Ep. 50 – Maggie Dent – Parental As Anything
- How to nurture the unique temperaments of our ‘rooster ‘and ‘lamb’ children.
- The necessity of tantrums and meltdowns and how we respond.
- The genius of a good guinea pig! (You’ve got to hear this!)
What’s the biology behind our child’s tantrums and meltdowns? How do we navigate ‘screen time’?
When to give our kids control?
Why do we want a guinea pig!?!
Accompanied by Maggie’s humor and warm heart, this episode covers a wonderful and wide sample of topics from Maggie’s newly released book, Parental As Anything.
Join us for a conversation packed with practical takeaways, stories and encouragement for parents.
Maggie DentMaggie Dent has become one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and educators, known as the ‘queen of common sense’. She has a particular interest in the early years, adolescence and resilience. Maggie is regularly featured on parenting blogs, podcasts and news sites.
She also appears regularly on national TV, and is the host of the ABC podcast Parental As Anything.
She is the author of eight major books, including her bestselling 2018 book Mothering Our Boys and her 2020 release From Boys to Men.
Ep. 50 – Maggie Dent – Parental As Anything
Rachel Cram – Ok, well, Maggie, I’m so excited to be back with you again.
Maggie Dent – So, exciting. And who would have thought when we chatted last time, when we said, “Let’s do this again.” I was supposed to be back in Canada.
Rachel Cram – I know we were going to have you right here in the studio. That’s so sad. And now you’re back in lockdown in Australia again.
Maggie Dent – Again,
Rachel Cram – We’re not quite there, but oh, man, it’s been a hard year and a half.
Maggie Dent – We really thought, let’s get 2020 out the road and it keeps on delivering.
Rachel Cram – It does
Maggie Dent – Unique challenges. And I think the toughest thing, Rachel, is that our brain would like to know when it ends. It’s called the cognitive closure point. And of course, we don’t know what that looks like.
Rachel Cram – We do not know? Well, I am so happy to be here in front of you. So I’m going to put those frustrating thoughts aside and just enjoy this conversation with you, because I love talking with you. And congratulations on your new book, because that’s what we’re going to be dialing into today. How do you do it? What book number is this for you? Do you even know?
Maggie Dent – I do think in terms of serious books, it is my eighth book-baby and I thought I was done. I really did. When do I stop? I’m 66 you silly old lady?
Rachel Cram – Oh, well, I mean, when more do you want to learn from somebody than when they’re 66? Like, I feel like coming to somebody who’s already raised their kids and is seasoned, done some life and not all of life, you’re only 66. But there is no wonder that you are called Australia’s queen of common sense. I want to ask you some questions first before we jump into all of this. I’m actually thinking of the concept of speed dating. Do you know what speed dating is?
Maggie Dent – I’ve never done it, but I do know what it is.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. So I’m going to put a question in front of you and you’re going to give it your best shot for 10 minutes and we’re going to move on to another question, because there’s so we can cover and I really want to give our listeners a good sampling of the wisdom that’s in your book. But before I jump into that, I usually open my interviews with a question that you have already answered in your last interview with me, about Aristotle and your childhood. Can I throw a slightly different question at you just to hear a little bit about who you are?
Maggie Dent – Let’s go with it!
Rachel Cram – So here’s my question for you. I’m wondering, what is one of your most memorable struggles as a mom of four boys? And what did it teach you about yourself? Do you like that one?
Maggie Dent – Yeah, that’s really a good one. And I, think it’s one lots of parents can identify with, that I thought as a former teacher I would be able to contain them and create compliance.
Rachel Cram – Before you had the children, you mean?
Maggie Dent – Yes, I was a fabulous parent before I had children.
Rachel Cram – You know so much before you have them.
Maggie Dent – And then I realized that when I really respected their need for autonomous freedom and high energy and activity, everything shifted. And I realized that there’s this invisible amount of energy that if you don’t discharge it, it makes everything else, like getting them to eat, getting them to have a bath, getting them to do their teeth and getting them to bed, so much harder. So I began to see them as little beings with energy. And it really did help a lot. But one of the best gifts around that was that they spent nearly all of their childhood outside. I fed them outside. I felt they ate better outside. They played better outside. They were quite often naked, climbing trees and hosing themselves down in freezing cold weather. And I realized when I allowed that what came in ready for the night was a calmer child and a happier child. I was able to get that wonderful level of compliance that I couldn’t get from issuing lots of commands.
Rachel Cram – Oh, I love that, Maggie. And you have some amazing books on Raising Sons. So listeners can check those out for more on offering what you called autonomous freedom. So good.
Maggie Dent – Thank you so much.
Rachel Cram – So, your newest book, Parental As Anything, releases this week in North America, and each chapter is devoted to a topic covered in key episodes from your very popular ABC podcast, also called Parental As Anything, just like your book. And it was the ABC that asked you to write the book?
Maggie Dent – Yes. We responded to what parents kept saying, “Oh, I need some help with this. So that’s what drove the choices and then when the ABC asked me to write, I thought, “No, it’s all in the podcast, but then I listened to a really great podcast a few days before, and there were some golden nuggets in it that I couldn’t even remember what they were. So then I realized, busy parents can forget stuff that they wish they remembered. So that’s what we thought. Put it in as a guide. And you just dive in and out rather than cover to cover.
Rachel Cram – It’s a great idea Maggie, and each chapter is its own distinct and fabulous topic, and they can be read in any order which is a great idea because often parents don’t have the time or headspace for reading through a whole book, especially when we have urgent questions we want addressed.
