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Tune Into Kids – Reduce Tantrums – Part 2

In Part 1 of this interview Dr Sophie Havighurst talked about the value of teaching children and their parents to accept and tune into children’s emotions. Here, in Part 2, Sophie talks about teenagers, difficult children, resilience and her book for younger children Lester Loses His Cool.

Yvette Vignando:   Are the children that are being parented by people in your Tuning Into Kids program all under five or six?

Sophie:  We initially targeted parents of preschoolers because that’s when kids’ language is really blossoming, their emotional development is as well, and their thinking.  …And the child development literature suggests that at that age, children need to develop an internal self language to help them to regulate their behaviour and their emotions, which is them being able to say in their mind “Hmm, I’m angry right now”, “Hmm, I’m sad right now”, “Hmm what do I need to do?  I need to see my teacher to be able to deal with this problem”.  So that internal language comes from the talk that other people help the child with. 

But we are also trialling a program with parents of school-aged children and also pre-teens – parents of grade six children.  And that’s been really interesting, because a lot of the program is around not so much the talking through things, but responding in a way that still conveys that you respect the child’s emotion – and you’re not trying to change their emotion.  When adolescents might say “Get the hell out of here!  I don’t want to talk to you and you wouldn’t know anyway!”  Rather than responding by rejecting and saying “I don’t want to have anything to do with you”, you might say “Well I can see you really don’t want to talk right now, but I’ll be here if you want to talk later”.  So, you stay alongside and sit with some of the emotions that kids send at you – because they will re-engage with you, often, afterwards… 

I know there would be a lot of parents of teenagers out there really interested to hear more about that, because the intense displays of emotion that you get when your child’s a teenager can be very confronting if you’re a parent. 

You’ve written that in its most fundamental form, one of the messages in the program is that all emotions are okay but not all behaviours are okay.  Could you expand on that?

Right, well this is one that we often find is a new idea for many parents – that all emotions are okay – it’s really important to convey that to a child.  But there are limits around some behaviours.  Often people put the two together, so anger is just angry behaviour – it’s not seen as irritability, frustration, hate, spite, all sorts of other intense angry emotions.  And parents have to help a child to know that it’s really understandable to feel that way, but it’s not okay to belt your sister across the face, or write all over the walls, or smash the glass window. 

There needs to be very clear messages about what your family rules are. For example, we don’t swear at people, we don’t hurt people, we don’t destroy things.  These family rules are very important.  But you don’t have rules about not having anger for example – because actually being able to express anger with words or ways that are not destructive when the emotion is at the forefront is important.  The feeling is there, it doesn’t go away when you say “You’re not allowed to feel that way”.  It actually stays, and in fact it stays longer.  And the literature shows, that if you don’t allow children to experience emotion, the emotion ‘stays’ internally and you get kids with poor immune functions, more illness, and they’re more likely to go to school and lash out, for example.

You’ve actually even written a book for children about this.  It’s called Lester Loses His Cool – can you tell us about that book and how parents might be able to use it?

We wanted to have a tool that parents could use to convey to children that anger was okay – and it is about being able to say, “I’m angry, if I’m angry I can cool down and let off steam.”  So sometimes you need to be in control when you’re angry.  Sometimes, if you’re at preschool or school and you’re furious at another child, and you end up destroying things or whacking them or swearing at them or responding in a really flippant, nasty way, you get rejected and you get in trouble – you’re really starting to hurt friendships and things. 

Children learn that they can’t let their anger always dominate them, they need to have control at times.  So often anger’s a feeling you need to express and let off some steam.  It is quite a physiologically strong emotion.  And that’s why some people get really, really hot when they’re angry, or maybe really tense in their muscles or really tight in their stomach.  So for kids especially, they’re really attuned to the emotion attached to their physical body.  Parents can allow… physical outlets, like jumping on a trampoline when you’re really angry or running around the outside of the house.  Some families will use a cushion or a punching bag – we’ll say it’s really important not to be thinking about punching someone, it’s about letting out your anger. 

Other kids like to cool down and be soothed, so they like music or they like a hot bath or they like to just lie down and relax – different people have different ways of letting off steam, the same as kids.  So the Lester Loses his Cool book is about how to teach a child those skills, and just acknowledging that anger is really natural.  It’s about controlling behaviour, not letting your behaviour get out of control.  Sometimes kids learn so much from books and from stories and from imagining themselves, just looking at the book and saying “Oh I wonder if that happens to me sometimes like Lester?”  Kids (learn) “Yeah I’m normal, but I’m still learning something, I’m still learning to deal with my anger.”

