ISP Newsletter Editorials – 2007


On 7 March in The Times, I was fascinated by an article by Daniel Finkelstein – “Sorry, your idea about litter belongs in the bin.” He explained how Jeremy Paxman’s recent rant about the amount of litter thrown from car windows was counter-productive.

“How can I argue that this passionate and in many ways highly admirable attack on littering encourages people to litter? Let me tell you a story.

Actually it’s not my story. It was told to the Prime Minister’s advisors by the Social Psychologist Professor Robert Cialdini when he went to 10 Downing Street recently to discuss environmental issues.

One of the Professor’s students visited the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona with his fiancée, a notably honest woman, someone who wouldn’t borrow a paperclip without returning it. As they entered the couple encountered a sign cautioning against stealing petrified wood. “Our heritage is being vandalised by the theft of 14 tons of wood every year.” The fiancée’s reaction was quite unexpected. “We’d better get ours now”, she whispered.

Unwittingly the sign provided visitors with two pieces of information that made them more likely to steal wood. The first was that the forest was being depleted rapidly, wood was running out, you better get a move on. They may as well have put up a sign reading: “Hurry now while stocks last”. Nothing moves goods quite as rapidly as the idea that the product is scarce as any retailer will tell you.

The other information provided by the sign was that it was quite normal to steal wood. Lots of people steal wood, it’s commonplace, go on, you’ll not be different from the rest.”

Almost every day there is an attempt to persuade people to behave differently by telling us all how bad things are getting. And everyone of them encourages a further decline. When I apply this to ISP it makes sense when I think of the exhortations to attend programme meetings, or the ISP dinner dance or social events. These exhortations contain the hidden message “you are not alone in not attending so don’t worry about it!” Paradoxical change is the answer!


On 20th April I attended The Mulberry Bush School’s AGM. My association with them goes back a long way as the Founder (1948), Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, became the Consultant Psychotherapist to the Cotswold Community, where I worked. In those early days of the Cotswold Community it seemed as though we were borrowing heavily from the Mulberry Bush, both in terms of people and ideas. In the late 80’s and 90’s the traffic seemed to be the other way. The current CEO, Head of Education, Head of Social Work and a Child Psychotherapist are all ex Cotswold Community.

One of the attractions for me in attending this AGM was the chance to hear a talk given by Sue Gerhardt who has written a recently published and highly regarded book “Why Love Matters. How affection shapes a baby’s brain” She is also involved in OXPIP – the Oxford Parent –Infant Project – which exists to help parents and babies develop more loving and secure relationships in the crucial first two years of a child’s life.

In her talk Sue Gerhardt emphasised the importance of babyhood and the baby-self inside the children we work with. Babies learn a lot about relationships and self-regulation. This in stark contrast to the many times I’ve heard people say “They’re babies, they don’t understand, it doesn’t matter”.

The brain is developing very rapidly indeed during babyhood and in particular the systems that regulate emotion. Babies need to be protected from stress as their only defence is to turn away or seek oral comfort eg sucking a blanket. In years to come these defences can manifest themselves in disassociation and various addictions.

The part of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (responsible for decision making and empathy) develops through being loved and cared for during babyhood. If this love is missing the development of the orbitofrontal cortex is impaired. Toddlers are more likely to learn the lessons of self-control in the context of a strong bond with the primary carer and this is also linked to the orbitofrontal cortex. An excessive amount of stress during babyhood will have a negative impact on the development of the brain and the capacity for self-control.

Support for parents of infants tends to focus on behaviour management. What is needed is to help parents become more positive and sensitive to the needs of their baby.

She described the work they do at OXPIP with parents who have difficulty in soothing the anxieties of their babies. These are parents who are likely to minimise feelings and laugh them off. Children growing up with this type of parenting are more likely to get involved in bullying and anti-social behaviour.
Apparently research has shown that children can survive depression in their mother unless this happens during babyhood when the outcome is invariably a negative one.

At one stage I began to feel she was saying that the damage done during babyhood is irreparable but she corrected this impression by saying that positive things start to happen in the brain when a child experiences a loving relationship/close attachment. So there is hope for the work we do! I can strongly recommend her book.

I recently came across a story which illustrates solution–focussed therapy. It was in the paper “The Third Wave” by Bill O’Hanlon.

“The Philosophy underlying solution–orientated therapy is summarised in a story Milton Erickson told about his encounter with a severely depressed and suicidal woman whose nephew, a physician colleague, had asked Erickson to look up during a lecture visit to Milwaukee. The woman, who had been confined to a wheelchair, only left the house to go to church and avoided people while she attended services. When Erickson arrived for his visit, which the nephew had arranged, he asked the woman for a tour around her gloomy house. Everywhere the shades were drawn and there was little light, until they ended the tour at the woman’s pride and joy, her plant nursery, which was attached to house.

After the woman had proudly showed him her newly transplanted African Violet plants, Erickson told her that her nephew had been worried about her depression, but Erickson could now see what the real problem was. She wasn’t being a very good Christian and doing her Christian duty, he sternly told her. She stiffly replied that she considered herself a very good Christian and resented his opinion. No, he responded, here she was with all this money (a sizeable inheritance) and all this time on her hands, with a God-given gift with plants and she was letting it all go to waste. He recommended that she obtain the church bulletin and visit each person in the congregation on the event of some sad or happy occasion (such as births, deaths, illness, graduations or engagements) and bring along a gift of an African Violet plant that she has grown from her own cuttings.

When I was in supervision with Erickson, he showed me a scrapbook with an article from the Milwaukee paper some years after his visit to this woman that had the headline “African Violet Queen of Milwaukee Dies, Mourned by Thousands”. When I asked Erickson why he hadn’t focussed on what was causing her depression, he replied “I looked around her house and the only sign of life I saw were those African Violets. I thought it would be easier to grow the African Violet part of her life than to weed out the depression. ”That in a nutshell is solution-orientated therapy – grow the solution/life enhancing part of people’s lives rather than focus on the pathology/problem parts and amazing changes can happen pretty quickly”.


Several times recently I have been involved in discussions where the importance of ISP as a community has been referred to. For example, children might change carer but they are held by a sense of belonging within ISP. A centre or school within ISP might provide this sense of community for children, staff and carers. I think that one of the tough things for young people leaving care and leaving ISP at one and the same time is the loss of a sense of belonging to a community network. It is also one of the things that hits students who have to make that transition from being an important member of the ISP school community to trying to find their place in a large, anonymous college.

Having had these thoughts it is not surprising that I was drawn to an article in Community Care by Bob Holman, who is an elder statesman in the social work world and is a community worker associated with the Easterhouse area of Glasgow.

“A Sense of Belonging”
by Bob Holman

David Cameron has voiced his concern about deficiencies in relationships between fathers and sons.

Social workers are aware that children’s development owes most to their relationships with parents. However, like Cameron, often they do not take community into account.

As Father’s Day approaches, I wish to reflect upon my relationship with my dad who died nearly 40 years ago.

At the outbreak or war in 1939, my sister and I – later joined by our mother – were evacuated. For the crucial years of three to eight, I saw little of dad.

Returning home, I had to get to know him. He did not show his emotions easily and sometimes I longed to be cuddled and praised by him. He expected to be obeyed. If not, I might get a clout. Today these attitudes might not be considered good fathering. However, they were part of working-class behaviour of that time.

Importantly, I knew that he cared for me. He was not able to help with homework but was delighted when I got to grammar school. “You’ll never have to work with your hands like me,” he said with a grin.

Sport drew us together. He took me to watch his beloved West Ham. A different dad emerged as he cheered, questioned the referee’s paternity and told me about the players he had met in his job as a removal man.

Dad was well-known in the area. When my best friend was trapped under a bus, neighbours called for dad who dragged him out. My friend died. Nonetheless, I was proud of my bloodstained dad.

He was heavily involved in a working-men’s club. I never went on holiday with dad but the club had outings to the seaside where we played cricket together before the men went to the pub.

The club was important because I went in the company of dad and because I enjoyed the encouragement of other men. Dad drew me into community life which became an essential part of my adulthood.

As a child I was socially rather than emotionally close to dad. We drew more together after I married. There are policy implications. Yes, some fathers may need help to communicate their feelings. There is also a need to back neighbourhood activities where parents and children can be together outside the home. Cameron should take on board that community is important to family development.

On the theme of community, I was interested to receive a booklet from The Good Childhood Inquiry about “friends”. Its panel, made up of leading experts and influencers, has heard evidence from almost 3,000 sources, including from over 1,200 children. They say that the document on “friends” is a summary of evidence rather than conclusions or findings. This is the summary written by Professor Judith Dunn from the Institute of Psychiatry.

“From the second year onward, friendship is very important for children, both for their social and emotional development and for their own sense of well-being. Friendship is characterised by mutual affection, and as children develop and grow, the nature of friendship changes from companionship, intimacy and affection in middle childhood to loyalty and commitment in adolescence.

Adults often underestimate the importance of friendship for children, and how friends help them to adjust to school, the arrival of new siblings and the experience of being bullied. Children whose early friendships are full of shared imaginative play develop a sensibility by discussing moral dilemmas and learning to understand the feelings, welfare and relationships of other children.

Being separated from friends is often a deeply unhappy experience for children and can result in poorer mental health. Despite this, most parents would intervene in a child’s friendship if they were not happy with it.

Evidence shows that a child’s ability to make friends is closely linked to the attachment between mother and child, and that children who have difficulties making and keeping friends feel isolated and depressed.

Being rejected by other children is consistently linked to problems such as depressive mood, aggressive, antisocial and delinquent behaviour, which can create a cycle of exclusion and worsening behaviour.

Bullying is a common experience in childhood, although its scale remains unknown. Bullying is linked to psychological problems late in life, for both victims and perpetrators, and is strongly influenced by genetic as well as environmental factors.

There is some evidence that friendship is changing. One study has found that since 1986, the number of teenagers with no best friends has increased from around one in eight to almost one in five. Over the same period 16 year olds who were assaulted by a peer increased by almost 50% while those threatened with violence more than doubled. More girls report that they are not popular today than they did 20 years ago.

All the research shows that friendships are crucial to children’s well-being and development at all stages in their lives and that we need to take the experience of being bullied very seriously.”

Professor Judith Dunn, Institute of Psychiatry.
Chair of The Good Childhood Inquiry, and panel leader for Friends theme.


In my last editorial I included an extract from “The Good Childhood Inquiry” that was about the importance of friends. I recently received the second summary of evidence about “Family”. Here is the summary written by Kathleen Kiernan, Professor of Social Policy and Demography, University of York.

“Families are the most powerful influence on children’s lives. Research shows that a good relationship between parent and child can lead to a wide range of positive outcomes for children including high achievement, greater social competence and good peer relationships.

We also know that children can come through painful experiences, such as family separation and deprivation if they feel loved and secure. This gives us a context to debate the difficult experiences that some children face.

There is much debate about how family life is changing, with rising divorce rates, more working parents and different parenting styles. We can learn much from research about the impact of these changes on children.

There is evidence to suggest that the rise in divorce has lowered the average well-being of children both in childhood and adulthood, yet the differences are small and depend very much on the resilience of individual children. How separation is managed is very important for how children cope. For example, conflict in families that stay together can be more damaging to children than a well-managed separation.

The most important factor in separation is the ability of mothers and fathers to communicate well about their child’s interest. However, one study found that one in four children said no one talked to them about their parents’ separation.

Many children demonstrate an ability to cope with change and, after an initial period of unhappiness, most adapt to new family situations. Children are most likely to struggle where there are multiple changes in their lives and are most likely to cope best where they have support from mothers, fathers, peers and grandparents.

Other major changes that have an impact on children’s lives include the working patterns of parents. People in the UK work longer hours than in any other country in Western Europe. There has also been a large rise in the proportion of mothers working, with the largest increase among women with a child under five. In households with children, 1.5 earners are now the norm. Over a third of people find it difficult to meet their family responsibilities because of the time spent at work over the last three months.

Poverty remains one of the most significant predictors of children’s well-being, causing material and emotional disadvantage and limiting aspiration.”

If you are interested in reading more, visit their website,


I had a week in Dubai recently to offer some support to my daughter who has given birth to her third son, Theo. One of my tasks was to ferry the other two boys to and from school but first I had to get a visitor’s driving licence. The school is only a mile away and normally would present no problem cycling or walking but there is no way this is possible in 42˚c. The car is essential to provide a mobile air conditioning capsule. Most parents leave their engines running while they walk to the school entrance so that the car remains cool.

I feel rather proud to be the owner of an United Arab Emirates driving licence. I’m not sure why. It took a while to get the hang of driving in Dubai. They have a totally different approach to roundabouts. The chariot race in the film Ben Hur comes to mind. Driving over there wasn’t helped by the fact that it was also the time of Ramadhan and the fasting leads to bad temperedness, especially in the afternoon as everyone starts looking forward to their “iftar”, the traditional evening meal that breaks the fast.

The other down side to Ramadhan, from our point of view, is the lack of refreshments available when you go out in the day. All the Starbucks and Costa Coffee places are closed until dusk. However, if you are desperate for something to eat or drink the only places open are shops that sell baby and young children’s clothes and toys. If a shop like this has a café it will be open as small children are exempt from fasting, as I discovered when we went shopping with the children.

Ann and I went to the Jumeirah Mosque for a talk about Islam. It was very interesting and delivered in an amusing and liberal way. The commitment that Muslims have to make to their religion is so much stronger than the half-hearted amble to church on Sunday that I see in our village.

I know I couldn’t live in Dubai. I couldn’t cope with being imprisoned by the heat. It is so hot that when you shower you just turn the cold tap on and the water coming through the pipes is already warm enough. Their swimming pool has to be chilled before it is usable. Can you imagine what it must be like for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in these temperatures, having to carry all that equipment? Whatever you think about the war I wouldn’t wish such conditions on my worst enemy.


Last month there was an interesting news item about the fidget gene which apparently explains why some people don’t get fat.

“There you are, a model of inertia at your computer, when along he comes to puncture your serenity. He sits down, he gets up, he logs on, swings round in his chair, reaches for a Post-it Note, picks up his phone and then changes his mind, opens a drawer and shuts it again. He looks around, lifts his arms, ruffles his hair, twists a pen and rearranges his papers. He fiddles with a coffee cup, strings a few paperclips together and eventually he starts tappety-tapping idly on his keyboard. The fidget has arrived. [I thought this was how everyone started the day! JW]

Don’t be too hard on him: he can’t help it. He’s got the fidget gene. Specifically, according to scientists, from the University of Minnesota, his brain is super-sensitive to a chemical called orexin-A, which stimulates unconscious activity such as fidgeting. The researchers forecast that we could soon be wearing “fidget patches” to enhance sensitivity to orexin-A.

Annoyingly, restless people tend to be thin. Compared with obese people, fidgets clock up an extra two hours of movement a day, which translates to burning off an extra 350 calories, the equivalent of a 45 minute brisk walk.”
So never mind dieting, get fidgeting. The alternative is to have your office located at the top of a spiral staircase – I can assure you that burns off a good few calories!