The Anxious Child

anxiety new

Over the last few years there has been a marked increase in parents and schools reporting anxiety as a concern for children of all ages. In extreme cases this may lead to an intervention or referral to support services such as CAMHS but for the majority it is simply a case of learning to manage their feelings rather than letting the feelings manage their choices.

Many parents, understandably, seek to avoid the things that create anxiety responses in their child which undoubtedly reduces stress in the short term. However this does not usually lead to a reduction in anxiety and anxiety can increase as the child grows older leading to a family living with a range of restrictions on every-day life such as food, clothing, areas of the house, outside spaces and new experiences, people or places. Whilst avoiding tantrums with a three-year-old is sometimes the best thing to do, too much avoidance may eventually lead to a child that no longer feels ‘safe’ going about normal childhood pursuits and activities, eating everyday foods and mixing with others.

As well as a clear rise in childhood anxiety there has also been a marked corresponding rise in parental anxiety, where children are no longer allowed out of a parent’s sight (and control) unless they have been passed to a respected and usually professional adult to be supervised equally closely. The increase of ‘overparenting’ or helicopter parenting as it has been called results in many children feeling at risk when in everyday situations as their hyper vigilant adult carers stress ‘danger’ and ‘safety’ at every turn. Ironically the greatest dangers to wellbeing and safety for children and young people are almost certainly within the home not outside of it. The gadgets parents use to amuse, entertain and otherwise keep their children quiet and ‘safe’ indoors are allowing every harmful influence in the entire world to have potential access to them rather than those posed by their locale.

By being kept away from all potential perceived risks from climbing trees to going to the corner shop alone children are becoming afraid of almost everything new or outside their homes.

One of the many areas of anxiety that is more noticeable in today’s children is social anxiety. Many children feel uncomfortable with others or worry about what others will think of them or say about them when they are not there. This can be exacerbated by the use of social media by children as young as 7 where everyone talks about each other frequently with lots of blocking and unblocking behaviour to increase control over others or induce a fear of isolation from the group. Most social media sites come with age restrictions designed around the maturity and development of a child or young person, not their keyboard skills, but these are disregarded by many parents. A plucky few do put their foot down and restrict the free use of gadgets, provide children with basic rather than smart phones and monitor all online activity to ensure nothing age restricted or inappropriate is accessed but these are in the minority and some such parents have even received critical emails or rude comments from other parents for carrying out such measures.

Social skills don’t just grow with age, they need to be learnt by real world interaction where the consequences of actions and choices are observed and reflected upon. The small child who hits out at another for taking a valued toy learns by the disapproval of others and the reaction of the other child what the consequences of their actions are. The child that continues to act in unkind ways may also experience a degree of isolation as others chose to play elsewhere and may need to adapt their behaviour if they want to be included in the group. In large and small interactions with others and by observing the interactions of their peers and (particularly) older siblings or siblings of their peer group they learn over time how and why some behaviour is more desirable to themselves and others.

These days adults tend to have a ‘if someone does something you don’t like come and tell me or your teacher’ approach to parenting which disempowers the child from acting themselves and consequently from learning how to manage the behaviour of others.

It is easy to understand how embarrassed a parent may feel if their child is the only one behaving ‘naturally’ in a group but constantly telling children how they should behave in social situations and watching over them in order to direct their movements and play is likely to result in a degree of inadequacy and anxiety when they reach the age of 7-8, the time when social relationships and creating alliances become noticeably more important to children.

Many parents want to maintain their central role in their child’s life by being their ‘friend’ and confidante during the preteen years which again can induce or exacerbate anxiety. As adults use completely different areas of the brain and different cognitive processes to manage their interactions with others, an adult giving a child adult advice or instruction on managing their relationships and friendship issues can be unhelpful. Such strategies and instructions seldom work with children – the child who tries to reason with a stubborn friend may well feel disempowered and ineffective when their adult style strategy doesn’t work. Children lack an adult’s overview and, at least when young, are inclined to think that parents always know best which may mean they see any unsuccessful attempt at managing a situation the way they were told as a fault in themselves, in their execution of the response rather than bad advice.  Feelings of inadequacy, of not being able to ‘do friendship’ properly may lead to an anxiety when faced with social situations. It is not uncommon for the parent of a child experiencing such anxiety to begin to manage the child’s friendships themselves with the – intention of course of being helpful. Such micromanagement de-skills the child even further and a spiral of anxiety and disempowerment grows. I have even met parents who maintain email contact with the parents of their children’s friends through an online group and report on a daily basis any problems or behavioural issues their child has reported about their friends. Exposing behaviour to adult group scrutiny in this way may lead parents themselves to become highly anxious about their child’s behaviour and nothing increases child anxiety around an area of life more than a highly anxious and hypervigilant adult.

