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Mindful Parenting

Dr Genevieve Von Lob talks to Five Books about the pressures and strains on family life today, and how a mindful approach can help us all.

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    1

    The Whole Brain Child
    by Dr Daniel Seigel

  • 1853408573.01.LZ_

    2

    How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk
    by Adele Faber

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    3

    Self-Compassion
    by Kristin Neff

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    4

    Hold on to Your Kids
    by Gordon Neufeld

  • 1848870833.01.LZ_

    5

    Last Child in the Woods
    by Richard Louv

Genevieve Von Lob

Dr Genevieve von Lob is a clinical psychologist. She has worked with families from every type of background during a ten-year career spanning private practice, NHS child and adolescent mental health services and work for local authorities. She has been widely quoted in the media, including in the Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Financial Times, Top Santé and Grazia, and featured as a consultant therapist in an episode of Channel Four’s Dispatches. Her new book Five Deep Breaths: The Power of Mindful Parenting was recently published by Transworld.

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Genevieve Von Lob

Dr Genevieve von Lob is a clinical psychologist. She has worked with families from every type of background during a ten-year career spanning private practice, NHS child and adolescent mental health services and work for local authorities. She has been widely quoted in the media, including in the Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Financial Times, Top Santé and Grazia, and featured as a consultant therapist in an episode of Channel Four’s Dispatches. Her new book Five Deep Breaths: The Power of Mindful Parenting was recently published by Transworld.

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I’m really intrigued about the idea of mindful parenting. What is it?

The last thing I want to do is tell mums and dads what kind of parents they should be.  It’s hard enough being a parent, and all the advice on offer can make it seem even more overwhelming. The idea of ‘mindful parenting’ is to help parents find their own answers. So many mums and dads I’ve worked with have ended up questioning their judgement when they know their child better than anyone. I wrote Five Deep Breaths to empower parents to listen to their own inner guidance and learn to trust themselves again. In a sense, ‘mindful parenting’ is a break with the kinds of behavioural strategies and techniques for disciplining your child parenting experts have emphasised in the past, almost as if raising a child was like training one of Pavlov’s dogs. The danger with these kinds of strategies is that they can reinforce the myth that there’s some ideal, one-size-fits-all way to raise children, and parents can feel very discouraged and disempowered when the approaches they read about in books don’t work.

“The idea of ‘mindful parenting’ is to help parents find their own answers. ”

I often find that parents who come to me have tried everything – they’ve been to all the parenting groups, they know all the techniques – but nothing is actually working. And I think it’s often because they’ve spent so much time listening to other people’s opinions that they’ve lost touch with their own intuitive guidance – what I call ‘the inner parent.’ For me, mindfulness is all about learning to step back from our busy minds so we can hear what our ‘inner parent’ is saying. We can get so stuck in our heads that we forget that the feeling of connection we share with our child is by far the most important thing.

And it’s also hard, I suppose, because (unless it’s a single parent family) you are parents. There are two different views, although you’re trying to do it together. 

Having children can put all kinds of pressures on a relationship, and parents can often have very different perspectives on what’s best for their children, often based on the way they were brought up. The great thing about mindfulness is that it can help you to notice when you’re slipping into the same old patterns in your relationships and choose a new response. The other great thing about mindfulness is that it’s something you can easily incorporate into your daily life. You don’t have to carve out time to try to meditate because I think for most parents that’s just really hard. It’s just too big of an ask. Mindfulness shouldn’t be another thing on the to-do list, or something else to strive for. Striving is the opposite of being kind to yourself, which is what mindfulness is all about.

“For me, mindfulness is all about learning to step back from our busy minds so we can hear what our ‘inner parent’ is saying.”

Even something as simple as remembering to take little pauses throughout the day to check-in without yourself and just ask “How am I feeling? What kind of thoughts am I having?” can make such a big difference. I called my book Five Deep Breaths because taking a few deep breaths is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to calm a busy mind and bring yourself back into the present moment. Taking a breath acts like a brake on our nervous system and calms our whole physiology down, and we can start to see things more clearly. We learn to respond, rather than react.

It’s about prioritising what’s important. So much can shift when you start to slow down a little bit. It’s an inner thing. You really start to appreciate those little moments of connection with your child when you get them. There’s something wonderful about being really present with your child when you’re reading them that bedtime story, rather than thinking I’ve got to do x, y and z later.

I’m so guilty of that – reading them bedtime stories and weighing up how much I can get away with paraphrasing or skipping.

It’s not a matter of ‘guilt’, it’s just the way we’re programmed. Part of being mindful is choosing not to beat ourselves up when we don’t manage to be mindful. We can learn to say to ourselves: ‘Okay, that’s fine, every moment is a new moment. I haven’t been particularly mindful today but I can be kind to myself about that and realise I’m doing my best here and that has got to be good enough.’ I think we can be very hard on ourselves and there are some great suggestions for being kinder to ourselves in some of the books I’ve chosen.

Your first choice is The Whole-Brain Child (2011). I’ve returned to this book several times since reading it, because it is so informative. Especially when the author gives examples of parenting mistakes that can happen. I recognise so many of them! 

We have to train ourselves to think of the good things because naturally we focus on the negatives. That’s how our brains are wired. I picked this book because Dr Dan Siegel is one of my favourite psychiatrists, and a real pioneer. Siegel uses what neuroscience tells us about how a child’s brain develops to provide practical tips for parents, especially when their child’s having a full-blown tantrum. When we understand a bit more about how a child’s brain works, we can see that their tantrum isn’t our fault – it’s just a sign that their fight-or-flight response has been triggered. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent or that you’ve done something wrong.

This is the fear, isn’t it? Like the line of that famous Larkin poem.

Yes. One of the things I love most about mindfulness is that it is all about cultivating kindness and compassion, for ourselves as well as others. It’s about raising kids who are kind and compassionate and care about people and the planet. Siegel’s work can really help with this because he’s taken some very complex neuroscience and translated it into very simple language. I really like how he divides the brain into the “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain,” which I reference in my book. The upstairs brain is basically the prefrontal cortex -— the walnut-textured upper part of the brain which handles logic and decision-making, and which isn’t fully developed until you’re twenty five years old. The “downstairs brain” is home to the more primitive fight-or-flight mechanism that kept our caveman ancestors alive. Siegel talks about how the brain gradually learns to work like an orchestra, with everything in harmony.

“Parenting can be a whole new playground for the inner critic to take over.”

But when a child has a meltdown, this orchestra is obviously badly out of tune. Siegel calls these kinds of tantrums  ‘flipping your lid.’ What’s happened is that the “downstairs brain” has taken over: your child is completely overwhelmed by emotions and big feelings and they can’t take on board anything you’re saying to try to reason with them. In practical terms, it means that if a child is in the grip of a full-blown tantrum there’s no point trying to talk them out of it – you have to provide a reassuring presence until they begin to calm down. Sometimes a kid just needs to cry it out a bit and express themselves before they are ready to talk. I think this makes a real practical difference for many parents I work with in how they respond.

Reading The Whole-Brain Child helped me understand my son’s rages; and how frightening they were for him. 

Yes, and children can be scared by those feelings because they are so huge and massive. And, in a way, that can be quite overwhelming for you as a parent. Our “downstairs brain” can get triggered as well. That’s why it’s important to learn to stay mindful and keep calm when our child is in that very overwhelmed state. I think why I like Siegel is that he normalises those big feelings. That’s what the brain does at that age. The emotions just take over. The frontal part of the brain is not fully developed yet, so of course they can’t calm themselves down very easily on their own. They need time. Some of them need a hug; some of them need space to be left alone. Siegel has a great video on YouTube on ‘flipping your lid’ which you can watch with your children. Kids also love learning about their brain because it helps them to realise that it’s normal for them to feel overwhelmed and that managing their emotions is a skill they can learn.

Your next choice is How to Talk so Teens will Listen & Listen so Teens will Talk (2005) by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

This is more for teenagers than little ones.  I see a lot of teenagers and, for many parents, it’s almost a second toddlerhood. Some teenagers – but not all of them – can become more needy or have a lot of challenges during that time. So, it’s a time when they often need more support but they are also trying to become independent as well. Adolescence has always been a tough time but I guess there’s a sense that perhaps the pressures that teenagers face today are somehow greater than the pressures that many parents faced in their own adolescence.

