speaking with Keelin Shanley about the book and emotional health.
Psychologist Paul Gilligan on… Raising happy kids
A new book suggests ways we can help children become happy, well-adjusted, productive members of society. Its author, psychologist Paul Gilligan, tells how to ensure that your child is emotionally healthy
That is the unequivocal message from Paul Gilligan, CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin, who has just published a sound, practical guide to raising well-rounded children.
Paul grew up in Coolock in Dublin. “There were particular challenges in being raised on the north side of the city,” he says. “I went to the Christian Brothers. They specialised in providing a very good education, but if they felt corporal punishment was required, then that was what was used. It reflected Irish society at the time.”
After school, Paul went to UCD to study psychology, and to TCD for training as a clinical psychologist. He then spent several years with the HSE, working with children who had been sexually abused, and with adults who had been abused when they were children. “I was working in the old Baggot Street Hospital, and would see about six people a day,” explains Paul. “That experience consolidated my interest in child protection and children’s rights.”
His next appointment was as director of services at the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), working with children who faced a range of difficult challenges. He learned from them just how crucial it is that young people have emotional stability in their lives. He says he was also deeply touched by the willingness of some parents, who had experienced hardships of various kinds themselves, including addictions, to make unselfish decisions for the sake of their children.
Eventually Paul became CEO of the ISPCC. He says that Childline, their telephone service for young people, offers immediate access to help for physical, emotional and mental health problems, and this link enables the ISPCC to gauge what is happening in the lives of young people. “Right now, texting and cyberbullying are big problems, as are early sexualisation and inappropriate access to pornography,” he notes.
Currently, Paul, who is married and has two daughters, is CEO at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, an independent service provider. So the next obvious step for him was the writing and recent publication of his book, Raising Emotionally Healthy Children. In it, he says there are several key things we can do to make sure that our children are emotionally healthy.
The first is to connect with your “inner parent”. This involves recommitting to doing the best you can for them, given your limitations. “Having a balanced and reasonable expectation of ourselves is key to connecting with our inner parent,” Paul says.
The next step is to encourage children to have a positive outlook on life. “Children who have learned how to feel good about themselves will have high emotional intelligence,” says Paul. “These are children who can laugh when things are funny, and cry when they are sad. Happy children experience each day as an adventure.”
Paul says it’s important that children have an honest sense of their talents, strengths and flaws. If they want to do ballet, sport or art, they should be allowed to do so, even if they’re not the best at them. “They should be allowed to do the things they enjoy and be average,” he says.
How they view themselves and how they cope with life’s ups and downs, are skills that parents can nurture. Paul cites a couple of likely scenarios. “Take the kid who comes off the football pitch saying he played really badly. It’s important to be honest with that child. Instead of pretending he was brilliant, you could explain that everyone has good days and bad days. You could also tell him that overall, he had made some good passes.
“Or take the child who drops her ice cream and bursts into tears. You could commiserate and say, ‘That’s just terrible’ or you could lessen the disappointment by saying, ‘Wasn’t it great you had already eaten half of it?’ or, ‘Let’s see if we can stop this happening again’.”
This approach is how, Paul says, we teach our children to cope with life’s various stresses in a healthy way.
He goes on to explain that listening to your children is also key to ensuring they feel worthy.
“The idea that I listen to them, and I communicate with them, translates into a message that they are worthy,” he says.
He also believes we should allow their uniqueness to shine through. “The earlier a child develops self-awareness skills, the more at ease they will become with themselves, as they grow,” says Paul. “Allowing them to express themselves as individuals, in their own right, empowers them. Teaching children self-belief doesn’t mean conveying a message that they are the best, but it does give them a sense that they are good people.”
Another clear message is that working parents need to let go of the guilt they feel in relation to the fact that they cannot be at home all day. “Research has shown that parents today spend more [quality] time with their kids than in the 60s,” Paul explains. “Most mothers did stay at home back then, but invariably they were busy doing housework. These days, working mothers devote their non-working time to their families.”
Paul also cautions us against over-protecting our offspring. “Children who don’t learn to deal with challenges may become vulnerable,” he says. “At a certain age they need to be able to walk to school alone, to play in the park unsupervised and finally, to go to a disco. Get the balance right so they’re not overly cautious.”
But in spite of our very best intentions, our children may nonetheless face difficult personal challenges. So Paul tells us what the warning signals are, and advises us how to respond. He recommends we discuss the matter in an appropriate way with the child. We then need to address specific issues that may be affecting them, such as bullying at school or problems at home. We should also let them know how much we love and care for them, while continually reinforcing their emotional resilience and emotional distress management skills. If need be, we find professional help.
Finally, he urges all parents to take good care of themselves. “Don’t be overly involved. Take some time off. Adapt your work and home life so you have a balanced approach to parenting. You can’t raise emotionally healthy children if you’re not healthy yourself.”
