Friday, 20 January 2012

Everybody Hurts: Ten Ways to Help Children Grow Into Adults Who Cope

Life is tough: for everyone there are trials and sorrows, disappointments and heartbreaks. From a mental health perspective, the world loosely divides itself into two camps - those who cope, and those who don't. And as scary as it might be to contemplate, this coping ability or inability is pretty much entirely shaped by nurture - by our actions as parents.

It's simple: the way that we respond to our child when they are in a state of distress will become the way that they respond to their own distress as they grow into young people and adults. If we distance ourselves from their difficult emotions, they will learn to distance themselves too. If we respond with anger or tension, they will feel anger and tension too in life's harder moments. If we placate or 'medicate' our upset children with sugar or TV, they will learn to do the same for themselves as adults. And if we cannot tolerate their distress, we will teach them that distress itself is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs.

Ideally, we need to give our distressed child two strong messages to carry forward into their adult lives:

  • It is OK, normal and important to feel upset, distressed or emotional sometimes. 
  • When I feel upset, I can cope.

Here are ten suggestions of ways you might give your small child positive messages about distress and help them to grow up to become an adult who 'copes'.

1. Begin with Yourself.
Take some time to consider your feelings, thoughts and responses to distress - your own and other peoples. How do you cope when life throws difficulties your way? What do you do when your emotions are churning with sorrow, grief or despair? How was your distress responded to when you yourself were a child? And how do you now feel and respond when your own child is experiencing these feelings? What happens to your body, your breath, your thoughts, your feelings? Is it easy or hard for you to stay connected and present, physically and emotionally, at these times? If you think that 'Distress' is a problematic area for you, it might be worth talking this through with your partner, a friend, or even a professional counsellor or therapist. By understanding more fully your own responses and feelings you will be much better placed to help your child.

2. Be Present. 
When your baby or child is upset, stay with them. It might seem like you are not helping, especially if they will not stop crying. It might seem as if your presence is not bringing comfort or making any difference. But it is. By being there, you are showing them not just that you care, but that their upset is important, and that it is tolerable. You teach them how to 'stay' with their difficult feelings. If you only do one thing on this list, do this. You don't need to find the right words or even say anything at all. Just be there.

3. Use Body Language
Your body gives messages to others before you even open your mouth to speak. And often when we are in the presence of someone who is in emotional turmoil we can find ourselves unconsciously 'closing' ourselves - folding our arms, drawing up our legs, fidgeting or tilting ourselves away from them. When attending to your upset child, make a conscious effort to correct yourself if you find you are doing this, and to adjust your body to a more open position. Open up your torso and make sure it is turned towards your child, breathe, let your shoulders relax, connect with the floor. If you are hugging your child, let go of any tension in your body or breath and let yourself hold them without resistance. Not only will this give your child the message that you find their distress completely acceptable and unproblematic, but your own physical calmness will also help to soothe them, too.
And if your child withdraws from you, try mirroring: find a place near them and let your body adopt a posture similar to theirs. There is no need to speak, you are already giving out a strong message: "I am trying to put myself in your position, I am trying to understand."

4. Keep Being the Grown Up
When a child is upset, crying or having a tantrum, it can sometimes be tempting to join in. Particularly if you spend lots of time caring for small children, it can even start to seem normal to behave in a childish way. And it might be that, whether or not your are consciously aware of it, this particular situation is reminding you of a similar moment of distress from your own childhood, and awakening your own hurt and needy child within. However, if you are to effectively help your own child in this present moment, you need to try your best to remain in the role of 'adult', and this means being rational, strong and calm. Make sure your voice is low and steady, and that your body and breath are still and grounded. Keep reminding yourself that you are the adult in the relationship, even if this feels slightly fake or as if you are just 'pretending' to be the parent or the grown up. This will allow your own child to feel safe to rage, tantrum or grieve - indeed, to 'be the child' - whilst you hold on tight to the neutral, normal, status quo.

5. Never Ever Threaten, Punish or Shame
When a small child is upset, in particular if they are 'throwing a tantrum', you might feel like resorting to threats or shaming language in your attempts to calm them down. 'If you don't stop this fuss, we can't go to the party', 'Go to your room until you can control yourself' or 'You're being ridiculous - a big baby'. But whilst such an approach might have the 'desired' effect of restoring calm, what you are actually doing is teaching your child that these difficult feelings are completely unacceptable, and that they should keep them locked well away in future. Such a short term 'fix' can lead to serious long term mental health problems. Being fearful of or ashamed of emotions like anger and sadness is a recipe for a tough time in life, struggling to cope with these feelings that are such a normal and essential aspect of being human.