Maggie Dent – I know. So it’s got the same sort of flavor as a podcast. It’s a bit cheeky. It’s just lots of suggestions that I would love parents to go, “OK, let’s have a look at this and then look at our family and our values and our children,” because no one has written a parenting book about your child. And that was what I kept saying, “Good enough. Bit common sense. And everyone mucks up.” I think we needed that reassurance. There’s no perfect parents.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. And you start with that reassurance in your introduction, which really gives parents a chance to oooh decompress a bit before they jump in. OK, well, let’s start speed dating through the chapters of your book and give listeners a glimpse of all the great options before them. In your first chapter, you start talking about raising roosters. It’s a chapter about appreciating and navigating the unique temperaments of our children. So here’s my first question. What are some reassuring realities about raising a rooster? And maybe even start off with what is a rooster?
Maggie Dent – All right. So on this temperament spectrum, we have roosters right up one end and lambs right up the other end. And it’s really great if you can get your kids in the middle to access both ends. But rooster children turn up on the planet with high energy, a heightened sense of their own importance, and they often absolutely hunger for challenge and change. They really dislike not winning and not being seen as important. So quite often they’re quite competitive.
So I have two roosters and two lambs. And I think there’s a really big challenge in that rooster children, they are exhausting. And parents will say, like the epiphany moments when I was presenting live, when I explained it, they looked at each other, went, “Oh, that’s our daughter, that’s our son.”
Without realizing that, they’ve turned up with that in their DNA and it has come from somewhere in the gene pool, so yeah, have a look around and point a finger because it can be ah, overwhelming. You know, as soon as they’re verbal they’re often criticizing how we’re parenting, like endless questions. They want to know everything far earlier. But there are some gifts. And so, if we’re able to learn to negotiate and to really let that rooster feel heard, even as a toddler. “What would work for you?”
“What would you like to wear today out of these three outfits?”
So you can kind of limit their choice from ridiculous. And I celebrate badly dressed children because I know they’ve got autonomy in their home to choose their clothes.
Rachel Cram – So with roosters, don’t force the agenda on smaller issues.
Maggie Dent – Yep, no demanding or commanding seriously, that’s the power struggle, even though we have a tendency to think that’s what we should do as parents with roosters, they’ll come back at you and it can be exhausting. But if we start that negotiation process early, Rachel, you can see that they want to make their own choices and making their own choices really does help them grow.
So when we just zoom forward a bit, there are times they’re going to make choices that you don’t agree with. And I need you almost to go, “OK, when we make choices, there are always consequences. So are you prepared to accept any consequences for your choices?”
Obviously, we don’t let them run on roads and do those sorts of things. We’re really aware of the safety thing. But if they want to climb that tree, if they want to go really fast on their bike with their legs in the air, then we step back and allow that to happen, because if they get hurt, that is the natural consequence that teaches roosters better than any lecture on the planet.
Rachel Cram – So you have to be evaluating, this might be a broken arm. It might be a broken leg.
Maggie Dent – Might be stitches. If not, it’s just ouch, you know and sometimes boys, not as quick at learning as girls. Girls will often only need to do it once. Boy might need to do it three times. And then they go, “Ooph! Gee, I’m not going to do that again.”
And then they’ve locked that in as a poor choice.
Rachel Cram – So, in Rooster kids require us to be thinking and planning ahead. They keep us on our toes. If we want to keep them safe.
Maggie Dent – Yes. And I think it’s hard because they can come out with the most amazing, logical arguments and you really will be shown to have made a less logical, sensible choice. And we need to hold that space of feeling like, “They’ve just shown me up,”
And go, “OK, no, I really hear you.”
So one of the things that can help is having those family meetings from time to time about issues in the home that are not working. And it may be sibling fighting or people not doing their chores or struggles to get that bedtime routine. So we bring it to the table and we have a talking stick or talking toy or a talking teddy. And we allow everyone to be heard about how we might make this better. Not only is that powerful because that lets that rooster to actually feel someone’s really listening to me. It allows the rooster to be quiet, to hear the lamb child speak.
Rachel Cram – When the lamb has the stick.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. And so that’s a really good thing that can help in that space. But I’m going to say there’s some really big positives. My two rooster boys, seriously, were so motivated to succeed, if they had not done homework, one of them would just pick flowers and take to the teacher to sweeten her up. We’d get in the car and we’d all look at them going. “You haven’t done your homework?”
And they’d go, “No, but these flowers will do it.”
Rachel Cram – The confidence.
Maggie Dent – The confidence. You sit back going, “Far out. Where did that come from?” And then there will be a point as I step on to that bridge to puberty and adolescence where we do have to twist a little bit more around our expectations as a parent. And my oldest started to be a bit niggly towards me and I wanted to know what was happening. And he said, “I’ve noticed you’re trying to manipulate me.”
And I said, “Oh, can you give me a couple of specific examples?”
You know, because inside I’m going, what?
Rachel Cram – You were? You weren’t? You weren’t?
Maggie Dent – No, seriously, I was very subtly trying to manipulate him to do something that I would have preferred him to do, and I said, “OK, so what do we do about that? Because I think our relationship is really valuable.”
And he said, “Well, I just need to make my own choices.”
He was 12 and a half. And I went through the lecture again about consequences. Are you prepared to wear them? Are you prepared to make amends when you’ve made poor choices?”
He said, “Yep.”
And I said, “Right,” and I stepped back.
