Parenting: meet the life coaches for four-year-olds

Is the new boom in confidence coaching for children just another sign of over-anxious parenting, asks Kate Graham

Last year, Bernadette Dancy decided it was time to find a life and confidence coach. The self-confessed planner took a strategic approach: comparing their experience, qualifications and philosophies before deciding on the best fit.

However, it was not for herself, nor for her sports psychologist husband Paul, 39 – but for their four-year-old son.

“Callum is an emotionally intelligent boy,” explains the personal trainer, 37, from Surrey. “He is not afraid of showing his emotions, good and bad.

“But he’s also a pleaser and a high achiever, which meant tantrums and emotional outbursts when he couldn’t do something to the high standards he set himself. He’d started using negative affirmations about things not being good enough.”

The scenario, if not necessarily the language used to couch it, will be familiar to many parents.

But while some might turn to their own parents or an online forum – or, of course, simply sit tight and wait it out – Bernadette looked a little down the line, saw a school system that didn’t prioritise emotional intelligence, and took matters firmly into her own hands.

“Going to primary school, we were aware he’d come up against some challenges, that his confidence could be knocked,” she said.

“My husband and I have PhDs in sports psychology and with our understanding of the mind and mental health, we wanted to be proactive in helping him be as mentally confident as possible.”

Step forward Natalie Costa, 35, London-based coach and founder of Power Thoughts (powerthoughts.co.uk).
The former primary school teacher has worked with 975 children, both in school groups and as private clients.

While coaches for young children may raise eyebrows, Natalie didn’t blink when Bernadette got in touch. In fact, demand for this age group is booming – around 75% of her private client base is now aged four to six.
That figure has rocketed 30% in the past eight months alone.

Breaking the cycle

Bernadette isn’t surprised at the numbers. She looks around and sees a generation of parents struggling with mental illness; parents who want to break that cycle.

“We want our children to feel confident and empowered to feel the whole spectrum of emotions. To know that all emotions are OK, and to know how to manage them so they don’t become problems in later life.”

Parents feel under such pressure themselves, she believes, that they need the perspective and attention only an outside expert can bring.

“With work, house admin, after-school activities and homework, we can’t be expected to always say the right thing, or to schedule an hour of dedicated emotional coaching when it’s needed. It just isn’t viable. That’s where coaches like Natalie come in.”

Her approach, of course, exemplifies a broader fundamental shift in how parents are now tackling their children’s problems, full stop.

Having worked with hundreds of families, Natalie believes that the days of “just get over it” parenting are, well, over.
Many parents will pay for professional help in whichever area they perceive their children to be struggling, whether that’s maths or music.

Throw in the mainstreaming of life coaching (an industry now worth £1.5-billion worldwide) and perhaps little wonder many are more open to the idea of hiring one to temper tantrums.

There’s a steady drumbeat of anxiety here, too. Annette Du Bois is a confidence and mental health coach (champs-academy.co.uk) who has also seen a huge increase in demand from parents of four to six-year-olds in recent years.

They come to her with issues ranging from shyness and friendship problems to pressure of exams and homework, and what she calls “the sheer psychological overwhelm on young shoulders”.

Pressure cooker of modern life

It all adds up to create the pressure cooker of modern life that’s a key driver in the child-coaching world.

“Collectively, fear, negativity and anxiety have risen over recent years. There’s a lot more pressure on parents to get it right but at the same time their children are growing up in a world so different to what they themselves have experienced,” she says.

“It’s uncharted waters and parents need the reassurance that their child is equipped for the future.”

One of the biggest revelations in working with young children, she says, is the perceived pressure of not being allowed to make a mistake. Something she believes many pick up from mum and dad.

“Parents are also living in this paradox of what I call ’perfection perception’; feeling they need to have the perfect kids, who look perfect, perform perfectly and never get anything wrong.”

But parents feel they lack both the knowledge to help their child achieve such great expectations, and the wherewithal to cope when they inevitably fall short.

Advice from their own parents no longer feels relevant and they can see that reassuring children by saying “don’t worry about it” only cuts so far. So they turn to her for practical, useful advice.

What exactly does coaching a four or five-year-old involve? For Natalie, it begins with detailed conversations with the parents, then time spent getting to know the child at their home.

Over the three sessions playing games are vital so the child feels at ease, before she moves on to key activities.

“I might teach them to use “magic breathing”, a slow deep breath that brings children back into the moment. Each child gets a small soft toy called a ‘breathing buddy’ that they can rest on their stomachs, enabling them to see them rise and fall. Or we’ll work on understanding how their brain works when feeling big emotions (such as anger or worry) through puppets and role play.

“All activities are tailored and easy for young children to understand, allowing them to complete and remember them. After each session, I make sure I meet with the parents to discuss the tools shared, so they are able to continue supporting their children between the sessions.”

Bernadette says the results for Callum, now five, were immediate. “The day after his first session we went to our local library with a small soft toy Natalie had given him to act as his breathing buddy.

“He’d been carrying it everywhere but to our horror we left it behind. I expected the meltdown of all meltdowns but he simply turned to me and said, ‘it’s OK, Mummy, it was a mistake’. I was amazed at his emotional maturity.”

Now he’s happier and more confident in managing his emotions, the positive impact has spread to the entire family.

“There are definitely times when we still lose it and shout,” says Bernadette, “but there have also been so many times when we’ve all used the skills Natalie taught us. A moment where we’ve connected with why Callum’s upset, and diffused the situation instead of simply telling him off.

“My fear in hiring a coach was that we might be judged for being pushy, but we just want to support his growth and mindset.”

The jury is still out on whether this trend tells us more about parents’ anxiety than their children’s. – The Daily Telegraph

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