An interview with Nettie Cullen.

7 Ways to Emotionally Equip Your Child  

As New Zealand families continue to navigate the new normal of life amidst Covid19, each day brings new questions about the future. Here, Auckland-based psychologist Nettie Cullen gives parents seven simple strategies to help alleviate anxiety in young children.  


On having a healthy attachment with your child …

“An attachment relationship between a parent and child isn’t about being available to our child physically 100% per cent of the time. It’s about being able feel connected, even though we might not be physically together. And it’s about validating a child’s feelings – reassuring your child that it’s okay to feel emotions such as sadness and that this relationship is intact.” 

Try this at home: “If you have a task to complete or are working from home and your child cries for your attention, say to them,

“I’m here working and I can’t be with you right now, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you and I will be with you [at whatever the time is].”

It’s useful for children to have a “bridge” – the knowledge that at a particular time you’ll be with them. Validate by acknowledging that they’re sad – and so are you – but that both of you can tolerate the sadness and that everything will be okay.” 

On why tuning in to a child’s needs is vital…

“Kids – especially young children – are sensitive. They feel things on a primitive and emotional level. They’ll sense that something’s up, even if they don’t necessarily have the words to talk about it. We want them to make sense of those differences with us, not to be left on their own to try and make sense of that in their own heads. Because if they do that, they’ll often get more anxious or distressed. What they need is reassurance and to be confident that the people who are there to look after them, have got it under control.”

Try this at home: “To tune in to what your child might be thinking or feeling, even if they’re not necessarily talking about it, look in the eyes of your child, and ask them a couple questions to show you’re listening to them.” 


On why you should be mindful of your own emotional state….

“As we often say in mental health, if the parents are okay, the kid’s okay. If a caregiver’s upset or distressed, they need to do what they can do to look after themselves so that then they’re in the best position you can be to look after their kids. A parent’s anxiety can spill over, especially if it’s intense.” 

Try this at home: “When being mindful of how you are feeling, identify actions that will help alleviate stress, such,  “Okay, I need to look after myself. I need to connect with a good friend.” Or, “I need to have some time out”. Do whatever it is you need to do so that you can then be strong and confident for your child.”


On how to support your child with more than words…

“Research suggests that newborns can feel distress and contentment and by the time they turn one year old they exhibition joy, anger, sadness and fear. But they don’t know how to cope until later. We want children to know that it’s normal to have difficult, painful or uncomfortable feelings but we can work through them together. And touch is a great way to provide reassurance. Children are intuitive and they’re connecting on that primitive emotional level. A baby or young child can’t be spoiled by touch – studies show that children that receive physical affection from their parents are less likely to be anxious as adults.”

Try this at home: “If your child is acting out because of challenging conditions, say to them, “Yeah, mummy’s finding this time really difficult too. But it’s okay because we’re going to get through this and there’s things that we can do to manage it.” Use eye contact, give them a cuddle or hold their hand.”


On controlling the narrative …

“Parents can’t control everything. That’s one of the things we face again and again. But wherever possible, we want to be gatekeepers of the information that our kids are exposed to, especially when they’re little.  As much as mum or dad would like to be in complete control of what the kids are exposed to, they can’t be.” 

Try this at home: “Don’t just have the TV or radio on because then you have no opportunity to regulate information that you’re child’s exposed to. Be mindful of language when you’re on calls and when you’re in earshot of young children.  “


On screen time’s benefits…

“At the moment screen time is a babysitter for many parents. It is not necessarily the big bad. In fact, screen time can be a useful in moderation – as long as we balance screen time with other activities.” 

Try this at home: “Consciously put away all devices in the house for periods throughout the day and opt for an activity such as music, dancing, creativity and physical activity; cooking something in the kitchen or digging something in the garden.”  


On building structure into your day…

“Rhythm, routine and structure are good for human beings, not just for children. When we’ve got a structure and routine, there’s less of the unknown and less of the uncertainty and therefore there’s less anxiety, because it’s kind of like a bit of a scaffolding, if you like. It kind of helps contain things so we can feel safe.”   

Try this at home: “Set up a general family schedule with pictures that reflects the rhythm of your day: meals, tea times, rest times. And make a list of things that we need to get through week to week; day to day.” 


About Nettie: 

Mother to four children, Nettie Cullen is an Auckland based registered psychologist with over twelve years’ experience. While working with Psychodynamic, Cognitive Behavioural, Solution-Focused and Family Systems therapies, Nettie is especially passionate about attachment parenting and takes a holistic approach: physically, spiritually, relationally and socially.