How Listening Partnerships Can Help You Make Parenting Decisions

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Have you ever read a parenting article and thought that the advice sounded great, in an ideal world where you had the emotional strength and energy to be the parent you want to be?

Hand in Hand Parenting is different to almost any other parenting approach because we don’t just offer you parenting advice on how to deal with behaviour struggles, we help you to build your own strong foundation of support, so that you actually have the patience and energy to put everything you have learnt into practise. We do this through the tool of listening partnerships where parents take it in turns to talk and listen about how parenting is going and release the feelings that make it hard.

As well as giving you the tools to deal with your child’s behavioural challenges, listening partnerships also serve a wider purpose. They can help you work through your thoughts and feelings about anything you are going through in your life. In fact they are the ideal tool to help you create the life of your dreams!

Ever since my daughter was young, I’ve been using listening partnerships to talk about a few big issues in my life. One is, my thoughts and feelings about the education system, and how I would love to homeschool my daughter. This is difficult where I live in Switzerland, because the country is divided up into ‘cantons’ where each one has a different homeschooling law. There are also other factors to consider like earning a living, having time to myself, and making sure everyone in the family is happy, fulfilled, has enough social connection and isn’t over-stressed.

As well as the school decision, there’s also the fact that I’ve been living abroad for the last 12 years of my life, and would really like to go back to my home country; England. But for many practical reasons this move isn’t possible right now.

I have talked about both of these issues over many listening partnerships for literally years. I have cried about how much I miss my home and would like to be nearer family and old friends. I have cried about my own struggles at school, being bullied, and feeling like school got in the way of my own freedom and creativity. I have cried about my dissatisfaction with a system that doesn’t understand that children can learn reading, writing and maths as naturally as they learn to speak.

The principles of Hand in Hand Parenting are very simple, and are the same for adults and children. When we are full of emotion we can’t think clearly, and make rational decisions. The part of the brain responsible for these – the pre-frontal cortex, doesn’t function well when we are under emotional stress. Once we have released these emotions, through talking, laughing, crying with a listener, our rational mind clicks into gear again, and we can figure out what to do.

This weekend my rational mind finally did just that. While distracted in a German class yesterday morning, I suddenly figured out what we needed to do as a family. I developed a plan in my mind and felt suddenly at peace with our situation. I had this feeling that I had finally done it, and come to acceptance with where we are now, and how things could be in the future.

It wasn’t that it was a perfect dream plan that would magic everything exactly how I wanted it immediately. But it was a practical plan, that I knew would work in time, and would appeal to everyone; my husband who needed to know we’d be financially secure and stable, my daughter whose enjoying her local Kindergarten, but also loves the freedom of the school holidays, and me.

I talked with my daughter and husband and asked them if we could have a family meeting at the dinner table. I wrote out a plan that would help us plan for the future and not take unnecessary risks. Everybody liked the idea!

As a side note, I learnt about the idea of family meetings through Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting who recommends including even the youngest members of our family in talking about the issues that effect our family. Positive Parenting Connection’s Ariadne Brill has written a really useful article about them here, Family Meetings: Make them work for your family 

If you have a big family decision to make you may find yourself going back and forth between choices and being unable to sense what is the right thing to do. This is often because emotions are getting in the way of rational thinking.

It can seem pointless to spend time dwelling on your emotions when it seems like you just need to find a solution and everything will be okay. However when emotions are getting in the way of your thinking, then it’s a sign they need some attention.

We can also avoid our emotions if we feel trapped, miserable and helpless to change our lives. Often these feelings relate to our past experiences when we have been trapped in situations that we really were unable to change. Tracing these feelings back to their roots in our own childhood can help them release them so these old feelings don’t have to cloud our present day thinking.

Once these past feelings have been released we might see solutions that we just couldn’t envisage before because we were so overwhelmed. It can take time. But it is a tried and tested method of finding clarity in your life.

What big parenting challenge are you facing? What would you like to change about your life? Start a listening partnership and you can begin to figure it out today!

