Navigating the grief of miscarriage

Approximately 20% of confirmed pregnancies end in loss.  The most common cause of miscarriage is chromosomal abnormalities, followed by genetic mutations. Combined they cause the overwhelming majority of first trimester miscarriages.  Our species is particularly chromosomally unstable, as many as 70% of all conceptions are not viable.  Many conceptions are lost – the fertilised ovum fails to implant or is actively rejected by the maternal body – before pregnancy is even confirmed. Sometimes the fertilised ovum succeeds in implanting and passing the maternal body’s initial screening process, but is nevertheless not viable.  This is the cause of most miscarriages within the first trimester.  Other common causes of miscarriage include immunological problems, infections, thyroid disorders, polycystic ovary syndrome, exposure to toxins, and an incompetent cervix and some of these factors play a role in second trimester miscarriage in particular. 

Miscarriage can be, and often is, a devastating experience.  I myself have experienced this devastation.  Each pregnancy loss is unique and there is great diversity in the healthy and normal ways that women may react to the experience.  Pregnancy loss, even early pregnancy loss, may trigger a profound sense of grief. 

Understanding grief

The first thing to understand about grief is there is only one rule: there are no rules.  Each person grieves differently.  If you experience pregnancy loss more than once, you may find that you grieve differently each time.  There are many ways to grieve, so grieve in the way that makes sense to you.  Grief doesn’t have stages and there isn’t an endpoint to be reached.  You don’t need to ‘get over it’.  With time, if you honour your grief, the raw intensity of your pain will lessen or will become easier to live with.  This doesn’t mean that the hole in your heart will heal, that your grief will go away.  It does mean that you’ll learn how to live with a hole in your heart.  You’ll find a way to live with this loss, and live a rich, meaningful and happy life too.  This will take time.

Living in limbo

Depending on how your pregnancy loss unfolds you may find yourself living in ‘limbo’ for a time.  That is, you may experience a period of time during which you know are at risk for miscarriage, or even know that miscarriage is highly likely, but the possibility of pregnancy loss is still not certain.  Living with this kind of excruciating ambiguity, even for a short period of time, is an incredibly difficult experience.  While you live in ‘limbo’ your top priority needs to be treating yourself with love and compassion.    Don’t put pressure on yourself to do anything other than live through each day.  At the same time, until miscarriage is confirmed with absolute certainty, it is best to continue to adhere to basic health advice for pregnancy, such as avoiding alcohol.  Stay in regular contact with your doctor and follow your doctor’s advice. 

The choices

Again, depending on how your pregnancy loss unfolds, you may find yourself needing to choose how you want to manage your miscarriage medically and physically – choices between surgical (D & C, curette) management, medical management (medication to induce miscarriage) or expectant management (waiting for natural miscarriage to begin if it hasn’t already).  There is no one right choice, only the choice that’s right for you.  Talk to your doctor about the options that are available to you where you live and given your exact situation.  Ask your doctor to explain to you clearly the advantages and disadvantages of each approach in your specific situation.  

The physical experience

Physically, the experience of miscarriage varies between feeling similar to a period, to feeling like a particularly painful and heavy period, to feeling more like a ‘mini-birth’, to feeling  similar to giving birth at term, depending on the timing of the miscarriage and the exact circumstances.  You have the right to make informed choices about pain relief options at this time.  Talk to your doctor about the most appropriate pharmacological options in your particular situation and draw upon non-pharmacological options for pain relief too, from hot-water bottles, to abdominal breathing, to mindfulness practices.  Relieve pressure in every other area of your life that you can.  Miscarriage can be not just an emotional ordeal but a physical ordeal as well.  If this is true for you ensure that you take this into account and give yourself the time to rest and recover just as you would from any physical ordeal. 

The emotional crisis

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, again, the top priority must be taking care of yourself.  All you need to do is live through this crisis one day at a time.  In my opinion, in the midst of an immediate crisis, all bets are off.  If you want to stay in bed all day in your pajamas, eat a whole block of chocolate, hurl crockery about your kitchen, or weep for hours on end, go right ahead.  You have every damn right. 

