The Treasure Box

May 9, 2012

When I was a child I had a scrap-book. In it I kept various souvenirs and mementoes. I thought this would be a nice thing to do with my own child, so I bought a scrap-book, then felt guilty ever after for not having got round to putting anything in it, and since my child hasn’t shown much interest, it has fallen by the wayside.

Then, someone told me about the treasure box. Rather like a scrap-book, but without any pesky sticking, and able to contain items of a shape and size other than very thin and flat, the treasure box is a place you can keep, well, anything you like.

First pair of shoes.

Favourite cot toy from babyhood.

Once favourite book now grown out of and cast aside.

Tickets from first train, plane, bus or boat ride, or any rides you like.

Random photos that people have given us and I was never quite sure what to do with.

Selected congratulations cards from when child was born.

Mementoes of special family events; an invitation to Grandad’s 70th birthday party, the birth of a cousin, a wedding….

Selected things my child has made that he was particularly pleased with and likely to remember.

Entry tickets from days out.

A pebble or shell from a day out at the beach.

Achievements; badges and certificates.

Select photos of milestone events – first started to walk, first mastered scooter/bike, first sleepover at Granny’s, first camping trip…….Nowadays we tend to store all our photos electronically, so opportunities to look through photos together, whilst still perfectly possible, just don’t present themselves as readily, so it’s nice to print some select ones out, for the treasure box or for the walls.

If you move house or redecorate you could keep scraps of the old curtains, wallpaper or carpet. It might sound a bit odd but think about your early childhood memories. Think of the home where you grew up. Think of the sights, smells and sounds that you experienced and still remember. Can you remember the colour of the curtains in your bedroom or the pattern on the wallpaper? What could you see from your bedroom window? What sounds did you fall asleep to? What else can you remember that sticks in your mind?  All these things, subconsciously at first, make us feel secure and attached.

But the treasure box is not just about attachment and security. It’s about celebrating your child’s life, their unique identity, and helping them build a positive sense of self.  It helps develop a sense of passing time and focusses on the many positive aspects of your child’s experiences. Plus, getting the treasure box out and spending some special time together looking through it and talking about it can be a wonderful connecting experience, and a very positive experience for your child.

What’s more, it’s something a child will really value in years to come. Every adult I’ve talked to about the treasure box says how much they’d love to have something like that from their childhood.

So decorate an old box today. Together.

Connection is the key.

May 2, 2012

Connection is about maintaining that close, loving, attuned relationship in which a child will feel secure and loved, and will thrive. This alone gives us something to constantly strive for. But there are also practical day-to-day benefits. Connection is the key to preventing and reducing unwanted behaviours, and to gaining cooperation. If my child is disconnected, this is when unwanted behaviour is likely to occur. We need to reconnect. This is why punitive responses to behaviour don’t work. They only widen that feeling of disconnection.

But what does connection mean exactly?

Lawrence Cohen, as usual, does a great job of describing this concept in “Playful Parenting”. He starts by describing that deep connection between babies and their parent, sometimes referred to as eye-love (we all remember those long periods of eye contact with our babies) then goes on;

“If all goes well, the eye-love between infants and parents is replaced by a less blissful, but still solid, connection. You and your child are able to talk or play or hang out easily together, enjoying each other, relatively in tune. These moments can be quiet times, like just before falling asleep, or active playtimes. The next level is a more casual connection, an unspoken bond that may be noticed only when it’s gone, replaced by conflict or distance. At the extreme are the most alienated types of disconnection. Disconnection can be a nightmare of painful isolation, withdrawal, and lashing out…….even normal, healthy children have moments when they lose that thread of connection. They retreat into towers of isolation when they feel lonely, afraid, or overwhelmed.”

How do I know when my child’s disconnected? It’s hard to describe exactly as it’s sometimes a subtle change like avoidance of eye contact, feigned lack of interest in my offers of closeness, an extra jumper or a snack. But often it’s obvious; loud, out of control, slightly crazy behaviour, and at worst, lashing out, either physically, verbally, or just by doing things calculated to enrage.

The more I observe these behaviours, the more likely I am to be able to predict when they might happen, and so take steps to prevent it happening in the first place. So, often I’ll make a point of reconnecting before any difficult behaviour starts, like at school pick up time, or any other time we may have been separated, not just by school, but maybe because he’s just been busy playing outside with his friends all morning.

Sometimes we just need a ‘quick connect’, like a quick high-five, or a joke and a giggle together, or a special something that only the two of us know about. Anything that involves giggling and/or eye contact nearly always works.  Giving a quick passing hug or a kiss usually doesn’t – he needs to be engaged with it, accepting of it.

Sometimes we need to have a longer period of one to one time together, usually playing, especially rough and tumble play that involves lots of physical contact, but also imaginary play that will often bring out things that might be troubling him.

Sometimes, I’ll need to insist on reconnection – in other words, I don’t accept rejection. Children need to know we’re always there for them and that we love them no matter what. Whilst there might be times when they really do need to be alone for a while, and I actually find these are rare, shouts of ‘Go away’ are often a test to see if we really will go, or if we love them enough to stay even when they’re behaving horribly towards us.

Many little things throughout the day can cause that connection to be strained or broken – failing to empathise with something he got upset about, a few harsh words or a betrayal of annoyance and impatience, a disagreement about whether he’s allowed to do or have such and such. Having a handful of ways to reconnect and incorporating these into our day-to-day interactions can help stop things getting out of hand.

One connection technique I sometimes use with my child is challenging him to look constantly into my eyes while we both count to ten. It’s become a bit of a game, and usually gets a bit of a giggle, as well as some eye contact. I’ve always thought the success of it was somewhat varied until the other day. He did something that really annoyed me (I won’t bore you with the details of what it was, it was a silly thing really in hindsight) and I made my annoyance very clear. He said sorry, then put both arms round me and said “Mummy, we need to connect, let’s look into each other’s eyes.”

So we looked into each other’s eyes and counted to ten.



April 18, 2012

I don’t punish my child for his behaviour. I haven’t done for a few years now. Before I made this shift in my approach and attitude I would have thought these statements sounded extreme. But now I often find myself reflecting on how I actually never feel the need to punish. My child presents his fair share of challenging behaviour, yet strangely I never find myself wishing I could dish out a punishment, or having to remind myself not to. The less you punish, the less you need to punish. Punishment only makes behaviour worse.  I was commenting on this to my husband last night, then suddenly remembered that earlier that evening my child had hit out at me. Surely this would be considered by many to be punishable behaviour. Yet it never occurred to me at the time, and reflecting on it afterwards, I’m still quite certain that it was right not to punish.

My child had been at school all day. When he came home, after a snack, he said he wanted to play ‘rugby on the bed’ with me. This is his name for playing rough and tumble, and one of our main ways of reconnecting with each other. We had a lovely play and a giggle together for a few minutes, then he heard voices, looked out of the window and saw his friends from next door playing outside. He immediately announced that he wanted to go outside and play with them, but with a hint of regret at ending the time we were having together. I commented that we could always have another play later, and off he went.

There was never an opportunity to resume our rough and tumble play that evening for one reason or another. When I announced it was bath-time my child started bouncing on the bed – a clear and common indication of his intention to be uncooperative. Being accustomed to these tactics, and having various means of dealing with them, I was unphased until he started hitting out at me. His hits were more like swipes, reminiscent of the warning swipe a cat might give with her claws retracted. There was no intention to hurt, but there clearly was the  intention to communicate something.

“No hitting”.

He continued.

“No hitting” – this time gently taking hold of his hands. I knew there was something wrong, and I had a pretty good idea what it was.

When he was calm we talked.

“Are you sad that it’s bath-time?”

“Yeeeees”, came the sad cry.

“Do you feel like we haven’t had enough time to play together?”


“Tomorrow I’m picking you up from school early so we’ll have all afternoon”, then realising this was trying to fix things and not validating the feelings he was experiencing right now in that moment, “We were playing rugby on the bed then you went outside to play with your friends, and we never got a chance to play again”.  A cuddle.  “Let’s get ready for your bath really quick so we’ll have time for some extra books tonight”.

A minute later he was playing happily in the bath.

Did he ‘get away’ with hitting? Was a punishment required to ‘teach’ him that hitting is wrong?  I think not. He knows hitting is wrong. That’s why he was doing it. He was doing wrong because he was feeling wrong inside and couldn’t quite find the words to tell me about these feelings.  He may not even have been sure exactly what those feelings were or what gave rise to them. He may have felt angry at me when he realised the day was nearly over and we had not had enough one to one time together.

