One of the worst moments of my day - every day - was trying to get my 4 year-old daughter to brush her teeth…. 😩
We only bothered with this ordeal once a day - after her bath and just before bedtime - because it was such a hair-tearing experience… (The dentist was disapproving, but I ignored him.)
This nightly trial involved her refusing outright to let us brush her teeth, and then mucking around with the toothbrush procrastinating about doing it herself - for around 10 minutes! I tried every kids psychology trick I could think of, but she just wouldn’t brush!
We even went through a ridiculous routine every night where she sings two rounds of “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe” to decide between me (or Daddy) and her as to who gets to do the brushing.
We tried everything to make it more fun for her - multiple toothpastes of every flavour, fun character-toothbrushes, electric toothbrushes, singing songs, making jokes, using the mirror, hiding the mirror… you name it. Nothing got my daughter to brush her teeth without a fight!
Meanwhile I stood there fuming, the frustration rising and my patience wearing thin. As the minutes ticked by I felt more and more like a failed parent - why couldn’t I get her to do this simple daily task?!
After that 10 minute battle, I would often feel really upset and my vision of myself as a competent parent in tatters (hell, I write a blog about this stuff, shouldn’t I be able to get my daughter to just brush?!!).
Just like me at toothbrushing time, when our toddler has a tantrum (or multiple tantrums!) or our baby won’t sleep at night or our preschooler won’t eat dinner night after night, we can stress out A LOT about these things.
Want to know why we suffer so much?
First it’s because we think something is really wrong.
And second, deep down we think that it's all our fault - we have failed as a parent.
And this mindset is the hardest thing about being a parent. This is where our stress stems from.
If my daughter won’t brush her teeth when I ask, it’s my fault - I must have done something wrong or she’d be complying. Or so says my primitive, emotional brain.
This raises my stress levels, as I start to feel inside that there’s a real problem and I’m a failure because I can’t fix it.
But what if we could just drop the stress of it all? Drop the idea that it's a problem. Then there would be nothing to beat ourself up about!
Sure we’d still be tired from the night-waking or frustrated when our child won’t co-operate.
But we wouldn’t be angry or upset about it. We wouldn’t feel ashamed or like a failure.
That is what this blog is about - how to drop the stress and feel happier.
Here are the 3 steps we all need to take to do just this:
#1 REALISE AND ACCEPT THAT YOUR CHILD’S FRUSTRATING BEHAVIOURS ARE NORMAL
Most of us have the mistaken idea that kids are not supposed to do things like have tantrums or wake in the night after 3 months old! Especially if we are first-time parents. We get messages from the media, from parenting books, or from our friends and family that these difficult moments should be fixed and stopped.
But actually these frustrations are completely normal behaviours done by the vast majority of children! If we can see these challenges as normal and not wrong, then it takes away so much stress and blame – we can just accept it.
For example, 80% of children aged 2-4 years old have tantrums. It’s the absolute NORM for your child to have a tantrum, even up to age 6 (and even beyond!).
And, though it’s unpleasant for you, it’s actually good for your child’s development if they have big emotional outbursts. Bottling up their emotions is unhealthy as it can lead to stress and aggression, as they aren’t able to process and release their nervous tension.
Hitting, biting and shouting are really unpleasant and difficult for everyone but, again, these are totally normal behaviours for young kids under 6 - even if not all kids do these things.
Children’s sleep is possibly even more misunderstood.
Waking in the night, even well into your child’s preschool life, is normal behaviour. Some children find it difficult to self-settle in the night - they wake up and struggle to return to sleep. They need your help, or at least your company!
One large academic study of 3269 families in Australia found that most infants aged 4-12 months woke in the night and needed resettling (and 13% of them were waking 3 or more times a night!). It was not until kids were 2 years old that night waking became uncommon.
Yet in that same study, one third of the parents had major concerns with their kids’ normal sleep behaviour! And, what’s worse, 31% of the 2-3 year-old children were disciplined (mostly smacking) to get them to settle. And 27% of parents left their kids to cry to get them to sleep, 11% at less than one month old! 😥
These disturbing statistics are from 1994 so let’s hope that things have improved since then and fewer parents are using controlled crying and smacking.
But what worries me is that so many of those parents felt that their baby or toddler's night-waking was wrong and had to be fixed.
What if parents were taught that night-waking is normal and children just need comforting at night? They wouldn’t stress about it so much. Yes they would be tired - but tired but relaxed is a lot better than tired, unhappy and stressed!
I could go on - not eating meals, throwing things, fighting with siblings, and so on are all totally normal behaviours.
#2 FORGIVE YOURSELF FOR THINGS NOT GOING PERFECTLY
If your child is doing things you’re not happy about, ask yourself this: are you blaming yourself for his or her frustrating behaviours?
Or perhaps your partner is blaming you for it?
Toddler waking in the night? It must be because you breastfeed him. False!
Truth: Children, whether breastfed or not, wake in the night because they want comfort and help resettling.
5 year-old not eating dinner? It must be because you’ve let her get fussy. False!
Truth: Children have fussy stages and 5-years-old is a common one.
3 year-old hitting his younger sibling? It must be because you didn’t set strong enough limits with him. False!
Truth: Children who get a new younger sibling often feel their place in the family is threatened and lash out as a coping strategy.
Parenting disasters are all your fault. False!
Forgive yourself now. Your child is doing these things because it’s a normal developmental stage.
#3 TAKE A SMALL, ACTION STEP TO IMPROVE THINGS
Whatever the challenge you and your child are struggling with, there ARE things you can do about it.
Once you accept the problem and realise that it’s not the end of the world, you can calm down and relax. And once you’ve relaxed, you can calmly consider whether there’s anything you need to do about it.
You might decide that it’s not actually such a big problem and you can just go with it until this phase ends (which it will).
Eating is a great example: most kids have fussy phases. As a three-year-old they would eat fruit, some veggies and even seafood, now as a 5 year-old all they will eat is white stuff (think white bread, potato, rice crackers, cheese and pasta)!
We could stress out about this. Or we could see that it’s just a phase and, if we keep offering a variety of foods, they will eventually eat more things.
But if you need to see some change, then take a small action today that will help. Do NOT try to fix the whole problem today.
For example, if you struggle to get your children out the door in the morning without a fight, then make this your first actionable step:
Prepare all the bags and lunches the night before so you have more time in the morning to spend connecting with your children before it’s time to go out.
Or, if your child is waking repeatedly at night, and you need to improve this, then you might choose as your first actionable step:
Take a nap while the kids are napping, or go to bed very early, so you are less tired when your child wakes you in the night.
But the main thing is that, if you feel calmer about the issue and not personally at fault, then whatever action you do take will be done with clarity and love rather than stress, anger or upset.
And, by the way, my daughter is now 5-and-a-half years old and happily brushes her own teeth every night before bed - and even sometimes in the morning! It took years of perseverance, but I needn’t have stressed out - she got there in the end!
Wishing you peace and resilience to face whatever challenges come your way!
PS You might also like to read my related blogs: