First published in The Natural Parent Magazine.
It takes a lot of hard work to become a more mindful parent. It’s very easy to just say what’s on our minds, and to seek cooperation through orders, threats or guilt trips, “just do it!”, “if you don’t do it, then … you just don’t want to find out!“, “I’m at my wits end here and you’re not helping!”, "I'll buy you an ice-cream if you .... ". But all parents who work hard to think creatively and self-educate, know well that it takes bucket loads of self-discipline to change even some of our communication within the family.
It’s probably safe to assume that you can relate because you’re actually reading articles like this! So, you’ll know well the discomfort and restraint involved in containing those urges to blurt out criticisms “why must you …!”, demands and expressions of exasperation or to resort to bribes when stress levels go through the roof! And understandably, a parent really wants some evidence, or at least reassurance, that all their hard work is not in vain! Hopefully, this article will give you a bit of reassurance to keep on keeping on even if your child hasn’t transformed into that perfect specimen who ticks all the boxes of societal expectations!
Reframing your definition of success can really help! The success of your peaceful parenting endeavours isn’t so much about your child becoming happily and gratefully cooperative in every instance; “now you tell me!!”; “sorry!” They still have their free will, their wishes, dislikes and emotions! They’re still going to feel disappointed about not watching that movie or eating that yummy treat. They’re still going to go through a BIG process of coming to terms with life with a new sibling, a new house or a new kindy. And they’re still going to be influenced by other people and by the dynamics they witness despite our best attempts to instill amazing values and habits.
Measure your success more by your behaviour, and less by your child’s. Any increase in the frequency of you not losing it when you don’t gain the cooperation you (very understandably!!) desperately need is a success to be celebrated! Measure your success less by the number of times your child gets upset, and more by your capacity to keep your cool and respond with empathy. If you give yourself more credit for these moments, it just might help more than you imagine! Also worth acknowledging is any increase in your child’s ability to express those strong emotions through tears or words and less through aggression, shutting down or defiance. It’s not about denying the tough stuff, but most of us can benefit from putting more focus on the small but significant improvements.
Things may get “worse” before they get better. Ben described that when his wife was leaving for work, their daughter struggled with the separation, she used to become very resistant and rebellious. I advised him to really turn up the dial on empathising with their daughter, both before, during and after her mum leaves. What happened was that their daughter started to have big tantrums, which made them think that empathy was making things worse. Yet in reality, the increased permission and support to let herself feel the deep sadness of separating from mum allowed her to feel safe to express those feelings. When children feel safe to express their emotions without restraint, it allows them to resolve and move through their frustrations. They also began to play lots of hide and seek, which provided another safe outlet for her fears and sadness greatly reducing the separation anxiety! After a few big meltdowns around mum leaving for work, and lots of stress dispelling laughter through the play, their daughter became much more relaxed about mum leaving.
Unrealistic expectations create pressure for parent and child. Over the years, your child will go through big thinking, social, learning and emotional changes which will inch by inch help them better master life’s challenges. A parent can go through a lot of stress and worry about their two year old refusing to share, or their four year old angrily throwing a toy. Your hormonally charged twelve-year-old or teenager will seem to regress and again become so irrational. Yet overall, most children will continue to get better and better at managing their emotions, managing their time, better at problem solving and impulse control, better at taking care of themselves and being kind and considerate. Whether your parenting style is authoritarian, peaceful or permissive, your child is going to need to be reminded or helped to develop certain habits and skills. Each child will need help or reminding to wash their teeth or brush their hair hundreds of times before that magically liberating stage (for you AND them!) when they have finally developed the habit themselves.
I asked nicely three times!! Commonly expressed frustration; “peaceful parenting just isn’t working for us. I talk to my child calmly and reasonably, but it’s only when I yell or threaten to send her to her room, that she suddenly does what she’s told!” This is authoritarian rather than peaceful parenting, and the instilled fear that gains that obedience comes at a high price. A child gets triggered into the stress response when they anticipate yelling and threatening, and that stress leads to reactivity, resistance and power struggles. Let’s imagine how an adult might feel in a similar situation: “Genevieve, I’ve read those relationship books, I’ve been practicing active listening with my partner, showing so much more patience and empathy, yet when we disagree, she just keeps insisting things happen her way until I start yelling, then she yells back and I have no choice but to tell her she needs to go to our room until she’s cooled down. Your relationship advice just isn’t working for us!” When the urge to yell or threaten your child surfaces, the connection is always what's needed, but to reconnect with our child, we often need to first bring back some empathy for our own frustrations.
Parenting with PTSD, depression or anxiety is painfully difficult!! I often reflect to parents that their inability to not become enraged at their child is clearly symptomatic of them being stretched beyond their limits. In exploring further, it often comes to light that the parent really is attempting the impossible and that extra professional and community support is essential. Anxiety and depression can feel debilitating. Parenting can trigger unresolved pain from childhood. A traumatic birth can result in post-natal depression or anxiety that needs and deserves specific help, maybe counselling, supplements or herbs can be a life saver! But certainly, having the struggles recognized and identified is often the first step in gaining the help needed.
Peaceful parenting can so easily get confused with permissive parenting. There is often some guilt that accompanies a parent’s newly acquired knowledge that their previous parenting style may have caused their child some insecurity. The parent now cringes to enforce any limits for fear of it shaming or stifling their child and hence further compromising the relationship. Yet it wasn’t the limits that caused the problems (assuming they were fair, and well thought out), but the methods of enforcing limits. The parent is now bending over backwards, walking on eggshells, avoids saying “no” at all costs in attempts to avoid meltdowns. Yet limits help children develop their inner self-discipline. And just as importantly, the resulting big cries that limits tend to bring is often exactly what the child needs to release the pressure valve of all that built-up frustration and return the child to a more settled and balanced state.
The child’s messy behaviour isn’t always the parent’s fault! When we see our child’s less than perfect behaviour and self-management as a negative reflection on us as a parent, it can make the parenting journey very stressful and discouraging. There are so many contributing factors to how your child is, who your child is, how they feel, what their needs are and how they behave. In this article, I’m touching on just some of the often unrecognised factors that can cause children to struggle. Even if you get up early to do your meditation and yoga and get super centered and calm, even if you got a head start on your day the night before, even if you connect beautifully with your child and maintain saint-like patience; if your child is unwell or full of frustration, she’s likely to be as fragile as a little egg, and it won’t take much for her to break down!
Birth trauma. Children who are highly resistant or aggressive are often experiencing varying levels of anxiety or intense irritation that they or their parents may struggle to identify. Sometimes children are affected by parental conflict, past traumas, big life changes. Trauma in utero or during birth can have a much bigger impact than is generally recognized. Children are much more sensitive to stress and trauma than we previously realized.
Special needs. Other often unidentified factors that may be making it near impossible for the child to be their best version of themselves can be learning difficulties, or food intolerances and allergies. Your child may have very specific differences in how their brain functions that needs to be identified so that the parent can better set their child up for success. Examples are depression, anxiety or panic disorders or PTSD. Other examples are learning difficulties like dyslexia or dyspraxia, or SPD, ADHD or ADD. The number of children on the ASD spectrum is continuing to rise.
Children who have SPD, Sensory Processing Disorder, may have very real challenges, for example, with going to bed because the texture of the quilt is uncomfortable, or with eating because of certain textures that they react to. SPD manifests differently for each child, but learning more about it can help at least to rule it out. Many more children are now being diagnosed with ADHD, ADD, depression, anxiety disorders and PTSD, or may be on the Autism Spectrum. When specific special needs have not yet been recognized, it can create a lot of confusion, frustration and distress for all involved. A diagnosis can be the beginning of a new path of exploring how to best support your child, how to set them up for more success and help them feel supported and cared for with their specific struggles. A diagnosis, just like diagnosing a physical ailment like diabetes, can help parents to reduce their expectations, hence reduce frustrations and allow them to be more specific and constructive in helping their child with their challenges.
The more we tune in to viewing the child's behaviour in terms of unmet needs, the closer we get to discover what the underlying factors may be. But regardless of whether your child's challenges relate to any of the above, be it stress in the family or mental, emotional or physical imbalances, there are more and more experts presenting scientific evidence linking food and mood, linking gut and brain imbalances.
Magic micronutrients! One such person is Julia J Rucklidge, PhD, a Professor at the University of Canterbury. Dr Rucklidge has dedicated the last decade to researching the connections between mental health and nutrition. She has rigorously investigated the role of micronutrients, probiotics and other nutrients like omega 3s in the expression of mental illness, specifically ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, anxiety and more recently, stress and PTSD associated with the Canterbury earthquakes. Her data portrays an alarming picture of food choices serving as risk factors to all kinds of mental health issues. Yet, the good news is that the data also demonstrates hugely positive outcomes for the majority of children prescribed high enough dosages of micronutrients, with 80% showing marked improvement just in the first two months. Her findings challenge our current treatment regime for mental disorders.
David Brownstein, M.D. is the author of several book on iodine and nutrition. He has lectured internationally to physicians about his success in treating patients using nutritional therapies. Brownstein says: “One of the most successful nutritional therapies is to correct iodine deficiency. My experience has shown iodine deficiency to be present in over 96% of the nearly 5,000 patients tested in my office.” Brownstein asserts: “ADHD is caused by nutrient and hormonal imbalances, including iodine deficiency.” “Closely monitored iodine supplementation in children with ADHD has been shown to reverse the effects, resolve behavioral problems and improve learning abilities.” “It’s a public health disaster that’s unparalleled.” Iodine deficiency is regarded by the World Health Organization as the most prevalent and easily preventable case of impaired cognitive development in children in the world?
Sugar and refined carbohydrates break down quickly into glucose and can create blood sugar fluctuations. Symptoms associated with fluctuating blood sugar levels are difficulty listening, inability to focus, easily distracted, irritable, quick to frustration, hard to calm down, unexpected anger or lashing out, restless, can’t sit still.
The nutrition thing is overwhelming!! If the food mood connection is really confusing and daunting, and honestly it is for most parents!, maybe just start with keeping a food mood journal for a few days, for you and your child. It might be very interesting to notice any patterns that emerge. I’m a great believer in stable blood sugar levels leading to more stability in mood and wellbeing. Peaceful parenting is an approach that supports exploring underlying reasons for misbehaviour, which can lead parents on a journey of discovery, often leading to improved lifestyle and subsequent improved physical, mental and emotional health for all family members. Embrace the change!