Why You Should Change The Way You Think, To Change the Way Your Child Behaves!

Expectations are the Enemy of Parents.

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I would say over 90% of the parenting dilemmas posed to me daily have one very simple answer; “you’re expecting too much of them”.

Our expectations of child behaviour are totally warped in society today. We just expect too much of kids (and no age or behaviour is immune). We expect them to sleep like adults. We expect them to control their impulses like adults, regulate their emotions like adults, manage their time like adults, observe social rules and niceties like adults and eat like adults (and as adults – our eating is totally screwed and unnatural, check out my ‘Gentle Eating Book’ for more). We expect them to consider the consequences of their actions like adults, communicate like adults and plan for the future like adults. If they can’t do these things we desperately try to ‘fix them’ and train and discipline them to do them (and frequently get frustrated when our efforts fail).

The thing is babies can’t do these things. Toddlers can’t do these things. School aged children can’t do these things. Teenagers can’t do these things – heck, even adults struggle to do these things a lot of the time! .

If you take just one piece of advice from me – please make it be to drop your expectations. Stop expecting mature adult behaviour from a child (and teens are still children!) who has a totally different brain structure to you. It’s a recipe for stress and disaster. You can’t teach a baby to drive a car. You wouldn’t even try……but that’s what happens when you try to teach or discipline children to do something that is beyond their development and age ability. Understanding and accepting normal, natural child development is the way forward. Reset those expectations and if you can, adapt life around them for a while. This is the key to calmer, happier family life.

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How to Encourage Reluctant Children to Brush Their Teeth

Do you have a reluctant tooth-brusher? There are several reasons why young children don’t like having their teeth brushed, but the top three in my opinion are:

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1. Because it makes them feel completely out of control (imagine how you would feel if somebody brushed your teeth for you?)
2. Because it disrupts what they would rather be doing/something that is way more fun
3. Because there is something about the sensation of it they dislike.

The answer then is to come up with a solution that mixes up all three. First reluctant children should always brush their own teeth, even if that only involves chewing on a toothbrush for a minute. The alternative here is to allow them to brush your teeth while you brush theirs. Taking turns to brush for 10 seconds or so.

Second don’t aim for a specific tooth brushing time and think outside of the bathroom. Tooth brushing while in the bath often works well, as does tooth brushing while watching a favourite video clip or reading a book. There are several great apps and youtube videos that encourage tooth brushing that work really well (I turn a blind-eye to the close the bed screen time this requires, it’s only for a couple of minutes and the positive for teeth outweigh the negative for melatonin inhibition). You can also turn it into a game and pretend you’re hunting for dinosaur bones or hidden treasure in their mouth.

Third investigate different types of toothbrushes, chewable rubber ones are often more successful, as are dental wipes. Some children are thrilled with an electric toothbrushtoo. Lastly swap out mint toothpaste for fruit ones, or other alternatives. As a grown adult I still HATE mint flavoured toothpaste with a passion, it’s a very strong flavour and knowing that young children have more sensitive taste buds than us, it makes sense to avoid anything very strong flavoured (Punch and Judy make a great strawberry flavoured toothpaste).

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Talking to Children About ‘Stranger Danger’

I’m often asked my opinion of talking to children about interactions with strangers and how I would best approach the topic. It may surprise you that I am really not a fan of the idea. Why?

DANG

* Most child abductions and abuse occur from somebody known to the child (family members, family friends or professionals known to the child). Warning children about ‘Stranger Danger’ somehow implies that they can implicitly trust all those close to them, when actually these people pose far more risk to the child.

* Strangers can play an important part in keeping a child safe. For instance, if they get lost in a shop, or run into trouble when they venture out alone for the first time.

* Following from the above point, those who children really need to trust to help them keep them safe are technically strangers – here, the most pertinent being Police Officers.

* Warning children of the danger of all strangers can cause unnecessary anxiety when children meet new adults.

Instead, I far prefer the terms “funny tummy people” or “tricky people”. Of these two terms “funny tummy people” is my favourite. While a young child could struggle to grasp the idea of a ‘tricky person’, most will understand the concept of something not feeling right and giving them a funny feeling in their tummy. Most importantly, these terms include ALL adults (and older children), not just strangers.

