ABC life article by Kasey Edwards, interview with Georgina Manning
If your kids are enrolled in extra-curricular activities, you know what it's like to alternate between working as a ride-share driver and a drill sergeant. You're feeding them in the car as you travel between activities, or shovelling food into their mouths as they're falling asleep at the dinner table. They're exhausted, you're frazzled but there's still homework that needs to be squeezed in between the meltdowns and before they fall into bed.
But then, faster than you could say coronavirus, it all stopped. Suddenly, we weren't racing anymore. According to children's mental health expert Georgina Manning, one silver lining of lockdown is the break from racing kids from one "developmental opportunity" to the next. "I've had so many parents say to me in the last month, 'It's been so good not to rush around'," Ms Manning says.
"Parents are telling me they've noticed a drop in anxiety in their children. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't be going to school and shouldn't be putting themselves out of their comfort zone. They need that. But parents are thinking that, maybe, too much pressure has been placed on their child."
'The end-of-the-day stuff is a lot nicer now'In recent years Ms Manning has seen a dramatic increase in childhood anxiety and emotional distress, and believes that over-scheduling is one reason. "Rushing children around and filling every spare moment of their lives with 'interesting' activities doesn't teach children how to manage stress. It just creates stressed out kids," she says.
"If children are not rested with time for play and fun then they don't have a chance to wind down, reflect, and de-stress the brain."It's not just children who are benefiting from slowing down during lockdown. Mother of two Emma Burchett, from the Victorian town of Wallan, says while it has been difficult to adjust to staying home, it's going to be even harder to go back to normal.
"It's been a change from feeling like I have to do everything — and cram it all in — to be able to step back and enjoy family life a bit more," says Emma, who works as a human resources manager in the hospitality industry. Before lockdown, her day was a blur of school and kinder drop-offs, rushing to work and getting her job done, racing back to do two pick-ups and then trying to fit in swimming lessons, among other things.
"I would get them home at 5:30, make dinner and everyone's tired, everyone's emotional. The end-of-the-day stuff is a lot nicer now. Everyone's not drained and having meltdowns at seven o'clock." Kids need the opportunity to be calm. A big motivator for parents to open their wallets and drive themselves — and their children — ragged, rushing from one enhancement activity to the next, is the all pervasive FOMO.
Nobody wants their kids to not have the same opportunities as their peers. But lockdown has taught parents that our children may have been missing out on something far more important than perfecting their cartwheel or pirouette, or getting that next stripe on their taekwondo belt as quickly as possible: the opportunity to be calm. This is something kids seem to be craving.
As many parents can attest, young children often seem happiest when given the space to play, read, or just be at home on their own time. As we begin to emerge from lockdown there is a general willingness from government, workplaces, and communities to reassess and embrace change.
This is also an opportunity for families to make a conscious choice about how busy they want to go back to being. "Some things we can't change, some things we can," says Ms Manning.
"I think it's interesting to question why we were rushing. Where was the pressure coming from, and what do the kids really need?" Emma says she is currently trying to work out a way to do everything the family has to do, but without all the rushing and stress.
"It's something my husband and I are discussing at the moment," she says. "How do we stop life getting back to how crazy it was?" The answer to that question is going to be different for every family. But we owe it to our kids — and to ourselves — to at least ask it.
by Kasey Edwards, interview with Georgina Manning for ABC Online.
"What if my friend gives me a big hug?"
With school resuming in most states after weeks of lockdown, many kids will be busting to see their friends and get out of the house.
But for some, the thought of returning to the classroom is enough to induce a bout of anxiety. Over weeks of online wellbeing sessions, teacher and friendship skills expert Dana Kerford has heard a steady stream of concerns.
"Of the 4,000 plus kids I've worked with in my online classroom, many of them have expressed anxiety and nervousness around going back to school," says Ms Kerford, who founded a company teaching friendship strategies.
As well as concerns about social distancing and how they will be able to safely interact with their friends, some kids are also concerned about how to reconnect with their friends.
"Many friendship groups have changed or dissolved during coronavirus, so there's this underlying uneasiness," Ms Kerford says.
"Where do I fit?" and "Is that group I was in still my group?" are among the concerns she has heard recently.
Children's anxiety expert Karen Young says even if your child is eager to go back to class, they may need help with the transition.
"It might still be jarring because they've become settled into a new routine," says Ms Young.
"This is not like going back to school after the holidays. They've been disconnected from their friends for such a long time."
Signs your child might be worried Ms Young says parents should be aware their kids may not share their back-to-school worries.
"You might get the 'What ifs' — such as, 'What if I go to school and I get sick? What if I go to school and something else happens?'" says Ms Young.
