If at first you don’t suc­ceed

Want to help your chil­dren deal with stress and ad­ver­sity? It’s eas­ier than you think,

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - says Dr Ran­gan n Chat­ter­jee

Sim­ple tech­niques to help you raise a re­silient child

He elp­ing our chil­dren nav­i­gate the s stresses and strains of daily life is more im im­por­tant than ever. Fig­ures re­leased in N Novem­ber last year by NHS Dig­i­tal show a wor­ry­ing r rise in young peo­ple’s men­tal health prob­lems; sadly, my ex­pe­ri­ence as a GP con­firms this. One in eight chil­dren aged be­tween five and 19 in Eng­land has a di­ag­nos­able men­tal health con­di­tion; the preva­lence of emo­tional dis­or­ders, in­clud­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, has risen by 48% since 2004. “The pres­sures young peo­ple face range from school stress, bul­ly­ing and wor­ries about job and hous­ing prospects, to con­cerns around body im­age,” says Emma Sad­dle­ton, helpline man­ager at the char­ity YoungMinds.

While we may not be able to re­move all these chal­lenges, we can pass on skills to help young peo­ple cope with stress and ad­ver­sity. “It’s what’s known as re­silience,” Sad­dle­ton says. “The abil­ity to over­come dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ences and be shaped pos­i­tively by them.” Our brains re­spond to the in­for­ma­tion around us, so re­silience can be taught, mod­elled and nur­tured at any age. “By do­ing this, through strong sup­port net­works and en­cour­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, we can help young peo­ple un­der­stand when they feel down and know what they can do to make them­selves feel bet­ter,” she adds.

As a par­ent my­self – I have a son of eight and a daugh­ter of six – it’s some­thing that’s high on my agenda, and I’ve dis­cov­ered some ef­fec­tive tech­niques. Cru­cially, they don’t re­quire you to over­haul your par­ent­ing style, but sim­ply to make a few tweaks that will help your chil­dren thrive.

Have one-on-one time with each child, with­out dis­trac­tions

I have a full-on job, two school-age chil­dren, and an el­derly mother to care for, so I un­der­stand that we’re all busy; I’m not try­ing to pile on the guilt. But I’ll never for­get what my daugh­ter, then four, said one day. We were work­ing on a jig­saw, but I kept nip­ping to the kitchen to check my phone. When I re­joined her for the third or fourth time, she rightly ob­served, “Daddy, you’re not re­ally here, are you?”

Re­silience comes from re­la­tion­ships; chil­dren need nur­tur­ing. It’s not a mag­i­cal “in­ner strength” that helps kids through tough times; in­stead, it’s the re­li­able pres­ence of one, sup­port­ive re­la­tion­ship, be it par­ent, teacher, rel­a­tive, fam­ily friend or healthcare prac­ti­tioner. My key point is, it’s qual­ity, not quan­tity, that counts. Ten min­utes of fully fo­cused at­ten­tion is bet­ter than an hour when your mind is on other things. If you’re on your tablet at the din­ner ta­ble, you’re teach­ing them it’s OK to al­ways be dis­tracted. And that they are not im­por­tant enough for your sole at­ten­tion.

One-on-one time doesn’t have to be time carved out of an al­ready hec­tic sched­ule. Make bath­time, car jour­neys, meals, queues count. Chat, lis­ten, talk about your feel­ings, en­cour­age them to ex­press theirs. Once these one-to-ones be­come reg­u­lar, your chil­dren will know they al­ways have a safe space to open up.

Give sleep a chance

I see so many chil­dren who are strug­gling to sleep, wak­ing tired, with dark cir­cles un­der their eyes. A lack of good-qual­ity sleep is a huge driver for stress: it has a neg­a­tive ef­fect on mem­ory, con­cen­tra­tion, cog­ni­tive func­tion, and de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

One of the fastest ways to im­prove sleep – for all of us – is to limit screen time be­fore bed. The type of blue light emit­ted by dig­i­tal de­vices sup­presses pro­duc­tion of mela­tonin, the hor­mone that sig­nals to the body it’s time for sleep. In ad­di­tion, look­ing at screens be­fore bed keeps us emo­tion­ally wired and stim­u­lated, mak­ing it harder for us to switch off.

It’s a steely par­ent who can ban tech com­pletely, and I don’t think you need to. But I would urge you to is­sue a house­hold ban on de­vices at least an hour be­fore bed­time. Turn off the wifi, if need be. (TV isn’t so bad if you need that as a com­pro­mise; we tend not to sit as close to the screen.)

Ear­lier in the evening, in­sist ev­ery­one uses “night-time mode” on their de­vices, which swaps the blue light for a warmer glow. You can down­load apps that do this (such as f:lux), too, or buy blue-light-can­celling glasses. It’s also worth switch­ing your chil­dren’s night lights to red ones – red has the least im­pact on mela­tonin pro­duc­tion. When I did this in my chil­dren’s rooms, they slept in more than an hour later the next morn­ing.

