At it’s best, parenting can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling jobs in the world. When children get dressed happily in the morning, express gratitude for their dinner, or get on with their homework without a fuss, parents can feel on cloud nine. Too often though children’s demanding, fussy, and oppositional behaviour can lead to arguments, tears and shouting on both sides.
It goes without saying that a calm, consistent approach where clear expectations regarding behaviour are communicated, and where encouragement is provided, works best. However, this can often be easier said than done. Whilst this work is in progress, don’t forget these other valuable strategies for promoting positive behaviour in your child:
Connect with your Child
The word ‘connect’ has become a catch cry in recent years. More and more research evidence points to the importance of feeling connected with others and associated behavioural and emotional wellbeing (Eime,Young, Harvey, Charity, & Payne, 2013; Seppala, Rossomando, & Doty, 2013; Whitlock, Wyman, & Moore, 2014).
Life, for many families, consists of the daily juggle to get out the door on time, get kids to and from activities/sports, and navigate homework demands whilst simultaneously providing balanced, healthy meals. Under this pressure, it’s easy to fall into the habit of simply getting through the day. However, finding time to truly connect with your child can be wonderfully rewarding for you both and can help to strengthen the parent-child bond.
Driving your child to activities, helping them with homework, or standing on the sidelines at sport are all important elements of being a supportive, involved parent. However, remembering to go that little bit extra can do wonders for a parent-child relationship. Setting aside some one-to-one time to connect, away from other family members, can be enormously bonding.
- For preschool children, simply sitting down at their level and observing out loud what they are doing is a great way for you both to connect. It’s as simple as providing a running commentary about what they are doing. For example,“you are putting the blue block on top of the yellow one. Now you are making the tower taller by putting a green block on”. It may seem simplistic but most children will enjoy your presence, feel noticed and will respond positively to this interaction.
- For primary school aged children, connecting can be as simple as playing a game of UNO, kicking a ball, or making paper planes together. It could also include cooking together, going for a bike ride, or even going away overnight.
- As children become teenagers, they show increasingly greater interest in their peers and it’s easy for parents to feel that their opinions no longer matter. This change in parent-child relationship dynamics is not a negative sign, but a developmental progression and research show that adolescents continue to value their parents’ views over their peers, particularly when making serious decisions (Ackard, Neumark-Sztainer, Story & Perry, 2006; Brown & Bakken, 2011).
Here are some suggestions on connecting with your child:
- Step 1: Decide on something you might both enjoy. Where children are old enough, agreeing on a plan is a great start.
- Step 2: Put your phone/iPad/computer away. This demonstrates to your child that she/he is your number one priority. It also helps you to be mentally present.
- Step 3: Make sure you join in with whatever activity you both choose (i.e., if you choose swimming, you ideally need to be prepared to get in the pool).
- Step 4: Try to avoid too much ‘instruction-giving’ and do not use this one-to-one time as a chance to lecture about behaviour or past misdemeanours.
The only goal is to have fun together and to finish the activity on a positive note. It’s better to be brief but successful than go on for too long and end in an argument. Give it a try. You might be surprised by how much you learn about your child and how much fun you both have together!
Model How to Behave in Times of Stress
As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Whilst you instil in them a rich factual knowledge of the world, it’s easy to forget how much they learn from watching you. Children are astute observers of behaviour and learn much about emotional expression and self-regulation by keenly observing your behaviour (Gerull & Rapee, 2002, Chambers, Craig & Bennett, 2002). We are often unaware of just how much they take in until we hear our children parrot something they have heard us say to them.
When we shout at children, lose our temper in frustration, or perhaps smack them, we are teaching them that this is the way to behave in times of frustration. Don’t be surprised if you then witness your child engage in similar behaviours. Similarly, if you have a tendency to become anxious or panicked in certain situations, don’t be too surprised if you start to see signs of anxiety in your child (Fisak & Grills-Taquechel, 2007).
