This is a multi-part series, in this first article I’ll talk about putting the problem into context and getting some more perspective on it. Next post I’ll talk about how to put together a clear plan to make a change. If you are dealing with an urgent problem please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can mail you parts two and three.
Some mornings we just don’t feel like getting up and getting into our day. Most of us have learned that the best thing to do when we are feeling that way is to get up and get going on the routine. Before too long we are getting on with our day and finding that really, it isn’t that bad and maybe it’s even pretty good. We know that life is a mixture of good and not so good and that our reward for managing the stuff we don’t like so much is that we get to enjoy the things we do. I’m not sure many of us enjoy filling in tax forms but we know that it’s a necessity of life (apologies to the tax accountants).
When our children say that they don’t want to go to school we are given an opportunity to help children to learn how to cope with the ups and downs of life. The reason I can say this so confidently is that we know from research into resilience that getting through the challenges that life presents us develops resilience. Also, from Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindset we know that folks who celebrate challenges are much more successful in life.
At times we will all be confronted with difficult social situations where someone is saying something we find challenging. This may be saying unkind or inappropriate things about a friend or acquaintance or may be statements contrary to our own beliefs. Many people find these situations awkward and uncomfortable. Young people are developing the skills to effectively manage these kinds of scenarios and may need some help to do this.
There are three commonly used but less useful/functional reactions to difficult social interactions, these are:
Better ways of managing difficult social interactions are:
Consciously deciding that the incident is not worth your time or effort to deal with and to ignore it or walk away from it. The difference between this and being passive is that this is a considered decision rather than simply allowing someone to do something to you.
Another option is to choose to act assertively. Whilst this can be difficult to do at times it may be the best choice. Acting assertively means to state your needs/thoughts in a calm, non-threatening way.
Young people may need help to think through these options and it may be helpful to practice in advance, so you are more confident of saying what you want to say. People who may be able to help with this are class teachers, counsellors, school deans, parents or more socially confident peers.
Let’s talk about anxiety. Today’s article will discuss the typical experience of anxiety, fear or worry that everyone encounters. If you are concerned that anxiety is more than every day, I have some further information at the end of this article.
First up let’s get our minds into anxiety mode. Think about a near miss situation when you were driving a car. How did you feel during and immediately after this situation? Did you get back in your car the next day? Did anything change in your driving behaviour?
Anxiety is something that our thinking mind creates which is reflected in our bodies. From an evolutionary perspective anxiety is a useful adaptation because it helped to keep us safe from sabre tooth tigers and other hazards in the environment. The anxiety helps us to consider, plan and strategize how to keep ourselves safe. In our modern world there are certainly things which anxiety legitimately helps us to negotiate safely.
The picture above illustrates the typical pathway for anxious feelings. We start at a baseline of feeling confident and able to manage a situation without concern. Something triggers a rise in anxiety which will reach a natural peak and then begin to subside until we reach baseline again. Problems commonly occur when we interrupt the process of:
When should parents seek professional help for anxiety?
· If your child’s worries/anxiety significantly interfere with the child or family daily functioning and routines.
· The worries/anxiety are not age appropriate.
· The worries/anxiety persist across an extended period (longer than 6 months).
Questions to ask about your situation to help decide whether further support is needed.
· Is anxiety stopping my child from doing the things they want or need to do?
· Do most children of the same age also have the same fear or worry?
· How severe is my child’s reaction? (sourced online from the Macquarie university centre for emotional health).
Next month I’ll talk about some of the helpful things parents and teachers can do to support young people to manage anxiety.
Friendship can be defined as pleasure in the company of others, it is a reciprocal relationship in that support is expected to flow both ways. Friendships give children a context to learn social skills, they learn about themselves and other people, they provide emotional and learning resources and they provide models for subsequent relationships.
If you are worried about your child’s friendships, there are a few things you can do. It’s important to start by considering whether your child is someone who requires many friends. Some more introverted children prefer few friends compared to other more extroverted children. Some children also establish closer friendships with peers outside of the school setting, possibly even on-line. Keep in mind that the virtual world is just like the real world and children will need appropriate levels of parental supervision and support.
