Supporting your Child
Knowing how to best support your child is challenging for all moms at times. Some days are easier than others. Every day stresses, as well as more chronic stresses like violence, poverty and abuse can make it hard to respond to your child in the way that you’d like.
In this section you will find parenting information on how to support your child. This information integrates the unique parenting issues and challenges that may arise if you have had hurtful experiences in your life. These are the topics and conversations that are discussed in Mothers in Mind.
Stress and young children
Responding sensitively to your child
When your child reminds you of the person who was abusive
Mistakes—every parent makes them!
Fostering healthy self-esteem
I have always had a hard time expressing my feelings. How can I help my child learn to express their feelings in a healthy way?
For many women, expressing their own feelings can be challenging, especially if they didn’t have an adult who helped them learn how to do this when they were young.
Here are some ways to help your child express and manage their feelings. You can also use these strategies to help you express your own feelings.
In order to begin to express your feelings, you have to figure out what you are feeling. Helping your child learn words to describe what they are feeling is the first step in helping them learn how to express their feelings.
When your child is struggling with a feeling, try to help them name it. If they are angry, try saying: “It seems like you may be feeling angry right now. What is making you feel angry?”
Reading stories to your child that talk about different feelings is also very helpful in helping children develop their feelings vocabulary.
Letting children know that what they are feeling is normal can help them feel more comfortable talking about their feelings. It can also be helpful to let children know that what they are feeling makes sense, even if you wouldn’t feel the same way.
Here are some ways you can validate your child’s feelings: “It makes sense that you are feeling sad because you miss your friend.” Or “I understand that you are frustrated because you are having a hard time tying your shoe.”
Teach your children to use words to express how they are feeling. This takes lots of time and practice, but you can help them by modeling it. Also, give your children lots of opportunity to express themselves through art, dance, writing or physical activity.
When children learn healthy ways to express their feelings, they are less likely to express these feelings through challenging behaviours. This makes parenting easier.
When children are having a hard time with their feelings, stay with them and comfort them. Stay calm and just be there. A hug, snuggle or kind words can go a long way to support your children in learning how to manage and express their feelings.
The last few years have been very stressful at home for me. Do babies and toddlers experience stress too?
Just like adults, children, including babies and toddlers can experience stress. Children experience every day stresses like feeling sick, tired or hungry, and separation from a caregiver.
Babies and toddlers are also affected by their environment, including the mood and emotions of their parents. Chronic stresses like violence, poverty and homelessness can leave women feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, making it challenging to understand how to best support their child when they are experiencing stress.
A little bit of stress is healthy and can help a baby grow and develop, and learn new skills like walking and talking. However, chronic stresses can impact a baby and toddler’s social, emotional and brain development.
Sign of stress
There are many ways that babies and toddlers show that they’re feeling stress. Think about when your baby is hungry or feeling ill – they use their cry to let you know something is wrong. Babies arch their backs and look away when they are feeling overwhelmed. If a baby has been exposed to stressful situations for a long period of time they may even withdraw or shut down.
Toddlers may have nightmares, act aggressively towards others or even withdraw and become quiet. You may notice that a previously fully toilet-trained child begins to wet the bed again, or has trouble sleep or eating and becomes fearful and clingy.
How to help
A parent’s response to their child during times of stress can make all the difference. Babies and toddlers do better during stressful situations, including chronic stresses, when their caregiver is available and responsive to their needs.
Responding in a sensitive manner to your child lets them know that you love them, that their feelings matter to you and that they can count on you to help them when they need it. They feel safe and secure, which can lessen the impact of the stress on their development.
If you and your child are living with chronic stress, get support. Timing is important for young children. Shorter periods of stress are easier for children to recover from. Check out the Resources section for further information about available support.
How can I respond sensitively to my child when I didn’t have that growing up?
Responding to your child in a sensitive manner does not always come naturally, especially if you grew up with a parent who was hurtful or neglectful. It can take some time to feel comfortable learning what your child needs and how best to support them.
It’s a myth that you can spoil a baby if you pick them up too much or respond to their cries. That is simply not true. Meeting your baby’s needs helps them learn that they can count on you to be there when they need you, which will make them feel safe and secure.
