Page 7: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 5 - Parenting Practices: Raising Resilient Children

Some say parenting is the most important job in the world. Others say that it is the hardest job in the world. Still others say that parenting is the most rewarding job on earth. Whether the superlative “the most” is accurate or not, most everyone would agree that parenting is an important role that is both difficult and rewarding.

Nowadays, parents are bombarded with information, whether in the form of books, articles, television programming or online. Parenting advice can be found virtually everywhere you turn. Whom to trust? Where to turn?

Parenting isn’t about being perfect or even trying to be perfect. It’s more about using your inner wisdom and common sense. Anyway, there is no one approach to parenting, because all children and families are unique.

Although there is a lot of conflicting parenting advice out there, decades of research on the topic have provided some helpful insights on which parenting practices – in general – improve children’s resilience and ability to succeed in school and in life. (See box What Is Resilience?) This section provides information and tips on some of these evidence-based parenting approaches and behaviours. You know your children best. If you find some suggestions that you think might be helpful, you may want to try conducting your own “home experiment” to see if you notice positive changes in your children.

What Is Resilience?

Life presents us with countless challenges, setbacks and general difficulties. “Resilience” is the ability to “bounce back” from the ongoing demands and challenges of life and to learn from them in a positive way.

We are all born with the capacity to be resilient. We develop resilience throughout our lifetimes by learning to understand and manage our impulses and emotions – particularly when under stress. Parents play a substantial role in helping children develop their resilience. Children learn a lot by watching their parents. When parents cope well with everyday stress, they are showing their children how to do the same.

Inner strengths and supportive environments are both essential to build resilience.

Inner strengths include:

  • awareness and self-control
  • thinking and problem-solving skills
  • confidence and courage
  • positive outlook
  • responsibility and participation

Outside supports include:

  • caring relationships
  • positive role models in families and communities
  • community resources such as schools, community centres, programs for parents and children, and faith groups.

The information and suggestions contained in this resource are designed to help parents develop their children’s resilience as well as their own.

Good Parenting Protects Children from Risk

It’s common sense, but scientific evidence demonstrates that the quality of the relationship between a parent and child is one of the most powerful factors in a child’s development and growth. The emotional connection between parent and child creates the conditions for a child to grow up feeling safe, secure, loved and understood.

In fact, among children who underwent a stressful life circumstance (such as their parents’ separation or the death of a close relative), the children who did better had at least two things in common:

  • They had a close and meaningful relationship with at least one parent.
  • The parenting they received was consistent and nurturing.

The good news for parents is that studies have confirmed that parents can apply practices that improve their children’s ability to succeed in school and in life. (See box Get Connected with Your Provincial Resources.) Some are very simple and easy approaches that you can incorporate into your day, while others involve maintaining a consistent approach to parenting and disciplining.

Get Connected with Your Provincial Resources

All provinces and territories offer parenting information sessions for separating parents and some are available online. Parenting programs for separating parents address a full-range of topics, including children’s needs at different ages, legal and financial issues, parenting skills, and methods to help reduce conflict. In some provinces these parenting classes are mandatory, if there is a court proceeding.

Your first step is to check out your provincial or territorial list of services and resources available for separating parents. Some jurisdictions have excellent websites containing videos and online learning opportunities, and publish parenting after separation guides as well as age-appropriate resources for children.

(See Section 11 – Resources for how to connect with your provincial or territorial Family Justice services.)

Warm, Enthusiastic and Firm

Over the years, researchers have studied the kinds of parenting styles and practices that help children mature and thrive. The most effective style of parenting is one that is often referred to as “authoritative parenting.” (See box A Checklist for Authoritative Parenting.)

Authoritative parents tend to be nurturing and responsive, set high standards and show respect for children as independent beings. The authoritative parent expects maturity and cooperation, while offering children lots of emotional support.

Although authoritative parents are nurturing, responsive and involved, they don’t let their children get away with bad behaviour. Authoritative parents show high levels of warmth and emphasize the reasons for the rules. (See “Use Discipline to Teach”.)