The following things may seem obvious to parents who have had many years to develop their social skills, but it is worth thinking about whether your child is able to do the things expected of a friend? Does your child’s body language invite others to interact? Do they know how to establish appropriate eye contact? Do they have an open posture and an inviting facial expression? Does your child sound friendly, expressive and pleasant? What is your child’s tone, pitch, rate and volume? Does your child have a range of appropriate greetings and introductions they can use in different situations? Do they know how to start conversations? Do they have a range of simple questions or topics that they can talk about? When they engage in a conversation, do they know how to answer a question, do they take turns allowing the other person to speak? I frequently use the analogy of a dance when talking about parenting. It’s important to be there to provide support when needed but equally important to stand back a little to allow them to give it a go alone. Ensure that there is the right balance between under and over involvement of parents.
Provide praise to your child as they learn and practice their skills. Offer opportunities for them to self-reflect on how things went. Keep a growth mindset. Any difficulties should be a learning opportunity. What could we do differently? Who could help?
Resilience is a concept which has been studied extensively recently both internationally
and in New Zealand. It offers a way to view an adverse situation with hope and positivity. Resilience is the concept that some people can be very successful in life despite apparent setbacks or disadvantages. I’d like to share what we know about how to develop resilience in response to an adverse event.
Resilience is focused on protective factors or actions you can take:
themselves can contribute to developing a resilient school community which is able to thrive because of and despite challenging circumstances. Adults and young people can model these skills to those who are still developing them. A key lesson from the Christchurch earthquakes is that adults modelling calm responses to challenging situations were key to avoiding ongoing negative effects on mental health for young people.
Typically, the negative effects of adverse events occur when there are several events rather than just one. If your child is experiencing multiple adverse events and is displaying behaviour of concern it may be time to consult with professionals. Helpful people to speak to are your child’s class teacher, your family doctor, the school counsellor or a psychologist.
Our current understandings about why people behave the way they do come from a rich history of behavioural science. The thinking traces back to scientists such as Pavlov with his famous salivating dogs and the development of classical conditioning, through B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning, to Bandura and Thorndike who considered the impact of society and learning on an individual's behaviour. Most modern psychologists who describe themselves as behaviourists would agree that there are only two functions of behaviour. This is great for those of us in the thick of parenting because we only have to remember two things! Human beings behave because they either want something or they want to get away from something. Really, it’s that simple.
Until recently I was involved with training educators in a framework called Positive Behaviour for Learning. So I know what you may be doing as you read the above sentence. I know that in my audiences of teachers across the Auckland region most people looked a bit sideways at me when I made that pronouncement. Let’s work through the idea. To begin I have to clarify that I’m not talking about the inner emotional workings of the brain, I’m talking about what we can see and describe taking place in the physical domain.
When I start to work with a child who is struggling to behave in what is considered socially accepted manner the first question I ask myself is, why? Are they trying to get something or get away from something. They may be trying to get away from or get , attention, this could be peer or adult attention. They may be trying to get away from or get tangibles like a computer, or toy. They may be trying to get away from or get sensory stimulation, like a quality of light which is either very attractive or very upsetting, or a texture of clothing, or sounds.
Quite often people who refer children to me will tell me in the first few sentences of a conversation the why. I often hear xxx is attention seeking. That’s so helpful because immediately I know that I need to consider that xxx is in fact behaving in a way that those around them find difficult in order to get attention. A commonly raised example from the classroom is the child who calls out constantly and inappropriately during class. In this case a teacher might tell me that this individual is attention seeking. Whilst this is helpful I generally want to dig a bit further. I might assess the child to understand better what his/her learning level was at and talk to the class teacher to find out what level she/he is pitching the learning. Sometimes I find that the child in fact doesn’t understand the lesson and had found that by calling out inappropriately they distract the teacher and peers from the fact that they can’t do the work and they avoid doing the tasks. In the end the reason for the behaviour is to avoid the tasks. The solution is to provide work at the right level and perhaps to provide some extra opportunities for the student to learn.
A similar scenario can occur at home. Parents may tell me their child may be avoiding tidying their room and despite parental reminders to get this job done the child still doesn’t tidy the room. The best way forward is to think about the why of this behaviour. Is the child trying to get attention? Have they learned that when they avoid tasks they get a lot more of mum and dad’s attention? In this case the function of the behaviour is to get adult attention. Or, do they not know how to tidy their room, or are they very tired or pressed for time so they are avoiding the task. Thinking through behaviours that you as a parent are finding challenging in this way is a great way to find solutions that work.
