Blog

8th September 2021

PUPPY TRAINING

Back in the summer of 2012, when I’d just found out I was pregnant with my first child, I attended the week long residential Mindfulness in Schools training course. We were taught how to teach school children the basics of mindfulness. The first of 8 sessions was entitled ‘Puppy Training’, but at that point it didn’t really resonate.

It does now!

Now we have a puppy of our own, I truly see why our minds are like puppies!

Mindfulness is training for the mind and training our minds is much like puppy training.

Our minds are often distracted and constantly wander off, just like a curious puppy.

You train a puppy with patience, kindness and repetition. You don’t give up after one attempt or criticise the puppy, yet people have the tendency to do this when they find mindfulness practice hard.

Would you allow a puppy to eat a stone or a poisonous plant? And yet we poison our minds with negative thoughts.

Mindfulness helps us to treat our minds with the same kindness you would treat your pets.

So, each time your mind starts to be swept away into negative thinking, practice bringing it back to your breath, just like you’d bring your puppy back to a safe toy to play with.

17th April 2021

HELPING AN ANXIOUS CHILD START SCHOOL

It doesn’t matter what background, professional experience or qualifications you have, sometimes you can be left feeling completely ill equipped to deal with a child who is struggling to go to school.

This has been me, many times, as I have tried my best to transition my 4-year-old daughter to school for the first time and subsequent times following national lockdowns or holidays.

Starting school can be challenging in an ordinary year, but factor in the anxiety triggered by a global pandemic and additional unexpected traumas, and you are faced with an extraordinary set of circumstances.

As schools have also been plunged into the unknown and resources are stretched, I found I had to find my own way of helping my daughter settle at school.

I thought that what I learnt, through my own emotional battle, may be worth sharing to help others.

I used the acronym ‘SEAT to capture what I found was required.

⭐️ STRENGTH

I claimed in a previous post written on International Women’s Day that you need strength like no other in getting a reluctant child to school. In my experience you really do!

You need to act strong, even when you don’t feel it, and have conviction in what you say. Children pick up on subtle shifts in your emotions and if you’re starting to feel like it would be easier to keep them at home, then your child will sense this. On the flip side, instilling belief in your child and encouraging them can make you both feel stronger. Words such as: “You can do this”, and “I believe in you” can help create a more positive mindset.

On days when you don’t feel strong for whatever reason (and we all have them), the second ‘S’ takes on great significance.

⭐️ SUPPORT

My husband leaves for work at 6.45am so I have to manage the morning routine on my own. Most days we cope just fine, but when you’ve had six or seven consecutive school days trying to reassure, comfort and retrieve clothing your daughter’s taken off (right after you’ve put it on), while simultaneously trying to keep your elder daughter calm, you can feel like you’ve reached your limit.

You need someone to fall back on, to offer support and help you regain your strength again. For me, this person was my mum. The day I lacked strength I called her and although we were already late for school, she drove round to see us and helped us get back on track. I hadn’t eaten breakfast so she ensured I ate something and told me: “I’m looking after you so that you can better look after Maya”. Just having her there helped rebuild my strength again and together we helped a crying Maya get into school.

Not everyone will have a parent nearby to come to their rescue, and sometimes my mum has been away or unavailable. This is when I turn to neighbours or friends and I am grateful I have some special ones close by. I have found that people want to help if they can and have probably been in a similar situation themselves when they have turned to others for support.

⭐️ EMPATHY

Sometimes you can feel like you want to say “don’t cry” or “what are you worried about? You like school”. Yet a child needs you to empathise, understand and validate their emotions. The following phrases convey empathy and can help a child feel more understood:

“I know that this is hard for you”.

“I also felt nervous when I went back to work for the first time”.

“I will miss you too”.

“I’m here for you.”

Allowing a child to feel their big emotions in the presence of a safe adult may lengthen the process of trying to get them to school, but in the long run it teaches them to express their emotions rather than repressing them. This in turn, leads to more positive mental health as they grow up.

⭐️ ANCHORS

Some of you may be familiar with grounding exercises, but I like to use the image of an anchor instead. An anchor stabilises and grounds a ship in a harbour. Likewise, these anchors below can help stabilise a child when they’re feeling a bit wobbly.

When a child is feeling overwhelmed or anxious, worried thoughts can take over. Using the senses to anchor them in the present moment can stop spiralling worries and give their mind a different focus. Here are three examples:

• I Can See a Rainbow

Name one object that you can see that is red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.

• Alphabet Sights

Name something you can see that begins with A, then B, then C and so on.

• 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Senses

Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can touch and 1 thing you can taste.

⭐️ TIME

This is possibly the hardest one for many working parents to implement, but so important to acknowledge. I know many adults who have been working from home who would struggle going back to full time hours in the office. And yet the expectation is that children simply rebound to full time education after weeks of being at home.

