Many years ago I was mid session with a bright and engaging 5 year old when he looked me in the eyes and tearfully said the following:
"I'm so ugly. That’s why no-one wants to play with me".
As an early career psychologist working with children at that stage, it was a confronting moment. Like many adults, I'd believed (or perhaps just hoped) that children of this age did not have excessively critical thoughts about themselves the way many adults do.
Sadly, as my working life progressed, I’ve come to realise this is not true.
Many children and teens are absolutely capable of - and frequently do - view themselves in harsh and negative ways. Although it some young people do this less than others, and some not until they are older - eventually almost all young people berate, criticise or feel negatively about themselves at least on some occasions during their childhood and adolescence.
As a parent/caregiver, you’ve quite possibly seen evidence of this in your own children. Here are some of the common refrains you might have heard:
I'm ugly/fat/have a big nose/fat thighs/puny
I'm slow/bad at sport/school work/making friends/dumb/stupid
I shouldn't have done this/I'm bad for doing this
I can never get things right. I always mess things up.
There are many different ways we can respond as parents/carers to young people when they express self criticism. These include listening carefully, expressing care and concern, helping them notice other more positive parts of themselves and helping them redirect their attention to more positive activities instead of being stuck in a negative loop of self criticism.
However in the longer term, we want to help young people build a skill of generating self compassion when they feel critical towards themselves.
Self compassion as a concept is key in many major religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, and many different psychological treatments (including compassion focussed therapy, an approach developed Paul Glibert in 2009, which is associated with promising improvements for a range of psychological disorders). A self compassionate response to self-criticism means talking to and treat ourselves in kind, loving and understanding ways when these critical thoughts occur.
There are a number of varying strategies psychologists use for developing self compassion, but there are four particular ones I use with children and young people. I’ll discuss these below – first in the context of how we might use them as adults, and then how we can support young people to use these themselves.
1. Mindfully notice self criticism and its effects
Mindfully noticing self criticism and its effects means stopping to notice the thoughts we are having and acknowledging the pain and sadness which it brings. In other words, it is labelling specifically what is happening in our minds rather than just being lost in the experience itself.
For example when we are thinking "I'm so stupid" we might say to ourselves: "I'm feeling dislike for myself right now and that hurts a lot". When we are thinking "I'm ugly and fat" we might say to ourselves "I’m have lots of critical thoughts about my ability in this and that feels lousy". Labelling and noticing self criticism in this way provides some distance from the experience and is more likely to help us feel kindness towards ourselves.
We can help our young people to do this too. When they tell us self critical thoughts, rather tell them they are being silly, ignoring them, telling them to stop thinking those thoughts or immediately denying their perception (that's not true!) we might say sentences like:
I'm sorry your mind is telling you that and making you feel so sad about it.
That sounds like a really painful thought for you to think.
It must be tough when that feeling comes up.
I'm sorry that’s the thought you are having.
If it feels more natural, we can add a statement that we feel differently about them to this kind of labelling, for example:
I don’t think that’s true, but I’m sorry your brain tells you that
I think entirely differently about you, but I know self criticism like that hurts a lot and I’m sorry that’s in your head at the moment.
Sometimes it can be helpful to gently classify or name self criticism – for example some kids relate to the idea of "bad me" thoughts, ie "Oh those "bad me" thoughts - they can hurt a lot"
2. Reminding ourselves that many of the behaviours and characteristics we dislike about ourselves are normal and naturally arise from the way brains/bodies are designed or from experiences we have had
We often believe that our so called flaws, failings or aspects of ourselves we don’t like are more abnormal or unusual than they actually are. We also often believe that they occur because of something within ourselves rather than noticing the outside (past or present) factors which have contributed to them occurring.
It can be useful instead to remind ourselves that many of our so-called short comings and failures are very common, might simply result from having a human brain with biological drives or instincts or from having certain experiences. In other words, reminding ourselves there are many factors which make it tough to live life exactly as we would like.
For instance, a self compassion responses might be saying to ourselves:
“Of course I get angry sometimes, it's what human brains do".
“It’s not easy to stick to exercise, my brain is designed to try to keep me feeling comfortable”
"Most people have things they've done they are ashamed of",
“It’s no wonder I struggle with doing this as I never really had any training in it”
"Most people have parts of their appearance they don't like".
“My own childhood never really prepared me for this, it’s not surprising I’m finding it hard”
“I’ve had a long and tiring day, it’s understandable I didn’t understand that idea”
We can help young people do this too by providing them with information about what is normal, how brains work and how experiences affect us as humans. For example we might say sentences like:
Everyone has done that (example of their mistake), including me.
I know lots of people struggle with that issue, for example…..
Everyone lies or loses their temper, it's normal to get angry.
Have you noticed that XX (example) also does/has/did...(helping them notice others with the same perceived "flaws")
Your brain is designed to fight for what it wants, so of course you are going to feel like wanting to…
You’ve had this experience, which makes it hard to do….
Our brains are designed to keep us safe and stay away from things it thinks are scary - it's no wonder you feel nervous.
3. Treating self kindly
Another aspect of a self compassion response is to give ourselves good things and experiences when we are finding life difficult. It also means putting ourselves in situations in which we are more likely to experience kindness, pleasure and gentle experiences.
For example, as adults this might mean we let ourselves have a sleep, ease up on trying to get everything done, take a break from situations we find hard or reducing our standards for some things for a certain time period.
For children and young people, we can encourage them to find ways to be kind to themselves by saying things like:
When I feel sad, sometimes I find it helpful to read a book/do something fun..would you like to...
May I give you a hug?
Your job right now is to be kind to yourself.
It doesn't help to hurt yourself and you don't deserve to be hurt.
4. Bringing our attention to our strengths and potential for change and growth
When we are self critical or negative about ourselves, all of our attention is on our perceived flaws and challenges. A final component of self compassion is to instead deliberately remind ourselves of and shift our attention on to our strengths, areas of improvement or growth, and the potential for future change and growth.
This is tough to do (remember our brains are designed to focus on problems and areas of weakness) It takes gentle years of practice to redirect our attention onto these things when self criticism occurs. However, we can get better at doing this if we practice. For example, we might say to ourselves:
I’m struggling with X, but I am good at Y
I have come a long way compared to where I was previously in this area
I will be able to keep improving in this way
I should remember A and B about myself
Sometimes it can help us to have written lists of our strengths, put ourselves in situations where we notice or be with friends/family who can remind us of these things.
We can do help our kids learn to focus on their strengths too. For example, we can say things like:
I see you doing so well in….
You have a special skill in…
I love watching you do…
Many parents/caregivers find it quite easy to comment on our children’s strengths in this way. However what can be even more powerful than just listing their strengths ourselves is to instead help young people to start to notice their own strengths and improvements. This will help them believe and remember them more powerfully than if they just hear us describe them. To help them do this, we can ask questions to help them reflect on their own skills and growth – for example:
What are your strengths?
What is something you like about yourself?
What are you proud of about yourself?
What area have you improved in recently?
Will developing too much self compassion mean children and teens lower their standards? (aka Is a little guilt a good thing?)
Here's a common concern parents have – “If I tell my child that everyone loses their temper, or tell my teen to be kind to themselves when they've acted badly - will they think it's okay to act in unhelpful ways?” In other words, parents/caregivers are asking me – isn’t self criticism useful in helping young people make (needed) changes?
There are two points I'd like to make in response to this:
First, helping our young people to be self compassionate towards themselves does not mean we don't work very hard on helping young people reduce their unhelpful behaviour, especially that which hurts them or others. For example, it's possible to encourage young people to be kind to themselves during and after we’ve enforced a family rule or consequence for a challenging behaviour.
Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that encouraging self compassion in ourselves or our children leads to a lowering of moral or behavioural standards. In fact, there is evidence that the opposite is true. For example, studies have shown that people with a higher degree of self compassion are more likely to act compassionately towards others, those with lower levels of shame and guilt are more able to change and that self criticism is associated with worse behaviour – not better.
