Tears, tantrums and tousles are just some of the frustrations parents face every day. While you try your best to remain patient and loving, it's tough to keep your cool.
Diffusing stressful situations and discussing delicate subjects with your children is no easy task for parents, but sticking to a script could make it easier. Parenting experts Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright believe they have the exact words to handle any predicament.
The most common well-meaning mistake Julie and Heather see parents make when disciplining their kids is to state a limit or rule first, before trying to understand the state of mind or dilemma the child is experiencing.
Instead, they use a three-step 'ALP' method–attune, limit set, problem-solve–to teach parents how to handle nearly any frustrating situation, which is the framework used in their latest book.
“You can’t skip right to the rule without first trying to understand where they’re coming from. That’s not just about being nice, it’s about the fact that when you start with empathy, your limits are going to be received more easily,” Heather says.
We sat down with the parenting experts to get their advice on what to say in some real-life parenting quandaries.
Dilemma #1: Your toddler has a tantrum in a shop because you didn't buy them something
As long as your child isn’t hurting herself or anyone else, you’d start by attuning to her and saying “I know you really want that thing, I understand that”. The bigger the emotion, the more you want them to know you understand.
If the child is having a physical tantrum, we recommend trying to scoop them up gently and take them to a quiet place–maybe tell them, “I’m going to take you to the car so we can talk.” You want them to know we’re going to have these conversations in a private, quiet space.
When the child’s experiencing a full-on tantrum, you have to wait for it to pass before you can move beyond the A-step.
The next step is to set a limit. In this instance, there’s not a big limit to set other than reiterating you're not going to buy the thing they want, and you wouldn’t set a limit around the fact they had a tantrum.
You could say “I said I’m not going to buy that thing because we just went to the store and bought food for dinner tonight.” It's good to give a reason when you can because you want your kids to know you’re not just arbitrarily issuing rules: There are reasons for the limits you make or set.
Then you can move onto the problem-solving step, which in this case might be, “What can we do next? Should we turn on funny music and sing songs on the way home?” It might just be a bit of distraction because there’s no real solving that dilemma. Depending on the age of the child, you could suggest the child starts saving money to purchase the item they want.
The P-step is when you get creative and either solve the dilemma or help our child recover from the emotions. If you don't allow your children to have these feeling, this makes tantrums more frequent. We want to see emotions as storms: They come and go and they’re OK. The more OK you are with big feelings, the less scary they become and the less power they have over you.
Dilemma #2: Your new partner is moving in with you and your children
This would be quite a journey to take with your partner, by allowing your partner to see how you talk to your children and trying to get them to emulate it. It would grow out of trying to instil respect for that person in your children and that person would have to earn their respect.
If you’re kind, empathetic and really want to understand, almost anyone will respond to you. It will grow from your partner learning how to talk to your kids and your kids learning to trust them.
Dilemma #3: One child is sick, their sibling is getting less attention and sibling rivalry rears its head
You would start by empathising with the child getting less attention: "I know things feel really different. Your sister is sick and needs so much attention from us right now and this feels weird, doesn’t it?"
You might even ask if it feels a little scary, maybe they're worried or feel unsettled, and acknowledge the household is off balance. It’s the opposite of telling your kid to behave because your sister’s sick.
When you empathise with people, they soften and are able to hear what happens next. The next steps become so much easier because they feel like they’re on your side.
Dilemma #4: Your child is bullying another
Start by asking your child questions to help them stay in a non-defensive state. If you’re asking questions in an accusatory a way, they won't feel open to talking about it.
This is called the investigative approach: You don’t know the answers and you’re just opening up the discussion and trying to understand. That way, you can get to what’s underneath, which is often important with bullying.
You don’t want to just tell our kids not to be mean, you want to find out what they’re trying to accomplish by being mean. It's usually because they don’t have the skills to make friends, or how to get involved in a game or they feel left out and try to provoke people to get a reaction. They could also be angry about something at home so they’re taking it out on someone else.
If you approach it as: “I don’t know what’s going on, but let’s figure it out together,” you'll get a lot more information from them.
Dilemma #5: Your kids are arguing in the back of the car
Pull the car off to the side of the road because you’re going to need to talk to them. The whole idea is to get you all on the same team. You could say, “I know it’s really hard for you to be so close together for as long as this drive is taking, but we do need to get to our destination, so who has an idea for how this can work better?”
Engage their ideas: If they can think of a game to play or suggest turning on some music and singing, do that. The overall idea is to engage their cooperation rather than reprimanding them for their behaviour.
Dilemma #6: Your child wants to know how babies are made
Those moments are opportunities to give clear, factual information that’s age-appropriate. It’s probably the parents’ embarrassed reaction to the question that would make the occasion stand out.
It depends on your child's age and what you’ve explained to them so far, but it’s better to start talking about sex early, making those conversations really normal and responding to a question when your child shows interest in the topic. You have usually about 30 seconds to respond to those questions before they move onto something else, so provide real information and know it's going to come in short bursts over time.
Dilemma #7: You're trying to establish bedtime
We like to help parents with sleep from an early age, so parents are setting an early bedtime within the first year of life. We recommend parents get some good, healthy bedtimes going. If you set a 7 pm bedtime for babies aged three or four months, those kids can keep that early bedtime until they’re in school.
It’s about building a family philosophy towards sleep–we try to get parents to have good sleep hygiene and habits and get the family to respect rest.
Parents can always establish these habits later on if they haven’t done it early. Half an hour before bed, the bedtime routine should begin as a pleasurable, wind-down time to connect and which you look forward to. This can help create a regular bedtime and gives parents time to themselves.
Dilemma #8: Someone close to your child passes away
It depends on the age of your child, as they might not understand death until they’re 10 to 12, depending on the child. If it’s age appropriate, let them know what death means, how it makes us feel when someone dies and how we can hold onto their memory: You can think about them, draw pictures of them and look at photos of them.
It's best not to tell them, “Your grandma got sick and we’ll never see her again,” because they might worry when you get sick that you’ll die too.
It’s usually better to use the word ‘died’ but some people aren’t comfortable using that word, so it depends on how you usually speak about death and what feels natural in your family.
Dilemma #9: You're going away for a week-long work trip without your kids
Children do really well with tangible examples, so tell them where you were going, why, for how long and show them pictures of where you'll be. You could even create a calendar together and let them mark off the days you’re gone.
When we go on trips, we make little strips of paper into rings and a paper chain, so our kids can tear off a ring after each day we're gone. It’s very simple and because it’s so tangible, they can see how many days it’ll be before we're back.
'Now Say This: The right words to solve every parenting dilemma' by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright is on sale now from Scribe Publications.