Boo! Are you afraid of your child's unpleasant feelings?

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What’s so scary about a feeling? After all, as explained by the world-renowned neuroscientist, Antonio R. Damasio, “feelings are what arise as the brain interprets emotions, which are themselves purely physical signals of the body reacting to external stimuli.” Some feelings like being cold in the winter time are pretty easily related to. While we freely reach for a coat to warm us when we are cold, we are less likely to acknowledge and respect the less physical feelings we experience. Indeed many adults are unaware of the existence of their true feelings and even less so how those feelings are driving their moods and behaviours.  From my practice working with parents for the last 15 years, I have concluded that a failure to acknowledge and respect our child’s feelings is the single greatest impediment standing in the way of most parents achieving a happier more harmonious family life.

It’s not surprising this is so. Somewhere along the line our ancestors concluded that emotions were scary things. I can understand this. Think about how it must have felt to live in Europe in 1942-45 for example. Terrifying. Emotions would have had to be snuffed out in order to continue to function. When survival needs are not being met, there is little room for anything else. Safety, food and water trump sadness. When you are frightened that you may not live another day there isn’t time to meditate on your rage or despair. In other words it was adaptive for our forebears to ignore their emotional world. In many families, any situation that was charged with big emotions was treated like toxic waste - quickly bundled up and put somewhere where it wouldn’t harm anyone. Parents who wanted to protect their children from the pain of reality might have acted as if the situation didn’t exist by ignoring it or hushing their child whenever the child asked about the situation.  But the upshot of treating emotionally charged situations in this way is that children are lead to believethat feelings are so dangerous that they are routinely and briskly shoved into the metaphorical cupboard under the stairs. 

Most adults today were given little experience on how to handle difficult emotions. Had we been given guidance and practice we likely would have concluded that emotions come and go, and are sometimes pleasurable and sometimes not. We would be able to recognise an emotion and give it a name and allow it to inform our personal narrative. We might even be able to understand how our emotional life informs our decisions and behaviour and make changes in what we do based on a clear understanding of those emotions. 

What parents of today’s generation have inherited is an inability in many situations to be able to identify that there are feelings lurking in the shadows. They were never taught that sadness felt like this and despair felt like that. Those funny sensations they felt were quickly papered over with rational admonishments to “buck up” or “quit your snivelling" or “I’ll give you something to cry about.” In short the foundations were laid for a generation of people with very little emotional intelligence. When Daniel Goleman wrote about Emotional Intelligence in 1995 he popularised the idea of an Emotional Quotient (EQ), which is a measure of one’s ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. This was well after the date that most of today’s parents were raised. So that’s your get out of jail free card. It’s not your fault that you don’t know how to do this. But it is your responsibility to learn how to do this. That is assuming your goal in parenting is to raise capable, responsible, beings who can find work and love and exist peacefully within constructive and productive communities.

We have inherited from our parents and they from theirs an anxiety that surrounds the acknowledgement of feelings that are difficult to bear such as sadness, lonliness, despair, shame and anger. If a parent's job is to keep their child safe, how does that parent acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen? There are big, awful feelings. When my mother who suffers from Alzheimers Disease and lives in a care home says she’s ready to go home it breaks my heart. When a loved one dies and we miss their company so desperately, we may find it hard to go on.  These are situations where there is nothing that can be done to fix the situation. And therein lies one of the great reasons we don’t want to acknowledge feelings. Why acknowledge a feeling when you cannot do anything about it? It’s a fair point but not an effective one. Our minds know that we are covering up acknowledging a feeling. Many addictive behaviours result from our searching for something that will distract us from the pain of those original feelings. In the end, the addiction becomes far more painful and ruinous than the original feeling. It is true that sometimes when we have a feeling there is little we can do about it but we are still better off to recognise that sad/awful feeling and to sit with it for awhile. We should give it a name such as shame and think about why we feel that way. Much the way we might just stop to appreciate the good things in life, we need to stop and acknowledge the bad as well. Our brains benefit from this sort of exercise. When we acknowledge and make sense of our feelings, our brains release particular neurochemicals that help us calm down and return to equilibrium. 

