Category Archives: Sunday Times Columns 2009

Can I “bully-proof”my child?

I have been invited to go down to PE to talk at a fundraiser – and the topic that I was asked to speak on is bullying. So I went back into my archives and here is one of my very first columns. It is a topic that, sadly, is still important as bullying is such a pervasive and difficult issue. And not only in schools and during childhood. My work with adults and within corporate and workplace settings keeps reminding me that it is a big issue throughout our society. 

“Our child lies in bed every night, crying. He says he’s going to kill himself. Kids at school are calling him names. Some of them push him around. We don’t know what to do about it.” The mother becomes tearful.  The father says, “I just want to go to the school and beat up every one of those bullies.” I look at my distressed clients and see the expectant look in their eyes, the look that says, ‘Give us a solution.’ While there is no single answer, there are, however, strategies we can use to try manage this problem.

Bullying evokes a variety of responses. We might feel powerless and tempted to minimise the situation, or angry and determined to protect our kids by taking action against perpetrators. We might also be concerned not to overprotect our child from a ‘normal’ life situation and believe they should ‘tough it out’.

The first thing to do when you suspect your child is being bullied or if he/she reports being bullied, is to establish the extent and nature of the problem. Is what your child is experiencing part of acceptable social interaction or is it more persistent and  problematic? Some children are more sensitive and may struggle to manage ordinary social interactions, but on the whole children are pretty accurate about assessing the intentions of their peers.

Bullying can be verbal, physical or social in nature and has the intention to hurt, humiliate and isolate individuals. It can include name-calling, shunning and ignoring, threatening, mocking, physical violence, spreading rumours, extorting money and possessions. These days it happens not only at school and social gatherings, but also online and through cell phones. And it is something that both girls and boys do.

Parents often ask me whether there is something specific about their child that makes them the victim of bullying, are some kids are more vulnerable? Bullying can be about anything: your height, or lack of it, your weight, or lack of it, your money, or lack of it, Bullies will zero in on any aspect of their victim’s life. However, those children who are the victim of repeated bullying do tend to have certain characteristics in common.  They tend to have poor coping mechanisms in ordinary situations. Often they have low self-esteem and may be anxious and passive, and struggle to assert themselves. On the other hand they may also respond too impulsively or aggressively to an event, making them a sure target for bullies who thrive on getting a rise out of their victims.

Bear in mind also that the way you respond to finding out that your child is being bullied is influenced by your own experiences. If you were, or still are, a victim of harassment, or a bully yourself, you might find it difficult to act in a calm and appropriate way. Bullying also isn’t just something that happens to children. At all levels of society and in all workplaces people intimidate others or act passively in the face of intimidation. How you typically act in these situations can affect how you respond to your child being bullied.

To help your child who’s being bullied begin by acknowledging and recognising how difficult the situation is for them, praise their bravery in telling you about it. Offer comfort and support, no matter how upset you are, and take seriously their fear that if the bully finds out that they’ve told, the bullying may get worse. This does not mean you should keep the incidents secret and bury them. Be active in approaching the situation and deal with it sooner rather than later. Brainstorm and discuss different coping strategies. Consciously working on open communication between you and your child will help you to help them to be more in charge of the painful situation. As part of this approach you could role play what they could do or say differently.

Your actions should also take into account that bullying is a systemic problem, not only an individual one. You might need to speak to the school, or other adults in positions of authority, and report the incident, but in such a manner as not to disempower your child. All schools should have an anti-bullying policy, and this policy must be made clear to learners and staff at the school.  At the same time it is not only the school’s responsibility to solve the problem. This can only be done effectively if you see yourself as in partnership with the school and your child, allies in enforcing zero-tolerance for bullying.

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Raising Brave Children

baby-supermanTimmy buzzed around my consulting room, playing Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet he rescued the doll family that he’d earlier tied up with some string. In the sand tray he intervened to prevent the marauding dinosaurs from stomping on the farm animals that waited anxiously for their hero to arrive. After performing an emergency operation on the toy bear, he flopped down onto the floor and said wistfully, “Where’s the real Superman when I really need him?”