What should children know?:

* Who they can trust in an emergency (e.g: the emergency services, store security guards, a mother with young children etc..)
* What to do if somebody makes them feel a funny tummy (how to say “stop!” and find and tell a trusted adult)
* That they should never be made to have physical contact with somebody they don’t want – this also includes visits to Santa, never force a child to cuddle him for a photo opportunity if they are uncomfortable! (more HERE on respecting body autonomy in childhood)
* The pants rule (click HERE)
* When it is appropriate to speak with strangers (eg if they are in danger, or if you are with them) and when it is not.
* How to call the emergency services
* Teach them a password, in case you ever need somebody to collect them in an emergency. Make it short and easily memorable and tell them to never go with anybody (whoever they are, even if the child knows them well) unless they know the password.
* That they can tell you ANYTHING that is worrying them, without fear of repercussion or ridicule (this is where Gentle Discipline is so important – if children are used to your support when they are experiencing tricky times, rather than being excluded from you as punishment – they may be more likely to confide in you).

I don’t think it’s ever too early to start these discussions with children. Particularly if you use age-appropriate props, such as cartoons and books to aid the discussions.

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What Should you Look for, or ask, at a School Open Day?

Are you just starting to think about choosing your child’s first school? Not sure what to look for, or what to ask when you visit? This article should help!

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A lot of schools will run tours of the school by the oldest pupils. This can be off-putting to parents initially, who may prefer to be shown around by a staff member, however this is  unique opportunity to find out about the school from some of the most important people  the children themselves! Children tend to be brutally honest, whereas staff members will tend to be more diplomatic. Ask them questions and make full use of the opportunity! On your tour, ask to see lesser covered areas, such as the changing rooms or pupil toilets, the condition of these can give you a good indication of the school’s views. For instance, pupil toilets that are well kept (although they may be old) and brightly painted to appeal to children is usually the sign of a caring school.

A good open day will also allow you to speak with the headteacher and other teachers at the school, even better if you get to view a lesson in progress. Here, really observe how the teachers interact with the children and how the children respond. What they say and do to the children is of far more importance than what they say to you!

The following is a list of questions you may want to ask, both the teachers and children, at an open day:

*Do you enjoy working/going here?
*What are you most proud of about your school?
*What do you think the school could be better at?
*Do you have any plans to improve certain things in the future?
*What is the biggest challenge your school is facing at the moment?
*How do you cope with difficult, or unwanted, behaviour from children?
*What is your view on rewarding children for good behaviour, or for attendance?
*What is your view on starting age for summer born children?
*How do you help settle an anxious starter?
*What do you do if a child is very upset at school?
*How do you deal with friendship issues and bullying?
*Do you have a peer mentor, or buddy scheme? (pairing older children with new starters)
*What sport and physical activity do children do?
*What are your school lunches like? Can I see a typical week’s menu?
*How much time do children spend outside every day? How does this change as
they get older?
*How much time do children spend sitting still and learning? (e.g. at a table, or at a computer)
*What is the school library like?
*What does an average school day look like?
*What opportunities are there for children who like art, music and drama?
*What is your SEND and pastoral care provision like?
*What do you offer for ‘gifted’ children, or high achievers?
*What support do you provide for children who struggle academically?
*What is your view on standard assessments?
*What are the school values, or ethos?
*What is the school’s opinion of homework? When does it get set, how much and what sort of thing?
*What is your teacher retention rate like? How long have your current staff been here for?
*Do you have an ‘open door policy’ if parents have any concerns?
*Do you know how many siblings of current pupils will be applying this year?
*How many children are in an average class? If this is a larger number, how do
you make sure they each get the individual attention they need?
*What clubs and extra-curricular activities do you run?
*What do you think parents would say about the school?
*What do you think pupils would say about the school?
*Do you think your current official rating is a good reflection of the school? If not, why?
*Does your school have an active PTA?
*What opportunities do you have for parents to get involved with the school?
*Do you offer school trips and visits? If so, can you let me know what they have been in the past?

Don’t feel embarrassed by asking too many questions, however if you are conscious of time, or of monopolising a tour, ask the headteacher if you can send them some questions to answer via email, or speak with them via the phone at a later date. Usually the response to this request is a pretty good indicator of the head’s attitude, however, do bear in mind that most are incredibly stretched and although they may want to spare you the time to answer all of your questions as thoroughly as possible, it may just not be possible.

Warning Signs to Spot on a School Visit
School visits aren’t just about looking for the good points and asking the right questions, they also give an opportunity to raise alarm bells. There are certain things that you really  don’t want to see, these include:

*Quiet classrooms – learning at infant and primary shouldn’t be quiet, that doesn’t mean it should be chaotic, but you should expect talking and laughter. If a classroom is quiet it may be an indication that the school are expecting too much compliance and age inappropriate behaviour from the children, it can also be a sign that they aren’t as engaged with their learning.
*Few wall displays of children’s work – schools should be proud of the work of their pupils and want to display artwork and project work, even if it makes the walls look cluttered and non-colour-coordinated. Classrooms that lack in children’s work should raise alarm bells.
*Unhappy children – this one goes without saying. Do the children look sad, or stressed? Or are they relaxed and smiling?
*Stressed teachers – again, another obvious point. Do teachers generally look happy at work? Or do they appear very tense? Or shouty?
*No mess – learning isn’t neat and tidy. A classroom where everything is put away and looks pristine raises suspicion. You don’t want utter devastation, but somewhere in  Between shows a good balance
*Lack of outdoor play spaces or equipment – outdoors is where children relax, what does the school offer them?
*Children being disrespectful to each other – what is the general feel of the school? Are children polite to each other as well as teachers? Do they hold doors open for each other, or help when another drops something or falls over? A lack of compassion towards each  other is often indicative of a lack of compassion and respect towards children.

If your child is starting school soon and you would like to learn how to choose the best school, how to prepare them (and you), or know how to settle your child into their school, then my new ‘The Starting School’ book will be perfect for you! You can learn more and order HERE in the UK or HERE in the rest of the world.

schoolbook

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Confusional Arousals – AKA Why Children Wake in Tears After a Nap

I’m often contacted by parents who are worried that their children (usually toddlers) wake seemingly inconsolable after sleep, usually naps. They describe children who won’t settle (even for their usual fail-safes), can’t be reasoned with and seem in great discomfort. This crying lasts anything from a couple of minutes, to ten or twenty minutes, or more.
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This pattern is characteristic of a condition known as Confusional Arousal disorder. In adults, this parasomnia (a disorder that commonly affects falling asleep, waking up, or the period during sleep) usually manifests as slurred or slow speech, forgetfulness and generalised confusion (or what some may term as ‘sleep drunk’) and affects around 2.9% of people. In young children however the incidence is much higher at 17.3%, manifesting almost always as intense crying, although sometimes it can be continued subdued sobbing or whining. Confusional Arousal is more common if the individual is woken from sleep (ie parents wake the child from a nap), rather than the sleep cycle naturally concluding, however this is not always the case. The best way to view them is like an electrical blip in the brain, where the individual is jolted out of sleep too quickly and therefore becomes severely disorientated, with their body and mind taking a while to catch on to the fact they are now awake.

Although these episodes can be incredibly scary (and hard to handle as parents), the good news is they are not harmful to the child and are usually outgrown naturally by around the age of five years. As with other parasomnias (such as sleep walking or night terrors), there is often a genetic link and children who are affected will often have a parent who used to experience the same (or another parasomnia) as a child.

What can you do to help a child who suffers from Confusional Arousal? Ultimately this is a case of waiting for the child to outgrow the disorder (and keeping them as comfortable and safe as possible during an episode), until then, the following may be helpful:

  • Make sure the bedroom (or room they nap in) is not too hot, or too cold. In general the ideal temperature to keep a bedroom at night is around 16-18 centigrade.
  • Keep artificial light out of the bedroom at night (if you use a nightlight, make sure you only use one that utilises light on the red colour spectrum).
  • Try to avoid waking your child from naps if they suffer from Confusional Arousals.
  • Try to avoid your child becoming overtired.
  • Consider their intake of Omega 3 fatty acids (a limited amount of research has shown a link between deficiency and parasomnias in children).
Ultimately though, be ready to reassure them and offer as much physical contact as the child wants, to help them to calm down when they wake properly.
This is an extract from my NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out May 5th 2020!

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Setting Limits on Junk Food for Children – Is it Possible When You’re Aiming for Self-Regulation?

