Connecting Parents and Children: What is the Recipe?

One of the most popular bands of all time sang – “All you need is love.” But as a mother of two, I can say that even though love towards your children can be the most intense and beautiful feeling that a human can possibly experience, I strongly believe that in this case, love is not always enough. I hate disagreeing with The Beatles, but even to unconditional love, there is a lot more involved.

As a therapist, I frequently hear that parenting is not an easy task. When the child grows older and starts showing their own desires, it can be difficult for the parents to keep the children and certain situations under control. The tantrums can be frequent and the inability of dealing with it, increases the issues and decreases the positivity in the relationship. Having different perspectives and goals starts in childhood and are intensified as the children reach adolescence. This last is a very critical period in someone’s developmental, with a likely removal from parents’ relationship and some risk-taking behaviour, what can contribute to family conflict.  

Some parents believe that having an authoritarian style is the key to success, as some of them had this type of education and in a sense, they see how it “worked.” But studies indicate that it can lead to distance between the family members, creating a disruption in the relationship instead of a strong bond. So, using control, punishment and verbal aggression may not be the best approach in a parent-child or parent-adolescent relationship.

It is true that children and adolescent need rules, responsibilities and learn with the consequences of their actions. But it can surely be done in a gentle and assertive way. To value your child’s emotions, listen to their wishes and see their perspectives doesn’t mean to let them lead parenting. It means that you can validate their feelings and have the chance to explain yours too. And when dialogue is not possible, mutual agreements can take place. This will surely get you together and the fruits will be seen in the relationship: more harmonious with less misunderstandings and conflict.

Being an assertive parent is the good balance to teach your child responsibilities with love. If you, parent, dare to stop the autopilot and allow yourself to listen, learn and try things from a different angle, your child will react more collaboratively, with a widened repertoire and a better self-regulation and self-awareness skills. To conclude, as I can’t stand disagreeing with one of the most sensitive souls in the world, I can say that if you are battling with your offspring, “Life is very short (…) for fussing and fighting, my friend.” Dare to learn and do things in a different way. And if you fear to dare, or are struggling with the process, we are here to support you.

Written By:
Andrea Fernandes Thomaz
Counsellor & Psychotherapist

SACAC Counselling

Attached: To Their Screens?

Attachment is a necessity for human life – across the lifespan. Attachment is connection and compassion, it is the relationships with people you trust and who care about you. This blog post explores how screens (including our own) interfere with attachment behaviours and as such can leave children and young people in an attachment void, increasing their peer orientation and peer attachments. Physician Dr. Gabor Maté and Clinical Psychologist Gordon Neufield help put a context around what is biologically required for children and young people, to attach and the challenges for parents “in the digital age”. 

Screens and our reliance on them is one of parents, teachers and all who love and care for children and young people’s biggest concern for them. We are concerned by what our young people tell us, we are concerned by what we see on Netflix (Social Dilemma anyone?), we notice it in ourselves and our addictions to screens, work and social media. We are most concerned by the behavior changes we notice. Parents and professionals are concerned about increased addictive behavior, increased mental health concerns (Anxiety, Depression, suicidality), and decreased adult and intergenerational connection and influence in their young person’s life, and the reality is – it is complex. There is a tremendous amount we do not know about the brain, brain development, there is luck, genetics, the environment, the peer group, maturational factors, school, sibling order; the list could go on. However, we can take an approach of trying to understand, with some empathy and nuance, why do children and young people sometimes find themselves in situations where they are practically strangers to the people who care deeply about them and want to connect, and they are overly connected to their peers – much of which is online?

There is a never-ending round of discussion in any parenting group you would care to join on how, when, and what media we should allow access to for our children. Furthermore, this may not be solely a family decision – children may be required to have a device for school, parents may feel it is important to have a phone for safety and/ or accessibility. It is very much a case that the “horse” has well and truly bolted from the barn – so how can we help make it safer for children and young people, for their brains, their minds, and their emerging sense of self?