The only caveat I would add to this is that if you have older children do ensure that your children are provided with a loving and emotionally safe space at this time.  It is okay for your children to know that you are feeling sad, even to see you cry, as long as the basic emotional safety of their world doesn’t appear to be at threat.  Make it as easy as possible for yourself as you provide this loving and emotionally safe space by calling in support from family and friends and by making any time you have with your children easier on you while being emotionally safe and enjoyable for your children at the same time.  For example, enjoy movie marathons together, get out favourite activities, and indulge in a bit of takeaway or easy meals.  During the immediate emotional crisis, your goal as a parent to your older children should simply be to maintain that loving, emotionally safe connection.  You can go back to stimulating their cognitive development and encouraging healthy eating next week!

In the aftermath

As soon as that immediate emotional crisis settles it is vital that you focus on good mental health care for yourself.  You are currently at risk of developing depression and it is crucial that you support your mental health at this time.  ‘All bets are off’ has a definite time limit: give yourself no more than two weeks of this, less if possible.  Good mental health care means:

  • Getting regular exercise. If you usually do exercise regularly you’ve probably had a break.  Get back into it now.  If you don’t usually exercise it is important to start.  Regular physical activity supports good mental health.  Find physical activity that fits in your lifestyle and is enjoyable for you.   If fitting regular exercise in is difficult then try exercising flat out as hard as you can for three to five minutes a day (go absolutely flat out as long as you can then bring yourself back to a slow steady pace until you’ve recovered enough to go flat out again).  This will, in minimum time, ensure that you are getting a mental health boosting endorphin hit. 
  • Living a rewarding life. Do things that you enjoy.  Do them whether you feel like it or not.  Read a good book, eat your favourite food, watch a favourite movie, get back into your hobbies, have a romantic night out with your partner or plan a fun family day together.  Build a rich, rewarding life now and feelings of joy will gradually return. 
  • Be social. Connect with your friends, family and partner.  Reach out for support.  Miscarriage is not rare, it is common.  It is highly likely that you already know a kind and compassionate woman who has been in exactly the same situation that you are now so consider sharing your experiences with supportive women in your life.  If that feels too difficult consider accessing support through online chat rooms or by calling pregnancy loss support organisations. 
  • Be kind to yourself. Take care of your mental health and give yourself time to recover.  Allow the thoughts and feelings that you have to come and go.  Don’t pressure yourself into feeling better soon.  It will take time.  Compassionately give yourself this time.
  • Honour your grief. Your grief isn’t a sign of being broken.  It is testament to your strength, your love and your courage.  Don’t fight your grief, instead allow the crashing waves to take you.  Learn to surf them. This is what it feels like to heal. 

Create your own meaning

Don’t let your miscarriage be defined in medical terms or by what your loss meant in the eyes of other people.  Find your own personal meaning, drawing on your religious or spiritual beliefs if relevant or your own personal outlook on life.  Create the memories you want to keep and acknowledge your loss in a way that holds meaning to you.  You might like to: name your baby, hold a ceremony, make a keepsake, light a candle or write your baby a letter.  There’s no right or wrong so do what feels right to you. 

Trying again

There is no specific time frame to wait before trying to fall pregnant again.  You and your doctor only have to be confident that you have fully passed the remains of your current pregnancy (your doctor may confirm this with blood tests and/or a scan).   Some doctors advise women to wait one cycle.  Your doctor may have further advice depending upon your exact circumstances.  Trying to fall again, and the timing of this, is your (informed) choice.  In making that choice, do consider your full situation including your immediate emotional state and desires, as well as your age, fertility and life plans.  For some women, waiting a few months before trying again may be the best action emotionally.  However, don’t let other people talk you into waiting if it doesn’t feel right for you.  It isn’t compulsory.  For other women trying again as soon as possible is the best course of action emotionally, and some women may feel (due to age or fertility) that waiting is simply not an option no matter what their emotional state. 

If you suspect that there was more to your miscarriage than a chromosomal abnormality or a genetic mutation, talk this through with your doctor.  If you have experienced three or more consecutive miscarriages (recurrent miscarriage) ask your doctor for a referral to specialist healthcare and support. 

If you want to have a child then every ovulation is a fresh roll of the dice.  Even if you are playing with ‘loaded’ dice: every ovulation is a fresh roll.    Even amongst women who have experienced three consecutive miscarriages, the majority will fall pregnant with a viable pregnancy and successfully carry the baby to term.  As a general rule, sheer persistence, simply continuing to roll that dice, usually results in a living, newborn baby. 

