Time Out….For Parents

Posted by Samantha on May 10, 2012 in Anger, Communication, Connection, Empathy, Relationships, Self-care

Here’s a story from a Mum I was working with this week.

This Mum’s attention was attracted by the sound of her 10 month old daughter crying.  She followed the sound and discovered her two daughters in the bathroom.  The baby’s head and shoulders were covered in talcum powder.  Her four year old daughter was holding the talc.

Mum was immediately furious.  She was so furious in fact that she found herself wanting to smack her older daughter.  However, we’d been talking about using Time Out….To Calm Down – for parents rather than children – a few days previously.  So, she reminded herself of the basics and decided to give it a try, rather than giving vent to her fury.

She picked the baby up off the floor and set about cleaning the talc off her.  Once that was done, she took a little more time to calm herself down further.  When she was feeling reasonably calm again she went to talk to her older girl.

She was able to tell the little girl how dangerous what she had done was, how it could have hurt the baby and how it had frightened her.  Her little girl listened and then burst into tears.  Her heart was in her tummy she said.

Now Mum was really connected with her daughter and was feeling more loving towards her.  But still she was confused about why she had done what she did.  And so she asked her crying 4 year old: “Why did you put talc all over the baby, sweetheart?”

“Because I wanted to make her soft”, came the teary reply.


How different this might have been if Mum had gone in all guns blazing.  Assuming the worst of her daughter she might have punished and raged, damaging their relationship, creating resentment and pain.

Instead she took time to connect with herself and calm down.  Then she connected with her daughter.

What she learned from that was priceless.  Her older daughter had not been trying to hurt the baby.

My experience is that young children rarely have the negative or manipulative intentions we attribute to them.  They are still “soft”.  We can deal with them softly.



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Rules and relationships

Posted by Samantha on Apr 4, 2012 in Relationships, Respect, Rules, Thought for the day

Rules before Relationship = Resentment & Rebellion

Relationship before Rules = Respect


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“He did it deliberately!” Dealing with sibling woes

Posted by Samantha on Mar 21, 2012 in Connection, Empathy

Is he doing it deliberately?

Here’s a story from yesterday.  It’s post-school and pre-dinner.  Never the greatest time of day for my two hungry children!

I’m preparing our meal in the kitchen and the next thing I know there’s a 5 year old year old girl standing wailing at me.  It seems her 7 year old brother has knocked over the Hama bead creation she’s been working on, there are Hama beads everywhere (tiny little plastic beads for those of you who don’t know – very tedious to pick up!), the culprit has refused to help pick them up, and has now disappeared apparently unrepentant.

So it’s all pretty average stuff!  In a fraction of a second I remind myself that I don’t need to solve anything.  What’s called for is empathy.  I know how to do that!  Hurray.

“He’s knocked over my beads”, she wails.  “Oh no”, I say.  “That’s pretty upsetting.”

“They’re all over the place and he won’t help pick them up when I ask”, she continues.  “Oh dear, that would really upset me too.” I reply.

“What do you need now?  Can I help you pick up your beads?”  “Yes, please”, she snivels.

We go into the sitting-room and start picking up beads and I start to hear more of the story, accompanied by even more sobs and some anger.

“He did it deliberately.  He thumped on the table like this.”

Here’s where it gets tricky for me.  Now I have two voices in my head.  One goes “I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate.”

This is the voice that wants to defend my son and help my daughter understand that her interpretation of malign motives may not be accurate.

Thankfully, yesterday there was another voice.  One that said, “You think he did it deliberately.”

She replied more emphatically “He DID do it deliberately.”  So I shrugged away the reluctance to malign my son and matched her emotion with my own more emphatic “You’re SURE he did it deliberately.”

And that was it!

Tears dried up.  Happiness resumed.  I returned to the kitchen.  (There actually hadn’t been that many beads knocked over at all.)

“Wow.  This empathy stuff really works”, I marvelled to myself.

Thinking about it afterwards I noticed that I often still go with the first voice.  I don’t intend to harm my daughter by speaking from this voice.  My intention is to help.  But it’s fundamentally unhelpful to speak from this voice because it is dismissing and denying my daughter’s reality.

It makes her feel “wrong” as well as wronged – by her brother and then on top of that, by me.  And that damages our connection.  And I really don’t want that.  So empathy for her in these moments also meets my need for connection with her!  How neat is that?

I feel really grateful that yesterday I somehow managed to stick with empathy.


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Help! My kids won’t let me go out…

Posted by Samantha on Mar 10, 2012 in Babysitters, Empathy

I remember when my husband finally noticed the pattern between our children’s response to being left with a babysitter and HIS behaviour earlier in the day!

If he’d had a great day hanging out with them and generally been attentive to them then they bid us good-bye with kisses and waves and proclamations of love all round.

If during the day he’d been too busy for them or easily irritated by them, then it wasn’t such smooth sailing when we left for the evening.

I’d like to claim that I’d twigged it too.  But I hadn’t.

Somehow I instinctively knew that if I wanted to go out at night / get the kids to bed 20 minutes earlier / take the day off to hang out with a friend, then I needed to up the connection time with the kids beforehand.

Daddy hadn’t figured this out.  And I hadn’t figured out that he hadn’t figured it out.

Probably just as well really as I do quite enough telling him how to parent as it is.

The bottom line is that parents do not need an entertainment license from their children.  You do not need your child’s permission or agreement to go out for the evening.

That said it can be upsetting for parents if children get distressed when they leave to go out.

What is called for in these situations is a loving but firm approach and plenty of empathy for the child.  We can understand and sympathise with a child’s desire to be with their parents.  We do not need to either condemn their fears or comply with them.  We can find the strength to follow through with our plans like an adult.  It doesn’t help a child to plead with them not to be upset.

Instead we can say something like “I know you’d rather be with us than the babysitter.  You prefer when we’re at home.  Sometimes you get scared when we’re out.  But Mommy and Daddy are going out tonight to see friends / have dinner / spend some time together and we’ll be back later.

No matter what our child’s exact objections are, we can reply “I know you wish I could stay with you, but this is my time to go out”.

The ‘broken record’ technique is useful in these instances.  Repeat yourself as many times as you are happy to, and then leave.

It is not in your child’s long-term interests to have a veto over whether you go out or stay home.

As an addendum to all that however, it is worth noting that you need to be really honest with yourself about whether your child has a reasonable point and you might consider reducing the number of nights they spend with the babysitter.

Good luck!


ps – I am indebted to the late great Dr Hain G. Ginott for the concept of the “entertainment license”.


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How to handle biting

Posted by Samantha on Feb 22, 2012 in Biting, Telling the truth

There’s no doubt about it, the article on biting on the Supernanny website is very good (you’ll also find a link to the article at the end of this one).  In fact, it’s excellent in terms of explaining why biting might occur.  It’s also good (but not excellent in my opinion) for suggestions on how to deal with biting.   And like so many really great articles on parenting, it’s got that all important ingredient: empathy for the parent reading it.

In my opinion, what’s missing from the article on biting, is the suggestion to extend the empathy which is offered so freely to parents, to the children who the parents are seeking to help.

In a biting situation empathy might sound like this:

“I can see and I really understand that you were so frustrated / overwhelmed / scared / excited that you bit.  But biting hurts and it’s not ok.”

The key is that the empathy MUST come BEFORE the education.  I can still fall into the trap of trying to educate before I empathise.  But children are far more likely to LISTEN if they feel LISTENED TO.  This is how people work!

It will be easier to handle a biting situation if you focus on your child and not on the disapproving parents.  The child who has been bitten can be comforted by their parent rather than you.

Incidentally, the comfort a parent offers a child who has been bitten is essentially empathy by another name.  Most adults tend to offer empathy quite naturally in a situation like this where they think that a child has been “wronged”.

