Dr Tanya Byron qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1992.
She has worked in HIV and drug dependency, and more recently in a consultant post in an adolescent unit. She now combines one day a week in the health service with a successful career in broadcasting, presenting programmes such as Little Angels and House of Tiny Tearaways.
Dr Tanya Byron qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1992. She
has worked in HIV and drug dependency, and more recently in a
consultant post in an adolescent unit. She now combines one day a week
in the health service with a successful career in broadcasting,
presenting programmes such as Little Angels and House of Tiny
You’ve kept one foot in the health service. Does that help with the media work?
Totally, from an integrity point of view and in terms of keeping fresh
and up to date. I teach a Department of Health training course, and
with so many staff coming through it I’m interacting with loads of
professional groups all the time and hearing their issues.
Is it important to you that your media work is evidence-based in that way?
Completely. I can’t tell you the amount of stuff I get offered that I won’t do, because
I wouldn’t be talking from a place of particular expertise. There are quite a few of those on television, but not me.
Some people find that TV is not a particularly good medium for going
into the theoretical backing for the practical advice, but people I’ve
spoken to think you’ve managed to do that very well – to ‘soundbite’
things that are still based in ‘proper’ psychology.
I try to. The relationship between psychology and the media,
particularly television, is an interesting one. I know there are a lot
of psychologists who wouldn’t go near the media, and I understand why
that is. When I started working at the BBC I was lucky to have an agent
who could deal with a lot of the things that made me anxious. I write a
weekly column for The Times, which is a much easier medium because I
get a letter, say about whether a child should have a blanket, and I
can do a piece about transitional objects and Winacott, and so on. In
writing it’s much easier to do that.
But we have to be very careful. We come from an evidence-based
profession, we have years of training, but we have to be clear about
the relationship we have with the media in order for the media to give
us the best space possible for our profession. We might not be able to
present it as ‘this study shows…’, but the viewers don’t really care.
What they want to see is someone who they believe has integrity, and we
come from a profession with a huge amount of integrity. We’ve got
qualifications coming out of every orifice, there’s the evidence in
Rather than talking as if to other academics and
then complaining when it gets edited down, I think psychologists are
getting used to the idea of talking to different audiences from the
But it is nerve-racking. I don’t have any editorial control over any of
the programmes I make, but my relationship with my producers is the
key. Because they respect that they’re portraying what I do, they do
run things past me. There’s a healthy respect both ways. I know what I
need to deliver for them to make their programmes – they need viewers,
it’s not just a bit of charity education here – and they know they need
to respect my integrity in order for me to give them what they need.
The proof is in the pudding really… the feedback has been really
positive and the most important thing for me is that the families I
work with benefit.
Do you follow them up to see if it’s sustained?
Yes, we finish on television and then they have access to me via the
BBC. Most have my e-mail address, and I like hearing how they’re doing.
I have done onward referrals, I do liaise with GPs, there have been
families that I have helped to get other treatment within the health
service, or the private or voluntary sector. My role doesn’t finish
when the cameras are switched off on the last day; I have a clinical
role with these people, the fact that I’m doing it on TV is secondary.
In fact, TV actually supports and accelerates the process of change as
my crews and producers film with and support the families when I’m not
At the end of the day I’m representing my profession, there’s a code of conduct and a code of ethics I have to adhere to.
If I stand on television and portray clinical psychology in a way that
isn’t accurate, then I’m letting my profession down. If I don’t see my
job through with my patients as I would in the health service, then I’m
letting my patients down. In fact I’m vehemently protective of my
patients on TV, because it’s a frightening place. I have to make sure
they are not exploited, that the children aren’t stigmatised, that
they’re in the right place to receive anything they need afterwards…
it’s a tricky set of relationships but I love it.
It’s a lot of responsibility. What has been your biggest success story?
I don’t think there’s any one… some of them are very behavioural, in
that the parents have lost their way and need help in thinking more
logically about behavioural paradigms, reinforcement schedules. Some of
them there is a much bigger ‘back story’, in terms of why the child is
behaving like this. There have been families I’ve worked with where
qualitative changes in the family system have been immense. The reason
I liked doing House of Tiny Tearaways is that I had more time, and the
viewers had more time to see the process of change. It enabled me to be
not just behavioural, you could see me work systemically, and give the
message that the one we label ‘the naughty one’ is maybe the one who’s
manifesting the difficulty in the whole system.
Yes, in your programmes it’s never really child-based, it’s always something the parents are doing.
What I like about being a clinical psychologist is that it’s our job to
look at a problem, assess it, define the parameters and look at the
ways we can solve it using a variety of techniques because we have such
a great and eclectic training. We work from a nonjudgemental
perspective, to the extent that we don’t use diagnostic labels unless
it’s part of a wider conversation with other health professionals. So
for me it’s not about labelling, judging, blaming… it’s about looking
at the chaos, laying it out in a way that’s neat and easy to
understand, and then consistently and pragmatically working through
Parents are very relieved when they realise it’s about themselves. I’m
a parent, I’d much rather it was about me. The key message is if you
want to change your child’s behaviour you have to change your own –
it’s not rocket science!
Has your own thinking about parenting changed as a result of the programmes?
Being a clinical psychologist who works with children hasn’t made me a
better mother, but being a mother made me a better practitioner. Just
because I could empathise: I know what it’s like to not sleep, to have
anxieties about your child’s development. But I mother my kids in the
same chaotic way we all do… theory is one thing, reality is another!
What kind of reaction have you had from other psychologists?
When the first programmes came out, at the start of 2004, my biggest
worry was what other professionals would think. But I’ve had so many
really lovely, supportive e-mails. Of course, there might be people who
hate it who aren’t telling me!
I don’t need the feedback to say ‘Oh, Tanya, you’re great’ – so long as
it’s consistently ‘The way you represent our profession feels good for
the profession’, then I’m fine. I’m always thinking, ‘If there were ten
psychologists sitting here, what would they be thinking?’
I’m not sure the reaction would have been so positive a few years ago.
Whether it’s ‘change your kids’, ‘change your life’, ‘change the mess
in your house’, ‘swap your holidays’; the current glut of reality
programming is all about social psychology. The thing that worries me
is that there are so few psychologists who are actually commenting.
Anyone can look as if they’re one of us when they’re not. That’s why I
always use my Dr title, I always let them know that I’m a clinical
psychologist, and I always let them know I hold a consultant grade in
the health service.
You know, medics have got it all sewn up. You wouldn’t have anything on
TV that is ‘What’s my disease?’, where you have a panel of lay people
saying ‘Actually I had a pain there… why don’t we cut you open and see
if it’s appendicitis?’ But you have endless programmes with people who
are deeply unqualified, apart from the fact that the media knows
they’ve had a very difficult life that they’ve come through, giving
advice to incredibly vulnerable people who are absolute fodder for
these kinds of programmes. You can find out whether your child’s father
is who you think it is because they’ve swabbed his cheek and he’s
opening an envelope in the studio… that blows my mind.
So what next for you?
There’s more House of Tiny Tearaways starting in November, but I’m
not going to get ‘niched’ with the parentingangle. I’ve just done a
Panorama programme about young people who use guns and knives. I had
three roles: I consulted with the journalist and the producer to help
them think through how they wanted to design things; I ran a focus
group with children from a rough estate in north London, using my
expertise in getting children to talk freely; and I did some on-screen
interviews where I was asked for my opinion.
I’ve also just done the French and Saunders Christmas special, where I
was dealing with their childish behaviour! I’m launching the Blue Peter
appeal, and in the new year I hope to do a series with the BBC on
advertising to children. So I do things that interest me, that I feel
genuinely need a psychologist to run, and that would be fun for my kids
to watch. It’s a great place to be; I’m really loving being a clinical