Grief into the future

Remember, you don’t have to ‘get over it’.  You will always be a mother to your lost baby.  You have every right to continue to mother your lost baby in whatever way makes sense to you.  Your baby will always be with you, a part of you and your life’s story. 

Apply it to your life:  Have you experienced a miscarriage?  What helped you to navigate this time?

Resources:

Pregnancy Loss Australia 

Miscarriage Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support SANDS

Miscarriage Association UK 

References:

Larsen, E.C. Christiansen, O. B., Kolte, A.M. & Macklon, N. (2013).  New insights into mechanisms behind miscarriage.  BMC Medicine. 11:154 doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-154

Cowchock, F.S., Gibas, Z., Jackson, L.G. (1993) Chromosome errors as a cause of spontaneous abortion: the relative importance of maternal age and obstetric history.  Fertility and Sterility.  59 (5), 1011-1014.

Brier, N. (2008) Grief following miscarriage: a comprehensive review of the literature.   Journal of Women’s Health. 17(3): 451-464. doi:10.1089/jwh.2007.0505.

To the children we know but briefly and to the parents who love them anyway

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Mindful Parenting

Mindfulness involves practising keeping your awareness in the here and now, with an accepting, compassionate stance towards your own moment to moment experiences.  Regular mindfulness practice has many benefits including lowering stress and preventing and treating depression and anxiety.  You may already be familiar with mindfulness practice as sitting meditation, zazen, yoga or even tai chi.  Fortunately for many time-poor parents, you don’t need to do any of those things to practise mindfulness.  You can practise mindfulness in your everyday life while you are doing absolutely any activity whatsoever.  All you need to do is practice keeping your awareness in the here and now, in an accepting and compassionate way.  In fact, practicing mindfulness while spending time with your child can be an excellent way to boost your own mental health and nourish your relationship with your child at the same time.

So, next time your child initiates an interaction with you, take a deep breath.

Bring yourself fully into the present moment as you respond, letting go of any other thoughts.

Listen to your child; really listen, with full attention.

Let yourself open up to both your own experiences, and the experiences of your child with compassion and acceptance.

Respond to your child from this aware, accepting space.

Allow your interaction to unfold.

Notice your child exactly as he or she is right now, today. 

Savour this moment.

Apply it to your life:  Try practicing mindfulness during an interaction with your child.  What happens?  What do you notice?

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Science for preschoolers

As a working scientist, I’m keen for my children to grow up appreciating and understanding the sciences.  I want to do what I can, during my daughter’s preschool years, to encourage a love of science. Whether she considers a career in the sciences or in a related discipline or not, I believe that a life-long love of the sciences is a wonderful strength to encourage.  Here are some ways you can have fun with preschool science:

  • Explore the world with your child. Take your child on trips to the museum, science centre, zoo, or aquarium in your local area.  Explore the natural world around you by taking an interest in plants, animals and insects in parks, beaches, creeks or even in your own backyard. 
  • Start watching documentaries with your child. Quality wildlife documentaries are often enjoyed by children.  Pay attention to the kinds of animals that capture your child’s interest and buy or borrow documentaries on that topic. 
  • Access science-related toys and activities such as preschool chemistry sets, dinosaur figurines or planting a garden together.   
  • Relish in your child’s questions. Preschoolers are naturally good at a key feature of science: curiosity.  So, show delight in your child’s curiosity.  Recognise it as the strength it is and help it to grow. 
  • Reignite your own curiosity.  Really, having children is a remarkable opportunity to shed your crusty, adult cynicism and become excited and curious about the world again.   Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of the sciences, try to put that aside and just be interested in the world around you.  See the world with fresh eyes and learn as much as you can, yourself, about whatever is sparking an interest in your child.  Science is about understanding the world, so I guarantee that science touches upon something that you find fascinating. 
  • Make the word hypothesis part of your everyday vocabulary. This is actually easy to do once you get used to it.  For example, ‘I wonder why the biscuits are burnt.  Hmm… my hypothesis is that we had the oven too hot.  What is your hypothesis?’
  • Model a scientific approach to solving problems. This means coming up with ideas and testing to see what works.  So, instead of positioning yourself as the expert who is teaching your child, try to take the approach of, together, testing and discovering what works.  For example, ‘So our hypothesis is that the biscuits were burnt because the oven was too hot.  Let’s test that by turning the oven down and seeing what happens to the next batch.’