When dealing with biting the emphasis is better placed on empathy for both children, followed by appropriate education about what each has done “wrong” (personally I much prefer the language of “not OK” rather than “wrong” because it’s gentler).

Education ought to extend to the child who was bitten too.  What were they doing before they were bitten?  Perhaps they need to hear that pestering / teasing / being too close to another child is not OK.

The Supernanny article mentions that from a parents’ perspective, one of the worst things about having a biter is the shame you feel about it.

It is intensely difficult to deal effectively with a situation when other parents are over-reacting and throwing some heavy disapproval your way.  And on top of that, there is usually a lack of acknowledgment that your child may have been pushed into biting, by the bitten child’s anti-social behaviour.  That may cause some feelings of injustice to be thrown into the mix along with the shame.

All in all there’s a heady mix of emotion flying around in a situation like this!

I would like to encourage parents to be truly authentic in this situation and to speak up for themselves and their child.  I believe that in a biting situation it is still ok – in fact I would go so far as to say that it is essential – to be on your child’s side.  Yes, your child has bitten someone and you hope it won’t happen again.  It does not mean that your child is naughty or that you are a bad parent.

How about finding the courage to say that that you are not finding the disapproval remotely helpful?

How about pointing out (as non-accusingly and non-defensively as you can manage!) that there was a reason why your child bit and although you know biting is not ok, you understand why it has happened (e.g. he was being teased) and you’d appreciate a bit of compassion for you and your child in this situation?

If you’ve not been present when the biting occurred, how about asking what the nursery / school is doing to handle the behaviour of the child who provoked / prompted your child to bite them?

It isn’t easy to speak up for ourselves in this way if we’ve not been in the habit of doing so.  In fact, we may be unable to imagine ourselves saying anything remotely like this – yet.

But I believe that this kind of response in a biting situation is reasonable, and adult, and authentic.

I am sure that it will be helpful for our children and for ourselves if we can find our courage and our voices and speak up for what is right and true: that all parents and children deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.

Click here to read the Supernanny article on biting.


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When we think we’re bad parents…

Posted by Samantha on Feb 20, 2012 in Hope, Mistakes

A couple of weeks ago a mother of 3 teenage children was sharing with me how she had noticed that whenever she started being down on her kids, she would usually discover that behind all that impatience and irritation with the children, she was actually being down on herself.
Her insight reminded me of a blog I wrote a while back about how lovely it would be to think our children were wonderful despite all the mistakes they inevitably make.
My daughter knocked over and broke a lamp on the weekend. My husband was instantly cross. After we’d dealt with the broken glass and everything was back to normal, my husband was able to recognise that he’d actually been cross with himself first and foremost. This was because he knew the lamp was in a precarious condition and he blamed himself for leaving it somewhere that our very bouncy five year old might inadvertently knock it over. Of course, blaming himself for being a bad father felt so awful that, completely unconsciously I must add, he projected that uncomfortable feeling onto our daughter and blamed her for breaking the lamp instead.
I continued playing this game for the rest of the weekend and I’ve found that WITHOUT FAIL when I get cross with the children, there are actually one or other of two simple things really going on:
a) I’m actually cross with myself for not being a “better” mother (because obviously if I was a better mother then my children wouldn’t be doing / not doing whatever it is I’m cross about)
b) I’m worried that SOMEBODY ELSE will think I’m not a good mother (because if I was a good enough mother then my children wouldn’t be doing / not doing whatever it is I’m cross about).
Here’s another example. My daughter wouldn’t put on a hat and scarf when we went for a walk yesterday, despite her headcold and my requests. Somewhere deep inside me I started thinking that I must be a bad mother or she would put on the hat and scarf when I ask her to and explain why it’s important. But what I’m aware of on the surface is my rising irritation with HER! Either I’m to blame for this or she is. The unconscious idea that I’m to blame for this is just too uncomfortable for me, so I decide my daughter must be to blame instead.  Now I’m irritated.  This “shouldn’t” be happening.
What if I could have got out of the “blame” paradigm and just let go of my need to control what she wears?  Ok, so I’d have liked her to wear a hat and scarf. She didn’t want to. Was it really that important?