I reminded him “No hitting” and gently enforced that limit. I then helped him process the feelings that had given rise to the behaviour. That is all that was needed. If I had responded by putting him in a timeout, or saying ‘no books tonight’, giving him a ‘sad face’ sticker on a chart, or come up with some other parent imposed ‘consequence’ would this make him less likely to hit again? Absolutely not. If anything it would make his behaviour worse. He would feel bad about himself, angrier with me, and more disconnected from me (the very issue that caused the behaviour in the first place), and the opportunity for me to help him process those feelings would have been lost.

He lost control. He did wrong. He’s a kid and he’s not perfect. I’m not going to punish him for that. I will, however, be more mindful of incorporating one to one time into our days. My child is not the only one with lessons to learn here.

Punishment does not teach. Empathy, understanding, and love teaches volumes and equips children emotionally to deal with their feelings and problems in a more mature way.

Theraplay activities – Nurture

March 27, 2012

Following on from my post about Theraplay, this post looks in more detail at one of the four different dimensions of Theraplay – Nurture. 

The purpose of the nurture activities are to reinforce the message that the child is worthy of care, and will receive care without having to ask.  So it’s very much about building self-esteem, as well as your attachment relationship, and helping to make your child feel safe and loved.  If you feel your child’s self esteem needs a boost (and they can never get too much in my opinion), that they seem particularly needy, or you just feel you need to reconnect in a loving and caring way, these types of activities could be helpful. If your child is rejecting your attentions and care, these activities can help re-establish your role as caregiver if you take small steps at a time. Remember, also, that connection is the key to eliminating challenging behaviour.

There are many nurture activities. For some of them you’ll want to set aside some uninterrupted time, but others are so simple that it’s more a case of making them a natural part of your daily interactions with your child. 

The activities below are just a small selection of some of my favourites. 


Wash your child’s hands or feet in a basin of warm soapy water. Gently dry them and massage them with lotion, then paint their nails. You can keep it simple, or do lots of different colours – your child can choose them.  My son is very pleased with his multi-coloured toe nails. He also enjoyed choosing the colours at the market stall where we bought the nail polish. 

This activity required him to sit still for some time, which brings in an element of challenge for some children. Keep talking to your child as you paint, and finish off by reading books together while the nails dry. 

Caring for hurts

Check your child’s hands, arms, legs etc for scratches or bruises. Give them magic kisses. Rub magic cream, lotion or powder on or around hurts. If your child won’t let you, try just gently touching hurts with a cotton ball, or blowing or giving elephant kisses. (kiss your fist, make an elephant trunk shaped gesture, then plant the fist on your child). You can follow up by checking for healing next time. 

Face painting

Paint flowers and hearts on cheeks or make the child up like a princess. Moustaches and beards are fun for boys. If you’re short of time or just can’t face the mess today, use a small paint brush, wet or dry, or your finger, to pretend, describing their wonderful cheeks, lovely eyebrows and so on. Make your child feel special! 

Twinkle song

Adapt the words of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to be about your child. “…what a special boy you are. Dark brown hair and soft, soft cheeks, big blue eyes from which you peek…” Try to make eye contact, or cradle in your arms like a baby. If there are two adults present you can spread a blanket on the floor, lie your child down on it, then lift up the corners and swing them in it like a hammock.  If you really think your child needs, and will accept, some ‘babying’, you can finish by swaddling them in the blanket and giving them a drink from a bottle or lidded cup.

For children who, for a number of possible reasons, may have had a difficult time during infancy, these activities are intended to help fill the gaps and provide the experiences they may have missed out on when they were younger.  But for all children, self-esteem and a strong connection with their parents is of such importance that I really don’t think you can over-do it!  So give your child some extra nurturing today!

My child’s mysterious private life

March 7, 2012

My child now spends over 32 hours a week in school. I think that’s a lot of hours. Already, I’m having to work hard to connect with him and make our precious few hours between pick-up time and bedtime as meaningful as possible whilst at the same time attending to all his basic needs. But another thing that strikes me is that I have very little idea what he gets up to during these 32 hours he spends away from me every week.  And he simply won’t tell me. He claims to have amnesia on the subject.

Puzzled and slightly concerned by this, I spoke to several other parents in the playground and most (but, interestingly, not all) reported a similar phenomenon.

