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Category: Articles by Yael

Parents- use your words!

Parents- use your words!

Language: two-year olds don’t have enough of it and can become terribly frustrated when they can’t communicate their needs.  I’m sure you have heard parents tell their little ones, “Use your words”. Perhaps you have said it yourself. It makes sense to coach our children to communicate clearly; they’ll get their needs met more easily and we won’t have to play guessing games that make us want to pull our hair out!


Using words is more important than simply communicating needs. Using words organises our feelings. Words make sense of our world. As children’s vocabulary grows they become more able to manage their emotions. This is directly because of language. To quote a long ago lecturer, “Language is the digestive juice of the mind.” If we don’t express an experience in words (even in our own thoughts) then we don’t process the experience, we don’t make meaning of it or learn from it.  The importance of this is clear in the context of my work providing “Talk Therapy”. Perhaps it is less clear how this applies to parenting.

Three approaches that fundamentally underpin my work are that of Thomas Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training); Adele Faber and Eileen Mazlish (How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk); and that of Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell ( These approaches teach parents to connect with their children by using language. Gordon calls this skill “active listening”. The more recent work of Dan Siegel (The Whole Brain Child) shares the findings of neuropsychology (e.g., using brain imaging) to explain how using words to express what a child has experienced- using words that describe both the facts and the feelings- assists a child to integrate the functions of their  brain and regulate their emotions.

Little Sammi came into my rooms with her mother and father. As she entered, she tripped and knocked her knee on the coffee table. “Ouch!” I exclaimed. Sammi’s face showed shock and pain. “She’s fine.” said dad.  “That didn’t hurt, did it?” chided mum smilingly. Sammi’s eyes darted up to her father and she clung to her mother. She looked unsure and ready to cry. I tried again: “That table corner is sharp and hard. Sammi didn’t see it and it hurt. Maybe a cuddle will help Sammi feel better and then she can choose which toys she wants to play with. I have lots of toys.” Mum and dad were quick learners and it didn’t take them long to learn that Sammi needed to have her experience articulated (expressed in words) and her feeling (pain) acknowledged so that she could understand what had happened, process it, and then move on to something happier (the toys). When Sammi’s experience was denied (with the best of intentions), she struggled to reconcile her parents’ message (you’re not hurt) with her inner experience (that hurt!), she got stuck in the conflict between these two messages. The words being used did not match her experience. She was alone in trying to process the hurt.

Like many of us, Sammi’s parents had learned that children need to learn to brush off their hurt and be tough to survive in a tough world. Indeed it is logical to think that paying attention to Sammi’s little accident might provide reinforcement for attention seeking behaviours. Without getting into the psychology of why this logic does not hold true and is not helpful, I can assure you that this is not the case. Try acknowledging things from your child’s point of view for a while and see for yourself. Read Dan Siegel’s work (No Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child).

Between that first session and the second, Sammi’s parents took many opportunities to use active listening and to recount Sammi’s experiences from Sammi’s point of view.  They found that instead of becoming a “sook” when her pain was validated, she actually recovered faster. They saw first-hand that the commentary on their daughter’s experience seemed to settle her and increase her resilience. Sammi bounced back more easily when her parents stopped denying her feelings, her reality.

Sammi’s parents had learned to use their words!

Holding Both

Holding Both

No, this is not an article about cuddling twins (that’s a whole other skill!). It is about helping our children manage their emotions by allowing two conflicting emotions to sit side by side unchallenged. I talk to children about their “two feelings.” “Oh, you get so annoyed at your baby brother and you like playing with him!” This skill helps children calm down because they feel understood; they don’t have to choose between two very real feelings (which is confusing and forces them to try and save face by defending their position ever more loudly); and it prevents them from getting too entrenched in one feeling at the expense of the other- a process which can also feed the feeling which is focused on.

We recently took our three youngest children to the snow. There was much excitement! Rugged up in her hired snow gear, my five year old exclaimed, “This is the best day EVER!” An hour later, feet dragging, hair wet, and nose cold she complained loudly, “This is THE worst day ever.” Calming my own internal reaction (which was along the lines of, “Don’t be such an ungrateful child.”), I gave her a hug and said, “What a day, hey? The best AND the worst! You love the snow AND you hate being so cold and tired.Wow….two feelings….” My daughter gathered herself immediately and continued trudging to the car happily enough all things considered.

