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Stop shouting and say ‘sorry’ instead: How to be a better parent

You might not see these parenting tips in self-help books, but I swear by them, writes Victoria Richards – a tried and tested (very tested) parent to two under-12s...

Victoria Richards
Thursday 07 December 2023 08:57 GMT
Studies have shown that people report greater increases in positive emotion when their shame or sadness is validated
Studies have shown that people report greater increases in positive emotion when their shame or sadness is validated (Getty Images)

In telling you how I believe we can all become better parents, I’m going to point out what not to do. Bear with me.

And lest this sound like one enormous subtweet (I’ve already blown it by writing about the horror of the school WhatsApp group) let me assure you that... well, yes it is, actually, but I do think it serves a purpose: to help us all think about how we should be treating each other (even the under-12s).

Because if there’s one thing that is excruciatingly painful at any age – whether you’re in your tween, teen or Microsoft Teams era, it’s being left out of something. FOMO, in other words (but worse, because the “fear” part is realised).

I had this unfortunate experience recently when my 11-year-old daughter was left off a coveted birthday invitation list. She was the only one of nearly 20 of her closest friends not to go to the party, and she had to witness it all play out on WhatsApp: profile photos changed to pink to fit the theme, group photos shared and commented on, statuses updated to “having such a good time!”

The reasons why remain unclear (no arguments, no previous instances of bullying), but all that really matters are the feelings that were left behind, long after the candles on an unseen, untasted cake were all blown out.

And she was devastated – we’re talking waves of salty tears, hand-wringing and heartbreaking laments speculating on what, if anything, she’d done wrong; what she could have possibly said to someone to deserve being excluded. And in comforting her the best I could, I realised something profound about parenting.

It’s hard – anyone who’s been responsible for raising a small child can attest to that – but that’s nothing new. What this particular incident made me think about most was empathy. How important it is to teach our kids to be kind and to consider how it might feel to be left out; how crucial it is to think about others’ feelings – yes, sometimes at the expense of our own.

And, with that, I started thinking about the ways we can all be better parents to our kids... even if it’s not what we might see in self-help books.

Validate their feelings

My little girl didn’t want me to say, “toughen up” or “don’t worry about it” (she was already worrying about it, so it wouldn’t have helped). She didn’t want me to tell her it “didn’t matter”, because – to her – it did. The only thing that helped was that I understood. That I said, “I know. It’s horrible and it hurts. And I’m so angry and upset about it for you.”

The research backs this up: studies have shown that people report greater increases in positive emotion when their shame or sadness is validated. There’s also data to suggest that validation is associated with reductions in negative emotions, whereas invalidation can lead to the escalation of negative emotions.

What that means in practice is taking a step back from trying to “fix” things for your child. You might want to problem-solve (we all do), but we don’t always have to. Sometimes, the best way to comfort your child – or any other loved one – is to let them know you’ve heard them. Really heard them.

Get down to their level (no, literally)

My son is a little younger than my daughter, and what I’ve realised is that when he is having a tantrum, the only way to soothe him is to get down on the floor with him and to speak to him in a low, soothing voice. Through trial and error, I’ve learned to be soft and gentle, and to empathise. I’ve taken to saying, “I know. I understand. You’re so upset.” After that, nine times out of 10, he’ll crawl into my arms for a cuddle.

Of course, sometimes he’s so far gone that he can’t be reconciled – and the same goes for my daughter, who once became so incensed that I’d asked her to take her raincoat off that she gave herself a nosebleed. But understanding why, can help – and research tells us this is because young kids struggle with self-regulation – leaving them unable to calm themselves down in a difficult or frustrating situation.

It might not work if you’re in John Lewis, but if you’re at home then I swear by crouching down to join them in their chosen “safe space” (even if it’s under the bed). It makes you less threatening, less domineering and increases the comfort of having you close by.

Instead of shouting, do this

It can be all too tempting – when a child is throwing a wobbly about not getting a toy, or a sweet treat – to react angrily; to bark at them. But a Cardiff University study found that parents who wanted their children to cooperate got better results when they sounded “supportive”, rather than angry – and teenagers are more likely to argue with a mother who uses a “controlling voice”. It also revealed kids were less likely to do their homework when their mums, specifically, spoke with a pressurising tone.

“If parents want conversations with their teens to have the most benefit, it’s important to remember to use supportive tones of voice,” said the report author Netta Weinstein. “It’s easy for parents to forget, especially if they are feeling stressed, tired, or pressured themselves. Adolescents likely feel more cared about and happier, and as a result they try harder at school, when parents and teachers speak in supportive rather than pressuring tones of voice.”

There’s even a whole bulk of research around the idea of ‘Inuit parenting’ – an approach where adults control their anger, and never show irritation or frustration with their kids. They don’t shout at small children and view speaking to them in an angry voice as “inappropriate”.

Say sorry

One thing I’ve tried to do whenever I catch myself barking, “Put your shoes on!” for the 25th time (at 8.30am) is to apologise afterwards. Almost every walk to school features me, at some point or other, telling my kids that I’m sorry for being grumpy or stressed – and that I love them.

Of course, in an ideal world I wouldn’t lose it in the first place, but when it comes to helping children identify and understand their feelings, psychologists do advise talking through what led you to react in the way that you did – meaning that my seven-year-old now nods sagely and strokes my hair and coos, “I know. You had a really busy day.”

I’m a firm believer that parents should model responsibility to their children and admit when they’ve got it wrong. It shows we’re human, that we make mistakes – but that we can own those mistakes. And what better life lesson could there be than that?

This article is part of our ‘independent thinking’ series in partnership with Nationwide. Together we’re celebrating independent thinkers past, present and future, and shining a spotlight on work which demonstrates perfectly what we define as independent thinking. This article is one such work, and we hope it’s got you thinking. If it has and you’re eager to continue, you’ll find more here.

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