Want to become a better parent? That’s the question the Family5 App asks, and well, yes…
As the mother to a two year old who is every bit as terrifyingly stubborn as I am (oh, the irony), there isn’t a day that I don’t wonder how I could have handled a tantrum, meltdown, or exhausting string of “but WHY?” just a little better. She is disturbingly unaffected by time outs, threats and bribery, and I get the very unsettling feeling that she already knows I am at her mercy in most situations. Do I want to become a better parent? Better make that a hell yes.
So, the thought of an app that acts as a pocket parenting coach seems too good to be true. But that’s exactly what Family 5 is, and since it’s created by a team of industry experts using evidence-based research, it’s not pie in the sky. With personalisation options that will tailor the app to your children’s ages, sections to help you deal with ‘situations’ (that’s the polite way of putting it), plan activities, and even remind you to put your phone down, this really is as good as it sounds.
Stephanie Wicker is a childhood advocate – don’t worry, we asked her to explain exactly what that is – and one of Family 5’s contributors. After over a decade working with children and families, as well as a wealth of experience as a foster parent, she knows what parents and children need help with. And that help is on hand – in the palm of it, to be precise – thanks to Family 5.
“The way that we speak to ourselves is often the way that we speak to our kids”, Stephanie tells us. And this is where things can unravel. “When you have a 10-year-old spit in your face, let me tell you, it’s hard”, she tells us. But “I have to be the parent. I have to be adult in this situation. And I think sometimes that’s very very difficult when we’re busy taking things personally.”
We spoke to Stephanie about how to deal with meltdowns, where parents are going wrong, and what we can do about it.
Family5 is a next-generation parenting companion providing mums and dads with inspiration, advice and support to help get the most out of family-time, while supporting crucial cognitive and non-cognitive child development. The Family5 app is available to download now from the App Store and Google Play.
You describe yourself as a ‘childhood advocate’. Can you tell us what that means?
Yes! After working with children and their families for the past 15 years, as an early childhood educator, then as a children’s therapist, and now as a private consultant, I have found that most parents go into the conversation willingly. They want to be more gentle. They want to be more calm, but what often gets in the way is their unrealistic expectations of their child’s behaviour.
So when children are acting out, as soon as we go into blame mode, as soon as we go, “Why are you so frustrating? Why don’t you just listen?” Then our brain starts to define it as a stressful event. Most of the time parents are holding expectations – they have a picture in their head of what their child would be like and what that relationship would be like, and their child isn’t meeting that picture. They’re not meeting that fantasy of this perfect five-year-old that they’d always imagined for themselves. And that’s the challenge, isn’t it?
So as a behavioural advocate, what I do is I explain to parents why their children behave the way that they do, why these things are so challenging, why our brain defines it as something to defend ourselves against, rather than to support them fully.
We take behaviour so personally, so that simple realisation of, “Hang a second, my child is behaving developmentally appropriately. This behaviour is supposed to happen. They’re supposed to be defiant. Wow. Okay.” – our brain then goes into acceptance mode. And that’s when we’re able to actually process things, and to change our strategies in order to get the results that we want.
One of the features of the Family 5 app is a section called ‘situations’ which helps parents to deal with that behaviour. Can you tell us about that?
So as one of their content providers, the situations section is my cup of tea. That’s where you’ll find me the most. So for example, maybe my child is struggling to self-regulate because they broke their Lego tower, and they’re so upset. They went from zero to a hundred and there’s no comforting them. And I think what often happens in these situations is parents feel overwhelmed, and they feel a bit disheartened as well. So through this section of the app, first off we can understand why these behaviours are happening. And I think that’s probably the most important part, because without an understanding, we’re going to go into it with judgment, whether we’re judging that child or ourselves. “I’m dropping the ball, I’m inadequate. That’s what my child is so angry all the time.”
So the first thing that the app does is it explains why this behaviour is happening to allow parents to make a shift in their decisions. Then the next thing is, what do we do about it? So now that we understand that your child’s brain is still developing, they’re still growing their upstairs brain that helps them regulate all of the executive functioning skills that are so important to us. They’re kind of our priority, but often children don’t even have these skills yet, but once we can understand that we can go, “Okay, if my child is still developing this level of understanding in their regulation, how can I help? Where’s my role now as a parent and as a carer?” So that’s when it’s like, “All right, how do I fix it? What do I do?”
From there, once we have a strategy in place, then we can explore it together as a team, rather than suppressing it, rather than putting your child in isolation. Rather than manipulating them, let’s actually encourage them and empower them through a conversation. So once we have that, then we go into the ‘why’ this works. Because when we understand things at a deeper level we’re much more likely to use it.
Is the app designed to be used in the heat of the moment, or more so to help you reflect on a situation after it’s occurred?
