Talking with kids about the Indonesian executions

Because of their age and their different little personalities, different children will react differently to the events in Indonesia. There’s no need to purposely expose your primary school age child to these incidents, but if they have questions or look concerned about watching or hearing about it on the news, then check in with them.

Explore what it is they know and how they are making sense of the information they have taken in. Do they know what has happened? Do they understand it? Do they want you to try to explain it? If so, you could try something along the lines of….

Different people have different things that they think are important and different things that they believe in. In Indonesia they have a rule and they believed that these men broke it. The men went to jail first and were sorry for what they did, but the boss of the country wanted to send an important message to the world about the rule. He believed that the rule was so important, that he should take their lives away. Other people and other countries may not agree with the boss of Indonesia and that is why there is so much news about it.

Don’t be concerned if your child does not have any more questions. They have a different world view to yours and they probably want to know more basic things once their questions have been dealt with – like “what’s for lunch?”

If your child wants to know about drugs and what they are, you could try something like this….

There are lots of plants and chemicals in the world that we use to help us or to have fun. Some are safe and some can be more dangerous. Some people know a lot about chemicals, like doctors and farmers, and they use them to help others and grow things. The chemicals that people use in their bodies are called drugs. Because some chemicals or drugs can be dangerous, the bosses of the country make rules about them to try to keep their people safe. Some drugs are allowed and some drugs can get people in trouble with the Law.

If your child has more questions and you cannot answer them, suggest that you do some research together to find out. Ask your child to think of who you could ask or talk to who may know more. For some, this might be someone at school or it maybe someone at Church or it may be someone who they know who has travelled the world.

Others may feel sad about the men dying. Sadness is also perfectly okay in this situation.  Do not force or cajole your child, but if your child would like to use their sadness in a way that could help others then you could explore some options. Your child may like to make a card to send to the family of the men who have been killed. They may want to draw a picture or give someone a hug. It can be helpful to make ourselves feel better by doing nice things for others.

Of course, if your child is distressed about the events,your usual ways of comforting do not seem to be helping, and the distress is lasting for a number of days, then be sure to get some advice from a mental health professional.

For more resources to help you talk with children about death, your school librarian can assist. You might also want to keep a copy of “Life is Like the Wind” handy, too.

Military kids – What effect does having a parent in the military have on a child’s mental health?

Military personnel are more likely to marry and start a family earlier than most others. They are employed in steady work, get on the job training and, these days, a number of additional supports while they work. So, it is not surprising that many military men and women are working parents. Parents may serve in different roles in the military. Some may work on a base and some may be deployed far from home.

When a person goes off to defend a nation, to “keep peace” or to help with aid and reconstruction after some war or force of nature, what happens back at home?

While we are well aware of the extended psychological impact of those who serve in the military, especially in combat, there is also a large impact on those at home. The psychological effects can start with the notice of a parent’s deployment and tracks through various stages of impact until long after the parent’s homecoming.

Children at different ages are likely to respond differently to a parent who is absent due to military service. Little ones miss crucial time during attachment that needs to be managed carefully to ensure their psychological wellbeing. They can also be very affected by the stresses that impact their other parent at home. School age children are old enough to be well aware of the risks of having a parent in the military. They are old enough to know that there is a chance of their parent being injured or dying and never coming home. Children also miss out on having a parent present at certain important times for them – school performances, sporting victories, graduations. Older children with a parent in the military tend to take on more responsibility than most of their peers and often share a greater burden of the household chores and care of younger siblings.

If a parent returns from service with poor mental health, then additional responsibilities often befall the children and sometimes, sadly, there can be increased family conflict.

Whilst the notice that a family member is about to be deployed increases family anxiety for military children, it can often be that most of the stress is experienced with the parent coming back home again. Sometimes roles have changed and a family rhythm is developed in a parent’s absence and it can take up to a year for that stress to settle. Often, when a parent returns, that is when other supports from outside of the family drop back, but there is a clear need to maintain support for sometime after the parent’s returns.

Additionally, life as a military family can mean multiple moves. For children, multiple moves means multiple schools and teachers, changing support systems, repeatedly leaving friends and sometimes living in another country. It is probably not surprising that children of military families have been found to perform somewhat more poorly than their peers when it comes to academic challenges, especially when their parent is absent for longer than 19 months.

It seems that across time, different wars and combat zones have had different impacts on how individual defence personnel and their families cope. Research into the children of Australian Veterans from Vietnam indicated that these children had a greater than normal suicide rate or accidental death rate. These statistics prompted additional services for the children of those who returned from Vietnam. Many of these “children” are now adults and have children themselves.

Those who have served in recent conflicts or missions have had very different day to day experiences than those of years ago. Deployments are much longer than they once were and the long term nature of many military operations has meant that many in the military have served away from home multiple times and in quite quick successions. However, Australian research is indicating that contemporary veterans are improving more quickly when it comes to benefiting from psychological interventions after combat and that their benefits are being maintained for some time.

The type of support that children of military families need, therefore, will vary widely depending on their parents role in the military, how many times their parent is deployed away, the mental health and stress of both parents (the parent who is deployed as well as the parent who stays at home) and the child’s age.

It’s important to know that despite many possible stressors, most military children seem to manage well. There are a number of factors that seem to help military kids. Helping military parents at home to manage stress can help the children and it is clear that this support needs to continue long after the serving parent has come back home.

Helping children stay connected to the absent parent is also important. Social media can help with this, but needs to be managed carefully. Social media can bring home the realities of conflict, can make it frustrating not to be close and can lead to information coming home through the wrong channels, but if parents are mindful of these risks, it can help keep the relationship between child and parent engaged and relating.

It also helps military families with very little children to make and keep routines and consistency. Increased predictability reduces anxiety for little ones.

The other important factor protecting military kids is often their strong sense of military identity. Belonging to a supportive military culture can mean that children feel a part of a strong, serving and sacrificing culture that can be quite protective. Colloquially referred to as “military brats”, children of those who have served in the military can be afforded some emotional support from the friendships and networks that the military provides. “Military brat” groups can be found all over the world and appear to offer each other affection and respect that goes with having been through similar situations together.

For those who are interested in more ways to help children of military families cope with military life, there are some resources available of the Department of Defence website. On the Defence Community Organisation pages there are links to teen and child workshops as well as toys and books to help children understand the role that their parent is performing in the military.

Obsessions and kids – passions, fads, or something more concerning?

In psychology, when a child is presented with what parents or carers describe as “obsessions”, there are a few things that we need to consider before deciding whether the obsessions are in the realms of “normal” or whether there is a need for treatment. In other words, we need to think about when something is a passion and when it is an obsession. We also need to consider whether the child’s obsessions, compulsions or restricted interests are part of a broader diagnosis like obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, or giftedness.

It is normal for children to repeat play and have fads from time to time. In fact, repetition is one of the ways that we learn. Practice is essentially repeating something over and over again to improve our skill or mastery. The drive behind practice or passion is about self-improvement or a desire to be good or gain mastery over something.

Fads are usually short term fashions that are shared with other friends. Interest spreads across the playground and can be quite contagious. These days there are many trademarked fads that come with a barrage of cleverly targeted marketing behind them as well – think trademarked Loom Bands, yo-yos, footie cards, Pokemon.

There is some social “cred” with these activities and fads often serve to help a child fit in as well as being a source of pleasure.

These days, fads might extend to the cyber world as well and I am well aware of the “MineCraft” phenomenon taking over the headspace of many children.

Fads or obsessions become a problem when they start to interrupt, repeatedly and in lots of ways, the daily flow of a child’s life. If there are repeated massive tantrums or melt-downs if access to the desired object is blocked, there may be some need to take a closer look at what role the fad is playing in your child’s life and whether it has become a clinical obsession.

When people talk about obsessions being a problem for children, they often start to think about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In OCD, a very debilitating condition that effects about 1 in 200 children, it’s not usually the obsession that we see. We usually get to see the compulsive behaviours – like hand washing, checking, switching things on and off. A person with OCD, like with many anxiety disorders, usually knows that the behaviour does not make sense or is not rational, but still finds themselves driven to engage in the behaviour. The less–obvious but insidious obsession is usually a thought, idea, image or urge that causes great distress. The distress is neutralised by engaging in a behaviour. For instance, the obsession may be about germs or death or something very unpleasant but there is always a strong need to neutralise or get rid of the feeling that the obsession causes.

Compulsions are an attempt to neutralise the feelings that arise from the obsession – hand washing might rid us of any concerns about germs.

However, attempts to neutralise distress using compulsions doesn’t stop ideas popping into our head for long. So, the next time the obsession pops in, the distress returns and the drive to engage in the compulsive behaviour returns. If I had a thought about germs killing me and my family and I neutralised the thought for a short time by hand washing, next time I get that thought, I’m going to have to wash everything again.

A very vicious and debilitating cycle can occur and it can take great courage and supportive treatment to try to break the cycle.

In autism, a neurologically-wired problem, the obsessions usually take the form of repetitive behaviours or quite rigid interests and the child can become quite an expert in a very specific topic or interest. For someone who is on the autism spectrum, obsessions can serve to sooth them when they are distressed. To stand in the way of them can antagonise and become quite distressing.

Gifted children also can turn to obsession to sooth them and to channel their intellect into something that feels rewarding.

Just like adults, children will look to avoid bad times and sooth themselves with things that feel good. The challenge for parents is helping children to find balance in their time and help them accept or deal with problems rather than to avoid them with too much of a pleasant activity.

So, while your child’s obsession with paper planes, MineCraft, Loom Bands or whatever might be filling your house with paraphernalia and costing lots of pocket money, this is likely more of a nuisance than a cause for concern.

If, however, your child is becoming very distressed when you rationally explain why they must cease an activity or put things away for awhile, and if this is happening repeatedly, then it may be worth seeking out some assistance. Your GP is a good place to start.

Is it just a fad or an obsession?

This week on ABC Radio Sunshine Coast I will be covering “Fads and Obsessions”.  What were the fads that you remember when you were younger?  What is the difference between a fad/phase and an obsession?  I’ll talk about understanding fads and obsessions across childhood and when an obsession might be a clinical concern worthy of intervention.  Tune in or call in for a chat on Thursday morning after 9:30am on 1300 903 222.

“Boring!” – Tips to help kids manage boredom

We’ve all felt the feeling of boredom. For some of us it might have been longer ago than others. Many of us have busy and full lives these days, but some children (and some adults) are more prone to experiencing boredom.

While it is normal to feel bored from time to time, a low tolerance for the feeling of boredom has been associated with a number of concerning outcomes including depression and hostile aggression. Those who are boredom prone are also more likely to procrastinate, feel insecure and more likely value the end product of activity (eg payment for work) rather than extract joy and meaning from the activity itself. Boredom has also been cited as a factor in studies of substance use, internet addiction, dropping out of school and marital issues.

Like most things psychological, a child’s experience of boredom is usually a sum of parts. Some of the parts are outside of the child and have to do with a lack of stimulation in the environment. Other parts are within the child and have to do with tolerance, attention, impulsivity and an ability to create interesting activities for themselves.

When most people experience boredom, they feel it as an unpleasant experience that has low energy and describe it as “unexciting”, “tired” or “depressed”. A smaller number of people experience boredom as unpleasant, but in a high energy way. High energy boredom is usually described as “frustrating” and a precursor for anger.

Whether it’s the high energy or low energy type, boredom is an unpleasant feeling. Indeed, that feeling of unpleasantness could well be boredom’s biggest contribution to our lives. Boredom is a little emotional “blimp” to tell us that there is more that we need to be doing or adding to our lives.

If boredom’s function is to tell us there’s more we need to do, then perhaps we should be explaining boredom’s function to children rather than running around trying to “fix” or cater to their boredom. We need to provide opportunities and guidance to get children to use their boredom as a prompt to getting creative about action.

Different members of your family may have different tolerance to boredom. Also, there will be differences in what each member of your family perceives as being stimulating.   When you are busy, down time can be seen as a luxury.   For your children, however, especially if they have not learned how to manage down time, it might be quite under-stimulating.

Don’t expect a child to “free-range” if they haven’t had enough experience or practice at this before.

There is a growing movement around mindfulness and learning to “sit with” feelings, but don’t expect that your child will be able to sit with feelings if they haven’t had some guidance. Helping your child manage boredom will take a little coaching. Encourage children to recognise and label their boredom and then to decide whether they want to do something with it. Do they want to try to sit with that feeling or do something about it (maybe something other than just complaining to you about the feeling?)

So, some top tips to help children learn to manage or cope with boredom:

  • Provide a choice of activities – don’t give children too many options for what might be available nor give them a blank slate – just a list of viable options.

  • Invest some time in getting the children started on an activity. If it has been awhile since there has been time to fill, they may need help with some momentum. Then once they are rolling along, you can step aside.

  • Make sure you provide some adequate resources. These don’t have to be expensive, nor linked to the internet. Sometimes you need to just get children started on building a cubby out of old sheets, or starting a rock garden outside or cutting out pictures from junk mail to make a book mark. Try to mix up the activities so that your children have more than one source of entertainment in their boredom fighting tool box – try a game of “I Spy” rather than passing your mobile phone to the back seat of the car.

  • If the task that you need to do is inherently dull, provide meaning and make the goal of the activity clear. Be sure that you provide a reason why you want them to do a task that might be boring. “We need to pick up all of these things on the floor so that we have enough space for the next thing we might do”.

  • Also, if a task truly is boring, try to change it up. Try to see if you can turn a dull task into a game (pick up all the things on the floor in rainbow order – red first!) or make up a silly song to sing while you get the job done (ask my youngest about the teeth and shoes song). Boring tasks might earn a raffle ticket for a surprise treat – the more tickets you get in a raffle, the more chance you have to win. Better still, after a few coaching sessions, challenge your children to turn the task into a game or song themselves.