Other signs could be trouble sleeping, restlessness, bursts of anger over seemingly benign things, withdrawing, or complaints about headaches or feeling sick in the tummy.
Helping kids transition back to school.
We can help our children by encouraging them to express how they feel about going back to school, and validating their concerns. Ms Young suggests a conversation opener such as: "It's a big thing going back to school and it's OK if you feel a bit worried. That's really understandable and normal."
After validation comes strength: where we tell our kids it might be a bit hard at first but it's going to be OK, and we know they're going to get through this. "This is very different to saying there's nothing to worry about," says Ms Young. "They don't buy that anyway, and it also just increases their anxiety because they feel the person they have turned to for support doesn't get it."
Thinking it might be easier to keep kids home?
If stress levels are running high in your home, you may be tempted to let your child stay a little longer, especially if they have siblings in other grades or schools who are not starting back yet.
Georgina Manning, a counsellor and student wellbeing expert, was asked by one mother if she should allow her child in prep to stay home, because it might be too hard for her little one to go back to school earlier than her grade three sister. Ms Manning says you might be asking for trouble with this approach.
"The anxiety will be worse if she goes back two weeks later than her friends, when the class has all settled back in. It's best to rip the band-aid off quickly and just go," she says.
Teachers can help kids settle back in.
It isn't just kids and parents who are anxious. Ms Young has received many emails from teachers just as concerned about how to best support their students transition back to face-to-face learning. "With social distancing in place, teachers will need to convey that welcome and warmth to put their children at ease in other ways," says Ms Young. "It can happen by your face lighting up when you see them." That may mean spending more time on the social and emotional side of learning. "Academics are second to relational safety. Because if you want them to learn, they have to feel safe," says Ms Young.
Keeping our own anxiety in check will also help our kids
As for us parents, we can help our children by managing our own emotions. "If a parent feels anxious about dropping off, the child may pick up on that and may see the situation as anxiety-provoking," says Ms Manning.
"But if a parent is really relaxed, the child will model that." And remember, our children are often more capable than we think.
"We underestimate how resilient kids are and how easily they can adapt," says Ms Manning.
"Once kids are back with their friends and back with the teacher, they'll settle back in."
by Kasey Edwards, Sydney Morning Herald, interview with Georgina Manning
A new approach to treating childhood anxiety being trialled by Yale Medical School has flipped the standard treatment by focusing on parents rather than children.
The Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) study starts from the premise that over 97 per cent of parents who have an anxious child accommodate their child’s anxiety by changing their own behaviours to help their child not feel anxious.
"Even with the best treatments currently available, about half of all children remain highly anxious after treatment," says Dr Eli Lebowitz from Yale Medical School.
“Anxious children naturally rely on parents when they are feeling scared, frightened or stressed and parents naturally want to help their children feel better,” says Dr Eli Lebowitz who is Director Program for Anxiety Disorders from the Yale Medical School Child Study Center.
“But sometimes the things we do as parents to help our children feel less anxious in the moment can actually make them less likely to overcome the anxiety over time."
My first response to hearing about the study was “Great — now we can add our kid’s anxiety to the long list of things modern-day mothers are doing wrong”.
Fortunately, Dr Lebowitz is emphatic that his program is not an exercise in blaming parents.
“It is very important to emphasise that parents are not the cause of childhood anxiety disorders,” says Dr Lebowitz.
“It is simply that childhood anxiety is a problem of truly staggering proportions and even with the best treatments currently available, about half of all cases remain highly anxious after treatment. So we are always looking for more and different ways of helping anxious children and their families."
Beyond Blue reports seven per cent of children aged 4 to 17 years in Australia suffered from an anxiety disorder in the past 12 months.
The incidence of childhood anxiety is alarming. Beyond Blue reports that seven per cent of children aged 4 to 17 years in Australia suffered from an anxiety disorder in the past 12 months. Further, one in five of all young people aged 11 to 17 years experience high or very high levels of psychological distress.
Melbourne-based child anxiety expert and director of Wellbeing for Kids Georgina Manning agrees that new approaches to treating anxiety in children are needed — and that includes helping parents to understand that accommodating their child’s anxiety can also enable it.
“I have coached many parents to support them to make sure their child still goes to camp, even though they feel anxious, to speak at assembly even if they don’t want to, to go back to school after a hard day with friends the day before and so on,” says Manning who also runs a program for parents to support their anxious children, called Peaceful Parents.
As any parent knows, there is nothing worse than seeing your child in distress. It's hardly surprising that we want to minimise it.
But protecting children from the immediate distress they are feeling may lead to even greater anxiety in the future by inadvertently reinforcing the belief that the problem the child fears really is as bad as they think it is. Our intervention also dis-empowers them because we are essentially telling our children that they are not skilled or strong enough to deal with the problem on their own.
“The more we encourage avoidance, the more we are saying to our child that the thing they are anxious about should be avoided because firstly they won’t be able to cope and secondly, the problem or situation is too hard for a child to manage,” says Manning.
Rushing in too soon to protect our children from distress is also unsustainable. Life gets hard some times, we all feel uncomfortable emotions, and our kids need to develop the capacity to deal with these unpleasant feelings and confront their fears. This doesn’t mean that we turn off our empathy and tell our kids that they are effectively on their own now.
“It is vital that parents can tune into their child’s emotions, understand how they feel, name the emotion for the child, but not necessarily ‘fix’ the emotion,” says Manning.
If you do have an anxious child, the advice of Yale’s Dr Lewbowitz is to start small. Pick one way you might be accommodating your child’s anxiety and plan specific changes to your approach.
While it may be painful for both your child and you at first, you may be giving your child the life-long gift of learning to master their anxiety
by First Five Years, interview with Georgina Manning
Meet four-year-old Hannah. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays she goes to preschool and afterschool care until her mum picks her up at 5.30pm. On Thursdays, she has swimming followed by ballet. Fridays is soccer and art class at the local library. Saturdays are for soccer games and playdates while on Sundays, it is almost always someone’s birthday party.
Now Hannah’s parents aren’t expecting her to become a prima-ballerina or a soccer star or to be voted most popular in school. Hannah’s parents just want the best for her, want her to be happy and fulfilled, and want to make sure that she has every opportunity open to her.
Hannah’s parents are feeling the social pressure to keep their daughter busy, but is it actually good for Hannah?
It seems we have a current parenting culture of filling every hour of every day with interesting things for our children. In my work with families, most parents say they feel a pressure to keep up with other families that provide these extra activities and feel like they are not doing the right thing or giving their child the best opportunities if they don't put them in a range of activities.
The pressure to keep children busy
Counsellor and psychotherapist Georgina Manning, Director of Wellbeing For Kids, says there is an increase in children doing more out of school activities now than ever before.
“Parents are running children around from activity to activity and filling every spare moment with extracurricular activities,” she says.
“It seems we have a current parenting culture of filling every hour of every day with interesting things for our children. In my work with families, most parents say they feel a pressure to keep up with other families that provide these extra activities and feel like they are not doing the right thing or giving their child the best opportunities if they don't put them in a range of activities.”
Georgina also notes the pressure the extracurricular activities is putting on families.
“The pressure on parents to keep their children 'busy' is enormous and it is not working for the parents and not working for the children.
“All it is doing is putting enormous stress on families and families are left exhausted, stressed, anxious and irritable with little time left to just be in the moment or nourish the things that are important.”
Georgina says the decrease in free play can also lead to children losing out on valuable life skills and even potentially affect their mental health.
“It is really important that children learn to problem solve for themselves and if adults are hovering over their children every minute of every day, we are dis-empowering our children, and this has catastrophic consequences on their mental health.
“Children never learn to direct their own lives or think for themselves which erodes the development of self-efficacy.”
What is free play?Georgina explains that free play is play which is not directed by an adult in any way, but where children choose activities or games that interest them.
“This may include adults setting up the tools so kids can be engaged in their own play such as having art materials, Lego, or building materials around for children to investigate and explore.”
Free play, she says, is where “the child directs the play and there is no expected outcome from an adult. Examples of free play are playing in the garden, dress ups, singing, making a bug catcher, creating a cubby house, building with Lego, drawing, playing with toys using imagination, exploring the garden, creating a puppet show, role playing, being silly with friends, blowing bubbles, rolling on the grass, jigsaw puzzles, playing with pets etc.”
Georgina notes that screen time is definitely not free play and that screen time actually takes valuable time away from free play.
“Research shows that when children are using their imagination or in the state of wonder of their natural environment, just playing for the sake of playing without any expected outcome from an adult, then their brains are refreshed and rested,” she says.
“Children need to rest their brains regularly and by taking children from activity to activity, this only stresses children, leaving little time for this vital play time. Not only is this vital for children's mental health and overall wellbeing, but essential for development of social and emotional skills.”
Parents can get involved in the play too, says Georgina, as long as they aren’t directing the play, but rather playing with their child and letting their child take the lead.
How much free play should kids have?Georgina says there is no set amount of time parents should ensure their children are dedicating to free play. Instead, she recommends looking at the child’s weekly schedule and seeing how much time they really have to play.