I have a wooden carving of two hands cupped together in my rooms. I often give it to children to hold as they tell me about their two feelings. I often give it to adults too. Thinking in either/or, missing the shades of grey, all-or-nothing thinking, and black and white thinking are traps that we all fall into at times, especially in times of stress or after having suffered a trauma. A key sign of mental health is what we call “psychological flexibility”, the ability to consider alternative thoughts and to open ourselves up to other possibilities. Think of it as the ability to loosen the stranglehold of unhelpful thoughts, to wriggle free just enough to breathe deeply again. The thoughts and feelings may not disappear but now we can inhale the fresh air and move forward with vitality.

You can help increase your child’s psychological flexibility simply by “holding both” for them, by paying close attention to their thoughts and feelings and lovingly putting them into words for your child. Children love hearing about their “two feelings”. Next time I will expand on this topic and discuss how holding both helps us to manage our own anger, anxiety and depression. For now, have a go at holding both for your child and please come back and share how it went for you.

Finding Nemo and Learning to Keep on Swimming

Finding Nemo and Learning to Keep on Swimming

I saw Finding Nemo when it was first released in 2003. Last night, nine years later, I decided the time was ripe to introduce it to my 5-year-old. This was to be her third full-length movie and I chose it because of my fond memories of Dory and the Turtle Dude Dad. I had forgotten just how traumatic the opening scene is and how the narrative unfolds around one life-threatening scare after the other.  Zoitsa wailed with raw grief when Nemo’s mother and sibling roe-babies were eaten by the shark; I thought her heart would break. I have never seen her so terrified and distraught. I began to think I had made a mistake in exposing her to this. I deliberated switching it off and popping on the Bananas in  Pyjamas (a firm favourite in our family- the original, not the animated version!).  In the end the message of the movie itself guided me in my decision.

Marlin, Nemo’s father is crippled with fear after the death of his wife and babies. He becomes overprotective of Nemo and parents Nemo from a place of insecurity and anxiety. He simply cannot live in the moment; he is continually foretelling doom and gloom. Nemo is being taught that the world is a dangerous place, one that he cannot cope with.  He is being taught to avoid challenges and cling to a limited, trembling comfort zone.  Nemo, however is a resilient little chap and leaps at life with joy and curiosity. He is frustrated by his father’s limitations.  His thirst for knowledge and adventure spurs him on to discovery. Perhaps in reaction to his father’s fearfulness Nemo knows no fear. He takes risks, really dangerous risks, and is captured by a human.

Thus begins Marlin’s quest. Marlin’s love for his son is stronger (just) than his fear. He will face any adversity to find Nemo.  This is new ground for Marlin, he has to – as the old classic teaches- feel the fear and do it anyway.  I shall add, “feel the fear and do it anyway…if the goal is important to you.” For Marlin, parental love trumps fear.

Dory is not just a cute ditsy little fish whose character is included for the comedy factor. Oh no, her approach is an integral support to Marlin’s commitment to finding Nemo.  Thanks to short-term memory loss, Dory is not fixated on “if only” thoughts of the  past and she is not paralysed by “what if” thoughts of the future. Dory lives in the moment. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming,” she sings. Keep your eye on your goal and don’t look back! What a wise little fishy!

Did my daughter internalise all these messages so cleverly interwoven through the tale (or is that tail?)? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited she squealed with joy and tears streamed down her face. “Mummy! I have happy tears!” she cried.  I hugged her tight and said, “You were so, so scared. You almost couldn’t watch. But you really wanted Marlin to find Nemo so you held my hand and  just like Dory said to keep on swimming, you kept on watching and now you are so, so happy you have happy tears. Wow! You were brave because you cared about Nemo!”

Right up until lights out Zoitsa chanted, “Keep on swimming. Keep on swimming.” Those cute little fishies certainly taught both me and my daughter a lot. I think I will be more careful about choosing gentler movies  for a while longer – after all facing fear is most valuable when in pursuit of a goal and watching scary movies isn’t really high on our family to-do list- but both she and I know that if something is worth it, we can cope with the fear. We might need a Dory to help us, to remind us as she reminded Marlin,” When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” You know the answer, chant it with me now, “Just keep swimming”!