I agree. I think back to when I was doing my A-Levels — I was having more fun and I had less pressure than teenagers today. If, for instance, my niece chooses to go to university, she’ll end up £50,000 in debt  —  that’s a serious business. 

It’s very complicated and we’re seeing very worrying statistics about mental health problems among teenagers today. The reality is that we don’t really know why this is. People blame it on social media, but it’s important not to scapegoat it. There is no doubt that social media can be stressful for many young people because they may be exposed to cyberbullying, porn or even online grooming.

But from my experience I don’t think social media is the only reason why teenagers are suffering from anxiety because I believe when they have a healthy relationship with technology, it can have amazing benefits. I think we need to be looking at the wider stresses in our society, and in schools. A lot of us are stressed adults and young people are like tuning forks: they pick up on stress around them. They just feel it.

Younger people are very sensitive and a lot of them are stressed about school. Kids are telling me at increasingly younger ages that they’re worried about their tests. Obviously, they feel their entire future rests on exams, which is such a huge burden at that age.

It’s very scary for them. I feel that sometimes young people are reflecting wider societal issues and mirroring them back to us at some level. There are so many changes going on at the moment. We’ve got, obviously, the political arena, employment prospects, technology, and family issues. There are so many reasons why a young person might have anxiety. The one positive is that in my experience, they are a very emotionally self-aware generation. The young people that come to me are very willing to talk about their problems and that takes a lot of courage.

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And maybe they’re talking about it more?

Well, they are the YouTube generation. They are exposed to issues around mental health and talk about their feelings at a much younger age. So, I think we also need to celebrate that because it’s amazing. Certainly when I was young, there wasn’t anything like that and much less awareness. I don’t remember talking like this about my feelings and it could have been helpful. So, I think we have to say that it is great – it is a positive – that they are talking, as well as noting that there is a problem going on here. But I do think the exam pressure is probably a big part of it, and the emphasis on achievement and success as the only indicator of being a successful person in society.

And that’s awful because my failures are the things that I’ve learnt most from. When doors opened easily, I didn’t notice so much.

Absolutely. You have to have those experiences, don’t you? I think that we’re starting to put more emphasis on building resilience but we still have a long way to go.  The ability to actually make mistakes, experience failure and pick ourselves up helps the brain develop. It’s good to have those experiences as a child. But it’s very difficult for parents to watch their children struggle, as you will know.

I love this book by Faber and Mazlish because it has a wealth of practical advice on connecting with your teen based on workshops they conducted with parents and teenagers. There is a lot of real experience there.

It is reassuringly clear, in this book, that there are other people going through the same problems you may be facing. The advice feels very authentic.

One of the things I really like is the emphasis on just listening, without immediately jumping in to offer solutions. Again, it’s quite a simple thing and this is an area I spend a lot of time on in my book and with parents that I work with. I find that, as a parent, when your teenager comes to you with a problem, you want to help them. You want to ‘fix’ them and you’re desperate to make sure they don’t make the mistakes that you made. It’s very hard to resist that impulse to offer advice.

But sometimes all young people want is that space to be heard. They aren’t always looking for that answer from you. They want you to hear their pain if they’re struggling with friendships or something awful is going on at school. They just want you to listen and hear and actually just be there. And I think that’s what this book does very well: it shows you how to validate a teen’s feelings without having to solve everything. Whatever’s bothering them might seem like quite a little thing to us because maybe we’ve been through it and we’ve got bigger problems of our own to worry about, but for them it is the be-all-and-end-all. It can sound quite trivial but, to them, it’s like the whole world. Whether it’s with a friend or something at school, it can be a real catastrophe. Again, they’re still learning how to manage their feelings. The logical, rational part of the brain isn’t yet fully developed.

“ I think that’s what this book does very well: it shows you how to validate a teen’s feelings without having to solve everything.”

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is an amazing neuroscientist in the UK and she does lots of research on the teenage brain. She has a new book coming out next year.

