I am going to make a guess that Dr. Laura Markham is a fan of to-do lists. Her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids is filled page-after-page with bulleted lists of what one can do to help guide their child (or children) to have more empathy for themselves and others. I too am a lover of lists and good advice and, so, I devoured this book. If you’d like to check out my notes, I will leave a link to them and other resources at the end of this post.
The book is broken into three main sections. The first is focused on how we can learn to regulate ourselves. The second part is dedicated to how we can foster a connection with our children. And the third section is titled: “Coaching, Not Controlling.”
Starting With Ourselves
When I say it out loud or when you read the book, it sounds like common sense – but sometimes we need to get hit with some common sense. To help guide our children (or be in any kind of relationship we care about), we have to start with ourselves. If something triggers our anger, resentment or some other emotion we need to be with that emotion. Not make ourselves feel wrong or bad for having that emotion. We certainly can’t respond positively from that place.
To start with ourselves means that we have to find ways to make sure our “fuel tank” is full. As Rumi put it, we have to make regular visits to ourselves. How often do you check in on how you’re feeling? If our fuse is short and we have no patience left then we won’t be able to be available to our children, spouses, friends, co-workers … etc. This isn’t covered in the book for very long (could be it’s own book!), but it’s a foundation on which the rest of the sections rely on. So, the takeaway: find ways to center yourself.
For me, I look to meditation especially the RAIN exercise. And, not being shy to call out for help.
A Real Life Example by Littlest Martha and her Little
Not that long ago I was a single parent for a few weeks (huge shout out to all the single parents! All the props!!). It was Sunday and I wanted to make my kiddo pancakes. Ok, I wanted pancakes. I had a premix of batter (healthy stuff that was in the pantry unused for a reason) and frozen bananas.
Banana pancakes on Sunday morning! What a lovely way to start the day. But, as an interim single parent of a toddler, I needed the television to keep him calm. Good in theory but he can talk now and has opinions. The show I choose wasn’t good enough. He wanted a particular episode but couldn’t tell me which one. He could whine and say: “NOT THAT ONE!”
Now, did I mention that I can’t cook? I can burn things really well. And so I was par for the course with my regular cooking technique as the pancake batter was sticking to the pan and yet when I flipped a flapjack I could see chunks of it were totally raw. It wasn’t working out. In the trash it went.
Not ready to give in I decide to make eggs. I can, usually, make eggs. But not that morning. I broke the egg yolk (which is criminal when you want sunny-side-up eggs) and got shells in the pan. And I wasn’t attending to the kiddo so he was in full meltdown mode. Eggs in the trash. TV off. Bad move with the TV. He was crying so hard his face broke into red bumps and had the couldn’t-breathe-gasps. My heart was broken: I suck as a mom. I sure as shit can’t cook. This isn’t working.
I scooped up the kiddo and we moved to another room (away from the TV and kitchen) — our collective triggers. This made him even more upset (didn’t know we could go to an 11!) as I wasn’t addressing his wants of putting on a program of his liking. But I held him close to me and put on my meditation timer for two minutes. I asked him to take deep breaths with me. That we both needed to calm down.
Since he’s a toddler I really exaggerated the breathing by pushing my stomach all the way out and making loud whooshing sounds for each inhale and exhale. The first minute he resisted but the last minute he gave in. The tears slowed, the rash faded and his breathing became a little bit more normal. We were seeing each other again. I don’t remember what I said to him but I remember being present and showing him that I cared. After that we had cereal and watched a show together.
BUT I also, in the midst of the crying (his and mine), reached out for help. Grandparents PapaJaja (as they are known as one entity in our household) were going to come for a visit in the afternoon. I texted them that if they wanted to come earlier it would be most appreciated. It was intended as a joke but JaJa knew a cry for help and they were there within the hour. She urged me to go and do something for myself. She taught me about the value of having a full tank so we can give of ourselves to others. When we’re on empty those around us get the dregs.
So I did. I went to a coffee shop. All by myself. It was heaven. Thank you again, PapaJaJa.
Fostering A Connection
The time we spend with our kiddos is always special. We know that. Here comes that common sense wallop again. When with our kids are we present? Are we fostering a connection with our littles? Maybe. Sometimes?
Dr. Markham has taken considerable time to provide guidance on how we can carve out at least 15 minutes each day with the focus being to reconnect. In those 15 minutes, screens are not allowed and that includes cell phones for parents. “Special Time,” as she calls it, is every day and it alternates from when the play is lead by the child and when parents can choose the activity.
When we have an opportunity to guide the play we can roleplay whatever emotional gunk that is being worked out in the household at that time: the fun of sharing, the fun of listening, hitting isn’t nice … etc., etc.
Fostering a connection is valuable onto itself but goes a long way to build trust. And then, when the tantrums flare up our children know they can come to us for guidance.
“Coaching, Not Controlling”
Yes, yes. Whatever we need to call it, Doctor. Teach me how I can get my kid to behave in restaurants and grocery stores!
Well, full disclosure – the book doesn’t provide guidance on specific examples like what I mentioned above but she does provide the tools we need to help our children cope with what they are feeling. (And then I did a search and found an article on her website. Yes, yes she does provide guidance for specific examples like parenting in public.)
Let’s take a step back, please. Dr. Markham has a lovely quote in her book that helps frame how we can rethink about how we raise our kiddos.
“Although discipline means “to guide,” in common usage it always seems to include an element of chastisement or making the child feel bad along with guidance. To change our thinking, we need to change our wording beyond “discipline,” which most of us associate with harsh teaching. Instead, let’s offer our child loving guidance.”
There. Right there — the book’s essence in two words.
If we can help children understand and accept their emotions just as they are and do so with loving guidance then we’re more than halfway there. The trick (per the book, and I’ve started to witness already) is that once the tiny human has recognized the feeling then the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. (TIP: This can happen with adults too. Being able to learn how to label emotions as they arise can help you navigate aspects of our adult life too.)
Fun Fact! The lifespan of an emotion is less than 90 seconds!
This Fun Fact is brought to you by brain scientist and author Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr. Markham doesn’t mention Taylor in her book but I have to share the 90-second rule with you.
According to Taylor: “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.”
If we can understand and apply the 90-second rule in our lives then we can start to see an impact on our children.
Dr. Markham understands that children are always listening to us. In much of the book, she provides examples of how we can narrate for our children. Something as simple as: “You are so mad at your brother.” Then, once the emotion has been labeled it loses some of its staying power and we can shift on to how to help our child problem solve the situation they are in.
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids is filled with tips, exercises, and anecdotes on how to help children feel safe with their emotions and develop their emotional intelligence. And, if you’ve not realized by now, I do recommend picking up a copy. The following are two exercises we’ve implemented in our house and we love them.
Swapping “Stop Whining” with “Strong Voice”
The high-pitch frequency of a kid’s whine is like nails on a chalkboard for parents (and maybe all adults?). According to Dr. Markham:
Remember that whining is an expression of powerlessness. Refusing to hear until they use a big kid voice further invalidates them. But you don’t want to reward the whining by “giving in”, so instead consider this exercise (inspired by Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting”: Hey, where did your strong voice go? It was here a moment ago. I LOVE your strong voice! I’ll help you find it. Help me look. Is it under the chair? No … in the toy box? No. HEY! I found it! That was your strong voice. Yay! Welcome back strong voice. Now, please tell me again what you needed, in your strong voice.”
The kinda crummy part is that we often hear the whining when we’re scurrying around (i.e. trying to leave for work). So doing the exercise at a time when already stressed and feeling pressed for time may feel counter-intuitive.
However, having done the exercise enough times we can often ask our kiddo where his strong voice went and he will revert back to using his words. Of course, now our little guy knows he can use his strong voice to demand things: “Mom, I want ice cream! for brekfest!”
Now to find re-visit the chapter on setting boundaries. But, hey, cup half-full here: there has been a reduction in the whining!
Keeping YOUR Cool During A Child’s Meltdown
You’re in it now. Not sure what happened but the kid is having a meltdown and you’re in the middle of it. Big tears (crocodile or not) are flowing freely. Eyelids are red and puffy and for whatever reason, your child forgot how to swallow and has reverted to a stage of drooling you’ve not seen since they were an itty-bitty. The following list includes some things to try and remember and do to get and stay calm.
- Acknowledge your own feelings
- Remind yourself that it isn’t an emergency
- Remind yourself that expressing feelings is a good thing
- Take the pressure off
- Take a deep breath and choose love
- Tolerate the emotion without taking action
- Find a way to process your own feelings
Keep it simple. Your child needs you to to witness her outpouring of emotion and let her know that she is still lovable, despite all these yucky feelings. Explanations, negotiations, remorse, recriminations, advice, analysis of why she’ so upset, or attempts to “comfort” her (“There, there, you don’t have to cry, that’s enough”) will all shut down this natural emotive process. Don’t force her to express herself in words; she doesn’t have access to the rational brain when she’s so upset. Of course, you want to “teach” but that needs to wait. Your child can’t learn until she’s calm. You don’t have to say much. Your calm, loving tone is what matters. Intead, consider the following expressions:
- You are safe. I am right here.
- I hear you. Everybody needs to cry sometimes.
- you’re telling me to go away, so I will move back a little bit, but I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings
- When you’re ready, I’m right here for you.
I remember instances where I’m trying to tell him why X wasn’t a good idea when he was gulping for air between sobs. Those messages didn’t land, especially since all he wanted was to feel safe, not made to feel wrong or bad on top of it. So I find the expressions listed useful and liberating as I now know that the first priority is to just be there for my little guy.
Thank you, Reader, for hanging on this long. I hope the information helps you and inspires you to take time for yourself (if you’re a parent or not) and to look to your (or your child’s) emotions as messengers and not something we have to push down and avoid.
Ir reading my little chapbook blog post didn’t tucker you out, here are some other fantastic resources that you may want to check out.
- My notes on Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. CliffNotes, Littlest Martha edition.
- AhParenting.com — Dr. Laura Markham’s website is filled with tons of articles, scripts and other resources
- Noting Emotions Exercise — An exercise on how to label (or note) emotions
- How to understand your emotions and broadening your emotional vocabulary — An article from the Harvard Business Review
- When Labeling an Emotion Quiets It — A post from The Dana Foundation
- Why Labeling Emotions Matters — An article from Psychology Today
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk