Category Archives: mental health

Connecting

 

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This last week has been children’s mental health week, there have been many good postings and information about the importance of supporting children’s mental health, knowing the signs to look for etc. Within the nurture role, all of our work is about promoting, supporting and enhancing children’s mental health and wellbeing. We are now halfway through the academic year, I have been reviewing and thinking about the children, families, and staff I work with and reflecting on the distance we have traveled, thinking about what has worked and not worked. This last week I have been particularly thinking about connections, how as a nurture consultant I connect with those I work with and how important connections are to mental health.

Building trust and a connection with the children, staff, and families is vital for the nurture work. I have learned that the work is only able to develop when a connection and trust is made with everyone involved.. This takes time, I ask a lot of the staff I work with, I need them to trust that the work I am doing will make a difference, I need them to carry out my ideas and suggestions when I am not there, I need them to be open to trying something and it not always working straight away, I ask them to be open to having an ongoing dialogue about what we can all do differently. They need to feel that I have listened to them, that I see and hear how hard and frustrating their job can be. In my experience building a trusting connection with staff takes time, it can not be rushed. With some schools, it can take a few years before I feel I have really connected and built a strong trusting relationship with the staff.

My connection with the children needs to be around understanding them, seeing the world through their eyes, listening to them, knowing what brings them joy and what terrifies them. I think one of the essentials in supporting a child’s mental health is for them to have adults around them who they can trust, who help them to feel that they are loved and they belong and who are interested in them. If I have a child who loves dinosaurs or trains or ponies or whatever their interest,  then we will make sure those occur in our nurture play, my aim is for the children I work with to feel that they are safe with me, that I am delighted to see them and that I know them.

Some of our work is also with parents and carers, although we don’t spend a huge amount of our time with parents and carers, the times we do meet are crucial. So many parents and carers can feel worn down, fed up with professionals, mistrusting, anxious and worried. I think connecting with parents and carers can be the hardest part of the role, partly because I see them a lot less. I am aware that it is so easy as a professional to be seen as the expert, particularly to parents, and this can be really intimidating. I work really hard to be approachable and make it clear I don’t have all the answers. I try to be honest with the parents I work with, I will often tell them, if it is appropriate ,that I am a parent and I know how parenting is the hardest job. To connect with parents I need them to know I am not judging them and I need them to feel that they have been listened to and understood.

We all need to feel that we have been heard and listened to by someone, I believe this is such a fundamental part of helping our mental health.

 

I have written two books looking at children’s and staff mental health and wellbeing they are published with Jessica Kingsley Publishers and are also available on Amazon

 

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I am

 

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One reason I love my nurture role with 4 year olds is having a year to help a little one to believe they are amazing, to know there are adults who love seeing them and spending time with them, to help them know they are special and unique and wonderful. If we can help a 4 year know that, I believe this is giving them such a good start to life, a strong foundation to believing good things about themselves. We all know that is too easy to grow up with negative ideas about ourselves, negative thoughts, that our internal script can be one of I cant do….

Over the last five years, I have been really challenged in thinking about my own internal script, reading Brene Brown and Kristin Neff has hugely helped this. In the last few days, I have been giving this some more thought, a few days ago my friend Will wrote a piece about an exercise he did where he wrote 100 I am statements. Will and I both work in similar fields, we both work with children who have social, emotional and mental health difficulties, we are both self-employed and over the years we have weekly checked in with another. We have been friends for over 20 years and we have an honest relationship with one another where we can ask the other challenging questions. This last year has been a really tough one for Will and from this experience, he is reflecting a lot on the messages he lives under, the stories he tells himself. This week he wrote about an exercise he did call 100 I am statements. he wanted to challenge his thinking and believes. He describes this exercise as:
100 statements of I AM. Let me tell you that although this is not an easy task it has incredible power to change and shift your thinking about yourself. The list should include things that you would like to define your life. These are statements that you would want to shape your inner dialogue, and simply by changing the words that define your concept of self and choosing the words that you opt to place into your thoughts you take back control of how you see yourself.
The idea of doing 100 seemed huge, but I liked the idea of the challenge, so I gave it a go. it’s a really powerful exercise to do, in my experience, I just did it without over thinking it, this worked for me as it felt authentic. A number of my statements began with I am a woman who…. , this was interesting as when I read back over it I realised how important it is to me, that I identified as a woman who is capable and able to live life fully, a woman who can be creative and imaginative and able to lead as well as being nurturing and supportive. There is so much talk about self-care and supporting our own wellbeing at the moment, I am part of that, I have written a book on wellbeing for early years staff. However, writing these statements reminded me that no matter how much yoga, exercise, mindfulness, good sleep, good eating you do, if your inner messages are negative, if your self-script is one of I can’t rather than positives I am, then this will eat away at your wellbeing, this will impact your mental health. 100 statements is a lot, but it felt like the right amount of challenge. On reflecting on my list I realised how much I have changed over the last 5 years, I don’t think I could have written that list 5 years ago. I recognised that all the statements I had on my list were ones I believed not just ones I aspired to be. I realise that is largely thanks to reading Brene Brown, Kristin Neff and going on Ian and Gail Adams retreats.

Surviving January

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Schools in this area are back this week so I re-pick up my nurture work and I have 2 training sessions to deliver this week, both reasons to feel motivated and inspired. I have had a lovely Christmas break, I feel relaxed and calm, all reasons to be feeling energetic and motivated. But it’s January, and the last few years I have begun to find January tricky, it’s not due to overindulging or stopping exercise over Christmas, I drink very little alcohol and don’t really eat lots of rubbish food and I have continued to swim throughout most of the last 2 weeks. I think I find January hard partly because of the greyness and the drabness. I am much happier on blue cold and crispy days, but also there is so much talk around new plans, new resolutions, I find all that talk quite depressing as it can feed into my feelings of not quite doing enough or not quite being good enough, those thoughts are largely pushed aside and don’t really live in my head much any more, but January seems to bring them forward.

So this year I have decided to make a plan, for each week, I am going to actively to do some simple things which I know make me feel happier and more hopeful during January, things which I know bring me pleasure. I have written them in my diary to remind myself. The list is simple but they are things that I know will help. My list is

Make marmalade
Buy daffodils each week
Garden each week
Go for extra walks
Make dates to see friends
Watch a feel-good film
If it is sunny, have a picnic lunch in a sunny spot at my husband’s studio ( with him!)

These will be alongside the usual swimming, yoga, and mindfulness, all things that I know are essential for my mental health. I know from experience that in a few weeks when we begin to see leaves returning and spring flowers appearing, that I will feel lighter and more hopeful, but in the short few weeks of the dark months of winter, I am going to try and be more active in helping myself.

Finding calmness in this hectic time

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For schools in this area, this is the last week of term, this can be one of the most challenging weeks of the year, very excited children, very tired staff. Some schools and nurseries will be doing plays this week, many places will be having parties. In my experience, lots of children can find this last week really hard. The routine has changed, they are tired and excited, they can be stressed and anxious and sometimes excited  about plays and parties. This is a big range of strong feelings, and some children will find this hard to manage and some staff too.

In the role of nurture support workers our team does a lot of work with children and staff about using calming techniques, we all use mindfulness both for ourselves and with the children we support. During these last weeks, many of us have been making calming bottles with the children we support as a tool to help them during these challenging weeks, a guide on how to make these can be found on pinterest. Many of the children we work with can find change very overwhelming and there are so many changes at this time of year. Change in routine, wearing different clothes, changes to the environment, there can be different and loud music playing in the school/ nursery, lots more people coming in and out of the setting. For some children, this is overwhelming and can be frightening. It’s at these times when knowing and using calming techniques are so important. Some schools and nurseries use mindfulness daily with children, teaching children these skills as part of a daily routine is such a good way to embed this practice with children, giving them vital life skills to help them with regulation. But even settings which are not already using these strategies, it is not too late to try them. My suggestion over the next week is finding some time each day for a time of stillness and quiet, a time when you all can stop, be still, be aware of your breathing, this will help both the children and the staff.
A few ways to do this are:

Finger breathing – click this link for a tutorial

Starfish breathing- a youtube film for this

Bubble breathing- have a pot of bubbles each, dip the wand in the bubble mix, take a deep breath in and breathe out through the bubble wand and repeat a few times. Explain to the children that while doing this you are watching and noticing the bubbles.

With all of these, explain to the children that these are helping you all to stop, notice your breathing and find some calmness.

In January I am speaking about using mindfulness with young children on a free  pre school mindfulness summit clink this link and it will take it you to their website for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

The story we create in our head

 

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I am someone who can catastrophize I learned this from my Mother, she has Bi-Polar and part of her illness is negative voices in her head of everything that will go wrong; unfortunately, they didn’t stay in her head and she would often speak them out. I know I can easily fall into this trap, thankfully I am now aware of it and mostly I can stop myself, but sometimes, particularly when I am tired, it catches me unawares. A practice of Mindfulness and self-compassion has helped to calm this but I need to continue practicing them. Brene Brown writes about the stories we create in our head, I think this is such a helpful phrase, she encourages us to stop and question what is the story that I am telling myself? is this real? do I know this to be fact? or am I just presuming the worst?

In the last few weeks in my work life, I have needed to stop myself and ask is the story I am creating and presuming about the nurture work/ training/ writing the real story or one that I am making up and presuming the worst. The one thing I have learned through the nurture work with four-year-olds is that stories can change, hope and change is always possible, we don’t always know what that will look like, but we can believe that things will change.

