September 21, 2022
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
I know that some of you are already feeling a little ‘wrung out’ (even though it is only mid-September) and are counting down the days until October half-term. September often gets underlined in the calendar as a month where we articulate our goals, get on with our tick list of jobs and feel motivated. Unfortunately, the one thing we might forget is that ‘time out’ is required mid-way through any journey to rest, recuperate and refresh.
This morning, as I lay on the grass and enjoyed the last of the autumnal sun, I just ‘took ten’ to appreciate my surroundings. I enjoyed looking at the hats on the acorns that were falling from the tree and pinging off the grass, enjoyed the sound my cat made as he sniffed around in the bushes, enjoyed the sight of the trees against the sky and the warmth of the sun on my face. I experienced a little wave of gratitude and of joy, and we all know that a little gratitude can ignite resilience.
Gratitude encourages us to look at life in its granularity and reminds us of how plentiful our lives truly are. There is also something about feelings of gratitude that promote a sense of self-compassion. Perhaps I haven’t done everything I said that I could or would do last week, but you know what? I absolutely tried my best, my intentions were good and my motivations were honest. Sometimes we can do our best and then there comes a point where we need to just stop, pour ourselves a cuppa, sit back and ‘take ten’.
Now, some of you might be feeling wrung out after a ‘university drop off’. Social media is full of parents’ pictures of cars packed with luggage, smiling faces at halls of residence and crying relatives (whether from joy or deep grief!).
I watched David Attenborough’s programme Frozen Planet II a few nights ago. I wasn’t able to stop thinking about a scene featuring penguin parents and their young. As Attenborough describes, these parents are among the most protective in the whole animal kingdom. They shield their chicks from the coldest temperatures on earth, they work tirelessly, collaboratively and endlessly to sustain their young until they grow into young adults… and then, well, they just walk away. Witnessing the scene where they actually do ‘waddle off’ (without looking back) pulled on my heartstrings, but I felt some admiration too. At the moment of collective departure, these penguin parents were confident that they had done their very best to prepare their chicks for the journey ahead. What more could they do? They had nurtured their bodies, supported them to become physically robust and modelled essential survival skills. If they didn’t waddle away, the chicks would likely remain eternally dependent and unable to find out what they knew, or were truly capable of.
The cut-off point for penguin parenting is clear-cut. In humans, adolescence spans the ages of 9-24, so even at 18, our children’s minds are still developing and the pruning process that hones the brain still occurs. A counterintuitive feature of adolescence is that the sense of self, a stable ‘core’ self, emerges and eventually blossoms through ‘flux’. Change is a necessary component for psychological growth.
As parents of older teens look back through photo albums, hold tiny first shoes in their hand or gaze at pictures of their baby on the mantelpiece, they should remember that their child has now turned a page and is starting an exciting new chapter in their self-story.
We might not be the authors or principal narrators for this next act, but we have set the tone and have done all that we can to ensure that the story continues with some momentum and in a positive direction. Yes, new characters will emerge, experiences will unfold and we need to be ready for anything, as all stories contain unexpected twists and turns. You might feel butterflies in your tummy at the very thought, but remember we can choose to reappraise anxiety as ‘excitement’ too.
For those of you still reeling from the fact that adolescence ‘officially’ continues beyond 18, I have some good news for you. I recently attended a presentation by Professor Anastasia Christakou of Reading University, who is leading some dynamic research designed to learn more about this fascinating period. Her research team aims to better understand how behaviour and emotion interact with brain and body physiology during adolescent development. We know that significant changes take place during the transition from childhood to adulthood, in the structure and function of the brain, in how we think, and how we behave. But this innovative new work now asks: how do these changes unfold over the timescale of months or even weeks?
To do this, the team will work with young people, parents, teachers and other practitioners, to understand brain structure and function, hormone changes, emotional and cognitive changes, and build a detailed, more fine-grained picture of interactions across these levels that determine the way individuals mature. This approach will provide unprecedented insight into the developing mind, ultimately enabling us to support and educate young people more effectively.
What’s more, it is research that you and your family could take part in, as participants or as advisors during the development of research components! Their work is part of a larger project at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics at the University of Reading, which aims to foster collaborative relationships between researchers and young people, plus their families and their schools.
Anyone interested in learning more can email Anastasia and her research team directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to feeling wrung out. If we don’t pay at least some attention to our own wellbeing, the return to work and school after the summer lull can quickly become overwhelming. For many of us, life has suddenly become very hectic again; early starts are necessary to ensure that everyone is fed and out on time, there’s work to be done, jobs around the house to manage, homework to supervise and after school commitments to get to. It may feel like there isn’t even time to take a breath.
But if my quick break in the sunshine taught me anything, it was that it’s absolutely vital that we make time. In our busy lives, no doubt full of stresses and strains, we all need to recognise the value of ‘taking ten’.
Grounding ourselves in nature by spending a few minutes lying in the sun and really noticing our surroundings is one way of boosting our resilience and wellbeing. But it’s not the only way. Effective investment in self-care will differ for us all. It might mean ensuring that we get enough sleep, doing some drawing or stepping outside for a bit of fresh air each day. It could be eating nutritious food, chatting with a friend or exercising. It might encompass being kind to ourselves rather than focusing on flaws, or choosing to do some activities that leave us feeling recharged and happy. What is true for us all though, is the importance of recognising what helps us to feel good.
I always recommend that children create a coping menu of go-to people, activities and passions which make them feel better when they are overwhelmed, down in the dumps or plain irritated. Actually, it’s an exercise that is just as valuable for us adults! In fact, doing this activity together as a family might be optimal. Modelling how to navigate everyday worries, discussing and mapping out coping strategies, articulating what makes us feel good, and pointedly making time for ourselves can help to teach our children that overwhelming stress isn’t something we should just tolerate.
Any regular readers of Wednesday Wisdom will know that I frequently make reference to the fact that parental stress and anxiety can negatively affect not just us, but our children too, in multiple ways. By focusing on ourselves, taking our own feelings and experiences seriously, and charging ourselves up with breaks when we need them, we are actually future-proofing the whole family.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Identifying our own worries and anxieties can be enormously helpful in managing them. If you are a Tooled Up subscriber, you might like to use our evaluative tool to help you to narrow down the areas of life where your stress levels are high and work out what you can do to feel a bit better. Our library also features a host of wellbeing resources which, whilst designed with younger people in mind, may be beneficial for you too! Our 30 Calming Drawing Ideas, Coping Menu, Wellbeing Journal and Things I Can/Can’t Control template might all give you some useful ideas.
On a different note, you may see media coverage this week about the death of Molly Rose Russell, a young teen, who took her own life after having been exposed to harmful online content. The inquest into her death began yesterday. Make be aware that coverage, including well-meaning notices like this one, can have the potential to increase harmful searches. Remember that, as parents, one of the best things we can do is talk to our children openly about their digital diets, what they are seeing and doing online, and whether anything is concerning them. Read about resources that we have in our library that can help you navigate chats with your children. Our recent latest news article lists them all.
Parents of teens who have just left for university can find further tips on supporting them in the Tooled Up library. We know that transition to university can be exciting, but also a challenging experience for some. We’ve teamed up with Dr Kathryn Bates, and researcher, Kerrie Portman, an autistic young person, to create a video and article packed with useful coping tips.