Watching Molly do cartwheels the other day, I discovered a new psychiatric syndrome: somatopsychosis. It’s a very rare condition and she may be the only sufferer largely due to her terrible parent: me.
Most of us are aware of the miraculous power of our minds over our bodies and the inextricable links between psychological problems and physical problems. At the most basic, feeling physically unwell can make us feel sad about not being able to do things we wanted to do, or anxious that we may have a serious or life-threatening illness. Being a medical student was the worst. Reading lists of symptoms of rare neurological diseases was bound to bring on symptoms of blurred vision, pins and needles and lethargy such that a self-diagnosed brain tumour became a convincing reality. Conversely, when we experience bereavement, adversity or tragedy, we often feel it physically as “heartache” or “headache” or “tiredness” and “sleeplessness”. The term “psychosomatic” is basically a fancy way of saying bodily (somatic) symptoms for which there is a psychological (psycho) basis.
Children are no different and due to their immature abilities to identify and express emotions, their propensity to cite psychological problems as physical ones are more frequent. For children, who may have less understanding that psychological problems stem from the head, the gut is the most frequent organ assigned to physical problems. Children who are worried at school may experience genuine stomach aches or constipation which miraculously remit at the weekends and on holidays. For teenagers and adults, the neurological often (but not always) begins to preside with headaches and migraines becoming more prevalent presentations of psychosomatic symptoms.
Psychosomatic symptoms more commonly arise in children who are less able to understand, identify and report their feelings and emotions. Therefore younger children, and children with learning difficulties and or autistic spectrum disorders are more vulnerable. It may also occur in children where reporting feelings and emotions is not possible, discouraged or seen as a sign of weakness or failure. Often children may have experienced past or current physical problems and therefore have a good understanding of how to solicit help or get their needs met for physical problems. Often parents can contribute to symptoms by their own fears and anxieties about their child’s physical health. This is particularly so if the child has a long standing medical condition or has been unwell in the past. Doctors and health professionals can add their own anxieties “of missing a rare disorder” into the mix with repeated investigations and suggested treatments to help uncover and treat an underlying biological basis to problems, and neglect to consider that the underlying problems may be psychological.
If that is the long established thinking on psychosomatic symptoms, what then is my new disorder of “somatopsychosis”? Well, exactly the reverse: psychological symptoms caused by physical ones. This sounds highly unusual, and indeed, Molly is the only recognised case report of this pathological condition that I have just made up. Here is how it works:
Some doctors, like myself (I hope this is the case and I am not an unusually hard-hearted anomaly), have a skewed sense of pain severity due to our dealings with pain at the very severe end. At times it can border on the down-right unsympathetic: when my husband complains of woozy head and sniffles, it’s most definitely man-flu of no significance and he should take Lemsip, go to bed and quit complaining. When an adult patient complains of pain from a blood test, I sometimes mentally think “Come on – it’s a skin prick – I’ve just sewn someone’s entire arm back on!” and don’t let me get started on people that wince in extreme agony from having a blood pressure taken. I am of course professional, kind and sympathetic to my patients, but I am also human, so I hope you will forgive the occasional internal eye-roll at such “wimpish” behaviour.
Unfortunately for my children, professionalism doesn’t wholly apply at home and although broken legs, cuts that are likely to leave scars and high temperatures are met with the usual heightened maternal anxiety (including vivid nightmares of misaligned bones or fractures that disturb the bone growth plates that only people of medical training contemplate) I admit to a general propensity to a lack of sympathy to minor physical pain. As such poor Molly and D have learnt that a grazed knee will earn a dusting off, a quick wound wash, a hug and a wipe of the tears, but then an expectation that the episode is now over and they are to carry on playing. A bumped knee will unlikely earn more than an “Oh dear, you’ll get a nasty bruise” or sometimes, I admit to even worse: “Well, that’s what you get for charging around without looking where you are going.”
As a child psychiatrist on the other hand, identifying and expressing feelings and emotions are a different kettle of fish. From a young age, both children have been encouraged to talk to me about their internal lives, what has worried them at school and all angles are thoroughly investigated and talked through with utmost attention.
It appears that this table-turning of the usual scenario where parents pay immense attention to physical pain and tend to access less of their children’s internal worlds can have its own unhealthy consequences. Here’s what happened:
Molly: Whee! look at me! I can do really good cartwheels now!
Me: You’d better watch out, doing cartwheels on a slippy rug is not the best idea…
Molly: Ouch! [Blubber, blubber]
Me: I told you so.
Molly: You don’t know what a terrible day I had. Girls were being mean to me at school.
Me: [???? What the hell? Where did that come from?]
I had to suppress a smile as I realised what was happening. Molly subconsciously knew that I wasn’t going to give her sympathy for a bumped bottom, but a potential peer interaction problem would give her the comfort and attention she needed at that time of physical pain.
AAARGHH! I have generated somatopsychosis! At least my early recognition of this oddity has reminded me to be more sympathetic to my children and change my ways. I absolutely don’t want her to subconsciously fabricate mental health problems to gain attention. It does go to show though, the frightening power of our day to day words and actions on our children, and the critical importance of what we DO and DON’T give attention and kindness for.
Lil Bro: Mummy – I can’t sleep
Me: Please, its past nine o’clock, what are you doing still up? You have to go to sleep now or you’ll be exhausted at school tomorrow! [Plus I just got started on this week’s episode of “This is US” and a tub of ice cream and I really fancy a rest!]
Lil Bro: But I can’t sleep.
Me: Just close your eyes and lie still! [Grrr]
I’m sure many of you are nodding in sympathy at this experience. Lil Bro who usually has no difficulty getting to sleep is having a spate of “I can’t get to sleep”. We have tried cuddling, cajoling, comforting, reassuring and now we are at the frankly fed up stage.
Children with poor sleep can have difficulties with poor concentration, over-activity, behavioural problems, day-time sleepiness, bed-wetting, obesity, increased clumsiness, depression and worse academic performance. Equally bad, the lives of their parents and entire family are also grossly affected. As parents of infants, we have all been there, but somehow I’ve taken immense umbrage at this recent spell of poor sleep because Lil Bro is now 7 years old and well able to put himself to sleep.
When Big Sis was a wee mite, I was the rabid sleep-deprived mother heckling the sleep experts flown in from abroad to teach us doctors about sleep EEG’s: “Can you tell me why, WHY, how, HOW can a baby go from stage 4 deep sleep to AWAKE and CRYING just by a 10 degree tilt to lay them in the cot????!!!! Give me the EEG on how that happens…!!!! What’s the possible mechanism???!!!”….zzzzzzzz – bonk.
So, I must now be the envy of most mums, as for the last few years I have had the pleasure of working with Paul Gringras a.k.a. the Professor in charge of the national Sleep Medicine centre at The Evelina Children’s Hospital. I have been working with him on an international multi-centre drug trial for sleep medication in children with neurodisability (mainly autism), which he is leading. His centre is hi-tech with observational sleep bays where children can sleep-over and be observed on video to capture what is going on, often plugged into electronic equipment that monitors breathing, brain and movement activity and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on consultations with Consultant Paediatrician Dr Mike Farquhar. It all sounds very medical. What then has a shrink got to do with sleep?
Well, it turns out that the majority of sleep problems in children are “behavioural”. Yes, there are known medical causes of disturbed sleep, e.g. restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnoea, sleep walking and so on, but for the majority of cases in children who are otherwise fit and well, it is what children and their parents are in the “habit” of doing that is keeping them all awake.
What constitutes a sleep problem?
The definition of a “good night’s sleep” is variable from person to person. As a student, a full 10 hours was a requisite for me often causing tardiness to morning lectures. At weekends waking before 10am was unheard of. As a junior doctor, 4 hours sleep constituted immense good fortune and developed in me the very useful skill of being able to sleep anywhere, anytime – zzzzzz-bonk. These skills came in handy with babies that hadn’t read Gina Ford. The early years of parenthood are a sleep-deprived blur, but once the youngest had reached the milestone of 3 years, a more acceptable routine of 10 hours of continuously sleeping children was established –albeit the 6am wakenings were still somewhat painful.
In reality sleep requirements differ between children of different ages, but also between different children. Average daily sleep duration ranges between 10-17 hours at 6 months to 8-11 hours at age 11 years. This variability colours people’s ideas of what constitutes a sleep problem, and I am often bemused by some parents who come in desperation seeking medication for 10 year old children that sleep from 7:30pm to 6am: thinking with a mix of incredulity “What planet are you on? That’s almost a full 11 hours!” and admiration “Please tell me how on earth you get a 10 year old to go to bed at 7:30pm!” With these children who are getting hours of sleep within the acceptable range, the sleep is only classified as problematic if it represents a dramatic change to sleep pattern and/ or if there is any evidence of daytime sleepiness. If the answer to both is “No”, then one should feel reassured. However, for a psychiatrist, we know that often a parental cry for help of “My children don’t sleep!” is actually a cry of “I’m struggling to cope with my children when they are awake!” This differentiation is critical as the treatment strategies for the two problems are entirely different.
Aside from these perceptual sleep problems, the three main problems involving sleep are: struggling to fall off to sleep, waking in the middle of the night and co-sleeping.
Struggling to fall off to sleep
Problems falling off to sleep are often cited as a struggle. Sleep latency (to give it its fancy name) averages 19 minutes in 0-2 year olds and 17 minutes for 3-12 year olds. Anything over 30 minutes is classed as problematic. However, these average latency numbers involves the child actually wanting to fall asleep and lying in their bed in the dark, and any of the children’s wonderfully inventive delaying tactics “One more story”, “I need the toilet”, “I need a drink”, “Mummy sing to me” are clearly “behavioural” and not really to do with a “medical” sleep problem.