I’m often contacted by people who, having read my Gentle Eating Book, ask me if I really set absolutely no limits on the junk food my children eat. I think they presume that they eat only sweets/candy and chocolate all day long and that my house is reminiscent of some sort of Willy Wonka’esque never ending sugar factory.

junk

To answer this, I need to do a quick recap of the main ideas in my Gentle Eating Book. I’m not adding the research in here as 1. it’s all referenced in the book should you want to read it and 2. I’m writing this newsletter with zero time while our dinner cooks and don’t have time to dig them all out! Anyway – the main ideas behind so called ‘treat’ food are:

1. Labeling palatable food as ‘treats’, ‘sometimes foods’, ‘unhealthy’, or something similar can in itself make a child more likely to crave them as they get older. When we anthropomorphise something (ie give it a personality) it greatly impacts on how we interact with it.
2. Restricting palatable foods (by palatable I mean predominantly refined sugar) is shown consistently to be a large risk factor in the child being unable to self-regulate it later in life. ie: if sugary foods/junk foods are banned, or overly restricted, early in childhood, the child is more likely to struggle to regulate them as they grow and gain independence surrounding what they can eat and when. This dis-regulation often results in overeating and bingeing on the previously forbidden items in the teen and young adult years, which can and does impact on weight gain.
3. Children are able to self-regulate their food intake if adults don’t interfere with our learned beliefs and eating behaviours. Even refined sugar (and no – it’s not addictive! despite what you may read online, or in certain books, similarly it doesn’t make children hyperactive, or cause problems with sleep!). The key here is to look at what they eat in total over the course of a week, not analyse it hour by hour or day by day.

So – what does this look like in reality?

In our house, I order our groceries online and get a delivery that is to last us for between 7-10 days. I meal plan, so we have no wastage. What gets delivered I know will be gone by the time the next order arrives. Each week I order what many people would term ‘junk food’, or ‘treats’ (I just call them ‘food’): small chocolate bars, biscuits, crisps, fromage frais or chocolate desert pots and choc ices or ice pops usually. It usually works out so that there is enough for 1 chocolate bar, 1 packet of crisps and 1 desert option per day, per child. Plus a couple of biscuits per day, per child. These all go into our pantry or fridge/freezer and once they are delivered I have zero control over them. My control is what I buy and bring into the house. The children are allowed to self-regulate their eating of them. If they choose to eat loads the day the shopping arrives, then they have none for the next 7 days. If they eat them slowly they can have a feast the day before the new shopping arrives. If one child eats their own and their siblings’ food, well then they all have to figure it out themselves, because I don’t get involved in small sibling squabbles (I should add a caveat they are all tweens/teens, I would get involved if they were younger). Mostly, they take their allocation of food that doesn’t have to be refrigerated and keep it in their bedroom (personally, I hide my chocolate at the bottom of the vegetable drawer!). If they chose to eat chocolate for breakfast, then so be it (they invariably eat ‘proper’ breakfast 30 minutes later).

They are each free to spend their pocket money as they would like. If that’s all on sweets/candy, then so be it (it rarely is by the way, usually only when they have a sleepover or go into town with a friend and visit the sweet shop), because once I give that money to them I don’t believe I should have control of it (more HERE). If we’re out and about and they ask for a cake, or an ice cream, I will buy one if I have enough cash on me (they tend to only ask for sandwiches, sushi or cooked pasta pots though).

When it comes to Halloween, they do go trick or treating and come back with impressive hauls. I let them eat this haul with almost zero restrictions (when they were younger I used to take out the gluten containing items for my coeliac son and I won’t let them eat gumballs , bubble gum, or toxic waste type sweets – that’s a brand name by the way, google it – it’s disgusting!). If they want to eat all of it for dinner, then so be it. Usually I end up throwing away discarded sweets/candy a couple of weeks after Halloween when they’ve got bored of them, in fact it only takes a couple of days for the boredom to set in. I often find Christmas chocolate in the summer and uneaten Easter Eggs in the Autumn/Fall.

The only other way I get involved with their eating of ‘junk’, is by asking them to check in on their bodies if they’re hungry and want to eat. They tend to come home from school ravenous and want to eat immediately. My daughter in particular will grab the quickest thing, which is usually the biscuit tin. If I see her going for it I will ask “are you hungry? if you are, then some cereal or toast would probably fill you up more”. Sometimes she opts for cereal, other times she opts for the biscuits, but I make sure I have no further involvement in her choice, aside from getting her to think about why she is eating.

