October 11th, 2020
We all know anger is DESTRUCTIVE and shouting at our children just doesn’t work, so how do we remain calm and carry on?
You know the drill. You make steely vows to yourself that you will do your deep breathing, count to 10, and imagine your head as a pressure cooker, releasing all the steam!
Dealing with tears, tantrums and everything in between is par for the course when bringing up kids, but keeping calm in the face of flashpoints can feel like an impossible task. However much we insta-hashtag ourselves into staying calmer, being stronger, or just shouting less, the reality is our children press our buttons!
It’s easy to change from being a calm, rational human being to an authoritarian dictator consumed with rage because your three-year-old is not putting his shoes on quickly enough and you are going to be late for nursery school or work.
All of us will have said and done things that we have come to regret. Adult anger can be destructive and if unleashed on kids can have damaging effects, often leaving younger children confused and fearful. We know shouting at our children doesn’t work and yet there will be moments when we end up screaming like a banshee. We resort to saying things like:
“Why can’t you just do as you’re told? Stop whining or I’ll give you something to really complain about! No one is interested in your crying, so just stop it NOW!”
Adult rage can leave children feeling stressed and some children may remain with elevated stress levels for a while afterwards. When we’re stressed, our bodies produce the hormone cortisol. If cortisol remains in children’s systems their learning is compromised and there can be implications for physical and mental health. When we’re stressed heart rates go up, vision and hearing is impeded and our access to our pre-frontal lobes with all their cognitive and reasoning functions is restricted.
Sometimes children may feel responsible for their parent’s rage. It may result in compliance in the moment, but it breaks connection and reduces parental influence and is unlikely to create long-term learning.
And what children see, children do. Don’t be surprised if they start showing more aggression and rage with you and with others.
Our objective as parents is to keep calm and use positive and consistent strategies in raising our children, and we all need support to defuse our buttons in the moment.
So what are the remedies?
Teach the kids to use cool down strategies too. You may use a visualisation strategy like imagining a beach or place with happy memories, or a physical one, such as going for a walk or splashing your face with cold water. Or you may opt to use a calming mantra: “This too will pass. I need to be the adult here.”
October 04th, 2020
I wonder if anyone else is experiencing less than desirable behaviour from the children now that they’re back at school. Is it down to tiredness, or something else?
One mum wrote to us about her 8 year old son (we’ll call him Tom) whom she described as being very articulate and likes everything to happen to his agenda. Some kids do have a very regular temperament and they don’t handle change well. And we have written about the desire for self-governance before.
This mum said that during lockdown Tom’s behaviour and attitude was mostly lovely, but now he's back at school he's getting overtired and his attitude is deteriorating. Being the sort of person who likes things to go according to his plan he will have been thrown by all the changes at school this term and it will be tiring for him to deal with it all. Then when he comes home he releases those feelings. In lots of ways that's good as it indicates that home is the safe harbour where he feels safe to express himself and knows his feelings are accepted but it's wearing for the parents.
Temperament plays a big part here. For some kids schooling from home was a blessed relief as they could learn at their own pace, did not have to deal with the noise and distractions of their peers and did not feel the competition from others. For other kids of course they have been sorely deprived of the social interaction and stimulation they thrive on. The classroom is a very tiring environment for children on the introverted end of the spectrum and for more sensitive children. For kids who are highly perceptive (or distractible) and find it difficult to focus on one thing it can be exhausting.
Our mum described a situation where a friend turned up in the middle of family dinner with a gift of Lego cards and albums for the children. Huge excitement. Of course Tom wanted them NOW but dinner needed to be finished and there were jobs to do afterward; reading and homework. Tom, with his very persistent personality, was relentless in arguing for the cards and he sought to negotiate having them sooner. Of course at age 8 it is very difficult to do reading practice and homework when there is something more exciting on offer.