By spending a few moments reflecting on your behaviour during times of intense stress (e.g. getting out the door in the mornings), you can take steps to try to regulate your own emotions. Often, the first step is to identify trigger points when you are likely to lose your cool. Don’t be afraid to change the family routine to find a better approach. You can include the children in finding alternative solutions. In doing so, you are demonstrating the skills of problem-solving for your child. Where frustration takes over, try to calm yourself by taking deep breaths or taking a few minutes away from your child to regain your self-control.
This is so much easier said than done, but where you are able to remain calm you are effectively modelling an adaptive way of coping in times of frustration. Don’t be afraid to seek support if you feel that your own anger, worries, or mood are negatively impacting on your parenting style.
As parents, we’ve heard the phrase ‘look after yourself’ on many occasions but the evidence is really there. Children of depressed and/or anxious parents or those living in an environment of constant conflict are more likely to experience emotional difficulties (Elgar, Mills, McGrath, Waschbusch & Brownridge, 2007; Kahn, Brandt & Whittaker, 2004). Find ways to gain social support from those around you or seek help from an experienced Psychologist at Quirky Kid or other qualified psychologists via www.psychology.org.au.
Be Emotionally Responsive
Emotional responsiveness is sometimes referred to as emotion coaching and involves empathically responding to another’s emotions. Put simply, it means giving a name to the emotion that you are seeing in your child. There is evidence to suggest that by labelling emotions, parents help to increase their child’s emotional language skills and, that by accepting and addressing negative feelings in children, parents can promote emotional regulation skills (Gottman, Katz & Hoover, 1997; Whittingham, 2015)
If your child is crying about homework, for example, you might say
“I can see that having to do this homework is upsetting/annoying you”, or “it’s really frustrating when you have to stop playing and and do homework, isn’t it?”.
It is as simple as putting yourself in your child’s shoes and seeing problems from their perspective. It is essential to avoid immediately suggesting solutions to the problem, and to avoid using phrases, such as,
“if you had done it when I told you to do it, you wouldn’t be feeling this way”.
Instead, continue to calmly report back to your child how you think they might be feeling.
As most parents will attest, getting annoyed with your child at such times or telling them to “just get on with it” simply fuels the fire, and everyone can end up angry and upset. By expressing empathy and putting yourself in your child’s shoes, you are helping your child to feel understood and you are promoting positive communication skills in your child. Often children express how they feel through their behavioural outbursts, but ideally, we want them to learn to express their feelings verbally. An emotionally responsive approach can often defuse the situation and help your child feel understood. Sometimes this simple technique is enough to calm the situation. It can also provide a springboard for helping your child to find a more appropriate solution to the problem.
Setting high standards for behaviour can be very beneficial for children. In doing so, however, it is vital to be accommodating of the fact that all children make mistakes and errors of judgement. Making mistakes is part of human nature, and it is one of the myriad of ways in which people learn. As parents, our instinct is to protect or prevent our children from making mistakes, or to be disappointed by some of our children’s mistakes when they occur.
There is concern among researchers that perfectionism in children is increasing (Marano, 2008). Perfectionism is characterised by a fear of making mistakes. Such fear can lead to rigidity of behaviour that stifles creativity and playfulness and can lead to excessive anxiety and avoidance. Marano (2008, p.82) surmises that part of the reason that perfectionism in children is becoming more of an issue is that some parents ‘seek much of their status from the performance of their kids and, as a result, are placing much more pressure on children to achieve than previously’.
As parents, it is important to embrace children’s mistakes, ask the child to reflect on where they went wrong, and then help the child to learn from that experience. Sometimes children are unaware that they have even done anything wrong. In such cases, it is often appropriate to explain the error and together think about how to behave differently next time. The point at which a firmer stance needs to be taken is where the child puts themselves or someone else in danger, or is engaging in a behaviour that may not have an immediate or logical consequence (e.g. bullying).
It helps if parents too can acknowledge their own mistakes (where appropriate) and take responsibility for them, model a calm approach, and verbalise how they will learn from that experience. For example,
“I got up too late this morning and I had to rush everyone out of the door. I apologise for getting angry, and tomorrow I will try not to make that mistake again by getting up earlier”.
Where children repeatedly make the same mistake, it’s important to consider why that is happening. From there, try to find ways to help them learn more appropriate behaviour effectively.