I try hard to create a curiosity about the stories I have in my head, why am I thinking that? do I know that is true? where is this coming from? from fear or fact? Thankfully I have an amazing husband who is great at spotting the negative stories and I have a fantastic supervisor who will listen and question the story and help me to see the story in my head is not always the real story.

Being authentic about wellbeing

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This week I have been guest lecturing in Weston Super Mare on an early years degree course on the subject of staff wellbeing. This was a fantastic opportunity to speak to people at the beginning of their career. I have spent the last 5 years writing and reflecting on wellbeing for children and staff. Through my nurture work with four-year-olds and their staff I have been able to see how crucial it is to embed good wellbeing practice into our lives. I am really fortunate to work with a team who value and support one another in putting this into our daily lives, as a team it is crucial that we are authentic in living this ourselves, we can’t offer ideas to offers if we don’t root this in our own lives.

I have recently been reflecting on what it means to authentically live this out. There are so many ideas and books out there about what you need to do to improve your wellbeing, so many voices shouting loudly about how you just need to change … or start…. then all will be well. The problem is making longterm change is not easy, it can be easy to start something, be excited about it, shout loudly about it, but then get bored, and move onto the next thing, try the next super new idea and then start shouting about that.

The joy of talking to students at the start of their career is they have the chance to embed some life-affirming, good practices now. If they can put in place some good habits, good wellbeing practice now, then these have a great chance of sticking with them. I have been reflecting a lot recently on what good wellbeing practice looks like, I think an essential element is about habit forming, doing something that is good for you regularly, that becomes part of your daily, weekly rhythm. There are a few routines, rhythms that are vital for me, swimming on a Monday-Friday, this is a mindful, contemplative time, walking around the community meadow on a Sunday morning and meeting a friend for a morning coffee most weekends. There is nothing radical in these rhythm’s, but over the last 7 years they have become an embedded part of my life, they are life affirming and life enhancing.

I have written a book for early years staff about embedding wellbeing, it’s aimed at early years staff but the ideas, practices and research are relevant for anyone.

Talking about mental illness with children

 

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Although mental health is high on the agenda, with many people including celebrities talking about their mental illness and an increasing awareness of mental illness in teens; I think as a society it can still be hard to talk to children about mental illness. I think there is still a worry that if we use the words depression and mental illness, that children will not understand or become fearful. Even with all the discussion and acknowledgment about mental illness, with new celebrities and sports stars coming out each day talking about their struggles, I still think there is a stigma. Sadly I think there is still pain and shame felt amongst families when they talk about the mental illness in their family. A friend of mine Will Taylor is an excellent child counselor, he has recently written about his own struggle with depression and how some people have told him they wouldn’t want to go a counselor who has had depression. To me, this suggests that some people still view mental illness as something that is shameful.

I firmly believe we need to talk to children from a young age about mental illness, we need to use the correct language and help them to understand what is happening, by doing this we break down the stigma. Obviously, we need to do this in an age appropriate way, in a way which helps the child to not be scared but to give them enough information to help them to understand what is going on. A common held misbelieve is that children will not notice, they will not be aware when a parent or loved one becomes depressed. However, we know that children pick up on the smallest of changes, they know when something is different. I grew up with a mum who has Bi-polar, I was a child in the 70’s when depression was never spoken about. I have memories of being 5 and recognising the warning signs that she was becoming ill, they were small, but I noticed. She would give us extra money to buy sweets, she would start baking lots, this was always the begining of a manic episode. These sound like tiny changes but I noticed. My Dad talked about my mum being ill, but it wasn’t until I was 14 in a school assembly that Mind was leading, and I heard the term mental illness and realised that was what my Mum had. Until then I had presumed she had cancer and that she would die. If we do not use the correct words with children, if we do not explain what is happening, then children will fill in the missing gaps, and often get it wrong. Our role as adults is to help children to understand that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc are all mental illness, they are not something to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, we can talk about it.

I do appreciate that it can be really hard to find the words to help a child understand, for me that is where books and films can be so helpful. I have written two books and an animation for children of different ages to help them understand Bi-polar. But there are a growing number of good resources about depression. Below I have listed and linked some of the ones I really like. On Wednesday this week, it is mental health day, there will be lots of discussions all week about mental illness, and that is great, but I would like to encourage people to talk to children as well.

 

Mummy’s Got Bippolar– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Can I tell you about Bipolar Disorder– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Mummys’ Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about anxiety- Lucy Willets and Polly Waite

Why are you so sad: A child’s book about parental depression– Beth Andrews

I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone

Pretend Friends: A story about schizophrenia and other illnesses can cause hallucinations- Alice Hoyle

The wise mouse- Virgina Ironside

The illustrated Mum- Jaqueline Wilson