When parents bring their children to our therapy rooms, there has often been a problem going on for a long time. Whether anxiety (in its many forms), challenges around school, low mood and lack of motivation, or other – things often get to a tipping point where parents decide it’s the right time to seek help.
And when a problem has existed for a long time, it is very common that it has become the focus of most conversations at home for a long time too. A great deal of time is often spent thinking about the problem – and quite rightly so – since our brains are hard-wired to focus on our problems and challenges in order to feel safer and more in control. Parents and children often get to a place where they can’t imagine things getting better. And this mindset causes a great deal of stress and frustration. Often, many things may have been tried before and the problem feels like it is getting bigger and bigger.
But what if we spun our problems on their head and rather than thinking about the problem, we focused on the good moments instead? There is a well-known quote: “You get what you focus on, so focus on what you want” (Steve Mehr). And herein lies the beauty of our approach as Solution Focused Hypnotherapists and Psychotherapists – neuroscience has taught us that the more we focus on solutions, the more we are able change our habits of thinking, and therefore our behaviour.
And this is also true for children too.
To understand this further, let’s take a look at how our brain works:
- We have two almond-shaped bundles in our brain, called our amygdala. This is often referred to as our fight or flight part of the brain and is in the area of our brain that fuels our stress response. Its purpose is to keep us alive. Back in caveman times, this part of our brain would have kept us alive by detecting real-life dangers and would have worked in tandem with our hypothalamus to help us get away from danger more easily. This would have been in the form of the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which would have enabled us to run more quickly from danger.
- Even though we have evolved over millions of years, we still have this very primitive part of the brain. Whilst we no longer have to fight other tribesmen and wild animals, we do have everyday stressors to worry about, such as our child struggling with school or anxiety.
- And when we focus on these negative experiences and interactions, the more our thoughts – and therefore our conversations – will become problem-focused. This creates more cortisol (the stress chemical) in the brain, tops up our ‘stress bucket’ and leaves us feeling more miserable, grumpy or stressed. This can build up over time and before we know it, we’ve mastered the skill of being negative all the time and problems become overwhelming.
- When we make a decision to change our focus though, and deliberately look for the good in our day more consistently, our brain notices and starts to do it more for us.After a while, we will probably find that we don’t need to consciously make so much effort to have more positive thoughts and notice more good things as our brain will start doing it more for us subconsciously. And this then has a knock-on-effect on the types of conversations we have at home.
Something very interesting happens when we start to switch our conversations from being purely problem-focused to solution-focused. When the focus of conversations begins to centre around the small-wins and what is working well, children’s – and parents – behaviour begins to shift, for the better! We see this time and time again here at The Youth Fairy and actively encourage parents and children to change the focus of their conversations at home in order to drive more positive, mentally-healthy behaviours.
A common question we ask children to think about in the sessions with us is “what’s been good about your day?” This question exercises the positive pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and encourages children to rewire neural pathways in the brain for more positive thinking and behaviour. Try this out at the dinner table with the whole family and see the difference this begins to make over a relatively short period of time!
Here are some more suggestions for solution-focused conversation starters you can try at home with your child and to help them formulate goals for moving forwards:
Notice how the language used in the questions below imply a positive outcome. It’s important to encourage children to focus on what they DO want, rather than what they DON’T.
- Tell me about a time you’ve been brave before.
- What’s one small thing you could do today to help you feel happier?
- What skills do you already have that might help tackle this problem?
- Tell me about a time when you’ve overcome something difficult before.
- How will you know when the problem is better?
- What will you be doing differently when the problem is better?
- What might you be doing instead?
- When things are tough, what helps you cope?
- Let’s talk about the times when you cope better with the problem. What’s different about those times?
- Who can help you to cope better?
A little more about goal-setting…
Serotonin – one of the feel-good neurotransmitters – is created in the brain when we take positive actions, have positive thoughts or interact positively with others. Another one of the feel-good neurotransmitters is dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter which is released when we feel pleasure – it’s part of the reward system of the brain.
When we set positive, healthier goals and encourage our children to do so as well, this reward system comes in to play. As we achieve our goals, our brain rewards us with dopamine and we then continue to seek more of this by repeating the behaviour and creating a positive reward system that encourages and motivates us to stretch ourselves even further.
Breaking down goals into smaller more achievable steps is really helpful too – if the goal is too big, we might find it too hard to achieve it and not receive the little hits of dopamine along the way that encourage us to keep going. This can leave us feeling de-motivated and perhaps start looking for the dopamine in more unhelpful ways – like over eating and computer games!
When we break down our bigger goals into achievable steps, we create a win: win – dopamine for setting the stretching goal and dopamine as we achieve each step. When we support our children in setting goals, we are supporting them in creating a healthy reward system that stores up their good choices and reward responses in the hippocampus (the part of the brain where behaviours are stored).
So, as you can see, there is a lot to be gained from changing our focus but it takes time and repetition to override the negative bias of the brain and learn more positive, mentally healthy patterns of thinking and behaviour.
If you would like to find out more, or seek further help and support for your child, visit https://www.theyouthfairy.com/fairies/ to find your child’s nearest Youth Fairy.