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Month: February 2011

How To Help Your Kids Settle In To School

Writer Anna Warwick interviewed me recently for Northside Magazine on how to help your children settle in at school. I thought I would reproduce this article here, with their permission, as I have had some very positive feedback from readers saying they found my advice helpful.

Writer: Anna Warwick Photographs: Jon Attenborough

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Left to right: Jazmine, Dannielle, Kye, Teyah and dog Mia.

“This was a year of great transition in our house. I had the three children going off to three different schools. Teyah, 11, began high school; Kye, 9, started year 4 at a new primary school; and Jazmine, who’s just turned 16, started year 10 at a new school.

“Even if we are incredibly busy, as parents it’s pretty important to take the time to check in on this critical stage. Transition points are when things may come unstuck, so the time you invest now will pay dividends down the track once they are settled.

“I shed a couple of tears when Teyah started high school, but your children need to see that you believe it’s going to be fine and they will cope. It’s only natural that they (and you) will experience some anxiety around this new beginning. There will be days of stress; there will be days where they are a bit tired and a bit grumpy. Don’t panic and worry that you’ve picked the wrong school. It’s normal to have a few hiccups along the way. I’ve been saying to my kids ‘I’m really proud of how you’re handling this’ and ‘Gee you’re a lot stronger than you realised, aren’t you?’

“Ultimately, through life they’ll go through a lot of changes – it’s the only thing that’s really inevitable – and so this is great practice. Teyah’s high school is really big – there are about 180 kids in each year group – and she went to a primary school with only 55 students. It may be easier for your child to form connections with school mates outside the traditional playground. I tapped into the traditional, yet often overlooked, networks of Girl Guides for Teyah and Cubs for Kye, and Jazmine joined the local church youth group.

“I’ve been organising a few little play dates. Doesn’t matter if they’re in high school, just call it ‘hanging out’. Providing an activity, like swimming or watching a movie, can be a great icebreaker. Build up your child’s friendship skills. Teach them the importance of introducing themselves and remembering people’s names.

“Teach them what makes a good listener as well as a good talker. It’s also about being sensitive and friendly to others, saying ‘hi’ to people, learning how to take compliments politely and to give them sincerely. If you’re concerned about the types of friends your child is making, then as a parent you have the right to set some boundaries. Be honest and talk to your kids about the fact that sometimes some people are not going to like them.

“There’s pressure to be liked, but the reality is that not everyone is going to like you all the time. Encourage them to keep in touch with old friends. It is important they have a few different social networks they can draw on, because if one network collapses they will still feel like they belong, as they have a community elsewhere.

“As far as study habits are concerned, it’s harder to break a bad habit than start off on a good footing. At the beginning of the year young people are full of good intentions, so harness that positive energy and get them into a homework routine. Set out a specific framework that they agree on, for example: ‘From 4-5pm you can watch your favourite shows, but the trade-off is that from 5-5.30pm you are going to do your spelling. From 5.30-7pm you can go and play.’

“Map out their afternoon and they will be more likely to stick with it. If they don’t have homework, get them to read their notes or read a novel – something that blocks out that period of time. Show them how to use a calendar and noticeboard; set up an in-tray on their desk. Write affirmations and put them in their room: ‘I enjoy learning’ or ‘I have faith in my abilities.’ Seek outside assistance if your child seems to be falling behind. A great tutor can make all the difference between their feeling anxious about school and setting them up for success.

“Be aware of signs that you child is not settling in well or is distressed, such as withdrawal – isolating themselves and an unwillingness to participate in family activities. Keep a look out for overeating or a loss of appetite, changes to sleep patterns, general irritability and quickness to anger. It’s a fine line between normal angst and something real going on; as a general rule parents know the difference.

“Our gut feeling is usually right. If we are observant enough and ask open-ended questions, we can get to the bottom of things. Pick your moment. After they get home from school they’re a bit over it all. If you ask ‘How was your day?’ you might get a couple of grunts in response. I find I can have a really good conversation with them just before they go to bed because they know the longer they keep talking the longer the light stays on. I guess it’s a stalling tactic. If in doubt, liaise with your child’s school. Most schools are open to having discussions and they would rather help you to sort things out early on than wait till they become big issues.

“Finally, don’t forget to make them feel special and acknowledge in a concrete way that you’re proud and supportive of them. Have a special dinner or write them a little note. Taking Kye out for a milkshake makes his day. At the end of Teyah’s first week at school I had a big stuffed toy waiting on her bed, and I gave Jazmine a bunch of flowers. When our children are older we can forget that they still need us as much as ever.”

Fat Talk — the experts weigh in

I had a rather heated discussion with Kerri-Anne Kennerley earlier this week on whether mothers should tell their overweight daughters they are fat.

So I thought it timely to call in the experts to shed some light on this whole “obesity crisis”. This week I am pleased to offer a guest post by Lydia Jade Turner, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorder prevention and managing director of BodyMatters Australasia. Lydia’s partner at BodyMatters, Sarah McMahon, has also written an excellent piece on the problematic nature of the TV program The Biggest Loser, which ignores the many factors that contribute to obesity and implies that fat is a moral weakness: The Biggest Problem.

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The Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA) claim that 61 per cent of Australian adults and 25 per cent of Australian children are either overweight or obese. Surely this is alarming and a call for action? So why are a growing number of health professionals questioning these statistics? 

It is not well enough known that 95 per cent of obesity research is funded by private industry including Big Pharma. Corporations not only fund research, but entire university departments, charities, and educational programs as well. Seeing corporations jumping into bed with public health initiatives should raise suspicion. It is essentially putting the wolf in charge of the sheep.

Just last year the Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) – a department of Monash University – published a study that found lap-banding procedures were appropriate interventions for obese teenagers as young as 14. What they didn’t reveal, however, was that the study was funded by Allergan, Australia’s largest manufacturer of lap-banding products. In mid-2010, Allergan sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market lap bands to US teens after sponsoring clinical trials, essentially opening up the global teenage market for profit.

Then there was the 2010 Inaugural Obesity Summit (IOS) in Sydney, where professor after professor declared ‘conflicts of interest’ prior to presenting their research. As if somehow these confessions should exonerate them from the fact that their research was funded by Obesity Fat Cats International. One declared he was a board director for Reductil, “Australia’s most popular weight loss drug”. It was not surprising that his research found lap banding, followed by a lifetime’s prescription of diet pills, the appropriate solution to the ‘obesity epidemic’.

Reductil has since been banned due to over 200 adverse effects, including the death of an otherwise healthy 19-year-old girl. Diet pills have a long history of causing cardiac problems, yet it seems the same corporations that are forced to cancel their brands, continue to roll out new ones.

Obesity is a multi-billion dollar industry, with some health practitioners now referring to it as “Obesity Inc”. The situation is only getting worse. Most are not aware that it is now internationally accepted among those working within the field that not a single weight loss approach has ever been shown to be effective after two to five years, for 98 per cent of the population. This was acknowledged at The Australian New Zealand Obesity Society Conference (ANZOS) in 2009, and again at the IOS in 2010.

What is odd then, is why there seems to be a dialectic approach to obesity. On the one hand, the obesity “experts” don’t have solutions that work long-term for the majority of the population, yet at the same time continue to prescribe their shonky solutions. If Viagra had a 98 per cent failure rate, doctors would not be allowed to prescribe it. Yet most of the time, individuals who cannot “lose the weight and keep it off” are treated like failures, as though they are “not trying damned hard enough” and shamed in hostile programs like The Biggest Loser.

The reality is that obesity research is riddled with conflicts of interest. It’s best to check who funded the research prior to reading it. Obesity research typically does not account for a person’s history of weight cycling, life fitness, stress, socioeconomic status, history of weight loss drugs, and nutrient intake. Is it the case that the solution might be worse than the disease?

Some might argue that one should at least give weight loss a shot, even if it is accompanied by an extraordinary failure rate. The problem with this line of argument is that attempting to lose weight does not come without harmful consequences. Dieting for weight loss puts people at increased risk of disordered eating, including binge eating, emotional eating, and weight cycling, just to name a few. This has less to do with “willpower” and “laziness” and more to do with the hardwiring of our physiological responses to deprivation.

Obesity “experts” like to make many claims. These include the benefits of weight loss in those afflicted with diabetes. Yet independent studies show that these benefits usually drop off after six to 18 months. But when was the last time you heard that? The DAA’s Healthy Weight Week recommendations advise us to swap soft drink for diet versions. Do they seriously believe that putting aspartame – a chemical previously listed by The Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent – into one’s body is healthier than real sugar? Although approved by the FDA, it is useful to bear in mind that a 2006 study found that at least 1 in 3 FDA panel members hold financial conflicts of interest.

Eating disorders charities are reporting that rates of disordered eating and unhealthy weight loss approaches are becoming normative in young people. Eight per cent of teenage girls currently smoke to control their weight. Schools are reporting that school children are refusing to participate in sport because they feel ashamed of what they look like in their gym clothes. And a recent study published in the International Journal of Paediatrics found that obese children are 63 per cent more likely to be bullied, irrespective of sex, socioeconomic status, race, and type of school they attend. No protective factors could be identified.

Research shows that stigma and discrimination are two of the highest predictors of poor mental and physical health. This discrimination is not limited to the schoolyard. Dr Lyn Roberts announced at the ANZOS Conference in 2009 that 84 per cent of health professionals discriminate against those who are obese or overweight. This has significant real-life consequences, with many obese people reporting they are reluctant to see their doctors, as they are certain to be lectured to lose weight while all of their ailments are blamed on the fact that they are fat. In some cases, cancers have gone unchecked – leading to deaths – due to the assumption that the person’s symptoms must be due to their fatness. The difficulty in accessing appropriate health care also confounds obesity research.

It’s time for this hysteria towards obesity to end. Independent studies are showing that it is actually fitness that is a better predictor of health, irrespective of what size a person is at (except at statistical extremes). We don’t actually know what is a “healthy weight” for any individual. Even if Body Mass Index (BMI) was not tainted by corporate funding, it would still only exist as a population measure.

In recent years, a global grassroots movement has taken off, known as the Size Acceptance movement. Health At Every Size (HAES) prides itself on exposing conflicts of interest in research, prioritising health over profit. It rejects the weight-based model to health, replacing it with a health-centred approach.

HAES acknowledges that our bodies are continually communicating with us. Whether you are constipated, hungry, or satiated, it helps to stop and listen. Intuitive eating teaches us to reconnect with our internal signals. If you eat highly-processed foods regularly, chances are you aren’t going to feel very well. Listening to our bodies is a skill.

HAES also encourages people to engage in physical movement that is pleasurable to them, instead of obsessively counting their steps with a pedometer or seeing exercise as punishment. Respecting body diversity and seeing health as an ongoing multi-faceted process will help to end the war against our bodies. Every day we can feel good about the fact that we have respected our bodies through health-giving activities, instead of hating ourselves for not reaching that number on the scales. After all, how can you truly nourish something you hate?

Things that make me go MMMM . . .

Girls cannot be what they cannot see — please don’t become a victim of the fashion wars.

The Sunday Telegraph‘s “Sunday” magazine ran with a back-to-school theme recently, headlined “Style up your school-run chic.” The fashion spread inside was a 1950s-inspired shoot featuring “neat prints, demure hemlines and retro-inspired accessories”. Scan I truly hope the headline was an error and this shoot had nothing to do with showing mums how to dress for the school run. The thought of having to arrive at my children’s school by 8.30 a.m. with coiffed hair, heels, pearls (also prominent in the spread) and pink lippy flawlessly in place would be enough to make me home school my kids. (And trust me, after spending the last six weeks at home with them, that is a not a threat I would make lightly.)

I note, too, that at this time of year the celebrity-watching sites have taken to critiquing the stars doing the kiddie drop-off with the type of enthusiasm usually only displayed by my son for his Nintendo. Toxic celebrity body-police site “The Skinny Celebrity” elicited 65 highly animated (read “frenzied” . . . what is it about these sites that make them so compulsive?) comments on Elle Macpherson’s chosen outfit for the school run. Frankly Elle’s look here is very similar to mine — running tights, sneakers, unbrushed hair, a big jumper or t-shirt. Okay, okay, I may not look quite as sleek when I pop this all together but it seems more realistic than the twin-sets. Agree?

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Don’t get me wrong, if I am attending a school assembly I will cheerfully run a comb through my mane and attend looking neat and tidy. But if I am just doing kiss-and-drop? Well, I have been known to do this in my Wonder Woman PJs should we be in a rush.

