What your child's really thinking about...

“Friends who pretend to like you but actually don’t”

“Sometimes I get so worried I start to cry and I can’t stop”

“I can keep concentrating all the way through and I listen to the problem but then I just forget”

It’s great having our littlies around more now that the Christmas holidays are here.  But perhaps you’ve had your children at home far more than usual during COVID-19, and this season now brings with it the extra challenges of preparing for the festive season in unpredictable times?

Bearing this in mind, I asked young friends today what they find difficult in their day-to-day lives.  The idea was that I could write about the challenges in the hope that together we could come up with some suggestions that might help.

They didn’t hesitate to share these examples: it’s clear that these thoughts aren’t far from top-of-mind, even at the beginning of a happy summer holiday.

Honestly, being able to talk about difficulties is a great sign that they are managing to handle complex situations pretty well.  Life is never going to be plain sailing.  Relationship troubles and learning challenges can happen to any one of us at any time of our life.

The reality is, too, that we can’t be there to help our children navigate every social or academic challenge.  At some point, they will be required to stand on their own without our presence or oversight.  But holidays can be a great opportunity to build some of these skills.  Hopefully we can take a break from work, even if only for a few days, and they are away from the pressures of school for a while.

What can we do to make sure that they are able to bounce back from adversity?  To manage difficulties in friendship?  To help them build the skills to work through a question from start to finish?  

It’s really important.  

In many ways, the examples our little friends shared represent core life challenges.  They are grouped under the broad umbrella of ‘self-regulation’ and ‘executive functioning’ skills.  Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child nominates these as skills we aren’t born with, but that rather develop through life experience and nurturing relationships.  The good news is that we have multiple opportunities to help build these abilities in our children, with the peak learning periods in early childhood between 3-5 years, and again from early adolescence until early adulthood - up to 25 years of age.  During these times, the brain is forming new connections and pruning those that are redundant, helping with more efficient problem-solving and learning.

Key to all of this is supportive and trusting relationships with adults.  As a parent, one of the best things we can do is help our children plan for times when they experience difficulties, not during the heat of the moment when they struggle to respond appropriately.

This might involve role-playing.  For example, in the case of a challenging friendship, taking time at home to ‘act out’ the scenario can help the child learn to express how she feels in a constructive way later on.  It can help to act out the different roles, and suggesting your child behaves as the perpetrator gives you an opportunity as the adult to demonstrate a constructive response.  This could be, for example: “When you say that about me in front of my friends, it makes me feel sad and lonely” is worth a try, and certainly a better approach than gossiping to other friends, or direct, aggressive confrontation.  

It could also involve sharing our own experience of how we manage anxiety- provoking situations, and working out small, simple actions that can make a big difference in helping with self-regulation.  This might include breathing techniques (two small, shallow breaths in and one deep exhalation repeated 6 times can make an immediate difference), or it might be re-framing the situation to remember what is within our control.  This could be as simple as coming back into our senses - literally: name 3 things you can see, touch, hear and taste helps calm the mind and bring us back into the moment. 

Thinking about the smallest first step we can take in tackling a challenging new problem can be another great way to build resilience in our kids.  Would it help to underline key words in the textbook?  Or to go back a step to find an equation our child can manage easily, and build their confidence again from there?

Take a look at the Center on the Developing Child’s excellent resources at Developing Core Skills.