Timmy, the courageous conqueror of crime, dinosaurs and illness, the hero of the hour, had been referred to me because he was scared all the time. He had nightmares, struggled to separate from his mom when he had to go to school and worried constantly about bad things happening. He was particularly afraid of swimming in the pool – he said his brain told him sharks didn’t live in swimming pools, but his heart and tummy couldn’t believe his brain.

In the course of play therapy my aim was to help Timmy face and manage his fears. To do this he would have to find his own inner superhero. SuperTimmy would have to demonstrate courage – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to disregard fear”.  Courage, also known as bravery, valour, tenacity and pluck, is not recklessness or fearlessness. Courage is informed by fear and able to learn from fear. Courage is doing what you know is right even when it’s not easy. Charles A. Smith, an American educator, points out that “courage finds its roots in two fundamental skills learned in early childhood – persevering despite adversity and remaining mindful despite fear”.

So how do we teach our children to be brave? Firstly we need to model being brave and proud of our own moments of courage. We also need to teach children to persevere. We can encourage this by praising and rewarding effort, focusing less on the outcome of a project than on the process. In order to teach mindfulness in spite of fear we can provide scaffolding – small amounts of support and reassurance to help children move gradually through increasingly anxiety-provoking situations. The parent’s support and soothing words help the child calm down enough to manage fear. Over time the child learns to calm himself down, so the ability to self-soothe is internalised. Current research suggests that this is a result of the strengthening of those brain pathways that manage stress. 

As well as offering appropriate support, we can also help our children develop confidence by “letting go”. In her excellent book on parenting, Letting Go as Children Grow, Deborah Jackson, a British writer, points out that while children need adult support, they do not need interference, which can damage their growth. If we learn to trust our children at each stage, they are more likely to find their own courage. When parents do a little less there is the likelihood that children will feel freer to do a lot more.

girl lighting fireOne way in which parents can build children’s confidence and courage is to think about the challenge offered to parents by Gever Tulley of The Tinkering School in Southern California. Before you ask why, here are five dangerous things he says you should get your child to do:

  1. Play with fire
  2. Have a pocket knife
  3. Take things apart
  4. Drive something
  5. Throw things and skim stones

We live in a dangerous world. So why on earth encourage our kids to do more dangerous things? Tulley reckons that we need to learn about our own power and potency. We do this by learning about the world and how and why things happen, its causes and effects, and by experimenting with the limits of our physical capacities. We must have the experience of being in control. Of course all of the above activities MUST be carried out under responsible adult supervision, with guidance, support, and yes, scaffolding. 

Allowing kids to explore and use tools encourages creativity, independence and a desire to learn. We risk having societies turn into sterile systems, where dirt, trees and appliances are taken away from kids, together with marvellous opportunities to learn by playing!

As parents we can tell our kids that fire is dangerous and useful, but until you actually build a fire, “play” with it, cook something on it, and learn to control it and put it out, you haven’t learned about fire. In reality our children will do dangerous things whether we like it or not. If they are forced to do so secretly without your help and supervision (not interference), they are more likely to hurt themselves. Children are more at risk if they have not had guided experiences with danger.

I thought of other things our Superboys and Supergirls should be encouraged to try as we watch them learning to be brave:  

  • Climb things, especially trees
  • Jump off and over things
  • Taste new foods
  • Act in a play
  • Make a new friend
  • Go on a ride at a funfair
  • Say what you feel
  • Play in the mud
  • Risk failure
  • Dance
  • Sing loudly

Perhaps it’s not only the parents who allow their children to run wild who are a problem. It’s also the parents that won’t let their children run at all.

 

Money, money, money: parenting and the recession

When I was young we were so poor we lived in a shoebox. 

We walked to school in the snow, listened to the radio, watched the test pattern and for a special treat shared an ice cream at the corner café. We wore hand-me-down clothes and nobody laughed. There were no designer cell phones, sneakers or R600 Playstation games.

