It took my son’s meltdown and a lightbulb moment for me to stop parenting on autopilot | Conal Hanna

I always dealt with my son’s resistance to swimming class with cuddles, reassurance and rewards. Then one day I tried something radical: listening to him and empathising

How can I stop my son’s meltdowns at the swimming pool?

The dawning realisation of my limitations as a parent came in the aftermath of a(nother) pre-swimming meltdown. My son was approaching four at the time but still swam like a baby. That might sound harsh but I mean it literally – he was still in the “parent and bub” class splashing alongside six-month-olds. What’s more, his stubborn resistance to the class was growing by the week.

We had tried seemingly everything. Lots of cuddles, reassurance, rewards. Then one day, out of desperation as much as anything, I tried something radical: listening to him.

“Why don’t you like swimming mate?” I asked. “I just don’t like it,” he said. And so we sat there on the living room floor, where I’d been trying to cajole him into his togs, and instead talked. For once I managed to resist the urge to reach for my standard refrain (“you’re alright, mate”) and instead just empathised. We talked about what it means to feel nervous. About situations that make daddy nervous. And that it’s OK to feel nervous, but it doesn’t have to stop you from doing something, either. It was his best week at swimming for months.

This lightbulb moment soon led me to complete an online course in emotion coaching children. Lesson one was humbling as Associate Professor Sophie Havighurst detailed how you can be a warm, hands-on parent while still being emotionally dismissive of your kids. Ways of being emotionally dismissive include rushing too quickly to offer solutions, using distraction to deal with kids’ unpleasant emotions, or force-feeding them positivity in an attempt to stop them dwelling on negative experiences. Essentially, it’s about not recognising or acknowledging the emotions that, like all of us, drive behaviour.

Like a stereotypical man, I tend to reach instinctively for solutions in the face of difficult emotions. As a natural tendency, this makes sense: I don’t like seeing my kids upset, and so seek to quell the negative emotion as soon as possible. This, I’ve realised, makes me feel better but isn’t necessarily the best approach for my kids. Much as I might wish otherwise, anxiety, anger and sadness will be part of their lives. It’s important they come to recognise these emotions and, in particular, know that it’s OK to feel that way.

Havighurst defines emotional intelligence as “being able to understand your own emotions, to recognise other people’s emotions, to be able to regulate your emotions and manage them when they come up so that they don’t overwhelm you”. She points out they are crucial building blocks for a child’s development. “Kids with good emotional intelligence are the ones who are better able to manage their emotions when they encounter challenging things at school, friendship conflict, other really intense experiences they might have,” she says.

As I learned sitting on the living room floor, the crucial thing is to validate your children’s emotions. Of course, this sounds blatantly obvious in theory, but in the mad scramble of working parenthood can be deceptively difficult. (Not to mention during Covid-induced homeschooling!) It doesn’t help that children’s worries can seem so trivial by adult standards. We know they’re nothing to worry about, so forget to stop and consider how real they might feel to our kids.

Probably the simplest (and hardest) tip Havighurst has is simply to slow down – don’t rush to judgment, solutions or even to step in and stop sibling arguments. This last one in particular I found hugely challenging. Nothing upsets my parenting equanimity more than the sound of my kids arguing. Havighurst has a different take. “Children actually learn a lot from fighting; it’s not a bad thing,” she says, while of course setting limits around physical aggression. “This is their training ground for how to be assertive, how to listen, how to take someone else’s perspective, how to negotiate.”

Perhaps my biggest outtake from the course was to realise just how much of my parenting was done on autopilot. Instinctive reactions are inevitable, and also necessary if you want to get other stuff done occasionally. But it does help to learn how and when to slow down, park the automatic reactions inspired by either a lack of time or your own upbringing, and instead empathise and reflect emotions back to your kids first and foremost.


Conal Hanna

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
My three-year-old keeps attacking his little brother. How can I stop him? | Matt Beard
Your older son doesn’t want to pinch and push any more than your younger son wants to be pinched and pushed, Matt Beard says. Take that as your starting point

Matt Beard

13, Jul, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Praise, ice-cream and starting young: how to get kids to help around the house | Veronica Heritage-Gorrie
There’s an art to getting children to chip in with the chores. Here are some tactics that will set them (and you) up for life

Veronica Heritage-Gorrie

17, Aug, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
I’m too tired and busy to play with my kids. Is that OK? | Saman Shad
They may never remember the Lego I didn’t help them build but they will remember I was there when they needed me

Saman Shad

27, Jul, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
My teenage daughter is done with childhood. Now comes the test of letting go | Andie Fox
I’m surrendering to a force bigger than me, called upon to go deeper than I feel I can endure

Andie Fox

19, Oct, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
When young children battle anxiety, parents don’t need to feel like helpless bystanders | Sarah Ayoub
Tantrums, clinginess and fussy eating could all signal your child’s emotional cup is full. Regulation depends on the emotion being validated and then released

Sarah Ayoub

15, Jun, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
How do I motivate my kids without becoming a nag? The key is to make peace with slow progress | Conal Hanna
Sometimes it’s healthier to lower your expectations and remember there’s still so much for them to learn

Conal Hanna

02, Nov, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Avoid eye contact, joke and invent an imaginary friend: how to have The Talk with your kids | Fiona Katauskas
If the thought of talking to your child about sex is terrifying, you’re not alone. But there are ways to ease everyone’s discomfort.

Fiona Katauskas

29, Aug, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
How should I talk to children about death? Be brief but honest – and answer their questions | Sarah Ayoub
It’s important to give kids time to process information – and reassure them they’re safe and cared for

Sarah Ayoub

16, Nov, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Raising a teenager is scary. Don’t be daunted and embrace the hard work | Andie Fox
The challenges of parenting a teenager can leave one powerless and alone. Accepting these challenges is the only way to get to the other side

Andie Fox

09, Jan, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
I’m afraid my grandbabies will forget me if my daughter moves interstate | Veronica Heritage-Gorrie
One of the happiest days of Veronica Heritage-Gorrie’s life was the day her twin grandchildren were born. Now, as her daughter and family think of moving interstate, she prepares for the worst day to come.

Sharing the Load is a column about parenting children of all ages

Veronica Heritage-Gorrie

30, Jun, 2021 @5:30 PM