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Why are my kids’ exams stressing me out more than mine did?

I am seriously not enjoying myself. I’ve had sleepless nights for at least 2 months and feel stressed. I’m finding the experience of having my children sitting exams is far worse than doing them myself.  I know that’s ridiculous, it should be their problem not mine.  I barely stressed when I had exams myself and was a very conscientious student who really cracked the technique. To be honest I think the difficulty is knowing I can’t control what happens this time round. I’m truly not a hovering, helicopter parent and have always encouraged my kids to be independent, take responsibility for their learning and make their own mistakes.  However, it is so hard to just stand back. 

I asked one when I can expect to see some sense of urgency.  Surely a bit of an adrenalin rush is good to focus the mind.  The response was “You should be so grateful that I’m chilled and not suffering from anxiety or mental health issues.” 

An extremely valid and fair point that I actually can’t argue with.

The irony is that over the last few months because exam season is upon us I have delivered many talks to parents in corporates on how to support children through exams, revision technique, managing stress etc.  I chose to even call my own business ‘Educating Matters’.  However now that my kids have reached this stage, I’m asking myself how much does traditional education really matter?  I’m not telling them but we all know that grades are only really relevant in the short term.  They don’t define you.  They are a stepping stone to get into university (if you are going down that path) and help you to secure your first job but after that no one really cares.  When was the last time someone asked you what grades you got?  Do your own parents even remember what grades you got?

I have met many academic, straight A* graduates who still struggle to find a job or work out what they want to do with their life.  Real ‘success’ in life is so much more than securing good grades in school.  If the world has moved on at such a fast pace since we were children and technology is so advanced, why is it that the school system hasn’t really evolved?  A-levels might require some higher order thinking, forming opinions and analysis but GCSEs are essentially just an exercise in memory retention.  What’s the point, for example of these newly revised GCSES that make kids learn maths formulas off by heart?  Why not just give them the formula in the exam?  Surely the maths part is about testing whether they can actually apply it? 

Some time ago IBM conducted the largest study of over 1500 corporate heads across 60 nations and found that creativity is the most important leadership quality for success in business.  Yet all this focus on testing feels like the education system is crushing creativity and any encouragement to think outside the box.

I just went to parents evening for one of my younger children and she received glowing reports about her positive energy, leadership and communication skills, being proactive, conscientious, creative and sociable. One teacher remarked that her qualities are something money can’t buy and no one can teach.  Truthfully that gave me so much more joy than if they’d reported she was in top sets for every subject.  I know that these are the characteristics that will enable her to do anything she sets hers her mind to. I genuinely believe that solid EQ will determine the quality of a person’s life in a much more fundamental way than IQ.

Parenting has become a bit of a competitive sport and I wish I could step out of this pressure cooker and not care so much.  It’s really crazy that even students in top private schools are having loads of tutoring – essentially as a security blanket to guarantee outstanding grades. Yet are they independent learners or heavily reliant on being spoon fed?  What happens when they get to university and then have to study on their own? 

Far more important than the content children learn at school is the non-cognitive skills that develop and significantly contribute to their performance.  Things like grit, self-belief, resilience, growth mindset and work ethic.  These are the life skills that in my view are the most beneficial thing about exams.  Developing discipline, learning how to plan, prioritise and cope with stress and pressure.  The attributes they need to succeed in life.

Studying is as much about mastering and understanding yourself as it is about mastering the subject.  That’s the true benefit of watching our kids go through this torturous period.

I simply can’t wait until mid -June.  I think I’m more excited about it all being over than my kids are.  Maybe then I can go back to sleeping peacefully right through the night. 

Helping children manage stress during exam season

The summer term has started, and so has exam time so we are looking at helping children manage exam season stress.  Children in years 2 and 6 are taking the controversial SATs, secondary-aged children are sitting life-changing GCSEs and of course those older children whose future education is hanging on their A-Level performances.  The effect of these tests and exams can resonate through whole families.

Let’s get down to how parents can actually support and help their children deal with stress during the exam period. It’s totally normal to feel some nerves before exams and this can be motivating and help zone in on the task in hand.  However too much anxiety means one can’t think clearly, reason, plan well and make good decisions which impacts on studying and exam performance.

When anyone is stressed the amygdala kicks in. We tend to become emotional, angry, fearful or frustrated.  The pre- frontal cortex is the part of the brain that distinguishes humans from animals.  It’s what tells the amygdala to calm down so we can cope with stress.  It helps to regulate blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels which all influence how we feel about a situation.

Here are some very practical tips to quieten down the amygdala and enable the pre-frontal cortex to function: 
  • Talk to your child regularly and try to understand the cause of their anxiety so they feel heard and understood. Is it feeling unprepared, pressure from parents, teachers or peers, unrealistic expectations, overwhelm with too much to do and not enough time? Don’t dismiss them or try to just make the feeling go away.
  • Ask your child to spend 5 minutes listing all the things that take up their mental space and energy. Look at every item and place them into two categories: control and concern. Control are things you can actively do something about and concern are things you have no influence over.  People who handle stress well, minimise stuff in the concern circle and spend energy on addressing the things they can control.
  • Have a longer term study timetable but then focus on one day at a time. Help them prioritise, break tasks down into manageable chunks and set small, realistic, achievable goals.
  • Engage in physical activity which helps to boost energy levels, clear the mind and work off excess adrenalin so they can feel calmer.
  • Eat little and often, avoid too much caffeine or sugar which affects concentration. Keep hydrated as water helps the electromagnetic activity in the brain.
  • Get enough sleep which can still be regarded as study time as the brain processes information taken in during the day.
  • Learn, model and share stress management skills such as relaxation, breathing techniques, mediation mindfulness, massage, yoga, EFT and  visualisation
  • Schedule in some unstructured downtime, ideally with a social component.
  • Remember your child’s strengths and passions – encourage some activities that they are good at which involve laughing.
  • Limit screens and access to social media as this swallows up hours of precious time. Also steer clear of peers who make them feel more stressed.
  • Having a positive attitude and the right mind set will determine how motivated they feel, how much they learn and ultimately how well they do. Athletes, for example work on their mental state as well as physical and use psychologists to ensure peak performance.

Now I’m going to go away and follow this advice for myself between now and mid -June.

Just “chill out mum” as my kids tell me!!!

How to reduce the chance of children developing eating disorders

How to reduce the chance of children developing eating disorders

The very word ‘eating disorder’ is enough to strike fear in most parents.  Latest estimates suggest that 1.25 million people have an eating disorder and that adolescence is the most likely time for this to develop.   

What is an eating disorder?

At the heart of all eating disorders is an unhealthy attitude to food.  The most common eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa – characterised by not eating enough and often excessive exercising
  2. Bulimia Nervosa – overeating followed by vomiting and laxatives in order not to gain weight
  3. Binge Eating Disorder – compulsive overeating that feels out of control

There are varying degrees of gravity for all of these and it is not always easy to determine when your child ‘tips over’ from healthy eating to problem eating, and then into a full- blown eating disorder.  The bottom line is, if you feel that food is dominating your child’s life, your best action is to seek treatment, as early intervention gives the best chance of recovery.

Why does someone get an eating disorder?

There is no one over-riding cause to why someone develops an eating disorder; there is a combination of influences such as genetics, family experiences and culture.  Parents don’t give their children an eating disorder, but there is much they can do to help reduce the chances of their children developing one.  

What can parents do? 

Parents’ main role is to create a positive home environment by:

  • Setting the right goals – ensure that the aspirations that you have for your child are not based on appearance and that you do not give the impression that you will love them more if ‘only they ate less’.  This includes paying more attention to what they say and do rather than what they look like.
  • Speaking your mind – we are all exposed to some pretty toxic ideas about body image.  This particularly applies to social media which bombards us with images that can distort our children’s attitude to body size.  We need to educate our children that there is no such thing as the perfect body and that prejudice against people who are overweight is wrong.  Too much time spent trying to achieve unattainable beauty is only going to lead to feelings of failure and is limiting your child’s development in more meaningful areas.  Recent research showed that an intervention for women with eating disorders, that encouraged them to criticise negative media images that associated appearance with self-worth, significantly reduced their negative feelings about themselves. 
  • Being comfortable with your own body shape – the more complete you are as parents with your own body, irrespective of size – the less likely you are to imply that having a less than ideal body shape is something to feel ashamed about.
  • Talking about feelings – eating disorders are a way of coping with difficult feelings, so encourage children to understand and express their emotions rather than placate them with food.  This will give you an opportunity to teach them strategies to use when they are feeling frustrated, angry or sad.  For example, taking a deep breath, talking the issue through with an adult, or even asking for a hug.
  • Being a good role model – you are their biggest influence.  If you pick at your food, criticise your own body and are constantly on a diet, your children will copy these unhelpful behaviours.
  • Not putting them on a diet – dieting rarely works and often affects self-esteem.  Most eating disorders start with a diet.  There can also be loads of other health implications such as stunted growth, osteoporosis and delayed puberty. 
  • Keeping children a healthy weight – overweight teenagers have a much higher risk of developing an eating disorder, but often its symptoms go unnoticed because they are masked by being overweight. 
  • Exercising for the right reasons – exercise is an important part of good health, but if you are spending hours in the gym each day trying to get the ‘perfect’ body then this will give children the wrong messages.
  • Boosting their self-esteem – this is probably the most important factor that protects children from developing an eating disorder.  One of the best ways to do this is by offering children choices, particularly as eating disorders often develop as a way of trying to take control of their lives.  Try offering them an array of healthy foods and let them serve themselves.  Even better get them involved in cooking healthy food.

Not only will these behaviours help to reduce the chances of your children developing an eating disorder but they are also great ways for maintaining a healthy attitude to weight and food for all the family.

Article by Tracey Bennett, specialist in Obesity & Weight Management

Autism & being a working parent


It’s World Autism Month.  This is a time for bringing awareness to many around the neuro-divergence, Autism.  Employers around the world are holding seminars and collecting for charity and discovering what support can be put in place for their employees whose lives are affected by Autism.  As a parent of an Autistic child, it has been amazing to see so many in the corporate world understand that they need to offer support to these families.

We often joke at our house that every month is Autism Awareness month as the needs of my child change as he grows to become a young man.  The support I need changes with his needs as well.  As working parents, my partner and I have had to navigate our careers whilst requiring that bit of extra support from our employers.  It isn’t daily support, but surgical support.

In the spirit of this, here are a few points we and our employers have learned over the years about supporting working parents of children with Autism.

We Work Hard

When things are difficult at home, going to work can be an escape from the chaos.  I say this with all the guilt and none of the guilt of a working parent at the same time.  Work provides a space where we need not be reactive and vigilant at all times.  It is a place where we can feel successful.  It is a place where we can finish a thought and remind ourselves that we are intelligent.  As such, we want to succeed in the one space in the world that feels like our own. 

We know that a time will come when we get a call from school or a child minder that says we need to come and care for our child who is struggling.  Because of this, we do our best to stay ahead of the game so that when we return, our employers often comment on our ability to compartmentalize and prioritize.  This has become a survival skill for us.

Sometimes We Need to Be Told to Take a Break

Parents of neuro-divergent children can run like a machine.  However, sometimes, the machine needs oil.  The “I can do this” attitude is a blessing and a curse.  One employer used to joke that he could always tell when my partner was stressed because he turned into a hyper-focused, head down automaton.  This seems great on the surface, but can lead to burnout very quickly.  At home, we don’t have the luxury of scheduled breaks and corporate retreats.  We know that at any moment, we will need to be an emotional regulator for a child that is under-resourced.  We are always on call.

The best supervisors know how to spot the difference between productivity and overloaded panic working.  They remind us of our lunch breaks and ask us into their offices for a chat.  They remind us to recharge our batteries and breathe.

Sometimes, Things Get Missed

Things are not always difficult to manage.  However, when we are in the middle of the storm, something gets dropped…every time.  It is usually a doctor’s appointment or a playdate for one of our neurotypical children or my poor mother’s birthday (it’s happened three times….sorry Mom).  However, sometimes it is something at work.  A meeting is missed or a deadline or component of a project.  I’ve missed incredibly important meetings due to just once thinking I could remember to write it down later because my brain is so full.  It’s embarrassing and horrible and, most importantly, not a reflection of my true ability to achieve.

The best supervisors and employers have been able to develop open lines of communication with us.  We have been able to trust them enough to tell them when we may need extra gentle reminders.  They do this without shaming us and in the spirit of support rather than a teacher telling off a naughty child.  They never shame or humiliate.  This is not to say that there are no consequences.  Rather, preventative measures are taken to ensure our success and natural consequences are fair and lacking of judgement.

Support Resources are Always Welcome

My partner likes to say that he is an expert on our child, not Autism.  As one profile does not look like any other, he is constantly looking for new and better information.  In each seminar he attends, he learns a new nugget of information or is reminded of something.  Every article, book and documentary helps to solidify his knowledge base and plant the seeds of new skillsets.

The best employers have provided support through seminars, parenting networks and private consultations so that he may access information and support from someone other than me.  They also provide an avenue to allow him to be an informed parent.  One supervisor used to send articles every now and again that he thought would be interesting.  As home can be so intense, we do not always have the time to find these resources ourselves.  Help and support in locating advice is always appreciated.

We Need to Talk About the Good Parts of Parenting

One thing any parent of a child with Autism will tell you is that the lows can be quite low.  However, the highs are even higher!  So much of talking about our child is around what he finds difficult.  Professionals offer support in the deficits, but often forget that there is a whole person there.  When my son makes a new friend, my heart leaps for joy.  His dry sense of humour can come out at the most inappropriate times and those stories are hilarious!  He also is so incredibly loyal to his siblings and takes the banner of being a big brother very seriously.  I want to share those stories…. not the stories of the meltdowns or the inability to see the point of poetry or the fact that he has to be reminded to wear deodorant.

The best employers and supervisors ask how our kids are doing without a look of pity.  There is no expectation of distress.  They are willing to listen if we need to speak about needing support, but they also provide a space for us to be proud parents of our amazing boy.  They know, just as we do, that there is a whole person there with a unique perspective on life that can be valued and celebrated.

If you would like to support employees with Autistic children, get in touch to find out about our session on this topic.

How can Line Mangers best support Parents & Carers?

I would really appreciate your help with a new project……..

I’m so excited to be contributing to a world-class development programme to support line managers.  The programme  will provide practical, tangible, scalable change for Line Manager’s teams and organisations, through the transformative power of conversation.    

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I would love your real life experiences and input. 
Please respond to any of the following questions and share with others to respond.:

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Teenage happiness

Dear Rachel

“I’m struggling with depression and feeling happy in my day to day life.  Please give me some helpful hints on how to create a more happy life for myself.”

For my daily work supporting parents in corporates, I have spent a lot of time reading up on the psychology of happiness be that for adults or teens.

Sadly there appears to be an ‘unhappiness’ epidemic going on and depression rates are ten times higher than they were in 1960.  The age threshold of unhappiness is also getting lower. Fifty years ago the average age for the onset of depression was 29.5 years old.  Today it is almost half at 14 years old.

The first thing teens should do is try to define and understand what ‘happiness’ means to them, as it is incredibly personal. With the pressures of school work and social expectations (worrying about what others think of you and FOMO) teens often have the mistaken belief that if you work really hard, get good grades, are in the right social crowd, have the material possessions you desire, only then will you be happy.  In fact spending your life trying to achieve in all areas, often results in us feeling stressed and sad.

It actually works the other way round.  We become more successful in all areas of life when we are happier and more positive, as opposed to thinking we will be happy once we are successful.

Some top tips to nurture happiness.

  1. I have read countless studies which conclude that social interaction is the best prescription for happiness. One of the longest running psychological studies of all times is the ‘Harvard Men Study’ following Harvard students from the late 1930s through to the present day. 70 years of evidence concluded that our relationships with people matter more than anything else in the world. In a ‘Very Happy People’ study again the one characteristic amongst the happiest 10% was the strength of their social relationships.
  2. The thing to really stress here is that social interaction means being present, making eye contact and interpreting each other’s non-verbal cues.  This is entirely different to having 1000+ followers on Instagram, 185 likes for one post or keeping up 40 daily streaks on Snapchat.  The trouble is that time with family and friends may be the first thing to go. When you are unhappy, you are far more likely to withdraw and not feel like making an effort socially.  The more social support you have, the happier you will feel.
  3. Practice gratitude. Every day write in a diary or share with your family, 3 things you are grateful for.  It could be as simple as the sun was shining, there was no fish for lunch at school or you finally grasped a hard concept in maths. The more gratitude you feel and verbalise, the more you will get into the habit of noticing what there is to be grateful for and the happier you will feel.
  4. Be aware that you and only you are responsible for your own happiness. You can’t blame others for “making” you unhappy or rely on other people or things to make you happy.  Whilst you can’t obviously control everything that happens to you, you can choose what you think and feel about the things that happen.  It is your deep thoughts that drive your feelings and in turn your actions.  If a person is pessimistic when bad things happen, they feel bad and permanently negative. Optimists see negative events as only temporary and due to outside factors.
  5. How we feel is totally dependent on our mindset. Each person’s reality is based on their perception and understanding of the world. Practice positivity.
  6. Pursue things that you really enjoy, that you are good at and are meaningful to give your life purpose.  Everyone whatever age they are needs to try and find a strength or something they are passionate about and can feel truly engaged and lose track of time.  That may be a sport, playing an instrument, volunteering, reading, cooking, doing magic tricks. Anything that gives you real pleasure.
  7. Even at difficult times with lots going on, schedule something in your diary that you can really look forward to.
  8. Any form of exercise releases endorphins and helps to improve your mood.
  9. Meditation is very popular at the moment and to be honest not something I have much experience of but I know it works for others and helps to develop the pre -frontal cortex which is the part of the brain most responsible for happiness.
  10. I love this concept of a ‘Healthy mind platter’ from Dr Dan Siegel.

Balance in all these areas is key for a healthy mind.