Parenting has to be the most fulfilling job in the whole world. However, it is not always easy! There are plenty of parenting challenges that every one of us faces. As a parent, you undoubtedly have your found yourself thinking- Did my child really just say that? Did my child really just do that? The best way to address parenting challenges is often to try to understand your child’s behavior and to help them problem solve effectively so that they can start to manage their behavior themselves. That is why I am very happy to have Dr. Sarah Hughes, a celebrity child psychologist as well a mother, share her down-to-earth, judgement-free parenting hacks for how to raise well-adjusted children.
Dr. Sarah Hughes is the author of the brand new parenting book- Parenting Made Simple. I have placed my affiliate Amazon link below so you can easily order it for yourself. It’s a practical guide for dealing with parenting challenges. It provides parents with steps and tools to understand and help their child. Parents will learn the do’s and don’ts of managing their child’s behavior and discover effective solutions for the best chance at raising well-adjusted children.
The below excerpt is from Parenting Made Simple – Straightforward, Practical Strategies for Common Childhood Challenges – by Dr. Sarah Hughes (Exisle Publishing, April 2020). Reprinted here with exclusive permission. All rights reserved.
If your child can’t use words to share their feelings, they’ll express their emotions behaviourally instead. Having the right words won’t necessarily stop your child’s tantrums all together but it should help to lessen their intensity and stop your child getting ambushed by their emotions.
If your child starts to show signs of distress, stop what you’re doing. Give them your full attention — not half of your attention while you multitask, your full attention — and ask questions that will help you better understand why they’re feeling frustrated and upset. Your child will be able to tell if you’re going through the motions without any real interest, so try to be genuine in your desire to understand. When your child starts to talk, listen, empathize with their distress, and help them find the words to describe how they’re feeling. Younger kids might have a hard time using words to talk about how they feel, so step in and help where you need to — ‘I wonder if maybe you’re feeling upset because I said I can’t play with you right now’ — but as your child starts to find their words, try to ask more questions than you answer. Being able to express feelings verbally without prompting will help your child develop the skills they need longer term, and your child needs the opportunity to practise. And no matter how ridiculous you think your child’s reaction is, don’t be dismissive of how they feel. Laughing at your child or making light of their feelings won’t help; and if anything, it’s likely to make things worse.
It will be tempting to jump in with possible solutions to your child’s distress, don’t. Problem solving will come later but it’s not the current objective. Before your child can start to think of possible solutions, they need to understand their feelings, and to have the headspace they need for this they need to feel heard and understood. Skipping ahead won’t get you to your end goal faster — it’ll probably slow you down. Take the time to listen to your child and validate how they feel before you start on any further skills practice.
Mindfulness is derived from ancient Buddhist practices, but it’s become pretty popular in recent years, due in large part to the huge body of research documenting its mental and physical health benefits. Theoretically, mindfulness is simple enough: it involves deliberately paying attention to the present moment, whether that be external-focused aspects of your present moment (what you can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell) or internal-focused aspects (your bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings) without judging these experiences. Simple, right? Except for the fact that our minds are easily distracted and have a habit of focusing on everything butthe present, and kids’ minds are no exception.
In theory, by encouraging a focus on the present, mindfulness can help us manage frustration and distress, but it’s a pretty tricky skill to learn, and like any skill it takes practice. It also requires sustained attention, which is why it’s not a skill that’ll work for most littlies. Kids over five will be able to develop mindfulness skills with practice, but most young kids will find it hard to be mindful for longer than five to ten minutes, depending on the task, so avoid long, drawn out mindfulness practices with kids under eight.
Before you start practising mindfulness with your child, help them to understand what mindfulness is. Say something like:
Mindfulness is something we can do to help us feel better when we feel sad, angry or frustrated. You can practise it anywhere — all you need is your attention. When you want to practise mindfulness, you just need to stop and focus on what’s happening in your body and around you. You can choose to pay attention to your breathing, how your body feels, what you can see or hear, things you can smell or feel — anything you like, so long as you focus on what’s happening right now.
Once your child understands the general idea, start practising. Aim to practise a few times each week, but remember quality over quantity. Brief, frequent practices will be far more effective than fewer, drawn out practices. And be patient. Mindfulness is a skill even adults struggle with. Expect to have to put in the hours before you see any real results.
Emotions affect not just how your child feels, but how they think as well. When your child’s upset and frustrated, their thinking will be problem-focused and they’ll find it hard to keep things in perspective. Their distress will trick them into thinking everything is worse than it actually is and that they have no control over the situation. But the truth is, most problems are solvable, even if only in part, and helping your child to adopt this mindset will go a long way towards helping them to keep their emotions in check.
When your child’s upset, logical thinking will be a challenge, so be mindful of your approach. Timing will be key to your success, so don’t jump in too soon with solutions and practical suggestions, because it’ll only aggravate things. Take the time to ask your child questions to better understand their distress and validate how they feel, then once your child’s relatively calm — and only then — start to work on helping them to adopt a solution-focused mindset.
Younger kids will need extra help initially to think of possible solutions, so put forward two or three and let your child choose which they’d like to run with. Don’t put forward more than two or three solutions or your child will feel overwhelmed, and make sure the solutions you put forward are ones you’re happy with. If you renege on the options you’ve put forward when your child picks the one solution you didn’t really want them to pick, it won’t end well.
As your child gets older, build their problem-solving skills by encouraging them to think of their own solutions. This may be a challenge if your child’s distressed, so you may find that helping your child to practise problem-solving skills when they’re in their green zone is a good first step. When your child’s faced with a problem that gets the better of them, write the details on a piece of paper and put that piece of paper in a large jar — your new Problem Jar (shoe boxes work just as well). Later, when your child’s calm, open the Problem Jar and practise brainstorming solutions for any problems you’ve stored away. As your child gets better at thinking of solutions to problems, try to encourage real-time problem-solving. Remember timing is everything, so you’ll need to judge whether problem-solving is a viable option based on your child’s level of distress, or whether you’ll need to use other distraction based strategies first, which will be the case if they’re already in the red. As your child develops stronger problem-solving skills, they’ll learn to adopt a solution-focused mindset when they’re upset, and the option of solutions will help them to regulate their distress.
Not to be a broken record, but as your child gets older, remain conscious of how often you jump in with solutions versus giving your child the opportunity to think for themselves. That might be effective in the short-term insofar as it short-circuits their distress, but it won’t help them develop skills to solve their own problems longer term, which will keep them stuck in their cycle of meltdowns. If you want your child to learn to solve their own problems and independently manage their distress, invest in teaching them the skills they need to do this.
Not all the solutions your child comes up with will be viable, especially early on, but when this happens, try not to be too discouraging. Feedback like, ‘That’s obviously not going to work — are you even trying?’ will erode both your child’s confidence and their motivation to practise problem-solving. Try instead to balance the need for corrective feedback with positive feedback and praise.
Let’s say your child’s had a meltdown because you asked them to turn off the iPad and do their homework. They didn’t, so you’ve taken the iPad, and now all hell has broken loose.
Parent: (drawing on every ounce of patience they possess)I can see you’re really upset. What’s going on?
Child: You took the iPad off me just as I got passed a bit I’ve never gotten past before.
Parent: (resists the urge to highlight that this isn’t a big deal, and for effectiveness’ sake, prioritizes understanding and empathy instead)Okay, you were excited to finally get passed the bit you always get stuck on, so it was a big deal for me to take the iPad away when I did. I get why you’re frustrated.
Parent: (noticing some of their child’s frustration seems to have dissipated, decides to try problem solving)Okay, well I haven’t touched anything just yet, what should we do? You want to keep playing your game but you also need to do your homework; what’s a good solution?
Child: I can finish my game now and do homework later?
Parent: (knowing they need to balance constructive feedback with encouragement)I like that you’ve come up with a solution, but I’m worried you’ll be too tired for homework if we leave it to later. Is there another solution we can try?
Parent: (resisting the urge to jump in with a solution, which would rob the child of the opportunity to practise skills)You’re good at coming up with solutions. Give yourself a minute or two to think.
Child: Maybe I can pause the game, and if I do my homework now, I can have more iPad time after that? I don’t have much homework.
Parent: Sounds like a good plan. Remember, screens have to go away by 5.30 p.m. and it’s 4.15 p.m. now, so you’ll need to focus and get your spelling done quickly. If you do, you’ll have time to do homework and have extra time on your game.
Of course, real-life children aren’t ever as compliant and reasonable as fictional ones, but you get the general idea. Empathise with your child’s distress, wait until it’s subsided, then encourage problem-solving skills practice.
A big thank you again to Dr. Sarah Hughes for sharing her expertise on how to solve parenting challenges. You can find so much more great information in her new parenting book!
I hope you found this post helpful for understanding your child’s behavior and helping your child learn to practice mindfulness and problem solve. These are skills that will not only help reduce parenting challenges but that will also serve them well for their entire life.
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