Practice and Modelling
Teaching children and teens to be self compassionate of course starts with being self compassionate ourselves as parents. Here’s an exercise you could do now if you like – say the following sentences out loud to yourself:
Sometimes I criticise myself as a parent for……(labelling self criticism). However this parenting business is hard, long work, it's normal for us to do it well sometimes - and not well at other times (normalising “flaws” ). I’m going to let myself take a break for a moment by…..(treating self kindly). I have many areas of strength as a parent such as……(noticing strengths).
How does this feel? Do you think developing self compassion for yourself as a parent will also help you support your child to be self compassionate when they are critical of themselves?
All the best in developing self compassion for yourself as a parent and helping your young person to develop self compassion for themselves.
In Calm Kid Central we have an activity sheet for primary aged children to draw and write about their critical thoughts and feelings and to develop self compassionate responses in these times. Click below for information about Calm Kid Central.
When we are angry, we have a strong instinct to express our outrage and needs in strong and emphatic ways. We use our words to defend ourselves, attack or defeat someone – or something.
As adults, we are (sometimes) able to disguise or dampen these themes, but in younger people (without fully developed brains) they are often expressed loud and clear.
James and his brother were playing a ball game which ended in them both yelling “You’re a cheater”, “this is stupid” and “Shut up!”
Ruby wasn’t bought something she desperately wanted at the shops, and she stomped, cried and shouted “This is so unfair” and “You are so mean” to her Mum.
Jordi was furious at Sara for telling others something told to her in confidence and texted her:“You’re a liar” and “Don’t ever talk to us again”
Tom* was asked to get ready for school three times until Dad took the ipad away from him which prompted him to yell: “Give it back to me” and “You’re horrible”
Unfortunately, while it is entirely normal for young people to speak like this at times - not only does it often make them feel worse, it makes people around them less likely to want to be with them, negotiate with or support them. Which in turn makes them feel worse.
As parents we know this of course – and we generally hate hearing our young people speaking this way. Most of us tend to intervene quickly when we hear this kind of escalating language.
“Don’t speak to your brother like that!” or “Don’t call people that!” or “Go and calm down!” we will cry.
Unfortunately, trying to stop angry young people in the heat of the moment from speaking angrily to others is only slightly helpful. It’s true we need to try to halt the damage they are doing to others and themselves right then and there, but it does nothing to develop the more important skills they need to communicate effectively - and our timing is way off.
It’s like our young person is riding their bike full pelt down a hill trying to slow down by putting their feet on their tires – and we are yelling at them to get their feet out the wheels. Instead we should have taught them (yesterday!) how to use their brakes.
In other words, we need to teach young people – not just what not to say when they are angry – but how to effectively, assertively and kindly communicate their needs and wishes when they feel life is unfair. Here are three ideas to do this with our kids and teens.
1. Help young people know what unhelpful angry language sounds and looks like
Young people need to know in advance what language doesn’t help when they are angry - and why.
When I’m talking with young people about this in the clinic, I tell them that when we are angry, we feel like using “fighting talk”. “Fighting talk” is when we speak more loudly than usual and use two particular types of sentences, “Negative Labels” and “Demands”.
Negative Labels are very short (often one word), simple and negative descriptions of a person or a situation. In the examples above, the negative labels are the words “cheater”, “stupid”, “Not Fair”, Horrible”.
Kids and I usually have quite a lot of fun coming up with negative labels they and others have used (sometimes I do need to reign this in J) about situations and people.
Demands are short sentences telling someone what to do with no explanations, no consideration of what the other person needs or feels. The demands in the examples above were “Give it back”, “Don’t talk to us again” and “Shut up”.
It’s interesting to discuss with young people the differences between demands and requests. Even younger children are often skilled at being able to distinguish between the two.
Once we’ve identified negative labels and demands, we then talk about what they do to people around us, and how they make us feel when we use them.
Recognising unhelpful language is also very helpful for young people giving clear clues about how they are feeling.
I talked to a teenager in the past who said to me: “I didn’t realise I was so angry until I heard myself using one of those negative labels”.
2. Help young people know what constructive and helpful language they can use when they are angry
As explained above, it’s not enough to tell young people to not use demands or negative labels – the important – and often missed – step is to tell them what to say instead.
I’ve often heard adults tell kids to just stay silent (“If you can’t say anything nice….”, “Walk away and come and get a teacher”, “Keep your mouth shut when you are mad”). As much as this is often the smart thing to do – realistically, it’s very tough for most young people to do it.
Furthermore, there are situation in which we do NOT want young people to walk away silently: we want them to assertively and kindly speak up.
I talk with young people less about “not talking” when they are angry - and more about the idea of using “cool talk”. Cool talk is expressing how we feel, what we would like and what is happening for us – but in a calm and kind way.
Here are two types of cool talk I teach to young people.
First, the “I think and I feel…because….” sentences.
These are sentences which start with the words “I think” and “I feel”, and have “because” (or sometimes “when”) in the middle (I feel I may have overexplained that).
“I think/I feel …because..” sentences express an opinion or an emotion and also give some details and explanation about those thoughts and feelings. They go beyond a simple “I’m angry” and let others have more information about what is happening for us.
For example, instead of “You’re a cheater”, an “I think/feel…because” sentence might be “I feel disappointed I lost because I didn’t understand that was the rule”.
Instead of “This is unfair”, an “I think/feel..because” sentence might be “I feel frustrated that I’m not going to be able to finish this game because I’ve been working on it for an hour now and if I stop now I’ll go back to the beginning”
Instead of “Shut up”, an “I think/feel..because” sentence is: “I feel worried that you are going to talk about that thing that happened which will make me feel really embarrassed”
Using “I think/feel….because…” sentences invites others to connect with us. They provide information to other people which help them understand us. They turn situations from a win/lose situations into joint problem solving situations.
It’s also interesting to note that “I think/feel…because” sentences require concentration.
Young people have to pause, and reflect and think about what they think and feel and why. This concentration and reflection in itself is helpful because it redirects energy and attention away from primitive anger centres in the brain and helps them calm down.
Another type of cool talk is the “Would you please….because…” sentences.
“Would you please….because…” sentences are sentences which assertively express what we would like from others, but in a way which acknowledges other people’s needs, and respectfully provide context and background to the request.
For example, instead of “Go away” a “Would you please….because” sentence might be “Would you please let me have the remote for now because I’ve just started this show. Then I will give you a turn in a minute”.
Instead of “give it to me” a “Would you please….because’ sentence is “Would you please let me show you how to use it first because I am worried that will break.”.
Instead of “I hate you”, a “Would you please….because sentence might be: “Would you please let me have some space for a few minutes, because I feel really overwhelmed”
A personal favourite of mine of these “Would You please sentences” is the (shortened) and simple “Would you please give me a hug?” Obviously it’s not always appropriate for all situations – however I have many families who have told me they’ve had a lot of success after teaching their children to use this simple sentence when they are angry.
3. And then…the practice begins!
Introducing demands, unhelpful labels, I think/feel…because and Would you please..because sentences is important for young people. There are other kinds of language we can introduce to older young people about assertively and kindly communicating when angry, but these are a good start.
But there is something more important than introducing any more concepts for young people and that is the practice. Practice looks different in different families, for children of different ages but might include:
Asking them to notice when as parents/caregivers we use demands and unhelpful labels – and to pull us up on it!
After angry conversations (when they are calm) asking them if they noticed any demands or unhelpful labels they used and how they worked.
Asking them if there were any “Would you please…because..” or “I feel/think…because” sentences which might have worked better
Having conversations where we use these cool talk sentences ourselves in front of our young people (and point it out later, in case they didn’t notice it at the time).
Noticing when young people use cool talk and thanking them for doing so – and pointing out how these sentences helped them and others.
Asking kids/teens to think about what might make them frustrated in the next day, and to come up with some cool talk ideas they might use in these situations
Having a visual reminder in the form of a sign on the fridge with these sentences on them
We spend many hours teaching children to use their brakes, and ride bikes safely. Helping them use constructive language while angry is another task which takes our time and patience. But even just a few minutes every few weeks working on this can help avoid many crashes!
