Monday, April 29, 2013

Toddler Tactic #8 - Acknowledge and Validate Emotions

I've saved the most powerful and in my opinion, the most important Toddler Tactic for last.

When a child gets hurt, our first response is usually to pick them up and say, "oh, you're okay" in an attempt to calm them as quickly as possible and urge them to get over whatever unpleasantness they are experiencing.  Upon reflecting on this practice however, I've come to realize that it really does little to comfort the child or to help them through the emotions they are feeling. If you stubbed your toe, would you rather your friend say, "oh, you're okay" or "ouch, that must have hurt!"  I would feel taken aback at the former while the latter would leave me with the feeling that at least my friend felt sympathy for my pain.

For this reason, when comforting either of my children, I always first state what happened - "you scraped your knee on the step" and then I wait for a response which may be a nod accompanied by vigorous crying.  Then I simply say, "that must have hurt a lot" and continue to hold him securely and quietly until he calms down.  I might add something to calm his fears to the effect of, "I know it stings now but it will go away soon."

Sitting quietly and calmly with a child while they work through a painful moment (physical or emotional) is key to helping them learn to rely on their own emotional resources.  When we rush them on to feeling better, we send the message that difficult emotions must be buried as soon as possible.  When we sit with them in their discomfort and validate their feelings, they learn that whatever emotion they are feeling is okay and will pass with time.

Sitting quietly while a child works through strong emotions can be difficult because as parents, we can feel uncomfortable in such situations as we are so programmed to fix problems.  It's also very possible that our own upbringing didn't equip us with adequate skills to handle emotions or that our current busy lives find us sweeping the tough stuff under the rug and hoping it will go away. I like to think of these moments as yet another opportunity where my children help me to learn and grow as much as I guide them. 

A child's feelings should be acknowledged even if they seem silly or self-centered or irrational.  We don't have to agree with them or condone their actions but it's important to validate the feelings behind the behavior. Whenever Riker is upset, I attempt to put the feelings into words for him. Sometimes just having his parent state the facts about what happened and then identify his feelings is enough to put him at ease. This isn't surprising really as feeling understood is an exceptionally powerful thing.

I also do my best to not scold Riker for having emotions - anger at his brother for knocking down his blocks, frustration at losing in a game or sadness at not going to the park. These are all valid emotions and the child needs assistance to identify and process them so that they can manifest themselves safely and then fade away.  Brushing emotions under the rug or punishing the resulting actions does neither.

A note on using this tactic. When acknowledging, it is more powerful to phrase the sentiment without using the word "but," which has the effect of negating everything said before.  For example, instead of saying "You want to keep playing this fun game together, but I'm too tired," one might say, "You want to keep playing this fun game together. I am very tired; I can't play anymore." The former suggests that my being tired clearly takes precedence over the child's desire for fun and connection but the latter gives equal recognition to both parties and yet clearly states a necessary boundary. 

In summary, this tactic goes like this - listen, acknowledge feelings, validate emotions, and then show confidence in a child's resourcefulness by not getting all wound up and by not rushing in to fix everything. More often than not, by utilizing this tactic, Riker is able to quickly get over upsetting incidents and get back to his naturally joyful state.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Toddler Tactic #7 - Change the Scene

One of Brian's favorite Toddler Tactics to use with the kids when they're being particularly challenging is to simply change the scene.  If they've been at home all day, he'll plonk them into the bike trailer and go for a ride to a playground or just keep riding in hopes of a nice long nap. 

This tactic is really quite simple and effective, but I find it particularly difficult to implement.  If I've decided that Ari should have a nap at home so that I can empty the dishwasher, fold the washing, read some books with Riker and check my email, then I end up feeling pretty determined to make that happen.  Trouble is, sometimes Ari just won't go down easily for his nap and after the third attempt I'm feeling mighty grumpy.  Realizing I'm not going to accomplish half the tasks on my to-do list, I get increasingly frustrated and less and less clear headed.  I should simply change the scene and leave the house, but instead we end up at home all afternoon in a messy house with tired (and bored) kids and a grumpy mama because I'm too disheveled and out of sorts to even make a plan. The kids then keep pulling books off the shelves and dumping bins of toys all over the floor and things spiral in a downward direction. Brian however, in the same day, would have had a tour of cafes and playgrounds and the children would be asleep in the bike trailer by early afternoon.

I'll keep working on this one but in the meantime, I'll try to remember to just go outside if things aren't going smoothly.  That little change of scene coupled with some fresh air really helps to lift the spirits.  And with the kids free to potter about with chickens and run in the yard, I can usually find a minute to sit down and have a cup of tea. And some days, that's all I hope for.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Toddler Tactic #6 - Time-In

The "time-out" is a tactic frequently used on misbehaving children.  Child A pushes child B and consequently receives a solo journey to a corner of the room or another room entirely to think about the error of their ways.

This response has always seemed problematic to me for a couple reasons.  First of all, I don't want to send the message that misbehaving results in the withdrawal of my love and affection.  Second, a child in time-out is not likely to actually spend any time at all pondering their actions or how they affected anyone else involved. A child in time-out is most likely sulking, feeling angry at mum for being so mean or simply daydreaming about something more pleasant than facing a wall.  Finally, time-out is a punishment and while fear of punishment may prevent some children from exhibiting certain behaviors in the future, it does not deal with the more important issue of why a child was behaving unpleasantly in the first place.

To get around all these problems of time-outs, we've taken to using "time-ins." The time-in is a discipline technique that helps to calm an unruly child and get to the root of the problem.  A while back we had visitors over and near the end of the visit, Riker was getting increasingly frustrated with his toys and eventually he just laid down on the carpet and wailed while asking for help to get up, only to keep falling right down on the floor again.  This was a little embarrassing for us as Riker rarely throws tantrums and we both felt frustrated that this was happening while we had guests.

To find out what was going on, Brian scooped him up and took him to the bedroom so that he could help him to calm down and then find out what was going on with him.  He carried on wailing for a while but then Brian learned that he hadn't gone to the toilet all morning and was clearly feeling increasingly miserable and out of sorts. With his nanny visiting and bringing him gifts and then a neighbor popping by coupled with some jealousy issues from seeing Ari nursing, it was all adding up to be too much for the poor guy. His unpleasant behavior was a manifestation of some difficult emotions and sensations he was experiencing and we may not have found the reason for his unpleasant behavior had we used a more traditional means of getting him to cease that behavior. 

The time-in is useful because the parent remains with the child and helps them to find ways to successfully and positively regulate their own emotions. More importantly, it allows the parent to play detective and find out the reasons behind the misbehavior instead of punishing the child for the resulting actions.

Of course, all this isn't to say that time-outs don't have their place.... fact I firmly believe that leaving irritating situations behind in order to collect oneself and eat chocolate alone in the bedroom is a perfectly acceptable and sensible thing to do!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Toddler Tactic #5 - Side Door Messages

Most adults love gossip and if we weren't supposed to hear a particular bit of news, it makes it all the juicier! Children are no different and I like to exploit the human tendency to eavesdrop to my advantage.

I mostly use this tactic to reinforce my approval and appreciation of certain behaviors in the hopes that they will be repeated. For example, I'll tell Brian in the course of a "private" conversation about something positive one of the kids did that day.  Such "side door messages" can carry more weight and meaning than overt praise. Or, if I'm feeling silly, I'll whisper a secret to one of their stuffed animals and pretend that they're not supposed to hear it.  "Hey Ted, you should have seen how Riker shared his books with a little girl at the dentist's office this morning. He's so kind and thoughtful!"

There are times when it's a struggle to get past a series of aggravating or difficult behaviors and on these occasions I try to remind myself to use this tactic to focus on the child's innately good qualities in the hopes that overhearing them will remind him to live up to them.

Conversely, it's important to be conscious of the negative messages we might send about our children as we discuss the day with our partners. These negative messages are just as likely, if not more likely, to be overheard and assimilated than our attempts at positive side door messages!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Toddler Tactic #4 -Specific Requests

I hope to teach my children to have good manners so that they can have a lifetime of successful relationships.  Children learn how to use the words please and thank you from their parents only if the parents use those words themselves. So, unless I'm having an unusually grumpy day, I always try to frame my requests as questions. "Excuse me Riker, will you please clean up your toys?"  As a result, I regularly hear Riker say, "excuse me mama." 

Which reminds me of another helpful Toddler Tactic - always make requests as specific as possible.  "Riker, please put the books on the shelf." Once that's completed, I'll ask for the train tracks to go into the box and then for the blocks to go into the middle drawer. These step by step instructions are easier for a small child to follow than a generic, "clean up your toys!"