But I think the Faber and Mazlish book is also about how we can help them to come up with their own solutions, to problem-solve. It’s far more empowering for teens if they can come up with their own answers. And they’re more likely to follow it as well because none of us like being told what to do. This book is very much about cooperation. Again, one of the things that I emphasise in my work and with mindful parenting is that it’s more about the attachment and relationship than about strategies. There is no manual for parenting. But we do have what I call an ‘inner parent’ – this intuitive guidance, the wise part of us that knows how to respond, that knows the answer.

In our culture, we have been very mind-focussed, very in-our-head focussed. We’re in a bit of a mess at the moment. We need to learn to trust our gut feelings more. In fact, there is a little brain in the gut that plays a significant role in how we think and feel and react, because it feeds information back up to the brain. Science is showing that our gut feelings are actually really important in how we make our decisions. Trusting your intuition has a real basis in biology. And, for children, we need to emphasise the value of critical thinking and intuition. The education system is all about the logical brain: being a rational problem-solver and getting good exam results. This is obviously good – I’m not knocking that side – but we have to develop the other side too.

What sort of lessons would you imagine? What skills would be added to the classroom?

They are doing more mindfulness in schools now, which is good. I’d also like to see children being taught about the neuroscience of their own brains, and the kinds of skills they can use to manage their emotions and enhance their feelings of well-being.

And confidence comes from what we’re willing to do for ourselves, in many ways. So, you give them the skills to look after themselves?

Absolutely: self-care skills. One of the things I emphasise in my work with teenagers is that you have to look after yourselves. There is a lot of anxiety, and I am seeing increasing numbers of young people who are having panic attacks and feeling so overwhelmed.

“Taking a breath acts like a brake on our nervous system and calms our whole physiology down, and we can start to see things more clearly. ”

I’m really emphasising to them that your mental health and well-being has to be as important as your exam results. There’s no question. You have to look after yourself. And this is a new thing for a lot of them: self-care. Being kind to ourselves has not been something that has been taught in schools. We’re taught to strive and be competitive from day one.

I’m just thinking of the way that we connect to each other today and about the sort of connections available via social media. 

Yes, it’s amazing.  This is the thing, you have to be balanced, and look at the amazing benefits and not simply feed into the negative narrative about social media and how bad it is. For young people, they see it very positively. It’s just that young people can be very cruel sometimes and bully each other, and the bullying can move into cyberspace. So bullying doesn’t stay at the school gates as it used to. It can continue into the evening and weekends. That’s when it’s tough for young people. I talk in the book about parents having to take the same kind of responsibility for their kids’ use of technology as they would for their nutrition. It’s not about being over the top, but monitoring it and having ongoing conversations about it.

Healthy technology use is about knowing when to switch it off. And with your child, if you see that they’re more anxious or uptight or they have a meltdown after their gaming or whatever, maybe you need to have a conversation with them about that. But some children don’t have that. They’re all different. Again, that’s where mindful parenting comes in. It’s about what works for your child. And you can have two very different siblings. One might use technology very responsibly, and the other one gets addicted. And with the one who’s addicted, you might need to come up with some sort of contract with them that will lay down boundaries that everyone can agree to.

It came as a slight shock to me with my children now that they’re developing, just that they’re so different to me and each other. 

Yes, they’re their own people. They have their own minds and their own personalities. And even siblings can be very different. You have to then use a different parenting stance for two different children and that’s another layer of complexity in parenting.

Your next choice is Self-Compassion (2011) by Kristin Neff.

This one is a more general book on self-compassion. I guess I chose this because when I was having a very tough time in my own life, particularly in my mid-twenties, I found this book and it was a lifeline. It basically taught me to look at things differently. I was having a bit of a crisis of confidence and I think this book spoke to me because I realised that, like many women, I had a very strong inner critic and I didn’t even realise: I thought I was very confident and upbeat. Kristin Neff is speaking from her own heart. I feel like she’s clearly gone through a lot in her own life, and she has a son with autism. But she’s learnt the power of self-compassion herself, so I think that makes her a very powerful teacher. I guess I learnt to treat myself more gently after reading this. I also learnt the power of really beginning to feel my own feelings. I’d spent a lot of time running away from my difficult feelings. That was a new thing for me: it is not something that I learnt in my clinical psychology doctorate. I had been studying psychology for ten years and not once had anyone said to me you really need to feel your painful overwhelming feelings and let yourself go there. I had spent a lot of time running away from them, obsessed with my work, seeking external validation. And we all do it; I saw it in my clients as well. I wasn’t looking within; like so many of us, I was scared of my own feelings. I think it’s very scary to look at them. But I think one of the things that we can do is learn to work with our inner critic. I really believe we have an epidemic of not feeling good enough and not feeling worthy. I’ve worked with so many hundreds of clients and it’s the same issue that I see, time and time again – particularly with parents. All the patterns get magnified because it’s such an incredible responsibility that you have. And there are so many more opportunities for judgement and comparisons as a parent. Parenting can be a whole new playground for the inner critic to take over.