Actually, in the end my daughter DID wear the hat and scarf because I gave her a choice to either wear the hat and scarf or go back to the car with me while the others continued on the walk. But as I looked back on the situation, I could see that I stuck to my boundary but I didn’t do it as lovingly as I would have liked, because the blame was getting in the way.
Incidentally, there was a study done in Japan recently where one group of children wore the clothes their parents chose for them all winter long and a second group was free to wear what they liked all winter. This second group wore way fewer clothes than the group dressed by their parents. They also got fewer colds and illnesses over the course of the winter.
Go figure.
I think it’s worth repeating a little of what I wrote in my original blog on making mistakes:
“Just as your parenting mistakes don’t make you a bad parent or a bad person, your children’s mistakes do not make them bad children.”
Now I just need to remember this more often!


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The struggle for consistency

Posted by Samantha on Feb 8, 2012 in Being consistent, Consistency, Discipline

It has been shown that consistency is a vitally important part of parenting.  If we are not consistent about following through when our children break the rules of our home or guidelines for their behaviour, then we can expect them to ignore those rules and gradually become manipulative as they attempt to get their own way, rather than submit to any authority outside their own.

For the record, I do not believe that children are born manipulative.  They are certainly born with the capacity to become manipulative, just as they are born with the capacity to become cooperative.  Much depends on how they are raised.

In a world of moral relativism being consistent is much harder than it used to be.

Parents used to be very clear that children were meant to do what adults said.  Always.  Immediately.  The consequence for not doing what you were told was also very clear for previous generations of parents.   Children should be smacked.  Or threatened.  Or criticised.  Or humiliated.  Or all of these at once.  Certainly it was accepted that what was called for was some version of fear-based parenting.

Nowadays, I believe that while we are uncertain about what to do in place of smacking and yelling, we are also very unsure about what the rules should even be.

Is it really the case that children should do what parents say?  Without challenge?  Without excuse?  Without delay?  Without exception?

These are essentially really big moral questions.  And I believe that they are questions that many parents have not answered satisfactorily for themselves.

The result of this is that we are wishy-washy about how we go about keeping our standards in our homes.  How can we be consistent about our standards if we’re not sure what our standards are?

When we throw in our tiredness from the demands and pace of modern life is it any wonder that we are not consistent and that many of our children are floundering in the confusion of inconsistently maintained standards.

These past weeks I’ve been really trying to be consistent about following through with the consequences of my children’s behaviour.  When I spot behaviour that is a bit challenging, I’m reminding myself that it’s only to be expected given the fact that (if I’m really honest about it) I’ve not been consistent in what I’ve been teaching my children about this particular issue.

It’s futile to blame anyone – me or my children – for the signs of inconsistency in my home at the moment.  I’ve been as consistent as I’ve been able to be.  My children have learned their lessons perfectly based on what and how I’ve taught them.

I notice that it’s only now that I’ve worked through a lot of what I think about various big ethical issues (e.g. what to discipline and how to do it) that I’ve been able to be more consistent.  Today, I’m looking forward to becoming ever more so.


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Should smacking be illegal?

Posted by Samantha on Jan 31, 2012 in Anger, Discipline, Punishment

So I’m about to wade into one of the most controversial parenting topics there is: should smacking children be made illegal?

Here’s the article that has forced my hand:


For the record, I don’t like the tone of this article.  My position is that smacking children is wrong.  I also think it would be wrong to make it illegal.  I also believe that we do not need to make it illegal to send the clear message that smacking is not condoned.

This topic is also pertinent for me because two weeks ago, in Week 2 of the 10 week parenting course that I deliver, we covered discipline techniques.