Today our kids hang out in shopping malls, are driven to school, insist on DC shoes, watch tv in their rooms and for a special treat are dropped off at U-parties with 200 bucks in their pockets in the company of friends who say, “Yo, dawg!” and “Hey, bru!” and who all know the difference between Mr Price and Iron Fist clothing.

Times have changed. The new jargon is retrenched, downsized and credit crunched. We are in a recession and, while I don’t believe in the golden age of the past, where money is concerned there are a few lessons we can learn from our own parents.

Your parents may have been economical with the truth on issues like sex and politics, but they were most likely honest about money and the importance of being frugal. That kind of directness is important. Don’t pretend to children that nothing’s changed since the recession began. Discuss realities about money honestly and age-appropriately, and don’t over-protect children from the reality of your situation.

Opening these channels of communication about money can help children to value it for what it enables us to do and experience, while not overvaluing it for its own sake. In your talk and actions model the idea that money is important but not the main signifier of success.

One way to teach kids the appropriate value of money is by drawing up a family budget together, and discussing the main components. Then agree on a certain amount of pocket money each week in return for specific chores, according to the age and needs of a child. With chores, a clear relationship between work and money is set up early on. As part of their budget, also insist that a certain percentage of pocket money, for example 15%, is set aside for savings.

It is also worth encouraging an entrepreneurial attitude in your child. True entrepreneurs may be born not made, but all of us can improve our enterprising skills. A kid I know has been selling bird feeders. My friend’s child wants to make a lemonade stand like the one he saw in a tv programme – with a little effort he could make money the next time Walk the Talk passes by his house.

Even if you and your family are not very good entrepreneurs, it’s not difficult to adopt a creative approach to living life that makes or saves money, rather than simply splashing out money on restaurants, holidays and malls. Creative activities that are not expensive include: walk in parks or on the beach if you are lucky enough to live at the coast; making birthday cards; meeting friends and family in the park for a picnic; building hideaway dens in the garden; using materials from your recycling bin for your kids to build objects with; or helping your child to use wooden blocks to make a play house for his hamster. And keep a lookout in the press, local newsletters and internet sites like Jozikids for various inexpensive activities.

But what happens if, despite your best intentions, your children are obsessed with designer labels and will only wear Ed Hardy or AmaKipKip? They could certainly save or earn some of the money for these, but don’t be emotionally blackmailed into believing that having the right clothes will make a child happy and popular. At the same time don’t be a hypocrite – if you will only wear Prada what do you think your child will want?

In the end, parenting in a recession is about reclaiming one thing our parents may have got right in the past – we are not entitled to have money so look after it carefully.

 

The art of monster taming

In the last 24 hours my 7-year old son has done the following: stand in the middle of the lounge, mimic Michael Jackson and moonwalk backwards out the door; use a four-letter word while arguing with his friend; hug me lovingly while whispering in my ear, “I just farted’; play a computer game called Zoo Tycoon with the finesse of a teenager; shoot hoops in the back garden and sulk for an hour because he missed three shots in a row; stroke his baby cousin’s cheek tenderly; lie on the sofa watching television, smearing pizza over the cushions, pretending not to hear us telling him to tidy up and go bath.

Welcome to the rollercoaster ride. One moment your child is sweet and loving and the next a monster awakes. Trying to pin down a reason for the change is the sort of challenge that Sherlock Holmes would not relish. But parents know something Holmes doesn’t. Their child is possessed. Only an exorcism will do. Until the priest arrives, however, a number of sensible measures may be employed as holding actions when your child is being impossible.