“I often get parents of primary aged children to reflect on their child's week and create a visual of the week, putting in school time, homework, after school activities and screen time. Then parents can see clearly what time is left for free play.
“Parents are often really surprised to learn that there is very little time left in the day for their child to just play and to rest their brain. For preschoolers, having a mix of social interactions with peers and adult play, mixed in with some extra activities is a great mix for this age group."
“As preschoolers usually have a lot more free time than primary aged children, then it can be more beneficial for children to have a few extracurricular activities, however, these don't necessarily need to be a class or something that costs money.
“Catching up with other families and meeting in the park for a picnic in nature can be an extracurricular activity or going to the local library and listening to story time or choosing books for the week is also a valuable activity.
“If children are in day care then having time each day when they get home to just play without adult direction is vital as well as the parent/child playtime.” Should we ditch extracurricular activities completely?Georgina says that extracurricular activities can have their benefits.
“I do believe that team sports are very important for children to participate in and this would be one activity I would recommend for children. However, it is vital the focus is on fun, joy, enjoyment and healthy competition rather than the focus on creating sport stars or to be better than other children."
“This takes away the fun for children and the experience to look after each other and the chance to develop empathy. It can also create unnecessary stress for children if they are pushed to always be 'better' and 'win' - this automatically takes the children out of mindfully being in the moment of the activity.”
Georgina says that activities can help to teach children valuable life lessons. “If children are enrolled in an activity, then they need to see the term or year out in that activity to teach children persistence, grit, commitment and to manage difficult emotions. Particularly if children are in team sports, they have a responsibility to others as well."
For children who struggle to make friends or who have become too comfortable spending hours in front of a screen, Georgina recommends that extracurricular activities and playdates can be beneficial for them.
Free play ideas for families
by Delvin Yasa, Interview with Georgina Manning
Lucy* is only eight years old but she’s never been a big sleeper. Lying in bed at night, thoughts of death, failure and world injustice (her words) keep her sweating under her quilt until the early hours of the morning. When sleep does claim her, if only for a couple of hours at a time, she dreams about her family dying, her cats going missing, or her favourite toys being broken. It’s been that way since she was a baby, says her exhausted mother Pat*, who reveals they’ve been to no less than three psychologists, two counsellors, a host of GPs and one incredibly expensive psychiatrist to get to the bottom of what’s troubling her daughter.
“They’ve tried to put her on medication to reduce her anxiety, but I don’t want her to be medicated,” says Pat.
“I just want her to be happy and untroubled like other kids her own age.”
What Pat may not realise is that while she may want her daughter to be ‘untroubled’ like other kids, the number of Lucy’s peers who would be classed as ‘carefree’ are rapidly decreasing – so much so that studies now show that almost one in seven 4 – 17 year olds are battling or have battled a mental health disorder in the past year (equivalent to approximately 560,000 Australian children).
And while anxiety is largely hereditary (most experts agree inherited anxiety is linked to 30 – 40 per cent of anxiety disorders), counsellor and director of Wellbeing For Kids, Georgina Manning, says much of it is learned by watching mum and dad.
“Families today are stressed and busy, with no time to slow down and relax together and that frantic pace can set a dangerous undercurrent,” she says. “Through our behaviours and reactions to events and situations, kids today are growing up believing the world is a dark place and something to be frightened of.” A culture of little-to-no boundaries, a reinforcement of non-resilient behaviour and having too many choices help to create the perfect storm, she adds.
It’s worth noting that having a little bit of anxiety – particularly during stressful times such as exams, changing schools or teachers, or having a friend move away – is normal. A survival mechanism evolved over thousands of years to identify possible threats and prepare the body’s ‘fight or flight’ defence, a little bit of anxiety helps keep us safe. It’s only when the body’s panic response gets stuck and floods the body with adrenaline (panic) even though there’s no threat in sight that the anxiety can quickly turn into an anxiety disorder, which can present in one or a few of the following ways:
Generalised anxiety disorder
One of the more common anxiety disorders, children with generalised anxiety will worry excessively about everything, like Lucy. Physical symptoms often play their own role and can include regular headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension or tiredness.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
For kids with OCD, anxiety takes the form of obsessions and compulsions, such as counting, washing hands or rearranging toys in a particular way. They often become upset if their behaviour is interrupted or their routine changed.
Often occurring for no apparent reason, panic attacks can strike anywhere and at any time, with sudden physical symptoms which can include fainting, a shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness, sweatiness and a pounding heart.
Phobias are when your child develops intense fears of something that wouldn’t normally be classed as dangerous, such as dogs, gaps in curtains, heights, flying or particular objects such as buttons.
