Navigating bedtime battles, big emotions and more!
As a senior family coach at Parenting Place, Jenny Hale knows a thing or two about bedtime battles and big emotions when it comes to navigating toddlerhood. Here she shares a few pearls of wisdom from her new book, Kind, Firm, Calm.
There is no shortage of parenting books out there – you may already have a pile of almost-read ones next to your bed. What we are short of, however, is material that cuts to the heart of our personal experiences – our own stories. I want my book, Kind, Firm, Calm, to feel as though I’ve come over to your place for a cup of tea and spent some time in your home – not as a judge, but as a supporter. Someone who is familiar with the nitty-gritty day-to-day struggles, and knows what just might help.
Kind, Firm, Calm is broken into age categories, with each category reflecting common challenges based on what parents have shared with me in my coaching work. All of the scenarios are real, but names have been changed to protect each family’s privacy. The aim is to find yourself in these challenges. The unique families represented may be different to yours, but the ideas will still be relevant and helpful to your situation.
KFC – the secret to great parenting
There is an abundance of parenting information available but it’s often contradictory, leaving many parents overwhelmed and confused. Parents can find themselves second-guessing the decisions they make – wondering if they are being too harsh, too lenient, too detached, too available... the list goes on.
Good news, there is a simple balance that offers parents an easy-to-remember parenting posture. It combines warmth and affection, is held in place with gentle leadership, and is delivered calmly knowing that children thrive when the atmosphere is peaceful. I like to call this KFC – kind, firm, calm.
In my opinion, keeping a balance of these three things is the key to parenting. Unlike Colonel Sanders, I'll happily share my KFC secret recipe.
When we’re communicating with our kids, our tone of voice really matters. If it’s sarcastic, angry, tense or desperate, our kids will sniff it out. We need to stay kind, dignified and pleasant. If we are mean or shouty, our children will feel like they need to defend themselves and the issue will get lost as they fight with the ‘fight’ in us. A lot of what we communicate comes via our tone, so keep it sweet and keep it kind.
Listen to your children and offer them empathy and support. Convey warmth, interest and love so they feel seen and heard by you, and don’t have to work for your attention or affection.
Kindness is also conveyed in how we look at our children. A certain look or raised eyebrows can say more about how irritated we are or how impatient we feel than words ever could. Gazing lovingly at your children and showing you are pleased to see them offers a deep feeling of safety and being loved.
Children need us to be firm, even though they will do their best to get us to fold, buckle, adapt and change course. Work out what you’re really prepared to stand by and stay the course. Children will be relentless if they find they can sway us, and our job will be much harder. A great motto is, “Say it, mean it, do it.” Remember that children feel safe, loved and protected when the big people set boundaries and stick to them.
Some of us are overly weighted towards kindness at the expense of firmness, while others come down too heavily on firmness and need to increase kindness to restore balance. Our kids need kindness and firmness in equal measure to feel safe with us in charge.
We need to be a constant source of calm in our families – as if we are set on a thermostat. The weather may change, but we don’t. When storms threaten, instead of losing our cool, yelling, huffing and puffing, and reminding our kids about stuff they already know – we stay calm. Our confidence is conveyed by speaking quietly and bringing our voice down at the end of a sentence.
Avoid fighting words that invite a challenge. For example, “There will be no swimming until you have unpacked your school bag” works better with an invitation to cooperate instead. “You may have a swim as soon as you have unpacked your school bag.”
If you find yourself flooded with emotion, find a way to regain your composure. Press pause. Take some deep breaths and a few steps back. Make a cup of tea or go for a walk around your garden and reflect on what just happened. When you keep your composure, your children look at you and see how it’s done. They see the big person in their life is not thrown or overwhelmed by their behaviour and it helps them relax and begin their own process of self-regulating.
Is screen time really that bad for our toddler?
Emily is two and a half and she has a four-month-old baby sister. We don’t have family close by to support us so our stress levels have been high. Screens have been our go-to’s to keep Emily entertained and she just loves our phones. We are pretty impressed with how she has learned to find her way around our devices. Some people say that screen time is bad for toddlers, but it’s her favourite thing to do. Are we doing the wrong thing?