A Checklist for Authoritative Parenting

  • I listen to my children.
  • I encourage their curiosity and independence.
  • I place limits, consequences and expectations on my children’s behaviour.
  • I express warmth and nurturance.
  • I encourage my children to express their feelings and I help them when they are feeling scared or upset.
  • I try to be enthusiastic about what they are enthusiastic about.
  • I allow my children to express opinions, even if they are different from my own.
  • I encourage my children to discuss options.
  • I explain the meaning behind the rules.
  • My discipline is fair and consistent and focuses on growth and maturity, not punishment.

Children who grow up with parents who practise an authoritative style of parenting tend to:

  • have a happier disposition
  • be able to manage their emotions
  • develop good social skills
  • be self-confident about their abilities to learn new skills

Match Your Expectations to Your Child’s Temperament

Any parent with more than one child knows that from a very young age a child’s “personal style” can be clearly defined. Even among siblings, children can and do have different likes and dislikes, levels of activity, reactions to stimuli, and any number of other traits that make them unique individuals. Putting it another way, in the same situation, one child may be shy and the other bold; one may be calm, while the other is feisty. “Temperament” is the word used to describe this inborn quality that a child brings into the world. (See box What Is ”Temperament”? in Section 7.)

Understanding a young child’s temperament is not meant to label a child but to help parents and caregivers appreciate the differences among children and provide the best environment for each unique child to thrive. Why? Because children do better when their parents guide them in ways that respect their individual differences and help affirm their unique sense of self. Conversely, children whose parents are not attuned to their unique temperament may experience more stress and frustration. Here are some examples:

  • If parents know that their child is slow to warm up to new people or places, they can allow more time for the child to adjust. Parents may have to encourage such a child to try new experiences by encouraging rather than pressuring, thus helping the child grow and develop at his or her own pace. Particularly during transitions from one home to another, the point is to go slowly, take extra time, encourage, be gentle and be patient.
  • If parents know that their child has a high activity level, they will not expect the child to sit in a car for a long time. This child needs plenty of opportunities to run around and get physical. The point is to view the high activity level as a positive and provide lots of physical outlets for such a child.

In addition, young children with different temperaments can react differently when faced with conflict or differences of opinion:

  • Anger is some children’s first response to a disagreement – they may need their parents help to learn how to cool down and manage their frustration. “Let’s play the ‘deep breathing game’ together and then talk about it.”
  • Some children get bossy and may treat others unkindly – parents can help by nurturing their empathy and sense of fairness. “I wonder how your sister feels when you call her dumb? How would you feel if others called you dumb?”
  • Some children are uncomfortable with conflict, running away from it because they don’t want to upset anyone – parents can help them learn to speak up and ask for what they need or want. “It’s your time to play with the new toy, so let the other kids know that they can play when you are done. It’s your time now.”

The best gift a parent can give children is to accept them for who they are. In practical terms that means matching your expectations to what your child is capable of doing. If your child is outgoing, expecting your child to be able to sit quietly for a period of time is setting the child up for failure. If your child is shy, pushing her into social situations will most certainly backfire. Over time and with appropriate guidance, young children’s temperaments will adapt and change.

Attend to Your Children’s Sense of Identity and Belonging

From the time they are born, children and youth develop a sense of identity and belonging through their relationships with their parents and family, peers, neighbourhood and community. A positive sense of identity and belonging is fundamental to our emotional maturity and ability to get along with others. Without it, we are lost. When children have positive experiences with their parents and relatives – as a result of growing up feeling loved, respected and valued – they develop a sense of inner security and resilience.

Parental conflict and separation as well as family reorganization can disrupt a child’s inner and outer worlds. Their sense of self and belonging, previously aligned with both parents, has been shaken. Especially when changes happen quickly, children may experience confusion, sadness and insecurity. Knowing this, parents can help support their children’s sense of identity during the changes and transitions.

What You Can Do

For infants and young toddlers, you can support their emerging sense of identity and belonging by:

  • providing a warm, nurturing environment in which their physical and emotional needs are reliably met
  • holding, snuggling and providing continuous physical affection
  • talking with them in soothing tones about how much they are loved
  • delighting in their new skills, from learning to touch their toes to saying their first word.

For young children, you can support their emerging sense of identity and belonging by:

  • ensuring the active involvement of both parents in their lives
  • respecting and encouraging each child’s unique personality, interests and preferences
  • providing opportunities to play and interact with relatives and peers
  • telling interesting stories about their grandparents and ancestors
  • taking time to introduce new adult partners into their lives.

For children in late preschool and early school years, you can support their sense of identify and belonging by:

  • encouraging them to explore and develop their interests and abilities
  • helping them to feel secure and proud of their unique personality and interests
  • getting to know them better by asking questions and sharing their interests
  • looking at photos of relatives and sharing funny stories that highlight their unique personalities and talents.

For school-aged children and preteens, you can support their sense of identity and belonging by:

  • providing as much stability and acceptance at home as possible
  • encouraging open communication about school, friendships and anything else
  • storytelling about their family history
  • staying connected with their school activities and other interests
  • monitoring their social activities – making sure you can always contact one another.

For adolescents, you can support their sense of identity and belonging by:

  • demonstrating how your own beliefs and values shape your decisions and actions (walk the talk!) – in other words, you treat your children as you would want to be treated
  • encouraging them to share their opinions on news stories and politics
  • helping them find mentors who share their interests or have made a difference in the world.

(See also Section 7 – Helping Children at Every Age.)

Acknowledge Your Child’s Perspective and Empathize

All of us have a yearning to be understood by others. Think of a recent time at work or with your ex-partner or friend when you felt misunderstood. Or perhaps a time from your childhood when you felt misunderstood or were told that you shouldn’t feel a certain way? Most likely, you felt frustrated, hurt or angry. It’s the same thing with children, but because of their limited vocabulary or maturity, they are more likely to be misunderstood.

When your children are upset or misbehaving, try to empathize with their distress. Just being understood helps humans let go of troubling emotions. If your child’s upset seems out of proportion to the situation, remember that we all store up emotions and then let ourselves vent once we find a safe haven. Then we are free to move on.

When children misbehave, there is usually a reason. They may be tired, frustrated, hungry, seeking attention or feeling misunderstood. If you can figure out what is causing the misbehaviour, you will have more success responding to the misbehaviour and perhaps preventing it in the future. If you have some clues, let children know that you are trying to understand why they aren’t behaving:

  • “It’s hard for you to stop playing and come to dinner, but it’s time now.”
  • “You wish you could have me all to yourself, don’t you.”
  • “You want to stay up later with the big kids, I know. But remember how hard it was for you to get up in the morning when you stayed up late?”
  • “You’re upset that we need to leave the park so I can start dinner.”

Emphasizing doesn’t mean you agree, just that you see it from your child’s perspective. We all know how good it feels to have our perspective acknowledged. When our thoughts and feelings have been validated, somehow that makes it easier when we don’t get our way. Try it with your younger children, and see if this approach works.

Spend Some Special Time with Each Child

With a crowded schedule, filled with work, meals, chores and children’s activities, it can be difficult to imagine carving out some time alone with each child. But even a couple of spontaneous moments each day with each child will go a long way in strengthening your bond, building your child’s confidence, increasing your child’s ability to adapt to the changes and even reducing behaviour problems. You can alternate between doing what your child wants to do and what you want to do. This special time is a great opportunity for you to be fully present with your child – observing, listening, interacting, and appreciating. Slowing down and taking these few moments to be alone with each child will reap huge benefits. Try it for a month and see if you notice a change, not only in your child but in yourself!

Encourage Play and Recreation

At whatever age, play is essential for children’s development. In fact it’s been said that “play is the work of childhood.” Science supports many of our intuitions about the importance of play. Playful behaviour appears to have positive effects on a child’s ability to learn. There are all kinds of play – physical outdoor play, make-believe play, using toys and games, playing alone, with other children or with adults.

During times of stress and change, children need play more than ever. Physical play can help them work off steam, make-believe play can help them work out anxieties about their parents’ separation, toys give them pleasure and help them learn, and playing with you strengthens your bonds. So even though – and maybe especially so – you all are going through a difficult transition, look at play as therapeutic rather than superficial or selfish.

Older children need plenty of opportunities to play with their friends. Organized sports are a great way for older children to get physical, learn to get along with others, and make new friends. Also encourage children to put down the computer or phone and spend time doing fun art, science and other activities with their friends.