When babies are born, they don’t know how to manage their stress. They slowly learn how to manage challenging feelings through having a caregiver comfort and soothe them. Especially when babies are little, it’s important to respond promptly to their cries and need for support.
When thinking about responding sensitively to your child, it can sometimes be easier to break it down and think about what your face, voice, body, words and mind need to show in order for your child to feel safe and secure.
What would a sensitive face look like? A relaxed face, with lots of eye contact with your child helps your child know that you are there for them. Mirroring their facial expressions also helps.
Speak in a warm and calm voice that is not too loud or too soft.
Using your body to stay close to your child in times of need can help soothe them. Keeping your body relaxed also sends calming messages to your child. Hugs, cuddles, gentle rocking all help too.
Use gentle, kind and encouraging words, especially in moments of stress. Using your child’s name, letting them know what is happening and helping them understand how they might be feeling will all help your child feel better.
Staying tuned into your child and being realistic about your own expectations of what they can and can’t do on their own also helps.
Benefits of responding sensitively
Children learn so many things when they have a caregiver who responds sensitively to their needs. Children learn they are valued and they matter. They slowly learn how to manage challenging feelings, which will benefit them their entire lives. Most importantly, they learn that they can count on you to comfort them when they are feeling stressed.
Knowing that you are helping your child grow and develop in healthy ways can also help you feel good about your parenting and your relationship with your child.
Remember that it’s never too late to start responding to your child in a sensitive manner. Positive changes in the way you interact with your child can go a long way toward supporting your child’s healthy development and strengthening your relationship.
I know it’s important to show my children physical affection, but sometimes I feel uncomfortable when my child wants to give me a hug. What can I do?
Physical affection helps children and babies grow and develop emotionally, socially and even physically. It also helps children feel safe, secure and loved.
Why physical affection can be difficult
For many women who have had hurtful experiences, physical affection can feel uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe, even from their children. Some women may feel “triggered” by touch, reminding them of their past hurtful experiences. Triggers can be brought on by any of the five senses. A child’s touch or kiss and even breastfeeding can sometimes be triggers for women. Triggers are a normal reaction to the trauma you experienced.
When mothers are triggered, it can make them respond or react to physical affection in unexpected ways such as yelling, being startled or even shutting down and withdrawing. This can be confusing for children and often makes women feel guilty and uncomfortable.
Learning to show physical affection
Even though you have had hurtful experiences that sometimes make physical affection feel uncomfortable, there are some things you can do to help you feel more comfortable showing your children physical affection.
When you aren’t being triggered, think about different strategies you can use to help ground yourself during a trigger. Here are some tips:
- Remind yourself that you are safe now, that you are experiencing a trigger and that this is a normal reaction to the abuse you experienced. It’s not your fault.
- Remind yourself that your child is a safe person.
- Use your body to help ground yourself in the present moment. Feel your feet touching the ground, your arms touching the chair, etc.
- Take a few deep breaths through your nose. Pretend you are filling up your stomach like a balloon and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Do this until your body feels calmer.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to a professional about managing triggers. Check out the Resources section for further information about available support.
Connecting with your child
Try to think about different ways to connect with your child that feels comfortable for you.
Putting your baby in a carrier on your body may feel comfortable to you and goes a long way to helping your baby feel connected. Sing a quiet song to your baby to let them know that you are there. Gently rub their back as they are falling asleep. Kiss their hands and feet.
As your child gets older, holding hands, putting your arm around them and even high-fives show them that you love them and that they matter to you. Eye contact, smiles and kind words help children of all ages feel loved.
Try to find ways to show your child affection every day. Start with something that feels comfortable for you and continue to add different strategies. There may be some that are never going to feel good to you, and that’s fine. Just keep trying to find ways that make both you and your child feel good.
My child has been having a lot of temper tantrums lately, and I find them really hard. What can I do?
Why children have tantrums
Temper tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, and all parents find it challenging to manage them. Children typically have tantrums between one to four years of age, and they can range from whining and crying to kicking, screaming and hitting and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
When a young child has a tantrum it’s usually because they are having a hard time dealing with strong feelings such as anger or frustration. Toddlers are learning new skills every day and are trying to become more independent, but they aren’t always able to do or say what they want to. When children are tired, sick or hungry, they may have an even harder time dealing with these strong feelings.