Now, I had nothing to do with any of the subject choices he did, what sport he played, I had none of those influences at all. And then when they went into that upper school space, I heard from one of my friends still teaching in the high school I used to teach in, that he had been visited by my son, who had negotiated that he would do one day a week working in an accounting firm for experience, and that would count towards his upper school grades.
And I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.”
And he said, “No, I’ve never done it before but it was such a good argument that I set it up.”
Rachel Cram – Great teacher.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. So they often drive themselves. And I look at him, and the second rooster the same, they don’t need as much parenting in adolescence as our lambs, who we quite often have to, “No, no, go to the school camp. No, no. You choose your choices. No, not you…
Rachel Cram – Because they don’t have that same confidence.
Maggie Dent – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – OK, so Maggie, I’m going to ask you a few questions just to finish off this rapid fire Rooster category and just little spots that came out in this chapter that were really interesting. Here’s one; while we want to avoid demanding or commanding, where do roosters really need input from their parents?
Maggie Dent – Beautiful. I think the challenge for roosters is they have to have really serious input from parents to create an understanding of empathy. Because they don’t have a lot for other people. It’s all about them, and they can, if they stay stuck at that end, become a narcissist and a bully. So that’s why we play endless games with our children and anything else that helps them learn to lose and learn to deal with that. Because losing for roostser children, it’s huge because they take it so deeply. But sometimes they will learn to cheat in order to get to win. So we’ve got big lessons in empathy and losing that need to be wound into this experiment with your rooster child.
Rachel Cram – OK, one last question, and I’m asking this selfishly for my interest because I have a rooster child, I actually have several of them, but you mentioned in your book, and I see it with him, ‘Rooster kids often want to align with other adults instead of you.’ What are they looking for and how do you support that as a parent?
Maggie Dent – Yeah, and not just that, they prefer being with adults than children quite often. We need to be okay with that. Yeah, we absolutely do that. We know that children are influenced by significant adults who they respect and value. You’ll tend to find roosters don’t deal with stupidity very well. So they’ll actually be drawn to grown ups who have values that they respect. So I need us to trust that, too. They’re not very easily led at all. However, they can be really intolerant of figures of authority who they see aren’t very clever or aren’t respecting them. And that can be really tricky. You’ll need to have some visits to the school to talk about that.
Rachel Cram – OK, thanks, Maggie. I am sold. I will date that chapter. Thank you very much, and acknowledging there is so much more that you cover that we are not touching on here, including nurturing our lambs, let’s move on to our next eligible chapter.
Maggie Dent – Yeah
Musical Interlude #1
Rachel Cram – In another chapter called Managing the Hot Moments, you cover a wonderful episode from your podcast about the normality of childhood tantrums and meltdowns, and how we help our children and ourselves cope. Here is my speed dating question for this chapter; What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown and why are they a necessary part of childhood?
Maggie Dent – Beautiful. And this was one of our most popular episodes, because one of the things that a lot of parents didn’t realize, especially if you come from being parented before when your job was to shut it down and stop it or make it go away. And now, with the science of child psychology, we now know that when a child is flooded with big emotions, it’s a flooding of cortisol and in actual fact, the best way for it to happen is for that all to be discharged, and that kicking and screaming is a way to discharge this awful feeling.
Now, the difference between the meltdown and the tantrum, is that we have what we call bottom up and top down emotional overcharge. So this is an overwhelmed state where a child is not bad or naughty, Rachel. And that’s one of the most important messages. That toddlerhood is a tricky age and they don’t have much brain. And so when they flood, because you give them the wrong color cup or you’ve cut their sandwich in the wrong shape, something has triggered and then there will be an overload in the nervous system. So that’s more like the tantrum. Something triggers it. But the fact that the nervous system can be flooded so quickly is developmentally normal.
Rachel Cram – And it’s referred to as top down, because the trigger for a tantrum comes from their outside world and they just can’t hold onto their calm.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. And they gradually get a little bit better at it.
Now, the bottom up is the child who has a cluster of what we call ‘unmet needs’ or ‘things that are flooding the nervous system.’ So if they’re sensitive to sound and they’re in a really noisy environment, if they have a poo that is due, which can be many boys in our school settings.
Rachel Cram – A poo that is due. Meaning they really need to go to the bathroom. And boys don’t want to do that at school do they?
Maggie Dent – That’s it, so they’re holding it on all day.
Rachel Cram – They only want to be at home at the comfort of their own home.
Maggie Dent – That’s it.
Rachel Cram – So, a poo that is due.
Maggie Dent – It can really take some energy.
Rachel Cram – OK, so this is a sensory issue, OK. Got it.
Maggie Dent – They may have a molar that’s coming through that you can’t see. Right. So we can’t often see what is the unmet need or the overstimulation, and that means that they can just flood into the same expression, kicking, screaming and crying without an external trigger to tip them into that place.
Rachel Cram – So they look the same. So a tantrum and a meltdown, can look the same, but the causes are different. And is it important for parents to recognize those as different?
Maggie Dent – Oh, look, I think when you’re in the midst of the storm, who’s got time to analyze it. Like at that point, each child will have a different way that we need to support them. So if they’re doing that in the supermarket, we need to recognize that provided they’re not kicking everything off the shelves or hurting themselves, that we are nearby to keep them safe. And one of mine, when he would go into that state as a three and four year old, would run. So I’ve had times I’ve had to run flat out to try and catch him because he’s racing for a road.
For others, they actually can be picked up in the midst of that flooding and be held. But others, if you pick them up you escalate it. So our challenge is to be beside them in that storm, knowing it’s developmentally okay. The child has no prefrontal cortex to be able to change that. And they can’t hear you when they’re in that flooded state. So what happens for many of us is our own parenting experience comes up. And, you know, “You need to stop that now. I’ll give you something to cry about.” Or, “Go to your room.”
So when we do that, we escalate and add more fuel to the fire. So it is one of those challenging things. And what we do know is that creating relational safety, so we are safe nearby, that once it’s all discharged.
Rachel Cram – All that cortisol is out, once that’s all out.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, the brain can then come and find that serotonin and come and seek the soothing from a significant safe grown-up. But if that safe grown up is still in the storm, then that’s not going to be able to help them know they can come down. And so just that concept to know they’ve got to do it lots of times before the neural pathways are able to understand it. But I do have two really fabulous tips.
Rachel Cram – OK
Maggie Dent – If you can sense it, and this is our really big challenge as parents, is to be tuning into our children because it doesn’t happen randomly. You will have started to notice a change in their behavior that they’re a little bit more wingy, whiny or escalating.
Rachel Cram – OK, heading towards a tantrum or a meltdown.
Maggie Dent – Heading towards a flooding.
Rachel Cram – So your reading, what do you call it in an earthquake? The tremors. You sense the tremors coming, OK?
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. That is fantastic. Now I want to put that in the book.
Rachel Cram – You can use that, just give me royalty’s.
Maggie Dent – I want to put that… That’s the point we step in with a plate full of fruit, or we run in and pretend we’re a dinosaur. So we can flip the cortisol into fun and it can absolutely circumvent it. And the second one, if you’re quick enough before the flooding gets too much, if you ask a question, and it needs to be something that they are really interested in, like, “Oh, is that daddy or Mommy’s car?”
Or, “I can hear birdie’s! Can you hear the birdies?” What it does, it brings in from the primitive brain into thinking brain, and this is the back brain, the one that’s creating all the cortisol, so it comes into the front. And so that question, it’s got to be the right question. You can often just watch him go. “Bbbb birdies? Daddy?”
And you’ll be able to actually circumvent it. But, they’re the only hot tips I’ve got.
Rachel Cram – Those are great tips. Those are great tips. And I guess you’re putting that question in before their ears turn off to not be able to hear. And the question you’re choosing relates to what your child’s going to be interested in.
Maggie Dent – And then after, when they’re very, very calm later, if we can then explore what I call CSI detective work. Have you got a sore tummy? Have you got pain? And we might be able to explore it, but sometimes as they get a little bit older, they get better at picking that, and the more connected, the more love they feel, the more that love cup is full of connection, the less they have either of those things, unless they’re unwell.
Rachel Cram – The less they have tantrums or meltdowns. What happens if that cortisol is not released? What happens if we’re shutting it down?
Maggie Dent – Ok. When we shut it down the body feels just awful. So when we shut it down before it’s all been discharged, it can really impact their ability to manage everything else. So they won’t be able to play as well. They cannot think as well. They won’t eat as well. Many of them will have problems toileting. They can get diarrhea or in other words, the nervous system needs to be able to discharge it in order for it to be able to get back to what we call rest and digest but they actually have to come back. We all have to come back to there.
Rachel Cram – We all have to come back to that place of rest and digest.
Maggie Dent – Yeah and that’s why looking at, ‘I’m I expecting too much activity or too much schoolwork or too much in their lives, rather than these pockets of rest, these pockets of ‘come down,’and those opportunities when they just do nothing for a while or curl up with their blanket or sit on your lap. So we’re looking for that rest and digest, which is what the parasympathetic nervous system needs. And early childhood educators know it really well, that’s why they have lots of quiet times in their day. Drawing and painting is a calm activity. So does that make some sense? Yeah.
Rachel Cram – So if you’re seeing lots of tantrums and meltdowns, that might be a cue too that you need a little bit more calm time.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, a lot of TLC and some calm time. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – We all need to get that cortisol out.
Musical Interlude #2
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with author, podcast host and parenting specialist, Maggie Dent.
Our next episode is with Child Psychologist and good friend of Maggie’s, Dr. Vanessa Lapoint. Vanessa’s talking about ‘stories that we tell ourselves’ and how these unconscious stories help or hinder our relationships with our children and partners. Like Maggie, Vanessa is a wonderfully warm, wise and engaging guest and in this episode she generously shares from her newest book, Parenting Right From The Start. You will love this conversation.
And now back to our conversation with Maggie, and her findings and facts on family focus with technology and screen time.
Rachel Cram – OK, next question. You have a very informative chapter in your book dedicated to our use of technology; screen time as we call it in most of our homes, and you include some celebrations and some cautions. One of those cautions is displacement. Can you describe what you call the displacement effect?
Maggie Dent – Beautiful, so this is really one of the things we share with families going to ask that endless question, “How much screen time is too much screen time?”
Rachel Cram – Yeah. And after these last years, I think we’re all asking that question.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. Absolutely
Rachel Cram – But we’re not out of it yet.
Maggie Dent – No, no, and we need to just let that go in the midst of everything, because that’s what’s keeping us sane, giving us space to be able to cook food or do work that’s keeping us employed.
Rachel Cram – We need to be ok with more screen time.
Maggie Dent – We absolutely need to be OK, and the displacement effect is more about handheld screens than it is the TV, because most children when they’re watching TV are not in a fixed position, they’re doing somersaults or throwing cushions or, passing wind or something. You know, they’re doing something. They’re not stuck. They’re often coloring and drawing and looking up. So it’s not as fixed.
