When children drive you to despair

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Emotional battles between adults and children are so commonplace. All parents at some time find themselves at breaking point. resisting the urge to smack is enough to test the strongest of Saints.

Have you ever felt at the end of your tether, worried you might end up doing something you might regret? Do you fear you might lose control? Sometimes it’s just as if they knew just what buttons to press, isn’t it? Children always seem to play up when you are tired and have a headache. It is almost as if they are doing it deliberately to test you and to find out your personal limits.

Tempting as it is, to use physical punishment, it is not really the answer. Not only is it assault, but as your child’s role model by hitting them you are legitimising the use of force. Even “light blows” can catch a child and knock them off balance and they may well fall risking further physical injury hitting their head on objects or landing on their spine rather than their bottom. A blow to the head can easily damage a delicate eardrum or eyes. Shaking a very young child can lead to whiplash injury and concussion as the brain is jarred against the inside of the skull.

Discipline is very much a part of good parenting, but we are talking about the kind of acceptable behaviour that comes about through the use of “positive reinforcement.” Praise and encouragement, if given when your child exhibits the type of positive behaviour you want to see, will pay off and you will find that the behaviour you do not want will gradually extinguish. It is important however, to explain in ways your child can understand why it is that they must not display negative behaviour

Did you know that the word “discipline” actually comes from the word “disciple” or “follower?” The key is for you to model the type of behaviour you want to see. Look at your life, is it full of rows and conflict? If so, this is the area to start. Create a pleasant nurturing environment and your offspring will flourish.

From a CBT perspective I would encourage you to keep a note (preferably written) when problems occur – record details such as the time of day, who is present, has your child eaten certain foods Be aware of the stimulant properties of certain sweets, particularly brightly coloured ones where additives may promote hyperactive behaviour. Also be aware of the amount of sugar consumed (excess sugar can cause spikes in mood and behaviour with rapid highs and lows). Take note also of the general atmosphere present and any other factors present.

Try to pre-empt problem behaviour before it occurs. Listen out for phrases such as “every time.” For example, “every time he plays with her…watches that programme…goes to his house.” Let “every time” be your cue. Try changing the routine, environment or other circumstances. Also be aware of the changing needs of your child and your child’s changing moods. Tiredness often manifests in problem behaviour.

Reduce stimulants. Computers, televisions and electronic gadgets can be over stimulating. Try turning down the volume, dimming the lights and reducing excess noise. Talk quietly to your child instead of shouting.

A quiet word, a gentle touch on the shoulder, a knowing look, may be all that’s needed. Nagging, shouting and “you wait!” are generally counter-productive.

Stop saying no. Listen and take note of the number of times you use the words “no” and “don’t” each day. Instead use positive alternatives such as, “Shall we try this,” or “let’s try that.” Use “I” statements when you can. Offering choices so that children can learn to make decisions will help foster self-esteem.

A smile or a hug is the key to creating a sense of well-being and therefore likely to reinforce the behaviour you are looking for.

Start young, even toddlers recognise facial expression and tone of voice. They learn very early when you are pleased and displeased.

Build a solid base. In the early years there is nothing children really want to do more than please their parents. Take full advantage of this time to teach children to care for their belongings, be polite and respectful, help with simple chores and be considerate of the feelings of others. This really will be time well spent.

Do not tease or taunt. Such behaviour is invalidating and really has a detrimental effect on the child’s personality and later development. In my book teasing, put- downs and humiliation are tantamount to abuse and very traumatic for the child.

Set a routine. Time for homework, time to wind down and time for bed are essentials. Along with routine comes boundaries. All of us need structure and to know what is expected of us. Try to stick to the same routine every day.

Tough love and firm kindness equals happy healthy children. Remember you are the authority figure. Try being Nelson Mandela rather than Attila the Hun.

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist



“When the going gets tough…” Steve Clifford, ABC Magazine, 03-07 2002.

“How to Reinforce Good Behaviour in Children.” Elizabeth Grace

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“When I say no, I feel guilty”

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This is probably the best title for a book after, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Difficulty saying no is such a common occurrence, it probably only ranks second to visiting the doctor and when asked how you are, you respond, “very well thank you.” In other words, for many, saying “yes,” is an automatic response.

