When a child is going through a difficult time, it’s hard for a parent to know how to help. Here are five useful tips on how to support your upset child.

What can a parent do!

A key skill is to remain in “approach” mode.

Teddy bears hug

In every relationship the other person experiences us as being in “attack”, “avoid’ or “approach mode”.

Samantha has been trying to stay in tune with her daughter over these past few days. She’s heard a deluge: I hate school, I haven’t got any friends, The teachers are stupid, Nobody cares. I don’t want to go to school. 

How does a parent respond! 

She takes a deep breath. 

“Okay, Paula. So you don’t want to go to school. You can stay home tomorrow, BUT …” 

Samantha takes a long, deep pause trying to figure out what she’s going to say. But she doesn’t get a chance. 

“You’re just like them. You don’t care!” Her daughter slams out the room. 

“What did I do wrong!” Samantha is mystified. 

 

Samantha didn’t realise her child’s brain registered the long pause, followed by her heavy “BUT… ” as an “attack”.

The thing is, it’s not what we intend that counts – it’s the message the other person receives that will influence the interaction.

The thing is, when a child already feels overwhelmed it’s easy for them to misinterpret a parent’s signals and they can easily experience the parent as being in “attack” or “avoid” mode. This is only going to add to a child’s distress.

Your child’s unreasonable outburst may be upsetting, but realise it is exactly that  – “un-reason-able”. The behaviour stems from the child being “unable to reason” because at times of high stress the “thinking brain” temporarily goes offline. The child snaps into a “fight or flight” reaction.  Samantha’s prolonged, heavy pause was all that was needed for her stressed child to experience her as another attacker.

Crying child

What Not To Do When Your Child Is Upset

#1 Don’t tell your child to “Be reasonable.”

Right now the deep, reactive “reptilian brain” has seized control. It’s impossible for your child to reason once they have dropped into this reactive state. Until she’s calmed down, she IS un-reason-able!

#2 Don’t try help your child  find solutions whilst upset

It won’t work to try help your child find solutions whilst upset because the human brain cannot see options and imagine consequences while the “thinking brain” is “offline”.  First connect and support your child to regain calm.

#3 Don’t tell her, “It’s not really such a big thing,” or “It will be all right.”

At this moment it doesn’t feel like it will ever be all right again. She’s hurting and her reptilian brain is registering “PAIN!”, which means your child can’t see beyond that point until she regains her calm.

#4 Don’t compare

E.g. “You used to like school.” “Your sister is happy there.” 

Here earlier experience doesn’t negate what’s she’s feeling now. Somebody else’s experience isn’t hers.

#5 Don’t tell her to calm down

That’s like telling the cloud to stop raining.  When this level of tension has been reached, the strong emotion will temporarily overwhelm.

parent and child hug

So what can a parent do?

 Five Useful Tips On How To Support Your Upset Child

TIP #1  Recognise your  upset child is unable to reason

At this point, your child can’t see another point of view or imagine possible consequences to her actions until she has calmed down and returned to “whole brain thinking”.  So don’t expend your energy trying to achieve the impossible!

TIP #2 Focus on remaining calm and in “approach” mode

Staying calm is the only way to park your own anxiety and keep your “thinking brain” online. And this matters because there needs to be at least one thinking brain online to find the way through the current upset!  For more on this see my e-book  “Stop Yelling – 9 Steps to Calmer Happier Parenting”.

TIP #3   Tune in to your child’s experience

If your brain is busy imagining the letter you will write to the teacher, what you’d like to say to those other kids, worrying that your child might drop out of school, then your brain is in another world and not focusing on your child’s world, which is where you can support her right now. There will be time to find solutions later. Right now focus on being present to your child and to her experience. Imagine crossing the bridge into her world experience and seeing the situation through her eyes.

TIP #4 Empathise with your child

As you tune in to your child’s experience seek to understand what she might be feeling. Anxious, lonely, angry, frustrated? Don’t try to “change” her feeling. Feelings are what feelings are. Once she has a sense of her life experience being understood and validated, she’ll sense you being in “approach” mode and then be able to calm down. (Even though that might not be immediate).

TIP #5 When your child is calm, use “What?” questions

Use “What?” questions to explore possible ways forward.: “What needs to happen now? ” “What can I do to support you?” “What else could help?”

(Not “Why?” questions – which  tend to lead to blaming or excuse making).

Explore the options together and support your child to recognise the factors within her control, because these are the only things she can change.

“Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.”  Zig Ziglar

If you found this article helpful you will probably also enjoy reading:

How to Support Your Child If They Are Having Difficulty At School which gives the core principles of building TRUST in our parent-child relationship.

If you are facing a challenging situation concerning your child,  why not work with me as your Parenting Coach. I can help you tune in to your child so you are in a grounded space to support your child to create collaborative solutions.

How to support your upset child

I’d love to hear your experiences about how to calm your upset child.

What has helped you to support your child when they are upset?

What is your greatest challenge in supporting your child through a difficult experience?

Your answers help me to create the posts you’d love to read.

Last edited March 07th 2019

How to calm upset toddler

The wails of a toddler in distress ricochets off the walls. I glance at the mother, who yanks her crying toddler by the arm, ignoring her wails. The toddler drags behind her, screaming her protest.

The mother stops. Towering over the child she speaks sharply, wagging her finger in the child’s face. Then she marches on, with sobbing child in tow.

We’ve all had parenting moments we’re not proud of. But what can help us do differently? Here are some thoughts for stressed parents on what to do when your toddler acts out. We can handle a child’s challenging behaviour more helpfully when we have  insights about how the human brain develops. If you are facing a toddler upset here are ten tips for responsive parenting to calm your child and recreate connection.

I hope you’ll keep reading, even if you have older children, because if we all knew what toddlers need to thrive we’d create environments for:

– happier, healthier children

– children who will be more successful as adults

– a happier, healthier generation.

Understanding A Toddler Upset:

  ✓  Your toddler’s brain is still “under construction”

This means the toddler cannot reason like an adult. She doesn’t have a concept of time. She doesn’t understand that you have deadlines to keep or chores to complete. Trying to explain your agenda to her when she’s demanding won’t help. Rather, focus on connecting with her.

  ✓ When your toddler’s upset, she’s emotionally flooded, so she can’t reason

The ‘fight or flight’ part of her brain has now been triggered. She’s not reasoning – so trying to logically explain things to her is only likely to increase her frustration – and yours. First she needs your connection and sympathetic understanding.

  ✓ The young child cannot self-regulate

In other words, she is physically not able to calm herself down. She might cry to a point of exhaustion and then stop – and that’s very different from the child being calmed. When a child’s experience is ignored until she ‘gives up’, her exhausted body is still overloaded with nasty cortisol! Leaving your baby to cry without giving comfort and attention is tantamount to leaving her in a closed room with toxic paint fumes.[i]

So let’s look at what a parent can do to calm an upset toddler.

Toddler Upset – Ten Tips On How To Calm Your Child:

1. Stay emotionally connected to your child

When she’s upset she’s trying to let you know she needs your support. At times when you child is most challenging tile is when she most probably most needs your love and support.

At these times the young child is emotionally overwhelmed and needs your support to calm her down.

2. Choose to be calm

Get down to her eye level and make eye contact (if she will) with a ‘soft gaze’.Your toddler physically can’t calm herself down when she’s upset – she can’t “self regulate”.  Her immature nervous system relies on an adult to calm her. So if you choose to calm yourself, it will help to calm her. Your soft gaze will do far more to calm her than any amount of ‘reasoning’  words.

3. Remember her behaviour is about her – your response is about you

There’s already one immature person having a meltdown. Your job is to remain the calm, collected adult who, rather than reacting, chooses to respond helpfully.

4. Focus on your breathing

When you steady your breathing your steady your thoughts.Remind yourself this is your young child who is distressed and needing support.

If you have a key phrase that reminds you of the sort of parent you choose to be,  say this to yourself:  for example: ‘calm’, ‘being the adult’, ‘reassure’.

Your steady breathing will also help to steady your child’s breathing.

5. Send a ‘CONNECT’ message through your tone of voice/ body language and your facial expression

Your child senses your motivation far more strongly than she can hear the words you are using. (When you most want to say’ Listen to me’ is when  she’s emotionally flooded and it’s impossible for her to listen! In upset times your child’s brain can’t make sense of your words. First she needs to connect with you.

She will learn how to deal with stressful times by what you model.

6. Focus on seeing the situation through her eyes, rather than trying to explain yours

See life from her perspective.

Reflect the same words/ energy / simple phrases that she does.

Focus your attention on connecting with her. It’s helpful to imagine ahead of time, before an upset, how  you might respond in a similar scenario. Here’s how I would choose to respond:

Child: ‘I want the toy.’

Mother: ‘You want the toy.’

Child: ‘I want it!’

Mother: ‘You really want it.’

7. Don’t give her what she’s demanding – just acknowledge what she wants

Just because she “wants” the toy, doesn’t mean she has to have it.  But you can still acknowledge her experience. (Think of when you say something like, “I’d love that Porsche.” Just because you express the wish, doesn’t mean you need it explained to you why you can’t have it! )

8. If she uses attacking words, like ‘Silly Mummy’ reflect the emotion below her words

For example, you might respond,  ‘You’re cross with me.’

9. Give words for your child’s emotions

When we acknowledge emotions, over time your child will learn to ‘name, claim and tame’ her emotions. As we model this, our children will be more able to use reason to deal with emotional upsets – to ‘find words (left brain activation) for strong feelings (right brain activation) instead of moving into primitive discharge of these feelings. (as in tantrum).’[ii]

10. It’s okay for your child to cry

Don’t try to stop the tears, just be compassionately present and ready to connect when your child is ready to do so.When we cry when we’re upset, the tears are chemically different to the tears we cry when we’re peeling an onion. Our ‘upset tears’ contain stress hormones. So having a ‘good cry’ / ‘crying it all out’ makes sense.

How to Deal with Toddler Tantrum Why Connecting Matters

When you see an upset toddler it’s helpful to remember that her brain and nervous system are still ‘under construction’. She is reliant on you as parent (or carer) to calm and regulate the strong emotions that are storming her young body. Her crying is trying to communicate to you that she’s especially needing your support right now. She needs you  to ‘listen to her behaviour’ ; for more about this, see my blog  “My toddler screams when her 4 year old sister ‘bugs’ her!”

Your young child is not out to make your life difficult – she’s doing the best she can.

The bottom line is babies and toddlers need caring, connected parents, particularly in times of emotional stress.

But how to be the calm, connected parent you want to be in times of stress? You can discover more with the three signpost to Mindful Parenting in my new Parenting book, ‘BEHAVE – What To Do When Your Child Won’t’.  And if you’re a parent who is really keen to discover the practical tools to  a more mindful way of Parenting, you’ll want to sign up now for start-when-good-for-you, return-as-often as-you-wish Online Parenting course.

I recommend Margot Sunderland’s book ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’. It’s the type of book that you’ll frequently dip into, with chapters on issues such as sleep and bedtimes, behaviour issues, crying and separation. It’s filled with a wealth of knowledge and practical advice, based on scientific fact, about what children need to thrive.


[i] Sunderland Margot at Play Therapy conference in Dublin 2008

[ii] Sunderland Margot ‘The Science of Parenting ‘2006 Dorling Kindersley Limited. London, p. 231

Last edited March 04th 2019

Every parent has concerns about their children’s health. But have you considered: are grandparents making your child obese?  Val Mullally discusses how to comfort an upset child, without resorting to unhealthy food habits.