6. Validate
Take your child's distress seriously. The reason for their sorrow might seem ridiculous to you - a spilt drink, a doll that won't be shared - but from their perspective these are highly important matters. Avoid stock phrases such as 'It's not the end of the world', 'Don't be silly', or 'Not to worry'. Allow yourself to view the world from their level and try to imagine how hard the situation must be. Be genuine in your sympathy and offers of comfort. You might find that other family members or nearby adults 'make light' of your child's distress or even laugh. Ignore them. As far as your child is concerned, it is only your reaction that matters. And by treating their feelings with the utmost respect and refusing to belittle or diminish them, you will often find that they are able to move on from them quickly, satisfied that they have been seen, heard and acknowledged.

7. Let Your Body Be An Anchor
Often a child in distress will express their 'all over the place' emotions with their body. Pay attention to your own body and breath and make a conscious effort to keep yourself physically strong and calm. No matter how frenetic your child becomes, keep your own energy still and steady. If it helps, imagine that there is a lovely elastic bubble of calmness surrounding you, that can bend with your child's movements or sounds, but will never pop. Sit on the floor near your child and encourage them, if they are willing, to sit on your lap or in physical contact with you. The calmness of your own body will help to soothe, comfort and 'anchor' them.

8. Let Your Words Be A Compass
Just as your body can be a strong anchor to your child in their time of distress, your words can act as a compass, helping them to navigate their feelings by verbalising them and giving them a voice. A small child can feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, and it can be comforting to hear them being named in a clear and simple way. Don't assume to know everything, but make suggestions, for example, 'It seems like you are feeling really angry ' or 'Perhaps Daddy going away has made you feel really sad'. Using this language of feelings will help your child to eventually do the same, and grow up to become 'emotionally articulate'. They will be able to recognise, accept and understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, and build their own 'inner compass' for the day when you are no longer there to help guide them.

9. Be Careful of 'Distraction'
Often an upset child will be placed in front of the television or given a sweet treat as a form of comfort. This does 'work', but of course in the long run it carries a very negative message. Many many adults resort to eating the wrong foods or gazing mindlessly at the TV as a way of avoiding difficult or painful emotions. Help your child to learn that it is ok to stay with difficult feelings for a while. Sit together, cry together, hug together. See if this is the right time to try and talk or listen about the problem. And if you feel it would be best to move things on, try to find positive activities that acknowledge the feelings but help to transform them. Try, 'Let's dance a sad dance', 'Shall we paint a really angry picture', or 'When I feel upset I like to go for a walk in the wind, shall we do that together?'. Whatever activity you choose, let your child set the pace and move on from their difficult feelings in their own time.

10. See Difficult Moments As Goldmines
Times of high emotion, tantrums, distress - these can often seem the hardest parts of parenting, leaving us feeling exhausted and frustrated. But these are the moments when our children need us very deeply, and we can really make a difference. As parents we make many many mistakes, this is inevitable, and perhaps it's best to think of our role in terms of damage limitation rather than perfection. But if there is one thing that it is worth really really trying to get right, it is helping our children to deal with distress. Whilst sunny picnics or idyllic days at the beach might seem like your finest parenting moments, it is, in fact, the times when you are finding your child the most difficult and challenging that you are probably making the biggest impact. Amidst the chaos, the shouting, and the tears, there is priceless treasure to be found: your child is learning to cope.


This is not an exhaustive or definitive list. As always, please do add your own thoughts and suggestions in the comments below...



36 comments:

  1. This is wonderful. My daughter is now asleep in my arms after throwing the biggest tantrum of her life. Wow it was hard to remain calm and understanding! Even when you know all the right things to do, it's so difficult to put them into practice. But I think this article is truly brilliant, and has reminded me of the importance of being present and that I did the right things. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you so much Lindsey! xxx

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  3. Thank you. It's exactly what I needed. Not exaggerating.

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    1. I'm really pleased to hear that Jackie. Thanks so much x

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  4. Thank you so much for this

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  5. Fantastic article! My husband and I have been trying to figure out a way to help our 19 month old to stop having tantrums. It's good to see that tantrums are par for the course. I feel like sometimes we handle them with patience and calm and sometimes we don't. This really encourages me to try to do better at remaining calm, loving and most of all present.

