Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Mental health: it’s messier than snot

In April 2015 on April 10, 2015 at 11:17 am


Sarah: Snot, hacking cough and vomiting. To most parents, these are very familiar occurrences and sure signs that an unwanted viral or bacterial passenger has hopped on board and created a physical health problem for our child.

But how do we know if our offspring are struggling with mental health? Sure, behavioural signals can be a clue. Tears, anxiety, anger and moodiness may crop up — and yet we all know these are all part of a normal childhood as well. How can we tell when children cross the line into the danger zone for mental health? And then what can we do to access appropriate help?

Recently — along with other parents and staff representatives — I was invited by managers at my children’s school to help bring a program of mental health awareness into play. It’s called Kids Matter, and is designed:

to provide schools with an over-arching but flexible approach to improving the mental health and wellbeing of students

Kids Matters has four partners: Principals Australia, The Australia Psychological Society, beyond blue: the national depression initiative and the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.

We’re still early on in the process, and working out how best to involve and educate our school community about the program. However, I think it’s worth sharing some of the resources that are available through Kids Matter. Fact sheets and case studies cover stuff like:

Other information covers bullying, depression, body image, cultural diversity….and more.

You don’t need your school to get on board to access these sheets – I know I’ll be reading through a few which seem relevant to my particular household at the moment.

[image thanks to]


Go outside!

In September 2014 on September 18, 2014 at 8:56 pm


Sarah: Go outside!

Not only do these two words echo from my own childhood, but they also spill out of my own mouth at least once a day directed towards the little ones in our house.

Being a ‘Messenger Mum‘ for a local newspaper in Adelaide, I was recently asked to contribute my thoughts on nature play – getting my kids outside to experience the world. Here’s what I wrote:

We believe playing outside is a critical component of our children’s lives and is valuable from a physical and mental health point of view. We also see it brings educational and joyful experiences they would otherwise miss out on.

In our own backyard, my husband has initiated butterfly watching as a hobby for the kids. On sunny days 1, 2 or all 3 of them can be found outside with small nets, trapping butterflies and working out the species and gender of the finds.

At every opportunity (sadly diminishing with the kids’ weekend sports commitments, but I digress…..) we head to Yorke Peninsula. Here the children roam about without the stress of traffic and constant ‘stranger danger’. We encourage the older two children to make small expeditions on bike or foot to explore and find friends. It’s a freedom they don’t get anywhere else.

At Yorkes we are also passionate beachcombers. Beachcombing is a hobby which can bring incredible joy and wonder to children and adults alike. From an educational perspective, beach walks can be used to explore many contemporary issues. For example, finding cuttlefish bones can lead to discussions of different animal species, why these animals die, thinking about cuttlefish breeding grounds in South Australia and whether human activities are impacting on these. Perhaps it’s just the scientist in me, but I insist on beachcombing as part of a normal childhood!

Day 355. I was hooked

In August 2013 on August 1, 2013 at 2:45 pm


Yesterday Tanya Ya wrote about the moment science captured her heart.

Although I have been exposed to science my whole life  – as explained here in my letter to Sir David Attenborough – I can recall a few key moments that stand out. Incidents that sealed the deal, as it were. Here’s one:

I received a ‘science kit’ around the age of 10.  It contained a very low power microscope, some dissection instruments plus two creatures preserved in alcohol – a crustacean and a freakishly large grasshopper.

Every part of me wanted to cut open the animals and see what was inside. I vividly recall clutching the scalpel and pressing it against the the softened shell of the wee crayfish. But to pierce its exterior was one step I couldn’t make. I hesitated, preferring instead to perform a detailed anatomical study. I turned it and its insect friend around and around, over and over, picking up new details upon each revolution.

Prompted by the booklet that accompanied my microscope, next I took to a nearby stream with an ice-cream container. As instructed by the manual, and clad in my best gumboots, I stood in the water and identified large rocks. Placing the container underwater and immediately downstream of a chosen boulder, I lifted it up and allowed whatever was sheltering underneath it to be collected in my plastic tub.

I found the most incredible aliens! Although I know now these were probably larval stages of local insect species, back then I thought I’d discovered never-before seen creatures of the night. With my new microscope, I marvelled at their freaky bodies, legs, pincered mouths and antennae. Simply fascinating.

I was hooked.

[image thanks to Dave Huth on flickr]

Day 325. How to grow a scientist

In July 2013 on July 3, 2013 at 9:41 am


Of course, I’m not the only one with science in my life. This was written by my friend James, reflecting on the 4th birthday of his son.