A bit about screens
It’s impressive watching a little one's fascination with a screen. I understand how it can feel like their curiosity must mean screens are good for them. Toddlers are mesmerised by the imagery and seem to be able to concentrate for so long.
Despite how engaged little people may appear, however, what babies and toddlers really need to grow their brains and feel secure is interaction with the people around them. They need to touch things, shake them, throw them and most of all see the faces and hear the voices of those they love the most. Apps teach toddlers to tap and swipe at a screen, but studies tell us that these skills don’t translate into real world learning. The dance of facial expressions, tone of voice and body language between a toddler and a parent is not only beautiful, it’s so complex that researchers have to record these interactions and slow them down just to see everything that’s going on. Whenever one party in this dance, child or parent, is watching a screen, the exchange comes to a halt.
When it comes to screen time, the research is compelling. Parents need to limit digital media for all family members – especially the youngest ones. Making a decision to wait until a child is at least two years old before introducing a screen is hugely beneficial. The exception is video chatting, as the context is for building relationships with friends and family.
As children get older, taking the time to sit with them and watch digital media together is a great way to stay close, to talk about what they are seeing and to maximise the learning experience. It is recommended that screen use for preschool children (between two and five), is limited to one hour a day of high-quality programming, and again, a shared learning experience is more valuable.
Here is what I suggested to Emily's parents:
It sounds like you have experienced some big challenges with a new baby and a little toddler to care for, and managing this without support is a huge stretch. As things settle down, this is a great opportunity to make some small but significant changes in Emily’s daily routine, including her screen time.
Emily can’t tell you that her greatest way of learning and being entertained is with you near her, and with the most basic of toys and items already in the home. Parents underestimate what amazing teachers they are. Your voice, your gaze, the songs you sing and the expressions you use are all telling her what she needs to hear – that she is loved and her presence brings you joy.
She will naturally turn towards a screen because she is used to this pattern, and for a while she will respond as if she is tethered to one. You can offer something else, like a story or a walk in the garden, but ultimately she will need to face her disappointment. It’s very natural for children to cry, yell, whine and show big emotions when something isn’t working out for them. Emily will need to be understood and to have her big feelings validated, so you could say something like, “Emily, I know you are sad that you can’t have the iPad just now”.
Try not to promise something else or talk her out of her feelings. This is a wonderful invitation for Emily to begin the journey of feeling safe with all her emotions and finding out she can have them without shame, distraction or lots of words. Offer her a cuddle or sit with her quietly and wait for the storm to pass. It’s quite possible she will find something else to do.
Children of Emily's age love to do whatever it is you are doing. Let her pass you the pegs when you hang out the washing, stand on a stool when you are doing the dishes or find the oranges in the supermarket. Look for ways you can share your activity with your child. Emily will also love getting to use her imagination, so play pretend games with her, like using a tea towel for her dolly’s blanket. Show her how to build with boxes and blocks and get her some nice big crayons so she can discover how to make marks on paper. It may help your sanity to remind yourself that this will not go on forever and that you are developing her sense of capability and confidence.
Another suggestion is to keep the TV off when it’s not being watched. Research shows that just having it on in the background, even if nobody is watching, is enough to delay language development. Normally a parent speaks about 940 words per hour when a toddler is around, but this drops by 770 when the TV is on.
Try to keep your phones out of sight as much as possible too, so she’s not unnecessarily enticed by a visual reminder.
When you do let her watch a screen, watch alongside her so you can talk about what she’s seeing, and even practise it in real life. This is far more beneficial than sitting children down to watch something on their own. It also offers a point of connection as you sit close together.
It may take a while to adjust, but you could try swapping screen time for reading time. It’s never too early to start reading to children. Reading not only builds a close connection, but it develops language and a child’s understanding of the world around them. Studies show that children who are read to regularly as babies form a lifetime love of books and reading, and will often pick up a book themselves and enjoy turning the pages and ‘reading’ out loud.
Why is our kid such a fussy eater?
We have three children and dinnertime has turned into a circus. It’s our four-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who sets things off and she will only eat a small range of foods. Something she likes one day will be turned away the next. We have resorted to preparing her special meals and even then she often says, “Yuck! I’m not eating this!” We’ve done plenty of bribing, and mealtimes can go on forever. We have also begun letting her watch the iPad while she eats, just so we can get some food into her.
A bit about fussy eating
As parents, we are emotionally connected to seeing our kids sustained by food and it can be upsetting and frustrating to prepare nutritious meals only to have our kids refuse them. Many parents find themselves doing whatever it takes just to see that some food – any food – goes down the hatch.
We need to remember that children are expert researchers. If the research they’ve done in the past tells them that food is negotiable, or that with enough fuss they can get their favourite foods, they are very likely to apply these findings to future mealtimes.
In addition to this, some children (especially highly sensitive children) are more particular about what they eat – from the smell, texture, heat and appearance of food, to certain ingredients touching each other. Familiar foods make them feel safe, and this can lead to fussy eating.
It’s good to remember that children’s food preferences can fluctuate and it’s helpful to look at what a child eats over an entire week or even month, rather than just one day, to see if they are eating a balanced diet.
Here is what I suggested to Rebecca's parents:
Our attitude towards food is important and talking about it positively helps our kids. You can mention to Rebecca how healthy food helps our bodies grow and keeps our brains fired up. Food can be celebrated and we need to be wise when talking about the types of food we eat rarely or just on special occasions. Talk about food in a way that shows you enjoy it, are curious about how things taste and also show a degree of gratitude for the delight in being able to eat.
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of offering lots of choices every night and trying too hard to please our kids. We need to remember that it’s our job to decide what each week’s menu will include. However, you could set up a fun roster and each week one of the kids gets to choose Friday’s dinner. If Rebecca knows she will have a turn to choose what the whole family will be eating, this may help ease some of the desire for control.
You can also make changes slowly, by including one item Rebecca will eat in every meal. This can be weaned out later, but children cope better with change when there’s something familiar to them in the mix.
When you’re ready for a change, a family reset can help signal that something new is happening. It’s possible that Rebecca will be unhappy about the changes to begin with, but hang in there. Stay calm, and let her and your other kids know that you will be organising the menu and that one meal will be prepared for the whole family each night. You could even make up a physical menu and stick it on the fridge. This will give everyone a heads-up and a sense of order and predictability. If Rebecca doesn’t want to eat her dinner, you can point to the menu and let her know that it is all that’s on offer.
It’s quite possible that the first few days will be rocky. Rebecca will need her parents to be KFC and to stay steady. Try to avoid any negotiations, deals, threats or rewards around eating. Children sniff out the coercion and it often complicates things more.
A screen may provide a distraction to aid Rebecca’s eating in the short term, but it also sets up the need to be continually distracted while eating. The science behind mindfulness shows how valuable it is to be aware of what we are doing and fully present while eating. Mealtimes are also great opportunities for families to connect and spend quality time together. If there’s always a screen present, this can shut down the opportunity to really be together.
Here are some other ideas you could try to help your kids enjoy mealtimes:
❧ Set the table. Have placemats to show that everyone has their own special spot at the table.
❧ Start the meal when everyone is seated. Saying grace or taking a moment to thank the cook is a lovely way to show appreciation for the meal.
❧ Offer small portions. Having too much on their plates can be overwhelming for kids. Start small and offer seconds.
❧ Implement the ‘one bite’ rule. Have a fun family tradition that all new food is sampled. Your kids may refuse this to begin with, but just keep going. At some stage they will give it a go. The general rule of thumb is that it can take up to 18 presentations of the same food for a child to give it a try.
❧ Get the kids to help in the garden. Planting vegetables will help create a connection to the food they’re eating.
❧ Shop and cook together. When children help shop for food, and play a part in preparing it, they will also feel more connected to eating it. Cooking together is also a great time for them to quietly sample different ingredients without any pressure.
❧ If they refuse to eat, that’s okay. Just let them know that they’ll need to stay at the table for a bit longer.
❧ Teach good table manners. Asking to be excused from the table is a helpful formality that signals that the meal is over.
❧ Uneaten food can be put away for later. Some families, depending on the age and stage of their kids, will let them revisit the food before bedtime.
And lastly, keep things simple. There’s no need to reward Rebecca for eating or threaten her if she doesn’t. It’s enough to just say something like, “It looks like you enjoyed your dinner tonight Sweetheart.”