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    1. Thank you Kristi. It's great to hear that this has had such a positive impact for you. Tantrums are definitely par for the course, and you really can help your child just by being with them. I think a good book is the Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland, some good stuff on tantrums in there. Good luck! xxx

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  6. I to struggle to remain calm with my son who is 3.I needed to read this!

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  7. This is beautiful and so helpful for me today. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks CBHM, really I am so glad that so many people are finding this article helpful! xxx

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  8. It is beautiful. I am relatively new to gentle parenting and time-in or stay-listening, and still figuring out how to do it. My daughter (5) really seems sometimes to benefit from being physically constrained, which is hard to do, especially in any kind of relaxed open way, because she's so big and strong. But without it, she just seems to wander around getting away from me, being rude, knocking things over, and the like. During stay-listening, sometimes I agree when she cries out to be let go, only to be kicked when I release her leg, or hit if I release her arm -- it is really hard for me to know how physical to be, how compliantly respectful to be of her verbalizations, and so on. I do want to help her... it isn't always obvious how best to do so.

    One thing that's interesting is that she is much less likely now to hit me hard except during stay-listening -- she's more likely to come over and bop me as a symbolic gesture rather than to hurt me. I still wish she could ask for help in a way that felt better to me, and, again, I am not always sure how best to help. I try to verbally acknowledge her feelings, maintain warmth toward her, offer hugs, but stick to whatever the limit is.

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    1. That sounds hard Prochaskas, and i'm glad this post has helped. Could you take her outside, or somewhere she can physically demonstrate her distress safely, instead of constraining her? Or perhaps try to anticipate things escalating to this level and try to steer her and yourself in a new direction?
      It's hard to help in this format, but I really wish you well. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job.
      xxx

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  9. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I have been struggling lately to remain calm for my son, who is 3.5. You have just re-centred me!

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  10. I found the best way to learn how to be emotionally present with myself - and by extension with children - is a form of peer counseling called Reevaluation Counseling which I learned and then taught for years. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to deepen their capacity in the skills described in this article. There's also a Parenting resource organization based on the same practice - http://www.handinhandparenting.org. Their books on Listening to Children are outstanding.

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  11. Amazing post. Really SO valuable. Thank you! And may I remember these points when I need them.

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    1. Thank you Anon. I hope I remember them too! x

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  12. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

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    1. Thank you very much. I'm thrilled that this piece is helpful to so many people, so glad I wrote it now! x

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  13. Timely... I spectacularly failed being present today with. Thank you for the reminder.

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    1. Thanks Anon...I think we all have those days...and if we know that we failed, then we are not really 'failing', in the true sense of the word. Good luck xxx

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  14. I have a 6 yr. old that has pantrums, panic attacks mixed with tantrums and they are usually brought on by control issues and I have worked hard to be responsive and acknowledge her feelings with love, respect, compassion. Sometimes I struggle b/c it's over an issue that I simply cannot hand over the control...for example: I picked her up from school yesterday. She asked, "what's that in the back seat"? I told her it was a safe that we bought to lock away the firearms in the house. She said, "oh cool! how does it work?" I told her that we press a secret code in and the safe opens. She asked for the code. I explained that giving her the code would make the safe useless b/c part of the reason for having the guns in a safe is so that the children cannot get to them and hurt themselves or one another. Enter the pantrum. She was freaking out and demanding to be told the code. Now I know she is upset, but I absolutely cannot budge and I feel like she is freaking out over something that is, quite frankly, a ridiculous control issue. I said so, in a more sensitive way, but what are the repercussions if you don't tell them they are making a big deal out of nothing, then they continue to make unreasonable demands and throw fits when they don't get their way? Should I just say, "I understand that you are upset that I won't tell you the code, but I am doing that for our family's safety" and leave it at that....what would be a good response to then intense wailing that follows?

    I remember being extremely sensitive like my daughter when I was her age and my father threatening me with "if you don't stop that crying, I'll give you something to cry about" which I would NEVER do, and am still bitter about....so I totally want my children to express their emotions, but isn't it our job to help them manage them and not let their emotions control them? And if so, how?

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  15. Hi Anon
    That's great that you want to break the cycle and do things differently.
    First of all, I have to say, that coming from the UK it is hard to relate to your example about a firearms box as we don't tend to carry guns here. For me it feels like your daughter might need some honest explanations about what guns are and why you have them, but that might just be our cultural divide and perhaps for her this is totally normal and understood.
    Of course you have to set a boundary about this and many other parenting things and if your child becomes distressed as a result of your setting an important boundary, you need to stick to the boundary, whilst remaining sensitive to their feelings, and calmly explaining, in simple terms, why you cannot budge.
    It is possible to be deeply respectful of her upset without also budging!
    I also wonder whether you could be creative about it, perhaps she could have her own special box with a code to keep her favourite items in?
    I would personally suggest that if you feel that your daughter is having panic attacks rather than tantrums you need to seek professional advice.
    Of course, this is a blog, and I am responding to your comment as a fellow human rather that a professional, I need to be clear about THAT boundary!
    You might also like to repost your situation and question in a Facebook group such as Olive Branch (of which I am an admin) or Positive Parenting Toddlers and Beyond.
    Good luck to you and thanks for reading.
    x

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  16. This is great, thank you so much. It is also really useful to be able to read others' comments - reassuring that others are going through the same things with their children.

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  17. It's so nice to be bought back on track. I try to be a good parent but have days when i really struggle, especially with patience towards my children ( i have four ).
    I seem to get easily wound up and feel so stressed especially when they don't listen and deal with it by shouting. I hate it. I try not to but before i know it i'm there in the moment, shouting. It's awful and i want to stop the cycle but don't know how.
    Thankyou for these wise words though,refreshing to read.x

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  18. This is THE most amazing post! Thank you. :)

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  19. Thank you, I just learned a lot.. Such an eye opener!

    Noor

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  20. I love this, so true, valuable and something I aspire too, I so agree with all the points, for me it can be so easy to threaten with soft things, ie stop that or we wont do this etc... I just keep trying to think what if somone did that to me as an adult! I so agree with being in the present, my lo is a bundle of energy and can be very emotional sometimes, but cant we all and I know how id like someone to support me :-) thanks for such a great article xx

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  21. I have an adopted daughter, aged 3.5 years and am struggling after 11 weeks of parenting to model healthy ways of coping with anger. I've given her some tools (a drum, a soft heart to squeeze and throw... if I'm out of the room) but clearly, it's far more rewarding for her to let rip... and I just cannot stay present for that any longer as it's hurtful physically and emotionally. I'm not comfortable with my angry feelings (I've emotionally eaten for years, but am consciously choosing not to so I don't give her THAT awful habit) but after 11 weeks of holding it all in, I'm feeling like a pressure cooker. I want her to develop the tools to cope (and for me learn too!). I can tell she feels relaxed after letting rip but I don't want to teach her that yelling and saying hateful things are OK. I notice when she's looking/sounding angry and give her the options above - but sometimes she goes from 0-100 in seconds! I'm saying it's OK to be angry and it's important not to hurt ourselves or others when we're angry... but it all feels a bit 'theoretical' because I'm not showing her what I do. Help... what do others do when they're angry that is healthy and provides a useful model for a little girl who has seen more than her fair share of anger in her short life?!

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    1. Hello Anon
      If you only adopted your daughter 11 weeks ago it sounds like you are doing wonderfully well as you are both adjusting to the most enormous and emotionally charged change you will probably ever experience in either of your lives. I hope both you and her are getting lots of support. The right therapist or support worker can help your daughter express her anger safely, process her life story up til now, and work with you both to find tools to cope, bond and move forward together.
      It's quite possible that you feel like a pressure cooker because you have been being so strong for her and carrying many of her difficult feelings for her, as well as your own.
      I'm glad you find this post helpful and I also really feel that some help with this would be great. Can you PM me and tell me where you are in the world and I might be able to help you further or put you in touch with the right people if you are not already getting adequate support. mamamule@hotmail.co.uk
      From a general point of view I just think we all need to model to our children that we are human and that it is perfectly normal to feel anger, but that 'it's what you do with it that counts', and that we need to find healthy ways of expressing our feelings. If we do end up shouting or being rude to our children we can use this as a golden opportunity to model how to apologise!
      I wish you all the love and luck you need, the fact that you are reading this post and asking for help in such an articulate way assures me that you and your daughter will be fine. Please do get in touch with me if you would like to. Best wishes for now, Milli x

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  22. Hi Milli, thank you SO much for your kind and wise words. I've messaged you.

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  23. I read this article several times, and refer people to it several times. It is fantastic and inspiring. thank you so much for putting it into such clear language.

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