The importance of empowering children

Jacqui Gray

Jacqui Gray is the co-author of two wonderful books called My Magical Tree and My Magical Garden which help young children to understand and manage their feelings. She also set up www.stay-calm.co.uk which offers information, education and workshops for parents, carers and teachers to build communication and emotional skills in order to support child development. 

You can contact Jacqui on 07452835784 or email her at: jax@stay-calm.co.u

Sue:  It’s such a delight to talk with you Jacqui, and I am fascinated to hear more about how it’s never too early for any of us to become aware of what it means to live more consciously for a better world. When did your desire to help children with their emotional welfare start for you?

Jacqui:  The reason is because of my childhood. We had a nanny who unfortunately wasn’t very nice, and I think she instilled in me a lot of very negative beliefs about myself and that probably set things in motion. My parents had no idea that she was doing this, and when they did find out she was gone. But she was with us for a couple of years, and it was quite intense. So, it wasn’t a great beginning for me.  

I would say I’m a daydreamer and a free spirit and I don’t think the school system was very good for the person that I am. I wasn’t able to learn in the way they wanted to teach me and so I ended up with this label that said I was quite stupid. But there’s another narrative to this. I was around seven and a half when I got my eyes tested. It turned out I was actually pretty blind, so this was another reason of why I was struggling with reading and writing. I didn’t want other children to have to go through those struggles and to have such limiting negative beliefs about themselves as I did. 

I’m a very intelligent person but I’m just not somebody who fitted into the education system. A lot of children I’ve worked with have the same issues. I ended up leaving school after my O’Levels to be an au pair. That’s when I realised I loved being with children – children are so authentic. I am big on authenticity and I love being with kids because of this.  You know they are who they are. 

Sue: What was the main negative belief that you were carrying around with you?

Jacqui: That I was bad. It’s gone nowbut it’s taken a long time to shift because I didn’t even realise it was there. Around ten years ago I was talking with a new person I had met and mentioned to her, ‘I really hope no one finds out who I am. They won’t want to know me anymore because I’m not a very good person.’ This person was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then I realised that this negative belief had just come to the forefront. I thought, ‘Yeah, what am I talking about? I’m really not a bad person.’ It was an extraordinary moment because I woke up to what was going on with this negative narrative.  The other negative narrative I got from school was that I was stupid, and I wouldn’t amount to much. 

Sue: That must have been incredibly painful.

Jacqui: It’s been huge for me. I think I’ve got over it now, but I’ve had a real block with anything to do with academics. I immediately assumed I couldn’t do it because that’s what I learnt all the way through school. 

I now realise that I was always stuck in fight, flight, freeze reactions. The one I always went to was freeze and that’s more difficult to come out of. For example, I was around eight at the time, and all week we had been doing fractions in maths and I just didn’t get it. Everybody else was carrying on, and they’d almost finished but I hadn’t even started. That teacher went off sick and then a supply teacher came in. She came over to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’ Within five minutes I completely understood it. I also realised that for the whole week I had been in a state of freeze. When you’re in fight, flight, freeze mode your learning brain can’t work. 

Sue: I guess in every class you’re going to get a proportion of children because of their situation or their belief systems, who are in fight, flight, freeze.

Jacqui: I would say more so now.

Sue: Why do you say that?

Jacqui: So many things have changed. When I was at school, we did a lot more creativity and that saved me. We were also outside, playing a lot. From what I can see, that’s becoming more limited, especially with the pandemic. Family dynamics have changed, and then there’s the Internet, which is great, but it also hooks children in on gaming and that kind of thing so they’re not using their own imagination necessarily as much. When you think of the way technology is going, how diets are going, the way we live – the way all of it is going – the education system isn’t working in balance with it. 

Sue: I’ve spoken to quite a few teachers about this and many agree that the education system is struggling to meet the needs of children within the way our world is changing

Jacqui: Yes. I’ve worked in many schools in the UK and in international schools – I’ve lived in Rome and Dubai – and I was always supporting the child who was struggling to fit into the class. Yet these kids were always so curious and really bright and creative. They wanted to know more about things, but they didn’t necessarily want to sit on the carpet and learn maths, but that’s what they had to do. So, they were put on medication to conform to a setting. 

