December 14, 2022
Aiming for Imperfection
By Dr Kathy Weston
After several texts and nudges from friends, I started watching 'I am Ruth' this week, a story about a mother (Ruth) and her daughter, who’s gradual decline in mental health appears to correlate with her excessive phone usage. No wonder I had lots of emails! If you are a regular reader, you will know that I routinely refer to research evidence on whether social media is a friend or foe, its concomitant ability to enhance teen wellbeing and potentially to fuel body dissatisfaction. The latter, we know, can lead (in some cases) to disordered eating behaviours and thoughts.
Watching ‘I am Ruth’ was validating and somewhat upsetting. Even if our own children haven’t lived through the mental health crisis featured in the programme, we can likely all relate to Kate Winslet’s response upon discovering that her child is upset and unhappy. When our children feel low, or something is deeply troubling them, we can feel a whole range of conflicting emotions: concern, irritation, anger, powerlessness, grief and guilt. We may want to ‘fix’ things as quickly as possible and may find it hard to accept that our child is struggling in ways that we can’t explain or comprehend. How could they be unhappy when they live in a ‘nice’ home, attend a good school and have lots of friends? It seems impossible, ungrateful perhaps?
Spoiler alert! If you’ve not watched the show and want to, maybe skip this next bit. In this particular programme, the daughter (played by Kate’s real-life daughter, Mia), like many anxious and distressed young people, can’t easily articulate what’s wrong or what is upsetting her. She can’t explain why she is avoiding school or why her grades are on a downward trajectory. She can, however, articulate that she no longer knows who she is and that her sense of self has fallen off a cliff.
Within the story, the glaring factor in her mental decline appears to be her relationship with her phone, which is used pervasively, day and night. The narrative suggests that her deep engagement with social media is central to her distress. If you choose to watch the show, don’t be surprised if you find yourself routinely shouting at the television, “Just take the phone off her!”.
At one point in the story, mum Ruth locks herself in the bathroom and scrolls through her daughter’s phone. As she does this, she appears breathless and distressed. She is clearly shocked by all the horrible things people have said about her precious girl and disturbed by the posts that her daughter has been circulating. Her response is to panic, find her daughter and then lurch into a series of rushed reassurances. She tells her daughter that she is beautiful, that her body is amazing and that she really needs to stop looking at this stuff. As you might imagine, in art and in real life, these sorts of comments really don’t work and, interestingly, may even exacerbate anxiety. In the anxiety literature, excessive reassurance of this type is often referred to as the “reassurance trap”.
Somehow, I wish that the programme had been followed with a ‘how to talk to your distressed teen’ guide or a good panel discussion! A more effective approach (which the character eventually figured out) was just to be there for her teen, validate her feelings rather than sweep them aside, listen actively rather than trying to problem-solve for her and to avoid overreacting when she witnesses signs of self-harm. So much easier said than done in real life, of course.
The teen in the story is taken to the GP to seek help and a CAMHS referral initiated. Ruth wants to stay in the GP appointment and to find out exactly what is wrong with her daughter, but the GP encourages her to leave. She feels rejected and reluctantly leaves the room, at which point the GP says, “Is mum part of the problem?”. It was a comment that left me irritated, as I really don’t believe a medical practitioner would suggest such a thing. However, as mum left the room, the teen opened up and felt able to be honest about her self-harming behaviour. Ruth comes full circle in the story and, as she relinquishes control and passes her daughter over to medical professionals, it appears that her daughter’s agency increases as hers dissipates. She realises that all she can do is love her daughter unconditionally and trust the process.
Social and digital media can fuel a particular version of perfect; perfect teens with perfect bodies, perfect parents in perfect homes living perfect lives. Even for adults, it can be easy to succumb to the allure of toxic perfectionism, but, ultimately, as this fascinating film demonstrated, its pursuit may threaten emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Instead, we might strive to value courage over perfection and embrace the concept of ‘good enough’ the next time we look in the mirror. In doing so, we might just give our children and ourselves a chance of self-acceptance which in itself can promote happiness.
As we step into the festive season, we are likely to be spending more time with our children. Younger children may be counting down the days until Father Christmas arrives, some of our older offspring will be revising for mocks, some returning (with dirty laundry and high expectations of a food fest) from university. You might have expectations too. What are they? Are they realistic? Or, are you putting pressure on yourself?
Once upon a time, about five years ago, I decided to doggedly pursue a ‘perfect Christmas’ for my boys, so I booked a trip to my favourite city for the festive season. We stayed in my favourite hotel, booked wonderful meals and organised what I considered to be the perfect thing to do in Paris as a 10 year old: a kids’ tour of the Louvre. How would my children react to seeing the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo or the French crown jewels in real life?
Arriving at our ‘perfect’ hotel, I realised my ‘perfect’ trip just wasn’t going to pan out. It coincided with the Gilet Jaunes (yellow vest) riots and there was something akin to a military tank positioned outside the hotel lobby, with a water cannon attached to it. The doorman ushered us inside with a sense of urgency and the gendarme were standing at the revolving doors holding machine guns. My boys were absolutely ecstatic and gleefully requested pictures with a guy who reassembled Rambo. They weren’t remotely interested in the Christmas décor in the lobby, nor in going anywhere.
