Koemba Blog

We’re excited at the release of our new YouTube clip ‘Teen Anger’ 

Teen angst can spill over into anger and aggressive behaviours. Parent Coach Val Mullally chats about a key neuroscience discovery that  helps parents recognise the importance of  choosing to respond.


‘My child’s become so unreasonable. He used to be placid and easy going. Now he suddenly explodes for no reason.’ Perhaps you are like this parent, trying to figure out where your child’s anger has suddenly come from and what to do about it.

In my work as a Parent Coach, I’ve noticed how often parents find themselves dealing with children’s anger after they’ve experienced some major change. Perhaps it’s starting or changing schools, or after the death of a loved one. This all makes sense when we recognise that anger is a very common reaction in times of loss and it makes sense because anger is always an inner sign ‘I need change.’ And sometimes the change we   wish we had was to change things back to how they used to be.

It’s unsurprising that children, with limited reasoning and verbal skills, may express this anger in a socially unacceptable way – through tantrums, verbal or even physical outbursts – possibly at those closest to them. Claude’s father had recently walked out of the family home. Claude screams at his mother, ‘I hate you!’ Our reaction in such a situation may be to feel hurt or angry. Perhaps we would find it easier to cope if we remind ourselves that the child is battling with complex and painful emotions.
When a grieving child suddenly kicks the dog or smashes a treasured object, he may be trying to say something he cannot find words for. If he is experiencing frustration and anger, he needs to be handled with the same reassurance and care we would offer grieving adults. Punishing a child who is reacting negatively will only increase his rage and possibly cause him to bury his grief.  Rather, we need to guide him gently towards more socially acceptable outlets, and help him to find words for his feelings. For example, if a child has just thrown a toy across the room, a helpful response might be,‘You’re feeling angry. If you throw the toy it may break. Let’s find something else you would like to play with.’Acknowledge the child’s feelings, gently letting him know that his action was inappropriate, and find another activity that will help him ‘let off steam’ in an acceptable way.  Creative activities that can help hurting children vent their anger include:

  • play dough
  • puppets
  • fat wax crayons and large sheets of paper
  • hammer, wood and nails.

We can use activities like these to help children to ‘let off steam’ in a way that won’t hurt themselves or others. When a child is ‘stuck’ in their pain and anger and you are feeling unable to help them move through that experience I recommend seeking professional help such as Play Therapy. Your child may need a safe space to work though ‘tangled emotions’ and troubled thoughts, and play therapy uses toys, which are a child’s ‘natural language’ to give the child a safe space to do this. We also need to learn the skill of deepening  communication with our children.  (If you are in Ireland or nearby, don’t miss out on the ‘Coaching Approach to Parenting’ course. Click on this link for detail).

Sometimes a child’s experience with us is that it’s not okay to talk about troubling things. I love Catherine Wallace’s statement:

‘Listen eagerly to anything your child wants to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff  when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.’

This applies to children but recently I’ve been challenged to recognise how it applies with the elderly as well. An aging father wants to buy his adult daughter a rather expensive gift and she resists him spending money on her.

‘But I want to get you something special before I die,’ he says.

‘Don’t be talking like that, daddy,’ she exclaims. ‘Of course you’re not going to die!’

Whilst it’s not an easy subject to discuss, the fact is that sooner or later the old man must leave his loved ones and take that journey to an unknown destination. As with the child, if we shut down the conversation now when it doesn’t seem relevant or urgent to us, we may be shutting down the opportunity for the other to share their anxieties or to say something they need to say. When we shut down the topic of conversation by ignoring it, or making light of it, the message we might be giving is, ‘I can’t discuss this with you.’

Imagine if you had to take a journey to a foreign land and whenever you tried to broach the subject, people avoided the conversation. Imagine how much greater your anxiety would become if this subject is taboo. Imagine your sadness if you couldn’t say the words of farewell that deep inside you wanted to say.

This is why it’s so important  to use whatever entrances in conversation come your way, no matter how small or unexpected, to give the message, ‘If there’s something on your mind, I’m here to listen.’

When we learn how to create a safe space for any subject to be discussed, we give the gift of connectedness.

Part of this blog is an excerpt from ‘Working with Under Sixes – a  handbook for everyone in children’s ministry’ by Val Mullally. 