*How have you coped with fear, anxiety or nervousness? Do you have a story to share about a time when you focused on your values and goals to cope with anxiety and obstacles to your gaols? How did you look after yourself at this time? Did you show yourself kindness and compassion? Did you seek support or comforting activities? I would love to hear from you!*

Happy swimming folks 🙂


Does your therapist have children?

Does your therapist have children?

Do you care? Do you need to know? Should you know? If you knew, how would knowing affect your therapy? Amongst therapists there is divided opinion on this topic although everyone agrees that the therapy hour is the patient’s time;  it is not time to focus on anything that has happened or is happening in the therapist’s life.

The relationship between patient and therapist is unique in that it is a one-way relationship. It actually IS all about you. But sometimes it is nice to know that your therapist has had sleepless nights, been covered in vomit, and had dinner thrown on the floor. Or is it nice to know this? Here’s two very common responses: 1) “Phew, she understands. She has been there. It’s not just theory to her.” 2) “She probably thinks I am so weak and such a terrible parent. She probably has it all sorted.” (Then again, the popular myth is that therapists are all mad so perhaps no one thinks this?) So what do you think? Would you want to know personal (not intimate) information about your therapist? What issues/information would you like to know? How would it affect your working relationship with the therapist? How could it affect your therapy, for better or for worse?

Active Listening. A fundamental building block of healthy parent-child relations.

Active Listening. A fundamental building block of healthy parent-child relations.

As I prepared breakfast for my children, my three year old dropped a doozie, “Mummy, I want Daddy to live somewhere else.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Daddy just about to come into the kitchen. She repeated the statement. Daddy heard. I signaled him to stay quiet and out of sight and let her speak. “Oh?” I prompted.

“Daddy needs to live in another house.” she continued. Trying to hide my concern and surprise, I trotted out my most basic parenting and counselling skill, active listening. “You’ve been thinking about where Daddy could live.” I reflected. She nodded. “I just want to live with you and the chickens Mummy”. (“The chickens” are our infant twins.) By now my mind was wildly searching for explanations for this apparent rejection of her loving, attentive and very hands-on father. Daddy was still behind her out of sight, his face a study in hurt and bewilderment.

“Just you, me and the babies, hey?” I disciplined myself to continue and forced myself not to jump in to analyze, lecture, reassure or in some other way block the flow of her communication. “Yes Mummy. That’s how it is every day.” (Huh? I just wasn’t following.) I picked her up for a cuddle, made some gentle eye contact and encouraged her to tell me more. What started this? I privately wondered. Is it because she sees so much divorce around her? Her best friend at kinder speaks about her daddy living at her grandfather’s house; her cousin’s father is about to remarry; her other cousin’s father lives overseas. Worry crept in. I tried so hard to shelter her, to ensure that she felt complete and utter security in her family unit. I could see my husband’s thoughts were travelling the same path as mine.

I soldiered on in my active listening mode. “Every day it’s just you, me and the babies.” Tears welled in my daughter’s eyes. ‘”Mummy, I miss Daddy so much when he is at work! I don’t want him to go to work. I want him to stay home with us!” I finally understood my child. She was trying to deal with the difficult daily separation from her father by taking control of it altogether. If she was going to have to face this leave-taking every day, she would just get it over and done with for good. Children often attempt to achieve mastery over an externally imposed challenge by taking charge of it themselves, owning it. As a psychologist I could reflect on this with the benefit of training and hindsight. But in that moment no expertise was needed; just a commitment to accepting all that my daughter said and staying with her as she muddled through her thoughts and feelings. Daddy wiped his eyes. A wide smile chased away his furrowed brow. He resolved to phone her every morning when he arrived at work. And so he has done, and they chat happily about the myriad things that have happened since he walked out the door half an hour ago.

1. Describe the skill of active listening in your own words.
2. Identify roadblocks to communication that parents use.
3. List some possible well-intended reasons to use these roadblocks.
4. What can actually happen when we use the roadblocks?
5. Choose a couple of points in the above scenario in which to insert roadblocks and follow where the conversation might have gone had they been used instead of active listening.
6. Sum up the child’s dilemma in one sentence. That is, what she would have said at the outset had she the words and insight.

Parents: Get creative. Some novel ways to help your older child adjust to his or her new sibling (or siblings!).

Parents: Get creative. Some novel ways to help your older child adjust to his or her new sibling (or siblings!).

