HOW I STOPPED BEING AN ANGRY PARENT (most of the time…)

I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park.  But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times.  And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old??

Yep, who knew that a two-year old could unearth such an extraordinary amount of pain?  Pain that had laid unexpressed and buried since my childhood. 

But here’s the thing; the realisation of this and the gradual unpacking and coming to terms with it has been transforming.  It has ultimately led to strengthened and more connected relationships with all of my children and a generally happier parenting experience.   

It’s not the easiest of topics to delve into and be open about.  But I feel strongly about being authentic about all aspects of parenthood; being real about the nitty-gritty of the whole process, not just the end result or pretty bits. 

So here goes…


Our first child was pretty compliant and easy going from the start.  Partly down to his temperament, I expect, but he also had that huge advantage of doting first-time-parent attention – no doubt further intensified by the huge gratitude I felt for being present with him at all after coming close to not surviving his birth.

So, when he reached the age when daily routine things had to be done – teeth brushing, for example – it was no big deal.   He would generally comply, or at least, be easily encouraged through silly games or songs or giggles.

Our second child, not so much.  A bright, independent, happy little girl, until aged around 18 months she learnt the joy of saying ‘no’ and identified many things she’d rather not do, brushing teeth included.  She would gleefully, point-blank refuse to co-operate.

It was a bit of a shock, and I guess the truth is, it seriously threatened our ‘good’ parenting status. 

On a good day, I would be mildly irritated, but on a bad day, particularly in the evenings when I was low on energy and resources, there were times I would completely see red.  It made me livid!  How dare she not comply!  How dare she disobey and disrespect me!  I surely could not let her ‘get away’ with such disrespectful behaviour!

The more we tried to clamp down and coerce her into ‘behaving’, the worse it seemed to get. 

The power struggles increased, and I noticed that we started talking about her somewhat negatively and throwing around comments about her being ‘feisty’, ‘stubborn’, having a ‘difficult’ side.

But I knew at the back of my mind something wasn’t quite right.  I would reflect sometimes on the degree of anger she seemed to be able to elicit from me and I would feel quite shaken.  I knew, deep down, that the strength of my feeling was irrationally disproportionate to anything this beautiful, tiny, innocent girl could have ‘done’ to have caused this.

Things came to a head one day during a crazy, and looking back now, quite embarrassing stand-off we were having in the bathroom – over yes, teeth brushing.   We had done with the yelling match and were sat silently side-by-side, both refusing to ‘give-in’.   I was ruminating on a traumatic week of endless power struggles – and school runs, where in order to get my eldest to school, I’d had to carry this poor girl kicking and screaming under one arm, whilst pushing our new-born in the buggy with the other.

But this time, instead of feeling enraged that she was ‘making’ me feel so angry by her stubborn behaviour, I felt only deep helplessness, despair and sadness.  Helplessness and despair that despite all my knowledge and training I was still a rubbish parent and couldn’t ‘control’ my children.  Sadness that we’d somehow got to this point, and though I loved her deeply nothing about the way I was behaving was showing her this.

And that was when it dawned on me.  This was not about her at all. 

It was about me and the tangled mess of buried emotions that were being triggered.

You see anger is just the surface emotion.  It is a less vulnerable and bizarrely more ‘acceptable’ emotion than fear, sadness, worry, hurt, disappointment, rejection and so on.   Underneath the anger are all the feelings we learnt as children were not allowed to be expressed, or felt too painful to be expressed, or caused our own parents’ distress or discomfort.

We learn to bury them, until along comes our own child, who’s behaviour evokes exactly those painful memories and feelings we’d been trying so hard to ignore.

My parents were not intentionally unkind but they were strict and I was scared of them.  So, every time my daughter refused to cooperate, one of the things it triggered was my unexpressed childhood pain of all the times I was too scared to do the same.  I wasn’t allowed to behave like that, so how dare she?!

I know now that my reaction deeply disturbed her.  And often when children are scared, they will keep repeating the same behaviours to test for a better response; they desperately need our calm control, our calm knowing and reassurance that we will keep them safe however they are feeling.  Repeatedly pushing a limit is the only way they know to attempt to establish something that feels safer and somewhere they can feel properly heard.

Very often, our reactions to our children are so automatic that we convince ourselves that we have no control over them.  We blame our child’s difficult nature that ‘makes’ us feel and respond a certain way, or simply believe that it’s just part of our personality and there’s little we can do about it.   And this is where I was; I had barely even considered that I had a choice.

But we always have a choice about how we respond and behave.  It doesn’t always feel like it, and it’s definitely not easy, but we do have a choice. 

Our children, on the other hand, absolutely do not.  They will eventually learn to find ways to deal with their emotions from experience and modelling us, but in the meantime, they are predominantly dinosaur-brain driven.  It is our job then, to bring the logic and rational thinking to the table, and to act as this part of their brain for them during the times that they lose it and cannot control themselves.

Which unfortunately means it’s also our job to be responsible for our emotions and learn to handle them.  And I’ve come to realise now that the biggest part of this is understanding where these feelings are coming from.    Not so much in terms of specifically what’s triggering them from our personal history or experience, but understanding on a much broader and fundamental level how our minds work and who we really are underneath our psychology.  It sounds kind of magical and to-good-to-be-true I know, but honestly,  once we get this and truly see how it works, everything begins to shift and starts to look so much easier and simpler. 

HELPING KIDS WITH SCARY THOUGHTS

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HOW I STOPPED BEING AN ANGRY PARENT (most of the time…)

I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park. But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times. And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old?? Yep, who knew that a…

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I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions. And one of the biggest tends to be that...
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DO PEACEFUL PARENTS LET THEIR KIDS DO AS THEY PLEASE?

I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions.

And one of the biggest tends to be that advocates of this type of parenting do not set any limits or boundaries; they are too ‘nice’ to their kids even when they’re ‘naughty’, and their kids rule the roost and do as they please.

