how the parenting experts parent


The clinical psychologist: ‘In a family you need a buffer zone for defusing difficult situations’

Dr Cathy Burges works with child and adolescent mental health services embedded in youth offending teams in Berkshire
I don’t know whether it comes from seeing some very challenging and disturbing situations at work, but I think I’m reasonably relaxed as a parent. There have been times when my teens have done something that I would think is normal – like staying out too late or having a drink – but other parents have reacted very strongly. I feel that young people should be able to make mistakes safely. It helps them become stronger adults.

Being a parent has undoubtedly helped me be better at my job. And working with troubled young people has certainly helped my parenting. I started my career when my oldest child was one, so my parenting has grown with my clinical practice; my children are now 19, 18, 16 and 13.

Lots of my young clients have had awful experiences – family breakup is just one – and, being teens, their brains aren’t fully developed so they’re more likely to feel things more keenly. My tactic is to ask myself: what is the function of that behaviour? Take an offender who might have been carrying a knife: when you dig down and find the reason, you begin to understand that maybe they’ve been held at gunpoint [and felt they had to protect themselves]. I do ask myself that question with my own kids. Hopefully, they don’t think I’m analysing them.

I have an office at home, which is great for defusing difficult situations. My children might say, “Mum, can I have a chat in your office please?” It’s a buffer zone, and you do need one in a family.

The dentist: ‘I’m happy for them to eat sugary treats at mealtimes, but fizzy drinks are banned’

Charlotte Waite chairs the British Dental Association England Community Dental Services Committee
I work with children with additional needs; they’re referred to me because they might have difficulty seeing a dentist because of anxiety or disabilities.

My own girls are now nine and 11, and having them has made me a better dentist, especially when it comes to communication, not only with my patients, but also their parents. Sometimes it’s actually the parents who are very anxious. I can see a clear correlation between the parents’ anxiety and issues their child has. There’s lots of research to back that up. It’s made me very conscious of projecting my own anxieties on to my children.

Lollies and rock are awful. It’s the prolonged contact with sugar on the teeth that is a real problem

I still supervise both my girls brushing their teeth. I’m happy for them to eat some sweets and sugary treats, but only at mealtimes, and all fizzy drinks are banned. I don’t like them having anything too acidic, and lollies and rock are awful. It’s the prolonged contact with sugar on the teeth that is a real problem.

I am afraid I’m obsessed with children falling and breaking their teeth. If one of mine falls, it’s all about, “OK, nice bruise – show me your teeth!” I speak from experience – I fell and broke my own front teeth when I was 11. It was traumatic and impacted on my future career choice because it made me realise how important it is that children get really good, sensitive dental care.

The dietician: ‘Breastfeeding was far from the magical experience I’d expected’

Bini Sureshbabu manages paediatric and adult services for the North East London Foundation Trust
I’ve always known that breastfeeding is best for a baby, so with Alyssa, who is three, I was adamant I’d do it for six months: but she got jaundice, lost 20% of her body weight in her first week, and ended up on formula. After that, I struggled: it was painful, I didn’t enjoy it, and it was far from the magical experience I’d expected it to be. In the end I stopped at around three months; and these days I’d tell patients to aim for six months, but that the most important thing is to look after yourself.

When I was a child we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we’d finished our meal; but now we know that can make children into fussy eaters. All the same, I’ve sometimes shocked myself by saying things designed to guilt trip my children into eating: “There are children in the world who don’t get the food you get!”

The thing about children and food is that it’s so easy to let your anxiety get the better of you. For example, I know the right thing to do with a child who’s being fussy about food is to offer a meal, give them time to eat it and not offer an alternative if it’s not eaten. But there have been times when Alyssa has refused food and I’ve gone to find alternatives. With Reeve, who is one, I don’t do that.

Another mistake I made with Alyssa was to try to avoid a mess when she was eating: I’d cover her in a bib, and wipe her hands if they got food on them. But children need to explore and have fun with food.

The children’s counsellor: ‘When they do tests at school, don’t ask: “What did so-and-so get?”’

Laura Campbell is employed by The Spark, which provides school-based counselling in Scotland
Like many parents, I’ve often made flippant remarks to my children – Lewis, nine and Carrie, five – to get them to do things. Then later, when I’ve been in a counselling situation, I’ve realised how much children take things to heart. Sometimes I’ve come home and apologised to my own kids as a result. One little boy told me he was frightened because his mum had told him he’d be taken away if he didn’t behave – and I realised I’d said to my son, a similar age, that if he wasn’t well behaved, a mythical Scottish figure called Maggie Murphy might come to get him. It’s easy to underestimate the effect on a child of what you say.

It’s also so easy to worry about how your child is doing in relation to others: we all do it

It’s also so easy to worry about how your child is doing in relation to others: we all do it, but I’ve realised the crucial thing is to put your own child first. So when they do tests at school, don’t ask, “What did so-and-so get?” because you’re setting them up to feel that impossible things are expected of them, which is very damaging. They end up believing nothing they do will ever be good enough, and then they become reluctant even to attempt anything.

My son Lewis, for example, is focused on becoming a footballer. I’d love nothing more than for him to succeed; I know I should be realistic, but I don’t want to burst the bubble. So we sat down with a piece of paper and wrote “professional footballer” in the middle. Then we wrote down all the other jobs he could do that are connected with football: manager; coach; sports therapist; trainer. It’s made him realise that everything doesn’t rest on one single outcome. It’s taken off some of the pressure – but means he can still reach for his dream.

The financial expert: ‘My kids get pocket money – but they get half for good behaviour, and half for doing chores’

Russell Winnard is director of programmes and services for Young Money
I’ve tried hard as a parent to talk about money with my children. Societally, it’s still quite taboo. Chatting about rent, mortgages, how much it costs to turn on the lights and TV – kids need to know. But you have to remember that normal financial interactions you take for granted as an adult can seem baffling to a child. Talking through what happens when you pay for a basket of shopping by waving your card at a scanner, with no actual cash leaving your wallet, is actually quite important.

My kids get pocket money – but they get half for good behaviour, and half for doing chores. It’s about making the link between doing and earning.

Sometimes it’s hard – especially when your kids get bigger and the things they’re after get more expensive. One of mine wanted festival tickets, which we paid for on the understanding that we’d be paid back with additional chores. So far, that’s not happening as fast as I would like.

Research tells us that at the age of seven children are starting to form spending habits, so you should instil values that will help them respect and understand money. It’s about simple, experiential learning, and sometimes it’s hard for schools to do this – taking groups out to shops isn’t easy. It’s something I’ve done with all three of my children, who are 11, 14 and 17. Taking them shopping, showing them how money works, how to budget a shop, is crucial.

The speech and language therapist: ‘I thought I had to crack the naughty step, and fretted that it didn’t work. Then I decided to trust my knowledge of my own child’

Jude Philip is cofounder of non-profit organisation Grow Communication
The way I work has changed massively since becoming a parent. Before I had children, I’d give advice to parents who brought theirs to see me, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I realised how hard it is to follow through.

My first child, Aidan, died shortly after he was born, and that’s helped me bring compassion and humanity to both my work and my parenting.

Aidan was born with Potter syndrome, which affects kidney development. I remember hearing a fellow speech therapist refer to one of their clients as being “syndromey” and cringed. That was someone’s child they were talking about. I try to see each child as an individual.

Putting children in developmental boxes is handy, but it’s simplistic. It’s far too easy to become influenced by people telling you what to do. I remember thinking I had to crack the naughty step, and fretting that it didn’t seem to work. I decided to trust my knowledge of my own child, and have the confidence to deal with it in a different way.

It’s really helpful, as a parent, to be in contact with young people professionally. I love the insight they give me. I think it’s a mistake to claim you’re an expert in any aspect of your life – it’s always important to keep an open mind. My other two children, and those I work with, always show me that.

The child psychologist: ‘I remember clearly using biscuit therapy to keep my toddler quiet. These are the realities of parenthood’

Selina Warlow is a child psychologist
My job is both the worst and best for being a parent. On the one hand, I’m so fortunate to have the research and theory at my fingertips. But, on the other hand, it does magnify parental anxiety.

When my first child was very young, I was dealing with children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, and then came home and watched my very active baby rolling around. I found myself doing what I would advise my clients to do: creating a diary, filming her, building up a developmental history. In reality, she was just being a normal baby, but because I had the theory in my head, I had set off on a new path. This is exactly when I really value my husband’s input; we’re two halves of our children’s parenting.

As a clinician, it’s very easy to disassociate when it’s not your child. You can dispense all kinds of advice, but you have to be careful of doing so within a bubble. You need to see how that advice sits in the context of a family. The parental emotional pull is very strong. Take the principle of time out – yes, it’s a space for a child to reflect and think, and that’s what I would tell clients. But sometimes I’d do it with my own children and just want to get them back for a cuddle.

I also remember all too clearly trying to breastfeed my second baby and using biscuit therapy to keep my toddler quiet. These are the realities of parenthood.

My worst fear is meeting a client in the supermarket with both my children. It’s guaranteed that they’ll be rampaging and I’ll have no control.

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