Engage in Positive Self-Talk
Self-talk is the internal voice in your head and, as parents, we have a constant and busy internal dialogue. Much of our self-talk is not done consciously, but from time to time we notice it when we are are trying to motivate ourselves, or perhaps when we are angry about something. Self-talk can be helpful or unhelpful, and it can have a significant impact on how people view themselves and how they cope in challenging situations. Children learn a lot of their self-talk from others around them. If children hear parents say negative things, such as “I’m hopeless at maths so I can’t help you with your homework’, they too can start to self-talk in similar ways. As parents, we need to model positive self-talk, for example,
“I had a really big project at work today. It was hard but I learned a lot from doing it” or “this lego model was hard, but we managed to do such a good job together. It reminds me that we are such good problem solvers!”.
If, as parents, we show our children that we believe in ourselves, then they too will start to behave in similar ways.
Ackard, D., Neumark-Szatainer., Story, M and Perry, C. (2006). Parent-child connectedness and behavioural and emotional health among adolescents. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 30(1), 59-66. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.09.013
Brown, B. B. and Bakken, J. P. (2011). Parenting and Peer Relationships: Reinvigorating Research on Family–Peer Linkages in Adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21:153–165. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00720.x
Chambers, C., Craig, K.D. and Bennett, S.M. (2002). The Impact of Maternal Behavior on Children’s Pain Experiences: An Experimental Analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 27(3), 293–301. doi:10.1093/jpepsy/27.3.293
Elgar, F. J., Mills, R. S., McGrath, P. J., Waschbusch, D. A., & Brownridge, D. A. (2007). Maternal and paternal depressive symptoms and child maladjustment: The mediating role of parental behavior. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 35(6), 943-955. doi: 10.1007/s10802-007-9145-0
Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., & Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10(1), 98. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-10-98
Fisak, B., & Grills-Taquechel, A. E. (2007). Parental modeling, reinforcement, and information transfer: risk factors in the development of child anxiety? Clinical child and family psychology review, 10(3), 213-231. doi: 10.1007/s10567-007-0020-x
Gerull, F. C., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). Mother knows best: effects of maternal modelling on the acquisition of fear and avoidance behaviour in toddlers. Behaviour research and therapy, 40(3), 279-287. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7967(01)00013-4
Marano, H. (2008). The making of a perfectionist. Psychology Today, 41(2), 80-87. Retrieved from: http://www.flowjunkie.com/PitfallsOfPerfectionism.pdf
Seppala, E., Rossomando, T., & Doty, J. (2013). Social Connection and Compassion: Important Predictors of Health and Well-Being. Social Research, 80(2), 411-430. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24385608
Whitlock, J., Wyman, P. A. and Moore, S. R. (2014). Connectedness and Suicide Prevention in Adolescents: Pathways and Implications. Suicide Life Threat Behaviour, 44: 246–272. doi:10.1111/sltb.12071
Whittingham, K. (2015). Connect and shape: A parenting meta-strategy. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4, 103-106. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2015.03.002.
For some families, dinner time can be the most challenging time of the day, kids and adults are exhausted and just need some space to relax. Dinnertime can quickly spiral out of control, deteriorating towards a full-on disaster zone. Navigating the ‘terrible twos’ at dinnertime can be emotionally challenging and downright exhausting.
Let’s set the scene – you and your little one have had a fabulous day at the park, you’re on top of the household chores, and you’ve just booked the next visit to the grandparents. You head home to start the evening routine, and dinner is next on the agenda.
Tonight’s menu is deliciously grilled chicken pieces, steamed broccoli, carrot sticks, and sweet potato mash. You serve your little one your ‘MasterChef’ quality meal and…cue whining, food smearing, flying carrot sticks, and ultimately tears, most likely from both of you. If you’re lucky, your little one will spend the meal smearing mash over their face, body and high chair while dropping carrot sticks on the cat. However, if your little one enjoys a tantrum or two, the mere sight of a vegetable will bring on an emotional outburst similar to a tropical thunderstorm.