Four years ago, at 3.33am on July 3, in birthing suite 3 of the Queen Mary Maternity Ward of Dunedin Hospital, our youngest child ‘D’ was delivered into the world.

All the 3’s made it into the birth announcement in the daily departmental email where I was postdoc-ing at the time.

For months afterwards the cleaner – who’d become quite fixated on the 3’s – pestered me to buy a lottery ticket, as she was into numerology, and all the 3’s were apparently highly significant.

I didn’t buy a lottery ticket, as I am not into numerology. I am a scientist, in remission at least, and the only highly significant stats to do with lotteries indicate you will do your dough.

Earlier this week, D’s contact teacher at preschool met with us for our semi-regular parent-teacher things, to run through his ‘profile’. Formerly this was a looseleaf binder of arts and crafts and printouts and things scribbled upon; now it’s a considerably more techie online powerpoint thing that is more interactive and visibly more impressive, though harder for the young bloke to bring home with him to show us.

D’s preschool is a great little place, and all the team there try very hard to extend the kids in their demonstrated areas of interest. The problem is, his teacher confessed sheepishly, D’s areas of interest are… everything. He wants to know everything. He wants to question everything. He wants to understand how everything works, how the parts fit together to make the whole, and which bits do what. Whether it’s what makes the wind blow or how a camera works, his question is the same one Julius Sumner Miller was famous for:

Why is it so?

(Admittedly, D’s version is usually just phrased as ‘…Why?’)

My people once were scientists. And will be again, it seems.

Perhaps he had no chance to be anything else; both his parents ask scientific questions and frame scientific conversations for a living.

Four is too young to worry about how your kids will turn out, or what they’ll make of their lives. And while I wouldn’t wish the soft-money panic of a research scientists’ life on anyone, least of all my nearest and dearest, there are many, many worse things you can turn out to be than someone who never forgets to ask the world,


Happy birthday D.


A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Dr James Smith (find him on twitter: @theotherdrsmith)

Day 223. Mademoiselle Sophie

In March 2013 on March 24, 2013 at 10:05 am


Further to prior discussions on what boys and girls do, in my house we’ve stumbled across the most wonderful children’s book.

Entitled Sophie’s Misfortunes (part of the Fleurville Triology)it was written by a certain Countess de Segur way back in the 19th Century; we have the French -> English translation courtesy of a birthday present to my daughter recently.

Sophie is a young lady, probably aged around 8, and being raised in a well-off family in rural France;

“sometimes she’s good, but often she’s naughty, which gets her into all kinds of trouble”.

Best of all, Sophie displays all sorts of behavioural tendencies which you couldn’t describe as classically ‘girly’.

For one thing, Sophie has her own pocket knife. Which she wields with some abandon.

For example, when playing ‘house’ one day, her Nanny provided her with bread, almonds and lettuce leaves to make a salad. After chopping these, Sophie decided her salad needed some protein.

Enter Mama’s bowl full of pet fish.

“She went up to their bowl, fished them all out and…..spread them out on a board. But the fish were not happy to be out of the water and they wriggled and leapt about furiously. In an effort to keep them still, Sophie sprinkled some salt onto their back and onto their heads and tails. Now that certainly made them still. The poor little things were dead. When her plate was full, she took some more fish and started to slice them up. At the first touch of the knife, the poor creatures twisted and turned in desperation. But soon they were still too. They were all dead”.

Wow. No fairies, ponies, bunnies or butterflies here.

[image thanks to rockyeda on flickr]

Day 146. Summer Listening – Sound of Music / Radiolab mashup

In January 2013 on January 5, 2013 at 2:37 pm


When I was a kid, every couple of summers my family would travel to Perth, Western Australia to spend time with grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins.

My grandfather lived in a fantastic apartment with a swimming pool, many bedrooms and a jar full of lollies in the pantry. In contrast to my own TV-phobic immediate family, he was an early adapter to video technology. We’d break up swimming sessions with viewing Mary Poppins, Oliver! and The Sound of Music over and over again.

Yesterday my mum – the only daughter of that grandfather – and I introduced my three children to The Sound of Music. The kids were captivated. I knew every word of course, and was somewhat surprised to feel a little tearful with all the memories that were conjured up hearing each song.  I avoided the emotion, I mean took advantage of the quiet moment, by retiring to a couch with my trusty iDevice for some secret summer science listening.

Radio National’s Science Show episode of 29th December 2012 turned out not to be a wrap of the year in science, but I wasn’t disappointed for long: their featured Radiolab Animal Minds podcast was a perfect surrogate.

I did pull my earphones out when The Lonely Goatherd scene appeared on my TV though. That was always my favourite.

[image thanks to brian395 on flickr]

Day 137. Selfish kindness

In December 2012 on December 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm


Abundant displays of kindness and goodwill on Christmas Day have raised the sense of happiness and acceptance in my household, particularly amongst the children (aged 9, 7 and 3).

A US study released today offers scientific support for this phenomenon: the data shows that ‘tweens’ aged 9-11 who performed kind acts experienced greater happiness and enhanced peer acceptance than other kids.  Examples of kind acts included “gave my mom a hug when she was stressed by her job,” “gave someone some of my lunch,” and “vacuumed the floor”; kids in the control group kept a record of places they visited instead of the acts they performed.

The study suggests that if we offer children more opportunities to be kind, the impact will be felt not only amongst the broader community but also result in better mental health in the protagonists.

Let’s all be kinder.

[image thanks to PEEJOE on flickr]

Day 124. Planets that resemble a tree

In December 2012 on December 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm


Inspired by The Wellcome Trust’s 12 Days of Science Christmas (thanks @upulie) and last night’s #onsci chat on The Science of the Holidays, over the next 12 days I’ll count down a dozen items which represent science, Christmas, being on holiday and reflections of 2012 in my house.

On the first day of Christmas, ScienceforLife gave to me:

  • Planets that resemble a tree.

This beautiful painted wooden model of the planets circulating our sun was sent from my sister in Paris to my 9 year old son for Christmas 2011. It’s been to school for show and tell, and we refer to it a lot when talking about orbits and eclipses and units of time such as days and years.

Day 119. Layered identity

In December 2012 on December 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm


I recall an episode of The Cosby Show in which Bill Cosby introduces a young doctor to his family, a lady of African-Native American-European heritage. Bill makes a specific point of mentioning that this woman has ancestors representative of North America’s mixed cultural history.

The episode came to me in a flash as I heard scientist/journalist Natasha Mitchell’s interview with Chris Sarra this past week: Chris is an educator and leader born to an indigenous Australian mother and a migrant Italian father in the later 1960s in Queensland, Australia.  In his own words, he has a ‘layered identity’.

Over a career in teaching Chris developed a passionate drive to instil self-belief and high expectations in indigenous Australians, and in 2005 established the Stronger, Smarter Institute at the Queensland University of Technology.

Natasha’s interview was so wonderful that I rushed out and bought Chris’ book; wrapped in a red ribbon, it became a Christmas and thank-you gift for a teacher who has supported my two oldest children in their education thus far.

Yesterday I discovered Stephen Crittenden published an article focused on Chris this week as well. I was drawn to this paragraph in particular:

Sarra is at his most interesting talking about “horizontal anger” within Aboriginal communities, and a tendency he sees for some Aboriginal people to drag each other down.

It’s like the horizontal loyalty that Robert Krulwich has referred to; but this time working against rather than for personal development.

Chris is determined to fight the “collusion of low expectations” in indigenous Australian communities with all his might. It’s something I’m going to keep in mind as a I wrangle my kids too: with the right balance of patience and understanding, sometimes assuming they can’t meet a challenge is actually not doing them any favours in the long run.

Day 109. Obesity

In November 2012 on November 29, 2012 at 11:43 am

It makes sense that obesity tends to run in families, right?

When parents and children share genes, and eat similar sorts of foods, naturally you’d expect their bodies to end up looking roughly similar.

More and more research suggests that another factor is also at play. When an obese woman becomes pregnant, there are subtle abnormalities operating at cellular and sub-cellular levels which influence aspects of fertilisation, embryo implantation, placental development and delivery of nutrients to the fetus. Independent of genes and lifestyle, these act to ‘program’ aspects of the baby’s development which predispose them to developing obesity as a child and adult.

Obesity in fathers also weighs in, if you’ll forgive the pun. Sperm in obese men carry information outside of the genes themselves, but which also predispose offspring to developing obesity.

The bottom line is that even if you don’t have a family history of obesity, and you eat a healthy diet, if one or both partners are very overweight when you make a baby it may have a different growth pattern compared to if both parents have a body mass index in the normal range.

To read more, see this COSMOS article which I wrote at the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress yesterday.

[photo thanks to Beverly & Pack on flickr]