Once in our room, whilst I admired the furniture and the bathroom, they were glued to the window. As it was late evening, I excitedly unfurled our matching M&S pyjamas, all of which were rejected outright. There was ‘no way’ they were wearing them and I wearily wondered if I had kept the tags. Yes, we visited the Louvre and various other museums that weekend, but, overall, our trip was expensive, tense and dissatisfying. In retrospect, I blame myself. I imposed my idea of the perfect Christmas on them, valued luxury over simplicity and failed to attune to their actual interests. That is not to say that we parents shouldn’t do things at Christmas with our families that we value and enjoy, but perhaps my trip reminds us all that children enjoy simplicity, often like being at home and don’t require anything too fancy to feel happy.
Sometimes, lowering our expectations and rejecting the toxic Christmas and holiday snaps that we routinely scroll through on social media is the best gift we can give ourselves. I know for a fact that my children would have been happier that weekend at home watching a movie, eating my roast potatoes and playing Monopoly after lunch. Now that my boys are teens, they have limited memories of our trip to Paris, recalling only the cannons and the crepes.
There is little doubt we are all very, very tired at this time of year and may not even realise how exhausted we really are. Our children are tired too. As school winds down, it can be tempting for us parents to feel the pressure rising to drum up a perfect Christmas but instead, let’s try to attune to how we are all feeling first. Before we come up with plans, why not ask our loved ones what they want to get out of the break ahead? It can feel counterintuitive to plan when it comes to holidays but a little forward thinking can help to ward off disappointment.
Emotions often run high at Christmas, so it’s good to check in before forging ahead. They run high because we tend to have high expectations of ourselves and others. They also run high because, during festive times, we tend to stop and reflect; an exercise that can be particularly difficult if we have suffered bereavement or loss. December is a month that marks the end of the year, so it calls us to account for what we have achieved (or not). For some, it will be a period characterised by financial strain, stress, looming household bill rises and unexpected boiler problems.
An antidote to all of this may be a dose of realism, authenticity, gratitude, planning, acceptance, self-compassion and delegation. The more we model these values, the higher the chance we have of actually enjoying ourselves and having a festive break that we truly want.
I would like to suggest another reason why emotions run high at this time of year; families ditch an authoritative parenting style for a more laissez-faire approach, thinking it is good to give everyone a break from the pressure of routine. Sleep routines, expectations about screen use and screen time are often momentarily paused in favour of unscheduled time.
Unfortunately, counterintuitively perhaps, ‘research suggests’ that it’s optimal to maintain behavioural expectations and sleep routines during holiday periods. Without the scaffolding of normalcy, things may slide into argument, confusion and good behaviour may decline. Sleep deprivation in particular can make for an unhappy household. So, before you ditch the rules you fought so hard to introduce to family life, give it some consideration.
Attuning to our children’s needs rather than imposing our own ideas about that ‘perfect’ holiday break seems like a positive way forward. For some neurodiverse children, or those with additional needs, parental attunement can be particularly key, and creating an environment where children and young people can have fun and not get too overwhelmed or anxious can be important. With some thoughtful planning, the holidays can be fun and restful for everyone.
If you are hosting friends and family, and are aware that one of your visitors has particular needs, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. Sensory overload is something that some autistic children and young people may struggle with during the festive season. For every condition, there are things that we can put in place to make celebrations enjoyable for everyone. Sparkly decorations, Christmas music, different food and increased social interaction can be too intense for some, so a little forward-planning can help to avoid them feeling overwhelmed. Reduce sensory overload by having twinkly lights on constantly instead of flashing on and off and music on low, or not at all. This wonderful guide from Beacon House outlines further, easy-to-follow practical strategies that you can put in place. It also covers gift-giving and receiving and issues around food.
There are many similar organisations out there that provide bespoke tips for parents and kind friends who want to make celebrations as enjoyable as possible for children with additional needs. This week, I found a website offering activity tips for parents of visually impaired and blind children, another that can help parents make Christmas deaf-friendly and even more websites filled with autism-friendly Christmas tips. They are encouraging and exciting to read. Lastly, sustainability and reducing cost is something that most of us are keen to consider at this time of year so worth bearing in mind some of these super tips by the WWF.
This is my final Wednesday Wisdom of 2022, so thank you for reading it, thank you for supporting me and for taking an interest in all the work that we do at Tooled Up Education.
I wish you a relaxing and joyful festive period with your family. Tune in for more Wednesday Wisdoms in 2023.
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Parents have continued to make resource requests and our team continues to respond. We will be recording a webinar on Low Mood and Depression in Teens with national expert, Professor Shirley Reynolds, in late December. We have recently recorded webinars on girls’ friendships (coming to the library soon) and separation anxiety, have written a new quick guide to Tooled Up’s anxiety resources, and have more resources in the pipeline for the New Year (including a very exciting guide to 50 inspiring sportswomen). 2023 will bring with it webinars on topics as diverse as dyslexia support, allergy care, misogyny and sexism, and cardiac health in children. You name it, we’ve got it!
For those of you wanting to learn about autism and evidence-based approaches, our online Autism Conference for Parents and Educators is scheduled for 21st April, so save the date. Thanks to parents who have already been in touch and expressed an interest.
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And finally… whilst it is certainly feeling very festive at Tooled Up Towers, it’s getting colder outside. We want to make you feel warm, cosy and loved this winter by giving you the chance to win a Thermomix TM6 kitchen appliance worth over £1000 and zoom cookery course. All members of the Tooled Up community opted in to our communications should have received an email from us yesterday with more information. Simply watch our video to find out how you made us feel loved this year and then let us know what we’ve done for you that has warmed your heart via the link in the email. The lucky winner will be announced on St Valentine’s Day – Tuesday 14th February 2023.