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Wednesday Wisdom

Point and Purpose

- Reflect -

The New Year nearly always means having to tolerate conversations about transformative change, resolutions and goal-setting. For those determined to set goals and to meet them, I am full of admiration.

A little tip for this crowd (gleaned from research), is to articulate your goals to those whose opinions you value; the act of vocalising goals to people who matter to us tends to predict successful completion, so in this case peer pressure can motivate. For the rest of us, I might suggest an approach to 2023 that focuses on smaller, achievable goals and that builds on any tangible success enjoyed in 2022. Easing ourselves into a new year is often preferable for our mental health than a big bang. I often find the delineation between each year unsettling, and prefer to think of moving between the years the same way I approach getting into a swimming pool; at my own pace, with no big splashes, thank you very much!

Prioritising mental health, and bearing in mind what we know about the role of social media on wellbeing, a good start to any new year is to delete, mute or unsubscribe from apps or online communities that make you moan, elicit irritation or instigate unhappiness. This is most certainly an idea that parents can model to tweens and teens. There is no better time for a chat about digital diets than January. I might also suggest being mindful of where we get our information from. I was recently shocked to discover the volume of social media apps with ‘blue ticks’ selling ‘medicinal products’ (in this case mushroom powder) for conditions like ADHD, where the seller had zero medical training. As we step into a new year, being discerning about how we use our time, who we listen to and where we get our information from might form noble goals.

As you set goals and think through resolutions, you might be tempted to get the whole family doing it. It works for some! Others might prefer an alternative approach: encouraging retrospective thinking. What went well last term that you wish to continue doing? Which subjects are you enjoying more than others? What friendships are going well that you want to invest in further this term? Where are you seeing progress in sport or other activities and how can you build on that? Finding connective threads between last term and this term, last year and this year, can feel less anxiety-inducing and remind children and young people that they aren’t starting from zero. These are questions that adults can attempt to answer too. 

I have recently been considering the role of  purpose as a protective factor in teen mental health and have been reading a seminal text in this field; The Path to Purpose by William Damon. Short term desires can come and go, such as wanting to do well on a test or get into a school. They reflect aims that may or may not have longer significance. A purpose, Damon states, “by contrast, is an end in itself. A person can change purposes, or add new ones, over the years but it is in the nature of purposes to endure at least long enough that a serious commitment is made and some progress toward that aim achieved”. 

During a recent Sunday meal, I initiated a family discussion about what I was reading. It didn’t go as smoothly as planned and we all struggled with the starter question: what gives us purpose? Beyond that, our chat evolved into discussion about the best ways of discovering purpose. We talked about the oft-used approach of inviting people to write their own obituaries or writing to one’s future self, as a method for crystallising life purpose. Then it descended into a chat about how one wishes to be remembered. Is it preferable to have ‘loving mother’ or ‘tech entrepreneur’ on a gravestone? Should QR codes be on gravestones (as suggested by youngest), so we can learn about people’s lives and how they spent it? What makes a ‘successful’ life? These were the sorts of questions stirred up by the word ‘purpose’.

- Motivate -

The recently published UK’s New Years Honours List is packed full of people who seemingly have devoted their life to a particular purpose. Reading through the list, one can see that people find purpose through philanthropy, creating something unique, or helping a particular group of people, sector or service. Society appears to value (and reward) those who are purposeful too.

Anyone running a business knows that coming up with a ‘strap line’ that adequately conveys what we are about, what we believe in and what we are trying to achieve is extremely challenging. Now, imagine being a teenager and being asked to think about life direction, occupation, plans and goals. Whilst we can certainly nudge teens towards being purposeful, life purpose may gently unfold over time. Rest assured (and this is something you can convey to your children), if we attune to who we are, to what interests us and always strive towards improvement or positive contribution, at some point we will get there. 

Translating purpose into action is difficult. We might have all the passion in the world but lack the financial resources or social capital to move it into action. Last week, I had the great fortune of chatting over Zoom to Sadia Hussein, a truly inspirational mother and campaigner. We talked about her experiences working to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in rural Kenyan communities. Sadia’s life purpose, passion and utter selflessness in her desire to change the world for the better (and for no financial return) was palpable and inspired me to think about how I/we might facilitate her work. How can I lean into my networks, connections and resources here in England to help Sadia reach her goals of raising awareness of topics like child marriage and FGM? Sadia dreams of giving talks in our schools and of being able to tell her story, so if anyone is reading this and wants to welcome her, let us know! The pleasure gained from helping others fulfil their life purpose is something else we can convey and model to our children. 

Purpose gives our lives meaning and that in turn, can make them even more joyful. I am minded of an interaction that occurred many years ago that highlighted the importance of purpose in (at least momentarily) alleviating sadness or depression. I was walking alongside a friend who was feeling incredibly low. We were both at the end of our final year of university and summer was looming. He was in his mid-twenties, was far from home and without a job to go to. I remember him rubbing his temples with both hands, as he described how low he felt, fatigue etched on his face. As we strolled along, we came across a lady who was on the ground staring down a road drain; she had dropped her car keys down it and was in a state of panic. 

My friend immediately hopped into action and after a great deal of hunting and asking around, developed a nifty tool out from some branches and coat hanger wire to retrieve the lady’s keys from the drain. He saved the day. The sense of accomplishment on his face has stuck in my mind all these years; his deflation momentarily lifted as he announced how enjoyable the challenge had been. He felt ‘useful’ and was happy to have retrieved his ‘bushcraft skills’!  

It’s a small, anecdotal reminder about the nature and importance of purpose. It needs to be meaningful to the self, but also help us move beyond ourselves.  My friend felt alive in the melee and was bursting with agentic pride (perhaps like a small child), that he had been able to problem-solve and assist someone out of a tough spot.

- Support -

Most schools are back this week and most of us are returning to work. Spare a thought for children who may struggle to return, for their parents and carers, and for teachers who feel those first day nerves. Transition anxiety, performance anxiety and social anxiety are perhaps more common than you think.

Starting with some reflections on transition anxiety, ’emotionally-based school avoidance’ has grown since the pandemic hit, and it isn’t the easiest of issues to solve. I recently reviewed an edited collection of essays on the topic and came to the conclusion that the reasons behind non-attendance can vary tremendously, but children with separation, social or generalised anxiety may find it particularly hard to get back to school as anxiety levels may increase at the end of an ordinary break. 

Children with certain neurodevelopmental disorders might struggle more with the disparity between the comfort of being at home and the social and emotional demands of the ordinary school day. There are no ‘magic wands’ here, but, from my understanding, flexibility is key, and, in an ideal world, schools and families would co-create small achievable goals on a week-by-week basis, that feel good for the pupils and their parents and that are doable from a school perspective. 

Pupils aren’t the only people that might get anxious. I recently recorded a webinar with clinical psychologist and performance anxiety practitioner, Dr Anna Colton. Anna works with West End stars, screen actors, barristers, judges, headteachers, athletes, you name it! These are people we might assume never get nervous, but that really isn’t the case. Throughout our conversation, Dr Colton was at pains to stress that performance anxiety (otherwise known as ‘stage fright’) is a universal experience and it may not necessarily involve acting, performing or talking in front of a large audience. This fear of others’ negative judgement might be caused by an upcoming test, by the need to converse with a stranger in a shop, by the thought of attending a party and speaking to new people, by making a phone call, or even by eating in public. Knowing that everyone gets performance anxiety of some kind, to some extent, is quite reassuring isn’t it?

Thankfully, there are also plenty of effective tools that can help us to manage performance anxiety, whether it’s us who are experiencing it, or our children. We should try to lean into the things that we are afraid of. Avoidance can only breed more fear. We can practise the things that scare us and mentally visualise how we want them to go. 

Breathing techniques are incredibly useful in alleviating the symptoms of anxiety. There are many different breathing strategies, but Dr Colton’s top tip is to ensure that your ‘out’ breath is always considerably longer than your ‘in’ breath. Check out her instructional videos on YouTube if you’d like to learn more. 

If your child is experiencing performance anxiety, be careful not to dismiss their fears. Instead, ask curious questions and ensure that they feel validated and heard. Tempting as it might be to try to fix the problem for them, it’s better to nudge them to think about what might help. It’s back to goal-setting! How can they break down a big challenge into smaller, more manageable steps? What small goals can you create together? Show that you have confidence in their abilities and self-efficacy. Lastly, don’t be afraid to talk to them about how you face your fears and the strategies you have developed over the years to cope. If they know we aren’t perfect, and are comfortable with that, it can really help them find the courage to face the inevitable challenges and difficulties that lie ahead.

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

If you are interested in setting small, achievable goals, print out our 2023 Goal Setting Planner, perfect for nudging children to think about pursuits that they enjoy and things they’d like to get better at. If you’d like to learn more about performance anxiety, why not tune in to our webinar with Dr Colton. It’s in the library now (complete with full notes), ready for you to watch at your leisure.

For those of you interested in learning more about low mood, depression or anything related to mental health, join us for a live Q&A with top psychiatrist, Dr Anna Conway Morris, and GP, Dr Chris Schramm, tomorrow night. Questions can be submitted anonymously via: support@tooledupeducation.com

Got teens interested in hearing from top athletes? Join us as we chat with trailblazing rugby player Floyd Steadman OBE on January 25th and superstars from the rowing world, James Ball and Caoimhe Dempsey on January 26th

To find out more about our other events for spring (a diverse range of webinars on subjects including allergies, dyslexia, self-advocacy skills for children with disabilities, children’s heart health and misogyny) click here.

Thank you for all of your entries to our Thermomix competition so far. We’ve had some crackers! If you don’t know what we are referring to, as a thank you for all of your support over the last year, we’re giving one very lucky Tooled Up subscriber the chance to win a Thermomix TM6 kitchen appliance worth over £1000. All you need to do is tell us how Tooled Up Education warms your heart. You can send a short video, a quick email, write us a poem, sing a song or do a dance routine!  Entries will go into a random draw and the lucky winner will be announced on the 14th February. Best of luck!

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Have a great week.