The adults tried to explain what needed to happen but explanations utilise the rational part of the brain whereas children gripped by feelings are operating from the emotion centres in the Limbic system. At Tom’s age they just don’t have the life experience or perspective to accept that it is better to put off the exciting things and do what has to be done first. Delayed gratification is very difficult for an immature pre-frontal cortex, the emotion-regulating, impulse-controlling centre of the brain. Frustration built, tempers frayed, doors were slammed, things were thrown and words were said. Tom was very rude. But he was doing the only thing he could manage given how he was feeling. He didn’t know how to express himself differently (despite being quite articulate when he wasn’t so deeply in his emotional brain) and he didn’t know how to manage his powerful feelings.
And mum had her own feelings too. Her buttons were pushed by what she felt was disrespect for her and said there’d be 'No Lego cards till tomorrow'. She wasn’t immediately able to help him and said her own hurtful words which she deeply regretted later. But she had maturity and perspective on her side so when she came back from a run she was calm and could see what he needed. The next day she apologised to her son for losing her temper. She explained how his words had made her feel but did not excuse her actions. She knew he needed help to manage his feelings so she started by describing how she thought he was feeling. “Last night you were so excited about the Lego cards and so frustrated that you couldn’t have them straightaway. You were really annoyed at having to do homework when you'd already had a full day at school and those cards were calling to you. Maybe it felt like I didn’t care about what you wanted and only wanted you to do what I wanted. I get it now. But I wasn’t very understanding last night. And I want us to be a family where we think about how others feel. I’m sorry.
Can we play a game called ‘Back To The Future’ where we replay what happened but do it differently. Was there anything you could have done differently? What can you do next time when you’re feeling like this? “
Really being aware of your child’s own personality, their default setting for approaching life, will help to tailor your approach to behaviour you’re not happy about. Just because your child has an in-built way of responding to life doesn’t mean those characteristics are set in stone. You can help your child to be more flexible, more adaptable, more willing to try things. You can support them to slow down, to think, to focus and to be able to curb impulses. Yes, it takes a lot of work but the result is a child who can get along in life without feeling that they are wrong or unacceptable the way they are. Kids who find school requires an awful lot of energy will need compassion and understanding and support at home.
And yes, they probably need more sleep right now as well so prioritise it and do whatever it takes to get into good sleep habits to help them as the nights draw in. Remind yourself you’re modelling good sleep hygiene when you take an early night and tell your kids that’s what you’re doing. Make sure schedules aren’t overloaded and have some screen-free evenings where you just hang out together as you learnt to do during lockdown.
September 20th, 2020
If you live in the northern hemisphere your children have recently started a new school year. Some of them will be doing face to face learning (maybe after a long period away) and some will be learning from home. Some will start off doing in-school learning and then find themselves at home again for a period if schools are closed in response to an outbreak. Like all of us children find this constant change very unsettling and this upset may emerge in defiant behaviour. When we clamp down on the behaviour without addressing the underlying emotion not only will the behaviour remain but we will have caused a bit of disconnect with our child just when they most need to feel the security of connection with us.
Adults often think that the way to be in charge is to make every decision and brook no argument or even discussion about it from children, especially if that is how we were brought up ourselves. We often feel that when a child ‘talks back’ they are disrespecting our authority. Rarely is this their intention. There may be many reasons for uncooperative behaviour and the best thing we can do is to try to consider our child’s point of view and to gauge how they feel. If behaviour is unacceptable this approach is not to excuse it but to understand it and to know how best to respond to it.
This week I witnessed some very extreme behaviour from a little boy who was going through a very difficult time. His mum was in hospital and his dad was away from home and prevented from returning because of Covid restrictions. Arrangements for his care were piecemeal and he was not consulted about any of them. It is to be expected that adults need to make those kind of decisions but the result was a little boy who felt like his world was spinning around and he had no control over anything.
