Autism, ADD, anxiety, dyslexia…
Are our children in crisis? Psychologist Sarah Warley believes neuroscience can help. Muddy gets a crash course.
Who’d be a parent at this particular juncture in history? At every turn, there’s a shocking new headline about how our children are unhappier and more stressed than ever before. And then another headline blaming rubbish parenting. Aargh! It’s enough to drive this mother-of-three to drink (although, to be fair, any excuse) And I’m sure many of you feel the same.
With this in mind, I had a fascinating chat today with psychologist Sarah Warley. Struck by the alarming growth in number of children being diagnosed with learning and behavioural issues, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, autism and Asperger’s, and the explosion in teenage (and adult) anxiety/depression problems, she founded The Key Clinic in Hampstead Norreys, West Berkshire. The approach is very different to the standard pill-popping or talking therapy routes. Instead Sarah specialises in ‘neuroplastic’ therapies – basically, the notion of stimulating the brain into rewiring itself.
New research in neuroscience shows that the brain isn’t static, as was once thought, so it has the capacity to evolve. Meaning problems that once we were told to just live with or manage – say, dyslexia or ADHD – can potentially be overcome. The clinic offers a multi-disciplinary approach, with Sarah and her team also using neurodevelopmental movements, nutrient therapy (targeting the brain’s neurotransmitters using vitamins and minerals), auditory therapy (apparently often children’s speech issues are connected to quirks in their hearing) and cranial osteopathy.
Sarah has four children of her own, aged between 11 and 18 – because frankly being a leading psychologist just isn’t hard enough work! – so she’s had plenty of coalface experience too. We grabbed some time with her to get a feel for her work and also her views on how to help modern kids.
You’re not keen on labelling children, are you?
Historically the view has been that you’re stuck with your label – dyslexic, dyspraxic, ADHD, autistic, Asperger’s and so on. Doctors believed that if the brain doesn’t function properly you have to learn to live with it. But often if you provide the right stimuli to the brain, you can overcome these issues. What all of the children I see have in common is low self esteem and low confidence, and having a label makes them feel that something is wrong. I’m less interested in the label and more interested in what’s going on underneath. And it is shocking how many children are being put on medication. I’m not saying they’re aren’t instances when it can be useful in the short term but it’s not a long term solution. Medication is a sticking plaster over the problem.
Many people are sceptical about non-traditional therapies though, aren’t they?
Yes, but I would point them in the direction of the evidence – I won’t include any treatment within the clinic unless it has significant published research that it works. And I believe that doctors who say there’s nothing you can do for certain conditions are guilty of giving false despair to people, telling them it’s a life sentence when there are actually things you can try.
In the Muddy office, we talk – and worry – a lot about our children’s social media use. What’s your take?
With my own children, I try really hard to limit access. On holidays, we’ll sometimes do a tech detox. They begrudge it at first but after a few days they’ll admit how much happier they feel. I’m horrified by the pressure social media can place on girls in particular – those endless streams of fake perfection, which are very undermining at the time when they’re just trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world. I spend a lot of time telling my teenage daughter not to place too much value on it and how ‘likes’ don’t sum up your worth. Boys are less sucked in by social media but gaming can be a problem – I know because I have seen with my own son how easy it is to become addicted. If you observe your child’s state of mind after a quick fix of social media or gaming, it makes them happy in the short term, but unhappy in the long term. It’s like eating a massive bar of chocolate – you think it’s great at the time, but you feel horrible later on.
We seem to be reaching a crisis point with children and young people, with rising stress and anxiety levels. What’s going on?
I couldn’t agree more. And we’re talking a lot about the effects of social media, exam pressures, the fact that there aren’t many jobs out there. But every generation of young people experiences external pressures – that hasn’t changed. Life would’ve been harder for children during the Second World War, for example. Every generation likes to believe the pressures they face are worse than those for previous generations! What is interesting it that some people can handle pressure and crises, while, for others, one tiny thing goes wrong and they crumble. Why is this? Some people are more resilient than others and it’s to do with the wiring beneath the surface. It’s easy to blame the parents when children are struggling but some of it is to do with the way the child is wired. Our job is to try to build in inherent resilience so when things in life go wrong, the children can handle it.