Parenting: 4 things to do to with a tantrum

We’ve all been there: it’s not easy dealing with a wailing kid of any age when we are so overwhelmed and so frustrated that we feel ready to start wailing ourselves. Whining kids also trigger the same bits of the brain that the sound of crying babies does – we are immediately desperate to make it stop. We begin operating from hindbrain fight-or-flight principles instead of thinking clearly.

A wailing kid isn’t necessarily “being naughty”. They’re often simply sitting with big feelings that they are overwhelmed by. Adults can easily be overwhelmed by similar feelings, like jealousy or frustration: I also feel upset when my heart’s desires are thwarted, or angry when someone takes my things, or hurt when I feel like people are being unkind to me: it’s just that I’ve got the forebrain bits in place to deal with it differently. What we need to do as parents is fulfil that forebrain function for our children: we need to help them process. And that can be very hard. Joining the kid in a screaming fight because we are ourselves overwhelmed is only likely to escalate the situation. We need to keep adult as much as possible, although we don’t always get that right – we are, after all, human! And sometimes Mommy needs a time out.

It’s also important to forestall tantrums where necessary. tired and hungry kids are already halfway to a meltdown. Sometimes it’s about attention: having fifteen to twenty minutes of one on one time every day is a quick and easy way to ensure that your child feels like they have access to good times with you, and may head off much of the need for attention seeking. Looking after yourself is also important for your kids as it means you will be better able to be present and relaxed with them.

But regardless of our best intentions, the occasional meltdown in unavoidable. Here are some ways to turn a tantrum around:

  1. Name the feeling. if your child has a label for her feelings you’re helping her create the necessary self insight that will lead her to manage her feelings better later. When she’s little she’s aware only of overwhelming emotion. Giving it a name will help her express it without having to act it out later on. So step one is simply to reflect her feeling back to her: I can see you’re feeling very angry/frustrated/sad right now.
  2. Validate the feeling. There’s always a reason why she feels as she does. You don’t have to agree with her current expression of her feeling, but as you reflect back to her the why of her current emotion you are helping her have insight into herself and modelling empathy. This helps her understand herself and also gives her an example of how to empathise as you empathise with her. You can say things like “it’s very frustrating to not get what you want”, “I know your brother took your toy and you didn’t want him to”, “I can see you really wanted to have ice cream for dinner”. Don’t disagree with the feeling (everyone feels frustrated when they don’t get what they want) but also don’t give in either. Being kind does NOT mean never setting boundaries. Gently and as calmly as possible sit with the feeling itself.
  3. Contain or coach. If your child is fully in tantrum mode you can simply sit with them, or tell them that you are there for them and wait till they calm down. The first two steps often take some of the impetus out of the process. Containing doesn’t mean allowing any kind of behaviour, though. It’s not OK to hurt people or break things when you’re angry. That’s where the coaching comes in, and with little kids it’s often helpful to redirect the behaviour: it’s not OK to kick or hit the dog, but doing something active will definitely draw some of the energy off. Kicking a ball, running, doing star jumps and clapping really hard all draw off some of the physiological effects of what is essentially a fight-or-flight situation. And bodies are build to move when in fight or flight. Reasoning with them may not be possible though: a brain in fight or flight mode will not easily learn.
  4. Debrief. talk about what happened, only once they have calmed down.  Talk about what feeling they had and why it all happened. for example Mommy can’t let you have ice cream for dinner, but you can have some for dessert or tomorrow after school  etc. Boundaries are there for a reason and the PARENT is in control of these. Being negotiable and reasonable is something that can happen when you are both calm, but the final decision rests with YOU. Being kind does not mean not being firm. The experience of being disappointed or frustrated is also an important one at this age. This is how they learn how to deal with feelings that will doubtless occur again and again in their lives. Being supportive with the feelings but firm and consistent with your boundaries creates a kind-but-firm inner parent for them which will ultimately make them feel more secure and stand them in good stead all through their lives.