“Kindness is a skill that we have to learn and train our brains into being able to do because we’ve been conditioned to be hard on ourselves.”

It’s ingrained into us. It’s a collective thing, actually. We’re not alone in that and that’s the thing that I’ve seen over the years. I think, for parents, there is such a drought of self-compassion. As a parent, you’re looking after everyone else and it’s very difficult to remember your own needs and to care for yourself. I think there’s been a message somewhere along the line from past generations that to be kind to yourself is selfish at some level. And it’s not. I know as a psychologist that if I don’t look after myself, then I can’t give to any of my clients; I haven’t got enough left. So, it’s how do we see that ‘me-time,’ that putting yourself first, actually doing some of those things like yoga – or whatever lights you up – is so essential to being that parent. That’s also modelling self-care for your children as well. They can see you actually do take time out for yourself sometimes. And obviously that’s difficult in a busy week, I get that. That’s one of the difficulties of parenting, particularly for working mums or dads. But I think this is just an essential message that I hopefully managed to convey in my book: just be gentle with yourself.

It is very clear throughout your book and here in Self-Compassion that to feel your own feelings is not a self-indulgent act — but is actually responsible. Can you talk a little about this?

Yes, we’re not taught that. Again, I was not taught that as a psychologist. I learnt that afterwards, the hard way. But I like Neff’s compassionate way of writing and about treating yourself with the same kindness that you would show to your children or your friends or your partner or people you love. And, also, she talks about common humanity. So, just to remember that everyone is struggling with what it means to be human. None of us are perfect. We all struggle with these feelings. And I guess mindfulness is very much about how do we get out of heads and into our bodies, because a lot of us are very disconnected from our bodies. We walk around like we’re heads on sticks – we’re cut off from our feelings, which happen in our bodies. We need to get back in touch with ourselves, and that means cutting yourself some slack as parents and not beating yourself up.

“A lot of us are stressed adults and young people are like tuning forks: they pick up on stress around them.”

We are not in a habit of being kind to ourselves, so therefore it is not the natural go-to. It’s a skill, like learning maths. Kindness is a skill that we have to learn and train our brains into being able to do because we’ve been conditioned to be hard on ourselves. So, you do have to have reminders and I think that even something as simple as putting inspirational quotes or an uplifting image on your fridge can make it easier.

Next is Gordon Neufeld’s Hold on to Your Kids (2004).

Neufeld is a child developmental psychologist from Canada. He talks in this book about what I’ve been talking about a lot: about how maintaining your relationship with your child is the most important thing you can do as a parent. He talks about how there’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of attachment for babies and toddlers, but that attachment is equally important as kids grow older. It continues right through adolescence. Neufeld is very clear that we shouldn’t be outsourcing our attachment role to a teen’s peers. Of course, peer relationships are important but, actually, Neufeld feels that in many cases there’s been a breakdown of parental influence: there’s a problem if your teens are more attached to their friends than you.  So, again, Neufeld’s emphasis is not on discipline or behavioural techniques, which he says can actually cause children to lose trust in their parents. The quality of the parent-child relationship is at the heart of Neufeld’s book, as it is in Five Deep Breaths.

I see. So, the children feel manipulated?