Here is a typical parental concern you may hear at any gathering of parents with adolescents: “I don’t feel as though I know them at all anymore”, “they come home from school (or spend the day during home learning) and then they are in their room, are on their phone/ laptop/ device – chatting, doing homework, YouTube, online gaming from the minute they get home until they go to bed. I barely see them for dinner.” These struggles have been normalized through our culture – however, my sense is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the young people themselves do not like either. They are uncomfortable, scared, lost, and confused and that is why they turn to the screens in a never-ending loop of attempting to connect, to feel safe, and to sometimes numb the painful feelings they are experiencing.

But first – what is the problem if an adolescent is overly focussed on their peers? The problem is that with the never-ending access to screens and expectations young people have of themselves to be constantly available (via Snapchat, Discord, Messenger, etc.) that this can interfere with their primary caregiver attachments and relationships.  Certainly, teens are empathetic, they are kind and thoughtful, they can be fun, delightful, interesting, and intelligent. They however still need an adult, a secure safe trusted caregiver who has wisdom through context, who loves and values them unconditionally, who can help them problem solve, who they are not overly reliant on for their emerging ego development. In other words – we all can benefit from peer relationships, but for a child and a young person, this can become mutually exclusive to the adult caregiver attachment. If at the exact moment when our teenagers need to be held gently, to be contained and celebrated – if they are only left with a culture of fear of exclusion, desperate needs to fit in, to be fulfilling their attachment instinct with their peers rather than a parent or trusted caregiver then we are creating environments that are unsafe for them.

What can we do?

1.) Prioritize family time. Dr. Gordon Neufeld believes that children spend plenty of time with their peers at school. Time outside of school and work (holidays, weekends, etc.) need not to be always socializing with peers. This helps them stay attached to the family and caregivers.

2.) Proximity and connection with all our senses. This means that we adults need to be physically and emotionally available. We as caregivers need to be aware of our own divided attention and screen usage, turn our full attention to them, show and develop an interest in what interests them.

3.) Have shared experiences, both on and off screens. Cultural practices and rites of passage are important for adolescents, it can help anchor them with roots to the community and support emerging identity development.

Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufuld have many resources including “Hold Onto Your Kids” and various lecture series for parents and professionals. 

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin
SACAC Counselling

Gordon Neufeld:
Dr. Gabor Maté :

Attachment and Adolescents

The importance of attachment in babies and young children is commonly well-understood, as is the expectation that when our children hit their teenage years, they will begin to move away from their attachment figures. It is assumed that this is a key part of their growth and development into adulthood. It can be easy, (particularly when teenagers are testing our parental boundaries!)  to also assume that attachment is less important as children get older. However, maintaining a secure sense of attachment is just as important for adolescents – and Covid19 has shown us some interesting results that help highlight and remember what we can keep in mind for our teenagers.

John Bowlby, a renowned attachment researcher, helps to show us that attachment is “from the cradle to the grave”. It impacts us as children, through our teenage years and well into adulthood.  Brain development and our nervous system responds to, and is shaped by, secure attachments throughout our entire life.  We all, children, adults and adolescents, need to have a sense of a secure base and supportive relationships. Part of our ongoing role as parents is to actively and consciously consider how develops and remains important in our relationships with teenagers.

As adolescents begin to move away from their initial attachment relationships, they thrive when they are carrying with them a “secure base” from which they can reach out into the world and explore.  This exploration happens through peer relationships, connecting with other important adults (coaches, mentors and other relatives) and institutions (schools, clubs etc.).  A vital part of this healthy development, and a necessary condition, is a strong and secure base that remains available, and continues to be a space for children to return to. Adolescents thrive with both roots (secure attachment) and wings (growing independence and sense of purpose). In order to move towards independence, teenagers require a place of dependence. A place to be continually nourished, have their needs seen and met – an emotional space that is unconditionally accepting (but note this is not the same as unconditionally permissive!). 

