should give you time to make some plans and find some work/direction….We are here to help….”  Putting the ball kindly, firmly and fairly in their court has a chance of kick-starting independent thinking and getting them to make their plan.  Once ideas start flowing, resist the temptation to brush them aside in place of your own.  Try instead to use their ideas and further encourage them to refine them into a workable plan.

4.   Acknowledge their strengths.  Where there is passion, there is usually motivation and energy.  Remind your child of the things they enjoy doing, are interested in or are good at.  And rather than lament and focus on what they will lose if they are no longer…. playing music…doing sport…. painting… try and spark their interest and energy by helping them to see what could be gained and how they might benefit from using talents/skills/hobbies/interests whilst travelling/at university or working.

5.   Lay out your stall.  Be transparent and clear about your motives and your role as parent now they are growing up.  Explain that you won’t be on their case 24/7, or doling out criticism, but on occasions you will need to give constructive feedback, point out hazards if they appear to be going unnoticed or indeed step in in case of emergencies.

As your child embarks on the often-hazardous journey to Adulthood and autonomy, throwing the car keys at them and leaving them to work it out for themselves would be a highly risky strategy.  On the other hand constant back seat driving will cause road rage and a bumpy ride.  So a balanced and diplomatic approach is required in order that parents are welcomed passengers and will be the first port of call when your child requires un-judgmental, wise counsel.  Children of all ages need to know that they are loved and cherished, even when the wheels are off.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Tips for Parents to make family summer holidays a positive experience

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 confrontation & emotional meltdowns.  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 few weeks, 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 helped your child to make their plan, you can hold them accountable “I’m cross…it’s lunchtime, you’re still in bed and you said you would…..” “You & I agreed….. about computer time…” “I thought you said you would stick to 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. 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?) - lead the way so everyone sticks 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 and no sleep 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 shopping & 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.  Our book helps with this.
      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 asking them to articulate their values.
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.  Reading “The Drug Conversation” by Owen Bowden Jones may help
      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.  Young people should 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 IQ in a way that Gaming, TV reality shows or Facebook do 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, influencing a child’s confidence levels, and less easy to manage 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 face-to-face 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.  Make it a device free time.   

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 get out of their comfort zone, 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

(This article originally appeared in The Weekend Telegraph)

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Teenage Exam Stress - Top Tips for Parents

Teenagers Translated Revision tips for parents

Some households are facing Exams this summer.  We are the spokespeople for NCS, the UKs flagship youth programme:  here is our advice, based on their recent research that most teenagers need to be left alone when they are suffering exam stress.  So how can parents smoothly navigate revision & exam stress and build stress resilience in their teenager?    