The TAKE-CARE tracker

So often we want to create new good habits but beware… this could just be an indirect way of saying “I’m not good enough… I need to change ‘me’ to be valuable.”  If this is the motivation for new habits then they will never last.  We can’t build someone up by breaking them down, devaluing or even worse, humiliating them. All you will achieve is a greater need to escape the cycle of self-loathing whole or parts of yourself. New Years resolutions are often about transformation and sometimes about achieving the ideal, the unrealistic, the perfect and in many ways a lack of acceptance and rejection of SELF.

NEW HABITS should make us feel More SPECIAL, More WHOLESOME and MORE valued!

A Common feature in this treadmill-life is that we forget about our needs. We are far too busy to give ourselves a break, to smell the roses, to have a cup of coffee without looking at our phone, even too busy to look after our medical needs like going to the dentist or what about that little mole that worries us every now and then. Ok: this needs to change!!! We need habits that are Nourishing and Kind to your soul.

Lets place ourselves on the weekly ‘take care tracker’

  1. START SLOWLY: allow yourself to slowly build up to it. So if you need to see the doctor and all you do is book an appointment for the end of the month – that’s a big win! If you want to have a healthy diet going from ‘eat everything’ to cutting out TONS is really tough. All or nothing seems so punitive. Maybe initially you could just introduce one healthy juice into your life instead of taking anything out.
  2. MAKE SPACE FOR YOU IN YOUR LIFE: Build your nourishing habit around your existing lifestyle.  Such as, “as soon as I place my children’s breakfast on the table  I will make myself a green juice full of all-the-good-stuff” Or: Go to the cafe after work on Monday for a break before going home.
  3. BE PREPARED FOR YOU: I watch parents organise their children’s extra-mural/ co-curricular activities within an inch of precision.  They have the basketball outfit in the car, the snack, the juice, the candies (for extra energy), the hairband, the tennis runners, the racket etc.  So if you can make it easy for children to flow into their activities seamlessly, why not do the same for you.  So make a healthy lunch/snack for yourself, put your swimming bag in the car, load your audiobook, buy yourself an external speaker so you can listen to music from your phone, place your walking shoes with your water bottle in your trunk. Basically make it easy for you to take care of your needs.
  4. KINDNESS IN ACTION: If we want to take care of ourselves, we need to be mindful of what we would like to do and what is actually taking place every week.  It is not easy to place yourself on the agenda especially if you are used to putting yourself on the back burner to get to later.  Kindness in action means that when we tally the weekly totals (see spreadsheet) we don’t berate ourselves for not having completed the task (eg: Swim 3x a week) instead we look at why it was hard to commit to ourselves, we commend ourselves for the movement forward (Swam 1x this week – YAY) and we try to place ourselves in our lives a little more the next week.
  5. ADJUST THE GOALS IN THE TAKE CARE TRACKER:  Each week we will get to know our selves a little better which means we will get to know our needs a little better and also our ability to achieve our ‘self-care’ goals. This will help to tweak them so that they are aligned with what is healthy, wholesome and helpful in our lives.

The Take-care Tracker can help you to explore and find 10 new habits that would be nourishing for you,  to set your intention of how many times a week you think you could do it, to see at a glance what is happening from day to day and to reflect at the end of the week about how much space you were able to make in the week for you.  Most importantly it’s way to learn how to place yourself in your life by being mindful and being present!

Self Care – How to say No (kind of)

It’s surprising how difficult it can be, to utter the word”no”.  Such a little syllable can cause so much inner turmoil! I speak again and again in therapy about setting boundaries, and yet even I struggle sometimes to refuse people things. But it’s so important.

The purpose of having good boundaries is to protect your own wellbeing. And you can’t protect yourself if you are desperately trying to keep everyone happy. It’s a fool’s game, because it’s not possible to create happiness in others, and yet we often feel pressured to do exactly that. The inability to say no often represents a fear of disappointing the other, and perhaps a fear of being rejected and abandoned as a result. We are all taught that it is better to give than to receive, and yet if we give away our everything, without replenishing our stores, there comes a point where we have nothing left to give. It’s always a useful journey to explore why it’s so difficult to say no, and why we fear letting people down so much that we will often sacrifice our own needs for theirs.

