Tanya's big picture on tiny tearaways

Dr Tanya Byron, resident expert of Little Angels and The House of Tiny Tearaways, returns to her alma mater, the University of York, to discuss the role of psychology in the media. But, as she tells Stephanie Smith, it's a role she feels slightly ambiguous about.

"Wouldn't it be terrible to have perfect, compliant children?"

Dr Tanya Byron's question is rhetorical, but in case any parent should want to protest that, in fact, perfect, compliant children might be quite nice and could well bring us all several steps closer to heaven, she adds: "Especially in the world of today."

Children need to be feisty and independent, able to stand up for themselves – even if they are a bit mischievous.

In a society that has become obsessed with how badly children behave – how naughty they are, how little respect they show, how selfishly they behave, how noisy, how silly, how wilful – there are many who will find her attitude refreshing, especially as it comes from someone far better qualified than most to comment on such matters.

Dr Byron, 38, a clinical consultant psychologist by profession, spent 15 years in the health sector, working with both children and adults with psychological problems, before crossing the bridge into television to become the resident expert on the reality-style programme, Little Angels, followed by Teen Angels and then The House of Tiny Tearaways. She is also a mother, to 10-year-old Lily and seven-year-old Jack.

"Expectations of child behaviour are becoming too high," she says. "My children are naughty at times. Children have to be. They're normal children. I feel a bit sorry for them, actually, that I do what I do in such a public way."

But her work appears to have rubbed off on them – during discussions, Lily has started making her own notes of a psychological nature. "She's terribly good at it," says mum.

Next week, Dr Byron will be returning to the University of York, where she studied for her first degree, to talk about her work as a media psychologist. It's a role about which she admits to feeling slightly ambiguous.

"There are a lot of neurotic parents," she says. "I question whether I and others feed into that. Parenting has become like DIY and cooking on television. Some programmes are good, but some are poor, presented by people who are not qualified."

Actually, Dr Byron is fed up of seeing psychology on TV presented by people who are not qualified.

"As psychologists, we should reclaim that territory," she says. "It's important that psychologists get out there and show good psychology on TV."

Big Brother she finds "absolutely horrendous", describing it as "voyeurism in the extreme".

"It's too much of a freak show for me. I've been struck by the vulnerability of some of the people in the house."

However, she has friends involved with it, and points out: "The reality genre, which my programme comes under, has some very skilled people working in it."

She reckons it might have been "nosiness, probably" that attracted her to psychology. "I'm fascinated by human behaviour," she says.

This fascination was ignited, in part, by her father, the director John Sichel, who died of a heart attack last year. Head of drama at ATV for years, he worked on Emergency Ward 10 and Z Cars, and directed Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare for TV.

"My father was a very inspirational man," she says. "As a director, he was always thinking about character and plot. We had some great discussions about human nature. He was always questioning himself and other people."

Until he died, John, and Tanya's mother, Eflie, a model and nurse, ran a company called Artts International, based at Bubwith, in North Yorkshire.

"It was a Victorian pig farm converted into television and radio studios, and had a 200-seat theatre. They trained students from all over the world in TV, radio and theatre production."

It was here, 16 years ago, that she met her husband, the actor Bruce Byron, who plays DC Terry Perkins in The Bill.

With such connections, the young Tanya had at first intended a TV career for herself, but applied, nonetheless, to study psychology at York University, and soon became hooked.

"I fell in love with the clinical aspect," she says.

Three years at York were followed by another three years clinical training at UCL in London, and then a doctorate at Surrey University in the treatment of amphetamines, before becoming the consultant clinical psychologist of an adolescent in-patient unit in Hertfordshire, specialising in dealing with children suffering from depression, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies and other psychological disorders.

Time spent on the job is important, she says. "You need to put your time in."

Her break into TV came through her best friend, Sam Richards, an agent and now also her business partner. "There was a programme being made on Adam Ant (who has suffered from mental illness), and I was asked to help with thinking about some of the issues. Then they asked if I'd go on camera."

In the two years since she became a media psychologist, she has made Little Angels, Teen Angels, a Panorama and The House of Tiny Tearaways.

French and Saunders are great fans, and their last Christmas Special saw Dr Byron attempting to control the twosome in the roles of Brigitte Nielson and Jackie Stallone. She and Jennifer Saunders have become good friends and are in the process of writing a comedy together about mental health.

It's an indication of how established Tanya Byron has become in the two short years since she first jumped the fence into television, and how obsessed TV has become with psychology.

"Psychology is everywhere in the world, and definitely in the media, from reality TV to consumer programmes, even daytime TV. We're all obsessed with how we behave as we do."

Programmes such as Little Angels might have their critics, but many parents will confirm that the advice they offer on issues such as discipline can be both helpful and comforting, particularly when that advice comes under the heading "practical".

"I'm terribly old-fashioned in my views," Dr Byron says. "I don't believe in smacking because there are other methods that are more effective."

Parental anxiety over discipline means some parents are trying to reason with children who are too young to understand. "Parents are anxious about letting their children cry, and anxious about saying no."

Up to the age of three, a children's frontal lobes just aren't developed enough to take it in, she points out.

Over-discussing naughtiness rewards a child with attention for doing something they shouldn't, actually reinforcing

bad behaviour.

"We spend more time reinforcing what we don't want than what we do want."

What you should do with a young child, says Dr Byron, is tell them "no" and put them in their room – one minute for every year of the child's life. No nonsense, lots of common sense.

Competitiveness has also become a problem. "The number of celebrities who have a baby in the same way they have a Gucci handbag," she says.

"There are groups of mothers with a horribly competitive element – 'my baby is better than your baby'," she says.

"Children develop at different rates and at different times."

More worrying is the increase the number of children who need psychological help.

"Children are definitely breaking down younger and younger," she says. "Our children are living in an age in which they are exposed to information and images at a much earlier age than our generation. They can talk the talk but they can't process it all.

"A good example of this is the fact that we have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. Children are having sexual relationships, but they don't know what it is, or how to protect themselves."

Some of the problems affecting schools, she feels, stem from the way in which teachers have been disempowered from disciplining children.

"I have a number of friends who are teachers and they are so frustrated because they have so much that they want to do, but they have a limited ability to be able to manage the disruptive ones in the class."

Bullying is obviously an issue that worries many parents – nastiness among girls, for example, can be deeply upsetting. She takes a philosophical approach.

"Nastiness is a part of life," Dr Byron says. "The best we can do for our children is let them know that we are there for them if they need us, and that we will not be judgmental.

"There are lots of these spats around puberty, and they can be very painful, but they are also important, because they prepare children for becoming young adults."

Bullying, she points out, can and does exist in the workplace; children need to know that the world can be cruel.

Making sure that a child develops self-esteem will mean that he or she can roll with the punches more easily.

"Self-esteem underpins the structure of our personality and character and what it is to be successful in life – not the best of the best, but happy in your own skin. Self-esteem means you are willing to try something, not afraid to say 'yes, I'll have a go'."


n Dr Tanya Byron will be speaking at York University at 4.30pm on Tuesday, January 31, in Room PS/B020 in the Department of Psychology. Admission is free.