Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Anxious children feel better with DIRT!

Yep, you read that right.
Studies in the UK and USA have shown that children and indeed adults too who garden or play in the soil experience positive mood changes. They become calmer! Certain microbes in soil, Microbacterium Vaccae,  actually stimulate the brain's production of Serotonin, the body's calming hormone.
Read more at Gardening Know How: Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/antidepressant-microbes-soil.htm,
You can read more here, on the Australian Science website - soil and depression
No wonder I can't wait to get out into my garden some days!

For anxious kids, this can be a fabulous way to effect change, especially if they are prone to depression.

So, what do you do if you live in the city?
  1. Buy a big pot for your balcony and fill it with soil, not potting mix, from the local nursery/hardware store. 
  2. Plant something edible, like lettuce, bok choy, spring onion, or herbs such as rosemary, chives, dill, coriander and thyme.
  3. Plant something colourful - this lifts the mood to.
  4. Tend your mini-garden daily. read up on what sort of ph the plants like, watering and plant food, pruning etc.
  5. Don't use gloves! But wash your hands when you're finished of course.
  6.  If you don't have a balcony, a spot near the window will do.
  7. Pull out the weeds! Again, don't use gloves. Get right in there and get dirty.
  8. Instead of a sandpit, build a small soil play area and add some utensils such as bucket, spade, old plastic pots etc. The 'clam shell' shallow outdoor pool/sandpit would be perfect.



Kids are suffering 
I am deadly serious. And very angry.
People are causing children extreme distress by ranting about Donald Trump and 'predicting' the end of the end of the world.

At my daughter's school the principal had to make special announcements to each class about the US election of Donald Trump. Why? Because stupid, insensitive people, including parents and teachers, had voiced their private views about Trump in such a way that children were beginning to fear for their future. The same thing happened at cub scouts this week. A little girl, aged ten, was depressed and upset, because 'that evil man is president and he's going to blow up the world.' In the city another principal had to make announcements to quell the hysteria raging in her school.

Keep personal political views out of the classroom!
What are people thinking?
Kids today already have enough pressures. Through social media their innocence is being taken from them at an earlier age. They struggle with interpersonal skills because they spend too much time online. Anxiety as a syndrome is skyrocketing. And irresponsible people are making it worse.

Children do not need the pressure these intolerant idiots are causing by spreading their hatred. I offer no comment on the man. I don't even live in the USA. But I do know that he was elected democratically and that's what the majority of the people wanted. How things proceed from here we shall have to wait and see.

Teachers DO NOT have the right to push their own political agenda in their classroom. This is WRONG. I have been teaching for 27 years, so I know what I'm talking about.

Our job is teaching our children to understand the democratic process instead of undermining the very thing it strives to achieve - freedom of speech and the right to vote.

Friday, 27 May 2016

DEPRESSION and suicide in children - what can parents do?


It's official. And the statistics are horrific. Twice as many teens die from suicide as from car accidents. How did this happen? What brought us to this shocking predicament?

Why are Teens Killing themselves?
Experts struggle to pinpoint one central cause, and that's not surprising. There is no one causal factor in this complicated issue. Some teens are unhappy to the point that they see no purpose to living any longer. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like for their parents and families.

The Devastation it Leaves Behind
Suicide has touched my family and directly affected me. I knew the person I loved was unhappy but was told medication was helping to keep him stable. This was not the case. With a change in medication came a drastic reaction. Within two days he was gone, leaving behind a bewildered and shocked family. We blamed ourselves for not being vigilant enough, not checking in with him, not caring enough, but the truth is, once a person has decided to take their own life virtually nothing will stop them. This was not a cry for help, this was a willful ending of life.

Is it Harder for Kids these Days?
Our children, those precious little people we love and nurture, are under greater pressures these days. I know it sounds like a cliche; trite, a one-size-fits-all phrase, but I do believe it's true. Working with kids for over 25 years, and largely on a one-to-one basis, I've come across highly anxious boys and girls but it wasn't until the last ten years that I've actually dealt with suicidal children.

