I am a Psychologist practicing in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, in South Africa. I am passionate about family, relationships, education, community engagement, and children. My purpose, through the work I do, this blog and in my every day as an individual is to journey with others and motivate them to towards their full potential. I want to encourage parents, teachers and others who carry the mandate of raising and equipping the next generation, assisting them through practical ideas, managing self-care and understanding their own path and how they intersect the lives of others. I believe that together we can journey beyond the challenges of now, toward the possibilities of tomorrow.
For the most part I will address issues based on research and scientific findings. However, I will also share some personal beliefs, opinions and experiences that have shaped how I see mental health and wellbeing, relationships, family, parenting, teaching and childhood development. My hope is that you will find this website helpful and informative. While these posts may be helpful, they cannot substitute the value and need for professional consultation. Please contact me should you require a therapeutic intervention.
During lockdown, we went from sending our children to school, to becoming their teacher’s overnight. As we continue to navigate this challenging and ever-changing time, here are some insights to help you navigate how you work with your children at home.
The rush and thrill of riding a rollercoaster inevitably thrusts a person to lose all dignity and composure. Without warning, from deep in your gut comes out a shrill shriek of fear or delight. At home, this often happens – an emotional explosion which erupts as fiercely as a volcano – usually resulting in tears, angry words, storming off and finally apologies. This is especially true when emotions are raw during a crisis season.
Children experience crisis in their own way as well. Often we can misunderstand their behaviour as defiance, tantrums or disobedience, when in fact it may be an expression of insecurity, overwhelming emotion or dysregulation. Things that cause you as an adult crisis, may not factor in your child’s life – yet the simplest things that we overlook, may cause great distress for your child.
So even though you may be seated next to one another through this roller coaster of crisis, you are likely to engage in a very different experience.
How can you help your child get through a crisis?
Connection – Love is safety
Just as we need grounding and a moment to pause, so do our children. The best way for a child to feel at ease and safe is in the care of their loved ones.
Moms and dads, hold your child. Spend time playing with your child. Listen to your child. Let them have a moment with you where they know: All might be in chaos, but right now, I am safe! Use these moments of connection to help your child express their feelings. Reassure them that they are heard and validate their feelings. Be empathetic and see the world through their eyes. Communicate what you see in them, so that they are able to recognize what they are going through.
In doing this you give them a ‘snap-shot’ of their experience.
Consistency – Regain a sense of normalcy
When everything feels out of control, one of the best ways to create a sense of normalcy for a child is to engage with a consistent environment.
What are some of your child’s favorite toys or games – use these to comfort and connect. Maintain the morning and evening routines, as best as possible. Create a basic daily plan that helps you and your child know what can be expected in a day.
Be consistent in your discipline and emotional responses – big freak-outs, rash punishments or pushing things under the rug do not help. Instead put a few guidelines or rules in place, with consequences. When these are overstepped, give the consequences calmly and consistently. Allow your child to experience their anger towards these consequences, then once things have calmed down talk about their choices, their feelings and more appropriate responses. Remember to connect with affection and remind them that they are loved unconditionally, but that specific behaviour is unacceptable.
When things go pear-shaped (because we all lose it sometimes), own your own role in the fall out, apologise and work through the steps of explaining your own feelings, unacceptable responses and how you would do things differently. Allow them to do the same and reconnect in a meaningful way.
Can dos – Develop coping skills
Help your child figure out what they can do in a situation. After feeling connected and safe, help them to develop the skills and tools they need to take action and regain control of the little that they can.
Give them the opportunity to come up with ideas and manage their own boredom. Let them try new things (within safe boundaries). In your routine, give them the opportunity to decide on certain activities for the day. Chores may be a bore, but it helps them develop real-life skills, and can be fun with some creativity. Go for a walk, in the garden. Create an obstacle course in your house. Play board games or do home science experiments – let them learn through trial and error, losing and learning, and problem solving. Read stories and ask them questions “between the lines”, what/how/why do you think…? Ask them what would make them feel better/safer and help them work practically towards that.
As we all sit together on this rollercoaster ride, let me encourage you to engage in this process as both an individual and as one rider surrounded by many others. Make time daily to be alone and process where you are at. Step back and look at the situation with fresh perspective – a snapshot of your own experience, from the view of others, through the eyes of your little one. See what action you can take today to manage the moment you find yourself in.
