I was standing on the dock of a bay… Waiting for a boat to come and take my friends and me to another island. The sea was emerald, the sky was blue, the sun was warm and the air was dry. This idyllic corner of the world was colourful and vibrant with people and life and bustle…
…and I felt scared. My heart was racing, I felt tight and small, and vulnerable.
I was in a different country, experiencing a different culture, and a few feet away from where I was standing waiting for the boat, were a group of men.
Men who were deep in ‘discussion’… although I didn’t realise it was discussion. I thought they were having a full blown argument.
I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it didn’t matter as I was getting quite enough from all the other ways they were ‘communicating’
, and all I knew was what was happening with them made me feel unsafe.
They were shouting. Shouting loud and so very fast. They were gesturing aggressively with hands slapping, fists hitting palms and arms waving. They were getting in each other’s space. They were really, really animated… And I had never seen anything like this before… in real life. I had also never seen this kind of thing (even on TV) end well.
Our sense of safety is largely driven by subconscious processes. We take in information through our senses and use the information of what is happening around us to help us decide whether we are safe or not… and then what to do next.
Adults shouting, jumping, gesticulating, making passionate, emotional faces that look angry, and generally behaving aggressively can be scary. I was an adult – I even knew a couple of the men – and I was really unnerved by it.
I was reminded of this moment in my life recently and the implications of hearing people shouting – for a child.
- Being around adults who are shouting, whether they understand why or not, can be scary for children.
- Being around adults while they watch a football match on TV can be scary for children.
- Being around adults who are loud and drunk and ‘just having a good time’ can be scary for children.
- Being around adults who use shouting as their means of control in a house, sports field, gym or classroom can be scary for children.
When children are scared they can’t be their best selves.
When children are scared they can feel totally alone and vulnerable.
When everyone else thinks they are having a great time ‘enjoying’ the sport / the party / keeping control, a scared child can feel confused, ashamed and misunderstood as well as unsafe.
It’s worth a chat
If you want to have a chat with the children you know about their experiences of being around adults who are shouting, get ready to listen, respect and honour the things they will tell you.
Whether it was a ‘fun’ thing that was happening, a neutral thing, or a recognizably horrible thing, children often react in their body when they hear adults shouting. That’s not wrong, that’s how they were made. Shouting is generally interpreted as a sign of danger. Until the child is totally comfortable with the shouting, it will likely be setting off alarms in their subconscious and their body in a way that doesn’t feel nice.
If you have that chat with the children you know, be wary of dismissing their body-felt experiences and making them feel embarrassed for feeling the way they do when ‘it’s only a sports match’ ‘they were just having a disagreement’ ‘I’m just getting their attention’.
The world is different through the eyes of a child, and their body is programmed to know that when adults are shouting, they are not safe.
Let’s be honest, it’s easy for adults to get caught up in the moment and overlook the things that can impact children. That’s why I am writing this. I’ve had enough of these conversations with children of all ages myself over the years to know this ‘shouting thing’ is a ‘thing’ and is important for adults to consider. And it is not just hard for the kids who are known to have sensory issues – or those who have experienced domestic abuse (although they will be even more sensitive to it) it is how we are all wired.
What can be done?
So what can we do, because clearly shouting is not going anywhere?
- We can warn children ahead of time that there will be shouting (during a sports match, even in the classroom) – and help them make a plan for what to do if they don’t feel OK with it.
- We can be curious and find out from them what it was like hearing adults shouting after the event – and really listen and empathise without needing to explain the shouting away.
- And, if appropriate, we can take our shouting elsewhere – or better still find ways to communicate with someone else that don’t include shouting when children are around…
Children don’t like it when adults shout. It makes them feel horrible. Why not ask them and see what you find out?
I got an incredible opportunity to speak to a packed room of health-interested adults last week. They were healers, helpers, educators and ‘advocates for health’ in professional roles as well as everyday life-role-models. I was sharing a bit of my story – my experience of Integrative or Functional Medicine, and encouraging others to listen to the story their body was telling.
It was one of those days I will never forget… and particularly because next on the stage after me was one of my modern-day heros; Dr Rangan Chatterjee. You may have seen him on the TV, he is the Doctor in BBC’s Doctor in the House series. He is also a familiar face on newsy chat shows on both TV and Radio. He has a brilliant book out – The 4 Pillar Plan and he is trying to shake things up from the inside of the NHS – why?
Because he cares about his clients.
He actually wants to help people get better, live better and live in greater health… not just ‘managing symptoms with another pill’.
He is risking sticking his head above the parapet, committing his time to the demands of TV series (I was shocked how much time these series take!), because he is committed to getting the message of true health out with the platform he has been given. I resonate. Not the TV thing, obviously – just feeling the challenge of choosing to be different and challenge the status quo – because I care.
ONE thing he said REALLY struck me – because it is relevant to the people I spend my time with.
Dr Chatterjee told a story of how one of his medical colleagues asked him (with incredulity) how he gets people (his regular patients in his GP practice – not the TV ones) to actually listen and do the things he suggests. Giving people recommendations for how they can bring their blood sugar levels down, increase their energy, decrease the vast array of symptoms from elevated cortisol levels etc. are easy to suggest, and for the patient easy to do and easy NOT to do. How is it that Dr Chatterjee’s patients are creating book-fulls of stories of incredible drug-free life improvements from doing the simple things he suggests?
Dr Chatterjee’s response was this: ‘In my opinion, as health professionals, the biggest tool we need to have is an ability to communicate. The question is really can you communicate and really connect with the person in front of you?’
I loved that answer. It is so totally true. It is true in the classroom, it is true in the playground and it is true in a family home. If we care about people and have ways to help them grow and develop and flourish, then we have to prioritise making sure we CONNECT with them, before we try and share any of the good stuff.
How do you know if you really connect with your clients, your patients, your pupils, your children?
And here’s the kicker. In a school, home or office getting people to just do what you say does not mean you have connected. Ask anyone who feels like they work for or live with a mini-dictator!!’ One of the survival responses closely related to the well-known ‘freeze’ is submit – appeasement. It is in operation so much in schools – and some homes. Dr Chatterjee does not have a power relationship with his patients. They are totally at liberty to walk out of his surgery and ignore everything he says, and maybe some do. But the majority don’t.
If you really connect then you will have people actually wanting to do the thing you suggest for them, because they know it comes from you genuinely respecting them, wanting the best for them, because they like you and because they trust you.
It is an important reminder for us all. Whatever our sphere of influence, are we connecting with those in our care? Are we growing relationships of trust and mutual respect? Do we honour those we work with, whatever their age?
The level to which we develop our communication skills and find ways to effectively, authentically connect with those we work with, will be the level of our professional influence. If we have any ambition to make a difference to others, or maybe even want to change the world, one star-fish at a time, we need to start with genuine, authentic connection.
I have an idea.
It’s a way to help improve children’s mental health…
It is something that could happen in schools, especially primary schools…
It would cost, …. ummm … £0.
Yup. Zero. Nothing.
I can just imagine all the cash-starved Head teachers out there, sitting up and starting to pay attention 😉
If you were to survey 100 children between the ages of 5-10 it would be really interesting to see what they think about themselves. If anyone has already done this please let me know. I have a theory.
The thing is that mental health is often related to body health (which is why so much can be improved through optimal nutrition, movement and sleep). It is also shaped by life experiences and rooted in subconscious beliefs.
In my experience of working therapeutically with children, coaching parents and supporting adult clients for many years, there is 1 belief that seems to be present for so many:-
“I’m not good enough”
The seed of the belief that we are not ok, we are not enough, we are not good enough and what we do is not good enough, can be sown in us in so many different ways. That seed will be nurtured, fed and watered by future experiences.