This practical book includes helpful chapters on:

– play

– storytelling

– encouraging creativity

–  dealing with discipline

and helping children cope with loss

Foundation Module Underway

Koemba is delighted to have another group of students discovering how to  create environments to support children to think more clearly, connect more compassionately, behave more response-ably and live more joyfully.

morris minor cartoon


‘Double de-clutch! Yeah, I know what you mean. We used to have an old morris minor,’ laughed my friend on the other end of the phone.

My dad’s hobby was cars.  I grew up in the heart of Africa in the sixties and early seventies, which meant that I drove a number of ancient bangers that most collectors would now love to have in their classic collection. I had my licence at age sixteen and those early driving days required a whole range of skills that weren’t part of the official test but were mandatory for keeping the wheels turning.  Double de-clutching required slow and careful gear-changing to prevent the ear- jarring rasp of metal on metal. You also had to know how to push-start your car (sometimes as a solo act). Windscreen-wipers were so poor that you would periodically put your hand out the window with a cloth to try to clear the screen a little.  Steep hills were a feat in driving, with undersized engines and slow gear changing that eroded what speed you did have. When you knew you had a steep climb ahead, you accelerated as hard as you could on the downhill approaching the climb and then you prayed there would be nothing to slow your speed. Lose too much speed and you would have to stop, change back to first gear and laboriously crawl the remainder of the hill. I remember one particularly steep hill in the Matopas, Zimbabwe, where we had to roll back down and start all over again.

I think we learnt a lot of skills and patience driving those old iron steeds but now it’s great to be able to jump in my car, turn the key in the ignition and expect smooth-running travel to my destination.  We did the best we could with what we had then but what an improvement. (Have you seen the latest Audi A5 ‘Ugly Duckling’ advert? I love it!)

You may be asking what this has to do with parenting. How I see it is that you have the choice to ride in an outdated, and often inconvenient mode of Parenting, that will often feel uncomfortable and exhausting, or you can choose to trade that in for something that has taken advantage of new breakthroughs in awareness and enjoy your Parenting journey.  In either vehicle you’ll end up at the same destination but one ride will be much smoother and kinder on you all than the other.

I, for one wish, I had known when my children were young what I know now about how to parent.

Some of the key things I’ve learnt are:

– how to REALLY listen

– what exactly do we mean by self esteem, why it matters

– why Emotional Intelligence is core to your child’s success and what we as parents can do about  it

– how to use conflict as a growth opportunity

– how to discipline to get the results you really want

– the power of our negative thoughts and what to do about it

–  how to create a win-win experience for all concerned.

Would you like to ride in the equivalent of the latest Audi A5 when it comes to your Parenting?

This year is your chance to discover what a coaching approach to Parenting is all about.  The Koemba Foundation module is over three weekends, (Friday evening and full day Saturday) and commences in Tallaght, Dublin on Friday 1st February 2013.
Sign up today to benefit from our 10% Early Bird discount.

New Year Greetings

Wishing the Koemba community a wonder-ful New Year.  We have some exciting new plans for 2013, so sign up for the newsletter  if you haven’t already, so that you don’ t miss out!

Seasons Greetings

Wishing the Koemba community peace and harmony – in your homes and in your community, wherever you are in the world.  

Congratulations to the class of 2011/12 Koemba students, on completion of their Life and Parent Coaching diploma course.  Celebrating the big occasion at Bewleys Hotel, Newlands Cross, with a special ‘Koemba’ cake: Anca Lupu, Hansi Thyfault, Val Mullally, Marie Reilly, Anne Bacon (at back – who made the cake!)  and Nuala Mullins.

Koemba cake cutting

What do you do if your child seems to be showing ADHD type behaviours?

How do you cope with the outbursts and the excessive energy?

I felt distress as I watched the Prime Time RTE programme dealing with this heartbreaking subject and saw the despair that some parents are experiencing.  I imagine these parents WISH that they could receive an immediate response from those who could make a difference, instead of horrifically long delays before they receive any support.

Any person with an ounce of compassion would be wondering how these parents cope with the unrelenting energy of their child and the torment of ‘How do we get through today (or even the next ten minutes)?’ I admire the courage of these parents who allowed the television crew to capture some of the frustration and anguish, that I imagine many experience daily.

I’m writing this blog not only to express my concern and appreciation for these parents, but also to encourage parents that things can get smoother. I’m not saying ‘perfect’, I’m not saying there won’t be bumps and sharp turns on the journey but there is hope. The good news is that, as parents, we CAN DO SOMETHING to create calmer homes and more happiness, while we are waiting for the services to respond. We can discover how to support children to behave more cooperatively. I know from my own experience, that parenting isn’t easy. And I imagine that it’s particularly challenging if you have a child who is wound up like a clockwork toy and who seems to push against every boundary.

‘wound up like a clockwork toy’     Clipart by Ron Leishman – http://clipartof.com/435819

As I watched the RTE PrimeTime television documentary, I spotted some simple, subtle ways in which parents can create more harmony and connection.

So here’s TEN PRACTICAL TIPS, based on interactions observed within the film footage of the Prime Time programme, to support you in taking little steps creating smoother relationships and more cooperative behaviour.

1. What I observed when the child is acting out.

Parent: ‘This is not you.’ But this IS part of who the child is, right now, at this moment.  His behaviour does not need to define him. He’s so much MORE than only this behaviour. But when we deny that this is ‘him’, we are, in a sense denying part of who he is.

A response you could find more helpful:

‘You’re angry right now.’ Help him to NAME and CLAIM his strong emotions. As he can CLAIM his feelings, over time he’ll learn also to TAME them – to be in control of his emotions, instead of his emotions being in control of him.

2. What I observed when the child is in tears:

Parent: ‘You don’t have to cry anymore.’

A response you could find more helpful:

Focus on being present to your child, show sympathy and give support. Let the tears flow naturally. Apparently the tears we cry when we are emotionally upset are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. The ‘upset’ tears contain stress hormones. So ‘Have a good cry’, ‘Cry it all out’ make sense. The tears will be healing when the child senses our gentle, loving support alongside him, when we’re relaxed with his tears and not trying to stop them.

3. What I observed when the child is distressed, as she remembers the awful thought she had, which were a side effect to the medication she’d been given: Parent: ‘Those thoughts are gone.’ But they’re not gone. She’s still upset about them!

A response you could find more helpful:

Acknowledge the experience. Give her a safe space to talk about them. Then reassure her that the upsetting thoughts were brought on by the medication. In life, it is not so much the bad things that happen to us that are the concern, but rather that we have not yet woven them into the fabric of our lives. Like embroidery that was knotted and tangled at the back, the child needs support to gently untangle these threads and to weave them into her ‘narrative’, her story of her life. Daniel Siegel’s book ‘Parenting From the Inside Out’ is a great resource to understand this more fully. Making sense of our own unique life story is rather like a beautiful Persian carpet – provided it is well woven, the dark patches are an integral part of the beauty of the design. In a similar way the ‘dark patches’ of our lives, when worked through so that we understand this part of who we are, have the potential to become part of the richness and beauty of our personality.


4. What I observed when the child is energetically bouncing on the seat, as the parent is trying to interact with someone else:  Parent: ‘Can you stop it please.’

A response you could find more helpful:

Anticipate moments like these and have activities to attract his attention and keep him busy. With younger children, playdough is ideal and tends to have a soothing effect on the child. Crayons and paper are great to have on hand. With older children construction toys like Lego and K’nex can keep their attention. Also keep in mind that still periods probably won’t be long. When you hold an awareness that your child is probably doing the best he can right now, it’ll be easier to adapt to his needs, even if that means inviting the visitor to walk and talk, so that your child can work off some energy.

Also, rather than giving a negative comment say what you do want. Instead of ‘stop it’ give the child a choice, directing his attention to something positive he can do. ‘You can choose to sit next to me and listen or you can choose to play with these toys.’ When the child is given a choice he’s far more likely to cooperate.


5. What I observed: television constantly on.

A response you could find more helpful:

Create a family culture where the television is off, unless you’re actually sitting and watching something together, and even then be thoughtful about what programmes you chose.  All children needs calm space, and particularly those with very high energy levels. Exposure to energetic or aggressive action is likely to evoke more of the same. (However, be aware that sudden changes in his routine, like suddenly stopping television viewing, are likely to trigger a strong emotional reaction. You need to discuss and plan other enjoyable activities to replace the television viewing, probably making this a gradual adjustment).


6. What I observed was the parent talking about the child’s issues to others in front of him. Children tend to live up to their parent’s expectations. Whilst it makes sense that you really need a space to talk about the challenges you’re facing, if he hears from you that he’s ‘out of control’ /’a challenge’/ ‘wrecking your head’ the message he receives is that this is what you expect from him, and he’s likely to live up to your expectations.

A response you could find more helpful:

You are facing such a huge responsibility it makes sense that you need a safe space to let off steam – but please find it away from the ears of any children. Also notice that talking with some people will increase your sense of frustration and powerlessness, whereas others will encourage you and help you to be the clear-headed, compassionate parent you want to be.  Find the safe, encouraging friends and professionals who will genuinely support you.


7. What I observed when the child acted aggressively:

Parent: ‘Upstairs! Don’t kick me.’

A response you could find more helpful:

There’s a fine line between giving him ‘time with himself’ to calm down and reflect on what’s needed and ‘time out’ as a punishment, which isolates him from you. When a child experiences being emotionally abandoned by the parent, he’s likely to protest. All conflict is a protest at the disconnection. This statement might seem strange when he’s acting out when you’re still physically present, but your child senses when you are angry or have emotionally disconnected from him, and he reacts. At other times, your child may have disconnected from himself; then he’s unable to take control of himself. Ironically, these times, when it’s hardest to stay emotionally engaged with him in a supportive way, are the times he most needs connection with you. He needs you to help him regain control of himself.

Also when we give negative commands the child doesn’t hear the ‘don’t’ – he tends to only hear the command, e.g. ‘kick me’. Rather say what you DO want, such as, ‘Peter, calm down.’ (in a calm, connecting voice).  (Using his name at the start of your sentence also helps him to reconnect and to focus on what you are saying).


8. What I observed when the parent is discussing the child’s experience of a situation:

Parent: ‘You love your teachers.’ Child: ‘NO!’

A response you could find more helpful:

Create a listening space for him to share his perspective. Hear how it is for her. The child needs to be able to make sense of her experience. If she is being rejected by other children or reprimanded at school it’s likely that she’s feeling frustrated and she needs to be able to process those feelings. She needs home to be a safe space to share how she’s experiencing what’s happening in her world. That doesn’t mean we encourage her take a ‘Poor Me’ attitude, but once she feels heard and connected she’ll be in a better place to reflect on what she could have done differently, that could have been more helpful.


9. What I observed was the child cavorting in spiderman clothes.

Over many years in preschool education I saw time and time again that when children are dressed in ‘invincible’ outfits, ‘invincible’ behaviours erupted.  Part of our school policy became ‘No spiderman, batman, etc outfits.’

Think too about the choice of toys. You may notice that when he is playing with certain toys it sparks OTT behaviour. Some toys are far more likely to evoke aggressive or hyper-active behaviours. Discover the alternatives that lead to calmer ways of playing.


10. What I observed was the parents’ pain when it is inferred by others that the child is ‘a brat’ or ‘bold’.

A response you could find helpful:

Whether a child is challenged with ADHD or not, labels like ‘bold’ or ‘brat’ are never helpful. Any child is likely to feel attacked when negative labels are used. In our minds, we need to separate out the behaviour from the child him (or her) self.  It ‘s more helpful to say ‘I don’t like it when you …   and I would prefer it if you …’

Likewise we need to beware of labelling ourselves. Self-criticism, like ‘Bad parent’, is only going to make us feel bad. The stress level with dealing with a child with challenging behaviour is already high enough, without the added pressure of self-punishment and self-criticism. It’s easier to be reflective about what’s working if you think in terms of:

‘What am I doing that’s helpful in this situation?’

By noticing what we do that creates more cooperative behaviour, we discover how to create more of the same. Particularly, we can start noticing the ‘good times’ and discover how to create more of this in our lives.

A final note:

The one small step that can make a huge difference is to recognise that we can’t change our children (as much as we might like to, particularly on some days!) but we can change the way we react or respond to them. The secret is to develop our own mindfulness in our parenting, so that we become more aware of what’s working and what’s not.

While you’re waiting for the help you deserve, the help your child needs, I encourage you – don’t just wait.  Use the time to develop your own awareness about WHAT WORKS to create connection, communication and cooperation between family members.

If this article has been helpful for you, make sure you are signed up for the Koemba newsletter. You’ll be just in time to hear about our January special: exciting new material about what to do when children’s difficult behaviour challenges you.

Val Mullally MA

CEO Koemba Parent Coaching