In the mean time, here are two useful tricks to help you begin to put some boundaries in place:

Step 1: Say “I’ll get back to you”. If your knee-jerk response to every request is “yes”, then you will do yourself a favour by buying a little time. Even if you have to make up an excuse, remove yourself from the situation and give yourself time to think. Ask yourself the question: can I do this comfortably? Or is it going to intrude on other important things? If it’s at work, ask yourself if it’s about your own KPAs or whether you will be spending excessive time helping someone else meet theirs. Work out how important the task is to YOU: is this a reciprocal thing, or do you feel taken advantage of? Would this person drop everything for YOU if the situation were reversed? Give yourself enough time to process before responding. Check your schedule; do you have the time available to complete the favour?

Step 2: If you agree to take on the task, do it on YOUR terms. Say things like “I can’t help today, but I’m available next week”. This way, you feel like you’ve got some control over your time and you’re avoiding the anxiety of saying “no” straight out. You’re offering a compromise. And you’re avoiding the trap of overpromising and under delivering, especially when it comes to work. I’ve seen the hardest workers set themselves up for failure by simply taking on too much.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to protecting your own needs. At first, it feels like a terrible risk to refuse people what they want. Over time it becomes easier, even liberating. And if someone rejects you outright because you wouldn’t drop everything and help them on their terms at your own expense, you may need to examine that relationship. Good relationships allow space for self-care, both at work and in your personal life. As always, your relationship with yourself is vital: it is very unkind to YOU to overpromise constantly. Kindly and gently, look after YOU.

Communication – why you should have important conversations in person

IMG_5590I feel like social media adds a layer of complexity over everything. Looking at everyone’s perfect lives on Facebook or Instagram can be lethal if you’re feeling down. It’s easy to feel that everyone else has a perfect life: pictures of holidays, sleepy happy babies, new cars, raves about new jobs and wedding pictures abound, which can feel awful if you’re in a bad space. It’s important to remember that social media reflects the highlights reel of a person’s life: your new baby may scream for 23 hours out of 24, but as soon as she falls asleep you take a picture and post it – and everyone thinks your little angel is easy and restful. If you’re feeling bad it’s very easy compare how you FEEL with how other people LOOK, and feel like you come off second. Remember that just because it looks easy through the window of social media, the reality may be completely different. The context is absent.

But I digress. I want to talk about communication today, and how I’ve seen it go all runny several times because of text messaging or emails. I remember from my coaching days the adage that “words are ten percent of communication”: only a small part of your message is contained in your actual albeit carefully chosen words. The rest is unspoken: your tone of voice, your body language, the context around your statements are all important. In person if I ask you how you are and you answer “I’m fine”, I can hear the chirpy reassurance in your voice, or I can hear those same words spoken in anger and resentment, and they carry very different messages.

When all we have to go on is text, there is vast room for misunderstanding. We project into the email or message the voice tone we imagine the other person may have intended, without any evidence other than the words themselves and our own expectation. If you’re feeling angry and hurt, or guilty, or resentful, you will read this into the blank words. And there will be no room for kindness, for questions, for changing your mind. There is no real dialogue, only a series of monologues, soliloquies in your own head and your own voice using another’s words.  What is missing is the other persons point of view, the other persons frame of reference. It’s what a friend of mine calls 2D vs 3D communication. Electronic written communication is flat and inflexible; verbal, face to face communication has depth and room for understanding and a possibility for healing.  There is no room for clarity, compassion or healing when the conversation is only in your head.

This is not to say that face to face conversations necessarily end better. But they are absolutely likely to be clearer. Communication is a complex subject and I’m sure I will return to it over and over.

Granted some conversations are easier through the distance created by electronics and written words, and no-one but you can decide how best to communicate your message, but bear in mind the value of a face to face conversation, especially when it’s something important and nuanced.

Parenting – How do you raise body-confident kids?

When I first became a mom I read every article I could find. I looked at tons of information, especially around emotional development, and lots of them made sense, and lots of them were confusing.

One of the confusing ones was about EQ stuff that you want to instil in your child, and it listed things like confidence, and reasons why you want these things for your children. Now it’s obvious that you want confident kids, right? But the bit that confused me was the HOW.

Until it dawned on me: you teach kids by BEING. If I want my daughter to confident, I need to be confident. Oh. And one thing I have struggled with in my own life is body confidence. I really do want my kids to value and respect their own bodies.

Now part of that is how I give them feedback. I can compliment them and focus on how strong and clever their bodies are, how good their bodies are at healing themselves and at learning new things. That’s easy. If I focus on whether they are getting fat/too tall/too freckled, of course I’m going to create a kind of focus that I don’t want, and I want to focus on health. I also believe that everyone has beauty inherent in their own humanity. And we live in a world that is aware of appearance.

But I can’t really teach them to value themselves unless I value me. I can’t remember a time when I thought my mother was OK with how she looked. But the thing about my perception of my mom was this: I didn’t compare her to anyone else. She looked like my mom. When you’re little especially, your special people are your world and there’s beauty in that that has absolutely nothing to do with magazines and expectations. It was important to me that she looked like HER. I want my kids to want to look like THEMSELVES.

So for me to be beautiful to my kids I only need to look like ME. Not skinny. Not perfect. Not unwrinkled. ME. For them to feel good about looking like THEMSELVES I need to give myself permission to look like ME as I do right now.

I cannot remember my mother ever complimenting herself. This is something I’m trying to create for myself and my kids. It’s ok to say “I really like my hair like this”, or “my body feels so good after exercising” or “I love my soft tummy” and mean it. And as a parent, your own choices around health will absolutely create how your kids engage with it. If you’re eating a hundred chocolates a day, they will want to too. You can’t expect kids to make sensible choices around sweets and junk food, so you have to. Which is hard! There’s a balance between permissive and restrictive where things are allowed in moderation, in a way that works for you and your family.

Again, as I’ve said in previous articles, acceptance doesn’t mean never changing: making kind and healthy choices for your body means that you may need to lose some weight or move more, but that doesn’t mean you need to hate yourself along the journey. And it will show your kids that they can accept their own physical journeys too.


Self acceptance and the Inner Bitch: 4 ways to feel better

It’s a well known cliche that you cannot love others unless you love yourself. I’m not entirely sure about that one, but what I would like to add to that is that it’s incredibly difficult to accept love from others unless you can see yourself as lovable. How you frame your relationship with You is very important. Your relationship with yourself is the one relationship you will have access to every day of your life.

And it’s difficult to be friendly with yourself when you’re feeling bad. You may feel angry with yourself for experiencing pain or being sad. You may be regretful or guilty about decisions you’ve made. And all those feelings are acceptable and can be dealt with, but it’s really important to remember that YOU CANNOT HATE YOURSELF BETTER.

You can’t hate yourself into thinness, or happiness, or social comfort, or intelligence, or a higher salary, any more than you can beat a child into stopping crying. In fact hating yourself can only take an already crappy situation and make it feel ten times worse. In your times of need, you have most need of yourself. If you don’t value and support You, it is very difficult to accept support from others, because you feel so undeserving, and often almost ashamed of your need for support. Also, if you feel undeserving and devalue yourself, the people around you will pick up on that in a thousand unconscious, subtle ways and they will reflect that back to you. In short, if you believe that you are a fool, you will communicate that unknowingly all the time and people will respond to you as if you were a fool.

Acceptance means understanding and being OK with what it means to be human. You ARE human. You cannot deny this: there you sit, right now, in your chair, being human. And thing about being human is that we are imperfect. To accept that you are human is to accept that you are fallible.

Self acceptance does not mean choosing some of your (doubtless many) good attributes or behaviours and being proud of them. You’re completely allowed to be proud of your dancing prowess, or your skill at work, or your ability to bake perfect cookies, but there will inevitably come a day when you don’t dance well, or when you make a mistake at work, or when the baking goes all pear-shaped; and what then? Does that mean you can no longer feel affection for yourself?

Self acceptance also doesn’t mean that you never change or grow. We are by nature designed to grow and to want more: it’s why little babies learn to walk. But reaching for something from a place of gentle acceptance of what IS allows for a much kinder journey.