  • Be sure you are matching the activities available to your child to their level. This might be especially important if they are spending the school holidays in the care of someone who does not know them very well and might have too many “bubsy” activities lined up.


Boredom, like other feelings, is a sign from our body that something needs doing.  Without it, I wonder if anyone would have done anything creative or new???

Help your children to learn to use the feeling of boredom as a trigger to sit and watch the feeling or to get creative.

Oh no! Have I raised a narcissist?!

Back in the day, well, back in the Ancient Greek day, there was a story about a guy, Narcissus, and the girl who fell for him, Echo. Not a very happy story, I’m afraid, because Narcissus ends up falling in love with his own reflection and both he and Echo are left pining for a love interest that cannot love them back. No, Disney-type happily-ever-after there.

Narcissism is a sad and lonely trait.  While most of us are keen to have positive self esteem and feel good about ourselves, extreme levels of narcissism in some people can lead to them being diagnosed with a personality disorder.  In extreme cases, narcissists struggle to function in day to day lives and relationships because they are totally driven to feel good about themselves with no care about the expense to others. Narcissists value other people only when they can help them achieve their own self-centred goals. Narcissists often exaggerate their talents and achievements, feel superior to others and believe that they deserve exceptional treatment. They find it hard to tolerate negative feedback and will more likely deny or blame others. They can even re-interpret past events so that they are more self-flattering and they will bias their ideas about others so that they feel like they are more accepted and desired than they may truly be.

At times, these narcissist individuals may well accrue a “posse” of Echoes. Echoes will often throw themselves into supporting their narcissist to the extreme in the hope that maybe one day their efforts will be noticed and appreciated by their Narcissus.  It’s sad at a lot of interpersonal levels.

It is thought that the intense self-absorption of the narcissist is likely all an over compensation. Those who feel terribly inadequate will look to get any form of self-esteem they can grab, and at any cost. It would seem that, if you were Dr Frankenstein and wanted to set out to make a narcissist for your collection, there would be a certain recipe that you would need to follow. First, you would need to find a little one who had a history of narcissism in their family, someone who had either been told that they were special and deserved better and more than the average child or someone who was being raised by very cold and aloof parents who did little to nurture the child’s self esteem. Then, once you had this basic ingredient, when the child was about eight years old, you would need to dish them up a situation in which they suffered a terrible blow to their ego. In other words, psychologists believe that a tendency for narcissism can be inherited, but that it likely needs a stressor and certain parenting styles to turn it on and bring it forward.

There are various times during a child’s development where it is totally normal for them to be self centred. The desire to feel good about ourselves is universal, but most of us also have a desire to be helpful. When we are infants, we are very dependent on others, but it seems that we still have an inborn ability to want to be helpful.  Research  on those as young as 18 months has indicated that most are keen to help. A researcher pretended to drop a peg whilst hanging out washing.  All of the little ones in his study helped him to pick the peg up without even being asked. If he threw the peg down, though, they were less likely to help. Little ones can distinguish when someone needs help and decide to help them at a very early age.

It seems that both selfish and altruistic tendencies are there from the beginning. If a child grows up in an environment where they need to fend for themselves, it is likely that the “selfish” (probably better to see it as “adaptive”) tendencies are going to serve to meet their needs best. If the child is nurtured and has pro-social role models, then the altruistic or helpful tendencies may be more adaptive. From middle childhood (about eight years old) to adolescents, children are keenly developing awareness of who they are and hankering for more favourable feedback and less criticism. By adolescence, the opinion of others becomes all important and increasing time is spent on self-reflection (sometimes for lengthy times behind closed bedroom doors or in front of the bathroom mirrors).  Non-narcissists seek self esteem from naturally occurring situations, they don’t go to lengths to derive dominance.  Non-narcissists also want to connect and have warmth and have concerns for any negative impacts on others.

Psychologists believe that you can bring a caring and cooperative side out in children by giving them opportunities to work together and for the community. However, before you sign up your child for some sort of national service, it’s important to know that opportunity alone may not make the difference. Alongside opportunity we also need to help children to understand and reflect on their services to other is a bigger picture. Children who are taught about inequities in education and then go and volunteer to help other children are more likely to hang on to their altruism for longer.

Ultimately, we don’t want to raise a Narcissus or an Echo. Helping youngsters find the right balance between self-absorption and altruism is another important role of parents and educators. It requires:

  • genuine care and nurturing,
  • a “just right” amount of ego boost and praise,
  • modelling helpful behaviour,
  • educating children about the inequities in the world and the ways that they can help and
  • providing children with opportunities to help others

Promoting that part in a child that will pick up a dropped peg, but not having them devote their entire being to serving others is the best way of increasing the likelihood of more happily-ever-after.