Reach out to the people in the seats nearest to you – especially your children, engage one another and come together in this time of fear and insecurity. At some point the roller coaster must come to an end. How we experience the ride and how we disembark will depend on how we handle the journey now. Don’t do it alone. Let’s do this together! Perhaps as we come to the other side of this ride, what started as the ride from hell, turned out to be one hell of a ride!
As the rollercoaster of crisis gains momentum we may find ourselves experiencing a multitude of responses and feelings. However, before you seat yourself there are usually a few rules which are communicated for your safety. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden one, but if I remember correctly, it usually follows the idea of – remain seated for the duration of the ride, ensure safety belt is secured properly, keep hands and feet inside the cart at all times, etc.
How can you get through a crisis?
Each person’s journey through crisis will be different, and this post is not a one-size-fits-all or a total solution, and professional consultation is recommended if you find yourself overwhelmed. These 3 steps will assist you in being able to identify where you are at and taking a step in the right direction towards resolution.
STOP – Breathe. Ground yourself.
While this won’t get you off the rollercoaster in reality, you need to take a moment withdraw from the crazy, quieten your body and mind and take a ‘snap-shot’ of where you are at.
Practically this may mean withdrawing for an hour or so to think and reflect. You may need to do this daily – or more often.
Take a walk (under lockdown, without a garden space this might not be an option)
Go into a room alone (again depending on your space – you may just need to sit in a space and ask family members to leave you alone for a few moments. Or you may need to do this when everyone is sleeping)
Breathe deeply and slowly
Practice mindfulness – use your body senses to ground yourself in reality (hear, feel, see, smell what is around you at present).
Meditate or pray – be attentive and intentional about what you are thinking about – bring your scattered thoughts to one idea
ASSESS – Recognise what has changed and your understand your current reality
In view of the roller coaster, you need to get a still photograph of the scene. With an external perspective you are able to see things differently and with clarity and begin to wade through the various elements that need to be tackled. Use the questions from my previous blog post “In case of emergency…” to assist with this.
Once you are able to get a look at your situation, you can begin to reflect on where you find yourself and why. Some elements are concrete – something has changed, and brought with it consequences which may or may not be uncontrollable. Some elements are intangible – our perceptions, emotions, our future actions or what-ifs. These need to be identified and paired with actual skills, tools and strategies that we have or may still need to develop.
Part of assessing the situation is also to be able to recognize both the positive and the negative. Crisis can be both a period of danger and an opportunity for growth. The practice of gratitude can help you as you look through your situation and recognize what is good.
ACTION – What one thing can you do right now?
Once you have identified where you are at, and once you are able to see possible options, you need to make decisions. What one thing can you do? Implement it. That’s one step towards resolution. Now look at the next one. Action often starts out small. It may simply be calling a friend and being honest about not being ok. It may require discussing a plan with your partner to take turns engaging the children so the other can work, creating a routine that allows quiet play or tv time to allow for work to continue, or space to self-care. It may mean picking up the phone and making an appointment with a counsellor or psychologist (via online or telephonic means at this time). It may require you to create a daily budget and meal plan. It may require you to contact your employer or bank. It may mean an hour of uninterrupted play with your children before picking up your cellphone or turning on the computer or TV. It may mean rethinking how you do business.
Often in times of crisis we become introspective and can disengage others. One action plan may be to recognize what you have, and see how you can meet someone else’s need. While you may not have answers for yourself, you may be the answer to someone else’s crisis, and that empowers you to live beyond your current limitations. Why not make contact with your domestic worker or employees a few times a week to hear how they are doing, and encourage them. Consider donating to the solidarity response fund (the little you have may be the answer to someone else’s nothing – and together our little can add up to a lot). There are many creative ways in which we can still engage with others in this time.
So as we live through the thrashing, jolting and gravity defying twists and turns of the current crisis we face, engage these few steps and be present in your ride. Who knows how it will end? One hell of a ride? Or the ride from hell? Only time will tell. But your outlook, choices and actions will play a key role in your experience of it.
Globally we are experiencing a health crisis, currently known as COVID-19. However, we face crises at various points in our life. Sometimes even daily. Let’s consider crisis as a rollercoaster. We all have a turn on the rollercoaster of crisis. At different points we find ourselves in different places on the ride – waiting in line, sitting down in the seat in as it begins, screaming, gripping, crying as it flings us around various loop, peaks and dips, and finally disembarking. So what is crisis and what are some of the responses to crisis? Where are you at in your roller coaster journey?