I was speaking with a lovely mum recently. She told me how her daughter, a bright, sunny girl, started to develop a shadow over her a few years ago in school. She had a tricky time in Year 2. Don’t get me wrong, she was a perfect student, great behaviour, trying her best, lots of friends so it was not ‘that’ kind of tricky. Nothing was ‘really’ wrong – yet she started to feel the weight of self-doubt. She started really questioning her self, her abilities and whether she was good enough.
The reason? The school changed their marking system and were now using the ‘developmental marking / feedback marking’ (Assessment For Learning or AFL to some).
What that meant in plain English was her work got marked by the teacher and beside the smiley face, and maybe a positive comment, she always got a suggestion of what she could do to improve her work next time:-
“Next time try…. ”
“When you do your next …. Can you…”
“Have a go at ….”
“You could make this even better by….”
Many teachers love this marking. It gets results. I can understand why. Children pay attention to their personalised comments (don’t you remember devouring every word personally written to you by your teachers as a child?). The majority of pupils try their best. They want to get better. They want to make their teacher / head teacher / parent happy. Most of them will do whatever it takes to work harder and do better. It’s all looking good. Work gets better, marks go up, levels go up, Ofsted is happy, SLT is happy, everyone’s happy…
And yet this system held within it the power to erode a child’s self confidence and self esteem one tiny bit of work at a time.
Can you imagine someone, who’s opinions of you matters, constantly telling you to improve?
Can you imagine how it might feel if your success is never really celebrated but always pushed into second place by a suggestion for ‘better’?
Can you imagine how the seed of not being good enough gets sown and/or nurtured faithfully, diligently by those guiding your development?
Can you remember the last time you did something out of your comfort zone (presentation, speech, blog etc) and you got feedback – some good, some not. Which are the comments you heard the loudest? Can you imagine that feeling for a child?
I am obviously not saying that this is the only factor in a child’s mental health. I’ve worked therapeutically with children for so many years now, and I know very well that it’s not. However, in a time when so many of our young people ARE struggling with mental health issues, and schools ARE struggling with budgets shrinking – isn’t it a good time to look at everything we are doing (however, well established) that might not be helping?
I wonder how many schools could help support / improve the mental health of these children by changing how they use this marking scheme?
I wonder what might happen to how children feel about their work – and themselves, if more of the time the comments coming back were just highlighting the positives?
“I loved your adjectives. I wanted to keep reading.”
“You have got full stops and capital letters nailed! Well done.”
“I can tell how hard you worked to get these words down today. Well done on not letting yourself get totally distracted. That’s a great skill to have.”
“You come up with such great creative ideas. I love reading your work.”
Please hear me on this. I am not suggesting we stop this feedback / developmental marking altogether – clearly we ALL need to have help to see how we can grow and what our next step could be. I am just talking about using it more sporadically. I wonder how much more effort you would put into noticing and implementing a suggestion for improvement if it came once in a while rather than every piece of work?
I also wonder how often teachers let pupils know what they are currently working on improving themselves – so children see it as a life skill, not something they have to do (directed by a perfect teacher) just because they are children and not good enough…yet?
I really don’t think that tweaking this approach to marking would cost any money… and yet could have a significant impact on the children trying their best to be good enough… before they grow up bringing those beliefs into their tweens, teens and adulthood.
I’d be curious to know what you think… Is this idea good enough to be considered?
“Look at me…”
…are 3 words you wont hear me say.
I have heard them so many times in classrooms, corridors, playgrounds, school gates, offices, restaurants… etc, etc. Sometimes said gently, sometimes forcefully; always a command. I know I used to say them to my class when I was a teacher. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know back then what I know today. In this day and age, when we are all aware of the desperate need for mental health awareness in schools, offices and homes… the dynamics of eye contact is something that needs to be understood, especially for 1:1 situations.
It Still Happens…
Recently I was hearing about someone (a grown-up) who was in a meeting with a Mental Health Professional who said these 3 words to her. She was looking away at the time…at her shoes… and had been for most of the meeting.