We do an interesting exercise where parents write down all the discipline techniques they can think of – not necessarily that they use – and then they put them onto a flip chart in one of two columns: positive discipline (fair, firm, consistent, kind) or negative discipline (unfair, critical, inconsistent, harsh).

There is always debate about certain techniques and many end up on the line between the two columns.  “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” is a catchphrase we inevitably discuss.

Two weeks ago, one member of our group was talking about a radio show she heard where someone was defending the benefits of smacking as a disciplinary tool.  After general agreement that smacking wasn’t ok and a vague consensus (but with no real discussion) that no-one in the group condoned it, the group settled into a vaguely uneasy silence while this lady made efforts to explain that she was only acting as devil’s advocate.

And so I told the story of how last summer my daughter, in a fit of pique, smashed my brand new laptop screen while swinging the cat’s lead in circles and inadvertently making contact between the screen and the heavy metal clasp of the lead.  She had been aiming for her brother, not my laptop.

I smacked her.  With my hand.  On her fully covered bottom.

Now they were interested.  Did I feel awful afterwards?  What did she do?  Did I say sorry?  How long did I feel awful for?

I answered the questions.  And I wondered if I’d gone too far with my disclosure.

And yet, little by little since then, other members of the group have started to come forward with some of their worst family moments.  And, as I knew from the research evidence, I am not the only one in the group who has smacked their child or children.

There are people in the UK who strongly believe that my action that day last summer should be illegal.

The British Psychological Society have stated that the damage done by hitting a child depends on “the motivation, the circmstances, the anger and the physical and psychological damage”.  Interestingly, my daughter seemed to quickly accept that given the circumstances, my action was understandable and forgiveable.

As I’ve said already, I do not believe it is necessary to make smacking punishable by law in order to send the message that it is not acceptable parenting practice.

To my mind, it makes no sense and smacks of hypocrisy (if you’ll pardon the pun) to tell parents that the punitive disciplinary technique of smacking is wrong, and then to punish those who do smack with negative discipline.

Parents need to be allowed their mistakes.  We have laws to deal with child abuse in place already.  Reducing the kinds of parenting behaviours that fall somewhere between discipline and abuse will require us to start talking about them openly. That is why I am sharing this story today.

Furthermore, I have long believed there is much sense in the MP and former minister’s assertion that if we take this disciplinary technique away (without replacing it with anything else) some parents will be left with nothing effective with which to guide their children.  Will we be happy to pay for the ongoing education and support of parents while they are unlearning years of conditioning and doing the difficult work of learning new, positive responses?

We also need to discuss the unanticipated negative side-effect of the false empowerment of children who, for example, realised that teachers could be threatened into ineffectualness when it became illegal in the UK for them to touch children.  We are now unpicking that law.

I am hopeful that one day we will achieve a society where children are not hit by adults whether in rage or to make a point.  But we will get there one step at a time.

I fail to see what we have to gain by further shaming parents for those occasions when the good judgement of their neo-cortex deserts them and their lower-brain conditioning takes over.

My experience tells me that it is a rare parent who thinks smacking is in any way a reasonable solution.  In fact, though I have met many parents who were smacked by their parents and who think “it didn’t do me any harm”, not even one of them has ever wanted to smack their own children.  The majority of parents who were hit as children, say that the experience of being hit by a parent makes them certain that they do not want to do it to their own children.

For those of us who find ourselves in the position of trying to break cycles of abuse, or smacking, or raging, what we need is acceptance: acceptance that on occasion, we may parent as we were parented.  When it happens, we can brush ourselves off, make amends, and somehow find the courage and strength to keep moving forward.

We can know that hitting children is wrong.  And that two wrongs do not make a right.


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Does your child know how much you love them?

Posted by Samantha on Jan 23, 2012 in Criticism, Disapproval, Love

I don’t agree with everything in Ross Campbell’s 1977 classic, How to Really Love Your Child, but I do admire that he is brave enough to put in print what many psychologists and psychiartrists, therapists and counsellors can recognise but don’t usually put into such clear words:

There are times when your child does not believe you love them – and that is what is behind much of their problem behaviour.

