Category Archives: Ask Joanna

Halloween pumpkin

Happy Halloween

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At a time when we are despairing about how our children are using the Internet, bullying one another and dressing up like movie stars at 4. It’s easy to get sucked into a place where you wonder are children still happy, polite and enjoying the simple pleasures of growing up. Certainly if you were to listen to everything in the media, you would think NO. But my experience of Halloween last night was YES. Armed with a tray of all kinds of goodies, we were on full alert at our house to meet and greet Vampires, Gouls, Ghosts and Goblins of all shapes and sizes. What fun. “Thank you, you are such a nice lady”. “Can I really take two treats?”. “Yes it is cold, but we are having great fun and if you don’t mind, can I take an orange instead of more jellies? I love oranges”. These were the words of the groups of kids that came to our door. My personal favorite though was the tiny walking skeleton who called with his Mum. Proudly concentrating on his newly adapted walking skills and still mastering the art of conversation, we had to stay at the door for 6 minutes as he carefully and thoughtfully pondered whether he wanted the bag of crisps or the individually wrapped cake bar. The most important decision of the evening, when you are only 2. So, to every other household that shared our experience last night of a very Happy Halloween. Here’s to next years festival and the fun and joy it brings to our children. Especially the children who love oranges!

Loud, screaming  young boy

Discipline… to punish or to teach?

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Joanna Fortune, Clinical Psychotherapist and co-founder of the Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic, discusses the best strategies to use to achieve the behaviour you want from your children

I am frequently asked about discipline what it is, what’s its purpose and what the best methods are. My answer is always the same: Discipline is about teaching not punishing and not coercing and it must be consistent and logical. When I say that discipline is not about punishment, it may be appropriate that punishment be a part of the discipline – in which case it should quickly/immediately follow the misbehavior, be brief and respectful of your child’s feelings and stage of development. It’s also very important to reconnect with your child in a positive way soon afterwards. However, the main purpose of discipline should always be to teach your child a lesson and not just to punish the misbehavior!

What message do you want to teach?
If you take this approach then you should ask yourself, “What am I teaching my child in this discipline?” Is it time out, grounding or losing privileges or something else? Be clear about the message you are teaching and ensure your discipline measure fits this chosen agenda

Testing boundaries
A child who needs attention will get it, even if it is with negative behaviour. Assess your child’s ability to self-discipline before deciding on the discipline measure. For example, a child under two years will show a lack of boundaries and will require consistent and repeated reminding of what is appropriate and what is not – consistency is vital here. Sometimes an older child will also display a lack of boundaries and act out so you must decide whether your child knows if there is a boundary and has crossed it on purpose and are testing your limits. Perhaps your child cheekily smiles while they break the rules/boundary; the message here is that they need you to step in and hold the boundary without getting angry at them. This may look like defiant behaviour but it is not; your child is displaying a need and a sense of inner turmoil in that they know they are breaking a rule and want you tosee them do it. Try to pro-actively deal with this one in terms of stopping and saying, “It makes me so happy when you show me and everyone else what a great friend you are when you play nicely with other children,” and give them a high five and do this before you take them into a birthday party where you know they have a tendency to get over stimulated and act out

Be consistent
Communicating clear and consistent boundaries takes away uncertainty for your child. Focus on teaching as opposed to punishing and your child will begin to develop an internal system of self discipline, which allows them to develop the capacity to shape and manage their own behaviour including making good and positive decisions.

Avoid a battle
We all know that if you enter into a battle of wills with a small child, you

girl looking at the sky in inflatable armchair

My child is always dawdling, and I get so irritated by it

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  • Keep your cool, stay calm: Explain “I have asked you twice, maybe you didn’t hear me so I need you to turn on your listening ears and put your toys away and go get you coat right now”

  • Explain the consequences: “If you don’t get your toys put away and get your coat your sister will be waiting for us wondering where we are, I wonder how that would feel?” or “If we are late you will miss your play time before school starts”

  • State step-by-step what you want your child to do: Be specific “Now it is time to get dressed, now it is time to brush our teeth”

  • Allow extra time: If your child takes longer to get going, build in extra time to your routine
  • Above all: Reflect on your own relationship with time. Are you anxious when you are late? Are you rarely on time yourself? Be aware of how you can role model good and respectful time-keeping so that your child can learn from and mirror you.
Mess in son room

My children never listen to me about cleaning up their toys

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The next time you hear yourself asking your child to tidy away their toys and get ready to go, for the 2nd, 3rd, perhaps even 4th time stop yourself before you raise your voice and take a look at the scene because it is more likely that your child is engrossed in an activity and is finding it difficult to transition out of it. Come down to their eye level and say “I see you are having lots of fun. Now it is time for us to go and collect your sister. Show me how you can tidy and up and get your coat on and when you meet me at the door to go I will be smiling so big because I am so proud of your great listening”.

Girl in the bed

Too busy to read a bedtime story?

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An article in the Irish Examiner in 2012 reported that out of 300 parents interviewed 60% said that increased work pressure has meant they are “too busy to read their child a bedtime story”.  This is very worrying as children really need this time with their parents and reading a bedtime story has been linked to improved literacy, creativity and better sleep in children.  So, how can you “Make time” as a parent who works out of home? Sometimes you will need to prioritise to make this work, for example leave the dishes in the sink and attend to the bedtime story. A bedtime story and reading or storytelling with your children is vital to their development. Yes it affords you nice, quiet one to one time whereby you can sit at your child’s eye level and really engage them in what you are saying. For this reason, be fussy about the books you choose and stray away from the commercialised books linked to a range of toys/games/TV shows as your children know these stories and there is a world of wonderful books to support them in developing projective play skills, capacity for problem solving, reflective functioning, empathy and critical thinking all of which are life skills imperative to their development. Stories, of course, are more than books and as a nation we Irish have a reputation for our ability to tell a good story and a culture that is immersed in story telling. Story-telling is eve evolving, from the Seanachaí to Story Sacks to Rory’s Story Cubes (come along to my session in Imaginosity’s Festival of Stories 26/10/13 to learn more about how you can use these resources at home) to sitting and telling a yarn, story telling is in us, it is part of us and it is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children and it doesn’t have to cost you a penny. Research shows that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better in situations of stress or emotional crisis. A test done by Duke & Fivosh in 2001 with a sample group of 48 families using their “Did you know test” (DYK test) of 20 questions, including things like “Do you know how your Mum and Dad met”, “Do you know where your grandmother was born” and “Do you know if something terrible happened in your family”, “Do you know the story of how you were born” and questions like this show us that children do best in life when they have what is called a strong inter-generational self, that is to say they know and feel that they are part of something much bigger than themselves alone. And so, far from the toy stores and the virtual play computer games lies an unexpected truth that you truly are the greatest gift, strongest resource and most important influence in your child’s life and to empower them to reach their potential one of the most important things you can do for them is invest in building them a strong family narrative that they can draw from as they grow and develop. It couldn’t be any simpler or more powerful than that. Take opportunities to begin weaving this narrative for your children, use things like Halloween, which is almost upon us, Christmas, Birthdays, family outings and everyday dinner time, bedtime, holidays, school as material for your family narrative. For example, “I remember the first Halloween I ever dressed up, your granny made me a costume out of black plastic bin bags and rubbed coal dust on my face from the coal bucket…” or even “My favourite book when I was your age was about…” Share the good stories, share the challenges your family has come through, a family narrative will have highs and lows and will celebrate how by coming together everyone got through it all. Use of verbal and non-verbal narrative (photos, drawing pictures together, collage and memory boxes) is a wonderful learning tool for your children and something we can all do. Perhaps we start by going back to our own parents/grandparents and asking these questions and then make this your family’s tradition going forward. So ask yourself today, what is our family story and start telling it to each other?

clueless child boy with arms out asking what's problem

Why do Children Whine?

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I recently did an interview in the Irish Examiner on why Children “Whine” and the reaction from parents was huge, you all wanted to know more and clearly this is something that all children do and all parents find challenging. As always, I’m going to approach this from the perspective of the child and support parents in understanding what is behind the whine

So firstly, why do children whine and they all do it from time to time, some more than others and it is often a phase. Children whine because it is effective and it gets your attention…don’t forget that negative attention is still attention. Yes, it is irritating and it usually happens when you are unavailable to them, perhaps on the phone or in middle of doing something else, so your tolerance is also lower and you are more likely to feel effected by it. But whining is not an attempt to be irritating, it is an attempt to get help and is a sign that your child needs you to reconnect with them.

It is important to note that whining is not a conscious strategy for children but is moreover a learned behaviour, one that you as parent play an important role in. Whining is designed to illicit a response because the louder and longer your child whines you can’t but respond to them and how you respond teaches them whether or not this is an effective communication tool.

To avoid whining, don’t wait until your child is already agitated and distressed before you identify what they are feeling. For example if you are doing something and your child is calling for your attention, acknowledge it quickly even to say “I see you are looking for me to play with you now and when I have finished this job I’m doing I will be straight into you” and then deliver on this so if you are doing the dishes at the time do not move onto hoovering before going into them.

While you may feel pushed to shout out “stop it!” when your child persist in their whining, try to remember that it comes from a sense of powerlessness and is a way that children can gain some degree of power over adults. Small children rely on adults to do everything for them and whining is one way of taking some of this power and control back and as I said, it gets a response!

When your child is whining it is always good to rule out illness first and foremost, let’s be honest we all whine when we are unwell! Once you rule out illness, ask yourself if you have been busier and less available to your child recently? Has there been a change to their routine recently? Have they been getting enough sleep? These factors may explain though not necessarily excuse the whining so it is also helpful to come down to their eye level, take their hands in yours and in a calm steady voice say something like “I don’t like it when you whine but I know it’s because you want something, try asking for what you want in this way” and give an example as this tells them what you expect from them instead of just focusing on what you don’t want to hear.

My Top Tips when dealing with a Whining Child

  • Recognise your own limits and if you need to walk away and take 5 minutes then do that
  • Keep your face and tone calm and consistent and as neutral as you can, come down to your child’s eye level and try to get some skin to skin contact such as holding their hands in yours when you talk to them. This way you have a better chance of reaching them and of them feeling “heard” by you.
  • Spend 15 minutes a day playing with your child, doing something they like at their developmental stage. Giving your child your presence over presents will help to minimise the whining.
  • Hold your boundaries regardless “Thank you for asking me so nicely to play with you, it makes me so happy to hear you use your good manners. Now it is time for bed and we will play tomorrow”

Pocket Money

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There are many child development benefits to giving your child Pocket money, including;

  • It encourages independence
  • It helps develop budgeting skills and an appreciation of the value of money
  • By affording them the opportunity to decide on things they like and want, they are developing a capacity for desire
  • It can help them develop saving skills

The amount you give is absolutely up to you and should be influenced by your family financial situation but also your child’s age and stage of development.

You can decide if pocket money should be earned by doing household tasks for you but I would add here that part of being in a family is the expectation that everyone helps out so I would suggest that there are set chores/tasks that your child is responsible for that they are not paid for but you may offer them the opportunity to take on additional chores to earn money. If you do this then be consistent with it and if the chore/task is not done properly they do not get paid for it.

What do you expect their pocket money to cover? Are they to buy their own phone credit or personal items (teenagers) or do you cover these and their pocket money is for extra or treat items. The amount you give should reflect this and you should be clear with your child from the outset, perhaps have a pocket money agreement you both sign up to. Do not be swayed by what you are told their friends get. You are responsible for parenting your child alone and you won’t know what arrangement other parents have with their children regarding the pocket money they give so you must develop your own system and stick to it.

If you want pocket money to be an effective developmental tool then stick to your own budget as much as you want them to learn to stick to theirs. What I mean is when it is gone, it is gone and you do not top it up during the week. This way your child learns moderation and how to make their money stretch to the whole week. If there is a busy week coming up in a month (perhaps someone’s birthday or an outing with friends) when you know they will need more money, encourage them to save a percentage of their weekly money so that they have extra for a more expensive week.

Having your child, regardless of age or amount of money, put 10% of their pocket money into a savings account is a good habit for them to develop for later on in life as well.

baby swimming

Trust Milestones

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When an infant (under 1 year old) is held, gently rocked and met with a gentle and loving gaze of the person holding them, they learn that they are lovable and will grow and develop with the belief that they are deserving of love. Conversely, if a child is not held and gazed upon in this way they will learn that that they are not lovable and will equally grow and develop seeking out relationships that reinforce this belief.

At this young age, trust is the first developmental milestone for children. When babies and small children learn to trust during this period, their developing brains become wired to trust throughout life. Trust develops when a baby can count on their needs being met by emotionally available caregivers. Responsive, attuned care giving like this gives a baby’s brain the message that the world is a safe place and that people can be depended upon.

There is age old debate as to whether or not picking up an infant every time they cry will spoil them, however early infant research findings show that we cannot spoil an infant and in fact the more we respond to infants needs, particularly in the first 3-­6 months, the less needy they will become. In fact, children whose cries are consistently met in the first year cry less and sleep better in the first year of life. Children whose cries prompt appropriate responses tend to develop into independent, confident and self-­regulating children.

The first 6-­‐8 months of life is called the Co-­Dependent stage of development and during this stage babies do not yet know that they are separate beings from their Mothers, they see themselves as an extension of the Mother and reflected through her gaze. So when a small baby is held in the nook of a Mother’s arms and is rocked and sang to and looked upon with love, that baby internalises that they are loveable and deserving of love and will seek to elicit this from other people and caregivers in their lives. So rock your baby and sing your favourite nursery rhymes, these are special years and they will fly by!


Only child

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Q: Why do you think only children generate such a negative stereotype – in your experience of working with parents and children, is it fair?
A: I think that there is a stereotype that only children are “spoiled’ or “over-indulged” and lack adequate social skills such as sharing, turn taking. I do not think this is fair or true. There is no benefit to parenting a large family over parenting an only child, the essential difference comes down to the dynamics this brings and when parenting an only child the parent-child relationship can be experienced as a more intense relationship, for both parent and child, than for larger families where a parents focus and time is divided between more children. This is not better or worse it is simply a different dynamic.

Q: Do you find that parents worry about their child being spoilt/ living up to the ‘little emperor’ stereotype if they are an only child?
A: In my experience this is not typically a concern of parents of only children but a belief perpetuated by others about only children. I don’t, generally speaking, believe that you can “spoil” a child. There is a belief that picking up a baby under 3 months every time they cry will spoil them when all attachment research shows that the more a parent responds to the needs of an infant the less needy they are as the grow. For me the idea of “spoiling” a child is a stereotype and often confused for a situation where there is poor or inconsistent boundaries and limits between a parent and child and this can be as true of children with siblings as for those without. Parents must attune to the needs of their children and respond to these as best they can while ensuring that children are afforded space and freedom to explore the world for themselves and develop their own sense of identity and what it is that gives them pleasure

Q: What measures can parents take to ensure their child doesn’t become the stereotypical only child?
A: Children who grow up with siblings will learn from each other, explore dynamics and relationships with each other and play with each other. Play is how children communicate, it is how they develop an understanding of themselves and the world and people around them, it is how they develop a capacity for empathy, problem solving skills. Make-Believe Play is essential for children to develop the very important capacity for all forms of self regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility and empathy. The challenge for parents of only children is that they have to be able or be open to learning how to play like a child and play with their child at their child’s level. They must avoid overly cognitive parenting (at that thinking/intellectual level) and connect with their child’s developing feeling states through a combination of embodiment, projective and role-play experiences. Parents of only children can also ensure that their children get time with other children through extra curricular activities, play dates etc.

Q: Do you think even the language is fair surrounding only children? ‘only’ and ‘just the one’ all seem to suggest something lacking.
A: I have spoken with many parents about this issue and they all remark on the, albeit unintentional, insensitivity of other people who use this language about their family. Statements like “oh you only have the one”, “you didn’t want to go again then” “lucky you, it must be so much easier with just the one” can be very painful for parents who may not have planned a smaller family but were unable to have another child for various reasons. These statements can also make parents feel very defensive of their life choice not to have more than one child. Parents will often tell me that they feel their only child status makes them feel like a failure in the eyes of others, that something must have gone wrong or they must not have “been able” to have a second child. This language is not helpful and is often driven by societies belief that it is not ideal to have one child, there is no evidence that growing up in a single child family is any better or worse for children than growing up in a larger family.

boy under the covers with a flashlight

Nightmare versus Night-Terror

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People often refer children for support with what they describe as nightmares that upon closer exploration transpire to be night-terrors. These are quite different and the treatment for both are also very different.

Nightmares usually happen in middle of child’s sleep or certainly after they have been asleep for a few hours already. Often the child remembers the dream, sometimes in vivid detail and the dreamer will know that they had a bad dream and talk about having had it even if they don’t remember it in detail. Nightmares are accompanied by some groaning, whimpering,tossing/turning is also possible but you would not usually see thrashing in the bed, screaming or yelling or running around or sleepwalking. Because the nightmare dreamer recalls that they had a bad dream and how it felt, with or without detail, they will benet from talking about it with someone, perhaps reecting on what it might mean to them or what might have caused it. If ightmares persist over a longer period of time it is advisable to refer to a suitable professional to deal with it. (see fridge note on dealing with Nightmares)

Night-terrors, on the other hand, happen during the rst few hours of sleep. They are accompanied by loud yelling/screaming, thrashing in the bed and it can be difficult to fully wake (though they can be partially awake and still in the night-terror) the child and when you do, the child will rarely remember much, if anything, of the dream. When this happens try to engage the child in talking about the sensation they felt rather than what happened as they can sometimes recall an overwhelming sensation or perhaps one small scene or a character in the dream sequence. However, mostly they do not remember anything at all from the dream perhaps even acting surprised when you mention it the next day having forgotten it completely or asking you “Why did you wake me up”.

It is not well known what causes Night Terrors in young children, usually they have disappeared by puberty though we have cases of adults experiencing them, which can usually be linked directly to periods of high-level stressful daytime situations and they disappear when the stress is dealt with. You can observe your child for possible anxiety behaviours, such as sudden change in appetite/becoming withdrawn/quiet, becoming upset going to or coming home from school or any sudden, unexplained changes in behaviour that were not there before. Though sometimes there is no apparent trigger for a night-terror, they just happen!

While many professionals will simply suggest you ride it out and that there is no treatment, one approach that has proven successful for some families is;

  1. Let child fall asleep completely
  2. Wake child, fully-fully awake, after 3-5 minutes of him being fully asleep…wash their face with cold face cloth to ensure child is fully awake
  3. Now re settle child and put them back to sleep again

Doing this can alter the abnormal sleep patterns of the in between sleep and awake state and prevent the night-terror happening, however if you are concerned about sleep disturbance in your child you should seek professional advice

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