  1. Try distraction – and try it as soon as you see the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown looming. Point out something very interesting to your child, use cajoling, humour (sparingly though or your over-sensitive and overwrought child might feel humiliated and mocked) and judicious bribery. If the idea of parenting by bribery makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it as a reward or incentive programme, just as the management consultants did at your company recently.
  1. Offer choices. “Richard, you can either pick up all the dog mess in the garden for the next two years, or you can brush your teeth.” “I’ll brush my teeth,” he smirks victoriously. Children love the power to choose. Of all parenting strategies, this one is the simplest and most effective. Keep choices clear and limited, not “what vegetable do you want with your supper?” but “what would you prefer, peas or carrots with your chicken?”
  1. Time out. Tell her you love her but she’s going to her room anyway for a time out – a minute for every year of her life, or until she calms down. She may break things or shriek horrendously but she’s staying there until time is up. The main idea of Time Out is not to punish, but to de-escalate, defuse and calm a situation down. Many parents are concerned that sending a child to Time Out in their bedroom won’t work as there are things to do and play with in a child’s room, but that’s the point – distraction. As long as the behaviour that you don’t like has stopped. Time Outs shouldn’t happen in locked bathrooms, dark cellars etc.
  1. Walk away (emotionally). It is essential that parents stay calm in the face of the enraged child. Do not rise to the challenge of each battle, choose the ones worth fighting and then stand your ground. Stay calm. Shrieking at an already shrieking child is adding fuel to the fire. And never worry about what the neighbours will think about ignoring the prolonged wailing of your child because you’ve reminded him that no-one died from not owning a Ben 10 Omnitrix. Staying calm and walking away when necessary minimises the temptation to lash out at your child. Smacking as a way of disciplining is controversial and potentially problematic. My experience as a parent and psychologist is that smacking is not a particularly useful long-term strategy for managing children’s behaviour. It allows adults the illusion of control and temporary relief from difficult situations, but if used often becomes increasingly destructive. Children learn to hide their true feelings, obeying out of fear not respect. They learn that people who are bigger or stronger have control and that physical expressions of anger are acceptable.

Be an adult for your child’s sake

It had been a bad day at work, having to listen to a divorced couple fighting about who had damaged the children the most. I was left thinking that the only upside of toxic, distressing divorces is that there will always be work for psychotherapists, who have to treat the child casualties of these warring parents. 

The writer Margaret Atwood said that divorce was like an amputation: “You survive it, but there’s less of you.”

Divorce is painful, prolonged and complicated, and divorcing parents have to summon all their courage to be one main thing – the adult.

Sadly, a “happy divorce” is not the norm and there are few palatable truths when children are involved. Research shows that it is not possible to predict how most children will deal with divorce, only how an individual child might respond. It is thought that the younger a child is when their parents divorce, the more difficulties they have as a result. Research also indicates that boys tend to struggle more than girls do. Other factors are:

  • The child’s adjustment to life before the divorce proceedings begin;
  • The mood and attitude of the parents over the divorce period – a highly depressed parent has a greater effect on a child than one who is better able to manage his or her own feelings; and
  • The level of conflict between parents and to what degree the child has contact with both parents over the divorce period.

To add to the somber picture, let us dispel a few myths. Firstly, children often adjust to a bad marriage and prefer to have the family together instead of it splitting up. When you justify your actions by saying your child will be happier when you become happier after the divorce, you underestimate to what degree children struggle to overcome their powerful emotions and reason through the whole experience.

Research shows that children of divorce are generally more sexually active, more depressed, more confrontational with peers, more aggressive with teachers and more likely to get divorced in future. On the other hand, children who have two parents and an intact home benefit from routine and stability. It seems that children’s happiness is more influenced by stability than their parents’ level of happiness.

Secondly, it is certainly true that a “civilised” divorce is better than a highly destructive and traumatic one. But underestimating and minimising the effect of any kind of divorce is a mistake. In almost any divorce there is hurt, anger and frustration. These feelings have a way of filtering down to your children.

According to Judith Wallerstein, a US psychologist who has researched the long-term consequences of divorce, “the parents’ anger at the time of the break-up is not what matters most. Unless there was violence or abuse or high conflict, a child has dim memories of what transpired during this supposedly critical period”.

What is more significant is the longer-term relationship between the divorced parents after the initial separation and divorce has happened. What must be dealt with in an ongoing way are the bruised feelings, sadness and anger that are difficult to process, and even the changed financial situation and complex visitation arrangements.

Do not buy into the whole myth that if you just deal with the divorce process in an orderly manner things will be okay. Rather plan to put lots of energy into the aftermath of divorce.

So what if, despite knowing all of the above, you still need to get divorced?

