Do you ever feel like you’re not sure exactly how to handle your child’s emotions, let alone yours?! Today’s journal is for you! We have Sarah (pictured above with her four children), a child psychologist of over 15 years, sharing with us today from her wealth of knowledge and experience.
Sarah runs Mindful Little Minds, her parent coaching business, helping families have the peaceful, connected homes that they have always wanted. She’s also a mum of four herself so she totally gets what it’s like! Let’s dive in!
To get to know you better, can you tell us what is one thing that makes you feel alive?
Definitely my daily walks! I try to make time to get out for a walk every day and it always helps clear my mind and calm my body. I love the feeling of the wind or sun on my face (and even the rain sometimes!)
How would you describe your personal parenting style?
I would call myself a responsive parent - my goal is to understand not just the physical needs but also the emotional needs of my children and respond to them as effectively and consistently as I can.
How as parents, do we regulate our own emotions when dealing with our child’s emotions as well?
This is such a big question, and there's no simple answer! In the moment, different strategies will work for different people, and it really depends on your unique nervous system as well as your own sensory preferences. But I think it's important to understand that how you react in the moment is really dependent on the work you are doing outside of the moment. Because to really get to a place of regulation ourselves, can be a long journey. It involves really understanding your child and their needs in the moment so you can offer them empathy, but also understanding yourself and your needs so that you can offer yourself some compassion and understanding too.
In my opinion, regulating yourself when your child is dysregulated is THE MOST difficult part of parenting and it's so important for parents to understand that they don't need to get this "right" 100% of the time! You don't have to be perfect. You are a human being with human emotions, and your child's stress response being activated WILL activate your own. In fact, it's supposed to. So please try to give yourself a break! And if you mess up - you can always repair. This is what really builds strong relationships anyway.
Can you give us any tips about how to work through toddler tantrums?
The most important thing we can do during a tantrum or meltdown is to create safety for our children through co-regulation. Co-regulation will look different for each child because they all have different needs of course. But generally, it means remaining as close to our children as they will allow us to and giving them plenty of space to express their feelings - whatever they may be. Probably the biggest mistake we make as parents is trying to rush children through their emotions before they are ready - trying to offer them calming strategies or tools or jumping into problem solving. This leaves children feeling unheard and even more frustrated. So really, it's just about listening, acknowledging their feelings and validating how they feel. We want them to know that we hear them, we understand what they're going through, and we're right there with them.
Can you tell us about parent triggers and what they look like?
So parenting triggers are things that our children do, say, feel or believe that cause us to have an automatic, negative response. We might yell, lash out, shut down, or say and do things we normally wouldn’t. Triggers cause us to act in a way that is out of line with our own values and beliefs about parenting and they often prevent us from being the parent we want to be in that moment.
And the way we react when we're triggered is usually the result of experiences from our own childhoods. When we are triggered, we are no longer responding to the child in front of us, we are responding to the child within us - the child who was not allowed to have a voice, who was not allowed to say no, who was not allowed to be scared or angry - the child who felt invalidated and unheard and powerless.
What that looks like, and what we are triggered by as parents will really depend on our own experiences of being parented ourselves. Sometimes triggers can even be positive things - like our children's happiness or playfulness or a moment of silliness - because if we were never allowed to experience these things ourselves as children, seeing our children have these opportunities now can be really painful for us.
But some of the more common triggers I tend to see over and over again when I work with parents are children not listening, talking back, kids expressing big emotions or having meltdowns, sibling arguments and even food waste.
What are some practical ways that we can help our children connect with their emotions?
Talk about emotions - a lot! If we want children to better understand their emotions, as well as the emotions of others - then the first thing to do is to give them language to speak about feelings. We need to name emotions, and help children develop self-awareness, so they know what those emotions feel like in their body, how they behave when they experience different emotions, how others might behave when they feel different emotions, and then why those feelings might be coming up.
A really simple way for parents to start doing this is by simply labelling what they see when their child has big emotions and then checking in with their child to see if they are correct. "Wow, I can see you clenching your fists by your sides right now. Are you feeling angry because your brother took your toy?" Or, "I see you frowning. Are you feeling sad about something?"
Tips for reducing sibling fighting?
The most important thing you can do to reduce sibling fighting is to teach your children the skills they need to solve problems together! Which means for us parents, we need to move from being a referee to a coach. A referee is right in the middle of the play, determining who is in the wrong and dishing out consequences. But the coach is on the sidelines offering encouragement and support. And this is what our children need from us in these tricky sibling moments. They need us to teach them these skills when they are calm and regulated so they can use them, with our support and guidance in those more heated moments. When we immediately jump in and start making rulings - deciding who is right and wrong and what should happen - we take away our children's sense of power, and we often create more conflict and resentment within their relationship. But we also rob them of opportunities to apply their skills and learn how to manage these situations in the future, which means the same old conflicts just keep on happening over and over!
What would be your top 3 tips to help your child listen to you?
First of all, I would try to reframe the question and ask instead, "How do I gain my child's co-operation?" Because listening to you is not the same as co-operating and most of the time when parents ask me how to get their kiddos to listen to them, they really want to know, "How do I get my child to do what I say?" But when we shift our lens and aim for co-operation rather than compliance, we are already halfway there - because now we're thinking about how we can work TOGETHER with our child!
So here are my top 3 tips:
1 | Connect first.
Get down to their level, make eye contact and acknowledge what they 're doing. Showing them that you are interested in the things that are important to them, and that they are already engaged in, helps them feel connected to you and means they'll be more willing to follow your lead. Try saying something like, "Wow, that looks like fun!" or, "You look like you’re really enjoying that game, tell me more about it!"
2 | Offer them Choices.
Offer them choices - Children like to feel in control of their lives, just as us adults do. In fact, they NEED to feel in control. And you can fill your child’s power bucket by allowing them to make decisions and have agency over their lives where possible. Here are some examples you can try:
“Would you like to pack away your toys before or after lunch?” “It’s time to get dressed, would you like to put your shirt or your pants on first?” “Would you like a sandwich or pasta for lunch?”
3 | Make it Fun!
Before you start barking commands at your kids, think about whether there’s a way to make it fun! Can you have a race to see who can finish the task first? Could you put on some music and dance your way to the bathroom? Can the toys fly into the toy box? Or could your child’s teddy bear give them their instructions?
We’re so thankful to Sarah Conway for sharing her tips and insight!
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