What is crisis?
A crisis is an event, set of circumstances, or realization that threatens your physical or emotional wellbeing, and interferes with your daily functioning.
Each person’s response to crisis will be unique.
What may be a crisis for one, may not be for another.
A crisis usually involves some sort of loss – whether actual or perceived (loss of a person, state of being, control, security, etc)
In a crisis, the situation cannot be ignored and requires a decision of some sort.
Old coping strategies may not work, new strategies are needed.
A crisis causes a person to question, especially their beliefs and worldview.
How do people respond in crisis?
Each person will respond differently in crisis. But these are some responses a person might experience…
Denial – a person may attempt to block the reality of the crisis, because they are just not ready to handle it.
Bargaining – a person may try to diminish the situation through quick decisions and rash actions or even bargaining with a higher authority – like God
Anger – a person may feel heightened negative emotions towards themselves or others, and lash out or internalise.
Depression – a person may feel completely overwhelmed, at a low point, without hope or devastated.
Acceptance – a person may come to terms with the reality of their situation – this is real – but there is a desire to take steps to get out of the situation
Resolution – a person actively takes steps to implement new coping strategies and move out of the crisis in which they find themselves.
If we consider the roller coaster illustration, some questions you may ask yourself are…
What has this ride cost me? Or what do I believe this ride will still cost me?
What were my expectations of this ride, while waiting in line?
Now that I’m strapped in, what is happening? How does this compare with my expectations?
What feelings am I experiencing on this ride? Why do I feel this way?
What am I thinking as I take another turn, dip or loop?
What did I imagine doing and what am I now doing at each twist and turn? Why am I doing this?
Who is sitting with me on this ride?
What are they thinking, feeling and doing?
How are we responding to one another? What effect is it having on how we each experience the ride?
Am I abiding by the safety regulations? Or am I putting myself and others in further danger?
What do I know for certain about how this ride plays out? What am I assuming?
What is within my control? What is beyond me?
Of that which is in my control, what can I do now?
In my next blog, I will look at some practical tips for working through a crisis.
People respond very differently in a crisis situation. Over this last week, there has been a flood of emotion across all social media platforms, one-on-one conversations and in the way people carry themselves in public spaces. Today let’s look at what crisis is, how people respond in general and how you can work through it and help your children through it. (If you find yourself overwhelmed by crisis at present, please seek professional advice for your particular situation).
I imagine this particular crisis (COVID-19) as a roller coaster ride, in the middle of a hurricane, where there are no rules, the tracks are coming apart, the ride controller is nowhere to be seen and the passengers on the ride with you are all responding in very different ways – some of which appear to be making the ride even more dangerous. And at each loop, there appear to be multiple splits leading to who knows where?
The roller coaster presents us with flux from one moment to the next. At any given point, you may look at where you are and feel like “I’ve got this”, only to be thrashed around as you hurdle towards the ground at rocket speed – your stomach in your throat and your heart racing faster than the cart itself. You started off this ride clueless, a mere observer waiting in line. Perhaps initially you experienced thrills of laughter, now only to find yourself crying and screaming, holding on for dear life, knuckles as white as paint. At one point you may assess the situation, and respond with intellect and a well thought through plan, the next you may be undoing your seatbelt ready to jump for it, as it may seem safer. Or maybe, as you’re about to take reckless action, you realise this may not end well and tuck your head between your legs and brace yourself for impact, asking “How did I get here?”. Perhaps you are holding onto the person next to you, with tears in your eyes crying for them to “JUST DO SOMETHNG!!!”
Whether you experience anger, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, hope, determination, epiphany, ambivalence, detachment or dependence – your feelings are real to you, in this moment, right now. Feelings and actions may shift in a moment.
While we endure this commute of pandemonium, we need to also be aware that every other person on this ride is experiencing their own reality of this moment, and will respond in their own unique way. And this may add further twists and turns to our already vomit inducing ordeal. We’re all in this together.
At some point the roller coaster must come to an end. How we experience the ride and how we disembark will depend on how handle the journey now.
Over the next few days I will unpack what crisis is, how people respond in a crisis, how you can get through a crisis and how to help your children get through crisis.
