Endings, and new beginnings…The stories we tell ourselves in family life…

How we make meanings, and why it matters, how it contributes to ours and our children’s sense of self…

As the end of another school year is upon us…I invite you to join me in taking stock…

  • What sort of a year has it been for your child, tween, teen?
  • And for you observing them, supporting them, in their learning and growth…?
  • How do you all feel about the end of term? Is it sad to leave school friends and teachers behind? Will you miss the routine of your children happily and safely occupied?
  • Are you looking forward to breathing sighs of relief – escaping the tyranny of early mornings and the school run?
  • Is it a pleasure to have some breathing space from the intensity of term, of perhaps from intense friendships?
  • Has there been a lot of change for your child? Has their year been disrupted? Maybe a change of teacher? Maybe a change in friendships or friendship groups?
  • What has felt like a success – what your child’s been on top of? Has it simply been a good year where your kid got on with stuff, did their thing, and got through fairly happily? Or was it a high-five-a-thon culminating with trophies at sports day and prizes at prize-giving…
  • What has felt less certain? Were there disappointments? Events you start caveating as soon as you start referring to them?

For my part – especially now that I largely work from home, it’s such a relief not to have to juggle 7am wake-ups, the school-generated complexity driving the family diary. It’s a relief to not have to be keeping one eye to revision timetables and school exams…It’s a relief not to feel on the back foot with surprise rehearsals and concerts. It’s great to have more freedom and choice about the pace of life…

It’s wonderful to look back at our daughter’s joy in her music, her involvement in activities that take her outside of her immediate peers, and invite her into new perspectives – whether that’s in singing or out-of-school friendships with drama. By and large it has been a very happy year – despite it being our ‘Kevin the Teenager’ moment of reckoning…living with a thirteen-year-old! The transformation into monosyllabic, lip-curled resentment has not yet materialised…

She’s done well. She worked super-hard with a major part in a show for her local theatre group. She’s understood the joy of forging friendships and pulling together as a team – even with people who you don’t quite click with straight away. She worked well for the exams which were mainly good, and some, predictably mixed. She tried hard and had a go at some ambitious stuff. Some worked out, some did not. We want her to be massively proud of herself for having had a go and putting her neck on the line. More than anything, she has continued to be a kind, caring, and considerate person.

Are there things she does or has done that – looking on- I would have done differently? Oh yes there are…but the fact is she’s her and I’m me. And I don’t really want to pass some of my perfectionism on to her. I may have got my way by being driven and relentless. But that was my way – born of chasing parental affection that came more easily expressed when one was impeccable and had prizes to present. I have been keen to write a different story as a parent myself, and I hope that that enables her to follow a happier narrative arc where she can be more at peace with herself…

It’s interesting – how entwined our children’s stories are with our own. And how we occupy our children’s successes as well as their struggles. Last weekend saw me attend a 30 year reunion at university. And of course, there we were all trading the ‘elevator pitches’ of each other’s professional and personal lives. The stilted and evasive partial fragments of the guarded, the effusive and gushing narratives of the conventionally confident. Those whose kids had followed in the footsteps…yada yada, now studying the trophy degree at the trophy place…And then the quieter and truer and more moving quality of the stories of those who dared to be real.

The more profound question we all could do with posing ourselves from time to time, is what it is that our children’s success or failure means to us…and to what extent that can (if we let it) get in the way of us being able to be truly there for the young person in front of us…

Because here’s the thing…our own experiences shape the expectations we have for the direction of our children’s stories. What stories our parents primed us for. What stories they expected to hear from us about our children, their grandchildren. Stories of sameness…stories of difference.

Whilst there are good stories and bad stories to be told – every year certainly has its highs and lows – there are quite honestly a lot more stories of young people struggling, and in particular taking out their struggles on each other, or their families in the backdrop of school life. This is what I hear regularly, in my work on wellbeing and relationships with schools as a speaker and trainer.

Over the course of this year, I have been asked repeatedly to come to schools and lead workshops to help give children, teens, and their teachers, a toolkit to manage their minds and their relationships better, kinder, and more healthily. By far the most popular and sought after webinars I have delivered for parents are connected with supporting young people to improve their relationships and handle change and conflict.

As a professional coach with my background in education, safeguarding in schools, and child/ adolescent development, I am regularly consulted by parents who are deeply concerned about the struggles their children are going through in school life. I share these headline topics without compromising confidentiality so that if they touch on your child’s experience, you know you’re not alone. And that they are part of the landscape of the ‘growing pains’ of us living in anxious times, as well as pandemic legacies.

Some of the topics below may resonate with you. Maybe elements are within your experience on a spectrum in recent family life. Some may not, but may help make some of the niggles you and your child have been coping with easier to find perspective on… I can say with certainty, that in my work with senior practitioners who are leads on mental health, wellbeing, and safeguarding it is clear that these all relate to current trends in school life.

  • Bullying and controlling behaviour by peers – including systematic exclusion and belittlement, and even overt hostility.
  • Online bullying and harassment – even including suggestions on social media that a young person should harm or kill themselves – and being ‘liked’ by numerous peers. Or online rumour-spreading, shaming, humiliating.
  • Anxiety-based school refusal and significantly avoidant behaviour that restricts the range of a young person’s experiences or impacts on family life.
  • Anger management / emotional regulation skills around anxiety.
  • Neurodiverse children being targeted and provoked by peers in order to get them into trouble when they lash out.
  • Social isolation – young people finding it difficult to make connection with peers.
  • Past conflict and grudges being held onto by peers -and parents- so bad feeling is sustained and peers take sides for prolonged periods of time.
  • Frayed attachments with parents – excessive distancing or conflict loops.
  • Addiction – screens, substances, self-harm.
  • Acrimonious separation and family conflict polarising relationships with children and preventing contact.
  • Overwhelmed parents – highly stressed and triggered by their children’s behaviour needing to find better ways of relating around predictable conflict loops as well as explosive incidents in home life.

One thing that’s for sure, is that when life is shadowed by or driven by anxiety – without the capacity to recognise and tend to our needs – we become less kind to ourselves, and less kind to each other. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us become darker, less trusting, more persecutory. And we are designed to internalise these more deeply and more readily.

The stories I hear from my clients, whether in bespoke 1:1 or family work, or whether on a school-wide basis reflect the struggles that are in the world at large. One of the many lesser told stories about the COVID pandemic and its lock-downs is that of the impact on children and adolescents, having to grow, and hopefully learn, in relative captivity at home or online.

It is a scandal that from March to May this year, the stories of the child or adolescent experience was omitted from the design of the COVID inquiry. And yet everyone who works in education or with young people is able to see significant differences in the behaviour, the relationships dynamics, lagging social skills, and the resilience of the generations of children, adolescents, and young adults, whose education and developmental experience was so disrupted in that two-year period.

Part of my work as a coach is to bring compassion, context to other people’s struggles, to listen deeply to their stories, and allow them to reverberate and be felt. But also to help reframe their picture of what’s going on. To see beyond feelings of helplessness. To release the pain of it. To understand it as often part of a process and find what’s in their control. We filter the stories of their struggles and suffering through the notions of whether their beliefs about what is going on are true, kind, necessary, helpful?

Because quite often the stories we tell ourselves can add that second dart of suffering to the primary point of pain.

Meaning-making. Our brains are meaning making machines…

We all process life’s experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly and sort them in terms of salience – importance. Quite clearly, troublesome, painful, and threatening situations will assume greater importance because we are designed to survive. And our survivalist brains lay down deep and fast tracks of learning at sometimes unconscious levels, so that instinctually, within our bodies, we will sense danger or not-danger.

What does this mean for us when we think about ending this school year…enjoying the holiday…and gearing up to the challenges of next year?

For us and our kids…

‘Bad-stories’ have much more traction than ‘good stories’…

We tend to revisit ‘bad’ situations and events more often than good ones. Especially if there are elements of shame or social exclusion or judgment attached to them. Often that revisiting can be ruminative, rather than constructive. Part of a revolving door of worry that we did something ‘wrong’ and people won’t like us for it…if only we’d done something different…Then we feel bad about ourselves, and that bad feeling gives the revolving door of shame and worry another faster shove. And we think darker thoughts about ourselves, and about people, and the world around us…

It is hugely helpful to be able to use the more relaxed feel of the summer break and the separation from the intensity of peer group life, to visit and revisit the meanings our kids might be making from their experiences.

Just yesterday, whilst on a swimming trip, I asked our daughter about her highlight experiences in the past year – and she forgot the main one about her play! How easily the highs get distance in the rear-view mirror!

Now I am not suggesting that we all corrall our kids and subject them to inquisitions about the ‘stories’ they are telling themselves about the year just past. Instead, I’m going to suggest a myriad of light-touch ways – and deeper dive activities we might suggest so that the good stuff has the chance to stick, and the bad stuff can have a better chance of washing away.

SO some ideas for letting the good stuff stick…

  • On walks, at relaxed moments on the sofa, in the car when you’re together and there’s not a lot going on…revisit some of the good things you’ve seen or noticed about your child’s way of being. How they might be growing into themselves in ways you love. This maybe takes on a notion from Carl Roger’s research in 1977 about ‘prizing’ – showing ‘unconditional positive regard’. Prizing their feelings, their person in a non-possessive and caring way. It’s expressing acceptance and joy in another individual – in this case our children- as a separate person, having worth in his or her own right. It’s a really great habit to get into. Because the world we are in educationally, and socially, is full of comparison – the ‘thief of joy’. And how often do we conditionalize praise? At the end of the year, looking at the report card, and giving how much weight to the even better ifs…It takes repetition for the good stuff to land. Not so for criticism…
  • In little moments, in little ways, tell and retell stories of their strength. Moments when they handled uncertainty. Showed integrity. When did they go ‘above and beyond’? When they have shown special kindness and consideration to others? It’s something we can challenge ourselves to as a parent – to spend some time reflecting on their signature strengths and recall some stories where they really exemplified those. And once we’ve done that, we can, for instance, pull those ‘I remember when’ stories we can tell them about themselves to remind them that they are strong, they are brave, they are capable, they are loved, they are fun…principled etc…If you have a menu of say 10 little tales about your kiddo, you can maybe pull those out of the bag when they need to hear something good.
  • Use your fridge door – for reminders. Print out photos of peak moments and memories and put them out there where we’ll all see them. What about your bathroom? A place that’s more private and personal for your family, a wall of pictures of togetherness with family that can help tell your story about who you are as a family, the things you do together, what you value. Think of all the micro-moments you are in and around the bathroom doing those little left-brain things – like drying your hands or body, sitting on the loo, in the bath – the glimpses you can revisit in tiny bote-sized ways. It’s some thing you can create together and curate together…clip frames where you can edit the contents every summer.
  • Scrap books for each kid…where programmes, certificates, photos, cards can live. We call it the ‘Folda of Golda’…a lever arch file that has a lot of gold in the design…and if there’s a golden moment – a concert, an outing, a memory we want to preserve…in it goes…and we can look back at those at the ends of terms, in the holidays…and these also record ideas and stimuli to look back and look again at ‘the story of you’….
  • You could work on making a collage – poster sized of stuff that interested and engaged them – memes, gifs, photos, things that uplifted, made them laugh, shocked them, provoked them…headlines…postcards or pictures of artworks that interested…this is less of a personal story, more about what interested and inspired them in engaging with the world beyond – eg in the media…
  • Create a sound-track for the summer…for car-journeys…resonant tunes that help you access the moods and tone you want to set for the summer-scene…Talk about the music choices…What’s cool and why…what might be more wistful?
  • Think about your family’s story…To what extent do you – and your kids- know your family history? This is always worth visiting and revisiting – especially for instance when we think about some of the realities of family life – for instance divorce and separation. These narratives need to be revisited in age-appropriate ways as our kids grow. And some of the assumptions clarified. It is – for instance – very common for young children to blame themselves for their parents’ split. Or feel that if they were somehow better or easier, that they wouldn’t have contributed to the friction, perhaps…Bruce Feiler, the writer of the book ‘The Secrets of Happy Families’ writes of the importance of developing a strong family narrative. This really chimes in with me and my more in-depth work with families over the years. Especially when there have been traumatic events to process. It contributes to greater cohesiveness, and teamwork. It helps stimulate empathic bonds and a sense of belonging through shared values. It also helps develop our children’s self-concept, and sense of self-esteem. Shared stories that consolidate a sense of identity, and stories of overcoming can help individuals within that family experience a sense of a stronger locus of control, optimism, resilience, and better coping skills.
  • Refine your family’s story – looking at scrapbooks, photo albums, memorabilia…Think about creating sound recordings with older relatives…Organise reunions – comings together and swapping stories and family history – for instance bringing precious items and telling the stories of them. Encourage the kids to ask questions about family past and present? Where are their gaps – what do they want to know? What would you all wish to ask relatives now passed?
  • Write your kid or kids cards and letters in which you record and reflect your feelings and stories about them or about their place in your family life – their contribution, their quality of belonging…
  • Discuss your family traditions – what are they? Where did they come from? Why are they important? Which are the favourites…what new traditions might we start…?
  • Lean in and really listen when they talk about their friendships – and be curious…use the following coaching style questions to get them to reflect and explore and express in a little more depth, so they can see their situations in more multi-dimensional ways…Ask them… 
    • What’s important to you about what was going on there?
    • What was the impact it had on you / others…
    • What do you think about it?
    • What would you want to happen if there could be a ‘do-over’?
    • What choices do you have now about how you can look back at that?
    • What have you learned? And what now / what next?
    • Use the 4 filters…was what was said and done true, kind, necessary, helpful…and when you look at how you think of that scenario in retrospect…what’s the quality of the way you’re thinking about it – and is that true, kind, necessary, helpful…?

As the author and counsellor Marissa Peer says: “We can talk ourselves into something, or talk ourselves out of something. Words shape our reality….if you change your words, you change your reality. If you don’t like your reality…look at the language patterns you use…” That is what neuroplasticity means. Learning praise, helps you forget criticism…

Bullying, exclusion, and being kept on the outside…

What parents can do to help review, re-write, and support in starting a fresh chapter…

It is true that the experience of being bullied CAN have lifelong reverberations. We are indeed wired to fear social exclusion and are primed to find safety in belonging. The experience of bullying – especially if it is controlling, teasing, diminishing behaviour targeting an individual CAN leave a residue of helplessness. If this has been part of the landscape of your child’s life over recent months, then there are very important ways in which you can work with that…

IF also your child has just not been able to find their tribe, and it feels like it’s a closed door for them socially at school, lean into and explore their feelings and ideas about it. It can be extremely painful for parents to think about their child being lonely. But there’s learning to be had.

  • ENCOURAGE releasing the feelings – without judgment or argument – verbalising what the experiences felt like, and what they came to mean…
  • ASK your child or teen to put that into a framework of social values. Treating a person this way – is it a moral, ethical way of being? How would they describe the rights of an individual, a child, in their day-to-day operations. Getting them to identify the VALUES in breach in the behaviour they have experienced, is a way in which you can help wire in a sense of your child’s INTEGRITY, their sense of HONOUR and FAIRNESS. They may have felt powerless in the face of daily micro-aggressions – or macro ones. BUT, you can help them appreciate their INTERNAL RESISITANCE to what happened.
  • This is important because being bullied and excluded in a controlling manner whereby other people are encouraged by the bully or bullying group to side with them, and join in…it’s an extremely stressful situation to be in. AND if that feels overwhelming, the nervous system takes over…and your child is beyond fight or flight…they are in freeze / flop – it’s an ultimate survival mode we all have that is designed to make us small and safe from predators. The trouble is it means our role in the ‘story’ of what happened is a passive one. And that invites self-reproach, guilt, and shame. Another secondary dart. The first dart of suffering being treated badly by people, the second dart is thinking and feeling that you did nothing, you let it happen, you colluded in your own oppression.
  • Looking at what they want, how they can see better stories in better connections in their lives…where are they? School may be something of a desert for that…if so, seek out stories from elsewhere – family, friends outside of school, activities where they are valued…And maybe find ways in which you can facilitate them writing different stories of themselves in group life by having hobbies and experiences that get them out and about and making interest-based connections…

The point is we all write our stories every day, and we also have the capacity to re-write them into stories of strength even within suffering, and find more creative ways to engage with and change the narrative arc for our future actions and our children’s future selves that are full of hope, life, and learning.

For us as parents, we always want the best for our children, and so often it can feel like we’ve somehow failed – or that our fear of failure drives us into more critical, and harsher ways of being from time to time. Especially where disappointment and our own and our children’s inevitable imperfektion arise… I hope this has maybe given you some uplifting ideas of things you can do to revisit the stories you tell yourself, and the stories you are telling each other…

With love and gratitude,

Emma.

Contact me for a 1:1 consultation if you’d like a deeper dive in the stories you are telling yourself and each other in family life. We can all rewrite our stories – but sometimes it can help to have that less attached, non-judgmental space to think and feel through it all…

More to explore