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What I have learnt

I want to lay all my cards on the table. As I start this website I want to be completely transparent. I don’t profess to be a “parenting expert”. What I am is experienced. I have good and bad experience. I have learnt great things but I have also made great mistakes which I have also learnt from.

I became a Psychologist back in the year 2000, and like everything, there has been a lot of changes to Psychological practice in almost 20 years. When I started working with children and adolescents we were taught to be “firm and consistent”, we were very rules based, lots of time-outs, thinking chairs and consequences. The super nanny became a big hit with her “naughty spot”. I wasn’t a parent, I had no life experience so I just absorbed everything that I was taught and followed blindly.

Early in our marriage my husband became involved in caring for some children. I foolishly believed that my experience as a young Psychologist would have prepared us, how wrong I was. I had a lot of head knowledge, but no practical experience of what trauma behaviours really looked like. I had seen children in my office for years but only for an hour at a time and never in my home which had always been a safe place from work. I had never experienced the frustration, the sleeplessness, the exhaustion of parenting. Parenting is simple in an office when you only have to see that child for an hour a fortnight. Parenting when you have been up 4 times in the night, driven children to all their activities, tried to manage kids fighting and meltdowns, washed mountains of laundry and still gone to work, is hard.

There are so many things I would have done differently had I had my time again.

What I have learnt is that strict reward/punishment parenting styles don’t work. If I could take away all the times that we punished these kids for the behaviours we experienced I would in a heartbeat. Making a kid feel worse by punishing them for a difficult behaviour doesn’t work. Nobody will improve their behaviour if they are feeling constantly “in trouble”. We gave consequence after consequence believing that we were doing the “right” thing, this is what I had been taught, but it only made things worse. It just damaged our relationships with these kids further. Back then there was no difference between discipline and punishment, they were one in the same. We didn’t understand that discipline is to guide and direct while punishment is to make someone feel bad for what they did. I now know that you can’t expect positive change with a child if there is no connection in the relationship, if only I had really understood that then.

So here is what I have learnt:

Connection is key: There is so much information around now about “connection parenting” or “gentle parenting”. This really wasn’t too much of a consideration once. We knew the importance of “attachment” between a mother and baby, but nobody was talking about connection beyond the baby stage. There was lots of information on setting limits, having boundaries, following through with consequences, sticker charts etc. but not a lot of focus on the relationship between parent and child.

Quite simply, connection is having a caring, trusting and empathetic relationship. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t. The idea is to understand that a child’s behaviour is always to communicate a need. They are not always going to be able to communicate that need the way we as adults would like, but it is still communicating. If as parents we are able to empathise with the child and meet them where they are at, we can then explain what they need to do etc. For example “I understand that you really wanted …….. It is hard when we can’t have what we want. Now we need to…..”

Really, our expectations of kids is so much higher than our expectations on ourselves. If we were in a workplace where we felt that we were constantly “in-trouble”, isolated (time-out) and not heard, would we stay? Would you feel motivated to change? Would you want to do your best? Kids are the same, but somehow we think that by punishing that they will learn.

On the flipside, if you worked in an environment where you felt valued, heard and supported even if you didn’t get to do everything you wanted, how would you feel? Would you listen if someone was correcting you? My guess is that you would want to please the people you worked with so you would be motivated to change. Again children are the same. If there is a genuine connection the child will be more motivated to listen and change than if they feel shame or fear.

Learn to communicate on their level: We seem to understand that children have milestones for crawling, walking and talking, but not understand that they are also developing to communicate. Communication is not just words but the ability to express your thoughts and feelings. On top of this it is also the ability to understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings. We can’t expect that children are able to do this or at least not well. We get frustrated then our child bursts into tears and drops to the floor when they hear no. Then all too often I hear parents say “that behaviour is not appropriate” to a 3 year old!! They are not able to understand “appropriate behaviour”, nor that their behaviour can be controlled, to them it is an instinctive way to communicate a feeling. We need to meet our children where they are at.

I think sometimes we forget that children are real people. They have feelings, thoughts and beliefs. Just because a child physically has not developed enough language to express them well doesn’t mean that they can’t. We just need to find a way to help them express it themselves. Obviously if a child is crying and upset, this is not the time to have a big conversation. Adults can’t think clearly and logically when they are upset so there is no way that we should expect children to do this either. However when everyone is calm we can talk about what they may have been feeling. What things they may have hoped for or misunderstood. So many times after I have spoken to a child when they had been upset, I have been surprised to know the reason they were upset. We need to listen.

Discipline is not punishment: People are now starting to understand that there is a difference but for so long the belief was that people needed to be punished to learn. To quote Dr Justin Coulson from " “discipline is instruction, teaching, guiding. Punishment, on the other hand means to inflict penalty or to subject pain, loss”. We don’t have to make our kids hurt and feel upset make them learn. We do have to teach and explain. Now this doesn’t mean that they get away with everything. We still have limits and rules of what is okay but our priority to teach not harm. We work with the child on what has happened and why. It is also very important that we ask our children what they think they should do happen to “fix” and what would they do next time. By talking about these and how other people felt we empower them to build problem-solving skills and empathy.

Be kind, to your child and yourself: Basically we are all trying our best. Our kids and us, are trying. Rarely will a child be wanting to annoy and upset you on purpose. They know life is better for everyone when their parents are happy. Likewise as parents we all make mistakes and get things wrong. We need to look at our kids and ourselves with kindness.

In this blog, website and social media I will continue to post “positive/gentle parenting” techniques because I now know that this is the best and most effective parenting approach. I know this because I learnt the hard way. Each time I post these there is part of me that is saddened by the fact that I didn’t learn these lessons earlier. I hope others will learn what I have but without going through the hard lessons.

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