Fear of separation can show up in more ways than the typical separation anxiety that we associate with the child crying or screaming at school or nursery because they don’t want their parent to go…
My 8 year old has NEVER cried at this.
However, he does worry about me not being in his life anymore.
Sometimes he frets about what life would be like if I left him or I died.
And there’s no reason, in theory, for him to think like that. His fear of me abandoning him is a far cry from mine; that I’ll never be able to let go and let him grow up.
So it’s easy for any of us to just assume our separation-sensitive kids are being a bit dramatic and tell them to either not be silly or to stop worrying.
But there’s more to it than that…
While the Covid story’s certainly birthed a lot of anxious children, very normal brain changes can play a part too.
At around the age of eight, brain development is thought to take a big leap. Children’s thinking becomes more complex; they get a stronger grasp of the world beyond themselves.
Competencies like empathy become more refined as they start to recognise that other people’s experiences and perceptions of life may be very different from their own.
And they also awaken to the truth that everything in their world – themselves included – will change with the passage of time.
Fantasy imagination is joined by ‘reality imagination’ as they realise they’ll grow up, get jobs, leave home and lose people they love.
And this can explain why some children; even those who are typically self-assured, or who have no apparent reason to worry, begin to do just that…
But, whether you’re dealing with your own version of this 👆, or simply have a child who finds that actual moment of separation painful or frightening, it can be hard to know how to deal with it; we want our kids to grow up resilient, but nothing about leaving a child in distress feels good.
I’m not going to say “Do this” because there’s no prescriptive solution; each child’s story is different.
But for the sake of our own peace of mind, know this…
Children are not designed to ‘grow out of it’.
Our new-borns entered the world hard-wired with survival reflexes which ensure they ask for connection as soon as they take their first breath.
It’s a blunt instrument, but it works.
And this reflex stays in place for life. The ‘factory settings’ of the human brain is a fear of abandonment.
While children are designed to become independent in time, we’re also a highly sociable species; none of us are biologically designed for isolation.
So whatever your child’s age, and whether you understand their unique version of separation anxiety or not, here are a few things to hold in mind…
Your child is expressing an unmet need
Our rational perspective is that they’re being irrational, but remember their experience is very, very real.
Reassuring and comforting them is not giving in or pandering.
Please ignore anyone who says or thinks this, and meet the need.
Only when your child’s needs are met can you both move forward effectively.
Try not to join in their anxiety
It’s important that we accept, empathise with and validate their emotions, but if they’re overwhelmed by fear, the belief that ‘I can’t do this’, a parent overwhelmed with fear and ‘I can’t do this’ won’t help.
Hold the space, connect, take a deep breath and the stance that you can do this together.
Express unwavering faith in your child
As distressing as it is as a parent, convey your belief in them that they have everything they need within them to cope.
Self-assurance is reassuring; use yours them to help move them forward.
Hold each other in Heart and Mind
Knowing that the person you long for is thinking of you with love; that you’re emotionally connected during a physical period of separation; can be a huge comfort.
‘Transitional objects’ are a simple and effective way to do this.
Typically, it’s a small item that a child keeps with them; a physical symbol of your love; but it can also be a drawing, a note (‘Pip & Acorn’s Little Notes’ are a perfect example), an imaginary item, a love heart drawn on their hand, a spray of your perfume on their sleeve.
Children – and adults! – are never too old for transitional objects (who else carries a little picture of their kids in their purse? 🙋♀️) so don’t worry this will stifle their independence.
Yes, our children grow up, and we have to give them room to grow, to not need us anymore.
But the trajectory of ‘growing out’ of that need is rarely a straight line.
So hold their hands, hearts and minds on that wobbly path, and meet the need!
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How do you tell a resilient child from an unresilient one?
While the Covid generation has shown us how resilient kids can be, the rising mental ill-health stats is also testament to the fact that not all children can, or do, ‘bounce back’.
Resilience is easily misunderstood; some personality traits might look like ‘poor resilience’.
For example, those children who quickly get labelled as over-sensitive or shy are often actually highly-attuned; they’re the empath observing from distance, who’ll decide what to do, when, and on their own terms, without being swayed by anyone else.
These qualities aren’t always a sign of fragility that they’re often interpreted as. They’re not instantly recognisable as forms of resilience, but they are and, IMO, should be more highly prized.
Likewise, while many of the gregarious, self-assured children are tough-cookies, others aren’t as robust and confident as we might think.
Those ‘natural leader’ qualities may be masking a child who simply doesn’t cope well with not being the decision-maker or the loudest voice, with having to flex and bend and accommodate others’ needs if they don’t align well with their own.
In other words, vocal and influential doesn’t necessary equate to resilience.
But then, of course, there is plain, old emotional fragility; those times when our children are easily defeated, give up too soon, lack or lose faith in themselves, need constant reassurance and/or are riddled with anxiety about what they can’t manage.
So how do we help in those moments?
Many of our responses are instinctive; those that start with ‘at least’ and ‘yes, but’ fall out of our mouths far too readily.
Of course, there’s a time to ‘look at the sunny side’, but sugar-coating doesn’t tend to help much in the long run.
On the contrary, we can inadvertently dismiss what’s important to our child as not important to us.
So what do we do instead?
Resilience has many faces. While it’s easy to declare our kids need to ‘toughen up’, or ‘learn to cope’ it’s a conditioned response for many of us; and quite frankly, a myth; that leaving them to it ‘learn the hard way’ will do the job.
Let’s never teach the children we live and work with to expect nobody will help them when they need it the most.
Doing with is not the same as doing for… And the seeds of resilience will grow towards the sun much more readily with a structure to support them.
Here are three simple ways to help;
The alternative may be time-consuming and frustrating, but ‘fix it’ mentality tends to be a very short-term win.
Instead, actively involving our kids in solving their own problems; coaching them through the process of decision-making and action-taking; builds up their internal self-image.
It helps them to see themselves as a capable, competent human being; that is the bedrock of resilience.
Allow Them To Sit With Discomfort
I’m not saying leave a child in distress, but we can help them understand that not all discomfort is unsafe, and still be empathetic at the same time.
When they learn to sit with, and through, those difficult feelings; to tolerate them, rather than give up or turn away from them; they’ll learn to recognise that difficulties can, and do, pass.
Who doesn’t find booking a holiday, even a year in advance, enormously satisfying?
Especially if the here-and-now is proving to be a hard slog for our kids, keeping their ‘eye on the prize’; something to look forward to; can be a significant and mighty powerful coping mechanism.
We can still; in fact I would argue that we must; accept and validate whatever it is they’re struggling with. If their world feels gloomy and dark, us insisting it isn’t won’t change that.
But ‘looking forward’ prevents them from getting stuck in the dark place…It’s about keeping them moving through it with perspective; there might be a big cloud in the way right now, but the sun is still there…
And then they cope. And when they do cope, what happens? They also learn that ‘I CAN cope’.
It’s an upward spiral!
That’s the premise of this image ; it’s part of ‘Pip & Acorn’s Little Notes‘, a resource I created to support children’s emotional intelligence and wellbeing, and resilience is just one of several skills that are discreetly at the heart of each of the 8 designs.
This resource is the simplest, easiest, and loveliest way to keep your kids’ cup of wellbeing and self-esteem full to the brim!
They’re only £9.99 for a gorgeous tin of 32 Little Notes (4 x 8 designs), and still available with FREE P&P.
You can get yours here. (Sorry UK only ATM)
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Today’s inspiration comes from a course I’ve been preparing called ‘The Brain Behind The Behaviour’.
I’m not talking about classic ‘bad’ behaviour, the kind that’s the work of a triggered fight/flight response or an ‘emotional hijack’ though.
Some of our children’s behaviours, while not desirable, are easy to make sense of; lying to keep themselves out of trouble or stealing something because they really want it, for example.
But what about those more confusing and difficult to understand behaviours?
The kind that don’t make sense, those can’t just be blamed on ‘poor self-control’; those which show an element of awareness, even deceit?
I get asked a lot about why children do what they know they shouldn’t, or don’t do what they know they should.
It can be irritating at best, and infuriating; for example when older children refuse to study for looming exams, or when younger children draw on walls.
But when a child tells stories that seem designed to cause harm, or lies when it’s evident they’ll be caught out, or steals just for the hell of it, it can send us well beyond annoyance. It can be unsettling, disturbing even.
And unfortunately, there is no single answer; my 9 year old nephew etched ‘Hello’ through the paint work across my table top last year with a pair of scissors. He couldn’t explain why he did it, and I can’t either.
