'Trying to launch a book when no launch is permitted in the traditional sense is actually quite terrifying," says Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist, attachment specialist, parenting consultant on Newstalk's Moncrieff Show, and TEDx speaker. "And yet I did feel in my gut that the timing for this second book is really quite good. Because as parents work from home, without our usual network around us, we do need that little bit of support in structured creativity, and a bit of reassurance that doing a little, but doing it in a committed, consistent way, is good enough."
It's this 'doing a little' that is so heartening when it comes to Joanna's take on the briar patch that is parenting - particularly right now, when we are teachers, minders and sports coaches, along with mothers, fathers, employees and housekeepers. Because Joanna's position - and the subject of her second book, 15-Minute Parenting 8-12 Years - is that 15 minutes a day of proper, structured, immersive play with our kids is enough. Enough for them; enough for us. Enough to stay connected, to help them process the many strange things happening these days, as well as manage this stage of their lives, and prepare for the next: the minefield that is adolescence.
There is a lot of guilt and frustration around right now for parents. "The reality is, we're trying to do everything we were always doing, plus now all of this new stuff, and all at the one time. It's pressure I know myself: I'm trying to work from home, so is my husband, we have a very young child - Maisie, just turned three (celebrated with a Zoom birthday party). She is at the stage where she will potter round and play, but only in very short bursts. She very much wants us in it with her. And that's lovely and normal, but I feel the guilt when I'm in my home office, knowing 'she's down there, and she could really do with more input from me, but I'm trying to get this done'. So I get it first-hand. The guilt is huge."
As well as guilt and frustration, there is apprehension. Through her parenting slot on the Moncrieff Show, Joanna has seen "themes emerging that parents are really stressed about - 'how do I make sure my kids have enough when it's just me?'; 'we've been fighting with each other, there are tensions at home'. I think there's parental fatigue," she says. "Maybe we peaked too early? We did the baking, Play-Doh-making, and now we're depleted.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," she says.
"We parents and adults are locked into a fear state. We're highly anxious, consumed with 'what if…?', and that keeps us in a heightened state of emotional arousal that I call anticipatory arousal. It's like being an emotional meerkat - you're looking for proof that you're right to feel the way we do. We forget that the little people in our lives take their emotional cues from us."
The answer to this anxious back-and-forth isn't, she says "to sit and talk it out, it's to play it out. In play, we're doing it rather than speaking it, and when we're 'doing' communication, it activates a different part of our brain. When we're in the heightened emotional state, that part of our brain responsible for logic and reasoning and keeping us steady is unavailable to us. But by doing the communication, playing it out, we're using sensory, touch-based exploration, and that is very regulating for emotional arousal. Play has that therapeutic impact, as well as being fun. It takes us out of our heads for those moments, it gives us a reprieve. And it's a dual benefit - we're not just doing it for the child. It's an opportunity for shared joy."
The book is full of suggestions for games, involving everything from water, to beach balls, baking and board games. But does she really think that 15 minutes, between Zoom meetings, or at the end of a fraught working day, is enough?
"It is enough, because it's good enough. And because it's predictable. When it comes to parenting, what makes children feel safe is what is calm, consistent and predictable. I firmly believe that if you play little and often, that is much better than front-loading your week and being Fun Parent on a Monday for four hours, and then nothing for the rest of the week. If you can do 30 minutes, do 30 minutes. But if you do a pocket of 15 minutes every single day, that matters.
"It's an emotional connection, it's also neurological co-regulation. An anxious, worrying little brain is met by a calmer, more mature brain. Their emotional right brain is reaching out to your emotional right brain, meeting through play, and co-regulating back into their window of tolerance."
So what is this window of tolerance? It is "where we are all at out best," Joanna says. The calm, clear-headed, rational place where we make good decisions and function productively. It's a place adults can regulate themselves - by going for a walk when we feel overwhelmed, getting some air, meditating. Children can't do this, not by themselves. Not yet.
"The job of childhood is to grow that window of tolerance," Joanna explains. "Tensions, anxiety, trauma, upset - they all actively shrink that window. What play does is it extends that window of tolerance. It helps the child to be co-regulated by a calmer, more consistent, available adult. And that's why it really matters."
The phase covered in this book, from age eight to 12, is known as 'middle childhood' and is, Joanna says "an important one for me, because this is the most overlooked phase of childhood. We focus on the very important early years, and we focus on the teenage years, and we catapult over middle childhood, and actually it's a crucial stage. It's a time of immense change - physically and neurologically."
It is, she says, a time when children develop "increased focus on justice and fairness - but of course from their point of view and on their terms. They start to show passionate interests outside the family, to do with wider society. There is an increase in focus on and prioritising of friends. They have this push-pull dynamic: they pull away from you, but they still need you as a sounding board. They want to do it all themselves, but the reality is, they still need you. That's an uncomfortable place to be, and this is a time of both great self-confidence and doubt. It's extremely hard. As a parent, you can feel damned if you do, and damned if you don't. They want you to make yourself available, but when you do, they reject you. It's a constant mixed-message phase. That's part of the confusion of being a child of this age, and of parenting a child of this age."
