Viewing entries tagged
emotionally responsive parenting

Second Thoughts About Sleepaway Camp? How to Warm Your Child’s Cold Feet

Last month your child was completely gung-ho about attending sleepaway camp.  But now that the weather’s turning warmer, that enthusiasm might be turning to apprehension.  Doubts, fears, anxieties, and even dread are normal for kids who are going to be away from their parents for a period of time, especially if it’s their first time, and especially if they are introverts.

We’ve got checklists for all the gear our children need at camp, but it’s also helpful to compile a checklist for preparing them emotionally if they are experiencing some cold feet or worries.  It might look something like this.

An Emotion-Prep Checklist for Sleepaway Camp:

  1. Talk directly about feelings.  It’s really unhelpful for parents to dismiss a child’s feelings and say, “You’ll be fine.  You’ll love it!  Don’t worry.”  (Has someone telling you “Don’t worry” made you say “Oh, OK. I hadn’t thought of that.”  Not helpful, right?)  Instead, if you sense your child is having some worries and he’s not bringing them up, you can begin the conversation by saying something like, “Some kids feel nervous about camp as it gets closer.  How are you feeling about it?”  And whether or not your child is initiating the discussion himself, it’s important to really listen and validate those feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them or dismiss them.
  2. Problem-Solve.  Find out what your child’s specific worries are, and then collaboratively problem-solve with her.  Most kids worry about being homesick, but it might surprise you what they are concerned about.  Kids worry whether they’ll like the food, that they won’t be good at the activities, that they’ll wet the bed, and even that their shoes will get wet.  Whatever the worries, it can be helpful to brainstorm together and talk about the “what ifs,” and what she can do in the circumstances she’s thinking about.
  3. Normalize the feelings.  Just knowing that other kids feel that way, too, and that it’s normal to feel worried about doing something that’s different, can be quite helpful.  Talk about a time you stepped outside your comfort zone and how you felt apprehension at first, how you handled your feelings, and how the experience ended up being great. (Make sure to pick a resilient story—no stories about how it ended up being even worse than you could’ve imagined.)
  4. Give kids a strategyor two to help them calm their worries.  One thing you can begin now that will give them tools they can use while they’re at camp is something I use with anxious kids in my private practice.  I give them an assignment that each night, once they are peaceful and relaxed and ready to fall asleep, they should place their hand on their chest (pledge-of-allegiance style).  Only when they’re feeling calm and peaceful.  After doing this every night for a few weeks, the brain makes a connection between the sensation of the hand on the chest and a feeling of calm relaxation.  Then, when the child is feeling worried or upset, he can easily place his hand on his chest wherever he is, and his body will begin to relax and his mind will begin to feel calm. 

    Another strategy is to teach him that while his feelings might feel really wild and stirred up, if he pauses to take a few deep breaths, the worries will settle, allowing him to see clearly again.  The best thing I’ve found to teach this is the “glitter ball” analogy that Susan Kaiser-Greenland created.  You can teach this to your kids by having them watch this super-short video with you.  Then send a glitter ball, or a small snow globe, to camp with your child, explaining that he can shake it up and watch the glitter settle when he’s feeling upset. 

    If you do these two things in the weeks before your child leaves for camp, you can build some skills and empower him with some tools he can pull out when he needs them.  This allows him to avoid becoming a victim to his feelings, but to be able to use his mind to change how he feels.  (You might try some of these tools too, if you are feeling worried about sending your child off!)

This moment is a great opportunity to teach kids that while we should pay attention to our feelings, our feelings shouldn’t rule our worlds.  If you talk, listen, normalize, and strategize, you will be preparing your children to go to camp with the best chance of overcoming their fears and learning something really important about themselves—that they are braver and stronger than they think.  You’ll be doing much more than just prepping them for camp, you’ll be prepping them for life.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Common Misconceptions About Parenting

There are certain “truths” about parenting that we act on without ever really examining them.  Maybe we’ve heard them from someone else, or maybe we’ve just fallen into them over time.  Either way, they spell trouble for our understanding of and relationship with our kids. 

Here are some so-called “truths” about parenting that, when we really think about them, simply aren’t true.

 

It’s all up to me.

Parents often believe that they are solely responsible for their child's success and skill building.  Of course parents have a huge impact on who their children turn out to be, but many other forces are at work as well.  One of the most successful contributors to a child's socialization is in fact her own peers. Some of the behaviors you can't get her to change with months and months of nagging will disappear in one moment if a peer says something about it.  Let her pick her nose once on the playground, and see how long that habit sticks around. So it's not all on you. Do your best, but know that other teachers, other kids, and other relationships will influence how your child turns out as well.

 

If I mess up I’ll mess up my kids.

Parents worry that when we yell or lose our tempers a bit, or when we’re not patient, we’re harming our kids. In fact, as long as we’re repairing with them and apologizing and making things right afterwards, small ruptures are actually valuable experiences that teach kids important lessons about how to handle things when conflict arises in a relationship.  Abuse is obviously different, but to a huge extent, our mistakes with our kids can teach valuable lessons when they’re a part of an overall loving relationship.

 

Child development is linear.

Parents often think that kids grow and develop along a straight line that leads from less mature and capable to more mature and capable.  Actually, development usually happens in spurts, with plenty of steps backwards along the way.  Just when they learn to tie their shoes, you may see them regress in some other emotional or fine-motor skill.  Be patient.  Development will happen, it’s just that you can’t expect it to be consistent and predictable.

 

Kids choose when they behave, and when they don’t.

By the time a child is four or five, he knows the rules for the most part.   For example, when he’s mad, he’s not supposed to hit or call someone “Fart-face Jones.”  But he keeps doing it.  And we think, “Why in the world would he do that?”  The fact is that he does know the rule, but his immature brain prevents him from remaining in control, emotionally, so he’s at least temporarily unable to make good decisions.  So it’s not fair for us to expect him to make good decisions all the time.  Sometimes he’s actually incapable of behaving the way he should.  This means we should be talking to him about his thoughts and feelings that led to the behavior, and not just the behavior itself.  This is also just one more reason not to say, “How many times do I have to tell you . . . ?”

 

It’s now or never.

Avoid fear-based parenting.  Just because she’s acting a certain way now doesn’t mean you have to worry that she’ll act that way forever.  You don’t have to teach every skill and root out every misbehavior today, or even by the end of the week.  Resist the temptation to think, If I don't nip this in the bud right this second my child will become an ax murderer. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to address behaviors and build skills each and every week of your child's life.  So relax a little.

 

Consistency is the key to good discipline. 

Actually, this isn’t a misconception, but it needs to be reframed. Consistent love and clear expectations are the key to good discipline. But too often, consistency gets confused with rigidity. Be willing to make exceptions at times, and even to cut your kids some slack when necessary. Yes, children need to know the rules and see you enforce them in a predictable manner; but as you do so, be sure to consider the context of a situation, like the child’s age and capability, the time of day, whether someone’s hungry, and so on.

 

I shouldn’t negotiate with my child.

It doesn’t make you weak to listen to your child’s point of view.  You can still maintain your authority in the relationship while remaining flexible and open-minded.  Be willing to listen to alternative positions, and to reward your child’s ability to make good arguments to achieve what he wants.  If you’re in the right on a position, hold your ground.  But if your child can convince you that he’s right in this instance, then how much sense does it make to continue to insist that he’s wrong?

 

You can be a parent or a friend.

The problem here is the either-or dichotomy.  Yes, you need to be an authority figure for your kids.  They need that in order to understand how the world works and to feel less chaotic in their lives.  But that doesn’t mean that you two can’t also share all the elements of a strong friendship—like sharing your lives, laughing and celebrating together, and knowing you’ve got each other’s back.

 

When we discipline, we need to explain a lot.

I know that sometimes my kids want to scream, “Please stop talking!”  Especially when they’re in trouble and already understand what they’ve done wrong.  Discipline will be much more effective if we simply address the behavior, along with the child’s state of mind that led to the behavior, then move on.  Too much talking quickly becomes completely counter-productive.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

How to Talk to Your Tween Girl: Keep the connection even after she's done with the kid stuff

I've recently written two articles for mom.me about communicating with tweens.  Here's the one about talking with your pre-teen daughter.

 

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She’s not a teenager yet. But she’s sure not a child anymore, at least in the way she used to be. Just last week her school notebook contained pictures of cute puppies. Now she actually talks about cute boys.

One foot in childhood, one in adolescence. Sometimes sweet and playful, sometimes moody and sensitive. She’s a tween.

How do you talk to her? Here are some suggestions.

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Click here to read the full article.

Click here to read my article about communicating with pre-teen boys.

Overestimating Your Child's Ability to Deal?

We expect so much of our kids, don't we?  But when we misperceive their ability to handle themselves well, we make things hard on everyone involved. That's the gist of my new article at mom.me:

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I hear it from parents all the time.  They’ll come to my office and say, their voices full of frustration, “He’s capable of handling himself well.  He does it at school and usually at home.  But then there are times he just acts so immature and freaks out.”

Sound familiar?  Does to me, too.  In fact, it sounds just like my kids.

And like these parents, I’ll sometimes take the next, seemingly logical, step and assume that the fact that a child can often make good choices and handle herself well, means that she can always do so.

A father in my office last week described his daughter like this:  “She wants things her way.  And if things don’t go her way, she might lose it; and she could clearly make a better choice.  I know she can deal with stuff well, she just chooses not to.”

Again, this can seem like a logical conclusion.  But is it?  In other words, if a child often, or even usually, handles herself well, does that mean that when she doesn’t do so, she’s being manipulative or somehow choosing to make things hard on her parents so she can get her way?

Let’s apply it to ourselves.  Could someone say something similar about you as a parent?  “She’s capable of parenting well.  She does it lots of places, and usually she handles herself great at home.  But then there are times that she just acts so immature and freaks out.”  I don’t know about you, but if someone said that about me, my only response would be, “Guilty as charged.”

But obviously, you and I don’t have bad parenting moments because we’re intentionally acting belligerent so we can get our way.  Manipulation implies that we are calculating.  But when we mess up with our kids, it’s because the emotions get the best of us and we temporarily don’t act like the kind of parents we want to be.

You see the point I’m making.  Just because we parent well lots of times, doesn’t mean we can parent well all the time.  The way we handle ourselves really depends so much on

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Read the whole article here.

Sharing, Taking Turns, and Other Things That Suck

I don't know about your little ones, but mine didn't exactly come out of the womb wanting to share their toys.  Here are some thoughts on the matter. ----------------

I want it!

Give it back!

It’s mine!

Sound familiar? If you have small children, it does.

And, while on the one hand kids love to share and give—they light up when they give a present, for example—self-sacrifice doesn’t come quite so easily.

If you think about it, sharing is actually a pretty complicated social situation. It requires quite sophisticated thinking and emotional intelligence. It demands that we think ahead, consider another person’s desires, balance our emotions and control our impulses. Most adults sometimes struggle with these skills!

RELATED: 8 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tantrums

Sharing is an awful lot to ask of a little one, particularly when we intrude upon what she’s doing in a given moment. When young children have a hard time taking turns or sharing, it's often because they have difficulty handling their big feelings. They don't yet have the skills to say, "I'm sorry, but I’d rather play with these blocks by myself right now.” So instead, they handle the situation their own way. They throw a fit. They grab. They hit. They cry.

Sharing isn’t usually fun. And it’s not easy to do. But as you know, it’s one of the skills children need to learn. So how do we help them develop the ability to share and take turns?

Here are some suggestions:

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Read the rest of the article at mom.me.

7 Ways to Deal With a Toddler's Tantrum

I have a new post up at mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------- I recently wrote about why we should be grateful when our little ones throw a tantrum. But aside from understanding that a tantrum is normal and even healthy, what else can we do when we’re actually in this kind of high-stress moment with our kids? I don't believe parents should ignore a tantrum. When children are truly out of control, that’s when they need us the most. We still need to set clear boundaries, but our response should always be full of love, respect and patience.

Here are seven suggestions for dealing with a toddler’s tantrum:

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View the whole gallery here.

8 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tantrums

Here's a new post on Mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------

Grateful?  Really?

I know what you’re thinking: "File this one under 'You can’t be serious.'”

But I am serious.

Nobody likes a tantrum: not your little one, and certainly not you. But even though we don’t enjoy our kids’ tantrums, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the times when they get the most upset.

For example . . .

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Click here to check out the whole piece.

Should I Use a Leash on My Child?

As you can see here, I recently made a brief appearance on "Good Morning America."  I was asked to share my opinions on whether or not to use a "leash" on a small child.  Only a minute fraction of what I said ended up in the actual segment, so I wrote up my thoughts in an fuller article.  You can read the whole article at Mom.me (where it's already generating a great deal of discussion).  Here's an excerpt from the piece: --------------

You see it at the mall, at the airport, at Disneyland. A small child wears a monkey backpack, and the monkey’s tail is a tether held by the child’s parent. A leash.

Lots of people react pretty strongly against leashes for children. I even hear the practice described as “inhumane.” When I asked a friend about it, his tongue-in-cheek response was, “That’s how you get them to sit and stay.”

In my opinion, a leash is like so many other parenting tools and techniques. It’s not inherently good or bad. What matters is how it’s used: how it’s presented to the child, how and when the parent uses it, what the child’s temperament is, and why the parent is using it.

For example, I can see why a mother of young triplets might use a leash when she takes them to a crowded store. Or why the dad of an impulsive 2-year-old who has a history of bolting might feel the need to use it in airport security because he’s also attending to a 4-year-old. In fact, I’m not sure that a leash in these cases is all that different from buckling kids into a stroller to keep them contained. And, further, it might be a better alternative to what I’ve seen in parking lots, where I sometimes see a parent yanking a child’s wrist in rough ways.

In other words, I understand that in certain situations, a parent may have tried everything and eventually decided that a leash is the best way to protect her child until the child has a little more capacity for thinking and controlling impulses. Some parents are truly afraid for their child’s safety, and that fear is legitimately based on the child’s past behavior. I’ve talked to many caring parents who decided to use some form of a leash when it became a basic safety issue for their overly impulsive child who was, say, 18- to 36-months-old. And some parents feel that this provides them with a basic security that allows them to be more engaged and playful with their child.

However, all that being said, I do have three main concerns about using a restraining device like a leash.

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Click here to read the rest of the article.

 

 

Turn the Page on Conflict

I have a new article up at Mom.me where I talk about what to do when you have trouble letting go after you've had conflict with your child.  It starts like this: --------------

It was a typical morning before school, and we were on schedule. Until things began unraveling when I told my 8-year-old son he was pouring too much salt on his eggs. (We’re not talking a sprinkle or a light dusting. He could’ve cured a ham.)

For whatever reason, my criticism pushed an ugly button with my son, and he stormed out of the room. For the rest of our time before school, he unleashed an increasingly mean-spirited verbal assault that eventually escalated to his saying, “Mom, you are so mean. If I should evencall you a mom.”