Is my approach perfect? Of course not, what is? Although, what I can see is that (so far) none of my children have the terrible relationship with ‘junk food’ that I had as a teen (and still do). My mother heavily restricted refined sugar when I was a child, junk food was a special treat only. I didn’t know any better until I got a little older and saw my friends had biscuits, cakes and soda streams in their homes. I would gorge on iced party rings and sweets at parties and when I went to secondary school I would often spend my dinner money solely on cake. I hope I’m raising my children to be different!

You can read more about the psychology of eating in childhood – and what the science says about raising children to have a healthy relationship with food in my Gentle Eating Book. available HERE in the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.

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What to do when Somebody Criticises your Parenting

“You really shouldn’t hold her so much you know”
“He should be sleeping in his own room by now”
“She’s too old to be having milk at night now”
“He should be sleeping through the night by now, it’s not good for him to wake so much”
“She’ll never learn to be independent if you don’t leave her”
“You need to be firmer with him, he has to learn he can’t always get his own way”
“If you don’t punish her she’ll never learn the consequences for her behaviour”
“She really should be in nursery now, socialising with children of her own age”
“You pander to him too much, if he doesn’t eat it then just take it away and send him to bed hungry”

I hear these sorts of comments so much from parents. When you practice a more gentle style of parenting, criticism from others can be all too common. So, what should you do then next time somebody offers you one of these pearls of wisdom?

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1. Try to see the motivation
A lot of what we view as criticism can really be classified as well-meant concern. This is particularly true if it comes from those close to us, ie relatives. Perhaps they are worried about how tired you look, or they are genuinely concerned about your child and rather than meaning to attack what you are doing, their comments are actually aimed at (what they believe will be) something far healthier for your child, and you. The comments may come out wrong and it can be easy to perceive them as just being an attack on you, but I think most criticism is just poorly phrased concern. Of course this isn’t always the case, sometimes people are just negative interfering busy-bodies, but I find trying to look for the motivation really helpful.

2. Understand they are speaking from their own knowledge and experience base
When my firstborn was a baby, early weaning (by 16 weeks), cry based sleep training and punishments were the in-thing. This advice was given in all the baby books, by health visitors/child nurses, official healthcare publications and television experts. Things have changed a lot in the last 17 years, imagine how much they have changed over the last 30 or 40! I have kept up to date with current research and recommendations, because that’s my job, if it wasn’t, I’d have no reason to know how much things have changed and I would likely believe that the same recommendations still applied. People give advice/criticise based upon what they know and believe to be true. Similarly, they criticise and advise based upon their own experiences; of being a child and (sometimes) raising one. This involves a lot of cognitive dissonance, because accommodating new, updated, advice, means admitting that how they were raised, or how they raised their children may have been damaging. Instead of admitting this – and working through the big feelings it brings – many people will attack the new information, sometimes consciously, other times totally subconsciously. In a sense the fact you are doing things differently may be seen as an attack on what they did, or are doing. Hence, their criticism of you is a self-protective mechanism. Basically, their negative words are not saying anything about you, but everything about them.

3. Ask questions and Talk about Emotions
If you want to respond to the advice/criticisms; my strongest suggestion is to hold back on piling the evidence on them. I see so many posts on social media saying things like “can anyone provide me with some research showing sleep training is bad?”. Providing evidence here is totally ineffective. Why? Because it just won’t get through the cognitive dissonance barrier. They probably won’t even read it. If they do read it they will dismiss it. As much as you may think listing evidence is the way forward to convince them that you are in the right, it really isn’t. What works better? Two things – asking “why?” and appealing to their emotions. The next time somebody says “he needs to sleep in his own room” ask them “why?”. Keep drilling down and drilling down. When they say “because he needs to be independent”, ask “why?”. When they say “because he won’t ever learn to be alone otherwise”, ask “why?”. At some point they will reach a dead end and simply not be able to answer, or – there is a slim chance they may realise that their criticism has no substance and what they read/saw is incorrect (though don’t hold your breath!). Another tactic is to appeal to their emotions. Here, I like to ask them to put themselves into the child’s place, or imagine how they felt/what they needed as a child. “how do you think she feels when she’s left crying in her cot?”, or “do you remember a time when you really needed your parents, but they didn’t come for you?”. Asking ‘why’? and appealing to emotions is inifinitely more successful than providing evidence in my experience.

4. Smile and thank them
Aka ignore them. Ignoring in a way that makes them feel like they’ve been listened to is key though. Instead of saying “please keep your opinions to yourself”, or “no, I’m not doing that”. Responding with “Thanks for your advice, I’ll take it on board”, or “OK, that’s definitely something to think about” quietens people a lot quicker than disagreeing with them! Sure, you have not done anything to attempt to change their mind, but I think sometimes for our sanity it’s best to smile nod, ignore and move on. We’re not here to change the world for everybody, just our children. It’s OK if somebody holds a conflicting view to you.

5. Remind yourself of why you’re doing things this way
These last two points are about keeping your confidence up. Criticism and unwanted advice can really erode it. If you’ve been on the receiving end from several people, or over a sustained length of time (I’m thinking family holiday and so on) it can be all too easy to start second guessing yourself. Take a breather to remind yourself of why you’re doing this your way, re-read the books and the articles, watch a video, listen to a podcast. Revisit whatever source convinced you in the first place. If that source was your intuition/heart, then try to switch off from all things parenting and go for a long walk, watch a movie, read a (non parenting) book, meditate and do whatever it is that you enjoy doing to take away some of the toxicity.

6. Get support from likeminded parents
It can be hard parenting in a way that is not the norm. A day or two surrounded by people doing things differently to you is hard going, especially if they criticise you. The best solution I’ve found for this is to surround yourself with like minded people. People who agree with you. Post on the internet about your experience, the replies agreeing with you and telling you to ignore the critcisms can be incredibly validating! If you’re on Facebook, come and join my gentle parenting chat groups HERE for those of you in the UK and HERE for those of you elsewhere in the world.

 

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The power of self-forgiveness – and why it is important for your parenting.

I came across this quote recently and it really spoke to me. Of course, this isn’t only true for women, but men too. I think it’s highly applicable to parenting.

Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to parenting. Yes, it is wonderful when we set the bar high and aim to be the very best parent we can be, but it can also be incredibly damaging. I come across far too many parents who confess their guilt to me. They worry that they make too many mistakes, yell too much, don’t find joy in every moment, wish the days and nights away, regret having children, utilise screens too much, don’t play enough, didn’t breastfeed long enough, don’t feed their children totally wholesome food and so on….you name it, I’ve heard a related guilt confession. In fact I’ve never come across a group of people who are harder on themselves than those practising gentle parenting.

Yes, introspection and awareness of our flaws is a really important part of gentle parenting, but too many people let it get in the way, because they treat themselves so poorly. The irony that gentle parenting highlights children should be treated fairly, with empathy and respect is not lost on me when I think about how heavy some parents are on themselves.

I have made parenting choices that I am not proud of now and I would not make again if I knew then what I know now. I’ve also slipped up, many times, ‘in the moment’ and said and done things I regret. Everyone has, but I welcome my guilt for it teaches me to be a better parent. When we know better we do better. Life is about living in the now, parenting is about living in the now, not dwelling on what happened yesterday. If you don’t feel you have enough patience today, that’s OK, because tomorrow is a new day and everybody can change!

If you’re up for it, I’d like you to try something. For the next 7 days I’d like you to pay close attention to your thoughts. Every time you catch yourself feeling negative about your traits and parenting related qualities, I’d like you to stop and correct yourself. Remind yourself that you’re learning, you are doing your best and that you can – and will – be better with practice and a little self-directed empathy. Cut yourself a break, try to direct some of the nurturing you are constantly aiming at your children at yourself instead. If you’re an affirmations type of person, try repeating some of these to yourself when you feel most in need:

“I am still learning and I am doing the best I can”
“I am a great mum/dad”
“I can do this”
“Today is a new day, what happened yesterday is in the past, it’s time to move on”
“I am good enough as I am”
“Perfect doesn’t exist, real does”
“Today I will be kind to myself”
“It’s OK if I don’t know all the answers”
“We are learning together”
“All parents have bad days, some just hide them better than others”
“It’s OK to focus on my own emotional wellbeing”

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Starting Childcare When Your Baby has Separation Anxiety

care
Leaving your baby or child in the care of others can be a stressful time for parents, some children take the transition in their stride, but others struggle much more with the separation. While some settings and childcare providers offer brilliant support and advice to ease the transition, others are less helpful. Much is made of attachment theory in early years settings, yet I’m not certain that some truly understand its implications.

I have often seen well-meaning nursery workers peeling a sobbing child or screaming baby off of an equally distressed parent with reassurances of, “It will be okay, don’t worry.” The parents walk away with tear-stained cheeks, desperately trying to not look back, whilst the childcare workers speak in jolly voices trying to cajole toddlers with the promise of a sticker or story, or bounce babies whilst playing peekaboo.

Understanding attachment theory is so important here, for both parents and professionals. In the case of a securely attached mother-infant dyad, both will be experiencing trauma in the above situation if it is not well handled. The abrupt separation of the child from his or her ‘secure base’ is not something that can be ‘got over’ in minutes or hours. The child will stop eventually crying for its parent, but perhaps because of ‘learned helplessness’ or distraction, rather than being truly calm and reassured. It is important to realise that the potential trauma of separation is very real and valid, and to acknowledge, rather than try to silence it. Only then is it possible to move on to the ultimate goal – that of a truly happy child and a happy parent whilst using childcare.

So, How can you help to smooth the transition, mindful of attachment?

1. Empathy and respect
Listening is so important. Don’t be tempted to tell your child: “don’t worry”, “don’t be silly” or similar, all of which dismisses feelings. Instead, you could say, “I can see you’re very upset, that’s okay, it’s a really big thing. How can I help?” which validates feelings and shows your genuine concern. Of course, in the case of a baby or young toddler, this sort of conversation won’t be possible, but you can still empathise and ask yourself if there is anything you can do to make it easier for them. I think, more than anything, it’s important to face this transition as a unit, recognising that your baby, toddler or preschooler is not behaving this way to deliberately make things harder for you.

2. Questions, questions, questions
Asking lots of questions about the setting, what happens and when, how it happens, who is responsible for what  etc can help. Especially if you can make up a visual timetable of sorts to share with your child (again, suitable for older toddlers and preschoolers, but less so for younger). .Don’t be afraid to ask anything that is on your mind, especially something you feel might be silly to ask – it is often these points that bother parents the most and are therefore the most important to discuss. Also, make sure the staff have as much information about your child as possible. Tell them what their favourite toys and activities are, what television programmes they like, what craft activities they enjoy, what their favourite book is, how they like to calm if they are angry, or settle to sleep. The more information you provide, the easier it will be for the childcare staff to meet your child’s needs in a bespoke way. You could even consider writing this information down as a sort of plan, over a couple of sides of A4.

3. Speak with other parents who have been through similar
It can be tremendously helpful to access peer support from those who have been in a similar situation. You could ask the setting if they have a parent there who had a tough start but whose child is now thriving that you could talk to, or consider asking parents with a similar parenting ethos to you online what helped them (you can join my Facebook chat group if you’re in the UK HERE, or HERE if you’re outside the UK).

4. Make sure your child has a key person
A key person becomes a replacement attachment object for the child, so it is vital that they form a good bond with the child in advance of the child starting. Both the parent and child need to meet their key person several times before starting day. I recommend a minimum of 3-4 times, for a minimum of 30 minutes per time (though more is usually better). It is also helpful to take a photo of your child’s key person (with their consent of course) to take home and refer to, building recognition and bonding at home.

5. Visual cues
Young children do not process and store information in the same way as adults. Using visual props can be very helpful, e.g. a small scrapbook with pictures of the nursery and staff that you share with your child at home, in order to familiarise.

6. Transitional objects
If your child already has a comforter, a cuddly toy, for instance, this should always come with them to the daycare setting and should never be taken away. If your child doesn’t have one, try to condition one a good month before daycare starts (or immediately if already started) – do this by involving the comforter in hugs and cuddles and feeds if the child is a baby.

7. Ask for honesty
Ask your childcare provider to always be honest with you. If your baby or toddler has had a bad day tell them that you would like to hear the truth, however hard it is. If they tell you today has been especially hard, ask to have a conversation about why this may have been (what happened that day? Did anything different happen? How did your child sleep? What did they eat? Can you spot any patterns over time?). Try to use the bad days as an opportunity to discuss how you can improve things with the childcare provider.

8. Consider who does the drop off
Children of all ages are usually ‘better’ at the drop off (by that I mean less upset) if it is not the primary attachment figure (and here this is usually mum) dropping them off. If you live with somebody else and they are available to do drop offs, it may well be calmer and more successful. If you are alone, or nobody else can do drop offs, try to really work hard on your own emotions. Babies and children definitely pick up on our own anxieties and emotions. Practice some positive affirmations, deep breathing and mindful for a few minutes before you leave the house and again just before you get to the daycare setting. Aim to be as calm and positive as you can be. On this note, unless you absolutely MUST leave at a certain time (eg to make it to work on time), it is not better to make a quick dash and leave your child crying if you can stay for a while and help comfort them, whatever anybody may tell you at the setting. If you do have to leave by a specific time, consider arriving earlier if possible, to build in some time for a slower drop off.