With young toddlers I've also found the phrase "let's" to be very useful. 'Please' can lose some of its effectiveness if it takes on a pleading tone - "Would you PLEEEEEASE clean up this mess!?" On the other hand, "let's clean up the toys together" is much more likely to actually get the task accomplished and it models partnership and camaraderie.  Anything that gets the job done and keeps both parties feeling happy is a win in my book!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Toddler Tactic #3 - Give Choices

I've used this tactic with great success on many occasions.  For the purpose of this post, I'll outline its application in three common scenarios.

The first use of this tactic is a simple way to gently nudge a toddler in the direction you'd like them to go when they are dawdling or digging their heels into the ground.  This element of the tactic is great for those days when just getting out of the house seems like a monumental undertaking.  One of the best ways I've found to get us moving is to offer a series of choices.  "Okay, it's time to get shoes on.  Would you like to wear the red sandals or the blue shoes?"  Once we get past that hurdle, we can move on to the next step. "Do you want to walk to the car or should I carry you?"  This little trick gives the child some control of the means along the way to my desired end.  (An important note - in order for this tactic to work, it must always be used genuinely.  Never ever conceal a threat as one of the choices. "Do you want to put on your shoes or go without dessert?" will undermine your attempts at genuine choices in the future.)

The second application of this tactic is probably my favorite of all because it is so reliable yet so thoughtful of everyone involved.  It calls on a toddlers sense of independence and helpfulness and almost always gets the result I'm seeking.  It works like this.  Say a child has taken something out of a drawer that you do not want them to play with.  Perhaps you've asked them to put it back, but your request went unheeded.  The next step is to calmly state the problem and offer a choice that will resolve it to your satisfaction.  "That book is very special to mama.  It must go back in the drawer.  Is Riker going to put it back or should mama?"  I have found that those simple statements work like magic and until recently, the answer was always "Riker do it!" It's important to remember that the request  must be given in a completely calm and unemotional voice for it work, however.  If you sound frantic or angry or like you're giving an order, the magic is lost.

This tactic also works a treat in conflicts over snatched toys.  "Riker, Jago was playing with that truck and he is sad that you took it from him.  The truck needs to go back to Jago and you can have a turn later.  Would you like to give it back, or should mama?" If the other child is wailing in the background, I will apologize to him or her and ask them to please wait a moment.  I like to use the situation as an opportunity to help my child empathize with the one who feels sadness or anger over the lost toy while I calmly carry on with the request.  If the child runs away or refuses to give the toy back, I will repeat the choice (again with as little emotion as possible).  If it doesn't work, I will return the toy feeling confident that I used a gentle negotiation strategy first.  Then I remind my child that he can have a turn later, but it is very important to ask or offer to trade before taking a toy. Read more about my thoughts on toddlers, empathy and apologies.

In each of these examples, offering a choice is a terrific way to finesse a positive outcome out of a challenging situation in such a way that both parties can feel that their desires were respected and accommodated.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Toddler Tactic #2 - Eye Level

Life is busy and nearly every day I've got errands to run, appointments to attend and/or meals to cook.  If you and I think our lives are busy, imagine how this dizzying array of activity must feel to a little person who sees the great big world from knee height.  It's probably scary and frustrating and overwhelming at times (for both of us!).  I'm pretty sure I'd be grateful for anyone who was willing to get down and speak to me on my level if I was a little person. 

For this reason, before asking a toddler to change course, I've found it really helpful to get down on the ground at eye level and involve myself in what he's doing.  I might help to build the tower up really high or ask why all the teddy bears are sitting in a row.  This conveys my interest in him and his play, but also demonstrates respect for his play.  After we've interacted for a few minutes, I will then suggest that some other action is required on his part.  My words are far more likely to be heeded if they haven't been delivered in a barking tone from across the room.

I have found this tactic to be really helpful when Riker is upset as well.  I know that I feel more understood when a friend sits down beside me, looks me in the eye and offers the occasional nod and smile.  The same goes for toddlers.  Bending down, gently touching their arm and looking them in the eye goes a long way to helping them find the resources to calm themselves.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Toddler Tactic #1 - The Countdown

Many a toddler meltdown begins with a situation that I've seen repeated over and over.  It goes like this.

Toddler is playing happily, say with a train set at the library.  Mother checks her watch, realizes she needs to get home to get dinner started and swoops in and announces it's time to go.  Toddler protests and mother sees this as a sign of disobedience.  She commands that he put his coat on and when he stubbornly continues with his play she either picks him up kicking and screaming and hurries out the door or begins a series of threats in hopes of gaining compliance. 

Now imagine this from the toddlers perspective.  In his little head, he's the conductor giving orders and a whole fleet of little engines are trying to be really useful by hauling freight and passengers.  He doesn't like to be interrupted.  I don't know about you, but if I'm in the middle of writing a blog post for example, and my husband needs me to finish up so that we can get dinner started, I prefer to have a minute to finish the paragraph I'm typing.  I'd be pretty irritated if he came in, took the laptop out of my hands, picked me up and carried me into the kitchen.

This is a perfect example of where respect, mentioned in Positive Foundations, comes into play.  My solution?  A clear and concise explanation of the situation and a simple (non-threatening) countdown. "Riker, I want to go home and start cooking dinner for our hungry bellies.  I need you to finish up in five minutes."  Then I give a two minute warning and then a final, "okay finish up, it's time to go now."  Then, if he's still not quite ready, I might get down on his level and help him wrap up by finding a place to park his trains and saying goodbye to them.

All up, this process takes less time and is far more pleasant than the scenario given in the introduction. When conveyed calmly and clearly, a small child can understand the need to move on when there is an important reason - dinner preparations, looming rain clouds, etc. This tactic allows children to feel like their play was honored and by getting down on their level to help them finish up, the child will feel like you were involved and not just barking commands. In the next post, I'll talk more about being at eye level before making requests.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Toddler Tactics - Positive Foundations

Before I outline in greater detail each of my individual Toddler Tactics that I use for conflict avoidance or resolution, I first want to set the stage by mentioning a few general principles that allow these strategies to be as effective as possible. 

In order to successfully avoid or deflate conflicts with a toddler, I've found that it helps to show respect, to start with healthy assumptions, to have realistic expectations and to cultivate patience. Without this positive and loving foundation to work from, these strategies will not work to their full potential.

The corner stone of a positive foundation is respect.  Children are people too and their wishes, their play and their desires must be taken seriously for them to feel respected.  It's one thing to say that we respect our children, but it matters not if our children do not feel respected. All of my tactics have the desire for a respectful relationship at their core so I'll be elaborating on this in upcoming posts. Essentially, I define respect for children as thinking about the things we do and say from their perspective and endeavoring to make sure that our actions are sensible and fair to them.

The second stone in a positive foundation is having healthy assumptions.  Our perceptions of the world shape our reality and this is most certainly also true in regards to our children.  I go by the basic assumption that my (and all) children are fundamentally good.  They want to please us and act in a manner that will gain our approval.  Acts of misbehavior always have an explanation behind them.  Sometimes children feel misunderstood and lack the language skills to convey their frustrations.  Sometimes they get tired and hungry and wound up and forget the social skills they've learned.  Focusing on their innately good qualities helps us to see children in the best possible light. I try to remind Riker (and myself) all the time that he is a good, kind, thoughtful and loving boy.  Like adults, children are very much affected by the labels we give them, and will live up (or down) to them with alarming frequency.

Realistic expectations are extremely important in maintaining parental sanity.  Having a basic understanding of child psychology and development makes it easier to endure outbursts, defiance and anti-social behaviors, so many of which are entirely appropriate behavior for someone who is learning how to manage their emotions, get along with others, follow directions, plan for the future and establish a sense of independence.  Additionally, having realistic expectations makes us more forgiving of both our children and of ourselves, an especially important ability since as parents, we are often worried about what other parents think of us or our children.  Realistic expectations can also remind us that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks - our primary goal should be to do right by our children.  

Finally, the tactics I've come to rely on will not work without a good deal of patience.  It's unreasonable to expect that when a toddler is misbehaving, that a strict command will fix things up immediately.  It takes time to negotiate and to make sure that both parties feel that an issue has been satisfactorily resolved.  Sometimes this means making my child or other children and their parents wait while we find a solution to a problem. One of the best methods I use to cultivate patience is to think of myself as a diplomat.  Toddlers are in many ways like little visitors from a foreign land.  They are seeking to understand our customs but make many social blunders along the way.  In attempting to foster positive foreign relations, diplomacy is far superior to coercion and threats.  If I can channel the tact I would use as a diplomat interacting with a foreign dignitary, I find that I can respond with more respect and patience when faced with challenging toddler moments.  When I find myself about to lose my cool, I try to call to mind one of one my trusted parenting mantras to help me regain composure. 