Looking back now, I can see the humor in this line. But after the barrage of attacks, I had a hard time letting go of my anger toward my son. When I picked him up from school that afternoon, he was happy and had forgotten about the whole thing. Clearly, he hadn’t been ruminating on our conflict all day. He said, in a cheerful voice, “Can we go get some ice cream?” But I didn’t feel like taking him to get an ice cream. I was still hurt and mad.

Can you identify? Your child rages, maybe throws some verbal missiles your way, deliberately trying to hurt your feelings. Then he calms down. Moves on. All seems well from his point of view. But what if you’re not ready to turn the page?

When you fight with your sister or your spouse, you often end the conflict with apologies, new insight and deeper understanding, and then feel ready to move on. But most kids don’t consistently do this without prompting, so we’re frequently left to do some internal repair work on our own.

How can we move on? How can we let it go?

Here are five tips to help you turn the page.

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Read the rest of the piece here.

20 Discipline Mistakes All Moms Make

Some of you have seen my posts about common discipline mistakes even the best parents make.  Mom.me has just posted a re-working of those ideas as a gallery with pictures.  It begins like this: -------------------

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed moms, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

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View the whole gallery here.

 

 

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time Outs

More and more, I find myself questioning time outs as an effective discipline strategy.  I’ve written some about this already, but now I’d like to go into my reasons in a bit more depth. I know lots of loving parents who use time outs as their primary discipline technique.  I’m not saying that time outs are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative we have when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

 

Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time-Outs:

#1.  What we know about the brain. 

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection, when they’ve made a mistake.

What I DO want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way.  So, instead of a time out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior.  If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully.  If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime.  That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

 

#2.  False advertising and missed opportunities. 

What’s the point or the goal for a time out?  It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior.  In my experience, time outs frequently just make children more angry .  And how often do you think kids use their time out to reflect on their behavior?  I’ve got news for you:  The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy, and problem-solving.  Putting them in time out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out.  We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices.  You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?”  Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

 

#3.  Time outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior.

Usually, we want to choose consequences that are directly and logically connected to the misbehavior.  Using a broom to whack the TV means the broom is put away until the child can make appropriate choices with it again.  Riding a bike without a helmet means no riding for a few days.

Time outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction.  As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

 

#4.  Time outs are too often used as punishment, as opposed to a teaching tool.

Even when parents have good intentions, time outs are often used inappropriately.  The idea behind time outs is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together.  Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time outs punitively.  The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but to punish her for some misbehavior.  The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

 

#5.  Kids need connection. 

Often, misbehavior is a result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling.  She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Like, maybe she’s three, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.”  So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence.  Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already.  It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

 

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting – often called a “time-in” – some time to calm down can be helpful for children.  But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time out.

 

If I Could Tell You Only One Thing about Discipline

Discipline is a complex and complicated subject.  I could write a whole book about it.  In fact, I’ve already started working on one. But when we talk about effective discipline and how parents can achieve the results they want when they interact with their kids, it can actually be it pretty simple.  If it were a math formula, it would look like this:

 

WARMTH  +  AUTHORITY  =  EFFECTIVE DISCIPLINE

 

The research is really clear on this point.  Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, educationally, and relationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced.  Their parents remain firm and consistent in their boundaries, while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion.  Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin.

 

The first side of the discipline coin:  Warmth

When we nurture our children and attune to their internal world, we allow them to know and believe that they are seen, heard, loved, and approved of by their parents.  Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on that belief, so that their brains are wired to expect that their needs will be met in intimate relationships.  On the other hand, if a parent repeatedly shames and criticizes his or her child, then the child learns that relationships are based on power and control.  He will store up all kinds of negative emotions that will be expressed either externally through bullying and aggression, or internally through depression or anxiety, but either way he’ll be forced to seek bigger and bigger ways to get his needs met.  His brain won’t develop in ways that make it easy to problem-solve and reflect on his experiences; instead, he’ll most likely live his life reacting.  He’ll operate from a primitive reactive brain, instead of a thoughtful proactive brain.

It’s absolutely vital that parents nurture their children and do all that they can to offer them love, compassion, and understanding by consistently meeting their needs, even when the kids are difficult and act out with “bad” behavior.

 

The second side of the discipline coin:  Authority

It’s just as vital, though, that parents remain the authority in their relationship with their children.  Kids need boundaries so they can understand the way the world works, and what’s permissible, versus what crosses a line.  A clear understanding of rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives.  Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, flexibly deal with not getting things their way, and contain urges to react aggressively toward others..  By saying “no” and drawing boundaries for our children, we’ll help them know that rules exist that offer safety and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.

 

Discipline as a Two-Step Process

Emotional responsiveness plus authority.  They go hand in hand, and when we discipline, we need to communicate both to our children.  You can think of it as a two-step process that can happen in either order.   You provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone:  “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and I’m sorry, but you broke that rule, so now the skateboard can’t be ridden for the rest of the week.”  And, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences:  “I know that my taking your skateboard away makes you really sad.”  You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m letting you face your consequence because I love you, and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be a responsible person.”

We want our kids to learn that relationships are about respect, nurturing, warmth, consideration, cooperation, and respecting other people.  When we interact with them from a perspective of both warmth and authority – in other words, when we repeatedly pay attention to their internal world, while also holding to standards about their behavior – these are the lessons they’ll learn.

