Your tricky parenting questions answered by a pro

This post is in partnership with and sponsored by Aptamil Toddler.

Parenthood is full of surprises. It’s messy, fun, unpredictable, chaotic, exciting, scary… let’s just say it’s a bit like riding a rollercoaster, right? I find many elements of parenting difficult but the aspect I find the most challenging is definitely self-doubt. Always wondering if I am doing the right thing. Could I have handled that tantrum in a better way? Am I supporting her emotional needs while still giving her boundaries? How on earth do I deal with him hitting me? And Why-oh-why won’t my child just listen to me? So much self-doubt. Lucky for you (and also me!) I sat down with leading parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson (PhD) to answer your most tricky parenting questions.

Let’s start with the big one, the one I think we all struggle with the most… how on earth do we handle tantrums? This is a tricky question to answer as our response as parents will be different depending on the child’s age. If they’re under two there really is no way you can reason with them, those little brains simply haven’t developed in that way yet.  Let’s start with the basics, what is a tantrum? Often, it’s how a child communicates with you, it’s how they tell you they want something.  A great checklist to ask yourself when your little one is upset is this; are they hungry, tired, bored or lonely? Are they wanting something from you? Your next step with a toddler is DISTRACTION. When they’re on the floor crying and you really have no idea why, pick them up, change the room and show them something else. I always find taking my bub outside or to a window works a treat. Never have the moving trees or the cars going past been more exciting! If this fails and there really is nothing else you can do, make sure they’re safe and just be there for them. Let them go through the emotions they need to, let them express themselves and be ready and waiting with a cuddle when they’ve calmed down.

With older children, say age three and up similar principles apply. Even at this age they’re still not able to understand their emotions or the difference between what might be the “wrong” or “right” thing to do. Asking yourself those same questions works for this age too. Are they tired? Hungry? Bored? Or are they really just craving attention while I’m trying to do four things at once? The three BIG mistake we make (and I am so guilty of ALL of these) is telling our child to calm down, use their words and behave. Anyone else putting their hand up for this one? I know I have frequently said all of these responses when my four-year-old is having a meltdown. When a child (or even an adult) is upset they’re wanting to release that emotion and tell you how they feel. I know even myself there are times when I feel so upset or angry that I’m not able to “use my words” and articulately express how I feel, so asking a four-year-old to do this is an unrealistic expectation. So, what’s up with telling them to calm down? Well firstly, we’re not usually very calm ourselves when saying this one. I know in the heat of the moment I’m usually saying it in a pretty frustrated, cranky state. If I’m not being calm when I’m telling my child to calm down, they’re definitely not going to be calm either, right? I tried to relate this one to myself and think how I’d feel if I was telling my partner I was upset about something and he yelled at me to CALM DOWN… it wouldn’t go down well!

“From a developmental perspective, children don’t actually learn how to regulate their emotions until they’re about eight or nine. Telling them to calm down is actually telling them to do something that developmentally they simply cannot do.” Dr Justin Coulson (PhD).

So just how can we navigate big emotions or tantrums with preschool aged children? Validation. Validate their feelings, talk them through, name the emotion. It’s the feelings that navigate the behaviour. Try sitting down with your little one and really recognise the emotion they’re feeling. You could say something like this “I can see you’re feeling really sad and frustrated; do you want to tell me about it?”. This way, instead of telling them to snap out of it or stop their emotions, you are acknowledging them and how they feel.

I don’t know about you, but I have definitely found this to be one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. My four (nearly five!) year old daughter sure does love a good debate, to the point that we all joke that she will be the captain of the debating team. I found discussing this topic with Dr Justin Coulson (PhD) really interesting and it put a lot of things into perspective for me. The key takeaway I had was around expectations. Are my expectations too high? And when I sat back and really thought about this, I decided they probably are. The other lightbulb moment I had was “does it really matter?”. For example, I’ll often debate what I think is a simple request with my daughter, like putting her shoes on to go out, for a good fifteen minutes. And the longer the debate goes on the more frustrated we both are. By asking myself the question “does it really matter, is this worth it?” allows me to take a minute and realise that in a lot of the cases, it actually doesn’t. In this example, we were going in the car, does she really need her shoes on to sit in the car? No, so it is not worth the debate in that moment. But what do you do if once you get out of the car and still no luck with getting those darn shoes on? Talk your little one through the options, ask them what they think might happen if they have no shoes on. Could they cut their foot? Might they step in something yucky or maybe they’ll get a splinter. Often by this point they’ll be able to see that they don’t want those things to happen and they’ll concede to putting those shoes on!

Another great approach is to give your child options. Children thrive on a sense that they’re in control of their lives… who doesn’t love being in charge? Empower them to make their own decisions. Instead of asking them to put their shoes on you could rephrase that question to something like “would you like to wear the pink or the green shoes today? You decide and pop them on”. I know in my experience this is a big winner in our house.

Every family is different and what works for one child might not work for another, but Dr Justin Coulson (PhD) believes that we really should not be using punishment to discipline children. All of the best research shows that punishment is actually really inefficient at teaching children the best ways to act. They might behave in the right way around us next time, but it isn’t because they have changed, it’s because they are scared of the punishment, whether that’s their favourite toy being taken away or no screen time. Discipline should be about teaching your little one how they can do better and why. You want your child to behave in a certain way because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re scared. So, what can you do? Firstly, let them (and you!) calm down. When everyone is feeling angry and stressed no one is able to rationally talk through what has happened. Once the situation is calm it’s a great time to ask if they’d like to talk about what happened. Together, explore what happened and why it happened and chat about what could be done differently next time. But what about timeout I hear you say (me too!)? Sometimes timeout is needed as a way for everyone to take a breather and calm down. Then you can chat.

Let’s be honest here; parenting is HARD and we’re often just trying our best to work it out along the way. I hope these insights from parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson (PhD) have given you a few more little tips and tricks to make family life run a tad smoother.

For more information and resources on parenting and building resilience in children, check out Parent’s Corner on the AptaNutrition website.

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