Pressing pause

June 13, 2013

I recently went to hear Dr Dan Siegel speaking at a conference on “The Mindsight Approach to Parenting”. The focus of his talk was unusual I thought. He talked, as I expected, about the mind. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t about my child’s mind. It was about mine.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about how babies’ brains develop, why toddlers have tantrums, what children can and can’t understand at certain ages, how children develop and manage their feelings, and why they might behave in certain ways etc etc. And I reckon I’ve also learnt  a fair bit about how to  respond to and treat children accordingly. So I know about validating feelings, being empathetic, not using punishments, the need to stay connected, what probably is and isn’t the right thing to say etc etc. I even write a blog about it.

So why, I often ask myself, do I sometimes hear words coming from my own mouth that I know are the opposite of what I should be saying, that I know will only make things worse, that I know will hurt my child’s feelings, that I know are not modelling the kind of person I want my child to be? It’s as if there’s some other person inside me saying these words on my behalf, but without my approval, and against my wishes. What the hell?

That’s where my own brain comes into the equation.

When I was preparing for the arrival of my child, I was having a conversation with someone about how I might deal with difficult behaviour. (Of course, I had some very clear ideas, all of which have been long forgotten). “They really can take you places you didn’t know you could go”, this person told me. And she didn’t mean nice places.  I thought this sounded a little, er, negative. Now I know exactly what she was talking about.

Never, before becoming a parent, had I experienced that moment when my patience is so completely drained, my anger and frustration so aroused, and I just totally lose it. It’s quite sudden, like a bomb exploding. I think all parents must know what I’m talking about – at least all the ones I’ve spoken to do, which is in some way reassuring.

So, what to do about it?


When things go wrong, the plus side is that we can learn from them. What situation or set of circumstances led your child to behave in such a way that made you snap? Is there any way to do things differently next time?

If something’s a daily battle, do something about it. Try a different strategy, a different approach. Is your child going to magically change their behaviour in this same situation tomorrow? Probably not. Change the situation not the child.

See my posts here and here for some approaches, and strategies on gaining cooperation.

But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….

pausePress pause

OK, so the prevention bit didn’t work this time and you’ve totally lost it. Press pause.

The important thing to understand is that it’s impossible to parent when we’re in a reactive state. The rational, thinking part of the brain simply isn’t functioning properly. Until you’ve really calmed down, don’t even try to respond.

Don’t speak. Anything you say is unlikely to be helpful at this stage. More likely to be the opposite. Don’t let those words come out of your mouth that you’ll later regret . Button it.

Dr Siegel also suggests putting your arms behind your back to help suppress any urge to push, pull or otherwise be more rough with your child than you would like.

We need to be able to recognise when we’re in this reactive state in order to then be able to stop ourselves saying or doing things that we know to be inappropriate and unhelpful. When a child behaves in a way that makes us really mad, we might need to take some immediate steps to keep them safe, but we don’t always need to say or do anything else right away. Wait until you’re both calm. Often your child is more likely to be in a state of mind to listen and learn later on as well.

Make a repair

If the pause button doesn’t work and your anger gets the better of you, it’s important to do what Dr Siegel refers to as ‘making a repair’. A repair to our relationship and connection with our child. When we yell, are rough with, or say unkind things to our children, we lose that connection with them, and when connection isn’t there, the things our children do that make us mad are more likely to keep happening.

So when you’ve calmed down, go to your child and apologise. And make this unconditional. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me really mad” won’t cut it. Just apologise. Admit that your behaviour was not OK. You can talk about your child’s behaviour, if you need to, later. It’s OK to admit to our children that we’re wrong sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, and saying sorry and making amends is important. Surely this is a lesson worth teaching?

Say Goodbye to Prompts – a guest post by Sarah MacLaughlin

July 9, 2012

Excerpted and adapted from the award-winning Amazon bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.

Letting go of prompts is a serious commitment. Offering children cues is a verbal habit that is hard to break. But overuse of prompting usurps kids’ personal power. And it becomes exhausting for the adult too!

Here are three classic prompts that you can avoid with a little practice. I’ve also included Reading Tips because reading books with children that promote courteous behavior and respect for others is an effective way to send these messages without nagging.

What’s the magic word?

Most adults want children to have good manners. We certainly don’t remind and nag at a baby to start crawling, and it isn’t productive for learning other behaviors like manners. Ironically, asking repeatedly for please or thank you can cause a child to overlook these graces. Why should she remember to say the magic words if you always jog her memory?

I have effectively taught children to use polite phrases by simply always using them myself. In social situations where you would feel rude if a child didn’t say the right thing, speak for your child (he will hear you) without sarcasm or a mocking tone: “Thanks, Aunt Trudy. Frankie will love playing with this truck.”

Reading Tip:

Rude Giants by Audrey Wood. Ages two and up. These unruly giants get some etiquette help.

You have to share.

During their first five years, kids struggle with sharing sometimes. (If not most times!) Children near age two have particular difficulty with sharing. (Have you read The Toddlers Creed?) This is normal and to be expected.

You might have heard a child scream “No! Mine!” at the top of her lungs if another child makes even a slight move toward a toy or cookie she is holding. Experts claim that at the peak of the “mine” stage, a toddler’s perception of a toy she possesses is that it is an actual part of her. When someone takes away that toy, she feels the same as if an arm or leg has been taken. This certainly explains all that wailing, doesn’t it?

Reading Tips:

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems. Ages six months and up. A pigeon wants to eat the hot dog himself but decides to share in the end.

Sheila Rae’s Peppermint Stick by Kevin Henkes. Ages one and up. Sheila Rae doesn’t want to share at first, but then something happens that changes her mind.

Go say you’re sorry.

Forcing a child to apologize is usually frustrating for someone—the child who has been given no choice in the matter, or the adult if the child refuses (Most likely, both.) I’ve seen moms and dads have major “say you’re sorry” showdowns with children who have just begun to speak: “We will stand right here until you say you are sorry for hitting your friend!” It is upsetting to watch one child hurt another, but trying to save face in this situation is a trap.

Children under five are still developing empathy and don’t benefit from a forced apology. The best response is to describe what occurred. It helps the child understand the connection between cause and effect—you did this, and it caused that. A great example for toddlers is for an adult to handle the wrongdoing and apologize to the affronted child or grown-up: “I’m sorry Helen pushed you and took that toy. Are you okay?” At a later stage in development (around age three-and-a-half), ask the child to check in with the friend she has offended or injured. This works like a scaffold to help the apology be included, which it usually will if it has been demonstrated often enough.

Reading Tips:

I’m Sorry by Sam McBratney. Ages one and up. Two young friends want to play together, but first they must mend hurt feelings.

How to Lose All Your Friends by Nancy Carlson. Ages two and up. This “how to” tells you exactly what not to do if you want friends.

A realization that might help you give up prompting entirely is that kids are wise and capable and they will figure it out. Sometimes it takes a few reminders to trust our children, to remember that they are inherently good and smart. We are all capable of both “good” and bad” behavior—read here about the internal battle we all have involving two wolves. In my line of work it is often said that you grow what you measure. Let’s assume the best and measure the good stuff.

Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about prompts you notice. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog.

Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Click here to enter.

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site and her blog.

Please, thank-you, and sorry.

December 15, 2011

“Say please”, “Say thank-you”, and “Say sorry right now!” are words we hear adults saying to children all the time.

Getting our children to say these words is not just about teaching good manners; we really want them to be thoughtful, considerate, grateful, polite, and respectful.  In other words, we want them to mean it.  That’s the difficult bit.  It may be easy enough to get children to parrot certain words, but I’m sure we all get the feeling sometimes that they don’t really mean it, and the words become somewhat hollow if we’re having to prompt them every time.  And do we really want to teach them to say things they don’t mean?

Here’s my take on it:

  • Please

It does irritate me when my child makes me feel like a servant.  “I’m hungry”, or “I want….”  instead of “please can I have” is something I hear everyday. I try to remind him, respectfully, to say please, but I don’t do it every time – it’s irritating having to say it over and over, to me and probably to him too.  More importantly, I try to say please to him, and let him hear me say it to other people – this is how I believe he’ll really learn.  The good news is, he nearly always says please to other people, so something’s working!

  • Thank-you

I always feel slightly ashamed if someone gives my child something and he doesn’t say thank-you. My response is either to say thank-you myself, on his behalf, making sure he hears me, or sometimes I’ll whisper a reminder in his ear.  When I do this, I find he is always very eager to say thank-you, indicating to me that he really just forgot in the excitement of the moment, his focus having shifted quickly to whatever he has received.  I don’t want to make him feel bad about this, but just help him with a gentle reminder.

  • Sorry

This is a tough one. I used to make my child say sorry if he hurt or upset another child, especially when he was in his rather aggressive toddler phase.  I thought it made him take responsibility for his actions.  Then I decided that this wasn’t working. He said the word, but didn’t mean it.  Future behaviour was unchanged.  Worse, he seemed to think it magically cancelled out his previous actions.  He could do whatever he liked then say the magic word and everything would be OK.  Also, forcing him to say sorry when he was upset, having a bit of a meltdown, and clearly didn’t mean it not only felt punitive, but pointless – he wasn’t in any state to be learning anything from this.

Removing him from a situation, helping him to calm down, then talking about the effect of his behaviour on others, and showing him ways to make amends when he is ready, I have found much more effective.

Also, as with please and thank-you, modelling the behaviour you wish to see is always the most effective way of teaching a child. I am not afraid to say sorry to him when I have been snappy, have jumped to a conclusion, or have just made a mistake. I don’t think our children need to see us as perfect, just as human, and ready to admit when we’re wrong.

Now that my child is nearly five, I’m finding these methods are starting to pay off.  He frequently remembers to say please, thank-you or sorry without being prompted, and I can sense that when he says it he really means it.  This makes me feel so proud of him. One genuine unprompted thank-you makes up for fifty forgotten ones, a true expression of regret is a true achievement in terms of a child’s emotional development, and I’m confident there’ll be more and more as he grows, along with his growing sensitivity and ability to empathise with other people.