Parenting educator and mum-of-four Gen Muir has helped thousands of families dealing with strong emotions and challenging behaviour in young kids.
Fussy eating, bedtime battles, school refusal, public meltdowns, sibling rivalry?
Gen knows how to work through these issues without losing your mind or quashing your child's spirit.
We asked her a few questions about dealing with heading back to school.
I'm having trouble getting my 11-year-old out of bed in the morning before school. Do you have any tips?
At 11 we have an opportunity to emotion coach. We do this the day before (not in the moment). We might sit down after a particularly hard morning and say, "This morning didn't go well, did it? You had a lot of trouble getting out of bed, and I wound up yelling. You were late and so was I ... that didn't go so well, did it? I am wondering what's going on for you in the mornings."
Here we have an opportunity to work out if this is about tiredness, or is there more going on and this child is struggling at school in some way, struggling with friends etc.
The idea is to really understand what's going on behind the behaviours and then be on our child's team as we work out what we can do to have mornings run more smoothly.
My toddler has been playing up now his older sister is at school. Is there anything I can do?
Sounds like your toddler is missing their sister. Things feel different and they are testing the boundaries to find out if we are at the wheel.
I like parents to know that because little children thrive on routine, and things being very much the same - whenever there is a change (even a good one) to routines or family life from a new baby, a new school or a new house - kids can struggle with that transition and grieve the way things were.
Try asking your child if they are missing their sister and if they are, that would make sense.
We need to "name it to tame it" and sometimes just speaking that emotion out loud helps kids to feel less alone.
Troubleshoot ways to feel more connected after school and on weekends, some special play opportunities for your toddler and their sister.
Focus on connection. Give your child the odd moment of fully focused one-on-one play time. Let them know how much you delight in them for who they are. When kids feel more connected with us, change feels more manageable.
My child has been coming home from school and it's like he hasn't even touched his lunch box. Why is he not eating? I try to pack the right foods!
Kids get really busy at school and it's really normal for lunch boxes to come home untouched. Here are some ideas:
- If your child is too busy to eat at lunch, try offering it to them on the way home.
- Ask your child what foods would work best at school. Sometimes what they need is foods they can eat fast, so they can get on with playing.
- Try not to sweat it. We want to look at nutrition over 24 hours or over a week period rather than examining every meal. Kids are good at eating what they need.
What can I do to help my shy daughter make friends at her new school? She tells me she hasn't made any.
That sounds tough, and so hard for parents when our kids struggle socially. Our instinct here can be to panic and want to do something about this, call the school, or intervene.
However, before we do this it's so important to stop and let your child know "I hear you".
When your daughter says she hasn't made friends, try slowing down and saying, "That sounds really hard, I wonder if it also feels lonely?" It's so important to give her the space to feel seen and heard before we coach.
From this point we are able to ask more and find out what is the hardest part. Alongside our child we might brainstorm ideas for how to make connections, initiate some playdates to support her, or think about talking to the school to see how they can help.
I cried more than my child did when they went to school for the first time, I'm not quite ready to be apart from them. Is that natural?
Oh so natural. You are sending your baby off on the beginning of a huge journey and hoping they will go OK in the big wide playground. I get it.
Cry those tears and embrace this incredible milestone.
I was late for pick-up the other day and now my child thinks I'm going to forget them and leave them at school. She's gotten very clingy.
In order for your child to be able to process what happened (you being late) she may need space to express how it made her feel. You might sit with her and say, "I know when I was late the other day it made you feel really worried, I think maybe you felt like I might never come? Is that right?"
Giving your child space to know feeling worried and clingy makes sense, and in fact is a great sign her amygdala is working well to keep her safe. But also that we want her to feel confident you will always come and keep her safe.
Keep naming the underlying emotions to the behaviour (clingy for example = worried or nervous or unsure) and then increasing the tolerance for more separation bit by bit.
I try to ask the kids how their day at school was and what they did but they don't want to talk about it. What am I doing wrong?
You might be asking at the wrong time. When kids finish school they are often "hangry" and unable to chat just yet (see lunchbox question above). Feed them first and see what happens!
Other ideas to get more information:
- Make sure you connect first and give your child time to decompress before asking too much
- Keep questions open so instead of "how was your day?" try "was there anything funny that happened today or anything boring?"
- Try playing high and low of the day at dinner - each person shares their high and low.
Any suggestions on how I can better cope with the after-school meltdowns? It's like as soon as they're in the car, they just burst.
Many parents can relate to the feeling of being so excited to pick up their child from daycare or school, and less than 30 seconds after being out of the gate, your child is falling apart. This can look like whingeing, fighting with a sibling or a full-blown meltdown.
This is known as "after-school restraint collapse" and is a result of our child working so hard to keep it together away from their parents all day long. At daycare or school, they need to share, take turns, listen and follow directions. For young children this can be absolutely exhausting and it is when they see their parents or primary caregivers that they can no longer hold it together and we often see kids "fall apart" in a way that can seem out of character. As hard as this is for them (and us) it is actually a huge compliment that they feel safe and secure enough to be their true selves with us.
Restraint collapse is something we can all relate to, even adults, but it is very common in younger children at some stage. Parents will know because it seems to happen right after school and seems like a very sudden change in mood and character without a visible cause.
The following five tips will help.
1. Create a connection ritual
Sometimes restraint collapse can be about our kids missing us all day. Think about creating a connection ritual so your child can keep a piece of you with them through the day. This can be drawing a heart on your wrist and theirs and telling them you can both press the heart to stay "connected" through the day.
2. Centre yourself before pick up
Try taking a breath before you greet your kids. Be ready for whatever is coming even if it's not an excited face. With my own kids I try to pause, take a deep breath and be ready to greet my kids. The breath or pause helps me to shake off the "to-do list" and be present.
3. Food is essential
Have snacks ready in the car, pram or in your bag. Kids get "hangry" and food can prevent many of the after-school moments of collapse.
4. Be okay with their feelings
Often your child has held on to feelings all day long and it took loads of effort. When they see us, their safe base, it all just falls apart. Stay out of fixing or solving if you can and just listen. Sometimes they just need to download and feel like we "get it".
5. Dial back the after-school activities
Finally, if your child is struggling a lot with this issue, try winding back any after-school schedules so things are less rushed. They may need some downtime while they adjust and settle.
- Little People, Big Feelings: A go-to parenting guidebook for dealing with big emotions and challenging behaviours in kids, by Gen Muir. Macmillan. $36.99. Available from January 30.