There are many other forms of anxiety being experienced by children, some of the most common are about food – only eating certain foods and being unwilling to change, develop or adapt eating habits. This often seems to take the form of a colour or type of food being deemed desirable whilst other types or colours are rejected. It is usual for a child to have certain preferences, particularly for many of the things we chose to restrict such as sweet, starchy and fatty foods. To some degree we are all hard wired to enjoy these foods, particularly during the vulnerable childhood years, as high calorie foods spelt survival to our ancestors and still do today in parts of the world experiencing food shortage for any natural or human made reason. Adults restrict the intake of these foods for reasons a child cannot understand and all the explanations in the world will not stop a young child eating their desired treats. Children today are allowed far greater freedom of choice in all things which is partly responsible for the changes in average body weight and body fat. The dramatic rise in childhood obesity over the last decade is due to many other reasons too including the greater isolation of children who must organise occasional ‘play dates’ rather than just knock on someone’s door or play in communal open spaces, the rise in gadgets as a means to keep children occupied and ‘safe’ indoors and the time poverty of many parents who cannot be outdoors playing and exercising naturally with their child as previous generations may have been. As well as the rise in obesity we are seeing a rise in children anxious about their body image where messages of fat=bad and restricting food=good have had a serious consequence. Eating disorders are now affecting more younger children than ever before, with compulsive eating, food refusal and all forms of food related anxiety on the increase. It is often difficult for parents and professionals working with children to strike a balance between healthy eating messages and fear of weight gain.

Many modern children are being raised to have a greater suspicion or fear of strangers and those they don’t know these days which is resulting in another common form of anxiety where even being alone in a room can create fear responses. Fear of abduction or harm can get out of hand and lead to children being fearful of all new places, people and experiences without having any idea why they feel afraid. Teaching children to fear strangers is no longer considered a suitable response to child protection, more modern approaches focus on encouraging children to minimise risk and to make appropriate responses such as calling for help or telling an adult if anyone asks them to keep something secret etc. Such responses empower a child rather than create fear, particularly as we know that strangers are not the predominant threat to children, the huge majority of children who experience abuse or harm do so at the hands of someone they know and frequently a from family member.

As the current generation of children and young people grow older many will eventually become less anxious as they begin to master independent life for themselves one step at a time but the concern must always be about their own approach to parenting when their time comes. Of course it is often the way that new parents reject the parenting style they grew up under – so let’s all hope the new generation in waiting will bring back freedom, independence and learning from doing in a way they could not learn themselves.


How to Talk to kids about Sex

Parents and Children

How To Talk to Kids about Sex

Some Top Tips for Parents

One of the areas I support schools with more than any other is Sex and Relationships Education or SRE. It is an area of concern to professionals and parents alike, both worry that keeps yet the best education they can have in a way that will not  either  encourage experimentation or  put them off for life!

Many parents of boys simply don’t bother with any sex education as such, they explain the biological processes the ‘pipes and plumbing’ aspects but leave all the rest to school or the media. In this day and age more than any other, boys get a lot of their viewpoints and understandings about sex and relationships from pornography which is so readily available via the Internet, mobile phones, even the digital TV channels between 90 and 100! (If you didn’t know they were…

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Introducing ‘Later – a guide to parenting the young adult’

9780349404462Introducing my new book with co-author Alison Baverstock.

After nearly 40 years spent working with schools September will always be the start of a New Year for me, January 1st is just another day in my diary, and this September has its unique set of stories as thousands of parents prepare their young people to move on with the next step in their lives. After the tense excitement of the exam results in August many families are creating survival kits for their son or daughter’s first term living away from home while others are worrying about how to get their child motivated enough to maintain or improve their grades over the coming year.

September is also the start of the empty nest syndrome for many, where parents and particularly mothers feel a sense of loss for the family life that was and their role within it once their children have left but there is a new syndrome to be found in Britain today for over 3 1/2 million families, the endless nest. More and more young people are staying at home with Mum and Dad even whilst they’re studying and a great many more return once their studies are over. Whether this is due to the high cost of housing as many newspaper reports suggest, to do with young people’s expectations of a certain standard of living or my own personal favourite the result of changes in the way young people are parented the result is often the same – a young adult sharing a space with the older adults who raised them.

When my writing partner Alison Baverstock and I decided to write a book for parents of 16 to 23 year olds it was clear through my workshops and conversations with parents that whilst some wanted to move on in their lives and felt held back by offspring who were determined to stay put or unable to move on themselves there were other parents who with the very best of intentions created a home environment that anyone would want to stay in -free food cooked to order, a well-stocked fridge and open bar, free rent, no expectations and responsibilities, a free taxi service and laundry and ironing on demand. A wonderfully comfortable home but one which can create a dependent or helpless young adult in order to satisfy a parents desire to still feel needed.

‘Later, a guide to parenting a young adult’ is both a handbook for parents who want to do the best for their young person by helping them become an independent and self assured adult as well as a comforting and encouraging support for parents to take the next independent steps in their own lives. So much so that Alison, who has experienced the bittersweet leaving, the joyful return and the endless negotiation of boundaries that comes with all stages of parenting young adults with her 4 children, though not all have yet made the step to full independence, is now backpacking around South America with her husband for their first holiday alone since they became parents.

Whilst Later doesn’t claim to make you into Alison it can help you negotiate boundaries in your shared home, prepare your young person for the world of work or study and potentially a family life of their own by offering wise insight and advice, top tips, case studies, quizzes and the ever popular question and answer sections.

You can read Alison’s blog of her trip so far on the later Facebook page (

Helping children deal with the behaviour of others

An interesting moment of serendipity happened just as I was preparing to write this post in the form of an article from the BBC website all about bullying and over protected children. The gist of it was that children who have been over protected and thereby stopped from learning the ropes of social interaction by trial and error are more likely to be bullied than their more practiced peers. I love an article that can quote research and I particularly love an article that backs up what I have been telling parents for a long time but couldn’t prove.

upset young man

I have been observing the details of this behaviour for so long I have even come up with my own name for it, ‘over-adulting’. To me there are several components of this behaviour but in essence it is all about adults wanting their child to be perfectly behaved around others.  in case you think it can’t be done, it most certainly can as long as you are prepared to be constantly supervising everything they do. The downside is that children do not learn  to manage complex social relationships or behaviour from adults telling them adult solutions to problems.  They learn from watching, particularly interactions between other children slightly older than themselves,  and from how others react to their choices. When we take away their choices by giving them ours and interfere in the consequences too learning simply doesn’t take place. essentially children learn many of the complexities of social relationships from a very young age so children who have not been allowed to mix freely with others of differing ages ( without hovering adults) before they are four or five  may well struggle  throughout their childhood and adolescence.  This is particularly important for eldest and only children who don’t have an every day older child to learn from by watching and interacting with.

I work with parents in a range of ways both with individuals and with groups through my workshops, ( and by far the most commonly presented problems  I get to hear about are children and young people who simply cannot manage the cruelty of other children, the cat and mouse games, the push-me pull-you emotional behaviour  and the compromise and negotiation required to play or  socialise in groups. So profoundly lacking are the skills of many of today’s young teens that a new code of behaviour exists whereby nobody really tells anyone else the truth to their face. Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting they should be rude or insulting to anyone, I’m talking about far more simple truths.