If you have a primary aged child with big feelings or life challenges who struggles with frustration - and you would like them to watch an animation about these ideas, we have a 3 minute video, plus activity sheet, poster and discussion guide – check out Calm Kid Central.
Has your child or teen told you about something today which made them angry, worried or upset? If you live with a "big feelings" young person, then this is probably a very regular occurrence in your life.
How did you react? It's interesting to note that we often want to "fix it fast" when we hear about problems by saying things like "you're okay", "don't worry", "calm down" or "let's solve this". There is nothing wrong with these sentences sometimes, but other times they can be less helpful.
There are many other helpful things we can do when kids tell us they are upset - today let's focus on one possibility : asking more - and better - questions.
There are three helpful things about asking children and young people good questions about things that have upset them.
1. We get more information which means we can better support them. 2. They get a strong message from us: we care about what is going on
(and ..spoiler alert...most important reason coming up)
3. They get a chance to practice talking about tricky stuff.
We know that children and teens who are good at telling people about how they feel, what happened and what they want do far better emotionally than young people who don't have these skills. How do we help kids and teens get better at this? Simple, we help them practice talking about upsetting things. How do they practice it? By being asked about it.
Here are a few tips for asking questions about something which has upset a young person:
Act calm and relaxed while asking.
While we may not feel calm on the inside, we can try and make sure we act calm on the outside. This often means we have to wait long enough until we and our children/teens are BOTH feeling calm enough to be able to talk about what has happened that was upsetting. This may mean that this conversation needs to take place 30 minutes, 1 hour, a few hours or even a day or two afterwards.
When inquiring about details, consider asking questions while doing something else (i.e., walking, building something, drawing/colouring or playing a card game or watching TV, driving in the car or preparing a meal). This can lower the intensity of the conversation at times.
When having these conversations, it is important to show interest, care and concern but not look alarmed or overwhelmed. Remember, our kids need to feel to trust us and feel safe with us in order to find out more details about what happened and strategies that might help.
Make sure the questions asked are simple rather than hard.
Discussions around difficult topics may not only cause distress, but may be very difficult for children to readily share details about because they are less skilled at communication and conversation skills as we are.
Try and reduce the response demands by simplifying questions such as:
Scale questions. For example: On a scale of 0-10, how much does X bother you?
Using demonstration, role play or drawing. For example: Can you show me how you felt? (asking a child to act it out or pick out a feeling face from a set of pictures or on a scale). Can you show/draw me what they did that was mean?
Using either or questions. For example: Did you feel more upset about THIS or THIS? Were you more angry OR worried? Was it THIS which happened OR this?
Or Make a guess. For example: I’m wondering if you are feeling angry and sad that your friends called you that?
Ask about the positives.
When things are hard, it is common for kids (and us) to focus on it and talk about nothing else. This can be unhelpful for many reasons - it can further compound their distress and sense of hopelessness and get us stuck. It is really important to help children and teens ALSO talk about, be aware of and enjoy their strengths and the positive things in their lives, and the things which made the challenges easier - even if there are not very many. For example:
What is helping?
What makes it easier?
Who has been kind?
What did you do well?
What made you feel better?
What helped you cope?
Question asking is a gift we give our kids
Imagine a child/teen who over their entire childhood has had repeated practices saying: I felt this and this when this happened, this made it worse and better, this is what I could have done differently, this is what I wished had happened, and now I feel this.
Now imagine a child/teen who over their childhood has hardly ever had a chance to do this, and has had to communicate their distress without words.
These will be a very different children as they enter adulthood.
Asking kids questions takes time, patience, empathy and the ability to tolerate pain (it's hard to hear) but it is an incredible gift we give them.
You’ve just finished talking to your child’s doctor, paediatrician or psychologist and they have told you your child meets the criteria for a mental health, educational/learning or long term physical health diagnosis. What do you say to your child/young person?
10% of young people are diagnosed with a physical disability and up to 20% with a mental health diagnosis during their childhood and adolescence. Many more young people don’t have a formal diagnosis per se but have tough struggles in a particular area (learning, social, mental health, physical health).
It’s not surprising therefore that many parents have to grapple with these questions to “What should I say? And How should I say it?”.
Working out how to talk to children about their challenges and diagnoses can be tough. But doing this as well as we can is really important.
When we talk helpfully to children and young people about their challenges we can potentially support them to better understand their challenges, feel less blame and isolation, help them understand the need for treatment/appointments/home activities (when this applies) and also empower them to ask them for what they need when we are not with them.
Unfortunately, in contrast, when children hear unhelpful messages about their challenges it can lead to them feeling more distressed (in the short and longer term) about their diagnosis, feeling stigmatized (and sometimes leading them to talk to others about their diagnosis in a way with others which leads to further stigmatizing), feel uncared for, or developing a “I can’t do it” reaction to some situations in which they avoid helpful situations or behaviours because of their diagnosis or challenge – which then makes things worse for them.
So talking about this carefully does matter. How should we do this in a way which helps kids rather than hinders?
I should first say there are no hard and fast “rules”. What we say will depend a great deal on the age of the young person, what they already know, their situation and their own strengths and challenges.
Having said that, here are a few ideas which might help you either disclose a diagnosis or talk in an ongoing way to them about it.
1. Consider explaining diagnoses or disorders by explaining differences, strengths and challenges
It can be helpful to explain to some children/young people that people have different brains and bodies (even though we can’t always see this) in many ways. For example, we might say something like:
We are all different. Everyone has parts or systems in their brains and bodies which work well (sometimes we might call these “strengths”). We all have parts or systems in our brains and bodies which don’t work so well, and most people have some parts of systems of their brain and body which don’t work very well at all. Sometimes we call these challenges. When people have the same kind of challenges for a long time, sometimes we call this a disorder or a disability.
For example: your body/brain is very good at (list your child’s strengths) However the parts of your body/brain which help you (list some of the symptoms/key challenge your child has) don’t work as well as some people’s. This is a challenge for you and has been for a while now.
Some people call these challenges “Condition X” (list a diagnosis if you would like to. Please note – it’s okay to choose not to include the name of the disorder if you don’t think this is appropriate for your child – sometimes keeping the label as “adult information” is a reasonable decision).
2. Explain to children that diagnoses and disorders are not their fault
Particularly in the early days of a diagnosis, it is usually a good idea to remind young people that they haven’t done anything wrong and the diagnosis is not their fault. For example, we might say something like::
Sometimes parts and systems of our brains and bodies don’t’ work well from the time we are born – and some break down or stop working because of something which happens to us. Either way, it is no-one’s fault. There is nothing you’ve done which has made this happen.
3. Let young people know it’s normal to feel sad, tired, angry, jealous and worried sometimes when dealing with challenges (and that we will listen)
It’s important to remind children/young people that it’s okay to sometimes struggle with a diagnosis or challenge and to help them feel supported.
For example, we might say something like:
People who have challenges will sometimes feel sad or angry about the fact they have to manage them. Sometimes they feel worried about how they will cope in the future. Sometimes they feel jealous that other people don’t have to manage their challenges. Sometimes they feel embarrassed to have different challenges than other people. It’s normal to have these feelings. It’s normal to have these feelings. If you have them, would you please tell me? I’d like to be there for you.
4. Reassure them they are not alone in their challenges
We also want young people to know that there are many people (adults and kids) who are dealing with many different types of challenges and they are not alone in having challenge in their life. The risk with providing this information is that young people may feel as though we are minimizing their struggles - obviously this is something we want to avoid.
However, despite the risk it brings, I think empathically providing information that there are many others who have challenges to manage is helpful for two reasons. First, it helps young people to feel less isolated, and second it reminds them to show compassion, help and be aware of others even though they have their own challenges to manage. In the long run, this will help our children/young people feel more positive about themselves.