Apply it to your life:  Does encouraging a love of science matter to you?  How do you encourage an appreciation and understanding of science in your children?

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Weathering the storm

Has this ever happened to you?  You realise that you need to take a new approach as a parent.  Perhaps you realise that you’ve been accidentally rewarding a particular behaviour with your attention or just that the come has come to be firm about something.  You think through your new approach and you are confident that you’ve figured out a strategy that will work.   Or maybe you’ve heard about using planned ignoring, deliberately not giving attention to challenging behaviours and decide to try it out. You try it and whoa!  Things get a whole lot worse really fast…  The screaming gets louder, the running gets faster, the tantrum gets even more out of control.  So, what happened?  And what should you do next?  What you are experiencing is something psychologists call the extinction burst and it is actually an indication that your new approach is working.  I know, right?  So… the parenting strategy that works will, first of all, trigger a massive storm?  How can that be?

It is absolutely crucial to truly understand the extinction burst otherwise it is very hard to find the strength to persist through the storm.  I’ve found that the best way to understand the extinction burst is to think about a broken vending machine.  So imagine you really, really, want a chocolate (or whatever your weakness is).  You see a vending machine and you know how this works.  You can almost taste the chocolate in your mouth.  You get out your coins, you put them into the machine, you press the button and nothing happens.  There is no chocolate.  In that moment, what do you do?  Be honest, you push the button again, don’t you?  Maybe you push it lots of times, punch it even, yell, or you may even shake the machine?  That is the extinction burst.  You know how to get chocolate from a vending machine and you don’t quit the first time your button pushing doesn’t work.  Your child won’t quit the first time their button pushing doesn’t work either… they’ll push the button rapidly in a panic, punch the button, yell loudly or they may even shake the machine.  But, after the rapid button pushing, the yelling and shaking, then what do you do?  Eventually you accept that the machine is broken, that pushing the button isn’t going to get you the chocolate and you walk away.  That’s exactly what your child will do too if you persist.

Oh, and how can you be sure that your new approach really is working?  You can tell that your new approach is actually working if, after weathering a few storms, the frequency of your child’s challenging behaviour drops. 

Apply it to your life:  Have you noticed the extinction burst in your parenting?  Are you able to weather the storm?

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Shame-free parenting

Shame is that sinking feeling, which may be accompanied by sadness, fear, anger or disgust, along with a sense of your own unworthiness and lack of worth in the eyes of others.  Shame is often accompanied by a tendency to behave in a submissive way, that is, a shamed person is likely to try to appease others, to fall into line with their expectations and to try to avoid any further ‘attacks’. Because a shamed child is likely to act in a submissive way, parents may find that shaming their child can effectively eliminate unwanted behaviours. However, the use of shame as a parenting strategy is definitely not recommended.  Repeated experiences of shame may predispose your child to a host of difficulties later in life including depression, anxiety and relationship problems.  Your child may internalise the shame, attacking themselves with self-criticism and judgement throughout their life. 

So how can you parent shame-free?

  • Firstly, the obvious: don’t try to induce shame in your child. Don’t try to change your child’s behaviour by embarrassing them, calling their worth into question, or talking about what other people might think.
  • Go light on criticism. Watch yourself for critical comments.  Sure, sometimes parents do need to correct our children’s behaviour.  But make sure your speech is not littered with criticism.  Not everything needs to be corrected!
  • When correcting, focus on the behaviour not the child. Don’t make sweeping judgements on what kind of person your child is (‘lazy’ or ‘mean’) just focus on the behaviour that you’d like to change.
  • Parent with wide-open acceptance of your child just as he or she is. Choose to love your child unconditionally. 
  • Parent with compassion. Notice your child’s perspective and how your child is feeling.  Act to reduce his or her suffering. 
  • Honour your child’s vulnerability. It takes tremendous courage to be vulnerable.  Respect that courage.
  • Find an open, compassionate space for your own feelings of shame. When shame comes up for you too, hold that lightly.  Give yourself the same accepting, loving and compassionate care that you give to your child.
  • If you notice that you’ve accidentally shamed your child then apologise and let your unconditional love show.

