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Natural Consequences and Positive Discipline

Natural Consequences and Positive Discipline

Are you at your wits’ end trying to control your naughty children? Are they going through a maddening phase of ‘testing the boundaries’? How come they are little angels for their teachers at school? Are you starting to wonder if there is anything different you could be doing to make them behave better? Surely there has to be a better way than time-out, ‘naughty chair’, bribing and shouting?
Is there a different approach or a change of attitude that might help?
Repeat and Wait
Trying to instil healthy moral values and self-discipline into young children can seem like a never-ending task. I usually reckon on about a thousand repetitions for any new piece of learning to take hold. Waiting for their brains to mature sufficiently to understand and put it into action seems to take forever. Sometimes it is only by looking back over the past year or two that I can see any progress at all.
There’s no getting around the fact that it does take a huge amount of energy and consistency to train children to be well-behaved. As they get older and it all sinks into their developing and maturing brains, which become able to put it into practice, I am exploring less energy-intensive tactics.

To this end, I’ve recently been reading a couple of fascinating books called Positive Discipline, and the Science of Parenting. I’m starting to understand a lot more about how a young child’s brain operates. It seems a lot of irritating behaviour is simply age-appropriate or driven by tiredness or low blood sugar. The immature brain can’t do stuff like self-control and sitting still. And apparently, according to these books, we can do away with all the nagging, shouting, bribing and coaxing that we usually resort to in an attempt to make our kids behave. Using kindness and firmness gets much better results in terms of cooperation.
There’s one very memorable phrase in the book Positive Discipline: “Where did we get the idea that children have to FEEL WORSE in order to DO BETTER?”
How do you feel if you are shouted at for making a mistake? Resentful, angry, defiant, defensive? And how do you feel when you are praised or encouraged? Happy, empowered? Motivated, eager to please and do more?

Control, humiliation and punishment or blaming and lecturing lead to defensiveness, resistance and sneaky rebellion. The children’s problem-solving skills get used to find ways around our restrictions instead of finding positive solutions to misbehaviour. Punishment does not improve behaviour long-term. For good behaviour, you need a head that is calm, happy and thinking clearly. Distress and anger switch off the rational brain, which is immature under the age of 5 or 6 anyway. Treating children with dignity and respect shows faith in their ability to cooperate. The fact is, children need to feel better in order to do better.
So what works best for a child? Carrot….Or stick?
OK, so how does ‘carrot’ work in practice?
Good Foundations
Children are immensely intuitive and can sense your mood, understand your body language, and even on occasion read your mind! If you can relax and keep a clear and calm head, a stable, happy atmosphere is far more achievable. The child takes his cue from you. If you are calm and relaxed, the child is contented. His rational (thinking) brain is in charge and so he can reason, think and accept direction from a gentle tug on the reins. If you are stressed and snappy, he will ‘play you up’, as he protests the turbulent atmosphere you are creating. If you shout, he literally stops being able to listen to you, because stress causes his rational brain to switch off and revert to a primitive animal mode. His emotions rather than reason dictate his response and he becomes defiant or defensive. This is why shouting at children to control them rarely works, and a quiet word is often more effective.
Jumping on them too hard, especially while they are very young, can either go over their heads and desensitise them, or result in a cowed, quiet, timid child with little visible personality. It does nothing to teach personal responsibility or conscience. Allowing the child to control you results in a demanding, whiny spoilt brat. It really is a balancing act.
They Give What You Expect
If I tell a child what I expect from him, he will usually deliver. He has no real concept of himself yet, apart from what he sees mirrored in my eyes. Self-image builds up through the reactions of the adults in his life. If I tell him he is naughty, he will act naughty. If I tell him he is kind, or beautifully behaved, that is what he will deliver. My lovely neighbour has five children aged 1-9, and she reacts to any sibling rivalry by saying, “I can’t accept that you just hit your sister, because you’re such a sweet, kind, gentle little boy.” She gets much more positive results this way than by shouting, “Stop being so naughty!!” Her children know they are good children who just occasionally act in silly ways. So it’s important to believe in a child no matter what. He might be having current behaviour difficulties, but it doesn’t mean he is a bad child. Never give up with the positive messages and reinforcing every bit of good behaviour with praise. Eventually you will see results.
You Decide
Sometimes, when the kids are being naughty, disobedient or stubborn when I ask them to do something ~ like running off and hiding when I say it’s bath or bed time ~ I remember an old tip I read once. I take a few deep slow breaths, swallow my irritation and tell myself, “Well, maybe you can’t control what they do. But you can choose what YOU will do.”
I think about the situation, how important it really is, is it worth fighting over or getting angry? Will I lose face or their respect if I let them get away with it? Or is the issue more important than that? Is somebody getting hurt? Must I impose sanctions to get compliance? If a sanction must be imposed, I try to make it scrupulously fair so as not to appear vindictive (a trait I do not wish them to learn). So if one child takes another’s favourite toy and throws it into a ditch, I might quietly go up to her bedroom, take her favourite doll from her bed and say to her calmly but firmly, “How would you feel if I threw your dolly away? No, you can’t have her right now. I will put her up on top of this cupboard until you have gone into that ditch and got your brother’s doggie back for him. Then you may have your dolly back.” I would hope that this will teach her how her brother feels, and remember this next time she wants to do something unkind.
Teaching Right from Wrong
Rather than imposing my will on children, I try to teach the notion of personal responsibility. This helps them develop a conscience of their own, rather than waiting for me to tell them what they’ve done wrong all the time. At the girls’ school they teach about “Personal Power, Good Choices and Bad Choices”. This seems to be having a very positive effect. I do a similar thing, combined with stickers. I’ve made 2 charts of good choices and bad choices, with little pictures. If they do something from the Good Choice chart, such as sharing or helping, they get a hug, praise or a sticker. If they do something from the Bad Choice chart, like hitting or stealing, they must do something to put it right, or face a fair sanction. “You made a bad choice, so you must put it right.” I love the idea of being able to try again and get it right. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn.
Winning Cooperation
The book ‘Positive Discipline’ advises showing empathy and understanding for how the child feels and for his point of view. Tell your child about a situation when you felt the same when you were his age. Then say how you feel about the situation now, and invite the child’s help in solving the problem by asking for ideas that focus on a solution. Use a caring attitude to create an atmosphere of closeness and trust. Asking, rather than telling, helps the child feel capable of helping solve the problem with you.
For example, “I used to hate my little sister too. It seemed like she was always getting me in trouble. But now I understand that my mummy loved us both very much and was only trying to protect her. What can we do to help you get on better with your sister?”
I’ve developed a few ideas myself after trying out numerous tactics over the years.
Put It Right
One positive technique I’ve developed is the “put it right” approach. If a child misbehaves, makes a bad choice or has an accident, for example scribbling on the wall or spilling her juice, I aim to stay calm and say, “You made this happen, so it’s up to you to put it right.” I ask the child what she could do to put it right. This shifts the emphasis off anger or punishment onto a mistake being a learning tool.
I tell her, “We all make mistakes, that’s how we learn. Well done for putting it right. What might you do differently next time? Did hitting him help him share with you? How did your cuddle make him feel?”
This step-by-step acting-out of the resolution process teaches children vital emotional skills for solving difficulties.
Make It Better
Another tool I often use is Making it Better. This is like ‘Put It Right’ for deliberately hurtful actions. It allows a ‘sinner’ to undo the consequences of his ‘crime’ by doing a positive, caring, kind act for his ‘victim’. I hope it helps the children understand more about repairing relationships than an empty hollow ‘sorry’.
If one child hits or hurts another, first I separate the warring siblings into different rooms and take a minute to speak to each, or comfort the injured party. I suggest a cooling-off period to think about how to make things better. When the ‘aggressor’ suggests a way to make things better again, I praise her for good thinking and encourage her to try it out. This usually involves hugging the other child. I congratulate her: “Oh good, look, now he knows you love him really, you stopped him crying.” It’s a win-win: they both feel better, and she feels empowered in a positive way.
I also help an older child look for an opportunity to make amends in a more active way. For example, to make up for pushing her brother down the steps, I suggested the older sister wash his hair and body at bathtime, help him into PJs and get him ready for bed. This worked really well, as the act of gently caring for him helped her realise that she did like him after all. It’s helpful to bear in mind the AIM. Are you trying to teach them to feel ashamed of themselves, or capable and kind?
Start Again
Sometimes if a child acts impulsively and the action is plainly unacceptable, e.g. snatching or destroying another’s property or becoming angry and aggressive if they can’t get what they want, I will say, “Woah, hang on. Let’s rewind here, go out of the room a moment and come in again. Now, how would you do that differently if you were being really polite?” The hope is that by actually replaying and acting out the desired process, it will embed into the neural circuits and become a learned behaviour. I let them demonstrate to themselves that the polite way works better, then ram it home with a comment such as, “Wow, that worked much better – he gave you the pen when you asked politely! Well done!” The child hopefully begins to understand and take the lesson on board.
Natural Consequences
It is sometimes useful, rather than impose a punishment or think of amendments, to simply allow a natural consequence to take effect. If I take all the responsibility for their actions, in an attempt to save them pain, the kids never get to learn cause and effect. These consequences are immensely helpful to their development. It shifts the emphasis away from “the nasty grownup who punished me” to “I made this happen myself”. It removes the ‘not fair’ factor. Thus, by deliberately not protecting a child from the effects of his behaviour, you teach him how life works. This takes a lot less effort than nagging and is massively more helpful to the child. To learn “I made a mistake, but I can find a solution myself” is so much more helpful than “I got it wrong and mum will punish me.”
for instance, a child spills his drink on his homework. Instead of blaming, shaming or shouting, I could say, “Whoops – what do you need to do about that?” The child fetches a cloth and wipes it up, then has to redo the homework. Job done.
If a child leaves his jumper at school, the natural consequence is being cold next morning.
Rather than battle over putting a raincoat on a reluctant child, I could let her get wet in the rain. It won’t kill her.
We tend to protect our kids from this kind of reality check, don’t we? But learning is always much more effective when derived from experience. Could we trust them to make their own decisions based on what they remember happening last time?
Can you think of examples from your own life where you could use consequences as a teaching tool?
Hit and Run Away
The Science of Parenting talks about the small child’s ‘stimulation hunger’. A bored child impulsively provokes someone to get a reaction. He just wants attention. I had noticed myself always protecting the youngest, who was 2, from his sisters’ angry reactions. I had tried to teach them restraint and gentleness 100 times, because he was “too little to know any better”. But having watched him run up to the 4 year old, impulsively hit her and run away laughing at her scream of anger, I decided it was time to change my tactics. I started allowing her to chase him and hit him back. (I did say to her, “I can see he’s being very annoying. But you’re old enough to ignore him, aren’t you?” hoping one day it might be true.) Then I told him each time as he came to me for comfort, “When you hit people it makes them angry, doesn’t it?”
I’m also doing all I can to encourage them to play together nicely. I lavish praise on every instance of cooperative play or kindness.
I’ve started noticing he’s being annoying a lot less often now! He’s learning about cause and effect – the hard way, yes, but sometimes the only way. Now he’s 3 and she’s 5, he rarely does ‘hit and run’ anymore and she is starting to be more restrained and ignore provocation, or come to me for help instead of immediately hitting him. Hurray! 😀
Here are a couple of links to buy these two books on Amazon.

The Power of Music


Have you noticed what a powerful effect music has on children? Within minutes, soft peaceful music can calm them right down, or loud music with an upbeat tempo will instantly transform them into mad creatures wildly springing round the room.


The School Run

Music is amazing at creating a mood. It seems to enter their brains at a subliminal level and speak to the unconscious mind. I often put soft peaceful music on the car stereo on the drive home from school, to quell the irritability brought on by tiredness at the end of the school day. It seems to take the edge off all the sneaky pinching and kicking in the back seat. Simon and Garfunkel fit the bill nicely. But I can’t play it on the way to school, unless I want them to lose the ability to walk, and all whine to get in the buggy at once!


I use classical and meditation music to soothe the little one to sleep at naptime. He has been conditioned to it from the time I became his nanny when he was a baby (I used to play him a couple of specific ‘sleep CDs’ that I’d made for him while I gave him his naptime bottle and cuddle). He will now nod off whenever he hears his ‘sleep music’! This makes balancing his energy levels really easy and means he makes it through to bedtime without any tears or upsets.


I find music a really powerful tool for creating a specific atmosphere. At mealtimes, when they usually tend to bounce up and down shrieking rather than eating, I find it helps a lot to play something soothing like Aled Jones singing ‘Walking in the Air’ while adopting a measured, genteel tone of voice to deliver a story. (Speaking like the Queen tends to encourage Manners). This subdues the energy ‘high’ brought on by the ingestion of food sufficiently for them to eat at least part of their meal. I suppose it’s healthy to stop eating once you’re no longer hungry, but after all, they do need to put back some of the calories they’ve been burning off zooming around all day!


Children are often fascinated by musical instruments – real ones, not plastic fob-off baby ones. As this six year old played the long-drawn-out ringing note of a Tibetan singing bowl, her four year old sister expressed the effect of the dreamlike meditative quality by murmuring, “This makes my mind go away…and my soul seeks off to a faraway land!” (We’ve been discussing souls quite a lot lately.)


Children love to explore the sounds that can be made with real musical instruments, and will learn far more naturally, joyfully and intuitively from being immersed in a musical environment than from formal music lessons. Often, a child with musical parents will believe he too can play an instrument, and will learn quickly and easily from handling the instruments.




I saw this principle in action recently in the form of an amazing band of young musicians who were jamming together effortlessly and spontaneously at a folk festival while smaller children danced. The musicians – aged from 8 to 13 – had learned the language of music from early childhood as effortlessly as a spoken language. A couple of them played more than one instrument, switching naturally between them like a bilingual child.

There is a wonderful website I’d like to share with you, called Myriad Toys, that sells real children’s instruments. It’s listed in my Favourite Websites section to your right.>>>>

Time to Dream


Have you ever wondered, “What’s going on in there?” when your child looks like she’s a million miles away? 

Keeping Busy

It seems to be widely believed that children need constant exercise, stimulation (and expensive extra classes) if they are to become intelligent and to sleep at night. However, I have read many articles about children’s lives being too crammed full of scheduled activities, with no time to just relax and ‘be’. 

But what do children actually do with ‘me-time’? Do they even understand the concept? Surely they will get bored and restless if we don’t give them things to keep them busy and amused? And, you might ask, are they ever voluntarily still and quiet?!

Free Time

A child who is given space and time for free play, to choose what she will do from moment to moment, is enabled to develop her own inner resources. She is free to relax or explore at her own pace with no expectations placed on her.


A child sitting in the sunshine with a vacant look on her face is not necessarily just drifting aimlessly, nor is her brain suffering from under-stimulation. Children (unless they are mentally impaired) are pre-programmed before birth to instinctively seek whatever they need from their environment. They are learning in every second they are awake. But all the rapid learning and growing they accomplish needs time and space to integrate into the developing circuitry. Every now and then they just need to pause to let it all sink in.

One Thing at a Time

Children’s brains have to process simple concepts before they can understand more complex ideas… it’s like building a wall one brick at a time from the bottom up. Worth knowing if you might be tempted to push advanced learning on them before they are ready. It is much better to keep explanations simple while they are young.

Pattern Matching

During sleep, new learning that has happened in the day ‘beds down’ and is added to existing knowledge. And during waking periods of daydreaming when it looks as if nobody’s home, children are processing new information and connecting it to patterns of learning they have previously internalised, like adding more beads to a necklace. Seeing, speaking and hearing needs to be temporarily suspended so that new knowledge can be digested. (Which is why teachers should take it as a compliment when their students daydream in lessons – it means they are taking it all in!)

When you see a child’s eyes go far away, he is looking inside his head…searching his internal database for a match to connect the new information up to. Building up a storehouse of knowledge about his world, one brick at a time.

You can liken it to a computer saving data. You get that little egg-timer icon and a message saying, ‘Please wait’……

It is good to respect this and allow the child a few moments of quiet while they focus their attention inwards. Sometimes this ‘trance state’ lasts only a few seconds before they spring off again with a new idea. Learning is never theoretical with children; they need to put everything into practice immediately.


In a Trance

Sometimes you see this entranced look when you are telling them something new and they’re trying to connect the dots, searching internally for a matching picture piece for the puzzle. Or when they are dreaming up a new idea for themselves. A trance, after all, is simply a focused state of attention, during which the person appears to ignore what’s going on around them. If your child seems at times not to hear you, she’s not deliberately being annoying; it may be that she is simply focused very intently on her internal world.


I love to watch the internal cogs turning as a child dreams up some new imaginary venture. What can I do with this leaf? It could be a caterpillar…or a kite…or a hairy monster!

Given a new object or idea to contemplate, a child retreats for a moment into her own private universe to weave her own magic around it. This child holds a painted and glittered stone – her treasure. Who knows what flights of fancy are going through her head in this moment?

Often when we present children with a new experience, we unwittingly put pressure of one sort or another onto them to respond in certain ways. Sometimes we don’t realise that they may be having a profound inner response that may not be readily apparent. They could be dreaming about what they might do one day in the future… or imagining an adventure… or simply absorbing the magic of the moment. A little peaceful time to reflect is important.

Stories and Role Play

Given a role to play, children take it very seriously; in their own minds they actually become that character. Many children have a rich fantasy life. (I know I did. I was Queen of my own world inside my head. :-)) They adore the chance to act a part and pretend to be somebody else; even if they are doing little more than dressing up, most of the ‘acting’ is taking place inside their heads! I am sure these two are imagining themselves proudly giving birth to the Son of God and riding a camel laden with gifts.


A child listening to a story, or taking part in a play, or even watching TV, easily and naturally enters a trance state, as she absorbs what has focused her attention. She is so caught up in the ‘reality’ of the situation that she switches off her awareness of all else around her. This is a highly suggestible state, in which the child deeply absorbs what she hears into her unconscious mind. Well worth bearing in mind when choosing children’s books, the plays they take part in and what you let them watch on TV!



New Sensations

Sensory experiences can be another trigger for this ‘daydream’ state. While the hands or mouth are busy feeling a new sensation or taste, the brain is absorbing the experience. Again, this is a kind of trance, with the attention closely focused on what the senses are feeling. It is as if, while something is going in, nothing can come out.



Taking a Break

Another kind of ‘time-out’ occurs when a child is ‘full up’. The children I look after often pause in their energetic play to come and sit on me for a cuddle and a rest. At such times they often ask for a snack or a story; I think they are just refuelling. Unless they are highly excited, children will often instinctively know when they have had enough stimulation and need to balance it with a calm interlude. A child will take himself off at such times and seek out a quiet room or corner where he can digest in peace, or curl up in a den.

A baby may not know to give himself a break and will become fretful and fussy from mental exhaustion if overstimulated. It is up to us to judge for him when he’s had enough to be going on with, and take him to a quiet darkened room for a rest or a peaceful cuddle to calm him down. Otherwise he might resort to screwing his eyes tight shut, flailing and screaming to block out the sensory overload.

The Autistic Trance

Autistic children often have extremely oversensitive hearing, sight and other physical senses, and can’t shut off unwanted input. They don’t have the neural wiring to make sense of the world, make connections and link patterns of learning. So they flap, spin and rock to create a self-soothing trance state. This shuts off the overwhelming barrage of incomprehensible sensory overload. They are actually behaving perfectly appropriately based on their perceptions.

But that’s a whole other subject for another day….

The Magic of Stories


Childhood Memory Stories

How often have your kids asked you, “Tell me about when you were little”?

Do you, like me, remember how much you loved hearing stories about your  mum’s and granny’s childhood when you were young? The three children I look after also love hearing tales of my youth. I have a stockpile of childhood memories (real and fictional) ready to bring out on any occasion.

If you are the parent, these stories can give a sense of shared history that helps your child feel rooted and securely connected to his family. But even as a nanny, my childhood tales are asked for again and again. Maybe just hearing the tale of a child in another time and place who had the same issues these children have, is comforting and helps them feel understood. I definitely find that a well-timed story or anecdote (with the truth tweaked here and there for maximum benefit) really helps the three nanny-children through their little ups and downs.


Stories can be a helpful distraction from upsets of any kind. One day, the five year old lost sight of me at a kids’ club, panicked, and began to cry. I held her close, praised her for doing absolutely the right thing by standing still, and told her the story of how I got lost at the beach when I was five. She soon cheered up on hearing how my situation had been far worse than hers – running about screaming hysterically – and how much braver she had been!

And after the two year old had somersaulted off the sofa onto the floor and hurt himself, I scooped him up and started telling all three of them a story about how children in the rainforest can climb like monkeys….until I noticed he’d fallen asleep on my lap!

Life Lessons

Stories, which you can customise to your own purposes, can be a useful way to teach important life lessons such as how to share and be kind, what to do if you’re lost, or the importance of honesty. They can also be an invaluable way to prepare a child for a new experience (Topsy and Tim seem to cover all bases there!) Children can understand and relate to the characters and are a lot more receptive to anything if it is presented in the form of a story.

The latest favourite of the three children I care for is the cautionary tale of my little childhood friend Nancy who was a despicably vile spoilt brat. The children find her highly amusing, and yet at the same time educational in social skills! I have a lot of fun acting Nancy, stamping my foot and doing the whiny voice demanding “I want it NOW!”, letting the children see and hear how horrid it sounds and how it doesn’t get you what you want. Because it is not a lecture directly aimed at them, and because it makes them laugh, they take it on board much more readily. (Especially when I call her ‘Antsy-Pantsy Nancy’.) I often now hear them say to each other gleefully, “Oh, you’re acting like Nancy!” or I whisper to them, “That’s just how Nancy used to behave”, if we see another child throwing a strop. Nancy has become a useful self-correction tool. I also read them the story of the Selfish Giant and the Selfish Crocodile at intervals, just to make sure the message is hammered home!

autopilot’! S

Stories for Mealtimes

If your child has a tendency to whine, shout, jump around, keep getting up and down or pick at his food at mealtimes, maybe the tip I got from a friend with three young children could help. Just read or tell them a story while they eat. I have noticed they’re so busy following the story that they forget their meal is “yuk”, and instead sit quietly and just go on eating. Sometimes (if the story is particularly absorbing) they do forget to eat, in which case I have two options: feed them myself, or do a little playacting. I either say, “another bite, another page!” or make a big show of finding it really hard to turn the page until everyone has taken another mouthful, or pretend to collapse with exhaustion, dropping the book, until they have all eaten some more to ‘give me strength’. I then pop back up saying, “Ahh, that’s better! I feel much stronger now!” and continue reading. They love this game and always remind me to do it each time I bring a book to the table.

If this seems a little too indulgent, I sometimes use another alternative to shouting at them for bad table manners. I always find kids will behave far better when out for a meal than at home, so I use this to have a little game of ‘posh dinner’ at home. Sometimes I can kill three birds with one stone and get them bathed, do a birthday celebration AND encourage nice manners all at once. We did this on the day the little one turned three. They actually showered themselves, washed each other’s hair and dressed up in bridesmaid finery while I prepared a party tea. Then while they all sat eating like ladies and gentlemen, I told them my most successful story yet, of a princess who invited them to her wedding because they were such polite, well-behaved and angelic children! I embroidered the tale with descriptions of how their wonderful dancing, violin and flute playing and magic tricks captivated the wedding guests. On hearing how good they were, they all became perfectly behaved and even helped me clear away at the end!

