Expert tips to help parents stay calm and connected

Published on Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Last updated on Monday, 08 February 2021

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Dr Natalie Flynn knows a thing or two about parenting. She’s a registered clinical psychologist, mum of three, professional speaker, and author of the research-based parenting book, Smart Mothering

Here, Dr Flynn shares her expertise to help us stay calm and connected as we raise our children, nourish our relationships and look after ourselves, as well. 

Thank you for speaking with us, Dr Flynn. You’ve said that calmness is a key goal in child rearing, so could you please explain how mums and dads can remain calm in the face of parenting challenges?

First, and very importantly, when we talk about our intention as parents is to be calming, we’re talking about a pattern of behaviour – not occasional slip-ups.  To be calming most of the time is achievable, to behave in a completely calm way on all parenting occasions isn’t. 

Something we can all do is practice tuning in to our feelings quickly before they build up and overwhelm us. Simply recognising feelings of stress, anger, sadness etc. early on can sometimes be enough to remind us to behave calmly.

At other times, we need to work hard to behave in a calm way. We can’t choose how we feel, but we can always choose how we behave (even though it’s often hard to make skillful choices).

Here are three things a parent can do when difficult feelings come up:

  1. Focus on being child-centred
    This means asking yourself, “What does my child need right now?", and one great answer to this is, “My child needs me to be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind”. Some parents put this statement on the fridge as a reminder to behave calmly.

  1. Practice acceptance
    When you encounter parenting challenges, ask yourself, “Can I change this situation in this very moment?”, and if you can’t, then simply accepting the situation can help you stay calm. Bear in mind that accepting isn’t the same as liking. It is accepting that, right now, in this moment, nothing can be done to change the situation.

  1. Manage your tension
    When strong feelings arise, ask yourself, “Where in my body do I feel tense?”, then make a conscious effort to release wherever you notice this tension.

Tantrums can test even the calmest of parents. What are some ways for mums and dads to manage toddlers’ emotional outbursts in a calm, collected and constructive way?

Tantrums are exhausting for parents, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these outbursts are a normal part of toddler development, and our children aren’t out to get us!

Some kids are temperamentally prone to frequent tantrums, but by staying calm, we can model impulse-control and good decision-making to a toddler.

Here are some tips:

  • It’s easier to be calm if you look at things from your toddler’s world view, so remind yourself that tantrums are a way for your toddler to express difficult emotions.

  • It helps to validate your toddler by letting them know that you understand how they feel (e.g. recognising that a broken cookie wouldn’t be a big deal for you, but it can feel like the worst thing in the world for your toddler). 

  • It’s also helpful to decide in advance what you will say “Yes” to, and what you will say “No” to. Write a list of the bottom-line yeses and nos (e.g. “Yes” to one cookie before dinner, and “No” to two). This way, it’s easier to stick to your “No”, and a quick and decisive “Yes” can stave off a tantrum.
    As a guide, we should be giving our toddlers about six “Yeses” to one “No” throughout the day.

Transitions to child care and school are big steps in a young child’s life. What calm things can parents do to support youngsters as they manage and embrace change?

Babies are born with different levels of ‘adaptability’ (i.e. how quickly a person is likely to adapt to change), and part of being a good fit for our children is to notice how adaptable they are when it comes to big and small changes. We need to give children who are slow to adapt plenty of warning about upcoming changes.

When it comes to early childhood education (ECE) and school transitions, it’s important to take your child for a visit or two to the ECE service or school they’ll be attending. 

When it’s time for you to leave them at their new service or school, notice your own feelings and set your intention to remain calm. If your child is upset, reassure them that it’s normal to feel stressed in a new place, but that you expect them to stay and they will get used to the place over time. 

Becoming a parent is a big change for adults, and there are times when child-raising exerts pressure on relationships. What do you suggest parents should do to stay connected and support one another to balance work, child care and life?  

The transition from lovers to parents exerts some level of conflict on most relationships, so recognise that this is normal. 

When tension is high, it can be easy to forget that you are each struggling, so take the time to see each other as vulnerable, and work together on what you can do to make both of your lives easier.

Sex is one way to be intimate, but there are plenty of other ways to stay connected. Try and return to some of the things you did in your honeymoon period, where you tried hard to make the other person feel good. Romantic gestures don’t need to take a lot of time – they can be as simple as texting your partner to say how much you love and appreciate them. 

On a final note, mindfulness is a great way for people to nurture their emotional health. What’s a simple mindfulness technique that parents and children can use to feel calm, focused and positive?

Mindfulness is an evidence-based approach to emotional wellbeing, and one simple technique is to pay attention to your feelings, name them without judgment, then move your attention to your breath (without trying to change it). Then repeat – remembering that practice is the key to living mindfully.  

This is all very helpful advice, Dr Flynn, and we’re looking forward to a positive year of parenting!

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