The Parent Practice: Cultivating resilience, kids with attitude, Easter egg angst and school hating

Hello everybody, and welcome back to The Parent Practice – where founder of The Parent Practice Melissa Hood imparts her words of wisdom to help parents address the challenges which have us tearing our hair out across the nation. This month we take a closer look at cultivating resilience, eight-year-old attitude, Easter chocolate angst and the one when your child doesn’t want to go to school.

My five-year-old daughter dissolves into tears when even the littlest thing doesn’t go her way. How can I make her more resilient – and stop all this crying?! 

Resilience is not just having the mental toughness to put your head down and soldier on through difficulties without feeling anything. Instead, resilience enables us to move forward after we’ve faced, processed and accepted disappointment, loss, upset, fear and failure. In fact, resilience can be described as a skill that can be learned and developed so it’s great that you are trying to encourage it in your daughter.

You clearly want to encourage her to cope well with adversity but it sounds like some of the things she gets upset about don’t feel all that big to you. Of course you have a different perspective than she does. For her it really does matter that you’ve given her the Peppa Pig plate rather than the Elsa plate. But you will be better able to help her learn and gain some perspective by acknowledging how it seems to her.

Coping with hard stuff doesn’t mean suppressing feelings. Tears are often the only way a child this age can express themselves. They don’t yet have the emotional intelligence or the words to say how they feel. They may not have heard others applying words to their emotional state as most adults did not grow up being encouraged to talk, or even think, about our feelings. And children’s immature brains aren’t yet able to regulate their emotions.

Here’s how you can help:

  • Acknowledge the feelings behind the tears. Hold her, let her cry and empathise. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to do what you’ve asked but it shows you understand how she feels.
  • Pay attention when she does what you ask…without too much fuss. 5-year-olds spend a lot of time doing what the adults want. She probably cooperates quite often but that doesn’t get as much attention as when she refuses to do something. Notice small moments of cooperation. “Thank you for standing still while I brushed your hair. That makes it a lot quicker.” “You came to dinner when I asked you to. I know you didn’t want to stop playing but you did.” (Maybe you asked her a couple of times, but she came.)
  • Give her more choices and let her have more input into decisions affecting her. She may not be able to say what happens in her day but maybe she can have some input into how, when and where it happens.

My daughter is nearly 8 years old.  I ask her to do something and she says “wait” or she says “have patience”.  What should I be saying to her when I want her to do something like have a shower?

When your daughter says “wait” or “have patience” she really means “I’d like some say in this”. She’s trying to exert a little bit of control. That might feel infuriating if you were brought up to believe that the adults being in charge means the children do what they’re told… immediately and without question. 

But all human beings need some agency in their lives to feel happy and fulfilled. Children don’t have a lot of power as the adults make most of the decisions. This is appropriate as we have more mature brains and a great deal more experience. Left to their own devices kids might choose never to shower or do homework or wear a coat or to spend far more time on screens or stay up later or eat more sweets than we think is healthy. So we decide for them.

But children need practice making decisions. So we need to let them make decisions wherever they can especially as they approach adolescence. They can’t choose whether to brush their teeth but they can choose where and when and how to brush them. Giving them a little bit of power makes them feel less controlled and more willing to do what we want them to do.

Children are willing to give up on what they want and do what the adults want when the relationship between us is positive. It doesn’t always look like it but children are born with an instinct to win their carer’s attention and approval which evolved to preserve the life of the vulnerable, dependant child. So we need to work on motivating our children by giving them lots of positive messages about how we value them, i.e. lots of descriptive praise. We also need to spend positive time with them doing fun things like playing games, cooking or walking the dog and chatting.

When giving instructions, go to your child and talk positively to her. When she looks at you, praise her for that. Only then give the instruction, just ONCE. When we habitually repeat ourselves we train our children to ignore the first few requests. One boy said he didn’t do what his mum asked because she didn’t mean it until she’d said it 7 times. Then praise any steps she takes in the right direction. Sometimes she won’t want to do what you ask so you’ll need to empathise, while remaining firm.

We’re going to stay with my parents over Easter and I know they’ll ply the kids with chocolate. How can I ask my parents not to overload them without seeming like a wet blanket and without criticizing the way I was brought up?

A girl is unhappy doing homework

You don’t want to hurt your parents’ feelings but also want to be true to your own values. I think situations like this require a two-pronged approach, one with your parents and one with the children.

Often we use the same skills with other adults as we do with our children. So maybe start a conversation, prior to going to stay with your parents, that opens with some descriptive praise: “I’m looking forward to being with you over Easter. The kids love it when we come to you and I love that they can have time developing a relationship with you. Jamie adores the way you read him stories with all the funny voices, Dad. And Sophie loves cooking with you Mum. My scones don’t measure up to yours at all.”

Then say how you feel and ask for what you need without judgment, blame or criticism: “I wonder if you can help me with something these holidays? As you know I’ve done a lot of research into nutrition and I really try not to have too much sugar in our lives because of the risks to our physical health and regulating energy and moods too. It’s really important to me and I need your support with it. Of course, it’s problematic around Easter because the usual thing is to have lots of chocolate Easter eggs.”

Empathise with how they feel: “I hope you don’t take this as a criticism of your past approach –you’ve been so generous with your gifts to the children – or indeed of how you brought us up. But of course, there’s research available now that there wasn’t when I was a child. And thankfully a lot more low-sugar options available in the shops!

Make suggestions and invite input: “I wondered whether we could limit the amount of chocolate to one big egg each and then maybe we could paint some eggs together or make some Easter decorations? The children love spending time with you more than anything and I’ve found some easy craft ideas on the internet. Or maybe you have some other ideas?”

Explain to the children how their grandparents have shown love for them by buying them sweet things but that these holidays you will be doing some fun things together rather than just eating chocolate. Remind them that sweet things are okay in moderation. They are ‘sometimes food’ rather than ‘everyday food’.

My daughter no longer wants to go to school. When I ask her she says “it’s boring’. I feel that something else may be going on. How can I get her to open up?

Always trust your parenting instincts. When a child describes something as ‘boring’ or ‘stupid’ they don’t always mean that it is unstimulating or isn’t stretching them enough. Consider their school performance to date. If your child is very bright and you think they do need more challenging work then it will be important to take that up with the school because if she is not being sufficiently engaged she may disengage with learning. Kids who check out may develop behavioural problems and will miss out on learning.

But assuming that is not the case then it is more likely that your daughter is feeling challenged either academically or socially. ‘Boring’ is a code word which means “I don’t like it”. You need to hear it as a cry for help. If children can’t admit that work is hard it may mean they think it’s supposed to come easily to them.

If you want to find out what is going on in your daughter’s life you will need to:

  • Ask open questions, questions that make her think, that can’t be answered with just “yes” or “no”. So avoid “how was school?” We all know the answer to that is just “fine”. Instead say “Tell me how the rehearsal went for the play today”.
  • Listen without judgment or criticism
  • Acknowledge any feelings, good or bad “It sounds like you were really excited/disappointed about that.” Don’t try to dismiss or minimise any uncomfortable feelings. Validating them will encourage her to tell you what’s going on in her life and how she feels
  • Resist the temptation to lecture or advise or rush in to sort out her problems for her. She may be reluctant to tell you about problems at first if this has been your approach previously

Make time for a conversation when she’s not too tired or distracted, although sometimes it can help to be doing something together like washing up or walking the dog where eye contact is not required. It might go something like this:“You really aren’t enjoying school right now, are you? Do you want to tell me about it?….When you say it’s ‘boring’ it makes me wonder if something is hard at school. It could be the work or it could be something to do with teachers or friends….I’m here to listen….hmm, I see…it sounds like you felt….well that’s tough. What do you think you’ll do?…”

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About The Parent Practice

Melissa Hood, founder of The Parent Practice, has been supporting parents to bring out the best in their children for 20 years. Join their Positive Parenting Online Academy with my 25% discount code MOTHERHOOD here. Find out more about their daytime and evening classes, free taster classes and six-week course in London at The Parent Practice website.

Picture credits: Paper photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com, Camera photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com, School photo created by jcomp – www.freepik.com, Pattern photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

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