I am lying in bed with my throbbing ankle propped up. I’d taken the dog for a walk – my foot found the pothole my eyes had missed – I hobbled home  – and now feeling immensely sorry for myself, alone in the house. And all I want is bread and butter pudding. Not any old bread and butter pudding. My Gran’s bread and butter pudding. Bread and butter pudding is for me the ultimate comfort food.

Are Grandparents Making Your Child Obese?

Possibly grandparents are contributing to children’s weight problems.  giving children unhealthy treats are one concern but I’d like to chat about how we unwittingly hook kids on Comfort Food. Like my craving for Gran’s bread and butter pudding. It’s my psychological substitute for the warm hug and loving support I need when I feel down.

But aren’t grandparents supposed to be doing the loving, calming, make-you-feel better thing? Of course they are. But what children really need, like all human beings, is loving connection. Food becomes the addictive substitute.  Not any food – but the sweet, sugary food we associate with tender love and care.

Are grandparents making children fat?

What Can A Parent Do?

As the parent, you need to have a calm discussion with the grandparents about giving TLC without creating a dependence of overly sugary, high-calorie foods to feel better.

Take for example the day Betty comes home from school to her grandparents’ house. Within minutes she’s in floods of tears, sobbing because the class has just been told that their beloved teacher will be leaving them at the end of this week.

Doting Gran, in her concern for her grand-daughter, scurries to the kitchen.

She comes back with a plate laden with a gI-NOR-mous slice of rich chocolate cake.

comfort food when a child is upset

‘Here, darling, this will make you feel better.’

The sugary chocolately goo has the desired effect as Betty stops sobbing and begins munching.

But what’s the long-term impact?

Repeated incidents of comfort food teach Betty to reach for the indulgent, sugary, fat-inducing foods whenever she feels sad.

And so the loving grandparent unwittingly opens a trapdoor that could lead to unhealthy eating, and ultimately serious life-long health challenges that they would never wish on the child they love so dearly.

Grandparents need to hear that developing their grandchildren’s habit of comfort eating could lead to diabetes, heart problems and other debilitating and life threatening health issues. Grandparents might see a ‘cuddly child’ and be unaware the child who is overweight in pre-school years is likely to have a life-long challenge with weight. What grandparent would wish ill health on their grand-children.

How to Respond to a Child’s Distress

Betty needed a loving person to hear her story, without interrupting, without trying to explain it away or tell her it’s not really so bad. She just needed her experience to be heard.  And she needed someone close to empathise with her emotional pain:

“You’re feeling so sad about your teacher going. You’re really disappointed.”

When a loving person connects with Betty’s story she will ‘feel felt’, and she will be more able to contain her emotional pain. Yes, she’ll cry. That’s okay. Grandparents need to know the tears we cry when we are distressed are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. Upset tears contain stress hormones. So there’s wisdom in the old sayings, “Have a good cry.” / “Cry it all out.”

When Gran or Grandad have listened deeply and been there for her in her tears, Betty will be able to move forward. The wise grandparent will now ask something like,

“I can see you really care about your teacher. What would you like to do to show your teacher you’re sad she’s going?”

Here’s the opportunity to provide the child with a healthy stress relief. Grandparents (and parents) need to have crayons, coloured papers, glue and suchlike always at the ready. Get her involved in something creative to give to her teacher – maybe a hand-made farewell card.

When we make art we make meaning of our lives.

 

Other Ways A Grandparent Can Support Grandchildren

Of course, there are other ways Grandparents can help their grandchildren deal with upset emotions. Gardening, planting our spring seedlings or raking up autumn leaves, picking flowers, walking, building a model, knitting, cooking, quilting  – all take time. And time is often exactly what the child needs. Time to slow down and have someone there to hear you. Someone who listens with their whole heart. Someone to hold you. Someone to hold your thoughts and emotions. Your ups and your downs.

Are grandparents making children fat

 

 

Grandparents can be key to helping our children develop healthier lives. Not only physically healthier but emotionally healthier.

Rather than leaving the discussion with grandparents at “Don’t give them sugary food,”  tell grandparents all the ways in which you do appreciate their support of your children.  Grandparents can be key to giving children what they really need, instead of the hollow sugar food substitutes that never fill the hole in a child’s soul.

Take time to affirm grandparents for all the meaningful ways in which they give your children the message, “You are precious. You are special. You are loved.”

Over to you. In what ways do you see grandparents encouraging unhealthy eating habits?  What are the grandparenting qualities you most appreciate?

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Last edited April 30th 2018

‘I hate you!’

“I can’t believe she said that to me,” exclaimed Jane. “Her little face was bright red.  And she was screaming ‘I hate you!’ ‘I hate you!’”

Mary smiled wryly. “I’ve had those outbursts too. When did our little darlings morph into monsters!”

Others nodded.

Jane could sense that the other parents knew what this experience was like.

One of the first things that they had discovered in the Parenting programme was that this was a safe space to share their concerns about the day-to-day issues that arise in their homes.

‘So what do we already know that could be helpful when your children turn their anger on you with words like this?’ the facilitator asked.

Within a few minutes the mood of the group lightened as they recognised that they had already gained helpful insights.

“I guess I’d need to climb off the ‘Oh no, she hates me’ bandwagon, ” said Jim. “It’s easy to think that my child doesn’t love me when I see that angry face.”

“Yes,” added another parent.  “Rather recognise that she’s saying, ‘I hate a particular behaviour of yours.”

In a few minutes the group had made several suggestions.

1)   Strong emotions are contagious, so focus on your breathing so that you don’t ‘hook in’.  Don’t let the anger stick.

“Don’t be like Velcro,’ chuckled Don,  “Be like Teflon; let your child’s anger roll off you!”

They remembered the core neuroscience and emotional intelligence insights the facilitator had discussed. This prompted further ideas:

2)   Recognise that when he’s this angry the ‘thinking part’ of his brain is not engaged.

3)    It’s no good trying to reason with him at this point; that can only come later once his anger subsides.

4)   Don’t try to persuade her that she doesn’t hate you. She wants to let you know that something isn’t okay for her right now.