Rachel Cram – And you can even require that to happen. Right. You can actually tell them, “Hey, you’re watching. I want you to be doing this at the same time.”
Maggie Dent – Yeah, exactly. But when you put the handheld device in front of them, it’s riveting because of all the rapid movement of images. It grabs, you know, all of us seriously, all of us.
Rachel Cram -Well, it’s within inches of your face.
Maggie Dent – And it’s designed to keep you engaged. Right. Rather than the slow pace of reading a book, it’s actually got your attention. So it keeps them engaged. It keeps him in a certain position and it often keeps them inside.
Rachel Cram – Inside the house.
Maggie Dent – So what children need, particularly in the first five years, but I’m going to stay right through their life, is they need to be marinated by real human conversations. So we now know that children are turning up in Australia as five year olds in our schooling system with the lowest oral vocab they’ve ever had. So all of those early years where we actually, were with our children without that phone in between, we actually talked to them more, we have conversations more, we read to them more. So once again, that’s the first one.
Rachel Cram – Ok, the use of screens is displacing real human language. Got it.
Maggie Dent – Yep. We’re displacing the development of human communication because they’re not observing our facial expressions, which helps us interpret people’s feelings and moods later.
Second one is we’re displacing obviously physical activity, particularly fine and gross motor skills. So we’ve got children who can’t do any grip. So to have a grip when we’re learning to write needs hanging out of trees or monkey bars or gripping things, and body weight. we need our body weight hanging because that builds the shoulder girdle from the bottom of the shoulder blade to the top, which strengthens our posture. We have four year olds now needing physiotherapy because of that position
So remember, as long as we’re doing this.
Rachel Cram – No one can see that Maggie. You’re giving a visual, which I will interpret. You’re leaning over a screen, I think?
Maggie Dent – That’s it. So you’re going to have problems with posture.
And another one is children need to be running around as much as possible, from birth to five in the outdoors, because their eyes work really hard at managing the depth of vision. We’ve had a 45 percent increase in myopia in just the last couple of years. But I’m thinking we’ll find after the pandemic possibly a bit more so we can’t displace the need for eyeballs to be moving at distances.
And the last one, is that those flashing screens and things overstimulate the visual cortex so we can actually have difficulty with sleep. So what you actually know is the stimulation can make it hard for the brain to come into that rest state but it’s the unsettling and the disturbance of the melatonin levels. Now, Mother Nature has it ready for you. Natural sunlight. So we can’t displace natural sunlight if we want our kids to be able to sleep well. And that goes through to our teens as well. So once again, when we’re looking at what does displace rather than how many hours, I think it changes the focus around what are we doing with our kids.
Rachel Cram – Posture, eyesight and sleep. That’s very helpful Maggie, thank you. I can’t recall if you actually mention this in your book, but is there a point where you say, “Before this age a child should never be in front of a screen?”
Maggie Dent – Well, you know, I’m a nanny. I’ve got ‘littlees’ and I put them in a room with a TV, with a high quality children’s program with no commercials. My boys had TV for around an hour to two hours a day, no significant damage. I think it’s the handheld stuff, and I would leave it as late as possible. But however, if you’re on long trips, in an airplane, I would give it to them. But what are they seeing on there? So make sure that what they’re watching on there is a high quality children’s program.We also know that when they watch familiar cartoons, it means that the brain doesn’t have to predict what’s going to happen. So it allows the brain to get to that rest and digest state. So, if you need some time, pop them on a couch in front of the TV and make sure it’s something they’ve seen before. It’s like sitting down with a friend and they kind of sink in and they go through fads of what they like don’t they. The one I can’t get, seriously Rachel, is In The Night Garden. I don’t know if you know what that one is. It’s not a bong and bong and weirdo shapes.
But kids love it.
I know I’ve seen my little three and four year olds and I’m looking at it going, “This is weird. What what’s going on here? Why does this get them?”
I’ve no idea. But it calms them down, so I go with it.
Rachel Cram – You’re such a good Nana Maggie. One of the things I really appreciated in this chapter, was the balance, especially reading it at this point in our Covid crises, because I think for so many of us, screens have been what have carried our kids through. And even though I know for myself, I have been so strict on screen time with my kids because of this displacement effect. But the reality is, it’s kind of all they’ve had. And so it’s it’s complicated, and I appreciate your perspectives immensely. OK, can we go to the next question?
Maggie Dent – And one more. We can un-habit habits, but we need to do it gradually.
Rachel Cram – Slow detox.
Maggie Dent – So you can’t just suddenly have gone. Now you’re going back to school. That’s it. We’re right back. We have got to kind of ease it in a little bit because it’s like any of us, take away something we’ve got like how much chocolate we eat every night, do it suddenly and it activates the brain into panic. Right. So it’s about the gentle easing back of those things and prioritizing choices again. Yeah, definitely.
Rachel Cram – Wonderful. Thank you. We’ll continue on with our speed dating candidates from your fabulous book, Parental As Anything. We’ve had some lovely showings from some of your previous chapters, such as Roosters and Lambs: the influence of temperament. Managing the Hot Moments: meltdowns and tantrums-including your own. Then, for the sake of time we skipped over several wonderful chapters and went to Raising Our Kids In This New Digital World, and now I’d love to introduce another chapter called Anxiety In Childhood And Early Adolescence. There is so much important information, but I will put before you one antidote you addressed directly in this chapter. Maggie, what can we do when our child is afraid of the dark?
Maggie Dent – Oh, fantastic. Now, let’s reassure everybody, it’s very developmentally normal for children, particularly under five, to be frightened of the dark or, you know, monsters or whatever, that’s really, really normal. One of the things that’s not terribly helpful is to tell them not to worry. I mean, how often do we do it? Don’t worry. There’s no monsters.
Rachel Cram – Well, your dad had an awesome, awesome thing for this because you were afraid of the dark when you were little. And I love the story. Do you want to share that quickly? Because I love your dad.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, I’d love to. So what happened was I not only was frightened of the dark, I was sure that there were these free ranging dogs that were, you know, out and about like wild. I was sure they were going to open the window at my home on the farm and eat me. And I love the fact that my dad’s a pragmatist. And he just basically decided, “OK, so how can we solve that problem?”
And he helped me work out that if I tied a string to the window’s catch and then onto my bed, that if the dog tried to pull the window, it couldn’t. But also, I’d know. And then he also gave me a cricket bat or a baseball bat to sleep next to just in case it got in. Now, I’m going to tell you that once that problem was solved, I slept beautifully. And so rather than minimize it, what we encourage you to do is problem solve with the children. I would suggest you get the biggest flashlight you’ve got and explore every corner in their bedroom to show there’s no monster or there’s no whatever. So they can actually see and then see if that’s enough. Do they want the nightlight on? Is there something else we can do? You know, and once they’re part of the solution the anxiety just disappears away. But once again, we know it’s intuitive for us to minimize anxiety, but we really need to validate it, because particularly our children, their little what we call the amygdala, which is scanning the environment for things that are unsafe, is a little bit enthusiastic. And it gradually gets better, but it’s trying to help them build some bravery. And I just slept. I never even thought of dogs ever again.
Rachel Cram – You have so many scary things in Australia. Dogs are just part of it. I tell you, the spiders you have. OK. Is there a difference between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety?
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. And what we really know from the research is that any change is meant to trigger a sense of, “Oh, am I going to survive this? Is this okay? Is this going to take my life or is it going to hurt me?
Rachel Cram – That’s healthy.
Maggie Dent – That is it because, if we go back to caveman days, anybody who didn’t have some anxiety around the sabretooth tiger didn’t survive, so we didn’t breed from them. So there’s healthy anxiety. And what we do know, if you get anxious before you start school and anxious before a test and anxious before a new job, it actually heightens the focus in the brain and it gives you energy to be really present. So I think that’s the conversation.
I think parents need to model it as well. I want parents to say, “Gee, I’m feeling really anxious about this deadline I’ve got coming up, so I’m going to go for a run because that might help me. Or I’m going to do some mindfulness or I’m going to go and do some breathing.”
In other words, if we modeled to our children how we manage our own anxiety, it’s really helpful for them. So the biggest thing my boys all know, I hate being late. Being late triggers my anxiety like you can’t believe. So I’m always early. I didn’t tell them for quite some time it was to ease my anxiety. And I can feel it, even though I’m really mature and I have done mindfulness and I’ve taught relaxation for parents and teens and kids. If I’m caught in traffic before an important appointment, I get flooded with cortisol just the same. But what I do have are the tools to calm it down, even starting with breath.
Rachel Cram – So is there an anxiety that’s unhealthy? Is there a point where parents go, I’ve got to seek help for this?
Maggie Dent – So when the anxiety means that I can’t go to school, I can’t go do the test, or I can’t step through the door of the birthday party, this is our really big challenge to the parents. We often think, “Oh, we just won’t go.
But if you do that, we’re then teaching that avoidance must be good, that avoidance is something to desire. So I share in the book about coming to a birthday party and a sensitive child, something I can’t go I don’t want to go. Or they might have said it even on the way in the car. We get them there, we kneel down and we actually validate, “You’re finding this hard aren’t you. It makes you feel anxious in your tummy a bit,” and there are different sorts of signs that we need to help them work out.
And then we say, “Look, I’ve got you. I’m here. I’m going to keep you safe. But how about we just go in for five minutes and then if it’s too hard for you, my love, we’re going home. All right. I’ve got you. I want you to dig in for your bravery.”
And then we go in for the five minutes and we check across to our child. And you know what’s happened, of course, because they realized when they got in there, they know the kids and it’s actually not scary at all. All the random thoughts it was creating, the cortisol, have been soothed down because their amygdala is okay. So it’s little steps sometimes that can really help our kids. But we must validate that it’s okay for us to feel these things. And then, of course, the red flags come up when we have what we call clusters of those negative loops that just don’t go away. And that’s often when we need to get some support for our child to work out how we can turn those off.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. I’m going to give a double dip into this one chapter, because you have this suggestion that I love and it ties into supporting a child that feels anxious. You talk about a brave stone. What’s a brave stone? And how do they work?
Maggie Dent – Oh, look, isn’t so beautiful because I know that the imagination for children under eight is just so powerful. So I had some beautiful stones and crystals and I said, “If you took one of these when you felt anxious, what color would you choose?”
And quite often they chose a beautiful, calm green, which I think is intuitively beautiful. So what it was, was they had to keep their little calm stone on them. And so if they started to feel anxious when they weren’t near their safest caregiver, and it’s often at school or a daycare, they had to put their hand down into their pocket and hold the stone and then they had to imagine that the color of the stone comes up their arm and into their heart.
Now, the brain can’t do two things at once. The amygdala can’t still be telling you, ‘You’re going to die,” if you’re imagining green. So it immediately flipped it into a different calming state.
It was interesting because sometimes I’d run into a child I’d seen who was growing up, who’s a 16 year old saying, “I still use my calm stone because it’s a habit, it’s a way to stop it.”
And that’s that challenge every now and then, that sometimes in childhood imagination can be really, really important. And I created a couple of other audios that are free about a superhero or a guardian angel that is three meters high, that’s invisible. Because if we have someone three meters high standing behind us who’s absolutely our guardian and protector, to a child, that feels real. And so we had these children turning up who’d had bullying at school and who were hating going to school, brave as! And it was, just because they took an imaginary protector with them. So once again, don’t always think it’s logical because the amygdala is not very logical.
Musical Interlude #3
Rachel Cram – Maggie, we’ll give links to some of that work that you have from our website, because it’s brilliant for parents and so generous of you to offer it for free. Thank you so much. Still on the topic of anxiety, this is a quote from your book. You say, “I can’t stress how important this family ritual,”
and I’m going to it in a moment, You say, “I can’t stress how important this family ritual can be for soothing our exhausted and stressed children after a day away from you.” and a bravestone is part of that soothing, I think,
but you also have another fantastic tip. You suggest creating a 10 minute window to fill out a child’s emotional cup after a day away from us. What does this look like? And how do we keep the window open so our child can climb through it?
Maggie Dent – Yeah, they’re such beautiful questions.
Rachel Cram – Thank you.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. So when they’ve been away from us they have to work quite hard to be okay. So they come home and they’re usually quite tired. There’s a lot of meltdowns in the car after school or a pickup. And that’s partly because that cup is empty.
Rachel Cram – And is this for rooster kids and for lamb kids and all the animals in between?
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. So it depends on what’s happened on any given day, too. So you can either do micro doses of connection or the macro. And I said 10 minutes. If you’ve got a sensitive child who’s struggling in a school environment or struggling with friendship issues or struggling with just their ‘too immature’ or ‘it’s all too hard,’ they’ll need the ten minutes.
Rachel Cram – So it doesn’t always boil down to a prescribed amount of our time and attention when they come back into our presence, but they all need some form of warm welcome and acknowledgement. Something that lets them know we’re glad they’re home.
Maggie Dent – That’s it. So what it is, is if you can create that as a habit, too, is that when we get home, always provide a lovely snack so that they’re not ‘hangry’ and it can be part of that ritual, you’re coming back into my nest.
So for some kids they’ll need to be fed before they can allow you to come into that space. Rooster children often might not, but they might just hang around you. They won’t let you necessarily hold them, but just hang around you a bit. And what have you done today? Or, you know, they want to come back into your world. And then whatever it is that they enjoy, that’s the space we need to give. Whether you need to go in and build some Lego with them or, they’re just needing to go and curl up on their bed. And some children are still snuggling onto that teddy at 10, 11 and 12 and we need to celebrate that.
So that’s that first part. But the second part is, when we’re busy we can still be putting love into their love cup. And that’s the ruffling of the head or that’s the smile or the wink. It’s the tickling on their back, or I used to tread on their feet a lot. I know it sounds really harsh, but it was a bit of a kind of random game. I’d walk past, especially if they’re a bit grumpy in those tween years, and I just tread on their toe, and they’d go, “Mmm, Humm” and then I’d try to tread on each others toe. And then we’re in a dance trying to tread on each other’s toes. And another one for that, “I just want to connect, even if you’re trying to keep me out,” is I’d kind of walk past sometimes just sit on them.
Rachel Cram – And they’d be like, “Mommm!”
Maggie Dent – Mommm, but we’d connected. So again, sometimes it’s micro connections a little bit more often if we haven’t got the ten minutes. But that’s the space, especially if you’ve got more than one child. You know, it’s a really big, isn’t it?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough to get, but so important. One of the phrases that you used several times in your first episode with us, and if listeners haven’t heard it, definitely go back and pick that up because it’s brilliant. You say, “We do this even when they don’t deserve it, even more then.”
Maggie Dent – Yes. Well, when we make our love conditional on good grades or good behavior, it makes it really difficult because so often our children’s choices are just a poor choice, not a bad child, a child who just is impulsive in that moment or struggling with something. And so the biggest challenge I feel and most powerful gift we have is recognizing that children are children, not grown ups with prefrontal cortexes that sometimes take till the mid to late 20s to finish. And that while every part of us feels they don’t deserve our love, we have to dive deeper into the bigger part within ourselves and recognize that they are children and that we are capable of loving fiercely and unconditionally, and that a gesture of kindness, it can just make all the difference.
And I share the story of one of my boys who probably 14, and fourteen’s can be a little tricky, giving me a less than respectful mouthful in the kitchen, stomped off to his room, and about 20 minutes later, I knocked on the door, and I opened it and put in a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie, shoved the dog in, closed the door and later, when he came out, you could see we’d built our bridge back.
He’s a teen responding to the world from all those reasons why that stuff happens. But I needed him to know we were OK. That I could still love him through that space. And I think our teens today, given the crazy world they live in and the negative messages they can get online, they need us to show our love through kindness, probably even more than words as they navigate a chaotic world that sometimes is pretty scary.
Rachel Cram – Maggie, I think there’s time to get in one last question from your book. This question comes from a chapter called Exploring Death and Loss In Families. I remember listening to the episode on your podcast when it first came out in the fall of 2020, the episode is called How To Deal With Death and Loss, for people who want to go find it, I highly recommend it. This question may sound frivolous as I ask it but, it isn’t a frivolous question. And my question for you is, what’s the gift of a good guinea pig?