His way of expressing his upset included banging his feet on doors, up-ending rubbish bins, pulling electrical equipment out of the wall and trying to run away. When outside he uprooted several plants and turned the hose on me! Lucky it was a warm day…
It is not uncommon for children to feel really powerless and sometimes their response is to try to seize power wherever they can. For very young children the easiest areas to exert control are around food or using the toilet.
It is completely natural for all of us to want to have some autonomy in our lives. Humans are hardwired to seek to make choices according to our own free will. We hate being forced to do things. From around the age of 3 we discover the limits of our power and often find that hard to accept. The ‘terrible twos and threes’ can be characterised by a battle of wills. Young children don’t get to decide where they go, what they eat, who they interact with, what they can touch and when they bathe, brush teeth and go to bed or how many stories they can have. They can be very vocal in expressing their rage. Of course in adolescence there is a further drive for independence and this can again cause conflict with parents.
As we mature we accept some limitations on our power. As adults we accept some compromise on our freedoms as a trade-off for other benefits. For example we accept the need to wear seat belts and observe speed limits as part of the contract of using the roads and keeping us safe. This acceptance depends on a mature brain which can look to the future and make judgments about the perceived future benefit of accepting the current restriction. Of course not everyone makes the same cost/benefit analysis. Consider the different responses to Covid restrictions, like mask-wearing.
Preventing powerlessness from leading to defiance
Parents can help children process and move through their emotions. They can help them accept the limits on their autonomy. And they can help a child or young person feel that they have some say in their own lives too.
Research tells us that naming emotions helps a child to process and move through an emotion. fMRI scans show the emotional centres of the brain light up less when the feeling is labelled. Recognising that your child is frustrated by whatever it is they cannot do will help them to feel understood. Once the feeling is acknowledged the child does not need to keep expressing it through their words or behaviour. Even if the parent seems to be the source of the frustration, because they are forbidding the desired activity, by recognising how the child feels there is still connection between adult and child. “You are so cross that mummy won’t let you climb up on the bookshelves. It’s my job to keep you safe but I know you really love climbing.” “I know you’re really annoyed that I won’t let you go to the music festival with your friends. You think my concerns are unreasonable. I know you think I should just trust you. Actually it’s not you I don’t trust….”
Let your child choose whenever possible. They may not be able to say whether homework happens but they might be able to choose when, where and how it takes place. They can choose whether to brush their teeth before or after they get into pyjamas. They can choose what clothes to wear, even if it’s not your taste… most of the time. Many young children hate being picked up and we do want children to have autonomy over their bodies so it can work to give them a choice. “We have to go home now so you can choose to walk or skip over to the car on your own or I can give you a piggy back.”
Get your child’s input on matters that concern them. When setting limits for screentime for instance you could first set out your values around screens and then ask the children what they think the rules should be.
So if you find your child resisting the things they need to do consider how it seems from their perspective, acknowledge how they feel about it and ask for their ideas on how to make what they have to do more palatable.
September 13th, 2020
If your children have just gone back to school and are feeling a bit anxious about it all they may benefit from a boost to their confidence from a surprising quarter –housework. You may have been thinking that now that they are back at school and have their studies to focus on you should let them off doing jobs around the house. Don’t.
Chores are more than specific pieces of work done out of duty - doing them benefits the whole family as well as the individual child both in the present and for the future. Children who contribute to household tasks develop the following desirable attitudes or qualities:
Studies have shown that involving kids in household chores from an early age gives benefits across their whole lives, such as completion of education, getting started on a career path, IQ, relationships with family and friends, and not using drugs. The researchers determined that the best predictor of young adults' success in their mid-20s was that they participated in household tasks when they were three or four.
Even though parents say they believe in the value of chores many of us don’t ask kids to do them at all because
Even quite young children can do jobs. 3-4 year olds can wipe down a table and wash brushes after a painting session, put away toys after play and put clothes in drawers, thus learning that there are consequences to their actions and they need to take care of their own messes and look after their own things. They can pull up a duvet and put a pillow on the bed, can put laundry in a hamper, sort clothes into darks and lights, feed (or help to feed) a pet, lay a table, take everyone’s plates over to the sink and even help vacuum and wipe down a sink after tooth-brushing. Doing these tasks will require teaching in small steps and supervising.
