Love of a Lifetime: Loving Kids Through Tough Stages
Kids bring an unbelievable amount of love to their parents’ life — and there’s undeniable joy as we guide them through milestones and encourage growing independence.
However, there are plenty of parenting stages that make those sunny, laugh-filled moments feel like a distant memory (even if they were only five minutes ago).
To help parents navigate even the toughest stages with love, we reached out to local health care pros for wisdom and practical tips. Katie Walker was our 2020 Top Doc in the Mental Health Provider category. She is the clinical director for the Chenal Family Therapy North Little Rock office and founder of Grow and Guide Kids, an online forum to help parents, teachers and anyone who interacts with children be successful.
We also chatted with Dr. Nicholas Long, the director of pediatric psychology and professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
How can parents survive the sleep exhaustion and constant cycle of feeding, changing and comforting their newborn?
KW: This advice is not uncommon and can be found anywhere. However, sleep when the baby sleeps! … Instead of feeling guilty for napping, start prioritizing napping and self-care during the newborn stage. Healthy and happy parents mean a healthy and happy baby!
NL: Try not to take on any endeavors that are not critical (a project of some kind) or something that someone else (a family member or friend) can do for you such as grocery shopping or cooking. Don’t worry about how your baby’s room looks at this point — newborns can’t see any mess or lack of decorations since they are initially only able to focus their vision on objects 8-12 inches away — everything else is blurry.
Also, routines are important to ensure some predictability and security for infants. There is much written about which routines and in my experience, the routine that best fits the baby’s needs is typically the way to go.
What tips do you have for parents as their toddler simultaneously tries to learn about their world and run it? How can they handle the trademark tantrums of this age?
KW: Choose your battles wisely with this stage and don’t fixate on small things that aren’t worth your energy. Do they want to wear mismatched clothes? Who cares! The last thing to do with a toddler is reason with them. Logical reasoning comes from our prefrontal cortex which is just beginning to form in toddlers.
This is why when we ask, “Why did you do that?” and they look at us with a blank stare it’s because chances are they actually don’t know. … Instead of punishing them for tantrums, validate their feelings and label their emotions for them, i.e., “I know, it makes me sad too that I can’t eat ice cream for breakfast!” Remember we can get on their level, but they can’t get on ours.
NL: Tantrums rarely occur randomly — they typically occur when a young child doesn’t get his/her way. It is critical that you don’t let tantrums control you or the situation. If a child learns that a tantrum will sometimes result in getting her/his way — tantrums will increase over time. In short, don’t reinforce negative behavior. This is easier said than done, but be aware that behaviors that get reinforced (e.g., get attention), get repeated. Notice and praise behaviors that you want to see happen again.
As a child enters school, how can parents practice letting their kids fail?
KW: I think the key to this is realizing that you don’t always have to rescue your child. In fact, habitually rescuing a child hinders them way more than it helps. Each time we rescue, it robs our child of an opportunity to problem-solve the situation and grow the prefrontal cortex. If they come home with a bad grade or a bad behavior report then work with them on identifying their responsibility in the situation.
NL: Children, like adults, can often learn more from failure than from success. Let children do their own homework — provide guidance but resist the urge to do homework or projects for them. Pay attention to moments that they take the initiative in learning. Stop whatever you’re doing and let them know that you see their efforts. “You’re reading those words!” “You figured that out on your own!” “Wow, you did it.” Even if it is not perfect (or even close), acknowledge and reinforce the efforts your child makes to do things on her/his own.
Many parents agree that the preteen/middle school years are among the most challenging. Why is this?
KW: These are hands down the most challenging years and the reason is actually because of brain development. Middle schoolers’ brains grow more during these years than in their lifetime. Their prefrontal cortex had just been getting pretty good at logical thinking and then hormones come in, causing it to start rebuilding again!
This is why our middle schoolers actually present a lot like toddlers. They are going through a lot of the same development, which is why the tips for success are very similar. Listen to them, validate them and help them label their emotions. ... Hearing you say that it isn’t “that big of a deal” or “this will blow over soon” isn’t comforting. Kids interpret this as you not caring about problems in their life. Minimizing the situation leads to kids withholding information from you. Listening to your child and validating their emotions creates open communication and open communication creates healthier family relationships.