Yes, because they can see through it. Those strategies – if you’re using them all the time – like the sanctions, the groundings, the time-outs, they can lead to more problems. Rather than just controlling the behaviour, you need to look at the underlying relationship. How do we connect with our kids again? Because if the child has that connection – they feel like they are loved by you and they are respected by you – then it’s going to be easier to get their attention. They want to be guided by you. It’s about knowing that you’re the leader. One of the most traumatic things that I see for teenagers is friendships that go wrong. If they are attached to you you’re their safe harbour that they can go back to. But many of the young people that I see don’t have that relationship with their parents. And it’s something you have to work on, isn’t it? Like a relationship with a partner: it’s not something that you can just take for granted. Sometimes they do want to spend more time with their friends which is natural. But you want them to come back to you and know that you’re there. You need to be friendly but I think parenting is about being a leader as well. Children feel safe when someone is setting boundaries without being overly controlling.

Is it about finding the right balance of rules?

Yes. It’s a negotiation. It’s much easier when they’re children to sort of tell them what to do. But it’s harder when they’re teenagers.

I found that Neufield describes the complex relationships really well. 

Yes, and they’re changing aren’t they? They’re always in flux. Neufeld very much talks about relationship being at the heart of our current challenges as parents and as teachers. But it’s also the heart of the solution. We see parenting in the same way: that it’s all about relationship, not trying to control another person. Also, Neufeld talks about the importance of young people having opportunities to feel disappointment and frustration and learn that it’s okay.  I think a lot of us can feel uncomfortable with watching that. It’s understandable that, as a parent, you want to take the pain away from your children. But Neufeld is saying it’s essential for them to experience a degree of hardship or disappointment to develop resilience. They need to experience setbacks for their brains to develop properly. Obviously, you need to keep children safe, but it’s important that they are allowed sometimes to fail. It’s how they become resilient. And, at the end of the day, you want to raise a child who can go out there into the world and be competent and manage themselves. And it’s best to learn this young, because a lot of young people don’t learn those skills and then they may get to university and really struggle. Gordon Neufeld emphasises that it’s the parents who have to reconnect with their teenagers, not the other way round. The parent has to take the lead. We have to ask ourselves how we would approach a friend or a partner if we’re trying to rebuild a relationship? How would we be? How would we communicate? It’s no different with your children. Only it’s more difficult with your own children because they know just where to press your buttons.

Your final book is Last Child in the Woods (2005) by Richard Louv.

This is a seminal book and a bestseller in the US. Louv coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ because he was so concerned about the alienation of young people from nature. They are becoming more sedentary – sitting indoors with technology or being over-scheduled and not having a lot of opportunities to connect with nature. Louv’s book discusses the social, psychological, and spiritual implications of this disconnection. And it also echoes what many parents that I work with tell me: they remember their own childhoods climbing trees or riding their bikes round the park and the feel sad at the contrast with their own children’s much more indoor lives. There’s a lot of research that being in nature helps children develop problem-solving and decision-making skills, and helps kids that have got ADHD let off steam.  It can also help with depression, obesity, and aid concentration in the classroom. What I’m seeing in the schools I go into is that recreation time seems to be increasingly squeezed out of a lot of timetables because, again, there is more emphasis on exams and testing. And I feel that wellbeing is falling down the political agenda, really. I think that parents are very concerned about ‘factory farm’ schooling, and how do we get children back to nature? Because it will be essential for our survival as a species that they have that relationship with nature. How can they want to save it unless they’ve been given a relationship with it in the first place?

Well, it’s quite easy to go from room to room to room isn’t it? To go from school to a youth club to somewhere else indoors?

Absolutely. Richard Louv has done a very valuable service by creating this book and this debate and making it impossible to ignore this problem. And there’s a lot of efforts out there, but we’ve got to do more. It’s tragic that certainly a lot of the kids I work with are not connected with nature. It’s heart-breaking. We have to make it a priority and provide these opportunities. How are they going to be healthy adults? It is about the whole of our survival as a species. If we haven’t got this as children then they’re not going to have that as adults.

“I feel that wellbeing is falling down the political agenda.”

There are some nice green spaces in London and other cities but it’s not enough. We need to be getting them out into the countryside. And, also for kids to have free play and free time. I remember as a child being outside for hours, in my own world, and it’s so good for the development of other parts of our brain. But children don’t often get that, with quite a lot of the busy schedules that I see. They seem to have a lot of things going on, don’t they?

