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Wednesday Wisdom

Lived Experiences

- Reflect -

My Monday morning this week was a bit of a stress mess. I had to take our new kitten to the vet in rush hour traffic, accompanied by a poorly child, who was off school. We arrived at the surgery to a deadly silence. The anxiety of animal lovers with sick pets was palpable. There was a candle lit on the reception desk marking the fact that someone’s pet had just passed away and a lady just in front of me in the queue started to sob.

She was carrying a cage containing a ferret who had a rather prominent lump on the side of his neck. She told me his name and the story of why she was there. Her tears welled up as she expressed hope that the lump was a mere cyst and entirely operable. My son was watching as this lady told me her tale. I was conscious that I needed to model a kind and considerate response. 

How do you respond to a perfect stranger who is distressed? Well, first of all, I validated how she was feeling and made remarks such as: “that must be very difficult. I can see you are upset. I can understand how distressing it must be when your pet is unwell”. She nodded quietly. My son later commented on how there was an ‘awkward silence’ at that point, but I pointed out to him that the lady was processing what the vet had told her and was trying to come to terms with her own feelings on the matter. Then, it was our cat’s turn and I started to feel anxious about the operation he was about to have. Would they take good care of him? Would he be in pain? It was my son’s turn to reassure me. “Look Mummy, I know you are worried about him, I am worried too”. The tables had turned and he was reflecting back the empathetic response he had just witnessed.

Modelling empathy matters. These little everyday interactions are rich teachable moments. Taking care of others’ feelings isn’t just about listening. It also means resisting the temptation to jump in, problem-solve, overly reassure or come up with numerous solutions. “How do you think that lady feels now?”, I asked my teen. “How did talking to us help her?” Our car journey home was filled with chatter about the bond that we share with animals, why that connection is a deep one and how helpless parents and animal lovers feel when their beloved child or pet isn’t well.

- Motivate -

Once upon a time, soon after having a baby, a relative issued a stark warning: “Now, there is a part of your body outside of your body that will soon be walking around and doing things, and you will spend the entire time worrying about something happening to them”.

Every parent dreads that phone call from the school nurse (I had two last week) with news of a hurt or injured child, but imagine learning that your new baby has a life-limiting genetic condition, which you knew nothing about? That is precisely what happened to Laura Barrett, author of Unconditional Love: An Empowering Guide to Accepting Your Child’s Diagnosis, Managing Long Hospital Stays and Building Your New Self, who I was thrilled to interview last week. 

Laura and her husband were already the proud parents of two healthy sons, so when, shortly after the birth of their third child, they were rushed to Great Ormond Street Hospital and told that their baby boy has cystic fibrosis (CF), their world was transformed. Laura’s recently published book is compiled in part from the journals that she wrote during those long and challenging first months in hospital. It’s an incredibly moving, palpably honest account of a mum and her shock, guilt and heartbreak. Ultimately though, it’s an inspiring story of hope and resilience; both Laura’s, as she pieces her life back together, and her baby boy Bailey’s, who is now a thriving three year old, lovingly described by his mum as having blue eyes and tatty blonde hair, a great zest for life, sport and muddy puddles, and ambitions to become a rugby player, like his dad. 

Laura’s diary is supplemented with comprehensive support guides that she has co-written with specialists and is packed with practical advice for parents about coping with a medical diagnosis and hospital stays, helpful suggestions for friends and family, and answers to many frequently asked questions about cystic fibrosis. Along with running, cleaning, gratitude and actively planning the practicalities of potential future hospital visits, Laura’s main coping mechanism was writing. She describes how journaling allowed her thoughts and feelings to flow out and helped her to make sense of them, when she wasn’t yet ready to share them with anyone else. 

If any of us find ourselves wanting to journal to help us cope with challenging emotions or to gain some clarity on a very difficult situation, Laura has a few tips to get us started. Purchase the kind of notebook and pen that makes you want to write, find a relaxing environment in which to start and try opening with, “Today, I feel…”. We could also consider setting ourselves a minimum writing target (filling one page or writing consistently for a couple of minutes, for example) or writing at different times of day to see what works best. If paper and pen feels daunting, there’s always phones and tablets too – there are lots of journaling apps available

Regardless of our situations, it’s always worth considering in advance what things, activities and people we can keep in our toolkit for times when we feel overwhelmed, stressed or low, whether that’s journaling, exercise, getting out into nature, listening to music, chatting to a friend or screaming into a pillow. Having a menu of effective coping options, that we know work for us, will give us some go to strategies that we can pick up in times of need.

- Support -

Making sense of difficulty and trying to create some sort of coherent narrative out of a crisis is part of why journaling ‘works’. Simply telling one’s story and re-telling the story of what happened to us can also be beneficial. When something traumatic happens, our own biography is ‘disrupted’, our identity in flux but story-telling puts us back in the driver seat; in control of the narrative.

Recently, I attended a conference and heard a keynote by Darren Edwards, who calls himself the “disabled adventurer”. Paralysed from the waist down after a rock gave way on a weekend climbing expedition with his best friend, Darren is now a leading speaker on resilience. The audience listened enthralled, as he took us on the journey from his accident to his many extraordinary feats beyond it; kayaking the length of Britain and now undertaking seven marathons over seven days. The re-telling of his story had an effect on his audience for sure, but it also clearly played an important part in his own rehabilitation as he made sense of the past and reconstructed a new sense of self and position in the world.

Whether we are grieving the loss of a pet, reeling from a shocking diagnosis or a life changing injury, coming to terms with the loss of a relationship, a death or a sharp turn of events in one’s life, stories and storytelling can heal. Whether we relate our tale over a cup of tea or in a large auditorium, orally or in written form, creating a narrative can help us to cope.

Even across the dinner table at night, the little stories we tell can be important for daily coping; making sense of the day, sharing insights, discussing difficulties and, critically, how we got through them. When children are given the chance to tell their story, particularly of a challenging experience, we have the opportunity to help them re-cast themselves as the hero of the tale, the survivor, the resilient one. Family stories, teatime stories, stories at bed or bath time matter to all of us and can be powerful tools in every family’s coping toolbox.

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

Look out for our podcast with Laura, which will be in the library in time for Cystic Fibrosis Week, which starts on 13th June. In other news, we have an exciting new feature on the Tooled Up website that will make finding the resources that you need even easier! Click on ‘browse resources’ and you will see a new search function called ‘Resource Topics’. There, you’ll find a list of all the topics that you might be interested in, along with all of the Tooled Up resources that are relevant to each. Simple!

As always, we are adding new resources to the library all the time. Look out for new features on nutrition over the exam period (created with an experienced paediatric dietitian) and some fun ideas for post-exam celebrations. We’ll also be adding some new webinar recordings (with notes) to the library this week – watch this space. Talking of webinars, did you know that we have five webinars lined up between now and the end of term, all free and exclusive to our Tooled Up community? Book your place on any of the following now:

June 16th, 7.15pm GMT – Being a ‘Tooled Up Dad’. Join Paul Pomroy (CEO of McDonalds) and Dr Weston for a light-hearted discussion about fatherhood.

June 22nd, 7.30pm GMT – Tooled Up Transitions. As transitions to new schools loom closer, Dr Weston will whizz through some of the best evidence-based tips to support children as they move on to their next educational stage. 

June 27th, 8pm GMT – Ask Dr Weston and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Anna Conway-Morris any questions you have about parenting, mental health or neurodiversity. £5 per attendee will be donated to the DEC’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. 

June 30th, 7.30pm GMT – Teen Party Planning and Problem Parties. Criminal defence lawyer, Harriett Mather, joins Dr Weston to share some top tips on how both teens and parents can enjoy post exam festivities safely.

July 6th, 12.30pm GMT – The Perils of Perfectionism. Dr Weston is joined by Rob Lightfoot from NACE (the National Association for Able Children in Education) to discuss how we can support young people to develop ‘perfectionism literacy’ and how to avoid creating perfectionistic environments at home or in school.

To read and view more content, follow me on my social media channels.

Have a great week.