When raising kids – especially under-fives – it can be hard to know if you’re doing the right things. And, chances are, you’re not getting it right all of the time. (Who is?!)
Sometimes we shout when our buttons are pressed, or we sit our kids in front of the TV to give ourselves a moment to zone out, or we feed them fish fingers and plain pasta for their dinner because it’s the easy option.
That’s not to say the rest of the time we spend with our kids isn’t enriching… we sit and play with them, read to them, hug and kiss them, take them to the park, sing songs, bake with them, chat about their day. All of these are hugely important too.
Last week, the Princess of Wales launched a new campaign to increase public understanding of the importance of the first five years of a child’s life. The campaign – dubbed Shaping Us – aims to make early childhood development “one of the most strategically important topics of our time”.
The way we develop in our early years can, as the Princess said, impact everything from our mental and physical health, to our ability to form relationships and thrive at work, to the way we raise our own families later down the line.
To coincide with Children’s Mental Health Week, we spoke to Fiona Yassin, a family psychotherapist and founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, about some of the most important ways parents can help their under-fives thrive.
Here’s what she had to say.
1. Build a connection with your child
It might sound obvious but sometimes we can forget to do this very basic thing – especially, says Yassin, when smartphones, work commitments and busy life schedules pull us in all manner of directions.
“It’s really important to take time to talk to your child and, most importantly, take in what they have to say with active listening skills,” says the therapist.
If you’re sitting playing with them, or they’re telling you about something, she advises not rushing onto the next question or task and instead, truly listening to what your child has to say.
“Gently repeat what your child’s said so they understand that firstly, you’ve heard them and secondly, you’re validating them,” she adds.
This is important because “when you show you’re listening to the small things your child says, they are more likely to share the bigger and more important things with you when they get older”.
2. Mirror your child’s actions and sounds
If your child is beaming at you when they’ve woken up from a nap, mirror that smile back to them. If your child is looking at you intently, hold that and look right back into their eyes.
This is super simple but also really important because “when we mirror the actions of a child, it helps them to feel accepted and wanted,” says Yassin.
3. Attune to your child’s needs
What does your child really need? You don’t have to be a mind reader to know this. In fact, attunement is “a matter of getting to know, and being able to anticipate, our child’s needs,” says the therapist.
Lots of us will find by the time our child is a toddler, we’re pretty good at knowing what they need (although sometimes we’ll get it wrong because, well, toddlers).
“The building blocks of attunement come from being able to respond appropriately to the things children need in their early years, such as being warm, being fed on time, getting enough sleep and having a routine,” says Yassin.
This is important because “when you attune, you create a place of safety for your child,” she adds.
4. Provide consistency for your child
Sometimes it can be all too easy to just give in to the will of your child, while other times you might have a bit more strength to stick to your boundaries. But “surrounding a child with inconsistent messages can be problematic,” Yassin explains.
She offers the common scenario of a child wanting a new toy from a shop and the parent saying ‘no’. The child then screams uncomfortably and the parent reverses their decision and allows the child to have the toy. Sound familiar?
“Parents often don’t do this to appease the child,” says Yassin. Instead, it usually happens because the parent “doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable in the moment,” she suggests.
But this can work against us. “Firstly, this inconsistency undermines your decision-making role as a parent,” says the therapist. “Secondly, it allows the child the piece of teaching that says: ‘If I scream then I get what I want.’
“Thirdly, it demolishes trust in consistency. To some degree, the child will feel they have become the decision maker and it can be scary for a little person to think they hold that much power.”
5. Allow your child to be a child
Sometimes we can impose our adult expectations and ways of thinking onto children, which is not necessarily for the best. So, let kids be kids!
Support your child with the development of their intelligence, curiosity and creativity, but allow them to still be a child through all of this, advises Yassin.
Some examples of things you don’t want to be imposing on your kids at a young age include talking to them about your financial situation and involving them in conflict and arguments, says the therapist.
And avoid negative self-talk while you’re at it. She suggests steering clear of statements like ‘mummy’s being stupid’ or ‘daddy’s got that wrong again’ – or even phrases that might berate the way you look or what you eat.
“They don’t need to be exposed to these feelings. It is adult business and should be kept well away from them,” says Yassin.
6. Let your child feel their emotions
As every parent knows, children quite often have very big feelings and those feelings are sometimes too big for their own bodies.
When they do have these moments, it’s perfectly OK to let them feel what they’re feeling, suggests the therapist. “It’s OK for your child to be really angry and sad and throw themselves around on the floor,” she says.
“As long as they are safe and are not putting themselves in danger, allow them to feel their emotions and be there with loving, gentle kindness ready to provide the right level of soothing support for them afterwards.
“There’s no need to go in and fix everything they feel.”
7. Model kindness
If you act kindly to others, your little one will model the behaviour they see from you in their own actions going forward. And if you do the opposite. Well, so will they.
“If, for example, you are showing physical and verbal aggression at someone who has taken your parking space, your child will model and copy that behaviour,” says Yassin.
“It’s important we try to have a kind and gentle outlook to the way we conduct ourselves in all of our interactions.”
That’s not to say you won’t sometimes slip up and call someone something regrettable for cutting you up on the motorway. Just try not to make it a habit.