We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’.

They edited ‘mad’ out of Roald Dahl books, along with ‘crazy’. 

So:

‘The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing like mad’

has become…

‘The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing frantically’.

And in the BFG:

“Boys are crazy,” Sophie said.’

has become…

‘“That one was weird,” Sophie said.’

The word ‘nutty’ has been allowed to stay, which is good news for the Nutty Professor.

This does beg a question: 

Is this political correctness gone ‘mad’? 

These edits are certainly making lots of people mad.

I wrote a book called ‘How The World Is Making Our Children Mad, And What To Do About It’. A few people on the publishing journey were uncomfortable with the ‘M’ word. But on balance, I think it is the mot juste.

Louis Weinstock’s book 'How The World Is Making Our Children Mad, And What To Do About It'

A brief history of the word ‘mad’

Before I explain why – a potted (potty?) history of the word ‘mad’.

According to the etymologists, the word ‘mad’ comes from late 13th Century Old English gemædde – “out of one’s mind”. But by the early fourteenth century, it had already picked up the meaning of “being beside oneself with anger.” In Henry IV, Shakespeare’s Hotspur says: “To be so pester’d with a popinjay, Out of my grief and my impatience, Answer’d neglectingly I know not what, He should or he should not; for he made me mad.”

smiling children posing in front of the Roald Dahl museum in the UK

In the 18th century, the first ‘mad-doctors’ began treating patients in ‘madhouses’, which were mostly private houses that held people ‘disordered in mind, who seem disposed to do mischief to himself, or another person’.

From the nineteenth century onwards, an organised group of medical professionals emerged who claimed jurisdiction over mental disturbance. And as the treatment of madness became medicalised, the language evolved. Words like ‘neurosis’ and ‘psychosis’ were coined, deriving a different kind of authority from their Greek and Latin roots. 

Of course, these new terms weren’t suddenly free of agenda. Neurosis was largely used a replacement for the by then out of fashion term ‘hysteria’, used to describe women who Victorian physicians believed had ’weak nerves’- they were more sensitive and mentally and emotionally fragile than men.

Madness and mental health

The word ‘mad’ didn’t suddenly disappear under the white lab coats and latin suffixes of the new psychiatric sciences. To this day, the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a popular figure. The term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from the hat-making industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, when workers in hat-making factories were getting tremors and hallucinations from the mercury used in the hats.

When I was about 10, I loved reading MAD magazine. I remember the naughty sense of humour, and those fold-in pages at the back where you would find the answer to a question by folding the back pages in and discovering it made a different (often rude) image with different words.

In 1999, the Mad Pride movement was started by four men who had all experienced mental health issues and wanted to reclaim their ‘Mad’ identity. One of the founders, Mark Roberts, explained that he wanted to reclaim the ‘M’ word in the same way black people had reclaimed the ‘N’ word. 

Similarly, today there are a series of online magazines like Mad In America and Mad In The UK that provide a platform for challenging the mainstream model of mental health treatment.

‘Mad’ is a word that has power. 

Sometimes the word is used to objectify and enslave another human, as in:

‘You must be mad, woman!’ from The Witches (now changed to ‘“You must be out of your mind!”).

Books by Roald Dahl. Some of his much-loved children's books have been altered to remove words such as "fat," "ugly," and "mad."

With the history of women’s oppression, with words like ‘hysteria’ (meaning ‘from the womb’) being used to ‘other’ and control women’s emotional states, most can understand the sensitivity here.

But, sometimes, the word ‘mad’ can be empowering, liberating, as in Jack Kerouac’s lines: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”  

Madness and society

What any particular society deems ‘madness’ can illuminate, as historian Andrew Scull explains: ‘madness reminds insistently of how tenuous our own hold on reality may sometimes be. It challenges our sense of the very limits of what it is to be human.’ 

When we edit out the wild, passionate, naughty, uncontained energy behind a word like ‘mad’, what possible reality are we saying yes to, and what are we saying no to?

And, sometimes, we can reclaim madness as having more intelligence, more wisdom than those behaviours deemed ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ or ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’, as is the sense behind Emily Dickenson’s gorgeous poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Sometimes madness have more intelligence, more wisdom than those behaviours deemed ‘sane’, ‘rational’, ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’

What ‘madness’ can teach us beyond mental health?

