Parenting is by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever taken on. Before Pierce was born many people told me it was a hard job but for some reason that warning doesn’t sink in until you have your own child. And then add another one! Life with two energetic and opinionated boys under five sometimes pushes my patience to the limit. There’s definitely been times where I start to wonder if I’m the only parent who feels like they’re losing their mind. I was really excited to have the opportunity to chat with Monica Chan, at Imperfect Parent, (love that name by the way!)
I really value the advice of experts when it comes to parenting challenges as there is SO much advice out there and it’s hard to know which direction to go. Monica has a Bachelor Degree in Developmental Psychology from UBC, a Certificate in Early Years Education and is a mom to two kids herself. She works to support parents of kids 0-5 with researched-backed resources and a respectful approach to raising their littles – both concepts I can get behind. Monica supports parents that are feeling anxious, fearful, and overwhelmed helping them find confidence, ease, and joy in their parenting. I hope my questions can help some of you know you’re not alone on this crazy journey.
A meltdown and a temper tantrum can be quite different for a toddler, even though sometimes it looks no different to a parent. A meltdown results from sensory overload and is past the child’s ability to cope with the environment they are in. A temper tantrum has to do with the child wanting control in a situation – to do something they want, to get something they want – but is told that they can’t. It’s an attack on their autonomy, which is a huge need for young children as they figure out their identity, their capabilities, and their influence on others.
The best tool we have as parents during a meltdown is co-regulation; letting our own calmness seep through to your child and having a presence that says, “You’re safe. I’ve got you.” A meltdown in public is of course no fun, but it’s best to keep in mind that the person having the worst time is the child. Having a meltdown means the child is in desperate need to tell you something is wrong. It can be hard to keep calm when you feel like the whole store is watching you, so, taking the child to a quiet area, back of the store, stepping outside, or back to the car is the best way to start to reset them. Getting away from having eyes on you is the best course of action for both parent and child!
A tantrum anywhere requires the same approach. Remember that autonomy and being able to exercise one’s budding independence is one of two key needs for young children. A tantrum is the buildup of many instances where they felt like they have no say in what’s happening to them. Research shows 7 out of 10 interactions between a parent and a young child is to tell them some form of “No”. It makes total sense that they have had it and are now telling us with their behaviour. But parents, I get it – there are very valid reasons for you to say “No” and set a limit. It’s your job to hold the limit and also your job to support a struggling child who’s feeling powerless. To do this, you can use the one thing that is so powerful it can help heal your child’s hurt quickly. While autonomy is one of two key needs, the second need is connection, or the need to feel close, connected, and loved by you. Nothing helps connection more than empathy and compassion. “I know it’s so hard when you really want something and you can’t have it.” “You really like to play with your friend; it’s so hard to leave.” Just remember all those times you vented to your spouse or your friend, what did you want? For them to understand your struggles. For them to see you, understand you, validate you. Your child wants the same! You can still meet their need (for attachment) even when you have to take away their other need (of autonomy) to hold a limit.
Yes! But avoid isn’t the right word. I would use lessen, prevent, or set yourself up for success. Since meltdowns happen when children are feeling overloaded, it serves you best to understand your child’s needs. Finding ways to understand their needs and making sure to meet those needs as best as you can, will help your child lessen the amount of meltdowns they have. Remember that behaviour is communication, and meltdowns are a desperate attempt to be heard and seen (rather effectively!)
But, sometimes you might not want to avoid meltdowns because you can’t. It’s maybe too far down the drain to salvage, their emotions too high, and their pain too great. In that state it’s just helpful for your child to have an emotional episode and cry it out in your arms. When that’s the case, make sure you remind yourself that it’s not about them giving you a hard time; it’s about them having a hard time! Be present and welcome the meltdown with your full attention. A lot of times, parents try to avoid meltdowns by giving into limits (that they know they don’t want to give up), try to distract the child with fun things, or when it comes, feel anxious about the emotions and wanting to get it over with quickly. But crying is not the hurt; crying is the beginning of healing from the hurt that has already happened. Children are looking for our intentions way more than they are hearing our words. When our intention is to embrace and accept them fully when they are at their most vulnerable, children feel safe in our presence and regulate themselves quicker as a result. The end of the meltdown is a byproduct and not the goal; the goal is to help them through the pain, not hurrying to the other side.
I’m so glad gentle parenting is having a spotlight moment. It certainly is a generational movement now. I practice respectful parenting which has very similar values. I feel a lot of heat on gentle parenting but I believe this is just a misunderstanding of the practice. The word “gentle” brings about an image of a mother who is always in control of themselves, who sings lovely lullabies to their children in a meadow, and makes organic, whole foods for their kids. So when mothers ultimately fail to live up to this image, they either feel like a complete failure of a mother or they feel like gentle parenting is a fad and “doesn’t work”.
I centre my approach around a different word: respect. Ultimately, the respectful parenting goal is to build a strong, enduring relationship with your child that lasts a lifetime. And if you look at what makes any relationship ironclad, a lot of people might say “love” but we all know of stories where something harmful was done to a person out of love. The second and critical ingredient is respect – respect for their thoughts, voice, feelings, needs, and perspective. With love and respect together, you are giving radical acceptance: I love you for you, just the way you are.
