Saturday 22 October 2016

Psychologist Paul Gilligan's top tips to raise happy kids

A new book suggests ways we can help children become happy, well-adjusted, productive members of society. Its author, psychologist Paul Gilligan, tells how to ensure that your child is emotionally healthy

Joy Orpen

Published 10/08/2015 | 02:30

We can help children become happy - Paul Gilligan. Photo: David Conachy
We can help children become happy - Paul Gilligan. Photo: David Conachy

The most important thing you can teach your child is how to be happy. Ways in which you can do this include ensuring they have good emotional supports and giving them a positive sense of self-worth.

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That is the unequivocal message from Paul Gilligan, CEO of St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin, who has just published a sound, practical guide to raising well-rounded children.

Paul grew up in Coolock in Dublin. "There were particular challenges in being raised on the north side of the city," he says. "I went to the Christian Brothers. They specialised in providing a very good education, but if they felt corporal punishment was required, then that was what was used. It reflected Irish society at the time."

After school, Paul went to UCD to study psychology, and to TCD for training as a clinical psychologist. He then spent several years with the HSE, working with children who had been sexually abused, and with adults who had been abused when they were children. "I was working in the old Baggot Street Hospital, and would see about six people a day," explains Paul. "That experience consolidated my interest in child protection and children's rights."

His next appointment was as director of services at the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), working with children who faced a range of difficult challenges. He learned from them just how crucial it is that young people have emotional stability in their lives. He says he was also deeply touched by the willingness of some parents, who had experienced hardships of various kinds themselves, including addictions, to make unselfish decisions for the sake of their children.

Eventually Paul became CEO of the ISPCC. He says that Childline, their telephone service for young people, offers immediate access to help for physical, emotional and mental health problems, and this link enables the ISPCC to gauge what is happening in the lives of young people. "Right now, texting and cyberbullying are big problems, as are early sexualisation and inappropriate access to pornography," he notes.

Currently, Paul, who is married and has two daughters, is CEO at St Patrick's Mental Health Services, an independent service provider. So the next obvious step for him was the writing and recent publication of his book, Raising Emotionally Healthy Children. In it, he says there are several key things we can do to make sure that our children are emotionally healthy.

The first is to connect with your "inner parent". This involves recommitting to doing the best you can for them, given your limitations. "Having a balanced and reasonable expectation of ourselves is key to connecting with our inner parent," Paul says.

The next step is to encourage children to have a positive outlook on life. "Children who have learned how to feel good about themselves will have high emotional intelligence," says Paul. "These are children who can laugh when things are funny, and cry when they are sad. Happy children experience each day as an adventure."

Paul says it's important that children have an honest sense of their talents, strengths and flaws. If they want to do ballet, sport or art, they should be allowed to do so, even if they're not the best at them. "They should be allowed to do the things they enjoy and be average," he says.

How they view themselves and how they cope with life's ups and downs, are skills that parents can nurture. Paul cites a couple of likely scenarios. "Take the kid who comes off the football pitch saying he played really badly. It's important to be honest with that child. Instead of pretending he was brilliant, you could explain that everyone has good days and bad days. You could also tell him that overall, he had made some good passes.

"Or take the child who drops her ice cream and bursts into tears. You could commiserate and say, 'That's just terrible' or you could lessen the disappointment by saying, 'Wasn't it great you had already eaten half of it?' or, 'Let's see if we can stop this happening again'."

This approach is how, Paul says, we teach our children to cope with life's various stresses in a healthy way.

He goes on to explain that listening to your children is also key to ensuring they feel worthy.

"The idea that I listen to them, and I communicate with them, translates into a message that they are worthy," he says.

He also believes we should allow their uniqueness to shine through. "The earlier a child develops self-awareness skills, the more at ease they will become with themselves, as they grow," says Paul. "Allowing them to express themselves as individuals, in their own right, empowers them. Teaching children self-belief doesn't mean conveying a message that they are the best, but it does give them a sense that they are good people."

Another clear message is that working parents need to let go of the guilt they feel in relation to the fact that they cannot be at home all day. "Research has shown that parents today spend more [quality] time with their kids than in the 60s," Paul explains. "Most mothers did stay at home back then, but invariably they were busy doing housework. These days, working mothers devote their non-working time to their families."

Paul also cautions us against over-protecting our offspring. "Children who don't learn to deal with challenges may become vulnerable," he says. "At a certain age they need to be able to walk to school alone, to play in the park unsupervised and finally, to go to a disco. Get the balance right so they're not overly cautious."

But in spite of our very best intentions, our children may nonetheless face difficult personal challenges. So Paul tells us what the warning signals are, and advises us how to respond. He recommends we discuss the matter in an appropriate way with the child. We then need to address specific issues that may be affecting them, such as bullying at school or problems at home. We should also let them know how much we love and care for them, while continually reinforcing their emotional resilience and emotional distress management skills. If need be, we find professional help.

Finally, he urges all parents to take good care of themselves. "Don't be overly involved. Take some time off. Adapt your work and home life so you have a balanced approach to parenting. You can't raise emotionally healthy children if you're not healthy yourself."

'Raising Emotionally Healthy Children' by Paul Gilligan is published by Veritas, €14.99

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