Parenting Tips from the Professionals: Professor Tanya Byron

Parenting Tips from the Professionals: Professor Tanya Byron

The clinical psychologist, writer and presenter Professor Tanya Byron explains how to help children fulfill their potential.  This is an abridged version of the talk she gave at our recent Accelerator Day conference.

“I don’t think there is anything like a great parent - I think there is a good enough parent. Children need to understand we all have flaws and vulnerabilities and we all make mistakes – and actually that’s a good thing. If they understand this in relation to their primary attachments then they have a better chance of ‘surviving’ in the world. But all of us suffer from working parent guilt at some point.

Fundamentally, you have to work with the choice you made and remember that your children don’t know anything else, so it’s about how you manage it.

It’s really difficult for working parents when they’re with their children, trying to manage their child’s behaviour and reaffirming boundaries, especially if they feel like they haven’t seen their children much in the week or during the working day and then have to come home and say: ‘No, you can’t have that,’ or, ‘No, you go to bed now’.  A lot of parents struggle with this, and it’s a projection of their own guilt – but it doesn’t help the child, because fundamentally the relationship becomes more fraught.

One of the things I have written about is that we shouldn’t try and be our children’s friends, and I do think we live in the age of the ‘friend parent’. Now, when your children are older, they do become your friends because they’ve reached that stage of young adulthood - but certainly when they are younger, they are not your friends. You love them more than anything but a friend is someone who tries to be nice to their friend all the time and as parent you sometimes have to be not friendly at all. When you say no, when they want things, you have to manage their impulse control. You have to teach them not to grow a sense of entitlement that makes them feel that immediate gratification is what they will get. They have to understand these boundaries and that doesn’t feel friendly. So, to some degree helping a child to reach their full potential is not wanting to be their friend all the time, it’s helping them prepare for the world and the world is tough and the world isn’t there to meet their needs.  And this creates emotional resilience.

I think we live in a world where children’s IQ is pursued to the detriment of emotional intelligence (EQ). We know that fundamentally, emotional intelligence is what sits behind most personal success. Most really successful people weren’t necessarily the best in class, or the best at university but they had something about them as individuals, plus determination, stamina and resilience that enabled them to take what they knew and apply it in a way that made them successful.

One of the biggest issues we are seeing in child and adolescent mental health is the rate of childhood breakdown - more and more children are breaking down now more than ever before. There has been a 68% increase in children presenting at A&E with self-harm in the last 10 years, and we have significant numbers of children showing greater levels of anxiety and depression at much younger ages. When I was training you would see kids in mid-adolescents with mental health problems. We are seeing children breaking down younger and younger and younger - and the question is why? I think there are a number of issues around that, but there are 2 major factors that sit around resilience, and where we are getting it wrong in terms of how we help our children reach their potential.

The first relates to what accelerates development in children. We now live in an age where we know more about child development, more about psychology, but parents are sucked into the idea that the more you input into the child the greater the output.

There are kids that go to school and have millions of activities, learning Mandarin, 5 year olds that have an hour’s homework every night – but I am seeing so many of these children at the age of 14/15, presenting like 50-year old burnt-out executives. They are totally burnt out.

We are now seeing one of the greatest increases in rates of breakdown in a class of children that we didn’t normally see in child adolescent mental health services. These are children that come from aspirational middle class families.

When my teams and I assess a child, we go through a number of factors and screening checks to help us understand why is this child at this age presenting in crisis with their family now? When I qualified in the early 90’s it was children whose risk factors were greater than their protective factors; so having a parent with mental health problem, absent fathers, parents with marital discord, violence, drug abuse, poverty. Those are the children that would breakdown.

What we are now seeing is that children who don’t have that are breaking down and this is where we are seeing the big rise in self-harm. So why are these fantastic 15 year olds  - in the main, young women at fantastic schools, brilliant, clever - self harming, and saying ‘I’m just not good enough’? It’s that’s partly because they define their sense of value around their output they are making - in terms of their IQ  - and this is where we are seeing the issue.  The focus in early childhood should be on emotional intelligence and resilience.

The whole point of the early years and parenting is helping to encourage the connection of neuronal networks in various parts of the brain.  This is about learning behavioural self-management, impulse control, the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, decision making, problem solving – all these really important human activities.   It’s all about nurturing our children – and here I mean holding them, being with them, teaching them emotional regulation, saying no and not being their mate.

So fundamentally how do you get kids to reach their potential?

First, you think about ways in which the rational part of the brain can develop and that’s through nurture. It’s not through double Latin classes and mandarin classes when they are aged 3.

Second, you have to teach them how to manage the relationship between these different parts of the brain – the rational frontal cortex and the limbic, primitive brain. Because the limbic part of the brain responds to anxiety - the fight or flight response. What we are seeing in the aspirational middle class children is that they are ‘off the chart’ anxious as everything has been put into intellect and less into emotional self-regulation. So how do we do this?

Fundamentally, parents need to help children understand that at different times their brain works differently. A core thing every child needs to know, and I don’t think a lot of adults know this, is that you don’t have to believe everything that you think. It’s a revelation but it’s true. As adults when your brain is anxious or overwhelmed your brain talks rubbish - it tells you “you are rubbish”, it tells you “you are the worst person in the world”, it tells you “you are a failure”.  Our brain becomes our bully when we become anxious, because we are in the fight or flight response, because we feel threatened so our body is preparing to fight or to run.

So we help children understand why they feel as they do when they’re anxious.   When you explain to children what is happening in their body and why, and why they feel confused and you help them understand why they are shouting and to manage their physiological response to anxiety; you help them to manage their anxiety. Then they can start to think about what they can do and how they can achieve it, which includes asking for help. Then you have helped a child reach their potential.”

More information about Professor Tanya Byron and her work can be found on her website

Released On 10th Nov 2016

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