I said to my husband that I thought it would take two weeks for Maya to settle at school again after the post Christmas lockdown. This wasn’t a case of being too gentle on her or making allowances; just the recognition that it takes time to adjust to change. This ended up being fairly accurate, but every morning we were late into school I felt like a failure. If someone had reassured me that it may take a couple of weeks to adapt and that a few mornings of being late in the grand scheme of her school life didn’t matter, I certainly would have felt less judged.

I’m aware that many other children struggled during those first few weeks back, but this manifested in myriad ways: Some were waking more in the night, some were tearful, some confrontational. Some parents felt able to tell me the truth, others simply smiled and said everything was okay.

Perhaps we need to accept that some kind of reaction to the stress and change that has been placed on our young people is inevitable. Rather than fighting it, perhaps we just need to ride it out and try offering our children a life raft of support, rather than letting them drown alone in their own emotions. Now is not the time to be encouraging independence at all costs, but rather fostering supportive connections.

9th December 2020

PRESENCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN PRESENTS

“Can you sit with me Mummy?” my 4-year-old daughter asked as she sat at the table eating her biscuit.

I was rushing around tidying up the plates from dinner, putting another wash on and trying to find my other child’s reading book.

“Of course I can sweetheart, just a minute”.

But then I stopped.

I say “just a minute” too often. She wanted and needed my attention now. So I left what I was doing, and sat down alongside her. She crunched away at her biscuit and, between mouthfuls, told me all about her day. I listened attentively and she relished it.

It made me realise that above everything else, children need our presence. And while I’m mentally keeping a record of what presents I’ve bought and what I still need to buy, my mind is distracted. When I put thoughts aside and let go of the constant pull of what I need to ‘do’, I can free up space to simply ‘be’ with my child.

Although some people may disagree, I truly believe that undivided attention really is the best gift you can give someone.

And even if a child is desperate for a specific toy or item at Christmas, it’s you being present and watching them open it that creates the real magic and enhances their joy.

And most poignantly, if someone important in your life has died, then what you want more than anything is to have their physical presence once again. To see them laugh, to hold their hand, to give them a hug.

So please remember this Christmas, presence is more important than presents.

With love, Jo x

1st November 2020

I stopped watching the news about two months ago.

This may seem a bit naïve or irresponsible given the evolving situation we find ourselves in, but I’m very aware of the power that the media can have on our minds.

I have updates on my phone for the major headlines, such as another national lockdown, but anymore than this is detrimental to my well being.

For the past decade, I have been learning about mindfulness and neuroscience and one of the most fascinating things I’ve learnt is the concept of neuroplasticity, or in other words, how we can shape our minds by what we think about.

In simple terms, if you feed your mind negativity, fear and anxiety then the part of your brain that is responsible for these negative emotions grows. If, on the other hand, you feed your mind kindness, compassion, optimism and other positive emotions, you build the parts of your brain that are more receptive to experiencing these emotions. You really do reap what you sow.

So I decided to turn off the news and the negativity it elicits, and watch more lighthearted television or read books that uplifted me. I tried to look for the good and act with kindness. I tried to connect, when the world was being forced to disconnect.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m frustrated and disappointed by the recent lockdown announcement. There are several people who I work with in their homes who will be impacted, and the relationships I have been developing will have to return to virtual ones again.

But for me, my biggest disappointment is for my 4-year-old Maya. She has just started swimming lessons for the first time in her life and after four lessons, she is absolutely loving it. She goes after school on Fridays and it acts as a celebration for getting through another week at school! She enjoys school but she finds full time hard and the separation from me challenging, so a swim and a treat from the vending machine, marks the start of the weekend and some family time.

Now, somehow I have to tell her that she won’t be going on Friday. She’ll adapt, we’ll adapt, we’ll find something else fun to do. But it’s okay to acknowledge its disappointing.

But then, park the disappointment and look up again. There’s always another rainbow.

Don’t be despondent. It’s a beautiful world out there. Look up, not down.

Connect, smile, hold on.

11th October 2020

I am a day late in marking World Mental Health Day, but I have done this deliberately to make the point that addressing mental health is not just something we do on one day a year, but something we need to invest in on a daily basis.

You service your boiler, you take your car for an MOT. But when did you last truly, honestly check in with yourself? And if you did, what did you discover? If you found fear, anxiety, frustration and disconnection then you’re not alone. In fact, I believe that we’re all experiencing some of these emotions on some level. And yet, we so often ignore these feelings, push them away, have to get on, move on, carry on. But this isn’t easy and takes its toll on our mental health.

You wouldn’t drive your car with a flat tyre or allow poisonous fumes to escape your boiler, yet we often plough on when we’re feeling flat and allow negative thoughts to pollute our minds. But we don’t have to. Help and support are there.

This week alone I have had three people of different ages ask for my help with anxiety. A high flying businesswoman, a teenage girl (via her mum) and a mum with three children. I have also worked with five other people who are struggling with anxiety, pressure and fear. It has felt good to be able to be there for them.