We might say something like this:
It’s important to know there are lots of kids/young people who have disorders/challenges. For example in every school of 100 kids, there will be X who have (state diagnosis or say “your challenge with XX). And for those kids who don’t have those challenges, there will be lots of others who have other challenges - like not being able to understand people very well, having a hard time seeing, hearing, understanding ideas, running, using their body and managing pain.
6. Let them know there are things they (or others) can do to either manage, work around or even improve their challenges
Research tells us that having hope for the future is essential for good mental and physical health. While we shouldn’t make promises to children/young people about the future, we can still provide them with optimism and hope. For example
You should know that just because you have these challenges right now and they make life different for you in some way, doesn’t mean life will always be exactly the same for you in the future as it is at the moment. Life often changes in ways we can’t predict. Your body or brain systems may change as you get older, we may find different ways to manage your challenges or you might find they bother you less when you are an adult.
7. Let them know there are positive things about having challenges
It is helpful for some children /young people to notice that their challenges and disorders – as well as being hard work – also may lead to something positive. For example, we know that challenges sometimes help children learn other skills, develop new relationships, have strengths in other areas, develop empathy for others – and cause other good things to happen in their lives.
Again, of course it’s important for us to tell children and young people about this in a way which is empathic rather than in a way which suggests they should be “happy” about the challenges they do have. But provided we do it carefully and empathically (and ensuring we have a relationship with them first) – telling children about the potential for good stuff to happen in the midst of struggle has the potential to make kids feel better. For example, we might say something like:
It can be helpful to remember that even when challenges seem mostly like hard work, there are sometimes some good things about having challenges. Can you think of anything you’ve learnt, any way you have changed or anything good which has happened for you because of the challenges you have?
I hope this gives you some ideas for how you might talk with your child/young person about this topic. As I said at the beginning, it is important to know that all children and situations are different so you may do this in a very different way for your child – and it’s likely that this is perfectly fine.
All the best with these sometimes tough, but often meaningful conversations.
P.S. I have a 3 minute animation for children on Calm Kid Central called “Different Bodies, Different Challenges” and it is designed to help explain these points above. If you are interested in showing this video to your child and using the accompanying activity sheets then visit Calm Kid Central by clicking the link below.
In Australia, around 10% of children have a physical, cognitive or mental disability or disorder. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working with a whole range of these children and adolescents, for example those who’ve been diagnosed with:
a speech or language disorder or disability
autism spectrum disorder
a significant learning disorder or dyslexia,
a hearing or visual impairment
attention deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
a chronic health condition leading to physical disabilities
and many others
For some of these children, their disability had a huge impact on nearly every area of their social, school and home life. For other children, their disability was relatively mild, or affected only one area of their life.
Supporting these children and teens as they overcome, cope (or struggle) with the various hurdles associated with their disabilities s incredibly meaningful and challenging work.
But in this article, I’d like to focus on not these children – but their parents.
There are nearly one million parents in this country with a child with a disability. Each of them have a story – stories of days with joy, sorrow and days with a great deal of pain. Some of these stories will tug at your heart, some will break it.
A review of several studies by Kulthau et al (2008) showed that parents of children with a disability experience significant higher emotional stress, physical health symptoms, greater financial stress and a higher number of relationship problems compared to parents with children without a disability.
In my work with parents, there are five key areas of distress parents with children with extra needs and challenges I typically hear about. 1. Grief and Sorrow
Grief is not just a reaction to a diagnosis but instead often a life-long experience for some parents of children with disabilities. Because children with disabilities – like all children - encounter new life stages and situations as they develop, their parents often experience fresh pain and sadness as they watch their child deal with new losses and challenges which arise in each new life stage.
Some research refers to this as “chronic sorrow”. Chronic sorrow comes and goes – with high peaks when children enter new life stages.
For example, I spoke this month with a mum who shared her sadness about her Year 7 child's very significant learning and communication disability. She had been especially sad recently as all the high school orientation activities he was doing was reminding her of the struggles he was likely to have in secondary school – and what this would mean for his friendships and learning.
Grief associated with a child’s disability is both pain and sadness about what they know their child will need to deal with/not be able to do/may face in the future, and also what their child has missed out on, hasn't been able to do, or has suffered in the past.
For example, a Dad told me once that images of his daughters' painful medical treatment (associated with her disability) played over and over in his mind when he tried to get to sleep at night. He was grieving not being able to have taken this suffering away from her.
2. Anger, jealousy, resentment and bitterness
Parents who have children with challenges sometimes report feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness.
They tell me about their anger and towards professionals who they believe don’t understand, who can’t help (or help very much), who might have misdiagnosed their child, at "experts" who assume that they are managing their child's disability the wrong way or the community/government at large.
I was talking with a family recently who are furious about the way their government/NDIS funding was managed. Whilst there were some valid reasons for their anger about this issue, our conversation revealed that their anger was also an expression of anger, bitterness and resentment they felt towards the “universe” about their daughter's condition. The NDIS was a convenient target.
Parents also share with me (sometimes with shame) their irrational anger at and jealousy of other families who don't have their challenges or who don't seem understand, and towards those who provide them with well-meaning quick or easy "advice". They know (intellectually) that all families have challenges but their pain in managing their own child’s issues makes it hard for them to not feel jealous.
One Mum I spoke to said she couldn’t face taking her child to kindergym because being there and seeing other children do what her child could not do made her feel silently but overwhelmingly envious of other families with children without her child’s disability.
Other parents’ I’ve talked with consciously avoid school award nights, sports days, campls, concerts and other childhood events because it is too painful for them to manage their own feelings of envy, anger or bitterness. This leads to the next source of distress.
3. Loneliness and a feeling of isolation
Parents of children with special challenges often feel – and are – more socially isolated than other parents.
Their child’s special needs might make it hard to have spontaneous outings, be in environments which don’t cater for their child or make time for social gatherings in between appointments and the extra time involved in caring for their child.
I spoke once to a set of parents who desperately needed some time with other adults, but their child’s intensive special needs meant the only free time they had was after 10pm at night. Another family told me about their inability to take their child to family gatherings or parties – meaning they were at home most of the time.
I should note that even when families are able to spend time with others, they often still feel isolated. Everywhere they look are “normal” children who don’t have the same challenges as their child. They don't talk to or see many families who are "like them". There are very few children with disabilities featured in the media, movies, posters or anywhere else.
This means often parents/caregivers feel: “I’m alone” – it is a sense of being without a community or people who are like them.
4. Stress, Worry and Fear
Parents with children with special challenges have a number of stressors they face regularly like. An important one of these stressors is financial - How will we afford/get to all their appointments/treatments/assessments?
One study found that one half of the increased distress experienced by mothers of children with a disability could be accounted for by how much financial stress they experienced.
As well as financial stress, parents/carers with children with disabilities also feel stressed about how siblings are coping, how to manage work and medical appointments and how to manage the relationship stress which comes with managing a child with special needs.
However, these worries pale in comparison to the most frightening fear of all: What will become of my child? What will they do? How will they cope? What will happen to them?
For example, I’ve listened to parents/carers in these situations:
Parents with children/teens with learning /attention disorders who are afraid for whether their children will “make it” through secondary school or be able to work, or what kind of work their children will be able to do.
Parents with children with ASD - who are worried for how they will make friends or have other relationships throughout their life.
Parents of children with various physical disabilities – who fear for their child’s ability to move from place to place, travel and work.
There is no fear quite like the fear you have for your child’s future.
Almost every parent I speak with a child with extra needs or challenges to asks themselves some version of these questions:
Did I miss it? Should have I known earlier?
Did I do something while they were babies/when I was pregnant to cause this?
Am I doing enough to help/support/change/cope with it now?
Would some other parent be doing this better/helping more/managing it better than me?
From an evolutionary or instinctive perspective a parents’ job is to keep their children healthy and safe. While parents can tell themselves “logically” it is not their fault - it still feels like we’ve failed.
Does any of this sound familiar?
If you are a parent of a child with special challenges and you experience grief, anxiety, worry, stress, anger, resentment and guilt, you should know this: all of these feelings above are normal.