Also, normalize mental health treatment. This should not be a taboo subject. It is fine for people to have a mental health therapist that they routinely check in with. This should be as normalized as going to their primary care physician.
NL: These years are the emerging adolescent’s need to individuate. Challenges are the best time to articulate your family values and walk through the process of problem-solving with children of this age. The best way to support them is to listen and try to hear the emotions/feelings that accompany the words the children are saying.
Parents must take care of their own basic needs in order for children to learn to take care of themselves. That means protecting some time each day for yourself. Children who see that learn to do that for themselves.
For older teens, how can parents prepare to let their child go?
KW: Creeping up to the age where it’s time to let a child go is a very difficult stage for parents. It’s very sad, but I think that mostly it’s scary. “Will they be OK?” “Can they do this without me?” “What if they get hurt?” “What if they fail?”
As parents, we have an innate nature to protect and therefore letting our kids go feels like an oxymoron to who we are at our core as parents. A way to start preparing for this is first making sure that our children get to safely try out independence during their teenage years. There is nothing worse than being an overprotective parent and then releasing your child into the real world that you haven’t let them experience first. Dr. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” says, “Helicopter comes from fear. Nurturing comes from love. Every choice we make at core is a move towards either love or fear. Choose love.”
NL: It is hard to let our children go as they approach adulthood but it is critical in terms of helping them become emotionally healthy adults. Start by making sure they have the life skills necessary to look after themselves — how to problem-solve difficult situations that may come up, how to manage money, how to cook for themselves, how to wash and iron their clothes. On an emotional level, teens (and adults) develop confidence in their abilities when they know they have accomplished something successfully.
And as children go through all of these stages, how can parents allow their child to become their own person?
KW: Jennie Allen, author of “Anything” said, “In parenting, at some point you give in to the lack of control. … At some point you either live perpetually anxious or give in and embrace the fact that your life is now completely out of your control. Once you embrace that, parenting shifts from an agenda to an experience." Our children come into this world as their own person with their own personality. They have their own dreams and desires, and as parents we need to be careful to ensure our desires don’t suffocate theirs. ... So just step back, observe and become interested in the things your child gravitates towards.
NL: Talk about the importance of character and values from an early age. Let them know what is important to you personally and hear them, if they express different beliefs.
Ask questions. “Why do you think that?” “What do you want?” “How do you feel about that?” And, listen to them. Validate their feelings, even if you don’t agree with their words. “I don’t know,” is an answer.
Continuing an open dialogue with our children sets the foundation for them to develop active and open communication with others, i.e., friends, spouses, coworkers, etc.
How can parents adjust and support their family when they discover one of their children has special needs?
KW: The biggest way to support your family ... is to welcome open communication in your home. … We can openly listen and validate our children’s worries about having a sibling with special needs while educating them. Make the subject on special needs welcome and appreciated in the home and not taboo. In addition, make sure you are taking appropriate steps in your family to give everyone individual and uninterrupted attention.
NL: Children look to their parents, especially at a young age, to provide a lens with which to view themselves as well as others. We as parents need to be accepting of each child’s unique characteristics including any and all individual needs. Our total acceptance as parents will provide a strong example for other family members to do the same. Parents also need to become strong advocates for your children — learn as much as you can about their specific needs, services available if needed and what you can do to help them thrive.
How do major life changes like a long-term illness in the family or divorce affect tough parenting stages?
KW: It adds a whole new layer of stress. Long-term illness in the family and divorce can often be considered traumas in a child’s life. When there is a trauma in the family you can often see elevated anxiety, sadness or it usually presents as anger in children. This can make those tough parenting stages even more difficult to navigate. However, at the end of the day children only want to know that they are safe. Take time to listen to them and ensure them that through the midst of a chaotic season of life, they have a safe place with you.
NL: Children will be less impacted and will continue to feel secure if they believe their parents or other family members are managing the stressors of life while their needs as children are still being met. Avoid bringing them into the middle of inter-parental conflict or heavy emotional burdens.
The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver or other adult. Children who grow up with strong models of resilience develop both the understanding of adapting in the face of stressors as well as a blueprint for dealing with a variety of stressors.