Hearing this really saddened me. This lady, the client (or ‘patient’ depending on the situation and service) was left feeling like she had done something wrong in not having given the eye contact and been found out. Now she also felt like a failure that she couldn’t do it, even though she was being asked to do something she found next to impossible at the time. This was a meeting with a professional who clearly didn’t understand the impact of what was going on, what she was doing, or how best to connect with someone not giving eye contact.
In a trauma-aware school or any other setting, where the aim is to keep people big or small emotionally safe and understood, these are words that will be redundant. If adults really learn how to keep others emotionally safe, these words just wont feature. It doesn’t matter whether the condition is anxiety, depression, autism, or just plain fear or shame.
If a child is not looking at an adult in the face it is because they do not feel emotionally safe to do so.
If an adult is not looking at an adult in the face it is because they do not feel emotionally safe to do so.
Really looking at someone in the eye is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. Have you noticed what happens in your body when you try to do this? With some people it will be easier – with others more uncomfortable and with others, at times, impossible…
and what directs our ability to look someone in the eye is within us.
Our state of confidence, openness, assertiveness. Our sense of safety in that moment.
What actually directs this is our nervous system.
If we are in a state where our ventral vagus is operating, then we are able to make full use of our social engagement system and connect with people around us. We feel safe and we can easily read people around us.
If we are feeling anxious, angry, fearful or overwhelmed, misunderstood or unsafe in anyway, then our nervous system changes, and our dominant drive becomes one to find safety. Our body changes as we are feeling vulnerable and looking at people in the eye in this state is not safe.
IF you have ever been around dogs or horses you will know they will give you the deepest, longest, ‘I really see you’ gaze when they feel safe. They will also give you regular eye contact at a less penetrating level if they want to and feel safe to. If they meet a person or animal they don’t feel safe with they look away. If they know they have done something wrong they look away.
This is biological, survival wiring. It happens to us all when we feel unsafe.
When we ask, direct or demand that someone look at us in the eye – or even look at our face, when they would rather not, then we show them we do not understand them, we do not notice them, or we do not care about them. We communicate we don’t understand them and therefore they are not safe with us. If we do notice and continue to demand their gaze, then we are potentially manipulating a power dynamic – and not in their favour. If there is a power dynamic anyway (e.g. adult telling a child, or professional telling a client) then the dynamics of survival kick in further and the child or client will feel compelled to do what the ‘bigger power’ demands of them…for their survival… and yet their physiology can’t help as it needs to stay safe…it needs to keep looking away.
When I have worked with teachers and parents around this, they have been able to feel in their body the incredible resistance to looking someone in the face/ eye when you don’t feel comfortable with them. “I would rather have looked ANYWHERE other than actually at you at that moment” is common, and appropriate feedback of their short experience of being put in that uncomfortable, pressured situation. [NB: and they say it whilst voluntarily giving me full eye contact and a smile again ;-)]
How to respond when someone isn’t giving you eye contact:-
- notice their lack of eye contact and acknowledge to yourself they are not feeling so safe with you (or this conversation) or themselves right now
- ask yourself if you are doing something that is overwhelming (speaking too fast or too loud, standing too close, moving arms too close, shaming/blaming language)
- change yourself to become less of a threat – this really requires YOU to have a sufficient level of self-awareness and a significant level of desire to bring the best out of the other person
- if the changes you make don’t seem to help them feel safer, ask them gently, if there is anything that would make them feel more comfortable right now.
- do all the above without drawing attention to the fact they are not looking at you.
Schools, families, meeting rooms, offices, well-being clinics, will be safer if those ‘in charge’ can notice the level of eye contact they are being offered by those they are with, as indicators of the level of emotional safety at that time.
‘People are not listening if they are not giving me eye contact’. This is utter untruth. Seriously. This is just conditioned belief and is wrong. It is totally possible to hear what people are saying whilst not looking them in the eye. Read a story to children while they draw and ask them questions about it afterwards if you need proof – and can handle the lack of attention focused on you 😉
If we think we need eye contact before we have someone’s ears then we are sorely mistaken.
“Look this way…”, “look to the board…”, “look over there…” “can you see…” are all great alternatives that help direct vision, without manipulation of power dynamics that make things worse.