I recall a conversation with a friend I had once that left me speechless. She was lamenting the fact that she was getting increasingly anxious about getting dressed to take her children to their private school as she never felt she could quite pull off the designer look the other mothers seemed to do so effortlessly. “Even when I do kiss-and-drop, I know I am expected to look good from the neck up. I feel pressure to get my hair just right and to have the latest designer sunnies.” Oh. My. Goodness. What hope do our girls have to keep the ranking-based-on-looks game in check if even the big girls are engaging in it?

Please — don’t buy into this game. Wear what seems appropriate and makes you comfortable. Don’t comment on other mums and what they are wearing. Trust me — no one wins the compare and despair game.

Sign of the times?

I took my 11-year-old daughter, Teyah, into Jay-Jays to buy a new t-shirt. I was all ready to be outraged at inappropriate slogans as I have seen some shocking slogans in stores that target tweens and teens in the past (think Jay-Jay’s 2008 misguided “Little Losers”, which included “Miss Wasted” and “Miss Bitch”). I have to say, I was  pleasantly surprised at how empowering some of their latest styles are!

IMG_1052Their new “So-so Happy” range directs a percentage of profits to the awesome Reach Out, an organisation aimed at supporting young people with a range of mental health and wellbeing issues. “So-So Happy” slogans include “Free 2B Me” (Teyah grabbed this one) and cool fundraising “Reach” wrist bands also sit at the counter at a very reasonable $2 (yep, we will have these, too, thanks).  Jay-Jay’s other ranges include a singlet with the slogan “Are you afraid to LOVE? No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself.” This message may be a tad threatening for my liking (no one is going to love you?) but hey, I can see the intention is good.

The most interesting part of this shopping experience was when I spoke to the manager at the Castle Hill store, Jodie Souter, and asked her if the shift towards slogans with more positive messages was a deliberate one or if I had perhaps just shopped on a good day. “We used to market a lot more sexy type slogan tops but frankly they didn’t sell very well,” she told me. “This new approach is flying out the door. We have noted a big jump in sales with the more empowering gear.”

I didn’t examine all the products in the store and am by no means endorsing this retailer, though I can’t help but think this may be a sign that consumers have reached tipping point and we are no longer buying into labels that sell out on our kids.

Heads up other teen brands!

Hating this Valentine’s campaign

My Victorian Enlighten Education team member Catherine Manning is the powerhouse behind Say No 4 Kids (not to be confused with “say no TO kids”, a slip of the tongue I once made that had all of us Enlighten mummies in fits of laughter). This nonprofit grassroots movement  is encouraging everyone to sign a petition to have pornographic material removed from the view and access of children and young teenagers. As Cath says, “If cigarettes can go back behind the counter, why not porn?” Not happy to just stop there, Catherine recently began lobbying her local chemist chain store, which has decided to promote the sale of perfumes for Valentine’s Day by using the language and imagery of pornography. Catherine explains the issue best in her email to me: “I was really shocked that this was deemed appropriate. The young female sales assistant working at the store said she felt extremely embarrassed and upset, and had complained to head office to no avail. She said all they needed was a red light hanging from the ceiling.” Cath called it harassment, and she’s right.

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Call 03 9462 9111 to register your complaint. Tell My Chemist that “hardcore” doesn’t sell perfume, and boycott their stores until they withdraw this offensive campaign.

The standard we walk by is the standard we set. Perhaps the marketing crew at My Chemist needs to have a chat to the team at Jay-Jays?

A new body does not equal a new life

I was incredibly saddened to hear that 23-year-old former German Big Brother contestant/porn star Carolin Berger died after her sixth breast enlargement surgery. Sky News explained: “She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicone injected into each breast. But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.” What a waste. It made me want to revisit an earlier post of mine, The Reality of Cosmetic Surgery. In this post I shared my own battle to accept my body — scars and all (for my readers who may not know, I received third-degree burns on my right shoulder and arm from an incident in my childhood). My concluding words in that post ring as true as ever:

The power of words to heal is something we should all take to heart and remember in our relationships with the girls in our lives. Cosmetic and plastic surgery may appear to promise happiness and success, like we see on reality TV, but it can really only alter our bodies. It’s the words we use to talk about ourselves and one another that have the power to truly heal our souls, and to change lives.

I’d love to know what has got you thinking and going “MMMM . . .” this week.

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