I’ll close by emphasizing the point that was a bit of a revelation to me when I first understood it in relation to my parenting:  It really is possible to be calm and loving, and to connect with our children emotionally, while disciplining them and setting clear boundaries.  I don’t always do it, and neither will you.  But it’s important, and it’s healthy and helpful for everyone involved, when we combine clear and consistent consequences with loving empathy.

 

 

 

 

Common Discipline Mistakes Made by Even the Best Parents: Part 2

  [This is a revision of the second article in a two-part series.  Click here to see the first four mistakes.]

 

Here are more discipline mistakes made by even the best-intending, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

Common Discipline Mistake #5:  We get trapped in power struggles.

Everyone says to avoid power struggles.  But no one seems to tell us what to do once we’ve gotten ourselves into an inevitable one.  And when our kids feel backed into a corner, they instinctually fight back or totally shut down.  So here are three ways to help you get out of those lose-lose power struggles you sometimes find yourself in.

A.  Give your child an out or a choice that allows her to comply with your expectations, while still saving face:  “Would you like to get a drink first, and then we’ll pick up the toys?”  The phrase “It’s your choice” can be a powerful tool to wield, since it gives your child some amount of power, which can often diffuse stand-offs.  So maybe you ask, “Would you like to get ready for bed now and read four bedtime stories tonight, or play 10 minutes longer and read two stories?  It’s your choice.”  (If she chooses fewer stories, it’s a good idea to remind her several times before story-time about her choice.)

B.  Negotiate:  “We’re not really getting anywhere here, are we?  Let’s see if we can figure out a way for both of us to get what we need.”  Obviously, there are some non-negotiable issues, but negotiation isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of respect for your child and his desires.  It teaches him important skills about considering not only what he wants, but also what others want; and it’s a lot more effective in the long run than bullying or simply arguing with him.

C. Ask your child for help:  “Do you have any suggestions?”  You might be shocked to find out how much they are willing to bend and bring about a peaceful resolution to the standoff.  Recently, my 4-year-old HAD to have fruit snacks at 9:30 in the morning.  I told him he could have it after lunch, but he didn’t really like my plan.  He started to whine and flop about, so I interrupted him and said, “I know you’re really sad about not getting the treat now.  Do you have any ideas?”  His eyes got big with excitement and I could see his little cognitive wheels turning.  He called out, “I know!  I can have one now and save the rest for after lunch!”  He felt empowered, the power struggle was averted, and I was able to give him an opportunity to solve a problem.  And all it cost me was allowing him to have one fruit snack.  Not such a big deal.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #6:  We let “experts” trump our own instincts.

By “experts,” I mean authors and other gurus, but also friends and family members who offer well-meaning (It is well-meaning, right?) advice on how to raise your kids. But it’s important that you not discipline your child based on what someone else thinks you ought to do.  So fill your discipline toolbox with information from lots of experts (and non-experts), then listen to your own instincts as you pick and choose different aspects of different approaches that seem to apply best to your situation with your family and your child.

Also, be aware of times you might be disciplining differently because you’re concerned about what someone else will think.  If you need to discipline in public or when others are watching, you might want to pull your child away from the crowd and deal with the situation quietly, or even leave the room, so you won’t be tempted to parent in a way that pleases those watchers.  Instead, you can focus on what your child needs from you in that moment.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #7:  We discipline in response to our habits and our own feelings instead of responding to our individual child in a particular moment.

We all do it from time to time, don’t we?  We let our own feelings and issues override our decision-making about what’s best for our kids.  And we know it’s not fair (though it’s completely understandable) that we lash out at one child because we’re so fed up with his brother who’s been acting up all morning.  Or we explode in anger simply because that’s the way we were parented or we don’t know what else to do.

Practically speaking, there’s no simple solution to this common discipline mistake. What’s called for is for us to reflect on our behavior, to really be in the moment with our children, and to respond only to what’s taking place in that instant.  This is one of the most difficult tasks of parenting, but the more we can do it, the better we can respond to our kids in loving ways.  It can be helpful to consider how our children are feeling when we act in these ways and to take care of ourselves.  Parenting is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting because it requires so much, so much of the time.  Taking care of yourself is an essential part of parenting well.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #8:  We confuse consistency with rigidity.

Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  It doesn’t mean maintaining an unswerving devotion to some sort of arbitrary set of rules.  This means that sometimes you might make exceptions to the rules, turn a blind eye to some sort of minor infraction, or “cut the kid some slack.”

There may be times, then, that we should wait before responding to misbehavior.  For example, when our kids are out of control—when we see that they’re becoming an emotional tsunami —that may not be the best time to rigidly enforce a rule we’d enforce under different circumstances.  When the child is calmer and more receptive, he’ll be better able to learn the lesson anyway.

Recently, for instance, our 4-year-old has been insane at bedtime.  In response to our cajoling he’ll often say something like, “Well, I’ll come find you and kick your eye!” (I often have to hide my smile as his anger and threats end up sounding more funny than ominous.)  We’ve found that our usual strategies—trying to talk to him, offering incentives, redirecting him—haven’t been working.

