Growing pains: Four parenting experts advise on the big challenges

From dealing with screen time to sleep time, and food and friendships, four experts share their top tips with, Helen O’Callaghan

Parenting can be tough.

Anything from food refusal to screen addiction to homework blues can leave us at a loss.

Here, four parenting experts tackle typical problems.

Child psychotherapist Colman Noctor

CONNECTION

My child doesn’t tell me much about their life. How can we connect better?

“The balance between being approachable and nagging is hard to get right. Sometimes, the more a child is asked, the less they’ll say. Ask how they’re doing rather than what they’re doing. How is school, your friendships – who did you play with, did you have fun? This shows genuine interest in what they have to say.

“As parents, we must realise it can’t be all on our terms – we have to be interested in what interests our children. A small child might have an interest in sharks or dinosaurs. They can go on a bit about it and, in life’s busyness, a parent can shut them down – ‘I’ve heard enough about sharks for the moment, I’m busy making lunch’. Putting the spadework into listening to them on the facts and figures about 15 different dinosaurs will pay off when you want a conversation where you have an agenda important to you.

“Basically, ‘the more I listen, the less I shout’. Be interested, genuine and authentic. Often, sitting down ‘to have a conversation’ with a child doesn’t work – do it when engaged in activity like baking/walking the dog.”

TEMPER TANTRUMS

My toddler’s prone to major meltdowns. What can I do when he has a temper tantrum? And what if it happens in public?

“Tantrums – emotional deregulation – are an unavoidable feature of childhood. Your child hasn’t yet developed capacity to manage emotion. Help them manage it: create a language to help them express their feelings because where words fail, behaviour takes over. Providing children with emotional language enables them to better negotiate their wants/needs than children without those words.

“Read to children at bedtime – loads of stories with emotion in them. Give your child a lexicon of emotion – how does the character feel: angry, sad, hurt? Children can feel under pressure when asked how they feel – it’s easier to talk about how someone else might feel.

“Sanctions for tantrums are important. Don’t allow tantrums to achieve their goal. Public tantrums are likely to do so with greater accuracy – if you’re in the middle of Aldi and your child wants those chocolate buttons, you’re more likely to give in. Yet, children won’t learn to regulate emotion if dis-regulation is rewarded. Your child may learn more from a trip to the park, abandoned due to a tantrum, than they’ll gain by staying in the park.

“Parents need to realise a child’s behaviour doesn’t always reflect on them. When a tantrum happens in public, we feel scrutinised, judged – we’re not doing it right, we’re overly permissive or overly strict, someone else could do it better.

“But managing a tantrum’s really difficult. It’s hard to hold your cool. There’s a narrative out there that we have to be calm and Mary Poppins-like. The reality isn’t like that – you’re blood pressure’s up, your pulse is racing, you feel scrutinised. Managing a tantrum perfectly is the exception more than the rule – most of us flounder because it’s difficult.”

Psychologist and author Stella O’Malley

SCREENS

My child has been on his screen all day, he’s obsessed with Fortnite, I want him to get some fresh air. What’s the best approach?

“You’ve got to take a hard line. When you consider the billions spent on keeping your child on-screen – with psychologists paid to figure out how to do it – you have to resist quite strongly, or your child will be addicted. It’s not enough for parents to say ‘all the kids are doing it’. No – they’re not.

“Whether it’s Snapchat, WhatsApp, whatever, all the messaging does get a bit weird and twisted at night. It’s not necessarily cyber-bullying but emotions are heightened at night and those kids who are up are the ones with unfettered access to screens. At night, children are telling their lives in a very dark way, putting up photos in a dark way. I’ve come across children who’re online at 2am – one mum took the phone off her child at 9pm. Next morning the girl had 273 messages, from friends used to her having access after 9pm.

“Bring in parental control [solutions] like iKydz – it’s device-specific and you can have it so that particular devices [your child has] all go off at 9pm or your child can only be on for 50 minutes a day.

“The child isn’t angry with Mum – he sees the minutes counting down and he knows he’s going to be getting off-screen and he starts to be disciplined. Parental controls cut down on fights.

“Have a serious chat with your child about tech addiction. Gather your facts beforehand – have some [supportive] clips ready. Point out that all the big Silicon Valley CEOs limit their children’s technology – the people most tech-oriented limit it for their children.

“This is an addiction, your child’s dependent on it and life can feel grey and boring without it. They’ll be incredibly resistant. They’ll say ‘I’ll do better, I’ll do less’ and they’ll mean it at the time but they won’t do it. This is a big deal. You have to lure them out by going fairly good places, at least for the first few weeks.”

SLEEP

I put my child to bed at 8pm. He’s downstairs 20 minutes later looking for water, comfort, anything. What do I do?

“Sleep is so important for mental health – if you want to be happy tomorrow, you need to go to sleep tonight. I would constantly challenge children [coming downstairs after being put to bed]. I’d tell them ‘I imagine you’re resisting sleep’. If they’re looking for water, they should get it before bed.

“With children and sleep, consistency is everything. There has to real commitment from the parents. Say to your child: ‘listen, you stay in your bed and I’ll be up to check on you in five minutes’.

The idea is you’re keeping them in the bed, you’re not allowing them out with a new life query.

Be very vigilant about this. First you go up after five minutes, then after six minutes and you stretch it out. The grand plan is they’ll be asleep as you’re stretching it out. And you’re in control, not them.

“Sleep is a discipline. It makes life better. If you don’t have a well-slept child, you’re not doing them any favours.”

Child psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting Joanna Fortune

FRIENDSHIPS

My nine-year-old has difficulty making and keeping friends. Why is this? How can I help?

“Children rarely need parental intervention in friendships because their friendships evolve appropriately from pre-school age on. By age eight to 12, children have generally settled into a friends group. With rare exceptions, these will be their friends through primary school. They sometimes fall out but usually make up again. When they don’t, this must be managed sensitively.

“Encourage solution-focused thinking in children. I understand parents’ instinct to intervene but, as a first step, you’re not doing them any favours. Attend to and attune to your child’s emotional experience and empower them to act. Reflect back what they’re saying – ‘from what I hear you say, x happened and you’re upset about it. I wonder what you’re going to do about it’. Giving a child practice in problem-solving fosters independence.

“When wondering with them about a solution, they could say ‘I’m going to tell my friends I’m sad this happened’ or ‘I’m going to find someone else to play with’. Once it’s not going to do any harm, it’s not for us to judge. If you think their solution will make things worse, you might say ‘well that’s an idea and maybe you could do such-and-such’.

“We need to watch any desire to see our children popular and in the midst of a large group of friends. Many children play happily with one or two friends and don’t desire a large friends group. This doesn’t mean they’re struggling socially – they’ve figured out what works for them.

“If a child makes but doesn’t keep friends, observe them at play. Are they being too possessive of a new friend, so the other child withdraws? Can they engage in reciprocity/turn-taking/handle winning and losing/show kindness/empathy? Really think of a specific time you saw them show these traits.

“Reflect on how your child feels about not being able to make/keep friends, wonder about it with them and see it from their perspective. Is it causing them anxiety? Now wonder with your child about what they could do differently. Using toys to play out typical playground friendship scenes may help you see what’s going on with your child and how you can help.”

ANXIETY

My child’s quite anxious – about anything from the Friday spelling test to not having anyone to play with during lunch-hour. How can I help?

“Some more emotionally sensitive children tend to feel things at a ‘too much’ level – they don’t feel sad but devastated, they don’t feel cross but enraged.

“I tend to talk to children about their ‘uh-oh’ feelings. Sit with your daughter and ask her to close her eyes and picture the uh-oh feeling (what colour/shape/size is it, where does it live in her body, is it heavy/light, is it always there or just sometimes, what makes it bigger/smaller, tell a story about the last time you felt it).

“Invite her to draw the uh-oh feeling or make it out of play-doh. This gives insight into your child’s inner emotional world and enables her to see the uh-oh as a part of her rather than defining her: she has a worry – she’s not the worried child in your family.

“Talk about all of her other parts – happy part, angry part, excited part. Get her to visualise and describe these feeling parts too. Understanding she’s made up of many parts helps minimise the worry part. But if it continues and her worry isn’t manageable for her, think about consulting a child psychotherapist.”

Dr Yvonne Quinn, senior clinical psychologist

HOMEWORK

My child hates homework. She doesn’t want to do it and gets frustrated easily when she hits a problem. How can I help her?

“Parents’ role isn’t just to build academic prowess by going over what they did at school. It’s about scaffolding the inevitable distress and frustration that come out of homework. Homework provides an opportunity to develop a whole raft of life-skills: frustration tolerance, problem-solving, being able to seek help, self-discipline and perseverance. Parents should reframe homework as a chance to teach life-skills rather than getting stuck in the minutiae of times tables.

“Pick a time for homework that works for both of you – if you’re trying to cook dinner and do a million other things, your ability to self-regulate is compromised. Tune into how your child is presenting emotionally in the task. If they’re starting to struggle name what you see – ‘I know this is really hard and I can see you’re really frustrated’. It’s important to acknowledge the struggle and their emotion.

“When they get stuck, they can get quite hopeless in it. Remind them of past successes – ‘do you remember last week you found the multiplication really difficult but you kept at it and figured it out and you felt great when you did’.

“Promote problem-solving. Parents often jump in with the answer. Hang back a bit, provide them with the scaffolding, break down the problem. It might take longer but you’re providing a space within which to support the child’s competence.

“If your child’s spending an inordinate amount of time on homework and it’s dictating the tone of the household, that’s not good for anyone. Speak to your child’s teacher – find out if it should be taking this long. Does homework need to be differentiated for your child? At this age, it’s important to help them persevere – if they’re getting overwhelmed, it’s not good for their relationship to learning or school.”

FOOD

My child picks at his dinner (meat, veg, potatoes/rice) and when the meal’s over, look for bread and peanut butter, thereby choosing foods other than what’s in front of him. I worry he’s not eating a balanced meal. What can I do?

“Meals can be anxiety-provoking times for parents and children, often because we’ve become fixated on getting the child to eat. This battle – ultimately a battle about control – dominates mealtimes and that’s not good for anyone. Mealtimes are about much more than food – they’re an opportunity to connect and share enjoyment. When we get stuck in battles, we lose all possibility of connecting at mealtimes.

“Ultimately, you can’t force your child to eat but you can assert an influence over the process of mealtimes. Why not put the food on the table and ask everybody to help themselves and make sure there are one or two things the child will eat. Giving children choice is fundamental.

“Remind them they don’t have to eat the dinner but say ‘this is your dinner for today, it’s what we’re all eating and there won’t be other options’. Hold the boundary – children don’t starve if they don’t eat dinner. Parents have these irrational fears about food – ‘I’m cruel if I let them go to bed hungry’ or ‘I’m a bad parent if I can’t get them to eat their dinner’. These irrational beliefs undermine parents’ ability to hold the boundary.

“Remember, dinner isn’t the only time you can get nutrients into your child. Children typically have a meal they like, so if it’s breakfast, make them a homemade smoothie, so it doesn’t just all hang on dinner.

“And if it’s a two-parent family, make sure both parents are in agreement about how dinner’s handled.”


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