As part of our natural sleep cycle, we all wake at some stage in the night. Most of us are able to close our eyes and will quickly fall back to sleep again such that we don’t realise that we were ever awake or close to waking. Where night waking is problematic is where children are unable to settle themselves back to sleep and start playing the drums and waking the entire neighbourhood in the middle of the night. Typically these children then decide to fall asleep at around 7am, just when they need to go to school, and then they either miss school as their parents are unable to drag them there, or they doze off in the classroom and can’t learn effectively. You can imagine the impact of this on their parents.
OK I am as seduced by the lovely mental images of canoodling up with my young children for a snooze as the next parent. Many parents are seduced into this as children love it and it often helps them to fall asleep more quickly, but each time you get the inkling that this might not be such a bad idea, I would like you to imagine you sleeping with your 15 year old son or daughter. If you don’t do something to nip it in the bud while your children are young, they might not “grow out of it” and it will be a battle to get them out of your bed and are not used to falling asleep alone. I would suggest that you turf them out of sleeping in your bed by age 7 years otherwise it may get horribly entrenched. Of course, the early morning “I’m awake” cuddles in bed are still fine!
So what can we do to help our children to sleep?
My paediatric colleague Dr Jess Turnbull who is starting up the community Evelina Sleep Centre off-shoot in my work-place has the following advice for encouraging good sleep habits:
- Physical exertion in the afternoon – encourage daily exercise in children in the day-time. This will wear them out and make them physically ready to sleep.
- Consistent daily bedtime – as with all things behavioural, if there is an established routine and children know what is going to happen and that they cannot get out of it, then compliance is more forthcoming.
- Last drink 1-1.5 hours before bed – this reduces the likelihood of children needing to get up to go to the toilet in the night, which may make it harder for them to fall back to sleep.
- Avoid sugar/ caffeine – fairly obvious really.
- Try and have a routine wind-down regime in the hour before bed time (calming activities such as reading, bath, calming music). The idea is to try and calm your child down so that they are in the right physical and mental frame of mind to sleep.
- NO SCREENS (TV, phones, tablets) for at least an hour before bed. TV programmes, phones and tablets are all designed to capture interest, attention and brain activity. Ideally, you want to be winding down your child’s brain activity in the hour before bed so turning off screens is desirable. I know that many parents are tempted by having a TV in a child’s bedroom to keep them quiet and contained in the day, but it then requires discipline for children to stop watching it late into the night. Only be happy to provide a child with a TV in their room if they possess such discipline or you are happy for them not to sleep.
- Having a transitional object (eg. a soft toy) to develop sleep confidence and a healthy sleep association. This can be particularly helpful for younger children.
- Working towards your child falling asleep by themselves in their own bed. If a child is used to sleeping with you, then you should gradually withdraw yourself. For instance, first get the child accustomed to sleeping with you sitting next to them, then in a chair in the room, then outside the room in sight, then outside the room out of sight. It takes time, patience and grit to do this as some children will really dig their heels in, but if you view this as ultimately for their own good (which it is) then it is more possible to undertake.
- Limit setting on ‘fussing’ after ‘lights out’. If you draw out the bedtime process with attending to the child’s fussing, then it defeats the purpose as it will get later and later and only teaches children that you will give them attention for their fussing which encourages them to continue to do it.
- Reducing attention given after ‘lights out’ to prevent reinforcing messages of attention (e.g. avoid eye contact and conversation): good old pursed lips and silent treatment. There is a rule in my house that after the official bedtime, “Nice mummy” goes to bed and “Horrible mummy” her doppelganger comes in her stead. Nice mummy cannot be accountable for the actions of horrible mummy and so it is much better for children to just go to sleep.
But I had done all this and still, Lil Bro could not get to sleep. This was even more annoying and I was starting to put it down to “naughtiness”.
The next day, I was lucky enough to be chairing a talk on Smith Magenis Syndrome (a genetic disorder which was frequently associated inverted sleep cycle – i.e. day time sleepiness and night time waking) and my colleague Paul Gringras was the invited expert. Half-way through his talk, he spoke about the solution to keeping these children awake in the day was by using blue light to cut off melatonin secretion in the day. Melatonin is the natural hormone our pineal glands secrete to tell us it is night time and aids sleep. It’s pharmaceutical form can be bought over the counter in the USA as a treatment for jet-lag and is a commonly prescribed sleeping tablet.
Hang on a minute, Lil Bro had recently been given a fantastic blue Star Wars light sabre light that he had been insisting on turning on as a night light when he went to bed….this type of blue light is used to KEEP CHILDREN AWAKE….aargh. We had been inadvertently switching off our son’s natural melatonin secretion via Luke Skywalker’s weaponry.
I double checked Jess Turnbull’s list of advice and saw that I had overlooked: “Use a red coloured light if night light is needed (does not interfere with natural melatonin production)”. That evening, I told Lil Bro that an important sleep expert had told me that his special blue light was keeping him awake. Lil Bro likes science and reason and he felt good that there was a reason for his insomnia and that it was not just “bad behaviour”. It’s silly mummy’s fault for letting you have that light on (he likes not being to blame). Releasing him of anxiety about insomnia and allowing the release of melatonin by switching off the offending blue light sabre led to zzzzzz-bonk!
The info from this post came from: Turnbull & Farquhar 2016. Fifteen-minute consultation on problems in the healthy child: sleep. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 101: 175-180.
The media is full of the rise of anti-social behaviour (e.g. violence, aggression, bullying, fighting, lying, stealing, vandalism, fire-setting, drug and alcohol abuse, cruelty to animals) in children and youth offending, but what is the cause of childhood antisocial behaviour and are all anti-social children the same? What is the role of parenting?
Are all anti-social children the same?
There is evidence that not all children with anti-social behaviour are the same. Some children may show a phase of anti-social behaviour in adolescence but this passes and they settle down in adulthood. Far more concerning are children with a life-long tendency to anti-social behaviour. These children tend to be anti-social from a younger age and behaviour is more extreme (e.g. cruelty to animals at age 5 years), but even amongst these children there is evidence of different subgroups. Much research is focused on differentiating groups of anti-social children to see if we can better understand them.
One differentiating factor found is lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. Psychologically speaking, this requires two different types of processes: a “thinking” part: the ability to see things from another person’s point of view; and secondly a “feeling” part: the ability to recognise emotion in others and to feel it in oneself. People without empathy are described as being callous and unemotional. To be anti-social, violent or aggressive is easy if you do not empathise with the victim, so it is no surprise that >90% of children with callous-unemotional traits are involved in some form of anti-social behaviour.
How does empathy affect anti-social behaviour?
Researchers have been interested in children that lack empathy for a while now because of its links to extreme anti-social behaviour, and the definition of “psychopathy/ sociopathy” (this is a criminal justice not mental health term) includes having this lack of empathy. The childhood precursor to this psychopathy label is “callous-unemotional traits” (as it is pretty harsh and pessimistic to label kids as psychopaths), and even this terminology has recently been rebranded as “limited prosocial intent” so that it sounds less pejorative; but this is just semantics, we are essentially talking about the same thing: people that have shallow feelings with lack of empathy and guilt.
My colleague, Essi Viding does research into these traits and wrote a great summary paper (2012), the findings of which I wanted to share as I thought it was fascinating. It turns out that if you study ASBO kids (kids with anti-social behaviour), you will find that 50% of them have these callous-unemotional traits. These children don’t really care about others’ feelings and tend to show no remorse for wrong-doing. It is this group of kids that have the most serious and long lasting problems.
What is the difference then psychologically and biologically between children that commit antisocial behaviour with and without empathy?
In experiments where anti-social kids are hooked up to show responses (for instance heart, skin and eye-tracking monitors or brain scans) to photos/ voice recordings of other people in pain or grief, the children with callous-unemotional traits showed no or reduced physical or brain response. Most people will wince in shared pain if shown pictures or exposed to sounds of others in pain, but these children don’t. When these children were asked to play a game where not following the rules led to punishment, they continued to flaunt the rules and did not seem to learn from punishment. There is biological support for these findings with differences in brain scans in areas of the brain linked to emotion processing and reinforcement learning pathways in callous anti-social children.
In contrast, the anti-social children with empathy showed the same aversive responses as children not involved in anti-social behaviour to pictures and sounds of pain and grief, and learnt quickly from punishment. However when they are shown threatening faces, they over-respond with emotion and when they are shown neutral and ambiguous facial expressions, they identified them as being threatening. Brain scans back up these differences. The anti-social children with empathy tended to have abnormal amygdala development. This is the area of the brain involved in fear and anxiety processing. These anti-social children have normal empathy but have a heightened awareness of threat, which explains why they perceive neutral faces as threatening. In a world where everyone is viewed as threatening, hostile or an enemy, it can make sense to be combative, aggressive and violent. This is that bully in the playground that says “Are you looking at me?” – when you weren’t even looking at them.
Genetic studies have also supported this divide, finding that there is strong inheritance of callous nature, whereas anti-social behaviour without callousness was not inherited but generated by environmental factors such as harsh or inadequate parenting, or an interplay between these environmental factors and genes associated with anxiety or heightened emotion.
Finally, it has also been found that the children in the different groups respond differently to parenting strategies. Punishment and traditional sanction-based strategies (time-out, withdrawal of privileges) works well for empathic anti-social children, but has no effect on callous children. Callous children only respond to positive reinforcement (praise) and rewards.
What causes anti-social behaviour?
This type of evidence has led to different theoretical models for two groups of children involved in anti-social behaviour.
Group 1: Genetic predisposition. Antisocial and callous kids: these children are thought to lack empathy as they do not find other people’s distress aversive and because they fail to be able to learn from punishment. It is easy to be aggressive and cruel if you are unable to feel guilt and if the suffering of others doesn’t bother you. It is easy to continue to behave in this way life-long if you are unable to learn from punishment. These difficulties are often inherited in brain structure.
Group 2: Environmental Causation: Anti-social but not callous kids: these children have abnormal socialisation because they have a heightened sense of threat, and view the world as hostile towards them. They exhibit aggression and cruelty as a result of living in unstable and threatening environments which has shaped their brains and psychology to respond in this way as a means of coping and survival. Their anti-social behaviour is often in the context of a peer group within which there is support and empathy.
What has this got to do with parenting?
Whether we like it or not, parents are the first line defence against anti-social behaviour in society. By better understanding the causes of anti-social behaviour and by understanding our children, we can best adapt our parenting to prevent our children becoming anti-social. Although children in group 1 with genetic predisposition are the more difficult to help, they can be supported by fostering self-esteem. They will respond better to motivation to act in a pro-social way, rather than harsh punishment which will not deter them. Anti-social behaviour in children with empathy can be prevented by strong loving families that place appropriate boundaries and sanctions. For these children, wider society has a great role to play in generating or preventing anti-social behaviour, as tolerant, peaceful and accepting societies can offer protection whilst violent, unstable and alienating societies can fuel them.
Anti-social behaviour in children with and without callous-unemotional traits. Viding et al. (2012) Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 195-200.
Since Amy Chua’s book on tiger parenting exposed the prevalent Chinese ethos in parenting, life has been hard. It’s impossible for a Chinese parent to have a child play well at a music concert without arched eyebrows from other parents thinking “Well, she must make them practice till all hours” and a good class report cannot go by without mutterings of “Well, her children must be tutored beyond belief”. Indeed, parents have come up to me in the school playground specifically to ask my advice about tutors, when anyone who reads my blog knows, I am anti professional tuition and am resisting the pressure to get a tutor and certainly know no tutors (although I reserve the right to crumble to the tutor fad closer to 11+!). Come parents evening, I generally nod obediently and keep my mouth shut, cowering behind Banker and poke him into action to ask the questions that we want answered lest the teacher labels me as “That typical Chinese tiger mother”. Banker, being Caucasian is allowed to ask questions about the children’s education without prejudice.
It was a surprise then that I recently encountered where the Caucasian Tiger Mothers are.
Big Sis recently sat a ballet exam. I am ambivalent on the issue of ballet. I have to confess that I did arrange for Big Sis to start ballet at age 3 years as who can resist the cuteness of little dumpling girls toddling about in pink tutus? I presumed that by age 7 years, she would have grown out of it as the discipline, the classical music and the strictness, didn’t seem to me to be overtly appealing to children. I thought she may have asked to change to drama or street dance, which are probably my preferences and were alternative options that I have muted each year. But no, Madam loves ballet. So I dutifully send her each week and give her due encouragement, and I attend the ballet shows and clap enthusiastically, but all the while thinking to myself: when will she get fed up of this as I don’t want her pursuing ballet seriously and developing an eating disorder in adolescence. It’s a prejudice I know, but for me ballet and eating disorders are just linked in my brain, and given a preference I’d like to think that Big Sis would’ve said “yes” to rocking out with the Skater Boy rather than ruefully going to his concert in years to come.
Big Sis and I ran like a pair of insane loons to this ballet exam, as typically we were LATE. Big Sis had her hair in a pony-tail, only by now, it was all tumbling out and her face was sweating like a pig from having been told to run like a madman or face a telling off by a stern Russian for tardiness. Big Sis was wearing white school socks instead of tights as it was a baking hot day and who wants to wear tights in the heat? Big Sis and I had just stuffed our faces with chocolate digestives because we were a bit peckish and crumbs tumbled from pink taffeta as we barreled in through the doors huffing and puffing.
When we arrived, we were met by the other girls and parents. 90% of the girls were tall, blond and with thigh girth smaller than my arms. Every girl without exception had their hair neatly pulled back into a perfect bun. Gel, wax and constellations of Kirby grips took a vice like hold on hair lest a strand fall out of place. Most of the girls had a full face of make-up on; they all wore tights not crumbs. Oops, was there a memo I missed about a dress code or were we to have intuited this? Parents fussed about and guided the girls as they dutifully underwent elaborate warm up stretches in the corridor. Meanwhile Big Sis stood in the corner fanning her sweaty nose.
“Phew” I said. “They’re running late so we haven’t missed it. We were running, now we are sweating like pigs.” I attempted to explain to another parent.
Arched eyebrows at my disorganization and pitying smiles from other parents, and I got the sense that I had not correctly judged the seriousness of this ballet exam. Then, what I hadn’t anticipated. The Spanish inquisition:
“So when did Big Sis move into this ballet class?”
“Are you sure she is at the correct exam? Some of her class mates were being examined in the earlier exam.”
“My daughter is doing ballet 3 times a week. How many times a week is Big Sis doing ballet?”
And so on.
As I muttered “I dunno. We came at the time we were told”, I started to feel perplexed about this excessive interest into what I felt to be an irrelevant extra-curricular activity that I was forced to enthuse about because my kid found it fun. Then I began to feel a strange sense of familiarity at the questions I was being asked. These questions were recognizable and I and others I know have asked these questions before. They were just like the questions Chinese parents ask each other about maths and English exams!
“So how long has your child been at Kumon?”
“Which grade piano is your child taking this year?”
“How many times a week do you set them extra maths homework?”
If and when my kids are required to sit for academic exams, you can bet that we would be early, sitting outside the exam hall probably swotting up on home-made exam cards of some description.
So this is where the white Tiger Mothers hang out.
It’s sort of cool to feel vindication and that it is not just the Chinese that are a tad pushy after all. It’s just that for the Chinese the focus of achievement is on academics and music, whilst for Westerners it’s sport. Banker recalls similar parents at swim meets when he swam in junior national swim teams in South Africa. Many of his team mates rebelled against their ambitious parents and refused to continue swimming in adolescence because of it. It’s funny that I am sure that Judy Murray (and any parent of a top athlete) did her fair share of threatening, cajoling and bribing her sons to get out of bed and get to training for long hours when they didn’t want to, yet she is a national treasure, whilst a parent that used similar parenting practices to target academic achievement would be vilified.
Having initially felt intimidated and antagonized, I felt serenely at one with these other parents. Still, as a Chinese parent I can’t for the life of me understand why ballet should be the target of such efforts. At least with academics, half-hearted success at maths will still land your child a decent job, whilst even the top students in a ballet (or any sports) class are unlikely to make a career of it…
Each to their own I guess.
OK, I have to fess up. I am moving house this week and have nothing prepared. So here is an essay I wrote a while back to explain my work in gene-environment interaction. I know, it sounds scary, but its really simple and I’m sure that this “story” will help you understand.
I’m here at Mr. Almighty’s Cloud Street Headquarters to interview him on his plans for a family friendly casino.
“Mr. Almighty, it’s great to meet you! Tell me the concept for your casino.”
Mr. Almighty: It’s ingenious really. My casino actively encourages participation of whole families. Although single people are encouraged to come, it’s in the hope that when they have children, they can continue to come here as a family and I’ll have a continued source of customers!
“Very clever. What sort of gambling facilities will you have? Slot machines, roulette, ‘Blackjack’?”
Mr. Almighty: Ah, well! I’m a ‘Blackjack’ man myself, but my enthusiasm spreads to all card games and so I’ve dedicated my casino to cards. We’ll have ‘Poker’, ‘Snap’, ‘Bridge’, ‘Old Maid’, ‘Rummy’, as well as ‘Blackjack’ off course. In fact, you name a card game and we’ll certainly be playing it. I’ve divided the venue into sections so that a different card game will be played in each, so called ‘gaming environment’.
“A very catchy name.”
Mr. Almighty: Yes. I think our advertising boys did a good job on that one.
“What’s so special about a casino dedicated to card games for families?”
Mr. Almighty: Hah! Well, unlike other casinos, there’s a twist. My casino will be exclusive: ‘Members Only’ I mean…
“There’s nothing new about that!”
Mr. Almighty: Wait, I haven’t finished. On joining, I deal all members 14 playing cards. They must play with the same 14 cards that they were dealt on joining for the duration of their membership. The only exception will be for members’ children. We anticipate there’ll be several billions as the casino expands, so I’d be here all day dealing out cards to kids if there was no exception made! So, I’ve devised a simpler plan for them. They will be blindfolded and asked to randomly pick their cards from the hands of their parents: half from their mother, and half from their father. From then on, the same rules apply: “You play with the cards you’re dealt”! That’s the slogan our advertising department is adopting for our poster campaign!
“But there’s a terrible flaw in your plan! What if I joined and received a terrible hand? I’d have to play with that for the duration of my membership and keep losing! I might as well give up!”
Mr. Almighty: No, no – that needn’t happen. You, like so many others, see things at face value and don’t see the complexities in the matter. Whether you win or lose depends not only on your cards but a whole host of factors. For starters: how well you play the game. Parenting is potentially important for this, at least in the beginning. Even if a child has a great hand, if his parents haven’t taught him the rules of the game, he’s pretty sure to lose.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Mr. Almighty: Later on, he might have more chance to play with friends or have tuition from teachers and be able to learn skills for card playing from them.