COVID -19 lockdowns all around the world have facilitated a unique opportunity for many families to engage with, observe and reconnect with the adolescents in their lives.  As a result, in many instances, adolescents are reportingless stress, better sleep and often better connections with their siblings and their caregivers. Recent figures from student resilience surveys from researcher Dr Suniya Luthar during COVID lockdowns in the US have noted overall improvement in clinical anxiety and depression (compared to the same time last year). Bearing in mind the increased pressures most families have been facing in this chaotic time – ongoing work commitments, complexities of work from home arrangements, potential increasing financial pressures, anxieties about family around the world – it’s useful to ask what has been important about this unique period that has engendered improvements in mood and measures for good emotional health?

Time: Families though stretched in unforeseen and novel ways, have noticed the return of rhythms that in the past have been compromised in the unrelenting march of extra-curricular activities (before school, after school, weekend tutoring, volunteering – on and on it goes). It’s a reminder that spending time with teenagers outside of scheduling is an important factor.

Sleep: Adolescents have long been thwarted by a body clock that really prefers to sleep later – versus school times that are geared for early morning risers. The opportunity to gain the additional hour or two of sleep is important in physical and mental well-being. Parents too, have been able to travel less, with little or less commuting, less rush for school picks ups, extracurricular activities etc.  Finding ways of keeping healthy sleep patterns as we come out of lockdown is something to focus on.

Togetherness: A sense of being in it together – the embodied sense of safety and all physically being in one location, and sharing a common experience is another important component.

In many parts of the world, and certainly here in Singapore, families are balancing a return to activities outside the home, and in doing so are considering which parts of this lockdown worked for them. Given the choice, what would you like to maintain and protect in the future? There is still the reality of ongoing academic demands for students, college applications, community service, volunteering, sporting commitments. So what really matters? Resilience research has consistently shown that the key factor in being OK when things are difficult is close and robust relationships. Prioritizing parent-child, parent/ caregiver relationships (couple relationships) is crucial – without strong relationships teens are increasingly isolated, they miss the opportunity for conversations that help develop their reflective capacity. Robust relationships and secure attachment helps adolescents develop their sense of who they are:- at first within, then outside of the family unit, which is a protective factor against isolation, hopelessness and anxieties.

Given our collective experiences in lockdown, as well as what adolescents themselves are reporting – this time has been instructive. And time itself is necessary. Adolescents need time with their closest secure attachments, they continue to draw on and thrive with their support. Consider how you can protect some of your caregiving time – being able to share a meal, being present to ensure decent sleep patterns, being engaged in shared activities or interests. To assume that teens do not need or even want these things, because they are “growing up and becoming independent” is to diminish the ongoing importance of relationships  – which is a human need and especially important in the development of the adolescent brain.

Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss: Vol 1 Attachment. New York: Basic Books; 1969/1982. [Google Scholar]
Dr Suniya Luthar (   

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin

The Unsocial Consequences of Social Media for our Students

A short time ago I was teaching a critical thinking class for 17 to 21-year-old Singaporean students.

The students arriving for the first day of class came into the room as 25 individual islands, totally focused on the phones in their hands.

Introducing myself, I asked if there were any questions regarding the syllabus or actual content. This was met with silence. Asking the class for their full attention I told them I was going to outline what was required of them to receive an “A”.  Immediately I had their full attention. Also, I had discovered that this group of students was motivated by good grades.

Outlining the class expectations, I told them that they would be working together in teams of five to solve complex and authentic problems. They would be learning how to engage in research. They would learn how to determine valid and reliable sources and evidence. They would develop an argument and then defend it to the other groups of students.  In simple words, I told them that to pass the class, they would have to engage in social exchange with their classmates and with me.

Over the next few weeks, I helped my students discover for themselves the pros and cons of growing up in a culture of social networking. While rarely being asked to engage in actual exchange with each other, these skills had not been developed. Because they had ready accessibility to “information”, they had not spent much time actually learning and retaining knowledge. Yes, they knew how to memorize facts for an exam, but if asked to apply any of their learning, they were left paralyzed.