1.     Help them set realistic goals:   Some children set unrealistic targets which in turn have a de-motivational effect because the brain goes into panic mode (“Help, I can’t do this!”).  Have a casual conversation when the moment seems right, and run through each subject/topic, asking your child to tell you what is achievable and realistic.  At this stage, goals are likely to be (pessimistically) low.  They may love the idea of an A, but a B is realistic, so having the conversation stops them from setting themselves up for failure & disappointment.  If B is the Goal and they achieve this, they should feel good about the results and you can remind them on results day that (hopefully) they achieved more than they had anticipated. 
2.     Expect a rollercoaster:    With all the changes going on in the teenage brain, when children are under pressure the bit that controls emotions is still work in progress.  Ranting is a way of letting off steam.  Parents should separate out the inevitable teenage rollercoaster from unacceptable behaviour.  Explain to your child that you understand that they are struggling, but this does not mean you are willing to be their punchbag.  Encourage them to recognise the early warning signs that stress levels are rising and make sure they are aware of what helps THEM to let off steam in good ways (a run, kick a ball, a walk, cook, call a friend for a chat).  This in turn will help them from misplacing their anger on to other people that could have negative repercussions.
3.     Normal adolescent behaviour:   New research from NCS suggests that one good thing parents can do to support a teenager is to drop the reins and not micro-manage, even when you feel that what you are doing is helpful.  This is a time when they need to start putting some distance between themselves and their parents.  So hovering and fussing over them with comforting drinks and snacks can feel suffocating and annoying.  This is a time of developing self-governance and independence. 
4.     Set the emotional temperature:    Emotional climates are contagious which means that parents can encourage a stress free environment at home by being calm and not unwittingly fuelling anxiety by worrying.  Worrying conveys a message that you don’t trust their abilities.  If you have a busy life juggling work and home, make sure you look after yourself at this time and don’t “catch” your child’s stress and anxiety.  Routines help maintain equilibrium, so ensure you provide regular family mealtimes & family life remains consistent. Find time for humour too. 
5.     There is light at the end of the tunnel:  Parents know that this will all end, so it is good to convey a sense that this period is transient.  Revision & exams will feel never-ending to your child so make sure that they maintain the energy and drive to get to the finishing post.  Optimism and fun will help to top up the focus and positivity tank.  Make sure there is time at the weekend for fun activities like a takeaway in the evening or a cinema visit with friends.  It is vital that they keep pursuing interests and hobbies now and during exams to help boost good brain chemicals and keep stress levels down.  Talk about summer holidays and what they have to look forward to after exams have finished.  A good, and low cost option is a programme like NCS that offers fun and adventure as well as the chance to meet new friends.
6.     You know your child best, use your intuition:    Most young people will experience some form of stress between now and exams.  However, 6-8 weeks is too long a time to suffer, in some cases the pressure can become overwhelming.   If you notice that your teenager is panicky, unnaturally low/pessimistic, has dramatically changed eating habits, is struggling to get to sleep/waking in the night or showing any other extreme behaviours, keep a close eye on them.  These are early warning signs and can lead to your child resorting to negative coping strategies like panic attacks, self harming, technology addiction or eating disorders.  If you are concerned, suggest that that you book an appointment with the GP  
7.     Technology usage:   Exam time can provide an ideal opportunity to approach this thorny subject with your child.  Keeping in touch with their social group is natural and healthy, but being distracted from work through social media/gaming/You Tube affects the brains ability to focus and memorise.  Most online activity is more exciting and interesting than revision, but it also over excites and tires the brain.  Rather then restricting & dictating technology usage, give them information and facts.  They are only kidding themselves if they work for 8 hours, but have in fact done very little revision.  Encourage them to use their phone/social media as a reward after the boring stuff is out of the way.  You will also be encouraging them to get into good habits for the future and letting them self-police.  
8.     Avoid comparisons:   Adolescence is a vulnerable time when children start to develop their identity and naturally compare themselves to others.  Children tend to be self-critical and their self worth is affected by the lives and opinions of others.  Parents must make sure that efforts to motivate (“your sister did well in her exams”) are not fuelling pessimism and frustration.  Separate out Effort and Achievement and focus on Effort.  Would they like any help from you/teacher/friend to keep them focused and to memorise the material?   The teenage brain is liable to misread communication, particularly when under pressure.  Make sure your child knows where you stand.  “I can’t do the work for you and I don’t mind what grades you get, but I would like you to avoid feeling angry with yourself when you get your results because you know that you didn’t put the effort in”.  The teenage brain struggles with linking Actions to Consequences.  
9.     Planning & Organising:   Encourage your child to find a place to work away from their bedroom.  Parents may have to tolerate some upheaval around the house whilst exams are on.  It is good to separate out Work & Downtime.  The Work place could be phone free too.  Make sure your child has done their own revision plan with lots of small, do-able tasks (hourly/daily/weekly) because ticking the box gives a sense of achievement & boosts motivation.  Revision is a marathon, not a sprint - Cramming last minute and burning the midnight oil might result in early burnout.  Help them to be aware of when they feel bored or distracted and get them to take regular study breaks - go outside, look at their phone and go back to work once refreshed.  

10.  Self Care:  Make sure that your child is getting plenty of physical exercise because this helps boost mental performance:  any exercise, walking to school, a run, team sports.  They also need good food (not sugar or junk), 9 hours (uninterrupted, device free) sleep and a chance to talk to you.  Make sure you are available and keeping lines of communication open.  Approach subjects in a non confrontational  “I noticed that….what do you think?” or “I was wondering what you felt about….”