And reading a book to a child one-on-one is a really nice way for a parent to do a bit of what you’ve called ’emotion coaching’, and still have a good time with their child in the process.

Right, so maybe holding them, conveying that you’re there and you’re responsive and this is what you’re supposed to be doing …. this is part of what we talk about with ‘passionate’ relationships – a caregiver who doesn’t reject a child for being a certain way, who’s responsive to the child’s needs – storytelling and being close when you’re teaching about something like anger is really important because it does convey that message to the child.  And it helps the child to develop an idea that they’re okay, that they’re loved, that they’re accepted, even though they have this whole range of different things that happen to them at different times, and they don’t always do the right things, but they’re still loved.  And that’s an important part of that process.

There’s evidence that teaching children some of these, what’s known as ‘emotional intelligence’ skills, can actually help children cope better with stressful situations in their life.  Can you explain what that’s about, please?

Well, think about the idea that you can not protect kids from difficult things happening….  Every single one of us has awful things happen in our lives.  And it’s the way that we deal with those things, the way we deal with our emotions and other people’s emotions (that is important) – that’s why it’s so essential, this idea of emotional intelligence. 

Some people have skills to deal with stressful things in life  and we talk about this as ‘resilience’.  This is about kids’ capacity to take a knock and to be able to work through it.  So it might be when they get bullied at school – kids learn to talk to someone about it, get further support- or it might be getting some assertiveness skills for next time they get bullied….  So the child needs to develop those skills to access the different resources, the supports around them, and to be able to think  “I’m really hurt right now” but still be able to take themselves off to school even when they’re feeling worried about what the kids are going to say that were bullying them….of course it might be that parents and teachers are doing something as well…. but giving a child those skills, and a child knowing what the emotion is  – is very essential to be able to resolve those stressful things.  These are the building blocks for coping with what comes up, what hits you in life.

Are there resources that parents could use or books they should read that might help them to teach their children more about some of the skills that we’ve talked about today?

Well we use John Gottman’s book, The Heart of Parenting, that’s been a good one. Faber and Mazlish have a great book called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.  That’s really good for attending to kids, what’s going on for them, learning to reflect …..  and we’ve found that it’s not just about reading, it’s actually about trying things out, often talking it through with someone, then coming back and reflecting on it.  …  As I was saying before, we know that your awareness of what you bring into the equation (as a parent) and thinking about that reflectively (is important) – “How does that stuff (affect me) around how my Mum would never let us be sad? She’d just say, ‘Go on, get on with it!’ ”  “How would that actually affect my response to my child now?”  So your own awareness is very important as well. …. sometimes you need professional help to do that and sometimes you can do that with friends, with family, or a partner.

Sophie, what about really difficult children, or tricky children, or challenging children?  Obviously it does make it a lot harder, as a parent, to deal with your children the right way.  Have you got any tips for parents dealing with particularly challenging children?

It’s a good point, because one of the things we know is that children vary enormously in emotionality.  …And what that means is that for the parents, some kids are actually much harder to raise and take much more work around teaching.  And so an easy-natured child can mean that you don’t feel like it’s quite so hard to teach them good skills and emotional intelligence.  Whereas with a child who’s very reactive  – you will have to go through something over and over and over again, so they’re much more challenging for you.  And I think this is the part that we know – as much as it’s about you as a parent, it’s also about the kid bringing a lot to the equation.  And kids vary enormously. 

…  and we know it’s the kids who are much more challenging who might have a very strong reaction to things – those kids at 15 or 20 years of age – without good management, they have difficulty.  In reality those kids are more at risk. 

That same “tricky” child would have a lot of negative emotionality, very strong emotional reactions.  With good emotion coaching and good teaching around dealing with those emotions, that child might end up being very passionate, a great leader, very strong, a very good advocate, and really know how to put their point across. 

And this is what we talked about – temperament would be the biological part of what the child brings to the equation. And you can find that you can parent one child easily, and one child’s much more difficult.  And you can find that there might be two of you parenting in the family, and one of you might find it really easy with that difficult child but the other might find it very hard.  So sometimes it’s also about interaction, the dynamic that happens between a child and two people.

And there are, I guess, a lot of parents out there who would be desperate for this kind of help with their children.  They see their children very intensely displaying their emotions, and as parents they’re not always sure of the best way to deal with it.  What you’re saying is that’s not necessarily bad news.  A very emotional child may end up being a very passionate, wonderful, forceful leader or partner in the future, but if at this stage in their lives we can help them learn the best way to express those feelings or manage how they deal with those feelings, that’s going to help them later on when they become adults.

That’s right, yes.