While I do not have answers for the devastating situation in which we currently find ourselves, my hope is that these blogs will assist you in being able to view this situation with a different perspective and giving you small practical steps to apply now.
Fasten your seat belts – we’re in for a bumpy ride!!!
At Sunday afternoon lunch, we were still light heartedly discussing the issue of COVID-19. Trying to explain to one another how the virus worked in the body, reiterating hygiene practices, practicing odd gestures for greetings, guessing what measures would be announced by our president later that evening, philosophizing over life and death, trying to understand the impact of this virus among an already vulnerable people group, and still finding ways to explain all that was necessary to our children, for their safety without causing fear.
While I was well aware of the pandemic around the world, it doesn’t quite land with the heaviness it warrants until it’s in your back yard. Watching the news from around the world, even seeing posts on social media from friends abroad, watching the count of confirmed cases rise and charted on the map, it was always someone else’s reality and I was a bystander seeing it unfold.
Until the president gave his address.
Suddenly the full weight of the situation came crashing down around me. Travel bans, visas revoked, public gatherings prohibited – even these seem far removed from me personally.
The president discussed the realities of an economic crisis that loomed ahead and would take years to work our way back out again. Then limiting the use of taxi’s, busses and trains, and schools remaining closed until after Easter. Well that was going to affect me personally. And not just me, but dear people close to me who rely on these services to get to and from work. Work that does not pay much, but barely enough to live.
Now what? If one cannot work, one cannot earn, and without earnings one cannot live. If we struggle with such social ills and poverty in our land now, then what would remain after this disaster had passed?
And then the early discussion of the physical effects of the virus, life and death came flooding back – no longer a commentary from the spectators, but a discussion from within the danger zone. If we do not come together, … I cannot describe the dooms-day images that come to mind.
With my heart broken, my fear increasing, my adrenaline rising and the effort to hold back tears and keep steady as I put my boys to bed, I managed to get myself to a place where I could just absorb the reality. The reality that all I had known and all that I had planned and dreamed 2020 would be was likely out of the window.
But there amongst the ashes was an ember of hope – “Thuma mina”. Of course I could not understand the significance of its meaning immediately, but it was clear that it was placed in the speech purposefully. So I searched.
“Send me”, a song by Hugh Masekela, a legendary musician in our country. This is not the first time our president has alluded to this song, and this idea – Send me!
Based on a scriptural reference:
‘And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”’ – Isaiah 6:8
The song expresses the idea of being a part of the solution to the ills of our country through a helping hand and prayer.
In this crisis, called COVID-19, we have the risk of utter chaos and collapse, but at the same time the opportunity for hope and restoration. We can abandon all reason and give into fear, or we can stand together in love, selflessness and graciously act in generosity and for the greater good. We can further separate ourselves or come together (not physically, of course) in solidarity.
Our perspective of a situation determines our approach to it.
When it comes to choosing the right school for your child, the process can be quite daunting and can leave a parent feeling anxious and overwhelmed.
School applications in the Western Cape open today, and the mad rush begins as parents scurry to secure a place for their child to have a successful future.
But what makes a child’s education and future successful? Does it all rest in the lucky draw of applications and getting into “the best school in the area”?
Choosing a good school is crucial, yes. Because it is in this place that your child will spend 5 out of 7 days per week with teachers, peers and an education curriculum that will mould their young experiences and direct their thinking patterns. But at the same time, as parents we hold just as much responsibility in creating experiences and influencing thinking patterns that will guide our children throughout their lives.
Perhaps you are sitting behind a stack of application forms, frantically completing the necessary questions, checking the fees structures and planning your route to and from school for 2021. Maybe take a moment – STOP – BREATHE – REFLECT!
What do you currently bring, and maybe need to consider bringing, to your child’s education and future? When your child is in your space, do you create opportunities for your child to learn, explore, question, reflect, critically reason, challenge, invent? Do you listen to your child’s words and see the world through their eyes, helping them to process, reflect, learn and grow from what has happened in and around them? Do you include your child in outside play, family sport tournaments, and rest and relaxation – help them face the disappointments of losing and the patience to wait their turn? Do you read to your child, ask them questions, hear their opinion, make up new endings?