For women who have had hurtful experiences, temper tantrums can sometimes feel scary. The situation might feel “out-of-control” or it might even remind you of the abuse you experienced.
Dealing with temper tantrums
Learn the triggers
Knowing what might trigger a tantrum can help you prevent tantrums and better support your child. For example, if you know that your child has a hard time leaving the park, give them lots of warning that you will be leaving soon. When it’s time to go, talk to them about what you will be doing next.
When your child seems tired or sick, think about what you can really expect from them. For example, if your child is tired, it’s likely not a good idea to go to the grocery store. Staying home just might prevent a tantrum from happening in the middle of the frozen food aisle!
When your child has a tantrum, it can feel like they are making a statement (in front of the grocery store customers at least) about your parenting. It can be embarrassing and may make you feel like you aren’t in control or that you aren’t a good parent. It’s helpful to remember that being able to manage a tantrum is more important than trying to stop one.
Try to remain calm during a tantrum. This isn’t always easy to do, but if you are calm your child will feel calmer. Take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that your child is just having a hard time, and it will pass.
Try to stay with your child during the tantrum. They are feeling out of control and need to know that you are there to help them and that you love them even when they are having a hard time.
Your child may tell you to go away, but it’s still important to find a way to stay close. You may be tempted to threaten to walk away or leave your child in hopes that it will make them stop, but these threats can just make the situation worse. It’s your support in these hard times that help your child learn how to better manage challenging feelings as they grow up.
Sitting beside your child and talking in a calm voice can sometimes help. Saying things like “I know it’s hard when you can’t do the things you want” can let your child know you understand how they’re feeling.
Ask if they need a hug. Positive physical affection can help your child feel safe and secure. To learn more about strategies for showing physical affection when you have had hurtful experiences, click here.
Sometimes I just don’t get my son. Things that bother him don’t bother me. He is different than my daughter too. It makes it hard to know what to do. What can I do?
What is temperament?
Every child is unique, which can sometimes make parenting challenging. What works for one child doesn’t always work for another. Each child is born with their own way of approaching and reacting to their world. This is their temperament. Temperament can also be influenced by the environment they live in.
Understanding your child’s temperament
Starting to think about your child’s temperament can help you better understand their behaviour.
For instance, if you know that your child loves to explore their environment, crawl around and hardly sits still, your child will likely not naturally sit for long periods of time. It doesn’t mean that they are uncontrollable; it just means that they are active. Expecting active children to sit for long periods of time, whether it’s to eat, listen to a story or even get their diaper changed is not practical. Movement and activity is part of their temperament. Providing lots of opportunities for these children to move, dance, run, jump and explore their environment safely, will make parenting easier.
Another important aspect of temperament is your child’s reaction to change and new situations. Does your child have a difficult time when presented with a new situation, person or changes in their environment, or are they able to go with the flow and manage these situations reasonably with ease? Children who take time to warm up to new situations, people or changes in their environment need extra support in these circumstances. Help them by staying close. Remind yourself that you are the person who helps them feel safe and secure during these challenging times. Use calm words and gestures when they are meeting new people or going to a new place. This will help make new situations less intense and stressful for your child.
To learn more about temperament and ways to tune into your child’s temperament, check out the Zero to Three website.
Understanding your temperament
Remember, your own temperament plays a role in how you interact with your world, including your children. There will be parts of your child’s temperament that you find easier to manage than others. You may find some parts of your child’s temperament challenging because they remind you of parts of yourself that you would like to change, or you may find their temperament so different from your own that it can be hard to know what to do.
For some women, their child’s temperament can remind them of the person in their life who was abusive. When children trigger reminders of hurtful people or experiences, it can be challenging to know what to do and how to respond to them appropriately.
Sometimes my child reminds me of his dad who was abusive to me. What can I do?
Many women who have had hurtful experiences struggle with this. It can be really difficult when your child reminds you of someone who was hurtful and frightening. It often brings up many challenging feelings and can make you react to your children in unhelpful ways.