And so, I don’t want to blanket edit the word ‘mad’ about of my book or out of the world. Mad describes the energy of the youth climate marches, millions of young people taking their anger to the streets to fight for a viable future. Mad points to the ‘divinest Sense’, the lessons a discerning eye can see in our children’s psychological suffering. What if they are simply responding to a world that isn’t meeting their needs. What if their symptoms (which are also our symptoms – stress, anxiety, depression, burnout) are unconscious, intelligent forms of resistance to a mad world.

Our children are growing up feeling like they are in some way mad, bad, or broken. But its this speeded-up, self-centered, competitive, polarised, race-to-the-bottom world that is mad.

I refuse to let this world make me feel like I am going mad.

I refuse to let that happen to the children I care for.

I hope you do too.

Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

(Image from Izhar Cohen)

Whose definition of success are you following?

Do feel the pressure of life speeding up, the relentless struggle to keep on top of things?

Do you sense some kind of burnout or breakdown looming?

Do you ever wonder when this relentless juggernaut is going to stop?

Please consider these words that follow as an invitation – an invitation to slow down and tune into an inner sanctuary for your exhausted soul.

I was inspired to write this article when, at the end of 2022 I saw my news feed filling with people listing their successes – launched a podcast, wrote a book, sold a business, got one million subscribers on Youtube. At first, I felt a pang of not enough, and a feeling that I needed to try harder, work harder and achieve more in 2023. 

But then I felt pissed off. I was pissed off that no-one was declaring: ‘I smashed it in 2022, because I spent 50% more time with my child/partner/in nature.’ I was also pissed off because I too get hooked on these cultural messages that tell us the only way to find meaning in life is to ‘slay’ more (as the kids say), create more content, have more followers, be more productive. These dominant stories about success are like a global virus, spreading from one body to another and creating a world of exhausted souls.

Well, I am tired of chasing someone else’s definition of success. I am tired of being dragged away from my own sense of what is right and true. My soul is exhausted.

We live in an achievement society. The idea of success entrenched in our culture is about the lone wolf, the individual hero who has battled against the odds to rise to the top. We celebrate the influencers, the big hitters, the bestsellers. Have you ever heard the term ‘blitzscaling’? It is a term promoted in a book and podcast by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, to promote an idea that the only way to be successful in business is to pursue aggressive growth at all costs. I think this term sums up the cancerous nature of our current paradigm of success. 

Behind the veil of our blitzscaled, achievement obsessions lies a different story – a story of collective burnout and breakdown. We destroy our habitat chasing infinite growth. We destroy our minds and bodies chasing infinite growth.

In this mad world, whatever we can do or be is never enough. In The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung-Chul Han says that ‘Depression reflects a humanity waging war on itself. The complaint of the depressive individual, “Nothing is possible” can only occur in a society that thinks, “Nothing is impossible”.’

When will it ever stop?

Many people I work with in my therapy practice have been brought to their knees chasing someone else’s definition of success. Fame, money, status, and even impact have not brought them to the promised land of everlasting joy. Surprise. Surprise.

I used to support an ex gang member who was setting up his own charity to dispel the myths around the life of a gangster. His slogan was ‘selling dreams, delivering nightmares.’ The same applies to the ideals of success that infect us today.

As we compulsively chase success, ramping up our productivity, we negatively impact those around us.

We surround ourselves with successful people, and lose touch with old friends.

We are so busy trying to scale our business, we don’t notice our child has been self-harming.

We are so focused on ‘growing our community’, we don’t help the elderly neighbour next door.

We grow our personal brand, and lose touch with our true self.

Enough is enough, I say!

We need to stop, gather together, and take time to redefine success in a way that feels true, authentic, and sustainable.

I don’t have all the answers. But I do know we need collectively to begin a gentle but radical inquiry into the roots of this deep and harmful pattern. We need to create an inner sanctuary for all the different parts of us that are engaged in this burnout dynamic.

So where do we begin?

Well, it helps to accept some basic facts about our human beingness. We are mimetic creatures, which means we desire what others desire, even if it’s not fun, not what we really want, and even if what we desire is actually bad for our mental health and bad for our planet. Philosopher René Girard called this ‘mimetic desire’. Let me explain it with a little story about my daughter Rose Gaia.

