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Insights – “Taking care of your kids (and yourself) in uncertain times”

This week we had the great privilege of hearing from Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and author in our online Parent Education Evening. Andrew spoke on the topic of “Taking care of your kids (and yourself) in uncertain times.”

Andrew explained that in over 30 years of studying resilience he had gained insights that prove useful in coping when times are challenging. He suggested that “no matter who you are, life can get messy.”

Andrew described the results of life satisfaction research that was conducted with over 500,000 respondents. He noted that satisfaction seems to reach its lowest ebb in the latter teens through early twenties. He said that while all our life paths are highly individual it can be useful to look at common patterns and he believes that the data can be cut to suggest that we tend to go through defined stages that can roughly fall into a seven-year cycle. For example, he defined the ages of 35-42 as a time of industry and business and the ages of 42-49 as a time of sheer exhaustion which he characterised as the “hold the tiger by the tail” stage of life. He stated that it was no coincidence that more people enter therapy at the age of 49 than at any other stage in life. Andrew explained that the merits of searching for patterns is to understand that we will move through each stage and that if we were lucky enough to work through these we can access inner creativity and hence deeper meaning. All going well we will hit peak satisfaction at 90!

Andrew explained that a key to having kids who are resilient and well cared for is to care for parents and grandparents. He extended to say that the work is important because it is “easier to build strong kids than to fix broken adults.” He suggested that the method he recommends is built around the acronym of CPR – Connect, Protect and Respect one another to thrive.

He then went on to discuss the importance of knowing and accepting oneself. He said that it was key to connect to one’s self and to understand one’s brain and how best to utilise it. He said that “confidence is not walking into a room and thinking you are better than everyone. It’s walking in and not having to compare yourself to others.”

Andrew said that the key to building this confidence at school was for children to learn to identify their learning strengths and to utilise these to advance learning. He listed the eight learning strengths as: thinking and logic, people smarts, language and word smarts, number smarts, planning and sequencing, concentration and memory, perceptual and motor skills and spatial reasoning. He said that each of these correspond to different brain functions and while it is rare to be strong in all of them, we are all strong in some and can use these as a catalyst to successful learning.

Andrew then spoke about emotion and asked us to concentrate on the embedded word “motion” as a guide for how we should approach our lives. He said that it was important to allow emotions to move through us and reach expression and not to allow ourselves to become stuck in particular feelings.

He said it was psychologically important to reach out to those we value, to welcome in others who value what we offer and to stay away from those who do not appreciate us in the same way.

Andrew then went on to discuss categories of “tricky kids” and how best to approach them as parents or teachers. He identified a range of character types such as “manipulators” who will benefit and form a wonderful bond with someone who sets limits. He mentioned “negotiators” who require that we remove the audience and hold steady on limits for a minimum of six weeks.

Andrew then went on to discuss the two main neurological systems at play when processing information and suggested that these relate to either the threat and hurt route dominated by the amygdala or the love and joy route by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

He said that parents today have more parenting choices available than in any previous generation and that these choices can be utilised to help kids utilise the more pleasurable and rewarding neural pathway through shifting language from the interrogative “why?” to the descriptive “what?”

He introduced another acronym to encourage compassion in helping to ensure misbehaviour is considered non-normative in a child’s self-conception. He recommended using HALTS – “Are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Stressed?” as a non-confrontational route of addressing poor behaviours.

Andrew then discussed the various neuro chemicals such as dopamine, adrenaline, cortisol and serotonin and related triggers for each of these.
During question time Andrew addressed a question about how parents could best support children who were experiencing low mood due to lockdown. He said that this largely related to the fact the children may be feeling powerless, hopeless and helpless. He said that a good antidote was to find behaviours that counter each of these feelings. For instance, one could empower students to look after others by calling friends to check on them. We could encourage hope by discussing what we would do after the pandemic and address helplessness by giving kids tasks that are helpful such as contributing to meals or care of loved ones.

Andrew dealt with a question of how to deal with perfectionist students who find learning at home quite difficult. Andrew explained that “all learning is science” and as such, students should be encouraged to see themselves as mini scientists. Mistakes are therefore not negative, they are useful experiment results which require a different experiment or an adjustment.

Further tips to parents included “picking your battles” and not fixating too much on screen time during this extraordinary period and also that parents should not feel guilty – that it is good parenting to model that parents have their own emotional needs and that it is also a beneficial life lesson for kids to have to wait for parents to finish their online meeting or conversation before their needs are met.

Finally, Andrew recommended that parents put their parenting into what he describes as the big three – emotional regulation, motivated learning and academic self-efficacy. He said that these were the keys to ensuring thriving in school and in life.

Further information on Andrew’s publications can be found at: www.andrewfuller.com.au and www.mylearningstrengths.com.