In a nut shell
When someone gives you eye contact acknowledge it as the gift they are offering you.
If they can’t give you eye contact then they are not feeling safe with you, or with themselves.
Telling / asking / demanding they give you eye contact is the worst thing you can do to someone feeling unsafe.
Understanding this helps children and adults.
Not drawing attention to it helps children and adults.
Diverting effort into helping them feel less threatened helps children and adults feel safer…
… which naturally in time will enable them to change their internal neuro-physiology and look you in the eye… if they want to.
Children are amazing.
They have incredible persistence, creative thinking, problem solving skills and they LOVE tackling a challenge…especially one that adults have failed to conquer. 😉
So, why don’t we remember this when it comes to getting them taking their vitamins?
There is a larger issue at work here, which I need to mention. One of the strands in the current crisis in health care in the western world is dis-empowerment. We have learnt to dis-empower ourselves and give all power to doctors. We have learnt that health means doing what I am told to do. Taking what I’m told to take, regardless of the reasons, regardless of the side effects, regardless of how I feel about it, or want I think about it. This is a very dis-empowered place. It is a very disconnected place. We disconnect from our bodies, and so we disconnect from our ‘selves’.
Now hear me on this. I do NOT think doctors are a waste of time. No. The best doctors are those who empower their patients with understanding and a voice. Sadly many, especially those in General Practice, don’t have time for that, so it comes back to “what’s wrong? Take this pill to feel better.” [Maybe this is a blog for another time, but I see a strong correlation here to the dis-empowered place that we nurture in kids… one which progresses into them being on the playground, club, alley way, or party and are so used to just putting any pill in their mouth when they are told to without question or discernment…]
So what does this have to do with children and vitamins?
If we want to do our own tiny little bit in helping change this and make cultural shift in our own homes, we need to start by helping children connect with their bodies and utilise all their amazingness to empower them to look after their own body.
When it comes to taking off-the-shelf vitamins, children often just do it because they are so laden with sugar that it is effectively like you are asking them to take a sweet daily: no problem! 🙂 The nutritional integrity of a supplement where the first or second listed ingredient is some form of sugar is always, in my mind, to be questioned.
However, if you ask children to take a top quality nutritional supplement, like the only one I recommend and use, one where the integrity of the product; the ingredients, the actual science and health-based reason for creating that supplement, haven’t been sacrificed on the alter of sweetness and the taste-buds of a generation of sugar-addicted children, then they may, possibly say “no”.
[**Incidentally if you want to know the difference or find out if you are wasting money on sweets or getting the real deal, The Nutrisearch Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements helps anyone get clear on which are quality products and which are not.**]
So what do we do?
- Do we let their bodies continue the mission of surviving in this day and age without the extra resources they desperately need?
- Do we allow our conflict-averse selves to believe that they can get everything they need from their food alone (a belief as outdated as ‘computers will never be in every home’).
- Do we try the stealth-ninja technique and hide crushed up tablets in smoothies, yogurt and juice and act all normal, expecting them not to notice? – well, maybe if the children are too small or they really don’t notice.
There is another way. It is a better way. A way that gets me emails of delight from parents celebrating their kids accomplishments (and their children’s pride in themselves) when they follow these 7 simple steps.
7 Simple Steps to Get Children Taking their Vitamins
1. ROLE MODEL – don’t expect your children to do something that you are not doing. If you expect your kids to take vitamins when you don’t, they may be getting a message that it’s ok for them but not for you – that they need it, you don’t – that there is something wrong with them. When a parent leads the way, children quickly watch, learn, follow and a culture of everyone moving towards health gets created.
2. TEACH them, at their level, why it is important to take extra vitamins/ antioxidants/ micro-nutrients. If you need help with this ask.
3. EXPLAIN BENEFITS to them – just some ways these vitamins will help their body in ways that are relevant to them, e.g. help your brain work better, help you be faster at running, help your body stay strong when there are germs around.
4. ACKNOWLEDGE you understand if they don’t like the taste. No matter what it tastes like to your palette, theirs is different. If they think it doesn’t actually taste great, you pretending like it does, or tell them ‘it’s not that bad’ can feel dishonest and like you don’t understand them.
5. ISSUE THE CHALLENGE “I’ve been thinking of how to get these in your body, but I haven’t come up with anything great. So it’s over to you. I challenge you to figure out a way to get them in you. They don’t have to taste nice, you don’t have to love them, I just wonder if you can figure out something I couldn’t – figure out how you could take them?”
6. WALK AWAY and leave them to it (age and safety dependent obviously). Children need the neo-cortex part of their brain to problem solve. When they are feeling under pressure from scrutiny, that part actually shuts off. So give them space, remove all pressure and leave them to it.
7. CELEBRATE when they tell you they’ve cracked it… big deal whoops, high-fives or a low-key 1 sentence if that’s what they prefer, but acknowledge their good job on using their persistence, problem solving, creative thinking and the fact they have found a way to help their body even better than you.
When children feel empowered and curious their resources are unlimited.
Children can do more than we think.
Don’t believe me?
Want to see more on what children can really do when given space to figure things out for themselves ? Watch this TEDx talk.
I started socializing a puppy… and everyone had an opinion.
I was exhausted after just a few weeks of him … and everyone had things to say about how I should be doing it differently.
At one point I remember having a conversation with a relation, who clearly was just trying to help, to let them know that the things they were doing and saying were not, in fact, helping at all. Their suggestions, anecdotes and facial expressions were actually making an already challenging situation even harder (anyone remember those first weeks with a tiny pup – and one who arrived already suffering from traumatic experiences – and was utterly gorgeous but totally draining?)
What I needed was support.
Big, fat ‘I-know-this-is-hard, I-know-you-are-doing-your-best’ support.
Thankfully a lot of the time I could reinforce what I was doing and why, with the confidence of “this is what the charity have asked me to do”. This helped a bit, but it was only after ‘the conversation’ that things really changed.
I remember thinking at the time (a few years ago now..) that I can imagine this would be 100 times worse for a parent of a child.
Parenting children is hard.
Parenting challenging and complex children is incredibly hard – in that totally exhausting, mind, body, spirit draining kind of way.
And often those around us, who know us well, can tell when we are struggling and they want to do something, they want to help.
HELP comes in many different forms, and let’s be honest, some of them are actually helpful and others not so much. The thing is, if we are that friend or relative desperately wanting to help, then we will not necessarily know what is the best way we can help, so we will just do whatever we think and feel better that we are ‘helping’.
So here are my thoughts.
If you are parenting a challenging child, or any child with sensitivities, then you need to create a team of helpers. It is your job (yes another job for the to-do list, that I know you are probably already too knackered to consider right now, but this WILL help you and your child BIG TIME if you do it) to speak up. You need to lead this situation and let those around you know HOW BEST THEY CAN help you. Help them stop guessing. Help them focus clearly on things they can do to help. They won’t know if you don’t say.
FAMILY + FRIENDS
Family and friends – have the respect to acknowledge you do not know what is going on inside the heads and hearts of those spending themselves in parenting these special children. If you see them doing their best tell them. If you notice the effort they are putting in, tell them! Find what is encouraging, tell them and then ASK what would actually be most helpful. If you want to really go for it, you could also ask if there is anything you are doing that is not helpful 😉
Have the courage to have the conversations that need to be had, understanding that shying away from these issues is not helping the child. When everyone gets on the same page it makes a massive difference to the atmosphere – and a massive difference to children – who are super sensitive to stress dynamics between adults.
Did you know that when children detect stress, friction, animosity of any kind between adults it makes them feel ‘unsafe’ and changes how their brain can work? Really, this stuff is worth doing… for their sake as well as yours.
Children need to know their parents understand them, and from that place of understanding, can lead them.
Family and friends want to help and often need leading too.
If it takes a village to raise a child… it also takes someone to lead that village team.