Apply it to your life: Have you ever experienced the toxic effects of shame?  How do you parent shame-free?

References:

Gilbert, P. (2011) Shame in Psychotherapy and the role of compassion focused therapy. In Dearing, R.L. & Tangney, J.P. (Ed). Shame in the therapy hour (pp325-254). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Gilbert, P. (2014) The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53, 6-41.

Brown, Brene (2013) Daring Greatly.  New York: Portfoilo. 

Resources:

Brene Brown’s website

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We are not a bunch of over-cautious, anxious ‘helicopter’ parents: in defence of my generation

I’m tired of commentators saying that the current generation of parents, my generation, is over-cautious, anxious and indulging in unprecedented amounts of ‘helicopter parenting’.  I’m tired of the unexamined nostalgic longing for the ‘good old days’ when children roamed freely around the neighbourhood.  I’m sick of people attributing changing social norms to dysfunction in my generation, instead of asking how the world and our understanding of it may have changed.  Yes, the current generation of parents, my generation, makes different judgements on the level of risk involved in, for example, allowing our children to play with neighbourhood children without direct adult supervision, or allowing our children to walk by themselves to school, or leaving our children in the care of an adult we don’t know particularly well.  But, of course we do…  The reality is there are certain childhood dangers that we, as a society, are more aware of. 

Historically, childhood sexual abuse has probably always existed but it is only relatively recently that we, as a society, have recognised its prevalence and its gravity.  As horrific as childhood sexual abuse is, it is not rare.  As many as one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused in some way before the age of eighteen.  The perpetrator is most likely to be someone your child knows, for example, a family member, a family friend or someone in a respected role.  As a society, we have only just begun to parent in the shadow of statistics like this.  It is any wonder that we are now reluctant to simply drop our children off at a friend’s house for a play?  Is it really surprising that our generation is less likely to entrust our child into the care of another adult without getting to know that adult thoroughly?  And is this change in behaviour really not in our child’s best interests? 

It is also only recently that bullying, the victimisation of one child by another child, has been recognised as a serious matter and not just a normal part of childhood.  As many as one in four children will experience bullying at some point, and bullying can have serious psychological consequences including depression, anxiety and even suicide.  Victims of bullying are often reluctant to share their experiences with adults. With bullying now recognised as a serious and common childhood threat, is it any wonder that the current generation of parents sees risks involved in allowing children to roam the neighbourhood?  Is it really surprising that we recognise that amongst groups of children playing regularly without any adult presence, bullying is likely to arise in some form?  And that this is not trivial? 

Parents vary in how cautious they are and each parent must judge the risks of any particular action for their child, in the context in which they live.  In every generation there will be parents who are more or less cautious.  But let’s stop this knee-jerk reaction to changing social norms of dismissing the current generation as misguided and longing for the ‘old good days’.  Sometimes things change for a reason…

Apply it to your life: Are your judgements of risk different to that of previous generations of parents?  Why do you think that is?

For more information on childhood sexual abuse 

For more information on bullying  

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The lazy guide to toilet training

Wow, toilet training information sure is confusing!  And there are plenty of people out there selling their special methods and products or making strong claims about best way to toilet train or the correct time to start (from birth some say!). So let’s be clear first of all: there are likely a number of methods that will work and there’s little evidence to favour specific approaches or the idea that there’s a particular, magical age at which to train.  So if the approach you took to toilet training is different to the one I’m going to outline here, I’m not saying that your approach was wrong.  But if you are getting ready to toilet train your child and you’d like to do it in a way that’s simple, easy, even lazy, well, read on!

Let’s start by being clear on what it means to be toilet trained.  A child is fully day toilet trained when she or he both urinates and defecates (wees and poos) into the toilet during the day with only the occasional accident and is able to identify when she or he needs to go to the toilet.  Children who willingly urinate and defecate into a toilet on command but cannot distinguish the feeling of needing to go to the toilet are not yet fully toilet trained.  Most children become day toilet trained sometime between their second and fourth birthdays.  It doesn’t matter how early or late your child is toilet trained as long as your child is fully day toilet trained well before beginning school.  Once a child is toilet trained during the day, night-time dryness usually happens naturally over the next several years.  That is, you can simply keep putting your child in a nappy (diapers) at night until you notice that it is always dry.  If, after several years, that doesn’t happen it is possible to teach your child to wake up to go to the toilet during the night.  Seek advice from your doctor or see a psychologist.  This post will focus on day toilet training.