‘Raising Emotionally Healthy Children’ by Paul Gilligan is published by Veritas, €14.99
Sunday Indo Life Magazine August 9th 2015
Irish Times August 4th
In this edited extract from ‘Raising Emotionally Healthy Children’, Paul Gilligan outlines emotional health challenges children encounter, and advises parents how they can help
Emotional health is best described in the context of feelings and actions. When we are emotionally healthy, we feel generally happy, content and confident, and we engage in mainly positive, enjoyable actions and activities. When we are emotionally unhealthy, we feel sad, angry, discontented and detached for a disproportionate amount of time, sometimes for no apparent reason. Moreover, we engage in predominantly negative actions and activities towards ourselves and/or others. Few of us are completely emotionally healthy all the time, and few are completely unhealthy all of the time. The boundary between being emotionally healthy and unhealthy is often difficult to define and can be different for different people.
Why is it important to be emotionally healthy? Being emotionally healthy not only makes us happier and more content but equips us to deal with the challenges life presents. For children, being emotionally healthy gives them the best chance of having a happy childhood and of growing and developing to the best of their potential.
General indicators of emotional difficulties in children If our child starts to experience emotional difficulties, he or she will demonstrate this through their behaviour, communication and feelings. Such emotional difficulties usually involve our child becoming overly anxious or worried, or becoming overly sad and depressed.
The younger or less mature our child, the more likely they are to express emotional difficulties through their behaviour. It is important to remember that many of these indicators commonly arise with most children from time to time.
It is only when they occur for no apparent reason, are out of character with our child, or persist despite our support and intervention that we should begin to consider the possibility of emotional difficulties. We know our child best so if our instinct tells us something is not right, we should pay attention to this.
What do I do if I discover my child is having emotional difficulties? Childhood emotional difficulties are not uncommon and can be managed and resolved effectively if we follow a small number of important principles. These are best described as the Seven Ss.
1. Stay calm: The first thing that we need to do if we believe or become worried that our child might be experiencing emotional difficulties is to stay calm. While some level of panic and upset is likely, it is very important that we take control of our feelings and keep our thoughts in perspective.
2. Speak to each other: It is imperative that we discuss our concerns with our child directly, no matter what age they are. It is often difficult to distinguish emotional difficulties from the normal mood swings of growing up. Therefore, the second important step to take if we become concerned that our child is having problems is to explore with him/her how they feel and why they think they feel this way. This is also the quickest and easiest way to find out how severe the difficulties might be.
Sometimes parents worry that discussing such issues will only make their child more upset and distressed. Our child might at first be reluctant to discuss their difficulties out of embarrassment. However, in the end they will be relieved to be able to tell somebody how they are really feeling.
It is important to engage in this conversation at an appropriate level for our child, using terms they understand and trying our best to understand what they are telling us in their own way.
They will most likely not have developed the capacity to understand or describe their emotions in detail as yet. It is up to us as parents to try to interpret and understand what they are trying to tell us or might mean, without imposing our own beliefs or worries on them.
3. Agree a strategy: Emotional difficulties are best approached in the same way as we would approach any other problem or difficulty we encounter in life, by forming a plan or a strategy. We need to try to agree, with our child, what might help the situation. We cannot expect our child to know exactly what might help as if they knew they would be taking these actions already. However, they will have some idea of what might help and we need to guide them towards other options. Sometimes the options might seem frightening for our child at first so we need to fully understand what they involve and we need to explain gently the benefits to them.
4. Provide support: If we believe our child is experiencing emotional difficulties, it is imperative that we provide them with support and seek support for ourselves. The most important support we can provide to our child comes from us and involves recognising that their distress is real; reinforcing how much we love them and care for them; reinforcing emotional health and psychological resilience skills; teaching them basic emotional distress management skills; and addressing things in our child’s environment.
5. Seek specialised support: Sometimes no matter how much support we provide to our child, their emotional difficulties are too severe and too engrained and we need to access specialised help. If this occurs, we firstly need to remember the first S and stay calm. Many children require specialised help and the research indicates that with the right type of help children can overcome their difficulties and live good, enjoyable lives.
The type of specialised support best suited to our child will be determined by the type of difficulties he or she is experiencing, our child’s personality and the other supports our child has in their lives.
To help us access the right option, it is best to consult our family doctor. He/she will be able to provide an initial assessment of our child’s needs and to recommend the most appropriate steps. There will also be support systems attached to our child’s school so it can be useful to access these by talking to our child’s teacher.
6. Maintain stamina: Addressing emotional difficulties takes time, so it is important that both parent and child maintain energy and engagement. Because difficulties affect both behaviour and feelings, resolution of them is rarely straightforward.
Key to maintaining our stamina is remembering that overcoming difficulties is not only possible but is to be expected. Resolving difficulties is not likely to be straightforward. Sometimes there are setbacks and sometimes it takes longer than we expect.
We all have our own very personal views and beliefs about emotional health and emotional difficulties. There are many misconceptions, which no matter how hard we try to resist, can influence our thinking. For example, some people feel that emotional difficulties are not treatable and will inevitably become serious mental health difficulties that a person never recovers from.
Others believe that emotional difficulties result from personality weaknesses which are unchangeable, while others believe that they are reflective of poor parenting and social deprivation. These beliefs are particularly damaging to children.
If our child’s emotional difficulties continue for any length of time, these misconceptions can come to the fore. Sometimes we lose hope and begin to feel our child will never recover. At other times we can get angry with our child and feel they should do more to “pull themselves together”. We might begin to blame ourselves and feel ashamed or guilty that our child has these difficulties and feel that in some way we are responsible or have let them down. These are all natural feelings that stem from our distress. At these times it is important that we refocus ourselves on the reality that any child can experience emotional difficulties and that our child will resolve these difficulties if we remain positive and hopeful.
Focusing on the positive aspects of our child’s life and what is going well for them is crucial. Even at times of distress this will help them and us move forward.
7. Seek support for ourselves: Seeing our child in distress will inevitably cause us distress. Supporting and helping them can cause us to become even more stressed, downhearted and hopeless. While doing all we can for our child we must also ensure we protect our own emotional health. If we don’t, we cannot be of any real help to our child.
In summary, no matter how much work we put into building our child’s emotional health and psychological resilience, it is possible that they will experience some emotional difficulties at some stage in their childhood if not in their adult lives. When this occurs we need to react in the knowledge that these difficulties can be managed successfully and our child can live a good and enjoyable life.
Keeping this in mind will help us to take the appropriate steps, in partnership with our child, to address the difficulties and to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.
Paul Gilligan is the chief executive of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin. His book, Raising Emotionally Healthy Children, is published by Veritas and is available in bookshops and on amazon.com. The author’s earnings from sales of this book will be given to St Patrick’s Mental Health Foundation in support of the Walk in My Shoes campaign that raises funds for services to help people with mental health difficulties in Ireland.
Sometimes it’s numbers rather than words that tell a story best. Parents across Ireland will have shuddered at research findings from the Royal College of Surgeons in 2013 which found that more than 50% of Irish young people will have suffered a significant mental health problem by the age of 24 .
The calls to ISPCC Childline bear this out- children contact us for a wide range of reasons, but recently calls are more complex, as children attempt to cope with an increasingly complicated reality. For parents and carers, this is deeply worrying. But thankfully many parents now know to ask for help. Paul Gilligan’s latest book ‘Raising Emotionally Healthy Children’ is a truthful account of the steps parents can take.
In Chapter Two, ‘Teaching our Children How to be Happy’, Paul is clear that teaching children to be happy does not mean they will be happy all the time. This message is crucial- that happiness is not a state of being rather a state of mind. This honesty from the author makes the book special- it recognises the importance of happiness, and that the ability to be happy gives us the capacity to cope with problems when they arise. These are simply but potent lessons for anyone raising a child. But they have resonance for policy makers and for wider society- which is why I hope this book is on the reading list of decision makers across Ireland.
Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
Guest Blog Post by Krystian Fikert – MyMind.org
As parents, we are role models for our children. As they develop, they watch us closely and absorb our reactions to various situations. For example; how we emotionally react to a specific situation, how we interact with others and how we deal with a particularly difficult moment.
We need to offer time and space for our children to emotionally develop. We should communicate with very clear language, acknowledge observed emotion, ask questions and not be afraid of using emotional language.
We should teach our children that even little things can have both a negative and positive effect on our emotional health.
We can encourage children to play and laugh, to express themselves, ask for help if they need it and to connect with others.
We can encourage physical activity and strive to have as much quality child/parent time together as possible. Removing unnecessary distractors such as TV and video games, and replacing them with one-on-one conversations and engagement will encourage this and nurture a child’s emotional wellbeing.
Loving our child comes naturally – ‘naturally’ takes work.
Being emotionally healthy is vital to our overall happiness and to our ability to live an enjoyable and fulfilling life. The evidence tells us that children who are emotionally healthy and psychologically resilient are less likely to experience emotional difficulties and are more likely to overcome these difficulties if they occur.
Working as a clinical psychologist with children and teenagers for over twenty-five years and running a large mental health service has taught me that for children, love is the essence of emotional wellbeing. Children who love themselves and are loved, particularly by their parents, have a healthier sense of emotional well-being and stronger psychological resilience.
This book explores the concept of ‘loving our child’ and how we can connect with and utilise this love to help our child to be an emotionally healthy person. It explores how we can teach children to love themselves and how this love helps them to lead emotionally healthy lives. How we can best prevent and manage the emotional difficulties our child might encounter is explored alongside the importance of keeping ourselves emotionally healthy.
Parenting is a journey of discovery through which we learn more about our child and ourselves each day. This book aims to help in this discovery journey; each chapter is prefaced by a brief reflection in which I blend my own thoughts on parenthood with those of parents I have spoken to during my course of work. Throughout the book there are exercises aimed at encouraging us to think about our special relationship with our child and their emotional well-being.