I think it’s going to vary for each parent. The functionality of the app is so diverse. For some parents, they are able to pause and to regulate their own responses. And this would be the perfect time to say, “I’m going to open up the app, get a quick strategy. Okay. I know what to do.” Other parents, they don’t have that self-awareness – not that that’s a bad thing. It takes practice. It takes time to develop them. So for those parents, I think a lot of the times it will be, “I reacted and I regret it. Now I’m going to go develop my skills through the app. Thank goodness I have this so I can learn for next time.”
For parents who are still isolating or in lockdown, do you think that Family 5 is a useful tool for this time?
Yes. So another favourite feature of mine is the activity section. My husband and I are registered foster carers in New South Wales. So we have different age children in our home every couple of months. Right now we are allocated an eight-year-old, a nine-year-old and a twelve-year-old. Two out of three of them are high needs. And that means that we have to be creative. We have to be adaptable and flexible with these kids because their needs vary, and they all have different personalities and different interests. And what I used to do before I found Family 5 was waking up at 4:00 AM to journal, have my coffee, have my sanity time, and then basically plan out our day – what activities do we want to do with the kids?
And it was okay if we deviated from the plan, but at least we had structure and a backbone in case we needed it – things to fall back on in case the kids needed that extra level of support. And we’d be able to recognise it very quickly if they did. But this is what I do – I mean, I’ve been working with kids for over 15 years, so I found it most benefited my husband, because he was able to jump on his iPad and within 20 seconds he would have three different activity ideas that he could now do with the kids.
What can parents do if they feel like they might need some more personalised advice, or they’re dealing with a recurring issue?
While Family 5 is wonderful for general advice and for broad tips, some families do need that individualised touch and that’s where a lot of the extra expert contributors actually come in. So for example, I work one-on-one with families. I don’t do any group programs, I just work one-on-one, because I think that’s where the magic really happens. So what’s wonderful is Family 5 actually links people to their favourite experts. “Oh, I love what this girl said about this and how can I look her up?” And then they can get in touch with me directly and we can work together from there. And that’s another bonus that as far as I know, is quite unique to Family 5. So if someone does need that extra level of support, it’s readily available to them and very easy to find.
In your experience what do you think is the most challenging age for kids?
I think that my answer is going to be very biased because I was an early childhood educator for over 10 years before working in children’s therapies. So because of that, I am really drawn to younger kids, toddlers, three-year-olds, four-year-olds. They’re called the terrible twos and there’s some pretty crass names for four-year-olds. But the truth is, that is the most exciting time because every day is a new lesson. Every day you can see them learning and growing and yes, while they’re figuring out their identity and their capability, they do push our buttons, but it’s ultimately my favourite age.
That being said, as a foster parent, we have different age groups coming in and out all the time. So, we have to be prepared for whatever comes through that door. And I have found the trickiest age is probably around 12 and 13, because first off, they already have a lot of thinking patterns and thought processes that are established. And we only have a couple of months with these kids which means that our opportunity to create impact and influence in their emotional intelligence, in their cognitive development, is a small window. And I think that’s probably why we find that to be the most challenging age because they’re set in their ways, but they’re still going through those huge hormonal shifts and those developmental stages.
It can be very difficult to help children feel a sense of continuity because they’ve never experienced it before. So opening up and trusting the adults in their life is actually quite difficult for them to do, so we have to be extra creative, really think outside the box, put ourselves in their shoes.
What's been the most challenging thing about parenting?
Being able to put yourself in your child’s shoes, having that willingness to think how they’re thinking, and to feel how they are feeling. That goes against everything that our brain is designed to do. Our brains are very egocentric. Our brains are very survivalist. And we think about ourselves, we put ourselves first, and that absolutely impacts our relationship with children. And the way that it does is more often than not parents see children as an extension of themselves. So being able to put themselves in their own shoes almost is actually quite difficult because they think they already have a firm understanding of why their child is doing this.
We think very differently of our spouse. We’re very quick to listen to them when they’re upset or crying, we comfort them. But with our kids, it’s “What is wrong with you? Go to your room until you be nice.” Right? Right, so we don’t have the empathy. And I think that a lot of that comes from first off having unrealistic expectations. But secondly, because we see children as an extension of ourselves, and the way that we speak to ourselves is often the way that we speak to our kids. So I think that that’s probably one of the biggest challenges.
Now for my husband and I, of course it looks different, because they’re not our biological kids. That being said, when you have a 10-year-old spit in your face, let me tell you, it’s hard. And to be able to go, “I’m just going to pause here for a second. I’m not going to respond. I’m not going to make a face. I’m not going to complain to my husband. I’m just going to wait a second. All right. Now let’s talk about it.” I have to pause first because if I’m escalated then that child is not going to de-escalate, so I have to be the parent. I have to be adult in this situation. And I think sometimes that’s very very difficult when we’re busy taking things personally. So that’s a long answer to a short question!