1. Look after yourself so you can help your child;

2. Do not blame or insult the other parent or argue with your ex-spouse in front of the children. When you criticise the other parent, you criticise half of the two people with whom your child identifies;

3. Know what to talk about and what to keep quiet. Tell your child the truth about the divorce and acknowledge their – and your – feelings, but keep legal or financial details of the divorce to yourself. Children feel confused when parents share too much detail with them;

4. Do not keep a spy in the other home. This damages your child’s sense of how to manage conflict;

5. Allow visitation rights – do not sabotage your children’s relationship with your ex;

6. Avoid buying your children’s love with gifts and indulgences. Invest thought, consideration, attention, affection, pride and time in your children; and

7. Be the adult. This is the hardest one to do. A colleague commented that there is probably no clearer evidence of maturity than to be able to allow, and even encourage, your children to have a relationship with a person you may despise or hate.

 By looking at the big picture and acting as calmly and maturely as possible, you give your child the best chance of growing up into a healthy adult who has healthy relationships.

 

 

The Good-Enough Parent

An approach to parenting that is pragmatic and principled

I worry that there are already too many experts on parenting. Books crowd the shelves, websites mushroom insistently, earnest articles advise us about the best way to manage what is an extremely difficult task.

Parents often say that children should be born with a user’s manual. The experts make up for this oversight by writing books that tell you how to be the best parent from conception onwards. On the other hand, parents are also advised to follow their own instincts, to trust their intuition and go with their gut. I worry that these conflicting opinions often end up making parents feel confused, guilty and inadequate rather than inspired and hopeful.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many parents I have worked with have been raised in urban, nuclear family settings and have had little exposure to parenting other than that of their own parents.

We cannot simply replicate the way we were parented. The world has changed.

Parents today face different realities. Few families have the choice of one parent staying home to parent full or part-time. Single parent and divorced family situations add to the complexity. Children also have access to information, technologies and the easy temptations of substances that allow for immediate gratification. Yet at the end of the teenage journey our children have to be independent and self-disciplined.

Old models of submission no longer fit. Some dictated that women submit to men as head of the family, that men submit unquestioningly to their bosses at work and that children always submit to adults. But these are no longer viable. Our constitution guarantees the rights and equality of workers, women and children. An authoritarian, ‘Do as I say’ parenting style is not helpful or possible. Children raised to always comply with adults are not equipped to ever say NO when it is necessary.

On the other hand, other models of parenting are permissive, with an anything-goes approach. Parents who are unable to set some limits for their children raise individuals who are unable to be empathic, tolerate frustration or delay gratification.

We need to explore the middle ground between authoritarian and permissive parenting. A style of parenting that is respectful of children, but that acknowledges the importance of parental authority. An approach that nourishes children without depleting parents, encourages courage and self-belief while insisting on compassion for others and the taking of responsibility.

An expert worth learning from is Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who described the middle path in parenting. He argued that a parent needs simply to be good-enough, not perfect or even good. Just good enough.

Neglectful or abusive parenting that may be characterised by hurting, shaming and humiliation of children is not good enough. But well-intentioned, too-good parenting is not desirable either – in their desire to get it right and have perfect children, these parents end up raising children unable to manage failure. By overprotecting their children from failure or ‘damage’ to their self-esteem, they raise children who cannot deal with disappointment and are out of touch with their own feelings.

In practice what does this mean? My bit of “expertise” and experience highlights the value of the following:

As parents we need to:

  • Think about the way we were parented and question whether this is what we want for our children
  • Be responsive to our children’s needs
  • Act flexibly and practically in our approaches to motivating, communicating with and disciplining our children
  • Be realistic about what is in our power to control, and what is not
  • Remember that mistakes in parenting are inevitable, and necessary, and it’s how we repair the mistakes that is essential
  • Model respect and compassion to our children
  • Find out what is creative and joyful in our families
  • Maintain perspective and a sense of humour

Bill Cosby really understands the realities of being a parent – “in spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no-one really knows anything. You just need a lot of love and luck – and of course, courage.” Bill Cosby, Fatherhood 1986