As parents we like to ignore and deny that many of our interactions with our children send a clear message that what they are doing is not good enough.  From there it is just a short step for a child to conclude that they are not good enough for us to love them.

We also like to ignore the fact that when we are coming from this place of focusing on what our child has done that is not good enough, we are often angry or disapproving or both.  Anger and disapproval does not look, sound or feel like love to anyone.  Our children are quite right: in those moments we are not loving them.

We don’t intend to create the negative consequences that stem from this over-zealous correction and cajoling of our children.

But ignorance does not provide immunity from law.  No court of law will accept the defense, “I’m sorry your honour, I didn’t know it was illegal”.

The same applies to psychological law.   We may not be aware that we will squash our children’s sense of self-worth if we criticise them more than we express our appreciation of them.  But that will not stop it from happening.  It is psychological law if you will, that criticism crushes.

Just as we have changed definitions of bullying so that it is is defined from the point of view of the bullied and not the bully, I think we need to change our understanding of how we love our children.  Surely a behaviour is loving only to the extent that it generates in the person we are doing it to (or for), a sense of being loved?

Just as you cannot beat love into a person, I do not believe that anyone has ever had true heart-felt awareness of their parents love, criticised into them.

It is time to stop pretending that our criticism – implicit and explicit – has no effect on our children.

Only then can we become the parents we most truly wish to be and the parents our children need us to be.


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How do I help my kids be resilient?

Posted by Samantha on Jan 21, 2012 in Feelings, Resilience

Resilience is the word psychologists use to talk about the ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down and keep going.  I think of it as a kind of psychological strength.

It’s been found to be a key indicator of who will thrive rather than falter following difficult or traumatic experiences.

I think most parents want their children to be resilient – even if they wouldn’t use that word.  I think we put a lot of effort into our attempts to generate this helpful quality in our children.

My parents certainly wanted me to take things in my stride.  They didn’t want me to get upset about little (or large!) playground woes.  Because they wanted me to be strong psychologically, they didn’t want to see that I was upset by certain interactions with them, or with teachers, or with my siblings.  They didn’t want to recognise my jealousy.  So much so that I buried it deep underground and today can only recognise it as that twinge I get when I hear my mother is visiting my sister but not me.

And so, with the positive intention of helping me to cope with life’s little ups and downs, my parents set about minimising, dismissing and denying the reality of my pain.

You know how minimising, dismissing and denying sounds:

“oh don’t be so silly”,

“it’s only a little bump”,

“what did you do to deserve it?”,

“well your teacher’s right, you should have done your homework”,

“don’t cry, you’re ok”,

“there’s nothing the matter with you”,

“I’ll give you something to cry about”

“you can’t be too hot / too cold / hungry”

These and dozens of other phrases like them are how we cut our children off from their feelings and teach them not to trust themselves.  They also have an unhelpful impact on our relationship with them.

And, this is the rub, they do not make children resilient.  Freezing our children’s feelings is NOT THE SAME as teaching them how to handle their feelings.

We especially want this quality of resilience for our boys.  I know 4-year-old boys who think crying is for sissies rather than something normal that we all do when we’re upset (unless we’ve learned to override it).  The act of crying discharges our emotion and allows us get on with life.  In other words, crying can help us become resilient!

It’s not always easy to accept our children in ALL their emotions.  Many parents for example find it difficult to believe jealousy between siblings exists.  They unwittingly foster it because they cannot accept that it is normal and to be expected.  They might punish the behaviour that it prompts, which only makes it worse.  Or they may force it underground which only seems like a better solution.

It is an enormous challenge for us as parents to learn to accept our children’s emotional reality.  The key to doing it really successfully is to learn how to accept our own emotions as well.

If we rise to this challenge we will give our children an incredible gift: the gift of emotional resilience.


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