How you go on to manage these experiences is another article entirely, but start by doing two things.
First, accurately label your different emotions when they occur.
You might experience a small or what seems to be a trivial trigger for a strong emotion. For example, your child missing out on a birthday party invitation because of their disability, not being able to read the latest block buster book, not being able to run in a sports day race - and your guilt, worry, grief, resentment, isolation or sadness might hit you with force.
When this happens, label your emotions accurately. The truth is you are not upset because your child is missing out on this particular event – you are feeling grief, worry, guilt, anger or sadness –(or whatever it is) because of your child’s challenges as a whole. Accurate labelling of emotion is helpful because it can help you know what to do – and what not to do.
Second, remind yourself: I am not alone.
With full compassion, and no sense of minimizing what your child is going through may I be bold enough to say this: It’s easy to be preoccupied with the challenges your child is managing, feel like the world has landed unfairly on your own and their shoulders and that there is a huge distance between you and the rest of humanity. In other words, it is very easy to feel very alone.
However, this preoccupation and sense of feeling alone is likely to make you feel worse.
When you feel this way, try to gently and compassionately remind yourself, you are not alone. There is a large community of parents – even in your school, local community and world who know exactly what it is like to experience all of these emotions as they watch their child with challenges navigate life. If you are able to notice them too, life is a little easier.
When you have noticed and labelled your emotion, and know you are not alone – you can then start to take a breathe and make a decision about how you want to handle that moment.
And handing that particular moment, many times is entirely all you can – and need to do.
PS. Share this article within your support system so it can give voice to your pain when you can’t quite find it yourself.
PSS There are two specific resources for families with children with special needs on Calm Kid Central. These are:
A video for your child with special needs (Autism, ADHD, learning disorders, physical disabilities) to explain to them that it’s okay to feel sad about their challenges and also that they are not alone (It’s called “Different Bodies, Different Challenges).
A brief article for parents called “Ten Sentences to Say to Myself When I’m Feeling Fragile About My Child’s Extra Needs”
David comes home from school and told his Mum that his friend said him he was a loser in front of the class.
Talia’s Dad picks her up from a party in tears because a girl in another class told someone she likes her friend’s boyfriend.
Joseph tells grandma that he hates school because the other kids try not to not play with him.
Kids and teens have negative experiences with other children and young people very frequently. From the age of 4 (when physical aggression starts to decrease) feeling hurt, frustrated, distressed and disappointed when interacting with friends and classmates becomes increasingly common.
For example, one study found that children report having a conflict with one of their good friends approximately once per fortnight. Another study found that approximately 60% of children and teens report having a “mutual enemy” (someone they dislike and who dislikes them) which presumably is associated with at least some negative interactions. Other studies find that - depending on how you ask the question - 1 in 4 children/young people say they have experienced “bullying” during their primary or secondary years.
These experiences generally occur without adults being around. On study found that twice as many occur in the playground than in classrooms themselves. We also know that increasing numbers of negative interactions happening online.
In case you are wondering, there are some differences in negative peer experiences for girls and boys. Girls (in general) report having “closer” friendships (they share more information and rate their friends as more important to them than boys do), and also rate their conflict as more distressing to them than boys. Girls conflict and peer problems are also more frequently about relationships – “I know more/am better friends with X than you” - compared to boys, for whom conflict is more likely to be about competition: “I’m better/have more than you”.
As you can see, both boys and girls initiate, put up with and need to manage negative peer interactions of some kind very frequently, far more than most adults do.
Bullying versus Mean/Rude Behaviour and Arguments
In the last couple of years psychologists, educators and others have worked hard to teach children and teens about the difference between two different kinds of negative interactions with their peers: bullying and “rude/mean” behaviour.
We have been explaining to children and teens that bullying is when someone repeatedly does something (using words, relationships or actions) to intentionally harm another targeted person - who is less powerful (socially, in size, age or some other way) than they are. Rude or mean behaviour (which also sometimes leads to arguments) on the other hand, occurs between equally powerful peers, is usually not repeated or targeted to one person - and often resolves quickly.
Many young people seem to have received this message loud and clear – I’ve heard young children be able to spout this definition with great confidence: “I did NOT bully her, there was no difference in our power status!” said one indignant 7 year old in my presence recently!
In my view it’s been helpful for us make this distinction for children and young people. It has helped normalise and “decatastrophise” some of the difficult situations young people face with their friends, which has helped young people to manage their distress more effectively. It has also directed adult attention to where it is needed most.
Potential risks with the “bullying – mean/rude behaviour” distinction
However as much as the bullying – mean/rude behaviour distinction has been helpful, I think there are two risks which can arise while we are making this distinction.
Risk 1: Assuming that all negative interactions between peers can be classified as either “bullying” or “mean/rude behaviour”.
While we have a good working definition for bullying versus mean/rude behaviour – we should not pretend this is an easy classification system. Bullying and mean/rudeness fall on two ends of a continuum and frankly some behaviours fall in the middle.
It’s important to understand and acknowledge “the grey areas” rather than assume we (let alone children and teens) can neatly classify all negative interactions as either “bullying” or “not bullying“.
Risk 2: Dismissing the distress which comes from rude/mean behaviour and arguments
It is the second risk is when we decide something is “not bullying” and then dismiss how difficult, distressing and potentially damaging this can be for some kids and teens.
It’s almost like as adults we might be tempted to take a sigh of relief, “aha, not bullying” and then insist kids to “sort it out themselves” or ignore it, while we get on with managing more important issues.
This is potentially problematic.
Understanding the distress children and young people experience as a result of mean/rude behaviour and arguments
To understand how much tough “not bullying” can be for some young people, it can be useful to reflect on the nature of their friendships.
Like adults, many children and young people have deep and real connections to friends.
Unlike a lot of adults however, many young people spend extended numbers of hours every day with their friends. In addition, they don’t have a job (which for many adults provides a sense of meaning and self esteem). They don’t have a partner or (many) same aged family members with whom they can share their life’s journey. They also don’t have a well-developed sense of self and their place in the world.
In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, preteens and teenagers have a strong and subconscious instinct to form connections with their peer group. The preservation of our very society relies on young people forming their own tribes and relationships with peer groups.
For some (particularly older) children and teenagers, their friendships and peer relationships are very emotionally intense. I’ve heard some writers talk about them as akin to “love affairs” for adults.
In other words, for many children and young people, a great deal of their identity, enjoyment or life and meaning much of comes from their peer relationships.
Therefore, when children and young people are rejected, dismissed, ignored or insulted - although it may not be “not bullying”– it can still be a source of deep hurt, sorrow and lead to problems.
Research shows that pre and early adolescent children (ie 10-14 year olds) are particularly vulnerable to friendships ending and may experience significant loneliness, sadness and symptoms of depression. Other research suggests that lack of strong friendship connection is associated with emotional distress.
8 year old John who I’ve worked with over the course of several years, often tells me about his loneliness and sadness at school. He responds unhelpfully and not surprisingly, kids are frequently rude to him and unkind. He is not experiencing bullying. But the rude behaviour he experiences deeply distresses and tires him.
15 year old Jodie, also a long term client, told me about persistent arguments with a small group of friends she hangs out with. Some of them are particularly nasty. She is not experiencing bullying. But she never has a day at school when she feels relaxed or accepted, and many days she feels distraught about what has happened.
Arguments and mean/rude behavior can be significantly distressing for children and young people and should be taken seriously by adults.
Here’s what taking mean/rude behaviour seriously does NOT mean
Before I go on, let me be clear about what as adults taking this seriously does not mean.
It does NOT mean verbally catastrophising and giving kids and teens the impression that they experiencing a mini tragedy “This is terrible! It must be stopped immediately!”.
It does NOT mean talking negatively about other children or young people to kids “That little….” What a horrible……”.
It does NOT mean reducing young people’s sense of agency and confidence in their own skills by taking over, rushing into a school or community organisation to demand change “I am going to sort this out. I am going to have words to that parent/teacher/kid”.