Focus on Effort

  • “Wow! I love how you are trying so hard to get the puzzle pieces to fit.”
  • “I’m impressed with how you are trying to figure out your math homework. Keep at it, and let me know if you get stuck with one problem.”
  • “Look at how much better you are on the piano than you were last week. I can tell how much you’ve been practising!”

As much as possible, encourage effort rather than praising results. Instead of praising children for a job well done, encourage children for their effort and perseverance – even if there isn’t a successful outcome. Encouragement celebrates a child’s improvements, motivates children to apply themselves even when the task is difficult, and teaches independence. When they get stuck, encourage them to ask you, a teacher or a sibling for help. The key is to encourage children in a way that makes them feel appreciated and recognized. In this way, children develop a deep sense of belonging and appreciation for learning from mistakes. Researchers have discovered that children do better in school when they believe that they can learn something new or improve in a skill by simply applying themselves or trying harder.

Some children have a lower tolerance for frustration than others. For example, these children may cry or get angry when they can’t finish a puzzle or get up and leave if they are not winning at a game. Children with a low tolerance for frustration need extra support and encouragement to keep trying. Encourage the child to try different ways to make something work or to ask you or another adult for help. Keep reminding the child that trying is more important than achieving and that with practice and patience, things will get easier to figure out. (See box What Parents Can Do to Help Children at Every Age.)

What Parents Can Do to Help Children at Every Age

  • Children need to know how much they are loved by their parents. Be demonstrative – show your affection in words and actions.
  • Create an environment where children are protected from conflict (for example, avoid arguing in front of them).
  • Avoid involving children in adult problems.
  • Allow your children to express their feelings and listen to their point of view on decisions that affect them.
  • Play with children. At all stages of development, playing alone, with adults and with friends helps children develop emotional, intellectual and social abilities.
  • Avoid speaking of the other parent in negative terms. Children should feel free to love both parents, without having to choose sides or feel they are betraying one parent.
  • Spend some time alone with each child, even if it's just for a few minutes.
  • Maintain as much routine and continuity as possible.
  • Make sure children have opportunities to visit with relatives and spend time with friends.
  • Stay in touch with child care providers and teachers. Most of them will appreciate your input and involvement, and will be happy to share their insights and ideas. They are also good sources of information on child development and community resources.
  • Set reasonable rules and limits for your children's behaviour according to their stage of development.
  • If you make promises to your children, keep them.
  • Take care of yourself. Your children are depending on you.
  • Above all, if your child is experiencing problems, reach out for professional help – sooner rather than later – through the school or your family doctor.

Maintain Your Child's Community of Support

A child's community of support provides a place of belonging. This community includes family, daycare, school and friends – the people and places they come into contact with and influence them almost every day in their young lives. Preteens and teenagers, in particular, need regular contact with their friends, from talking on the phone to spending time together at school and participating in social activities.

Grandparents and other members of the extended family are very important for children, especially if they have already established a close relationship. (See box What Grandparents – and Close Relatives and Friends – Can Do.) If they don't openly take the side of either parent, relatives can provide emotional security and be an important influence on children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles can help children by keeping in touch, spending time alone with them and assuring them that the divorce is not their fault. Teachers and caregivers should be informed if there is a separation or a change of address. It is particularly important to let teachers and caregivers know who will be picking up the children and when, and who to call in case of a problem or emergency.

Teachers and child care providers are especially significant since they spend so much time with your children. They can help provide a stable environment and a consistent routine. They can also help your children understand that they are not alone and that other children also experience separation and divorce. Good communication between teachers, caregivers and parents can help children adjust to the changes that divorce brings to their lives. They can play an important role by talking to you about any changes in your child's behaviour. Often, children do not express feelings directly, but teachers may notice signs of distress.

What Grandparents – and Close Relatives and Friends – Can Do

  • Keep in mind the evidence from numerous studies: Children do far better when they have a meaningful relationship with both parents. The best thing you can do for your grandchildren is to put aside your feelings or loyalties and support their relationship with both parents.
  • Be a good listener. If your grandchildren are surrounded by turmoil or angry adults, you may be one of the few places where they feel safe to be themselves and open up. You can become that trusted person who is not judgmental or opinionated. A special relationship with a grandparent can make all the difference to a child facing change.
  • Let your grandchildren know that however they are feeling it is okay. Some children are told that they “shouldn’t” feel a particular way, sometimes because the adults in their lives feel guilty for causing them pain and disruption. But this only adds to a child’s sense of being alone or misunderstood. And remember that it is perfectly natural for children to want their parents to get back together. Allow them to express their fears and desires, without giving them false information or hope.
  • It is important not to interfere with the agreements set up by either parent. For example, if one parent has set up arrangements for a play date for their children, work your schedule with the children around these plans. Or if the children are expected to finish their homework before they can go out to play, try not to give in because you feel sorry for their situation. Especially during their parents’ separation, children need structure and routine to help them adapt to the changes.
  • Tell your grandchildren stories about challenges you have faced and overcome in your life. Help them see you as someone who believes things will be all right and that they are safe. Focusing on how you overcame challenges will help build resilience in your grandchildren.
  • Help your grandchildren find ways to soothe themselves when they are sad or scared. Share with them what you do to take care of yourself when you are feeling unhappy or overwhelmed. If you are refreshed by a walk in nature, take them for a walk in the woods or in a park. Ask your grandchildren what they like to do for fun or what helps them when they are unhappy. Add those activities in their future visits with you.
  • Read together during a quiet time before they go to bed or between activities. Reading stories about feelings or how other children have adapted to divorce can help your grandchildren find words to talk about their experience and ask you and other adults for help when they need it.
  • Be flexible, but consistent, with family holidays. An important role of a grandparent is to celebrate and help create memories. These celebrations may look different or require more organization and planning than before the separation, but if you keep the grandchildren’s interests first, you can help create memorable and wonderful family traditions. Even a home-baked box of cookies mailed at certain times of the year can become a cherished childhood memory that lets children know that they are always loved.
  • Don’t talk negatively about your ex-son or daughter-in-law in front of your grandchildren. Vent your feelings with other adults in your life when your grandchildren are not around. Otherwise, you are simply adding to your grandchildren’s confusion and distress. The overriding guideline in separation or divorce agreements involving children is to make decisions or act in ways that are “in the best interests of the child” – not of the adults.

Use Discipline to Teach

  • When you were a child, would you say that the household rules were fair, or strict, or lax, or maybe inconsistent?
  • Were you at a school or a job where there were lots of rules, and many of them didn’t make sense?
  • Have you ever felt shamed or humiliated when you were called out for something you did at school or work?
  • Can you think of a rule at your childhood home that kept you safe and perhaps even alive?

Your children need you to help them understand what kind of behaviours you expect from them and what rules you expect them to follow. As they mature, they need to understand why the rules are important for their own safety and growth. They also need help from you to manage their feelings, understand responsibility and take charge of their behaviours. Finally, your children need to know the consequences for breaking the rules.

Consequences should give a child the chance to be heard and forgiven. A consequence is more effective than pain, fear, shame, humiliation or punishment. Parents can decide to respond with a logical consequence or a natural one. An example of a logical consequence: The child must help clean off the crayon marks she made on the wall. An example of a natural consequence: If a child refuses to eat dinner, he will be hungry later on.

Other kinds of strategies you can consider:

  • Take away a privilege and give the child a chore to do.
  • Be very clear about what behaviours are not acceptable and why. Crossing the line will come with clear consequences. Be firm but kind.
  • If something is damaged because of misbehaviour, ask the child to fix it, make a new one, or help buy a new one.
  • Use a “time out,” explaining that getting away for a while from a situation helps all of us calm down and think more clearly.
  • Take a stand against physical aggression and name-calling. Whenever aggression occurs, nip it in the bud: “I won’t let you hit your brother and I’d never let him hit you either. Figure out another way to solve this!”

(See also Section 7 – Helping Children at Every Age.)

Catch your children being good. Children hear the word “no” a lot, partly because they ask for a lot of things and they naturally try to push limits. But it can be pretty demoralizing to hear “no” all the time. So take the time to notice when your child is being good and call it out: “You picked up your clothes without being asked – that’s terrific!” Or, “I was watching you play with your baby brother and you were really patient – that was really nice of you!”

Make a point of finding some good behaviour to praise every day. Be generous with your rewards – hugs and compliments can work wonders and focus attention on the behaviours you want to see grow.

