Loving the “Stop Yelling” course – unlike any other parenting course I have done. Deeper – more reflective and recognises the individual difference and need for unique solutions for each.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shopping lists. Last minute tasks to complete. Another card you forgot to send! Here is how to stop the mind spin, how to stress less and enjoy Christmas. Yes, sometimes sad and bad things do happen at Christmas, but how we think about the situation can add to our stress or diminish it.
The sixth blog of this CHRISTMAS series by Val Mullally
T is for Thought Minding
Don’t you sometimes wish you could let go the Christmas stress and just relax and enjoy?
“But there’s so much to do!”
The thoughts we tell ourselves add to our stress.
We can ease the stress by noticing our thoughts, because negative, self-defeating thoughts erode our sense of well-being.
It’s often not so much the circumstances that stress us – it’s our thoughts about the situation.
“I’ll never get this finished.”
“The meal’s ruined.”
“But aren’t our thoughts our thoughts?” you may be asking.
We often have ANTs – Automatic Negative Thoughts.
ANTs are thoughts that jump into our heads – that we often react to without assessing them. Negative thoughts can make us reactive, which can cause the other person to react. So our thoughts become self-fulfilling. The good news is we can change our thoughts, when we are aware.
How to Let Go Of Thoughts That Stress
Notice what you are actually saying.
Is it 100% true all the time?
Is this thought helpful or is it winding you up?
To let go of unhelpful thoughts, first we need to recognise them.
Can you spot any of these in your own thought patterns?
Mind Reading ANTs*
“She’s deliberately trying to wind me up.”
“He just wants everything his own way.”
We presume we can read the other person’s mind.
We think we know their intentions are “bad” or uncooperative.
Fortune Telling ANTs*
We predict the worst-case scenario outcomes.
“The day will be a disaster.”
Acknowledge that thought is not true. Consciously rephrase the thought to something that builds hope.
“Even if everything doesn’t go smoothly we will still enjoy ourselves.”
“Always” / “Never” Thinking ANTs*
“He’s always late.” “I can never …”
These words add to our stress and disempower us.
Whenever we notice those words and test the truth of our thoughts, it can help us to gain a more realistic and helpful viewpoint.
“Always late?” If the thought is not true 100% of the time, then it’s not true.
What would be more accurate? “He’s often late” or “He’s sometimes late”.
Change your words for something that reduces your stress.
These often sound like ‘I should have … ’ ‘I must…’ ‘I ought to …’
“I must give them a three-course meal.” “I should order that gift online.”
These “guilt” ANTs need careful testing.
“I ought to be kinder to myself” – probably yes.
“I ought to be doing more” – probably no!
“Guilt” ants make us feel stressed.
Test to see if this guilt causes s a vague thought that just unsettles you without creating any helpful outcome, or if it’s nudging you to take helpful constructive action.
Righteous Judgement ANTs1
We pass judgement on ourselves and on others, causing a sense of comparison and stress, often leading to unhappiness.
e.g. “good” / “bad” ; “right” / “wrong”
“She’s behaving badly”, “I’m right.”
Unless you’re talking about a legal or ethical issue, where there is a defintive right or wrong, recognise that the strong line of “right” or “wrong” is generally stressful.
Find words that are more helpful. Perhaps reword your thought as a question. What happens when you view the situation with compassionate curiosity?
I wonder what might be going on for her that she is behaving that way?”
“I wonder what leads him to think that way?”
Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them. Daniel J. Siegel
If your children’s behaviour is challenging, minding your thoughts will help to calm your reactivity, which will impacts theirs. For helpful insights and practical tips on how to respond rather than react to your children’s behaviour, see my book, “BEHAVE – What To Do When Your Child Won’t – the three pointers to mindful discipline”
What is the impact of my thoughts on myself and on others?
When I change my thoughts,
it changes my feelings,
which in turn impacts my body reaction
which in turn affects my behaviour,
Which in turn affects other people’s behaviour.
Our state of mind can turn even neutral comments into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear. Daniel J. Siegel
It’s not that we won’t still have difficult situations to face. It’s how we respond to them, rather than negatively react to them, that can lower our stress levels.
Becoming more aware of the thoughts, feelings ands body sensations evoked by events gives us the possibility of freeing ourselves from habitual, automatic ways of reacting, so that we can, mindfully respond in more skilful ways. Mindfulness notes – Oasis Centre, Dublin
M is for Mindfulness in the next blog in this CHRISTMAS series.
So it’s over to you:
What ANTs do you spot in your inner talk?
Try rephrasing any ANT you spot with words that reduce your stress.
Notice the impact this has on your reactivity and on others.
*. These Automatic Negative Thought categories proposed by Henslin, Earl “This Is Your Brain On Joy”, 2008, Thomas Nelson, USA
1. Added category proposed by Val Mullally – Koemba Parenting
I have been reaching out to Val for Parenting advice the past 4 years now and her philosophy and her work just never fails to get me back on track again.
Every parent remembers those sleepless nights when your child isn’t well. When you are so tired all you want to do is sleep – but your sick child needs you!
Here is a beautiful reflection from our guest blogger Rebekah Florence. Please share your thoughts in the comments
Ewan the dream sheep’s playing his harp,
Your blue teddy dummy is glowing in the dark.
My hand feels warm on your tiny toes,
I wish I could clear your snuffly nose.
It’s the third time tonight that we’ve heard you cry;
Your voice cuts through the silence and I heave a sigh.
It’s past midnight and the whole village is asleep
As in the creaky rocking chair our vigil we keep.
You cry, I sigh, ask God why? and curse your reflux –
Back arching, fighting, til your tired head to me tucks
And then, rocking together in our unsought midnight diad,
Met somewhere in between our dreams, and feeling deeply tired,
It strikes me how enormously this moment cheers my heart;
As we hold each other in the darkness, not wanting to part.
We would not these sacred chance embraces have collected
If your sleep was as the books on babies told us to expect it.
Shared with permission:
“As children, my sister and I were so jealous of each other,” said Claire, as we sipped our lattes. “I thought my sister was so much more beautiful than me.”
I raised my eyebrow. In my mind how could my friend not have seen her beauty. Claire has a fair complexion, smooth blond hair and neat features, and she has a radiance that makes me smile just thinking about her.
“My sister had dark curly hair, dark, dark eyes. I thought I looked insipid compared to her. I was so envious of her looks. We fought most of our childhood,” she sighed. “Imagine – all those years we could have had a great sibling relationship. It was only when we got to be adults that we talked it through and discovered we were both envious of each other’s looks.”
So many parents despair because of their children’s constant bickering and fighting. Perhaps you are a parent in that situation too, concerned about the sibling rivalry in your home – perhaps you are wondering how to respond to sibling jealousy.
Three Key Aspects to Counteract Sibling Jealousy
1. Create Opportunity to Listen to How Your Children Are Feeling
To stop the fighting we need to think about what might going on underneath the surface that is causing the turmoil. Like adults, children are influenced by the thoughts they dwell on. They are not likely to respond in a kind, compassionate manner when they are thinking:
“She’s prettier than me.”
“He’s better at sport than me.”
“She’s cleverer than me.”
“Mum and Dad love her more than me.”
“Just because she’s the baby, they let her get away with it.”
Very often when anger surfaces there are feelings of fear or disappointment underneath the blanket of the aggressive behaviour. These emotions are fueled by envious, or jealous thoughts. Until we acknowledge and respond to our children’s feelings and thoughts, we are likely to find ourselves dealing with the fallout of sibling rivalry. The thing is, jealous thoughts are like woodborers – if they are ignored, they slowly erode the fabric of the relationship.
“Jealousy and envy distort the truth of what is essential for satisfaction or genuine happiness in life.”
This quote is from Normile and Alley’s book “Overcoming Envy and Jealousy Therapy”
When sibling rivalry erupts your children need you to help them to restore equilibrium. Focus on creating a safe space where your children can process what’s going on for them. To quote Dr Dan Siegel: “Connection calms.”
2. Help your children to think about what their envy might be telling them
Children often feel frustrated, irritable or fearful because they imagine they are at a disadvantage to the other.
Think about the expression we hear kids use – “I’ll get even!”
This statement says so much – when there is sibling rivalry at least one child is not feeling equal to the other.
Perhaps your child’s envy is tied in more with admiration of his sibling than a feeling of resentment.
We can’t stop the envy, but imagine if we could help our children to take ownership of their envy and to turn this around to be a helpful tool. Have you come across the term “frenvy”? It’s a term to describe “friend envy” – that sometimes we envy the character traits or achievements of the very ones we like. When we listen supportively we can help our children figure out what their envy is really about, and it can spur them on: “If she can do it I can too!” We can help them turn the green-eyed monster into a helpful ally – to be the best they can be.
3. Build your children’s self esteem
When there is strong sibling rivalry it is often connected to low self esteem. A key aspect to easing sibling rivalry is to build your children’s self esteem.
“Jealousy and emptiness are related, not twins, but born of the same emptiness within you.” Normile and Alley
To discover practical ways to boost children’s self esteem see 7 Useful Tips On How to Build Self Esteem In Your Child.
Bringing positive change to levels of self esteem and softening the intensity of sibling rivalry is a long steady haul to healthier, happier relationships. And, as parents, our consistency counts.
What are your thoughts? If you have any questions or comments about sibling envy please post them below.
Join Parenting Expert Val Mullally in Moville this weekend.
Fri 4 Nov 7:30 – 9 pm ‘Meeting Your Child’s Deepest Emotional Needs’
Sat 5 Nov ‘Responding to Children’s Challenging Behaviour’
Moville Methodist Hall
Open to all parents of children aged 3 to 12 years
(grandparents and other child-carers also welcome)