“So, his chances of success and failure might be influenced by his peer group and school environment?”
Mr. Almighty: Indeed.
“But, once you’ve learnt the rules of the game, your potential winnings are still dictated by the cards you’re dealt. You’d be stuffed if you had no ‘Aces’ or ‘Picture cards’.”
Mr Almighty: Not so! That’s the beauty of my casino. There are many chances to win. As I’ve said, we play all the card games in the world here, not just one! The ‘Aces’ and ‘Picture cards’ might serve you well in a game of ‘Bridge’, where high scoring cards are valued, but in ‘Old Maid’ where they are penalized, they will cause you nothing but grief! And in ‘Snap’, well, a ‘two’ is as good as any ‘Ace’ so long as you find a pair.
“O.K. So how well you do depends on the interaction between your cards and your ‘gaming environment’. A hand full of ‘Aces’ in a ‘Bridge’ game spells success, but the same ‘Aces’ when playing ‘Old Maid’ spell disaster. So the handicap I predicted isn’t necessarily so, and it’s a matter of finding the optimal combination of game played and cards possessed.”
Mr. Almighty: Exactly!
“Even so, how well you do in the long run is still dependent on your cards isn’t it?”
Mr. Almighty: In some respects. I can’t say that your cards will not ultimately limit your potential but there are still further factors that could influence prospects.
“Besides your cards, acquired knowledge of the game and the game being played, I can’t think of any thing else that would influence progress.”
Mr. Almighty: I see you’re not a regular card player! Otherwise you would know that there is a lot more to card playing, not least the abilities of your opponents, or ‘gaming society’ as our advertising boys like to call them.
“O.k. I suppose if I were playing with novices, I’d certainly have a better chance of winning.”
Mr. Almighty: Now you’re catching on! As you can see, there are lots of ways you can still win with a deficient hand of cards. You choose a game you’ve been taught to play well, a ‘gaming environment’ where your cards are valued and where your fellow card players are suited to allow you to thrive.
“So, I could look at my hand and in effect change my prospects by selecting a ‘gaming environment’ dependent on my cards.”
Mr. Almighty: Yes, indeed there’s likely to be a great deal of correlation between your cards and your selected environment. But it’s not always easy to tell from the outset which is the best ‘environment’ for your hand. I’m not going to label the environments ‘Professional Poker Player’s table – avoid unless you have a Royal Flush’ or ‘Beginner’s Bridge – you’ll win big here even if you have no Picture Cards’. What usually happens is that there is a fair amount of trial and error before some satisfactory environment is found.
“But clever manipulation of the ‘gaming environment’ can make good from a poor hand.”
Mr. Almighty: Indeed. And these are just factors I’ve thought of so far. I’m sure if more research was done in this area, more significant environmental and social factors will be found to allow players who receive a poor hand to win.
“That’s amazing! But tell me, how can this venture possibly make money? You’ve said players with terrible cards can still succeed by choosing the correct ‘gaming environment’. If players got wise they’d keep winning and you’d go bankrupt!”
Mr. Almighty: Well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I didn’t wish to impose this restriction, but the reality is that to stay economically viable as a business, I must. I have had to impose a cost attached to changing ‘gaming environments’. You will have to start playing in the same ‘environment’ as your parents. Otherwise, I’d be bankrupt by the babysitting fees alone! If you want to change environments, you or your family will have to pay a fee, and it’s not cheap. It’s sad but true, some poor buggers get stuck in an environment totally at odds with their cards and they just carry on losing.
“Let me get this straight. If my parents play ‘Poker’, then I have to start off playing ‘Poker’ even if my hand is better suited to ‘Snap’. In order to play ‘Snap’ and make it big, I need financial backing?”
Mr. Almighty: Yes. That’s the gist of it. I have to make money somehow! If only the government would give us casino proprietors more money, I’d love to let my members play in their optimal ‘gaming environments’ and watch them flourish. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to do that.
“Isn’t there another way? What if between my parents they have the cards to give me a ‘Royal Flush’ which would make me almost guaranteed to win at ‘Poker’. Couldn’t they pay a fee to engineer it so that they select which cards I inherit, rather than my picking them randomly? Or, could I modify my hand and change certain cards for ones that might suit my circumstances better?”
Mr. Almighty: That certainly would allow you to win. It’s a contentious issue though! Some would even call it cheating! But I can see where you’re coming from. If I was constantly playing to lose with no prospect of winning, and with the knowledge that my children would inherit a poor hand and little financial resource to change their lot, I’d quite wish to be able to do the same thing too. I often see players with no ‘pairs’ or ‘Picture cards’ continuously losing their savings at the ‘Poker’ table and I think, what if I could give him a pair of ‘Aces’ or two. Unfortunately, if I sanctioned card changes, all my members would be queuing up to change their cards and I would have no peace! As it turns out, there are many intelligent members who’ve devised ways of ‘card modification’. But there’s no point changing your cards willy nilly. The trick is to research your ‘gaming environment’ and ‘society’ and strategically find the correct card to change. By changing specific cards, some have been able to turn the tides of their fortune. Sometimes, it can rejuvenate whole families who’d lost hope, not to mention the benefits to their future generations. Other times it’s used for the wrong purposes, and I totally disagree with it, but am powerless to stop it. It’s really up to members to decide how much ‘card modification’ they can tolerate. There’s a committee that monitors it. I try to keep out of it, though they often try and bring me in to their debates!
“But it could ultimately affect your business. If all this ‘modification’ was allowed to go on, everyone would have ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’ in their hand and you’d go bankrupt!”
Mr. Almighty: Not necessarily. The members can modify cards behind my back all they like, but they need ultimately to bear in mind that if everyone had ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’, the whole ‘gaming society’ would change. There’d be no members with losing hands and you’d have to be an even better card player to succeed. There will always be winners and losers just the same. In any case, don’t you know the first thing about casinos? The house always wins. I have one last trick up my sleeve and that is, I have the right to close down any ‘gaming environment’ I choose, at any time.
“How would that insure your success?”
Mr. Almighty: Well, if all my members were gaining ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’ to win at ‘Poker’, then they would be taking a large gamble. I could close down all my ‘Poker’ tables and turn them into ‘Old Maid’ gaming environments at my whim. That way, I could turn all the winners into losers and losers into winners whenever I choose!
“Caution and the importance of environment is the order of the day then?”
Mr. Almighty: Indeed.
“It certainly sounds like a fascinating venture! One thing I wondered though, your advertising guys seem to have coined great names like ‘gaming environments’ and ‘gaming societies’, but couldn’t they think of a more catchy name for the cards?”
Mr Almighty: Yes, they’re working on that, so far, they’ve only come up with ‘genes’.
“‘Genes’. That might just take off! Tell me, what are you going to call your new casino?”
Mr. God Almighty: Well, actually, the prototype has already been running successfully for several millennia, and I think I’ll launch the real thing with the same name as it’s a good a name as any. I call it ‘LIFE’.
I was recently asked for some advice, as is an occupational hazard. “We’re about to have a second child. How do we prepare our child for the arrival of a sibling, because of the inevitable jealousy?” To my surprise, even before I could answer; my husband who has been well versed in my opinions answered for me.
“She has zero-tolerance on siblings not getting along.”
I was surprised at his succinct synopsis of my position, but “yes”, that is indeed my view. For me, the bond that I have with my two sisters is very important. Even though personality-wise we probably would not have been in the same circle of friends had we been peers, as sisters we are closer than the pre-election polls. Even though I rarely socialise with my siblings outside family events, if anything in my life happened, they would be the first people that I would contact and vice versa. I would never be alone in a crisis because I know that they would be supporting me – come what may. Friendships and marriages may come and go, parents will pass away, but siblings are with you, living in your time and generation – for life.
This is not just me being whimsical but is born out in science. Warm, supportive sibling relationships that lack conflict are related to having better psychological wellbeing as children and into adulthood (Buhrmester and Furman1990; Buist et al. 2013; Kim et al. 2007). The reverse is also true; hostile and aggressive sibling relationships are associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and anti-social behaviour (Campione-Barr et al. 2013; Dunn et al. 1994a, b; Padilla-Walker et al. 2010; Stocker 1994).
Maybe this is nothing to do with sibling relationship, but related to parenting and genetics? Argumentative parents have argumentative children that don’t get on and become argumentative and anti-social adults. This doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the literature suggests that warm, collaborative sibling relationships instill resilience (an invisible protective shield if you will) in children. For example, there is evidence that good sibling relationships protect children from all manner of adversity from bickering parents that fight all the time, negative life events (such as natural disaster and death of a loved one), high risk neighbourhoods, low-income backgrounds and bullying (Jenkins and Smith 1990; Tucker et al. 2013, Gass et al. 2007, Criss and Shaw 2005; Widmer and Weiss 2000, Bowes et al. 2010). Very recently published work suggests that siblings can even protect against the negative impact of parental mental health problems. Keeton (2015) found that in children of parents who met clinical criteria for anxiety disorder, the psychological impact of having a parent with anxiety disorder on children was moderated by the quality of the relationships between the children. In effect, the closeness of siblings allowed children to protect each other from the negative impact of a parent suffering a significant mental health problem. All in all, the evidence suggests that sibling relationships are just as important in a child’s psychological development as parents and friends.
This makes sense to me. Much adolescent and adult unhappiness comes from feeling “alone”/ “unaccepted”/ “friendless”/ “unsupported”. I have met many unhappy adults in my time as an adult psychiatrist of whom I just thought “You know what? You’d be fine if you just had a supportive friend.” That’s just exactly what a brother or sister could and should be; and whilst as parents we have little or no say in who our children choose to be friends with in adolescence and adult life, we have much control over whether siblings get along or not, and are perfectly placed to ensure that our children, via their siblings, have a strong support network for life.