Show that your love is unconditional. As a parent, you are responsible for correcting and guiding your children’s behaviour. But how you express your corrective guidance makes all the difference in how a child receives it. When you have to confront your child, avoid blaming, criticizing or shaming – all of which can undermine a child’s sense of self-worth and can lead to resentment. Shame is toxic to children’s emotional development, just as swallowing poison is toxic to their physical health. Instead, strive to nurture and encourage, even when disciplining your children. Make sure they know that your love is there no matter what, even though you expect them to do better next time.

Some discipline strategies for teenagers. Around the time your child starts secondary school, you might need to adjust your understanding of the role of both parenting and discipline. When children are young, they need their parents to take care of their physical and emotional needs to survive and mature. But as children get older, they develop their own personalities and capacity to make choices and decisions. Parents can help growing children learn to make positive choices and decisions by modelling this behaviour and teaching them to manage their impulses and emotions.

The role of discipline is to provide logical consequences for breaking the rules designed to keep them safe and help them mature. By the time a child reaches the teen years, parents cannot control whether their children have chosen to take those life lessons to heart. In other words, parents can influence a child’s independent development, but not control it. This is a key life lesson for parents, because when their teenagers disobey the rules, parents often think they are losing control. And a battle for control will most likely lead to fueling more arguments and rule-breaking. Therefore, try to keep in mind that it’s not about controlling your teenager or losing control of your teenager, it’s about providing a structure for keeping them safe and reinforcing good decision-making.

Effective discipline for teenagers focuses on setting clear and agreed limits and helping them behave within those limits. Teenagers aren’t equipped with the skills they need to make all their decisions, although they certainly may think so. Even if your teenagers tell you they don’t need your guidance, research shows the opposite. The limits you agree on for behaviour are an important influence on your children’s successful transition into young adulthood.

Negotiation is a key part of communicating with teenagers and can help avoid problems. Negotiating with teenagers shows that you respect their ideas. It also helps them to develop their own decision-making muscles. Negotiate on the small things and hold firm on areas that keep teenagers safe and away from harm.

Be aware that older children are keenly aware of their parents’ behaviour and how it does or does not conform to the rules they are made to follow. If they think you are being hypocritical, they likely will call you out on it. You are their most important role model – when you make a mistake, apologize and show how mistakes are opportunities for learning.

Teenagers sometimes test limits and break rules. One way that teenagers develop into independent adults is to test boundaries and watch how others react to their behaviour. Remain firm. As they receive feedback, teenagers learn about social expectations and what’s expected of them. (For more information about the unique needs of teenagers, see Section 7, Helping Children at Every Age.)

Some parents, out of frustration or because of lack of knowledge or support, let go of maintaining household rules and the consequences for breaking those rules. Nearly abdicating their parental role, the resulting lack of structure and limits will likely impair their children’s emotional growth. Teenagers, in particular, need parental rules and oversight to help them stay safe and avoid risk-taking behaviours. In this situation, parents would do well to get back in the game and access professional support in order to reclaim their children’s respect and trust.

Teaching Your Children to Resolve Conflict

In each developmental stage, children gradually expand their capacity to regulate their own emotions and to recognize that others have feelings and needs. It is not possible for young children to learn these skills without the guidance and coaching of adults. Helping children learn to manage their feelings and resolve conflict isn’t complex, but it does take patience and a consistent approach.

First and foremost, be a good example and model how you would like your children to resolve conflict. It’s one thing for children to witness fights and highly charged arguments between their parents, and quite another to witness their parents disagree about something. Some bickering and conflict between parents helps children learn that people have differing perspectives, that conflicts at home and in the playground are inevitable, and that there are positive ways to resolve disagreements. Co-parenting provides a great opportunity for you to learn and apply conflict resolution skills that your children will witness and absorb.

Teaching children to resolve conflict boils down to a few basic principles:

  • Take turns.
  • Play fair.
  • Use your words.
  • Apologize.
  • Share.
  • Do a favour for someone else.

Dealing with Your Children’s Anger

You’ve broken the news to the children about your plans to separate. Life as they know it is going to change and they are surprised, scared and upset. Depending on their age, children express anger through tears, tantrums and raised voices.