While my students held the illusion that they could multi-task, checking their social media sites, while trying to engage in research, they were being brought face to face with the realization that our brains are not hard-wired to be able to do this. Slowly, each member of the class was understanding that they were unable to concentrate on the task at hand while remaining connected to social media. Because they were required to work in teams, they were realizing that they had never learned how to socialize in person. Because social media lacked body signals and other nonverbal communication, they had not learned how to pay attention to another’s tone or inflection. They were admitting to themselves and others that they did not know how to skillfully communicate face to face with each other.

Six weeks into the course my students admitted that they had accepted information found online, believing it without question. Having learned research skills, they were astonished that they had never required evidence. They were learning to question themselves and others. They were demanding evidence for positions held.

Towards the end of the term, I had the students research what things potential employees looked for in the people they hired. They were finding out that potential employers often investigated the social networking profiles of their applicants. In response, the students started critically filtering their posts. Reviewing their past, lax postings they began to seriously evaluate their sites with their newfound awareness.

There were other problems I required my students to research.  They researched  the consequences of spending large amounts of time on social media and how this impacted their physical health and well-being. As they researched they found that students who spent large amounts of time on social media sites complained of significantly more stomach aches, sleeping problems, anxiety, and depression. The evidence they were unearthing was overwhelming.

Of greater concern, they found strong evidence that young people, who were spending large amounts of time on social media displayed more narcissistic behaviors along with other psychological disorders, including aggressive tendencies.

While we may not have the amount of time or the same structure that allowed my class to construct their own understandings of some of the anti-social consequences of social media, we can still encourage our students and client’s to participate in solving some of their own problems. As they are encouraged to use their intellects, they can be helped to discover their own important role in finding their own solutions.

For far too many of our students and client’s, social media has not only changed what they do, but it has also changed who they are. While they may have the illusion of being connected, they often walk among the crowd as individual islands in the vast ocean of social media.

Written by:
Vivian Colvin

Tutor & Mentor

SACAC Counselling

Anxiety Toolbox for Teens

We all feel anxiety, it’s part of human nature. However, helping adolescents manage their anxiety if it starts impacting on their functioning is key. It also sets good habits for their journey into adulthood. 

The basics

Adopting healthy sleeping patterns, eating well and exercising are the foundations of a healthy lifestyle, physically as well as emotionally. Starting these helpful patterns and integrating them into daily life is one of the most valuable tools for controlling anxiety. Sadly, the rise in screen time is a big threat to maintaining these basics, and teens need parents to set consistent limits around this. A healthy body can also improve self confidence and self image which can be a fragile thing during the teenage years. 

Don’t forget to breathe!

Breathing techniques are highly effective in managing anxiety. Slow, controlled breathing (in through your nose and out through your mouth) will help to slow down the physical symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, quick breaths), which in turn can slow down those racing thoughts. There are some good apps for this, which many teenagers like. 

Mindful breathing is a great tool that can be used at any time, to help stay grounded and focussed on the here and now. Helping teenagers stay in the present, can help prevent worries about the future or rumination about the past.

Staying positive 

Being in tune with your inner dialogue, and ensuring it’s staying positive is also a helpful way for teenagers to manage anxiety. Being able to say to yourself “I know this won’t last forever, and I can get through this by…” will help to stay confident that the anxiety is manageable. 

Hobbies and support networks

Ensuring your teen is still doing the things they enjoy, and preferably maintaining friendships at the same time will certainly help. Teen anxiety can often be social-based, so make sure that it’s the right kind of environment for them.

As a parent, it can be very difficult seeing your adolescent struggle with anxiety. Pay attention to their feelings, validate them and don’t be dismissive. Build their sense of worth, by recognising their achievements (even small ones) and stay calm when your child becomes anxious. Encourage them to practice these skills in their toolbox and when stressful situations occur, they should feel more prepared. 