This is a fear of social situations or speaking and interacting with others – particularly if a parent is not with them. In rare cases, kids with severe anxiety can also suffer from selective mutism which is where kids refuse to speak in situations they find too overwhelming.
Studies show early assessment and professional support is hugely beneficial for children suffering from an anxiety disorder, so keep an eye out for one or more of the following signs:
If you notice your child is suffering from one or a few of these, Manning suggests starting an honest dialogue in your household about what anxiety is and what it feels like. “Your child might have noticed that they feel a little differently to other kids he or she plays with so you want to reassure them that a little of bit of worry can actually be normal and helpful,” she explains.
“Ask them about the thoughts they have when they’re feeling anxious, so that you’re both turning towards what’s causing the anxiety rather than turning away from it.” The idea is to talk with your child in a supportive and non-judgmental way so that they always feel safe and free to share.
Helping your child face their fears rather than becoming an avoidance enabler will also assist them in the long-run, says Manning who explains gradual exposure holds the key in conquering fears and phobias. “If a child is terrified about speaking at a school assembly, for example, many parents will keep them home that day so that they don’t have to,” she says. “It’s short-term relief, but over time you’re just teaching them avoidance rather than developing confidence, resilience and strategies on how to cope with the difficulties of life and one thing we know is that children who build resilience tend to have lower anxiety levels in the long-run.”
Role modelling confident behaviours yourself is also important as ‘an anxious parent is an anxious child’, she says.
“If a parent is worried about exams or whether their child is going to get bullied, the child will soon follow suit and even if you’re not talking about your thoughts in the company of your child, rest assured they will still pick up on how you’re really feeling.” For this very reason, first-borns – often the product of much fussing and mollycoddling - tend to be more anxious than their younger brothers and sisters. “Parents are far more easygoing with the subsequent offspring and it shows in their demeanour.”
Listen to your kids and ask lots of questions about how they’re feeling. If their worries or behaviours continue for a number of weeks, or begin to affect their day-to-day activities, sleep or schooling, contact your GP to get a referral to speak with a children’s mental health specialist. “Sometimes your fears may not be warranted and your appointment can merely help reassure you on what is normal and what is not,” Manning says. “But if further investigation is needed, you’ll know your child is in very safe hands.”
If you require assistance with childhood anxiety, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Saying 'No' To Your Children Is Good For Them. International Business Times, Interview with Georgina Manning
Most parents want to give their kids everything they want in life. But according to parenting experts, saying “yes” to every demand that your children make may not be the right approach when it comes to instilling the right values in them.
Traversing the journey of becoming an assertive parent from a passive one can often be hard, especially for those who remain busy with work for the most part of the day, and do not get time to spend with their young ones. So naturally, when such a parent comes back home only to find their kid throwing tantrums, the easier option is to succumb to the demands.
Whatever be the reason, it has been observed that modern parents find it harder to say “no” to their children. “I think the pendulum has swung completely another way from parenting 30 or 40 years ago. It has swung from an authoritarian parenting style to a permissive parenting style,” Georgina Manning, the Director of Wellbeing For Kids — an organization based in Melbourne, Australia, that helps parents reach social and emotional business outcomes — told the International Business Times.
“This has been partly due to the self-esteem movement and also the wellbeing message that has been hijacked to a certain extent," she added. "Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is a more effective way where parents are still in charge but also emotionally tuned in and supportive of our children, where we can be present and involved in our children's lives but also teach limits and positive values.”
Manning also underlined that no matter how difficult parents may find it to deny their children their immediate wishes, it is important for the kids to hear the word "no."
“Children need to feel a range of emotions and it is important we don't shield our child from these,” she said. “We want children to become comfortable with the uncomfortable over time. Children don't suddenly learn about feeling a range of emotions or handling strong emotions at 18 — we need our kids to learn about their emotions from a young age and be coached in how to manage these feelings over time.”
Delayed gratification, as a life skill, is often taken for granted and parents today assume their children learn about earning what they get in life as they grow up.
“As adults, we have to wait for things and work hard for rewards,” Manning told the IBT. “Teaching children to wait for what they want and they may not always get what they want are lessons best learned early. Having a false sense of how the world works is setting our kids up for failure. We are also at risk of developing entitlement in children if they get what they want when they want. As adults, we would not be able to hold down a job or have healthy deep relationships with an entitled attitude such as this.”
According to Bea Marshall, a parenting coach based in the United Kingdom, contrary to the popular belief and the negative notion attached to the word “no,” it actually does not end up lowering self-esteem in children, when spoken by parents in a limited manner.