Do you find that you end up doing things you’d rather not be doing? Are you easily talked into things? Do you always put others before yourself? If so, then it might be time you learned how to say NO.

Why do we feel so guilty saying no anyway? There are probably a number of reasons for this, but the most common  is that we don’t want to offend the other person. There are, of course, those people who go out of their way to say yes and probably have never said no in their lives! In psychology circles this type of person is known as a, “people pleaser,” such individuals usually have low self esteem and thrive on the praise gained by doing things for others. The origins of such chronic low self esteem usually lies in early childhood experiences.  I would recommend that they have a few sessions of CBT to discover the origins of their behaviour and then begin the process of change.

I mentioned the automatic response, this is what psychologists call a conditioned response. A conditioned response is also known as a learned reflex response. In classical  conditioning,a conditioned response is where you learn to do something in response to a situation.

An example of this would be the smell of a delicious plate of food. In response to the smell you begin to salivate, this is an un-conditioned response, it is a natural  biological response, the only cue being the smell of food. If now I bang a dinner gong before you come for the food then your response to the sound of the gong is the conditioned response. In other words you begin to associate the sound of the dinner gong with food and you begin to salivate. You could look upon it that the delicious food is the reward and reinforces the conditioning. Saying yes when asked to do something, perhaps with praise as the reward is very strong conditioning. Learning to say no, will probably mean that you need to reprogramme your responses.

From a therapeutic perspective, many phobias arise as a consequence of conditioning. For example, as a child you have a bad experience when being given an injection. As a consequence you feel upset and cry. As an adult the very sight of a doctor wearing a white coat results in your blood pressure rising (white coat syndrome) as you recall in your mind the image of yourself as a child and you imagine the pain of the injection.

When you first start to say no, do so with something small. Gradually build up your confidence.Remember, saying yes, is not banned and you don’t have to start saying no to everything.

It is important to know that the consequence of always giving in to others requests. When you always say yes, the other party will come to expect you to do everything they ask. When one day you decide to change your ways, not only will it be a shock to the other party but they will stop and acknowledge you, what you have said, and the response you give. Note I said, “they will acknowledge you,” in other words they will not take you for granted. Believe it or not, it is only by saying no sometimes that you gain respect. You know the old maxim, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Why is that person overwhelmed and snowed under with work? Because they can’t say no. Learning to say no, when you are busy or when you do not want to do something is a mark of self- respect. It is an example of what I call self-caring“. It means that you are a worthwhile person and not simply a servile robot. It sends a powerful message to the other party that you have worth and that you know your own mind.

Here are a number of techniques you can use which will help you:

Make a direct refusal – Simply say, “No, I’d rather not.” This avoids ambiguities and right from the start people will know your wishes. No hinting, no hoping the other party will guess what you really want. No mind reading required!

No excuses or apologies – Think about how do people sound to you when they make a lot of excuses. It’s OK to apologise if necessary, but do not keep apologising over and over again.

The broken record – Just repeat your basic statement if the other party persists.

Fogging – Use this technique when you are at the receiving  end of someone’s criticism. For example, “Your’e nothing but a lazy toad. Why don’t you put the rubbish out?”                            Your response could be, “Perhaps I am being lazy, but I’m not putting the rubbish out right now, I promise I will do it later.”

Re-affirming the relationship –  Here you give a response that helps keep the relationship OK. A helping statement – not rescuing. For example, “If you really loved me you would do the dishes.” Your response could be, “I do love you but I am not going to do the dishes right now.”

Saying no and setting limits and boundaries is so necessary. One of the most helpful tips that I can give anyone is this. Remember, when you say no, you are saying no to the request not the person.” Say it to yourself several times and really try to digest this message”

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist



“When I say no, I feel guilty” by Manuel J. Smith- www.tower.com

“Feel the fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers – www.susanjeffers.com

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A little of what you fancy does you good…I’ll have a small piece please!

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How many of you reading this won’t have a biscuit in case you eat the whole packet? How many of you know that if you take just one chocolate, half the tray will have passed your lips before you find the strength to shut the lid?  Perhaps you have started a New Year’s revolution and hit the gym, or are pounding the pavements, pushing yourself to complete your allocated distance before collapsing in a heap, unable to move.

At my Bexhill practice I see many people who are caught in this “all or nothing”, “boom or bust” cycle.  For many people, the word “moderation” is almost a dirty word, while “excess and deprivation” has become an all too familiar friend. Now is the time to change and to cultivate “the art of moderation”.

The problem with all or nothing behaviour is that it can lead to all or nothing thinking.  In other words, people either love you or hate you, things either go well or they are a disaster.  It is either somebody else’s responsibility or you are entirely to blame; no middle ground, no grey in between, just all or nothing.

We all know that too much junk food and sitting around like the proverbial “couch potato” is not good for us.  But neither is too much “healthy” living.  How many people take out gym membership and then a month or so later, have to stop due to some injury either from overdoing it on the cross trainer, or pushing the weights to excess (men take note!) just to prove we can do a bit more, or in the mistaken assumption that we can get fitter a bit quicker?

Of course, exercise is good for us, as is eating healthy food.  However, excessive exercise is as harmful as excessive dieting and denial.  Just a muscle injury and strain will come from  too much exercise, likewise too much healthy food can be bad for us.  Take cutting out cake and biscuits and substituting it with lots and lots of fruit and vegetables.  While fruit and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, they also contain fibre.  A little fibre is good for us, as it helps prevent constipation and gastric problems.  Yet, too much fibre can cause bloating and abdominal cramps.  Eat too many carrots and you will get carotenemia where the palms of your hands and soles of your feet will turn orange.  You get the picture?

Eat any food to excess and you are sure to have problems. The key is to achieve a balance between what we want and what we need.  In other words, engaging our brains rather than our instinctual drive.  If any of you have a cat, you cannot fail to notice the way it gobbles down its food.  The cat is programmed to eat food quickly in order to do so before other cats come along and steal it, and more importantly, to do so ensures they have taken on board food as fuel in the event there is no food tomorrow.

By and large, human beings don’t have to worry about others stealing their food, furthermore, they are unlikely to be able to get to the shops tomorrow.  Note how the animal instinct comes into play prior to a bank holiday.  The supermarket may only be shut for one day but people stockpile bread, milk etc.  The primitive hunter gatherer is still such a deeply engrained part of our psyche.

It is important to eat food and not cut things out because we don’ trust ourselves.  Follow the maxim – “A little of what you fancy does you good.”  Professor Paul Gilbert, author of The Compassionate Mind, tells us to “indulge joyfully without guilt” and not deprive ourselves.  Denial is the surest way to create yearnings and is much more likely to lead to binge-eating.  A period of denial is often followed by a period of gorging – the “boom and bust” scenario so frequently observed when people are dieting and fall of the wagon. Self-deprivation is much more likely to fuel low self-esteem.  It is like self-punishment.

Learning to control our impulses, we need to practise developing a “moderate mindset”.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Stop beating yourself up when you over-indulge.  Remember it’s our natural drive to over-indulge. Be realistic and tell yourself that it is ok if you have a slip
  • Congratulate yourself when you are able to eat in moderation.
  • Eat little and often during the day rather than three large meals with no snacks in-between. Aim to eat more complex carbohydrates such as porridge, wholemeal bread and protein, meat and nuts rather than just simple carbohydrates: cakes, biscuits and soft drinks.  However, having a simple carbohydrate food as an “add on” can take away cravings.
  • Count to ten (well thirteen actually),  This enables the “thinking” part of the brain to engage.
  • Avoid looking at things in terms of black/white, good/bad – stop beating yourself up and admonishing yourself, regarding yourself as bad if you have eaten an extra cake.
  • Be compassionate towards yourself – instead of telling yourself off – just talk to yourself in a kindly, understanding way as you would a child.
  • Be mindful, savour each mouthful, deliberately eating slowly, enjoying the taste, smell and feel.
  • “All or nothing” thinking is what we in CBT call a “cognitive distortion.  In other words, thoughts that are irrational and exaggerated.  Use of terms such as “always”, “never”, “right” and “wrong” are examples of extremes.  Try to identify when you are using such words and look for a word that is more moderate, e.g. replace “should”, “must” and “ought” with “could”, “might” and “maybe.”

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist



Secrets of the “I’ll just have one”, Woman, Rebecca Ley, Psychologies Magazine, January 2012.

Spotting errors in your thinking.  Chapter 2, CBT for Dummies. By Rhena Branch & Rob Willson

Paul Gilbert, The Compassionate Mind, Constable.

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