Finally, the strategies I'll be outlining rely on the principle of connection before correction. The basic premise of attachment theory is that toddlers can grow into autonomous and competent children only if they can rely on an adult who makes them feel safe and protected.  From this basic feeling of security grows the impetus to try out new skills and to learn how things work in the world. Connection before correction assures that above all, a positive relationship is maintained with our children. This doesn't mean being permissive or never offering discipline - it simply means that a secure connection is the basis for earning respect and ensuring that children want to act in a way that please us.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Toddler Tactics

Over the past three and a half years I've collected, stumbled upon and crafted a handful of strategies that have helped me to navigate the tumultuous territory of Toddlerville and to avert many of its notorious clashes.  Of course, every child has outbursts that leave parents shaking their heads in bewilderment but it seems to me that many of the tantrums and behavioral difficulties expressed by young toddlers can be minimized with some simple but effective tactics.

I'm no expert and I certainly don't have all the answers (or as much patience as I would like) but as I get to know my children better every day and learn my own strengths and weaknesses as a parent, I'm always tickled when I can elicit a moment of connection when it seemed tears and strife were imminent.

So, as a record for myself (and for my children), I've written a series of posts on Toddler Tactics that I use to avoid difficult situations in the first place or to alter the course of a confrontation once it's begun.  Sometimes the use of a single tactic works like magic.  Sometime I have to improvise and of course other times, absolutely nothing seems to work and I'm left bewildered, or worse, losing my temper and yelling.  I suspect that this happens to all of us. I'm not perfect and neither are my children, but these tactics represent my best practice parenting strategies.  Writing about them in detail helps me to call them to mind when I might otherwise resort to something less dignified.

Thankfully, many of the tactics have retained their effectiveness into the preschool years and, having relied on them for quite some time now, I can highly recommend them! If these tactics are of any benefit to my readers, I'll see that as an added bonus and I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Here are the titles in the series so far.  I'll link to the posts as I publish them and I may add more as I think of other tactics.

Toddler Tactics - Positive Foundations
Toddler Tactic #1 - The Countdown
Toddler Tactic #2 - Eye Level
Toddler Tactic #3 - Give Choices
Toddler Tactic #4 - Specific Requests
Toddler Tactic #5 - Side Door Messages
Toddler Tactic #6 - Time-In
Toddler Tactic #7 - Change the Scene
Toddler Tactic #8 - Acknowledge and Validate Emotions

Look for Toddler Tactic #1 tomorrow!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Celebrating Sustainability

March and April are the busiest months of the year for me at work as students have just returned to uni and ANUgreen hosts two major sustainability related events within one month of each other. So while this post is belated, I thought I should mention why things have been quiet in my corner of the blogosphere for a while.

Here's my most awesome team of friends and colleagues at the sixth annual Celebrate Sustainability Day event in Union Court on February 21st.

Seriously, I work with the best group of people. Love my job. And love that we have so many big campus sustainability achievements to celebrate.

More Celebrate Sustainability Day photos are available here. Many thanks to Ella Kurz for her photography skills on the day.

Then, on Saturday evening 23 March, ANU held an evening festival to coincide with the international Earth Hour event. This was the sixth year that I've been coordinating this event and it's always so much fun!  Here are just a few of my favorite photos from the night.

Rollerdoor featuring Uncle Jandemarra - traditional Aboriginal performance and storytelling

Music, food and community under the stars. ANU joins with over 7 million Australians to demonstrate the power of individual action to combat climate change.

I work with so many impressive students and I have no doubt they will make the world a better place. (I'm sitting in the front but if you look closely you'll even see Riker in this photo with my friend Janette)

More Earth Hour photos are available here. All photos courtesy of Stuart Hay - ANU Photography.

This year I was so pleased to have the lovely Sunny working with me to coordinate the two events. Not only did she make my life so much easier, she gracefully pulled off two incredible events in a ridiculously short amount of time. I've tried to bribe her to stay around the ANUgreen office but she insists on taking up a job in Indonesia where I have no doubt she'll have the time of her life, learn heaps and spread her joyful fabulousness wherever she goes. Cheers Sunny and all the best in your next adventure.