Michele van Zyl

I found your book  “BEHAVE –  What To Do When Your Child Won’t” really brilliant and I have implemented many of your strategies already.

The crocodile brain is really interesting and it makes so much sense! Learning to breathe and allow all parts of our brain to function together had made such a difference to my way of thinking. I do still struggle not to react but understanding why we do it has been really helpful. I definitely feel more equipped to respond now, rather than react.

I also find HALT absolutely brilliant!!! I don’t even usually get past the H! Hunger for food, play or attention is usually what it is with my daughter. My husband has been amazed too! We often forget that play is so important, even for my 15 year old! My 5 year old daughter was raging and so I quickly implemented HALT and realised that she had not had much time to play on that particular day. We were in the car and I said to my husband to find the nearest play area. We arrived at a really fantastic one and my 15 year old said that he would just sit in the car and wait, to which I said oh no you won’t! He went along reluctantly and after 5 minutes he was having just as much fun as my daughter! Afterwards he said that he was so glad that I made him play because he had such a great time. I even ended up going on the balancing equipment and the zip line which really was loads of fun! The bad mood had lifted and my daughter was like a different child after that!

I have also been implementing FLAC which has worked wonders with my 5 year old. Her behaviour has really improved since being given choices. She feels empowered and even when I think she won’t choose either, she always decides on one of the two.

So I can really say that your book has been life changing for our family and I am so glad to have met you that night!

Last edited June 05th 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! ) What anyone of us wants is for someone to acknowledge our experience. So, you can empathetically respond, “You’d love that toy”  – but it doesn’t;t mean you have to buy 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 TantrumWhy 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 October 13th 2019

Did you grow up hearing phrases like, ’She’s a naughty child’? My mum frequently said it about me. I was the child who was always pushing the limits – the child testing the boundaries.

Fast forward to 2015.

I’m the last out the door and everyone is already in the car.

My adult son teasingly eases the car forward, as though he’ll leave me behind. I jump into the back seat and smilingly exclaim to him,

‘Oh, you’re naughty!’

’Naughty,’ repeats my toddler grandson.

‘’That’s a new word,’ says his mother.  ‘He’s never heard that one before!’

As we travel I muse how much I appreciate that his parents never label him as ‘naughty’. They never refer to him as a ‘bold child’, even at times when he’s acting out. They are aware that when his behaviour is challenging for them, there’s something going on for him that needs attention. He’s not ‘naughty’!

‘Isn’t it strange, ‘ I comment. ‘We never use the word “naughty” to describe an adult, unless we say ‘He has a naughty sense of humour,” or “naughty underwear”.’ We give this term a different meaning for adults. When we talk about a child being naughty, whether it’s a toddler tantrum, a child who won’t listen, or a defiant child, what we’re really meaning is, ‘My child won’t do what he’s told,’ ‘My child won’t comply.’ In other words, we’re saying, ‘My child won’t follow my agenda.’  But just because your child is choosing to follow his one path, not yours, doesn’t mean he deserves a shaming label.

‘Do you have a word in Danish for “naughty?”‘ I ask Sophia.

‘No, not really,’ she says. ‘If we were talking about a child who seems to be always acting out we might comment that the child was, “Uopdragen”. “Opdrage” means, “to raise”. So “uopdragen” literally  means “unraised”. ‘

As we drive along the highway I muse on this. “Uopdragen – unraised,” isn’t saying the child is “naughty”; it isn’t shaming the child.  It isn’t making the child “wrong”. It’s saying the parent hasn’t fulfilled the responsibility of raising the child; the parent hasn’t given the child the support and skills needed to interact successfully.

I think the Danes are recognising something significant here; it’s our job as parents to successfully raise our children. To  “opdrage” – to raise your child, whether your child is “easy to raise” or challenging  – takes mindful parenting, commitment and consistency.

As parents it is our responsibility to raise a child. This is our task – blaming or shaming our child won’t achieve what’s needed.

 

5 Parenting Tips for when you might be tempted to label your child as ‘naughty’. 

1. Your children’s behaviour is about them, your response is about you.  

When your children act out, it doesn’t mean you’re a “bad parent”. It means your children are trying to let you know something is “not ok” for them.  If you let your thoughts run away with, “What will other people think?” you won’t be able to focus on what your child needs.

 

2. Respond rather than React 

Think of ‘React’ as in a knee-jerk reaction  – instant and without thinking. In any situation you have a split second to determine whether this is an emergency, (where you need to instantly react to ensure safety) or whether to pause and assess what’s needed. In most situations, except for “emergency” concerns, if you want to “raise your child”, it’s more helpful to pause to assess, then respond in a way that gives your child the message, “I’m here for you.”

 

2. Focus on your breathing.

When you want to respond, but can feel your own anger or anxiety is likely to overwhelm, take a moment to focus on slowing and steadying your breathing. When your own strong emotions get in the way it becomes impossible to figure out what’s needed in that moment to effectively ‘raise a child’. When you steady your breathing you will steady your thoughts.

 

3. Remember to ‘HALT’.

When you need to deal with your child’s challenging behaviour, first stop and use the ‘HALT signpost‘ to ask yourself, ‘Is my child Hungry? / Anxious or Angry? / Lonely or iLL? /  Tired?’ When you respond to your child’s needs often the challenging behaviour will dissipate.  Ask yourself, ‘What’s really needed here?’

 

4. Remember, ‘All behaviour makes sense.’ 

Often our children’s challenging behaviour can be frustrating or worrying for us as parents. Remember your children are not “naughty” and they not trying to “get at you”. They are trying to let you know they are in a “not-okay” place. They are acting out because they need your support. Ask yourself, ‘What might this behaviour be telling me?’

 

5.  Recognise a Challenging Moment is a Teaching Opportunity

Maybe it’s a teaching moment for yourself as parent – about what works, what doesn’t and what’s needed. And sometimes it’s an opportunity for you to help your child learn about life.  Most times that lesson is not a lecture, but what we model. The lesson is in our actions.  Maybe it’s a lesson of, “You are loved, no matter what,’ or a lesson in kindness, a lesson in, ‘I trust you.’ What lessons do you most want your child to learn?

 

For more parenting tips about how to ‘raise’ your child, particularly at times when their behaviour is challenging, see new Parenting book, ‘BEHAVE – What To Do When Your Child Won’t  by Val Mullally.

Last edited October 25th 2015

Did you see Pixar’s movie ‘Inside Out’?

Every parent can find a treasure trove of Parenting incidents in this film that can challenge you to think about how to be the mindful parent you’d love to be – or the ‘parent -from-hell’ you never want to be, especially if you’re facing a transition. Parenting is always more challenging at a time of relocation  – whether you’re moving house, moving country, or facing a change like your child starting a new school.

When family stresses overwhelm us, even the ‘dream child’ can become a serious parenting headache, as we see with Disney Pixar’s character Riley. If you haven’t seen the film, even watching the ‘Inside Out’ trailer gives a taste of what can lie in store for the unsuspecting parent when regular family life is thrown off balance.

Perhaps you’ve already experienced a moment when your precious, well-behaved child suddenly becomes the disdainful pre-teen – who answers you back, rolls her eyes or storms out the room.

‘What happened to my sweet co-operative child?’ you ask yourself. ‘How do I get my child to behave?’ The thing is, you can’t. You can’t make any child behave. But, even when you are under stress, you can figure out how to respond in a way that’s more likely to create co-operation. Here’s how:

Eight Tips to Turn Your Family Upset into an Opportunity for Connection

 

1. Don’t let your Anger have the driving seat.

Like Riley’s home, a little incident can easily escalate. Riley’s dad let his Anger take command, and within seconds, the incident down-spiralled into out-of-control conflict. Riley’s Dad didn’t have to let Anger dictate – it was his choice.

 

2. Keep control of your emotions.

The thing is, either you are in charge of your emotions or your emotions are in charge of you.  Riley needed her dad to remain the parent, to stay in a calm place, especially when her emotions were getting out of control. Your children need you to remain the adult.

 

 3. Mind the gap!

There’s a momentary ‘pause’ in every incident where you can let your emotions take control, or where you can focus on your breathing, and centre yourself, so that you can figure out what’s needed.

 

4. Ask yourself, “What really matters here?” 

The outcome of a parent letting Anger take command can be disastrous. Riley’s family crisis could have ended up being a parent’s worse nightmare. For every action there is a reaction. I’m not saying that Riley’s eye-rolling behaviour was acceptable – but it’s when, where and how a parent deals with reactive behaviour that makes the difference.

 

5. HALT – what’s going on for your child!

Stop – for just a second and ask yourself ‘Is she Hungry/ Angry / Anxious / Lonely / iLL or Tired?’  Responding to your child’s ‘HALT’ needs will often defuse a potential crisis.

(You can discover more about the HALT signpost and other useful tools on the Koemba  ‘BEHAVE -What To Do When Your Child Won’t’ Online Parenting Course).

Take a moment to think about the situation from Riley’s perspective, she was ‘Hungry’ for her old home and probably also hungry for her parents’ attention (they were both worried and stressed about the house move, the furniture not arriving and the new job).In fact, if you think about all that’s been going on for Riley, you will probably also figure she was Angry, Anxious, Lonely and Tired. This child needs support!

 

6. Ask yourself, “What might my child’s behaviour be telling me?”

Using HALT as a guide, when you listen to your child’s behaviour, you’ll figure out what’s needed. When you are in a situation like Riley’s parents, you might not be able to provide an easy or immediate solution, but with the ‘HALT’ signpost to guide you, you will be able to see your child’s perspective. You’ll be able figure out together what is possible, when you work together as a team.

 

7. HALT – what’s going on for you!

Remember you are not “super-mum” or “super-dad”. You won’t always respond in an ideal way. There are times when Anger (or Fear, Disgust or Sadness) might grab control. Go for a walk. Regain your calm. HALT – and ask yourself,  ˜Am I Hungry/ Angry / Anxious / Lonely / iLL or Tired? Riley’s dad had been so busy trying to sort out the stresses the family were facing he hadn’t taken time to recharge his own batteries. If he’d taken time to relax with Riley (or with himself!) he’d have been in a better place to respond helpfully to her.

You can’t be the parent you’d love to be if you’re not minding your own needs too.

8. Build in time for fun as a family.

When we are under stress taking time for fun is the first thing to go out the window. But  fun, ˜feel good” experiences release endorphins into your system, which counteract the stress chemicals, which reduces your likelihood of reacting unhelpfully. Fun as a family matters most when you think you can least afford it, because  it will be easier to deal effectively with the upsets when you and your family are more relaxed.

 

And a final thought:

 At the start of this incident  in “Inside Out”, Riley’s mum is trying to be kind and understanding – but they still have a family meltdown. The secret is  – it’s all about timing. The more your child moves towards her teen years, the more will be her need for autonomy, for doing things HER way. She’ll tell you what she wants you to know in her way and in her time. If you try to force the connection, rather than let it unfold naturally when she’s ready to talk, you could be heading for meltdown. If she resists connection, give her space, remain approachable, create opportunities for fun and relax together. Build the sense of connection so she’ll want to want to share with you whats going on for her.  For the three key strategies every parent needs to gain insights into how to deal with discipline issues in the home, particularly if you are coping with moving house, moving country or facing some other family transition like your child starting school, see “BEHAVE: What To Do When Your Child Won’t”.

If you have serious concerns about your child’s behaviour, it’s important to seek professional help.

What insights did your family gain from “Inside Out”?  Please share in the comments box below.

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Last edited September 20th 2017

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Last edited August 20th 2015