5-8 year olds can do all of the above a bit more independently and help unpack the dishwasher, assist in washing the car, put away groceries, fold washing, water plants and some dusting (watch the precious ornaments!) and gardening work such as raking and weeding (you may need to identify which ones are the weeds).
8-12 year olds can add to that list emptying the washing machine and hanging washing on the line, washing dishes and pots and pans, putting rubbish bins out on collection day, cleaning up after pets, helping with food shopping and preparation, wiping down kitchen benchtops and bathroom surfaces and bathing independently.
Teenagers can also gradually take responsibility for planning and preparing simple meals, cleaning the fridge, toilet and shower, caring for younger siblings and ironing.
The best way to get children involved in contributing to household tasks is to change parental attitudes to and language around them. Move away from a coercive approach to one based on connection and motivation. Maybe don’t call them ‘chores’, but ‘responsibilities’ or ‘contributions’. I found that when I changed my language around tasks my children were much more willing to engage with them.
When my son started secondary school he was feeling very nervous at moving to a much bigger environment. It seemed counterintuitive to give him more responsibilities at a time when he was already dealing with so much but it really helped him believe in his own capacities.
August 27th, 2020
The next return to school will be like none other. Most children have been learning from home for months in the UK. Some went back in whole or in part at the end of last term. Some have not been in face to face learning since March.
A few parents have loved the opportunity to individualise their child’s learning and to spend some real quality time with their kids. Others have found it incredibly difficult to supervise home learning while working themselves or caring for younger children. This is not a moment to compare your parenting with others’ and feel bad if you are longing to send your kids back to school. Each family has different circumstances and how home learning has impacted you will have depended on multiple factors like your children’s ages, educational needs and abilities, their temperament, your work and childcare commitments, your own wellbeing and your support structures.
In September all school children, including those with special needs will be expected to return to school. Attendance will be mandatory. Schools have had to adjust quickly and put a range of measures in place with extra cleaning protocols and to try to keep children apart by keeping classes or whole year groups apart in separate ‘protective bubbles’ and by having staggered break times as well as reducing parent contact at drop offs. Many parents are concerned about how all this will work and there is confusion resulting from conflicting scientific advice.
I have no medical expertise and don’t purport to offer opinions on that but I know in each country with easing of restrictions we are constantly making assessments about balancing risks. In this case the risks we’re weighing up are the damage to education and social learnings from remaining out of school versus the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. The current science (and this changes all the time with experience) seems to suggest that healthy children are less likely to contract or pass on the disease than adults and they experience less severe symptoms if they do fall ill. When they do get ill it seems more likely that they have contracted it from an adult rather than another child. In some countries they have taken the view (based on differing amounts of virus in the community) that social distancing measures for children are unwarranted.
Of course there are many different views circulating and a high degree of confusion and anxiety about children returning to school. One of the things we have all had to get used to in the era of Covid-19 is a much higher degree of uncertainty and for many this is very hard to cope with. There are reports of disturbed sleep, higher rates of intense dreaming and more dependence on alcohol.
You may be anxious about sending your child back to school for reasons of logistics (issues with transport or contact with other people en route) or health (either theirs or that of another member of your household). But when your child goes back to school there will be some things you can do to help them settle back in happily:
Of course point to the good things about going back to school, and smile! Let your child know you will miss them and look forward to hearing all about their day at home time.
