Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Helping Children to Thrive Despite Early Struggles

Relationships serve as the active ingredient in our development, writes Sara Langworthy, author of  Bridging the Relationship Gap.

Relationships serve as the active ingredient in our development, writes Sara Langworthy, author of Bridging the Relationship Gap.

“The beauty of being human is that we constantly evolve and change. We have experiences every day that can alter the course of our lives to help us rebuild what was broken and rediscover what was lost. We, as humans, are never irreparably broken because our brains and bodies are built to change and adapt. And young children are often able to change more easily than the rest of us, when makes the earliest years of life the most full of hope. The key to that hope is in relationships.”
- Sara E. Langworthy, Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity

Not every child has an easy start in life. Bad things can and do happen—and often despite the best intentions of those who care about that child.

The good news is that a warm relationship with a caring adult can make a world of difference for a child who has faced early struggles.

That’s a message that comes through loud and clear in Sara E. Langworthy’s practical and hope-filled book Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2015): a guide to fostering recovery and resilience in children who have experienced trauma or other adverse childhood experiences

Langworthy has a gift for choosing the perfect analogy to bring complicated and abstract concept to life. Consider, for example, the way she explains the transformative power of relationships on the life of a child. Just as baking powder is “the active ingredient in cake batter that is necessary for your cake to rise properly…relationships serve as that active ingredient in our development,” she writes. 

While this book is intended for early childhood educators and others who work with young children, many of the messages will resonate powerfully with parents as well, thanks to the tone of acceptance and compassion for parents and for children that permeates every page of this book. “Begin with the assumption that every family is doing the best they can given the context in which they live,” Langworthy tells her readers. Likewise, treat children who are struggling as “resilient, active creators of their own lives” rather than “passive, needy receivers of assistance.”

Langworthy has written a practical and compassionate guide that is deeply rooted in messages of hope and possibility: “Despite living in a world fraught with the pain and suffering of trauma and loss, we must cling to the hope of the possibility of change,” she tells us. The book then spells out the recipe for change -- one that is powered by the ultimate "active ingredient": relationships.

Q & A with Sara Langworthy

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Sara Langworthy by video conference. I found her to be every bit as warm, caring, and genuine in conversation as she is in her book. Our conversation inspired me to want to explore a couple of the issues raised in her book in greater depth, so I followed up with her by e-mail, asking her if she’d mind answering a couple of additional questions for me. What follows are my questions and her answers.

Your book really emphasizes the potential for early childhood educators and others working with young children to transform children’s lives through the power of relationship. What do you want these professionals to know about their impact and importance? 

I think this question raises such an important point about the hard work of early care providers: They are often forgotten. Because children are so young when they are in early childhood settings, they often don't remember their teachers in the same way that they'll go on to remember their teachers later in life. It's also tough because early care providers don't often get to see how their kiddos turn out when they grow older. Providers don't get to know if the children they cared for went off to college, got an awesome job, or had families of their own. They don't get to see the effect they had on those children blossom over time. 

But we know from the research on early relationships that those connections are some of the most formative and important for later health, achievement and wellness. The multitude of hours care providers spend working hard to connect with and teach young children - even and especially those children who are hard to work with - are hugely important for setting kids up for success later on. Even though children may not remember you, your care, attention, and teaching have long-lasting effects on who they grow to be. 

You also talk about the importance of self-care. What advice would you offer to professionals who are tempted to put self-care on the back burner?

Self-care can be so hard! I'm no expert in effective self-care myself, but one thing I hear over and over again is that it's impossible to care well for others if you are not caring for yourself first. But even if you agree with that sentiment, it can be really hard to operationalize self-care in your own life. It can feel selfish or indulgent to take that time to care for your own needs, be they physical, emotional, intellectual, or social when there are so many others in need your care and attention. But truly, you are only able to be your professional best when you give yourself the time and attention you need to be your personal best.

One important point about self-care: it looks different for everyone. The self-care activities might be different (time with friends, getting a massage, taking a night off, watching a movie, going for a run, seeing a therapist, etc.). But also the amount of time you spend on self-care to feel at your best might be different from other people. That's okay! I tend to think that I actually need more self-care time than a lot of people to remain balanced. I have a hard time not feeling guilty about that, but I'm learning that taking that time for myself makes me more effective in my work AND in my play. 