The lazy approach to toilet training has three easy phases: 

Phase one: natural exposure.  From birth let your child be exposed to toileting as a normal human activity.  Let your child know that one day, when they are bigger, they’ll learn to go to the toilet too.  Use proper names for genitals and ensure your child understands that poo comes out of their bottom and wee comes out of their urethra (for boys you might simply say penis).

Phase two: lazy circling. The lazy circling phase can begin at approximately two years.  To start this phase of toilet training you’ll need to buy the required equipment: a child seat for your toilet, some underwear for your child and (if you wish) a potty.  Talk to your child about what the child toilet seat, underwear and potty are for and explain that they are getting bigger and will be doing their wees and poos on the toilet (or potty) soon.  Initiate play about going to the toilet with your child.  For example, you can play going to the toilet with dolls and teddies.  You can also suggest that your child pretends to do a wee or a poo on the toilet or potty.  Keep these games relaxed play only; don’t pressure your child into actually going to the toilet.  Give your child some nappy-free time wearing their new underwear.  This will give your child the opportunity to notice when they urinate and to begin to notice the sensation of needing to urinate that proceeds it. Expect that nappy-free time will result in plenty of accidents.  You can make these accidents easier for yourself by making nappy-free time downstairs play time. 

Remember this phase is called lazy circling for a reason.  You can do all of this in a relaxed, lazy way without any pressure on yourself or your child to become toilet trained anytime soon.  None of it has to be done daily, just on some kind of semi-regular basis, when it suits you and your child.  If you or your child are sick or exhausted or stressed do feel free to give even the lazy circling a rest for a couple of weeks.  If your child seems bored with it or discouraged or is resisting, give it a rest for a while.  For a truly relaxed approach to toilet training, I recommend keeping the lazy circling phase going for about a year.  As your year of lazy circling continues one of two things will happen: (1) your child will urinate or defecate into the toilet or (2) your child will not urinate or defecate into the toilet. 

If during the lazy circling phase, your child wishes to try actually going to the toilet praise them for giving it a go.  If they actually urinate or defecate into the toilet: get very excited!  Praise your child for this and encourage them to try again.  If your child seems to be successfully learning how to go to the toilet with your continued encouragement, congratulations!   Toilet training is going to be a breeze for you!  If your child has successfully urinated or defecated into the toilet several times but isn’t progressing beyond this with encouragement alone it may be time to proceed to phase three. 

If your child doesn’t wish to actually go to the toilet then just keep lazily circling for a year.  It may feel like you are going nowhere but you are laying the groundwork for phase three.  I recommend continuing phase two for a year because this is the lazy guide to toilet training.  For some children, occasional lazy circling will eventually kick-start toilet training, so why not give that easy option a real chance?  And if occasional lazy circling doesn’t work then your child will be all the more prepared to toilet train easily during phase three after a year of lazy circling and a year of further development.  I’m sure you have better things to do with your time than ensuring your child is toilet trained as soon as humanly possible. 

Phase three: reward like crazy.  Proceed to phase three after a year of lazy circling or before that if your child has managed to urinate or defecate into the toilet several times but hasn’t progressed beyond that with encouragement alone.  Begin at a time when life as a whole is relatively calm.  Don’t move to phase three at a time when your child is making other big transitions like welcoming a new sibling or beginning childcare.  Phase three is a reward chart.  You can make your reward chart beautiful or themed or use stickers if you think that’ll excite your child.  But really, a simple piece of paper with boxes that you can tick is fine.  Put the chart near your toilet at home.  It is absolutely crucial that no child ever fails a reward chart.  The chart should be easy enough that your child gets the ticks and gets the reward.  Never remove ticks from a reward chart.  If your child hasn’t yet urinated or defecated into the toilet then in order to get the reward for the very first chart all your child has to do is to sit on the toilet and try to urinate once.  If your child has urinated or defecated into the toilet already then you can make the first chart urinating once into the toilet.  Once your child can urinate in the toilet and understands how the reward chart works you can make it a bit more difficult: two toilet trips (i.e. two ticks) needed for a reward, then three toilet trips (i.e. three ticks).  It is important to give ticks for both urinating and defecating, that is, if your child does both in one trip then give two ticks.  This is important because you want to encourage your child to start defecating in the toilet, too.  Keep the chart in that sweet spot where your child is keen to go to the toilet.  If your child becomes discouraged, you may have made the chart too hard too quickly.  Make the task easier the moment you notice this has happened.  For the actual rewards you can use whatever interests your child and be as creative as you like.  Rewards don’t have to be physical things they can be experiences, like a trip to the park.  One easy idea is to make a lucky dip filled with lots of little bits and pieces like craft supplies or lots of small toys which together make a set (like farm animals).  Then your child also has the excitement of choosing and unwrapping a ‘present’ from the lucky dip.