I once took Rose to a soft play in London’s Finsbury Park. This place had the best toys, hamsters you could feed, and a machine with two big, bright, red-and-green buttons that rocketed balls to the other side of the room. As Rose scanned the room, her eyes latched onto a green tractor in the corner. This was a supremely dull, coin-operated toy that rocked back and forth making dull, tractor noises. But . . . there was a boy on it, and so Rose wanted what he had. Rose ran past all the really fun activities over to the green tractor where I had to repeatedly stop her from climbing onto the machine. Eventually, the tractor stopped rocking and the boy dismounted. Now Rose finally had a seat. I put 50 pence in the machine. The tractor began its dull rocking motion, making dull tractor noises. Rose sat there looking a bit confused. She had been desperate to get on this machine, but now she was on it, she was clearly not having fun. But she refused to get off, she couldn’t get off the tractor, even when the tractor stopped its rocking motion, and even though the other children were clearly having loads of fun elsewhere.

We want what other people want. It is deeply ingrained in us. What green tractors are you riding in your life? I believe many of us are riding a massive green tractor called ‘success’. This tractor isn’t that fun, it leaves us feeling depleted and it takes us away from the things that can really nurture our soul. I suspect if you have read this far then you sense this to be true. But, it is hard to break out of the pattern. Words are cheap. We can say: ‘Oh let’s all just slow down, be more present, smell the roses.’ But this is not easy to do when the environment around us is speeding up, when our nervous systems are being relentlessly activated by messages leaving us feeling anxious that we are not good enough.

Here is a good question for you: How do we know when we are enough? How do we know when we have worked enough? Achieved enough? Grown enough? Healed enough?

We carry over from the industrial age the idea of an eight hour work day. I personally feel that if I haven’t worked a minimum of eight hours, I haven’t done enough. But now I want to deeply question these beliefs. What if an ideal day is spending four hours doing deep creative work in service to those who need it, followed by two hours of personal recreation and at least two hours spent with family, neighbours, friends, volunteering. Does this sound crazy or unrealistic to you? If so why?

I do realise I’m writing this from the privileged position of someone who has been able to set up a freelance life, where I can choose when I want to work, and don’t have anyone to report to in terms of how I spend my time. This isn’t possible for everyone, at least not immediately. But I do know that the same mimetic desires cut across our culture. When I ran a therapeutic school for teenagers with complex trauma, there were a group of boys who were obsessed with a brand of designer jeans called Ringspun Allstar. These jeans cost about £100 a pair, even 10 years ago. The boys couldn’t afford the jeans, so they got rip off ones instead. And one day they told me that a young boy in their hood was robbed for his Ringspun Allstar jeans, and got stabbed to death. 

It hasn’t always been like this. In Cannibals and Kings, anthropologist Marvin Harris explained that: “In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state, the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at—or if they would work at all.… Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.” This clearly a time before the internet, instant messaging, and always-on culture.

It hasn’t always been like this. The late anthropologist and activist David Graeber once said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.” How might the world look differently, if we started to move into a different, more gentle, more collaborative, more self-and-other-and-planet-loving definition of success?

I have been particularly interested in the spiritual idea of the Sabbath. A day a week where it is prohibited to do any work at all. A day a week where the emphasis is on spending time with family, in community and in communion with the spiritual realm. I feel envious of orthodox Jewish people who completely switch off for a day a week. It is hard to do this on your own. Much easier when you have signed up to a community or an institution with clear rules and prohibitions. Without supportive community, it is really hard to make these changes. I loved hearing this idea that the Sabbath is a mutual non-compete clause. A sacred space and a time where a group of people decide to step outside the rat race and just be with one another. How might we nurture the seeds of a new non-compete clause with each other not just on one day of the week, but across our lives?

I have more questions than answers. I know that’s not the done thing in our current world of success. I’m supposed to have figured it all out, to have a list of 10 steps to redefine success, a proven formula that you can rinse, repeat, and scale. But I am content for now to sit with questions. There are a few in this article, and I will leave you with two more for now. I recommend taking some time to reflect on the questions, let them percolate, journal about them, dance with them, there is no rush to find the perfect answer, and in that sentiment perhaps there is the thing we seek.

  1. What are your biggest fears about letting go of your current, unhelpful ideas about success?
  2. What does your heart most long for? 

Love

Louis

 

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The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that seeks to apply rational thinking to decide the optimum way to help the most people. This is a quote from the effective altruism website: “This project matters because, while many attempts to do good fail, some are enormously effective. For instance, some charities help 100 or even 1,000 times as many people as others, when given the same amount of resources.”

Sam Bankman-Fried was a card-carrying Effective Altruist. He started his crypto firm with the specific mission to make as much money as possible, so that he could give it all away. He was following an Effective Altruism principle – ‘earn to give’ – which advises people to make a lot of money first, so that they can have an outsized philanthropic impact.

Many of the biggest advocates of Effective Altruism are Rationalists and/or Technologists like Steven Pinker, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Dustin Moskovitz (one of the founders of Facebook). One thing that unites these people is a belief in the power of human reason to solve humanity’s biggest problems. In a podcast this week, Sam Harris talked about empathy being a ‘bug’ in our human coding, not a ‘feature’. Humans are biased – we would prefer to help one individual we can feel a connection to, rather than one hundred people we only know as data and don’t feel an emotional connection to. If we can fix this ‘bug’, override our empathy, we can make more rational decisions and help more people more effectively.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting our charitable efforts to be as effective as possible. But I worry about the worship of Rationality at the expense of other elements of our human beingness.

If you see a child on your street who is starving, cold, and alone, you could take them into your home, give them some food and a warm bath. But if you know that in 10 years time, 1000 children in a different country will be starving, cold, and alone, and that you could help with the same amount of time and effort, you have a moral obligation to help them, not the child on your street.

This might seem like a simplistic and abstract example. But the Effective Altruism movement has diverted money, lots of money, to specific causes that are supposedly rationally calculated through research to be the most important and effective causes we should be giving money and time to. The movement has recently focused a lot of attention and resource into dealing with long-term existential risks, like the threat of AI and predicting future pandemics. These are important matters. But as Linda Kinstler writes in The Economist: “Bankman-Fried…was a proponent of the longtermist ethos, in which prediction and speculation are often indistinguishable and obligations to a probabilistic future outweigh those to the material present.”

This doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea of Effective Altruism. But we need to acknowledge that human beings, even the supposedly most rational ones, are driven by non-rational forces. Elon Musk can do a single tweet about crypto that sends stocks plummeting. A month later he can do a tweet that sends crypto stocks soaring. Markets are not rational, because they are formed of networks of human beings who are easily influenced by others emotions, and a single person’s opinion. Elon Musk is not a super rational machine.

I am grateful we have people thinking about existential risks that our children and their children will face. But I refuse to accept that my empathy or my desire to help the person in front of me is a ‘bug’.

Karma Yoga is in many ways the opposite of Effective Altruism. Karma Yoga is the practice of helping people without being attached to the outcome. In the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna says: “Therefore, without being attached to the results of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”

When we are too attached to the outcome of our helping, we easily lose sight of the person in front of us who is suffering. In his book How Can I Help? Ram Dass says that: “At times, helping simply happens in the way of things. It’s not something we really think about, merely the instinctive response of an open heart. Caring is a reflex. Someone slips, your arm goes out. A car is in the ditch, you join others and push…You live, you help.”

Unlike the code on which Bankman-Fried’s crypto-bubble was built, life is often non-binary. We don’t have to choose between empathy and reason, or between effective altruism and karma yoga. Ultimately, who and how we choose to help is a decision based on our own values. And it helps to acknowledge that.

For me, I know that when I am focused on helping the person in front of me, letting go of attachment to outcomes, a certain kind of peace arises within me. And who can calculate the ripples that spread from us across time and space, when we operate from a place of peace.

 

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Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

 

Image by Sam Thomas, Douglas Sacha

In the opening scene of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice is bored and wondering whether she can be bothered to make a daisy chain, when suddenly she sees a white rabbit with pink eyes, a waistcoat and a watch.  ‘Burning with curiosity’, Alice follows the rabbit down the hole, ‘never once considering how in the world she was going to get out again.’

In the 21st Century, rabbit-holes abound, but they are rabbit-holes of a different kind. We are pulled into these rabbit holes through our screens, beneath which lie hypnotic algorithmic powers from behaviour modification empires (as Jaron Lanier calls them) way more sinister and subtle than the Queen of Hearts. It is ‘off with our heads’ – we are decapitated without realising it into a bottomless virtual reality.

I’m thinking about rabbit-holes because of Molly Russell, the 14-year old girl who took her own life after falling down a rabbit hole that her father Ian described as a ‘demented trail of life-sucking content.’

I’m also thinking of rabbit-holes because of something that happened to me last week.

I got commissioned to write a piece for a very well respected, very established broadsheet in the UK. The piece was following on from the Molly Russell case, an expert-led piece giving much needed guidance to parents worried about their kids and social media. I wrote the piece, and it was due to be published last Sunday.

