Today saw the launch of the new guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence on the recognition, intervention and management of Conduct Disorders . The report suggests up to 5% of children may be affected. That sounds pretty scary to me. It may not be good news if your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) has a long waiting list and you are looking for help.
Let me reassure you, most children don’t run the risk of developing long term and persistent problems with behaviour. The 5% figure looks high because the risk is greatest for children who are looked after by social services, where the percentage jumps to a massive 40% and is also much higher than the average too if your family is poor or unemployed. Clearly, even if you accept the label, this is not just a biological condition but depends hugely on the circumstances of your life.
Most children will overcome their difficulties with the right support so maybe we should really flip the discussion and instead be talking about what boost emotional wellbeing. Let’s look for solutions in prevention and early support.
So how do we support children who are not flourishing? I passionately believe that we need to talk more about the positive factors which nurture wellbeing. The prevention of mental health issues makes such sound sense. The best place to start is with children and young people, you can never start too soon. We need to actively debate what promotes wellbeing and explore all we know about helping them to become resilient and capable of facing any challenges which come their way. Let’s have a vision for our children’s future. Let’s work together to make it happen.
Wellbeing is a rather fluffy word which maybe a tad misunderstood especially if you assume it means being happy all the time or living a charmed life cushioned from want or challenges. Wellbeing is a practical concept concerned with people developing the personal resources- mental, emotional, social and spiritual to deal with life’s challenges and having the skills to create a good life which is authentic and satisfying. Wellbeing is not something we can assume comes naturally and we cannot afford to leave it to chance.
Positive Psychology has a growing evidence base on what creates wellbeing. Here are my top 10 ways to promote wellbeing so that children flourish.
- Nurture Positive Emotions – happiness, joy and contentment are not only pleasant experiences but they also broaden the mind, literally. Professor Barbara Frederickson’s research on positivity has established that positive emotions have 2 valuable effects: firstly they undo any of the physical tension and stress we may be feeling and then they allow us to look beyond our immediate concerns. Negative emotions can take us inwards or preoccupy us with handling a threat while positive emotions release energy and allow us to try new things or think creatively. We all get more done when the mood is right but don’t wait for the mood to appear out of the blue when you can create positivity yourself. Savouring and appreciating good things helps children to learn to stay with the positive and search it out when needed.
- Learn Optimistic Thinking: Life doesn’t always bring us flowers. Thinking optimistically reminds us that today’s challenges are transitory and are not due to the 3 Ps which blight pessimistic thinking: that things are Personal (it’s my entire fault) Pervasive (this will affect everything- it is hopeless) Permanent (this will last and never go away). Optimistic thinking is open minded and looks for other explanations and most importantly for solutions. Optimistic thinking is essential for resilience which is the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
- Create Positive Relationships: we all need love and support but small children are biologically primed to seek adult protection and they will become very agitated when they feel abandoned or threatened. Children need to feel safe and protected, not only at home, but in school and when playing with friends. A strong sense of community not only helps to protect children but also provides a secure base from which they can go forward to explore and experiment.
- Discover and Develop Strengths: each of us is unique and we are naturally drawn to do things which reflect our skills and interests. Using our strengths is an appealing way to build a sense of achievement; we enjoy both the process of doing the task and the outcome. Using our strengths give us energy and a zest for living. Becoming competent at something is a powerful motivator for further efforts. Children often have limited opportunities to use their strengths if they are too heavily focused on challenging, fast paced school work and the accompanying homework. Children need a balance between this adult-directed learning and the time to follow their own interests and develop their strengths.
- Talk about effort rather than ability: learning is a skill which like a muscle grows as a result of practice. Adopting a growth mindset encourages effort and practice and when faced with a challenge a child will set about solving the problem. Traditional psychology with its emphasis on intelligence testing has encouraged a fixed mindset which encourages the belief that ability has a ceiling and challenges may be a sign of being out of your depth. Professor Carol Dweck’s research has shown that children adopting a growth mindset make more progress than those with a fixed mindset.
- Learn something challenging but worthwhile: you may have read about the 10,000 it takes to develop expertise with a chosen skill. The original research was with violinists but it applies to other complex skills too. It takes real energy and commitment to learn a complex skill and you are unlikely to persevere unless you are passionately interested in what you are doing. On a smaller scale, having a hobby which is compelling creates that sense of meaning and purpose the experience of practice gives you satisfaction and hooks you in. Life satisfaction often comes from those hard won successes and you can never start too early or in too small a way.
- Loose track of time: deep and focused attention is a powerful skill which absorbs us completely and makes time stand still. Young children experience this in their play and athletes and experts do too while training or using their skill. Psychologists term this experience Flow and it is a vital skill for maintaining involvement when doing something difficult. Play is an ideal way to encourage children to experience flow and for older children dancing, sport and music can be easy ways into flow.
- Set compelling goals: children who have an idea of what they want from their future are happier and more successful. The very act of considering the future is a sign of self-awareness which is healthy. Short term goals are equally important encouraging children to set themselves challenges and monitor their progress. Keep it simple and realistic. Too many or too complex a set of goals can rebound and end in disappointment.
- Celebrate success: being a child is not an easy ride. Emotions run at full pelt and emotional insecurity is the brain’s default position unless sensitive adults support and protect. If that was not enough to contend, with there is also so much to learn that it can be sometimes over whelming for children who feel anxious and frightened of failure. So focusing on what is going well is vital. If you haven’t tried the 3 Good Things before this is what you do: take it in turns to talk about 3 things that have happened today which you are grateful for. Your choices can be personal achievements, pleasant experiences, acts of kindness given or received, beautiful things you have seen which gave you pleasure- the possibilities are endless. Strangely some people find this difficult to do despite the wide range of possibilities. This can happen when you are primed to look out for dangers and disappointments and the new way of looking at the world can take time to learn. It’s worth persevering.
- Practice Mindfulness: We tend to take our mind and mental wellbeing for granted in a way we would not do with our physical health. Mindfulness is the practice of being still and fully present in the moment which allows us to slow down and reduce stress. Mindfulness meditation practice can be valuable for adults and some teens. A simple way to encourage mindfulness for younger children is to find activities which absorb their complete attention without being mentally taxing. Slowly stroking a pet, concentrating on the softness of the fur; kicking your way through autumn leaves looking at the colours and textures; skimming stones on a pond and watching the ripples form all these activities encourage awareness of the detail of our immediate experience. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and educational psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0