Not listening

April 14, 2014

not listening girlResearch presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference last week has suggested that shouting at children and giving out punishments could make their behaviour worse rather than better.

No kidding. Many parents have known this for years. Unfortunately many have not though, so it’s nice to see this recent piece of research reported in the mainstream media.

Interestingly, however, all the articles I’ve found on the subject only mention shouting in the headline, even though the report from the London School of Economics also warns against punishing and ignoring children.

Certainly, shouting is the only part picked up on by Telegraph journalist Rowan Pelling in her article which she may as well have titled, “I was shouted at and I’m fine”. Dismissing the research, in favour of her own minimal anecdotal evidence, she paints a great picture of how said shouting and punishing really doesn’t help, and in doing so does a great job of defeating her own argument.

She and her husband shout all the time, she is happy to reveal. So guess what? Her kids shout too. Surprise, surprise. Furthermore, her attempts at punishment to control said kids leads to cheeky back-talk. There’s a lack of cooperation, a lack of respect.

And yet, instead of trying to address this, Ms Pelling seems to assume that this is simply the way family life is. It may have been the way her family life was – she’s also happy to reveal, again no surprises here, that she was shouted at regularly as a child.

Shouting is necessary? Kids won’t listen to reasoning? I wouldn’t listen to or respect someone who shouted at me, or tried to use their power to control and manipulate me. I’d push back against those attempts at control. I’d be very disinclined to cooperate with them or respect their wishes.

Shouting won’t do any harm? Unless, by harm done, you include teaching kids to shout at you, at others, and eventually at their own kids, and the daily harm that does to family life. The harm that this does to family relationships, to the connection our children need to feel with us in order to be inclined to cooperate in the first place. And actually there’s plenty of evidence of the emotional harm that regular, frequent shouting can do. It’s been placed in the same league as smacking.

Yes, we all lose it and shout at our kids sometimes. But this latest report isn’t talking about the occasional loss of control. It’s talking about parents, apparently like Ms Pelling, who think it’s OK to do this all the time, every day, and to be so unashamed about it they’re happy to write an article in a major national newspaper dismissing any evidence that it is in fact not OK, not helpful, and counterproductive to boot.

When are we going to learn to stop being so defensive about our parenting to the point that we can’t take on board new information or reflect on where our parenting assumptions are coming from? When are we going to learn to use our own childhood experiences to make changes for the better, instead of blindly carrying on with the worst? When are we going to start listening?


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.


Ignore Supernanny, not your kids.

November 1, 2011

I recently attempted to watch an episode of Supernanny.  I thought it might at least give me some insight and some blog material.  I think I managed about ten minutes.  I was horrified by it.  It was ten times worse than I expected.

Supernanny decreed that the children needed to play a game (of her choosing) together in order to ‘learn’ how to play ‘nicely’ with each other and not get frustrated if they were losing etc.  The children didn’t want to play the game they were being told they must play.  This was treated as bad behaviour which resulted in them being put on the ‘penalty spot’.  If a child became upset or frustrated they were put on the penalty spot.

And so it went on.  The adults decided what the children should be doing and how they should be behaving.  If the children didn’t want to do it or didn’t behave the way the adults wanted them to they were shunned, rejected, made to feel bad about themselves.  There was no attempt to try to find another method that worked for the child, to talk or listen to the child, to try to reconnect with the child, to address the cause of the behaviour, to help the child with the feelings they were having difficulty managing.  No. The adults were completely intent in their persistence in ignoring any unwanted behaviour.  At one point the child on the penalty spot started hitting himself on the head.  Supernanny’s advice?  That’s right –  ignore him.  Well, yes Ms Frost, because to address this, or even think about it for a minute, might identify your own behaviour as the cause. Just how bad you have made these children feel about themselves.  Just how desperate for their parent’s attention.

Only in Supernanny are we advised that self-harming behaviour is bad, attention seeking behaviour that should be ignored.  Bad, bad advice.