For instance, I remember one little boy who asked why he had to sit on the carpet again to learn maths. He had done it yesterday and hadn’t liked it, so he knew he wasn’t going to enjoy it today either. I thought, well, he’s got a good point. Actually, they could do maths in a different way such as taking them outside. There’s so many different ways to creatively teach children. 

Sue: What do you feel about the schools that are being developed at the moment, which encourage children to be much more involved in nature as part of their education. 

Jacqui: I think I would have flourished in a situation like that. I would have come out at the end with a completely different belief about myself.  So, I feel that there are amazing options for children, especially children who struggle to fit into the system, because it’s focusing on the individual as well as their strengths. Every child has gifts and talents, and it’s about finding out what they are – and not letting them come out of the school system thinking, ‘I don’t have anything to offer.’  

SueYesit really isn’t about going to school, going to university, getting a job and working until 65, then retiring and you’re done. People are thinking out of the box these days. There’s a lot more home schooling going on as well.  What do you feel about this? 

Jacqui: I think it’s a really good option for some children who aren’t fitting in. It’s a lot of stress for some families just to get a child into the school gates. There’s lots of stuff that you can do after school in terms of meeting people. I’m not sure how it all works but I think that there are masses of groups that you become part of, so you are always supported. Home schooling is certainly growing. 

Sue. I think for me education is about creating adults for the future. So, we need to educate children to understand how to respect the planet and each other. But some children leave school without a clue of who they are, what they’re about or what the world is about. That really troubles me.

Jacqui: Yes, but I think that the constraints teachers are working under. I really feel for the teachers at the moment. They may have a passion to teach, but they aren’t able to fulfil their passion because they have to do XYZ in a time limit.

Some children will be naturally curious and read up on things and be little mini activists.  Then you’ve got other children who just plod along, and they come out of school completely unprepared for life. A lot of kids really struggle when they get to university because they aren’t ready for it. They’re suddenly out in the world and have no idea how to pay a bill or do the shopping or budget for things. It’s really important to teach these life skills as part of their education.

Sue: My podcast is called Embracing Your Mortality, and I’m really curious if you think it’s important to talk to kids early on about death? At some point they will meet it, so where do you feel we need to go with this? And what’s appropriate?

Jacqui: When death happens, it’s a moment for the child to understand it’s going to happen to all of us. If you address it and talk about it, you give children the opportunities to ask questions and be part of it. I know some parents don’t share things with their child. They want to protect the child from feeling sad. But, in my experience, when you don’t share your feelings with children, they feel excluded. And if they are excluded from the whole process, that child misses out learning the way to go through the process of losing someone close. So, when someone dies, let the child ask the questions. Let them be part of it. Let them understand that you’re sad because that’s part of the process. It’s healthy. 

Sue: I also think they will be missing out on a massive life lesson – that death is part of the human condition and therefore part of life. I believe when they understand this, death is not so terrifying

Jacqui: I love the work of Dr Stephen Porges who says that subconsciously we are always picking up from each other. Therefore, a child will be subconsciously picking up from a parent when they are not alright. But if the parent says they are okay when they’re not, you’ve got a mismatch of feelings. The child is going to stop trusting what they’re feeling and their intuition – you don’t want that. You want children to continue to trust their intuition.

But when there’s this mismatch of feelings, the child can go into anxiety and may be thinking my parent is saying one thing but I’m not feeling that. So, this means it must be something to do with me. 

Sue: I am really interested in this mismatch of feelings. I experienced this in my childhood, and it created a sense of dread in me all the time, where I felt something else was going on from what I was being told. It was a really horrible feeling. 

Jacqui: It’s a massive problem, even with teachers. For instance, if a teacher is not in a good place and the kids ask, ‘Are you okay miss?’ and they say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ it leaves children feeling confused and unsafe. But we all do it. I did it with my own daughters. I remember when I went through a stage of quite severe depression and they asked if everything was okay. I said, ‘I’m fine.’ Obviously, everything was not fine. But I didn’t want to talk to them about it. I didn’t want to bother them. I didn’t want to upset them because I’m their mum and I needed to be somebody who could support them. They must have known, and it must have made them feel very uneasy because we didn’t talk about it. 

Sue: What is appropriate for a young child when they pick up things aren’t okay? Where do you meet that child? 

Jacqui: I’ll give you an example. I had a client who was working from home and had just come off a difficult call with her boss and she was feeling distressed about it. Her young son came into the room and asked, ‘Mummy is everything okay?’ ‘Yes, everything is fine’, she responded when she wasn’t fine at all and he could feel it. It ended up with him wanting to go back to his cot because he didn’t feel safe. Now, his anxiety may not have stemmed from that actual moment, but it didn’t help. 

His mum could have said to him, ‘I’ve just had a phone conversation that it wasn’t very nice’ (keep the language appropriate for the age of your child). Could you read me a book and make me feel better?’ It’s not about him. He knows Mummy’s upset. He’s gone with his intuitive feeling that something’s wrong and now he’s helping. 

Sue: Yes, I see. He doesn’t feel helpless and therefore guilty or shamed, or whatever emotion he could go into, believing it’s his fault. 

Jacqui: Kids love to help, and a lot of wisdom can come from your child if you’re not in a good place. Notice what they say to you. See how they help you, because their way of helping you is the way that it will help them when they are feeling like that too.  It’s interesting to see the solutions that children come up with for you. So, you can learn a lot. 

Sue: That’s a really helpful way of looking at things. 

Jacqui: They love you, and when you love someone, you automatically want to help. But if you block it, you push that love away. Of course, that’s confusing for a child. 

I really love what Dr Stephen Porges says about neuroceptionHe says children have one question, and that question is, ‘Am I safe?’ Everything they do – including their behaviour and what they say – is to get a response to that question. It’s all about them checking in with, ‘Am I safe?’

If you’re a stressed-out mother or father, there’s a chance that the child is not going to feel very safe with you that day. They love you, but through neuroception they are taking up the information [of what’s going on around them] intuitively, and if they don’t feel safe, they will kick off in some way. Either they will fight or run away, or they will freeze. When you start looking at it like this, you can become curious about what the behaviour of the child is showing you. Rather than reacting to the behaviour, it’s about looking at it and thinking, ‘Okay, so what’s really going on?’

Sue: Children really are like sponges. In situations when things are so stressful, what would you say is the best way to address it with a child? 

Jacqui: The first thing that comes into my mind is, ‘Everybody get outside into nature!’ When you get outside into nature, it changes everything. When I’m working with families, I also like to make them aware of getting your children to support you as well as you supporting them. It’s about getting involved with each other, getting them to help out, and not taking it all on yourself. Children can start helping out in the home at quite a young age. 

You can also have things like a family meeting time. You can sit around the table and use a tennis ball or stick or whatever, and whoever is holding it can get to say what’s on their mind. And everybody listens. There’s all sorts of ways that you can change the energy in the house as well. Perhaps you can put some music on, or you can burn some essential oils – things like that. But getting out into nature is a massive one for me. I recommend it to everybody all the time 

Sue: Yes, children can run around and maybe Mum and Dad can have a chat together. But children are very demanding, and even more so when they don’t feel safe. 

Jacqui: I think this is a massive problem at the moment because everything, everywhere, is fear based. It’s coming in all the time. There was a lot of fear before Covid, but now even more so. Some children don’t want to even leave the house. 

Sue: Do you think they believe Covid’s going to get them?

Jacqui: I don’t know what’s going on in their heads, but cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder have risen. I think children feel out of control of what’s happening, and when you’re not in control of the situation, you will always come up with ways to feel back in control. Eating disorders, self-harming behaviours and obsessive-compulsive disorders give you a way to do that. The subconscious thinking behind it is, ‘I can’t control what’s going on here, but I can wash my hands fifty times, which makes me feel I have some kind of control.’

Sue:  Could you say a little more about how to handle Covid anxiety. 

Jacqui:  Anxiety around Covid is a big issue for many of my clients and this is transferred to the child or children in some way. For example, someone I know has a son who has Asperger’s. He’s around nineteen. He’s not afraid for himself but about what would happen if one of his parents got it, especially as they are older. He hasn’t got control over any of it. It makes sense that some kids switch off and want to game all the time because then they don’t have to be part of anything. 