So How Did I begin to Help These Children??
I began with listening. I listened to the parents and then the child. I listened with my heart, with compassion, but I was at the same time making sharp-focussed observations, drawing the strings of their lives together to get a clearer idea of what their life was like for them. Want to know what I noticed?

  1. The child usually had no chores in the home
  2. Home routines were patchy and unpredictable
  3. The child dictated their own bedtime
  4. The child had little respect for parental authority or the relationship with at least one parent was strained
  5. Emotional distance between the child and at least one parent. Misunderstandings had developed into repulsion.
  6. Parental fears and anxieties were high
  7. Parental authority was limited or virtually non-existent
  8. The child had few if any hobbies, some were totally unsuitable
  9. The child watched whatever they wanted on TV and DVD, including MA and R rated films
  10. The child had unsupervised access to the internet
  11. The child had few or no friends
  12. The child spent a lot of time staring at a screen playing games or watching things instead of being in the real world
  13. The child frequently expressed anger when talking about home and family
  14. The child felt no one understood their feelings
  15. The child behaved inappropriately at school
  16. Parents rarely said 'no' to the child or refused them anything
  17. The child had issues with food - poor diet, refusing to eat certain foods, bulimic etc.
  18. The child had socialising difficulties
  19. Parents maintained a facade of neatness and orderliness but underneath things were messy and complicated
  20. Parents seemed unable to see their child as a normal child, maintaining he/she was 'special' and treated them accordingly
  21. Parents felt powerless
  22. Parents had blinkers on when it came to their child's behaviour. They knew it was a cry for help but didn't understand what they were seeing
  23. The child resented their parents 'interfering' with their life
  24. The child's insatiable appetite for control ruled the family roost
  25. The child had persistent, intrusive, negative thoughts they either didn't recognise or didn't know how to deal with
  26. The child felt isolated and alone in their world, despite being in a loving family
  27. the child felt they were a burden, with no redeeming qualities
  28. The child had fantasised about how they would kill themselves, as the only solution to their problem
So, What Now?
Can you feel the pain, just reading that list? It makes me wonder how it can get to that point without anyone noticing or changing what they did, but the truth is that these things are often generational problems or stem from a specific event in the past and the subsequent slide downwards can take many years. In one case, the child had almost died as a toddler and the parents were frantically worried of losing them every minute of the day. This distress had transferred to that child and made life hellish and confusing. The first thing I did was to inform the child what had actually happened to them (no one had ever said anything) and tried to explain how this had affected the parents' behaviour and decisions over the years. Another child had bulimia, which the parents knew about but 'trusted' their child that it was no longer happening. The smell of vomit in the bathroom should have been a giveaway, but... A kind of blindness descends when parents feel they have run out of options and energy to deal with the situation. Another child was like a miniature Attila the Hun, issuing orders and making demands while addicted to internet porn. Another child had actually started cutting their body 'to release the pain.' Another had already decided the best way to die.

Family Relationships
At the centre of all of this is the family - the child-parent relationship. Some of the most significant features I noticed was that the parents were either too timid or assumed they had it all under control. Both can be fatal mistakes.

A child, before they slide into a depression, begins to feel unsafe, like they are floating, with no solid ground on which to stand. This might be triggered by a death in the family, when parents don't know how to process grief or don't realise how their child is processing their own grief. It might begin with problems at school; teasing, bullying, exclusion and no real investigation is carried out as to the cause. Children can be cruel to each other, it's instinct and at its basis there is usually a fear of some kind. Children don't just wake up one day and decide the best thing to do is kill themselves. they reach such desperation over a long period of time. There are signposts along the way, but sometimes they are missed, but I'm inclined to think that a basic lack of structure in the lives of these children is often a significant factor. If we, as parents, don't stand up and make the decisions for the family, then the child feels forced into doing it. Despite demanding control, children don't actually want it. What they want is for us to lead them, to provide safety, a warm place to nestle in and be loved. But how some parents react to their child's distress can actually make it worse, despite having all the love in the world for that child.