5)   Recognise that anger is always a signal ‘I need change.’ Ask yourself what is the change your child is asking for.

The facilitator added a few other thoughts to the discussion:

6)   Help your child to NAME, CLAIM and TAME his emotion. In other words, see the emotion that is under the attacking words and respond to that: ‘You’ re very angry.’  When he has a NAME for his inner experience he can CLAIM it; recognise that that is what he is experiencing.  And when he can CLAIM it he can TAME it – bring it back under control.

7)   Also recognise that there are other emotions underneath blanket of her anger  – probably fear or disappointment.  It’s easier to connect with your child when you can picture what probably lies under the anger.

Jane smiled. When she had signed up for the Parenting programme she hadn’t realized how much the new learning would positively affect their everyday life in the home. She knew that by the end of this session she’s be going home with a different outlook and a more helpful way of responding next time her child had a meltdown.

Don’t miss out on YOUR CHANCE to discover the Koemba Parenting programme, starting this month in Kilkenny and in Cork:

Helping families to:

– think more clearly

 connect more compassionately

 behave more response-ably

 live more joyfully

Please note:  This story is fictional and does not record an actual event. 

8 sessions commencing:

Douglas, Cork Thurs 26 Sept 2013

Thursday evenings 7.30 – 10 pm

Kilkenny Wed 25 Sept 2013

Wednesday mornings 10am – 12.30

Investment fee: €187

Early Bird: €169 (pay by Mon 23 Sept)

 For more detail  email val@koemba.com or telephone Val 087 7609355

 For details CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

 

Last edited September 17th 2013

‘I don’t want to go to school’

Jamie had been excited about going to school until the big day came.

Suddenly she was clinging onto her mum’s shirt, her arms wrapped tightly around her as though she would be washed away by the tide of excited new pupils.

Her mum was embarassed that her ‘big girl’ was suddenly reduced to tears.

‘Now what do I do?’ she thought. The thoughts raced through her head, ‘Traffic’s going to be heavy today. Got to get to work. Can’t leave her here like this. What do I tell my boss? The other kids are going to laugh at her if she’s blubbing like this.’

Four year old Amy wasn’t as vocal as Jamie about her protest. But in the last few days before school started, she’d been very quiet and seemed to lose her appetite.

Both Jamie’s and Amy’s parents are worried about whether their child will settle at school.

What can a parent do when your child’s anxiety is eating away at her like a mouse with cheddar cheese?

The good news is that you, as parent, can make a big difference in how your child copes with school.

I came across a magical little formula about Anxiety recently on the cover of Chip Conley’s book, ‘Emotional Equations’.

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

Even though this isn’t a Parenting book, Conley’s approach can be helpful in responding to unhappy children. A parent can reduce a child’s Anxiety by increasing their sense of Certainty and reducing the sense of Powerlessness.

There’s a number of ways that you can help your child with this. Here are a few Parenting tips if your child’s anxious about starting school that will increase your child’s sense of certainty  and give a sense of having some  power in the situation, and this can significantly decrease your chid’s uncertainty.

1. Firstly and most importantly, no matter what stage of schooling your child is at, ensure that your child knows that his experience matters and that you are trying to understand. (Discover more about how to connect with your child so that he feels heard and validated: Childcare Concerns: How to Listen to Your Child)

2. Think what choices you can give him:

  • Discuss if he would like to meet a friend at the gate and go in together.
  • If he’s anxious about saying goodbye to you ask if he wants to say goodbye at the school gate or if he wants you to walk to the classroom door with him.
  • Give him a choice of what he’d like for his snack.

3. Ensure that he has the information and skills he needs, e.g. where’s the toilet, what’s the teacher’s name, how to open his snack box

4. Make sure he is being collected by someone he has a secure and warm relationship with. (Ideally Dad or Mum, or someone your child has a close, connected relationship with). Explain who will be there to meet him, and make sure that the person is there well ahead of time.is your child anxious about starting school?

A final tip:

Remember emotions are contagious. If you are stressed, frustrated or anxious your child is very likely to ‘catch’ that emotion.

So prepare everything well ahead of time to avoid last minute stress and focus on  being calm and centred.

Keep in mind:

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

I’d love to hear what other ideas you suggest.

P.S. For practical support on being the Parent you’d love to be, discover our online Parenting course:’ BEHAVE-WHAT TO Do When Your Child Won’t’ and face-to-face training offered by accredited Parent Coach Val Mullally MA.

 

 

Last edited August 31st 2017

Is your child anxious about school or childcare?

‘How do I know if my child is being treated okay?’ you may be wondering.

Parents can often feel confused about how to help when they are concerned about their child’s well-being at school. One key thing that  you can do is listen so that your child feels heard.

Imagine that your child makes a comment that concerns you.

Getting to hear what’s really going on depends on how you listen. This especially matters if you are worried about your childcare being anxious or unhappy at school or if you have childcare concerns.

Unhelpful responses some parents make:

Child: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’

Parent:  ‘Ah, you like school.  All your friends are there.’

or

Parent: ‘Just two more sleeps and then we’ll have the weekend. Then we can have lots of time together.’

or

Parent: ‘Now be good. And then I’ll buy you a sweetie on the way home.’

These responses aren’t helpful because they ignore your child’s experience of life and they shut down the conversation.

What your child needs is a safe space to be heard.

How to respond more helpfully:

Child: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’

First PARK everything that is going on for you – all those thoughts chasing around in your head and all those emotions that jump up and grab you by the throat.

PARK your own concerns so that you can really be present to your child.

Like parking your car, you can come back and pick it up later. Right now PARK all that’s going on for you and choose to be present for your child.

To really listen, here’s some of what you might need to PARK.

1. PARK your anxiety.

It makes sense that a comment like, ‘I don’t want to go to school,’ can get alarm bells clanging in your head. But your anxiety will get in the way of listening in a way that will really connect.

How to PARK your anxiety:

– Focus on your breathing.

– Focus on being calm.

– Focus on being present to your child.

2. PARK your busy-ness.

If this is important, other things will need to wait. Your child is only going to open up when they sense your undivided attention.

3. PARK your own need to ‘fix’ things immediately. 

A safe listening space is the best gift you can give your child right now. Afterwards there will be time to seek professional help, if needed. But you will never again have this first moment of what your child needs to share now. Choose to be fully present for your child now.

4. PARK your judgments.

Thoughts might jump into your head about what might have happened – judgments about the staff, about yourself or about other children.

You might have thoughts like:

‘That worker is a *!*&!’

‘I’ve failed my child.’

‘How could they …’

‘Oooh, this is all so terrible …’

These thoughts will wind you up. You need to  be calm to hear your child’s story first.

You might be jumping to conclusions.

Whatever the thoughts are, you can choose to PARK these judgements and focus on being present to your child.

5. PARK any feelings of guilt or anger. 

Yes, you may have many strong emotions coming up. But if you allow yourself to focus on your feelings of guilt or anger right now, you are putting the focus on yourself instead of on your child.

So now you’ve PARKed – what next?

When you choose to PARK your own stuff you can cross into your child’s world.  Only when your child really senses you connecting will they share what’s bothering them.

Make sure you are calm.

Choose your tone of voice, your eye contact and your body language to connect.

Child: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’

Reflect your child’s words (without adding anything extra) :

Parent: ‘You don’t want to go to school?’

Child: ‘Cos my friends won’t play with me.’

Parent: ‘Your friends won’t play with you? Tell me more.’

Keep your own stuff PARKed. Keep focused on being connected with your child. Reflect what your child says and adding ‘tell me more.’

Hold the listening space.

Keep connected and wait for your child’s answer.

Don’t rush in with more words.

Just hold the listening space for your child. Then reflect what you hear, using your child’s words.

When your child senses the connection, he’s likely to share.

Keep holding this listening space.

You will get to the point when your child has told you all he needs to say.

Whatever your child needs, be there for them.

Reassure them that you will deal with it. Give a cuddle or go for  walk. Trust your intuition to give what your child needs.

When you PARK your own thoughts, judgements and emotions you will find you are able to really listen to your child and to sense what ‘s needed, no matter how small or large the issue.

A few extra tips:

#1 Be careful to avoid talking about concerns about your child’s situation in front of your child. Children are listening even when you think they aren’t, and they are going to pick up your anxiety.

#2 Avoid trying to prompt the conversation with your child. If you push or pry or ask questions when your child is not ready to talk, your child will shut down down the conversation like a hedgehog rolls into a ball when it feels unsafe.

Your child will open up or close down depending how safe he feels.

#3 Avoid leading questions that can put thoughts in your child’s head that weren’t there before.

Questions like:

‘Did she smack you?’

‘Did she shout at you?’

are your thoughts. PARK them.

 

Hold a ‘clean’ listening space so your child can share his own story. When you are there to really listen, you may discover that your child’s upset is not big. The connection time will still be precious.

Or if it is a serious issue, at least your child experiences you as his loving and connected ally, who will take action on his behalf.

Please comment on your experiences of your child being unhappy at school or your childcare concerns (But please do not name staff or institutions in your comment).

Please seek professional help if you have any concerns.

Let’s not forget our appreciation for all the staff in childcare centres who are doing sterling work. Many of these are community based, not-for-profit centres. Most childcare workers follow this career path because they are passionate about young children. We all need to lobby for better pay, training opportunities and working conditions for the childcare workers who ARE taking good care of our children. 

If you are looking to train or retrain your staff,

Val Mullally is an experienced teacher, principal and trainer in Early Education.

She is also a skilful Siolta facilitator.

She offers regular Parenting courses  (also ONLINE) and is available to travel to offer training.

 

Related posts:  ‘Toddler Upset – essential reasons for responsive parenting’

Recommended Reading:

You Are My World – Amy Hatkoff

Why Love Matters – Sue Gerhardt

The Whole Brain Child – Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes – Peter Levine and Magie Kline

 

 

 

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Last edited September 02nd 2017

Like most mothers, I constantly strive to achieve harmony in my home and help my children know the difference between right and wrong. Many parents, crèches, early education centers and primary schools use a ‘bold step’ or ‘bold chair’ where the child who has misbehaved must sit and take ‘time out’ from an activity until they are invited back by the parent or teacher.  Even Supernanny on television is a big fan of the ‘bold step’ and ‘time out’ concepts.

I have never been comfortable with the parenting tool of ‘time out’ but I couldn’t see any alternatives.  When I did use it, I always felt like it was a battle of wits between myself and my son. The scene would play out as follows: him acting in a manner which I felt warranted punishment, me telling him to go sit on the bold step, him refusing, me ordering him to go, him still refusing, me dragging him there, him getting up, me putting him back etc. etc. By this stage, both of us have lost our heads and neither is thinking rationally. What could be the possible learning point here for any child? I, for one, cannot see any benefit for either him or me.  However, in the absence of an alternative, I continued periodically to force my son to take ‘time out’.

One of the things that made some difference was helping my son to try to control his anger. For example, when his sister annoyed him, his immediate reaction had been to lash out. I suggested counting to ten, taking a deep breath or walking away.  However, if the behaviour continued, I would have then ordered him to the ‘bold step’ and we’d be back to the battle of wits.

For the past six months I have been on a parent coaching course with Koemba and as a result have had my eyes opened to alternatives when it comes to disciplining my children.  Besides the helpful tools and insights on the course itself, one of the features is reading and reviewing books on parenting. In his book entitled ‘Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason’, Alfie Kohn describes time out as ‘a version of love withdrawal when children are sent away against their will’. He believes that by removing the child, you might get the behaviour to cease but it is only a short term solution.  It doesn’t examine what’s causing the behavior. He states ‘it is the child who engages in a behaviour, not just the behavior itself that matters’.