Bedtime is a nightmare
“Mummy my feet are itchy. I need a bottle. I can’t find cuddly.”
My three-year-old son, Logan, keeps getting out of bed and it can take an hour or so before he settles every night. I am on my own and the process of getting him to bed has worn me out. Some nights end in shouting and tears. I feel like I have tried it all.
A bit about toddlers and bedtime
Everyone does better when they get the sleep they need. But, for some reason, kids are notorious for fighting it. Most children will go through a patch (or seven) where they resist sleep and it can be exhausting for everyone. Toddlers are pretty crafty and creative too. The minute it’s time for bed, they enjoy coming up with all sorts of extremely important tasks that have to be attended to immediately. Whether it’s a drink of water, a fire engine that must be found or a story that must be told, they can find a thousand reasons to put sleep off. For some children, they just want to be with us for as long as possible.
There is plenty going on for little people between the ages of two and four too. They may now be in a preschool setting during the day where they are learning to play with others, developing their imagination and taking big steps towards autonomy. This can lead to some very big feelings – particularly feelings of separation from their primary caregiver – which can all add up and spill over at bedtime.
Here is what I suggested to Logan's parents:
As parents, it’s our job to decide when it’s bedtime. This is not a task we should outsource to a toddler. We often wait for tired signs, or ask our children if they’re ready for bed, but this may mean that we end up waiting too long – and getting an overtired child to settle and sleep is a much trickier proposition.
The first thing to try with Logan is setting up a consistent bedtime routine. Children love the security of
a predictable order of things. Type up a little plan and use it as your reference guide. You could even make a rocket chart for Logan, with a countdown to bedtime, like the one below.
5 = Dinner time
4 = Bath or shower time
3 = Teeth time
2 = Story time
1 = Cuddles, prayers and goodnight
Your manner will help too. Try to stay KFC:
Kind. Try to keep the anger and emotion out of your voice – huffing and puffing will definitely work against you.
Firm. Bedtime is not a time for negotiation but be aware that you will be invited into one. Your kind and firm manner says, “Goodnight my love, have a lovely sleep.” Try not to swerve off this one.
Calm. This is not easy, but calmness is very settling for a child. Logan is looking to you for reassurance that he’s not too hard to handle. Your calm tells him that you’re okay and so is he.
You’ll also need to try and stay away from these three things:
❧ Threats. This might sound familiar – “If you don’t stay in your bed, I am going to take away your snuggly." "I mean it this time – you’ve had your last warning! Okay, you are not going to Nana's tomorrow.” Threats add tension, anxiety and uncertainty into the mix. Some children will comply, but it will be a short-term solution.
❧ Rewards. It’s tempting to reward something that’s done well but children also sniff out the control that often comes embedded in praise. Limit your praise to a simple, “You had a good night’s sleep last night. Your body loves all that sleep.” This helps keep sleep in the everyday expectation that it will happen. It’s not special or praiseworthy – it’s part of a healthy life.
❧ Lots of talk about sleep. Parents may not realise that lots of reference to sleep (the lack of it or the antics described in detail) makes bedtime very interesting and all the talk about it confirms how challenging parents are finding it.
Getting into a good sleep rhythm takes time, patience and gentleness. Logan may be used to a little dance around bedtime so brace yourself for repeat performances for a while. If he gets up, gently and patiently walk him back to bed – no talk, threats or bribes. Let him hear your kind words – “Goodnight my love, see you in the morning.” It might help you to note the number of times you have to take him back. The first night might be 38 times, the second 33 and the third 15. Slow and steady is the way to go.
And finally, as a parent doing this amazing, big job on your own, it's good to have a friend or relative who can support you. You might need a few catch-up naps on the weekends or you might need them to drop by and reassure you that you’re doing a fantastic job.
Jenny Hale is a Senior Family Coach at Parenting Place and author of the recently released book Kind, Firm, Calm. She loves working with families and helping them find solutions to the challenges they face with behaviour and parenting.
Extract from Kind, Firm, Calm – Simple strategies to transform your parenting, by Jenny Hale. RRP $29.99, available now from parentingplace.nz and book retailers nationwide.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 53 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW