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 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

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?












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

‘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

Last edited February 26th 2013

Receiving Gifts

Happy Valentines!  Here’s a summary of the Parenting tweets I’ve shared through the day.

* Some children experience love particularly through Receiving Gifts.

* We can be mistaken that the child whose primary love language is Receiving Gifts is materialistic / greedy   …

* … but it’s not so much about the value of the present.  It’s ‘You thought of me when we were apart.’

* So the gift of a daisy / a pretty pebble can be of as much value to the child as an expensive item.

* Dads: Valentines is a great opportunity to also affirm your daughters of your love.

* Dads:  Your daughter is unlikely to behave like a tramp if she KNOWs she’s your princess.

* Children thrive on knowing that Mum is Number One in Dad’s life.

* One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a stable loving adult relationship. To run smoothly relationships need maintenance – like vehicles.


* Book Val Mullally as your guest speaker to discover insights & helpful tools to create more enjoyable & fulfilling family life.

* Valentines is about meeting your partner’s love needs. Perhaps reflect on the 5 love languages to ID what makes ur partner feel loved.

* Find out more about  key elements of loving family relationship:

Quality Time

Words of Affirmation

Acts of Kindness

Physical Touch



Last edited February 14th 2012

Teenage Freedom?

‘How do I give my twelve year old freedom but also keep an eye on her without her thinking that I don’t trust her?’

What’s helpful when teenagers are pushing  for freedom and you’re worried about their safety?

As parents we develop strategies to try to keep our teens safe – but not all are necessarily helpful.

The Checking Up Strategy

What I think isn’t helpful is ‘sneaky’ checking up.

I think of one mother who used to surreptitiously check her teenage daughter’s phone. The daughter resorted to renaming the ‘not- allowed’ boyfriend as ‘Jenny’ on her phone.

Life has a strange way of boomeranging – and if you do sneaky you’re likely to get sneaky.

One of the things that I did with my sons that was helpful was to have a policy that if they wanted to go out, we, as parents, would be phoning the parents who were hosting the event so that we could check arrangements.

They knew this was the deal and that we would not agree to them going out if there was anything that was of concern to us.

The ‘ParentPepTalk’ Strategy

I was so anxious that my sons would turn out ‘right’ that I thought it was my job to repeatedly remind them what ‘good’, responsible behaviour looked like. Now I look back I recognise that my sons had been taking ‘snapshots’ of ‘how we do life’ from a very early age. By the time they get to their teens they have a complete reference catalogue stored up –

how we do conflict

how we deal with upset feelings

what we do if we can cheat and get away with it

how we show love

what’s okay and not okay.

The endless list is already stored and the last thing teens need or want at this stage of their lives is the constant peptalk.  When my son was in his early teens he told me about boys drinking at parties,  he immediately got the  ‘That’s not okay, please don’t you ever do that, I’ll be so disappointed, blaah, blaah, blaah’ ad infinitum lecture. So what happened within a couple of years is he stopped telling me what was happening in his life. The wiser me now recognises that he was telling me because he was trying to make sense of the standards we’d encouraged. It would have been more helpful if I’d just listened to what he wanted to share and asked his opinion.

We can get so worried by what we think might go wrong that we only focus on the negatives. What I know now is that if a child has a strong sense of self-esteem she’s not going to be trying to fill the ‘hole in her soul’ with drink, drugs, sex and all the other parent nightmares.  A child with a strong self-esteem has an inner core she can rely on.

So how do we build young people’s self esteem?

Recognise that self esteem is much more than self confidence. Self Esteem is like a three legged stool and confidence is only one of those ‘legs’. Like any stool we need the legs to be of equal length and strength for a stable base.  I’m most grateful for learning this concept through Jesper Juul’s book: ‘Your Competent Child’.

So let’s look at each of these:

Confidence comes from our sense of competence.  Learning to be able to do things for yourself and to be able to figure out what’s needed is all part of confidence building.  Obviously a situation that’s too big and overwhelming and beyond the child’s control will have the opposite effect and would damage the child’s confidence. That’s why it is important that we as parents both build our children’s confidence and also set clear boundaries around what we do and don’t permit.

Confidence is built when young people can figure out their own solutions. If parents are always rushing in to solve every dilemma, how do children learn?  Ask yourself if there are times when it would be more helpful to let your child take the consequences of her action (or inaction).

Belonging In the teen years a sense of being part of the group becomes very important.  The challenge comes when your child loses a sense of ‘belonging to herself’. Our need to feel connected to ourselves (our autonomy) and our need to be connected with others is like a see-saw. Both parts are necessary and the balance will only be kept if it’s firmly grounded in unconditional love.

When you get the first ‘teenage rumbles’ rather than resort to ‘Because I said so’ or caving in, focus on seeing these as opportunities to help the child keep connected with herself and her values and to learn to negotiate with you.

Worth Your child needs to know that nothing she does can add to or take away from her intrinsic worth.  When she knows this she’ll know you are the ones to turn to when life’s uncertain.

When your child has a self esteem stool with three strong legs of confidence, belonging and worth, she has a stable base to deal with the challenges of teenagehood.

Our children are already born with incredible potential to beautiful, wise, creative, compassionate, wonderful people.

It’s our job as parents to create conditions for them to thrive. 

You’ll discover more insights and practical tools in my CD                                                         ‘Helping Your Child Cope in the Real World’.  Also available as MP3.

Helpful books on this topic:

Your Competent Child Jesper Juul

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families   Stephen Covey

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls Mary Pipher

Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood William Pollack



Last edited January 17th 2012

How to help child to develop a sense of appreciation at Christmas

Dear Santa

How nice to get a thank you letter.  I really appreciate appreciation!


Percy PostElf

Dear Percy

Did you ever see a picture of a sad Santa?  When we focus on gratitude our brains release serotonin, the ‘feel good’ chemical.  The more we focus on what we appreciate the happier we’ll be. And happiness is contagious. So let’s think about how parents can make magical moments at Christmas.

Even in relationships that are ‘cranky’ right now – try thinking every day of at least four things you appreciate about that person. You get what you focus on!

The great thing about limited finance is that families often start to create what really matters. Instead of the buy-buy-buy mentality, they become more aware of what Christmas is really about – celebrating the mystery of Love.

And it doesn’t need to cost money to enjoy what really counts. In fact, happiness experts say that the happiness from new possessions only lasts a few days or weeks at the most.  It’s meaningful relationship that creates the connection –  that creates the happiness –  that lasts.

Here are some of my favourite ideas for families to make magical moments this festive season:

Make magical moments

    Making Christmas decorations together.

    A Christmas walk (maybe a day walk, scrunching through the snow, or going out in the dark to admire the Christmas lights) if, like me, you’re living in a cool part of the world.

    One of my favourite Christmas activities in our village is the community Carol singing in the Park on Christmas Eve.

What are the no-cost activities that make Christmas special for your family?

Cocoa by candlelight with carols playing? A game of Pictionary?

Choose to make magical moments this Christmas. I’d love Parents to write in and share what happy memories they are creating.

Hello Children Develop an Attitude of Gratitude at Christmas                                                                                                                                            Love


P.S. Tomorrow I’m going to follow up re Daniel’s Mum and Dad fighting.

P.P.S. Here’s my other letters:

Day 1   What to do with Children’s ‘Great Expectations?

Day 2  Christmas Gifts Without a Huge Expense

Day 3  Dealing with Disappointment

Day 4  Creating Christmas Surprises

Day 5  Three Key Questions Regarding Purchases

Day 6  No Money At Christmas

Day 7 How to Stop Children Expecting Everything 

Day 8 When Sad or Bad Things Happen

Day 9  When Grown Ups Fight

Day 11 Can’t Forgive at Christmas 

Day 12 Christmas – What Really Matters












Last edited December 07th 2018

Letters to Santa - Day 3 Child disappointment

Dear Santa

Today a mother is asking how to deal with children’s emotions when she’s dealing with ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’. And even children are worried about disappointment – see Liam’s letter.

What can parents do when they are dealing with a child’s disappointment?



Dear PercyPostElf

Sometimes when children have a big ’want’ it can feel like a ‘need’.

Parents hate to see their children disappointed. They love their kids so much that they forget that disappointment is part of the fabric of life. Preventing children from ever feeling reasonable disappointment is like keeping a plant in a hot-house,  it’ll never cope with being exposed to the storms of life.

Some parents will have disappointed children this Christmas. Here’s what I’ve learnt about ‘whole-brain’ parenting and disappointment. When a strong emotion is triggered,  the brain goes on ‘red alert – survival mode’ and the reasoning part of the brain temporarily ‘shuts down’. Reason-able behaviour often disappears because we are not able to reason  – the thinking part of the brain isn’t fully functional when we are emotionally flooded.

What doesn’t help when a child is emotionally flooded?

1. Don’t be-little.

( ‘Big boys don’t cry!’  ‘Oh grow up!’)

2. Don’t compare.

( ‘Your sister’s happy with what she’s got.’ ‘I didn’t get anything like you’ve got when I was little.’)

3. Don’t try to reason while the child’s emotionally overwhelmed.

(Your child can’t hear comments like ‘But we can’t afford it,’ whilst he is upset.)

4. Don’t ignore the child or his feelings.

(Upset feelings don’t just go away by themselves, even if they go underground. They need a space to be heard and validated).

5. Don’t redirect.

( ‘Oh, let’s play with your other toys.’)  Parents sometimes think this is helpful, but it’s a subtle way of ignoring the child’s experience.

Tips for parents when a child’s disappointed:

TIP #1. Help your child to Name, Claim and Tame this emotion.

When you name the child’s experience, he can claim it  (realise that’s his emotion!). When he can claim the emotion he can tame it. (He can learn to accept his disappointment without it overwhelming him.)

TIP #2. Listen to his disappointment, without trying to ‘fix’ it.

‘You’re disappointed that you didn’t get  *** for Christmas. Tell me more.’

Give the space to share how it is for him, just accepting his emotion without trying to change anything. Remember his behaviour is about him – your response is about you. When you’re safe and connected – he can express disappointment.

.TIP #3. Validate how it is for him.

‘’And that makes sense because you would really have liked …’

Validation doesn’t mean that you agree with him – you’re just acknowledging his perspective. It also doesn’t mean we have to ‘make it better’.  Sometimes tears might flow. Just stay connected. The tears we cry when we’re emotionally upset are chemically different to the tears we cry when we’re peeling an onion. So there’s wisdom in the expressions: ‘Have a good cry’ ‘Cry it all out.’ (And of course, the same goes for girls too).

‘Children whose feelings and experiences are validated may cry more or they may become angrier precisely because your validation gives them permission to express their deepest feelings. Once they have done, however, they often move on with no residue of bad feelings.‘ Aldort 2006

How to help child deal with disappointment at Christmas.

So if you are dealing with your child’s disappointment,  be there for them. You don’t have to feel guilty, rush off to the toy store or wave a magic wand. Just connect.

For more thoughts see “3 Traps Parents Fall Into When a Child Is Disappointed” 

For more insights about how to deal with children’s challenging behaviours this Christmas, see Val Mullally’s book: ‘BEHAVE – What To Do When Your Child Won’t.

I’m looking forward to other questions from parents.



P.S. Here are my other letters:

Day 1   What to do with Children’s ‘Great Expectations’?

Day 2  ‘Need’ or ‘Want’

Day 4  Christmas Surprises

Day 5  Three Key Questions Regarding Purchases

Day 6  No Money This Christmas

Day 7  Christmas is for Giving

Day 8 When Sad or Bad Things Happen at Christmas

Day 9  When Grown Ups Fight

Day 10 An Attitude of Gratitude

Day 11 Can’t Forgive

Day 12 Christmas – What Really Matters














Last edited December 03rd 2017

Dear Santa

Here’s another letter from James, who sent you that big long list yesterday.

When I pop into the homes here  I see the children glued to the TV screens, watching all these adverts.

No wonder they think they ‘need’ all this stuff. How can a parent do Christmas shopping on a budget? 



Dear Percy

I wish toy advertising was banned till after nine o’clock at night! Advertisers don’t care about what your children really need. You asked about Christmas shopping on a budget. What I’d  like to do is load up the sleigh with all the good old-fashioned toys that don’t cost the earth and that give children hours of healthy fun. You know the sort we used to take to the houses when their mums and dads were boys and girls:  dolls, toy cars, dressing-up clothes, puppets, balls, wooden building blocks, construction sets.

It’s not that I’m against these modern gizmos but I wish parents would see the value of   ‘open–ended toys’ that can be used a million and one ways. Remember all the wonderful games their mums and dads used to create – those toys really got their imaginations working. With a lot of these new-fangled toys, they look all glitter and glitz – but there’s not really much to hold their interest after the first hour or so.

The families used to have so much fun with the games like Scrabble and  Monopoly.  And the elves have been having great fun playing Boggle. I love jigsaws too. Did you see the Wasgij’s in the storeroom? I hope there’ll be one left over for me after Christmas. It’s a sort of backwards jigsaw where the picture isn’t on the box, you have to imagine it from the clues that are given.

Now that Mrs Claus and I have grown up children, rather than each family member giving a gift to everyone, we do a Kriskindle:

1. You agree on the approximate amount that’s to be spent on a gift.

2. Every family member writes their name on a piece of paper and writes at least three things they’d like, that is within that price range.

3. The pieces of paper are then folded and placed in a hat.  Everyone chooses one piece of paper and is responsible for the present for that person.

4. Nobody tells anybody else whose name they’ve got, so it’s all a big surprise on Christmas Day. (If you draw your own name you put it back in the hat and take another).


Here’s a modern take on Kriskindle for ‘internet’ families and those who are far afield from each other.

1. Agree as a family on the budget amount per person. (If some family members are abroad, make sure everyone has the postal addresses needed).

2. Get someone outside your family to send each of you an email with one of your names and that’s who you will buy for.

3. Then you all send an email to everyone in the family with a few ideas of things that you’d really like, (or create online wishlists).

4. If some family members are abroad, that means building in enough time for posting.

5. Hopefully you can all join up online, if not in person, to enjoy the Kriskindle fun!

This Christmas I’d love to see families laughing, having fun and playing together. It doesn’t need to cost much to do that.

If you send me any other questions, I’ll reply tomorrow.

Letter to Santa - Day 2 Kriskinde



Here are my other letters:

Day 1   What to do with Children’s ‘Great Expectations’?

Day 3  Dealing with Disappointment

Day 4  Christmas Surprises

Day 5  Three Key Questions Regarding Purchases

Day 6  No Money This Christmas

Day 7  Christmas is for Giving

Day 8 When Sad or Bad Things Happen at Christmas

Day 9  When Grown Ups Fight

Day 10 An Attitude of Gratitude

Day 11 Can’t Forgive

Day 12 Christmas – What Really Matters










Last edited December 02nd 2017