It seems my child sees his home and school life as two separate worlds, and wishes to keep them separate. He won’t even join me in writing or drawing in his “Home/School Communication book” – a book the school have provided us with in which we can communicate information about our child, their interests, what they have been doing at home etc.

However, not happy with being shut out entirely from this percentage of my child’s life, and wishing to ensure he has a means to express anything that might be bothering him, I have found various ways to get small amounts of information out of him.  Here’s some of them:

Play with him.

It’s amazing what we can learn about our children and about what is going on in their heads by just playing with them. I find ‘let’s pretend’ games best for this. “Let’s play schools” can lead to all sorts of information being revealed whilst we act out some of the daily routines, and some of the events of that day – incidents that occurred in the playground that he may need to work through, things he may have learnt or heard or seen that he needs to explore some more, to ask more questions about, to get reassurance.  Children really do express themselves through play, and joining him in this means I’m joining him in his world. What better way to find out more about this world?

Create a special ‘connection time’.

Choose a time and make it into a ritual. When I have my child all tucked up in bed, it’s dark, I’m cuddling him, we’re feeling close, and there are no distractions, I often take this opportunity to ask him what was the best and worst thing that happened today. He doesn’t always tell me, but often he does. Interestingly, he’ll often tell me the worst thing but not the best thing. I guess the worst thing may be bothering him, he needs to get it off his chest, or seek reassurance. Sometimes he wants to whisper it in my ear, almost as if he’s fearful of something.

Talking teddies.

Sometimes I find if we turn things into a game my child’s more willing to open up. So I’ll pick up a teddy or other soft animal toy and make it talk and ask him questions.  It’s amazing what he’ll tell teddy but not me directly. Sometimes he initiates this himself, handing me a soft toy and saying ‘Make him talk’, then I know there’s something he needs to tell me!

In their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish warn that bombarding a child with questions as soon as he gets home isn’t the best approach. Just letting him know you’re glad to see him is better. Talk can come later when you’re reconnected.

“Too many questions can be experienced as an invasion of one’s private life. Children will talk about what they want to talk about when they want to talk about it.”

They also give advice on how to listen and respond when a child does start talking to you.  The golden rules include listening with full attention, validating feelings, not trying to fix things, and not making judgements. A child will be more inclined to tell their parent about a problem, or about something that went wrong for them that day if they know they’re not going to get judged and blamed. Usually children just want someone to listen, and acknowledge their feelings.

I know I must accept my child’s growing independence, but at the same time I know I must remain emotionally available for him. Staying connected with him and having some idea of what’s going on in his world will help me to do this.


February 7, 2012

I have just completed a very interesting course that, amongst other things, taught me about the Theraplay method, and I would like to share what I have learnt.

Theraplay is a therapeutic technique developed in the States in the 60s by clinical psychologist Anne Jernberg. It was aimed at that time at disadvantaged pre-school children, but as the knowledge of attachment theory has developed, the usefulness of Theraplay in strengthening parent-child relationships and encouraging secure attachment has become more recognised. As such, Theraplay is often used with children who have had difficult or disrupted early life experiences, and can also be useful for children with developmental disorders such as autism and ADHD.

There are many Theraplay activities, all of them very simple. Some of them seem a bit strange at first, some of them are probably things many parents already do with their children.  The activities are grouped into four different categories, each with a different purpose and focus.

Structure.  To relieve the child of the burden of maintaining control of interactions. The adult sets the limits and rules, defines boundaries and helps to complete a sequence of activities. The idea is that these activities are reassuring to the child in that they reinforce that the adult is in charge and so keeping them safe.  The structure can also help the child with being in control of themselves.

Some examples of structured activities are games like Follow the Leader, Simon Says, holding traffic lights up to start and stop a named activity (like jumping, hopping, moving arms), or lying on the floor blowing cotton wool balls around!

Engagement. To establish and maintain a connection with the child, focussing on them intensely and showing them that surprises and new experiences can be fun.  Some of the examples are as simple as things like doing ‘Peek-a-boo’, ‘This Little Piggy went to Market’ with your child’s toes,  and ‘Row the Boat’, changing the words at the end to use your child’s name; ‘Sarah’s such a dream’.

Nurture. To reinforce the message that the child is worthy of care, is loveable and valued, and reassure the child that the adult provides comfort and stability. Here’s a separate post on this category. This one’s all about self-esteem and has lots of touchy, physical activities. There’s rubbing of baby lotion, swinging in a blanket, singing. I’ve tried some of these out on my child and he loves them, but he’s only 5 so he’s very receptive to cuddles and physical contact. As children get older they can get harder to connect with via physical closeness, so many of the Theraplay activities are useful in finding ways to get that physical contact with an older child in a way they will accept.  For example, doing a ‘weather report’ (a sort of themed massage) or making a pizza on a child’s back, or pretending to make a sandwich on them while they lie on the floor, turns physical contact into a game and faces your child away from you so they can avoid eye contact if they wish. There are also things like elephant kisses – ‘hold both fists in front of your mouth (like a trumpet), keep one fist by your mouth as you make a kissing noise. Move your outer fist towards the child’s cheek, completing the kissing noise with a flourish as you touch the child’s cheek.’ – A great way to give a kiss, show affection and connect with a less receptive child without invading their personal boundaries.

Challenge. To promote feelings of competence and confidence by helping the child take a slight risk using a fun activity that is cooperative rather than competitive.  These include activities like balancing on towers of pillows or keeping balloons in the air with certain body parts.

The area I struggled with the most was that of taking control of the play. I have always let my child lead the play as much as possible.  This is a key difference between Theraplay and child centred play therapies.  The Theraplay website explains this in more detail:

” In Theraplay the adult is in charge–structuring the treatment, attuning and adjusting to the needs of the child, providing nurture and challenge. In this way, the child who is accustomed to being bossy and controlling has her familiar defense mechanisms challenged. An oppositional child usually believes that the world is an unsafe place, and he cannot count on anyone to take care of him. Theraplay’s directive model challenges these assumptions. The therapist maintains control, gently but assertively using Theraplay activities to change the child’s view of himself and the world.”

It’s also interesting that some of the activities are ones that parents have been doing with their children for many years and have been passed down through generations – we are all engaging in some Theraplay without knowing it.  Whilst some activities seem like baby games, the idea is to re-nurture children who may have missed out on these things as a baby. Also, it’s surprising how much older children will enjoy what we perceive to be baby games – I think every child can benefit from being ‘babied’ every now and then, especially in a society where there’s so much pressure on children to grow up so quickly.  There are many activities to choose from, and many of them can be adapted to suit a particular age.

Whilst most children are lucky enough to have had a great start in life, I think all children need a little nurture, confidence building, and connection from time to time, and Theraplay seems like a great idea. So watch this space – I may decide to do a series of posts giving more examples of Theraplay activities.

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.

Establishing intent

December 8, 2011

When we’re short on patience and our children behave in ways we really wish they wouldn’t, it’s hard not to feel that they’re deliberately provoking us.  OK, sometimes they might be (for which there will of course be an underlying reason), but often I think we attribute worse motives to children’s behaviour than we should.

I find it helps to look at the intention behind the behaviour.  Did your child intend for this to happen?

What was their intention when they pushed the other child out of the way?  Was it for that child to fall and hurt themselves, or were they just intent on getting to that toy first?

Did they intend for something to get broken, or were they just getting over excited?

Did they intend for the milk to go sour, or did they just forget to put it back in the fridge (as kids do)?

Allowing that a child’s intentions may not have been bad does not mean letting them ‘get away with it’. In all these cases, some help or intervention from an adult is needed, and some lessons need to be learned, but we need to keep things in perspective when we choose how to respond.   Usually the child did not set out to break something or hurt someone, but they may have made a bad choice, and something needs to be said and maybe done about this. However, they’re far more likely to listen and learn if you don’t fly off the handle or assume the worst.

One important thing to remember when responding is to take care not to unwittingly attack a child’s character.

The other day I was at the swimming pool with my child.  He joined in with some older children who were having fun splashing each other and pouring water over each other’s heads.  Later, my child, still playing, deliberately splashed another child who was not part of this group and she started to cry.  Her father, understandably perhaps, not knowing about the game that had preceded this, said to my child “That’s not very nice”.

My child clearly did not intend to upset this girl, and so I didn’t feel it was appropriate to rebuke him.  This would be to send him the message that he is a bad person.  It was, however, desirable that he learn something from this situation.  But to say “That’s not very nice” is like saying to a child “You’re not very nice”.   To say “That was really clumsy/silly…” is like saying “You’re really clumsy/silly”.  Far more helpful to point out the result of their behaviour or the effect it has had on someone else.  “She didn’t like that”, then show them how they might make amends, “Let’s see if she’s OK”.  Or, “The milk goes sour when it’s left out.  Do you think you could pop next door and ask if we can borrow some until we’ve been to the shops”.  Another step is to problem solve together, “What could we do to help you remember to put the milk back in the fridge?”.

Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish sum these steps up really well in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.”

“Express your feelings strongly – without attacking character.

State your expectations.

Show the child how to make amends.

Give the child a choice.

Take action.


Attributing the worst motives to a child’s behaviour can make them feel misunderstood, unfairly treated, and worst of all – bad about themselves.  On the other hand, giving a child a break does not show weakness, it shows that you’re fair, reasonable and understanding, and as such are more able to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and so far more likely to succeed in changing behaviour for the better.


September 8, 2011

One of the most important parenting skills I’ve learnt, and one which seems obvious and yet is so often and so easily missed, is that of validating a child’s feelings.  And not just when we agree with them or we think they’re valid.

If we stop to listen to ourselves it’s quite remarkable how often children are told how they should or shouldn’t feel.

“Why don’t you play on the slide?  You love the slide.”

“It’s just an old stick, you’re being silly.”

“You’re fine, it was only a little bump.”

“It’s not scary.”

“It doesn’t matter. Why are you making such a fuss?”

and so on.

Yet children want to know we’re on their side, and that we understand.  It’s often counter-intuitive.  Parents worry that by validating their child’s feelings they’ll make them more upset.  It’s instinctive in many of us to tell a child with a grazed knee that they’re fine, it’s not badly hurt, in an attempt to comfort and reassure them.  Then we start to get annoyed when the wailing continues, and insult their feelings further with attempts at distraction.  If these work, the result is that the child misses the opportunity to release their feelings, and instead, learns to suppress them.  If they don’t work, some parents will start resorting to bribes or threats  to quieten the child down, sending the additional message that their feelings are not valid, and certainly not understood, and that it’s not OK to cry.

I find it’s better to simply share their pain with them, and give comfort through understanding.  “You were having so much fun, and now you’ve hurt your knee and it’s really upset you.  Poor you, you have a good cry and a cuddle.”  This also enables a child to release all their feelings so they can then get over it and move on.  It may lead to more crying, sometimes about something else they’ve had pent up for a while, but it’s better out than in!

Naomi Aldort writes in her book, “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves“, “Validation and focussed listening are our way of making it safe for the child to express herself; it is our way of offering love and intimate friendship.  The result of such validation is that the child feels safe to feel her feelings and to express herself fully…….. Children whose feelings and experiences are validated may cry more or they may become angrier precisely because your validation gives them permission to express their deepest feelings.  Once the are done, however, they often move on with no residue of bad feelings. ”

There are numerous other examples of when children’s feelings should be, and often are not, validated.

Replacing “Your new nursery is going to be so much fun, there’s nothing to worry about…”, with “It must feel strange going to a new place. You don’t really know what it’s going to be like” reassures the child that you understand how they might be feeling, and is more likely to get them to talk to you about their concerns, giving you more opportunity to alleviate them.

Replacing “You’re being really silly, stop this right now or we’re not going to the park” with “It’s not much fun for you in the supermarket is it, and it’s frustrating for you that you can’t play with these things.  Try to be patient just a little longer and I’ll be as quick as I can” is actually more likely to bring about cooperation, and heads off resentment, putting you both on the same side instead of into a power struggle.

Replacing “Stop making that silly noise and come upstairs for your bath right now” with “You were having fun playing and you don’t want to come for your bath. It’s frustrating when you have to stop doing something you enjoy.  Come here for a cuddle” is again, much more effective, and builds a much better relationship.

Replacing “It’s just an old piece of string, we can get another one” with “You had fun playing with the string and you feel really sad that it’s lost” is validating something that may seem unimportant and even ridiculous to you, but at that moment is important to the child. If you let them have a cry about it, they’re more likely to release the upset and move on, possibly to a new piece of string.

Sometimes I’m surprised at how well validation works, especially when I often find myself having to say the opposite to what I’m thinking.  But it does work, it is important, and is essential to a good parent/child relationship.