It is also true that many times feelings are really not that terrible at all. Feelings are quite transitory, lasting seconds or minutes not lifetimes. It is our fear of facing our feelings that actually becomes problematic. And so it is with our children. When we jolly them out of their bad moods or ignore the despondent face they have when they get home, or shame them out their feelings of anger and rage, we are sending several unintentional messages such as 1. your feelings are frightening to me so let’s not acknowledge them and/or 2. your feelings are unimportant to me, I would rather be happy than know about what is bothering you and/or 3. I have no idea what to do with your feelings and that makes me feel incompetent. 

How do parents deny their children’s emotions? The tactics are plentiful. Distraction is a good one - “Oh look at the butterfly” said to comfort the wailing child may be an early beginning. “Don’t be silly - there are no monsters under the bed” is another common one. “Never mind, there are lots of nice children who will want to play with you” said consolingly to the child who has complained that no-one at school wants to play with them.  “Don’t be horrid. You don’t hate your brother” said to your child who has just watched his younger sibling destroy something he made. We don’t want our child to be sad or be so angry they are ready to resort to violence. So in an effort to change what we don’t like, we use these tactics to push away the scary feelings our child has expressed. The problem is that we are missing an opportunity to connect with our child at times like these. We are shirking one of our parenting responsibilities which is to help guide our child through their challenges. We are losing the chance to build connections in their brains between their emotions and their cognitive response to those emotions.

Behaviour is always a barometer of an individual’s internal equilibrium. This is especially true for children who haven’t learned to control themselves. How they are acting is a clue to how they are feeling. Parents who focus on the behaviour miss an opportunity to learn about what is driving that behaviour. Parents who deny the feelings their child is experiencing are sending messages to their child about those feelings. Instead of dreading these “scary” feelings welcome them as ways to help your child to develop into the mature well-adjusted person you want them to become.


What parts of your child's behaviour are you noticing?

I remember when I was pregnant with my first child; it was for me an all encompassing event.  I was filled with wonder and questions and sensations. In short I looked at my entire world through the lens of my pregnancy. And lo and behold, I suddenly noticed that there were pregnant women everywhere. No, it wasn’t that there was a population explosion in 1995 in central London. My focus on pregnancy meant that I NOTICED pregnant women. We tend to see what we are thinking about. The same thing happens to me when I am thinking about buying a new car. All of a sudden I see many of the type I am considering. This is the way attention works - we see what we are looking to see.


I recently had this lesson shown to me in another way. During the summer holidays I try to walk on the beach every day. Years ago I began a tradition of collecting jingle shells with my girls. Jingle shells are magical, their many shades of yellow and orange glittering in the sand like jewels. They were irresistible to my daughters and we all became a bit obsessed with finding the most beautiful ones. We even named one particular beach we could only reach by boat, Jingle Shell Beach, because it was there we found plentiful bounty that made our selection decisions very difficult. Fast forward to 10 summers later and we have far too many jingle shells in our house. They fill the hurricane lanterns and adorn picture frames and sit in bowls collecting dust. Suffice it to say that I have stopped collecting jingle shells and the girls are too busy most days to find the time to walk on the beach. Yet it’s a difficult habit to break, that of walking and searching for treasure in the sand. This summer after a beach barbecue that involved skipping stones, I inadvertently replaced my search for jingle shells with searching for skipping stones. I hadn’t really thought about what I would do with them the first time I brought a handful of them home with me. I guess I thought I might bring a pailful of skipping stones with us the next time we had a cookout. ( I know, that sounds a bit over the top even to me!) At any rate now that I’ve begun I can’t help myself - when I walk on the beach, I look for skipping stones. One morning I noticed something interesting which is that when I am looking for skipping stones I cannot see the jingle shells. It isn’t that there aren’t any jingle shells, it’s just that when I am focussed on skipping stones that is all I can see. That’s when I recognised a truth that exists for most parents. When we are looking for ways toimprove/perfect our child, we are focussing on what they are doing wrong. We are thus blinded to all that they are doing right.


It is difficult to focus on two things at the same time especially when they are diametrically opposed to each other. It is no wonder then that I hear from many parents that their children don’t have enough confidence. This may be because in our attempts to raise the fantastic child, we are frequently calling to our child’s attention what they could be doing better. Over and over again. Yes, you may tell your child you love them but if the rest of the day you are giving them corrections for their behaviour they are going to be full of that negative feedback. In essence when we correct our children, we are telling them they aren’t good enough as they are.


It is true that part of our job as a parent is to teach our child many things but we can go overboard in our zest for this part of the parenting job spec. Overparenting can lead to many long term problems to do with competence and confidence.  The child psychologist Madeline Levine writes about how “hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting (see article here.)  It is fear that keeps most parents from allowing their child to fail. It is very difficult to stay calm in the face of media onslaughts about 1) the dangers in the world, 2) the impossible task of being admitted to top universities and 3) the amazing accomplishments of other people's children. These things taken together can lead a parent to feel pressure to keep their attention focussed on all their child is not yet doing perfectly, over schedule their children to develop uber skills to ensure competitiveness and to do their children’s work for them so that they reach the academic benchmarks deemed necessary for the most competitive universities. The problem is that when we do any of these things we run the risk of keeping our children from having the experiences that will allow them to develop the necessary skills to be truly successful in the world. 



It seems to me that we need to give our children some room to grow into their true selves without constant attempts to teach them or correct their behaviour.  Things that can help in this regard are:


1. Make sure your child has some unscheduled time every week.

2. Find 10 positive things to mention to your child each day. Something like, “I love it that you are so excited about your football team”. Or, “thanks for clearing the table. That makes my life easier.” Or “I’m impressed that you are handling your workload on your own.” There are many things that your child is doing right. You just may not be noticing them. Notice them and mention them. When you do, your child will be developing a positive image of themselves as resourceful, kind and responsible.

3. Spend family time together hanging out. Insisting on time together with no other goal is the best way we say to each other “You’re important to me.”


 A central concept of mindfulness, is that when we control our attention we notice things that otherwise go unnoticed. I have worked with mindfulness practices over the years and know that when I am preoccupied with thoughts in my mind I am not paying attention to what is in front of me. So too with parenting. If you are preoccupied with worry or fear and seeking to control and correct you won’t be noticing the good that is already there.

Focus your attention on both your child’s achievements and good qualities. Notice the parts of her character that make her uniquely who she is and celebrate those by letting them flourish.

There are times when it is necessary to correct your child’s behaviour, just make sure it isn’t all the time or you will find your child doesn’t have a very positive image of herself.


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It Seems To Me That Maybe Pretty Much Always Just Means No


I wish I could claim this brilliant line as my own, but it comes from a song by Jack Johnson. ( In case you don’t know the song called Flake, you can listen to it here Its chorus - It seems to me that maybe pretty much always just means no - sums up a truism that comes up often in the lives of busy parents everywhere.  How many times do you say “maybe” to your child in response to one of their requests? If you are like many parents, the answer is a lot. And if you are like many of the parents I work with, you have probably concluded that it isn’t an effective response. By effective I mean that if your response to a request by your child is “maybe,” your child doesn’t just then go about her business and wait for you to make your decision. The more likely response to your “maybe” is for your child to become relentless in his pursuit of the desired “yes”. Most kids interpret “maybe” as an invitation to engage in a marketing blitz that would make Apple executives blush. “Maybe” is red to the bull, honey to the bee, a bone to a dog. It means “Warp Speed Sulu”. I’m sure you know this. You’ve experienced it more than once and yet perhaps you still resort to using “maybe” as a tactic to avoid an unpleasant reaction from your child. 


Most parents use “maybe” as a way to delay saying “no”. Parents rarely relish saying “no” to their children so you reason that “maybe” will serve as a smooth transition from your child’s intense desire for something to the inevitable “no” that will cause them to be unhappy. For some parents it is too hard for you to bear your child’s unhappiness. For others, you fear the tantrum your child will probably throw which will disrupt everything. “No” is difficult so you opt for the delay tactic. Does it work? Not usually.  Your kids are paying very close attention to everything you say and do and they (unlike you) have a remarkable memory for everything you have ever said or done. They see patterns and hypocrisies in your behaviour that you haven’t yet recognised. In other words, you’re not getting away with anything by saying “maybe”. If your “maybe” pretty much just means no, they will know that you are just delaying saying “no.” They will also know that you don’t say what you mean. If you are a parent who vacillates and you have a really persistent child I’m guessing what follows your “maybe”  is a campaign of whining and pleading that is designed to wear you down until you change that “no” in waiting into a “yes”. Kids are good at outlasting busy parents and this is why “maybe” doesn’t usually do the trick of communicating emphatically your real intentions. If you have said “yes” under duress, the self-loathing that follows usually finds its ultimate expression in exasperation with your child. This rarely turns out well.


For the astute reader who has taken a class with me, I expect that at this moment you’re saying “Hang on. Didn’t she tell us to be more positive and not to say “no” all the time. You’re absolutely right!  Parents often say “no” too often so that a child receives too much negative feedback which tends to make them angry and uncooperative or dejected. Children who hear “no” all the time are inclined to be reckless when their parents are out of sight.  I think parents who employ the “maybe” defence are likely those parents who feel bad about saying “no” too often. Yet “no” has an important role in your child’s development. Children who never hear “no” grow up with unrealistic views of their place in the world. They don’t learn to handle disappointment and rejection. So what’s the solution? Say “no”, don’t say “no” - how do you figure it out?


Try this: say “yes” when you can. Many a “no” can be changed into a conditional “yes” by stating when the request can be met i.e. “Yes, you can go to Eliza’s house once your work is finished.” “Yes, you can walk to school with your friend, once I’m sure you know how to do it safely.” “Yes, you can get a body piercing once you are supporting yourself.” Save “no” for when it’s absolutely crystal clear i.e.. “No you may not kill your sister!” “No, you may not go to a party at Peter’s house when his parents are away.” “No, you may not stay home from school because you are not prepared for your test.” Then use “maybe” sparingly for those times when you really need to think about/discuss your child’s request. In this case, tell your child what needs to happen to turn your “maybe” into a “yes” or “no”. i.e. “I need to discuss this with your father/mother to see how he/she feels about it. Also I will need to be assured that these particular concerns of mine are addressed in a satisfactory way. I will get back to you in two days.”


The more you think about the values you want your child to internalise and you make your expectations clear to your child, the easier it is to know when to say “yes”, “no” and “maybe”. Solidify those expectations with rules, routines and family mantras (i.e. “First we do what we have to do, then we do what we want to do.”) Think up a positive affirmation for the times when your child is unhappy with your “no” so that you can remain resolute in the face of their fury (i.e. "This too shall pass.")

Then “maybe” can be up for grabs rather than an ineffective delaying tactic that pretty much just always means “no”.

Parenting's Anxious Moments

At certain moments there is a chasm between what I know and what I feel about being a mother. These moments centre around anxiety. They are the times when my children are struggling with whatever is in front of them, when they aren’t easily negotiating the twists and turns of their paths. As a parenting coach, I know that these struggles are not only necessary but good. Children learn to be resilient when they fall down, get up, brush themselves off and start again. As a person, I know that the best parts of my life rose from the ashes of ruined dreams. Yet, as a mother, my certainty in the power of struggle weakens. My “protect my young at all costs” drive revs up into fifth gear. 

Knowing what I do about development and the brain help me to construct mantras to repeat over and over.  “Stay calm” I tell myself. “It will all turn out as it should.” Nonetheless, the worry and concern take their seat at the table of my internal dialogue. They are persistent and vocal and passionate in their beliefs. They shout, whisper and cajole, in an attempt to get the floor.  “What if he won’t ever learn this lesson?”   “Maybe this impediment will prove too big!”  “Some of your relatives gave up, maybe your kids aren’t made of tougher fibre.”

These thoughts careen around inside my head and their effect on me and my parenting is never good. I become reactive and panicky if I listen to my doubts too attentively. I risk rushing to the rescue as I imagine myself as the knight in shining armour, who rides in to pick up her child and provide her with an arsenal large enough to assure victory. At that point, an internal argument ensues because my rational brain knows that I cannot do that without creating other problems. We do know that children who have been rescued all their lives crumble when the impediment cannot be overcome even with Mum and Dad’s help. Picking yourself up for the first time at age 23 is much harder than at 6 or 12. The rescuing that seems helpful actually conveys to the child that he isn’t up to the challenge and that failure is a fate too horrible to contemplate. What sort of parent would I be if my children were not prepared to meet this complex world head on?

Everyone likes to say that parenting is the toughest job in the world and in this regard I will agree. Learning to contain my anxiety when my children are hurting is a mammoth mountain to climb. Yet is is absolutely what must be done. Fears of heights, getting lost or of being uncomfortable must be conquered. When my child is up against a force that may or may not defeat her, I can best help by keeping a steady watch, ready with open ears and open arms to catch whatever needs to be off-loaded. When I am calm and certain, I can surround my child with a positive energy that will be a source of comfort, offering some respite from her struggles. My composure communicates that no matter what happens I know that she will be able to deal with it.

When I am calm it is also much easier to access my higher brain where the seat of my abilities to creatively problem solve lies. From that place I am better able to offer constructive suggestions to assist my child in her problem solving endeavours. Staying calm is the only good choice. When I am calm I can listen instead of offering up loads of unasked for and unhelpful advice. I am able to listen for my child’s feelings because my own feelings have been asked to sit quietly in the corner for the time being. When I reflect her feelings back to her she can gain clarity on her dilemma. 

I find it helps to make friends with these feelings. I give them names and thank them for bringing their concerns to my attention. After all, they are doing what they were born to do - trying to keep me safe. Our feelings are drives that exist to help us to pursue life-giving activities and avoid life-threatening ones. Luckily we also have a partner brain that is very good at thinking and potentially balancing logic against those drives. Just like I did with my children, I work hard to help my two brains get along and collaborate. “Take turns - each of you will have her say.”  “I know you two can work this out.  “You each have a valid point.”

I use the same phrases in my internal dialogue that I used with my kids when they fought as small children. I begin by listening to what each has to say but then use the evidence and my knowledge to keep my worrying brain in check. If nothing else, orchestrating this internal conversation keeps me from worrying. And when I don’t worry, we all do better.

Which one of you is acting like a child?

Many years ago when my son was 4 or 5 I was having a particularly frustrating day with him. At the end of my rope by day’s end, I bellowed at him “Stop acting like a child!” At that moment, despite the day I had been having, I still could recognise how crazy I sounded. So I stopped and laughed at myself. Pretty soon my son was laughing with me and we were able to repair the moment if not the day. It was probably that moment or moments like that, that fuelled my interest in better ways of parenting. The problem was not my son's behaviour but mine. He was behaving like a tired little boy and I was behaving like a tired little girl! 

Parenting young children is often frustrating. Simple tasks become gargantuan barriers to getting on with the day. I cannot tell you how often I help parents with ideas to get their children to put on their shoes or hang up their coats or get into the car without bashing their sister on the head. Parenting older children is frustrating for different reasons. Rather than struggling to get them out of the house, the parent of the older child is often struggling to get them back home. Whatever the age of your children and whatever their struggles, the fact is that we as the parent need to behave like the adult that we ostensibly are. 

When babies are born they have no control over their impulses. As they grow, it is our job to teach them that control. The ideal is to teach them those lessons in the way that we want them to behave because brains pay attention to actions and the tone of voice before they pay attention to words. So if we want our children to learn to calm down, we must parent them calmly. If we want them to use their quiet voice, we must use our quiet voice. If we want them to speak to us respectfully, we must speak to them respectfully even as they are behaving disrespectfully. When, because of our frustration, we shout at our children or hurl disrespectful labels at them like lazy or stupid or even naughty, we are behaving like an out of control child. 

Albert Einstein famously said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”  So when you repeatedly rant at your kids, some might argue that you are not only acting like a child but insane as well.  I often meet parents who are stuck - repeating the same techniques even though they have never worked. They aren’t crazy. They are usually just tired and busy and wanting to get through whatever the task is at hand. The problem is that like me on that Sunday many years ago, they don’t have a better idea. And in that moment when your child’s behaviour is throwing the day off kilter, your brain is frustrated and therefore not really open to creative problem solving. The truth is that the more emotional the situation, the less access to our creativity we have. 

So how do we protect our children from our childish impulses? How do we become better parents?

We spend time preparing for each day, not winging it. We can actually predict many of our children's reactions to any given event. So rather than hope it will be different this time, it is wiser to make a plan to help it be different.

We learn from our mistakes. When a day goes particularly badly, rather than grab a large glass of wine and forget about it, we can dissect the event and figure out where it went wrong. 

We connect with our children to understand their point of view. Often a child was just trying to get their needs met and chose to do that in a way that got them in trouble. Taking some time to figure out what they were trying to accomplish can be helpful to helping them find a better way to get their needs met.

We renovate our parenting structures to accommodate our changing children. Parenting is a dynamic process. We cannot rely on static rules and routines that work for someone else's children or worked for our children when they were younger. When chaos is creeping into your lives, it is time to evaluate what needs to change to return life to a more even keel. 

We think deeply about why certain of our children’s behaviours push our buttons. Parenting is an opportunity to figure ourselves out. What worries us? What do we most fear? These underlying issues often make themselves known to us when we become enveloped by big and sudden reactions to a particular behaviour of our child.   

We delve into our own childhood memories to reconnect with our inner child.  When we regress to childlike behaviour it is often because we are still viewing the world through the eyes of our inner child. These moments can allow us to become aware of those models of how the world works that we created as children and to amend them to a model that makes more sense now that we are adults.

When we do all of those things not only do our children benefit and grow well but so do we. Parenting gives us a unique opportunity to grow into our best selves. It would be a pity to waste that gift not just for our children's sakes but for our own as well.

Welcome to my website

Welcome to the C.A.R.E.ful Parenting website with regular blog posts on parenting, notices of upcoming courses and some of the best parenting resources I've found that you can explore on your own.


A parenting coach in London since 2001, I am pleased to have helped many families achieve greater success and satisfaction from raising their children.  Parenting is hard work that is too important to leave to chance.  Most of us start with an idea of what we want to be like as a parent but, rarely, do we start with the skills required to be as successful as possible.  Building a happy family is a work of a lifetime and can bring the greatest joy imaginable - with the commitment by you, the parent, to learn to understand your children and yourselves.  We, as parents, must learn to control our own impulses and fears, and offer our children our love and wisdom in ways that can be received and acted upon by them.  My goal in parent coaching is to have you and your children well connected so that they grow up to be well-adjusted, caring, productive adults with whom you have a strong, positive life long relationship.


The C.A.R.E.ful Parenting name expresses the fundamental and foundational principles of my parent coaching. 

C:   consistent, connected and communicative parenting - learning to speak and listen in ways that help you understand your child and her behaviour

A:  active, aware and attuned parenting - helping you to be prepared for your role as parent

R:  respectful, rational and relational parenting - offering constructive ideas on how to behave to foster a safe, constructive environment for your child

E:  empathetic, engaged and empowering parenting - thinking about the parent as a coach rather than task master or disciplinarian


I was encouraged to start this website to share some of the parenting insights my clients have gained from my coaching.  Perhaps we have met at a talk at your child's school or during one of my small group courses or at some one-on-one personal coaching sessions. I hope you will come to the site to stay connected and learn more.  Welcome!  If we have not met, I look forward to meeting you via this online medium.  Please feel free to send me suggestions for how to make this site as useful to you as possible.