It’s an unfortunate fact that for some children who exhibit those more extreme behaviours, there may be pathological rooted and need clinical intervention in time.
But for most of them, the behaviours that are difficult to make sense of still fall under the umbrella of ‘normal development’, or at best-as has been amplified for the last 2 years- ‘a normal response to an abnormal situation’.
The Staircase In The Brain
I often refer to Dan Seigal’s ‘Upstairs/downstairs’ brain mode; the upstairs brain being the home of logic, rational thinking, and downstairs being the home of our most primitive survival instincts; a blunt instrument but it works.
It’s an even more useful analogy when we think about the staircase that connects them.
I’m not that saying we should be permissive or passive about these behaviours, but to manage their own behaviours or impulses; to anticipate the consequences of them and direct their behaviours appropriately; children firstly need a well-developed upstairs brain.
That’s a long game.
But what if they already have a well-developed brain?! They still might not be able to access it!
Uncomfortable levels of prevent that from happening so, as justified as our own feelings may be, adding to their stress with anger, threats and sanctions don;t tend to help in the long-term.
Behaviour Is Communication
Yes, compassion and empathy can be hard to find when you can’t just sweep it under the ‘emotional hijack’ carpet, when you’re dealing with an element of intent or pre-meditation.
But one of many mantras I always share, for the sake of ourselves as well as the children we live and work with, is ‘All behaviour is a form of communication’.
Most likely, their behaviour isn’t a conscious attempt on the child part to convey a coded message, but there’s always something there for us to work with.
Albeit perhaps inarticulately, they’re still trying to get their needs met. So be curious, not furious, as they say, and ask yourself ‘What is this behaviour trying to tell me?’
The chances are, these ‘challenging’ behaviours are a sign that the child is running up and down that staircase too, stuck between fight/flight and logic, and thus, while not completely beyond self-control, is also not thinking clearly, anticipating consequences or being empathetic.
What is the need your child is expressing?
Attention? ‘Attention seeking’ is perfectly normal, humans are hard-wired from birth to need attention. Meet the need. Then teach more appropriate ways of getting the attention they need!
Power and control? The neurodevelopmental role of childhood is to become more autonomous and influential. It’s natural and healthy. What are the healthier ways you could help your child to experience that?
Safety? Your child may be perfectly safe, but for them to assess the situation and recognise that, they need to be in their ‘upstairs brain’.
Helping them feel safe; deeply and emotionally; will help them reach that part of their brain.
Acceptance and belonging?
Humans evolved to belong to a tribe, and so isolation is a perceived threat, as far as the survival brain is concerned.
Fear of rejection runs deep; that’s why babies cry as soon as they’re born; their survival brain is hard-wired to know then that the only way to get their needs met is through the connection of a care-giver.
So while, children do need to learn consequences, perceived exclusion isn’t how they learn.
The impact of red traffic lights and rainclouds plastered on many classroom walls are worthy of another blog post altogether, but they’re not tools to ‘learn better behaviours’.
Some will disagree, but to me they are ways of using fear and shame to control children.
Instead of aspiring to managing our kids’ behaviour for them, shouldn’t the ultimate goal here be to raise self-aware children with the skills to manage themselves?
I’ve holidayed alone with my 8 year old before but this Easter I thought we’d have a stab at actually travelling… Nothing too exciting, but over a week we covered around 500 km as we hopped across three Spanish cities.
Adventure, yes. Relaxation, no.
However, in the less frantic windows of time where I wasn’t riddled with anxiety about losing my child, I was able to stand back and observe so much of what I talk about…
First, the innate desire to play. Not just with one dimensional toys with an intended purpose, but genuine playfulness.
And in the right environment, grown-ups are playful too; it was quite mesmerising watching several adults engaged in bubble chasing and bursting.
They weren’t playing with children. They were just playing, when they could be uninhibited enough to do so.
And this actually isn’t so surprising, given that we are all born with a PLAY system (ref; Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience).
PLAY is just one of the 7 ’primitive emotional systems’ that are hard-wired into our deep survival brains, and which thus remain in place for life.
Hence, that’s just one reason why children need much more play in their diet than most get, especially in their education. Play is foundational to human development.
But why on earth is PLAY a ‘survival emotion’?
All mammals have the ‘PLAY’ system built in, and these kittens show us primitive play in action!
Their PLAY system is ensuring that they practise survival skills like hunting.
In our more evolved ancestors, such as primates, play is also important for learning about the social codes and hierarchies that ensure acceptance and belonging.
Because, inevitably, rejection and abandonment are a threat to our survival.
As humans grow up, we don’t tend to witness play behaviours as purely as in these kittens, because our survival brain is highly interactive with our more evolved and complex ‘social brain’, which isn’t hard-wired. But essentially we’re not just ‘born to play’, but ‘born with play to stay!’
Another of these primitive emotional systems I saw at work on our travels was FRUSTRATION.
Because it’s uncomfortable and often the predecessor to anger, it’s natural that we step in to manage our children’s frustration. We don’t want them to lose control.
But let’s try not to move into problem-solving territory too soon, because FRUSTRATION serves a neurodevelopmental purpose. How?
When a baby starts trying to reach out, their arms and hands are all over the place.
But control over their limbs is a skill they’ll soon need in order to stay alive; if that baby just gave up at the first hurdle, refused to try again, they wouldn’t survive.
Essentially, frustration is about mastery.
It’s a core component of resilience; the ability to persevere and solve problems, even in adversity.
Our kids may need help to handle it, they may not like the way that frustration feels.
But shooing it away can remove the opportunity for them to overcome hurdles, experiment with new ideas, learn from mistakes, refine skills, recover from any lapses in self-control and try again.
And when I was able to practice what I preach in Spain, my 8 year old reaped the benefits…
Firstly, his new toy aeroplane only wanted to nose-dive. He tried again and again and again. It was tedious.
But eventually it glided.
And then three little Spanish boys joined him in his play.
At that point I had to deal with my own frustration as my hope of relaxing in a nice tapas bar with a sangria was scuppered.
Instead I watched and waited as these four children found imperfect ways to overcome the language barrier. They eventually worked out negotiating and turn-taking etc.
And my son became teacher, demonstrating ‘the glide’.
It’s easy to think that they learned a lot from this experience. And in some ways, they did of course.
But much of this was already built in to their wiring before they were even born. I think it’s more accurate to describe these competencies, not so much being learned as unlocked.
Aren’t we so often caught up in ‘teaching’ our children; giving them the skills to grow up, to become independent, that we forget; or simply don’t notice; how much Mother Nature’s already done for them?
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Whether it’s using their manners, taking responsibility for their own stuff, or communicating their needs effectively, many of the skills that our children need to master can be hard won, even at the best of times.
However, when they then stop making progress, or even regress, it can present a whole new level of frustration.
Have they forgotten everything you’ve told them?
Can they just no longer be bothered?
Are they choosing to be difficult?
Or are you just talking to yourself?
We’re so accustomed to the one-directional journey of childhood, that it can be irritating at best; often disarming, sometimes deeply worrying; when that nice upward trajectory starts to wobble.
But as an adult, how many of us have forgetful episodes; who hasn’t walked into a room to emerge 10 minutes later having completely negated what you went in there for?
How often do we just wake up feeling like ‘I can’t be bothered’, and be even less bothered by the time we go back to bed?
As for choosing to be difficult, we can all fall foul of that.
And do we listen to everything everyone else tells us?
Especially our kids… Who doesn’t occasionally nod along for effect, while thinking your ears might actually start bleeding if they don’t stop talking soon?
I’m not saying that we should just do nothing about these bends in the road but ‘AM I TALKING TO A BRICK WALL?’ can be gasket-popping-inducing.
So when faced with a backwards step, an ‘age and stage’ you thought you’d put behind you, here’s a few other perspectives to consider…
Have they forgotten everything they’ve learned?
Not necessarily… The human brain hasn’t evolved significantly for over 100,000 years.
Yet the information that we force into them has. There’s a good reason why we need lists.
And anyway, the process involved in ‘remembering’ is quite different from your brain being so well practiced that your thoughts, actions and behaviour patterns become autopilot.
Don’t believe the hype that new habits are formed in 20 repetitions of even in a week.
At a neurological level, this kind of change can take months or even years of mastery, and all kinds of factors determine how effectively this happens.
One of the monkeys that often gets in the way is stress; for children that can mean school pressures, worries about fitting in or being ‘good enough’, adrenaline-inducing devices through which they consume far more of their lives than Mother Nature intended.
Stress can eat short term memory, and totally disable focus and concentration.
But bear in mind that the stress response; i.e. fight/flight; in our brains doesn’t do ‘thinking’. Any brain can register ‘stress’ without an obvious stressor, or the conscious feeling of stress.
Can they just no longer be bothered?
Maybe not right now, or not today. It doesn’t mean forever.
Motivation is complex; is it a personal trait, or can it be taught and learned? A bit of both probably… But it has to be there, somewhere.
This isn’t fixed, but we all tend to be either ‘extrinsically motivated’; i.e we like validation from others, external rewards – for a child this might mean treats or stickers on a chart – or ‘intrinsically motivated’; the driving force comes from within.
Working out which way your child leans can give you a few insights…
An internally motivated child isn’t going to submit to bribes, or even threats very readily, so don’t try. Find out what puts in their belly and lead with that.
And brain chemistry can also play a massive part. It’s constantly changing according to the environment the child is responding to; ongoing or unanticipated stressors, quality of sleep, relationships etc.
All of these can profoundly impact the beast that is motivation and self-discipline, so tune into your child when they’re struggling to get into gear.
What else is going on (or not) that might be playing a part?…
Are they choosing to be difficult?
Maybe, maybe not. Usually not.
But it can certainly feel that way when your energy, time and commitment to their development seems fruitless. Even more so when it’s under-valued and under-appreciated.
But if your child is ‘being difficult’, it’s often not about you, it’s about them.
Because it’s very normal and healthy; albeit not easy for us as grown-ups; for them to test boundaries and limits.
It’s all part of discovering and reinforcing their own sense of influence and control, or determining that this space is as safe and well-protected as you say it is.
I’m not suggesting we raise little anarchists, but I do think the whole world needs to seriously re-think the notion that children grow up under the authority of grown-ups.
We are raising our kids in a world which presents all manner of ‘power pitfalls’; especially to the young and naive.
Extreme they may be, but the realities of online grooming, of criminal or sexual exploitation etc., mean that our kids -and the adults they become – should have unwavering faith that they’re the masters of their own ship and steering their own course.
Being unquestioningly compliant and obedient won’t serve them in the long-run.
For the sake of our own sanity if nothing else, let’s remember that it’s not our children’s job to make life easy for their adults (as nice as it would be).
So let’s embrace their strength of will, honour their right to make their own decisions and to say ‘no’, and nurture their capacity to go against the grain.
Are you just talking to yourself?
Probably not. Keep remembering that ‘learning’ is far more than merely ‘remembering’.
Changing a habitual behaviour means re-programming long-established attitudes and beliefs in the brain… ‘unlearning’, not just learning.
And about this listening thing… Let’s be really honest.
How many times have we feigned a half-hearted ‘wow’ when our children have animatedly recited, in microscopic detail, something VERY exciting to us?
How often do we either have no idea what they’re going on about, or not really care that much?
Have you never gritted your teeth through something you’ve heard a zillion times already, or simply been too pre-occupied with your own thoughts and ‘to-do’ lists to meaningfully engage?
And that’s ok sometimes. We’re human. But our kids are too.
So let’s not hold them to higher standards than we place upon ourselves.
Kids carry an unfair burden of adults’ expectations and demands that they ‘grow up’. But as Tom Stoppard said, a child’s purpose is not to grow up.
A child’s purpose is to be a child.
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Who has a child that sometimes just seems to wake up angry and frustrated? Or maybe you work with children who are pent-up, on the verge of erupting, constantly.
Like a lot of grown-ups, it may just be that they’re not a morning person… Or they may have a highly-strung personality.
But it’s also possible that the adrenaline in their brain is too high.
Whether we’re a child or a grown-up, if there’s been a spike in adrenaline, it can take 24 hours – or more – to come back to ‘baseline’ levels.
The bad news is that adrenaline levels can rise significantly without us having an awareness of it.
Our deep, primitive survival brain has no conscious thinking capacity, but as soon as it senses a threat, it starts to ramp up ready for action.
Having too much on our plate or all the traffic lights turning against us or realising our MOT is overdue may not, in truth, be a matter of life and death.
However, because your ‘amygdala’; the little organelle that activates your ‘fight or flight’; is reactive and non-thinking, common logic and rational thinking go out of the window.
This is why we may completely lose our s*** over something which, in reality, is trivial, and often before we even realise we were feeling stressed.
And this explains why a child might be close to ‘fight or flight’ from the moment when they wake up.
There might be an obvious stressor; an argument or melt-down from the previous day for example, or an enduring worry.
But it may be trickier to work out (for them, and you…)
One thing that got a lot of kids over the Covid-era was the loss of control they suddenly found themselves with.
Deconstructing that at a cognitive level is more than most young brains can manage, but the truth is that powerlessness is scary.
The evolutionary process of childhood is that they’re designed to become more independent, not less.
For most of the parents and professionals alike that I worked with over that time – presenting the typical concerns over anxiety, or problems with behaviour or communication etc. – when we dug a bit deeper, there was usually just a child in the middle, struggling with a world that was going completely against the grain of what Mother Nature intended for them.
But even without that, not enough sleep, losing a game on the iPad, an unresolved peer dispute are all enough to unsettle your child’s nervous system.
Football card trading is rampant at my son’s school ATM, and I see in him; who has caught the bug, despite NEVER being into football; the constant whirring of a brain thinking about how he can acquire the most sought after player.
And this is the kind of thought-process that keeps sending a ‘worry, worry, worry’ message to the subconscious brain, which responds by keeping on high-alert.
The good news is that it’s fairly easy to re-balance our children’s brain chemistry.
If they’re in the ‘wake up angry’ camp, this would ideally happen, of course, before they even go to bed but, as a practitioner, that’s not something you have control over.
And even as a parent, you may be clueless that adrenaline is rising anyway.
What really matters is that, if you sense a child getting irritated or frustrated, you try not to match their emotional state, or dismiss their reactions as unnecessary.
You may be right, of course, but their amygdala’s just doing what it’s designed to, and your response is the difference between bursting the balloon and just letting it go.
And that’s to be avoided if necessary if possible because, while it’s not impossible to re-adjust brain chemistry, an emotional hijack can take a day or two to recover from.
Either way; whether you’re dealing with the highly-strung child or a full on melt-down; here are 5 quick ways to help flush out stressor hormones, and replace them with healthier brain-balancing hormones
1) Co-regulate; Talk back to the child as though they are calm and regulated, instead of mirroring their intense emotion state. Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.
2) Get Them Moving; Movement gives us an instant dose of dopamine which helps wave goodbye to stress! Even better if you can get them to step outside and breathe deeply. Then you add serotonin to the mix.
3) ‘A & E’ (Accept and Empathise’); Don’t focus on problem-solving straight away, unless that’s what your child expects, and can manage, in the moment.
Validate their feelings, whatever they are. We all want to feel heard.
4) Avoid Intense Eye-Contact; When faced with anger or defensiveness, communicate without direct eye-contact, or keep it fleeting. Hyper-vigilant brains misread facial expressions far too easily
5) Use Eye-Contact; When faced with stressors like anxiety, fear or sadness etc., the mutual gaze can be incredibly soothing. Take your cues from the child in terms of the kind of eye-contact they need (or don’t!)
Whatever you do, it’s important not to rush them out of their stress, as that can just add more pressure which thus fuels the fire.
Focus on non-verbal communication first, moving onto words once you sense your child is better connected with you and able to process what you’re saying.
And lastly, be realistic with, and kind to, yourself.
Our own stressors can make all of this much harder work, so, wherever you can, focus on giving yourself the breathing space to be the well-regulated grown-up your child needs to become well-regulated, with you.
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How do you make kids do what you want them to do, without ending up in combat, or being the authoritarian parent most of us don’t want to be?
A question popped up in my FB group this week was about setting boundaries, and they’re worth exploring further, because achieving co-operation and setting boundaries are inevitably intertwined.
Most of us frequently grapple with the ‘please just do as you’re told’ battles, but the reason implementing boundaries can be so difficult is because nobody wants the conflict that often ensues.
Screens are a classic example; especially now, because Covid-boredom has turned many children into screen-addicts (mine included).
Any kind, but especially the smaller types, fire up the ‘addiction centre’ in your child’s brain, potentially add a whole added layer of challenge.
It takes their ‘thinking brains’ offline, but fuels up adrenaline, making the ‘fight/flight’ response much more likely.
Hence why ’time’s up now’ can be a real bone of contention, and why ‘5 more minutes’ so easily turns into 30.
Fulfilling parenting is less about ‘Who wins that battle?’ and more about you both operate, and co-operate, together, and yet these situations often disintegrate into warfare.
Especially while we’ve got far too much on our own plate, it’s too easy for our big ego to step in and insist ‘I’m the parent and I am in charge’.
Regardless of the issue, we insist that the same blanket-rule should apply.
But it’s that inflexibility and rigidity that can dismantle all our ‘peaceful parenting’ dreams, in a heartbeat.
So how do you encourage your kids to work with you, not against you?
This is the first necessary shift in our thinking;
The majority of what we think of as a behaviour or attitude problem is more accurately a communication problem.
So in the interests of staying out of that space, here are 5 principles for more peaceful, and more effective, communication with your kids!
1) Tune into triggers
Tune into their weak spots and trigger points; if your child hates setting the table, is it SO important that they do? Can they do another task and still be helpful?
If the situation doesn’t allow you to diversify your approach; i.e. getting ready for school on time and not at their own pace, for example; all is not lost! See point 2! 👇
2) Managing Time
Give your children as much notice as you can around those points, offering countdowns wherever possible; i.e. 10 more mins, 5, 2 and 1.
If screen-time’s the issue, don’t expect them to have an accurate sense of time passing, so setting an alarm offers an additional sensory reminder, too.
If you involve them choosing the ringtone, even better, because having a sense of ‘personal power’ in the proceedings; rather than being overpowered; is key to avoiding combat.
3) Have the REALLY heard you?
Don’t assume that, because your child appears to have registered what you’ve said, that they have; when they just want you off their back they’re not really tuned into information-processing.
So when you give a countdown, ask them to look up, and at you, and to repeat them back. You’ll know they’ve heard you, they’ll know that you know that they heard you. Sensory information sticks better, so add a visual cue by showing them with your hands as well.
4) Give ‘Choice and Voice’
Don’t be afraid to give your kids choices. Yes, they may want it their ‘own way’, but they also probably don’t like fighting anymore than you do.
So, for example, BEFORE the trigger point arises, explain the situation, your concerns or whatever, then ask for their input; i.e. ‘How much ice-cream do we think you should have?’
‘We’ positions you as deciding together, and who doesn’t cooperate better when they’ve had a stake in the decision making process?
It then stands to reason that it’s easier to implement boundaries because your child’s agreed to them already.
5) The Power of Wiggle-Room!
There’s a lot of power in a little negotiation! If agreeing to two more minutes is the difference between a meltdown or not, it’s not you ‘giving in’.
Just ensure there’s compromise on both sides.
It’s not always easy or even successful, but; while compliance makes for an easy life; there are a whole lot of skills we can be nurturing in our kids (and ourselves!) when we don’t just insist on us being ‘in charge’ all the time.
Boundaries are needed for everyone; they make for a security, predictability and consistency; all very useful for children who’ve lived with a great deal of uncertainty in recent times; but they don’t have to be an electric fence! 💥
They can be soft and light, and when they are, our children – and their parents – tend to feel better, and thus manage better.
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I don’t often work directly with children these days, but I love it when I do. I love their openness, their honesty, the absence of judgement that most of us grown-ups are shackled with.
And last week I had this pleasure; I was being filmed leading activities which fire up brain connectivity and change biochemistry, and in the spirit of ‘blue-sky thinking’ I asked them to write a note;
“What would you change in the world if you could?”
I usually get all kinds of random answers, and I did get a few; “We’d be able to bring our pets to school”… “To eat whatever I like without getting sick.”
But, even though these children were only 9 and 10 years old, far more of their responses reflected the weight that so many young minds are carrying; worries about war, their frustration at unnecessary suffering, their fatigue at an unkind world.
I can only speculate, of course, but their awareness of troubles that shouldn’t be their concern is telling; how much more magnified they’ve been made by the experience of the last two years. It’s something I’m hearing about from parents and professionals alike.
Now, more than ever, we don’t want our children fretting about global conflict (or anything!), but we can’t just tell them not to worry, that everything’s going to be fine, and expect that to suffice.
The world told them that two years ago, and it wasn’t fine.
Covid infiltrated through the media, and their consciousness before becoming a very stark and enduring reality, so if the children you live or work with are anxious about the state of the world, I’d say it’s well placed.
And that reality has consumed so much of their young lives; I have to remind myself, often, what 25% of my eight year old’s time on the planet has been like…
When did “There’s nothing to worry about” ever stop anyone from worrying anyway?
It may not be our intention, of course, but “Don’t worry about it” can feel dismissive, and that’s what can stop kids sharing their worries with us.
So what do you say instead when you don’t want to exacerbate their concerns, but can’t answer their questions?
✅ Tell them that you agree that what’s going on in the world is scary. You can’t take the worries away but validation in itself can be SO reassuring.
✅ Let them know they can share whatever’s troubling them, always, and that you’ll listen, even if you can’t solve the problem.
✅ Acknowledge how disturbing it is that any human mind could justify these kinds of actions.
But also that the world is full of solidarity; of peace-makers, kind hearts, resilience, support, compassion, empathy and courage.
✅ And show the children you live and work with that they belong in that camp, surrounded by love, protection and safety, even if there is some good fortune attached.
The biggest problem that has rattled through our generation of children for the last two years, IMO, has been powerlessness.
We don’t talk about this often enough, but losing your power is scary.
Helplessness is at the power of any trauma response.
The majority of children are yet to recover that sense of agency and so, as yet another wave breaks over the world over which they have no control, an antidote to that can simply be more autonomy.
Whether your kids want to contribute to the efforts to rally around Ukraine, or simply to feel more influential in their own lives, make sure they’re strengthening their ‘personal power’ muscle.
Give them problems to solve, decisions to make, responsibilities to master.
They can’t make the world’s problems go away, but they will be better equipped to ride this next period of turbulence if they feel like competent and autonomous human beings! 💙💛
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All the horrors going on in the world are a stark reminder of all we’ve got to be thankful for, aren’t they?
It also gives us a dose of perspective in terms of how easy so many kids have it, in so many ways…
And by that token, we do too, don’t we? I’ve been wanting a kitchen refurb for two years, complaining that I can’t get a builder, and not really thinking about the fortune of my four walls and a safe bed to sleep in.
But I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that; it doesn’t have to mean that we don’t or can’t feel compassion and empathy for those in dire circumstances.
Perspective is certainly useful, but it doesn’t render our own desires-trivial as they might be- suddenly meaningless.
And this is especially true for our children because, much more than us, they live right here and right now, regardless of how it compares with ‘the real world’.
Like many parents, I have a child from whom the usual complaints flow like a river; the unfairness of going to school, the unreasonableness of switching the screen off, the act of unkindness that is bedtime…
It’s a recipe for parental frustration, and to the urge to express (loudly) the inner-voice that says “Don’t you realise how lucky you are?”
But most likely, the answer would be ‘no’.
And not because our kids are just over-indulged and entitled human beings.
When we really look at the world through our kids’ eyes, the chances are, it’s very different than looking through our own.
Yes, we can certainly teach them appreciation, we can promote compassion and empathy; I’d argue that we should, regardless; but for one, these are not innate at birth.
They need to be developed and practised.
These competencies also need a degree of brain maturity, because that ‘big picture’ thinking; recognising the existence of a world beyond theirs, being able to see that through another’s eyes; is a very sophisticated skillset.
While there may be a genetic disposition in their favour, the brain area where they’re processed; the pre-frontal cortex; generally doesn’t reach that stage of development until kids are at least eight.
And once they reach 11 or 12, this ‘executive brain’ then dismantles itself during the lengthy process of adolescence.
I guess the point I’m making is that; regardless of whether a child’s having a hard time because they’re fleeing a war-zone, or because it’s time to switch the iPad off; they’re still having a hard time.
There’s absolutely a time for gratitude; for appreciating safety, warmth and love; but while they are having a hard time is not the time.
A brain having a hard time can’t effectively access rational thinking, perspective-taking or logic.
That’s true for all of us, regardless of our age.
Whether it’s you or your child at the mercy of a stress response, simply recognise that there is an unmet need.
While possibly ridiculous and disproportionate, when we accept that our child’s truth is their truth in that moment, we can focus on meeting the need.
BTW this isn’t saying that when a child says ‘I need a Nintendo Switch’, you just buy them one. But we can express acceptance, that wanting is still valid.
That’s what changes things. When we meet children’s (and our own) needs as best we can; with compassion and empathy; we’re fostering compassion and empathy in them.
Then, when the time and opportunity is right, they’ll be able to put to good use in this messy world we’re raising them in.
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