The following recommendations have been revised from a previous Quirky Kid Fussy Eaters article and updated to support you through this tricky age and stage.
Managing Your Emotions
Sometimes it can be really hard to manage your own emotional responses when your child is demonstrating an escalation in their behaviour. Consider these tips for Parental Self-Regulation:
- As hard as it sounds, try to remain calm – when you feel your emotional responses begin (anger, frustration, resentment), remind yourself to breathe, long, slow, deep breaths.
- Remind yourself ‘It’s only a phase, this is normal behaviour, this is my little one testing the boundaries, the behaviour is their means of communication at this age’.
- As a parent, modelling calm behaviour, as well as being willing to accept your child’s emotional responses, will in the long run support your child’s emotional regulation (Ramsden & Hubbard, 2002).
Understanding and Responding to Behaviour
When your child’s behaviour is beginning to escalate, as long as they are not in any immediate danger, it is important to evaluate their behaviour before you respond:
- Ask yourself ‘What is my child’s behaviour trying to tell me?”
- are they trying to avoid a food due to its taste?
- are they trying to avoid a food due to its smell, texture and/or visual aversion?
- are they already full because of late snacks at daycare?
- are they seeking my attention because I am busy cooking?
- can they see their favourite toy, which is just out of reach?
- When you take a moment to try and understand what your child is trying to ‘say’ with their behaviour, then – and only when your child is calm – can you model an appropriate replacement behaviour, e.g. ‘Mummy, more chips please’ or ‘Finished, Mum’.
Positive Behaviour Strategies
Ongoing negative behaviour at dinnertime can be really challenging for everyone, so alongside the tips and strategies above, the following positive behaviour management strategies may be beneficial to support calmer, happier, more productive dinner times:
- Tantrums may be unpleasant and noisy but they are also a great opportunity for parents to demonstrate to their child how to regulate their emotions. Parents can show their child that they are providing loving support within appropriate boundaries. Providing ‘loving, sensitive guiding, and firm’ practices, as opposed to overly firm or overly flexible practices, supports your child’s emotional development (Coyne & Murrell, 2009).
- Consistency is the key – always follow through with the contingency you have set up beforehand. You set your child up for success when you explain your expectations clearly before the meal, such as ‘‘Let’s explore lettuce and cauliflower tonight”. Then provide a contingency and/or choices based on whether your expectations have been met: “After we explore the new foods, you can have your sweet potato mash” (the most preferred item on offer), or “Do you want yoghurt or strawberries after we explore the new foods?” Present the new items alongside foods your child enjoys, withholding the most highly preferred food as reinforcement for meeting your expectations. Reinforcing appropriate behaviour will increase the likelihood that this behaviour will be demonstrated again in the future (Whittingham, 2015).
- Ensure the focus of the meal is about curiosity to try new foods, with achievement measured in small steps, rather than expecting your child to finish a portion of less preferred foods in one sitting. Shaping your child’s food preferences means that you are providing reinforcement based on successful target behaviour and repeated exposure to new and interesting foods (Whittingham, 2015).
- Trying new foods may include talking about the colour, the shape, the texture, what it does to fuel your body, how it feels, how it smells and lastly how it tastes. Encourage a pathway of touch, smell, lick, bite and allow the child to work their way along the pathway at their own pace. Repeated exposure to non-preferred foods in a non-punitive way will support increased likelihood of the child’s willingness to try the foods in the future (Wardle, et al., 2003).
- Remember, your child’s energy intake and hunger may not be aligned with ‘mealtimes’ just yet and so it is important to meet their needs with healthy snacks and food choices across the day (Allen & Myers, 2006).
Prevention and Planning Strategies
It is important to set your child up early with healthy eating behaviours, to provide ongoing information about food and health, and to provide opportunities to explore new foods and textures. Outside of mealtimes, the following tips can be helpful in supporting a child’s positive eating behaviour:
- Depending on your child’s age, incorporate foods into other learning concepts, such as using foods to teach shapes, colours and textures.
- You can incorporate different vegetables and foods in art and craft play, and use this as a time to talk about the foods’ nutritional value.