Oftentimes our inner dialogue reflects the worst of the parenting or guidance we have received: your inner voice reflects the fear and anxieties about imperfections that you may have grown up with, at school or from peers or teachers or often from parents. Sometimes it’s directly related to how we were spoken to as kids, and how we heard our parents speak about themselves. We grow an Inner Bitch, always ready to point out our flaws in graphic detail. It’s as if by giving attention to flaws and mistakes we can magically change them. It’s time to parent yourself differently: soothe, encourage and support the changes you want to make, don’t let yourself off the hook of putting in work that needs to be done, but always accept your humanness. (Parenthetically how you talk to you own kids is important for the same reason, as is how your kids see you treating yourself).

Self acceptance means that you give yourself permission to be YOU, warts and all. If your bum is too fat, embrace the bum-ness of it. If your nose if too big, it’s ok because it looks like YOUR nose. One of my patients once said, “Superwoman is dead. She tried to do everything.” Aspiring toward improvement is one thing; internally killing yourself because you are (unavoidably) imperfect is another. Have you ever hated anyone else because they had a big nose? Probably not. So why hate you?

This isn’t an easy habit to cultivate though. Here are some tricks to help you along the way.


  1. Check your self talk. If you come down on yourself like a ton of bricks every time something goes wrong or you spot a little imperfection, that will crash your mood. Rule of thumb: you’re not allowed to say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t to a friend or to a child. If you wouldn’t call your friend an idiot after a mistake at work, you can’t call yourself that. Be kind and supportive and encouraging.
  2. When you spot a mean bit of inner dialogue, disagree with your Inner Bitch: No, I’m not an idiot. I’m HUMAN. The thing about this statement is that it’s irrefutable: you ARE human. no part of you can deny that. And with human comes fallible.
  3. Stop adding any disclaimers when you talk to other people: no more “this may be a stupid question”, or “sorry to ask, but…” or “I may sound crazy, but…” Stop presupposing your own lack of worth. Your inner self is always listening. Don’t put you down. It hurts.
  4. Stop complaining about yourself. If you’re not thin enough, fast enough, pretty enough, efficient enough, happy enough etc etc etc you surely won’t get there by focusing constantly on your flaws. If the story goes “I’m not good enough” , change it to “I’m human, and I’m doing my best” or “I’m going to change this lovingly and kindly”. As a kid, you responded much better to encouragement that to cruelty, right? Why should grown-up You be any different?

Anxiety – comforting the internal child

One thing I realise I talk about nearly every day in therapy is anxiety. It’s a way more common challenge than one may imagine, mainly because we are all born with the capacity to feel anxious, and with good reason. Anxiety is the feeling that motivates you to study for a test, or cross the road briskly and alertly, or run from a threat. It becomes a problem when it starts to run away with you: sometimes your brain misidentifies small or moderate threats as huge ones, and causes you to respond with a full scale body reaction to something as small as a missed meeting or some else’s dirty look.

It’s a very wide topic and I’m sure I’ll come back to it many times, but today I want to share a metaphor I’ve used in therapy lots of times: your anxiety is like a 5 year old in you who is afraid of the dark. And how do you respond to a frightened child? You don’t smack her or yell at her for being afraid. You’re doing this to yourself if you berate yourself for being ‘silly’ or ‘ridiculous’ for having worries. You also don’t agree with her: “Oh my lord you’re right! the monsters are coming!” You do this to yourself when you allow your thoughts to focus on ever-more terrifying scenarios, working the fear ever upwards toward panic, telling yourself horror stories. You soothe her.

You allow and accept the fact that there is fear, without ridicule (we are hardwired to look for threat – the caveman who ran away from the predator lived longer than the one who didn’t). And you gently encourage and soothe. You have kind conversations with yourself along the lines of “It’s going to be OK. This has happened many times before and it’s not so bad. It’s survivable. It will pass.” It’s also often useful to substitute the frightened child’s anticipation of a dire outcome with envisioning a positive one. Ask yourself questions like “How could this work out well?” or “What if it’s all going to be OK?” to allow the child to start envisioning a better and more soothing ending to the story. We are often consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves how things could go wrong, and the creative 5 year old comes up with many colourful (and terrifying) scenarios.