Afterwards I speculated to myself about how the messages we give children about themselves influence what they believe about themselves, and ultimately how they act.

The Ice Cream Story

At pudding time the kids ask for my ‘ice cream story’ again and again. It’s the (not strictly true) story of how I learned to share with my sister when we were young. There was only one scoop of ice cream left in the tub, and my dad told me about the ‘wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling’ I would feel in my heart if I gave it to my little sister. When I reluctantly put the ice cream in her bowl, her smile of joy made me feel so good that I was kind to her ever after. The kids love to act out the story and take on the roles of me and my sister as they practice sharing. Then they act out the story of the morning after, when my sister woke up and was sick all over her bed, and I mopped her up, comforted her and we were friends ever after.

Teaching Values and Beliefs

I use storytelling as a very practical way to teach moral values.

My Children’s Bible comes out at regular intervals; whether you practice a faith or not, you could use whatever book or stories you choose that contains the truths and lessons you find valuable in life. Children gain a valuable sense of security and resilience if they know there is always Someone who cares for them and watches over them (whether it’s you or God!) I often find myself reciting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (by popular request) as we walk up the road to school. And I’m always getting asked what God looks like!


I am reading them my favourite classics at the moment, such as Pollyanna, A Little Princess, Heidi, and The Animal Family (see Goodreads, in the column to the right of this page), all of which highlight life lessons such as the value of optimism, gratitude for simple pleasures, inner beauty, and caring for others. I want to counteract the negative messages given out by this society about having to look a certain way in order to be accepted, or that material wealth is the only thing that matters. I am teaching them that true riches come from the heart. I don’t want them to grow up believing that happiness comes only from perfection, beauty and a massive bank balance.

Sharing Closeness

Of course, we all know that reading to your child will help him enjoy reading himself when he’s older. Books can become a special pleasure for your child, on his own or sharing with a friend. The sharing of attention in this way can strengthen bonds between children.


Travelling with a Book

When out and about, I often bring a book to while away a bus ride or trip to the doctor. One time, I was out with a fellow nanny. We had six children aged 1-6 between us and went into town on the bus. We couldn’t all sit together on the bus as it was so crowded, so I raised my voice and read the book to the entire bus! Everyone listened beautifully.

Rest Time

Stories are invaluable for quiet time, when they’re a bit old for an after-lunch nap but you know they really need a rest. The whole cuddle/story ritual creates a  calm and peaceful space in their day which really helps little ones feel safe,  cherished and secure, as they snuggle up and lose themselves in another world. Sometimes we’ll go through an entire pile of library books in one sitting. It’s a much nicer alternative to TV, and means I know exactly what they are absorbing.

And of course a story is the perfect way to end the day. Any conflicts or difficulties can be forgotten and forgiven as parent and child snuggle up with a good book. Even when the child is older and can read for himself, the closeness can be maintained by reading alongside each other. I have a very lovely family member who ends every day by lying on the bed with his son, each reading their own book.

An older child can be an invaluable help in teaching a younger one to read, write or learn his spellings. As a 10 year old expressed it to me recently: “I went through a hard time when nobody realised I was dyslexic for years, so I understand how tricky it can be to learn to read.” She is really patient and encouraging in helping her six year old brother read to her.

The children’s uncle is a really expressive reader who captivates any child in the vicinity with all his funny voices! 

Stories and Trance

Have you noticed the entranced expression on children’s faces when you read or tell a story? They get that faraway look in their eyes as they see the pictures in their minds, make connections with what they already know, and absorb the underlying message. The story has literally created a trance and tapped straight into their subconscious. In the same way as a hypnotherapist reaches into the dark places in a client’s mind to undo harm and hurt, you can reach into your child’s mind to implant positive messages and lessons through a story.


There is nothing scary or mysterious about a hypnotic trance. While studying psychology, I learned that it is simply a natural brain state designed to allow programming in of new information. It is simply a state of deeply focused attention. It’s like clicking a ‘save’ button.

If you watch your child’s eyes closely you will see him or her dip in and out of a trance state many times in a day, often for mere seconds at a time. We all use trance every day, every time we focus our attention closely on something. Meditation is one well-known type of trance, but any absorbing creative activity, storytelling, group singing, reading, listening to music or watching TV, a play or even a puppet show can all cause a trance state. The right story or song can have a very powerful therapeutic effect. The wrong TV programme or film can have a powerful negative effect.

Healing Hypnosis

There is a strong connection between our minds and bodies, and it is now known by psychotherapists that illness can begin or cease through our beliefs and attitudes. Studies have been done on the power of guided visualisation (leading a person through a trance state with mental pictures) in helping cancer, and in some Eastern countries, hypnosis is used routinely for pain relief in childbirth. Imagine helping your child recover from the flu by telling her a story about a powerful, kind King who saved his loyal subjects by vanquishing evil goblins from his kingdom! In the child’s subconscious, transmitted through her body, the bugs carrying the infection will be weakened as she believes or imagines the power of good conquering bad.


Maybe this sounds far-fetched, but we’ve all heard on the news about violent children who have been influenced by violent movies. They have been literally programmed by what they’ve seen to accept violence as normal. And gentle, kind children are also deeply influenced by what they read, hear and see. Remember that children are highly impressionable, and please be careful what you let your child watch on TV or DVD…and choose their books with care. They are still learning about reality.

Sleep Hypnosis

I personally find bedtime or naptime so much easier with a story; I put on soothing classical music, choose a really relaxing book, (usually about a character who doesn’t want to go to bed but ends up asleep!) and as I cuddle up with the small person, I focus his attention more deeply on the pictures, slow my voice down and become quieter and more hypnotic until his eyes close. (“…and then Baby Owl snuggled down….and fell…fast…asleep.”) Children are so easy to hypnotise!

