Helping your child to deal with adversity is key when it comes to developing life skills and happiness. Áilín Quinlan looks at tools parents can use to guide their children through tough problems.
NOBODY makes it through life without experiencing adversity in some form. And although we yearn to protect our children from adversity, says child psychologist Dr Joanna North, swaddling them in cotton wool isn’t the answer.
The best thing we can do for our kids, she believes, is to simply help them develop the resilience to deal with life’s inevitable nasty curve-balls.
“You cannot take problems away from your child. You have to help him or her deal with a problem, to find the best way to deal with it, because life is going to be tough.”
The award-winning psychologist, says her new book on nurturing strong mental health in children is based not just on her work and research, but also on her own experience of single parenthood: “I parented under very difficult circumstances as a single parent with no support from family but, fortunately, the kindness of a few close friends.”
While North parented with as much skill as she could muster — her daughter is now a well-adjusted 32 year old — she recalls there were things she now wishes she could have “dealt with better”.
Helping your child to deal with adversity is essentially about ‘inoculating’ them with the strength to manage it, she says.
In her latest book Mind Kind, North offers, not prescriptive parenting techniques, but a guide to rethinking the parenting mindset. Her objective is to help parents become more aware of the types of emotional support children may need.
She draws on a wide range of disciplines from evolutionary psychology to philosophy, along with over 30 years’ experience working with children, adults and families.
By learning the skill of, essentially, being kind to your child’s mind, she believes, parents will be better able to cope with the fallout of issues ranging from stress or anxiety caused by family breakdowns to self-image issues, self-harm, eating disorders or depression.
North has developed the acronym PATACCAKE to describe the states of mind that can help parents deal better with such issues. PATACCAKE stands for: Patience, Acceptance, Tolerance, Attunement, Commitment, Compassion, Awareness, Kindness, Empathy.
“We can bring PATACCAKE qualities to mind any time we choose,” she says. So instead of coming at a child with frustration and rage, she suggests, we could stop to think PATACCAKE.
A crucial fact is that parents need to look at their own lives and resolve any personal issues before trying to help their children.
“What you are unable to face in yourself, you are unlikely to be able to help your children resolve for themselves,” she says.
“It is the most fundamental lesson of parenting and it is one with which parents often need support to accept. Until you are resolved on your issues, your child cannot be either.”
While acknowledging most of us will be unable to stay permanently attuned to these constructive emotions and states of mind all the time, she says, it helps to be aware of the need for them.
And remember you will make parenting errors, but it’s not so much the error you make but the way you put it right that means something to your child:
“So after you shout and over-react — which we have all done — try to understand the situation and talk with your child about it, explaining your reaction and setting out a new plan for a better result next time, both in you and in your child.”
North has developed a second acronym, SESAME SEED which focuses on key areas or main themes of childhood development. It’s a model she uses with all parents.
Secure parenting can be achieved by parents who want to know how to support children to feel stable, secure and able to cope with life. This means the child feels good from the inside because they acknowledge their emotional life, including thoughts, feelings and emotions.
They will also have some sense of how to organise, manage and regulate these very real forces that flow through their lives for the rest of their lives.
If we can help our children to understand that minds can change, and to be patient with moods and tolerate uncomfortable states of mind, North believes, we will be truly helping them to successfully survive.
All behaviour is a communication about life and a set of symptoms of what is going on for a child in their environment, and their thoughts and feelings about this.
Behaviour is likely to be a map of our child’s needs, she explains. “If we don’t like it we shouldn’t blame them for it. Instead, we should look at why it is happening and what we can do to change that.”
Life is never going to be without challenge or change. “You have to be prepared for periods of adversity and ‘mend the roof while the sun is shining’,” says North, who explains that parents need to have a grip on the realities of life and be prepared for how to cope when children need more of their help than usual.
Mindfulness and mental health
“Mental wellbeing for children could be described as helping them to organise their minds, along with organising your mind,” she says, adding that a parent’s reaction to any issue will contribute to the child’s recovery.
“They will need you to feel stable, informed and sure-footed. They don’t need your anxiety about them to be added into the mix,” she warns.
Errors in parenting
“Accept that you will make errors in your parenting,” says North, adding, however, that it’s not so much the error that you make but the way you put it right that will mean something to your child.
Sense of self and self-image
Regardless of the society we live in, image is important. “However, our self-image is based on our sense of self and how we feel we are accepted within society.
“We expect teenagers to experiment with self-image while deciding who they are and how they want to be, and we may be surprised at who they want to be.”
Eating and self-worth
“Ultimately,” says North, “you and your children will become what you eat.” It’s up to you to decide whether you want to feel like a sugar-coated dough monster or a vibrant vegetable or fruit creature.
“Empathetic responses than immediate reactions, will tell children that you are at least trying to understand them and willing to work with them.
“Every child and human needs empathy, from when they are the tiniest one hour-old newborn.”
Minds grow best in positive emotional environments where children feel understood, explains North, who says no matter what a child’s behaviour, he or she needs a parent’s attention and kind attention to the “detail of their lives:”
“Being cruel, angry or frustrated with your children will never help them to learn and never help them to alter their behaviour.”
Last but not least, North repeats a piece of advice she recently gave a parent: ‘Make the most of every minute with your child’
- Mind Kind; Your Child’s Mental Health by Dr Joanna North. €14.70. Published July 2019. Mind Kind is available from www.exislepublishing.com and in bookshops.