Bad loser

April 28, 2014

To the woman sitting at the next table to us at the leisure centre yesterday:

My child is a bad loser. He gets very upset if he doesn’t win. At anything. I know this, so I was prepared for a lot of fuss if he didn’t win a prize in the raffle. I knew what responses I needed to give, and I knew the poor responses I can sometimes give when I’m out of patience, so I’d mentally prepared myself for the storm to come.

comfortYou may think he was making a lot of fuss about nothing, and that by failing to tell him so, I was encouraging this. But it wasn’t nothing to him. If I’d said, “Don’t be so silly, stop making such a fuss” would this have made him feel any differently? Would he have said, “OK, actually you’re right Mum, I’ll stop crying now and forget about it”? Really? I don’t think so. So I validated his feelings – it’s nice to feel someone understands and is on your side when you’re feeling upset isn’t it?

You may think I should have corrected his unreasonable claims that he never wins anything. But in the midst of that upset the rational part of his brain wasn’t functioning – my reasoning would only have fallen on deaf ears. He was merely expressing how he felt at that moment.

You may think his behaviour was bad behaviour that needed to be punished or corrected. But I don’t see it that way. He was expressing his feelings, that’s all. They’re his feelings and he’s entitled to them, and I can’t make them go away. He was not pretending to be upset. He was. I wish he wouldn’t get so upset about these things, but he does.  Since he can’t really help how he feels, to punish him would only teach him to suppress, not deal with, his feelings, and that the way he feels makes him a bad person.

You may think I should have tried to cheer up or distract him instead of just allowing him to cry for so long. But this too would only brush his feelings under the carpet. If I had scolded or distracted him and stopped the crying sooner, this may have been desirable for me, it may have made me feel better, but it would have short-circuited my child’s ability to really deal with his feelings. The best way for him to learn to deal with these upsets, to develop the maturity and emotional intelligence we often wish children had, is to experience them fully. Then move on, in his own time. And you know what? That’s exactly what he did. Outside, in the car park, the bit you didn’t see. He dried his eyes, sighed, and starting talking happily about something else. He never mentioned it again. He didn’t even feel the need to tell his Dad about it when we got home.

You may think this was proof that he wasn’t really upset – a common misconception about children. They experience things very much in the moment you see. They can swing from one extreme of emotion to another very rapidly. He was very upset at that time, he is not yet able to regulate his emotions, but as he was allowed to express and feel this upset, this enabled him to fully get over it and move on, And that’s what he needs to learn to do. In the meantime, I just need to be patient and be there for him. A loving, accepting presence.

So if you were surprised or puzzled by my responses to my child, I hope this explains where I’m coming from. The responses may have seemed unusual to you since sadly, as a society, we have for many years misunderstood children’s developmental needs, and change is slow in coming about. Old responses and assumptions get passed down from one generation to the next, and it’s difficult to break that cycle. But even though my approach goes against the way I was brought up, and can attract the attention of strangers, I’m completely confident that it’s the right thing to do, and the right thing for my child.


Reasons my son is crying: I was too busy taking a photo of him and publishing it on the internet to care.

October 29, 2013

An interesting article in The Guardian this weekend about Greg Pembroke’s massively popular blog in which he posts pictures of his own and other people’s children crying, with a caption giving the reason. It seems millions of people find this highly amusing. The reasons are always so ridiculous, you see.

Infant CryingThis isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this blog. Other parenting writers that I follow have already had some words to say about it. Janet Lansbury, for example, wrote an excellent article about it back in April. But the Guardian article caught my attention because many of the things Greg Pembroke is quoted as saying actually seemed quite reasonable. Perhaps he’s not all bad, I wondered.

He claims he is not making fun of the children, but simply posting pictures that give a more realistic representation of life with a toddler. True, it’s not always rosy. Also true that it can help us through what can be at times an extremely trying task of parenting small children, if we can lighten up, not be too serious all the time, and not be too hard on ourselves when things don’t go swimmingly. Toddlers cry a lot. They can throw a total fit about the craziest things. Parents enjoy some solidarity knowing it’s not due to their failings as a parent, but just that their child is, well, a child.

At the end of the article, Pembroke is quoted as saying, “I think that if you’re present, loving, and not a total push-over, your kids will turn out fine”. Some truth in that, although I’d suggest it’s not quite that simple. But the problem here is this: How does taking a photo of your child when they’re crying equate to being present and loving?

