‘All of the research is pointless if we can’t digest it’

Angharad Rudkin writes practical books for the public, as well as contributing as an ‘agony aunt’ for the Metro newspaper. Our editor Jon Sutton asked her about it.

Thanks for the book you sent – What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents. Packed with useful tips, particularly for me at the moment! Is writing a book like that easy?
It was easy and hard all at the same time. The parenting book market is a crammed one, so we were very keen to take a different angle on parenting. We had three principles for this book. Firstly, that it (and its sister book What’s my Child Thinking?) is strongly anchored in developmental research. Many of the parents I work with in practice want to know what the research says about different ages so that they can adjust their expectations of their child according to this. Yet there are few opportunities for parents to easily access good quality child developmental research. So, we started these books with a summary of the different developmental tasks at different ages.

Once we had that foundation, we wanted to write a parenting book based on scenarios so that parents can easily dip into the book when they are confronted with a particular parenting challenge, because we know how busy parents are and how many other activities other than reading fight for their time. We were lucky to have an amazing graphics team, who could put the text for each scenario into a beautiful visual spread.

Finally, we wanted to write a book that puts as much, if not more, emphasis on thinking as opposed to action. We explain what could be going on in a teenager’s mind and how that relates to how they’re behaving, as well as what thoughts and beliefs are triggered in parents for certain situations. Understanding why a teen behaves the way they do can take the sting out of the situation, and that in turn helps a parent respond rather than react. So, it was a big task but a thoroughly enjoyable one, thanks to the experienced and brilliant family journalist and author Tanith Carey. 

That ‘respond rather than react’ distinction comes out in the way you split advice into ‘in the moment’ and ‘in the long term’, which I thought worked really well. In terms of the different tasks at different ages, it must be tricky to get that fine grained about it?
Child development findings are inherently generalised, and therefore risk being unhelpful to the individual. But years of clinical practice has taught me that even though everyone is most definitely unique, there are certain patterns that regularly come up with regard to age, context, background. That gave me the confidence to believe in the usefulness of breaking the teenage years into smaller age ranges, and to use the research findings and theoretical models for each age range. Although there will always be exceptions, most parents of 15-year-olds would readily admit that it is a different experience to parenting a 13-year-old or a 17-year-old, so we wanted to capture this – as well as the research – in our book. The hope is that parents of younger teens would also flick forward to the older teen years, so that they can perhaps be pre-emptive in their response to different patterns of behaviour.

Do you think you could write books like this on your own? What did Tanith bring to What’s My Teenager Thinking?, for example?
Detailing over 100 scenarios in a way that was evidence based, but also avoided repetition, was an enormous task. I really don’t think I could’ve done it by myself. Tanith is an experienced author and journalist, and her ability to pinpoint exactly what we want to say is admirable. While I do a lot of talking in my day job, transferring the communication about often complex ideas into written word is a different skill, so I was pleased to be writing with someone else. A few years ago I had written a proposal for a CBT parent book, but publishers just weren’t clear about what my job meant, so for that and various other reasons it never happened. Clinical Psychologists in general are still sadly under-represented in the media and printed press, and so for me this was a fabulous way of getting started with authorship.

What are the challenges of writing with non-psychologists – for both parties?
I have been so lucky to work with brilliant authors who are also natural psychologists. In fact, I think to be an author you need such a deep understanding of feelings and behaviour, that you become quite instinctively a good psychologist. Tanith writes non-fiction, whereas Ruth Fitzgerald (who I have written two books with; Find your Girl Squad, and The Split Kit) is a children’s author, and so comes to it from a strongly narrative angle. When we wrote Find your Girl Squad, which is a book for girls about friendship, I realised my writing was hampered by my concern about over-stating evidence or over-simplifying concepts. Ruth has an incredible way of keeping all of our ideas evidence-based while writing in a light and humorous way.  

Writing for Metro is a different audience again. How have you found that?
Haha, yes, writing for the Relationship and Sex column of the Metro is a whole other ball game! When I was offered the role, I was initially unsure because I specialise in children and adolescents. Then I realised that many of the readers are adolescents (if we’re taking the definition of adolescence as lasting to age 24), and that a lot of the theories are readily transferrable to an adult audience. I try hard to bring in evidence and psychological theory, but sometimes it really is a matter of being that Agony Aunt who just has to state the obvious. When I started writing for the Metro, I was told that people usually answer their own dilemma in the last line of their letter. Time after time, this is true. More often than not, people know what they need to do, but they need the encouragement and impetus to do it. I love the weekly challenge of the relationship dilemma, and the format is very interesting; I write 200 words, as do the two ‘Agony Uncles’, and these are combined by the Editor to form the final answer. So, I have to be very confident that what I have written can still be clear even when merged with other thoughts.

Do you think it’s important for a reader or viewer to be able to follow a thread from the things you say back to peer-reviewed research? Or is it a case of taking your expertise on trust?
I think different readers want different levels of information. If something sounds intuitively right then often readers won’t feel the need to dig around more. At other times, if a concept is new or not quite what the reader had in mind, then having a reference to go back to can help with the acceptance of an idea.

A lot of academic papers are written in a way that impresses an academic audience but leaves others baffled and frustrated, so we need some translation process. What’s My Teenager Thinking? has an online reference list which readers can go to if they want to follow up on a certain line of thinking. We all find it easier to accept a fact if it has some ‘scientific’ backing, so it is definitely a strength of the book to have it, and it also made me feel I was doing my job properly!

And how much does your own personal experience come into it?
Well, one of my school mum friends was slightly aghast when I told her I was co-writing a parenting teens book. ‘But how can you do that, you don’t have teenagers of your own yet!’, she said. It really saddened me that people still think that parenting books are only based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. While these are both incredibly valuable, I would not deign to assume that others wanted to bring their kids up the way I have chosen to!

What about other psychologists, how have they received your work? I guess there can always be that accusation, often levelled at us, of ‘dumbing down’. Increasingly I respond that I don’t even know what that means… if what you’re saying is always grounded in scientific research and professional experience, then what’s the harm in seeking to make it accessible to a wide audience?
I remember Tanya Byron talking in a BPS conference a few years ago, saying she was more nervous about talking to an audience of psychologists than she ever would be talking to an audience of thousands on TV. There is something about your own peer group being the most critical, as they know more about what you should know, and are the ones you want to impress most. Tanya Byron is a fabulous role model, and has done more for the public profile of Clinical Psychology than any other person. Celebrating those who choose to translate psychological theory and research into accessible, practical advice is something I wish we could do more as a profession because it benefits us all, as well as all of those people who want to know more about well-being.

Working with children quickly teaches you how to convey ideas and concepts in a way that is understandable. I still regularly fail at this, but I have been lucky enough to have a career in which I can attempt to do this clinically as well as through media and co-writing books. I’m a pragmatist at heart, so I still think all of the research is pointless if we can’t digest it for the very people who can use it to make a better life for them and those around them.

Do you have a particular target person in mind when you aim for a wide audience? People in science communication sometimes talk about ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ or ‘Brenda in the chip shop’, but I sometimes wonder if an easily distracted psychologist reading about an area that isn’t their own is as different from ‘the general public’ as we might like to think.
When I am writing, I am frequently visited in my head by a child or parent I’ve worked with over the years. I think of my friends and family too, and their confusion, sadness and concern about various difficulties that have cropped up in family life. Parenting is such an enormous task. Your emotions and well-being are tethered to these little beings, and your days can feel like being on a rollercoaster. Being a child is also a bumpy journey. So, as a parent or a child, it is so helpful to be able to access anchors to help you through the day – whether that’s a wise post on social media, a comment by a friend, some words in a parenting book or an idea from a children’s book. 

Have your books and media work fed back into your practice and teaching?
Definitely. It has been a symbiotic process. Thinking about parents and children as I write means I have more to ask them and wonder about with them when we’re in a therapy session together. When it comes to teaching, being put on the spot to answer questions or to review a concept in a clear way, helps with my writing. I don’t think anyone is equally good at writing as they are at speaking – we have a natural leaning towards one or the other. I remember at university feeling so excited about going to a lecture by someone who had written a wonderful psychology book. They stood at the front, shuffling from one foot to the other, mumbling away. It was my first experience of appreciating that talking and writing are not the same skill. I continue to work on both!

What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished writing my second book with wonderful children’s author Ruth Fitzgerald. Our first Find your Girl Squad was published last year, and we have just finished writing a book for children on how to cope with parental divorce, called The Split Kit, which is coming out in February. Tanith and I would love to do a What’s My Tween Thinking? book, but it’s a developmental phase which is less universally accepted, so we’ll have to see about that. Maybe we’ll branch out to What’s my Husband Thinking? and What’s My Boss Thinking?

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