It’s common for anger to conceal other vulnerable feelings, such as insecurity, embarrassment, or shame. And angry outbursts often reflect more than just what has happened in the immediate situation. Think of anger as like a volcano – difficult feelings like frustration or hurt can build up inside over time, with pressure building higher and higher. One little trigger can cause children to “erupt” and blow their tops, just like with adults. Here are some tips to help you help your children learn how to recognize and deal with their feelings of anger.

Tip #1: Stay Calm

Children absorb the emotional climate around them like sponges. Calm responses can help contain your child’s anger just as angry responses can fuel the fire of your child’s anger. If you’re feeling wound up, don’t forget that a time out is useful for adults as well. Remove yourself from the situation and breathe deeply and slowly. (See relaxation exercise on page 11)

Tip #2: Increase Emotional Awareness

The more you help your child understand and express difficult emotions, the less emotions will build up and overflow into angry explosions. To be able to express emotion, children first need to be aware of their feelings. You can improve your child’s “emotional literacy” by beginning to increase the amount you talk about anger and other feelings. For example:

  • That man on TV looks really mad. I wonder what he is angry about?
  • I am feeling frustrated because I can’t get a minute of quiet to myself.
  • Your brother is “stupid?” I wonder if you might be upset because he interrupted our special time together?

Tip #3: Accept feelings and redirect angry actions

Remember that your children’s feelings may be different from your own and that feelings are neither good nor bad. For example, dismissing difficult feelings (“hey, calm down, it’s not a big deal” or “you can’t be feeling upset, I just got you an ice cream cone!”) is often a sure-fire way to further upset your child. Instead of being able to talk about the feelings, your child will be upset about what was upsetting in the first place, now further aggravated by feeling misunderstood. The better course of action is to:

  • Identify and name the feeling that is behind your child’s rage.
    • Wow, Peter, that made you really upset!
    • Kathy, I can see that you are really disappointed that we need to leave the park now.
  • Show understanding by guessing at your child’s wishes:
    • Peter, you’d like it if your brother asked first before playing with your toys?
    • Wouldn’t it be great if we could stay longer, Kathy?
  • Encourage appropriate expression of feelings or problem-solving
    • Show me how you are feeling by … using words/drawing a picture/hitting the couch cushion/or ripping up this piece of scrap paper
    • What can we do together to help solve this problem?

Tip #4: Use clear and consistent consequences to limit aggressive behaviour

Your child needs to learn that although anger is okay, aggressive behaviour is not. When your child is hitting or biting or otherwise out of control, try getting down to your child’s height and use a calm, low, but firm tone, which indicates your displeasure. Tell your child that the aggressive behaviour is not allowed – and why it is not allowed. Above all, try not to shout, because this suggests that you are out of control.

If your child stops behaving aggressively, give lots of praise. If the inappropriate behaviour continues after you’ve given a warning, impose a clear consequence such as withdrawing a privilege.

If you are worried about your child’s continuing or escalating anger over a period of a few months, it’s a good idea to bring it up with your child’s doctor or school counsellor. Children of any age can benefit from talk or play therapy.

Tip #5: Above all, don’t take it personally

Your 5-year-old screams “I hate you Mommy for leaving Daddy.” Your teenager runs up the stairs and loudly slams the door to her room. Your 10-year-old exclaims, “Dad, you never understand me.”

At times like this the most important thing to remember is not to take it personally. Recognize that their behaviour is not primarily about you, it’s about them – their mixed-up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves and their limited ability to understand and express their emotions. Taking it personally wounds you, which means you may end up doing what we all do when hurt – either close up, or lash out, or both. Now both of you are not in control or feeling understood and appreciated.

Remembering not to take it personally means you:

  • Take a few very deep breaths.
  • Remember that this is your child’s anger and it doesn’t involve you – even when you are being told that it does.
  • Release the feeling of being hurt.
  • Remind yourself that your child does in fact love you but can’t get in touch with it at the moment of being in distress.
  • Consciously lower your voice.
  • Try to remember what it felt like to be a kid who is upset and over-reacting.
  • Think through how to respond calmly and constructively.

You may need to set limits or confront the behaviour, but you can now do it from a calmer place. The idea is to act out of love, rather than anger, when you are setting limits or confronting poor behaviour.

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