With an epidemic of depression afflicting children from all backgrounds, can coaching or mentoring do anything to alleviate some of the pressures they face?
From an interview with Christine Miller by Jane Renton for The Economist Guide to Coaching & Mentoring
Christine Miller, a management consultant and business coach and mentor, decided to focus her skills on helping children after being profoundly affected by the suicide of her daughter’s 17-year-old school friend.
The girl, who was privately educated and from a loving middle-class home, had been anxious about her schoolwork, about her appearance and about whether she was popular with her peers – normal teenage concerns that had somehow spiralled out of control.
“It had such a profound effect on the [girl’s] family, the school and the local community,” she recalls. It was also a personal clarion call to Ms Miller, who lives in London and who had used coaching techniques in the upbringing of her own children, to re-focus some of her work towards helping troubled youngsters. It was a considered personal decision since it indirectly re-connected her to an earlier career as a school teacher, which she believed had ended in personal failure.
She had taught at a girls’ grammar school, where her largely middle class charges were both intelligent and motivated and where she had thrived. It was only when she accepted a more challenging post teaching French to deprived 15-year-old girls in an inner city London school that things began to change for the worse. “These girls were one step away, in many cases, from being excluded by the authorities. It was my job to teach them French and while I tried very hard to make it as exciting a subject for them as I could, they were contemptuous. They just couldn’t see the relevancy of it to their own lives. Their expectations were so low.”
She left feeling that she had failed her pupils, but decided to put her depressing experience behind her. She embarked upon a successful career in research and consultancy where she worked with a number of major companies in senior positions, including Fiat Motors, before eventually becoming involved in training large groups of people. “I found that supporting people to be at their best was my forte, and also what I really love doing,” she says.
The traumatic death of her daughter’s young friend prompted her to confront her old nemesis – the job of working with troubled teenagers – but this time armed with her Masters degree in Psychology, her coach training expertise, and her grounding in hypnotherapy, cognitive therapy and transpersonal psychology.
There has been no shortage of work. There are almost 1.4 million children in England alone who are described as having ‘special needs’, and estimates from epidemiological studies have indicated that anywhere between 15 and 25 per cent of all children could be identified as having a moderate to severe emotional or behavioural difficulty.
It’s all part of a world-wide phenomenon explains Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the principal architects of the Positive Psychology movement. Depression used to be a relatively rare phenomenon until the 1960s, and then usually experienced by middle-aged women. But in the past 30 years it has become much more prevalent, affecting much younger people.
“Now after only thirty years, depression has become the common cold of mental illness and it takes its first victims in junior high school – if not before,” he writes in his book The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Professor Seligman cites several large scale epidemiological studies carried out in the United States over a period of time. The first of these, known as the ECA study, published in 1993 and involving 18, 571 people, surprised statisticians. Those born around 1925, who had lived a long time and therefore had plenty of time to develop the disorder, generally showed little sign of depression and only four per cent had actually experienced severe depression by the time they reached middle age. Of those born before World War One, only one per cent had suffered from depression by the time they reached old age. But then things began to change, when the “feel good, self-esteem era got underway with seven per cent of those born around 1955 suffering from severe depression by the time they reached their early twenties.
A second US study cited by Professor Seligman looked at 2,289 close relatives of 523 people who had been in hospital with severe depression and again the findings were, he says, “astonishing”. They reveal a dramatic increase in rates of depression over the course of the twentieth century. More than 60 per cent of women born in the early 1950s had allegedly been severely depressed, compared with only three per cent of women born around 1910 and who were raised during a time when the dunce’s cap was the norm. A similar pattern also emerged for males.
While Professor Seligman concedes that some of apparent explosion in depression might have been dismissed by our grandmothers’ generation as “just life”, it still does not explain the increased numbers of individuals who have: cried every day for a fortnight; lost rapid weight over a short period of time without dieting; or tried killing themselves. Disturbingly, it is a trend that shows little sign of abating. A study of 3,000 twelve to fourteen year olds in the southeastern United States suggested that a staggering nine per cent suffered from a full-blown depressive disorder.
So what or whom is to blame for this disturbing new phenomenon? Professor Seligman points the finger squarely at baby boomer parents, whose self-preoccupation has changed society from one of achievement to a feel-good society. The right to self-esteem has even become enshrined in Californian law. Poor self-esteem is supposedly behind academic failure, drug use, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency and yet all those ills are on the rise. It is nonsense, says Professor Seligman, to tell a child they have done well, when they haven’t.
You are in effect lying as well as creating dangerously false expectations, which when they’re inevitably not met, will lead to disillusionment and depression. It is setting a child up for disillusionment and possibly depression, says the professor, who urges parents instead to teach their children resilience and optimism to handle life’s arrows.
“The goal [of achievement] was then overtaken by the twin goals of happiness and high self-esteem. This fundamental change consists of two trends. One is toward the more individual satisfaction and more individual freedom: consumerism, recreational drugs, daycare, psychotherapy, sexual satisfaction, grade inflation. The other is the slide away from individual investment in endeavours larger than the self: God, Nation, Family, Duty. Some of the manifestations reflect what is most valuable about our culture, but others may be at the heart of the epidemic of depression.”
The negative aspects of that culture change has created extensive damage particularly to children, something that Gail Manza, executive director of the National Mentoring Partnership (NMP) in America, is acutely conscious of. Much of her organisation’s work is centred on socially-deprived children from chaotic backgrounds, where it is not uncommon for one or more parent to have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or to be in prison. Yet what these socially deprived young people need, she says, is not mollycoddling or even necessarily cash handouts, but the means of getting access to the right resources to enable them to get some degree of control over their lives, she says.
Ean Garrett, who is now at law school, and a mentor himself, is one of the NMP’s stars. He grew up in the direst of circumstances in America’s mid-west. His mother was in prison for killing his father and as a boy he was shunted from one relative to another until mentors became involved in his life.
“From the start I was expected to lose, recalls Mr. Garrett. “Everything I have right now is mostly because I defied what the world concluded about me before I could even speak a word in my defense.
“And my defense is that I am just as capable as any person to do great things. Like you, I think about all the things this world could achieve if only every child was given the right tools. Mentoring is the right tool.”
He has already amply demonstrated that by graduating from HowardUniversity in Washington and then winning a scholarship to law school in Nebraska.
Before the NMP was launched 20 years ago, Geoff Boisi and Ray Chambers, the two philanthropists who founded the organisation, set out to canvass opinion among the youth of America by personally interviewing them at various boys and girls clubs in several US states. They wanted to find out what they really felt was missing from their lives and how it could be addressed.
Two universal themes emerged from their endeavours. The children said they wanted to be part of the “American Dream” but felt they had been excluded. They also wanted more adult contact in their lives, not less. Mr. Boisi and Mr. Chambers concluded that a lack of caring adult role models to guide and support young people was at the heart of the problem. Mentoring was believed to be the most effective way of meeting those twin needs.
But it’s not just the deprived that needs help. Even privileged youngsters may be suffering similar pressures, albeit of a different nature. Unlike the under-privileged, they may be battling a surfeit of parental involvement to such an extent that it is stunting their development and ability to grow-up. It’s a tendency that may have been exacerbated by the arrival of the mobile phone – what some have dubbed the world’s longest umbilical cord. There is even a new Google programme called Latitude that allows the over-protective to track their children’s every movement.
The rising cost of private education and university fees has reinforced this phenomenon known as “helicopter parenting” – the alpha parents who just cannot let go of their children – or rather their precious investment. Some even insist on accompanying their offspring to university careers fairs, quizzing prospective employers and generally interfering in every aspect of their children’s lives. All this bodes very badly for society, warns Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, England. It will lead to its “infantilisation”.
American clinical psychologist Madeline Levine and author of The Price of Privilege, agrees: “Kids are unbearably pressured not just to be good, but to be great; not just to be good at something, [but] to be good at everything.”
Those pressures are something that Anthony Seldon, headmaster of WellingtonCollege, one of Britain’s top private schools, based in Crowthorne, Berkshire, is acutely conscious of and why shortly after his arrival at the school he implemented happiness classes for pupils aged between 14 and 16.
Britain recently came bottom of a UNICEF survey of life satisfaction among children in 21 developed economies, something that Professor Seligman, on a visit to the UK school in 2008 to attend a conference on positive psychology, slated as “a national disgrace”.
Dr Seldon, a well-known political biographer and no intellectual slouch, believes that “the toxic obsession” by Britain’s educational establishment with endless exams and tests is partly to blame. It has obscured something far more important he says – namely the overwhelmingly important task of producing happy and well-adjusted young adults.
“Celebrity, money and possessions are often the touchstones for teenagers and yet these are not where happiness lies,” says Dr Seldon, who believes that happiness classes should be more widely available and not just for his wealthy young charges.
The classes, which have been running for three years, have proved popular with both parents and pupils. Even teachers, some of whom were initially skeptical, believing that the scheme might be a PR stunt, aimed at overcoming bad publicity over previous instances of bullying among pupils, are now positive about the benefits.
The classes were put together with the involvement of Nick Baylis, a psychologist and co-director of recently established Well-being Institute at CambridgeUniversity and run by Ian Morris and the rest of the school’s Religious Education staff. The courses involve meditation as well as discussions about happy and successful lives and overcoming adversity, not only dealing with situations arising in school, for example, one pupil being unpleasant to another, but also through exploration of famous inspirational lives. The example of Lance Armstrong, who overcame cancer to win the Tour de France, is a reoccurring topic.
Coach Christine Miller also believes that instilling resilience into her young clients is crucial to their well-being. She has a Masters degree in psychology, is a qualified therapist and transpersonal coach, with Master Practitioner training in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), hypnosis and Time Line Therapy, designed to release negative emotions.
“I coach them in accelerated learning techniques, learning how to learn, coupled with building rapport and learning to read other people’s body language through non-verbal intelligence and thereby assess the response they are getting.”
Ms Miller believes that family breakdown and the decline of extended families are part of the reason why she has found a receptive market for her work. “There are fewer elders for children to go to for help and guidance. At one time, it used to be that if you had a disagreement with your mother or father, you could probably find a relative – an aunt, uncle or grandparent to go and talk things over with, and get the benefit of some wise, impartial advice, or at least step out of the situation to gain perspective, but these days we’re more spread out, much busier and children can end up being very isolated with their problems.”
Her work is centred on children and young people, aged between seven and 18 and usually involves 10 to 12 sessions. The cost is kept to the equivalent of other extracurricular activities such as music lessons and Ms Miller also undertakes pro bono work for problem children, whose parents cannot afford such fees.
“I tend to get sent the kids who are in trouble – about to be excluded from school, having problems at home, and I’m often something of a last stop before they get referred to the EPS [Education Psychology Service.]
Often her young clients have behavioural problems and have been violent and aggressive.
Other times, there’s sadness and depression. They may have been bullied or the perpetrator of bullying, or are under-achieving academically. But not everyone can be helped. “I do choose my clients – I do an assessment or a trial session from which I can these days quickly determine if someone is coachable – and I have very firm boundaries in place.”
She tried to involve the whole family, wherever possible because they often play a key role in a child’s behaviour. Often they are merely conforming to the family stereotype that has been set for them, such as the “naughty child”, “the difficult one”, and the “not-too-bright one”. Uncovering those unseen influences is crucial if the child is to change, she explains.
One mother brought her 17 year old daughter to see Ms Miller and dominated the conversation, hardly allowing her daughter to speak. “She simply criticised and poured out a catalogue of the ills that she saw in her child.”
“When I got to spend time with the girl, she told me that her mum wouldn’t let her do anything that 17 year old girls usually do – wear make up, go shopping, go to discos, (she’d been prevented from going to the sixth form dance then been criticised for not having friends). Films, and boyfriends were totally taboo as well.”
What Ms Miller did in handling this difficult situation, which in essence involved an extremely dominant and intolerant father, was to teach the daughter rapport-building and negotiation skills. “I also helped her find some inner resources and build a resourceful state.” She also worked on the mother to impress upon her husband how intelligent, strong and resourceful the daughter really was.
Confidentiality is a delicate issue with children – parents sometimes expect full feedback, something that can inhibit what a child will share in the sessions, so Ms Miller operates a policy of something called ‘informed forced consent’ which means that everything remains confidential unless there is a perceived danger to the child in doing so.
“Obviously, if there were to be concerns about safety then the ethical guidelines by which I am bound [those of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)] would come into play and appropriate action taken,” she says.
“My job is essentially to help these young people find peace and happiness and a stimulus to succeed in their lives, whatever the definition of a successful outcome may be. In the extreme cases, I help them to pause, to stop and think before they break that window, smash the chair, hit someone or even draw that knife.”
Often her clients – who are there at either their parents’ or teachers’ request – don’t want to be there. “They’re what I call hostages – and winning their confidence and trust is of key importance, so whatever we do has to be relevant and engaging.”
It’s important to find out what they want – what do they believe would make their lives better, not just what the school or the parents think should be happening. “In the beginning I help them find something they’re good at – and there always is something, some memory of a moment they felt really good about, then we build on that as a resource.”
There are explorations and visualizations and her young charges are taught simple self-management techniques based on martial arts and sports, some accelerated learning methods such as learning to count to ten in Japanese in five minutes, and practical skills like mind-mapping which help to integrate the hemispheres of the brain. All this is designed to help build their confidence and sense of self and get real world results.
It’s a delicate process working with younger children, because the balance of power is crucially important since they possess little in the way of autonomy. “It’s not helpful to any one if they resent being with me, so I always include an element of choice and am flexible, making space for them to suggest what they might want to do.”
Storytelling is a key feature, and creating metaphors to express what it feels like when they are in different states of mind, because if they create their story, in their own words, they are not going to argue with or resist their own creations, and this will often lead to big breakthroughs and self-discovery.
It is important to make the experience as natural and enjoyable as possible, explains Ms Miller. “Laughter tends to be a common factor, we play music, do drawings, and we use the computer for games and to watch ways of handling different behaviour scenarios.”
There are homework tasks, but not too many or too onerous. It is part of building a habit of accountability, she says. “The main factor is to offer them what Carl Rogers described as ‘unconditional positive regard’, completely non-judgemental, to be a mirror so they can see themselves as worthwhile, as lovable, and as loved.”
Any such engagement involves a degree of discussion over outcomes: what is clearly achievable and what is unrealistic and how such outcomes might be recognised by Ms Miller and her clients and their carers. But the best outcomes involve getting phone calls weeks, months, or even years after the coaching experience informing her of the success of past clients, whether that means staying off drugs, passing exams or finding the inner resilience to deal with bullying.
Feedback comes from parents, from teachers and most importantly from the children themselves. If previous academic failure is involved, then improved school reports are usually a good benchmark that the intervention is working.
“Sometimes the mere fact that the child is turning up at school or that they haven’t been excluded since we began working together is a good indicator of success,” says Ms Miller. So too are reports of fewer arguments between child and parents.
But success is on a limited scale in a society where so many children are beset by emotional and behavioural difficulties.
“I would like to spread my work much further,” says Ms Miller, who would like to share her skills with schools.