I’m really struggling with this one. I’ve looked at the blog. The pictures are mostly of very distressed looking kids, and they’re mostly staring right at the camera. So it’s not like the pictures were taken when they weren’t looking (not that I think this would make it OK anyway).

Now, even if Pembroke gets the whole notion of toddlers getting easily overwhelmed by feelings they don’t know how to deal with, about frustrations that have been building up all day, about needs they’re struggling to express, about the fact that it may not actually be just that little thing they’re crying over, it may be just the last straw, or a trigger for some bigger upset they’ve been storing. Even if he gets all this, and after taking his photo he validates, sympathises, comforts. Even if he does all this (and I think there’s reasonable grounds to suspect that he doesn’t), how must the child feel when, before being the present and loving parent Pembroke describes he says, “Oh, just hold on while I take a photo of you.”? Because in saying this he’s saying “This takes priority. This is more important than your feelings. I don’t care that you’re upset.”, and a whole host of other things, none of them good.

Why is it so often considered acceptable to treat children with less respect than we would adults? If you were crying over something, how would you feel if the person you count on most in the world to take care of you pointed a camera at you in the midst of your distress? And then posted the picture on the internet for all to see. It may not be Pembroke’s intention, as the article claims, to make fun of these children. But making fun is exactly what he’s doing, along with disrespecting them, disrespecting their feelings, and exploiting their powerlessness and vulnerability.

And don’t give me “They’re not really distressed”. They are. That’s why they’re crying. Tears or no tears, there are big feelings and emotions being dealt with here.

Yes, we parents don’t need to get all upset and serious about each and every thing our toddlers have a meltdown over. Parenting small children can be exasperating. And it’s fine to allow our children space and time to have a good cry. But pointing a camera at them while they’re doing this is not. It’s not supportive, it’s not respectful, it’s not loving, and it’s not funny.


Getting over it

September 9, 2013

My child was playing football with his friend in the street. They’d only been out there a few minutes, but it was time to go to his swimming lesson. When I announced this my child objected strongly, saying he hadn’t had a chance to score a goal. I said something to the effect that this was unfortunate, but we had to go now. At this he started screaming and crying. “I want to score a goal!”

It crossed my mind to let him score a goal quickly, but I decided against this. It might not happen quickly, it might not really be the goal he’s upset about anyway. And besides, he needs to learn to deal with disappointments, things not always going his way. Though seemingly important to him, in that moment, it was a relatively minor thing, so seemed like a good chance to practice feeling those emotions, allowing them to run their course, then moving on.

And that’s exactly what he did.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling very patient that morning. I was irritated by the fuss he was making. I knew I needed to validate his feelings, say something sympathetic, but just didn’t feel able to. The wrong words kept coming into my head. So I decided to just keep quiet, don’t speak.

I glanced at him in the rear view mirror as we drove to the pool. He’d stopped crying, but he looked so hurt and sad. I’ll have to say something, maybe have a hug with him when we get there, I thought.

But then half way there he suddenly piped up. Just started chatting to me in his usual chirpy way, as if nothing had happened.

My silence had been enough. Although no words of validation or sympathy had been spoken, neither had any of disapproval or anger. He had been allowed the space to experience his feelings without judgement, scorn, disapproval, or any attempts to persuade him to feel differently. He had been allowed to cry and express his feelings. This was all he needed.

After all the times I’ve experienced this type of scenario, I’m still surprised at just how quickly he moves on. There was really no need for me to worry about whether or not I needed to let him have what he wanted, no need to get upset or annoyed or worked up about it. It wasn’t a catastrophe, just a brief moment of frustration for my child, one of many life will throw at him.

thoughtful boySome might interpret his ability to get over it so quickly as an indicator that he wasn’t really upset in the first place. But this seems a very negative attitude, a very low opinion of children’s natures. Why would he pretend to be upset when he wasn’t? Because he wanted to manipulate me into letting him have what he wanted? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Children’s feelings are real to them. It doesn’t matter how silly they might seem to us as adults. And we need to let them be. Crying is not bad behaviour.

He didn’t get what he wanted anyway, so I don’t think my failure to scold or reprimand him for his behaviour was indulgent. Just respectful. Respectful of his feelings, of his age, and of his journey on the path to emotional regulation.


When children cry

February 4, 2013

One of the most universally misunderstood and mishandled areas of parenting and dealing with young children must surely be our responses to their tears, cries or upsets. I’ve become increasingly aware of how intolerant we seem to be, as if children’s cries are something to either fear, or loath. Yet crying is both natural and necessary.

It’s taken me a while to make a shift in my attitude, and I still find myself fighting against it, so ingrained in me are the conventional responses. But here’s the basic dos and don’ts I try to stick to:

Don’t try to ‘fix it’ or make it better.

When our children get upset about something – a fall, a disappointment, something getting broken or spilled – our instinct is to protect them from their sadness or painful feelings. We try to fix things for them, to rationalise, to cheer them up or distract them from whatever it is that’s upset them.

“Never mind, we can go tomorrow instead”, “You’re not hurt”, “We can build another tower”, “It doesn’t matter”….
But these well-meaning efforts short-circuit a child’s ability to express their feelings, to learn to deal with them, to heal, and to move on.

Like the time my child cried because he fell over in the mud. Often he would laugh and not care about something like this. But this time he cried. Perhaps he was tired or hungry, or something else was bothering him, and he just wasn’t in the mood for this. Perhaps falling in the mud was just a trigger for some other pent-up feelings. Either way, he needed the chance to have a cry.

There’s nothing wrong with that. No need to try to distract him or cheer him up with jokes or distractions, or telling him that it doesn’t matter if he’s muddy. Just some empathy and a cuddle was all that was needed. He got over it quickly enough, and got over it knowing that his feelings about it were acceptable, that he was entitled to them. And he felt better having had a cry. Don’t we all?

Children will get upset from time to time, probably quite often actually. And that’s OK. That’s because they’re just children. We simply can’t protect them from every upset. Rather, our job is to help them deal with their feelings, not smother them.

Don’t treat crying as bad behaviour.

BThis seems to be deeply entrenched in our society’s attitude towards children. When a child is crying because they can’t have what they want, or when the parent perceives it to be about something they consider to be silly, unimportant or unjustified, we treat their crying as bad behaviour, and try to threaten or scold them into silence, ignore them or send them to their room. Parents seem to assume that their child is not really upset, but just making a lot of noise simply because they’re “being silly” or making a deliberate attempt to drive them crazy or to manipulate them into giving them what they want – a toy, a treat, a trip to the playground, an immediate departure from the supermarket.

We may perceive a child to be “not really crying” or “just trying to get their own way”. There may not be tears, but there are still feelings to express. Anger, frustration, powerlessness or disappointment are all valid feelings, and a child must be allowed to feel them and express them in order to learn how to deal with them. What seems insignificant to us may really seem like the end of the world to a child. OK, adults don’t burst into tears every time things don’t go their way. But children are not adults, and as such cannot be expected to behave like them, and certainly can’t be threatened or scolded into behaving like them. All feelings are valid and all feelings should be allowed.

Do validate

It’s very simple really. All children need when they’re upset is some validation for their feelings, plus some empathy and love. “You didn’t like falling over in the mud”, “You’re feeling sad about that”, “That’s no fun when that happens”. When I first realised this and started doing it, it felt counter-intuitive. Surely my child would be more upset? Surely I needed to tell him that it didn’t matter? Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish write in How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,

“Parents don’t usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling, they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what he is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience.”

But what about when a child’s crying over something you’ve said no to? Children can’t have what they want all the time and we can’t give in to them when they make a fuss about it.

True. But here’s the thing; it is quite possible to validate and empathise with a child’s feelings without giving in to their demands.

“You’re really frustrated that you can’t have a cookie right now. You don’t want to wait until after dinner. It’s so hard to wait”.

Child feels validated, and feels a little less like you’re the big baddy. But cookie still remains in cookie jar.

Do allow children to cry when they need to

It’s OK for children to cry.

We tend to assume that all crying must be stopped as quickly as possible. But crying is a natural healer, tears a natural outlet for our emotions. Children can’t be expected to never cry, any more than adults. So what are we so scared of? Letting a child’s tears flow whilst offering them the comfort of our calm and loving presence can be a great opportunity to strengthen that all important connection.


Triggers

July 1, 2012

Crying over spilt milk? A broken stick? The fact that you cut the toast straight across instead of diagonally? Something that seems to you utterly ridiculous and unimportant?

Possibly. Probably not. Probably really crying about something else, more important, bigger, deeper. The spilt milk was just a trigger.

My child sometimes appears to get upset about something small, seemingly petty, then get really upset, disproportionately upset. Then I know there’s probably something bigger that’s bothering him. It might have been bothering him for some time. Maybe he couldn’t articulate it, maybe he thought he was OK about it. It’s probably been bubbling away under the surface for some time. The broken stick, or the ball not rolling in the right direction was just the final straw, the trigger. Then, once allowing those pent-up emotions to come out it’s a bit like a volcano that’s been waiting to erupt.

Adults do it too. Can you remember ever having a complete meltdown just because you dropped something?  That final thing that just tipped you over the edge? But you probably realised it wasn’t just the dropping something that you were crying about.

My child doesn’t always seem to realise this. So if I say, “I don’t think you’re really crying just about the stick” he becomes more upset and angry. “I am! I really wanted to play with that stick!” But sometimes, if I know what’s bothering him, it can help. It’s just a matter of feeling my way. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad that Granny & Grandad are leaving today”. If I’m right this can allow my child to admit and recognise these feelings, and then of course cry even more. But if I don’t know what’s bothering him, that’s OK too. Maybe he’s just tired and hungry after all. There’s not always really a need to say anything at all. He just needs me to be there for him,  and allow him to have a good cry so he can heal and move on.

My biggest temptation is usually to try to fix things, to say things that will make him feel better. “Never mind, we’ll see Granny and Grandad again soon”. But this isn’t what he needs, it isn’t helpful. He just needs me to validate his feelings and let him know they’re OK.  Another pitfall is to try to distract, cheer up, or worse, belittle or dismiss his feelings, not recognising that there’s more to it than just a broken stick.  Distractions may work in the short-term (although the older he gets the less likely this is), but it’s really just a delay tactic, and doesn’t allow him the time to fully deal with his feelings. It’s like putting a lid on a bubbling saucepan. If there’s something bubbling away under the surface it has to overflow eventually. Better to get it all out at once, in one big storm, than have a day of puzzling, difficult, disconnected behaviour.

Finally, I never send him away to cry, or threaten or bribe him to stop crying. The crying is annoying, but too often it gets treated as bad behaviour. When we threaten children into silence we are telling them that we don’t accept their feelings, and teach them to suppress them. When we ignore them we are telling them we don’t care.  This is not what they want to hear, and probably not really what we want to say.

Yes, I want him to stop crying, but the quickest way is always to allow things to run their course. When he’s finished he’s refreshed, and we’re connected, and both ready to move on. Happily.


Another gem from Gina

March 9, 2012

After reading this and other articles about Gina Ford’s latest book, I’ve thought hard about where Ms Ford might be coming from, and have to come to the conclusion that she simply wants parents to pretend they don’t have babies.  Just try to forget about them.

Clearly this must be the overall view of a woman who advises us to ignore our baby’s cries, have nights out away from them when they’re just a few weeks old, don’t talk about them, and don’t let them affect our sex life.  Just act like nothing’s happened really.

This seems a very strange attitude. Dare I be so bold as to wonder why one would have a baby if one wishes to pretend it doesn’t exist, or at least, behave as much as possible as if it doesn’t exist? Extraordinary.

Yet Ford is popular. Parents are either unaware of the evidence and research that warns us in no uncertain terms against such methods as controlled crying, and are fooled by the apparent success of these methods, since any damage done is neither visible nor immediately apparent, or they are buying into the notion that you can ‘have it all’; that you can have a baby and still keep all the things in your life the same. Here, Ford tells many parents what they want to hear.

The problem is that life just isn’t the same after you have a baby.  It will never be the same again. And trying to make it the same not only means we’ll be fighting a losing battle (not a good recipe for being ‘contented’ I’d say), but we’ll be putting our own needs before that of our baby.

OK, OK, there is no perfect mother, we all have to put ourselves first at times, there has to be a balance, we can’t parent if we’re a mess etc etc, but to say Gina Ford takes this too far really is an understatement.

It is quite natural for parents to seek help and support and to want to do things ‘right’, and the simple fact of Ford’s reputation is enough for unsuspecting parents to feel they must live up to the standards set out in her books, to doubt their own instincts, and trust in this seemingly wiser philosophy. But parents deserve better than this. They deserve real support, help and information, from real experts, not childless celebrities more interested in success and popularity than in what’s best for children.

Gina Ford gives childcare writers a bad name. This might seem like a contradiction after I have just made reference to how influential Ford’s reputation makes her, but what I mean by this is that parents who are aware of the issues associated with Ford’s methods push her books aside, and too often push all other parenting books aside with them, having drawn the conclusion that parenting books are bad, throwing the baby out with the bath water as it were. I have heard this sentiment expressed numerous times, and this is a great loss for parents.

I know how much fantastic literature there is out there and the huge, positive difference it has made to my own parenting. Shame on Gina Ford, not just for her bogus advice, but for frightening off parents who are reaching out for genuine help and support.


How do you deal with tantrums?

January 6, 2012

Every parent dislikes the dreaded tantrum, but the question of how to respond to a tantrum seems to be somewhat divided.

Many, including some child psychologists and writers, advise that ignoring tantrums is the best way to stop them, on the grounds that children use tantrums to try to get their own way, and will stop having them if they realise they’re not working.  In her book, “What Every Parent Needs to Know“, Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of The Centre for Child Mental Health, adds an extra element.  She writes that as well as this type of tantrum, which she calls a ‘little Nero tantrum’, there is what she calls a ‘distress tantrum’ in which the child is overwhelmed by their feelings, and needs your help.  She advises ignoring a ‘little Nero tantrum’ but comforting a ‘distress tantrum’.  She gives various tips for distinguishing between the two types, but warns, however, that a ‘little Nero tantrum’ can turn into a ‘distress tantrum’.   Hmmm.

Here is my problem with all of this.  First, if there’s a chance that the ‘little Nero’ or power struggle type tantrum can become a distress tantrum, then I’m inclined to hang around just in case.  The idea of leaving a child alone to deal with their feelings, though advocated by many, is not one that I buy into.  Young children have trouble dealing with strong feelings.  This is precisely why they have tantrums.  So how is leaving them alone going to help them resolve them?  Besides, I would never ignore my child when he is crying, for whatever reason, little Nero or not. When we ignore a child who is upset, angry, frustrated, we lose that vital ability to reconnect with them. Ignoring also shows disrespect for him and for his feelings, and does not model compassionate behaviour.   Ignoring just doesn’t seem right to me at all.

Secondly, if we go for the idea of a tantrum being used by a child to get their own way, this attributes to the child manipulative behaviour, which must lead to the conclusion that they are in fact not upset but just acting.  It would also attribute to them an ability to think in such a devious manner, which I think is somewhat questionable, especially whilst in the throes of a tantrum. It brings to mind the equally dubious message pedalled by some parenting gurus that babies have the capacity to manipulate, and this is a reason to fail to respond to their cries.

Now, granted, a child has the capacity to whine and cry and carry on about something that they want that we’ve said they can’t have.  A tantrum, however, indicates a loss of control on the part of the child, due to their being overwhelmed by their strong feelings.  OK, the power struggle may have been the trigger, but this just tells you that frustration and anger are  most likely the predominant feelings they’re experiencing. For me, a preceding power struggle is not a reason to ignore and fail to empathise with a child’s feelings.  It is very easy to empathise and validate whilst still not giving in to demands.  Even without the tantrum, I’d say this is the way to go.

Many fear that giving attention to tantrums gives attention to and encourages bad behaviour.  But the way I look at it is that if we ignore a child’s feelings we teach them to suppress them in order to gain back our attention.  I do not want to teach my child to suppress his feelings, and I certainly don’t want him to think I don’t care about his feelings.

I think the most important change in attitude that needs to be made is that of tantrums being bad behaviour that must be stopped.  Tantrums are an expression of extreme emotion.  The problem arises from our own dislike of the noise and fuss, and often from our consciousness of onlookers.  Once we have ceased to see tantrums as bad behaviour we can respond to our child with empathy and understanding, so even when they can’t get what they want, at least they feel listened to and understood – surely a better recipe for connectedness, and if you want the tantrums to stop, connectedness is the key.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. writes in his book, Playful Parenting, “Tantrums are children’s way of expressing and releasing frustration….If they can’t express their frustration, or if they are punished for having a tantrum, it continues to interfere with their happiness, their ability to cooperate, or their achievements……Children in the midst of a tantrum are flooded with feelings, and they feel out of control. They need a loving human being near them.”

When a child has a tantrum, whatever the cause, they are experiencing a frightening loss of control, and overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, hurt and powerlessness.  They need us to show that we are there for them,  that we are strong enough to handle it even it they aren’t, and so are providing that safe base they so desperately need at their times of crisis.