But at the last hour, I got an email explaining that this particular, well respected, well established newspaper had decided to go instead with as celebrity interview, where said celebrity talked about their kids social media use.

There is a dark irony here.

Molly Russell used an anonymous Twitter account to ask for help from celebrities and influencers who she had seen posting about their own experience of depression. They never responded. Her father, Ian Russell, described it as “calling out into a void”.

If our established broadsheets are preferring celebrity interviews over expert opinion, then it is no wonder these institutions are losing our trust. These institutions too are being sucked into the same rabbit holes.

In this post-truth world, our children increasingly don’t know who to trust. And yet, having one safe person to trust is necessary for our children’s mental health. Trust is required to say YES to life. Trust grows in the fertile soil of honest, authentic relationship. These relationships are not the relationships we imagine we have with celebrities or influencers.

Please take a moment to read my original article below – a guide for parents on keeping their kids safe on social media – and please share it. I would really like this article to reach parents who might be looking for help on this topic, and who don’t want to fall down any more rabbit-holes filled with celebrities and influencers and a fantasy of trust.

Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

In most ways, the internet is a powerful, wonderful tool, but, as the tragic case of Molly Russell showed, it poses a real and significant harm to our kids, especially in the murky algorithm-driven world of social media. We are getting towards the stage where our children are not necessarily more safe in their bedrooms than out on the streets. As recent history proves, we can’t wait for regulation or the social media giants to change their game. We need to take matters into our own hands. Here’s what parents can do.

Your teenager still needs you

When our kids become teenagers, they start to look, feel and smell different, like mini adults. No longer cherubim, our relationship with them has to adapt. But, beneath their sometimes strident quest for independence, it’s important to remember that they still really need us.

Adolescence is a critical and vulnerable time of development.  Most mental health problems begin in adolescence. Brains are particularly plastic during this period, which means they are easily shaped by the environment they are plugged into. The good news is that this is also a critical period when we can embed good mental health in our children.

We need to make sure that we as parents play a bigger role in our child’s life than social media does. We need to hold onto our relationship with our kids. Not coddling them, but listening to them, loving and respecting them, with very clear, negotiated boundaries. In my experience, young people are very able to reflect wisely on their social media use when they don’t feel they are being judged.

Get across the tech

Most devices and browsers have built-in parental controls, which you can use to restrict the access your children have to harmful content. There are also parental control settings and accessories for your wi-fi router, allowing you to set specific controls for specific devices in the house, and logging a detailed history of what websites your children have visited. With social media, it gets a bit trickier. There are some apps that will allow you to monitor your child’s social media use, but most parents I speak to feel like this is too much of an invasion of privacy. Some parents have access to their child’s social media password and have an agreement to check their account if they are ever concerned about them. Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember that these technical solutions are never 100% effective, and your relationship with your child is the most effective tool you have.

Bedrooms are for sleeping

I used to run a therapeutic school in London for teenagers with complex trauma. Anita was 15 years old, feisty as hell, and the first to have a smart phone — a Blackberry. She told me she had been sleeping with her Blackberry under her pillow, and hadn’t slept a wink last night because it was pinging through the night with messages about a “beef” between two of her friends. The drama of the day continued to sear into her nervous system through the night.

If we want our children to have good mental health, they need good sleep. Whether they are 10 or 16, they can’t have devices in their bedroom when they sleep. It’s that black and white. For the sake of our children’s minds, this needs to be a hard and fast rule. I know it’s not always easy to establish these boundaries. But it’s important. You might let your 15-year-old have a small glass of wine at the dinner table, but you wouldn’t let them take a bottle of wine into their bedroom, especially if that bottle of wine is being filled up every night with toxic content we have absolutely no control over. I know many families who have a device box. They set a certain time of evening after which devices need to be in the box. Yes, this may need to apply to us grown-ups too. Let’s face it, we are all addicted to our devices. Figure out your own way to do this, but bedrooms are for sleeping, sleep is critical for mental health, and you are still their parents.

Unplug from the ‘digital nervous system’

In this hyperconnected age, our nervous systems are increasingly connected to the nervous systems of the eight billion people on our planet. The algorithm-charged emotions that rage through the internet trigger our sympathetic nervous system. If a child is looking frequently at this kind of content their nervous system is getting a steady stream of cues that they are unsafe.

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this. They need safe spaces away from devices to process these emotional storms. Even just having a family mealtime without devices is a step in the right direction. Ideally, we need to spend a little 1-1 time with them each day, offering them that space to digest. Even if we don’t talk, just by being there with them, going for a walk, or doing some art or activity together, we are staying connected to them.

It’s important we have space to process our own emotions too, of course. Like the red-faced, stressed-out teacher who shouts at the children in his class to ‘calm down!’, it doesn’t work when we try to impose on our children something we haven’t already accessed within ourselves. It can help to ask yourself what emotions were not acceptable in your family of origin? Can you give yourself just a little bit of extra permission for that feeling to be there? It can help to find that feeling in the body, put a nurturing hand on it, and let the feeling know it’s ok for it to be there.

You Are The Captain Of Their Ship

A mum I worked with found out her daughter had been self-harming, disclosed in a fraught, emotional moment. The mum had also self-harmed at a similar age (I often find these patterns repeat in families). Since the disclosure, the mum had been frantically looking for help from organisations, therapists, online forums. The mum soon discovered that her daughter had also been frantically looking for help on social media, forums, influencers, websites. Two people in the same house, desperately seeking help on the internet for the same problem, in silos.

I helped the mum to remember she was probably the best placed person to help her daughter. Not only does she know her daughter better than any professional ever will, but, in this case, she also had her own lived experience of what her daughter was going through. Trauma expert Bessel Ven Der Kolk says that “the parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind.” You might not feel equipped to deal with whatever challenges your teenager is bringing. And sometimes professional help is necessary. But you need to be the captain of their ship, their safe space guiding them through the emotional storms of 21st century life.

The S-word

There is a dangerous myth that says if we talk about suicide we make it more real, more likely to happen. The research shows the opposite to be true, and confirms my clinical experience. As parenting consultant Roma Norriss says: “It’s tricky talking about suicide, but it’s better than not talking about it.”

The difficult and sad truth is that suicides are increasing amongst our young people, especially our girls. Although the causes of suicide are complex, the clients I have worked with who thought about or attempted suicide have said it felt like the only way to stop overwhelming feelings. What these clients needed was to feel that they were not alone in their feelings, to have a sense that their feelings were bearable. If we can guide our teenage children through their emotional states, even the most intense ones, we teach them that emotions are bearable and temporary.

I once worked with a 14-year old boy called Ainsley who had given up on life after reading online about the climate crisis. All the adults around him seemed ‘fake, with big fake smiles, acting as though everything was OK’ while Ainsley could see the world was in a hopeless mess. A huge part of me wanted to give him hope, to tell him, ‘It will all be OK’. I suggested he channel his despair into joining a movement, Extinction Rebellion or the Youth Climate Protests. My ideas were instantly rebuffed as palliative care. ‘It’s too late,’ he said. ‘I’ve read the science. Nothing we do now can make any difference.’ After a few jarring sessions where each of my attempts to give him hope fell flat, I realised I had to do something different. I had to let go, completely let go, of my desire to make Ainsley feel better. I had to connect with a place inside of myself that also felt hopeless about the future. This is not an easy space for any of us to inhabit. But, once I’d attuned to Ainsley’s nihilism, once I’d let his despair become a possible truth in my heart, things began to shift. He opened up to me. He found a little hope.

We all experience dark moments in our lives. What helps us to get through is when people can genuinely validate our emotional experience. It helps if this is in person. Online connections can help. But humans are designed to need face-to-face, body-to-body contact and community to help them through tough times.

See if you can find a way to shine a light onto their experience without minimising or denying it. Don’t wait for them to come to you. You can say something like: “It seems like things are really tough for you right now. I’m here to listen. I love you and I care what happens to you.” If you are worried that they are finding harmful content online, you have to draw a line. Of course, get professional help if you see signs of self-harm or suicidal thinking. Papyrus are a great charity in the UK working to prevent suicide in our children.

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Even if social media companies curb their demented trails of life-sucking content, new technologies will emerge with new harms, like the meteoric rise of vaping after smoking lost its cool. This is a time to remember that parents matter. Our kids, even those grumpy teenage ones, still really need us.