So, is this indeed the case? 

Well, yes and no, but mainly NO! 

Why?  Because setting limits and boundaries is absolutely considered important.  It’s just that the aim is to do so in as peaceful and gentle manner as can be mustered.

But I get it, it’s confusing.  In fact, it was properly getting to grips with this that helped me make the biggest leap in terms of my own parenting confidence.  So let me explain.

As much as you may not want to label yourself as a certain type of parent (me definitely included!), the nature of your day-to-day actions and behaviour with your kids inevitably means that your parenting does fall under some category or other.   Psychologists have spent many, many thousands of hours researching and categorising and describing parenting types (again, me included) and over the years a brain-numbing array of variations have been proposed.

And one of the most long-standing and commonly known ways of examining differences is to assess the degree of control and degree of warmth parents demonstrate toward their offspring.

So, if we imagine a line representing a continuum of these traits, right at one end there is the ‘authoritarian’ style of parenting:

As it sounds, authoritarian parents enforce strict rules, punishments and consequences, and the kids behave because they wouldn’t dare not to and are pretty scared of their parents.  Authoritarian parenting by no means just refers to physical punishment – it also includes using threats of any kind and generally any method that subdues and scares the child into conforming and ‘behaving’.  This is still common practice and pretty much how the majority of us were raised.

But it’s at the other end of the scale where the confusion comes; the opposite of this type of parenting, is not peaceful or positive parenting, but passive parenting.

This is extremely different; passive parents are identified as high in warmth but low in control.  They don’t believe in punishment and they don’t want their children to be sad or distressed and so they find it hard to set limits.  They want to be friends with them and will do anything to keep the peace.

At the beginning of my parenting journey, I would probably have said I was trying to be somewhere in the middle; in ‘control’ and enforcing boundaries but also warm and responsive.  In reality, what tended to happen was that I’d lurch from one end to the other depending on my mood, energy and what the kids were doing. 

Despite my background and research experience in this very area, I look back now and realise I was extremely confused about what all this meant practically, and exactly how to apply it to real-life, fuzzy-headed, sleep-deprived day-to-day parenting.

All I knew was that I felt uncomfortable and out of alignment with any kind of ‘authoritarian’ way of parenting.  I kept noticing how much I disliked myself when I yelled or lost it, none of the countless strategies I tried made me feel good, and they didn’t even seem to be working or teaching anything.

And then it slowly started to dawn on me that parenting does not have to be about any degree of control at all; there are other ways to parent that don’t fit in with or belong anywhere on this continuum, approaches that focus on teaching, leadership and mutual respect.

And the ultimate light-bulb moment for me was the realisation that I actually had entirely faulty thinking about limit setting.  Somewhere along the line I had absorbed the belief that raising your voice and being cross and authoritative was the only way to set boundaries and to exert ‘control’.

Truly getting that this is not the case, totally turned my parenting around.

And then to dig deeper and to find that all the latest research coming from extensive brain studies is totally in line with this way of parenting – and in fact can guide us in exactly how to help bring up our children – was, and still is, immensely exciting.  How lucky are we to live in a time where we know how to best help our children’s developing brains rather than just muddling along and winging it? (See here.)

But to go back to the original point, a minor downside of an approach that strives to maintain respect, nurturing and emotional attunement throughout all interactions is that it can all to easily be misinterpreted as passive.

But as I said, a peaceful style of parenting is very different and cannot logically be placed anywhere on this spectrum at all:

Peaceful parenting differs from all approaches on this continuum because the underlying belief is that every child is born good and wanting to please, and therefore parenting is not about control but about developing an authentic, loving connection.  Children are viewed as doing the best they can and deserve to be respected as unique individuals with the same rights as adults.  As Dr. Seuss said, “A person is a person, no matter how small”.

And peaceful parenting differs specifically from passive parenting because proactive efforts to set limits and boundaries are definitely considered important.  In particular ones that allow you to teach your child safety and respect for other people.  For example, ‘No, it’s not okay to hit your brother.  It’s okay to feel cross with him and feel like you hate him, but it’s not okay to hurt.’

But unlike authoritarian parenting, the aim is always to set limits warmly and calmly.  Respecting a child as a whole person means avoiding coercing them into obedience, but instead gently leading them towards cultivating empathy, genuine values and an internal moral compass.

It is also important to mention that intrinsic to a peaceful parenting approach is a well-developed understanding and acceptance of emotions, both positive and negative.  A passive parent will do anything possible to avoid tantrums or tears, and go out of their way to appease their child to avoid these big emotions.

Peaceful approaches to parenting, on the other hand, welcome these emotions as healthy and healing, and often go as far as setting limits for the child to push against in order to help release tension and tears in a healthy and supported way (see here).

If you are interested in exploring this further, check out my short e-Book on tantrums here and I also highly recommend Kate Orson’s book, “Tears Heal” and “Born to Thrive” by Harvey Merriam.

HELPING KIDS WITH SCARY THOUGHTS

I was very struck by my 5-year old’s use of the word ‘dreams’ to describe the scary thoughts he was having about monsters before he went to sleep the other night. At first, when he said he was “scared of his dreams” I thought he meant he was scared to go to sleep...
Read More

UNDERSTANDING FEELINGS: PART 1

Here’s one of the most basic but USEFUL things to know about our kids (and ourselves) and to pass onto our kids.  But also one of the hardest to get and accept because of the way most of us have (innocently) been conditioned.   ALL FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE NORMAL AND...
Read More

ALLOWING PARENTING TO BE SIMPLER

I knew something had shifted when I stopped reading books about parenting approaches, strategies and techniques and stopped feeling the urge to write ‘how-to’ posts or step-by-step guides. And it wasn’t because I suddenly knew it all and everything was sunshine and...
Read More

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What if we treated our children like we do any other close, sacred relationship?   What if we didn't see them as inferior, but equal?   What if we trusted they have everything they need already, even before they arrive in this world?   What if we saw...
Read More

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A doctorate in child development and years of working with children and families did not prepare me for the sheer frustration and stress of feeding my own family. Three different children with three different preferences and three different eating patterns and bodily...
Read More

HOW I STOPPED BEING AN ANGRY PARENT (most of the time…)

I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park. But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times. And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old?? Yep, who knew that a…

Read More

DO PEACEFUL PARENTS LET THEIR KIDS DO AS THEY PLEASE?

