Parenting educator and mum-of-four Gen Muir is a well-known face for parents struggling with boundaries, challenging behaviour and more in their young kids.

And she’s just released her first book, Little People, Big Feelings – which covers how to work with your child through everything from bedtime battles to sibling rivalry, fussy eating to public meltdowns – without going completely bonkers in the process. 

The idea for the book came during a meeting with fellow parenting expert Maggie Dent, who probably needs no introduction. “We went for coffee,” remembers Gen, “and she said to me, are you a writer or a speaker? I told her I thought I was a writer and she was like, ‘You’re going to write a book. I'm going to write the foreword, and you need to start now'. I didn’t want to write another book that would just be noise in a sea of parenting books – I really wanted it to be what I needed when I was having challenges in those early years, so I really hope it hits that mark! Of course, Maggie [is] my hero. I mean, if you go for a coffee with Maggie Dent and she tells you to write a book, you just go home and write a book.”

Ain’t that the truth! We chatted to Gen about some of the key strategies and tips in her book, and here’s what she had to say.

 

I'm loving your book and am already using your scripts on my 9-year-old – but the focus is very much on those early years, isn’t it? 

I use them on my 14-year-old so I know they work! But yes, the book focuses on those early years because I think that's the most intense period of learning for us as parents, as we adjust to dealing with emotions and helping our kids regulate. And it's such a steep learning curve these days, particularly because I think parents are trying to do it differently to the way that their parents did it. And while you can feel like you're failing, actually you're doing incredibly well.

 

What are strategies that we hear about and do as parents that just don't work? 

Timeout. Super Nanny was so wrong. Anyone who's a parent knows that when you do some of those old school practices, it’s because we've gone into fight, flight or freeze. So while we can know at a cognitive level that it’s developmentally appropriate for your four year old to hit their sibling, at that core level where we wouldn't have been allowed to behave like that or carry on like that [causes us] to snap and the next thing that happens is we're screaming 'go to your room' or behaving in ways that we often have to apologise for. And that's what I'm trying to help parents with; understanding why we get triggered and then being really practical about it.

 

So, big feelings. Do we all deal with this with our children at some point?

Yes. Nobody gets off for free! I had that perfect baby up until he was 14 months, and when I had my second baby, my older child was melting down. He was hitting people at the park, occasionally he’d bite somebody if he wanted something bad enough. I remember thinking he was destined for prison – or that I’d done something very wrong or there was something very wrong with him! But I now know this is all developmentally appropriate. We underestimate our kids’ physical ability – we’re often over-protective and say, ‘be careful, be careful’. But when it comes to emotional capacity, we overestimate them. We think they're capable of sharing and not hitting and not melting down and in actual fact, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps our child be reasonable and rational and empathetic and kind that isn't fully formed until our kids are 25!

 

So how do we handle that kind of behaviour?

We’ll often say to a child, ‘Don’t hit your brother. Gentle hands’ and so on. But if your child is hitting, that child can't help it. We need to get in there and stop them, and set limits – and many parents struggle massively with boundaries and limits. 

 

You talk in the book about 'do less, be more' when it comes to managing big feelings.

When our kids have feelings we’ll often try to fix it, solve it, stop it or ‘turn that frown upside down’. I tell a story in the book about my son and a banana. He was crying over the fact that I broke his banana. And there I am, trying to fix it – I say, ‘I’ll put it in a bowl’ and ‘I’ll chop it up’ and he’s getting more and more upset, asking for a new banana. So I try distraction: ‘How about a different snack?’ I then try logic – ‘Look in the fruit bowl. There are no more bananas’ and meanwhile, my blood pressure is rising, I’ve just had a fourth baby, I’m thinking, ‘I cannot do this’.  I just want to scream ‘Go to your room’ but I know that won’t help me or him.

So when I talk about doing less, it's less trying to fix, less trying to solve, less trying to stop the feelings, because it's actually when we stop and completely surrender, that the feelings often get better. It’s about being authentic and saying something like, ‘I see you. This is really hard and I'm here with you’. And in the case of my son and the banana, I stopped and I said three things: ‘Your banana broke. You did not want it to break. You are really sad about it’. That’s it. And within six seconds he had his head on my shoulder and eating that bloody banana. I tell that story because I want parents to know that even as a parent educator, I still struggle. And if we can just remind ourselves that we don't have to fix it, just stop and just be in the moment, it often gets better. 

 

You talk a lot about naming the emotion, naming what's happened. Why is that so powerful?

We need to name it to tame it – that’s from The Gottman Institute. So you’re having a messy moment with your kid. The emotion sits in your kid’s head, and when we wrap a word around it or name it, we bring it to the frontal lobe. Part of what we're doing in that moment is bringing it from the messy back, like primal brain into the front of our brain. And in naming it we do a couple of things. One, we tell our kids we see it. And two, by wrapping words around it, we allow the more regulated, rational part of the brain to switch on.

This works with adults too – say your partner comes home and you say, 'I've had the worst day with the kids' and if they try to fix it or solve it or give you advice, you might scream, 'I just want you to listen!'. It's actually when they say ‘Oh, that sounds tough. It sounds like you've had a frustrating day’. They’re naming it. And we instantly feel heard and less alone. Often that's all we need. And with kids, it often works exactly the same.

 

What are some common challenges around parenting young kids that constantly trip up even the best mums and dads out there?