So why have we as a population of parents come to expect sibling rivalry and discord? When we see it happening, we shrug our shoulders and say “siblings –eh?” We may take some cursory action “Don’t hit your sister”, “Get off your brother’s back and put down that brick that you were using to pummel his head”, but all in all, we assume that this is run of the mill sibling behaviour. In effect, we at best tolerate it, at worst encourage it. Romulus and Remus were raised by a wolf. I am not sure what happened with the Millibands…
My own childhood experiences were different. My mother came from a family of 7 extremely close siblings. Even though they live on different continents and their ages outspan a decade, they still go on holiday together and skype each other regularly. They laugh, joke, bitch and support each other as much now as pensioners as they did when they were children. My mother told me that in her family the older children were each allocated a younger child to look after growing up. Second Uncle had to piggy back my mother on long outings and my mother in turn had to rock third Uncle to sleep. I am sure that this responsibility and encouragement of care fostered an affection that has lasted into their old age.
In turn, I remember very clearly my mother explicitly saying to my sisters and I as children “You three are best friends. You are all each other have and must support each other.” I remember thinking sulkily at the time; I am so not best friends with these two. That one has just pulled my hair, and that one has just scratched my face. But we moved several times as children, first from Taiwan to Wales and then Wales to London, changing primary schools 4 times in 8 years, and so it turned out to be true. While friends came and went, “Laurel and Hardy” as I liked to imagine them then or “The Two Ugly Sisters” (to my narcissistic Cinderella off course) were always with me. And guess what, as adults, we are like best friends.
So what of my own children?
Banker was right. I take a zero-tolerance view of siblings not getting along. Like my mother, I insist to them that “they are best friends” daily, whether they like it or not. Sure they fight all the time, but underneath I know that they love each other dearly. When Lil Bro had a hard day in the school playground, Big Sis gave him advice. When an umbrella at a cafe blew over and grazed Big Sis spilling her drink, Lil Bro immediately gave her his. And in the evenings when they snuggle up together, I swear, its the sweetest moment for a parent.
Here are a few other things that I did/ try to do, all of which being non-scientific and are just my interpretation of what might help siblings get along.
- My number one advice is to ensure that your children feel loved and secure in themselves. Children who have “secure attachment” to their parents have all manner of better prospects throughout childhood and into adulthood. The more secure a child feels in themselves, the less prone they will be to jealousy, and the more generous they will be to their siblings. So ensuring a child grows up feeling secure from the outset helps a great deal.
- Prepare for a new sibling. Throughout pregnancy, the prospect of Lil Bro’s arrival was talked about as a massive positive. A little brother for you to help me look after. A little brother to play with you. Read books about new babies and about siblings that get along (Topsy and Tim is good for this). Buy your child a baby doll and play together at looking after it. Be as realistic about this as possible as this will help role play and rehearse what is to come. Massively praise any caring actions and discourage rough handling.
- Allow a bond to be made with a new sibling. I know that parents can be precious about babies, but being overly-guarded and excluding a child from their baby sibling can lead to loss of opportunity for siblings to bond, and also the older sibling feeling somehow excluded. Where possible, always involve siblings. Place the baby on the sibling’s lap and help them cuddle the new sibling and play with them. This is perfectly safe as long as children are well-prepped and you are supervising.
- Deal with jealousy. Jealousy between siblings will be inevitable at times even with secure children, but how you manage it can dampen or amplify its existence. Firstly, you must anticipate situations where this may occur and notice it when it happens. Then, rather than ignore it, it should be addressed as soon as possible. For instance, when there is competition for attention, this should be verbalised, acknowledged and problems solved. “I know you want me to play with you, but I am feeding your brother. But tell you what, he will be asleep after this, and then I can play with you.” Or when they get older “I know I am spending the day with your sister because I am taking her to see her favourite ballet, but next week, I will take you to the zoo.” Many young children feel angry and frustrated when they feel excluded or unfairly treated in favour of another, but cannot understand the reasoning behind it or be able to label it as “jealousy”. It’s up to parents to notice it and label it and explain it. Jealousy is a natural emotion; it is how we handle this emotion that needs to be addressed rather than attempting to avoid or suppress an irrepressible natural feeling. Unaddressed jealousy may lead to lashing out, aggression towards their sibling, or deliberate misbehaviour in order to get attention which is never a good thing.
- Behavioural management always applies. The tenet of behavioural management is to heavily praise and reward behaviours you wish to see again and to ignore and discourage behaviours that you do not wish to see again. If you wish to see caring behaviour between your siblings, you need to reinforce it with praise and rewards. If you would rather they did not bicker and fight, there need to be consequences each and every time this happens. I know that some parents think that siblings should “just naturally love each other” and I am as happy-clappy as the next person, but even I know that “love” can be manipulated to some extent. Some people refuse to praise and reward things that they “expect” children to do naturally, but I’m a great fan of praise (see my previous blog post on this) and evidence shows that behavioural management works.
- Us vs them. During my family therapy training I read somewhere that the only healthy grouping of people within a family is parents vs children. Families that have any other combination are more vulnerable e.g. a family which splits into two with a mother and son vs father and daughter or mother and children vs father. Keeping the healthy dynamic should always be borne in mind. Using this dynamic, it is possible to foster closer sibling unity as people tend to unite against a common oppressor. Yes, you the parents are the oppressor in this scenario. Don’t be tempted to side with a child, enjoy your role as the villain and reap the rewards of sibling cohesion.
- Encourage collaboration. Treating children as a team can be helpful to collaboration. Rewards can be given to both children as a team, punishments doled out to both as a team. This will facilitate helping behaviour and help siblings see each other as partners rather than competitors. Encourage mutual praise. For families in a rut that come to see me for therapy, I tend to suggest that before bedtime, each child is to say something good that the sibling has done that day and praise them. It may be forced praise to begin with, but even forced praise is better than no praise and over time it may and likely will become genuine and overspill into the everyday (particularly with young children).
- Promote exposure and shared experience. One way to help them get along is to allow them to have common experiences and exposure to each other. This is not possible if they attend different schools. This may be a bit unpopular in the UK where for some reason boys and girls from 4 onwards are farmed off to single sex schools, or siblings of different abilities are segregated early on into selective schools. I am totally and whole-heartedly in favour of keeping siblings in the same school, especially at primary school where I think education should play second fiddle to social and emotional development. A close sibling relationship is more important to me than KS2 results. A supportive sibling is there for life, who of us can remember our primary school grades? My children go to co-ed school. This way, their support for each other can start young. I am delighted to hear that Big Sis crosses the playground to give her Lil Bro a kiss and hug when he needs it. Not possible if she is not there.
- Adopt a policy of zero-tolerance on siblings not getting on. Expecting and or accepting that siblings do not need to get on, and that this is “normal” is the main reason for inaction. So this last point is probably the most important, because action is the first step.
Bowes, L., Maughan, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Arseneault, L. (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioural resilience to bullying: evidence of an environmental effect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 809–817.
Buhrmester, D., & Furman, W. (1990). Perceptions of sibling relationships during middle childhood and adolescence. Child Development, 61, 1387–1398.
Buist, K. L., Dekovic, M., & Prinzie, P. (2013). Sibling relationship quality and psychopathology of children and adolescents: a meta-analysis.Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 97–106.
Campione-Barr, N., Greer, K. B., & Kruse, A. (2013). Differential associations between domains of sibling conflict and adolescent emotional adjustment. Child Development, 84, 938–954.
Criss, M. M., & Shaw, D. S. (2005). Sibling relationships as contexts for delinquency training in low-income families. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 592–600.
Dunn, J., Slomkowski, C., & Beardsall, L. (1994a). Sibling relationships from the preschool period through middle childhood and early adolescence.Developmental Psychology, 30, 315–324.
Dunn, J., Slomkowski, C., Beardsall, L., & Rende, R. (1994b). Adjustment in middle childhood and early adolescence: links with earlier and contemporary sibling relationships. Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 35, 491–504
Gass, K., Jenkins, J., & Dunn, J. (2007). Are sibling relationships protective? A longitudinal study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 167–175.
Jenkins, J. M., & Smith, M. A. (1990). Factors protecting children living in disharmonious homes: maternal reports. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 29, 60–69.
Kim, J., McHale, S. M., Crouter, A. C., & Osgood, W. (2007). Longitudinal linkages between sibling relationships and adjustment from middle childhood through adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 43, 960–973.
Padilla-Walker, L., Harper, J. M., & Jensen, A. C. (2010). Self-regulation as a mediator between sibling relationship quality and early adolescents’ positive and negative outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 419–428
Stocker, C. M., Burwell, R. A., & Briggs, M. L. (2002). Sibling conflict in middle childhood predicts children’s adjustment in early adolescence.Journal of Family Psychology, 16, 50–57.
Tucker, C. J., Holt, M., & Wiesen-Martin, D. (2013). Inter-parental conflict and sibling warmth during adolescence: associations with female depression in emerging adulthood. Psychological Reports, 112, 243–251
Widmer, E. D., & Weiss, C. C. (2000). Do older siblings make a difference? The effects of older sibling support and older sibling adjustment on the adjustment of socially disadvantaged adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 1–27.
Over the last few weeks I have been asked by a few people to write something on managing behaviour of children. This is one of the biggest challenges for parents, and yet I had put off writing about this as it is not as easy to give advice on this as it sounds. The “tips” that friends were asking for basically amount to what we in the industry call “behavioural management”. Ways in which parents can magically “change” or “manage” their children’s behaviour. Sadly, there is no magic tip, only all the things that you have already heard of and tried. Behavioural management tries to spell out what is and is not desirable behaviour and strategies try to tip the balance of choice towards behaviours that are desirable. Well known strategies include “the naughty mat” or “time out”, “ignoring” your child’s mild bad behaviour and also the blessed “reward chart”. If you want to read up on behavioural management an excellent book is “The Incredible Years” by Webster-Stratton. I won’t précis what I feel is a thorough account of good behavioural management, but instead ask:
Does behavioural management work?
The answer in theory is unequivocally “yes”.
But, so often in practice is “no”.
This is because behavioural management is easiest to implement when your child is “typical” and has no other problems, and you (the parent) are brilliant, have no problems and are super consistent in everything you do both with your co-parent and school.
Which basically means “no” or only “a bit”– as when does the above situation ever happen?
Here are two reasons why your child may not be “typical”:
Neurodevelopmental problems, in particular learning difficulty can heavily impact behaviour. In young children, aggression and temper tantrums are typical responses to frustration, but by school age, some control should have been gained over these behaviours. If a child is developmentally delayed, then their ability to behave should be compared to their developmental age rather than chronological age. A 16 year old boy with the developmental level of a 4 year old; can be expected to behave in line with a 4 year old. For a four year old, temper tantrums and hitting out are common responses to frustration, the trouble is that being hit by a 16 year old boy in a temper tantrum has very different consequences to being hit by a 4 year old, and yet, the child “can’t” help responding in this way. These children are often clients in child mental health services as parenting children with severe learning difficulties can be extremely challenging. Other neurodevelopmental disorders also cause behavioural problems. In ADHD children with problems with attention cannot listen to or follow instructions as well as other children. They will tend to act without thinking and may do things that they regret later because they acted without thinking. Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may have behavioural problems as they are having difficulty in understanding what is being expected of them and poor social understanding can lead to many more frustrations on a daily basis. Standard behavioural management may not work in these groups of children and behavioural management needs to be adapted to the child’s difficulties. In general it is harder to implement and with more varied results than in children without neurodevelopmental difficulties.
Children who are having emotional problems may have difficulties in behaviour. Emotions and behaviour are inextricably linked. When we feel down or stressed out, our behaviour changes. Some of us reach for chocolate, some for alcohol, some people become withdrawn and unsociable, other people become irritable and angry. It is important to assess emotional aspects of your child’s life if their behaviour changes or deteriorates. Children may not always volunteer their states of mind to you. They may not be able to label their emotions, or to express themselves. They may be afraid to talk about these things. Their unhappiness and frustrations are displayed in their behaviour rather than in words. It is your responsibility as a parent to notice, to ask, to label for them, to give them words, to give them permission to talk about their difficulties. To guess and to investigate from asking teachers and friends if nothing is forthcoming. It may be that they are being bullied at school, it may be that they are picking up on the stress in your marriage, it may be something trivial, but if you don’t notice/ enquire, you won’t know and their change in behaviour will just be called “bad behaviour” or “acting out”. In these cases, behavioural management will not work well. Rewards will feel irrelevant, ignoring and punishment will feel like persecution, negative attention will be better than no attention and rejection is a welcome confirmation of their own self-loathing. Finding out what is wrong, offering security will work better here. Unattended emotional problems in children can impact personality and aid development of long-lasting traits that can lead to “bad behaviour” becoming habitual and “part of” a person’s personality that can no longer be easily mended.
In children without these additional problems, the limiting factor to good behaviour is usually the parent not the child.
Lack of sustained motivation:
In the defining clinical trial for children with ADHD where they compared medication to behavioural management (The MTA Study), behavioural management achieved equal outcomes compared to medication. But wait, here the behavioural management programme used highly trained psychologists to work with highly motivated parents and teachers to obtain this outcome. Real-life trials (what we call pragmatic trials) using existing services, which tend not to heavily involve the schools (as the Department of Education is separate from the Department of Health), and non-selected patient groups, that have looked at the efficacy of community parenting and behavioural management programmes have netted unimpressive results. It is not that children’s behaviour cannot be managed; it is that the will of society and parents, is insufficient.
I know this all too well. Big Sis has a weekly spelling test. On the weeks where I have my act together, we sit and learn the words and I test her on the words each day to make sure that at the end of the week, she gets full marks and I reward her for this attainment. This is basically behavioural management in action: co-working towards a set goal that is achievable, achieved and rewarded. This works fantastically well, thumbs up and smiles all around. Once she has done this for a few weeks, I get complacent and I think, well now – maybe I can just give it a skip this week, she and I can both have a relax and we’ll just have a quick look at the words the night before. She gets a couple of mistakes. That’s basically my anecdote for behavioural management. It genuinely works until one day, you can’t be bothered and it all goes a bit wobbly again. The limiting factor is me, not Big Sis.
Wobbles in my behavioural management can also be seen when I am stressed or distracted. One time when I was very stressed waiting for a phone call regarding a job offer; the children were extremely badly behaved – “for no reason”. I was snappy and shouted at them and they just wouldn’t do what they were told – “it was as if they knew exactly when to wind me up”. Eventually, the phone call came, and I had got the job. That afternoon, they were very well behaved. The change had been in me, and their behaviour merely reflected my state and parenting capability, not something innate in them.
Unrealistic parental expectation:
When we talk about “bad behaviour” we all mean different things and we all have different thresholds as to what is meant by “bad”. Some friends and relatives come by our house and make “tutting” sounds when they see our kids glued to the TV, leave the table at meal times on a whim to dance around the kitchen, bonk each other on the head with cushions and generally shout at each other and at us. To me, this is not bad behaviour – this is just life in our household! Equally, I raise a brow when I see children that never say “please” or “thank you” and run away from their parents on the street, while this is not something that bothers them. When parents complain that their children “Will not do as they are told”, the severity of the issue rather depends on what they are being told to do. If they will not do 60 minutes of piano practice every night, that is rather different from refusing to do their homework, or refusing to stop watching TV; and “good” and “bad” behaviour is sooo dependent on what the parental and school expectation is. Often there are cultural and generational expectations of how children should behave. A normal child in a school with high behavioural expectations may be deemed to have “bad behaviour”, a normal child in one culture may be deemed badly behaved in another. The behaviour is relative and in order to assess behaviour properly, it is important to first evaluate that the expectations are reasonable. There is a limit to how much a child can “change” and they will not bother to attempt to change behaviour if they feel that the bar is being set too high.
One of the main saboteurs of a good behavioural management programme is “other people”. The well-intentioned/ or not so well-intentioned other half who disagrees with what you are doing. By not supporting you, they are de facto sabotaging the behavioural management plan because children are such buggers that they can spot disagreement a mile off and work it to their advantage. Much like MPs claiming expenses and benefit fraudsters, they are not averse to trying to get away with as much as they can. Playing one parent off the other must be a favourite game for children. In my opinion parents who want to succeed at behavioural management need to get on board together, or not bother. A similar conundrum exists with the school. If children are told one thing at home and another at school, the “authority” of “the rules” is undermined. It is a good idea when implementing behavioural management to discuss plans with the child’s school so that the same message is delivered to the child.
So in summary, if emotional problems are excluded, behavioural management delivered consistently and well will definitely improve your child’s behaviour, even if they have additional difficulties; but it is by no means a magic wand. It takes hard toil, stamina, guts, persistence and tears, but can reward you with likeable human beings. Isn’t that the essence of parenting?
If you want to know more about behavioural management please buy/ beg/ steal/ borrow: The Incredible Years, by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. This is the programme recommended by my colleague Professor Stephen Scott OBE of the UK’s National Parenting Academy. I have read it cover to cover and it’s good common sense.
Carolyn Webster-Stratton. The Incredible Years. ISBN 978-1-892222-04-06. http://www.incredibleyears.com
The MTA Cooperative Group (1999) A 14-Month Randomized Clinical Trial of Treatment Strategies for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry. 56:1073-1086
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a professor. She asked me how my children were. Being conscious that my part-time status should not account for nothing, I bragged:
“Oh, my daughter is in the final of the Borough Poetry competition and my 5 year old son is playing chess”.
What surprised me was her response.
“Oh – you see, that proves it’s all “G””
(G is the behavioural geneticists’ abbreviation for genetic effect – yes, we behavioural geneticists actually do talk in terms of “G” and “E” (environmental effect) in common parlance rather than actual coherent words).
“Oh” I said, “I was about to say that it proves it’s all “E””.
Of course, we all know that both “G” and “E” play an effect in outcome, but it is funny to see how (even in two people that study it) our interpretation of science is coloured by our own personal view; or perhaps rather, we skew the science to suit our own needs and to support our chosen behaviours.
My personal view is that parenting matters. I would not have gone part-time and sacrificed career advancement if I did not believe that I would be making a significant positive impact on the outcome of my children. I am more likely to see positive outcomes in my children as being directly related to my input, rather than what would have happened regardless if I was there or not.
If you believe that outcomes are solely genetically determined, then parenting no longer becomes important, and you may as well excel at work and farm out childcare. Equally, if you have chosen to excel at work and farm out childcare, it would suit you very well to believe that “it’s all about G”.
So here’s the route to Big Sis’s poetry success and how come Lil Bro is playing chess at 5 years, and you can decide for yourself on the G and E in these instances.
Big Sis is good with words. She is interested in them and from as young as 3 years she would always ask questions about the meaning of words:
Big Sis: What does imagination mean?