I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions. And one of the biggest tends to be that...
Read More

HOW TO SET LIMITS THE KIND WAY

Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe...
Read More

IS YOUR PARENTING UP-TO-DATE? (WITH THE LATEST BRAIN SCIENCE)

It is probably true to say that most of us were brought up by parents who expected and enforced a pretty high degree of obedience and conformity to rules, and they did so by liberal use or threat of punishments and/or consequences. There is no judgement or blame…

Read More

HOW TO PREVENT TOYS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR HOUSE…AND YOUR SANITY

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of toys in your house? Do you struggle to find places to put them and to get your kids to help keep them tidy? Someone asked me the other day what my thoughts were on managing and tidying toys…

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HOW NOT TO POTTY TRAIN

I suspect that one of the problems for the old woman who lived in a shoe (and perhaps one of many reasons why her children were so unhappy and unruly), was that once she’d found a couple of approaches that worked with the first few of her children, she assumed it...
Read More

ARE YOU A CURIOUS PARENT? How To Ask Questions To Deepen Connection With Your Child

The other day my 7-year-old was engrossed in ‘den’ making and called for me to come and help tie a rope. I was mid making pancakes and knew that’d I’d be liable to char the lot if I allowed myself to be distracted. So I said, “Yes I will, in a minute, I’ve nearly finished”. He puffed in exasperation…

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EMERGENCY PARENTING: The One Word That Can Save The Day

Sibling world war 23756 breaks out just as I’m trying to get tea. I’m tired and frazzled from a long day and too many thoughts going on in my head and too long a gap since I last stopped to clear them. The cries and screams get louder and l can feel my heart rate increase and little bubbles of irritation start to expand in…

Read More

THE ONLY WAY TO AVOID WEEKDAY MORNING STRESS (for me, anyway)

The absolute game changer for me is getting up before the kids. A good amount of time before the kids. If I don’t, sometimes the morning goes okay, sometimes it doesn’t. But if I DO get up early, I can pretty much guarantee that it will. Why? Because whatever state the kids are in, it doesn’t matter…

Read More

HOW TO SET LIMITS THE KIND WAY

Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe and guide an internal sense of respect for their environment and community, as well as themselves and other people.

I am increasingly convinced that the less control and the more freedom we can give our children the better.  But as much as children need a calm, kind leader who respects their rights to independence of thought, feeling and action, they also need to know that they are safe and cared for.

If we do not help them manage their emotions and set some basic behavioural limits, they will end up feeling insecure and uncomfortable.   Limits around respect and safety are also vital in order for our own needs as parents to be met.

 

THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND BEFORE SETTING A LIMIT:

 

1. Make thoughtful decisions about which limits you will enforce. 

 

Try and ‘pick your battles’.  If you can, consider freeing them from as many arbitrary rules and restrictions as possibleOverly controlling and managing our children tends to be counter-productive and a better aim is to focus on helping them learn to be independent and trust themselves.

Will it teach or help them with something rather than being a random rule that you want them to follow because ‘you say so’?

Do you feel they ‘need’ this boundary for safety reasons?  For health reasons?  To show respect for the boundaries of others?  To help them feel your calm leadership and release emotional tension or big feelings?

Here’s two examples:

1.

For safety reasons (potential glass and sharp objects) I do not let my kids go out of the house without shoes where we currently live.  But I’m much more relaxed about coats; I trust that they will know if they are cold and will put it on when they are. 

2.

If my three-year-old demands a different cup to the one I’ve given, some days I’ll comply and other days I won’t.  If I’m not in a rush and neither of us are overly tired or hungry and I sense there is something he is holding onto and needs to release, I will maintain a gentle limit; ‘You’d really like your red cup, but I’m giving you the Thomas cup today’. 

Doing so will allow him to cry and let go of whatever emotional tension he’s holding onto and needs to get out (see below).  His request for a different cup is not about manipulation or stubbornness; it is the only way he knows at that moment to tell me he has big feelings about something (from earlier in the day or built up over time) that he needs to express in order to heal.  But if I sense it’s not a good time or I don’t have the energy to listen and support the emotional fall-out, it doesn’t matter.  Kids know how to heal themselves, and you can guarantee that he will find another opportunity to do so very soon (see here).

 

 

2. Do not worry about being religiously consistent

 

In-the-moment confidence and rational explanations are much more important than always feeling you need to enforce the same rules and limits (as in the cup scenario above).  Things change, moods change, everyone is different – and this is okay and a good thing, in fact, for our kids to learn.

Here’s an example:

Some days you might be up for supervising high energy bouncing games across the sofas and feel confident you can join in and keep everyone safe.  On another day, not so much, so just say it how it is; ‘sorry guys, no kangaroo games today, I’m feeling too tired to join in and keep you all safe.  How about you play on the trampoline or we play a board game instead?’

You may also choose not to set and enforce limits if you have guests or you are out in public, to avoid (as much as possible) making your child feel embarrassed or disrespected.  I’m not saying you should let them run wild, but if there is another way or another time, why not take that option.

I would advocate behaving this way even with very young children as they are absorbing much more from your daily interaction than is sometimes obvious.  Behave just as you would with a partner or friend; for example, out of respect, most of us would wait until we got home to point out or discuss something we didn’t like or felt was inappropriate rather than publicly shame them.