Does NOT mean talking about it endlessly and for hours.
Does NOT mean we assume everything our child has told us is correct and that we are getting the full story. Most of the time we are not hearing the full picture.
What does taking “rude/mean behaviour and arguments” seriously mean?
The most important way to take it seriously is as adults, when we hear about rude/behavioyr to care and listen. To remember, right now – to this child, this is important, it is often not easy (humiliating) to talk about it, and it hurts.
This might mean, stopping what we are doing, and looking at a young person. It might mean saying something like:
“That sounds tough”
“How are you feeling about that”
“I can understand that would hurt”
“I’m really sorry you are feeling that way”
We don’t have to do this every time and we don’t have to do it for hours on end. We don’t have to only caring and listening without providing advice or coaching. In fact, I think we should be teaching kids a whole range of strategies to manage this problem (eg helping them think about other friendship groups, ways of managing, helping them be assertive, kind etc). I have made several videos for parents and kids about how we coach them to manage these situations.
However, I believe the place for us to start with young people when they tell us about their tough times with classmates and friends – is to care, understand and listen. Even when it’s “not bullying”.
If you have a 4 to 11 year old who has struggles with friends, the following resources on Calm Kid Central might be helpful: Parent Training (helping your child confidently manage peer conflict and problems video series) and Child Video (That’s Mean: How to manage tricky and “mean” behavior with others)
A few months ago I was working with a 10 year old girl I’ll call Jennifer (as always, names and details changed). I was initially working with Jennifer on helping her reduce her anxiety about being around her peers. However something else which was quite noticeable about Jennifer’s challenges was this: she struggled to show almost any positive emotion. Jennifer rarely smiled in sessions, and despite me doing a great deal of play, games and rapport building with her, found it almost impossible to talk positively or enthusiastically about any of her interests.
When I asked Jennifer’s Mum about how she acted at home, she told me that Jennifer frequently looked unhappy or anxious at school and around other children too – and had been like this for some time.
Some children smile less frequently, and/or show less enjoyment, interest, excitement or happiness in their words or faces than other kids. They have a “blank”, sad or worried expression on their face a lot of the time, often stay quiet when something positive happens to them, or talk much less enthusiastically or positively about their interests compared to other children.
Why do some children struggle to show positive emotion?
There are a few different reasons why kids like Jennifer find it tough to show positive emotion. For example, they might:
Be experiencing (or have experienced) challenging life circumstances with family, friends, their health or other situations
Have some big emotional/mental health challenges, such as social anxiety or depression.
Have social functioning challenges, for example symptoms (or diagnosis) of autism spectrum disorder.
Simply be “born with” a more emotionally “flat” temperament or personality
Unfortunately, children who find it tough to show positive emotion may experience more problems as a result of this.
There is a body of research which suggests the act of smiling, and talking enthusiastically is important for well-being in both adults and children. For example.
Psychologists have conducted experimental studies in which adults are asked to “rate” people they have had a brief conversation with. In these studies adults tend to rank people who frequently smile as smarter, more competent, likeable and someone who they would want to spend time with, compared to people they talk to who have a “neutral” expression on their face throughout the conversation.
Questionnaire based studies have been done which ask parents to rate how much their children show positive emotion, and how they feel about the relationship with their children. Parents are more positive about the relationship they have with their children if they report that their children show frequent positive emotion (this is true even if the child has other behavioural or mental health challenges).
Studies which ask parents and teacher how much positive emotion a child shows find that the more positive emotion children shown by a child, the better their friendships with other children.
Studies which ask children about their classmates find that children in their class who are rated as “happier” are more likely to be those classmates the children want to play with.
Studies of adults who talk more enthusiastically and positively in the workplace show that these people are more likely to have better work satisfaction, productivity and career success.
There are even experiments which have been done showing when people are told to “fake smile” they experience a short term boost in mood.
This research of course has flaws (and there may be some cross cultural differences) – but there is a fairly consistent message that – at least some of the time - smiling and using enthusiastic sentences is probably helpful for both adults and children’s health mood, well-being, work and relationships.
What does this mean for parents?
Given how important showing positive emotion is for relationships and well-being, we should be helping children to learn how to show it. But we need to do it carefully.
Here are two potential mistakes we can make when doing this.
Mistake one: Giving children a (direct or indirect) message that it’s not okay to show disappointment, anger, sadness or worry.
It’s important children know it’s okay to show these negative emotions. We certainly don’t want children feeling bad about feeling bad. We want them to know that there are many times, places and people to talk with and show feelings of worry, anxiety, sadness and frustration.
Instead, we want children to know that it is important to tell us when they are feeling bad but to also show some positive emotion with some people, situations and places.
Mistake two: Giving children the message that they should frequently “fake” being happy to make others feel good.
We don’t want children to have to pretend they are happy. Living with authenticity is an important part of well-being. But there are some situations in which it is appropriate to help children notice the seeds of positive emotion which occur naturally – or which could exist in a situation - and to build on them.
Three steps to help children show more positive emotion
Here are a few ways we can start to help our children to show positive emotion
Teach them why it matters (give them reasons and a summary of the benefits)
Help them identify the typical situations they encounter where they could show positive emotion
Teach them what this showing of positive emotion might actually look like. For children with difficulties in this area (eg perhaps a child with ASD) we should be really specific and discuss the sentences which they could say, eg “I am excited about…”, “I’m happy to say”…etc)
I went through these steps with Jennifer and her Mum. I carefully talked about why I thought this might be helpul for her to talk enthusiastically about some topics, avoiding any sense of blaming. We talked about times in which she could say some positive sentences, wrote down some positive sentences, and she kept a record of how many times she did this over a few days. Jennifer’s Mum told me that her teacher had noticed a difference in her the very next day. Both Jennifer and her Mum were keen to keep trying to work on this area.
This might be something you’d like to think about in your family too.
In Calm Kid Central, we have a short animated video which is called: “Showing positive emotion” which walks children through why positive emotion matters and steps to take to show it, and an activity sheet for them to help them find ways to do this. If you’d like to get access to this today, then click below.
Take a moment to remember a time in the last few days in which you felt stressed, frustrated or worried. Reflect for a moment on your body in that moment. Your heart rate had sped up a little, you were breathing a little quicker, your body temperature rose slightly and your muscles were more tense than usual. You might not have noticed these things at the time because you were focused on whatever problem you were managing, but it was there in the background.
This reaction is a deep seated physical response for humans, and happens for kids too. Whenever they perceive some kind of danger, threat or problem, their bodies react by increasing what can be called their “physiological arousal”- either just slightly (eg they might say they have a headache because they’ve had tense shoulders for example at the end of the day) or a significantly (they might hyperventilate, experience heart racing, or rigid body which makes them scream/yell or stops them even being able to talk).
It’s important to know that this response can happen in response to an actual present danger or threat (a large dog jumping on them for example) or an imagined one (thinking about a test coming up, being away from us, an argument with one of their friends).
From an evolutionary (and survival) point of view: this reaction was helpful. It made humans in ancient societies quicker to respond to things which might hurt them – fast breathing, tense muscles and fast heart rates help pump blood into major muscle groups, get oxygen to muscles and helps us move quickly. This is why psychologists sometimes call this reaction the “Fight, Flight, Freeze” response.
Unfortunately this kind of high physiological tension has some unwanted side effects – in both the short and long term.
When we are in the midst of a fight/flight/freeze response, our ability to think, communicate, remember complex information and explain ideas is reduced. Our brains can’t do “run away and fight” behaviours at the same time as “calm down and think”. This is true for children too. Whenever their subconscious or conscious brain identifies a danger or a threat – their ability to think slowly and clearly, tell us what is happening, understand what we are telling them – goes down.
This was fine in ancient societies when are dangers mostly consisted of running away from tigers – this kind of stress was over quickly and in those situations “calm down and think” behaviours were less important than “run as fast as possible” behaviours! However in today’s society our threats are not short term, don’t usually require a fight or flight response.