Written by:
Dr. Kanan Pandya-Smith
Clinical Psychologist
DClinPsych, BSc(Hons)

SACAC Counselling

A Life More Ordinary – What to offer your Exasperating Teenager…

When you peer, infuriated, over the mountain of washing at a snoring mass of limbs on your sofa, spare a thought for the poor creature. It’s not all their fault; nor is it yours. The teenage years are unpredictable, often unrecognizable to parents. Adolescence itself is a time of transition; physical, mental and emotional. A period of increased risk-taking and novelty-seeking, it is a testing time for all. At school, home and in the wider world, teens are testing their own capacities in all aspects of life – which often tests the patience of their parents. The adolescent brain – yes there is one in there somewhere – is actually becoming more efficient. A final period of ‘pruning’, selection of the necessary brain cells, takes place in the late teens. It is developing and sharpening the senses and coordination but the slowest part to grow up is the capacity for decision-making. That’s where you come in – after all, you know best.

Adolescents are looking for the walls, the boundaries, the things to bounce off of. They will turn to their peers more than you, since these are now the sources of their sense of identity. But don’t worry, they’ll be back when they need you. Adolescents often feel lost within themselves, as if their over-sized clothes have consumed them and they don’t know who they are anymore. Yet they also feel like they could do anything; powerful and unbound. Teenagers are regularly attracted to popular culture’s superheroes, magicians and vampires – creatures with enlarged capacities, perpetually changing themselves or others. What’s more, their parents may look at them with disbelieving eyes, as if they were someone else’s children. But they are still yours and you can help them remember that.    

An old but very interesting book on counselling young people reminded me recently that adolescence is a period of loss and gain. ‘Personal maturation requires some things to be yielded to make way for new ones.’ (p.19, Noonan. 1984) It’s a time of letting go of things and getting hold of others. Teens are required to mourn the loss of their childhood selves, not to dispose of them but to internalise them; to keep the memory of their childhood alive and within as they mature. But this work is not theirs to do alone. It’s yours too. 

In the transfer of responsibilities which growing-up involves, parents are there both to protect and release their kids. It is a contradiction similar to those faced by the teenager; you provide the walls of safety and the gateway to the wider world. You, through your constant interest and consistent structures, will help usher your child into the world of the adult, through the tunnel of the teenage years. Some conflict will inevitably take place but your role is to stand your ground; this not only helps your teenager to know their own boundaries but also to develop a positive sense of what it is to be an adult. You are, much as you were with your young child, there to filter life experience, to help your teen feed themselves in digestible ways so that they can grow. But it requires you to stand a little further back, to allow their own opinions room. Through this, you will help grant them ‘psychological autonomy’ (p.8, Steinberg. 2001). It’s no accident that as the demands on teenagers grow (from social media in particular), there is increased reporting and recording of eating disorders, self-harm, and other struggles between body and mind. It’s harder with adolescents because they are bigger, stronger, and even needier than the kids.

So don’t try it alone. Share the burden with partners, friends and family. Between you, you will keep this low-voiced, poorly dressed eating-machine on track. Your teenager needs to be loved just as your child was, but perhaps forgiven more freely after more intense negotiations. They still need the boundaries too, yet like the re-drawing of a map after a war, these need to be agreed on by all parties. Hopefully, by providing them with a life more ordinary, they will discover their own extraordinary selves along the way.

Written by:
Robert Leveson
Psychotherapist & Counsellor (TSP, BPC)
SACAC Counselling

Music, G. (2010) Moving Towards Adulthood. In Music, G. ‘Nurturing Natures. Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development’, Hove, Psychology Press, pp.185-197
Noonan, E. (1984) ‘Counselling Young People’,  Methuan, London/NY
Steinberg, L (2001) We Know Some Things; Parent-Adolescent Relationships in Retrospect and Prospect. ‘Journal of Research on Adolescence’, 11, (1), 1-19
Wallis, C. (2008) What Makes Teens Tick? ‘Time Magazine’

Supporting Your Child Through Divorce

Separation and divorce can be the most challenging time for a family. Although the breakup is between parents, it impacts the entire family and emotions can often fly high while trying to navigate through this period. The good news is that the majority of kids whose parents divorce do cope and the impact can be small if it is managed well. The following pointers offer some basic guidance.

How to tell your child

If possible, both parents should be present to break the news. Divorce creates change and uncertainty for children which can be de-stabilising, before speaking with your children have an agreed way forward of how the new situation will work for all family members (e.g. living arrangements, contact with both parents, how parents will continue communication). Speak honestly and admit that is it sad, but spare the child too much detail. Ensure they know the breakup is between the adults and has nothing to do with them, this may need repeating a number of times to offer reassurance.

Expect a mix of reactions

Depending on your child’s age and personality factors (e.g. coping skills, resiliency, communication skills, etc.), your child or children will process and express the news in different ways. It is not unusual for children to express anger, lose sleep, have anxiety, act out, lose appetite, etc. If you feel comfortable enough to share the news with the school, teachers can monitor your child and update you on any change in behaviour. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling about the divorce and legitimise their feelings by showing you understand their perspective (e.g. ‘I know you feel sad that dad doesn’t live here anymore).

Keep your child out of the disagreements between you and your ex

Even though you may be feeling hurt by your ex, avoid speaking badly of your ex in front of your child. Don’t fight or bring up disagreements in front of your child. Avoid confiding in your child or giving your child information about the details of the separation and don’t make them choose sides.

Maintain rules and boundaries

This period will lead to inevitable changes in the family, which can create feelings of anxiety and uncertainty for your child. As much as possible keep routines and boundaries consistent. Maintain similar rules across both households, even if your child is testing boundaries.

Put your child first

Throughout the process, parents can get caught up in what is fair for them. It is important to focus on what is good for the children, even when this may not always be good for the parent. Look after yourself and seek help and support, if you are not managing your emotions then it is difficult to have the capacity to help your child through this period.

Written by:
Dr. Jennifer Greene
Consultant Educational & Child Psychologist
SACAC Counselling

Some further reading and resources:
‘Putting Children First: proven parenting strategies for helping children thrive through divorce’ by Joanne Pedro-Carroll
‘Joint custody with a Jerk’ by Julie A Ross and Judy Corcoran
‘The Invisible String’ by Patricia Karst (to read with children aged 4-8 years)
‘The Suitcase kid’ by Jacqueline Wilson (for children aged 9-11 years)

Body Image And Its Effect On The Child’s Self Esteem And Confidence

Body image is the way that someone perceives their own bodies and how others perceive them. In simple words, it relates to one’s shape, size, and weight. Body image may vary from unhealthy to healthy or vice-versa at the different stages in one’s life. A healthy body image in early years lays the foundation for good physical and mental health.

Some facts pointed out by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

• Body size awareness tends to start around the age of 5 in children.
• 40-60% of elementary school girls and 25% of elementary school boys are
worried about weight gain.
• By preteens, 50% of girls are dissatisfied with weight, shape and start to
withdraw from activities because they feel bad about their appearance
• In middle school, girls start to actively manage their appearance (more than boys), and is particularly stressful for them because of the change in body shape, as a result of puberty.

Research data shows that body satisfaction may hit a low between the ages of 12-15, this means that obsession with “looks”, starts at a much earlier age. The need to look perfect is spreading across most age groups, ethnicity, strata and the influence seems to be strong and impossible to ignore.

Did you know that, 24-year-old double Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Adlington, who was credited to inspire a generation of young swimmers, was reduced to tears, feeling insecure during a conversation about body image after her retirement from the sport, on BBC breakfast?

