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Dr. Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist, the founder of ahaparenting.com, and author The Peaceful Parenting Series.
Parenting is one of the greatest joys you may experience in your life. But as any parent will tell you, it comes with many challenges. Once kids hit the toddler years, the power struggles emerge. Your little ones learn the complicated aspects of becoming people and you, too, learn how to respond when your child acts out. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated and turn to yelling and punishment. But you may find, though, that this path is not only ineffective, it also makes you and your kids feel miserable and disconnected.
There is a better way, and it begins with Peaceful Parenting. This relationship-based parenting model, created by Dr. Laura Markham, focuses on emotional connection as the guiding force to improving the common issues many families face. A clinical psychologist and child development expert, Dr. Markham is the founder of ahaparenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent Series. In our recent interview with Dr. Markham, she explains her approach and offers tangible solutions for everything from tantrums to time-outs.
The Peaceful Parenting Method Explained
The Peaceful Parenting method centers around the foundational need that all kids have to feel connected. It can be broken down into three parts: connecting with your child, coaching instead of controlling, and regulating our emotions as parents.
According to Dr. Markham, connection is 80-90% of parenting, while the rest is giving guidance. Connection is such a dominant portion of childrearing, she explains, because if kids don’t feel that strong bond, they won’t follow our guidance. “Your child is not going to do what you want unless they feel close with you, they trust you, and they respect you,” says Dr. Markham. “Then children want to follow our lead.” Furthermore, being close to our kids provides them with a feeling of safety, that when lacking, leaves them anxious and keeps them from thriving.
Connecting with your child means showing them your support even when they mess up. This doesn’t mean we let them get away with things, says Dr. Markham, rather, “it shows that we believe in their potential to be their best selves.”
Connection makes parenting better for us, too, as we get out of the relationship what we put into it. The rewards can be immeasurable and connection allows us to experience the joys of raising kids.
Children experience big emotions just like the rest of us, and even if they feel connected to us, their feelings may get in the way of good behavior. For example, when they are tired, angry, or anxious, they may break the rules or act out. While your gut reaction could be to react with punishment, the research shows that it simply does not work, says Dr. Markham. So, instead, she reasons that coaching allows us to meet our kids needs and pinpoint what’s driving the behavior.
Coaching our kids through their emotions can have powerful and positive outcomes, too. “The research is clear that kids who are coached to help them with their emotions are more successful than their peers in basically every way,” says Dr. Markham. “They are more emotionally intelligent, they are able to self regulate, which means they are easier to live with, more successful in school, and better in relationships.”
The last component may be challenging in the heat of the moment, or say in aisle three of the grocery store in front of multiple onlookers. When your child acts out, you need to first calm yourself down and regulate your own emotions so that you can respond effectively. “It’s natural to get angry at your kids,” says Dr. Markham. “Every parent gets angry at their kids sometimes. But it’s our job to be the role model. We don’t want to teach our kids that what you do when you don’t like something is to throw a tantrum. That’s what we adults do when we yell at them.”
Her solution? “Instead of modeling throwing tantrums, we can model calming down.” For example, you can say “I’m too angry to talk about this, I’m going to calm down and then we’ll talk about it.” When you are calm, you are able to coach and reconnect.
If you let yourself feel the feelings, the feelings begin to dissipate and fade.
So What Do We Do With Our Kid’s Big Emotions?
We teach them that it’s okay to feel our feelings, no matter how big and how all-consuming they may be. “If you let yourself feel the feelings, the feelings begin to dissipate and fade,” says Dr. Markham. Furthermore, when you bottle up these emotions instead of working through them, they are no longer under conscious control and may burst out when you least expect it. Through her years in practice, Dr. Markham has observed that the people who haven’t been able to experience their feelings often end up with anger management or anxiety issues.
So instead, we should teach our kids that their emotions are normal and expressing them is important.
Helping your child understand that feelings are okay will help strengthen their emotional intelligence, a skill that cannot be understated in importance. According to Dr. Markham, “Emotional intelligence is being able to understand and self regulate your own emotions and being able to understand somebody else’s emotions and get along with them.” This includes empathy for others, understanding their point of view, and being able to work things out with others.
It’s especially important for kids to learn skills like compromise, controlling emotions, and getting along with others, she says. These skills that they are practicing on the playground are the exact skills they will need in the workplace.
Actionable Steps when Big Emotions Take Over
- Allow your kids to feel their feelings while you guide and limit their behavior.
- Empathize with them even if you don’t agree with the feelings.
- Delight in your children so that they feel they are good underneath, no matter how much they mess up.
Peaceful Solutions to Three Common Questions
Dr. Markham offers guidance on these three hot topics in the parenting world.
When your child is in the throws of an emotional meltdown, Dr. Markham advises you to stop, drop, and breathe. “Stop, drop your agenda, take a deep breath, and tell yourself something that will make you feel better.” Affirmative phrases like, “I’m a good parent,” or “It’s normal to have tantrums,” really help to put your current situation in perspective.
Then, accept the feelings and try to see it from your child’s perspective with phrases like, “She must be having a really hard time to be having this meltdown.” Once you can see it from her side, you are more able to empathize and form a connection. It’s important to remember that kids in the heat of the moment aren’t acting with their thinking part of the brain and often feel out of control, says Dr. Markham. You can reestablish safety with phrases like, “I’m right here with a hug when you are ready.” Simple, yet effective.
Once you can see it from her side, you are more able to empathize and form a connection.
With these steps, your child learns that feelings aren’t dangerous. They also learn that while they may not get what they want, they have a mom and dad that loves and understands them unconditionally. This practice doesn’t teach your kids not to have tantrums, either. Instead, it gives them the inner tools to manage future frustration and disappointment, says Dr. Markham. These crucial skills will serve them throughout their personal, academic, and professional life.
This popular practice was invented in a lab as a technique to get kids to stop misbehaving, says Dr. Markham. Pediatricians then popularized the approach as a way to keep parents from hurting their children. But what they actually do, she says, is “teach our kids that they don’t have the right to exist in our presence at that moment because they are exhibiting feelings that are not ok.” This is the exact opposite of Dr. Markham’s emotion coaching method. While many parents perceive timeouts as a way to calm kids down, our goal should instead be to help our kids understand and manage their emotions. Dr. Markham agrees that timeouts are better than spanking but says this method doesn’t help to raise an emotionally intelligent child.
What does help? A time-in. Stay with your kids in the moment and offer a hug, she says. They may not be ready to interact, but they know you are there. Then, later have a conversation (not a lecture) about what happened so that your child can connect the dots and learn their lesson.
When you hear the word discipline, most people think it means punishment, even though it really means guidance, says Dr. Markham. That’s why she uses the term “loving guidance” instead of discipline. In place of an actual reprimand, she suggests you have a discussion with your kid that sets limits and makes clear that what they did was not okay. Parents should be setting limits everyday that teach their kids the values they wish to instill in them.