Something that must be taken into account when thinking about behaviour is that the function of the behaviour must be met. The solution will never involve depriving the person of the function of their behaviour. If we go back to the school example, let’s agree that the function of the student’s behaviour was to avoid the task because he/she didn’t know how to do the work. If the adults in the situation attempt to stop the child meeting the function of their behaviour in the first instance it is likely that the challenging behaviour will get worse. If the teacher ignores the child’s calling out and continues to expect that they get this same piece of work done the child may then resort to something more dramatic like swearing at the teacher or hitting one of their peers or throwing a book. This kind of behaviour will most likely see them removed from the lesson (if not the school) and in the end the function of the behaviour will be met. A better approach is to allow the child to avoid at least the initial piece of work that has caused the difficulty. A different piece of work or part of the original work can be given until the child has had time to learn a new set of skills and can tackle the original work.
At home in the room tidying example if a parent continues to force the child to tidy their room and the function is to gain parent attention it is likely the child will continue to play the situation out until the parent becomes annoyed and perhaps a confrontation will follow. If this becomes an established pattern, children learn that the best way to get their parent’s attention is to be non compliant with their requests. If the child is avoiding because they don’t know how to tidy or they are too tired, persistence with telling and reminding can lead to children escalating their behaviour in order to avoid completing the task. In the home situation it is better, in the first instance, to help your child learn how to tidy their room. Some children may need photos of a tidy room so they know what they are working towards. If your child is seeking attention they will be getting this as you spend time with them teaching them how to complete the task. As they become more competent at this they can receive attention from parents for their good work and also find more time to spend with parents on fun activities. If they don’t know how to complete the task they can receive instruction. If they are too tired once you talk and figure out a good time to complete the task hopefully the task will be completed with minimal fuss.
On a personal note my sons hated tidying their rooms so we agreed on one time during the week, for us a Sunday night just before bed time, that they would tidy their rooms. Looking back the function of their behaviour was likely avoidance. They both had busy school schedules and by the time the end of the day came they were too tired to be bothered tidying their rooms. Their father and I would give a hand as needed but once they were done they would let me know and they would line up for inspection. We made this into a game and I (silly I know) would pretend that I was an inspector and they had to stand at attention for inspection while I checked under beds and in silly places to make sure everything was just so! Kisses and hugs and extra bedtime stories were the rewards for tidy bedrooms.
If you are wondering about your child’s behaviour start by thinking about the why. Ask yourself, are they trying to get, attention (peer or adult), a tangible or a sensory experience or are they trying to get away from attention (peer or adult), a tangible or a sensory experience?
Let me know how you go.
The idea comes from the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott who was born in 1896. In his book Playing and Reality, (London: Tavistock, 1971) Winnicott proposed the idea of the good enough mother. As might be expected for a man of his time, he saw active parenting, particularly of infants, as the domain of mothers. If we shift the concept into current times, and consider that the idea of good enough applies to the people/person who is actively parenting rather than gender, it is a useful way of thinking for all of us involved in parenting or working with children and young people.
In essence, Winnicott is suggesting that initially parents provide everything an infant needs. At times parents even anticipate what they might need. For example, mums and dads swaddle their babies and lie them down soon after a feed knowing that their baby often needs to sleep after eating. As parents settle into the routines of the new baby they may momentarily delay providing what is needed. A baby may be left to cry for a moment before mum or dad comes to get them up from a sleep because the caregiver may be playing with a sibling or completing a household or work task. As children grow and develop this becomes a familiar pattern in that the early total devotion to an infant isn’t possible to sustain in the real world of siblings, work and household commitments. Often parents feel guilty about this split of roles and responsibilities. The good enough parenting concept helps us to make sense of the realities of parenting. The delays in delivering what an infant and child want are actually a good thing. They help our infant begin to develop their idea of self-concept, that they are separate from their caregivers and helps them to feel secure in their relationships with their caregivers. They learn that when their needs are not satisfied immediately there is no cause for concern.
So next time your child demands your attention for entertainment or food or other and you have to say ‘in a minute’ or ‘not right now’ instead of feeling guilty pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that you are being a good enough parent and that is in fact being an excellent parent!
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.