Maggie Dent – And thank you for asking this, because one of the things we know in terms of growing resilient children is how do they deal with setbacks and adversity? And as humans, one of the most absolutely worst things that can happen is the death of someone we love. And I have worked in palliative care, but I’ve also worked in the funeral industry, and I’ve conducted over 250 funerals. And I was noticing those who manage to grieve and recover versus those that didn’t. And one of the things we found is that those who’d had an experience around the death of something that they cared for when they were younger managed it better. And so I love guinea pigs. So we know guinea pigs don’t live long.
Rachel Cram – I think most of them live two or three years though right?
Maggie Dent – It’s usually two or three years which is
Rachel Cram – Manageable
Rachel Cram – So, you can’t teach a child about death by pulling up next to a dead animal on the side of the road because, yes, its body has stopped working, but they have no connection from their heart to that creature. So the guinea pig is now connected because they’ve stroked it and loved it so that when that dies up comes this incredible sense of pain in the heart, which is exactly what happens with grief. And it feels scary and it’s awful and we might want to cry. So it’s a really beautiful teachable experience rather than the first loss they experience is of a beloved grandparent when they’re 10 or something.
So what we do is we walk through what we do after the death of someone we love, and that is we will have a funeral where we honor them and celebrate their life and be thankful for them and farewell them. So if we’re able to bury them somewhere, that’s really important, because we do something with the body that doesn’t work anymore.
And what we find later is it sets up a template of understanding that that pain in the heart is actually what happens when you lose something you love. And we need to honor that, so our kids can learn to respect this as something that happens to big people and little people. And that crying and feeling sad is not a sign of being weak, it’s a sign of being human.
Rachel Cram – I know we all experience and express grief differently, but in general, would you say that children express grief in a different way than adults express grief?
Maggie Dent – Yes, and it’s a really important thing to understand, in that as grown ups, when we are in a state of grief we cannot escape it. It’s with us just day in, day out, that heaviness and the sadness or the anger. So little children do what we call puddle hopping. They can be sad for a little bit and then they’ll just go and play as if nothing’s happened. And it’s really important to understand that that’s okay but they’re still processing it. And one of the things that was really powerful in the chapter on death and loss was Maddie as a mom who’s 18 month old son died very suddenly from meningococcal, that she described deeply how it impacted her so much she could not make any decision for weeks. She had to bring her sister into her life because she couldn’t even decide whether she wanted a cup of tea. And that world blowing up being described so realistically by a parent, is incredibly helpful for us to be able to then support others in our lives who lose a child particularly suddenly.
Rachel Cram – No, I found that part of the chapter so impactful and really helpful. And how vulnerable and kind of her to have shared that, because it was still fairly fresh.
Maggie Dent – She lives in the same town as me. So it’s now coming up four years and they decided that the only way that they as a couple could move forward was to have another child. And they had this dynamic little girl who’s a mirror image of the little boy who died. And they said they actually made that choice as a choice of healing and being able to come forward. But I love the fact that there’s still the same giant picture in the house and the kids still sometimes talk to him and
Rachel Cram – The giant picture of the little boy who passed away. Yeah, that was really interesting.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, and she absolutely makes sure that others are comfortable and the other thing was interesting was Maddie said that her relationship with her son has continued to evolve and grow, even though he died when he was 18 months old. Beautiful.
Rachel Cram – That’s beautiful. Yeah, that was really well described, I really appreciated her. Yeah.
Maggie Dent – If you could hear the podcast, it’s it’s on Spotify, but to hear it too, it’s, oh, grabs you here.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I’ve heard that one. We’ll put links to that, too. People need to follow these episodes. Yeah. OK. Well, thank you, lovely woman. We’d better wrap this up before I start to dig into other chapters and keep you here all night, well, all day for you. As our listeners go in and get your book, because I really encourage people to do, do you have a piece of wisdom for parents, a blessing upon us as we open your book? As we read it?
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. And that is that there’s no perfect parent on the planet. And that when you have mucked up moments, it’s because you’re human and that every single one of those times, our kids are learning from you. So I just want you to know that ‘good enough parents,’ who sometimes end up with high quality cereal or a toasted sandwich for dinner, can still raise awesome kids.
I can absolutely say that our job as parents is to raise our kids so that one day they leave home and we really have done such a good job. They don’t need us. We need to make our job to be redundant. And then they can come back later, can’t they, as grown ups. And that’s that transition again.
So remember, your number one thing is, is to love your children fiercely and unconditionally and recognize the unique miracle they are, because there’s only one of that child. And our job is to help create an environment that allows that child to somehow find their voice and their place in the world so they can make our world a better place. That’s their job. How they do it, that really needs to be up to them.
Rachel Cram – Oh, Maggie, thank you so much for that. And I already hear, in your words there, perhaps interview number three is how do we as parents handle it when our children see us as redundant? Because that’s a whole nother painful process to go through, but a part of launching them well. Maggie, I thank you so much for your time and for this conversation. And I look forward to talking to you again.
Maggie Dent – Well, Rachel, I, I just love having these chats with you, and I also know that the good work you do in the world is just modeling. Isn’t it. It’s modeling. And one of my things I keep saying is that if you shine a light for someone else, you actually shine the light back on yourself and the world needs more light right now, it needs more love, it needs more compassion. And you and Roy are doing such a beautiful job. Thank you.
Rachel Cram – And thank you.
Maggie Dent – Love you both. Thank care. Bye.