Get out and ex­er­cise

We all know that reg­u­lar ac­tiv­ity is im­por­tant, and that most of us, chil­dren in­cluded, need to do more of it. But what if I told you that, as well as keep­ing them phys­i­cally fit, ex­er­cise will in­crease your child’s re­silience? It ac­tu­ally strength­ens the brain.

It’s well doc­u­mented that ex­er­cise is on a par with med­i­ca­tion when it comes to treat­ing mild to mod­er­ate de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. This could be be­cause it gets the body used to mov­ing more flu­idly in and out of the stress state. The same hor­mones re­leased when we’re stressed (cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line) are raised tem­po­rar­ily when we ex­er­cise. Reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity teaches our stress-re­sponse sys­tem to re­cover more ef­fi­ciently.

It can be a lot of fun to do this to­gether, and I’ve learned that kids do what they see us do­ing, not what we tell them to. I’m a big fan of “move­ment snack­ing” – short bursts of ex­er­cise through­out the day. I’ll put on the ra­dio be­fore din­ner and we’ll all dance around in the kitchen. Or my kids will join me do­ing squats, star jumps, bear crawls or frog hops. The sil­lier I look, the more they seem to en­joy it.

Teach de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion

Re­silience means un­der­stand­ing you can’t al­ways have what you want as soon as you want it. It’s an im­por­tant con­cept to pass on in the age of Ama­zon Prime, Spo­tify, Net­flix and Uber. Psy­chol­ogy teaches us that peo­ple who can ac­cept de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion lead hap­pier, health­ier lives. With­out the abil­ity to de­fer plea­sure and re­ward, our kids are los­ing an im­por­tant skill for their well­be­ing.

One of the best ways to teach it? Play­ing board games. These re­quire im­pulse con­trol, turn-tak­ing, and men­tal flex­i­bil­ity. They ex­er­cise the pre­frontal cor­tex, the ra­tio­nal part of the brain in­volved in de­ci­sion-mak­ing, emo­tional reg­u­la­tion and, yes, re­silience. Board games are also a good way for you to model re­silience by be­ing a good loser.

But there are no short­age of other ways to en­cour­age de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion: learn­ing a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment; lis­ten­ing to whole al­bums in­stead of skip­ping from track to track on­line; mas­ter­ing a new sport; even watch­ing a TV se­ries to­gether week by week, in­stead of binge­ing in a cou­ple of sit­tings.

Eat the al­pha­bet

Nu­tri­tion has a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on men­tal health. Good-qual­ity food changes the com­po­si­tion of our gut bugs, which helps send calm sig­nals to the brain. Poor-qual­ity, highly pro­cessed food sends stress sig­nals in­stead. A di­verse diet, rich in fi­bre, will lead to greater di­ver­sity in our gut bugs, which in turn will help make us more re­silient, and anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion less likely. Per­suad­ing kids to eat more healthily can feel like an up­hill bat­tle, though, es­pe­cially if they’re fussy, so this is not about be­com­ing a top chef – just try­ing a few tricks that can re­ally ben­e­fit them emo­tion­ally.

I like to chal­lenge the whole fam­ily to “eat the al­pha­bet” over 30 days. I think it’s a re­al­is­tic goal to con­sume 26 dif­fer­ent plant foods in a month: A for as­para­gus, B for ba­nana, C for chick­peas, and so on. It turns healthy eat­ing into a game, and en­cour­ages chil­dren to try new foods. Turn it into a com­pe­ti­tion and see who can tick off all the let­ters first.

Model grat­i­tude

In­stead of pes­ter­ing your chil­dren with ques­tions such as, “How was school?” and, “What did you do to­day?”, teach them to re­frame their day.

The fol­low­ing is a game I learned from a friend, who played it with his daugh­ter over din­ner. Ev­ery­one must answer three ques­tions:

1) What did some­one do to­day to make you happy? 2) What did you do to make some­one else happy? 3) What have you learned to­day?

I love this sim­ple ex­er­cise for how it helps us all find the pos­i­tive in ev­ery day. It teaches grat­i­tude, nur­tures op­ti­mism, and recog­nises kind­ness. It doesn’t mat­ter what may have hap­pened at work or school, or how stressed any of us may have felt when we sat down at the ta­ble; the whole mood seems to lift once we’ve played this game. I learn things about my kids that they’d prob­a­bly never have thought to tell me oth­er­wise. Try it. It might just be­come the high­light of your day

The Stress Solution (Pen­guin, £16.99), by Dr Ran­gan Chat­ter­jee, is out now.

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