Our twins sleep in our bedroom, sometimes in their own cots and other times in our bed. One morning they woke at the ungodly hour of 5:30. As I sat between their cots patting them trying in vain to re-settle them, my three year old shuffled in. Our rule is that if she wakes early she can quietly join us: no talking, let us sleep! Since the babies were born though, she assumes that if they are awake and crying she too can make a noise. And so I employed my “talk through the babies” technique. As I patted I spoke in a stage whisper, “Come on girls, you need to sleep. Your big sister is doing such a good job at being quiet and sleeping. She wants to make a noise just like you but she is lying so nicely. I am so proud of her.” I didn’t manage to get the babies back to sleep but the big sister lay quiet as a non-squeaking mouse for over half an hour, an achievement I then praised all morning.

I use this technique a lot, this and the “stage whisper” designed for children to overhear. Allow me to share some of these tips that can help reduce sibling rivalry and jealousy and reinforce desired behaviours. Be creative and ham it up!

Waiting: waiting while a new baby is attended to is hard for older siblings. It is a frequent occurrence for an older sister or brother of newborn twins.

• Take every opportunity to show your older child that the babies sometimes have to wait for her too. Create these opportunities if they don’t arise often. For example: as you prepare your older child’s breakfast, call out to the babies, ‘You have to wait sweetie. It is your big sister’s turn now. She waits for you and now you have to wait for her.” You can do this even if the babies are happily asleep! Of course, this is very effective if the babies are actually crying for you and your older child knows they are having a hard time waiting. In order not to leave your babies crying longer than necessary –if at all- grab the opportunity as above and then go to the babies. “Yes babies. It is hard to wait. Your big brother finds it hard too but he is very good at it. You will be good at it like him too one day.” Or you might say,” Sometimes it’s your turn and sometimes it’s your big brother’s. Your big brother is very good at waiting while it’s your turn.”
• If you have to wait for your partner, ham it up and in a loud stage whisper mutter about how hard it is to wait for others but how you know it is good to do so you will try!
• Also show your older child that the babies have to wait for each other. Eg, “Sorry Sammy but you have to wait for Freddie now while I change his nappy.”
• When your babies are waiting quietly you can say, “Oh what wonderful waiting! Did you learn that from your big sister? She is very good at waiting even though waiting can be hard!

Sleep time:  Ssshhh! Don’t wake the babies! If your babies are light sleepers you might have constant battles to keep your older children quiet at nap time.

• Create a learning and reinforcement opportunity when your older child is in bed by “telling” the babies (within earshot of your older child),” Now babies, be very quiet because your big sister is going to sleep and you mustn’t wake her. I know it is hard to be quiet but it is your turn to be quiet just like she is quiet when it is your turn to sleep.”
• Remind your older child that if she wakes the babies you will have to go to them and then you won’t have enough time left for a story/song/etc. This approach is a useful one generally. That is, help your child to see the consequences of their behaviours. You don’t need to think in terms of punishments, just logical, natural consequences. “Shhh..Quiet so the babies stay asleep and I can sit with you for longer.” Your child will be more compliant if there is something in it for him!


• Let your pre-schoolers and toddlers children overhear you praising them to their siblings. E.g., “Your big sister loves you so much and when you were born she bought you a present.” And, “ Beth was such a big help to Mummy this morning. Mummy is really happy about that.” This is an especially useful technique with newborns and a toddler/preschooler. Your newborn (s) will love the eye contact and smiling as you chatter away about your wonderful older child: two (or more) children happy at once!
• “Are you playing with Suzie’s toy? It really is hers. She loves it. It is hard for her to share it but she is doing a very good job. Let’s ask her if you can play with it a little while longer.”
• While playing with or caring for the baby, tell him stories about his older sister when she was his age and you were playing with or caring for her. As above, tell the story just loud enough for big sister to hear while engaging your baby in a lively chat.


• “No baby, you can’t pull your older sister’s hair. I don’t let anyone hurt her, just like I don’t let anyone hurt you.” You can set this one up by placing your baby next to your older child’s head. Some hair pulling will probably happen and it is a great teaching moment.
• “No hurting the baby. Soft hands only. I don’t let you hurt him and I don’t let him hurt you. I keep my children safe. Ok? Got it?”
These strategies communicate that your older child is still your baby who needs protection and care just as the babies do. Using the “stage whisper” and “speaking through the babies” can be useful in many other situations. Try out the suggestions above and you will find that these trick start to come naturally to you after a while.

Parents: Balancing everyone’s needs. (written for multiple birth parents but applies to all parenting!)

Parents: Balancing everyone’s needs. (written for multiple birth parents but applies to all parenting!)

This article was written for

“To each child according to their needs and from each parent according to their ability.” (apologies to Karl Marx).
This self-improvised maxim has kept me calm during those moments when I am holding one crying baby and feeling guilty that the quiet one is being “ignored”;when both babies are left in their cots for longer than I would like because my three year old really needs me to dress up as a pirate NOW!; and when my three year old watches too much TV because it allows me time to settle the babies properly. The crying baby needed me in that moment while the other one was relatively settled, undoubtedly they will swap places at the next nap time or even in a few minutes. My three year old is old enough to make upsetting meanings about Mummy being too busy with the babies to play with her while the babies are more likely to accept that after their nap they sometimes lie quietly in their cots. And lastly, the babies need a quiet, relaxed bedtime routine without Little Miss Three poking at them as they feed. Of course, she is perfectly happy to be watching TV; it’s me who feels badly about it.

And that brings me to the other part of the maxim, my ability as a parent. Perhaps capacity would be a better word (but it would stray too far from Marx’s adage!). No matter how competent (able) I am I have my limits, a finite supply of energy, and an all too human need to have Me Time. Being a parent educator as well as a parent of five myself, I am very good at beating myself up about anything less than perfect parenting. Trouble is, there is no such thing as prefect parenting so I get the guilts very often. Research tidbits whiz around my head, admonishing me about all manner of parenting practices: the effects of stress on a baby’s brain, the effect of parental misattunement (not being tuned in) on children’s attachment style, and the proper and improper use of time out. I bend over backwards trying to follow the best practice recommendations of the research. After all, I must practice what I teach- right? Yes, I must try to practice it but no, it is unrealistic to expect that anyone can be calm at all times, attuned 100 % of the time or forever able to resist the lure of “Go to your room young lady!” However I also teach parents that all we have to be as parents is “good enough”. I teach parents that repairing parent-child relationships after inevitable ruptures is a valuable life lesson in itself. It is good to be well-informed and to hold ideals about parenting. These ideals serve as our guide and as a beacon. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “Reach for the moon, even if you miss you will land amongst the stars.” It’s the same with parenting. I aim to wait until my children turn two before letting them watch any TV or DVDs.
I aspire to read and sing with them all every day. I am committed to their healthy diets. Am I 100% successful? No. But because I aim to be as much as I can, I probably end up achieving a respectable score of 80%.

My first point, “each according to her need”, is so important with twins and higher order multiples. They are not the same person! I think of it this way.

If twin 1 had asthma would I give twin 2 the Ventolin? Of course not, she doesn’t need it! Same applies to every aspect of parenting multiples: try to provide each child with what she as an individual needs. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish give some excellent guidance on this approach in their book, “Siblings without Rivalry.” Here are some tips from their book:

* “Children don’t need to be treated equally. They need to be treated uniquely. ”

* Give according to individual need: instead of giving equal amounts automatically, ask each child, “How much do you need?” Even if they reply that they want the same, they are learning at needs can vary and that’s OK.

* If a child complains that her sibling got more than she did, don’t buy into the argument that each got the same. Simply acknowledge that she still wants more and then address that need- nothing to do with her sibling.

*Instead of saying, ‘I love you the same”, tell your child what you love about him that is uniquely “Him”.

* If a child complains that you spent more time with his brother, don’t feel you need to set aside equal time for him to match it.
Acknowledge how hard it is to wait while you are busy or that he feels left out and reassure him that you will be with him when he needs you too and then it will be his brother’s turn to wait. “I try to spend time with each of you when you need it. ”

As for “from each parent according to their ability”…. somehow arrange some sleep for yourself and some time out doing something you love and I assure you, your capacity will increase. Be kind to yourself and if you find doing that to be difficult try to treat yourself as you would treat a friend. What would you say to a friend in your situation? I bet you’d be a lot nicer and more understanding! Now be that to yourself. I’m off to settle a baby or two and I feel able to do it because sitting at the computer writing has re-charged me.

Good luck finding what re-charges you so that you can give your little individuals what each needs as best you can.

Yael Clark, Psychologist