So two nights ago I tried to simply avoid the situation.  As he began to argue from his bed, I said, “I love you.  Goodnight,” and left the room.  Amazingly, it actually worked!  (Apparently it never crossed the poor little dude’s mind to actually get back up out of bed.)  So then, yesterday, when he was in a great mood, I addressed the situation and told him I didn’t like the way he had been acting at bedtime, and we did some problem-solving.  He went to bed beautifully last night.  We’ll see how tonight goes. . .

In closing, let me emphasize that we’re all going to make mistakes while setting limits for our children.  But if we can discipline with consistent and clear boundaries, and with a high degree of nurturing and respect, then any mistakes we make will be clearly overshadowed by the reliability and love you offer your kids.

[This is a revision of the second article in a two-part series.  Click here to see the first four mistakes.]

 

Knowledge, Instinct, and Self-Understanding: Basic Parenting Tips

There’s plenty of advice available on parenting, but there’s no one Parenting Rulebook that answers all parenting questions.  In fact, it’s helpful to have a handful of different strategies and approaches, and to keep in mind that your approaches should evolve as you mature as a parent, and as you approach each new phase of childhood.  It’s almost always problematic when parents rigidly adhere to any one philosopy. My overall suggestion?  Combine knowledge, instinct, and self-understanding.

 

Knowledge

Knowledge is definitely power, and parents usually find it useful to have a few strategies to help them parent their children.  Simply by reading and talking to other parents, you can arm yourself with all kinds of tools and approaches to help you more easily teach your children and discover a philosophy of parenting you feel good about.

Knowledge is also powerful when it comes to dealing with developmental phases and challenges, from the early newborn days all the way through adolescence.  When a new mother becomes frustrated because her six-week-old is nursing every hour all day long, a part of her may begin to resent the infant because of this loss of freedom.  However, if she were to read a bit about newborns and their growth patterns, she’d discover that during a growth spurt, a baby will often “cluster feed” for a week or two.  An understanding of this important phase in her son’s life can help the mother be much more patient and understanding, even if she continues to feel a bit frustrated about the amount of time she’s spending nursing.

The same would apply to a toddler.  A father can address the tantrums of his two-year-old much more lovingly and effectively if he has an understanding of what this phase means for his daughter (that one of her most important jobs at this age is to discover and assert her own independent self).  Again, his frustration (and even anger) may still be there, but the father can handle those emotions much better if he can understand that his daughter is in the process of claiming her own personhood and testing to what extent she is actually separating from her parents.

The basic idea is that knowledge can help you view parenting struggles as opportunities to know your children better and to help them through difficult times.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t get frustrated; but good information can make all the difference in your perspective.  The more we can understand our children and learn about their process of development, the better prepared we’ll be to guide them along their journey toward healthy adulthood.

 

Instinct

Be wary of any parenting approaches that offer an “all or nothing” mentality or that seem extreme.  Certain “parenting gurus” will present THE ONE WAY to get babies to sleep through the night, THE ONE WAY to change behavior, or THE ONE WAY to get your teenager to make straight-A’s.  But most of the time, moderation and a combination of different approaches produce the best results.  Listen to lots of experts (and non-experts), and then pick and choose different aspects of different approaches that seem to apply best to your situation.

Again, knowledge is power.  But don’t give up your own power to make decisions that are best for your children, yourself, your marriage, and your family.  Gather all the information you can, and then use your common sense and your instincts to make a decision that feels right.  You know your child better than anyone.  Think about how your child might experience the situation and respond to your child’s needs.  Your instincts will usually tell you to respond to your child’s needs, and those instincts are there for a reason—that’s what your child requires most from you:  that you’ll trust that his needs will be recognized and responded to quickly and consistently.

 

Self-understanding

The science from a number of fields shows that parents’ own experiences in their lives strongly influence how they react and parent.  This is a double-edged sword.  Our positive and nurturing experiences influence our parenting, but our negative and painful experiences affect us as well.  The nurturing we’ve received in our lives will be passed on to our children in the way we interact with them.  But the pain we’ve experienced can cause us to react in ways that don’t really make sense, so that we end up parenting in ways that we aren’t really happy with.

For this reason, it’s important that parents do all they can to understand themselves as fully as possible.  Self-awareness can lead to emotional and mental health.  And the more emotionally and mentally healthy you are, the more present you’ll be able to be for your kids, and the more fully you’ll be able to love and nurture them in the everyday moments of life.  (Dan Siegel and I wrote an article about this idea for the PBS series “This Emotional Life.”  Click here to see it.)

Remember, also, to take care of yourself and your marriage and your other relationships.  Avoid focusing so much on parenting well that you neglect your own emotional and physical health.  For your children to fully flourish, they need parents who are flourishing too, nurturing themselves and their relationships.

 

 

Why We Should NOT Ignore a Tantrum -- or -- Where NPR’s Health Blog Missed the Boat

Several people have asked me recently about Shankar Vendantam’s post on NPR’s Health Blog, where he writes about a subject I’ve discussed a good bit: tantrums. In Vendantam’s article, he discusses a recent study that appeared in the journal Emotion, where scientists examined different toddler sounds that typify a tantrum. A couple of objections kept nagging at me when I read Vendantam’s post about Green and Potegal’s science explaining “what’s behind a temper tantrum.” Specifically, I kept wanting to hear less about how parents can “get a tantrum to end as soon as possible” (though I totally understand this desire and have felt this way during many of my own children’s tantrums), and more about how parents can be emotionally responsive and present when their kids are upset. In other words, I wanted a tantrum to be presented not only as an unpleasant experience that parents can learn to manage for their own benefit, but instead as another opportunity to make a child feel safe and loved, which would offer the added benefit that she’ll learn to better express her feelings, and reign those emotions in more quickly and appropriately in the future.

It’s Not Just the What but the How . . .

What we say to our kids is important, right?  The words we choose play a big role as children construct their beliefs about themselves, establish a foundation for their values, and decide how they see the world.  What we say matters. That’s why we’re used to filtering what we say to or in front of our kids.  Sometimes we have an internal dialogue that might include phrases like, “You’re driving me crazy, kid!” or “Are you EVER going to stop crying?” or “I can’t wait until you go to sleep!”; but we know not to say these things out loud to our kids.  We’re also aware that we should avoid talking about inappropriate subjects in front of our kids, so we wait until they’re asleep before we tell our spouse about how our neighbor’s house was robbed or about the latest community scandal.

We pause and make a decision about what we say before we share things with our children. We do this because we know that what we say matters and has an impact on them.

But just as important as what we say is how we say it.  Imagine that your three-year-old isn’t getting into her carseat.  Here are a few different how’s for saying the exact same what:

  • With clenched teeth, squinted eyes and a seething tone of voice: “Get in your carseat.”
  • With eyes wide, big gestures, and an angry tone of voice, you yell: “GET IN YOUR CARSEAT!!!”
  • With a relaxed face and a warm tone of voice: “Get in your carseat.”
  • With a wacky facial expression and a goofy voice “Get in your carseat.”

You see what I mean.  The how matters.

And even the words we choose are part of how we communicate an idea.  For example, at bedtime you might use a threat:  “Get in bed now or you won’t get any stories.”  Or you could say, “If you get in bed now, we’ll have time to read.  But if you don’t get in bed right away, we’ll run out of time and have to skip reading.”  The message is the same, but how it’s said is very different.  It has a different feel.

Both ways model for them ways of talking to others.  Both ways are setting a boundary.  Both ways deliver the same message.  But imagine for a moment someone saying each to you.  Which one would you prefer to hear?  How would you respond differently to each?

Just like we pause and make a decision about what we say to our children, we should pause and make a decision about how we say things to them.

It’s the how that determines what our children feel about us and themselves, and what they learn about treating others.  Plus, the how goes a long way towards determining their response in the moment, and how successful we’ll be at helping produce an outcome that makes everyone happier.

 

 

 

 

Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums

Summary Bullets:

  • A child’s tantrum may originate in the upstairs brain, meaning the child is in control and is using the moment to intentionally achieve a desired end.  In moments like these, parents should respond with love, but set clear boundaries and avoid rewarding manipulative behavior.
  • If, however, the tantrum originates in the more primal downstairs brain, and the child is truly out of control, then the parents’ response should be less about setting boundaries, and more about nurturing the child and guiding him back into a state of calm and control.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you may have heard me talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain.  Or maybe you’re read about the concepts here, where I help you teach the basic information to your kids.

Right now I want to apply that information in a way that can help us deal with one of the most unpleasant parenting issues we all face:  the dreaded tantrum.

 

The Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain

The basic idea is that we can think about our brain as a house, with a downstairs and an upstairs.  The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose.  Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they’re responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).

Your upstairs brain, on the other hand, handles much more sophisticated thinking.  It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts—particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex.  In other words, it is literally the higher (and thus upstairs) part of your brain.  This is where more complex mental processing takes place, like thinking, imagining, and planning.  Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking.  Because of its sophistication and complexity, it is responsible for producing many of the characteristics we hope to see in our kids:

  • Sound decision-making and planning
  • Control over emotions and body
  • Self-understanding
  • Empathy
  • Morality

In other words, a child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being.

Two Different Tantrums

What does all this have to do with tantrums?  Well, when your child begins to throw a fit of some sort, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether it’s an upstairs tantrum or a downstairs tantrum.

An upstairs tantrum originates in the upstairs brain, and this is the strategic tantrum.  Here the child is control of himself and is willfully and manipulatively acting upset to achieve a desired end:  to get a toy he wants, to stay at the park longer, whatever.  He is purposefully employing tactics to get things his way.

When you see an upstairs tantrum, in the words of Tina Fey, “Shut it down!”  Do not give in.  Your child is in control of himself and is trying to make your life so unpleasant at this moment that you choose to do something other than what you’ve already decided is best.  Never negotiate with a terrorist.  You should still be nurturing and respectful to your child, but your primary response should be to set and maintain a boundary.