For example, when a child is having a strong emotional reaction to getting told off by a teacher, a parent leaving them by themselves for a time, losing a game or thinking about an assignment – their ability to think, talk to us, explain what is happening for them and listen to instructions is reduced. This is a short term side effects of flight, flight, freeze responses.
In the long term, children who have a high level of physiological tension for a long period of time are more likely to experience increased physical and emotional problems – like ongoing anxiety, headaches and stomache aches, muscle soreness and sleep problems.
It makes sense therefore to help children reduce their physiological tension
In 1908, a psychologist called Edward Jacobsen first proposed that it would be useful to help people to learn to reduce their physiological tension, and 30 years later he wrote a book called: “Progressive Relaxation” which detailed how to tense and then relax each muscle group in the body and the benefits of doing so.
Since that time, there have been hundreds of programs developed for adults – and eventually children - which have physiological tension reduction at the core of what they do.
These programs have various names: “deep breathing programs” and “relaxation training” or “progressive muscle relaxation” are specifically about reducing physiological tension and were discussed by these names frequently in the 1970’s and 80’s.
More recently other programs have been developed and called different names such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. These programs usually have broader goals than just reducing physiological tension, however they usually also include relaxing the body as a significant component. (I am currently reviewing research on children's mindfulness and meditation programs specifically, but in this article I will limit my comments to the more physiologically based relaxation programs. However it is useful to be aware that there is a continuum and overlap between relaxation programs and mindfulness based programs.)
Here’s what we know about the evidence behind relaxation based programs.
1. Relaxation based programs do reduce physiological tension
Research has shown that relaxation programs use techniques which do reduce physiological tension. For example, these programs get child to do one or more of the following:
Deliberately first tense and then consciously relax their muscles, one muscle group at a time Relax only (not tense) their muscles (sometimes while visualizing their muscles becoming relaxed)
Pay attention to and notice their breathing and/or slow it down
Research shows that when we help children do this, their heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension reduces. Even quite young children (eg some research has done this in kindergarten children) can do this successfully.
2. Lowering physiological tension has benefits for children’s emotional and physical health, at least in the short term
There have been many research studies to show that when you help children to use relaxation techniques like those above, on a regular basis, children benefit – at least in the short term.
For example, studies have been conducted with children in classroom-based settings in a general population. Research in this area has been conducted with children with sleep problems, those diagnosed with ADHD, ASD,and behavioural challenges. Research has also been conducted with children with fears about dental procedures, generalized anxiety, separation anxiety.
Most of the time, these studies find that after the end of the relaxation program, parents report increases in their child’s well being, children report increased ability to cope with pain, reduced anxiety, reduced behavioural aggression, increased ability to pay attention, increased ability to get to sleep – and a whole host of other benefits.
It’s not surprising therefore that the idea of lowering physiological arousal has since been incorporated into many different psychological treatment programs or packages.
In many (or even most) programs of individual or group therapy. CBT, mindfulness based therapy, acceptance commitment therapy all include a session, some training or more which is explicitly about at least noticing and usually about reducing breathing speed and muscle tension.
There are also a plethora of apps, audio recordings, CDs, and web based programs, which help children learn to relax
3. There are still some limits to this research – and relaxation programs may not be useful in all situations
Relaxation training is not perfect – and the research shows this. For example
Scientists who have conducted a reviews of all the studies together say the research is of low quality. This means lots of the research hasn’t had a control group (meaning the positive results could be a result of something other than the techniques used) and lots of the research studies have only had a small number of children in them.
There are very few studies which follow up children in the long term to see if the benefits of the program have last after it has finished.
Some research studies did fail to find positive benefits of the program. Some studies found that relaxation based programs didn’t actually make any difference to factors such as child reported well-being (ie the parents in this study thought it was helpful, but the children didn’t), behavior in the classroom (the teachers in this study thought it was helpful, but it didn’t lead to any reduction in problem behavior) or have any different effect to listening to a story (in this study, children had the same benefit in relaxation after listening to a story than they did to a relaxation technique).
Relaxation programs may have some negative effects in some situations. I’ve read at least one study which suggested children in a relaxation procedure actually had an increase in heart rate after the relaxation procedure (this happened after younger children were asked to relax for more than 4 minutes), and in the clinic, I’ve seen some children experience relaxation exercises as unpleasant and feel tense about them.
Relaxation programs are often not sustained. Research shows that most people who are taught relaxation based strategies don’t sustain or maintain them over the long term.
My Recommendations for parents/caregivers of children with emotional or behavioural challenges:
Despite the limitations which are outlined above, the many years of research into the benefits of relaxation program is compelling. I think it is really important to teach children how to pay attention to and relax their body and reduce their tension level.
I’ve seen the benefits of this time and time again for children we see in the clinic. When children get good at being able to notice their tension, know how to breathe deeply through a stressful situation and relax their tense muscles when they are angry or anxious – they do better in many situations.
However, I think it is important to do it carefully. Here are my recommendations
We should explain why we want children to relax their body
Children who know why it is important to pay attention to and relax their bodies are more likely to be motivated to do this over their life time and sustain this practice.
We need to explain to children how it helps them and why to do it. This means saying things like:
“Relaxing your body helps us because……….” “When we slow our breathing down…………..happens” “I like to try to slow my breathing down because……………….”
We should teach short and fast relaxation based strategies for children
Long and sustained meditation practices are usually impossible for young children. I like to use exercises with junior primary aged children which are 60 seconds or less. Primary aged children can usually cope with a couple of minutes and adolescents can manage slightly longer periods of time.
Relaxation strategies for children should be easy and simple
Progressive relaxation which asks children to tense and then relax various parts of their body may be too complex for some children. Breathing based exercses which ask children to breathe in and out at certain rates and in certain ways but also be too complicated for some children.
I think any strategy we want children to use regularly, and in stressful situations needs to be really simple and well explained.
Personally I tell children there are just TWO steps to a relaxed body: a) slow breathing and b) floppy muscles. I teach them to do both these steps - separately and then together. We use some pictures and an animated video to explain this to them.
Other programs and approaches help children to “notice” their body or think about what they can hear, see or feel. Other programs use imagery to help them relax. It’s great to give children an option as to how they might relax their body (we can ask them what works for them) but whatever technique or strategy is used - it must be simple, or children will not be able to do it themselves.
We need to help children practice relaxation – and to do this when they are calm
I am frequently practicing “slow breathing and floppy” muscles with children in sessions. To be honest it’s one of my favourite things to do, from an entirely selfish perspective!
But I know that practice makes the difference. We can’t just explain this once and expect young people to know how to do this. Families I’ve worked with incorporate practice times in different ways, for example:
Three slow breaths/floppy body before we start eating dinner
Using meditation apps regularly at bedtime
Parents/adults talking about relaxing their own bodies
Morning meditations/relaxation exercises/devotion in the classroom
Slow breathing practice in helping children get to sleep at night
We need to help children use relaxation in stressful situations
If children can use a relaxation technique in a situation which makes them stressed, angry or worried, they are likely to experience benefits. However most children need help remembering to do this, and to be motivated to do this.
This is not easy. Did you practice relaxing your body last time you felt stressed? Even for us as adults this is hard to remember (or want to) do. We need to assist children to do this. This might be a verbal (gentle) reminder: “before we talk about this, would you take a big breathe with me”, bedroom and classroom posters (Stressed? R.E.L.A.X. your body) and questions: “What might help you relax your body right now? Can I help?”
Usually this is only successful if we have followed all of the steps above (explanation of why we need to do it, teaching fast and quick methods and having support children to practice).
Where to start?
If you have a child who experiences challenges with anxiety, stress, frustration or other life situations, then relaxation should be part of the way you help them manage. Start small with a quick explanation of why we should do it, and then find a regular time of day to do a short practice with them.
Want more help in this area? In Calm Kid Central we have a short video animation for children to explain relaxation to them, and a practice sheet to get them to do this regularly at home while they learn it.