I feel like just when you think you've hit smooth sailing, a curveball walks in the door. What I see most commonly, are really outgoing parents that have a child who’s really slow to warm up. Also, fussy eating. Kids that develop beyond normal fussy eating but to the level of genuine phobia around food, in ways that can really impact the whole household.

Separation anxiety and general anxiety are other common ones. There’s an anxiety epidemic and we need to help our kids with worry, because worry and anxiety – especially when it’s at a level where it’s impacting our kids’ ability to function or join in or get to school, it needs us to name it but it also needs us to kind of be stronger than it, and create a narrative of bravery. We have to kind of fight it a little bit, tackle it with a whole lot of cleverness. It can be really uncomfortable to say, 'sounds like you're really worried and that would be really normal to be nervous about starting school. And I bet lots of kids feel the same'. So we're sitting in that feeling, but then we're also holding a narrative around our child being brave, too.

 

What about if you’re a parent with anxiety yourself, and you're dealing with an anxious little kid and worrying that you’ve passed your anxiety onto them? 

Yeah, so much of the work of parenting is working on ourselves. Some of the issues our kids will face can be an opportunity to look in the mirror and say, 'Maybe I need to talk to someone about my anxiety!' 

 

Is support from other parents everything when you're in the young kid trenches?

Absolutely it is. I think we’re trying to do more with less, to be amazing parents, and yet the time pressures are bigger than ever, we’re often both working – and on top of that the village has changed; we're more alone. So actively reaching out and saying, 'this happens to me too', or 'I got a bit down after having babies' or 'I see your kid having a meltdown. I hope your wine is in hand!' That kind of thing is so important because in the early years we can feel so alone.

 

You talk in the book about being firm and kind. How can we carry through with that?

Firm and kind is so important in the tough moments. We want to be the safe space for our kids but also the railings. You can say, 'You can be sad, but I won't let you kick me'. Also, firmness often requires you to move. So you have to say, ‘I'm not going to let you hit. I'm going to get you down from the table now. I'm going to put your seatbelt on’. In those moments we're being firm, but at the same time, the kindness is there – by also saying things like, ‘I know it's hard. I know you're only three. I know you don't want to leave the park. We're still going’. In the moment of providing those two things, our kids feel safe; they can rest knowing they can be difficult and we'll still take charge and that they're still loved. The old view of firm was to put them in their room, which just leaves them alone with their feelings and doesn't teach them to act any better the next time.

 

There's a section in your book that is titled ‘Is this the hill I want to die on?’ Talk us through that. 

A lot of parents I work with are trying to be perfect all the time. And one of the things I want to give them permission to do is change their mind or decide you know what, yes, you can have some TV. Yes, you can have a biscuit. And that's not soft parenting or weak parenting. In fact, that's kind of being flexible and reasonable, and one of the biggest steps with boundary setting is asking yourself, ‘does this work for me’? So your child might say, ‘Can I have a biscuit?’ And you say no, dinner is 20 minutes away’, and you can see a meltdown starting to happen, and you've got a baby on your hip that you need to feed and get into bed in 30 minutes, and dinner’s later than you thought and you have to think, is this a hill I want to die on? And if the answer is no, and a biscuit might get you to dinner in one piece, you can give yourself that permission to change your mind. To be flexible. It’s very different to say, 'You know what, I've thought about it. And yes, you can have a biscuit' compared to 'Oh my god, I can’t handle these emotions, just have the biscuit!' Asking yourself ‘does this work for me? Is it the hill I want to die on?’ can help in those moments.

 

What are your favourite tried and tested scripts that you can use with kids?

One I like for boundaries, is 'I won't let you...'. 'I won't let you hit me / throw that toy / stand on the table'. Not because your kid hears a word of it, because often kids are unregulated and not hearing your words by this point. But those words 'I won't let you' reminds you that you need to be doing something to stop them. So if I just say 'gentle hands', that's really passive. I'm not moving. I'm not stopping my child. But ‘I won’t let you’ can be a game changer. 

The other one that I love is for feelings and it is, 'You're not okay'. Because often we can’t name what a feeling is in the moment – and catch ourselves trying to fix it, trying to stop it, trying to solve it. But if you just stop and pause and just say 'You're not ok', it’s in that moment that our child feels seen, and feels as if they’re not alone – and that’s where everything can turn. 

 

Talk us through the meltdown prevention plan you mention in the book.

There are lots of ways to raise a kid with a beautiful attachment and it can be as individual as we are. But what we know is that a child that is attuned to being held when they need our soothing and support, and to hearing us talk out loud about their world and about their feelings – those kids experience less intense meltdowns as toddlers. So the best thing you can do is learn to be okay when your baby is not okay. Of course, nobody likes it when their babies cry and they think it's their job to fix it or solve it or stop it. And while sometimes babies cry to communicate a need and we meet that need and they stop, sometimes babies just cry and on those bad days a bit of co-regulating and shushing and rocking can create that beautiful attachment where your baby knows that they can come to you when they're happy and when they're sad. And I think that is so powerful. And the evidence shows you'll have less meltdowns [as your kids get older].

 

How can parents build resilience in their kids?

So the biggest thing to know is that the process of your child building resilience actually looks very messy. The child who feels safe to have the big meltdown, the kid who snatches – you’re building resilience every time you support your kids through these situations, every time you welcome feelings and set limits in a loving way. You’re building those EQ skills in a really significant and real way. So it does happen just through the moment. 

 

Want more? Follow Gen Muir at Connected Parenting on Instagram – and buy her book, Little People, Big Feelings, available now.  (Macmillan Australia, RRP $36.99)

 

Words by Rachel Smith