A recent report out by ATL, the British education union tells us that last year 6 out of 10 teachers were subjected to aggressive behaviour from pupils. This also included physically abusive behaviour.
Dr Leonard Sax, whose latest book Collapse of Parenting came out this month, tells us that parents are no longer in charge. He comments on children’s rudeness and disdain towards their parents that he witnesses in his surgery on a regular basis.
Parents, he says, are reluctant to take up their role of authority.
So, how come we’ve drifted this far from the natural order of things in such a short time? Are parents solely to blame for the state children are in?
Of course not!
These facts and figures should not be seen in isolation.
Society at large is getting more aggressive and there are many factors that contribute to the rise of angry behaviour, including:
- Children copy what they see others do
- Anger is often a sign of frustration and overwhelm
- It’s what happens when we are unaware of how far we’ve drifted off from our natural state of well-being
- It’s rarely about that last straw
So, what can we do as parents do to reduce the likelihood of our children’s behaviour escalating out of hand?
We can take a step back and look at the big picture first. Find ways to re-balance our lives and quit the ‘race to nowhere’ as Dr Sax so poignantly puts it.
Human beings, like all other life forms, are wired up to connect - physically and emotionally - with the outside/external world.
How well we feel emotionally and our self-esteem are closely linked to:
- Our ability to express ourselves and realise our potential
- How connected we feel to ourselves, others and the world at large
One of our most primal instincts is to care - for ourselves and for others. You see this in animals too. Our older dog licks and cares for our puppy when she’s been told off. They look after each other.
Disrespect and chronic anger then, are not natural states of being.
Learning to connect is a lifelong process and children need opportunity and guidance to develop this natural skill. Quality of connection has everything to do with the quality of attention we give to the person or thing in front of us.
Our ability to focus on another person, to imagine what it might be like to be him will determine how well we relate to others.
What happens if you grow up in a world overloaded with external stimuli - crowds, sounds, images, digital screens and shop windows? Our attention grabbed at, from dawn till dusk. How does a child learn how to select and prioritise a single object of attention?
The answer is that without conscious guidance he won’t be able to do this.
We also come into the world armed with mirror neurons that help us connect and empathise with others. These neurons help us feel each others’ joy and pain.
For those antennae to develop, we need to learn to focus and pay attention to other people. We need to be in their presence. How can you do that if your attention is constantly being grabbed and you don’t learn to mono-task?
So, Dr Sax’s suggestions make good sense. If we follow those up for ourselves and our children, we much reduce the likelihood of them becoming chronically angry due to overwhelm and lack of time to absorb and learn right from wrong.
Here are some of Dr Sax's best tips, and a few of mine to add in the mix:
1. Decision making
Take (back) control and help your child make good decisions.
Have daily family meals. Remove all digital screens and telephones from mealtimes. Have face-to-face conversations. Teach children to listen to each other and respect each other’s point of view.
Make sure that there is plenty of playtime without phones and digital screens, so that children learn to co-operate and relate to each other.
Don’t praise children gratuitously so that they grow up lacking humility. Praise their efforts – see also Carol Dweck’s amazing work on this – and realise that self-esteem comes from effort and discipline. Celebrate the success of others.
5. Learn empathy
Whenever disagreements occur encourage children to think of what the other might be feeling. Help them work out win-win situations where everyone gets a slice of the pudding.
Help them distinguish between the feeling of anger (the emotion) and the expression of it. If they have expressed this inappropriately, talk through what could have been done differently, once they are calm. Teach them to communicate more effectively with language.
Teach them to be grateful for what they have, rather than focussing only on what they want next.
8. Know digital limits
Remember that digital technology for all its merits, does not help children develop focus nor empathy.
For that we all need to relearn to live in, and connect with, the real world.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based between Woodchurch (Ashford), Kent and the Elysian Centre in Rye, East Sussex.
Renée is the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind and works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.
P.S. And in case you were wondering, the top picture is of my adorable dogs...