 

 

3. Is it a behaviour that could be re-directed rather than quashed?

 

Consider if you could avoid saying ‘no’ or setting a limit by re-directing the impulse.  A child who is throwing things around may simply need space to practise their lob.  This is particularly the case with younger children as their impulse control is so very immature and underdeveloped.

Rather than yelling and point blank shutting the behaviour down, could you try something like, “No I can’t let you throw that ball in here as there are breakable things.  Shall we go outside and throw balls in the hoop instead?” 

 

 

4. Can you use playfulness to turn things around?

 

If you have asked your child to do something you consider you ‘need’ them to do (e.g. put on their shoes) and they are ignoring you, could you try being playful or humorous before getting firm with a limit?

Be as creative as you can; use silly voices, pretend you don’t know how to put them on and keep doing it wrong, make it into a race, be a shoe monster who eats any shoes that are not on feet – you get the idea.   It’s surprising how much more fun the whole process becomes for you too, and your kids will feed off your relaxed playfulness and respond accordingly.

I try to only do this with things we ‘have’ to do, that are perhaps a bit tedious or dull – daily routine stuff like brushing teeth or tidying something away, for example.   It is usually not appropriate if your child is already cross or frustrated.  Trying to chivvy them out of a feeling is akin to trampling on that feeling and the opposite of being heard.  It would be similar to telling your friend how sad you are that your dog has died, and for them to respond with a ‘knock, knock’ joke to ‘cheer you up’!

 

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT WHILST YOU ARE SETTING A LIMIT:

 

 

1. State your limit warmly but decisively

 

You want to aim for a ‘calm and kind, but firm’ stance – think unruffled or picture someone you know who represents this state.  It can take a bit of practice to hard-wire, particularly if you’ve previously only set limits when you are already annoyed or triggered or exhausted from the repetitiveness of a testing behaviour.

Imagining it is somebody else’s child can also help (because they don’t tend to emotionally trigger you in the same way).  Or try viewing your child as if they are in physical pain (from a deep cut or something) as this helps distance yourself from irritation or thoughts that they are purposely being annoying or difficult.

 

 

2. Try not to shout, ‘act’ cross, get worked up or irritated  

 

You can still set and hold a limit just as effectively without doing these things.   In fact, if you are feeling frustrated and have lost access to your own rational brain, then addressing this first (if safe to do so) is a priority.  You will not be thinking clearly and will be unlikely to hold a limit with any degree of warmth.

We now know that shouting and yelling at a young brain doesn’t ‘work’ anyway; it activates their primitive fight-or-flight response  causing them to become further enraged and disconnected from their thinking brain (see here),

Bear in mind that even if you are not yelling or puffing smoke, a strangled huffy tone or a despairing, fed-up one will also send clear signals that you are not calm and centred.  As will towering over them, glaring, with hands on your hips!  Sorry, I know it does seem like it requires an impossibly unrealistic level of zen.   But this is only what you are aspiring to, it won’t happen all the time and neither does it matter.  It will gradually get easier and more automatic the more you practise.

 

 

3. Show that you understand their perspective

 

Not always possible I know, but if there is time and you can, showing empathy helps remind your child that you are not the enemy and you are on their side.  It is a natural response of all humans to resist being controlled, but knowing that we are understood helps a great deal to soften the blow.

Here are some examples:

I know you are having a lovely time, and now we have to leave 

I can see that you are cross, and I can’t let you hit your brother

I know you would really love an ice-cream, and we are not having ice-creams today.

 

 

4. If necessary, physically hold them

 

If you’ve clearly stated a limit as above and they continue to do something you deem unsafe or that you cannot allow (e.g. hurt someone, run away), you may have to physically step in.

As Harvey Merriam says, “Controlling our children should not be the first choice for intervening in their lives, but, if we do have to control them against their will, direct physical control is the way to go.” 

If they are trying to hit you (or others), block and hold their hands to gently restrain them.  Face them away from you on your lap if possible.  Let go as soon as they are no longer hitting, even if they are still angry.  You are only there to ensure safety, not to teach them a lesson or punish.  They are not hooligans or being ‘naughty’, they are in pain and not in control of themselves.

Speak minimally, if at all.  Gently murmuring that they are safe is the most you need to say (they won’t be able to absorb anything anyway) as your calmness and body language will do the rest of the talking.

 

5. Expect and welcome tears

Be prepared for your limit to unleash big feelings (or more big feelings).  This is not only okay but a normal part of the emotional healing process (see here for more on this).  Kids are allowed to have and express feelings in the same way as adults; they will undoubtedly be upset if we say they can’t have an ice cream, and that’s fair enough!  If their feelings are not allowed they gradually learn that there is a ‘bad’ part of them that is not acceptable which they learn to suppress.  These buried, unacknowledged feelings can be carried for many years and are often at the root of any number of later mental health issues.

So your job is just to listen with kindness and empathy to all these feelings.  Without, if possible, interrupting the flow by distracting, fixing, diverting, leaving, ignoring, soothing or shushing.  Sounds pretty easy?  It’s not!  At first, anyway – it’s amazing how habitual trying to eradicate or avoid tears becomes.   Again, just keep being aware and practising and it will gradually become your new normal.

 

 

 

HELPING KIDS WITH SCARY THOUGHTS

I was very struck by my 5-year old’s use of the word ‘dreams’ to describe the scary thoughts he was having about monsters before he went to sleep the other night. At first, when he said he was “scared of his dreams” I thought he meant he was scared to go to sleep...
Read More

UNDERSTANDING FEELINGS: PART 1

Here’s one of the most basic but USEFUL things to know about our kids (and ourselves) and to pass onto our kids.  But also one of the hardest to get and accept because of the way most of us have (innocently) been conditioned.   ALL FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE NORMAL AND...
Read More

ALLOWING PARENTING TO BE SIMPLER

I knew something had shifted when I stopped reading books about parenting approaches, strategies and techniques and stopped feeling the urge to write ‘how-to’ posts or step-by-step guides. And it wasn’t because I suddenly knew it all and everything was sunshine and...
Read More

PERFECT PARENTING 101

What if we treated our children like we do any other close, sacred relationship?   What if we didn't see them as inferior, but equal?   What if we trusted they have everything they need already, even before they arrive in this world?   What if we saw...
Read More

CREATING PEACEFUL FAMILY EATING HABITS

A doctorate in child development and years of working with children and families did not prepare me for the sheer frustration and stress of feeding my own family. Three different children with three different preferences and three different eating patterns and bodily...
Read More

HOW I STOPPED BEING AN ANGRY PARENT (most of the time…)

I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park. But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times. And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old?? Yep, who knew that a…

Read More

DO PEACEFUL PARENTS LET THEIR KIDS DO AS THEY PLEASE?

I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions. And one of the biggest tends to be that...
Read More

HOW TO SET LIMITS THE KIND WAY

Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe...
Read More

IS YOUR PARENTING UP-TO-DATE? (WITH THE LATEST BRAIN SCIENCE)

It is probably true to say that most of us were brought up by parents who expected and enforced a pretty high degree of obedience and conformity to rules, and they did so by liberal use or threat of punishments and/or consequences. There is no judgement or blame…

Read More

HOW TO PREVENT TOYS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR HOUSE…AND YOUR SANITY

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of toys in your house? Do you struggle to find places to put them and to get your kids to help keep them tidy? Someone asked me the other day what my thoughts were on managing and tidying toys…

Read More

HOW NOT TO POTTY TRAIN

I suspect that one of the problems for the old woman who lived in a shoe (and perhaps one of many reasons why her children were so unhappy and unruly), was that once she’d found a couple of approaches that worked with the first few of her children, she assumed it...
Read More

ARE YOU A CURIOUS PARENT? How To Ask Questions To Deepen Connection With Your Child

The other day my 7-year-old was engrossed in ‘den’ making and called for me to come and help tie a rope. I was mid making pancakes and knew that’d I’d be liable to char the lot if I allowed myself to be distracted. So I said, “Yes I will, in a minute, I’ve nearly finished”. He puffed in exasperation…

Read More

EMERGENCY PARENTING: The One Word That Can Save The Day

Sibling world war 23756 breaks out just as I’m trying to get tea. I’m tired and frazzled from a long day and too many thoughts going on in my head and too long a gap since I last stopped to clear them. The cries and screams get louder and l can feel my heart rate increase and little bubbles of irritation start to expand in…

Read More

THE ONLY WAY TO AVOID WEEKDAY MORNING STRESS (for me, anyway)

The absolute game changer for me is getting up before the kids. A good amount of time before the kids. If I don’t, sometimes the morning goes okay, sometimes it doesn’t. But if I DO get up early, I can pretty much guarantee that it will. Why? Because whatever state the kids are in, it doesn’t matter…

Read More

IS YOUR PARENTING UP-TO-DATE? (WITH THE LATEST BRAIN SCIENCE)

It is probably true to say that most of us were brought up by parents who expected and enforced a pretty high degree of obedience and conformity to rules, and they did so by liberal use or threat of punishments and/or consequences.

There is no judgement or blame whatsoever intended here; this was the norm, and it was undoubtedly largely done with the best of intentions and considered necessary and important in order to raise ‘good’ children and citizens.

But huge leaps in our understanding of how the brain works have revealed that there is not a scrap of truth to this.  We now know exactly what growing brains need to thrive – and threats, punishment, and coercion of any kind is the exact opposite of it.

And so just as we wouldn’t consider using a 1970’s text book to learn about modern-day physics, it would surely make similarly little sense to parent using out-dated parenting theories i.e. our own parent’s model?

And yet, this is still widely the case.

Why?

Well, one reason I guess is that the research findings are relatively new, continuously evolving and have not been comprehensively shared and become main-stream.  This is definitely an important factor.

But it is also the case that we automatically repeat our own parent’s parenting with very little thought.  Our experience as children hard-wires us to repeat how we were parented, and it takes an awful lot of self-awareness and huge desire to re-wire and overrule this pattern. 

Which is why our default parenting style also tends to involve a fair amount of yelling, coercing, rewarding and punishing.   And why we are inclined to relentlessly continue with this approach, despite feeling frequently exasperated and fed up when it doesn’t work or our kids resist and rebel.

We need an incredibly compelling reason then, to make changes.  We need to be utterly convinced that there is an approach that will help our kids to turn out way better than the ‘fine’ that many of us (lucky ones) use to describe ourselves and our upbringing.

AND THE FINDINGS FROM RECENT BRAIN STUDIES DO PRECISELY THAT.

 

They tell us exactly what developing brains do need and exactly what they don’t need.  These are not theories or hypotheses, or poorly controlled studies, they are stone cold facts. 

If you want to be properly convinced and to get an easy-to-digest but comprehensive overview of all of this knowledge as it pertains to parenting, please grab yourself a copy of Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne-Bryson’s extremely awesome ‘The Whole-Brain Child’.

In the meantime, here’s a brief summary of four of the key findings to help bring you up-to-date: 

 

 

1. RATIONAL THINKING IS NOT FULLY DEVELOPED UNTIL AROUND AGE 25

 

Babies are born with primitive instincts (brainstem) and an intact emotional centre (limbic system) which houses the full range of emotions.   But the rational, logical thinking part of their brain (neocortex) and the billions of neural pathways that interconnect this area are not fully developed until the mid-20s. 

 

What does this mean for parenting?

 

Children do not have the same capacity as adults to rationalise, ‘see reason’ or calm and soothe themselves.  They can appear crazed and illogical sometimes, because, well brain-wise they actually are.  The development of many important brain functions take a LONG time and a lot longer than was previously thought.

It also helps us to understand that a child (or an adult for that matter) having a meltdown or tantrum cannot be reasoned with, negotiated with or ‘behave’ because you ask/tell them to.   Drs. Siegal & Bryson state that “…it’s not that they won’t behave, it’s that they quite literally can’t behave.”

Our job then is to use our fully integrated adult brain to guide the development of our children’s rational brain.  In particular, we need to act as their external rationality during the times that they do not have this capability.  For example, to plan ahead to help avoid overload, and to step in and stop them hurting themselves, others or their environment.  This forms the basis of setting limits and the way we do this is crucial to development (see here).

 

 

2. YOUNG BRAINS ARE EXTRA SENSITIVE TO FEAR AND STRESS

 

This physiological immaturity means children are very easily emotionally overwhelmed.  When they experience big feelings like fear, sadness and anxiety, these are experienced as a ‘threat’ and their brain goes quickly into the primitive, emergency fight-flight-freeze mode.   In this state, even any connections to their thinking brain that have begun to be established are immediately shut down.

 

What does this mean for parenting?

 

When we scare children by shouting, threats, punishment or other coercive methods it fundamentally threatens their sense of connection, and they literally stop being able to think.  Their sensitive stress detector views us as a threat and it takes much longer to help them feel safe again, calm down and re-establish connection to their rational brain.

Punishing or disciplining an emotionally distraught child who already cannot think teaches them nothing in the long-term.  It might appear to ‘work’ but this is because the child has been scared into obedience and not because of an internal understanding or desire to please or take responsibility.

A punished child will absorb that hitting is okay as long as he’s not caught doing it, and so it won’t address the underlying motivation.  True understanding of right and wrong has to come from modelling respect and empathy, and teaching through problem-solving.

A parental response that is calm and compassionate sends the signal that they are not a threat; you are on their side.  Staying low and using a soft tone are other examples of how to appeal to their rational brain to help override the primitive, self-protective reactive part.

 

3. GENES DELIVER A BLUEPRINT FOR THE BRAIN, BUT THE EARLIEST  MESSAGES WE RECEIVE HAVE A HUGE IMPACT 

 

Young brains have enormous plasticity, which is the ability to easily adapt to and be shaped by the environment and experiences.   All of our interactions, positive or negative, affect the way the brain grows and is wired, and the kind of people they will become.

What does this mean for parenting?

 

Responding calmly, kindly and respectfully signals to our children that the universe is friendly, and repeatedly doing so actually wires the brain to establish this.  Treating them this way “means that we’re not only stopping a bad behaviour or promoting a good one, but also teaching skills and nurturing the connections in our children’s brains that will help them make better decisions and handle themselves well in the future.  Automatically.  Because that’s how their brains will have been wired.”   (Drs. Siegal & Bryson)

If we coerce, shout at and scare our children, they will learn that this is the way of the world and is ultimately how they will treat others.  A volatile, aggressive child is just a very hurt, disconnected child who has found the only way they can to defend against the pain and fear of feeling fundamentally unsafe and insecure.  Without help, these negative patterns will also become hard-wired.

 

4. THERE IS SCIENCE IN TEARS

 

Recent research findings now confirm that there are physiological reasons for crying.  Tears have been found to contain the stress hormone, cortisol, which is produced when the fight-flight response is activated.  Once safety is returned, crying is how the body gets rid of this build-up and heals itself.

What does this mean for parenting?

 

In short, that crying is often a good thing.   Not something we should be scared of or worried about and try to avoid at all costs.

Babies, of course, cry to signal distress and to get their basic needs met.  But what is less widely understood is that they also cry to heal their distress.

They are having to cope with and deal with a lot; their brains are developing at an extraordinary rate and they are bombarded with massive amounts of novel stimulation and environmental stressors.

But rather than being able to say things like ‘It made me jump and scared me when that door banged’ or ‘Another child snatched a toy from me at nursery’, they keep all this tension stored inside.  At some point once they feel safe again, their incredible body will find a way to trigger crying to release this stress and cortisol build-up.

As they get older and can more adeptly express their needs, most of children’s crying can be viewed this way; as an emotional healing process.  So our instinct and conditioning to interrupt or stop crying as quickly as possible (because of our own distress) is not always helpful and can often prevent natural healing from occurring.

If they are rarely allowed to fully finish crying on their own terms, they will continually be looking for new opportunities to release all the emotional gunk they have stored up – often in the form of behaviours such as whining, picking fights and getting upset over ‘irrational’ things.

Just as we often feel ‘better’ and a release of tension after a good cry, so do our children.  Like us, they mainly do not need anything fixed or ‘done’ or ‘made better’ – they just need to be given the space and safety to emote and feel truly heard. 

For brevity’s sake, I have barely scratched the surface of this huge and important topic.  If this information and approach is entirely new to you it can feel quite ‘big’ to take in at first, so I highly recommend exploring it further.  Here and here are two excellent resources to start off with, and for more about brain-science and parenting here is the link to ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ resource mentioned above.

HELPING KIDS WITH SCARY THOUGHTS

I was very struck by my 5-year old’s use of the word ‘dreams’ to describe the scary thoughts he was having about monsters before he went to sleep the other night. At first, when he said he was “scared of his dreams” I thought he meant he was scared to go to sleep...
Read More

UNDERSTANDING FEELINGS: PART 1

Here’s one of the most basic but USEFUL things to know about our kids (and ourselves) and to pass onto our kids.  But also one of the hardest to get and accept because of the way most of us have (innocently) been conditioned.   ALL FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE NORMAL AND...
Read More

ALLOWING PARENTING TO BE SIMPLER

I knew something had shifted when I stopped reading books about parenting approaches, strategies and techniques and stopped feeling the urge to write ‘how-to’ posts or step-by-step guides. And it wasn’t because I suddenly knew it all and everything was sunshine and...
Read More

PERFECT PARENTING 101

What if we treated our children like we do any other close, sacred relationship?   What if we didn't see them as inferior, but equal?   What if we trusted they have everything they need already, even before they arrive in this world?   What if we saw...
Read More

CREATING PEACEFUL FAMILY EATING HABITS

A doctorate in child development and years of working with children and families did not prepare me for the sheer frustration and stress of feeding my own family. Three different children with three different preferences and three different eating patterns and bodily...
Read More

HOW I STOPPED BEING AN ANGRY PARENT (most of the time…)

I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park. But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times. And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old?? Yep, who knew that a…

Read More

DO PEACEFUL PARENTS LET THEIR KIDS DO AS THEY PLEASE?

