Make rais­ing chil­dren eas­ier to swal­low

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

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

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.

CON­NEC­TION Child psy­chother­a­pist Col­man Noc­tor

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.”


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 Pop­pins­like. 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.”

SCREENS Psy­chol­o­gist and author Stella O’Mal­ley

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 on­screen – 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 cy­ber­bul­ly­ing 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.”


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.”

FRIEND­SHIPS Child psy­chother­a­pist and author of 15 Minute Par­ent­ing Joanna For­tune

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-and­such’.

“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/turn­tak­ing/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.”


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.”

HOME­WORK Dr Yvonne Quinn, se­nior clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist

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, self­dis­ci­pline 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.”


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 anx­i­etypro­vok­ing 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.”

Yvonne Quinn: pick a home­work time that works for all.

Joanna For­tune: en­cour­age so­lu­tion-fo­cused think­ing.

Col­man Noc­tor: It’s im­por­tant to read to chil­dren at bed­time.

Stella O’Mal­ley: Take hard line on screen time.

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