You can be completely honest with your child by letting them know that the reward chart exists to make it easier for them to learn how to go to the toilet.  As your child masters toilet training you’ll notice they will start to lose interest in the chart.  Sometimes they might go to the toilet and forget to give themselves a tick.  That’s fine; you can let that tick be forgotten.  Allow the chart to phase our naturally.  Your child will lose interest with time.     

At all phases:

  • Don’t make a big deal of accidents. Just calmly remind your child to do wees and poos in the toilet and clean it up.  There will be accidents.
  • Don’t overdo reminding your child to go to the toilet. Toddlers aren’t great at thinking ahead so it is fine to remind them to go to the toilet before leaving the house.  They can also forget to go to the toilet when they are busy doing something new and exciting so a little reminding in those situations is okay too.  But, remember, your child won’t be fully toilet trained until they can recognise that they need to go to the toilet and respond to that sensation by taking themselves to the toilet.  They won’t learn that if you remind them all the time.  They also might begin to resist!     
  • Start with urinating because that is usually easier for children to learn. Once children learn to urinate into the toilet, and if poos get a tick on the reward chart as well, then they will likely begin defecating into the toilet soon, too.
  • Don’t be tempted to read deep meaning into toilet training. Some people treat it as the magical moment when a child learns independence.  What rot!  A wee is just a wee. Don’t put your child under that kind of pressure.
  • If you’ve followed this guide to toilet training and your child still is not toilet trained, or if you are concerned about your child’s progress at any stage, then it is important to seek advice from your doctor. In particular, it is important to ensure that your child doesn’t have an infection and is not constipated (children may be constipated even if they are defecating regularly, in fact, severe constipation may present as a lack of control over bowel motions). 

Remember, there are multiple ways to toilet train so if a different approach worked for you and your child, that’s great.  But if you are getting ready to do toilet training with your child and you are looking for an easy, relaxed approach this might be the one for you. 

Apply it to your life: How did you toilet train?  What worked for your child?

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The art of gratitude

I love this time of year.  It can be busy and crazy… overwhelming even.  But there’s also something magical in the air.  A new year is about to begin.  Can you feel it beckon?  In amongst all the celebrations, it is a good time to pause and reflect:

Are you where you thought you’d be this time last year?

How has life surprised you?

What have you learnt?

It is a good time for letting things go.  Letting go doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happened.  It doesn’t mean you have to feel any particular way about your life.  It just means accepting that life is what it is and your feelings are your feelings. 

It is also a good time to remember all that you have to be grateful for: the people you love, the simple pleasures you enjoy, the beauty of nature…  Pause and really think about all of it.  We got to live another year, didn’t we?  Another year of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows… what a gift…

Apply it to your life:  What are you grateful for?

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True literacy: the wonder of a good story, well told

Literacy (reading and writing) is a relatively new skill for humans.  The expectation of universal literacy, the idea that all children can and should learn to read and to write, is very new.  But stories?  Stories are ancient.  In fact, stories have probably been around for as long as our species and perhaps even longer.  Good stories, well told, have power.  Stories help us to understand our past and to imagine our possible futures.  With stories, we, as a community, remember lessons learnt and pass wisdom down through the generations.  By hearing the stories of other people, we are able to share their perspective, to empathise and to understand.   Through story, our world gets a little bigger and our understanding of the world and our place in it grows.   

