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What to tell your children about going back to school

Read published article here

Some children may be anxious about the prospect of returning to school. Here’s how you can talk about it:

After a period of several weeks in lockdown where many families have been living, working and schooling together all under one roof with limited exposure to the outside world, it’s understandable that we might all now be feeling anxious at the prospect of transitioning back to the new “normal” when lockdown is eventually lifted.

Many children, including infants and toddlers, will be feeling a heightened sense of awareness, or even anxiety, at the prospect of being separated from their parents when nurseries and schools reopen.

Despite the global crisis and all the change it has brought to our daily lives, one thing has been constant for children throughout, and that’s the presence and support of their parents; their physical presence, rituals and routines, their nurture, love and comfort.

For this reason, it is natural for them to perhaps have become more clingy than normal, more reliant on your support and more used to your constant presence. The prospect of suddenly being taken out of this safe bubble at home can therefore be quite a shock for both children and parents.

For parents of toddlers going back to nursery, it is important to tell yourself that your child will be ok. When babies develop a sense of object permanence, they know that parents still exist when they are out of sight and this can cause separation anxiety. It is developmental, but it does not make it any easier for parents to say goodbye at the door.

Just as adults, children are innately social beings. Remind yourself they will enjoy the interaction of other children and engaging creatively with staff at nursery. Recognise that your worry will naturally be increased due to lockdown and acknowledge that your sense of worry will often be mirrored by your child’s behaviour and responses.

For children who are old enough to understand, talk about the changes that are going to happen through storytelling. Discuss with your children how they might feel going back to school or nursery.

Try to name their feelings so you can validate their thoughts and emotions, recognise they will move and change. Acknowledge that they may feel worried about saying goodbye at the nursery door. Talk about what you do when you feel worried as this too is a supportive strategy. Notice how challenging and courageous they are being.

Always be consistent in your promises about returning, even if it means agreeing to bring the exact snack that was requested when you pick them up later. It helps with emotional containment and a sense they feel listened to.

Most importantly, notice your responses to their anxiety and what it awakens in you. Children are incredibly intuitive and, if you can, model supportive strategies so they will know it is ok to say “see you later”.

Finally, for children and adolescents, the sense of being parted from their friends, which makes up such an important part of their lives, is tremendously challenging. While they may feel angst about returning to school, they will also be grappling with the sense of urgency to be among their friends and peers.

The united individual experiences of lockdown and loss will have impacted hugely on adolescents and, therefore, their need to tell their story will be so important. Parents can rest assured that schools will be aware of the very great emotional needs of their pupils and will no doubt be offering additional support at this time.

Hannah Abrahams is an educational and child psychologist and a valuable member of the Educating Matters speaking team

How can you teach your children to be kind?

This year’s theme for ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ is kindness.

Kindness can be defined as empathy, compassion and being friendly. Studies have shown that generous people perform better. Helping others broadens your learning and helps to form deeper relationships. Darwin recognised that helping others was a part of natural selection as ‘tribes who were always ready to aid one another, would be victorious over most other tribes.’

Parents spend a lot of time telling their children to be kind. However, a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that 80% of the 10,000 students surveyed, felt their parents care more about their children’s personal achievements or happiness than whether they are kind human beings.

Is kindness something you can really teach and how can parents instill it in their children? I have a few practical suggestions:

Model kindness

I have said countless times in these blog posts that 80% of parenting is modelling. This is particularly true with regards to kindness. Children learn what it means to be kind by the examples their parents show them. This can be very simple things such as greeting people politely and with enthusiasm, smiling at a waiter (when we get back out in the real world), saying thank you or complementing a friend.  Equally important is the way you engage with your child, responding with love, empathy, compassion and understanding even if you don’t like their behaviour.

Talk about kindness

Actively try to share your own experiences of helping others. Be honest with your children when perhaps you regret moments when you could have done more. Under normal circumstances, a common discussion at the end of a long day may be questioning your child about their achievements, such as: “How did the spelling test go?” “Did you score a goal in football?”  Instead try to gear the questions towards asking your children what they did that was kind or helpful.

We can also help to develop empathy in our children by talking about how they think their actions made another person feel, such as a sibling or friend. Get them into the habit of empathising what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, including characters in a movie or book. During this pandemic our family have had many conversations over the dinner table about how fortunate we are and thinking about others who may find themselves in much more challenging circumstances.

Acknowledge kindness

The more you acknowledge or notice something, the more children deem it to be important.  A very common mistake that parents make is to tell their children what they have done wrong, rather than catching them when they do something right. Notice and mention any examples of kindness displayed by your children, such as helping a sibling or offering to unload the dishwasher without being asked. Help your children notice what it feels like to be kind and help other people.

One activity we undertook quite early in lockdown, was to sort through all the children’s old toys and books.  We then got in touch with a local organisation, who knew about families in need and told us the ages of the children so that we could prepare packages of toys and books specifically suitable for the age and gender of each family. My 10-year-old remarked how she got more pleasure from giving the toys away than when she had received them.

Another lovely idea, is to create a kindness jar. When your child does something thoughtful, pop a note in the jar and read over them every now and again.

Opportunities for kindness

Being kind to others, genuinely feels good and helps to create a sense of community, connection and distraction from your own troubles. Sometimes you consciously need to create opportunities for your children to engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures. This may take children slightly out of their comfort zones but helps them learn to empathise with others. Perhaps it means volunteering at a shelter or food bank, or for young adults encouraging them to spend a summer with less privileged children. Perhaps as a family you could set yourselves five kindness goals for the week. This could be as simple as smiling at strangers in the street, phoning up an elderly person stuck at home or helping younger siblings with their homework.

Even now there are so mnay initiatives and ways of offering kindness remotely.  One of my daughter’s has been calling up elderly people who can’t leave their homes at all or writing cards for people in care homes.

To truly set our children up for success in life, teaching them to be kind is probably the most moral attribute. I would argue that the true test of parenting is ultimately, how your children treat others not what they achieve.

Always remember, as far as children are concerned, what you do is far more powerful than what you say.

How healthy eating can improve our mental health

It’s ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ and in lockdown, we are spending a lot of time thinking about food (at least I am) since we have to constantly provide it for our families. So I asked our expert speaker on nutrition, Tracey Bennett to explain how what we eat impacts on our mental health………

Nutrition has been sorely neglected as a factor in the development of mental health.  The brain like any other organ needs the right balance of nutrients in order to function properly.  A 30% rise in teenage depression over the last decade has been linked to too much salt from fast food and not enough potassium from fruit and vegetables.

The problem is that fast food tastes good and that combination of sugar and fat is highly addictive.  That temporary high is quickly followed by an energy slump which leaves you wanting more.  The more that you eat it the more you need to get the same amount of pleasure.  Additionally, too much sugar has been linked to reducing the protein (BDNF) which has been associated with increased anxiety. 

These foods kill the healthy bacteria in your gut which is thought to play a really important role in your mental health; serotonin which helps to regulate sleep, appetite and mood is largely produced in the gut.

Any processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar have a similar effect on your gut bacteria as well as artificial sweeteners found in so many so called ‘healthy’ foods.

 A poor diet can lead to a range of nutritional deficiencies that can affect your well-being.  A recent study in the UK showed that 92% of teenagers and 77% of adults were most at risk of an Omega 3 deficiency.  This essential fatty acid, found primarily in oily fish, has a protective effect against depression, concentration and memory problems.

It is not easy to ensure that you get the right balance of nutrients and often the problem can be what we eat between meals.  Not buying those unhealthy snacks that are difficult to ration is probably the best option as it can take up to a month to re-educate your taste buds. 

Try replacing them with healthy snacks that not only reduce stress but increase well-being:

  1. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc which aids depression, magnesium to reduce stress and helps to create serotonin.
  2. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and packed with vitamin C which helps to relieve stress.
  3. Try putting your blueberries in a natural yogurt.  They build up your healthy bacteria and have been found to have a positive effect on brain health.  A study found that not only do yoghurts reduce social anxiety in some teenagers but they also increase happiness.
  4. Natural popcorn is a tasty source of whole grains that is high in fibre which helps to relieve stress and anxiety.
  5. Avocadoes contain choline which gives you a double boost of serotonin and dopamine.
  6. Walnuts have countless benefits such as improving mood, regulating the appetite and boosting brain function.
  7. When you do fancy something sweet, dark chocolate is rich in magnesium.  Dipping fruit such as bananas or strawberries in melted dark chocolate will help to reduce stress.

Undoubtedly, what we eat affects how we feel and a healthy balanced diet can be a powerful aid for people dealing with depression and anxiety.  But the converse is also true as our emotions can dictate what we eat.  For many of us there is an internal struggle between the healthy foods that we know we should be eating and those tempting foods that we would like to be eating.  When we are feeling low, or stressed or bored we can often turn to food for a bit of a boost.  This kind of emotional overeating can also take a toll on our mental health as it doesn’t give us the comfort that we need and we end up feeling even worse.  Left untreated, emotional eating can lead to weight gain, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

Ways of Overcoming Emotional Eating and Improving Mental Health

  • Talk about your feelings:

With a friend or family member, or if you prefer write them down.  Emotional eating is often a distraction to stop you thinking unpleasant thoughts but you end up swallowing your feelings rather than dealing with them.

  • Keep a mood diary:

This will help to identify any kind of emotional eating and will give you an opportunity to develop some strategies for dealing with it.  For example, if stress is your trigger have some activities in mind for when this might happen such as engaging in meditation and other relaxation techniques.

  • Get Moving:

Exercise boosts our endorphins and makes us feel good.  It also reduces the stress hormone cortisol leading to a reduction in depression, anxiety and insomnia.

  • Limit your exposure to social media:

Social media can distort your attitude to body image and make you feel bad about yourself and much more likely to comfort eat.

  • Use affirmations:

Every time you have a negative thought about yourself, try using simple affirmations to encourage yourself such as ‘it is the inner person that counts’ or ‘I can do anything’.  They have been shown to positively rewire the brain and enhance your mood.

  • Help others:

Doing something for someone else will definitely help you to feel better about yourself.

Using these strategies alongside a healthy balanced diet is not necessarily a panacea for all types of mental health issues as your first step may be getting help from a doctor.  Nevertheless, in conjunction with any other medical advice, they will help to boost the improvements.

Of course we serve as essential role models for our children, so they will be influenced by how we eat.

Tracey Bennett delivers a very popular session on Healthy Eating Matters: How to instil healthy eating habits in our children.

Please get in touch for further details.

How Can You Support Your Child With Maths?

Please see my top 5 thoughts on the role parents play with regards to numeracy.

Should any corporates be interested, I run a very popular talk for parents: ‘Numeracy Matters’. It covers how maths is taught in school and how parents can provide effective support at home.

Here are some of my favourite maths websites to support learning:

www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize

www.mathletics.co.uk

www.twinkl.co.uk

www.mymaths.co.uk

www.mathsseeds.com

www.khanacademy.org

www.thenationalacade

https://www.themathsfactor.com/

www.primaryresources.co.uk/maths

How to use your emotional toolbox to support your mental health needs

We are living in one of the most unprecedented times in living history and it is important to recognise how exceptionally resilient we have been during the last 8 weeks in lockdown.  Take a moment to reflect upon that statement. Yes as humans we are naturally creative and incredibly adaptable beings. 

Without a doubt, there will have been times of fear, of anxiety and of hopelessness and despair, but amongst the tidal waves of raw and very big emotions, there will also have been moments of success, of hope, of love and laughter and togetherness.  

You will already have been using tools from within your emotional toolbox in order to navigate these uncertain days, but I hope that I will be able to awaken your sense of skill, as well as suggest some new and creative ideas to support you and your families

What happens to our bodies when we’re stressed?

In times of crisis, uncertainty and stress, our brains and bodies become dysregulated leading us to be in a fight or flight mode.  We are waiting for the “bear,” and these days illness, to come around the corner and our concentration and ability to focus, as well as our productive and creative brain, will be significantly impeded. 

Previous traumas, losses or anxieties may be reawakened in us and our behaviours and responses to our children and our own needs change or old unwanted behaviours become ever-present. If this happens, allow yourself the time to notice, to stop, to listen to yourself and your responses and reflect upon how best to help yourself and your children.

Remember that emotional responses will feel even bigger right now. That’s ok and to be expected but it is so important to remember that this too shall pass. I often like to think about how emotions change for adults and children alike during the course of a day just as the waves change as they reach the shore. 

We are under incredible strain as parents and employees trying to navigate working from home in a crisis while “home-schooling,” we need to dig deep.  Learning to manage these uncomfortable emotions is a lifetime’s work but being conscious of them will help you to feel less overwhelmed and stressed. 

In times such as these, we need to be mindful of our mental health needs in order to meet the needs of our children. It’s a case of putting our own ‘oxygen mask’ on first. Unless we do this, we’re going to feel very dysregulated much of the time. You need to nourish your own basic needs (such as food, water and sleep) where you can get it, in order to successfully meet, contain and validate the needs of your children. 

Check-in on yourself

Notice how your body is feeling. If you can, do a body scan. 

  • Are you feeling really tense? Where does the tension sit? In your hands? In your heart? In your toes?
  • For children a body scan can be completed in a very visual way – draw around their bodies either in chalk or pen and get them to label different parts of their body that feel feelings- for example does their heart feel love? Where do they feel anger? Hurt? Excitement or worry? Activities such as these open up opportunities for discussion and growing emotional awareness.

Place your hand where you’re feeling most angst and try and ground yourself in the moment. By this, I mean STOP, DROP AND BREATHE

  • STOP in the moment
  • DROP everything you’re doing
  • And take 3 deep BREATHS

This activity can also be used for children and helps to regulate yourself and them, before reaching volcanic explosions and responses

Grounding

Choose one thing to do every morning that will help you to feel grounded or have a giggle – such as doing a dance like no one is watching or stretching, going for a walk and standing and listening to the nature around you 


Notice and validate big emotions

This applies to our emotions and the emotions felt by your children. During these times, it’s to be expected that sometimes your emotions will overwhelm you and that of your child. 

Remind yourself it’s Ok to feel these big emotions and this too shall pass. Be compassionate with yourself and your children. 

Resist the urge to run away from the emotion, just BREATHE. Expect the emotions that you’re feeling, notice how they move and change. By doing this, you will be helping to regulate your brain activity and reduce the flood of cortisol. 

Every time you work through these big emotions, you are emptying your emotional rucksack. By developing your resilience, your children will mirror you and therefore you are doing an amazing job in developing their emotional regulatory behaviours too. Things won’t always go right, its ok and being reflective with yourself and your child about the less successful emotional moments is important too. 

Find activities you enjoy

To be expected to learn a new language or expected to clean and tidy our homes in Marie Kondo style is not necessary right now, but it is important to give yourself permission to do something that you love for a few moments each day. 

Encourage your children to think about creative ways to nurture their interests too. For example:

  • Plant sunflower seeds and water them daily, watching them grow
  • Create an obstacle course on the street using chalk on the pavement
  • Grab a paintbrush and some paint and just let the strokes of your brush flow.  It’s amazing what your unconscious can tell you through this activity. See where your painting flow takes you. 

Don’t think too far ahead

Our brains like to live in the moment. As soon as we start thinking about what ifs and what next, the little almond sized part of our brain known as the ‘amygdala’ starts flapping away. It controls the emotional response panel in our brains, and it doesn’t know how to navigate the future. 

It’s very much about trying to bring ourselves back to the present moment, which can be so difficult during such uncertain times. But psychologically, we know that our amazing, creative, productive and resilient brains work best when we are in the moment. 

For so much of this time, we have been navigating the sense of stress and worry that lockdown has brought to us as a nation. That said, we are incredibly adaptive beings and you will notice that over the course of the weeks your sense of heightened worry may have diminished slightly with time. Recognise your and your child’s amazing adaptability and whilst we continue to experience waves of emotion, congratulate yourself that you have come this far. Remember what you’re doing is good enough and hold on to that in the toughest of times.

If you would like a webinar to support the Mental Health of employees during this period of Covid-19, please be in touch for some ideas.

Can you look back on this as a scared time to treasure rather than just survive?

I feel overwhelmed by the amount of articles and suggested resources coming through my inbox and across various social media platforms, on every possible topic related to getting through this Covid-19 crisis.

There is one great post that I didn’t write and the author is ‘unknown’ but of all the things I have received, it really spoke to me as a parent, so I wanted to share it with you.

Child – “How old are you, Grandpa?”

Grandpa – “I’m 81, dear.”

Child – “So does that mean you were alive during the Coronavirus?”

Grandpa – “Yes, I was.”

Child – “Wow. That must have been horrible, Grandpa. We were learning about that at school this week.

They told us about how all the schools had closed. And moms and dads couldn’t go to work so didn’t have as much money to do nice things.

They said that you weren’t allowed to go and visit your friends and family and couldn’t go out anywhere.

They told us that the shops and stores ran out of lots of things so you didn’t have much bread, and flour, and toilet rolls.

They said that summer holidays were cancelled. And they told us about all those thousands of people that got very sick and who died.

They explained how hard all the doctors and nurses and all essential workers worked, and that lots of them died, too.

That must have been so horrible, grandpa!”

Grandpa – “Well, that is all correct.

And I know that because I read about it when I was older.

But to tell you the truth I remember it differently…

I remember playing in the garden for hours with mom and dad and having picnics outside and lots of bbqs.

I remember making things and fishing with my Dad and baking with my Mom.

I remember making forts and learning how to do hand stands and back flips. I remember having quality time with my family.

I remember Mom’s favorite words becoming ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea…’

Rather than ‘Maybe later or tomorrow I’m a bit busy’.

I remember making our own bread and pastry. I remember having movie night three or four times a week instead of just one.

It was a horrible time for lots of people you are right.

But I remember it differently.”

Remember how our children will remember these times.

Be in control of the memories they are creating right now, so that through all the awful headlines and emotional stories for so many that they will come to read in future years, they can remember the happy times.

Author unknown 💕