Don’t sweat the small stuff

Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

As is typical in the daily life of a Child Psychologist, I have had numerous parents of young kids recently concerned about their kids having major meltdowns and episodes when asked to be ‘compliant’, which of course is not a new problem. What has struck me as being a little less typical is how many of these parents seem to have given up on themselves as being able to help their child, viewing the child as the one who needs the ‘fix’, the ‘strategies’, rather than the parents asking for support or strategies for themselves as the caregiver.

In addition, on closer inspection of the noncompliance issues, the escalation and meltdown most likely could have been avoided entirely, if only for a few simple tips. And who doesn’t want to prevent their little one having a major emotional event if it’s easily avoided and unnecessary? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we prevent children experiencing big feelings; this is a normal and important part of growing up when big things happen. So if you deal with the small ones well enough, your kids will know they’ll have you by their side to support them through the big ones.

It may be hard to hear, but when managing challenging child behaviour, starting with YOU is always the best place to start. Not because you are the problem, but because you are your child’s guide.

So buckle up, here we go….

  1. Consider the set up – ‘have I set the situation up to make it easy for my child to succeed?’, that is, did I explain how long they had before we arrived to (be in the bath/ be at nan’s/ play in the playground), did I give them a countdown, offer reminders, help them transition to the next activity by assisting them to pack up and say their goodbyes?
  2. Ask yourself, how did I do – Did I do that in a fair and caring way? Or was I a little short tempered and demanding? As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the tone of your voice, the expression on your face, the position of your body, whether your style is to demand or remind, all make a difference on how the message is received, and therefore responded to, by your child.
  3. Take the heat off them – It often helps to let your child know that you understand how hard it is to share/ go somewhere boring/ stop doing something fun ….. such as, “I know it’s hard to hop out of the bath when the water feels so good”. Even agree that it doesn’t seem fair… “I know it’s annoying to stop playing so we can pick up your brother from school, it would be great if we could stay all day and I really wish we could, but…” This takes the heat out of the situation and makes it harder for children to disagree with you, when you are already agreeing with them! More importantly, they feel like you care about how they actually feel.
  4. Own the agenda – lack of compliance is when kids don’t follow your instructions, so own it. It’s okay to take responsibility for being the parent and having to make boring, difficult or sometimes what seem like ‘mean’ decisions, that’s one of the very important tasks of being a parent – knowing what needs to be done and when, for the benefit of your child and others. But saying it with a perspective of understanding that your instruction ‘seems mean’ helps your child feel understood – “sorry we have to leave the park when you are having so much fun, I know it seems really mean sweetheart but I am only making sure we get home in time and don’t miss dinner.. and as your mum/dad it’s my job to make sure you get dinner
    today”. Respond to more grumbles with “I know I wish we didn’t need to eat too…” and so on. Agreeing with their protests goes a long way, as for point 3. Children know that you understand how they feel, even if you can’t agree with their wishes. It is important to know that children learn how to have empathy for others by experiencing what it feels like to be empathised WITH, so this is teaching them a long term emotional skill, not just a temporary band aid to get them to do what you’re asking.
  5. Is the agenda that critical? Letting go… – sometimes negotiation will be important. Yes, even with a toddler! Contrary to common belief, allowing your child to negotiate and have their requests for something agreed to (i.e. more play, more books, more cake!) is not going to spoil your child, ruin them, or turn them into a controlling person by ‘letting them win’. As an aside, compliance is not about winning and losing – leave that for the battlefield. Compliance is about helping a child understand why things need to be done and when. And if children can learn that limits and boundaries are maintained through fairness and necessity, then they will also learn to respect, expect and trust your rules. Give and take assists this enormously. So if you pause to consider whether the instruction really does need to be followed immediately and discover that it isn’t that big of a deal if it isn’t, then give a little. If on second thought you don’t really have to leave the playground to do anything critical (i.e. the washing can wait), or if allowing your child to stay in the bath for another 10 minutes isn’t going to drastically alter the rest of the day and all you have to do to deal with an otherwise hot dinner is heat it up in the microwave for a minute or eat it cold, then the benefit to your child, to you and to your relationship is likely well worth the negotiation.
  6. Combatting your inner demons – dealing with the ‘I’m a bad parent if I … (don’t stick to my guns, look like I’m giving in, am not in complete control all the time, OR perhaps, make my child stop something when they are having fun, tell my child NO, refuse to give them whatever they want”). It’s no wonder many of us fear being judged as being a ‘bad parent’. Most people in society think they have the right to judge us parents for our actions and many aren’t afraid to say so! So if you have thoughts flow through your mind such as ‘I feel stupid/weak/not good enough if others over hear me’, remember that they do not know you, your child or your relationship the way you do, and never will. You are the expert of yourself and your family. Make a judgment call in the moment from your head AND heart – pause to consider – am I being the parent here – am I being fair, kind, and considered? If so, stick with it. Focus on your child and do your best to block out the glares or comments of others. Be present in the moment with your child; don’t drift off in your mind to ‘what ifs’.
  7. Catching the melodrama – when we are feeling over-stretched, tired, hungry, stressed, or not well ourselves it is easy to sometimes imagine that our child is being deliberately difficult to make our lives worse, and we tend to be a bit dramatic in our interpretations of the behaviour we see in front of us. The reality is that our young kids really don’t think about how to make our lives difficult – they rarely think that far ahead, and mostly are just thinking about their own immediate needs with no care for the consequences. Ahh, the freedom of childhood! That’s what little undeveloped brains allow. Children typically want to stay in good with us… intuitively they know that they rely on us for survival. So pause when you feel like shouting “just do what I say, and stop complaining!”, or “why are you being so difficult?” These types of reactions from us are only going to add fuel to the already building fire and then you have to deal with an inferno, which is hard if you are fuming too. So PAUSE, BREATHE, take the higher ground and remind yourself that your child is NOT acting to make your life difficult, they are acting to try and have their needs or wants happen in the current moment. There is a subtle but important difference.

If you’ve followed down this far, you are doing well! Credit to you for being curious about alternative ideas for supporting your child’s development.

Parenting is a challenging, incredibly rewarding, but albeit often painful journey.

So sweating the small stuff, by forcing compliance according to your agenda (or someone else’s), especially if done without a fair set up and explanation, is guaranteed to cause big reactions from your kids. It only adds to the pain, not to the joy and delight of parenting.

Recognising that the small stuff does, however, present us with opportunity can take the pressure off having to be in charge all the time. Through negotiation, care and understanding for the many every day scenarios that can cause frustration, maintaining fairness and role modelling caring about how they feel can create a solid parent-child relationship built on trust. And remember to take care of you too… starting with a good ‘head space’ will help you keep perspective on what’s important.

So rather than sweating the small stuff, cherish it instead. Nurture your child through the everyday challenges with confidence and care. Then your child will know you’ll be there for the big stuff too.

Note – If your little humans do continue to have difficulties managing small situations with major over reactions, even when you feel you are approaching the situation calmly and fairly, it may help to seek out a Child Psychologist for some support of what to try next. Contact my team at the Jacaranda Centre in Cardiff to find out how. Find us at, on Facebook or call 4954 8822.

Until next time, Be Mindful 🙂

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