Managing these feelings
- Take a step back and take a few deep breaths before you react to your child.
- Remind yourself that your child is not your abusive partner.
- Try to separate out your feelings and identify what it is that is reminding you of your abusive partner – is it their voice, appearance, behaviour?
- Think about the ways in which your child is unique and different than their dad.
- Avoid saying: “You look just like…” or “You are acting just like….” to your child.
- Remember that this happens to a lot of women who have experienced violence and understand that it is going to take some time and practice before it gets easier.
- If you find that it isn’t getting easier, consider seeking support from a counsellor who can help you sort out your feelings and thoughts. Check out the Resources section for further information about available support.
I am really trying to work on my parenting and my relationship with my child, but sometimes I make mistakes and feel awful. What can I do?
Every parent makes mistakes. No parent knows exactly what their child needs at all times, and it’s impossible to respond sensitively every moment of every day. Life stresses can get in the way. Mistakes are an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child and to think about the kind of parent you want to be.
When you feel as though you have made a mistake in your relationship with your child, or parent in a way that you know isn’t helpful, the first step is to be aware of what you did. Notice how your child reacted to you. Were they afraid? Disappointed? Sad? Did they withdraw from you or shut down?
Think about what triggered your response — had it been a difficult day or were you feeling overwhelmed? Did your child remind you of a hurtful experience? Figuring out what caused your response can help you plan to respond differently in the future.
Healing and repair
Seek out your child when you have made a mistake. Give your child a hug, say that you are sorry, spend some time with them and comfort them. All of these things let your child know that they are important and that you can be relied on when things go wrong.
Repairing things when you make a mistake helps to build resilience in children. It builds trust, strengthens your relationship and teaches children to do the same as they grow up.
Plan for the future
Once you have identified what went wrong, think about what you could have done differently. What might have helped the situation? Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that repairing that mistake strengthens your relationship with your child.
Everyone has days when they are more patient and understanding towards their children, and days that are harder. If you find that you are continuing to struggle, seek professional support for you and your child. Sometimes it can help to work out your feelings about past experiences. Mothers in Mind and other programs offered by Child Development Institute and MIM Affiliates can help. Or check out the Resources section for further information about other available support.
Finding ways to take time for you can also help. Check out the Taking Care of Yourself section for some tips and ideas.
How can I help build my child’s self-esteem when I struggle with my own self-esteem?
Helping children build a healthy view of themselves goes a long way toward preparing them for the challenges of everyday life. Kids with healthy self-esteem feel good about who they are and what they can do. They also feel loved and know that they are important to those people close to them.
Most people struggle with their self-esteem in one way or another; however, hurtful experiences such as family violence, childhood abuse and neglect can make feeling good about yourself more challenging.
Focus on you
It’s important to focus on your own self-esteem so you can support your children in building their self-esteem.
It helps to look at the negative thoughts you have about yourself and figure out where they are coming from. Do you feel bad about yourself as a mom because your partner always put down your parenting? Is it hard for you to connect with others because as a child you were made to feel as if you didn’t matter? Challenge these thoughts and remind yourself that it’s not your fault.
Next, focus on what you like about yourself. It may take a while for this to feel natural, but just keep reminding yourself of all your positive qualities. Take a few moments every day to think of something about yourself that you like.
Helping your children
While you are working on your own self-esteem you can also start to support your children in improving their self-esteem. Here are some helpful tips:
- Let your children hear you talk positively about yourself. This shows them that it’s important to feel good about yourself.
- Create a home that is safe. If your home isn’t safe, reach out and get help. Check out the Resources section for further information about support that is available.
- Find ways to show your children that you love them. Click here for tips for showing physical affection.
- Say positive things to your child. Use encouraging words like “I know you can do it!”. Describe something positive you see in them. Be specific. “You really are great at drawing. I love all the colours you used.”
- When your child has made a mistake or done something wrong, remind them that you still love them. Young children have a hard time understanding that even when you are angry you still love them.
- Be there for your child when they need you. Pick them up when they are crying, try to soothe them when they are upset and listen to them when they need to talk.
For more information about building self-esteem in kids, visit http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/children-and-self-esteem/