So what can we do to prevent our children from becoming suicidal?
It begins in the home, in the ordinary everyday things. Children don't know what is good for them. That's our job to know, from experience. So here's a few ideas:
  1. Always know where your child is and who they are with. At any moment of the day. Or night. Choose their friends and associates carefully. Make sure the parents have strong, sensible values. If your child is spending time at the house of a friend, know exactly what kind of house it is.
  2. Have clear expectations of the child's behaviour at all times. Just because they're having a bad day doesn't mean they can take it out on everyone else.
  3. Do not let the child decide what is appropriate material to watch or listen to. Everything we put into our minds becomes a part of us. Music with explicit lyrics is completely inappropriate for children. Films with adult ratings ditto. Also silly TV shows where the child characters are sassy, opinionated and demanding while the parents are weak and indecisive. Provide GOOD ROLE MODELS for your children, especially with what they watch. Research the shows that will provide a healthy outlook.
  4. Provide quiet time during the day. It's so important to wind down and when kids are hyped up they sometimes don't realise they need to calm down a bit. Especially before bed. Reading aloud to your child at bedtime works wonders. It has the added benefit of broadening their vocabulary, so they can express themselves better.
  5. Chat. Every day. About school, home, stuff that's bothering them, fun things, their hopes, likes and dislikes, who they played with at school, who they'd like to be friends with. Listen carefully. Try to imagine your child in the playground and see how their behaviour affects their life in the social context. Do they need help with socialising skills? Are they being too demanding of others? Are they being bullied? Keep the chat channel open. 
  6. Do fun things together. Take the time. It's an investment in your child's happiness, not a chore!
  7. Encourage kindheartedness and compassion towards others. Get involved in a local charity, like a dog's shelter. Collect blankets and towels to take there and donate food. Teach your child to be a good friend, by being generous. Always insist the guest goes first or chooses first. When we understand the needs of others we are less likely to focus solely on our own.
  8. Show you trust your child by teaching them how to be responsible and giving them opportunities to prove themselves to you. In our house we preface any new privilege with 'this is a test, ok? to see if you're ready for this.' If they fail the test, they're not ready and need more assistance and time.
  9. Teach your child to cope with failure. We cannot learn anything unless we accept that we WILL FAIL occasionally. No one is perfect. No one, no matter how they appear on the outside, gets it right every time.
  10. Give your child the tools to be self aware. We all inherit tendencies from our parents. Its genetic. But you can learn to modify yourself to minimise the problems that arise. Make sure your child knows and accepts their little idiosyncrasies with a positive attitude to manage or change. 
  11. Above all, teach your child to be aware of their own thoughts, to recognise a single thought, when it enters their head. people often have no concept that a thought is an actual thing. It can be stopped in its tracks if its causing distress or harm.
  12. Be consistent, especially in your routines at home. Chores, consistent mealtimes and bedtimes are the minimum. Children will try to change it, but that doesn't mean you give in. They will try every trick they know to get around it. Don't let them. 
  13. Seek help if you feel like your grip is slipping. If that help isn't any use keep looking, asking around for personal referrals to professionals until you find someone your child can talk to. It doesn't have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist. In fact, counsellors are better in many ways. They focus more on listening rather than diagnosing.
  14. Keep reading, learning, growing as a parent. There are so many awesome books out there. Key words to use in searches are: attachment theory, discipline, emotional intelligence, anxiety in children, resilience, responsibility in children, birth order, Jungian personality typology, body language, Manhood by Steve Biddulph, raising boys, raising girls, How Love Works by Steve and Sharon Biddulph, The Five Love Languages by Gary Larson. 
  15. You will notice a blue book to the right. Its '12 Annoying Monsters - Self Talk for Kids With Anxiety.' I wrote it for my clients but it became so popular I decided to make it available to everyone. All over the world this book has sold, helping kids and parents to tackle and manage anxiety, before it develops into something more sinister. You can purchase a copy by clicking on the link. 12 Annoying Monsters
  16. Encourage your child to confide in another adult you trust, say an aunt, uncle or grandparent. Sometimes we can tell others things we can't say to our family
  17. Get plenty of rest, exercise and good food. Being healthy, cooking together, being active together, these provide opportunities for chatting as well as getting some of those frustrations out of the system. Our trampoline gets a bit of a workout on days when a certain person is cranky or frustrated with her day. By order of her mother! 15 minutes minimum.
In helping your child in the above areas you will also find you're helping yourself. What a wonderful gift for both of you! I wish you the best of luck.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Why Routines Help Anxious and Super-controlling Kids