This takes some practice – we often have very strong self critical parts that stubbornly resist kindness and it takes a while to become accustomed to soothing. But in all things it’s more comforting to be your own friend than not! You will look at your own face in the mirror every day – it’s much nicer if you’re friends.

Giving yourself Away

How many roles do you fulfil every day? How many times do you feel that you are so busy tending to others’ needs that you don’t have time for your own? How often do you take the time to do the things that you WANT to do, rather than simply the things you SHOULD do?

I see a lot of burn out in my practice. I see moms whose “me-time” is work, because they feel guilty being away from their kids. I see parents who work 12 hour days, even though they’re contracted for 8-10 hours of work a day. (Think of it like this: at work you trade your time for money. If you get R800 a day for working an 8 hour day, that’s R100 an hour. If you habitually work 16 hour days you’re now earning R50 an hour – you have halved your own hourly income). So often there is a sense that YOU are not allowed to be happy or take care of yourself until EVERYONE ELSE is happy first. Except that you don’t have the power to make everyone happy. They will NEVER all be happy. And so, by that logic, neither will you.

For giving to feel sustainable, meet your needs first. Then, once your needs have been met, THEN you can comfortably offer yourself to others. Not the other way round. Is your time valuable? Because if you don’t value your own time, no one else will. The world will always demand too much. The boundaries need to come from you.

And brains need contrast: we need times of work and times of rest, and if you’re on the work treadmill all day it’s easy to come home and continue to sprint along, project-managing your home life too – homework, bath time, dinner time, bed time. Then you wake up and start again.

We all need to build in times of rest. Here are a few ways to derail the production line of life:

  • Take at least 15 minutes for yourself between work and home. Gift yourself 15 minutes of rest, sitting still, drinking a cup of tea or a cold water, to allow your mind to shift gears. You can sit at a coffee shop, or the office pause area, or in your garden, or even your car. The trick is that for those few minutes you are inaccessible. Breathe, relax, unwind.
  • Take lunch at the office. Even if you can’t do the full hour, at least 15 minutes will break up the day into 2 parts – it’s the difference between reading a page full of edge-to-edge writing, and reading paragraphs. Eat away from your desk and computer, and focus on the taste and texture of your food. Your body needs nourishment and your brain needs rest.
  • Revisit hobbies or activities YOU have enjoyed in the past, or try some new ones. You are allowed times of enjoyment. If you’re constantly giving energy out without taking in anything nourishing, you begin to feel like an overdrawn bank account. You need to start investing time and energy in yourself. You wouldn’t drive a car with no petrol! If you yourself never feel nourished, you WILL begin to feel resentful – you can’t help it, and that’s a horrible emotional reality to sit with!
  • Watch your self talk. If you’re constantly putting yourself down or calling yourself names, others will pick up on your subtle self denigration and they will mirror your treatment of yourself. On this note, AVOID DISCLAIMERS: if you preface a statement with “this may sound stupid”, for example, I’ll expect stupid. If you just claim your space and make your statement as if you had a right to, I will respect your right, even if I disagree with you. It’s MY job to voice my disagreement, not YOUR job to pre-empt it.
  • Deliberately acknowledge your successes. So often we expect 100 percent of ourselves, and yet when we achieve it we simply raise the bar. This is in stark contrast with how we react when we make a mistake: we obsess, or beat ourselves up, even when the mistake is small. We will ALL make mistakes: with “human” comes “fallible”. Forgive and move on, but RECOGNISE your own successes, in whichever way works best for you. Be your own best friend.
  • Work on ways to say no. Saying yes to everything is exhausting; give yourself permission to put yourself first sometimes. This is so difficult to learn in a society that teaches “it is better to give than to receive”. In fact, both need to be in balance. You cannot expect to give endlessly if you put nothing back. It’s like the oxygen masks in an airplane: put yours on first . Then help the people around you.
  • Move your body, even if it’s just to go for a brief walk. Go outside, get out in some sunshine. Go somewhere new; life on a treadmill of Duty is boring, and you need newness and exploration as well as routine.

First and foremost in all things is your relationship with YOU. Nourish it as you would nourish your connection with a loved one. You’re not allowed to say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend!