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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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.




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.

Fear can be Catching!

Over the past few months I’ve noticed a real change in the issues that parents have been coming for support with, particularly those parents I see privately. There was a time when most of the issues I was asked to support centred around  kids who simply wouldn’t do what they were asked or told and kids who were rude or disruptive  with their parents or siblings at home. Whether these issues have lessened or whether people are more willing to just put up with it I cannot say but more and more I’m being asked for support for children and young people who are anxious and fearful, children and young people who are finding it difficult to cope with the world they live in from the rough-and-tumble of school to the demands of boisterous siblings or just fear of the outside world and all the people in it.

Parenting children is always a balancing act between encouraging them to be independent and self-reliant and instilling in them a healthy respect and appreciation for the risk. Get it wrong and you may end up with a young person who by the time they are 14 or 15 is sexually active, drinking, smoking and using drugs, has little interest or respect for school and what it might offer and who will fight physically or verbally with anyone who tries to restrict their freedoms.  These streetwise kids may feel that   managing the difficulties and dangers of their world is what makes them special, doing what other kids may not  be doing means they are braver and more grown-up, a leader not a follower in the world. How they got to be this way can be the result of many different experiences but the one thing they have in common is that they do not fully appreciate the potential consequences of the choices they’re making which is alas quite normal for a 14 or 15-year-old.

The other end of the continuum is a young person who finds it difficult to mix with others, shy and retiring or anxious about everybody and everything. A child or young person who constantly thinks about the negative potential consequences in anything, even a car journey can be full of danger as they visualise the car engulfed in flames and a walk to the shops is impossible when even their quiet neighbourhood hides knife wielding hoodies in every dark space.  By the time a child reaches 11 or 12 the things they are afraid of tend to alter from the physical to the emotional and social so it is not unusual for a child who was  overly afraid of traffic  to become terrified of criticism or teasing, or just of getting it wrong in front of others.  Fear of social inadequacy or mockery can take many different forms from school refusing to obsessive computer use or gaming, even obsessive study. The child who spends every lunchtime at school tucked away in the library working or researching may well be academically driven but they may also be avoiding as much social interaction as possible

It is not always easy to help a child or young person differentiate between risks that cause intensely painful feelings in the here and now and those that can impact on their life for ever. As I write I’m remembering a 14-year-old girl I met some time ago who was reflecting on why she had become pregnant after sex with a relative stranger whose name she did not even recall. When I asked her why she had not used a condom she looked at me open eyed and said “God that would have been so embarrassing!”

it is one of the key jobs of the parent to keep their child safe and this means keeping them close, restricting the choices and decisions they get to make for themselves until they can demonstrate the maturity of behaviour to be given more freedom. It also means teaching them how to manage the world they find themselves in and people they meet rather than trying to cushion them from all the blows and knocks that social interaction  involves.

It might be hard to convince the 12-year-old boy who is regularly eating his lunch locked in a toilet stall that it doesn’t matter what other people think of him when he sits down in the dining hall because to him it matters enormously and if there is a way that he has found to avoid that hurt then he will take it.

Part of the role of a parent is to take a child’s fears and anxieties as they grow and put them into perspective for their child. Not listening or ridiculing their worries can alienate them from you but dwelling on their anxieties and rushing to their aid can make small things take over the world. How many children learn that they get  the full attention of their parent/s  when they relate how unfair others have been to them today? Or how difficult they are finding life? It may be during adolescence that the difficulties materialise but the ground work is put in place from a very early age.  I’ve never met her parent yet who wants their child to be over anxious but I have seen first-hand how the parents fears get transferred to their child. Many years ago I had a friend who had experienced a violent attack which left her terrified of being out, even with others, after dark. At 5 her daughter was a confident child, bright and chirpy-the sort of little girl who chats about everything to everyone. By the time she was 7 she was terrified of  being out  of doors after dark which was difficult in the winter time when even a slight delay after school meant darkness, and by the time she was 8 she was terrified of anyone she did not know speaking to her or getting physically close to her. On a lesser note my sister has a phobia about wasps,  which has lessened considerably over the years as her children have grown up, but when they were small she was overwrought and unable to stay still in the presence of a wasp and her little daughters would tease her about her fear. Now my very sensible grown-up niece is unable to eat out of doors in summer because of her own terror (against all reason as she is well aware) of wasps whilst her mother is pretty much fine!

Inspiring Quotes for all Occasions

This week I was the guest of honour at a prize giving ceremony in a local secondary school, which was a first for me. To be fair their super famous ex-teacher turned comedian speaker let them down at the last minute so they came to me because I’m cheap (free) have time (free again) and am seldom fazed by large groups of mixed ages. I really enjoyed myself and anyone who knocks young people only has to see an event like this to realise how splendid they really are! I’m sure not one of them would have wanted anything much to do with me if I had met them at the same age but older and wiser we got along famously.

Sometimes we all need to inspire ourselves - this is my office wall which I painted over a few dark days last year because I needed to be reminded.

The Head teacher had instructed me to be funny, tell some personal anecdotes and be inspiring in my address so being willing to please I did just that and I think I can safely say I amused many, moved many and even inspired a few too if the comments from older and young alike are anything to go by. I chose to talk about 3 inspirational quotes that have had meaning for me in my life which were selected from a short list of ten as time was finite. Afterwards several people asked me what the full 10 were so I promised my top 10 list of inspirational quotes – and here they are.

This is for anyone who loves a good quote but in particular the parents, students, staff and Headteacher, Jo Longhurst of Orleans Park School in Twickenham.

The three already quoted were:

‘It’s not how long you live but how much you live that counts’ – Eric Ray Evans, actor and mentor

“Things you own end up owning you” Chuck Pahlaniuk, Fight Club

“Where you stumble, there your treasure lies’ Goethe

My other seven are as follows – and I’m more than happy to talk about any in detail should you wish!

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” Eleanor Roosevelt

“There are two great ways of spreading light: To be the candle or to be the mirror that reflects it” Edith Wharton

“As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live” Goethe again

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” Mahatma Gandhi

Security is mostly a superstition, it does not exist in nature …Life is either a daring adventure or nothing” Helen Keller (Who as I’m sure you know was born blind and deaf)

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” Marcel Proust

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” Carl Yung

Put all together like that they seem to lose a little power but each one of them could form an excellent basis for a family chat some meal time. As if. I’d love to hear your inspiring quotes.