You might notice that your anxious child can be quite controlling. This is largely due to that fact that anxious children feel the need to know what is going to happen next and try to prepare themselves. They often assume bad things are on the horizon. Many live in a constant state of stress and cannot soothe themselves. An example would be when you announce you're going somewhere. It could be as simple as going to the shops to get some groceries. The anxious child wants to know which shop, how long it will take to get there, what you've going to buy and when you'll return home. These sorts of questions, when you're trying to get everyone organised and in the car can be a bit of a nightmare!

So, what can you do? Here are some easy steps you can take to reduce anxiety in your child. TODAY!

1. Home routines
An easy way to take down the stress levels is to establish and maintain proper routines. This allows the anxious child to predict what is going to happen, to be prepared and thus less stressed.
MEALS - have dinner at the same time every night, especially on a school night. In our house I start dinner while my daughter is in the shower. When she emerges, shrouded in steam, she is always happy to see me preparing her meal. This calms her and prevents questions like 'when's dinner?'
BEDTIME - Ensure your child has adequate sleep but insisting on consistent bedtime. For young children 7.30 pm means they will get the 10 hours their developing body and brain needs. Yes, that's right, ten hours!
CHORES - Every child needs to contribute to the household by carrying out their chores, which will hopefully become a habit. You're not just teaching them to be neat, tidy and organised, you're teaching them to respectful of others, your home and themselves. Also, children need to feel like they have accomplished something and having chores makes them feel proud when you praise them for it. Our daughter feeds the chickens, collects the eggs and puts out the recycling. Twice a day. Keeping her own room tidy is not a chore, it's an expectation.
READING AT NIGHT - Many studies have shown the benefits of reading to your child at night. Children who are read to score higher on literacy tests, have a bigger vocabulary, read and write better and are more confident. But the greatest gift you get from reading to your child at night is that it calms him/her down, ready to sleep. Choose a good quality book, a little higher than their reading level, to improve their vocab. It doesn't have to be a story. It can be a non-fiction book that interests them, such as: bugs, dinosaurs, machines, how nature works, animals, space and other sciences, myths and legends etc. There's an excellent article on reading to older kids here: reading to older kids

HOMEWORK - Make sure you supervise homework and show an interest in what your child is doing. Homework can be distressing to the perfectionistic or under-achieving child. If you are there to guide and praise it makes homework more fun. If your child is really struggling with the work, you can write the teacher a note, keeping the lines of communication open between home and school.
PACKING OWN SCHOOL BAG - I make my daughter's lunch, but she has to organise her bag herself and get herself dressed for school. We used to have a list on the fridge of what she needed to do. That's no longer necessary.

2. Limit the number and type of questions 
Sometimes questions are a cry for help, sometimes a sign of boredom and sometimes actual, genuine desire to know. I used to get pestered about what was for dinner. Sometimes I don't know until I see what's  in the fridge. So  now I say 'Food.' When she asks what kind, I say 'Delicious food' and no more. She knows not to persist and its become a sort of game. 'I know what you're going to say, Mum - delicious food!' If she asks unnecessary questions, when it's obvious what I'm doing, I say 'Is that a necessary question?' When she asks questions about stuff I don't know or am too tired to think about, such as 'Why does the sun always hurt my eyes?' I say 'Ask me a question I can answer!' If things are really bad and I need some peace I allow only one question every ten minutes.

3. Limit the after-school activities
I have noticed in the last ten years or so that many parents are involving their children in afternoon sports or activities almost every day of the week.  In my teaching work I see exhausted children. They don't have time to complete their homework and have no relaxation time with their family doing simple, home-based things, like cleaning out the garage together, playing in the garden/park, craft activities at the kitchen table or cooking dinner together. Playing is huge part of childhood. Being in the backyard or down at the park is essential for good mental and physical growth. If you are there to join in, it's even better! We have a big backyard, with trampoline, trees to climb, swing, scooter, bike and nearby public swimming pool, so there's never a reason to be bored. If its a habit to play outside instead of turning to the TV/computer/x-box you will find your child is happier and calmer. Trust me! There's an interesting article on tree climbing here: www.wordconstructions.com.au
4. Down time/chat time
Make sure there are at least a couple of minutes in the day when you connect in a meaningful way with your child. You need to sit together, cuddle or make eye contact and really see what is going on in their life today. The standard question, 'So how was school?' will probably get you a monosyllabic response, so be more specific - 'What was the best thing about school today?' Stay in touch with how they feel about their friends, the teacher, their favourite subject, the books they're reading, their frustrations and fears. Be the sounding board they want you to be. No amount of judo lessons, swimming or Art classes can replace what they get from their own parent's undivided attention and love.

5. Formalise your routines in a chart
So that everyone is on the same page and to reduce anxiety and confusion, put your routines on a chart and display it where everyone can see, ie: the fridge. We did this when our daughter started school and it helped enormously. There were fewer arguments. All I had to do was point at the chart and raise my eyebrow! This also gives you the opportunity to reward effort, which is a hugely important part of this whole thing.

6. Be consistent!
In all your decisions and dealings, be as consistent as possible. Don't go back on your word, don't change your mind on a whim. Make your child's life as safely predictable as is possible. Even when you're dog-tired, don't let the child decide what happens in your household. You are the leader. You must lead. Failure to do so results in acute anxiety and a feeling of being unsafe, despite your child's efforts to take over. Say 'because I am the adult and it's my job to look after you and make decisions for you.' Don't be drawn into long discussions about it. You're the boss. Try to be fair and reasonable, but in the end remember, it's not a democracy! Your child doesn't have the knowledge and wisdom to determine their own life just yet. That's your job. Give them little bits of control by presenting a couple of options (pre-approved by you of course) but don't let them direct proceedings. It's a dangerous precedent and they will be watching you closely to see if there are cracks in your resolve.

When children have structure in their home lives, even if they buck against it, they feel safer and more secure. They feel part of the clan.

Children with Aspie traits often find the world a confusing place. Routines and structures help to anchor them and calm them. There needs to be time for play, time for homework, time for meals, time for chat and alone time. If necessary, plot these times on a chart, with the relevant time slots.
We can all benefit from routines. When tragedy strikes it is often our established routines which help us cope.

If your child is on the Autism spectrum you will find excellent resources here: http://www.thelittleredplayhouse.com/

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Anxiety in Children - What Can Help?

Is Anxiety more common now?
Yes. I do believe so. Over the 25 years I've been working with children I've seen a dramatic jump in anxiety among them. Of course, every child experiences anxiety at some time in their lives. We cannot, nor should we, shield them from it. But when your child is crippled by anxiety, whether its unusual fears, phases they are going through or a generalised anxiety that persists over a long period, you start to fear yourself that their life will be adversely affected indefinitely. 

What causes it?
There are many reasons for a child being over-anxious: heredity factors, environment factors, significant events, habitual thinking patterns. For every anxious child there is a different set of circumstances that have brought them to this point. In my teaching work I come across lots of smart kids, deep thinkers and quirky learners. These tend to be the kinds of kids who worry overmuch and thus fall prey to anxiety. But often children will develop anxiety issues after a frightening experience or simply as part of their growing up. It is normal for young children to have fears, of the dark, of being lost, of falling over etc. These fears usually change over time and are replaced with different fears as the child approaches adolescence, when fear of social ostracisation is most prominent. 

What can we do about it?
There are many good books on the market for parents and teacher of anxious children but not many books for kids themselves. This is why I wrote my book 12 Annoying Monsters - Self Talk for Kids with Anxiety It was originally written for the children I taught, but as the first 100 copies sold quickly and I began doing workshops in schools, I realised I needed to make this book available to children all over the world. So many parents are desperate to help their anxious child. This book is a fun, informative way to open up the conversation between parents and children. It's also designed as a stand alone book for children to read by themselves and make it their own resource. I've had amazing feedback from parents and kids, psychologists and teachers that this book really helps them.
And that's what it's all about, for me.