Some children do have opportunities to get outside but I am concerned for those children who don’t, who are stuck on their technology and their computers, and we are seeing so many more cases of ADHD. One of the things I see a lot of are young people who tell me they can’t concentrate, that they can’t focus at school. Well if they had more free time to run off the energy and get out there in a natural environment, away from technology, maybe they wouldn’t have so many of these issues around concentration and difficulties focussing.

And does playing outside for a bit allow your brain assess what it’s learnt — let the dust settle?

Yes, you need to absorb it. And kids have a lot of energy. They need to burn it off. They need to run around for hours, don’t they?

I spent quite a lot of time being bored when I was little. It wasn’t a bad boredom; I was just fussing about aimlessly and often outside.

Yes, I remember that too. And I think that’s good for the brain. It’s good to learn to be bored: young people have to be able to tolerate that. Otherwise, how will they learn to self-soothe and regulate themselves emotionally? That’s also something that can be done in nature. And it’s also about learning to take risks as well, because nature offers so many of those opportunities like tree-climbing or getting out on a bike…

You said that this book was a classic ten years ago and is increasingly timely.

Yes, it is very timely. Obviously it’s not a formal diagnosis but I just like ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’: I think it’s a really apt term. We need to be aware of all of this because we have got huge planetary problems.

And kids are very aware of that?

They are the next generation: they are the generation that can actually turn it around.

I love the idea of self-compassion and looking after yourself being as important as washing your hands and learning about vegetables. I find that actually very exciting.

Me too. And it’s a skill. I explain to young people kindness, self-care and the way you speak to yourself are skills that you can learn like maths or science. We were taught when we were young that we need to push ourselves and beat ourselves up to get to the top, because we’re a ‘strivey’ generation generally. We’ve been set up to compete with each other. That’s the voice going on in all our heads that takes over. It’s very powerful. Once we can treat ourselves with a bit of gentleness and care, then the ripple effect of that will mean that we’ve got more to give; we’ve got more to give other people and we’ve got more to give to the planet as well. Small acts of kindness for ourselves and small acts of kindness for each other has to be one of the most important things that young people can learn. It doesn’t come so naturally to parents. It actually comes more easily to young people.

“We’re a ‘strivey’ generation generally. We’ve been set up to compete with each other.”

They’ve got fewer layers of conditioning that have built up. So, when I explain these ideas to young people they tend to get them more quickly than when I work with adults. They get it and they can put it into action much more quickly, whereas adults struggle because we fight these ideas.

How can adults begin to make these connections in their lives?

It’s catching yourself. It’s awareness: that’s what mindfulness is about. It’s about noticing the times when you are being really harsh on yourself and thinking: “Wow, is that fair to talk to myself like that? Can I turn down the volume on that voice and actually just give myself a bit of a break? I’m doing my best and I’ve had a lot going on today. No one is perfect here.” Every parent that I know is struggling at some level, with some aspect of parenting.

That’s strangely comforting, although I don’t wish discomfort on anyone else.

It is comforting. Everyone seems to be struggling right now. I think self-compassion and kindness is a good place to start. I put little quotes on my phone or reminders around the flat, because I wasn’t used to speaking to myself in that way.

“Small acts of kindness for ourselves and small acts of kindness for each other has to be one of the most important things that young people can learn. ”

It’s also about the high expectations that we hold ourselves to, isn’t it? It’s what we expect we should be able to achieve in any given day, but maybe our goals just aren’t realistic sometimes?

In our daily routines there is a tendency to get caught on a bandwagon of ‘doing it now’ and then the children have to do it now…

Yes. Children are a lot slower, really. They amble a lot more. They are not in that ‘do it now’ mode, they haven’t learnt it yet; they are not so conditioned.

They can take ages to get to school!

Because they’re so in the moment and they don’t see the hurry, do they? They don’t get it. They’re in the own worlds. Obviously they have to get to school but sometimes parent should tap into that amazing ability that kids actually do have which, for all of us, should be our natural way of being – to be so present, which children are. But also they don’t have the responsibilities as well. They don’t have much to think about, do they?

Well, mucking about with worms and whatnot can be all-encompassing…

Yes, well, that’s the thing to remember: they have their own responsibilities.

And when they find a bush that’s completely full of humming bees, it’s very distracting.

Very distracting, yes, and that’s going to just take time.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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