In middle childhood, play patterns change, she says. Developmentally, creative, imaginative play decreases, and things like team sports and challenge-based activities, like learning to rollerblade, increase. We need to find a way of playing with and being with them in this stage. The book is filled with ways of doing that and achieving that. And of strengthening their capacity to communicate and be heard.
"As parents, this is the phase when we need to realise that 'play' isn't a box of toys in the corner; play is a state of mind, a way of being. We can be playful in how we speak to our kids, produce a meal with them, ask them to do something."
This is also a stage when magical beliefs change a lot, and 'I don't believe' begins to creep in. There is no doubt some of the excitement goes out of the world, and the sense of possibility dwindles. It's a time to teach children that there are different kinds of magic. "Learning the truth doesn't and shouldn't put an end to magical traditions," Joanna says. "I think we have to continue celebrating by creating family traditions, and keeping magical experiences alive."
It is, she says, a time to learn to be supportive, but perhaps more in the background, to learn the "fine balance between being interested but not intrusive," and to "practise that, because you're going to need it in adolescence".
I was a fan of Joanna's first book, 15 Minute Parenting 0-7, and luckily for me, her books have kept pace with my children's ages. Now I have two in this middle childhood period, a nine-year-old and a 12-year-old. From my vantage point, her analysis of their development is spot-on: the obsession with 'justice', the increased devotion to their friends, and the heartbreaking push-pull of their affections: the way they draw me close, only to lash out and push me away again.
I am not always patient. Some would say I am not even often patient. And I confess that I am not great at play. Or at least, I wasn't. I find that I enjoy this phase of play as Joanna defines it far more than the early years. We do a lot of ball games, skipping races, hopping races. And because our graphs of strength and ability are curving in opposite direction - theirs up, mine down - there's a proper edge to it. They can pretty much beat me at a lot of physical stuff now, and it's only a matter of time before I am routed entirely.
It's when I don't do the 15 minutes that I really notice it. There are days I'm too busy, too tired, too preoccupied to invest that quarter-of-an-hour, and those days can get ratty and self-righteous. In these Covid times, I am all day at the computer working, while they are about their business of home-schooling and hanging out. They come in and chat to me, and I am distracted, impatient. Our interactions are sketchy and unsatisfactory.
Come the evenings, if I make the effort, good things happen. Even if I start reluctantly - 'oh God, not this…' - within minutes, actual fun happens. We have a laugh, I learn things about them I didn't know, they see me actually attending to them, rather than pretending to. The knock-on effect in terms of a harmonious household and a sense that we are all still, somehow, getting on is vital.
Since having Maisie, Joanna has "tried to work more part-time, to have more work-life balance. I manage it some weeks, and other weeks I absolutely don't. I am not doing as much client work, although I'll never give that up entirely - and I'm doing a lot more writing, seminars, webinars."
After finishing 15-Minute Parenting 0-7, Joanna "was approached to do a screen test for a really big American TV show on parenting". Later, she reveals it was Supernanny. "I was in LA, I met with a family, we did a little mini-episode, it was a whirlwind few days. That process was really interesting. I experienced so much, and I really enjoyed it. I got down to the final two, and in the end, I had to say 'this isn't for me' and withdraw."
Was that hard? "It was really hard. It was like pulling off a sticking-plaster, I'm not going to lie. Because it could have been huge. But I had a really small child, I was in-between writing the second book. Sometimes what we need is the courage to know what's right for us, and what's not."
Would she consider it again, if the timing was better?
"It's not even just about timing, it's about the fit being right. I'm talking to some people around projects like that at the moment. Things are on hold now because of Covid-19, but there are a couple of exciting processes around a new chapter in my career - embracing ways of speaking to lots of people, in a way that one-to-one client work doesn't allow."
So, a time of possibility despite the ongoing restrictions?
"Absolutely. I think there are positive signs of what could come out of this. One of the huge benefits is that we've all had to slow down… and I don't want to make light of what has been hugely difficult, particularly for people who live alone… I think we need to be supportive and mindful of our collective mental health, but as people, we are innately creative, and I think creativity will emerge from this and we will find new ways of being and experiencing joy."
15-Minute Parenting by Joanna Fortune is out now, available on all online platforms; £9.99 for print version, also available in audio and Ebook versions
A key parenting goal during middle childhood is to invest in your child's emotional resilience and capacity to withstand external influences.
This is a time when you can provide opportunities for independence-building, so increase the chores and expectation that they interact with other adults in public, such as shop assistants.
In spite of them asserting that they know far more than you at this age, you are still their greatest influence, so heap on the praise for their efforts and maintain those gentle yet firm boundaries... even while they roll their eyes at your efforts to do so.
Your middle-childhood-state child is capable of being reasoned with but don't confuse this with thinking they will be reasonable all - or even most - of the time.
This is an age when your child will show signs of pronounced emphasis on justice and fairness, as they see it, so focus on picking your battles.
Play is essential at this age because it underpins and supports the physical, emotional, social and neurological changes your child is experiencing while maintaining a parent-child connection.
We do not do our children a favour if we rush on to rescue them from every upset and disappointment. Rather stay with them 'in' these moments and help them to process and cope with disappointment.