You can find a listening partner in the Hand in Hand Parents support group and read more about them in my book Tears Heal: How to listen to our children

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5 Tips For Creating Emotional Safety

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Emotional safety helps children feel connected to us and feel safe to tell us how they’re feeling. This helps prevent their emotions coming out in ‘off-track’ behaviour. 

Imagine the scene. Your child has just come home from Kindergarten. The Kindergarten teacher has told you that they were ‘as good as gold’ all morning. But now they’re home they’re having multiple tantrums, hitting their younger sibling, and throwing their toys around.

Or you leave the kids with your partner for an afternoon, and they’re perfectly happy and content. Then as soon as you come in the door they’re moaning, whining, and starting to cry. What on earth is going on? Does your Kindergarten teacher, or partner have superior parenting skills to you?

Absolutely not! And it’s probably quite the opposite. What’s likely the case is that you’ve created emotional safety for your children. They sense that you are there to listen to their feelings, and so they show them, sometimes directly through crying, and sometimes indirectly through their behaviour. They may keep those feelings hidden for as long as they can, and then let them out with the person who they trust the most.

Our children need a sense of connection, and emotional safety to thrive. Their limbic system, – the socio emotional part of the brain, is like a radar that constantly scans the environment to see ‘’am I safe here?’’ ‘’Who is taking care of me?’’

As long as a child’s limbic system feels well connected to others, they can think well, and their behaviour stays on track. But sometimes they may feel disconnected or experience emotional upset, that causes the feeling of disconnection.

When this happens the limbic system senses an emotional emergency, and then the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational, reasonable thinking can’t function well. Your child may start behaving in crazy ‘unworkable’ ways, in order to try and restore connection. So they whine or moan at us, and do things they know deep down are wrong like hitting, or they start crying. They usually behave in these ways towards their closest family members, the ones that are most invested in loving, and listening to them.

One of the things most parents do at some point is to try and stop their child from crying or tantrumming. They distract, reason with, or trying to ‘fix’ the situation as quickly as possible. However crying is actually a healing process, and if we can simply be there and ride out the storm of their upsets, then children can release the feelings that are behind their challenging behaviour.

When we practise creating deep emotional safety for our children, they can move away from ‘acting’ out their upsets, towards simply expressing their feelings instead.

Here’s 5 tips for creating emotional safety

  1. Let Your Children Have Their Feelings – If your toddler throws a tantrum, don’t try to distract them, or fix things instantly. Instead be there and listen. As parenting educator Dr. Deborah Macnamara says, ‘crying is not the hurt, but the process of being unhurt.’ Most of us grew up with our emotions being ignored, or stopped, so it can be hard to have patience with our children’s upsets. I like to think of them as nature’s behaviour regulation system. If we can stay close, and try to be calm, then our child can get their upset out, feel better and then behave better.
  2. Have Special Time Doing What Your Child Loves – Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and then spend time doing whatever your child wants. Shower your child with your love and undivided attention. When you do this regularly it lets your child know that there is a safe place to go to have your full attention and listening.
  3. Play and laugh together – Children often use play to work through issues in their lives. So if your child wants to play schools with you, perhaps there’s something about school they need to figure out. Children often get hurt when they feel powerless. Perhaps they got frustrated about doing what the teacher said, or another kid was aggressive towards them. Turning the tables in play and letting your child be in the more powerful role can be very healing. So let your child boss you around or be the teacher, or make ‘mistakes’ to give your child the upper hand.
  4. Set limits on behaviour and listen to the feelings – When we set limits, we can say no with love, and listen to the feelings. This allows your child to release any upsets that were causing them to behave in ‘’off-track’’ ways. This way of setting limits actually builds closer connections rather than causing frustration and friction between parent and child.
  5. Get Emotional Support For Yourself –  This kind of peaceful parenting isn’t easy. We’re often nurturing our children on a much deeper level than we experienced as a child. Do things that help you relax and feel nurtured. Spend time with friends, who you can talk, laugh and cry with. The parenting approach I teach – Hand in Hand parenting, also has a free  listening partnership scheme where you can exchange time talking and listening with other parents. This provides us with the emotional safety we need so we can then be more fully present for our children.

For more information about using Hand in Hand Parenting to help children with their feelings check out my book Tears Heal: How to listen to our children

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What to do when your child ‘just’ wants your attention

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We recently got back from a three week trip to the UK. Lots of travelling, and stressful at times, even if it was fun.

One morning, I started tidying up the house, as a friend was coming over. My two year old daughter immediately started ‘untidying,’ pulling books off the shelves and putting them on the sofa, and putting pillows in the kitchen. Suddenly all sorts of random objects appeared in random places, and all my time was taken up, rectifying the mess she was making! I felt frustrated, and only hoped my friend would forgive me for the state of my house!

This behaviour was certainly ‘attention-seeking’, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t for a good reason. I’d noticed in the evenings she’d take ages to fall asleep, sucking her fingers — a sure sign she was feeling tense. I suspected that the stress of the holiday was coming out in her behaviour. Making a mess became the theme of the next few days. She would pull all her alphabet letters off the fridge, and throw clothes onto the floor.

One mainstream response to ”attention seeking behaviour” is to ignore the bad and praise the good. But this doesn’t address the underlying upset feelings that are always beneath our child’s off-track behaviour. So these feelings are going to come up again at some point, possibly in worse behaviour, or our child will feel withdrawn and distance from us, angry, and hurt.

Attention is a biological need, the same as eating and drinking, and it literally builds a child’s brain, to have adults connecting with them. Contrary to popular opinion, children only ask for the attention they need, even if they ask for it in infuriating ways.

I responded by playing the role of the exasperated parent but in a very playful way. I’d exclaim”oh no, what are all these letters doing on the floor!!”, making sure she knew that I was turning it into a game, and not really annoyed. Then I’d pick all the letters back up and invite her to make mess again. Soon she was running around pulling books off the shelves, clothes out of my drawers, all the while giggling hysterically as I fumbled around making failed attempts to get her to stop.

Then when I sensed that my patience was beginning to wear thin, and the mess was starting to overwhelm me, I gently set a limit, and said it was time to stop playing. I asked my daughter to help clean up a bit, and she happily put books back on the shelf with me.

After a few evenings of playing this game, my daughter was back to her normal self, respecting our living environment and not making a mess just for the sake of it. She was always happy to help me clean up.

It might sound crazy to allow our children to do something ‘naughty,’ but this kind of ‘sanctioned disobedience,’ gets feelings out of their system, so it doesn’t result in larger off-track behaviours later on. If we can relax our limit of what is acceptable and have some fun, our children do understand it’s just a game. And afterwards, they’ll be more likely to co-operate with us, because they are no longer full of the upset feelings that were driving their misbehaviour. And they’ll be less attention-seeking because we’ve actually given them the attention they were asking for.

If you don’t want your child bashing up your favourite paperbacks, or messing up your clean laundry, then you can create a harmless scenario, and invite them to make a mess. You could put a stack of scrap paper on the table and say, ”I hope you don’t mess up my important paperwork!” in an inviting tone, or create a drawer of old junk, and say to yourself, ”I hope you don’t empty that drawer!”

Understanding the benefits can help us let go of those old ideas about behaviour being ‘just attention seeking,’ as can seeing the result of having a more co-operative child afterwards. Have fun, and monitor your own feelings, so you can end the game while you still have some patience left. Listening time helps too!

It’ll all end in tears

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You know the old saying, ‘it’ll all end in tears,’ the warning our parents gave us when our play got giggly, wild and ‘out of control’? I gained a different perspective on this old saying when I discovered the Parenting by Connection approach from Hand In Hand Parenting.

Laughter is one of the ways that we release stress and tension from our bodies. For instance when we feel embarrassed it’s natural to giggle nervously, and we can probably all remember times as children when we tried to suppress are giggles when we got told off by a grown up.

Laughter also builds connection with our children, as they run, chase, and have fun with us, safety builds so they are able to tell us how they are feeling. After they release some ‘lighter’ tensions through giggling, this may mean that deep hurts rise to the surface. It might be that our child falls down, and has a big cry over what looks like a small hurt, because the are actually not just crying about the present moment, but releasing some feelings from past upsets that they didn’t cry about at the time.

I’ve sensed that my daughter has been feeling a bit ‘off-track’ recently. Three months ago, my grandmother died, and I felt devastated and exhausted. While I was grieving it was hard to give my daughter the deep sense of connection, that she craves. As we all know our children seem to need an almost infinite amount of attention! I took care of her basic needs, but there wasn’t much fun and laughter in our house for a while. I took every opportunity I could to let her dad take over so I could rest.

About a month ago, as I started to get more energy, my daughter’s behaviour started getting more challenging. It was as if she could sense that I was more emotionally available than I had been, and she started ‘telling’ me how she had felt when I didn’t have attention for her, by saying no to lots of things. Getting her dressed, or brushing her hair, were like invitations for her to run away. We didn’t always have time or I didn’t have the energy to chase her for half an hour, to get these things done! She also became really clingy, saying, ”I want my mummy’ all the time in a very screechy voice, that really pushed my buttons. And I noticed her showing fear of things that she had done confidentially before like going down a slide in the park. I had been trying to encourage her by waiting at the bottom of the slide, and telling her I would catch her.

Yesterday evening, I had some great listening time with my partners. I was able to talk about how disconnected my daughter and I were from each other and how I needed to reconnect but wasn’t sure how. I was able to vent all of my frustration about her constantly demanding my attention.

After that I felt full of energy, and all of the irritation I’d felt had vanished. I went to clean her teeth, and then she started running away from me, I chased her around the house, grabbing hold of her clothes, but always letting her get away, so she could feel powerful, and have fun. After laughing for a bit she happily cleaned her teeth, and then found more fun things to do, such as opening the bedroom door and run away giggling with delight, when she escaped me again. She laughed and laughed, and got to release all her excess energy from the day. We ended up ‘wrestling’ on our bed, with me pretending to sleep and her jumping on me saying ”ride ride donkey,” a game we play where I say that I am not a donkey but a mummy and I need to sleep. She laughed for a good hour before going to sleep.

Now I’ve practised Parenting by Connection long enough to learn that after so much laughter, tears will come. It might not be immediately, but in the next hour or day. It’s like a weather pattern, that after laughter, there will be tears.

This morning she woke up crying really suddenly, a bit earlier than usual. She sounded scared as if she’d had a bad dream. I went into the bedroom and held her. She cried for a few mins, and I was careful just to hold her, not say too much, and just be there. Then she said ”mummy dropped me.”

I realised that she was recounting something that happened a few days ago at the swimming pool. She had jumped into the pool and I was ready to catch her, but for a split second she had slipped through my hands, and went under the water, before I did catch her.  I recounted the story to her, saying I had dropped her for a second, but she was safe now, and I would always keep her safe. She cried even harder as I said I would keep her safe. When her crying died down again I sensed she was still upset so I told her the story again to reassure her, and each time I got to the part where I said I would always keep her safe she cried.

After crying for a while she was back to laughter again. We lay in bed, and did her favourite thing of the moment, where she makes up funny words like, ”poka and ”tanny” and then I repeat them exclaiming with surprise, and she laughs.

After that she was in a great mood. She happily got dressed and let me brush her hair with no need for any chasing! Then we went to the park. She played a game, where I pushed one of her babies down the slide, and she caught them. And then she left a baby at the bottom of the slide to catch her, and she went down herself!

With connection, laughter and tears, she could overcome the upset, that had happened when I couldn’t be completely there for her. If I had tried to distract or cheer her up, if I’d had said, you’re okay, said it’s just a bad dream and rushed to get on with the day, I might not have heard the story of why she was upset, or helped hwith her sense of disconnection and fears.

When our children get our connection, and can laugh with us, it might all end in tears, but that is natural. When our children can fully shed their sadness and fear, they get to that deeper happiness, that greater confidence beyond. And when that happens they don’t need to tell us anymore, through challenging behaviour just how bad they felt. All is well again. So don’t hold back on the laughter, because you’re getting nervous that tears might follow, just remember it’s all part of the natural cycle of human emotions. Just be sure to get some support for the challenging work we all do as parents, riding the storm of our children’s feelings!