I recently worked with a 14 year old girl who was devastated that her friends  constantly made plans  to do things she did not like. She felt that they were showing their disdain for her in making such choices and that her only options were to put up with their ideas or find new friends.  She felt that her friends should take her thoughts and feelings into consideration, even though she wasn’t expressing them, and that by not doing so they were rejecting her as a friend.  This poor young woman was exhausted by constantly trying to read the nuances of her friendship group and to find her place within it. Her lovely and caring Mum, who was her role model in life (her words not mine) was constantly giving her helpful advice such as”Why don’t you ask Grace why she thinks Emily said that?”  everything was being done underneath the surface with lots of texts, each with their own subtext, social networking updates containing subtle clues to their writers true meaning and entire language of small gestures and verbal slights. The entire silent friendship group was doing the exact same thing, mind reading, asking others’ opinions and looking for subtle clues, slights and inflections everywhere. You may think this is normal teen behaviour in girls and whilst there is some truth in that viewpoint, the degree of silence and subtlety is far greater now than I have seen in the several other generations I have experienced.

girls pointing

Whilst this young woman’s ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ attitude  was extreme I have seen similar distress in children as young as four-they simply have no idea of how to create meaningful shared experiences with others.  I call it ‘red pencil syndrome’.  when a child at home is playing with a sibling or parent and wants to use the much coveted red pencil the adult will either hand it over or create a fair system of sharing. When a child without an adult present wants the red pencil there is a good chance they will not get it. Simply telling children to think about others does not teach them how to do it-empathy is learnt through trial and error with reflection  after the event.

My rule of thumb in dealing with children’s behaviour is that adults should back off but make sure the children know that they can choose to be with the adults if they wish. This does not mean that the adults will play with them or interact with them, simply that if they need to be somewhere to quieten down, feel safe or get a breather they can. When playing with other children they cannot come and ask an adult to sort out a problem for them but they can come and get a cuddle if upset. Even as I’m writing this I can imagine the horror on some people’s faces at the idea that children should be left to get on with it. If you are someone feeling that way then perhaps you are exactly the kind of parent I’m talking to.

I have some simple tips for helping children deal with the behaviour of others and the first and most important is simply “ask don’t tell”. When you ask a child a question their brain lights up like a firework, when you tell them what to do there is much less brain activity and what we are really trying to do is grow their brain. Questions might include;

“What could you do about it?” – And if they say I don’t know that is shorthand for ‘you do the thinking ‘.

” What are your choices right now?”-  And always make sure you get several answers to the question by repeating it several times.

” What would you like me to do about it?” –  This makes them use their brains but allows them to get the support they need.

My second tip would be to learn how to take your child through a process of reflection to enable them to learn. A good reflection session does not contain too much emotion, no child will answer honestly if an adult is angry with them or shows disappointment. Wait until any incident is over and everyone is calm again before reflecting on it. Reflection is where the true learning takes place so however uncomfortable it may be, however tempting getting back to normal might be remember that a good parent helps their child learn. Reflection sessions should not be about adults telling children everything they did or didn’t do, nor should they contain the word ‘why’ in relation to the child’s own behaviour.  What we want them to notice is the chain of events that caused upset or hurt regardless of where that chain of events started. We also want them to consider how they could make different choices next time a similar event occurs rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past-we cannot change the past but we can change or influence the future.

And finally my third tip for helping children deal with the behaviour of others is to show sympathy rather than offering a solution. “Poor you,  that sounds horrible”  is sometimes all that is needed.  If the child then asks for a greater involvement then offer to help them find their own solution rather than giving them yours.




Letting them grow into Big School!

Parents generally believe that they know their child better than anyone else in the world and of  course they are right, no single person knows your child as well as you do  but don’t be fooled into believing that this means you know everything about them because if they are in school, you don’t.  you might hold the largest block of knowledge but you don’t hold all the knowledge. The biggest area in which parents do not know their child’s behaviour is when they are mixing with large groups of people without a parent present, it stands to reason they cannot possibly know this, but children change dramatically when they are with large groups particularly of their peers-they become social beings who manage complex social relationships and standing in groups using all manner of techniques and understandings that parents have never seen.

In schools we are constantly confronted by parents insisting that their child could not possibly have done this or that, could not possibly have said this or that, is not capable of this or that behaviour. We regularly have to deal with parents, sometimes many of them, who come to school determined to battle for their child’s rights because they believe some fundamental wrong has taken place because their child has told them so. If I had a pound for every parent who had indignantly said to me “are you calling my child a liar?” I’d be writing this from a villa somewhere hot and sunny right now. I’m not implying that parents are wrong, they are not, they really do know their child very well, but all of us when we give an account tell our story from one viewpoint only – even when there may be many others to consider.  Parents may know their children very well but children also know their parents very well and they know how to tell a story to get the reaction they want, they know how to minimise their own responsibility and they know what their parents will believe.

At this time of year many children are starting school for the 1st time and many of these are starting secondary school for the 1st time. This brave new world will both accelerate and accommodate the child’s transition into young adulthood and with it the inevitable slow transit away from the established parent-child intimacy of previous years. It’s hard for parents to let their child go, especially when they still see the moments of vulnerability, insecurity and neediness that children exhibit in a loving, caring home but they need to recognise that most children at 11 are ready to go into a bigger arena and to explore all the other aspects of self, many of which parents have never seen in their child. Many parents overcompensate for the growing distance in family relationships by making themselves as indispensable as possible (whilst blaming it all on their child for being so needy, lacking independence, or being disorganised) by making sure they are the one to get their child out of bed every morning, to get breakfast on the table, to do the laundry and pack their bags, to make sure they have their lunch money, letters, home work and everything else.  I am often asked by parents how to manage a disorganised teenager, how to make them take responsibility for themselves bt there is only ever one answer-don’t do it for them any more. I understand why people do it and I understand why teenagers don’t but rather than trying to break a difficult and well entrenched cycle it’s better off not to start it in the 1st place! When they go to big school it is the perfect time to expect them to start taking more care of themselves by simply letting them do it. All over the world there are children managing families at 11, going to work at 11, caring for sick relatives at 11. Some of these children are  in our society too and though I would never support such huge responsibility for a child I mention it simply to remind us all that children are capable of tremendous things when they need to be so remembering to take their homework really shouldn’t be such a big stretch for them. However its not that much fun and so they will never do it (and neither would I have that matter) if somebody else is there to take up the slack and do it for them.

It’s hard to let children grow away from us, it’s hard to allow them to have a life in which we have no part and to accept that there are elements of who they are that we no longer know but the job of the parent is to help a child grow into a responsible and capable adult who can manage their own lives and relationships effectively and if it hurts to let them go maybe we need to look at our own needs for support at facing such a major life change for ourselves. A parent never stops being a parent but a child does stop being a child.

Photo: Mark Godwin, The Guardian

Home sweet and sour home

I’ve recently been watching filmed observation sessions of families being themselves, as far as they are able in front of a camera anyway, and I’ve found the experience really interesting and humbling for any number of reasons not least that these brave souls have volunteered to be filmed for no other reason than to help people like me have a little window into family life in all it’s diversity and richness. Some of the families have been just two people and the largest so far was eight people, some are quiet and gentle with each other, others loud or boisterous, some have strict codes of behavioral expectations others are quite ‘anything goes’, some seem relaxed and some seem stressy.
What everyone knows of course is that all families have their good times and bad and that even the tightest knit and supportive family has occasions when members have arguments or falling outs as well as others when events from outside the family cause tension and upset. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years working around resilience for children and what helps and supports the development of it and without any doubt how families handle those stressful feelings and events makes all the difference. Whether they help an individual contain and process their problems, whether they belittle or dismiss problems or whether they blow problems out of all proportion and over complicate matters may well set the pattern for a child’s future behaviour.
Today I’m having a bad day because yesterday I lost my diary or rather yesterday I realized my diary has been lost. After taking my house apart and phoning everyone I can think of who might be able to help me find it, I am trying to piece together the next two months of appointments, meetings, training sessions and bookings as well as trying to remember the last month in order to invoice and get some money in. I live alone and in the middle of last night I was overwhelmed in my sleepless concern and replaying of events by the need for some comfort. I really would have liked someone to help me get some perspective, some comfort, some reassurance. I wanted a family around me and all the things they bring.
Today watching another film of a family arguing, whining, criticizing and generally being a bit mean to each other I suddenly felt extremely stressed, just looking at it all from my already stretched and sleepless state. I suddenly wondered how it would be to be in that family and lose my diary or anything else for that matter. I doubt anyone would have understood the enormity – to me – of what had happened as everybody vied to receive sympathy and attention and gave none out. I suppose when it comes down to it living in a family is tough sometimes but so is living without one.