Family life and culture tend to have a strong influence on the teen’s views about their bodies. Different cultures and families have varied views about ideal body shapes and sizes – some being more encouraging and realistic than others. The family pressures to look perfect, coaches’ expectations of “making weight” for the sports team, body changes during puberty may impact the child’s perception of body image. Interestingly, media has been defining the “ideal” size by bombarding us with unrealistic, airbrushed pictures, creating a negative influence on our children’s concept of body image. Health professionals have pointed out if a teenager is constantly seeking assurance on their appearance, overly obsessed with looks, shows a drastic change in food habits, or a loss of considerable weight, might be struggling with body image issues.

Body image plays a major role in defining a teenager’s self-esteem. It’s hard to feel good about oneself if one is unhappy with their bodies and in turn their appearance. Self-esteem, in other words, is the “real” opinion one has of themselves. It’s something that can’t be touched or seen but seems to be always following us around like a shadow. Some children may try to compensate the way they feel by manipulating (excessive exercise routines, using fad diets, counting calories, etc.) their body images. Parents can play an important role in helping children form a positive body image.

Tips to Help Boost Your Child’s Positive Body Image

• Ensure use of positive statements around food, meal times, body sizes, and shapes.
• Promote and model healthy behaviors, to ensure “fit” bodies with higher levels of self-esteem and healthier body images.
• Avoid practicing fad diets and introduce “Self-Attuned eating”, a concept of learning to pay attention to and trust feelings of hunger and fullness – this will help promote a healthy, normalizing attitude toward eating
• As a parent, appreciate and celebrate your own body for what it can do, not just how it looks
• Teach by modeling to accept and value people for who they are irrespective of their looks and appearance.
• Compliment children on their qualities rather than their physical appearance
• Enhancing the children’s knowledge on the authenticity of the images on screens and magazines projected by media around us
• Educate children on changes in body type and sizes, during puberty

Parents are increasingly concerned at the rate of dissatisfaction among children with their appearances. On seeing signs, they wonder whether they should ignore or be concerned as it could be the start of bigger body issues. If you think your child is experiencing any challenges with body image, start by talking about your concerns with them. If things don’t change, consider talking to a health professional to get some support.

Written by:
Vinti Mittal

Director SACAC Counselling Pte Ltd
Clinical Member SAC
SAC Registered Counsellor
CMSAC, Reg, CLR, MSc (Counselling), Grad Cert. (Counselling)
SACAC Counselling

How to manage exam anxiety

Exam anxiety

It’s that time of year in Singapore, where the O-level exams are fast approaching. I have many parents come to seek support for their children to help manage exam anxiety. A moderate level of exam-related stress is quite common and can actually help with performance. However, it is when it starts to impact negatively that we need to provide support.

What is exam anxiety?

All anxiety starts in the brain with your thoughts and can manifest into physical symptoms. Your thoughts are nothing more than signals traveling through neurons which activate a response in different areas of the brain. If your thoughts perceive something to be a threat (e.g. failing an exam), this triggers the “fight-flight” response in the body. This response is aimed to keep the body safe but is not always helpful when the response is overwhelming. Thoughts involved in exam anxiety are usually related to negative thinking about performance and lead to an unwanted physical reaction.

What to look out for?

Some of the signs to look out for are: difficulty sleeping, heart racing, difficulty breathing, drawing blanks, low mood, loss of appetite, unable to take in new information, increased distractibility, headaches, increased frustration or irritability, tearfulness, and negative thoughts.

Tips to manage exam stress and anxiety:

  • Eat well – too much high sugar or high carbohydrate foods can lead to crashing of energy levels. Encourage healthy snacks and a balanced diet.
  • Ensure adequate sleep – teenagers should be getting 8-10 hours per night.
  • Encourage exercise during exam times – exercise boosts energy levels and reduces stress.
  • Prepare ahead of time – academic stress comes from a feeling of lack of control over the situation. To tackle these problems make a schedule with goals to achieve and managing time accordingly
  • Parents should avoid adding to the pressure – listen, talk about exam nerves, reassure and avoid criticism.
  • Practice – anxiety can be related to not knowing what to expect; use practice exam papers as an opportunity to manage anxiety.
  • Take breaks when studying – researches have shown that the brain requires time to integrate knowledge. If we do not slow the flow of information, our mind becomes saturated at a faster rate than we can store new data. Studying in 20-30 minute sessions will improve processing and recall of information.
  • Maintain a positive attitude – try replacing unhelpful thoughts with more encouraging self-talk.
  • Ensure there is time for relaxation – breathing and mindfulness techniques can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of anxiety.

If your child’s anxiety or low mood is severe, persists, and interferes with their everyday life, it’s a good idea to get some help from a suitably qualified psychologist.

Written by:
Dr. Jennifer Greene

BSc (HONS), DEdChPsy, CPsychol
Consultant Educational & Child Psychologist
SACAC Counselling

Further information and resources:

*Image source:

Self Harm and How You Can Help

Self harm is a serious issue affecting many young people today.  Sadly it has become a common coping mechanism of youth who are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed.  Beyond Blue Australia reports 12% of young people will engage in self injurious acts with average first times act occurring at 12-14 years. Whilst not a suicide attempt, the risk of suicidal ideation increases with the longevity of self harm, as does the risk of hospitalisation due to self harm.

For most, the idea of engaging in behaviours such as cutting, burning, hair pulling or hitting oneself seems shocking and difficult to understand.  If your child or anyone you know is engaging in such behaviours it is important to ask them to help you understand and that you are free of judgement or reproach.  The young person is in need of help from a professional and family and friends.

Explanations for self harm include the young person feeling so numb and disconnected that to them the act of self-harm provides an opportunity to feel, therefore reducing frightening and isolating feelings of numbness.  A second reason cited is that the individual is so overwhelmed that cutting creates a release for the internal pain and chaos they are experiencing.  Others use self harm as a means of self punishment in response to feelings of self loathing and judgement caused by depression. The injurious behaviour may provide temporary relief for numbness, overwhelm or self-loathing however they soon returns as the core issues have not been resolved.

In the absence of healthy coping mechanisms self-harm can become habitual and increase in frequency.  Therefore maintaining constant and open communication with our adolescents is essential for providing avenues for them to talk about the challenges they are facing.  Remember, adolescence is a time of great self-exploration and growth, with heightened emotions and at times debilitating self-doubt.  Add to this school pressure, social media, romantic relationships and the complexity of teen friendships, you can see there are many factors that can result in teens feeling overwhelmed, alone and scared.  Find opportunities to talk with your teens when they are receptive, for example driving together in the car, walking, doing a task without other family members.  Let your teens know that you want to know about their good and bad experiences. Also provide the opportunity for your child to speak with a professional counsellor if you sense that they are struggling or there has been a change in behaviour or mood.  

Ensure that your adolescent develops healthy coping strategies such as exercise, regular study breaks, healthy eating, fun activities, reading, journaling, meditation and most importantly adequate sleep. Explore avenues for expression of intense emotion such as boxing classes, drama, art and high impact exercise.  Listening to sad music or watching sad movies can provide a means of emotional release, as can comedy.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your child about self-harm and ask if they have ever thought about it or if any of their friends do it.  Maintain a caring nonjudgmental approach to this but let your child know that it is serious and you are their to help them or their friend get the help they need.  It is important that your child believes you can handle whatever it is they are going through, reassure them that you are there to support.  Self-harm is something to be concerned about, but with the appropriate help, lots of love and patience it can be overcome.

Please see the resources below for further information

A Bright Red Scream – Marilee Strong

The Parents Guide to Self-Harm, What Parents Need to Know – Jane Smith

Stopping the Pain: A Workbook for Teens Who Cut and Self-Injure  – Lawrence E. Shapiro

Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation by Steven Levenkron


Written by

Rachel Upperton
B. Psych (Hons) PhD.
Registered Psychologist, MAPS