July 22, 2020
Charging Up Our Children
By Dr Kathy Weston
As schools shut and the school reports come out, it is time to stop and reflect on the ‘academic year’. Extracting the positives, I have delivered 77 talks since September and my #GetaGrip podcasts have been listened to almost 14,000 times. The appetite for evidence-based approaches to parenting has grown, as families face many more varied internal and external pressures.
The concerns that parents have, and the private struggles that families endure, are poignantly highlighted by my podcast episode ratings. The episode on parental separation has had the most listens this year, followed by one on childhood trauma, and others focused on sibling relationships and teenage behaviour.
Parenting always presents challenges, but life has thrown some unexpected ones at us in 2020. Normal routines, ways of working and living were abruptly altered or removed, and many of the experiences we took for granted were swept away. Families have been hurled into a new way of being with one another. Some have thrived in these conditions, others have struggled.
In addition to giving talks, my job involves working directly with families. This work has highlighted how isolated and lonely some parents can feel within family life, how difficult it can be to access the right help and how extraordinarily intuitive parents are about their own children. Often my role is to facilitate the dialogue between two loving parents and move them towards being on the ‘same page’. They already know what the core issue is and simply need someone to validate that observation.
If you aren’t able to listen to all 33 episodes of my podcast series, I will save you some time. I’ve been mulling over some of the recurring tips that have emerged from my interviews with the world’s top researchers. By far the most important has been the power of talk within family life.
As Professor Ellen Townsend suggested, parents should ‘reach in,’ rather than expecting children to ‘reach out’. Professor Shirley Reynolds, a global expert on teen depression, focused on the quality of interaction between parent and teen; she advised asking open-ended, non-confrontational questions when talking to young people about their mental health. Where young people are self-harming, Professor Townsend also underlined the importance of parents talking supportively and non-judgmentally to them about their feelings.
Professor Charlotte Markey made the point that family talk and conversation can help our children to think more critically about what they read and see online, whilst top neuroscientist, Sarah Jayne-Blakemore emphasised the importance of talking to our children about social media from an early age. She recommended evolving chats within family life about technology and its inherent benefits and risks.
Family talk doesn’t just build resilience; it provides a template for thinking that truly future-proofs our children. It can also be extremely challenging. When your child admits an alarming fact or feeling that rocks you to your core, it is very hard not to react intuitively; with anger, hurt, disappointment and defensiveness. It can feel counter-intuitive to stay calm, to listen without interruption and to nod one’s head in loving understanding. When our children tell us something, it may have taken months to do so, possibly years. When they do, our responses matter.
All in all, as my podcast series demonstrates, the environment, conditions and the quality of relationships we enjoy with our children set the tone for their emotional, social and educational outcomes.
A key point that has come out of every podcast interview has been the power of simply being with our children. Being physically present isn’t enough. Are we emotionally available? Are we dismissive or actively listening to what they are telling us? We should always strive to praise our children for behaviours and attitudes that we wish to see, and infuse family life with as much positivity and joy as we can muster.
Summer is here; a time to recharge our family batteries, realign psychologically and nurture our own interests away from computers and the pressures of our working lives. After reflecting on the progress we have made as families this year, let’s get planning activities that nurture our children, allow us to invest in our relationships with them and get us all excited and looking forward.
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