Your actions as a parent directly influence how secure and settled your children feel. Here’s how best to raise calm, happy kids!
If you’re a parent, you’ll know that looking after children is one of the most rewarding yet challenging roles out there. There will be times when you fluctuate between feelings of wonder and exhaustion, fulfilment and frustration, gratitude and despair – often within the space of a single day (or even hour!).
Yes, parenting can be hard, especially when wilful toddlers or seemingly uncooperative teens are thrown into the mix. But as the adult in the parent-child relationship, it’s your job to gently guide your children and set a calm, positive example. While a rising temper may be a natural unconscious response to your child kicking and screaming while refusing to get dressed/leave for school/help with chores, it will only lead to an escalation of strong emotions.
We know it’s hard, so we got some expert advice on how to set boundaries, cope with challenging behaviour and communicate effectively with children, to help create a safe, loving and secure family environment.
When it comes to developing a positive relationship with your child, it goes without saying that good communication is key.
‘Parent-child communication is essential to developing and sustaining a relationship, and a relationship with one’s parent/carer is essential for growth and development in children,’ says Joanna Fortune, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and child attachment specialist, and author of 15 Minute Parenting.
Open, honest communication with our children allows us a window into their world.
‘Open, honest and developmentally appropriate communication with our children allows us a window into their world, and ensures it is us they turn to with their questions and struggles, rather than the internet.’
The power of play
Communication comes in many forms and, if you have young children, you will be unlikely to get much response from them if you try to sit them down for an intense heart-to-heart conversation. Instead, it’s important to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them.
‘Play is the language of children,’ explains Fortune. ‘It’s how they communicate, process experiences and events, and integrate any learning to support their development. If you want to communicate with your children, play with them proactively. Just 15 minutes of mindful play between parents and children each day is transformative for a relationship. It creates deeper connections and opportunities for shared joy between parents and children.’
Fortune explains there are many ways of approaching this, from a child-led approach to a parent-led but child-focused approach. ‘Deepening our understanding of play is the best parenting tool we have at our disposal,’ she says.
Don’t forget to stop and listen
Of course, if your child freely offers information, it’s important to listen, however, inconvenient their timing!
‘Many children, to their parents’ dismay, love to start deep and lengthy discussions at bedtime – be it on the topic of how aeroplanes work, a feeling they have, a quarrel with a friend or a memory,’ says Dawn Tame, maternity nurse at MyTamarin.
‘Bedtime seems to be the time where feelings are more prevalent, so as tempting as it is to try to postpone their thoughts, judge the situation and respond to them, while making sure it’s not just a ploy to get out of going to sleep!’
The importance of boundaries
As part of the parent-child relationship, it’s your job to set boundaries for your child. Far from being ‘mean’ if you don’t let them have their way, setting boundaries is actually an important and necessary tool in helping them feel safe and secure.
‘Boundaries are the opportunity for infants and children to begin to understand the concept of what is safe in their environment, and for developing social interactions and relationships with the people in their world,’ explains Tame.
Boundaries are the opportunity for children to understand the concept of what is safe.
‘Without reasonable and consistent boundaries, children can begin to feel afraid and unsure. With their limited life experience, they will not understand when a situation becomes dangerous, challenging or inappropriate. When a parent takes a loving but clear lead with boundaries in place, a child receives what he or she needs in order to live a life feeling loved, valued, secure, confident and fulfilled.’
How to set boundaries
So, just how do you start teaching your child clear boundaries? Here are Tame’s top tips:
• Set consistent routines
‘Routines are key for children from an early age,’ she says. ‘Basic routines in a day are a good place to start from infancy onwards. A baby or child will gradually develop a sense of security as they learn and will come to expect certain events, structures and sequences in their days.’
• Understand the need to take the lead
You might think you’re being a loving parent by letting your child do what they like, but this can lead to problems.
‘A chaotic lifestyle of haphazard bedtimes, allowing your child to do whatever they desire anywhere in the home, or not having times when you give your child your full attention, can result in insecurities and challenging behaviour, as they attempt to make sense of their world,’ explains Tame.
• Expect push back from you child
‘Push back is natural,’ reminds Tame. ‘We all resist someone telling us what to do, until we’re of an age where we can mask it, such as when we are at work or with an interfering family member. It’s another life skill that we are responsible for teaching our children. Provide gentle but firm affirmation that they’re safe and that it’s OK to feel angry or upset.’
• Stick with your new routines and boundaries
‘Keeping to the initial boundary is important,’ says Zarja Cibej, founder of MyTamarin. ‘No matter how much you want to relent and give in, doing this will simply set the tone that doing X gives me Y, and creates a problem that you’ll have to deal with further down the line.’
Tantrums – and what they mean
Toddler tantrums are something you will probably have to manage on a daily (if not hourly) basis. But rather than simply being irritating, they actually serve an important function.
‘We must hold in mind that a tantrum – particularly under the age of four years old – is a form of communication between a child and their parent,’ reveals Fortune. ‘Young children lack the emotional language to adequately express themselves and how they are feeling, so they show us using the language they do have – their behaviour.’
A tantrum – particularly under the age of four years old – is a form of communication between a child and their parent.
However hard it may be, it’s therefore important to address the underlying need, rather than simply punishing the behaviour.
‘Children learn about their thoughts and feelings as they are reflected back to them by their parents,’ continues Fortune. ‘For example, when a child tries and tries to get the lid off the building block box and they fail, they might throw the box across the room in frustration. If the parent comes in and chastises the behaviour without helping the child to make sense of it, there can be no learning, only added frustration for the child, who is already feeling bad and is now being punished.
‘Better to retrieve the box, loosen the lid and as you do this say, “You tried so hard to get the lid off the box and when it didn’t work you felt so mad that you threw the box across the room. Let’s try it again now.”‘
How to handle dramatic children
Think your child is being overly dramatic in their behaviour when they get frustrated or cross? They are.
‘A tantrum is a performance and requires an audience – it’s a child’s way of saying that they are unhappy with something that has just happened and are showing you,’ explains Fortune. ‘Accept how they are feeling and empathise with them, while gently yet firmly holding boundaries. When you have had a rupture in your relationship, for example, they’re shouting, you’re frustrated and neither of you is at your best, it’s important you follow up with repair.
A tantrum is a performance and requires an audience – it’s a child’s way of saying that they are unhappy with something.
‘Say what happened by acknowledging the feelings – “you were angry and then I got angry, too” – before communicating the limit – “even when we are angry, we never hit people. You cannot hit me/your brother” – and offering an alternative – “when you’re angry, you can hit this cushion or yell into this cushion over here”.
Teens and challenging behaviour
Older children do not usually put on the same big, emotional displays as younger children when they are struggling, instead often withdrawing from parents or carers, which can be much harder to deal with.
‘Feeling worried or stressed is something that many children deal with from time to time, whether it’s due to pressure at school, bullying or family matters,’ says GP and SimplyHealth Ambassador, Dr Dawn Harper. ‘None of us are immune to these feelings; they are perfectly natural and usually not indicative of anything serious, but there are some simple steps we can take to keep them under control. First and foremost, keep yourself informed about mental health, where you can access help if needed and how to spot warning signs in others. For instance, a child with a deteriorating state of mental health can exhibit symptoms in different ways, such as eating disorders or shifting behaviour patterns.’
Fortune agrees. ‘Look for any sudden, significant and otherwise unexplained changes in their behaviour,’ she suggests. ‘Pay particular attention to changes in eating/sleeping/toileting, as children tend to locate a high emotional charge around what goes in/out of their bodies, because it’s something they can control when they may not be able to control other things in their lives.’
How to get older children to open up
Getting teenagers and older children to open up about their feelings can be a challenge. It’s important not to seem too intrusive, or to interrogate them.
‘Wait until things are calm,’ advises Fortune. ‘Sitting in parallel in the car, where there is minimal eye contact but also no way of walking away, is a good time to bring something up. Use a playful, curious and empathic approach. Stay out of judgement and don’t tell them how they are feeling, but stay in a place of not knowing and seeking to understand.
Stay out of judgement and don’t tell them how they are feeling, but stay in a place of not knowing.
‘If you have to bring something up with them, consider making reference to something you heard on the radio or saw online, such as, “I heard an interview about teenagers and alcohol, and it made me think about how we haven’t really talked about that much. The person said this [include a fact] – what do you think? Is that realistic?”
‘Be interested in their lives, without being intrusive. Discussing a topic with them is easier than asking them directly about their own drinking habits, for example, depersonalising the issue and therefore lowering the intensity of the conversation.’
Coping with challenging child behaviour
Dealing with challenging behaviour will be part of your day-to-day experience as a parent, whatever age your children are, and it can be emotionally draining. Here are a few tips to help you keep your cool in the moment, and ensure you take good care of your own mental health:
✔️ Take a deep breath
It’s hard when you’re child is screaming at you, but before reacting, exhale deeply and drop your shoulders. Doing so will help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, helping you to feel calmer. Sit calmly with your child and tell them you understand. It’s simple, but it can work wonders.
✔️ Remember your child needs you
If you feel your own temper rising in the heat of the moment, remember that, if your child is young, they physically need you to be the calming influence for them.
‘You are your child’s thermostat (setting and controlling the heat of the situation) rather than their thermometer (just measuring and matching the heat of situation),’ explains Fortune. ‘Young children under seven years of age do not self regulate their emotions, they co-regulate in response to their parents/carers. So if we want our children to calm down, we must stay calm – or at least calmer than them – so they can co-regulate with us back to a level of optimal arousal.’
✔️ Understand your own triggers
If you feel triggered by your children in certain situations, take some time to reflect on what it is that’s bothering you under the surface, and why it’s causing such a reaction.
‘There is no better way to discover our unresolved issues than to become a parent,’ says Fortune. ‘Our children will bring our own unresolved issues screaming to the surface, and that is our responsibility, not theirs.’
✔️ Let go of guilt
We all make mistakes, and we’ve all lost our temper in the heat of the moment. Instead of holding onto it, acknowledge what has happened, forgive yourself and move on – no good can come of berating yourself for something that’s in the past. By doing this, you’ll not only feel happier as a parent, but you’ll be demonstrating to your children the importance of owning up to errors of judgement and and of forgiveness.
‘We need to learn to be able to say sorry to our children when we sometimes misjudge a situation or have a hasty over-reaction,’ says Tame. ‘In turn, they will begin to learn to do it, too.’
✔️ Ask for support
Parenting is tough, so having a good support network on hand is paramount.
‘It takes a village to raise a family,’ reminds Tame. ‘Wider families and friends can be an invaluable source of support. They don’t need to always offer advice, as young parents will wish to develop their own style. But in the same way that parents contain their child’s frustration as they grow into their world, so wider family can contain the ebb and flow of a new parent. Parenting support networks, mums’ groups, health visitors, playgroup leaders can all play a part in offering guidance from their own perspectives.’
✔️ Seek professional help
If you think your child may be suffering from depression, anxiety or another mental health condition, such as an eating disorder, never be afraid to seek professional guidance.
‘If things are more serious, consider booking a GP appointment, as he or she can offer advice on counselling and other support services available for young people,’ says Dr Harper.
✔️ Take time out for self-care
Being a parent is a full-time job, and it can be exhausting. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so make sure you take time out for yourself often, to do something that replenishes your soul.
‘Be sure that you take time out for your non-parental self too, and get out with friends, your partner, take regular exercise and do something kind and pleasurable for yourself,’ says Fortune. ‘Taking care of yourself is a great way to ensure you can keep being the best parent you can be for your children.’