Sue: Yeah, everybody’s got their own way of dealing with this, but it feels to me that anxiety is at an all-time high. 

Jacqui: I’ve got clients, particularly younger ones, who, when they recognise they are feeling anxious, start using some mindful techniques to help themselves. It’s just about being aware and using techniques which can help you to respond rather than react. It so easy to just react, but if you understand that a simple, powerful tool is to take a breath in, give yourself a moment, and then say a mantra that will help you to empower yourself, it can be incredibly helpful.  

You can teach this to children too. Every member of the family can use some sort of mindful exercises or whatever works for them. These exercises bring them back into the moment, back on track, and can be done quite quickly. It’s all about self-empowerment. 

Sue: I saw this great You Tube video of a mum who is a professional dancer teaching her seven-year-old son to tap dance, until he was better than her. They both were loving it. What a great coping strategy! 

Jacqui: I’m always saying to parents do something where you just have fun together and laugh. I’m big on laugher, and I think I’ve probably irritated my children many times when either they’ve kicked off or I’ve kicked off and then it just looks so ridiculously funny. I can’t help it. I just start laughing and it completely diffuses it because I’m also laughing at myself. 

Sue: There’s a big difference between being laughed at and laughing with. How do we teach our children to laugh at themselves healthily? 

Jacqui: I just did it. I mean, my kids would have a meltdown and it would just look so funny to me. It’s one of those moments where it’s important to be able to take a step back and just observe it as if you were watching it on a TV screen. To give you an example, my daughter must have been around three or four years old. We were in the supermarket and she started to have a temper tantum because she couldn’t get a chocolate bar. She lay down on the ground and began kicking and screaming. I didn’t know how to handle the situation, so I got down on the ground and started kicking and screaming too. She looked at me in astonishment, and said, ‘What are you doing Mummy?’ I told her, ‘Well, I don’t know what else to do. It would be great if you didn’t do this because I’m not going to give you the chocolate, but you are doing this, and I’ve run out of ideas. So, I just think I’m going to join you because it’s kind of how I’m feeling too.’ She stopped and we laughed at ourselves, then got up and we carried on! I must have looked ridiculous but at that point I didn’t know what else to do.

Sue: So, it’s about meeting them where they are.  

Jacqui: In my family it felt quite natural to diffuse things with laughter. I would start laughing at the situation and then my daughters would laugh too or visa versa. 

Sue: Another big issue is bullying in schools. It’s so detrimental for a child to experience, for their personal growth and the way it affects their lives later on too. 

Jacqui: Well, I think some schools have got onto it and some haven’t. But the social media stuff is really hard. So, I try and build up children and give them coping strategies. It’s about educating them about their own power. You completely lose your power to a bully – that’s the whole point. They walk away feeling great because they’ve just made you feel small. Effectively there’s been a transfer of power. You’ve just given it all to them. 

It’s about helping children to see that and to give them strategies to help them keep their power. If a bully can’t get your power, they won’t bother. What they want to see is you crying and collapsing. It’s really good to keep something in your pocket like a special stone or crystal to hold onto, which reminds you of someone you love or something that helps you to feel strong and you can draw on them or it to support you. It’s whatever works for you. 

Sue: Are there any other techniques which can help? 

Jacqui: I teach all my clients to imagine they have a safe place inside themselves – you can do this at any age. It’s related to my books, The Magical Tree and The Magical Garden. I usually use the words ‘safe place’ with teenagers because they don’t necessary relate to gardens, or even have one. Again, it’s whatever works for them. So, if they are facing a bully at school, they can slip into their safe place before going in and this helps them to keep hold of their power. Some imagine a dragon living in their safe place because no-one’s going to mess with a dragon! Our imaginations are so powerful, and our bodies are always responding to our thoughts. If you imagine a beautiful garden, your thoughts are going to be quite lovely because you’ll be able to see birds and smell the flowers. All your senses are going to kick in and your body is going to respond to all of that. It’s a brilliant tool for kids especially for the ones who go through the fight, flight, freeze response. 

When they go into their safe place, it allows their bodies and their minds to calm down. It’s about getting closer to calm, because when kids go into the stress response, they don’t know how to come out of it. But this gives them ways to help themselves. If they can start owning who they are and building themselves up, it changes things. 

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