9. Ask the provider to consider babywearing
Using slings and carriers can be an amazing way to settle fractious babies and young toddlers, especially if you babywear at home. Ask your childcare provider if they would be willing to carry your child for a short while after the drop off, especially if they have other children to care for. We know from research that a child crying ‘in arms’ does not suffer the same toxic stress effects as a child who is crying out of arms. Babywearing allows a childcare work to have free arms to support other children in their care, whilst ‘holding’ your child through their upset. This is a good article to share with your setting if they are not sure of the idea.

10. Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives
If your child is persistently failing to settle into the setting, don’t be afraid to consider alternatives. This is really pertinent if it is relating to a toddler starting preschool. I believe many toddlers are forced to start before they are ready and that waiting just another few months can make a dramatic difference, although this of course only applies if you don’t *need* to use childcare. If you need to use childcare because you are working, then consider other providers – e.g: some do much better in a home based care environment, such as a nanny share or childminder. Or if you are already using home based care, it may be that your child will form a better bond with somebody else. If your child is in a nursery and you want them to stay there, or there are no home based alternatives, perhaps they may do better with a change in keyperson. If you use childcare part-time, consider if it’s possible to switch the days, for instance, many do better if they attend on concurrent days, rather than spacing care out by a day or more over the week. There is usually something you can consider here, so don’t be afraid to think about alternatives.

 

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How to be a Gentle – Not Permissive – Parent

I was chatting with a journalist recently who was writing an article about forcing children to say sorry (based upon a piece I wrote for the HuffPost a while ago). In the piece I talk about the importance of parenting mindfully, leading by example and teaching children well – but not enforcing discipline because of societal rules, if those rules don’t fit with what we know to be a good fit for the capabilities of children. She asked me what I would do instead, or more specifically she asked “but, what happens if you don’t make them say sorry? Would you be OK with them never apologising as they got older?”. I explained that actually, they would be far more likely to apologise as they grew, if they had done something wrong, because the discipline I would use (namely being a good role model), would be far more effective.

I come across this misconception time and time again; that if you don’t make your child do something (in an authoritarian way), then they will never learn and will grow to be rude and feral. People seem to forget (or perhaps don’t realise in the first place) there is a sweet spot in the middle – something known as Authoritative Parenting. You can see more about the different styles below:

Despite the popular myth; there is a huge difference between Gentle Parenting and Permissive Parenting. Gentle Parenting falls into the official definition of Authoritative Parenting (not to be confused with Authoritarian which is harsh Victorian style parenting!).

Authoritative Parenting is characterised by the parent having realistic expectations of a child’s behaviour, a good degree of empathy and compassion and a good balance of control. ie giving children control where it’s appropriate with the parent taking the lead when it isn’t – or, what is better known as having consistent boundaries.

Permissive Parents tend to have unrealistic expectations of their children (believing they are less, or more, capable than they really are) and tend to give children too much control and not have consistent boundaries. You can see more about the different parenting styles and how Gentle Parenting fits in in the introduction to my Gentle Parenting book HERE.

To stop yourself straying into permissive parenting; the key is to first have a good understanding of what your child can and cannot do and can and cannot understand. To make sure that you are not expecting too little of them (or too much!) when it comes to their behaviour. In short, you need to have a fairly good understanding of child brain development.

Next, it’s about setting age appropriate boundaries and most importantly – sticking consistently to them. See THIS post for more on how to do this. An Authoritative (Gentle!) Parent would uphold boundaries even if their child is crying. What makes the parenting gentle is not the avoidance of crying, but how you respond and react to your child when they are upset – by staying empathic and offering them comfort.

A Permissive Parent is far more likely to drop a boundary if it upsets their child, for fear of them crying and they are also less likely to have boundaries in the first place. It is this setting and consistency of boundaries – and the acceptance of your child’s emotions – that marks the biggest difference between the two styles I think.

For more on what to expect of children at each age, how to choose and enforce appropriate boundaries and to stop yourself straying into permissive parenting, see my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in the UKUSACanadaAustralia and the Rest of the World.

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