Interestingly, with the youngest, who is two, I find that if he is tired (and usually resisting sleep) I can ‘tip him over the edge’ by repeating key words or phrases in the story such as ‘close your eyes’, ‘relax’ or ‘sleepy’. I can utilise a young child’s tendency to only hear the ends or key words of sentences, by saying something like, “I love this song, it always makes me feel sleepy….it’s making me yaaaaaawn……I would love to close my eyes right now….” He then focuses on the soft music and the message sinks in. Once he’s yawned a couple of times I know the job’s done. Within minutes, he’s out for the count! I often use this trick in the car, where I keep all my ‘mood music’ CDs, because the sound of the car engine is hypnotic in itself.  Ooops, everyone fell asleep!

Made-up Stories

Storytelling is an amazing way to engage with the hearts and minds of children as well as stimulate their imagination. I bring out a story for every occasion now. Stories can be used to inspire, to carry children away to magical lands, to give a sense of history – how life used to be like – or to tell of a simpler way of life and how it is possible to live without all the material comforts they take for granted. They love getting inside the life of a child in a story; for them it’s another form of role-play. I make up tales of forest-dwelling children who love to swim in woodland streams, climb like monkeys and catch falling leaves to make a wish. Or show them a book of photos of rainforest tribes and tell them stories of how they live. Or I base a new story on one I heard as a child that stuck in my mind.

A Story For Everyone

Whatever the occasion, there is always a story that is just right. You might find it at the library, on Amazon, in your memories, or adapt an old tale to fit your child’s current issues. There are some stories that are real treasures, and others that are completely valueless and only written to sell another product (Disney springs to mind). You will discover favourites that really work for your child. I am building a library of wonderful inspirational stories. I try to buy only those books which I’m sure contain something valuable, beautiful or useful that I want to share with the children. But one thing’s for sure – there’s much more to a story than meets the eye! 

If you found this post interesting and would like to learn more about hypnosis and trance, please see my posts “The Power of Music” and “Time to Dream”  for more info!

Tears and Tantrums

Tears and Tantrums

The Terrible Twos…and beyond

Is your easy going compliant toddler turning into a screaming landmine? Are you starting to dread any type of decision or change because it seems to set off a monster? Well…. you’re not alone. There simply comes a time as your child grows and develops that she discovers her will. She wants things, very passionately, right now! And it’s often just not possible to have them. To her, that biscuit/ snow/ toy/puddle/ extra time in the park is a matter of life or death! To you, it’s utterly trivial. Why won’t she see reason?

The Emotional Brain
We have all seen that when small children get overexcited or upset, they react in an immediate, extreme, almost animal way. The downside to this is that they will often lash out or scream their frustration without engaging their immature higher brain at all. A child doesn’t have the maturity and life experience to have a sense of perspective about what matters and what doesn’t. This comes gradually with time as their brains develop and build up a store of memories and experiences to compare. Until then, extreme overreactions to piddly little irritations are normal!

“She interrupted my dance!”

The upside to the immature brain is that they can easily be redirected, influenced and distracted if you catch them in time, and remember that your brain is more experienced, resourceful and mature than theirs. Once they have calmed down, the mood completely changes and spontaneous affection and relief often results.

What causes a tantrum?

In my experience, there are 3 main triggers for tantrums in young children.

These are…

1. Tiredness

2. Hunger

3. Frustration (e.g. a direct NO!)

Children don’t generally tend to have meltdowns at school – where they are in a strictly regulated formal environment with limited choices, everybody doing the same thing together, an ordered balance of stillness and active movement, and regular food intake at set times. They save their worst behaviour for home, where often, despite your best intentions to maintain a routine, life is not always so ordered. It is almost impossible to avoid meltdowns happening with under-fives at times; but for me, the trick is to stay on the ball constantly, monitoring the baseline functions. That sounds rather mechanical, but with small children, I have found these Big Three Triggers should always be borne in mind. So keep a close watch on:

  • Energy levels
  • Food intake
  • Sleep.

These things interact to keep the human brain working at an optimal level. If one of them slips out of balance, a meltdown can result in moments.


You may be one of the lucky ones whose child doesn’t do meltdowns and will happily play quietly all day, or charge around for 10 hours and wait for supper till 7pm, but with most children you need to watch them a bit more carefully. They have no clue how to manage their own energy. One child I looked after used to rampage about until she was completely run dry, then collapse, screaming. She couldn’t say to herself, “I’ve been tearing around for 3 hours now….getting a bit puffed out….time to sit down for a nice cuppa.” I had to do it for her ( and her siblings) by saying cheerfully, “OK everyone, it’s time to say bye bye to the park now”, and dragging them home for a rest and food. In time, it taught them to self-regulate and say “I’m hungry!” or “I’m tired” and take a break.
I found it often works best for the children I look after if I do something relatively high-energy in the mornings, followed by a couple of hours quiet time reading stories, doing something creative or looking through a Discovery Box (while the youngest has a nap), then some more low key activity in the afternoons. I try to wind them down after supper, unless the food intake has had the effect of causing a sudden burst of ‘borrowed energy’, in which case I have to wait for them to stop charging round the house like a herd of wildebeest and collapse in an exhausted heap in front of the TV.
Under the age of 5, if I let my high-energy children follow their urge to continue playing energetic games with their friends in the park for more than 3 hours, the invariable result was tears and meltdowns from exhaustion as we tried to leave. If I gathered them all up after an hour or two and had a picnic, they managed to keep it together quite happily. I visualised each child’s energy levels as a tank of petrol, and tried to keep an eye on how much was left. You really don’t want to run it dry before attempting the walk home!
Nobody is at their best when tired – think how irritable you feel after a night of broken sleep. The only remedy is rest.
Sometimes what works (and allows you to rest your brain a bit if you feel frazzled yourself from no sleep) is not organising anything, but just letting them roam around in the garden or play with Discovery Boxes, toys or playdough. Low-energy free play all day keeps them amused and helps them draw on their own resources, but doesn’t tire them – or you – out too much.


It can be a delicate balancing act, trying to ensure they’ll be tired enough to sleep at night without tiring them so much that you get 2 hours of screaming at bedtime, or, worse, suppertime – when they’re too tired to eat. (Isn’t it weird that a totally shattered small person has enough energy to scream for so long?)
As I monitor the energy levels left in that ‘petrol tank’, I make sure I do my best to keep them topped up with regular snacks and drinks. For under-fours it can make the difference between a happy outing and a diabolical nightmare! Hunger can make a child aggressive or fretful and lead to nasty meltdowns. I’ve learned NEVER to leave the house without my Everest Expedition bag of sandwiches, snacks, drinks, wipes, towel and spare clothes and nappies. A rest and a picnic can work wonders and buy you at least another hour or two if you’re having an extended outing. I’m a firm fan of picnics. They work especially well in a tent in the rain! (Tends to stop them running around the park while eating).

With under-fives I find a little snack around 10.30am and 3pm works best to keep them going. I try not to make it too big – a cup of water with a couple of breadsticks, a piece of fruit or a muesli bar is fine – or they won’t eat lunch or tea. Gradually after the age of five, I phase out the mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack as their stomachs can cope for longer (unless they’re having a growth spurt, which makes them hungrier). Of course, at school, that’s exactly what they do with Reception class, and at Nursery, with the morning and afternoon snack breaks.

All children are different, but all babies and most toddlers will need a sleep or two during the day. I’ve met many two year olds who won’t sleep properly at night unless they get a good couple of hours’ nap in the daytime. Most toddlers can keep going for 5 hours or so before dropping asleep, and you have to make sure their naps are carefully timed so bedtime will still happen. Sometimes this means draping the pushchair with blankets to make a portable bed, as on this occasion when I was attending a school sports day at naptime. Little brother slept peacefully parked up under a tree and missed all the action!

A child will virtually never tell you he needs a nap. He doesn’t want to miss anything or be separated from you. It’s up to you to spot the signs. When watching that little tank of petrol going down, I make a note of the time, irritability, clumsiness, frustration and easily-upsetness of the child to decide when to put him to bed for a nap. Achieving sleep is fairly simple with a tired child. Simply reduce or remove stimulation by giving them darkness, a quiet room, soothing music, a horizontal cuddle, a monotonous hypnotic story or lullaby… and a little time. You press all these buttons and usually, they will switch off. If they don’t, remove yourself; your presence may be keeping them awake! Very often, if they’ve had a busy morning, they drop off in the car on the way home. Some children will awaken being carried from car to bed, but I find it usually works if I very gently place them in bed and go, with minimum fuss, or if they pop wide awake, lie down and cuddle them for a few minutes.

Prevention is Best
Prevention and diversion works far, far better than trying to halt a raging tantrum, which will run its course whatever you do. At times I feel completely helpless in the face of a total meltdown. Sometimes you can chuck everything in the book at them and then you simply have to sigh and wait for them to grow out of this painful stage. But I’ve also learned a few useful tips along the way which I’d like to share with you.

Make it Easy
Water will always flow downhill. If you make it super easy for them to be good, set them up for success, then praise them, that can be very helpful. It can seem like a lot of effort, but it will really pay dividends in the long run. Explaing in advance what’s about to happen is a great help. “We’re going to the shops! You can help mummy choose the fruit. You’ll be my Special Helper.” Then guide them through the process of spotting apples, bananas etc and putting them in the trolley. If they spot sweets instead, just say lightly, ” Oh we don’t need those today. See, they’re not on our list.” Quickly change the subject by pointing out some exciting red apples. At the end, say “I really enjoyed shopping with you! I’m so glad I had your help.”


If you develop a consistent approach to their feelings, by listening, explaining, affirming and naming their emotions, keeping an eye on the situation, coming alongside with a good example, they simply won’t have any reason to fly off the handle. You’ll also be teaching them good self worth, coping strategies and social skills. “Does he want your digger? Oh I know, but we always SHARE. Everybody shares. He won’t hurt it, will you Tom? See, he just wants to look at it. Here, you can have my watch to play with, and can I borrow your teddy? Oh thank you. That was lovely. Now let’s swap back.”

Use Action, not Words
If they get themselves worked up about something, or accidentally hurt themselves (which they will do many times a day), remonstrations and explanations are useless. If they are upset, their brain is switched off. No amount of words will work, because they literally can’t hear or understand until they calm down. Direct physical action is needed. Before the scream turns into a tantrum, lead them by the hand or carry them away from the source of the upset to a more peaceful space (distraction is great – point out the bees on the flowers, or a squirrel in a tree).

Separate warring siblings; pick up and cuddle the one who is hurt, settle everybody with a story, or even switch on the TV to quell the chaos if everyone is too tired to function rationally and you need to get supper on the table asap!

Two Types of Tantrum

It can help you get a handle on the situation to remember there are two types of tantrum:

  • Distress
  • Rage

Distress Tantrums

In a nutshell, if there are real tears and incoherent anguish, she’s likely to need comfort; she hasn’t yet acquired a sense of perspective and needs help calming down. You can try holding or sitting beside her as she screams her frustration, pain or disappointment, stroking her back or head and telling her very simply that you understand and love her no matter what, then giving a warm cuddle as the screams die down to whimpers. But you still don’t have to give in to whatever caused the outburst. That way she knows she can’t crack the walls of security around her.

If it’s just a bid for power with yells of rage, kicking and balled fists, arguing or threats, the only option is totally ignoring it and moving away. In some ways this is the easiest type to deal with. You don’t have to do anything. The child is trying to force her will on you. Under no circumstances give in, or you’ll be teaching her to be a bully. She will make your life a total misery by doing it every time she wants something. If the rage tantrum receives no audience, trust me, it will have to cease. Even if pride dictates screaming until her throat bleeds; in which case once she is calm and hoarse, just mention to her lightly in a non-judgemental tone a few hours later that screaming does hurt the throat. She’ll learn in the end! 

If it’s just a rage tantrum, walk away and take a few minutes to breathe deeply to calm yourself before you get wound up too. You may not be able to control your child’s behaviour, but the situation will rapidly get much, much worse if you lose control of yourself. Meeting rage with a boundary wall of calm or refusing to be an audience is sometimes the only way to get the message across that “screaming doesn’t work”.

