Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Superpowers for Parents by Dr Stephen Briers

Following on from the last posts about books, books, books it seems apt to comment that is dangerous; one book leads to another. They are very good at linking books so that while looking at one title, another pops up and you think “that looks interesting” and click. Before you know it there are ten books in your basket. And I’m the sucker who buys them all.

A virtual “chain of books” is how I came across Dr Stephen Brier’s Superpowers for Parents: The Psychology of Great Parenting and Happy Children. It’s a very interesting parenting book and I have really enjoyed it.

I became a fan of Dr B reading his introduction. “Previous generations of parents would probably shake their head in wonder at the idea of us all striving to be better parents. In the old days, childrearing was just common sense or a traditional way of doing things, handed down largely unquestioned from one generation to the next...our parenting, like so many aspects of modern life, is now subject to constant scrutiny and evaluation from both within and without. Never has parenting been such a self-conscious and guilt-stricken affair.”

The best summary of what the book is about is in the epilogue. SB says he wrote the book with three goals in mind. One, to try and help parents understand WHY children misbehave. Two, that skirmishes we have with our children are nothing compared to the internal battles our children have with their own feelings and impulses and three, to encourage a shift in emphasis in parenting beyond the management of children’s behaviour to embrace the broader opportunities and privileges and to acknowledge our duty to equip them with the psychological skills they need.

As I enjoy understanding the psychology of what children do I found it fascinating. Superpowers is all about how your child views the world and the emotions they are experiencing – emotions that are often more than they know how to deal with. It’s not so much about how to cope with bad behaviour but what emotions might be causing the bad behaviour and how to help control them.

I can already see it translating into my understanding of how my children are behaving, and maybe why, every day. It has already changed my approach to some situations, trying to stop and think how they are feeling and the effect that is having. (Although having written that I’ve not been terribly patient with my three year old lately, we always seem to be rushing and I always seem to be dragging him along, chivvying him to hurry – and I don’t need SB to tell me that’s not positive for anyone. We need to slow down and not always try and cram so much into every minute, but that’s not always possible, especially when you are doing everything on your own. I think we are all ready for the pause that is Half Term.)

An Amazon reviewer commented “I have found since reading this book that I am much more aware of my own responses and attitude towards children's behaviour and speech in school as well as at home.” This comment was in relation to a child who was always negative about what happened to them – “I never win because I am such a loser” etc. This is all about “core beliefs” and how important it is to “ensure our children construct healthy core beliefs about themselves”.

SB encourages us to look at problems from a different perspective – often there will be a completely unexpected cause or more involved problem. He gives an example of a boy who did a “mind map” about why he was always late for school with the result that his parents learnt he was overtired because he was keeping himself awake to avoid nightmares and anxiety attacks.

One of my favourite sections is about why children are angels at school then come home and turn into horrors. “it is precisely because he is behaving well at school...the exercise of self control in one context may be using up available resources in the other.” You may say this is obvious but appreciating the processes Dr B explains has helped me be more understanding with my children:
  • the brain’s processing power, and in particular our capacity to devote conscious attention to things, is a finite resource;
  • adults have already automated many aspects of our lives, children are still assimilating many of the skills we take for granted so their concentration is being taxed to a much greater degree just by the routine business of daily life;
  • mental tasks involving a lot of processing power may have an effect on children’s ability to keep their behaviour in check because self control is a form of mental labour;
  • self control is like a muscle and can increased with exercise but also pushed to the point of fatigue;
  • if we can help our children become more efficient at some mental tasks then we can lighten the load of the “prefrontal cortex” leaving more resources available for other functions such as self control;
  • to help children master themselves we need to adopt a holistic approach that recognises how the different systems connect up and influence each other;
  • carrot and stick approach may take certain behaviour out of context – we can ignore the fact that children’s ability to behave well is just one outcome of the mastery of several distinct but interrelated mental skills.

At times the book deals with some pretty intense and difficult situations, more than the “why have you just hit your brother again?” issues I am currently struggling with. However, the point is that those everyday problems might be derived from deeper reasons – the superpower is to spot them. SB hopes to equip you and your child with skills to best deal with the difficult situations, or hopefully avoid them in the first place. I have definitely learnt techniques I can use now and could come back to should certain problems arise. I have also been encouraged to realise how helpful things I have been doing naturally actually are.

I also found Superpowers beneficial for my own emotional development; there are different strategies we can all learn. Harnessing your own emotions and personality is so important as a parent because your children learn by copying you.

I have enjoyed reading this book – it is not heavy going – and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about why their children are reacting in such a way and long term ways to help – there aren’t your standard “quick fixes” for behaviour. There are also some great quotes used, such as one from Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

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