As parents, we want to pass on our values and wisdom, and lead our children away from hazards and towards safety and happiness. That makes so much sense. But we often do it by forcing our power over them because we feel like that’s the only choice. “Listen to me, I know better”. You can imagine how well that will go long term. But with a solid, strong relationship, we have all the ability to influence our children. With the connection they have with us, they want to collaborate with us, they want to listen to us, they want to be just like us! It’s proven, when children feel seen, heard, and respected, they want to listen, understand, and respect us.
To start your gentle or respectful parenting journey, fill ordinary moments at home with love AND respect. Ask yourself how you can share your power with them. Rather if you have really young children, give them choices or you have older children, give space for them to negotiate with you, put your effort in creating a team mentality with them. Have your actions tell them, “Hey, I’m here with you. I can help you when you cannot help yourself. I will see you and hear you out. I will value and appreciate you for your unique self, even when it challenges me. You are of value, just you being you.” But here’s the bonus: do all this for your kid… and then also do this for yourself. You are valued. You are worthy. You are doing great, just you being you. You are a work in progress, and you don’t need to be perfect. That’s the respectful parenting journey.
I like to reclaim the word discipline. In mainstream culture, discipline is “How do I make you feel bad for what you’ve done,” where discipline is really, “How can I help you learn for the future”. The first is punitive and serves only the parents to feel some justice when they have to deal with bad behaviour from the child. The child is only learning that when they do something bad, something bad happens to them – but they never learn what TO do differently.
The most common misconception about gentle, respectful or conscious parenting is that there is no discipline because these approaches don’t make their kids feel bad. Children don’t behave better when they are made to feel worse. Children behave better when they feel better!
It’s about limits, rules, and boundaries. It starts with a process of reflecting on what the limit or rule even is. Is it age appropriate? Is it necessary and why? If you find that the answer has to do with convenience for you, then make it clear it’s about your preference but is it fair to make a child feel bad because they can’t behave to suit your preference? Now if the limit was absolutely necessary, and there are many good reasons I can think of, and it’s within reason to expect children that age to meet that limit, then it’s our role to help a child understand and meet those limits.
The respectful parenting idea of discipline comes from that team mentality again. “How do I help my teammate know what to do next time so we can get the result we both want”. Or even, “What can I do to help this situation next time?” If our kid is repeatedly failing at meeting expectations, we don’t punish or blame our teammate, we reflect and see why something isn’t working and we fix it from there.
I work with many parents who come from authoritarian households and I absolutely love helping them. They are so passionate about achieving the relationship with their child that they never got to experience with their own parents. And for sure, the #1 challenge is changing their default mode. We all tend to parent how we were parented, so default mode for someone who had absolutely no power as a child, is now the parent taking away all the power from their child. To change our default mode, we need to get as close as we can to an immersive environment. Surround yourself with good knowledge and guidance, find like-minded parents that can prop you up and walk this journey with you, and reach for progress, not perfection! I have quite a few parents just like this in my membership and they excel in my program for these exact reasons: when they find these ingredients, they are often so determined and make sure their children don’t experience the same challenges growing up that they went through personally.
Ah, time – a young family’s worst enemy and most limited resource. Time crunch is never easy and I always tell parents (and remind myself!) to plan for more time or you’re planning to fail. But reality is, it may never feel like there’s enough time! The thing is, big emotions don’t happen over one instance. It might seem like it, but that emotion has been festering over a number of interactions where they are feeling disconnected or feeling powerless. Your best tool to combat big emotions during transitions is doing the work in those ordinary moments.
Ask yourself, have you spent 10 minutes today fully immersed in your child’s play the way they wanted to play? How much have you tipped the balance of control over to your side because it’s more convenient for you? If you do a regular audit to see if your child’s need for connection and control are being met, those transitions go a lot smoother because they are more willing to meet YOUR needs of cooperation and ease when they feel like their needs are being met by you already.
I said it before, and it deserves to be said again: give yourself, the parent, the same love, respect, and radical acceptance that you would your kid. Aim for progress, not perfection. And what a gift to give your kid too – as they are always observing you, by accepting and loving yourself, you’re saying that they don’t need to be perfect to be loved; you are worthy, valuable, and lovable just you being your imperfect you.
My mentors are my respectful parenting community. You can’t go wrong reading Magda Gerber, Alfie Kohn’s book on Unconditional Parenting or Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. There are many great accounts on social media now too, but stand outs are Dr. Becky and Mr Chazz. I’m grateful that Vancouver is my home and Imperfect Parent, has the opportunity to be the local resource for Respectful Parenting.
I’m so thankful for the opportunity to pick Monica’s brain and learn about respectful parenting. I love this approach. The advice about filling your child up during ordinary moments to manage meltdowns during transitions resonates a lot. Sometimes we forget how important we as parents are to these little people. Giving them 10 minutes of undivided attention and letting them lead a game can really set the tone. I really appreciate that reminder as it’s easy to get caught up in the day and feel frustrated at the extra minutes they may need.
Monica holds regular free webinars, classes, workshops and private coaching. She also partners with various organisations around Greater Vancouver to help promote the value of respectful parenting. Sign up for her newsletter to stay on top of opportunities and for more parenting tips.
Is there anything else you wish I’d asked Monica? What are the parenting challenges in the season you’re in? Whatever you’re going through please know, you’re not alone!