Art psychotherapist Katie O’Donoghue works with families in crisis. She argues that helping parents understand what is going on for their children is an important first step
Life today for our children can be really hard, and full of demands and challenges that previous generations of Irish children never faced.
Through my work as an art psychotherapist, working with families in crisis, I have witnessed a lot of children dealing with the pressure to be perfect. This isn’t necessarily coming from their parents, but more frequently from society.
Take for example the child I met who was only six, and yet desperate to get a perfect result in a spelling test. This was causing them huge anxiety. Why do such young children put so much pressure on themselves?
Well, expectations are high, because they see and hear so much. Children have to deal with the influence of social media. And they have to deal with society’s high expectations of their educational achievements.
Because they have so much information available at their fingertips and with the press of a button on a phone or iPad, it’s natural children might feel that to be good at something would be easy – or be an instantaneous process, rather than something that takes a lot of hard work.
This can create a lot of stress for them, often saying to their parents that they aren’t good enough, or even that they’re a failure.
The pandemic made many of these challenges worse. For the past two years I’ve been working in the area of cancer support in the Co Kerry area, with a particular focus on children and family services.
I’ve found that since the return to ‘normality’ – with the re-integration into everyday life for children – I was hearing from both children and their parents that they were struggling. This is completely understandable. Children experienced two years of interrupted schooling. They missed out on milestone experiences and experienced a lack of social connection. For months on end they were unable to play with their peers or be with other adults outside their bubbles.
Then all of a sudden they were brought back into the strict structures of formal education.
It was a period of prolonged stress and fear. Several children shared with me that they feared going back to school after a lockdown, worried about the social consequences of not being around friends they hadn’t seen for some time, or fearing they might bring Covid into the home.
At the height of the pandemic I was working in child and adult mental health services in the UK. I was facilitating a parent group for children who had been referred to the service for anxiety, equipping them with the coping skills they needed.
It opened my eyes to the importance of educating families about what anxiety is: its causes, side effects and how to develop coping strategies.
Anxiety can be understood as a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. Parents told me that understanding anxiety gave them real insight into how their child was feeling, provided them with increased empathy and also removed some of the fear of the unknown, which enabled them to feel more present and better able to support their child.
I remember the joy of one father sharing with the group how he had acknowledged his son’s anxiety, and sat and listened to his worries. This in turn had resulted in a surprising conversation, in which they were able to explore and problem-solve together. It left them feeling more connected, calmer, happier.
Over the past number of years, resilience has become a bit of a buzzword which may gloss over the real core reasons for mental health struggles.
However, understanding resilience is important. It is defined as “the ability to withstand and recover from adversity” but it’s essential we appreciate that resilience is shaped by context.
In fact, there are multiple protective factors that need to be in place to promote resilience: supports from family, a wider network of supports in the community and also an individual’s capacity to adopt coping skills and positive thought framing.
We know there are things outside of a child’s control which impacts their resilience – a prime example being Covid – but adults can help with children’s resilience. So how do we do that?
It was this question which inspired me to write my new children’s book, The Little Otter Who Tried. I wanted to write a tale filled with strategies to build resilience and a growth mindset, told through the story of a little otter and her journey to the Big River.
So what are these strategies and how can parents develop them at home?
Spending one-on-one time with our children strengthening those bonds is a great way to introduce coping skills – taking the opportunity to unplug together, giving our little one those moments of unconditional support. We can help a child feel empowered and give them opportunities to seek guidance, ask questions and make attempts to work through challenges.
Strengthening connection also creates an opportunity for adults to model coping and problem-solving skills to children.
We all encounter stressful situations in life, but showing that we can use coping strategies shares these resources with children. This helps them understand that they’re not alone in their struggles and that there are ways to manage those challenges when they arise.
Labelling our emotions is incredibly important for children; letting children know that all feelings are valid and that naming their feelings can help them make sense of what they’re experiencing.
Tell them that it’s OK to feel their emotions, whether that be sadness or happiness, and reassure them difficult feelings will pass.
You must also resist fixing the problem, which can be a challenge. As adults it’s incredibly difficult to witness a child struggling and our instinct is often to scoop them up and sort it out then and there.
However, a better strategy is to listen, acknowledge and to ask questions.
Start by asking the child what do they think they could do that might help the situation? Problem solving together helps the child think through the challenge and come up with solutions.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk about a mistake you made and what you learned from it
This in turn really empowers the child and makes for a great moment of reference for when they encounter future challenges, knowing they have the resilience to think them through and apply solutions or strategies.
Children do not become resilient in isolation. It’s really important for them to know we all need help sometimes and knowing they have someone to turn to when challenges arise.
Help them to embrace mistakes, both theirs and yours. Try to focus on the effort, the journey or the process involved, rather than an end result.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk about a mistake you made and what you learned from it. Supporting children to reframe their thoughts and acknowledge the positive factors along with any challenges they face goes hand in hand with resiliency.
I was thinking of these strategies as I was writing and illustrating the story of Little Otter, who is scared to swim on her own. But with support from Mummy Otter and tips from her riverside friends she grows in confidence, and is soon surprised by how far she has travelled all by herself.
The duckling, kingfisher and toad all share their stories about learning to swim, fly and hop, and Little Otter realises every creature has to start somewhere.
The book also includes a little nature guide to the animals and their habitats, encouraging children’s interest in the natural environment.
So if you can get out and about with your little ones this week, take the opportunity to unplug and unwind, strengthen your bonds and model that important self-care.
We all experience challenges navigating the rivers of life, filled with its rapids and bends, but if we have support we can persevere, resting when we need to, trying again when we feel ready, always knowing that we are not alone.
‘The Little Otter Who Tried’ by Katie O’Donoghue is published by Gill Books and out now