Divert to Prevent
If you can catch a tantrum before it erupts, you can sometimes use humour or words of kind understanding to redirect her attention and re-engage her rational mind or imagination. Sitting beside her, holding her hand or putting a supportive arm around and empathising can be surprisingly effective.

With a small child (2 to 3) just keeping your tone light and playful and distracting them is often sufficient.

With an older child, you can give perspective by stepping away from her problem: “I bet the squirrels don’t like having to collect all those nuts! But if they don’t, they’ll starve in the long cold winter. And I bet it’s really boring being stuffed into a cocoon for weeks and weeks! But how else can the caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Hey, you’ve got a caterpillar book, haven’t you? Why don’t we read it while I help you get dressed/brush your hair/”(whatever caused the upset).
I was hoping to get the older two to outgrow the screamy stage before the little one started to copy them. This did not happen. But I did manage to swiftly divert the two year old almost every time he tried to copy his sister and throw himself to the floor yelling with outrage or disappointment. As soon as he hit the ground, I acted surprised and simply said, “Oh, but the toy you want is over here! It’s not down there on the floor. If you’re down there, you can’t reach it!” Being a bright little boy, he realised somebody else would get it while he was busy screaming, stopped and got up immediately! Then I showed him better ways to get what he wanted.

The other thing I do to try and prevent tantrums is to tune into the small person’s head so I can see where they’re headed and what they’re thinking. Listening to their feelings, letting them feel heard, and letting them do whatever they are capable of by themselves, as long as it’s allowable and safe, is a big step towards reducing tantrum frequency. Giving limited choices that still get the job done (e.g what colour trousers to wear, walk or scoot to nursery etc) helps too.

Avoiding a direct NO
Avoiding head-on confrontations is another helpful thing I’ve learned. Sidestepping with a light tone and positive choice of words can make all the difference. Instead of “No, you can’t have a lollipop”, you can try saying with a laugh, “Oh, those taste disgusting! You’ll hate them!” or, “Oh, I wish I could have one too, but those are for the children who have had an injection at the doctor’s.” (Our chemist has now thankfully taken the lollies off the front counter.) Or, “Oooh yes, that IS a wonderful idea. let’s do it tomorrow!” Or, “Yes, you can have a biscuit after dinner.” Start singing. Sing about the biscuit and the joys of anticipation and then change the words to a song about dinner, to redirect her attention. Ask her to help you make dinner or help taste the dinner. Offer an aperitif (part of dinner, e.g. a bit of grated cheese) if you think hunger might be about to set off a meltdown.

Transmitting Peace While They Scream
If you find that despite all your best efforts they slip through the net and do lose it (which they sometimes will), the best thing you can do is stay calm while enveloping the upset child in a gentle hug. This may sound really hard when you feel totally helpless or they’re kicking you! But your mature nervous system actually has the ability to calm theirs down. They will always pick up on your emotions and mirror them back to you. If you’re stressed, they will be stressed. If you are relaxed, they will feel peace. When doing comforting, I try to breathe deeply and still my mind, visualising serenity and love pouring out of me into them while I murmur comforting noises or hum a lullaby. They literally cannot control themselves or stop themselves when they’re in full tantrum mode. But once the screams begin to lose intensity, your calm will filter through and do it for them.

Self-Calming Techniques
For you! We all get frazzled by screaming kids. You may not be able to stop them screaming, but you can decide what to do about you. If you’re calm, you’ve got a far better chance of calming the child.
If you feel yourself getting wound up, take a moment. Walk away if you have to. Shut your eyes and cup your hands over them. Breathe deeply and slowly. Count, a number for each breath. Or whisper a soothing phrase. “This…too…shall…pass.” Or visualise a windscreen wiper sweeping away the irritation. Once your heart rate has slowed down, go back and re-engage.
If you feel you want to teach these techniques to your child, wait until their brains are a lot more developed. Or you might like to try what accidentally worked for me once!
The six year old had a fall-out with her sister and cousin after a too-long morning at the park, and was unable to cope with the perceived ‘rejection’. Clasping her in a face-to-face bear hug as her screams of exhausted rage subsided into whimpers, I found myself saying to her, “As I hold you close, I can feel all the angry sadness in your heart. You feel all left out. But now… all the calmness and peace is flowing out from my heart to yours…. dissolving all that anger and sadness ….and making your heart feel safe and loved.” Not knowing if her brain had re-engaged or not. Using very simple, soothing words, I tried to convey to her the picture that had come into my head of a curving soft rainbow of coloured light washing over a jagged spiky explosion. She responded brilliantly to the imagery, a faraway look came into her eyes and she stopped crying and asked me to tell her the story.

Uncontrollable Meltdowns
I’ve been referring to a brilliant book called ‘The Science of Parenting’ lately, in a bid to understand what’s going on with tantrums. It’s all to do with brain chemistry. I’ve tried to explain some of it here. Find it in my Favourite Books, to the right of this page.
Some children are more laid-back than others; I do find the more highly-strung types are far more susceptible to tantrums. It can be incredibly frustrating when not only is your three year old kicking and screaming, but you can’t tell if it’s distress or rage, she won’t let you anywhere near her to calm her down and all your attempts just wind her up even further!

A Highly Strung Child

Some children are just born more sensitive than others. They need gentle handling. I have also witnessed children being made highly strung by living with an unpredictable, angry parent. Shouty parents get shouty children. Shouting at a child on a regular basis also alters their brain chemistry and eventually if the child gets frightened often enough, this can cause permanent changes in their brain. Any slight thing will set them off, possibly for the rest of their life!
I’m just the nanny. In moments of extreme meltdown, ONLY a parent will do. I don’t have any answers when a parent is not available to do the initial calm-down for a completely hysterical small child who just wants her mummy. All I can do is try my best to prevent the meltdown happening (see above).
So if you’re a parent reading this, you’ve got a head start!