You're also never going to get it right all the time. That's okay too! Give yourself permission to fall down and mess up sometimes. Despite feeling like I was pretty good at maintaining balance and taking care of myself, I learned in a really big way recently that I needed some recalibration of my own. I wrote about it over on my blog on Medium, but essentially it took falling into a pit to realize that everything was not okay. I'm still working my way out of that pit, but I'm learning so much about myself and what I need in terms of self-care because of that experience. Know that just because you mess up (and you will mess up), it doesn't mean you're a permanent failure, or that you're not worthy of the care you need to feel better in your own life. Take that time in the ways you need. That is MORE than just okay. It's essential. 

 

Reviewed by Ann Douglas, author, Parenting Through the Storm.

It's Okay to Say No -- or "Not Right Now"

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Feeling maxed out? Wish someone would write you a permission note that you could politely present to anyone who even dares to think about demanding anything more of you right now?

Consider this blog post that note of permission: confirmation that it's okay to say no or (at a minimum) "not right now."

You're not being selfish.

You're engaging in self-preservation.

And that's one of the least selfish things you can do as the parent of a child who is struggling

I got to thinking about these things after speaking to a friend this morning -- a friend who is having a really hard time. The load she is carrying at the best of times is a heavy one -- and her load just got a whole lot heavier. The only way she's going to get through the next few weeks is by saying "no" vehemently and often.

But, here's the thing: sometimes we default to saying yes even though we need to say no, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of other people we love.

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I recently had the opportunity to discuss the how and why of saying no with another friend of mine, Susan Newman, psychologist and author of The Book of No.

I asked her to talk about why it's so important to master the art of saying no when you have a child who is struggling. 

Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Why is it so critical that parents who have a child who is struggling master the art of saying no?

So much of your time, worry, and emotional energy automatically focus on a child who is struggling with an illness of any sort—be it physical or mental. Saying no for a parent is a form of self-protection and psychological survival…and ultimately a boon to your child’s wellbeing. 

There are times when even you need a break—a few hours to spend with friends, to connect with your partner, or to be with yourself quietly. A no to whatever the demand or request often gives you that time to decompress, think through problems and essentially shore up the inner resources you need to handle whatever comes next and make good decisions for your child. 

A further benefit of saying no specifically to your child is that you gain the child’s respect and eventually his trust. A no tells him, especially when the outcome is positive, that you have his or her best interests at heart.

What happens when we don’t say no often enough — or we talk ourselves into saying yes, even though our heart is telling us we really need to be saying no?

When you don’t say no as frequently as you should or would like, you begin to feel as if you have no control over events or your child. That can begin to feel overwhelming and all consuming. More often than not a parent’s instincts are correct. If you feel you should be saying no, then you probably should.

By avoiding nos you run the risk of losing yourself and feeling trapped, at the mercy of your child who is dealing with her own problems. You could find yourself unable to cope and being out of control yourself can leave you unable to manage the situation, be sympathetic, or clear-headed enough to find the resources you need or make good choices for your son or daughter

What are our biggest fears about saying no — and what can we do to address those fears?

One of the biggest fears is that a no will make the situation of the moment worse or that your child will be upset and resort to the very behaviors or feelings we are trying to avoid. When your nos are used judiciously and couched in terms of what might be a solution or comfort or empathy, the nos will likely be more accepted without a long lasting downside.

Perhaps the biggest fear for all parents is that our child will not like or love us. When you factor in that most parents don’t want to disappoint their children—common thinking today—refusing a child becomes all the more difficult. The reality is that whatever you say no to will probably be forgotten in next hour or so—even a few minutes later with younger children. Nos said kindly while acknowledging a child’s disappointment or anger, will not jeopardize your relationship with your child. 

In what ways is saying no an act of kindness to yourself — and to others, too?

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Each of us had only so much physical and emotional energy. Well-placed, strategic nos help to conserve energy so it’s available when you need it. Saying no to a request or conduct you disapprove of will hopefully keep you calm and better able to address and cope with your child’s issues. 

Amazingly, the word no is freeing: it “buys” you precious time and keeps the boundaries you set for yourself, for your child and others secure; it teaches children, especially those with a mental challenge that there are rules that need to be followed, conduct that is expected. No is powerful in the positive developments it often helps to create, allowing you to work toward the solutions you seek. That can only feel good. Being kind to yourself is in the end the same as being kind to and supportive of your child.

Looking for additional insights into the joys and challenges of a parenting a child who is struggling? Find out more about my book Parenting Through the Storm.