One of the great joys of the internet is our ability to communicate more easily with people. When I lost my brother to sudden death five years ago, I was fortunate that some of my brother’s friends contacted me to express their shock and condolences. This helped me enormously with my grief as in a way, I saw it as my brother trying to console me.
One lady that I became acquainted with, was Paula Coles, who is also a leading psychotherapist. I admire Paula a great deal for her empathy and compassion. I also love how Paula is raising her two lovely children. So, I approached Paula and she kindly agreed to answer some questions for me on parenting in the Twenty-First Century. Paula is a highly experienced, BACP fully Accredited Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor with nearly 25 years experience, working in independent practice. She has really thought about her responses to my questions and I know that her answers will resonate with so many parents. They certainly made me think! Huge thanks to Paula for agreeing to be interviewed and for making this post so worthwhile.
Do you think that parents nowadays doubt their ability to parent more than in previous generations?
Some parents, absolutely! I think in recent years parenting has become, mainly for middle class parents, a neurotic obsession. I think there are a huge variety of reasons for this and sadly it’s cultivated by a lot of industries…parents are consumers and have been told that if they meet a set of criteria, they are doing it well. These criteria often come with a price tag, there are a huge amount of absurd franchises out there that push for parents to sign up. I joke with clients that if their children aren’t at foetal Tai Kwando or neonatal French, they may be doing irreparable damage! We are also told to watch out for pesticides, phthalates, nuts, gluten…you name it. We have made life absurdly complicated and stressful with this ridiculous attention to detail. What does the most harm to parents and children is an anxious environment. Research shows that although many aspects of cultural capital add quality to a child’s life (reading, travel, playing an instrument and so on) these things only enrich life if they are done with enjoyment and without pressure. An over-scheduled child ferried from after school club to tutor, to piano lesson will gain little and may well become ill from all the requirements placed on them.
What do you think are the main causes of anxiety in children today?
Over scheduling. I know of children who spend every day in breakfast club and after school club and then attend a large variety of activities. They have schedules that would challenge an adult. All this is doing is teaching a child how to be busy. Boredom is vital if children are going to rest and learn how to be self-stimulating and creative. I’ve worked with young people who have been ferried from one adult led activity to another and they struggle desperately to manage and enjoy their own time.
Of course, some children have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, but as researchers say, genetics is the gun, but environment is the trigger. A family that gently supports a child rather than overscheduling, can do wonders to counter any genetic predisposition.
Research (Carroll et al 2013 and Rivero 2013) also shows that affectionate parents and carers help set up wellbeing for children for life. Whilst this may sound blatantly obvious, I think a society that pressures us to think about our children in terms of their so-called success and achievements works against this. Are you as warm and loving with your children when they don’t “do well”? Unconditional parenting is quite a challenge in a society so focused on the fear of failure, where we are utterly soaked in comparison with others.
Do you think that advances in technology have a lot to answer for in terms of childhood anxiety?
In some ways, yes. Research is suggesting that we don’t have the neurological capacity to deal with the huge amount of information we are now receiving 24 hours a day. Again though, this is about the boundaries adults put on it. Technology can be amazing; some resources give children the capacity to create and access imagined worlds in a way we couldn’t have comprehended 20 years ago. It’s up to parents to think about what they are exposing children to. A short period of time creating on mine craft or using a stop motion animation app is a world away from a whole weekend spent simulating battles on a PlayStation.
Do you think that continued assessment of children throughout their schooling has led to more cases of anxiety?
Completely. We don’t fatten pigs by weighing them! Children are sitting exams and starting to experience burnout at an age where they have barely learned to understand social dynamics. I’m seeing the results of this in children exhausted by the time they reach GCSE level. Educational time could be so much better spent nurturing children. Education is a long journey, burning children out in the first few years is completely ludicrous.
What are some of the best ways to manage anxiety in children?
By parents finding ways to manage their own anxiety! Children follow our lead, we teach them what life is about. Existentially that’s a huge responsibility and certainly can’t be remedied by a bit of cognitive therapy or medication. I hear adults moaning all the time about how hard being an adult is, what huge responsibilities they have, and whilst that may be true, research shows us that the most anxiety provoking thing is being in a position of learned helplessness…. having others tell us what to do and dictating our days. For most people the time when their life is most controlled by others is childhood and I think people don’t realise how stressful that can be. If grown-ups don’t like their partner, job, friends and so on they can often change them. For children they are mostly stuck in an environment with little option for change. I think as grown-ups we need to be more understanding of this. We also need to give children space to have the same emotional rights as us. They have bad days, moods and disappointments yet, we constantly try to shut that down and tell them such as “you’re just tired” then we wonder why we have so many young suicidal men in this country who struggle with emotional literacy and sharing feelings.
If a child is clearly exhibiting anxiety and perhaps is also knows to have a genetic predisposition, I also would urge parents and carers to ask for help. Whilst I’m in no doubt this is tremendously difficult with strained CAMHS and NHS services I constantly tell people “squeaking wheels get oiled”, ask, moan, keep pushing. There are some excellent professionals out there and your child deserves their help.
How might a parent help a child with low self-confidence?
Again, I think children follow our lead so if a parent knows they lack confidence or aren’t very assertive, it’s worth trying to work on that. I always say we need to walk alongside a child as they learn things, pushing a child to do something they can’t do is pointless and cruel…staying with them whilst they take small steps to try something new is far better for wellbeing. Some children have a natural growth mindset and will take on challenges with joy and enthusiasm, but if you have a child who is more hesitant then forcing them to do things, they aren’t ready for is utterly counterproductive. In the words of the fabulous Jenny Mosley (creator of golden and circle time in schools) who was also one of my tutors on my MEd “Children will only ever learn when they are happy”. Work with them, praise and encourage, but never push or shame if they feel panicked.
We also have an issue in society today, in my opinion, with children who have been pushed into busy social settings from an early age and then often present with attachment problems. Adults around them will praise their confidence and bravery but what we are seeing is children who are reckless and have an emotional thermostat set at too high a level. To cope with being in busy unusual settings from a very early age they have learned to not care. The worrying consequence of this is a continued searching for emotionally extreme circumstances and a desire for activities and dynamics that will replicate the unease they felt in early years and have normalised. It worries me greatly that we have a generation of children doing way too much…60 hours a week in childcare, buzzing social calendars. For wellbeing and mental health this must slow down. It’s one of the things that saddens me about the societal and financial pressures many families are under these days, as it seems the children are often bearing the brunt of it. My hope would be that we will start as a society to realise that the way we treat small children (and reward the educators who nurture them) underpins everything. Our future as a society depends on the mental wellbeing of today’s children. It concerns me that now we have the balance all wrong.
Paula Coles B.A. (Hons), P.G.C.E., M.Ed. (Psych.), Dip. H.E. (Couns), P.G.Cert (H.E.) Clinical
Superivison. MBACP (Accred.). Teacher, Lecturer, Therapist and Clinical Supervisor. BACP Accredited. Specialist in working with trauma, creative and art therapies. Ph.D research in trauma.