Good schools offer children a place to learn reading, writing, history, science, etc. They offer support when a child struggles in their academics. They provide fellow peers where learners can engage with one another socially and learn the unspoken rules of life. They offer sport to challenge your child physically and socially. But learning is more than having opportunities presented to you. Learning is about taking those opportunities and sucking the marrow out of every bit. Learning is a life-long love for growth and development. It is not about making the 1st team, getting an A or being voted as “most popular”. It is about taking what is given to you, standing on it, and reaching for what is beyond you.
Many have gone to prestigious schools, have high paying jobs, travel the world, big homes, own the latest technology, but are falling apart personally and relationally. Others have been through the worst schools in the toughest neighbourhoods and have stable homes, committed friends and have steadily climbed the ladder towards leadership and influence, where they give back to their community and give others a firm foundation towards a better future. The solid foundations of learning and successful futures are birthed in the values that children – one day adults – carry internally. These values steer them through every experience and opportunity – exhilarating or challenging.
As you look back at your application forms, look beyond the academics and sport programmes, and listen to the heartbeat and values behind the school. Question your own values and the direction you want your child’s life to go? Are these two in alignment? Are there any changes that need to be made? Remember that together with a school, you are partnering towards setting up your child to draw out the best from life, to learn, to overcome, to grow and to succeed.
All the best for this month of application mayhem!
“I don’t want to go to school! I’m sick (fake cough). I just want to stay at home.”
Most mornings, at least one of my kids refuse to get out of bed. And with deep breathes, I aim to get through the morning routine without everything falling apart in and around me. Cooperation is the name of the game when you have 3 small boys (currently 5, 4 and 3) to get ready and out of the house before the peak traffic closes off all exits of your neighbourhood rendering you LATE, yet again. And thatphrase immediately tells me, cooperation is out of the window for today. It’s stressful! It’s stressful for me. It’s stressful for my husband. It’s stressful for my kids. And no one is happy by the time we leave the house. On these mornings, my response can be summed up as – this is life, suck it up, we have a job to do now, let’s get going. And when we finally get in the car, I realise how I gave into my base emotions, let absolute chaos reign and apologise for turning into the mom-monster yet again. (Is it just me?)
But every now and then, I can see that this “I don’t want to go to school” is a bit more serious, and a sign that things are just too much to handle right now. On these days, things run a little differently…
We all have stress – in today’s society, I think this is an understatement. We all have A TRUCK LOAD of stress! But at what point does it become a problem? And how do we know we’ve crossed that line? How do we know if our children have crossed that line, and how do we help them?
What is fear / anxiety / stress?
These three emotions are very closely linked, and can often feel like the same thing.
Fear is a reaction to a present threat, with negative emotions and motivation to escape or avoid danger or threat. (That ice cold, heart thumping feeling when an angry strong individual starts walking straight towards you at a pace.)
Anxiety is a reaction to a future threat, again with negative emotions. The future event can be perceived as something important or difficult. (That uneasy feeling and questioning, ‘will I pass the upcoming exams?’)
Stress is a reaction to a demand that one feels one cannot cope with, or threatens to disrupt one’s life in some way. (That panicky feeling when you have too much to do, in too little time – like loads of homework, along with all the extramural activities. Or getting 3 uncooperative little ones ready before being late.)
All three can be good and necessary for survival and moving forward through difficult circumstances. For example, avoiding confrontations with stronger people, can keep you from physical harm. A little nervousness about an exam or sport event, can encourage you to study or practice harder, and develop your skill. A challenging task can cause you to push yourself to new heights.
The problem is when they become overwhelming and lead to further disruption, or dysfunction (this is where we may to enter into psychological disorders). For example, avoiding all sports or parties or school events because I’m afraid of being attacked. Not being able to concentrate because you believe you will fail the exam no matter how hard you try, till eventually you don’t bother at all. Not being able to sleep because you have too much to do, and your adrenaline is pumping that you can’t shut off at night, and then can’t stay awake in class.
In short, there is definitely a problem when:
fear remains after threat has disappeared or fear is bigger than the situation warrants
when worrying about something so much that one can’t even face normal daily tasks
feeling one cannot cope with daily life and withdrawing from all activity
becoming physically ill because the body’s defences are depleted from continuous stress.
What are the clues that my child has a problem?
If some stress, fear or anxiety is good, then allowing children to experience it is necessary. We often want to protect our children from what is negative – but a healthy dose is necessary for learning, growth and future success. But, knowing when our children are heading towards something that is harmful, allows us to intervene before it becomes devastating. So how do you know when your child (or yourself) might be headed for the unhealthy version of stress, anxiety or fear? Children express themselves through behavior. If we spend time with our children, and know them well, we will be able to pick up on their behaviours which are out of the ordinary. When children don’t understand what is going on inside of themselves, or they know something is wrong but don’t have the words, they act out. Stress, anxiety and fear may show themselves in the following ways:
Changes in eating and sleeping habits (too much/too little, nightmares, fears about sleeping, waking odd hours, not falling asleep)
Change in mood and behavior (demotivated, restless, forgetful, irritable, fighting, bullying, avoiding places/people, clinginess, tantrums, disobedience, oppositional, self-injury, alcohol/drugs)
Change in school performance (drop in marks, disruptive, impulsive, inattentive, dependent on teacher, incomplete work)
When you notice a significant change in your child, over a period of time, start to ask questions.
What causes of stress/ fear/anxiety?
The causes of stress or fear or anxiety are numerous. In fact, anything can cause a negative emotion. A stressor can happen once, or it can happen over, and over. It can be big and it can be small. Some stressors include:
Universally threatening events – things generally considered dangerous – crime, bullying, including cyber-, natural disaster, gangsterism, violence in schools
Major life events – anything that causes disruption – divorce, moving house, changing school, friends leaving, choosing subjects, examinations, parent’s absence, displacement, change of caregivers
Daily hassles – the small everyday things, that can build up and become taxing – homework, sports, relationships, friendships, traffic, aftercare, change in routine, social media, technology, transport, rushing to get ready
Demands of life – high expectations to excel, to have certain possessions, popularity, expectations of customs and culture
Lack of resources – unemployment and poverty, large classes, lack of academic support, lack of parental involvement, personal disconnection due to technology and busyness
What can be done to help a stressed child?
In as much as an event can cause stress, stress is is also caused by the way we think about and interpret events, how we are able to handle our emotions, as well as our temperament and physical response to stress (hormones, brain structure, etc). If we think about children, the younger they are, the more at risk they are – immature brain structure, unable to understand or manage emotions yet, unable to cognitively process events. So as adults, our role is to bring external resources around our children, to reduce the stress they are exposed to, as well as to equip them with coping skills to be able to face stressors and manage them well. Some things we can do as parents, teachers, or whatever role you may have in a child’s life to help include:
In the moment – stop and breath (this helps the body calm down and process stress physically).
Talk through daily problems (what they are feeling, why, what can they do, what do they need help with) – find solutions together
Create time for fun, relaxation and gratitude – this allows the body to produce ‘happy hormones’ and redirect mental focus onto the good.
Parenting/teaching towards empowering children – develop their strengths and learn how to problem-solve.
Spend quality time with your child and create a structured and stable environment – children need a safe space, where they know what to expect and need to feel loved and accepted as they are.
Learn to manage your own stress well, and be an example of how to work through challenges and focus on what is good.
Make necessary changes – when you come to the place where you or your child are doing what you can to cope, you may need to consider getting away from the stressor.
When you notice stress/anxiety/fear is becoming overwhelming and interfering with everyday life, ask for help. Speak to someone who can assist you and your child in recongising the causes, understanding the feelings and developing coping skills.
So back to those mornings where not wanting to go to school is a clue that life is just too tough right now… in the midst of the chaos, we stop. We breathe deeper. We risk being late. We ask questions. We hear what the problem is, talk through solutions and end with connection and reassurance. For the most part, we’ve successfully managed to overcome these challenges then and there – other times, we’ve had to make some changes to our lifestyle or have had some tough conversations. Being aware of the clues means we can step in and assist our children before it becomes unmanageable. So be mindful, be present and be aware of what your children are communicating to you. And as you help them navigate the little stressors, you help them develop skills for the long term.
When life gets tough, we want our children to know that they can come to us with anything. But an open and trusting parent-child relationship isn’t something that happens by accident. It takes a few intentional choices. Here are 5 things that can add to a healthy, trusting and positive environment that invites openness.
1. Be consistent
Consider an anchor on a ship. It’s role is to hold fast below the surface, when nothing is steady above. It is dependable and will keep a ship from drifting. Consistency in parenting creates a space where children know that what they see is what they get, no matter what. Values are consistent. Rules are consistent. Consequences are consistent. Mom and dad’s response is consistent. It doesn’t matter what might be going on – good or bad – your child can be confident that when they engage you, they know what they are going to get. This creates security. There isn’t an insecurity about the kind of mood you’re in, or if they’re catching you at a good time, or if it might be better to just leave it and not engage, just in case it’s one of ‘those days’. The security of consistency allows children to know that you are you, and they are welcome to approach you with anything and they know your immediate response will not be a guessing game.
2. Discipline firmly and fairly
Discipline is about guidance – not punishment, as many assume. As parents our role is to guide our children through the many opportunities, decisions and circumstances which they encounter and equip them to manage them well. Linked with consistency, if children know that each decision carries consequences, they will in time learn that their choices have power and determine outcomes in their life. This again builds confidence and security. When we discipline fairly and firmly, as opposed to inconsequently and emotionally, our children learn that they have power to be themselves and determine their outcomes instead of being controlled by a powerful ‘other’. Being free to be oneself is part of a healthy relationship.
3. Be honest, genuine, transparent
Nothing ruins a relationship more than dishonesty. For any relationship to thrive, both parties need to have a certain level of trust of one another. Trust is built on honesty, genuineness and transparency. What you see, is who I truly am. This is probably one of the hardest things to do – be the real you. The truth is that we are flawed individuals on our own journey’s towards our full potential. When we put up a front we break trust, we become judgemental and have double standards. Children are very perceptive and quickly realise when adults don’t ‘practice what they preach’. As far as possible, live up to the standards you set for your child – be a good example. But when you fall short, apologise, explain why you did what you did, and what you will change for the better. Use your weaknesses as opportunities to grow, and let your children get a glimpse (age appropriate) of what that growth journey looks like. When children know that you are human, they will feel comfortable sharing their weaknesses and shortcomings, fears and concerns, questions and opinions with you as well.
4. Practice empathy
Empathy is more than feeling for a person – that is sympathy. Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. In fact, it actually goes further than that. Empathy is communicating this understanding to the other person in such a way that they are able to understand what is going on inside of themselves, and empowers them to act on that understanding. Empathy is like being a mirror and providing a reflection of the truth. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we gain understanding as to our present condition and we can choose to do something about it – make-up, hair gel, or nothing. Using every opportunity to understand and reflect what is happening within our children helps us know them for who they are, but allows them to develop a healthy sense of self, and then empowers them to make the necessary changes for positive growth. Empathy might take the form of giving words to emotions when a child is having a tantrum – “I can see that you are angry. Not getting what you want doesn’t feel very nice. But sweets before supper is not allowed. You can be angry, but screaming at me will not change the rule”. It might take place during or after a play date, “It seems that you were disappointed when your friend didn’t want to play the game you wanted. You didn’t say anything and just went along with them anyway. Why was that?” These moments can lead to teaching moments for better choices of behaviour or conversations about deeper issues.
5. Respond to their needs
All people have basic needs. Our behaviour is driven by our needs. If we are observant, our children’s behaviours and responses can tell us what it is that they need. Needs can be anything from basic survival (highly emotional outbursts could be because your child is hungry – a term we at home refer to as HANGRY), safety (your child may need to feel a sense of security by hovering, reach out and hug them, hold them close, rather than sending them away because they’re irritating), belonging (children may need to know you love them no matter what, trying behaviour may be testing whether or not you will truly love them as they say or trying to fit in with the crowd at school), esteem (the move for independence is frustrating when they want to do it their way, but without that space they will never achieve, and we all need to feel a sense of achievement), and self-actualisation (ultimately we all want to be all we can be, meeting the other needs helps a child towards this). Children also have love needs such as quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Sometimes their behaviour is communicating that one of these areas are lacking. By responding to our children’s needs we fill up their love tanks and ensure that they are emotionally satisfied. This brings two people in a relationship closer. In healthy adult relationships both parties should seek to fill one another’s tanks. In the parent-child relationship, this responsibility lies solely with the parent. Children may respond to your love with love, but if they don’t remember parents unconditionally love their children but seek personal fulfillment from other adult relationships. Be careful not make your child your emotional crutch by relying on them for love.
As you engage with your child, creating a space where you child knows who you are, and where they can be who they are, where they are loved and their needs are met, and where they are able to understand themselves better and are equipped and encouraged to make choices and move towards better outcomes, you are creating a place of openness and trust and a place where they can feel safe no matter what is going on in their lives.