 

 

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A Very Brief Guide to Using Mindfulness with Children and Adolescents

A Very Brief Guide to Using Mindfulness with Children and Adolescents

A Very Brief Guide to Using Mindfulness with Children and Adolescents

So you have heard about mindfulness, perhaps used it yourself, and you think it would help a child you are either parent to or work with. I have written here a very brief, step-by-step guide to using mindfulness with children, based on my experience using mindfulness in my work with children and adolescents for the last 6 years. Below are two definitions of mindfulness. The first is my own definition, and the second is the clinical definition. After this, you will find my step-by-step guide:

‘Mindfulness is listening to yourself and your environment with compassion, curiosity and acceptance.’

‘Mindfulness is the regulation of psychological and autonomic arousal by increasing perceptual distance from somatic pain and maladaptive thoughts and emotions.’

  1. The first most important step is that you ideally would not be recommending mindfulness unless you practise it yourself. If you are clearly struggling with an aspect of your own mind, be it stress, anxiety, low moods, et cetera, then the child will likely find your suggestions of mindfulness hypocritical, and they will resist. Children are much smarter and intuitive than most people give them credit. So, if you are interested first in learning mindfulness yourself, you can get in touch with me, find an MBCT, MBSR course near you, or use the excellent Headspace app. Here is a brilliant animation by Headspace which explains mindfulness practice.

2. Once you have a practice in place, and you can truly know from personal experience the benefits of mindfulness, you will be more able to mindfully check your expectations. If you are hoping that this is going to be a miracle cure, stopping tantrums, bringing A-grades at school, whatever, then you are likely to be disappointed. It is also very likely that the child in question will be picking up on your frustration with them, and internalising it, creating inner conflict. You may well find that simply practising mindfulness yourself will have the amazing knock-on effect of making the children you are concerned about more calm. I can tell you this is a very likely outcome.

3. Having said this, there is a large and growing evidence-base for the benefits of mindfulness with children. Here is a good overview.

4. It is vital to remember that children are naturally mindful. I am sure you have seen a child fully absorbed in sensory play with a simple object. Well, this is our natural state of mindfulness, our heritage.

 5. But children lose touch with their natural mindfulness, especially in the modern world, as their attention gets divided and their minds get clogged up with information.

6. To bring children back to their natural state, play is the way. It is not necessary, and is in fact counter-productive, for children to be forced to sit down for lengths of time, eyes closed, trying really hard to focus. This kind of approach just adds another layer of adult neurosis into their sensitive, rapidly forming brains. One of the most effective mindfulness tricks I have used in the last years has been the very simple and fun Noise Game. In this game, you simply have the child, the group (yes…that’s including you) jump up and down and make as much noise and movement as possible for one minute. After a minute, you shout STOP, and get the child/ren to be as still as possible for one minute. You can talk them through this second minute, getting them to notice their heartbeat, feet on the floor, sounds in the room. This is really a variation of musical statues, which again, can be turned into a mindfulness exercise in the same way.

 7. Most games can be turned into exercises in mindfulness if you ask the right questions in the right way.  Just getting the child to tune into their senses whilst playing any game makes mindfulness something fun to do, rather than another chore, like doing homework.

 8. This is especially true in nature. Simply by noticing things in nature with our senses, the children naturally learn from us, and we subtly encourage them to do the same. Of course phones will ideally be switched off.

 9. For adolescents, the only real difference is that they may not be so keen to play games with you. In this case, I have found it really helpful to engage adolescents through tapping into their own interests. Whether they like sports, dance, singing, reading, most interests and activities can be enhanced with a dash of mindfulness. Engaging their senses, or getting them to notice the rise and fall of their breath, before, during or after these activities they love will enhance their enjoyment of the activity, and is also likely to improve their performance.

 10.If you are very concerned about your child or teenager’s mental health, and these simple playful exercises are not enough, then please get in touch for a free consultation. At the moment, there are no mindfulness for children programmes that I know of in London, other than programmes delivered in schools by .b (I am a qualified .b teacher) and other similar organisations. I can offer a tailored mindfulness programme individually or as a group, depending on the needs.

 11. So, the key lesson from this very brief guide is that mindfulness is our natural state, and that generally children and adolescents can tune back into this state easily, if they are encouraged in a playful, accepting, and compassionate way, by somebody who practises mindfulness themselves.

I am very happy to offer an initial consultation to explore mindfulness further with you. Alternatively, should you wish to explore this in your own time, here are a couple of resources I can vouch for:

themindfulparent.org/

Elise Snel, Sitting Like a Frog

However you decide to implement mindfulness with the children you have in mind, may you all find peace in the process.

Louis