If, however, you determine that your child is undergoing a downstairs tantrum, your response should be much more nurturing and sympathetic.  If he’s so upset that he’s legitimately and honestly out of control, then he needs you in this moment.  When you determine that he’s unable to regulate his emotions and actions, then it’s unjust to punish him or try to discipline him.  If you ignore him when he’s in this emotional distress state, it’s like ignoring him when he’s physically in distress.

If his downstairs brain has taken over, he can’t remain calm and make good decisions, no matter how much you demand that he do so.  Even if you give him what he wants, he’ll continue to lose his mind.  In that instant, your job is to use a soothing voice and nonverbals (like touch and empathetic facial expressions) to help bring him back from the emotional precipice so he can regain control of himself.  Then, once he’s calm, you can talk to him about making good choices, and you can handle whatever disciplinary issues you need to address once he’s recovered and it’s actually a teachable moment.  While you’re still going to maintain boundaries, your main emphasis in these moments is comfort.

 

The Point:  Remain Flexible, Providing Both Boundaries and Nurturing

The point here is not to get rigidly locked into one response for every tantrum.  Instead, do what’s most loving.  I know, I know.  People always say that the proper way to address a tantrum is to ignore it.  But if it’s an upstairs tantrum, you should directly address the inappropriate way your child is communicating, and if it’s a downstairs tantrum, he may need you to help him calm down and pull it together.  You’ll need to employ boundaries and nurturing in both cases, but if your child is still in control, emphasize boundaries; and if he’s lost control, emphasize comfort.  Even though it can be challenging, try to look beyond how difficult your child is making things for you in this moment, and provide him with what he most needs right now—clear communication about where the boundaries are, and lots and lots of love.

Is Over-Scheduling Really a Problem for Kids?

People talk a lot about the dangers of the over-scheduled child.  Kids doing too many activities become tired and grumpy.  They don’t have time to spend with their family.  They get burned out and begin to dislike whatever activity the parent was hoping they would embrace.  They don’t have time to just play and be kids. Before I had my own children, all of this made sense to me.  That’s why I decided that my kids would participate in only one activity at a time.  If they wanted to take a dance class, that’s all they’d do until the class was over.  If they wanted to play a sport, they wouldn’t be involved in anything else until the end of the season.  I wasn’t going to have my kids dealing with all the problems facing over-scheduled children.

That was before I had kids of my own.

Then my first son came along, and I was giddy with all the opportunities available to him, and all of his many different interests, all of which increased with each passing year.  Especially once he entered elementary school, I quickly came to see that my one-activity-at-a-time commitment was going to be tested.  My husband and I wanted him to learn piano.  He wanted to be involved in Cub Scouts with his friends from school.  Plus, it was immediately apparent that his passion was athletics.  He wanted to play every sport in season.

Piano.  Scouts.  Sports.  Add in playdates, homework, family outings, and “unstructured play time,” and how were we supposed to fit all of that in?  And he was just our first child!  We now have three, all with their own opportunities and passions.

These days, as my oldest approaches adolescence, I still believe that over-scheduling kids really is a legitimate concern.  Children can become anxious and pressured and miss out on the benefits of boredom, down time, and the freedom of childhood.  But I no longer believe that all kids shouldn’t participate in multiple activities.  My kids are involved in all kinds of things, and sometimes I do worry that they’re doing too much.

But having spent a few years trying to strike a healthy balance in terms of my kids’ activities, I now believe that “over-scheduled” can be extremely variable from one child to the next.  And one family to the next.  Most kids love to be active, and as long as it’s healthy to do so, we want to feed their passions and take advantage of good opportunities, even if it means a tighter schedule for the family.

That being said, though, here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re worried your child might be a doing a bit too much:

  • Does my child seem tired or grumpy a lot of the time?
  • Does my child show signs of being under pressure or anxious?  Is my child stressed out?
  • Is my child so busy that he or she doesn’t have unstructured time for playing, being bored, having family time, and being creative?
  • Is my child’s schedule so full that he or she doesn’t have time to just hang out with friends?
  • Are there so many activities happening that we’re too busy to eat dinner together regularly?  (You don’t have to eat every meal together, but if you’re rarely eating together, that’s a concern.)
  • Are you yourself so busy and stressed getting your kids to all their activities that a majority of your interactions with your children are reactive and impatient?

Answering “yes” to any of one of these questions should give you pause.  If you said yes more than once, then I’d recommend that you give some serious thought to whether your child is signed up for too many activities.

Notice that I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t have to do things they don’t enjoy.  You may decide that a foreign language or music class or math tutoring is something that will pay off and is in their best interest.  But, do look overall at how much your child is enjoying their days and weeks, and the emotional, physical, and mental toll that their activities take on their sleep, friendships, and happiness.  Think about how stressed you feel when you have too much on your plate, and consider things from your child’s point of view.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to figure out everything all at once.  Just think about one season at a time.  If the summer is coming up, then just decide about summer activities.  You can reassess when it’s time to think about the fall, then again in the winter.  Assess each new season for each child.

Here’s what it comes down to:  Is your child happy and thriving and enjoying life without a lot of stress?  If so, don’t worry too much about whether she’s over-scheduled.  If you don’t observe the above signs of over-scheduling, then most likely, she’s simply active, growing, and happy.