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 latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be 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.

Mindful Parenting

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Ann Douglas, author of Parenting Through the Storm, explores the mental health benefits (to you and your child) of making conscious and deliberate parenting choices.

Your four year old is having a meltdown in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. You’re feeling frustrated and embarrassed. If only there were an escape key you could hit to remove yourself from this situation just long enough to regain your cool….

Guess what? There is a way to hit the parenting pause button before you say or do something you might regret later on. It’s called mindful parenting and it is one of the most powerful and effective techniques I know for dealing with the day-to-day frustrations of parenting.

Mindful parenting is all about making conscious and deliberate parenting choices—as opposed to reacting without thinking (something that can happen pretty easily when your mind is being flooded with emotion). 

According to a group of psychologists from the University of California, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania State University who have researched mindful parenting extensively, mindful parenting involves listening with full attention; practicing non-judgmental acceptance of yourself and your child; being aware of your emotions and your child’s emotions in the moment; and having compassion for yourself and your child. 

Let’s consider how each of these four pieces fits into the mindful parenting puzzle and what this means to you, in practical terms, as you’re trying to make peace with your child in the cereal aisle.

  1. Listening with full attention. Listening with full attention means really tuning into what your child is saying: listening to what she is saying and how she is saying it. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language are key. What you want to do is figure out what your child is trying to tell you and what she needs from you so that you can figure out what to do to help her to manage her out-of-control emotions. It’s important to look beyond the obvious. Your child may be asking for a particular brand of cereal, but she may actually be telling you something else entirely: perhaps that she’s had it up to here with running errands this morning. (That long line at the bank may have maxed out her patience an hour ago. Likely, yours, too.)
  2. Practicing non-judgmental acceptance. What you’re trying to do here is resist the urge to judge yourself and your child harshly—something that only serves to ramp up the amount of negative emotion you’re experiencing (making it even more difficult for you to respond rationally to an already tough situation). So, instead of telling yourself that you’re the worst parent in the world or that your kid is a spoiled brat, simply observe (non-judgmentally!) what’s going on: “We’ve had a busy morning. My child needs a break and so do I.”
  3. Acknowledging what you and your child are feeling. It’s important to acknowledge and accept your child’s emotions as well as your own. You may find it works well to work through this process with your child, if only to verify that you’ve read her emotions correctly. For example, you might say to your child, “It looks like you need a break. Know what? Me, too! We’ve been running around all morning and we’ve both tired and hungry.” Your child is likely to respond well to what you’re saying. Having your emotions validated by another human being always feels great—and, if it turns out that you’ve misread what she’s feeling, no worries: you’ve given her the chance to set the record straight.
  4. Treating yourself and your child with compassion. Treating yourself with self-compassion basically means treating yourself with the same kindness that you would extend to a friend who was struggling. You wouldn’t tell a friend that she was a bad parent because her child was having a meltdown in the cereal aisle. You would acknowledge that she’s doing the best that she can in a difficult situation—and then you would encourage her to take action to make the situation better. So be your own best friend and cut yourself some slack. Not only will you feel less stressed and less judged (that critical voice in our own heads can be pretty nasty): you’ll feel greater compassion toward your child, something that makes parenting immeasurably easier.

So what are the benefits of taking a mindful approach to parenting? 

There are plenty, for both you and your child.

You’ll feel like a more competent and in-control parent. Because you’re making conscious and deliberate parenting decisions (decisions that support your big-picture parenting goals), you will tend to make better parenting decisions and to feel better about those decisions after the fact.

Your child will feel cared for and heard. She will feel reassured that her feelings make sense, she will be encouraged her to turn to you for support the next time she’s feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and she will learn to treat herself and others with self-compassion (a powerful lesson with far-reaching consequences).

It’s important to know upfront that mindful parenting can take a bit of practice. When you first start to implement these principles, you may find yourself becoming acutely aware of those times when your parenting efforts miss the mark. You’ll hear yourself saying something harsh and judgmental about yourself or your child in your own head—and then you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re trying to remember to suspend judgment and to treat yourself and your child with self-compassion. This is a good thing (although it can feel kind of rotten in the moment). Recognizing where there’s room for improvement means that you’re well on your way to understanding and implementing this new approach to parenting—and that it won’t be long at all before mindfulness becomes second nature.

This article originally appeared in Local Parent magazine.

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Four Simple Yet Powerful Things You Can Do Right Now to Start Making Things Better for Your Child

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Your child is going through a difficult time. You don’t quite know what’s at the root of her woes, but you do know that you want to do something to help. Fortunately, there are a number of practical things you can do, starting right now, to help make things better for your child. Here are four ideas.

1. Ask yourself, "What does my child need from me right now?"
Parenting can be exhausting—and meeting the needs of a child who is angry or upset can require an extraordinary amount of patience. You will find it easier to be patient with your child—to zero in on the best ways of handling a particular situation as opposed to getting stuck in your own feelings of helplessness or frustration—if you pause to ask yourself one key question: "What does my child need from me right now?" That simple question really cuts to the chase of things by helping you to shift your focus from how you are feeling to what you can do to help.

2. Validate your child’s feelings.
Validating your child’s feelings means letting your child know that what she is thinking and feeling makes sense, even if you don’t share that exact same perspective yourself. You might tell your child, for example, that it makes sense that she is afraid of thunderstorms. Everyone is afraid of sudden, loud noises. Validating your child’s emotions will encourage her to accept her feelings rather than trying to avoid them (which only serves to make those unwanted feelings more intrusive). And it is an effective strategy for calming an upset child. Knowing that she has been heard and that her feelings have been accepted will make it easier for her to shift from emotion to problem-solving mode.

3. Be a calming presence.
Of course, one of the most powerful things you can do to calm an upset child is to be a calming presence yourself. Think back to when you were a child—how good it felt to be hugged or held by someone who made you feel safe and secure. You can be this kind of stabilizing force for your child while she works at managing her own emotions.

4. Practice self-compassion.
Treat yourself with the same kindness that you would extend to a friend who is struggling. Not only will you be modeling this all-important skill for your child (the art of cutting yourself some slack when you’re having a really bad day): you will also find it is easier to extend these same feelings of kindness and compassion towards your child—the ultimate parenting win!

Related:

This article originally appeared at Toronto4Kids.com.

Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between (a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge). She is also an engaging and inspiring speaker who sparks important conversations about parenting and mental health.