In this time of universal literacy, parents want to know how they can ensure that their children learn to read and write.  It is easy in the quest to ensure our children are literate to become obsessed with the mechanics of reading and writing – the literal recognition of shapes on a page.  In fact, the best contribution that a parent can make to their children’s literacy is to return to that much older skill: a good story, well told.  True literacy is not the mere recognition of shapes as sounds.  True literacy is the ability to read and comprehend.  It is the ability, not just to write letters on a page, but to play joyfully with language.  A child is truly literate when they are skilled not just in the mechanics of reading and writing (which our schools, by and large, teach very well) but also in the more ancient skills of social understanding, perspective taking and oral language.  True literacy requires the joy, the wonder and the understanding that is the domain of the story-teller.  These are the gifts that parents (rather than teachers) are ideally placed to give to their children. 

How? 

  • Read to your child. Read to your child long past the age when your child can read independently. 
  • Read good books.  Good stories often have: a beginning, middle and an end (a resolution), well-developed characters who change throughout the story, emotion, conflict and hidden meanings and morals that are apparent but not boldly stated.  A good story, well told, also plays with language in a beautiful and satisfying way, yet doesn’t let the joy of words overshadow the lucid communication of the story itself.  Even children’s literature, even picture books, can have all of these elements. 
  • Read yourself. If you do enjoy reading then make time for it in your life.  It is not a frivolous leisure activity, it is good for you.  If you’ve never been captured by reading, find the right book and let yourself be captured now. 
  • Tell stories about your own lives as a family. At the end of the day, talk with your child about what you did that day.  Retell the fun and eventful days that you had as a family (‘Hey, remember when…?’).  Turn family memories into stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. 
  • Make up your own stories with your child. If you aren’t sure how to start, start with once upon a time and a character with your own child’s name.  Set the story in a time or a place that’s of interest to your child, or bring in an animal or a person who your child loves.  If you get stuck, prompt your child to decide what happens next. 
  • Stories aren’t just in books. Some television shows are stories, too.  Most movies are stories.  Look for all the elements of good story-telling in television and movies.  Use these media, too, to fuel your child’s understanding of the world and other people and a love of good stories.   
  • Talk about the stories that you share. Prompt your child to take the perspective of characters in the story by asking questions like:  why did that character do that? Get your child to think through the story by asking questions like:  what happened in the beginning?  And, what happened next?  Explore the hidden meanings and morals with your child by asking questions like: why did the character change what they were doing?  Why did that work better?

Apply it to your life: Do you love stories?  How do you share story-telling with your child?  Share the joy of a good story, well told, in a new way with your child this week. 

References

Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Copozza & Trifiletti (2014) The greatest magic of Harry Potter: reducing prejudice.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  Early Online Before Print. 

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Why I support No Gender December

No Gender December, an Australian campaign to end the gender-marketing of toys to children was launched this week and it has already received a lot of media attention (for example here, here, here, and here).  I am a passionate supporter of No Gender December and Play Unlimited.  Why? Because I believe that children have the right to explore their world freely and widely, to have rich and complex dreams, to inherit a world of open doors.  Why would anyone want to put limits on their child’s future potential? Play is the powerhouse of development.  It is not a trivial leisure activity.  The cognitive, emotional, social and physical development of children is fuelled by play.  All children benefit from being offered a wide variety of play experiences.  Girls benefit from playing with building blocks, dinosaurs, trains and chemistry sets.  It fuels their interest in the world and builds the foundations to maths and science.  Boys benefit from playing with dolls, tea sets, and doll houses.  It fuels their interest in people, social situations and relationships and contributes to their social and emotional development.  Sure, buy your daughter a doll (my daughter has several), and buy a doll for your son too.  Yes, give your son a train set, and give one to your daughter as well.

I find it hard to understand why No Gender December has sparked controversy.  The gendered marketing of children’s toys so extreme that it is entirely out of sych with contemporary gender roles.  I tired of seeing science toys in the boys section, when I myself am a female scientist (and no one thinks that’s strange).  I’m sick of seeing dolls in the girls section, when my husband lovingly parents our child everyday (as Australian men do across the country).  We should, at the very least, pass onto our children the same flexibility and freedom that we live. 

Children have the right to develop into well-rounded and complete human beings.  But also, I want to live in a society of complete and well-rounded human beings.  I want my children to live in that society.

If you do too, sign the petition

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