I have also experienced my own emotional rollercoaster this week, and concerns over my 4-year-old precipitated a wave of emotion that caught me off guard. I was aware that I may find it hard when my last born started school full time, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would trigger such intense feelings of being out of control, the difficulty of letting go and even past losses. It seems irrational now, but with everything else going on, a phone call from school was enough of a spark to reignite old feelings. Maya was born only three months before we experienced two family bereavements in close succession. Perhaps because of this, I have held her a little more tightly.

I share this because I’m aware that the pandemic and all the associated uncertainty and anxiety has also triggered past traumas for many others. For me, the intensity of my feelings reduced quite quickly as I was able to cry, let some of the emotion out and make space for more positive feelings to return. It is so important to do this and something that I’ve had to work on. My initial coping mechanism as a grieving teenager was to shut myself away and cry in private. I felt I had to hold everything in and smile in public. But this eats away at you and is unsustainable. In the past twenty years or so I’ve gradually realised the importance of expressing emotions and allowing people to see my vulnerable side. Like the saying goes you really do ‘have to feel it, to heal it’. And in feeling and daring to explore your emotions, you’re able to grow rather than self destruct.

Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach talks about how unprocessed fear leads to violence. In extreme cases fear fuels wars, but it also explains the growing numbers of young people self-harming. So wherever you go, encourage people to talk about and express their emotions. If they don’t it will manifest as something like road rage or venting at some innocent person who gets in their way.

We are all juggling so many balls, fulfilling multiple roles, adapting to ever changing circumstances. The world we used to inhabit, which involved hugging our friends, popping into school to chat to a teacher, going to work in a normal way, has all been put on hold. Yet we have to keep up with an ever expanding list of virtual dialogue, meetings, log ins and deadlines. The screens that we were told were detrimental to our mental health are now a necessity of daily life.

You will drop a ball, and that’s okay. You will lose your way, and that’s okay. But take care of your mental health in the same way you take care of your physical health. Treat yourself with the kindness you treat your closest friends. And allow other people to help you when you feel overwhelmed.

Although the pandemic is forcing us to separate, we are wired as human beings to connect, care and cooperate. People want to help. I, for one, am here. And I am grateful to all the wonderful people who have been here for me, Jo x

23rd September 2020

My girls have never been great sleepers, so this week when my 7-year-old has been taking until 10pm to drop off and my 4-year-old has been waking in the night screaming “I don’t like it”, “I need mummy” and “ouchy”, I thought it was simply another chapter in our family’s sleep saga!

However, last week a 9-year-old girl I work with revealed that she finds it hard to go to sleep and last night a young woman in her twenties that I support also shared her recent difficulties with waking in the night and taking hours to go back to sleep.

What these four people all have in common is that they have recently returned to school or work after a long absence. As have many others. I am sure they are not alone in the challenges they face.

As a parent you just want to make things better for your child, but sleep is a unique thing that isn’t achieved through trying hard. It’s counter productive in that the more you will yourself to sleep, the more elusive it becomes.

It doesn’t matter if your parents practice mindfulness, or you orchestrate a wonderfully calming bedtime routine. If your mind is whirring and anxieties arise, it is so hard to drop off.

A lot of children don’t express their worries and so they often bubble under the surface and play out in their subconscious. I wonder if my youngest is screaming that she doesn’t like everyone wearing masks at school (I must admit I’m finding it hard being unable to smile at friends and having to kiss my daughters quickly under the mask at drop off). She doesn’t necessarily have the language to articulate what she’s feeling, but there is no doubt that the feelings and emotions are there. Only a few weeks ago, she was saying “will you die?” And “will you be alive when I’m 7?” It was heartbreaking to hear, and has most likely been triggered by the pandemic.

While adults sometimes resort to sleeping tablets and desperate parents reach out to sleep consultants, I believe that possibly the only remedy right now is acceptance.

We are living through such unprecedented times and sleep disturbances are inevitable in some shape or form. I was wary of sharing details of my own children’s sleep as it’s a somewhat private matter, but if it helps others feel less alone with their own struggles then it is worth it. As they say, a problem shared, is a problem halved. Now can everyone just keep their fingers crossed that my girls sleep tonight!

The mindfulness bit…

When people are in pain they often experience the first level of pain in the sensations themselves and then add another layer of suffering by the way they react to the pain: “Why me?” “Not again..” “I’m an idiot for trying to do 50 squats!”

It’s the same with sleep. The first level is that you are struggling to get to sleep. Then the second layer of suffering is your reaction to this: “It’s getting late, I’ll be so tired in the morning”, “what is wrong with me, why can’t I just sleep!” See if you can drop into your body, perhaps by focusing on a point furthest away from your head like your toes and exploring sensations here. Then pay attention to your breathing and simply count your breaths. Both the body and breath can be used as anchors to enable you to press the pause button on your thoughts or at least turn down the volume on your inner chatter/critical voice.