- Make sure you keep healthy foods accessible to your child – you can keep pre-cut vegetables in the fridge or on the table. When children are hungry, they may be inclined to eat the foods that they wouldn’t normally choose.
- Pair non-preferred foods with highly preferred foods, such as salad dressing or sauce for dipping, this will help your child tolerate new tastes and textures and the sauce can be faded out slowly.
- Encourage your child to participate in the grocery shopping. Let them choose new fruits and vegetables based on fun colours and textures and involve them in meal preparations. Giving your child some choice over their food (within limits) will support them to become more willing to eat the meals you have prepared.
While the information above is intended to support difficult eating behaviours in children at the toddler stage, it is important to note that some children experience more complex negative eating behaviours. In cases of severe food avoidance or associated conditions, families may benefit from individualised consultations. For a child who demonstrates severe food refusal and/or avoidance of particular tastes and textures, a consultation with both a Psychologist and a Nutritionist may be a consideration. Please contact us to schedule an appointment.
- Allen, R.E., & Myers, A.L. (2006). Nutrition in toddlers. Am Fam Physician, 74.9, 1527-1532.
- Coyne, L., & Murrell, A. (2009). The Joy of Parenting: An acceptance and commitment therapy guide to effective parenting in the early years. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA
- Ramsden, S. R., & Hubbard, J. A. (2002). Family expressiveness and parental emotion coaching: Their role in children’s emotion regulation and aggression. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(6), 657-667.
- Wardle, J., Herrara M.L., Cooke, L. & Gibson, E.L. (2003). Modifying children’s food preferences: The effects of exposure and reward on acceptance of an unfamiliar vegetable. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57, 341–348.
- Whittingham, K. (2015). Connect and shape: A parenting meta-strategy. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(2), 103-106.
We have another Podcast to share with you. Dr Kimberley O’Brien discusses the psychological effects of technology with Radio Adelaide’s Ronan Banks.
Quirky Kid has produced a range of creative and engaging Therapeutic Tools.
[00:00:00 – 00:01:16] Kids nowadays are more exposed to lots of screen time and parents are using this technology to effortlessly help in getting kids preoccupied, however this can result into massive meltdowns.
Reporter: What do you think about the modern day relationship between children and technology?
Dr. Kimberley: I often see kids using – well not often – but like, it’s becoming more regular that you see kids even as young as 2 using like, iPads, either in restaurants or while their mum’s are waiting in line, you know, in the waiting room at our clinics as well.
Kids are getting exposed more and more to screen time obviously and parents are using it as a way to keep the kids preoccupied. And, I think that’s great, except that there are usually some massive meltdowns involved – that I’m sure parents can relate to. As soon as they need to like pack up and go, and take the iPad away, these meltdowns are worse than your average tantrums. Because there is quite an addiction involved, you know, when it comes to the bright light, then in the middle of the game where you have to go through those stages to get to the next level again. So I think for parents, the tantrums can be more stressful because they last longer and are a whole lot louder. My advice would be try to avoid giving screens to kids under the age 5 because we can easily keep them entertained if we give them a book, and then you don’t have the meltdowns afterwards. Or even just a fiddle toy would do. There’re so many other options to avoid screen time that you can also carry in your handbag.
[00:01:17-00:02:37] This technology is damaging to the cognitive and social development of these kids thus giving them limited interest to interact with other kids or adults.
Reporter: In terms of long-term development, is it detrimental to their cognitive and social development?
Dr. Kimberley: I think so. What I see, even in 15 years olds who have been doing a lot of gaming for long periods of time, is that they have really narrow group of friends with narrow interests. So they might have one close friend that they do lots of “gaming” with on the weekends (I’m probably not using the right lingo).
But, if it doesn’t have a screen and they have to go or something, like if it’s someone’s birthday, then it’s just so hard for them to be there. It just feels more boring than it would have if they didn’t have such narrow interests because their social skills have been depleted and they haven’t been practicing on weekends, or having more conversations with people of different ages about different topics, because of their narrow interests.
So we do see fifteen year-olds to want to broaden their interests, but that can be quite a challenge because they have to actually do stuff that they don’t enjoy to start with, the enjoyment will grow when they develop new network of friends and they get more physically be able to run, jump or climb, so that can get back to a normal balanced lifestyle.
[00:02:38 – 00:04:18] Kids these days have serious addiction to technology and it is making them more aggressive.
Reporter: So you think that addiction to technology is real and it’s happening at the moment?
Dr. Kimberley: Yeah, definitely.
I saw a really good documentary but I wasn’t able to find it since I watched it. It was based on a Chinese rehab program for adolescent boys that have screen addictions. These are boys that have been gaming all through the night, have dropped out of school and have been spending like, 22 hours a day on screen. Some of them doing things like peeing in a bucket, wearing adult nappies so they didn’t have to come away from the screen. They serious wanting to be the best in world at whatever they were doing.
In that documentary they were in full withdrawal when they have no access to a screen, and two of them in that period of time, like in that one month program, they broke out and they went straight to an internet cafe and started playing, trying to catch up after being away from it so long.
Yes I do see it as a serious addiction. You want to watch it, because they’re some really lovely kids that we worked with in that middle range, from 10-12 years old. Just lovely kids that are well educated. They have supportive families, but are becoming more aggressive, throwing huge rocks through the sliding glass doors trying to get back inside once mum gives up because of too much screen time on a Saturday morning. Or breaking into a filing cabinet trying to get the laptop, fully busting the lock, doing damage.
[00:04:19 – 00:04:27] Kids who have attachment to technology are showing aggressive behaviours thus causing damage.
Reporter: In terms of behavioural issues, there is obviously the attachment to technology but you are saying there’s aggression as well?
Dr. Kimberley: Yes definitely.
[00:04:28 – 00:05:06] Technology is not the main cause of decreasing attention span of children, there are also other factors to consider.
Reporter: I’ve read a study that the attention spans of children are decreasing because of technology. Do you find that this is true?
Dr. Kimberley: It could be hard to pinpoint that as a cause and effect because there are just kids with short attention spans, with or without technology. But I think teachers are using more technology in the classroom and then, I suppose when they turn the screens off, they have to be, you know – I mean it’s great to watch a YouTube video of something and then to have the teacher try explain every word, but it doesn’t have such an impact. I imagine the kids would become more accustomed to seeing things move and hearing different voices and different scenes. It’s hard to compete with.
[00:05:07 – 00:05:50] There are pros and cons in using technology in teaching. There are games that are educational that can help kids with spelling, reading, and mathematics.
Reporter: Do you think that technology should be used in school for children in reception like iPads and that kind of thing?
Dr. Kimberley: I know some school mums are sometimes annoyed at teachers that are giving little girls, like kindergarten/year 1/year 2, a lot of time on screens because that is something that they have tried to win as off time and only use it on weekends or something like that. And when they drop in to do reading at school and some kids spend the whole hour on screen and they feel that is not teaching. So, I think you get mixed reactions. Or the kids might love doing those educational games there are really some good ones out there that can really help children with spelling words, reading, mathematics. So there are pros and cons.
[00:05:51 – 00:06:30] Technology is beneficial for children but you have to managed the use of it.
Reporter: So do you think overall the increase use in technology is beneficial to children or detrimental?
Dr. Kimberley: If it’s managed, then beneficial, totally. I think it’s a great reward for kids to get all their homework done, and then have some time to do something they really enjoy. And to use it as a reward and use it in limited periods of time so that they don’t develop that addiction. I think they get used to logging off after 5 t0 10 minutes – it not such a big drama, but if it’s been 4 to 5 hours, thats a whole waste of the weekend I think. And it’s not the right parenting in my opinion.
Reporter: Yes, fair enough.
[00:06:31 – 00:06:57] Children in general should only be allowed to have screen time for 1 hour every day.
Reporter: One last question – so how long should children in general be spending on screen everyday?
Dr. Kimberley: Research says maximum of 2 hours but for me that feels like high school age when they have laptops and homework to do online and things like that. So I think two hours for those kids who have to do homework online. But for other ones, maybe two hours on weekends and one hour every day.