Kohn provides a number of alternatives to time out as follows:

1. If possible talk to your child and try to ascertain the reason for the behavior and explain why the behavior in question is not helpful;

2. If the child needs to first of all calm down, ask him/her if they would benefit from taking some time to themselves, e.g. in their room.  It’s important that the child does not feel they are being forced to take time out;

3. If the child does not want to take time to himself/herself but it’s not appropriate to leave them where the behavior occurred, then the parent, as a last resort could remove the child and stay with them.

‘The Whole-Brain Child’ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson is a very interesting parenting book. It describes how a child’s brain develops and explains the difference between the left and right sides of the brain.  When a child is upset, they are overwhelmed with right brain emotions and cannot employ left brain logic until they are calmer.  The authors recommend that when a child is flooded with right brain emotions, parents should initially respond with their own right brains instead of trying to reason with the child which would mean using the left side of the brain. Responding with our right brain could mean making soothing sounds, being present for your child, listening attentively.  I really like the following quote: “when parent and child are tuned in to each other, they experience a sense of joining together”. Once the child has calmed down, the parent can then apply logic and reason.

This book also explains how the upstairs and downstairs of the brain differ. Shortly after reading this section in the Whole-brain Child, I explained to my six year old son about “flipping the lid”.  I showed him the illustrations in the book which were created specifically for children. They describe how our lids get flipped when we are cross or upset about something.  It is only when we are calm, and our lids are back down, that we can be start to think clearly again. My son understood this message immediately.  He was now able to put a label on how he felt when he got angry and wanted to lash out.

Since then my son has been learning to identify the signs when he is about to flip his lid.  Even when he does lose his cool, he knows that he then needs to take time to himself until he calms down. He is effectively taking ownership of his own time out instead of me forcing it on him. Sometimes I just say, “Maybe you should go upstairs until you calm down” but most times he just goes to his room without any prompting. He then returns when he decides he is calm, not when I tell him to. That could be after two minutes or anything up to ten minutes later.  When he returns we discuss what caused him to lose his cool, how he could have handled the situation differently, how he would likely deal with a similar scenario in the future, how he felt when he flipped his lid, how he feels now and how he thinks others involved in the incident felt.

While my 6 year old son is happy to go off on his own until he calms down, my 4 year old daughter takes a different approach.  When she is upset and has flipped her lid, she wants me to stay with her while she calms down.  She often wants me to hold her while she does this.  Maybe, over time, she will follow her brother’s example and go to   her room, but for now having me there is helpful for her.  So, where an argument comes to a head between the two of them, he takes off to his room to calm down and she stays with me. When he returns with his lid back down and when she is calm again, we discuss the argument in a rational and non judgmental way.  We all learn and grow   from these experiences.

It has been amazing seeing my son and daughter develop in this way, taking control of their own emotions. In fact, my son recently said to me,

“Mam, you’ve just flipped your lid”.

That stopped me in my tracks and when I’d calmed down, I thanked him for pointing that out to me and explained that everyone loses their cool from time to time.

The bold step no longer features in my house. In fact my daughter has never been on it and I don’t envisage ever using it for my 2 year old son. It’s great to know that there are alternatives to smacking children or using ‘time out’. It’s up to every parent to find the one that best fits their family and their quest for harmony in their home.

 

Marie Reilly

Mother and Trainee Parent Coach

April 2012

 

 

Last edited October 21st 2015

She Won’t Wee in the Potty

‘My daughter was 3 in October and is still not toilet trained. In all other ways she’s pretty advanced but she just seems terrified of using the toilet. We’ve tried everything – musical toilets, reward charts, taking her to see around a nursery school and explaining she needs to be out of nappies to go. But for some reason she is terrified of going. She knows when she needs to go and I don’t think its laziness as when she hasn’t got a nappy on she doesn’t wet. She just cries and says she needs to go and sits on toilet but says her wee wee won’t come out. This can go on for 2 to 3 hours and she’s miserable the whole time. We hadn’t tried since before Christmas but tried training her again this week but she’s totally stressed out and has started crawling round the house saying she’s only a baby. I just wish I knew how to take the fear away for her. I don’t know what to do… But I do know the answer is not smacking her…’

VAL REPLIES:

It makes sense that you’re concerned that your three years old daughter’s not yet potty trained, because it’s natural as parents to hope that our children will be moving through the milestones when everyone else’s are doing so. It obvious that you’re a caring parent – that’s why you’re asking! And I’m so glad that you know that smacking isn’t the answer (that would only increase her anxiety even further).

You’ve tried different tactics and to date you’ve found out what isn’t helpful for your daughter. (That’s great – you’ve eliminated some possibilities!)

It seems there’s a high level of anxiety for her at present.

What does the potty look like to her?

So step one:

Choose to let go  – of your anxiety. When you can let go of your anxiety, she’s more likely to literally let go!

Figure out what it would take for you to be relaxed about this and what you can do if you sense your anxiety rising. Even focusing on your breathing can help at times when you begin to feel stressed. Breathe in till count of seven – out to count of eleven for several breaths.   Trust that this situation will naturally dissolve when you stay connected to her, in a way that shows  that you trust she’ll do this when she’s ready.

A key element to her becoming calmer is for her to sense your calmness.  Young children’s brains are still ‘under construction’ and at this age she is only beginning to emotionally regulate herself.  Young children rely on the parent to calm them down. This is why you choosing to be relaxed about this is so important.

And when she’s stressed she becomes emotionally flooded. Which means the ‘reasoning’ part of her brain is temporarily out of action, so trying to reason about being a ‘big girl for school’ won’t work at this point.  (In fact, if she’s worrying she’s ‘not a big girl’ it’ll increase her stress.)

Step Two:

You say, ‘I wish I could take her fear away.’ I’d suggest that you rather focus on being present to her in her anxiety. View this as an opportunity to reassure your daughter and to help her to be in touch with herself.

Reflect her experience and name her emotions.

Child: My wee won’t come out.

Mum: Your wee won’t come out! (Reflect what she’s telling you. Stay connected with her, whilst choosing to be calm about this).

If you sense her emotion, name the feelings. Maybe a tear runs down her cheek:

Mum: ‘You’re feeling sad?’ (Let your voice reflect that emotion).

Child nods.

Mum:  ‘Tell me more.’

In other words, rather than ‘taking the fear away for her’ this is a wonderful opportunity to help her to name, claim and tame her emotions.  (Emotional literacy is one of the most important gifts you can give your child).

Or she starts crawling  and saying she’s only a baby.

Child: ‘I’m only a baby.’

Mum: (on the floor, close to her) ‘You’re only a baby.’

Follow her lead. Mirror her words and be present to her mood and her actions. Show you are there for her. When she senses you’re okay with this she’s more likely to relax.

By being present to her without trying to change her story, she can begin to make sense of her story for herself.  (And you can gain huge insights too).

Here’s some other practical things you might try:

* Have you tried giving her a wetting doll (plus potty!) Give her the opportunity  to act out whatever she needs to with the doll might ease her anxiety.  And don’t be surprised if she plays out the same scenario repeatedly. By replaying it until she’s satisfied she’ll be able to release the bottled up feelings.

* I’m wondering whether she’s sitting on the big toilet (with an added toddler seat) or a little potty? Is the toilet itself what’s worrying her?   (You could ask her if she would prefer to sit on a potty or on the toilet. She needs to feel she has control of the situation.)

* When my children were young we used cloth nappies. And our children potty trained at a much younger age.  Apparently the level of absorbency of disposable nappies means that children don’t experience the sensation of being in ‘wet pants’, I wonder what would happen if you used towelling nappies.

* Give her plenty of liquids. Hopefully her bladder will then naturally do what its going to do.

*  Be a role model! Let her come to the loo when you go.

* Importantly ensure that the loo is a pleasant place to be. I’d suggest sing songs, read stories, whatever will help to make it a relaxed time.  But if nothing is happening, keep it ‘ no big deal’.  Indicate that you’re confident she’ll be come back the toilet when she’s ready.

Final thoughts:

* Keep in mind, ‘What really matters here?’  It’s going to be an issue for her if it’s an issue for you. If you’re feeling stressed about it, its not the time to try. The key thing is relationship, relationship, relationship. It’s easy as a parent to become worried about something like this but when she senses the security of your ‘no pressure / no anxiety ’ presence she’s more likely to let go of whatever she’s holding onto, (literally and metaphorically).

* A great resource is Margot Sunderland’s book ‘Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children – Helping Children with Feelings’.  She gives clear explanation how stories can give a child a means of dealing with challenges they face.

* You are the one who knows your child best. Trust your contuition (your conscious knowledge as well as your intuition) as to what’s needed and whether things will naturally shift .

* I’d recommend, when she does wee in the toilet, be careful no to go ‘over the top’ with praise.  For me it would be ‘Oh, you did a wee in the toilet!’  Let your eyes and tone of voice give the gentle affirmation.  She’ll have the inner satisfaction of knowing she’s done it.  Extrinsic praise can block her own awareness.

*  If there is no change and your ‘gut’ tells you there’s reason for concern, my recommendation would be to arrange a visit to a Play Therapist.  ‘Children’s toys are their words and play is their language.’  If there is something deep-seated that’s not naturally resolving, a skilled therapist will provide a gentle environment for your daughter to express what she needs.

* When you focus on relaxing and being present to her and her experience it’s very likely that, rather than solving the problem, you’ll find the problem naturally dissolves.

 

Last edited February 18th 2012

An Option to Meltdown

‘We had total melt-down this week.’

It was the fourth week of our Parenting Programme, and  Jane shared her story with the parents and myself, as facilitator, in her group. She’d had the flu during the week and one day was so off-colour that she left her five year old son, Timmy, to choose his own clothes for school. Later in the week he decided that he didn’t want to choose from the either/or outfits that she’d put ready – he wanted to choose his clothes himself. He started whining. She can’t stand him whining so she became increasingly uptight. He started having a meltdown and Jane left the room before she exploded. The other parents gave little chuckles – it was easy to identify with this situation.

‘How do I do it differently?’ she asked.

I invited her to role-play the situation, with me being the mother and her taking the role of the child.  I wish I’d had the video camera rolling, but this is roughly what transpired.

THE ‘KOEMBA–CONNECT’ MODEL

I reminded the group of the ‘Koemba – CONNECT’:

‘PARK – CONNECT – FOCUS – EVOKE before you PLAN.’

As I role-played Jane’s part I consciously chose to PARK my own stuff (particularly I recognised I’m parking my worry about what the group might think).

I also imagine what I might have to PARK as Jane:

my own agenda  (‘We’ve got to get going!’ )

my perspective  (‘What’s wrong with the clothes I’ve chosen?)

my frustration (Why can’t he just co-operate?’)

my opinions (He’s just doing this to annoy me!)

my fears (If I let him choose, he’ll put on something ridiculous!)

All this is ‘my stuff’ and will pollute the space between us, unless I choose to park it.

Only when I put myself in PARK  (In ‘neutral’ position) can I CONNECT.

I gently move in closer, I make eye contact at his level, using a ‘soft gaze’, I’m aware of keeping a calm tone of voice and open body language. Because I’ve already PARKed my stuff, what’s happening on the outside is actually a reflection of the inside– my intention is to CONNECT (Not trying create an instant solution, nor to cajole him into doing what I want). I know it will take time moving through the process to get to PLAN.

Timmy: I don’t want to wear these. I want to choose my own clothes.

Jane: You don’t want to wear those today.

Timmy: No, I want to choose my clothes for school.

Jane: You want to choose your clothes for school?

Timmy: Yes, when you were sick, I did it myself.

Jane: When I was sick you chose your own clothes.

I ‘timed out’ the conversation and checked in with the group. I recognized that as I was role-playing the mother, I wasn’t feeling up-tight and there was no sign of tension in ‘Timmy’. I checked in with ‘Timmy’  – he was ‘feeling heard’. I checked in with the group  – what did they observe? They were aware of the calmness. There was no whining or emotional temperatures rising. And ‘Timmy’ was not doing an out-of-control pre-schooler reaction  – but speaking in a very rational tone of voice. I (as ‘Parent’) had FOCUSED on the situation and EVOKED a response (rather than a reaction).

The Parent group then imagined what would be the situation now if this was an adult-to-adult discussion. We’d PLAN – we’d work together to find a solution that met both our needs.  Jane laughed.

‘I guess I’m worried he’d make a crazy choice but actually he dressed very sensibly when I was too sick to organize his clothes.’

Another mum shared,

‘It’s always a rush in the morning.  I think if we just do it ‘my way’ it will save time.  But when I push my own agenda and ignore what my child needs, it takes much longer and we’re all uptight and upset.’

HELPFUL PROBLEM SOLVING TOOL

‘I get that,’ said one of the dads, ‘but sometimes that’s not practical.’

We discussed a great tool that Faber and Mazlish introduce in their book ‘How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk.’

My YouTube video clip ‘Power Struggle Solution’ demonstrate this approach – click here if you’d like to discover this tool. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how ‘copped on’ your children are at coming up with workable solutions and it’s a great way to build their problem solving and negotiation skills.

THE POWER OF THE ‘KOEMBA – CONNECT’ MODEL

The group recognized the power of the Koemba-CONNECT approach to move out of the power struggle and to create harmony in the home.  What it’s sometimes hard to remember in our Parenting, is that it’s not our job to persuade our children to think the same as we do.  Our role is to support our children to be themselves, with their own thoughts, experiences, emotions and viewpoints. What we can do is to guide them to be response-able.  We can CONNECT so that they can articulate their own opinions and respect others’ – we can model how to connect and compromise.  That’s the potential power in our day-to day parenting struggles. Every upset is an opportunity for growth.

Instead of our children growing up thinking ‘my way or the highway’, they’ll absorb powerful tools to deal respectfully with conflict in relationship.

 

Last edited December 14th 2016

‘Good girl’, ‘bright child’, ‘difficult’, ‘ADD’, ‘ ‘slow’, ‘shy’, ‘lazy’.

The list goes on and on – but what is the impact of the labels we put on our children?

Think about going to the store. You pick up a tin of peas.

What do you expect to get inside?

Peas.

What you see is what you get – right?

The label on the can refers to what’s on the inside.

The labels we put on children are putting a name on what we see on the outside.

When we label the child we’re naming a type of behaviour that we’re seeing on the outside.

We’re seeing the lazy behaviour, or shy behaviour, or whatever.

And we’re presuming that that’s what’s on the inside.

The label is ignoring all the other wonderful aspects of this child.

The label limits us to seeing just some aspect of our child’s behaviour, as though that is who the child IS.

When we’re labelling children ‘What you see is what you get’ is often the outcome.

We’re putting blinkers on ourselves regarding all this child’s wonderful potential.

And we may well be putting blinkers on the child as to all he is and all he’s capable of becoming – his wonderful potential.

Label a child and he’s likely to live up to your expectations.

Even pet names: ‘My little monster,’  ‘cheeky monkey’, ‘my baby’ can have an alarming way of becoming a self –fulfilling prophecy.

So what’s wrong with positive labels, you may be asking.

We’re still limiting who that child is.

The child who owns the label ‘clever’ may find it difficult to relax, have fun.

He’ll have to be living up to his reputation of always knowing the answer.

And that might mean always having his head in the books.

”Little miss sunshine’ may end up denying her sad feelings, her angry feelings. She may become a people pleaser – because the message she received was that it’s her job to be the sunshine in every situation.

What about ‘good girl’?

Doesn’t every parent want their child to be good?

Well, yes, of course we do.

But stop and think about it.

We use the label  ‘good’ when the child is doing what WE want them to do.

Does that mean that they’re ‘bad’ if they’re not complying with us?

When the child’s agenda is at odds with ours, she’s likely to resist or protest.

We might not like that behaviour but what’s it trying to tell us?

If our focus is to raise competent children who have a sense of who they are and where they’re going in life, it’s helpful to resist labels as far as possible.

I was recently at a Parent and Toddler group and watched a four year old carry the plastic cups back to the counter.

Resisting the automatic  ‘good girl’ comment, I said, ‘Thank you.’

She came back with two more cups. I said thank you again.

The third time I said, I figured I needed something else to say:

‘You’re picking up the cups and bringing them back for us.’

Round four:

‘And now you have two more cups!’

Round five:

‘You’ve picked up all the cups off the tables. That was helpful.’

I had to think harder to find a meaningful response that fitted the unique situation. I also named the impact that this had.

If she hadn’t picked up the cups, that wouldn’t have meant that she wasn’t a ‘good girl’. She might have been tired, or occupied with something else.

Sometimes labels are given because we are seeking to understand some challenge the child is facing.

Perhaps a clinical diagnosis has been given.

This can be very helpful for the parent to have some sense of what challenges  they’re facing.

I’m just asking that we bear in mind that this still only describes some aspect of who the child is.

There’s a big difference between saying,

‘My child is dyslexic.’

and

‘My child has dyslexia.’

The dyslexia (or whatever) is the challenge your child is facing.

It doesn’t define who he is.

Think about the difference between saying,

‘My child has a learning disability.’

And

‘My child has a learning challenge.’

A disability is something you have to live with.

A challenge is something that the courageous can overcome.

Language can limit.

Or we can choose to use language that affirms and believes in our child’s amazing, unlimited potential

Like the name on the tin, a label is just something that we attach.

It’s something we can also discard.

If we recognise labels that aren’t helpful– we can toss them today.

We can choose to see the incredible richness, the wonder of who our child is and can be.

Last edited April 12th 2011