All children and teens act in unhelpful and challenging ways at times. They are unkind, frustrated, forgetful, rude and mean to their peers. They act defiantly, fail to tell the truth and act angrily to adults. This kind of challenging and unhelpful behaviour in children and young people is entirely normal as they slowly learn to manage life, their emotions and relationships.
Most children, over time become wiser, smarter, more skilled and more mature - and therefore do less of this challenging behaviour (with bumps in middle childhood and adolescence).
There are many ways parents can help children and teens through this process.
For example, one consistent research finding is that parents who are aware of the details of their children and teen's lives have young people who are less likely to act in persistently challenging ways. And in particular, aware of the challenges and problems their children face. For example:
- The ongoing social challenges or conflict they are having with others - The challenges they are having with study or learning behaviour - The things that disappoint them or frustrate them - and the times they don't handle this well - The areas they need support and help in - with learning, behaviour and relationships
This is called "parental knowledge" and many decades of research have found a strong relationship between high parental knowledge and lower rates of challenging behaviour (Crouter and Head 2002; Dishion and McMahon 1998; Sampson and Laub 1994; Weintraub and Gold 1991).
It seems we need to know about the tough times our children have, the mistakes they make and the things they are not doing well.
More recently however researchers have been digging further into this issue and asking this question: how exactly do parents find out about what is going on for their child - and does how they get this knowledge this affect their child's well being and their relationship with the child?
One important study in 2000 by Stattin and Kerr found that a high level of parental knowledge was most closely tied to challenging behaviour in young people when this parental knowledge was gained by child and teen self-disclosure. In other words, children with the least challenging behaviour as time passed were those who independently told their parents about what was happening for them.
Not only that, some research has suggested that a higher level of parents "soliciting" information from children is associated with a higher level of behaviour problems. In other words, some studies found that the more questions a parent asked at one point in time was negatively associated with how much children/teens told them two years later. In these studies asking questions actually seemed to decrease how much children told parents!
I must admit those studies disturbed me as I've long been an advocate of asking questions of children and teens. So I went back and had a looked at the literature more carefully. Sure enough when you look at the papers more carefully, some other factors emerge. For example, a follow up study on this research found that this "ask more questions- get more shut down kids" effect depended on how warm and caring parents were towards their children (Fletcher, et al 2004). In other words, when parents showed warmth towards their children, they knew more about their children and those children had less problems with challenging behaviour over time.
I also read about a few other factors which research has linked to how much children and teens spontaneously self disclose information: namely - how much quality time parents spent with young people and how well parents responded to previously self disclosed information. These studies suggested that when parents have good relationship with children and teens generally, and when they don't "freak out" or get angry when they tell us about their challenges, then not only was asking questions not associated with more child secrecy, but kids and teens also spontaneously told them more information.
What do we take away from this research as parents?
First, we need to keep working on making sure we have a warm and positive relationship with our kids. Before we do anything else, and most importantly, we need to keep taking small, regular steps to do make sure children and teens feel loved, appreciated and cared about. You know how to do this right? We positively comment on something we admire about our child. We organise to spend a few minutes with them doing something they enjoy. We tell them we love them. Give them a hug. Be sympathetic about a challenge they have. Ask them how you can support them. Spend time doing something positive together. Apologise when you get it wrong as a parent. Spend time trying to reduce sources of conflict before they occur. This is not easy of course, but we just need to take small steps towards this as much as we can.
Second, provided we are doing this positive relationship work with our kids, we should also be asking children and teens questions about their potential challenges. Not just hope they will tell us about them. Not just expect teachers will let us know anything that is important. Instead, we should specifically and regularly check in about areas of concern, potential problems and tricky situations which we think might be an issue.
I've listed some sample questions below which might be helpful in our attempts to do this. However, before I list them - please remember - that just asking questions without the warm relationship in the background will make things worse! Please don't use this list as an interrogation script and just ask them all at once while having your child under a bright spotlight at the kitchen table :)
Ask one or two of these, every now and then, while also providing warmth and care.
Questions to Uncover "Tricky Behaviour" and challenges for children and teens
When was the last time you think a teacher felt a little frustrated with you/needed to remind you of a rule?
Is there any other students who might have been frustrated or angry at you recently? What happened?
Is there something you forget to do/finish/get done at school recently?
If you could go back and do today over, is there something you would have NOT have done? or NOT Said?
Are there any videos have you seen online which made you feel a little worried? Guilty? Sad?
Is there anyone in your class who doesn’t like you? Why do you think that is?
Is there anyone at school who you particularly don’t like? Do they know you don’t like them? How?
If you could go back and “unsend” a message or “unpost” a status update/story/photo - would you do so?
Have you got mad at anyone at school recently? Could they tell?
Is there anyone who felt you were unfair to them at school recently?
Are there any schools rules which you find particularly hard to follow?
Do you feel jealous of anyone at school? Can anyone tell?
Are there students in your class who are particularly great at following certain class or school rules? Are you different to them in some way?
(Regarding that difficult situation we had at home with your brother/sister/neighbour) - has something like that also happened at school recently
If you were a super amazingly patient person - how might you act differently at school?
Who is the kindest person you know at school? How do they act differently from other kids ? Do they do things differently from you?
Third, if we do hear a challenge, mistake or area of tricky behaviour from our child or teen - we need to respond very carefully. Remember research suggests how we respond may determine how and whether children and teens are prepared to talk to us. Here are some points which might help:
Stay calm and try hard to avoid getting angry, inducing shame or being harsh or critical.
Thank the child/teen for their honesty.
Sometimes more questions can help- "would you like to tell me more about that?", "can I help?", "what was hard about that?"
Sometimes "backing off" can help: "Sounds like that was tough. Perhaps we can talk about it another time if you'd like to"
Either way, take your time in thinking about how to respond. Responding to challenging behaviour in young people is beyond the scope of this particular article, but I will say that it's important to try to see challenging behaviour as a learning need, way of communicating or coping and/or a natural response to the environment - rather than a deliberate or manipulative way of behaving.
Finally, I want to make the very important point that it is easier for some parents than others to do this work. Research shows that children who show higher than average amounts of challenging behaviour in their younger years, have parents who subsequently show less warmth and ask less questions as years go by than the parents of children who show less challenging behaviour when they are younger. In other words, it's not simply parent behaviour leading to child behaviour - but the opposite of this is also true - child behaviour changes parenting.
This makes sense of course. When parents are worried, hurt and frustrated by their children's challenging behaviour they understandably find it harder to ask questions, be positive and encouraging and get to know what is happening for a child. If a child struggles with managing frustration with their peers, eventually you don't want to ask any more because hearing about it makes you exhausted and more worried, and you are more likely to get increasingly angry and upset with this child.
But unfortunately this lower level of warmth and positivity, and less question asking - can then lead to more secrecy and more challenging behaviour in young people - and the spiral continues.
So it's not easy. If you feel like you have an open and honest relationship with your child, and low levels of challenging behaviour - please don't take 100% of the credit for this and believe it is all a result of your excellent parenting! This is unhelpful for our community. On the other hand, If you feel like your child or teen doesn't tell you anything, and there is a higher level of challenge for them in some areas - please don't descend into a spiral of shame - you are not imagining it, it IS harder for you than some others.
But it's important for all of us not to give up.
Our job is to continue to showing warmth, love, enjoyment of, and care for our children and then - continue to keep working on knowing what their challenges, potential problems and areas of difficulty are, so that we are in a better place to coach, help and support them to manage life as well as they can.
For an overview of the research in this article, start by reading: Racz, S. J., & Mcmahon, R. J. (2011). The relationship between parental knowledge and monitoring and child and adolescent conduct problems: A 10-year update.Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(4), 377-98. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10567-011-0099-y
P.S. If you have a primary aged child who seems to struggle more than average with challenging, angry or defiant behaviout, then it might be helpful for you to watch some of our new videos on Calm Kid Central ("An overview of challenging behaviour for parents" and "Understanding the causes of challenging behaviour in children with big feelings"). I've only just finished these training videos and I'm really pleased with them - I think they provide a good summary of the research and how to think about challenging behaviour in childhood.