Me: It’s something that you think about in your head.
Later, when I asked her to concentrate on colouring within the lines:
Big Sis: What does concentration mean?
Me: It’s when you use your head to think about something.
Big Sis: No. That’s your imagination.
At that point, I bought her a dictionary so that she did not need to rely on my lack of defining prowess; the point being that she was interested in words and their meaning from a young age and I provided her with the tools to pursue this.
In addition, I read to Big Sis (and Lil Bro) every night from the age of 1 year, until they could read chapter books for themselves, and I will still read to them more challenging books when we are on holiday. I will define (to the best of my ability) difficult words and ask questions to check that they understand what I have read to them.
I have a book of poems my sisters and I wrote when we were Big Sis’s age. My father encouraged us to write them and he had them bound in a fancy book. They are absolutely hideous (all basic rhymes and no substance – “I love school. It’s so cool.” – you get the tragic idea) but strangely appealing to young children. Sometimes I would get this book out and read them to the children.
When I found out that Big Sis was studying poetry at school, I went to Waterstones to buy TS Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. We have a well-loved cat, and so I thought that this would be an accessible poetry choice for Big Sis. Indeed it was. We read all the poems together. Lil Bro takes to Macavity, Big Sis to the Pekes and the Pollicles. We will soon be taking advantage of the return of the “Cats” musical at the West End.
In one poem, TS Elliot says “How else can a cat keep its tail perpendicular?”
Big Sis asked for a definition of “perpendicular”.
I explained that it means when something is at right-angles to something else. I stand up and demonstrate with my arms perpendicular. At that moment, our cat jumps out from under the bed with her tail up. “There look” – I say pointing, “that’s what it means to have a tail that is perpendicular.” Big Sis understands.
“But”, I say to Big Sis, “I think that Mr Elliot has another meaning when he asks this.”
“Show me what you look like when you are sad or ashamed of yourself.”
Big Sis, the master of drama, slumps and hunches over; slinking away.
“Now show me how you look when you are proud.”
Big Sis sits up straight and tall.
“Look”, I say, “You are “perpendicular” to the ground when you are proud. I think this is what TS Elliot means; he is talking about pride rather than the position of the cat’s tail.”
Later, Big Sis is practising ballet moves in the hallway.
“Mum!” She shouts.
“My leg is perpendicular.”
Lil Bro has always had excellent spatial awareness. One Christmas just after his second birthday I thought about presents to get him. Being Chinese, the first toys that come to mind are educational ones. I thought I would get him a jigsaw, something he could realistically manage like a 3-piece. His Aunty, who is also Chinese and so of the same “educational toys” mind set also buys him jigsaws – Thomas the Tank Engine ones; only, she has no children and so did not appreciate how many pieces a 2 year old could realistically do – and bought him 6, 10 and 12 piece jigsaws.
One evening, I was cooking dinner so I put Lil Bro at the table with the 3 piece jigsaws. He wanted the Thomas ones, so I put those out as well, just to keep the peace while I cooked. The next minute, I turned around and there he was sitting with the 6 piece puzzle completed. I nearly dropped my saucepan.
“OK, then clever clogs” I thought, here’s the 10 piece.
That was also pretty much consumed.
My Christmas present was a complete waste of money, he never did 3-pieces. By the time he was 3, 24-35 piece jigsaws were no problem. We even played “Jigsaw-offs” – infant versus geriatric; where Lil Bro and my mother would race as to who could finish an identical 24 piece jigsaw faster. Lil Bro was victorious.
By 4 years old 50 and 72 pieces were fine. By that time, I had emptied out several toyshops of their jigsaws.
At weekends, when Big Sis was at her swimming lesson, Lil Bro and I would sit in the coffee shop next door and eat porridge. The coffee shop had chess and draughts sets for customers to play with. To kill the time, I taught Lil Bro to play draughts and then chess. I am not the greatest chess player myself. I tend to take pieces with no overarching strategy; pretty much ending most games with no conclusion as my bishop and king chase the opponent’s knight and king hopelessly around the board. Still, by 4 years, Lil Bro knew how the pieces moved. I installed a chess game on to the ipad at home and encouraged the children to play it.
By chance, there is a chess club that runs in the same community centre that the children go to Chinese classes at (they go to be at one with being “Chinese” – their Chinese is even more hopeless than mine). One day, Lil Bro, aged 4 years said “I want to go there and play chess”. Given that the time clashed with their Chinese class. I said it wasn’t possible, but when it came to the summer holidays, I asked if they wanted to go to Chess Summer Camp for a week.
Big Sis was not keen.
I said to Lil Bro, “Your sister doesn’t want to go. Are you sure you want to go, even on your own?”
He said yes.
I went to check with the Chess Camp leader – wasn’t he too young?
The Chess Camp leader said some of the best players in the club were 5-6 year olds. Still, I wasn’t happy to send Lil Bro on his own and I eventually managed to twist Big Sis’s arm to go with him.
After a week of chess camp, and the initial enthusiasm, we carried on playing chess occasionally now and then. I didn’t think anything further on it. Then 3 months later, Lil Bro says to me “I want to go to chess club”.
Man! I thought. I wrack the local websites for chess clubs that are not going to clash with their Chinese class and are not too expensive. Finally, I find a cheap club on a Saturday afternoon at the local library. It’s good, but there is one teacher to eight children at greatly varying ages and abilities. Plus, smack bang in the middle of Saturday afternoon is not the most convenient time.
I get the chess teacher’s contact details. I ring around a few mothers I know whose children might be interested in chess. I set up a chess club for 3 boys after school in a local coffee shop.
So…what do you make of it?
My view is this: clearly, both Big Sis and Lil Bro have genetic predispositions to be good at certain things. I come from a family of mathematicians and engineers; Banker from a family of lawyers and linguists. Go figure that these genes are knocking about our chromosomes.
But can that be all?
What if I hadn’t been there to notice?
What if I had noticed but done nothing about it?
What if I had noticed it but derided intellectual pursuits and tried to knock it out of them?
I am pretty sure that Big Sis would still have enjoyed and been good at writing and Lil Bro would have found chess by himself at a later age. But would they have been in the final of a poetry competition at age 7 years, and been playing chess aged 5 years?
Do these things matter?
Might they not reach the same end-point in adulthood?
That is the more interesting question that is so hard to answer because of the lack of the counter-factual. But my view is this: if life is a journey and your outcome is your destination; genes will drop you off at the airport. If you are lucky it will be London City Airport, if you are not so lucky it will be Luton Airport Parkway. Parenting provides your back-pack: it can be empty; or it can be full of maps, restaurant and hotel reviews, travel guides, good books, a compass, a thermos of cocoa and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. It might not be everything you need, but it sure helps you on the way.
Ultimately, where you go from there is up to you.
The female CEO and the stay-at-home-mother have often been pitted against each other in the media as arch enemies. Popular press likes to publicise the idea of the stay-at-home mother lambasting the female CEOs (or other high-flying career women) for “selfishly pursuing their careers while neglecting their children”, whilst stay-at-home mothers are looked down upon for perpetuating female stereotypes and being “bad role models” for their daughters, basically “letting the side down”. Yet, in my opinion, feminism is about choice in an environment of equal opportunity. The choice to be a CEO or a stay-at-home mother is a personal one, and I feel that either choice is respectable. The trouble is that the “equal opportunity” part is not quite there yet in our society, and to this end, although much has been made about the need for more female CEOs, I actually think that the stay-at-home mother (or a working mother that is heavily involved in parenting) has more to contribute to advancing feminism than the female CEOs (if they are childless or largely delegating parenting).
I watched Emma Watson’s speech for the HeforShe campaign in solidarity, having been a life-long feminist. What interested me was that at one point Emma describes her realisation of gender inequality when she was called “bossy” for “wanting to direct a play she and her siblings put on for her parents, whilst the boys were not”. I am presuming that it was her parents that called her “bossy” (as if it were her siblings, then why didn’t she just tell them where to go), which made me think about our responsibilities as parents in the pursuit of gender equality. Had Emma Watson’s parents; and every other parent in the world fostered and promoted the self-belief, confidence and ability in their daughters, and cared as much about their future academic and employment prospects as they did their sons, then we would not have gender inequality. Of course, Emma got the last laugh, perhaps because she was “bossy”. Good for her.
I attribute any academic successes that I have had 100% to the fact that I did not have a brother. Taiwanese parents of my parents’ generation had a strong preference for sons. My parents had told me that they had hoped especially that I would be a boy, having had 2 daughters already, and were disappointed when they found that I was yet another girl. They had no choice but to put their hopes and aspirations into us girls and foster and promote our abilities as if we were boys, capable of anything. My father spent time teaching my sisters and me computer programming and electronics when we were in primary school. I was never interested, but my sisters went on to study engineering and maths at top universities. Had we had a brother I am sure that things would have been different. Our brother would have been the one encouraged and burdened in equal measure with the pedestal, and we girls would have been left to cultivate a pastime. When I went to study at Cambridge, I was one of a few British Taiwanese children to get there, and it was no surprise to me that the only other female Taiwanese students that were there were ones without brothers. I read somewhere that China is seeing a surge of successful female business women and entrepreneurs and I wonder if this is related to the one-child policy, such that families are now invested in their only child, whatever the gender.
In the West, where the gender preference is less explicit, one can almost believe that the problem does not exist, but when you examine behaviours more closely, you begin to see that gender-based parenting is also pervasive. We can blame media and society at large as much as we want, but the reality is that we are all culpable: from the toys we buy, the behaviour we encourage, the expectations we hold, the activities we choose to do, the assets that we praise and our own day to day behaviour and language.
Even when we think we are being gender neutral, or are trying to be, we are not because gender bias is so subtle. How many parents of boys have actively gone out to a toy store and bought their son a baby doll, a push chair and a bottle? How many parents of girls have done this? From my inspection of the bedrooms of the little boys I know, I would say that very few boys have been bought dolls specifically. The parents will make the justification “Oh, he was never interested in dolls, he’s a boys-boy – so we didn’t bother”. Yet, from my experience of little boys with older sisters whom they look up to and wish to emulate, the majority enjoy playing with baby dolls in the preschool years (before peer pressure). Even more so if actively encouraged, as you would naturally encourage a girl. That’s just one example of many.
How many times have you praised your daughter for looking beautiful or commented on her clothes? How many times have you done this for your son? How many times have you praised your daughter’s social skills, whilst praising your son’s mathematical ability? How many times have you persisted with a 1:1 craft activity with your daughter even though she was bored and you ended up doing it yourself, while saying that your son does not have the patience for it and taking him out to run around in the park instead? When it’s a boy’s birthday party, how many times have you bought Lego as a present, while choosing a craft jewellery kit for a girl? In answer to that last question I can reveal that at a recent joint birthday party for my kids, the total tally on craft activity for Big Sis was 5/20 and 0/20 for Lego; for Lil Bro he scored a whopping 8/20 on the Lego, 0/20 for craft. We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of the above perpetuations of gender stereotypes; myself included.
This type of unconscious gender bias has been studied in relation to the lack of advancement of women in academia and the workplace and is thought to be one of the driving factors for lack of women in science. The King’s College London website has some interesting papers on this issue and says:
“Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences. There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. One example is a study by Moss-Racusin et al (2012) which examined the assessment of applications to science faculties from students applying for the position of laboratory manager. The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or male (63 times) name. Selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the selector did not affect responses.”
My view is that it is not only in the workplace that these unconscious biases are occurring. By virtue of being unconscious they permeate every aspect of our lives, including the parenting of our children. What effect does this have?
In my line of work, “behavioural management” is a parenting technique that uses discriminant encouragement, rewards and praise to shape children’s behaviour. It can be used to get a child to do anything from concentrating longer to eating their greens. If our parenting is guided by unconscious bias that encourages, rewards and praises our children according to gender stereotypes, then we are unconsciously using behavioural management daily to shape our children into gender-based norms. It is only by making bias conscious that we can act in a child-centric rather than gender-centric way when acting and responding to our children.
How does this relate to the title of my post?
A female CEO can improve the lot of women in two ways. Firstly they can inspire and prove to the world that women are capable. However, the reality is that aspiring women will look at the few female CEOs and scrutinize their lives. Do I have the same intellect, ambition, personality? Am I willing to work as hard and sacrifice as much? For the majority of women, the answer will be “No”. Secondly, a female CEO can influence the culture at the top and enact policies that will help women reach the top. However, these policies and helping hands can only be extended to women that have already climbed to the middle and are reaching up to the top, and at the moment, there are insufficient numbers of women in that position. We are forever told that the reasons that there are so few CEOs, MPs, establishment figures, is that there are a dearth of applicants. So, in my view the impact of a female CEO is extremely limited.
OK, but surely the stay-at-home-mother is the antithesis of feminism? I say, NO, a stay-at-home mother that parents in a way that promotes gender equality can produce citizens of the next generation that expect equality. Boys that become men that respect women, value women, understand women and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. Girls that become women that respect men, value men, understand men and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. A stay-at-home mother that enacts child-centric rather than gender-centric parenting can create a new generation of citizens that can change the socio-political landscape. At present, given the billions of stay-at-home mothers worldwide compared to the handful of CEOs, I would have to conclude that the future of feminism depends on stay-at-home mothers practising child-centric parenting. Unbiased parenting by CEOS, stay-at-home mothers and their partners/ husbands has the ability to give our daughters a true choice of stay-at-home mother, CEO or both.
This is not something we need to lobby for; it’s something we can enact now.
This is part of the infant 360 degree appraisal series on social ability. This post follow’s on from last week’s post on basic social ability and will give you information about how to assess higher order social ability in 4 year olds.
Interaction with peers
As described in last week’s post, a child’s interaction with peers is more difficult for them to navigate than interaction with adults. A child that interacts confidently with adults may struggle to interact with peers. This is as 4 year old peers are immature in social skills and are themselves learning to acquire these skills. This is easy to understand if you think about tennis. A child beginning to learn tennis can play with an expert adult as the adult can direct balls at the child and return errant balls. Get two children who are just beginning to learn to play tennis to play with each other and it is much more difficult and frustrating for the children as neither can play properly.
Both Big Sis and Lil Bro went to nursery from a young age and so had much exposure to interacting with other children. From this I was able to get good accounts of their social ability with peers. Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is able to take turns, share toys and join in with other children (for instance joining in with actions to songs such as “The wheels on the bus”, or a game of hide and seek). Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is aggressive in interactions. If your child is constantly victimized (which you will know about as you are required to sign an incident form in a nursery if your child is bumped/ bruised/ bitten/ scratched or harmed in any way), as well as questioning what the nursery is doing about this, you should question what your child is and is not doing to end up in this situation so frequently. Children who are frequently victimised or frequently aggressive are more likely to need extra attention as they may be vulnerable to difficulties.
Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is polite (says “please” and “thank you” – very important social skills that do require to be taught) and caring (what they do in response to another child that has fallen over). They should also be able to give information regarding play. If they don’t, you should ask about it.
The importance of play for children cannot be overstated. Not only as a means of relaxation and enjoyment, but it is in play that children are able to order, understand, rehearse and cement social understanding as well as be creative. Play is often heavily influenced by what the child has experienced in their social environment. It is sad, but no surprise that some children I know in South Africa, following an armed break-in started to play a game of “robbers” involving tying each other up. Back at home, I know children who are more likely to play “I’m mummy, getting ready to go out to a party”. What these children have in common is that they are all learning about their own social environments and about ways to behave in them. It’s no wonder that “play” with a dolls house and family characters is the preferred way that shrinks find out what is really happening at home when we assess children of this age group. If children play about the mummies and daddies shouting at each other, this doesn’t mean a direct call to social services, but does prompt questioning and assessment on the parental relationship and what bearing this may have for the child. Observing what my children play act left to their own devices is one of my favourite pastimes, and if it is about setting up a school and marking a register and reading stories to the assembled stuffed animals (which it is frequently), I can heave a sigh of relief. It’s no wonder that watching children play, and interacting in play with children is one of the main assessment tools in a child psychiatrist’s armoury.
As well as to gain insight into the child’s real social environment, children at this age will be beginning to develop imaginative and interactive play, both precursor skills required for good social ability. Dressing up and pretending to be a princess, a superhero or both is usually a good sign of imaginative play, in particular if they take on the roles, act out stories that they have generated themselves and if they play this with other children, each understanding what the other is pretending. Many adults may see this type of play as “silly” or a “waste of time”, but imagination and role playing is a rehearsal of the ability to think about how someone else is thinking and how this may affect their behaviour, the basis of “mentalization” the new buzz therapy in psychiatry.
Interactive games, such as hide-and-seek, allow observation of practical interaction skills between children. Is your child able to take turns? Will your child cry or get aggressive if they lose? Is your child able to follow and understand the rules? How does your child react if someone else transgresses the rules? Does your child take charge of the game or stand back?
Your child’s nursery can give you this type of information; else you can observe your own child’s play with their sibling (if they are close enough in age to play together) or at a play date.
If you want a real test of social skill, or are just a mean child psychiatrist like me, then you need to work in a few spoilers. Most children will be able to display good social ability when everything is hunky-dory and going their way. But what about compromise and negotiation? What about staying out of trouble? Most children are taught compromise when children are invited over to play and “Guests” are given privileges. “Let your friend go first, because they are the guest”, “Let your friend have the bigger slice of cake, because they are the guest” – this type of thing that happens all the time on play dates. If your children are able to accept this, chances are, they will be able to come to terms with compromise. They understand the social rules and etiquette and are able to conform to them. If they predictably have a tantrum, even when the situation is explained, then problems at school can be anticipated. Getting along with other people, good social ability; includes understanding that getting along with others is sometimes more important than the bigger slice of cake.
Other spoilers can be less easily arranged, but these situations arise all the time naturally and it is often a good idea to stand back and observe how your child deals with situations rather than to wade in and intervene at the onset of trouble. When I took Big Sis to a public sand pit one day, I noticed another child who was more boisterous and disruptive playing there. The boy approached Big Sis, clearly wanting to interact, but he had already disrupted the play of some other children. Big Sis turned subtly away and kept her head down doing what she was doing and saying nothing. The boy got tired of no response and went away to disrupt someone else. Big Sis had clearly clocked this boy was trouble but she managed to deal with the problem in a way that was not rude or confrontational and that achieved its objective with minimal fuss. She was able to see trouble coming and avoid it. It may not be the most obvious social skill, but it is a highly valuable one. We all know some children who are “always” involved in trouble even if they are not necessarily the instigators and I would argue that avoiding trouble is as much a social skill as the ability to make friends. I felt confident that Big Sis could handle herself at school after this.
What happens at the highest levels of social ability – the battle for social dominance? Next week’s post is the conclusion in this series on assessment of social ability and will answer this question. Later on, I will write about what can be done to help support children’s social skills.
 I say “sometimes” as children who always suppress their own needs for others will have other issues that need addressing, and being the class “doormat”, is also not particularly desirable.