I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions. And one of the biggest tends to be that...
Read More

HOW TO SET LIMITS THE KIND WAY

Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe...
Read More

IS YOUR PARENTING UP-TO-DATE? (WITH THE LATEST BRAIN SCIENCE)

It is probably true to say that most of us were brought up by parents who expected and enforced a pretty high degree of obedience and conformity to rules, and they did so by liberal use or threat of punishments and/or consequences. There is no judgement or blame…

Read More

HOW TO PREVENT TOYS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR HOUSE…AND YOUR SANITY

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of toys in your house? Do you struggle to find places to put them and to get your kids to help keep them tidy? Someone asked me the other day what my thoughts were on managing and tidying toys…

Read More

HOW NOT TO POTTY TRAIN

I suspect that one of the problems for the old woman who lived in a shoe (and perhaps one of many reasons why her children were so unhappy and unruly), was that once she’d found a couple of approaches that worked with the first few of her children, she assumed it...
Read More

ARE YOU A CURIOUS PARENT? How To Ask Questions To Deepen Connection With Your Child

The other day my 7-year-old was engrossed in ‘den’ making and called for me to come and help tie a rope. I was mid making pancakes and knew that’d I’d be liable to char the lot if I allowed myself to be distracted. So I said, “Yes I will, in a minute, I’ve nearly finished”. He puffed in exasperation…

Read More

EMERGENCY PARENTING: The One Word That Can Save The Day

Sibling world war 23756 breaks out just as I’m trying to get tea. I’m tired and frazzled from a long day and too many thoughts going on in my head and too long a gap since I last stopped to clear them. The cries and screams get louder and l can feel my heart rate increase and little bubbles of irritation start to expand in…

Read More

THE ONLY WAY TO AVOID WEEKDAY MORNING STRESS (for me, anyway)

The absolute game changer for me is getting up before the kids. A good amount of time before the kids. If I don’t, sometimes the morning goes okay, sometimes it doesn’t. But if I DO get up early, I can pretty much guarantee that it will. Why? Because whatever state the kids are in, it doesn’t matter…

Read More

HOW TO PREVENT TOYS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR HOUSE…AND YOUR SANITY

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of toys in your house?  Do you struggle to find places to put them and to get your kids to help keep them tidy?

Someone asked me the other day what my thoughts were on managing and tidying toys and so I had a quick brainstorm.

Some of these things are pretty obvious and, in fact, when reviewing the list, I nearly deleted them.  But then I realised that ‘knowing’ something is not always enough to action it.  As Eban Pagan says, many things are common sense but not common practice.  There’s a world of difference.

And I know for me, keeping a handle on managing my kid’s toys is an ongoing effort.  It’s so easy for them to build up or to let good intentions slip.  I need these reminders as much as, and possibly more so, than anyone else.

So here goes…

 

TOY MANAGEMENT:

 

1.

Cut Down

If you are finding it’s taking you too long to tidy up the toys every day, or you feel you never get to the point where the toys are tidy, it is possibly a sign there is simply too much.  

Research in this area is convincing – and somewhat alarming; too many toys can actually block children’s creativity and concentration, as well as contribute to a sense of stress and overload.  Particularly plastic ones with lights and noise that they initially appear to love but often only play with for five minutes at a time.

This finding is quite the opposite then from the common assumption that children need toys to keep them entertained and engaged, and that giving them ‘stuff’ makes them happy.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are no developmental or brain-enhancing advantages to most toys, whatever toy companies would have us believe.  The pattern the sun makes shining through the sides of the curtains will capture baby’s interest just as intently and for just as long as a huge, brightly-coloured plastic cot mobile.  And a stick or a cardboard box…well, you know the rest already.

I’m not by any means advocating no toys, but the fewer and simpler the better.  This is hard – for very many reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.  But if you need more convincing on this one, I highly recommend Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.

2.

Put Some Away (Out of View)

This can be helpful if you’ve ruthlessly been through all the toys and removed all the ones that are rarely played with, or are over-sized, or leave little scope for truly imaginative play, and still feel there are too many to easily keep tidy.  (See here by the way for one way of deciding whether a toy is worth keeping).

You can swap or cycle them every couple of months, so that it’s a bit like having your own toy library.  This can be a good solution as well if you find it too hard initially to decide which toys to pass on or are worried your child will be upset to find their toys missing.  If you find they forget about them very quickly or barely notice they are gone, you can then move them out of the house completely.

 3. 

Re-Think Your Storage

Segregate into themes/types of toys that, if possible, are easily accessible for your child. This is fairly obvious and you’ve probably already done this.  But the smaller and more manageable the box or container the better.

You want even quite young children to be able to go and get their car box or pens or things they play with the most.  If everything has a specific, agreed place, it’s much easier for them to decide what to play with and help tidy up.

4.

One-In-One-Out Rule

Once you are at maximum toy capacity, make a one-in-one-out rule of thumb. Explain that it’s lovely to have new things but that in order to do so they have to make room for them by passing on or selling old toys.

For older children, explaining that these things can go to children who don’t have many toys or who are unwell in hospital, or to raise money for some other good cause can make them much more willing to do this.

This is harder for young children and natural hoarders, so you may have to make the decisions for them and quietly remove the toys they have grown out of or no longer play with.

TOY TIDYING:

1.

Use a Blanket

For toys with lots of bits like Duplo, Lego, animals etc. put a blanket on the floor before tipping them out. This is a trick I’ve modelled from my mother-in-law and it’s simple but time-saving genius.  Putting away merely involves picking up the blanket by all four corners and sliding the toys back into the box.

2.

One Toy Out at a Time

If you are not up for a total house wreck and would like to have walk-able access to at least some areas of your floor, tell your kids it’s a one type of toy out at a time day.   To make this as painless as possible, physically help them to do this, and explain “Yes, you can get the train track out but we need to put the Lego away first to make room”.

This doesn’t have to be a consistent rule, but for days when you know you are going to be short of time or energy, it’s definitely worth enforcing.  Other times, you can be more flexible and allow them a much deeper and involved level of play; you can resign yourself to embracing the chaos as pillows and blankets and play food and everything they own end up in their ‘dens’, which are connected by train track to the farm and ‘Legoland’ and ‘nursery’ etc. etc.

 3. 

Make Tidying Fun

Make tidy-up time fun and a family ‘event’. Put on a tidy-up song (there are loads on You Tube), turn it into a game (e.g. who can get the most marbles into the pot from a specified distance, or ‘rescue’ the dinosaurs and help them hide back in their ‘cave’), or family beat the clock where you all try and get the toys away as fast as possible before the alarm goes off or beat the previous days’ time.

Some days you will likely have more enthusiastic helpers than others and some days not everyone will be up for helping.  And that’s okay.  Often I just don’t have the energy to be this motivating at the end of the day and I’d actually rather do it myself in peace and quiet after they’ve gone to bed.

If I know that seeing them not helping will trigger irritation, or I don’t have the energy to be playful or engaging, or one of them is exhausted and melting down and needs connection, I don’t find insisting on tidying up is a battle worth choosing.

The key is to motivate them to want to help and not shame or get cross with them for not doing so.  Children quite naturally want to help and please us, but if they don’t it is usually because they are feeling disconnected, or because they are holding onto some heavy, big feelings, or they are just plain hungry or tired.   In which case, they are signalling that they need our help, empathy and understanding, and the sooner we can give them this the better, however messy and untidy the house is.

So, what have I missed? Any other tips?  Please do share with me!

 

HELPING KIDS WITH SCARY THOUGHTS

I was very struck by my 5-year old’s use of the word ‘dreams’ to describe the scary thoughts he was having about monsters before he went to sleep the other night. At first, when he said he was “scared of his dreams” I thought he meant he was scared to go to sleep...
Read More

UNDERSTANDING FEELINGS: PART 1

Here’s one of the most basic but USEFUL things to know about our kids (and ourselves) and to pass onto our kids.  But also one of the hardest to get and accept because of the way most of us have (innocently) been conditioned.   ALL FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE NORMAL AND...
Read More

ALLOWING PARENTING TO BE SIMPLER

I knew something had shifted when I stopped reading books about parenting approaches, strategies and techniques and stopped feeling the urge to write ‘how-to’ posts or step-by-step guides. And it wasn’t because I suddenly knew it all and everything was sunshine and...
Read More

PERFECT PARENTING 101

What if we treated our children like we do any other close, sacred relationship?   What if we didn't see them as inferior, but equal?   What if we trusted they have everything they need already, even before they arrive in this world?   What if we saw...
Read More

CREATING PEACEFUL FAMILY EATING HABITS

A doctorate in child development and years of working with children and families did not prepare me for the sheer frustration and stress of feeding my own family. Three different children with three different preferences and three different eating patterns and bodily...
Read More

HOW I STOPPED BEING AN ANGRY PARENT (most of the time…)

I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park. But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times. And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old?? Yep, who knew that a…

Read More

DO PEACEFUL PARENTS LET THEIR KIDS DO AS THEY PLEASE?

I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions. And one of the biggest tends to be that...
Read More

HOW TO SET LIMITS THE KIND WAY

Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe...
Read More

IS YOUR PARENTING UP-TO-DATE? (WITH THE LATEST BRAIN SCIENCE)

It is probably true to say that most of us were brought up by parents who expected and enforced a pretty high degree of obedience and conformity to rules, and they did so by liberal use or threat of punishments and/or consequences. There is no judgement or blame…

Read More

HOW TO PREVENT TOYS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR HOUSE…AND YOUR SANITY

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of toys in your house? Do you struggle to find places to put them and to get your kids to help keep them tidy? Someone asked me the other day what my thoughts were on managing and tidying toys…

Read More

HOW NOT TO POTTY TRAIN

I suspect that one of the problems for the old woman who lived in a shoe (and perhaps one of many reasons why her children were so unhappy and unruly), was that once she’d found a couple of approaches that worked with the first few of her children, she assumed it...
Read More

ARE YOU A CURIOUS PARENT? How To Ask Questions To Deepen Connection With Your Child

The other day my 7-year-old was engrossed in ‘den’ making and called for me to come and help tie a rope. I was mid making pancakes and knew that’d I’d be liable to char the lot if I allowed myself to be distracted. So I said, “Yes I will, in a minute, I’ve nearly finished”. He puffed in exasperation…

Read More

EMERGENCY PARENTING: The One Word That Can Save The Day

Sibling world war 23756 breaks out just as I’m trying to get tea. I’m tired and frazzled from a long day and too many thoughts going on in my head and too long a gap since I last stopped to clear them. The cries and screams get louder and l can feel my heart rate increase and little bubbles of irritation start to expand in…

Read More

THE ONLY WAY TO AVOID WEEKDAY MORNING STRESS (for me, anyway)

The absolute game changer for me is getting up before the kids. A good amount of time before the kids. If I don’t, sometimes the morning goes okay, sometimes it doesn’t. But if I DO get up early, I can pretty much guarantee that it will. Why? Because whatever state the kids are in, it doesn’t matter…

Read More