July 14th, 2020
Today there is a miniature schnauzer-sized hole in our lives which had been filled for 14+ years lovingly and (until recently) enthusiastically by our Ellie. She will be very much missed by my husband and I, our children and my family who all experienced her particular brand of devotion. (Even in her last days when she was very wobbly on her pins she would get out of her bed to greet my brother when he came round. He had a lot of love from her during a sad time in his life.) She will also be missed by my 3 year old granddaughter and that raised the question of how to explain death to a young child. Some children will have had the experience of death of a loved one perhaps recently because of Covid-19 or for other reasons. Different circumstances may require different approaches and how you talk to your children about loss will vary according to age and experience of bereavement but one thing will remain the same, we do need to talk about it.
If you practice a faith the conversation you have to explain death may be somewhat scripted for you according to the tenets of your faith about an afterlife. You might talk about your loved pet or relative going to heaven and being at peace there; you may say that they didn’t need their body any more but their soul has been reunited with those who have gone before.
If you don’t practice a religion and don’t believe in an afterlife you need to find other ways to help the child understand and come to terms with what has happened.
You may need to explain death to a young child. They may think death is temporary and reversible and they certainly won’t understand the inevitability of it. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life. Even if they don’t understand about death they will pick up on the feelings around them so may well feel sad or be worried themselves. Admit that you are sad but let them know that you are being cared for and keep them close. They will worry if you are apart from them. Keep routines as consistent as possible.
From about age 6 or 7 children usually understand that death is permanent but this is still a pretty egocentric stage of development so just watch out that your child is not blaming themselves in some way for the death –if only I’d been better behaved/looked after Fido better this wouldn’t have happened. About this age children start to question mortality and may worry that the people they love are going to die. They may become a bit clingier and more watchful if they are worried.
From about age 9 onwards children come to understand that death is inevitable and universal, that even they will die.
Let children take part in farewell rituals like funerals and memorial services. I have no regrets about allowing my children to say goodbye to their grandparents in this way. These rituals assist healing and they celebrate the life of the person or animal who has died. Talk to your child about how the deceased lives on in our memories. My grandfather died 20 years ago but he lives on whenever I use a family expression that originated with him. You could encourage your child to create a memory bank of the departed loved one with drawings, photographs and stories.
How to talk about death
At every age adults should be honest with children and the younger they are the more important it is to use simple clear language, avoiding euphemisms. Since young children think in very concrete ways it will not work to say that the person or animal you are grieving has gone into a deep sleep or passed away or gone on a journey or to a better place. It is better to say simply that they have died. Explain to a young child that this means they won’t see them anymore. Of course you can say that they are at peace. Adults tend to use language like this to try to soften the blow but it can lead to a child being afraid of sleep or journeys. We used to explain to my granddaughter that Ellie didn’t come on walks or even get out of bed much because she was very, very old but if you link death with age there is a possibility that they will get worried about anyone in their lives they think of as old–that could mean you! When explaining how death happens the amount of information you give will depend on age and temperament. Some children are just more curious than others. My son told our granddaughter that Ellie’s body stopped working rather than saying she died of old age.
If your school aged child is worried about those around him dying don’t be tempted to say you’re not going to die. There is a lot of discussion about death at the moment and they may have picked up that young people have died too. Remind them that not everyone who gets sick dies. We all get sick sometimes and mostly recover. All you can do is say that you are healthy (if so) and are doing everything in your power to stay safe and well. Without suggesting that you are about to leave them remind them how many people there are in their lives who love them.
If you are taking care of your own emotions your children will be able to grieve too and become more comfortable. Model your own coping strategies for your older children. Maybe suggest to your tween or teen that they could process their emotions by:
Above all talking about feelings is essential. It is very tempting for adults to want to make children feel better when they’re sad. All our euphemisms about death and our attempts to shield children from death presuppose that children can’t handle difficult feelings. This gives the message that these feelings are to be feared whereas feelings are what make us whole humans. Le them cry and feel free to cry in front of them. Use your words to describe the experience. "I know you're feeling very sad. I'm sad, too. We both loved Ellie, and she loved us, too. We’ll miss her funny little face. Do you remember how she used to run around the house like a mad thing?"
Remember that time heals but acknowledging pain helps the grieving process. Accept it.
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