Solving Sleep Problems: Key Principles for Helping Your Child Become a Good Sleeper

Nine-month-old Lilah, previously a great sleeper, has started to protest when her mom puts her down to sleep.  She wakes up multiple times at night. She won’t fall back to sleep unless she gets a bottle that she scarfs down. 

Three-year-old Amir insists on an endless litany of demands at bedtime—2, then 3, then 4 more books, placing his cars in a specific order on his shelf, getting his blankets on “just right”. Even when his parents acquiesce, it’s never enough. He still flips out when they say they are leaving and it’s time for him to go to sleep. When they finally put a monkey lock on Amir’s door to keep him from leaving his room after lights-out, he gets them in the jugular by shouting things like: “It’s illegal to ignore your child!” 

Sleep challenges come in all shapes and sizes. And, like most childrearing challenges, a one-size-fits-all approach to help children become good sleepers does not exist. Every child and family is different. The underlying cause of the trouble can vary significantly from one scenario to another. One child struggles with separation anxiety; another tests limits; another doesn’t know how to fall asleep on his own. That’s why general prescriptions don’t work. In fact, they can lead to more frustration for parents when the suggested plan does not feel comfortable for them or doesn’t work for their child. Instead, what I have found most useful is to provide parents with a set of guiding principles to develop their own path to help their child (and themselves!) get a good night’s sleep. These are not solutions to specific sleep challenges, but rather overarching strategies and mindset shifts that empower you to come up with an approach that meets your child’s and family’s needs.  

Guiding Principles

Sleep is just another limit in a long list of limits you will have to set to help your child thrive. By now, most of you have probably read the myriad articles in popular media about the critical importance of sleep for all areas of healthy functioning. It is helpful to keep this in mind, because, if your child is like most I know, she will not go down without a fight. This is especially true if a pattern has been set in which your child has been dictating the plan when it comes to sleep (6 books, 10 kisses, mommy sleeping in the room, etc.). In order to set and enforce the clear limits kids need to learn to sleep independently, you will need to keep reminding yourself that limits are loving, even in the face of your child’s protests (I don’t feel safe! I’ll never go to sleep if you don’t lay with me!) and even some vomit. (More on that later.) For most parents, this requires changing the voice in your head that tells you that it is harmful for your child to be unhappy or distressed at times and that you must be doing something wrong and hurtful if they are upset. It is, in fact, a gift to help your child learn this important skill. One of the hardest and most confusing aspects of parenting is that what feels “right” and loving is sometimes not what your child actually needs to thrive.

Learning to sleep independently is a skill. And, like for most of us, learning any new skill entails some period of discomfort before we master it. None of us would have learned to ride a two-wheeler if our parents had never let go and allowed us to experience the wobbling (and occasional fall) that leads to learning to balance on our own. The same is true when it comes to sleep. Most children experience some stress when learning this skill. But the only way to master it is by working through it—experiencing that even though they feel they can’t survive without a parent next to them helping them go to sleep, they can actually soothe themselves and are okay on their own. This is what we consider “positive” stress—discomfort that is not detrimental but that leads to growth. 

It was, of course, painful for Amir’s parents to hear his screams and protests when they erected the boundary to help him stay in his room at bedtime. But three days later, when they woke up and saw that everyone in the house had gotten a good night’s sleep, and that Amir was as happy as could be (and not holding the grudge they feared), they realized that it wasn’t just Amir who needed to live through a challenge to see he could master it.
It’s all about associations. In order to make sense of this big, complex world, children are constantly trying to put two and two together. It starts in the earliest months of life when babies stop crying when they hear their parent’s voice coming closer. They have learned that this sound means care is coming and they calm down. By nine months, they reach their arms up in the air because they have learned that this results in a trusted caregiver picking them up. When it comes to sleep, if children associate falling asleep with being fed, held in someone’s arms, rocked, or with someone laying right beside them, they come to depend on these experiences to doze off. So, in the middle of the night, when they wake up due to natural sleep cycle fluctuations, they need the parental support they are used to in order to fall back to sleep. Changing these associations means going through a period of discomfort until the child experiences that he can survive not being rocked or fed, and that he can fall asleep on his own. That is why the key to an effective strategy is often having the parent to whom the child has a less strong association around sleep carry out the plan. If mom is nursing, it is less stressful to have dad be the last one the baby sees before being put in the crib and the person who appears in the middle of the night. The baby doesn’t associate dad with being soothed at the breast—she doesn’t smell the milk on him—and thus, tends to protest less. It is also a good idea to provide some space between feeding and putting your baby down in order to disconnect going to sleep from being fed. This is exactly the plan we put in place for baby Lilah that had her sleeping through the night again within four days.
Less is more. When devising a sleep strategy, keep in mind that the more you emotionally and physically engage with your child after lights-out, the harder it will be for her to settle herself. Interaction = stimulation, which makes it harder for children to get back to a calm place. (Think about what it’s like for you. If, in the middle of the night, you roll over to adjust the blankets and your partner starts talking to you, you are now more fully awake and it’s harder to fall back to sleep.) Further, engagement in the middle of the night is confusing to children. Kids do best when expectations are clear: daytime is for interaction, play, cuddling, etc. Nighttime is for sleep—the time when bodies and minds need to be quieted and calm in order to grow big and strong. So, it is preferable to peek into a room to whisper a loving mantra to a child from the doorway (“Goodnight, sleep tight, everything is alright, I love you”) and then leave, instead of making physical contact by holding or rocking a child. It will feel awful when he starts crying out for you to come back—how could it not? That’s when you have to keep reminding yourself that while he wants connection with you, engagement at this time is not helping him adapt to the fact that nighttime is for sleep, not interaction. This is another example of how what feels right and loving is actually counter to what your child needs.

Be sure that the plan you come up with is one you can actually implement. Some parents decide that going cold turkey is the best approach. They say goodnight. They put up a gate, if necessary, to provide a boundary so the child is unable to keep coming out of the room. And they don’t come back until morning no matter how hard their child protests. Others know there is no way they would be comfortable with this plan and instead decide to take a more incremental approach; for example, sitting by the child’s bed and then each night moving the chair further back until the parent is out of the room. (Be mindful that while this latter approach might feel more loving, it can actually be more stressful for both the child and parent. Having mom or dad in the room presents a major stimulus for a child at a time when he is supposed to be calming himself to sleep. In this situation, most children will keep bidding for their parent’s attention which is very hard for most moms and dads to resist. So, you can see how this plan could backfire.) 

There is not a right or wrong plan. What’s most important is that you can enforce the limits you are setting. For example, telling a child to stay in his room is useless because you can’t actually make him do that. If he can leave the room at will, he is in control. That is where a gate or monkey lock can be very useful. While it may feel uncomfortable to erect this boundary, it is much more loving than engaging in the ugly tug of war that tends to take place when children repeatedly come out of their rooms after bedtime.
It’s all in the way you execute it. There’s a big difference between taking a harsh and threatening approach than a loving and empathic one. Threatening, “If you don’t stay in your room, we will put up a gate to make you stay in there!” engages the child’s negativity and defiance. This is the perfect set-up for a protracted power struggle. But if you explain calmly and matter-of-factly: “The rule at bedtime is you stay in your room so you can calm your mind and body to sleep. If you choose to come out, we will escort you back and put up our friend ‘Mr. Gate’ who helps you stay in your room.” It is important and helpful to acknowledge your child’s experience of this change; that you fully understand that she may not like the new rule, and that’s okay, you don’t expect her to. But you will still be setting this limit because it’s your job as a parent to keep her healthy and safe. The key is to avoid trying to talk your child into accepting the limit as that puts her in the driver’s seat. She knows you are dreading the tantrum and will do anything to head it off. When you let your child know that it’s okay if she doesn’t like the rule and that you are not afraid of her melting down, it diffuses the power of the protest. (For more on setting clear and enforceable limit, check out this blog.)
Let your child know exactly what the plan will be. Children thrive when they know what to expect. Devise a plan that you feel is loving and appropriate, and that you can follow through on no matter how much push-back you get. Then, clearly lay it out for your child. If/when he protests any part of the plan, you reiterate that you fully understand his perspective—that he doesn’t like a three-book limit or that daddy isn’t going to fall asleep next to him. And that’s okay. He doesn’t need to like it but you will still be following through on it. Expect that it will get worse before it gets better. Many kids up the ante to see if their parents are really going to stick to the limits. But once they see that you are not changing your mind, the adaptation and coping begins. 

This was the basis of the plan we put in place for Amir. His parents laid out what the bedtime routine would be. They baked in a set amount of time for him to arrange his room the way he likes it. They let him know what would happen if he came out of his room and role-played it with him—a great strategy whenever putting in place a new limit. It helps kids experience what the new plan will feel like; and, it’s fun, which takes some of the tension out of what are usually stressful encounters. The role-playing also had benefits for Amir's parents who felt better-equipped to actually implement the plan in the heat of the moment.

Whatever plan you come up with, what’s most important is that you are loving, clear and consistent. When your child is losing it he needs you to be his rock and stay loving and present even in the face of his protests and vitriol. When the rules keep changing it causes confusion: children don’t know what to expect, or where the boundaries are. They keep testing to see where the porous, “gray” area is that they can exploit. Remember, children are strategic, not manipulative–they’re trying to get you back in their room, not to drive you crazy. So, take the time you need to develop a plan that you feel you can implement. Play out all the possible scenarios in your head and be sure you feel ready to maintain the limit no matter how hard your child protests. Otherwise, you are more likely to cave and the cycle continues.

Common Challenges
The following are typical scenarios parents face around sleep and ways to address them:

  • Your baby is able to sleep through the night but then starts waking up and is only soothed by a bottle. He gulps the whole thing down, making it seem like he needs it. Just because a child drinks many ounces in the middle of the night doesn’t mean he physically needs it. Food is comforting. I would strongly suggest refraining from feeding after bedtime if your child can go through the night as this can quickly turn into a physical craving if his system gets used to ingesting calories during the night. It becomes a habit that is hard to break. The general rule for when babies are physically able to take in enough nourishment during the day to go eight hours at night without eating is when they are four months and 14 pounds. Consult your child’s health care provider for guidance on what to expect for your baby.

  • Your child throws up from crying. I know this is going to sound heartless, but I find the best way to eliminate this behavior is to give it as little attention as possible. Quietly and gently change your child and put her back in bed with minimal engagement. This prevents her from associating vomiting with interaction. If you make a big deal about it and then bring her into your bed or lay down with her, she puts two and two together and, voila, the vomiting is reinforced as a successful strategy for engaging you. This goes in the category of things that feel mean but are actually loving.

  • Your child throws his lovey out of the crib. Again, as heartless as this may feel, if your child knows this tactic will result in your returning to her after lights-out, it confirms this as a successful strategy and is thus, reinforced. Let your child know that she has two great choices: if she keeps her lovey in bed with her, she gets to have lovey all night with her. If she chooses to throw lovey out, she will have lovey in the morning. Remember, children learn to make good choices by experiencing the logical consequences of their actions. 

  • Your child has an endless list of tasks he has to do before he can go to sleep.  Your child wants to arrange the toys on the shelf just-so, closing the closet door exactly the right amount, etc. Just when you think he is satisfied, he conjures up one more task. In this case, I suggest baking into the bedtime routine a few minutes during which he can organize things the way he likes them. When time is up, it’s lights-out and you leave. If he is really desperate to make more changes, he is free to do that on his own. You really can’t stop him unless he’s still in a crib. The key is that it no longer serves as a delay tactic. Miraculously, the desperation to do more organizing evaporates when it no longer results in parental attention.

  • Waking up in the middle of the night. I suggest going through the same steps you used at bedtime. Repetition enhances learning and builds new associations. When your child awakens and calls for you in the middle of the night, pop your head in one time, say the mantra, and leave. If you do this consistently, your child comes to associate the mantra with your love and serves as a reminder that all is well. I discourage going back in repeatedly because we find children get very focused on waiting for their parents' return instead of calming themselves back to sleep.

When it comes to these kinds of tricky scenarios, I find it helpful to take a step back and unpack what’s going on in these encounters and what your child actually needs from you versus what he wants from you.

What about nightmares? Check out this blog for dealing with that dynamic.

Copyright Lerner Child Development, LLC 2019 All Rights Reserved

Having Trouble Understanding Your Child’s Challenging Behaviors? His Sensory Processing System May Provide Important Clues

I always thought Samantha was just more ‘intense’ than other children. Her reactions to nearly everything were incredibly strong. She threw massive tantrums at least 5-10 times per day over things such as having to sit in her car seat or accidentally getting water in her eyes during bath time. People would tell me tantrums were “normal,” but I felt it wasn’t normal to be having such intense tantrums so many times each day. She was incredibly impulsive and constantly reached out to touch interesting things she saw, regardless of the appropriateness (such as clothing on someone’s body) or the danger (such as a burning candle). She also seemed to both seek physical input (for example, by climbing on others) while also protesting intensely to any physical touch that she didn’t like (for example, an adult restraining her from an unsafe situation). She would melt down if someone else did something she wanted to do like flush the toilet, push a button, or turn on the faucet to wash hands, and she often didn’t “recover” for several minutes, even an hour at times. She also had a hard time listening to and following directions, so things like getting her dressed were often very difficult. I felt completely overwhelmed and lost.
— Samantha's mom

About 10 years ago, I was feeling increasingly frustrated with the limited progress many children I was working with—such as two-year-old, Samantha—were making using the typical tools of my trade. Trained as a clinical social worker, my focus was on helping parents understand their children’s emotions and providing them with strategies to help their children learn to manage their feelings so they could behave in constructive, “pro-social” ways. No matter how tuned in, loving, and empathetic parents were, and how clearly and consistently they were setting limits and boundaries, their children continued to struggle with typical challenging behaviors such as: biting/hitting/kicking, defiance, extreme fearfulness/anxiety, impulsivity, or an overall lack of self-regulation.   

Around this time, a friend was telling me about problems she was having with her then 3-year-old, “Ruben”. He was very impulsive, aggressive, defiant, and wasn’t tuning in to others—all behaviors very typical of the kids I was having the hardest time helping.  She told me that after trying many different failed behavioral interventions, they were referred to an occupational therapist (OT) who identified underlying sensory processing challenges that were at the root of many of the problematic behaviors Ruben was exhibiting. Further, she explained how the therapy Ruben was doing with the OT was yielding very positive results for the first time. I am embarrassed to admit that at that time I was mostly ignorant about OT for kids. I thought of it as an intervention for adults with carpal tunnel syndrome or who had been injured on the job. What could the “occupation” of a child possibly be? So, I asked my friend for permission to observe a few sessions of her son’s OT.  

That experience proved to be a watershed moment: I saw first-hand how many challenging behaviors children exhibit are rooted in problems in their sensory processing systems and that this was a critical piece of the puzzle that I was missing as I tried to make sense of the meaning of children’s behaviors. For example, some of Ruben’s challenges were the result of a low threshold for tactile input. When people got too close to him, he pushed them away—by biting, hitting, kicking—to protect himself. Through targeted activities, the OT incrementally exposed Ruben to tactile experiences to help his system better detect, regulate, and interpret these sensations and respond to them more appropriately. In effect, OTs help children do their most important “jobs”, which include the ability to: manage their bodies and feelings, learn, play, get along with others, and work well in groups—pretty much everything that enables children to function effectively in the world!

So, what is sensory processing? According to The Star Institute, sensory processing is the way the nervous system receives information from the senses and turns it into appropriate behavioral responses. For example, a child walks into preschool and is able to navigate around the kids scattered across the classroom who are engaged in different activities so as not to bump into them, walk over them, or accidentally destroy whatever it is they may be working on (a block tower, a train track.) She automatically “reads the room” and responds appropriately. On the other hand, a child whose system is not processing this visual-spatial information accurately, and who doesn’t have a firm grasp of where her body is in space, may end up looking like a bull in a china shop and inadvertently hurt peers or objects in the process.

Some children have systems that are over-responsive to sensory input, such as sights and sounds. They may get easily distracted by the range of sensations they experience and have a hard time maintaining their focus during circle time or other group activities. Or, they may tune out—seeming to be in their “own world”. This is a common coping mechanism that protects over-responsive children from what feels like an onslaught of unmanageable sensations. For some children the sensory-overload may lead to restlessness and over-activity. These are all behavioral responses that stem from the same root cause—a difficulty in processing sensory information—which results in children having a hard time doing what’s “expected” in any given situation and unable to fully participate in and benefit from their experiences in the world.

In general, children with well-functioning sensory processing systems are more adaptable and flexible than children whose systems are not working effectively. For example, the first few days at preschool may feel overwhelming, but their brains quickly adapt to all the sounds, the high activity-level, the frequent transitions, etc., and they are able to thrive in the program. For children whose sensory systems take longer to adapt or that have trouble adapting at all, experiences with varied or more intense stimulation may be especially challenging, such as: school, group classes, large family gatherings or birthday parties. This can lead to significant discomfort for children which puts them in a higher state of reactivity. They feel more on edge and vulnerable. This can amplify both their emotional reactions and their response to sensory input. They may fall apart or lash out when being given a seemingly benign direction or suggestion such as guidance on how to hold scissors correctly or how to balance on a scooter. A child I recently worked with, who had full-on meltdowns at birthday parties when everyone started singing “Happy birthday!”, began refusing to go to birthday parties at all. Just like adults, when kids are in high-arousal/reactivity mode and feeling agitated and anxious, they have a much harder time coping.

In addition to being less flexible, children whose sensory processing systems aren’t working most effectively tend to be more controlling than children who are not struggling with this challenge. It doesn’t take much for them to reach their threshold and feel overwhelmed by the world around them. And, when children feel out of control on the inside, they tend to become controlling on the outside in an effort to cope—to minimize their discomfort. Typical behaviors include:

  • Telling other people what they can and can’t do—where they can sit, who they can talk to, what they can play with, whether the music can be on or off.

  • Having total meltdowns when something unexpected happens, such as:

    • daddy does pick-up at the end of the day vs. grandma whom the child was expecting

    • being served his favorite cereal in the green bowl, not his favorite red bowl

    • you push the elevator button when he wanted to do it

    • you cut his sandwich horizontally instead of diagonally

You can see how foundational the sensory processing system is as it impacts all of a child’s functioning. Here are some examples from my work in preschools and family homes of how sensory processing challenges can affect behavior:

Angela fiercely protests diaper changes and hair brushing. She will throw a massive tantrum to avoid these tasks. She is very picky about the clothes she will wear and refuses to play in the sand table or do the shaving cream activity at school. She is also picky about the kinds of foods she will eat based on their texture. She only likes crunchy foods.

Angela is over-sensitive to tactile (touch) input. What feels good to other children is very uncomfortable for her. She is not being purposefully difficult or defiant, she is trying to avoid discomfort.  

Shane is not a fan of the playground, much to his parent’s chagrin. They are a very action-oriented couple and had hoped for a child who would be athletic, like them. But when they go to the park, Shane avoids the playground equipment. He won’t go near the swing, slides or climbing equipment. His parents are at a loss as to why he is not like the other children who seem to thrive on the playground. They try to push him to join the kids on the monkey bars, but the more they push, the more he clings.

The sensory systems that work together to tell our bodies how to maintain balance—that help figure out where we are in space and help our muscles respond to movement—are not activating or registering input as they should for Shane. He does not have a good “body map” in his brain to help him coordinate his body and feel confident to explore the playground. This makes him feel unstable and insecure when his feet are not firmly planted on the ground.

 Radtha seems to be driven by a motor. She has a very hard time slowing down. She craves fast and intense movement experiences—running, jumping, spinning. She is a "thrill-seeker" and seems to have no fear of danger. She has a very hard time calming her mind and body. This makes getting through daily tasks, such as dressing and eating meals, maddening and exhausting for Radtha’s parents and teachers who find her very uncooperative.  

Radtha’s system is not accurately processing the input to the systems that control her sense of movement and balance. She is under-responsive to the signals her body is taking in. To compensate for this, Radtha’s system craves these intense movement experiences to “feed” her system. Telling her to slow down is rarely, if ever, useful because she can’t control this response. This results in constant frustration for all the adults caring for Radtha, and for Radtha, too, who can’t meet the expectations she knows others have of her.

 Darnell has trouble in circle time. The teacher keeps telling him to sit “criss-cross applesauce” but he prefers to sit on his knees or “w” sit. Often, he ends up lying down on the carpet or leaning into the peer next to him who is annoyed by this intrusion. He appears clumsy and uncoordinated, often tripping over things that other children seem to automatically avoid. He gets fatigued in the afternoons and has a hard time staying focused on tasks. He often becomes very silly which results in his teachers removing him from activities.

Darnell’s system is not processing input that activates and enables us to sustain contraction of the muscles needed for sitting upright—to control our posture. This set of muscles, when activated, provides a strong core that enables us to maintain an upright position. (Kids who can’t regularly sit “criss-cross applesauce” are often struggling with a lack of his core muscle control.) Laying down and w-sitting are ways for Darnell to cope with his weak or poorly activated postural muscles. He tires more easily because he has to work harder to keep his body upright against gravity.

 Callie is a picky eater. She will only eat bland foods and resists trying new foods. She fights toothbrushing because she dislikes the taste of the toothpaste.

Callie is over-responsive to oral and olfactory (smell) input. She finds many foods overwhelming and unpleasant that taste and smell good to other kids. Her rejection of these foods is a natural effort to avoid discomfort.

 Amir can’t keep his hands to himself. He is constantly getting into trouble at school for squeezing other kids’ arms, putting his hands on everything in his path, and constantly knocking objects off the tables and shelves. He smears his body with paint, glue, and shaving cream for which he gets reprimanded. He frequently bangs into other kids who are now starting to avoid playing with him.

 Amir is under-responsive to tactile sensations. His threshold for input is very high. His behavior is an effort to seek the sensation he needs to feed his system.

 Marnie doesn’t follow directions. When the teacher gives the class an instruction, such as to clean up or line up, Marnie needs a lot of reminders. She is also often unable to answer questions about the book the teacher is reading to the class. Her responses are frequently illogical, having nothing to do with the content of the question. She gets very distracted by sudden or loud sounds that don’t seem to bother the other kids. The teacher keeps telling her to pay more attention.

Marnie is not processing auditory information accurately. This makes it hard for her to respond appropriately to instructions and other information she receives.  (Note: auditory processing is different than hearing. Many children who have auditory processing problems have perfect hearing. The issue is in making sense of speech, discriminating sounds and following directions.)

 Leo is very anxious and clings for dear life when going to a birthday party, a kids’ gym, or other highly-stimulating event. His parents have to drag him there and then try to force him to engage. They are very worried about him missing out.

 Leo has a low threshold for visual, auditory, and tactile input. Lots of activity, noise and unexpected touch, especially in an unfamiliar environment, are overwhelming and understandably make him very anxious.

As you think about your own child or the children in your care, it is important to keep in mind that children often behave very differently from one environment to another. The demands on their sensory systems vary based on the characteristics of the setting. For example, some children exhibit challenging behaviors at school that parents don’t see at home. This is often due to the fact that group settings include many more stressors than homes, such as: dealing with many other children in their space who act unpredictably; lots of activity and noise; and, countless limits and transitions. In an environment in which a child feels comfortable and calm, he is better able to cope and function more effectively than in a setting where he feels overwhelmed and uncomfortable.

Note that if your child exhibits some of the behaviors above, it does not necessarily mean that they are all rooted in a sensory processing challenge. The same behaviors can have different causes. For example, significant changes in a child’s world or experiencing a trauma can cause children to have trouble focusing, or to become easily distractible, overactive, or too physically forceful. Further, not all children who exhibit these behaviors need special intervention. It all depends on the frequency and intensity of the behaviors and whether they interfere in a child’s overall functioning—specifically, his ability to learn, to adapt to family and school/childcare routines and to get along with others. If the latter is the case, then I recommend starting with an occupational therapy assessment to either identify or rule out a sensory processing problem.  The brain is most adaptable in the early years, so the sooner a child receives intervention to help his sensory system function more effectively the better. If you are not sure about whether any special intervention is needed, seeking a consultation from a child development specialist can be very useful to help guide you in doing the detective work to decode the meaning of your child’s behavior and find solutions that are loving and effective.

Understanding the underlying sensory processing challenges that were the cause for many of Samantha’s behaviors led us to occupational therapy which has greatly improved Samantha’s ability to cope with the world. Although we are still a work in progress, OT has provided us with the tools and vocabulary to work on improving Samantha’s impulsivity and flexibility. It has helped us identify her threshold and what she may or may not be capable of handling at any given moment. It has helped us recognize her need for physical input as well as the calming effect of certain tactile sensations (such as playing with sand, her water table, and rice bins). It has helped Samantha practice using her body in new situations so that she can be aware of her body in space and make safer body choices. Most importantly, it has given us an explanation for many of her behaviors so that we can be as helpful, patient, and understanding as possible.
— Samantha's mom

All behavior has meaning. Once we stop judging behavior and instead do more observing and wondering, asking ourselves: “Why would my child act this way? What need is it meeting? What purpose is it serving? What is he/she trying to cope with?”, it leads us down a path to understanding what makes our children tick and what they need to best cope and thrive.

To learn more about sensory processing, go to The Star Institute’s website, which has excellent resources for parents and professionals.

Special thanks to my OT colleagues, Teri Kozlowski, Sami Cook and Jane Rutt for their input on this blog and for helping me be exponentially more helpful to the children and families I serve.



Go With The Flow, Part 2: How to Address the Typical Challenges That Arise in the Potty-Learning Process

This blog, which addresses how to manage potty learning challenges, is a follow-up to a previous post that focused on guiding principles for how to take a positive approach to helping children learn to use the toilet. I strongly recommend you read Go With the Flow, Part 1 before digging in to this piece as all the guidance below is based on the principles that are outlined in Part 1.  

When it comes to challenges in the potty-learning process, it is important to keep in mind that children are not a monolithic group. They have different temperaments, developmental paths, and life experiences that impact all aspects of their functioning, including learning to use the potty. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every child and family. When I collaborate with parents to address these challenges, we look at all the factors that might be influencing the process to come up with the best solution for their unique child. For example, in one family in which the child was withholding bowel movements, there was a lot of conflict between the parents that was affecting the child. Once we developed ways to help the parents reduce the tension in the household and combined that with some of the strategies described below, their child stopped holding in his poop.

Problem-Solving Potty Challenges
By and large, the primary reason the children I have worked with get stuck in the potty-learning process is a result of anxiety caused by the pressure they are experiencing to use the toilet. Often, these children are temperamentally more sensitive and cautious. They are fierce about needing to be in control. The more they sense that others are trying to make them do something, the greater their need becomes to take back control. When it comes to potty learning, this often means refusing to use the toilet and sometimes holding in pee and poop.

By the time families come to me for help they have tried everything: rewards and consequences; setting limits around using the potty (i.e., establishing times they have to sit on the potty and try to go); and even shaming or threats. Nothing has worked because these strategies don’t tackle the root of the problem—the child’s resistance to feeling controlled. In fact, the typical strategies parents are using are often inadvertently perpetuating the problem. In many cases, the constant and intense focus on trying to coax their child to use the potty has become an intrusion into family life and a major stressor.

The strategies below are all designed to reduce the tension and give control back to the child, where it belongs:

  • Explain to your child that it is her body and only she controls it, including choosing how to pee and poop. Point out all the positive ways she already controls her body, such as: eating healthy foods to grow big and strong; getting herself to sleep to build her brain and body; running, jumping and climbing which helps her have fun on the playground equipment. The idea is to instill a sense of confidence in your child that she is capable of controlling and taking good care of herself. This is an important first step because the messages she has likely been receiving, inadvertently, are that she doesn’t know her own body.

  • Dial it all back. You might say something along these lines: “Mommy and Daddy have been so silly! We have been trying to get you to use the potty because that’s what we do; it’s what feels good to us. So, we figured it might feel better for you, too. But that was so silly, because only you are in control of your body. It’s your job to take care of it. (Kids love the idea of having a job.) So, when it comes to peeing and pooping, you are the decider about where you let it go—in a diaper/pull-up or the toilet. From now on, it’s all up to you. It doesn’t matter to us as long as you let the pee and poop out. It’s not healthy for it to stay stuck in your body.” This discussion is purposely designed to be lighthearted to ease the tension that is usually pervasive around pottying at this point.

  • Be clear about her choices and show confidence in her ability to make the best decisions for herself. “What’s so awesome is that you’ve got two great choices: since you know how to hold your pee and poop in until you want to let it go, one choice is to use the toilet. Then you can wear underwear. You just let us know what else you need to use the toilet. We are your helpers. If you choose not to use the potty, you wear a pull-up; but the rule is we have to change it when it’s full of pee or poop because it’s not healthy for your body to sit in a full pull-up.” It is critical that the rules are presented matter-of-factly, without any suggestion that one choice is preferable over another. The idea is to make this process a less emotionally-charged experience.

  • Follow through—no talk about going to the potty unless your child brings it up and you are following her lead. While this feels very uncomfortable to many parents—we feel like we have to be doing something to help our children make progress—in most cases it’s our over-involvement that is the root cause of the problem (see Part 1). Children learn to self-regulate when you show that you believe in their ability to make good choices for themselves. When you try to do it for them, you are sending the message that you don’t think they can do it; that you need to do it for them, which only leads to more dependence and missed opportunities for children to take responsibility for themselves.

  • Expect accidents and don’t shame your child for them.  As discussed in Part 1, making children feel bad about accidents doesn’t prevent them, and it can actually increase them. Showing disappointment or annoyance can create a lot of anxiety that may interfere in the learning process, making children less likely to use the toilet. Shaming is not a motivator. Instead, focus on having your child help take care of her body: “Accidents happen. No problem. Here’s a towel to wipe up the pee. Now wash your hands and choose some clean clothes. Great job!”

  • Avoid comparing your child to other children or making threats about the consequences of him not going on the potty: “Your brother was doing this by the time he was 2 ½.” Or, “Do you want to be the only one left in your class who uses pull-ups?”

When parents stick to this approach to the letter, communicating with their words (and body language and facial expressions!) that they couldn’t care less whether their child chooses to use the toilet or pull-ups, usually, within a month children start moving toward independence in using the potty.

Other Common Challenges

Many children I see are holding in their bowel movements as a way to assert some control over their bodies when they sense that others are trying to manage them. This can lead to constipation which makes pooping painful and adds another layer of stress to the process.

  • Explain to your child very matter-of-factly that letting go of his poop is very important for his health. Holding it in makes the poop hard and painful to push out. Many parents find this video helpful to share with their children. It illustrates why and how we poop and what happens when we hold it in. Be sure to view it in advance as you know your child best and can assess whether you think it will be useful for him. (If you do share it with your child, I suggest starting it at 00:26.) Taking a scientific approach can be very effective for helping children see that they are making choices about how to eliminate and that each choice has an outcome.

  • Talk to your child’s health care provider, who may prescribe a stool softener. As long as your child’s bowel movements are hard, it is unlikely he will feel comfortable letting go. One caution: be sure to work with your provider on establishing a dose that softens your child’s bowel movements but that doesn’t make them so loose that your child can’t control them. This can intensify the problem. Remember, it’s all about control.

  • Once your child’s stools are no longer hard, follow the steps laid out above to make it clear that your child is in control of both his body and the outcome of his choices about how to eliminate.

Children wearing underwear but then asking for a diaper/pull-up to poop. This is very frustrating and confounding for parents. The child clearly has all the skills she needs to use the potty. She is able to hold her pee and poop and then let it go in a planful way. She’s just doing it in a diaper versus the toilet. But she is almost there. Crossing the boundary to try to control your child runs the risk of setting her back. Instead, reinforce the idea that it is your child’s choice, but that there are some rules associated with her decisions: 1) You can tell your child that when kids are 2 ½ or 3 (whatever age you decide), pee and poop are done in the bathroom. By this time, most children have observed many peers using the potty and they see their parents going into the bathroom all the time, so this will make sense to them. Whether your child goes in the toilet or in a diaper, it all happens in the bathroom; and, 2) There is an expectation that she will participate in the process. This conveys that she is capable of doing a lot of her own self-care and you are supporting that. This means using a pull-up versus a diaper because she can put it on herself when she needs to poop. Then you will help her take it off and put the poop in the toilet, wash her hands, and help get herself re-dressed. When children experience the consequences of their choices, it is more likely they will ultimately decide that it’s just easier to go on the potty.

Children who actively resist or seem afraid of using the potty. There are many reasons why this may happen, but the most common I see are:

  • The way they experience their bodily sensations and other stimuli around toileting. Children who are under-responsive to bodily sensations may not be bothered by a full diaper and are less tuned in to the signs of having to pee and poop. Others are over-sensitive to sensory input, for example: sounds, which make the toilet flushing scary (especially the automatic ones); touch/tactile sensations, which may make the feel of pee slashing up onto them or poop coming out, uncomfortable; and smells, like bathroom odors, that can be overwhelming.These are often the kids who say they are afraid of using the potty. If you think the cause of the delay in, or resistance to, potty learning may be in some part due to your child’s sensory experience of the process, I recommend you consult with an occupational therapist (OT). OTs are highly skilled at helping children process sensory input accurately so they can master new skills more readily.

  • Feeling unstable on toilets that are too high to enable their feet to be firmly planted. That’s why I recommend using a “squatty potty” that fits around the base of the toilet where your child can rest his feet.  

  • A major change in your child's world, such as: a new baby, a recent loss, a family move, or a change in child care arrangements: If this is the case, I recommend giving your child time to adapt and get back to his baseline of feeling secure in his world before trying the strategies outlined below. Note that If the change is a new baby in the family, your child may be much less interested in being a “big boy” because he sees the baby getting so much attention for being dependent, including being diapered. In addition to giving him some time to adapt to his new sibling, I would avoid using “that’s what big boys do” to try to coax your child to do something you desire him to do as that can backfire during this stage. It can also be interpreted as shaming—that he’s a baby because he’s not acting like a big boy. Remember, shame is rarely a motivator and can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem.

Children who have turned three and are showing no interest in using the potty. The following strategies have been effective in helping children take steps forward in the process:

  • Use pretend play to give your child a chance to practice and get comfortable with the process. You might build into the story you are creating together the idea that your child’s lovey (or action figure, doll, animal, etc.) needs to learn to use the potty so he can swim in the big kid’s pool or go to the camp he wants to attend. Through the play, encourage your child to be a helper. Have your child take the pretend toy through all the steps of going to the potty. If you have a sense of what the obstacle might be for your child, for example being afraid of the unknown or feeling pressure to “perform”, build that into the play. Have your child be the one who helps the toy get over the fear. This can be very empowering to children, especially those who have expressed being afraid of going on the potty, as it helps them work through whatever anxieties they may have about the process.

  • Have your child pretend to use the potty. Go through all the steps: have her pretend she feels some pee coming; provide whatever help she needs to pull her pants down or lift her skirt/dress up; have her choose which potty to sit on and then she pretends to let the pee and poop out. Having a chance to practice through pretend can ease anxiety and pressure and make children more comfortable with the process. Some children actually end up going during the practice session and they’re on their way.

  • Set a specific date for when there will be no more diapers and pull-ups. Some parents choose a specific age marker, for example when their child turns 3 or 3 ½. It is critical that you communicate this matter-of-factly, just like you might tell a child that she will start going to school every day or that she is going to have a new caregiver. You acknowledge that this is a change and that you are there to help her make this transition. And most importantly, communicate that you have complete confidence that she will adapt. Point out other changes she has faced and mastered. Remind her that she is still in complete control of her body. You are not making her do anything. If she goes on the potty, fine. If she has an accident, no problem, you will clean it up together and move on. This initially feels uncomfortable to parents. But remember, it is strategic; when children sense their parents have an agenda or expectations, it causes anxiety and pressure that interferes in learning. Accidents are part of the process. They should not result in shaming or annoyance. Once children experience that it is all up them, and they don’t have anything to rebel against, they are more likely to make the best decision for themselves which is to use the potty. Few children would prefer to have accidents all day long that they are responsible for helping to clean up. This strategy can also be used with children who are stuck on using a diaper to have a bowel movement even after they have fully mastered peeing on the potty. 

I recognize that this sounds like boot camp, but it’s not. Most boot camps involve constant reminding about using the potty, requirements for sitting on the potty at certain times of day for set periods of time, and rewards for using the toilet. It is adult-driven. The model I am suggesting is quite different in that it entails trusting the child to figure out how to control his body in an age-appropriate way and to master a new challenge for which he already has the skills to achieve.
Keep in mind that when your child does pee or poop in the toilet, don’t go overboard with excitement as that can lead to regression (see Part 1.) It can feel intrusive and overwhelming. It also means that when your child doesn’t use the potty, he is disappointing you which makes the whole pottying process fraught with emotion. Instead, acknowledge your child’s success in a way that communicates that it is his accomplishment. Point out the benefits for him of making the choice to use the potty: “You felt the pee coming, got yourself to the potty and let it go. You had total control. Now there’s no need to change a diaper. Back to playing!”

Final Note
Potty-learning challenges can be very complex and confusing. They are often caused by underlying issues your child is struggling with. So, if you are in the midst of a challenge around pottying that you feel is having a negative effect on your child (and family), I encourage you to seek consultation for two important reasons: 1) The way you approach this process has an impact on your child beyond learning to use the potty. You are sending him messages about his capacity to regulate himself which is critical to his overall development; and, 2) Understanding the root cause of the struggles your child is experiencing can be hard to figure out. A trained child development specialist can help you put together the pieces of the puzzle that make up your child’s behavior. This can help you approach the challenge in a positive and effective way that supports your child’s overall development. And, the insight you gain about what makes your child tick can help you anticipate other developmental tasks or experiences that might pose challenges for him as he grows. It can provide a roadmap for how to support him through other challenges he may face.  

“When Is He Going Back in Your Belly?” How to Help Older Siblings Adjust to the New Baby

Aside from the expected challenges parents face in figuring out how to manage multiple children while trying to maintain their own relationship, the reaction of the first-born is often top-of-mind for parents. The good news: There is a lot you can do to help your older child adapt to a new baby in ways that maximize the chance that she will ultimately develop a close, loving relationship with her sibling.

  • Expect your child to have mixed feelings / reactions and show compassion. An older child is often really excited about the new baby coming when it is just a concept – a bulge in mom’s belly. But once a baby is a reality, many older siblings have very mixed feelings about their new brother or sister. They may love the baby intensely, yet also feel angry and resentful at having to share the attention of caregivers. Children may worry about whether their parents will care for and love them in the same way as before the baby arrived. These feelings can be overwhelming and uncomfortable, resulting in a range of behaviors—including acting clingier, throwing more tantrums and expressing negative feelings towards the baby, such as announcing that they wish he would just go away. This is perfectly normal. The first step in helping your child manage these complex emotions is to let him know his feelings are understood and valid. “It is so hard to wait while I feed your sister. I will help you build your tower when she is done eating.” Then help your child find acceptable ways to express his emotions. Encourage him to talk about his frustrations and help him brainstorm ways to cope in those situations so that he has acceptable tools to use in those moments.

  • Avoid putting pressure on your child to be in love with the new baby.First, babies don’t do much, so there is not a lot of immediate reward in interacting with them. Next, the new baby represents someone who is taking attention away from the older child, so expecting her to be madly in love with the baby at this early stage is unrealistic. Finally, when the older child senses pressure to love the baby, it can have the opposite effect and make her less likely to feel warmly toward her new sibling. With time and space, your older child is more likely to make a positive connection with her brother or sister.

  • Don’t make everything about the new baby. When you’re taking photos of the baby, snap some pictures of your older child. When family and friends visit the baby, remind them to take time to talk and play with your older child, too. Whenever possible, carve out some special just for you and your older child to be together, without interruptions from the baby.

  • Teach your older child how to safely interact with the baby. Using a doll or a stuffed animal, demonstrate actions that are gentle and those that may be too rough for the baby. If your older child is too forceful physically or does something unacceptable, like grabbing one of the baby’s toys from her, avoid reacting with anger. We know this is easier said than done; many of us have blurted out responses like, “What is wrong with you? Don’t hurt your brother!” Instead, calmly take hold of her hands—firmly but not angrily—and show her how she can safely engage with her sibling. If she continues to be aggressive, let her know that you see she’s having a hard time controlling her body and move her to another activity. Make it about the rule (you can’t play with others if you’re grabbing) and not about protecting the baby from his big sister which could only increase the older child’s feelings of rivalry.

  • Encourage your older child to help with the new baby, but don’t force it. See if he wants to get the clean diaper ready, pick out clothes or rock the baby in her carrier. Don’t pressure him if he is not interested. Stay matter-of-fact: “It’s okay if you don’t want to help right now. Would you like to bring your cars in here so we can be together?” Shaming a child for natural feelings of confusion or jealousy can lead to increased negative feelings toward the baby and to more anger and challenging behaviors.

  • During your pregnancy of after the birth of a sibling, be prepared for your older child to show signs of regression—engaging in behaviors typical of younger children. Your child may insist on a bottle, use baby talk or begin having potty accidents. Taking steps backwards in development is often a sign of stress. It also signals that your older child may be struggling to understand his place in the family; acting like a baby means receiving more attention and care. Encouraging or demanding that older children act “like a big boy or girl” often backfires, as they don’t want to be a big kid in that moment. Though it may feel uncomfortable, when you respond to the need your child is expressing, she is more likely to return to age-appropriate functioning fairly quickly. For example, when you give older children the bottle they are demanding, they usually find it silly and give it up shortly. If they have lots of potty accidents, be sure not to respond with disappointment or punishment. If they talk like a baby, just respond like you understand what they are saying and don’t make a big deal out of it. “I think you are telling me you want me to read that book. I’d love to.” The more matter-of-fact your response to their ‘baby’ behaviors, the more quickly they are likely to abandon them.

  • Fight the urge to loosen up on limits and over-indulge your older child. It is very common for parents to feel guilty about all the changes the baby has brought to the older sibling’s life. Sometimes they try to make up for it with extra treats and gifts. Often, parents let up on previously established limits and give in to the older child’s demands. Moms and dads worry that their child is already stressed enough and can’t handle not getting her way. Parents may also be exhausted and feel they can’t survive yet another tantrum. Unfortunately, indulging the older child can lead to some unintended, negative consequences. First, it signals that you don’t think your child can learn to cope with this change—that she needs special exceptions. It also sends the message to the older child gets that she is “special” or entitled, which can lead to even more demanding behavior.

While bringing home a new baby can be chaotic and crazy for a little while, it’s important to remember that adding a sibling to the family is one of the greatest gifts you can give your older child. Having a sibling is a connection that lasts a lifetime. Even through all the crying, tattling and bickering, having a sibling teaches children how to share and cooperate. It also builds empathy—the awareness of and appreciation that others have feelings and needs. So buckle up, it’s going to be a wild, wonderful and very worthwhile ride!

Want to Help Your Child Cope in an Increasingly Complex World? Focus on Flexibility

One of the chief concerns (and complaints) from parents I work with is that their children are super rigid and irrational.  Typical examples include: 

Henry throws a huge fit if I pick him up from childcare instead of Grandma, whom he’d been expecting.

Chelsea refused to take a bath because I turned on the water when she wanted to start the faucet.

Andrew's teachers report that his peers don't want to play with him because he is bossy and needs to dictate everything. Yesterday, he knocked down the block structure he was building with friends because he insisted it was going to be a home for their action figures but his playmates had already decided it was going to be a restaurant. 

If any of these scenarios sounds familiar, you are not alone.

What the children featured above have in common is a challenge with being flexible—the ability to adapt when they can’t get exactly what they want, when they want it, or when something unexpected happens.

Flexibility is one of the most important assets for functioning well in this world. It is an essential ingredient for working effectively in groups and developing healthy relationships because it enables us to take into consideration the perspectives and needs of others. Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report, the following skills are among the list of necessary competencies children need to develop to be most effective and successful in our rapidly changing workplaces:

  • Coordinating with others

  • Negotiation skills

  • Cognitive flexibility (creativity, logical reasoning, and problem sensitivity)

All of these skills require the ability to be flexible. In childhood, this might mean a 4-year-old giving up his space at the sand table to a classmate who hasn’t had a turn yet; or accepting the job of snack-helper when he can't be the line leader. This translates into the ability to cooperate on a group project at school or on a sports team; and later, to be a good colleague in the office.

It’s important to keep in mind that learning to be flexible is harder for some children than others, largely due to their temperament. Go-with-the-flow kids who have a high frustration-tolerance are naturally more adaptable. Children who are big reactors and who crave predictability and a sense of control tend to be more inflexible by nature. These are the kids who have intense responses to seemingly minor stressors, such as a parent turning off the light when the child wanted to do it, even though she hadn’t voiced this; or a child hurling her cereal bowl across the room because her dad put the Cheerios in the blue bowl, not her favorite red bowl. They get overwhelmed more easily than even-keeled kids because their strong emotions are hard to manage which makes them feel out of control. And when kids feel out of control on the inside, they tend to become more controlling on the outside. Parents often describe these kids as bossy. They may dictate to their peers what role they can play in the story they are creating together, or which blocks they can use. While these behaviors are “unacceptable”, it’s important to recognize that they are coping mechanisms that serve to reduce the stress of having to manage the discomfort of not being in control. (Adults do this too—we tend to become a little dictatorial and rigid when we feel like our world is spinning out of control.)

Flexibility can be even more challenging for children who have low sensory thresholds, meaning they are over-responsive to sensory input. Consider the child who feels very uncomfortable when other kids get too close to him and invade his space. For this child, the world can feel overwhelming as he is constantly bombarded by unpleasant sensations. This naturally makes him feel more out of control than children whose sensory systems are better regulated and who are able to tolerate more input from the outside world. (Learn more about the impact of sensory processing on behavior.) Dictating where people will sit, how loud the music can be, what clothes they will and will not wear, or how close the chicken is to the carrots on their dinner plate are coping mechanisms to control their environment. While these behaviors might seem completely irrational, in that moment children feel as if they can’t survive the discomfort or violation of their expectation.

Helping naturally inflexible children learn flexibility may take more time and patience, but it is especially important. While it seems easier to just take the desired red bowl out of the dishwasher and give it to the child who is demanding it (to take everyone out of their misery), it’s critical not to give in or you are reinforcing her rigidity. Helping children learn to be flexible means getting comfortable with their discomfort. They need to go through the experience of not getting what they want in order to see that they can survive when things don't go exactly the way they expected.

How do you teach flexibility?

Validate your child's emotions and experience.
Remember, feelings are never the problem. It's what kids do with their feelings that can become problematic. The more you acknowledge the emotion that is driving their behavior the better able they are to learn to manage it in more effective ways: "You are upset because you thought grandma was going to pick you up. I totally get that--you don't like it when something different happens from what you expected." 

Set the limit calmly and lovingly. "But grandma went to the doctor and the appointment took longer than expected. So I am here to get you."  Then, as calmly as you can, move along to show your child that you are not going to engage in a long back-and-forth about this or react to his protestations as that only reinforces the inflexibility. Ignore his attempts to draw you into a struggle but don't ignore him. Even as he's kicking and screaming as you buckle him into the car seat you might start telling a funny story, put on music he likes, or talk about what you might play together when you get home, to show him that you are available to engage in positive ways but will not keep a negative dynamic going. 

Always keep in mind: the world doesn't adapt to us, we have to adapt to the world. That's why limits are loving. 

Teach perspective-taking. There are countless opportunities to help children see the world from another person’s point-of-view and take into account that person’s needs and feelings:

  • “Teddy, I know you want me to read this book right now, but Joey is uncomfortable and needs a diaper change. I’ll read to you when he’s all set.” Then ignore his antics, change the baby's diaper and re-engage Teddy when you're done. Let him know he did a great job waiting (even if he screamed the whole time) and that now you can read the book. The idea is to focus on the fact that he survived the waiting--the behavior you want to reinforce--and not to pay attention to the behaviors designed to derail you and get you to adapt to his demands.

  • “What do you think it feels like to Sumi when you always get to be Batman but she wants a turn, too? How might we help you solve that problem?” 

Model flexibility. Highlight ways you are being flexible in your everyday experiences. “I can’t find my favorite hat. I guess I’ll have to be flexible and wear this one instead.” “This restaurant isn’t open. We’ll have to be flexible and choose a different place to eat.” “We were going to go to the park this afternoon, but I see you have some energy to burn so I am going to be flexible and take you this morning!”

Acknowledge and give a lot of positive feedback when your child is being flexible. “You gave Henry the tunnel he wanted for his train and took the bridge instead. You did a great job being flexible!” “You really wanted to go on the swing, but they were all taken, so you played in the sandbox instead. Great job being flexible!

Learn more about how to set clear and loving limits that teach kids flexibility—to bend without breaking.

Go with the Flow: Preventing the Perils of Potty Training

The prospect of potty training is terrifying for many parents. They have heard horror stories of catastrophic boot camps, kids refusing to poop on the potty, and preschools rejecting children for not being trained. Through my work with families facing these challenges, I have developed an approach to potty-learning that takes into consideration what the process feels like from the child’s perspective, which is often overlooked, and that addresses some key factors that can have a significant impact on whether this process is positive or perilous. A follow-up piece will address how to deal with specific challenges that may arise in the potty-learning process.

Look at the pottying process from a developmental perspective:

  • You have no control over your child. You can’t make him do anything, including pee and poop in the potty. Children are the only ones in control of their bodies. It is their job to master these skills, with adult support. It is not your job to do it for them.

  • Learning to manage bodily functions, such as, elimination, eating, and sleeping, is essential for children’s sense of agency and self-esteem. It builds confidence that they can be in control of and take care of themselves.

  • The ability to use the potty is all about control—the ability to “hold it in” and get to a potty to let it go. It just so happens that the age at which most children have the skills to learn to use the potty (2 to 3 years) coincides with an upsurge in their desire to exert control over their world. Therefore, some amount of defiance and opposition is developmentally appropriate and normal for children at this stage, and it is often triggered by others’ attempts to control them. When it comes to potty learning, this means that the more you try to control your child’s elimination, the more likely she is to dig in her heels and refuse. This is how your child maintains her integrity and reminds you that she is the only one who has the power to control her body.  

  • Further, between 18 months to 2 years, children are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings and that their body belongs to them. They begin to feel greater ownership over their bodies which makes them even more sensitive to people trying to control their bodily functions (diapering, feeding, dressing, etc.)

  • Temperament plays a big role in potty learning. For children who, by nature, tend to be more controlling and have a harder time being flexible and adapting to change, the potty learning process can be more challenging. With these children it is especially important not to cross the line into trying to control them as the chances are that it will backfire.

The approach:

The approach I recommend is based on tuning in to the child’s experience of this process, instead of the parents’ agenda to get them “trained”. I now call it “potty learning”, as I find that “training” conjures up the idea that parents are in a position of power and have to make something happen. This puts parents in a state of mind that leads to more intrusive and forceful tactics that often backfire.

Be sure your child is ready. Signs that children are ready, which usually emerge between 2 and 3 years, include:

  • Having control over their bowel and bladder, which usually happens around 18 months 

  • Staying dry for at least a 2-hour period

  • Recognizing that they are urinating or having a bowel movement 

  • Being able to follow simple instructions

  • Wanting to come in the bathroom with you to watch how you use the potty

  • Feeling uncomfortable in a soiled diaper and asking to be changed

  • Wanting to sit on the potty, even if they don’t pee or poop on it yet

If you push the process before your child is showing any interest, she may sense that you are promoting your agenda. This can lead to that knee-jerk defiance that results when children feel you are trying to control them, thus turning the pottying process into a power struggle.

Provide whatever tools and support your child needs to feel comfortable using the potty. This might mean helping your child with getting her clothes off/on, wiping, washing hands, etc. As for which potty to use, see which is most comfortable for your child. Some children may prefer using the adult toilet with an insert while others like the kiddie potties. Giving children choices like this can be helpful as it gives them a sense of control. Be sure that whatever option your child uses enables him to have his feet firmly grounded. If he likes using a traditional, adult toilet, I recommend getting a “squatty potty” that fits around the base of the toilet where your child can rest his feet. This provides a sense of security and stability that can be very helpful for many children.

Take a scientific approach. Explain why we all pee and poop; that our body takes in what it needs from what we drink and eat, and what our bodies don’t need comes out as pee and poop. Then explain that people who use the potty wear underwear, and people who choose not to use the toilet wear diapers/pull-ups. To demonstrate, I do a little experiment with kids: I get a pitcher of water and a ball of clay that is moistened. I point out how the water has the consistency of pee, and the wet clay is like poop. Then I pour some water from the pitcher onto the underwear and then onto the diaper/pull-up, to show how the water soaks through the underwear but not the diaper. I do the same with the wet clay which is absorbed by the diaper but not the underwear. Then I make it very clear that it’s their body and they get to choose which way they are going to let the pee and poop out. I find that when you take a teaching approach and emphasize that it’s up to your child to decide how she will eliminate, she is freed to act on her drive for independence and master the skill, unimpeded by the pressure or anxiety she might experience when she knows the adults in her world want her “trained”.

A note about pull-ups: Some worry that pull-ups don’t teach kids anything because they don’t experience the effects of peeing or pooping in their pants. But if you present the pull-up as an option that gives your child choices, it can be a great tool to use as part of the learning process. You show your child and help her practice putting the pull-up on and then pulling it down to show her that she can use it like underwear when she wants to use the potty. If she chooses not to use the potty, then she can pee and poop in it—no problem. It’s her choice. You might even role-play it (which kids love), so she can have the experience of using it both ways.

Allow your child to make the decisions about how he eliminates. For example, when he needs to go and whether to use the potty or a diaper/pull-up each day. Remember, your job is to support your child in the process, not to control the process. I suggest creating a drawer that has pull-ups/diapers on one side and underwear on the other. Each morning when your child gets dressed, you let him know that he gets to choose which he wears, reminding him that underwear is only an option if he chooses to use the potty. Remember, the more children feel that they are in control, the more likely it is that the process will go smoothly. I have seen even seemingly benign efforts to steer children backfire. For example, a child I worked with had been choosing underwear for three days and using the potty pretty regularly. On day four he surprised his parents and chose a pull-up. Dad couldn’t help himself and injected: “But you have been doing so well with the potty. Don’t you want to wear undies?” The child responded with a resounding, “Yup!” and reverted to using pull-ups for several days. Once he saw that his parents were back to being agnostic and acting like they didn’t care less whether he used the potty or pull-ups, he went back to choosing underwear and the process proceeded smoothly from there. (The need to feel in control often supersedes everything!)

Follow your child’s lead. Acknowledge her interest and the steps she is taking in the pottying process. Be sure to focus on her accomplishments and not the impact it has on you. Remember, this is her responsibility. Rather than saying things like, “Mommy is so proud of you! You peed in the potty!” I would recommend responding with something more like, “You felt the pee had to come out and you got yourself to the bathroom, pulled down your pants and let it go in the potty. You made it happen! No need to change a diaper.” This keeps the focus on your child by acknowledging the steps she took to master this process. It’s her victory.

When you have a big reaction about how excited and proud you are; or, conversely, show disappointment (which is palpable to kids through your tone and body language, even when you don’t say anything), it makes pottying a relationship issue. When your child’s actions have the power to please or disappoint you, it becomes emotional and personal and can put a lot of pressure on a child. This can interfere in the potty learning process. It is one of those counter-intuitive aspects of parenting. We function from a place of logic and believe/assume that if we praise our children, they will want to do more of whatever it is that makes us happy and do less of things that disappoint us or make us angry. But remember, young children are driven by emotion, not logic, and those emotions can get in the way of learning.

Also note that, for some children who tend to be more sensitive by nature, a big parental reaction can be overwhelming and shut them down. Many families I work with report that when they got really excited about their child having pooped in the potty, their child burst into tears and reverted to refusing to sit on the toilet.

Expect and handle potty accidents matter-of-factly, without anger, shaming or punishment. Accidents are part of the process and should be handled dispassionately: “No problem, accidents happen. Let’s get you cleaned up.” Encourage your child to help in the process, not as punishment but to support his learning to take responsibility for his body. He might be in charge of wiping up pee and then choosing a new pair of underwear. When we have a big reaction to accidents and show anger or disappointment (not just with words but with gestures, facial expressions, and heavy sighs) it makes children feel ashamed. This tends to increase, not decrease, accidents. It makes the whole elimination process anxiety-producing, which interferes in their ability to master it.

Use natural consequences. For example, you tell your child you are heading to the playground where there won’t be a potty and suggest she go to the bathroom before you leave. She says she doesn’t have to go. You resist coaxing, cajoling, bribing, etc., and explain: “It’s your body, so you know best what you need. If you have to go when we are at the playground we will just need to go home.” This is not punishment and is never said as a threat. It is a matter-of-fact outcome of his choice. You might also take a kiddie potty with you, which many families do, so the child has an option. If your child has an accident, you either help him change into a clean set of clothes or take him home, again, not in anger but as a natural consequence. Then the next time you are leaving the house you can remind him of his choices. When you refrain from inserting your own agenda or expectations and are clear about your child’s choices and their consequences, children learn from experience and act accordingly. If having an accident means needing to leave the playground early, they are likely to decide on their own to use the potty before your next trip to the park.    

What to avoid:

There are a number of pitfalls parents fall into when it comes to potty learning that I would suggest avoiding, as they run the risk of interfering in the process rather than promoting it. These include:

Introducing potty learning when a big change is on the horizon or has just taken place. Any significant change in a child’s world can make him feel out of control, such as an upcoming or recent family move, a new child care arrangement, or welcoming a new baby into the family. Children don’t have the perspective required to make sense of what these changes mean which leads to feeling unstable and insecure until, with time, they see that all is still right with the world. Since learning to use the potty is all about control, it is best not to focus on or expect your child to master this skill at a time when he is coping with another significant change in his life.

Forcing. You are on risky ground anytime you cross the line from providing support to trying to control your child. One common scenario is telling a child she has to sit on the potty after she’s said she doesn’t have to go. This communicates that you know her body better than she does, which interferes with her ability to self-regulate. It can also be experienced as intrusive for many children, who then react by digging their heels in by withholding their pee and poop in a desperate attempt to maintain their integrity. On a home visit I was observing a family’s typical routines. Their rule was the child, “Shayla”, had to sit on the potty for 5 minutes before bedtime (which, by the way, is an eternity for children). When the timer went off, Dad asked Shayla if she was sure she didn’t need to go. Shayla said “yes” quite definitively. She then promptly got up and proceeded to pee right on the bathroom floor.

I also discourage picking up children to take them to the potty, unless they have given you permission. This attempt to control the process—especially when a child is in the middle of peeing or pooping—can intensify children’s resistance to using the potty. Further, you are sending that message that you know their body better than they do. If you see your child starting to strain or showing other signs of needing to eliminate, you might ask if she would like help getting to the potty. But if she says no, I strongly suggest you respect her wishes.

Punishing or shaming. When you punish or shame children for accidents or for using a diaper instead of underwear, it is more likely to impede rather than promote progress. Shame is a very powerful, toxic emotion that shuts children down. They get flooded with negative emotions that inhibit them from thinking clearly and learning from experience.

Using rewards. I am not a fan of rewards in general. They send a message to children that whatever accomplishment they have achieved is only valid or valued if it results in some kind of external reinforcer. What I think we really want for our kids is for the “prize” to be the internal sense of satisfaction they get from gaining more independence or achieving a new skill. In addition, using rewards often results in children becoming dependent on them, demanding a prize for everything. You tell them it’s time to clean up, or to get dressed, and they ask what they’ll get as a reward.

When it comes to potty learning, I find using rewards particularly problematic because children instinctively know that their parents are using them as a tool for control, to get them to do something the parent wants them to do. Have I mentioned that this dynamic tends to result in defiance and resistance rather than compliance? Further, the flip side of getting a reward is the terrible disappointment children feel when they don’t earn it, making pottying a source of stress and self-doubt.

Boot camp. I am not a fan of boot camp, either. This is a method that entails either putting children in training underwear so they feel the result of soiling themselves, or having them go bottomless altogether for several days while parents remind, ask and direct them to use the potty. The hope and expectation is that this will lead to children learning to use the potty within days.

No doubt, this method works for some children. And to be fair, my perspective is negatively skewed because so many families come to see me for guidance on the heels of a boot camp epic fail, such as this mom who recently wrote to me in a panic: “After a botched four day potty training boot camp that quickly devolved into a power struggle, we found ourselves at square one…. Unfortunately, we regrettably seem to have created some anxiety for (Louie)…when he starts to have the feeling of needing to go, he starts to have a mini freak out. He whimpers, dances around, and wants to be picked up or sit in your lap. We feel awful for creating this angst for him (we definitely fell into the "over-prompting" trap) and don't want him to suffer.” For children like Louie, who fall into that category of the more sensitive, intense little ones who crave control, boot camp often backfires. It is a method that is clearly driven by the parents’ agenda and thus leads to power struggles, increased anxiety, and often backwards movement in the pottying process. For children who are more go-with-the-flow (no pun intended) by nature, boot camp may work fine. But why take the risk? When children are ready and their parents have followed the steps above to support their children in being in charge of their bodies, most children will do it on their own.

Making toileting a social, playtime endeavor. To incentivize children to sit on the potty, many parents give in to demands for or voluntarily offer up screens for children to use, or books for mom and dad to read to them while on the toilet. I discourage this because it sets children up to think that potty time is playtime, rather than simply elimination time. (I know, you’re thinking it’s the rare adult who isn’t on his phone while doing his business.) Kids then become dependent on being entertained on the toilet and may use it as a tool to get parental attention: “I’ll sit on the potty if I can watch Daniel Tiger or Pepe Pig,” is a frequent refrain I’ve heard. Young children are very strategic. They know how desperate their parents are for them to use the potty, and they exploit it. One little girl announced that she would try to poop on the potty but mom would have to come in and read to her. This went on for almost 20 minutes as her little brother got zero attention in the next room. Put that one in the “win” column for sibling rivalry.

Constantly talking about the potty. When parents sometimes focus too intensely on using the potty, for example, by constantly reminding and asking kids about whether they have to go; or frequently reading books about going on the potty (not at the child’s request), it can increase resistance. Children pick up on the underlying meaning of your actions—that you are trying to control them. Further, the whole potty process takes over your everyday interactions, which tends to increase everyone’s stress level and detracts from just enjoying your child.

I hope these guiding principles help you get off to a good start. Part 2 on pottying will focus on many of the questions that I know this blog may have raised, or that you may already be dealing with, such as: my child is three and not showing any interest; my child won’t poop on the potty and is withholding and getting constipated; my child says he wants to wear underwear but then has accidents all day long. Stay tuned.

Public Displays of Disaster: What to do when your child loses it outside the home

Jacob, almost 3 years old, has thrown himself on the floor of the grocery store screaming that he must have one more chocolate, just one more! Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Most parents of young children live in terror of their little one losing it in public. It’s hard to avoid feeling judged and ashamed of out-of-control behavior, as if it is evidence of total incompetence as a parent, surely a result of your indulgence which has inevitably created a spoiled child. And for parents who don’t particularly care what others think, it can just be exhausting and frustrating when you are trying to get something done. This experience naturally puts parents themselves in an emotionally charged place, feeling embarrassed and often angry at their child for putting them in this nasty situation.

So, what can you do in these moments to reduce the stress both for yourself and your child—with the added benefit of feeling competent and effective instead of weak and mortified?

Don’t let the onlookers get to you

Ideally, just tune them out. Most are likely feeling your pain, having been there themselves, and aren’t judging. And for those feeling some guilty pleasure that it’s not them in the hot seat, ignoring is still a good strategy so you can stay focused on coming up with a productive response to helping your child cope.

Kill them with kindness.

If a bystander makes some really helpful (not!) comment (“I think he’s hungry”…”His diaper may be dirty”), avoid being reactive. You have nothing to be defensive about. Instead, try: “It is so nice that you want to help. I really appreciate it. But I’m all good. Learning that he can’t get everything he wants is a hard lesson for a little guy, right?” This is a nice way to send some important messages: “I am in control, and I am being a really good parent by setting appropriate limits and helping my child learn to cope with life’s disappointments.” This can be a particularly good strategy when it is your mother, or mother-in-law, or another close friend or family member who is trying to help.

Stay calm

If you are anxious and upset, your child is more likely to be anxious and upset. If you are calm and composed, she is likely to pull herself together more quickly. So while your emotional reaction is completely understandable, it is not strategic to come on strong, because it tends to escalate rather than calm your child. When she is falling apart, she needs you to be her rock. Best to take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that, if you lose it too, it will likely make the situation at hand more stressful and challenging. (And, for those parents who can’t let go of what others are thinking—you don’t want to give any of those judgy onlookers any ammunition.)

Validate your child’s feelings

“I know you are very angry that I am not giving you any more chocolate.” Validating feelings is not the same as validating behavior. Feelings aren’t the problem—they just are. It’s what kids (and parents) do with their feelings that can be problematic. That’s why one of your most important jobs is to help your child learn to manage these strong, difficult emotions in ways that are pro-social. But that takes time and practice. And it starts with validation—which helps children feel understood—and is the first step in helping them identify and then manage these emotions.

Provide choices that you can implement

This might mean offering your child a choice of another, acceptable food—perhaps something that is a little special but healthy, such as yogurt raisins. Some parents don’t want to offer a substitute at all. That is a personal decision. Even when offering the alternative, your child may flat-out reject it and intensify the tantrum to show you just how lame he thinks this other option is. In that case, you calmly say, “You are really upset about not getting what you want. It is my job to keep you safe so I am going to put you in the grocery cart. You will be okay.” And then you follow through with as much calm as you can muster and ignore all his efforts to get you to react. Divert yourself by talking about what you see in the grocery aisles. You might ask him if he can find and point to his favorite cereal on the shelf. This lets him know you are going to ignore his outburst, but you are not ignoring him, and that you can handle his upset and will be a “safe base” for him.

Most important is to try not to allow your worry about bystanders’ opinions and judgments to drive your behavior in these situations. Many parents report that they end up giving in to their child in order to get her to behave—to avoid the embarrassment or hassle—even though they don’t think that’s best for their child. But you have nothing to be embarrassed about; and when you give in, your child is cleverly putting 2 and 2 together: “Mommy or Daddy will pretty much give me anything to get me to quiet down when we’re anywhere but home!” Children having breakdowns when they don’t get their way is a normal part of growing up. When you respond calmly and empathically, and set clear limits that you can enforce, you send both your child and the onlookers the message that you’re all good—calm and in control.

Dinner, Bath, Books, and Goodnight: A positive, effective approach to helping your child get through daily routines

I have rarely met a family that hasn't struggled in some way with getting their children through daily routines. Common complaints include: “Ethan whines and protests every single step", or, “Talia’s refusal to cooperate is forcing us to nag and bribe her which is driving us crazy and we know is messed up. We’re all miserable by the time we walk out the door.” Families with young children face these types of struggles because most toddlers have some degree of difficulty with transitions. 

There are several reasons children have a hard time moving from one task to another during morning and bedtime routines, including:

  • Young children are quite zealous about asserting some control over their world. This means that whenever there is a demand to follow someone else’s agenda, such as yours, there is a natural tendency to defy it.

  • It is hard for many children to move from one activity to another. They become absorbed in what they are doing and making a transition takes a lot of effort.

  • Sometimes children have not actually tuned in to the direction you are giving them. They haven’t processed all of the information being communicated to them, so they can’t effectively act on it.

  • Some children are very distractible. They start to follow a direction, but something catches their attention and they lose track of what they are supposed to be focused on.

  • Morning and nighttime routines are associated with separations, such as going to child care/school, saying goodnight, etc. This can be emotionally challenging for young children.

The following strategies address these underlying issues and can help children better cope with daily routines. Note that the content below builds on another blog that focused on "Cracking the Cooperation Code", so you will see many of the strategies described in that post applied here.

  • Acknowledge that separations are hard. Feelings drive children’s behavior. The more we name and empathize with our children's emotions the less likely it is that they will have to act them out. “I know, mornings can be hard. We have to get ready for work and school and then say goodbye until dinnertime." Once you have shown understanding you can help your child cope: “But, we all have important jobs to do during the day. Yours is to play with grandma/go to school and learn all sorts of cool stuff and mine is to (fill in the blank). Why don’t we read four pages of your favorite book before we leave for school, then the first thing we’ll do when we get home is finish the book together.” Creating a bridge like this between separations can be very comforting for kids and gives them something concrete to look forward to. Another bridge might be having your child help you pack a snack in the morning that you bring with you when you pick him up at the end of the day.

  • Make a visual calendar. This provides cues as to what will happen next that can greatly ease transitions, especially when you include your child in creating the calendar. Take photos of all your child’s daily routines: waking up in the morning, having breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, getting into the car/bus, etc. Be sure to include the people who participate in or help with these routines. For example, take photos of Mom helping with getting dressed in the morning, Dad giving a hug at preschool drop-off, and so on. Then, help your child create the calendar, providing whatever support she needs based on her age/ability. Guide her to choose photos that depict each step of the routine and tape them up on any kind of paper/cardboard (some families get really fancy and use Velcro) in chronological order. You might even have her choose what she will have for breakfast and include it on the calendar. Give her two choices (have visuals for the various options) and put the photo of the food she chooses on the calendar as well. This can reduce challenges in the morning. Go through the same process for the evening/nighttime routine. Take photos of every important step of the process. You can create the calendar for the evening routine at the time you feel would work best for your child. Some families do it during breakfast for kids who fiercely depend on predictability and like to know exactly what is coming down the pike. For some children, this is too much to process in the morning; in this case, it works better to create a ritual of doing a brief family meeting before dinner to go over what the plan will be for the whole evening. For example, dinner, bath, tooth-brushing, books, bed. Again, be sure to take photos of all the people who might be involved in these routines so your child knows exactly what to expect: Daddy is doing bath tonight and Papa is the book-reader. Finally, provide a way for children to note that they have completed a task. They might put a check-mark or a sticker next to each photo as they move through the routine. This can be very motivating for kids.

  • Provide a warning to help children anticipate a transition. As many of you know, I am a big fan of the  Time-Timer because it provides a clear visual that helps children track how much time they have left. (Be sure to place it where your child can see it but be sure it’s out of her reach or, like most clever children, she will add time.) “Lucy, there’s only a little red left on Time-Timer. When he makes his beeping noise, it will be time to put the blocks away and take a bath.” Then add a choice to give your child some sense of control: “Do you want to play with the animal or planet stickers in the bath tonight?” This also helps her anticipate what will come next in a positive way.

  • Be sure your child is tuning in to and processing what you are communicating to him. It can be very helpful to establish a cue with your child for when you want his attention. One family I recently visited established a routine of placing a hand firmly and lovingly on their child’s shoulder to signal, “I have something to tell you. It’s time to stop doing what you’re doing and focus on me.” The more ritualized these cues become the more powerful they are. Some other tools for securing your child’s attention that were introduced in the Cracking the Cooperation Code newsletter include teaching your child about:

    • “Pause”: Explain to your child that when you stretch out your arm and hold up your hand as you say, “pause”, it means to “stop what you’re doing and get your body ready to listen.” You use “pause” to cue children to tune in when more typical strategies for getting their attention, such as calling their name or telling them you have a question to ask them, haven’t worked. (When we call children’s names over-and-over they tend to tune it out—think Charlie Brown’s teacher.) If your child is still not tuning in to you, you might need to place a hand over the object your child is still messing with and guide his hands to his lap to provide additional support for turning his brain onto what you need to communicate to him.

    • Brain teasers: These are distractions that call your child’s attention away from what he needs to be focusing on. Imagine you’ve directed your child to get his coat but on his way he gets sidetracked by a dump truck. You might say: “Oops, dump truck brain teaser. What was your job?” This provides a cue to get him back on track in a positive way, without nagging.

  • Communicate directions clearly: “Austin, I have a direction: please place your dish in the sink.” “Rumi, it’s time to go upstairs to take a bath.” This helps your child know exactly what is expected which is comforting to kids. Because giving a direction may feel dictatorial and we want to be “polite”, most of us tend to pose a direction as a question, such as: “Rumi, can you come upstairs?” Or, “Rumi, time to go upstairs, okay?” The problem is that these seemingly benign phrases are confusing to the child, who hears that you’re giving her a choice, which then causes frustration for parents when kids don’t comply. One recent example: a mom asked her 4-year-old multiple times, “Can you please come to the dinner table?” The child (logically) responded, “No, I’m not done with my game.” (Click here for more about providing clear choices and expectations.)

  • Use the concept of “two great choices!” to let your child know his options. Continuing to avoid or protest is not one of them: “Charlie, the direction is to go upstairs for bath. You have two great choices: you can go upstairs on your own, or, I will carry you up. You decide.” Focusing on the fact that your child is the decider and you are just implementing the consequences of his choices makes children feel more in control and less defiant. Many parents worry that this is somehow giving in to the child, i.e., carrying him up the stairs; but what’s the alternative? Waiting for your child to comply puts him in the driver’s seat for how the evening routine will go. This dynamic is not healthy for you or your child and results in a lot of unpleasant battles. Rest assured, once you follow through on this limit a few times your child will be hopping or slithering up the stairs on his own. You can use this strategy for every step of the routine: “Time-Timer says we have 20 minutes for breakfast. You have two great choices: you can eat enough food to fill your belly up; or, if you choose to play instead of eat, then we will put your food in a container to take with you in case you get hungry.” “It’s time to get our hands clean for dinner. Your choice is to wash your hands in the sink or use a wipe.” If your child runs away, you simply approach him as calmly as possible, give him a bear hug and use a wipe to clean his hands without any anger. You are simply showing him that any tactics that aren’t acceptable or good for him won’t work. That’s how children ultimately learn to adapt and make good choices.

  • Incentivize cooperation: A natural consequence of cooperating is that it saves time which can translate into more opportunity to do desired activities. You might explain to your child that he has 10 minutes to get dressed, alone or with your help. If he cooperates, he banks 5 minutes. Same for getting shoes on, etc. You can add up the time he has saved and at the end of the day he gets a choice of say, 10 extra minutes of play- or book-time before bed. This can serve as a powerful incentive. It is also a great alternative to using rewards or negative consequences, which often have no connection to the actual "incident", can be shaming, and tend to backfire.    

  • Give your child some sense of control over the transition: “It's time to get into the car. You have a choice: do you want to bring a book or listen to a story on tape?”  “It’s time to go upstairs for bath. You have a choice, should we hop like a bunny or slither up the stairs like a snake?” The more your child feels he has some control over the process the more likely he is to comply.

  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions and desires: “I know, you love to color and it’s so hard to stop doing something that’s so much fun. But Time-Timer is telling us that it’s time for what’s next on our schedule—getting dressed!” Remember, when you validate your child’s feelings, it makes it less likely she will need to act them out.

  • Let your child know when she’ll be able to do the desired activity again: “You can color again when we get home this afternoon while Daddy is making dinner. What do you want to draw tonight?” When you acknowledge your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants eventually, you reduce the stress typically experienced when children can’t get what they want right away. It calms them and puts them in a more positive frame of mind, which makes them more willing to comply.

  • Stay positive, even in the face of your child’s protests: Your tone is infectious. When you get revved up and this kind of thing comes rolling off your tongue: “If you don’t put the crayons down on the count of three you won’t have them for a week!”, it elicits an oppositional reaction and puts children in a more defiant posture. This makes it less likely that they will comply. Instead, try: “Mommy is going to be a helper and put these crayons away so you can focus on eating your breakfast.” Just because your child is losing it doesn’t mean you have to join her. The more calm and non-reactive you remain the more likely it is that she will get calm and comply.   

Of course, every child is different. These strategies are great for some kids and not effective for others. For example, some kids respond well to making a breakfast choice the night before. For other children, it just leads to a breakdown in the morning when they change their minds. You know your child best. Use your judgment and adapt these tools to best meet your child’s and your family’s needs.

Cracking the Cooperation Code

If you're like most parents, not being able to get your children to cooperate is one of your most vexing challenges. It’s especially maddening when a child’s lack of compliance seems totally irrational; for example, 3-year-old Sadie, who loves to eat but refuses to come to the dinner table and draws her parents into a power struggle, making everyone miserable. This naturally catapults her parents into revved-up mode. They get increasingly annoyed and resort to all kinds of rewards or threats to motivate Sadie to tow the line. Unfortunately, this typical, reactive kind of response usually makes it less likely that a child will change her tune and is more likely to result in an intensified tussle between parent and child.
As with all child-rearing challenges, the key is to figure out the root cause of the problem; what the driving forces are that result in the unacceptable behaviors. My colleague, occupational therapist, Teri Kozlowski of Teekoz Kids, has helped me crack the code on getting kids to cooperate by pointing out two key factors that influence the chance that children will follow directions: (1) whether children are even attending to and processing the information parents are trying to deliver to them; and (2) the tone and approach parents use to communicate directions to their children.
Factor #1: While there are many reasons why a child might not cooperate, one major variable is whether the child has even tuned in to what is being communicated to her. If your child hasn’t processed the information, for example, because she is still focused on the toy she is playing with, it makes it very hard for her to act effectively on your direction.
There are certainly times when children are purposefully ignoring your direction because they have learned that this is a good strategy to avoid having to make a transition. But there are also times when children are not attending because they have challenges with tuning in to others, period. They get so absorbed in their own internal experience that they may have a hard time turning their attention to what others are trying to communicate to them.
Regardless of the underlying reason for a child not tuning in, the following strategies can be very effective for getting kids to focus on and process a direction. All the strategies provide cues which help children know exactly what is expected of them, just like you might have a special ritual to say goodnight at bedtime or goodbye at preschool drop-off that helps your child cope with a separation. Consistent cues are powerful tools for helping children comply with directions, which is why kids are often much more cooperative at child care or school than at home. Group settings are highly structured with cues for everything: singing a song to signal that it’s clean-up time, ringing a bell when it’s time to line up to go outside, etc.
Strategies for Tuning In:
Without realizing it, many of us talk to children before securing their full attention. How often do you find yourself repeating a direction? Calling your child’s name over-and-over? Rephrasing the same direction ten different ways? Talking to the back of your child's head while he’s focused on something else? The following strategies provide clear cues to children to help them stop what they are doing, pay attention to, and process the important information you need to communicate to them.

  • “Pause”: Stretch out your arm and hold up your hand as you say, “pause”.  Explain that when you signal them to “pause”, it means “stop what you’re doing and get your body ready to listen.” You use “pause” to cue children to tune in when more typical strategies for getting their attention, such as calling their name or telling them you have a question to ask them, haven’t worked. (When we call children’s names over and over they tend to tune it out—think Charlie Brown’s teacher.)  

  • Listening body: This provides your child a clear direction about what to do to get his body and mind primed to pay attention. Teach your child about and practice listening body during a quiet moment together. “Darnell, we’re going to play a fun new game called, listening body. Once your whole body is ready to pay attention, I’ll read you a story.” Then you describe, demonstrate, and help your child practice the following steps: 

    • Listening feet: feet are on the ground and “quiet”, meaning they aren’t moving. Guide your child’s feet to the ground and put a finger up to your mouth and say “quiet” to signal “quiet feet”.

    • Listening hands: hands that are not messing around with other things (unless it’s a small toy/object you have given your child that helps him focus). Guide your child to place his hands on his lap and say, “quiet hands”.

    • Listening ears: ears that are listening to who is talking and not to other sounds in the environment. Point to your own ears and say, “listening ears”.

    • Listening eyes: eyes that are looking at the person who is talking. Point to your own eyes and say, “listening eyes”.

    • Listening mouth: a mouth that is not talking. Make the sign for zipping your own mouth closed to add a visual cue.

    • Listening brain: a brain that is tuned in to what the other person is communicating, and not thinking about other things. Turn an imaginary knob on the side of your head. This is the cue that your brain is turned on to what you are talking about and doing together.

Once you have taught your child about listening body, in the moment when you need to use it, only provide the cues that are necessary beyond saying, “I need a listening body”.  For example, you might need to place a hand over the object your child is still messing with and guide his hands to his lap to provide additional support for him to keep his hands still. Or, you might just use the visual cue of zipping your mouth closed. Keep in mind that the success of these strategies, such as pause and listening body, depends on using them consistently. It won't be effective if you direct your child to show his listening body only one out of the 20 times you are trying to get his attention. 

  • Choice vs direction: Teach your child that a choice is something she gets to pick, while a direction is something she has to do. A choice might be offering her a cheese stick or apples slices for snack. A direction might be: “It's time to come to the table for dinner.” Labeling choices and directions helps your child understand the expectation. “Charlie, I have a direction for you: it’s time to put away the Magna-tiles and wash hands for dinner.”  Or, “Laila, you have a choice: do you want to brush teeth before books or after books?” You can also call directions "jobs" as kids tend to respond very positively to this concept: “Omar, your job is to put all the blocks back on the shelf.” When communicating a direction, be very careful not to start with, “can you” or end with “okay?” (“Can you get into you pjs?” Or, “It’s time to clean up, okay?”) Almost all parents do this without thinking. It’s important to become aware of these seemingly minor language choices as they cause confusion for children, who hear that you’re giving them a choice, and frustration for parents when kids don’t comply. I was at a home visit recently during which a mom kept asking her 2-year-old to, “Please take your feet off the kitchen table, okay?” After several requests the toddler turned to her mom and simply said, “No, I like them on the table.” (Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.)

  • Beware the brain teasers: These are distractions that call your child’s attention away from what he needs to be focusing on; for example, the TV, a toy, a noise, a piece of lint on the carpet. In these moments, you might say: “Oh—brain teaser!”, as you point to the distraction; it might be another book on the shelf or a toy he is reaching for while you’re reading together. Then add, “It’s time to turn your brain off of the toy and on to our book”, as you turn an imaginary knob by the side of your head to add a visual cue about the need to change his brain's focus. Another typical scenario is when you’ve directed your child to retrieve a specific object, such as his shoes, and along the way he sees a ball and starts to play with it. In this situation, you might say: “Oops, brain teaser. What was your job?” This provides a cue to get him back on track in a positive way, without nagging.

  • Being a helper: This is a great tool for when the strategies above are not working and your child is still having a hard time focusing on the direction. Take the example of the child who is going for the ball instead of getting his shoes. You might say: “Oh, do you need a helper? I’m going to count to three and you can decide if you can put the ball down and come get your shoes on, or if you want me to be a helper.” If he doesn’t comply after the count of three, you say, “I can be a helper and put the ball in the ‘wait space’”, which is essentially anywhere the child can’t access the object. This takes the distraction out of the equation and helps your child focus on the task at hand.  

Notice that all of these strategies have an intentionally, positive focus - such as showing children they have choices and positioning yourself as a helper - which is a great segue to the next key variable for getting kids to cooperate. 

Factor #2:  Parents tend to unwittingly approach limit-setting or giving directions using a negative tone or frame: “If you don’t stay in your room, I am going to put a gate up!” "If you don't put all these toys away I am throwing them in the trash." This approach engages children’s defiance and puts them in a more oppositional state of mind which makes it less likely that they will comply. When you use a positive tone it motivates children to cooperate. Consider the following strategies:

  • You have two great choices!: This strategy acknowledges that you can’t make your child do anything. You can only set clear boundaries and limits that you are able to implement which guide and shape her behavior. It also provides a positive frame as it focuses on the fact that your child is making the choices and you are just implementing the consequences of her decisions. If she makes a good choice it results in a positive outcome for her. A poor choice leads to a less-desired outcome. Here’s how it might look in real life: “Tania, the direction is to stay in your room after lights-out. That’s our rule. You have two great choices: if you choose to stay in your room, no gate. If you choose to come out of your room, we will help you get back into bed one time and put the gate up to help you stay in your room so you can get a good night's sleep. You decide.” Or, "Brandon, if you choose to cooperate with tooth-brushing, we will have time for an extra book; if you choose not to cooperate, I will need to brush your teeth which means we won't have time for the bonus book." This incentivizes children with natural consequences: cooperation leads to more time to do desired activities. 

  • Direct, don’t correct: Children, especially highly sensitive, reactive children, tend to feel shamed and overwhelmed when being corrected. When they hear “no!” their brains become flooded with emotion and they are unable to think or problem-solve. This makes it much less likely they will comply and change their behavior in positive ways. Instead, skip the “no” and provide a clear direction about the expectation and what your child can do. For example, if a child gets up from the table before mealtime is over, instead of saying, “No getting up to from table. Sit back down right now or there will be no more food,” you might say: “Oh, we’re still sitting at the table” (as you tap his chair to provide a visual cue). Or, if a child goes for a toy when you’ve told her it’s time to get pjs on, you might respond: “We’re putting on pajamas, now.” This approach also has an added benefit as it entails using a lot less language than we tend to use when we are frustrated and trying to get our children to cooperate. We give a long lecture thinking we can convince our children to do the right thing. But this tends to have the opposite effect. When a limit is being set it’s stressful for kids. They have to stop doing something they enjoy in order to comply with someone else’s agenda. The more we talk, the more agitated and overstimulated children become, which escalates their frustration and interferes with their ability to regulate and comply. This positive and “to the point” strategy also helps you self-regulate. All that lecturing tends to increase parents’ emotional intensity. Providing clear direction is simpler, keeps everybody calmer, and makes you a more effective limit-setter.

  • “First, then”: When your child is pursuing an object or activity that is preventing her from focusing on the task at hand, you can say: “Oh, do you want to play with the balls? ... Great idea! First we need to clean up these toys and then we can play with the balls.”  When you acknowledge and validate your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants to do eventually, you reduce the stress she typically experiences when she can’t get what she wants right away. This calms her mind and also puts her in a more positive frame of mind which makes her more willing to comply.  

Everything children do is driven by what’s going on in their bodies and minds. When you provide them with tools to calm their bodies and focus their minds, and when you approach directions and limits with a positive and motivating tone, you set your children (and yourself!) up for success.

Goodnight, Sleep Tight: How to help young children cope with nighttime fears

My 3 1/2 -year-old has started to get up in the middle of the night after saying he had a bad dream. He comes in to our room and wants to sleep with us.  We’ve been able to get him back into his bed, but he won’t let me leave until he falls back to sleep. Some nights that can take over an hour, and he often gets up multiple times in a night. No one is getting enough sleep and we are all very cranky. I want to be sensitive to his fears but at the same time help everyone get more sleep.

This is a very common phenomenon in households with a 3-year-old, as it is the age at which children’s imaginations really start to take off. At the same time, they don’t have a very firm grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality. This translates into the development of fears: the monster from the book may appear in their bedroom; the snake in the TV show about animals might climb through their window. Naturally, these fears are more likely to emerge at night when the lights are off and children are alone. Understandably, most parents feel it would be harmful to leave a child when they are frightened.

But this is one of those parenting moments when what is best for the child is not necessarily consistent with our impulses; when the most effective strategy, in this case, for helping a child learn to cope with his fears, is counter-intuitive.  We think that staying with children until they fall back to sleep is the best and most loving thing to do. But in fact, allowing a child to sleep in your bed or staying with him until he falls back to sleep after having a bad dream, inadvertently confirms your child’s belief that there is really something to be afraid of and that he is only okay if you are with him; that he is not safe on his own. 

The only way children (or any of us) get over their fears is by living through them and experiencing that the fears are unfounded. For example, when a child finally goes down the big slide he was terrified of and sees that he survived; or, when a child makes it through and thrives by the end of the first week of preschool after screaming for dear life not to be left in this strange, scary place.  At nighttime the same rules apply—your child needs to experience that the fears in his head are not real and that he is okay on his own; that he doesn’t need you to be with him to be safe. We don’t want to set kids up to think that they can’t handle these feelings and that they can only cope if you are with them, which is not always the case. We want to empower them with the tools and confidence to master these fears. This is very important to keep in mind, because if you think that you are hurting your child by not physically being with her as she works through her fears, it will be very difficult to follow through with any plan that entails setting some limits and boundaries around sleep. Note that research shows that allowing children to learn to sleep on their own is growth-promoting (“positive stress”) and not harmful. (Here is a good piece on myths/facts about sleep training.)

The other factor to keep in mind is that young children are very clever; they quickly put two and two together—that saying they had a bad dream is a great way to their parents’ attention in the middle of night and ideally to land a spot in their bed. This can take on a life of its own and lead to major sleep deprivation for parent and child, which has its own set of negative effects.

The following strategies can be helpful in guiding you in deciding what approach you want to take: (I never offer a standard, one-size-fits-all-approach as every child and family is different. Prescriptive approaches are rarely useful for families.)

  • Talk to your child about his “worry” versus his “thinking” brain: Explain that there are different parts of our brains: we all have a “worry” brain that makes us think things are scary, like monsters or ghosts. We also have a “thinking” part of our brain that helps us know whether something is real or not. Sometimes our worry brains trick us into thinking we need to be afraid of something when actually we’re totally safe, like when we are afraid that mommy might not come back from a work trip, even though she always comes back. Putting concepts into categories can be very helpful for young children. It helps them process and make sense of complex ideas.

  • Include time in your bedtime routine to go through the list of your child’s worries and help him use his thinking brain to problem-solve. If he doesn’t like it pitch black, put a nightlight in his room. If he’s afraid of monsters, remind him that they are in his worry brain and then go through his room together to show him there are no monsters. If he’s afraid of something coming in his window, show him how it shuts tight and can be locked. This gives children a sense of control which reduces fears. Some parents spray a special potion (water) around the room and use other strategies like this to keeps monsters and other scary things away. The risk with these kinds of solutions is that it suggests that monsters, etc. do exist which can lead to confusion for children if we are also trying to help them understand these fears are not real.

  • Co-opt the love-object. “Loveys”—those special stuffed animals, blankets, etc., that young children become very attached to—can be powerful tools for soothing children and helping them cope in stressful situations. They can help reduce bedtime fears in several ways:

o Incorporate the lovey into your bedtime routine. Bear can sit with you while reading and cuddle with you while singing lullabies. The more your child associates her lovey with your nurturing family routines, the more powerful its ability to soothe her during separations and stress.

o Put your child in the role of being a helper and protector for her lovey. Suggest that Bear needs her help to see he’s safe and that getting sleep is so important to be sure his brain and body can grow big and strong. Have her help you explain to the lovey that the scary things are in his worry brain. This puts your child in the driver’s seat and in a mindset that she is the strong, capable one who can keep lovey safe.  

  • Provide soothing tools for your child. Help your child identify ways he can soothe himself when he wakes up in the middle of the night, such as: singing himself or his lovey a favorite song, or hugging a memory foam pillow—something many children find very soothing. Empowering him with tools for calming himself helps him feel in control and able to take care of himself.

  • Make a bedtime tape. Using a digital audio device, record 20 minutes or so of you reading books and singing bedtime songs with your child. When you put him to sleep at night and/or when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he can play this tape to help him transition to being separated from you. You can show him how to push the button to make it play.  

  • Set a plan for exactly what will happen when he wakes up. Every family comes up with a different plan based on their comfort level with allowing their child to work through their fears. Keep in mind that the more you intervene, the more stimulating it is for your child, and the harder it is for him to fall back to sleep. The key elements should include the following:

o  Let your child know that if he wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream that he can remind himself about his worry vs. thinking brain—that the fears aren’t real—and that he has all the soothing tools you have identified above to help him calm himself.

o   If he calls out to you in the middle of the night, let him know that you will go in one time to reassure him that all is well and to remind him about his worry vs. thinking brain and about all his soothing tools. You can help him turn the tape on but be clear that you will do that one time only (as some children will keep calling out to have you keep turning it back on). Also note that while this tape works great for some children, for others it provides just another variable that leads to power struggles. Use your judgment—you know your child best.

o   If your child comes to your room in the middle of the night, quietly and calmly escort him back to his own room. (Remember, there is no need for anger or punishment. Your child is not misbehaving or purposely trying to drive you mad. He is acting on his feelings and needs your support and appropriate limits to help him cope.) Remind him of his worried vs. thinking brain and all his coping tools, tuck him back in, and leave. Let him know that if he chooses to get out of his room again, you will put up a gate or use a “monkey lock” (a mechanism that safely wedges the door a few inches open) on your child’s bedroom door to help him stay in his room. These barriers prevent children from repeatedly leaving their rooms, averting the stress for both you and your child that results when you have to keep physically forcing him back into his room. Be sure to remind him that it is his choice—if he stays in his room then there is no need for the gate or lock.

o   Be sure to use a positive tone of voice throughout the process. Children react as much to your non-verbal cues as your words. If you show worry or angst, it signals to your child that there is something to be anxious about. You want to project that all is well and that he is safe and secure in his room on his own.

o   In the morning, be sure to emphasize that while he was afraid, he stayed in his room all night and now he sees that he is perfectly fine and that the fears were in his head. This is the foundation you can then build from, continuing to remind him about his worry vs. thinking brain.

  •  Role-play the plan. Once you have devised an airtight plan that you feel confident you can implement, regardless of your child’s reaction, tell him exactly what the plan will be for middle-of-the-night-wakings. (Don’t assess your strategy based on your child’s response—just because he doesn’t like a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for him.) Then practice/role-play the plan in advance. This can make a big difference in helping children adapt to the new expectations.  Have him pretend he’s had a bad dream or has woken up feeling afraid in the middle of the night. Remind him to call out to you or to get up and come to your room and then play out the process—walking him back to his room, reminding him of his worry vs. thinking brain and of all his calming strategies. Prompt him to pretend to get up again and then put up the gate or monkey lock. Remind him: “Monkey lock is our friend, He protects you and helps you stay in your room so you can get a good night’s sleep.” Practicing lets him experience exactly what to expect. Remind him that it is his choice—if he stays in his room then there is no need for the gate or monkey-lock.

If you don’t feel comfortable letting your child fuss and protest once you’ve set the limit, figure out what plan you can make that you can stick to that will ultimately help him experience that he is okay in the middle of the night. Some families decide to go in periodically to keep reassuring their child that all is well—mommy and daddy are still there in the house and everyone is safe. Some parents make a plan that involves sitting close to the child’s bed until he falls back to sleep with the caveat that there is no interaction—that it is not talking or play time and his job is to get his mind and body back to sleep. With each consecutive night the parent moves the chair farther away until she is out of the room completely. (Note that while this plan is soothing and can be effective for some children, for others it is very stimulating to have a parent just feet away. All their energy gets focused on seeking their parents’ attention which becomes an obstacle to settling down and falling back to sleep. It is also hard for many parents to be sitting right there and not respond to a child who is begging for their attention.) As you are establishing your plan, what’s most important to keep in mind is to limit the amount of interaction to avoid reinforcing your child’s dependence on your support during the night.

While these are some of the most difficult moments for parents, it’s these experiences that enable you to have the greatest impact on positively shaping your children’s development. You are helping them feel confident that they can cope with the other challenges they will face as they grow.







Parenting Without Power Struggles: Avoiding bribery, rewards and negotiation in favor of helping young children make good choices

Pow·er strug·gle (noun): An unpleasant or violent competition for power; refers to people in a relationship fighting about who is in control, with both trying to dominate the relationship in one way or another.

This unpleasant dynamic is not what most of us had in mind when we dreamed about having children, but it’s one almost all of us have fallen prey to with varying frequency and intensity. Power struggles are hard to avoid. Children are experts at drawing us into them. But it’s worth the effort to try to avoid this tug-of-war as it results in endless frustration and are detrimental to both parent and child.  When a power struggle ensues, nobody wins.

Guiding principles for avoiding power struggles:

  • Seeking power is developmentally appropriate. Young children are not doing anything wrong or misbehaving when they try to get their way or fight for what they want. It’s our job to guide them in acceptable ways to assert control. They can choose whether to brush their teeth before or after reading a book, but not whether to brush their teeth at all. They can choose to either eat all of their breakfast or take what they don’t finish in a to-go container, but they can’t obfuscate and eat a bite a minute to try to prolong mealtime to avoid going to school and make everyone in the family late.

  • Your job is not to control your child, nor can you control your child. You can’t make them do anything: eat, talk, pee in the potty, not call you names, not have a tantrum. Your job is to guide your children to make good choices and you do that by providing clear limits and boundaries that shape their behavior.

  • Young children thrive on clear limits and boundaries. Protracted negotiations and inconsistent expectations cause confusion and are an obstacle to children making good choices. That’s why kids often do better at school or child care versus home. Group care providers run very tight ships in order to maintain a calm and safe environment. The rules and limits are crystal clear, they are not porous. There are no negotiations or “gray” areas. If they clean up their toys, they get to choose new ones. If they don’t put their coat and backpack in their cubby, they don’t get to be the line-leader. Knowing exactly what to expect makes children feel secure.  They know what to do to be successful.  This teachers them to become strategic—to make good choices that serve them well—versus relying on manipulation.

  • Don’t judge a limit by your child’s reaction—aka don’t fear the tantrum. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her. The tantrum is just your child’s way of saying she doesn’t like your rule and is feeling frustrated or disappointed that she can’t have what she wants. Don’t expect a “thank you” for limiting your child’s sugar intake, screen time, etc.

  • Don’t take the bait. Young children are highly skilled at tuning into what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular—otherwise known as “bait”.  While this feels so wrong, and exasperating, children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative (which is naturally confounding to parents). The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child. Instead, address the underlying feeling but don’t engage around the provocative behavior. For example:

Child’s response to his dad who has just told him TV time is over: “I am going to take your voice box and throw it in the trash!” (True story).

Dad’s response: “I know you hate when the TV goes off. You love your shows. But that’s our family rule: one hour of TV. When you’re done being mad and are ready to read a book together, let me know.”

  • Impose limits that you can enforce and not ones that depend on your child’s cooperation. Any time you are trying to convince your child to do something, she is in control and driving the proverbial car. For example, insisting that she stays in her bed at night or that she doesn’t get up from the dinner table before mealtime is over. But you can put up a gate to ensure she stays in her room and enforce a rule that leaving the table means her mealtime is over. Kids give up strategies that don’t result in their desired outcome.

Most importantly, have a plan for how you’ll respond to your child’s unacceptable demands. When you don’t have a plan, that’s when things tend to fall apart.  Parents are more likely to become harsh and threatening and end up participating in and amplifying the struggle in a desperate attempt to gain back control. When you have a plan, it enables you to stay calm and loving while setting clear limits and avoiding power struggles.

"Go Away Mommy! Daddy Reads to Me!" How to Deal with Parental Preferences

“No—Daddy reads to me!” Tamisa exclaims when her mom, Audra, plops down beside her, eager to start the bedtime book. Audra, hurt, pleads: “But it’s mommy’s turn and I love reading books with you.” Tamisa responds: “I want daddy!!” Audra slams the book on the floor as she says, “You’re making mommy very sad.” She promptly exits the room as she is shouting to dad that Tamisa is all his.

Playing parental favorites, while very painful for the parent who is experiencing the rejection, is actually quite common. It’s almost always situational, not personal. Some children forge a fierce attachment to the parent who is acting as the primary caregiver—the one doing most of the diapering, feeding, bathing, and comforting. It doesn’t happen solely in families with a stay-at-home parent, but usually occurs when one parent shoulders the bulk of the caregiving responsibility. Children may make a strong association about who they feel safe with and trust and glom on to that person exclusively, even if the other parent is very loving and involved. Sometimes it’s the opposite, the parent who is less available becomes special in the child’s mind and so the child demands to have that parent to herself.  It is also common for a child to favor one parent over the other after the birth of a new baby. In some cases, the older child comes to rely more heavily on the parent who hasn’t given birth, whom they perceive as more available. Other times it’s the converse, the child clings to the parent who gave birth as a result of the jealousy she feels about the attention the new baby is getting. And sometimes the genesis of the preference is unclear, but it is usually a way to cope with a complex or challenging experience the child is trying to manage.   


Regardless of the reason for the preference, it is important for your child’s healthy development (and for a healthy marriage or partnership!) that she develop a close, trusting relationship with both parents. (For single parents, this same favoritism dynamic can occur with other trusted caregivers.) It is also important that she not be in a position to decide who does what when it comes to parenting. So, what can you do?

Don’t react to your child’s rejection, as hard as that may seem. It’s not personal and does not mean he loves one parent more than the other. If you take it personally, you are more likely to respond with hurt and anger, which may perpetuate the preference. Further, when you act defensively it is confusing and overwhelming to your child, since this is not his intention, and can further complicate his ability to move through this phase.

Validate your child’s feelings, but don’t give in to her demands. “I know grandma lets you have 2 cookies after dinner, but my rule is 1 cookie. Grownups sometimes have different rules.” Or, “I know you want daddy to read tonight. But it’s mommy’s turn and I love reading books with you. Your choice is for mommy to read or to just go to sleep. You decide.” Another options is to just go ahead and start reading. Showing your child with your actions that you are not going to get into a debate will often lead to acceptance and adaptation. Your tone should be totally upbeat and matter-of-fact, not tinged with hurt or annoyance. You are setting a limit— showing your child that you acknowledge her desire, but also that she is not the decider when it comes to parenting.

Agree to work as a team to show your child you are united and supportive of each other.  The preferred parent needs to send the message to the child that he will not participate in the favoritism. In the case above, that would mean Dad not stepping in to read after the rejection of Mom, but instead, lovingly confirm that it’s Mom’s turn. This is critical because your child will look to the preferred parent for cues about how to respond, so that parent’s reaction is especially important.   

Create opportunities for the rejected parent to have special time with the child. This provides a chance for the her to reframe her relationship with that parent. If the child protests and cries when the preferred parent leaves, the remaining parent should validate the child’s feelings and then just start engaging in an activity he enjoys. “I know you are sad to see daddy leave. He’ll be back after your nap. I am going to play with the trains. I hope you’ll join me soon.”

Consistently responding to these kinds of situations in this sensitive way will enable your child to work it through and benefit from a loving, close relationship with both his parents.






Setting Effective Limits with Love: 9 Guiding Principles

Discipline is one of parents’ most important responsibilities. Setting clear and appropriate limits is a gift, as it teaches children how to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments, and to be flexible—to be able to adapt to not getting what they want, when they want it.

Since doing home visits is a key component of my work with families, I have the chance to observe parents in their efforts to discipline their children in-vivo and have identified a number of key factors that create obstacles to parents being the effective and loving limit-setters they want to be. Taking these factors into consideration helps parents approach discipline with empathy toward their child vs. anger and frustration, and leads to parents feeling more competent and in control of helping their children learn to manage their bodies and emotions in acceptable, healthy ways—the ultimate goal of nurturing healthy development in the early years.

1.  Be sure your expectations for your child match her age and stage of development. Recognize that young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is totally normal. The part of the brain that enables us to think about and manage our feelings and impulses is not well-developed until five to six years of age. Young children are driven by emotions, so trying to use reason to get them to cooperate is rarely a useful endeavor. Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to your child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that further distress your child instead of calming her. If you see these behaviors in the context of normal development, you are more likely to approach your child with empathy and appreciate these moments as opportunities to teach good coping skills.

2. Tune in to the meaning of your child’s behavior. Getting to the root cause of your child’s actions can help you to respond in ways that are sensitive and effective. A tantrum in the grocery store might be caused by sensory overload, fatigue, or disappointment about not getting a cookie from the bakery. Biting might be a self-soothing strategy, a way to keep others at a distance, or an expression of anger. Understanding the root cause of a behavior can help you come up with discipline strategies that address the underlying issue and help your child build strong coping skills. This means considering some factors that impact behavior: What’s going on in your child’s world—has she experienced a recent move? A new caregiver? A recent loss? Parental stress? It’s also important to think about your child’s temperament. Is she a big reactor or a go-with-the-flow kind of kid? Is he persistent or does he get frustrated easily? How does she react to new people and experiences—does she jump right in or need time to feel comfortable? All of these factors influence children’s ability to cope with life’s natural stressors, such as adapting to new experiences, learning to wait, and managing daily transitions.

3. Don’t fear your child’s feelings. Feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong”, and they are not the problem. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for your child…and you. Naming feelings is the first step in helping children learn to manage them—a key factor for developing self-regulation.

4. Keep in mind that happy children aren’t always happy (aka limits are loving !) Just because a child doesn’t like a limit, and is unhappy in the moment, doesn’t mean it’s not good for him. (I have yet to hear a 3-year-old say, “Thanks, Dad, for not letting me have those M&M’s before dinner. I know how important it is to eat my growing foods.”) Setting and enforcing clear limits is loving. Learning to accept limits leads to flexibility and the development of effective coping strategies: accepting a cheese stick instead of candy or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits. This ability to adapt is what ultimately makes children happy and helps them be successful in the larger world. Remember, just because your child wants something doesn’t mean he needs it.

5.  Limits are only as effective as your ability to implement them; they can’t depend on your child’s compliance or cooperation. You can’t make a child get in her car seat, but you can give her the choice between climbing in herself or having you put her in. You can’t make a child stay in his room after bedtime, but you can put up a gate to provide a boundary that prevents your having to continuously (and with increasing annoyance—not good for anyone) escorting him back to bed. Depending on your child to follow through puts him, not you, in the driver’s seat.

6. Young children are strategic, not manipulative. Children are driven to get what they want and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal—they are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic.

7. Don’t take the bait! Young children are incredibly clever—they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular. (I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party! Sound familiar?) While this feels so wrong, and is extremely exasperating, children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want, and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative. The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t react to the provocative behavior. Instead, acknowledge the underlying feeling: “You are mad that I took the iPad away,” and move on.

8. Be responsive, not reactive (otherwise known as “know your triggers and manage your emotions”). Anticipate what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive and make a plan for how to calm yourself in order to make a thoughtful decision about how to respond to your child. It might mean taking a mommy/daddy time-out. This gives you a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond, while throwing a monkey wrench into what might otherwise become a heated back-and-forth. (It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of stopping the child short in his tracks—so shocked at your calm response!) Taking this time-out can keep you from being reactive, give you time to think, and provide a very powerful model for exercising self-control. It is also a great tool for co-parents to avoid undermining each other and to allow time to come up with a united plan: “Hmm…this is a problem; you want ice cream but it is almost dinner time and that is not a growing food. We need a minute to think about how to solve this problem.” Once you have agreed on a plan, you let your child know what his choices are: “We know you love ice cream and want some now, but that is a sweet for after dinner. Now your choices are apple slices or carrots.” If he throws a big fit, you calmly and lovingly let him know you see he is unhappy about your decision and then move on. Don’t fear the tantrum!

9. Avoid solving your child’s problems. It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is often to rescue our children or “fix” whatever is causing them distress. (One cry of frustration from my three-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response—fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better—setting a pattern of him relying on me to be the fixer for years to come.) When parents repeatedly solve their children’s problems, they are missing opportunities to help them develop the confidence that they can master new skills. In helping make it all better so our children won’t feel bad about themselves, we are actually doing the opposite: we send the message that our children are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems.

Discipline comes from the word disciple, which means to teach a follower or student. It has nothing to do with punishment, which has been shown to have negative long-term consequences for children far into adulthood. When you approach limit-setting like that favorite teacher you had growing up, who was clear and firm but loving, who didn’t shame you when you made a bad choice but helped you see the consequences of your actions and learn to make good decisions, you give your child a gift that keeps on giving.

Additional resources on positive discipline and limit-setting:

Discipline Do’s: An Empathetic and Effective Approach to Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Young Children

Tuning In, the parent survey conducted by ZERO TO THREE, confirmed that discipline is one of the toughest jobs for parents when it comes to raising young children. More than half of parents across all economic, gender and racial/ethnic segments say that “figuring out the most effective way to discipline” and “managing my child when he/she misbehaves” are among their biggest challenges when it comes to parenting a young child (57% and 56% respectively).

One major factor that makes it so difficult for parents is an overestimation of children’s ability for self-control, which can lead to frustration for both parents and children. Our survey showed that more than half of all parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden. And almost 50% of parents believe children can control their emotions—such as not having a tantrum when frustrated—well before children are capable of this kind of self-control, which is not until about ages 3 ½ to 4 years. The parts of a toddler’s brain that control emotions are in the very early stages of development in the first 3 years.  Challenging behavior does not happen because very young children are “bad” or need to be “taught a lesson” through punishment. Instead, parents can see young children as learning machines who need support to manage strong emotions and offer the steady teaching and guidance they need.

Lessons are best learned through kind, consistent leadership and modeling. As parents, this means we need to show children how to “keep their cool” by doing it ourselves, over and over. Here are six scenarios that offer some ideas for using an empathetic, teaching and guiding approach to discipline in the early years.


Behavior: Child refuses to stop doing something you’ve asked her to stop, such as throwing a ball in the house.

Parent Self-Check: Acknowledge that the desire to throw is natural for young children and remember that she isn’t doing it on purpose to drive you crazy.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know you love throwing the ball because it’s so much fun. But there is no throwing a ball in the house. It can be dangerous. The ball could hit someone or break something.”

Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Brainstorm other ways your child can play with the ball. If it’s valid, use the child’s idea. If not, offer your ideas.  For example, she can throw the ball in a basket; or, she can throw the ball outside.


Behavior: Child won’t cooperate with a transition, such as to stop playing and get into the car seat to go to child care.

Parent Self-Check: Recognize that transitions are hard for young children. They need time to adjust and empathy and support to cope.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know it’s hard to stop playing, but the timer has gone off. That means it’s time to get into the car to go to school.”

Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Offer choices, such as taking a book or a small toy to ease the transition. Use humor: “What car? This isn’t a car—it’s a spaceship and you are an astronaut. Hop in!” Engage your child’s imagination and empower him as the helper: “Bear wants to go to school and needs a lap to sit on. Can you help?” If these kinds of strategies don’t work, acknowledge he’s having a hard time and as calmly and gently as possible place him in the car and move on without reacting to the protest.


Behavior: Child demonstrates aggressive behavior like hitting, kicking or biting.

Parent Self-Check: Remind yourself that it’s not “personal” or “immoral”—it’s immaturity. Young children are driven by their emotions and act on their feelings.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know you are mad that I took the iPad away, but hitting is not OK. I know you don’t mean to be hurtful. Sometime when you’re mad your mind and body lose control.”

Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): When your child is calm again, ask for his ideas about how he can calm himself and express his feelings in ways that are acceptable. Offer some ideas yourself, like taking deep breaths to calm down, stomping his feet to get the anger out, or using his words to express just how mad he is. Provide objects that are safe to hit. “You can’t hit people-that hurts. You can bang this drum instead.”


Behavior: Child tells a lie to try to get out of trouble, like saying she didn’t take a cookie when you know she did.

Parent Self-Check: Know that lying is a normal developmental phase. Young children don’t fully appreciate the meaning or consequences of lying. Calling them out on it directly is not a useful approach and can lead to more lying.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: Go straight to the issue to avoid getting into a power struggle about whether she “did it” or not: “You wanted a cookie. I get that, you love cookies. But the rule is that you need to ask me before taking sweets from the kitchen. I know it’s hard when you want something you can’t have. You can choose apple slices or yogurt.” Using this approach sends an important message and sets a limit without shaming your child.

 Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Let your child know that whenever she has a problem (like wanting a cookie), she can come to you for help figuring it out.


Behavior: Child talks back to you or says something that pushes your buttons: “You are a bad, mean mommy!”

Parent Self-Check: Calm yourself with a deep breath, and recognize that young children will rely on any strategies that get a big reaction from you.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: Calmly address the underlying issue. For example, “I know you are mad that I won’t let you play with my jewelry. But my necklace is fragile and not a toy.” Then move. Avoid reacting to the words/behavior that are designed to yank your chain.  

Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Ask your child for her ideas about other ways she can dress up. Offer a choice of something more acceptable your child might play with, such as some pretend/plastic jewelry or other dress-up items.


Behavior: Child yells or screams at you to do something, like demanding you make him a waffle.

Parent Self-Check: Take deep calming breaths and remind yourself that young children are driven by their desires.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule:“I know you are hungry and want a waffle, but I can’t help you when you are shouting at me. When you can ask me calmly, I am happy to help.”

Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Acknowledge that he has strong feelings and desires, then explain that demanding people do things and shouting are not acceptable strategies. Talk about or model other ways to communicate his feelings in ways that will make it more likely others will want to help him.


Behavior: Child melts down completely, for example when she is told it’s time to leave grandma’s house.

Parent Self-Check: Remember that the toddler brain has very little ability to control strong emotions.

Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know how hard it is to say goodbye to grandma. You love her so much.  But it’s time to go. We will come back and visit again soon.”  Then stop talking—that’s the hardest part! Too much language can be overwhelming to the child. She mostly just needs your soothing presence and to know you understand.

Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Problem-solving can only happen once your child is calm. Acknowledge her strong feelings. When she is calm, comment on what a great job she did calming herself down - no matter how long it took. Then work together on ways to manage when she has to part from a loved one, such as having a special “see-you-next-time” kiss, or maybe snap a photo to send to grandma’s phone on the way home as a way to feel connected. 

 More results from tuning In: National Parent Survey can be found on Learn more about how to support children’s healthy development in the first year and beyond by visiting and, or by tweeting #ParentForward.


7 Common Parenting Strategies That Backfire with Toddlers and How to Avoid Them

Almost every parent who reaches out to me for help starts with a description that goes something like this: "Henry can be the most delightful child. He is curious, extremely clever, and very funny. But he won't listen to anything we say. He argues and negotiates about everything and throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way. We feel like all we are doing is yelling and getting into power struggles with him. Help!"  

The bottom line: toddlers are marvelous, and also maddening.   

But they don't have to be...maddening that is. The frustration and powerlessness many parents experience often stems from a crucial expectation gap: they approach their young children using reason ("Why won't Serena just cooperate with getting dressed and avoid all the yelling and threats of having stuff taken away? It would make everything so much easier. She's just hurting herself.") The problem is that young children are not driven by logic but by their impulses and emotions. Their desire to get what they want when they want it and to exert some power and control over their world rules the day. That's why so many of the strategies parents typically use to try to coax cooperation from their children backfire; they rely on reasoning or on the faulty premise that you can control your child when you can't actually make her do anything--eat, pee on the potty, cooperate with getting dressed, etc. The fact is that the more you try to control your child the more likely it is that he will resist complying with your expectations. The approach and strategies that ultimately help children make good choices and behave in ways that help them thrive are often counter-intuitive.

Below are 7 common parenting pitfalls and a description of how to avoid them:

Trying to minimize or talk children out of difficult feelings; that they shouldn’t be mad/sad/scared. This doesn’t make the feelings go away. It just means your child is more likely to act them out.  Further, when we minimize or try to talk children out of their feelings we are sending the message that we are uncomfortable with their emotions. This makes it less likely your child will share them, missing critical opportunities to help your child learn to identify and manage his emotions, which is the key to healthy social/emotional development. Don’t fear the feelings!  Read more about helping children cope with challenging emotions.

Reacting when children say provocative things after you’ve set a limit they don’t like, such as: “You’re not my mommy and you’re not invited to my birthday party!” Successfully yanking your chain only reinforces this behavior. Remember, for young children any attention or big reaction is rewarding as they are all about power and control.  If you want to teach your child not to talk in this inappropriate way, the best response is to ignore his actual words and address the underlying issue: “I know you are mad that I said ‘no’ to Logan coming over to play today. You are really disappointed.” And then move on.  When these kinds of tactics don’t get a reaction, kids are more likely to give them up. Read more about how not to take the bait.

Making potty training personal--about pleasing or disappointing you--and getting over-involved in the process. It’s natural to think that this approach would be motivating to children, but it often has the opposite effect. Signaling that using the potty has the power to make you happy or unhappy adds a lot of pressure and anxiety to the process for many children. This causes children to get stuck or paralyzed by the process because using the potty has become an emotionally-laden “relationship issue” between the parent and child versus simply being a bodily function. Further, children sense that their parents are trying to exert some control over their bodies (at exactly the time when children are driven to exert power in any way they can) which may lead to more withholding or resistance in a desperate attempt to maintain their integrity and efficacy.  In one family, the parents had a rule that 3-year-old Julian had to sit on the potty for 5 minutes after bath time or he wouldn’t get any books.  As the timer was winding down they repeatedly asked if Julian was sure he didn’t have to go which was met with a very clear, "Nope!” As soon as the timer went off Julian got up and promptly peed on the bathroom floor as he smiled mischievously at mom and dad. The message—you don’t control me. What to do? Follow your child’s lead and support his efforts; avoid inserting yourself and your needs or expectations as that just complicates the process and gives your child something to react to. That means avoiding judgment, shaming, bribing, rewarding, etc. Read more about a healthy approach to potty training.

Bribing/forcing/negotiating with children to get them to eat. Research (and lots of anecdotal experience) shows that these tactics actually result in children eating less. Just like trying to control your child’s elimination—the more you force, cajole, reward or punish the more likely your child is to dig in his heels to let you know you can’t actually make him do anything, including eat. Food becomes a tool to gain power that results in constant struggles. Take, Rumi (age 4) who demanded a chocolate “energy” bar every morning for breakfast or she would "starve".  She refused to eat any of the healthy foods her moms offered her until they gave in, which they did, in fear that she would go to school hungry and be a terror. What to do? Offer your child a range of healthy choices of foods that she typically likes and then get out of her way.  Let her decide how much her body needs to feel full.  She may test for a few meals to see if you will cave; but once she sees you are not trying to control her she has nothing to rebel against and will be more likely to take responsibility for nourishing herself.  Read more about establishing healthy eating habits.

Trying to get a child to cooperate by telling him he’s a “big kid” (especially when there is a new baby in the family). 
From our adult perspective we expect children to hear this as a positive message and to be motivating. But from the child’s point of view, particularly if there is a new baby getting a lot of attention, being the older child isn’t looking all that great or desirable. Telling a child to "act like a big girl" can also feel shaming; the underlying message is that she is acting like a baby.  Shaming shuts kids down, erodes their self-esteem and self-confidence, making it less likely they will actually act their age.

Insisting your older child love the new baby. 
The more you force the issue the less likely it is your older child will feel warmly toward the baby.  It is natural to have very ambivalent feelings toward a new sibling. When the older child is made to feel bad for having negative feelings toward the baby and/or a lack of interest in the new addition to the family, there it is again—shame. When parents acknowledge the older child’s mixed feelings and give him space to learn about and engage with the new baby without judgment, he is much more likely to feel loving toward this new member of the family. Read more about helping older siblings adapt to a new baby in the family.

Pushing a fearful/clingy child to just go play with the other kids. 
This approach often backfires because it increases rather than decreases your child’s anxiety and erodes his trust that you will tune in to his feelings and help him cope. Instead, acknowledge that it can take time to feel comfortable engaging with a new environment or new people. This makes him feel understood which should decrease his anxiety and make him feel calmer and more open to taking steps forward to engage. Talk about what you see the other kids doing, then maybe play alongside some other children to slowly and sensitively help your child adapt.  Read more about helping children who are “slow-to-warm-up” adapt to new experiences.

Whether you’ve encountered any of these specific experiences or not, when faced with a challenging situation with your toddler, start by recognizing that what seems totally irrational from your adult vantage point makes a lot of sense once you see if from your child's perspective. Putting yourself in her shoes and wondering about what she is feeling, struggling with, trying to express, will almost surely set you on a path that will result in a more effective response and less frustration for you and your child.

"I Stay Home Forever!": Helping Your Toddler Cope with the Transition to School

Four-year-old Harris is starting a new preschool in a few weeks. He is a sensitive little guy who has a hard time with transitions. When he started at a child care center at age 2 he was frantic at separations. It took him several weeks to feel calm and fully engaged in the program. His parents were on the verge of pulling him out and mom was considering  quitting her job; but they stayed the course and Harris ultimately adapted and thrived. His parents are naturally worried about this upcoming change for Harris and how to best prepare him.

Starting school or a new childcare can be stressful; but it’s what we “in the field” think of as a “positive stressor” as it is a challenge that leads to growth for the child (provided, of course, that the school/setting where the child will be is high-quality.) It is an opportunity for children to develop close, trusting relationships with other adults and peers.  It builds confidence and helps children adapt to future separations.  And high-quality programs provide endless opportunities for developing the skills—intellectual, social and emotional—that set children up for success far into the future. Below are some ideas for how to help your child cope with this transition.

Avoid telling young children about big changes too far in advance.  Toddlers don’t have much perspective—a context for understanding what this upcoming change might be all about. Having information they can't make sense of can lead to their imaginations running wild which can cause anxiety. Also keep in mind that young children don’t have a strong grasp on the concept of time, so telling them even just a week before that they will be going to school for the first time, or a new school, may cause a lot of anticipatory stress.  It may be best to wait to tell them just a few days before they will begin. (Use a calendar to show which day they will go for the first time.)  This gives you a chance to talk about it without a lot of “lag time”.  They can experience the change and start to begin to adapt to it very shortly thereafter.  

When you discuss the change, be sure to validate your child’s fears before providing reassurance.  Labeling and acknowledging difficult feelings helps children understand, gain control over and work through them in positive ways. “I know it feels scary to go to a new school/classroom.  That makes a lot of sense.  But you will see that it is a great place and you will have a great time there playing with your friends.” Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away.

It can be helpful to share a story of a time when you started something new: describe your own feelings of being nervous/scared, what you did to cope, and the ultimate benefit of the experience—what you would have missed if you hadn't forged ahead.  If your child has any past experiences with mastering something new, remind him that he has faced a challenge like this before. Emphasize what a great job he did adapting and how this led to a good outcome for him; i.e., having fun at a birthday party or other activity he had initially been fearful of and protested going to. (This was a very effective strategy for Harris—reminding him of how he felt fearful going to his last school but that once he dove in he loved it. This is what builds resilience.)

If your child says he won’t go... again, validate his fear but let him know that it is not a choice and that you will help him cope.  Keep moving forward, calmly and lovingly, even if he continues to protest. Avoid the pitfall of trying to convince him to go; that communicates that he has a choice which can lead to more stress for everyone, if going to school is really not a choice. Once he experiences the daily routine of going to school each morning no matter his protests--that is when the push-back stops and the adaptation begins.

Visit the school in advance: Play on the playground.  Explore the school if this is allowed.  Meet the teacher/caregiver in advance. The unknown causes anxiety. The more a child is familiar with the new setting the less fearful she is likely to be.

Establish a ritual for leaving home. You might have your child choose a book that you read halfway through during breakfast or sometime before you leave in the morning.  Have your child make a special bookmark he places in the book to show where you left off. Then the first thing you do when you get home is finish the book together. This provides a connection from morning to evening that helps children cope with separations.

Say a brief, upbeat goodbye. Children look to their parents’ cues to assess a situation.  If you are calm and positive in your approach, even if your child is distressed, you are letting your him know that the new school is a safe place and he is more likely to make a quicker and more positive adaptation. “I know you don’t want mommy/daddy to leave.  It's a new place and you want me to stay. But this is where kids go to play and learn with other kids. That’s your job. My job is to do my work. I can’t wait to pick you up and hear all about your day.” (It’s a good idea to find out from the teacher what the last activity will be before pick-up time so you can let your child know exactly what to expect: “After you have music Daddy will be back to pick you up.”)  

Tune in to your own feelings about separating from your child, so you can manage them: It is natural to feel anxious about separating from your child, especially if this is your first born. But acting on this worry can increase a child's distress (and thus yours, too) and make the separation even harder.  I have heard many a parent unwittingly pass on anxiety in the way they say goodbye, for example : “Oh Sweetie, I promise mommy will come back as soon as possible”—said in a tense tone of voice. This communicates that maybe this isn’t such a good, safe place and thus your child needs to be rescued from it soon.

Further, don’t look back, hover, or return to the classroom after you say goodbye.  This again communicates that you are worried about your child—that you don’t trust he will be okay and has the capacity to cope. This erodes versus builds his confidence that he can handle this new challenge . (Research shows that the longer the goodbye routine, and the more parents hover or keep returning for one last hug, the longer it takes the child to eventually calm and adapt.) As long as you keep re-engaging when your child begs you not to leave, your child’s focus and energy remains on trying to connect with you versus adapting to the classroom. In many of the schools I work in the teacher will take over to help the parent leave. She will comfort the child (gently peeling him from the parent if necessary) and guide him to join the classroom activity or give him the space he needs until he is ready to participate. 

The take-home: talk to your partner or friends about your feelings—which are totally understandable. Just avoid projecting them onto your child.

Create a special goodbye ritual. Rituals can help kids cope. Establish a special kiss, hug or mantra you say every time you say separate at school. One dad-child pair held each other in a tight hug for a count of 5 and then said, “See you later alligator” in unison.  Doing that every morning eased the separation tremendously.

Provide Transitional Objects: This could be photos of the family that your child can put in her backpack or cubby. I have known some kids to bring their special lovey that stays in the cubby and can be used for comfort when the child is upset. Be forewarned that this can be a slippery slope; if the child wants to hold it all day long it can become an obstacle to him engaging in classroom activities.  Setting limits around its use are advised.

Most important is to have faith that with support from you and her teachers/caregivers, your child can and will adapt. Through the years I have seen many families pull their kids out of wonderful programs because they had a hard time transitioning. The child’s natural stress caused the parents so much discomfort they couldn’t tolerate it; they worried that their child just couldn’t do it. There are certainly some situations where there is a challenge in a child's developmental that makes participating in even a quality, loving, group care setting too stressful and inappropriate; for example, kids who have very low thresholds for sensory input may be so overwhelmed by the sound and activity-level in a classroom that they can't feel calm and adapt.  But for most children it is a gift to provide them the opportunity to experience that they can muscle through a challenge, adapt to a new situation, and engage in all sorts of enriching activities that take place in quality early childhood settings.  

Also remember that every child is different and approaches separations in their own way. Avoid comparing! Some kids jump right in. These tend to be the ones who "go-with-the-flow" by nature, or have older siblings who have gone to the same school.  But for many—especially the kids who are “slow-to-warm-up” temperamentally, it may take weeks to feel safe and comfortable. One 3-year-old I know sat in the “cozy corner” and looked at a photo album of her family for almost 3 straight weeks.  Then one day she got up and stood at the edge of the circle during book-reading time; then she started to join one other child in play. By the end of the first month she was totally engaged and thriving.   



Responsive vs Reactive Parenting: It Makes All the Difference

“I’M HUNGRY!” shouts 3-year-old, Jolie, every night after her dads, Kyle and Wayne, put her to bed. Their concern that she is not getting enough nutrition, given how little she eats most nights at dinner, wins out. They reluctantly give in, even though they know Jolie “driving the car” is not a good dynamic.

This is reactive parenting—when we get triggered and act on our emotions without thinking through what our child’s behavior is telling us and what response is going to teach them positive ways to cope with whatever need they are trying to meet or challenge they are facing. More often than not, reactivity leads to an escalation of the problem and more stress and frustration for both parent and child. It is one of, if not the, greatest obstacles, to parents’ ability to be the parent they want to be--in control and able to set and enforce appropriate limits while remaining loving and positively connected to their child.

But it is really hard not to be reactive. Parenting is by nature a highly emotional endeavor that stems from our deep love for our children and the accompanying worry for their well-being. The toddler years can be especially challenging given that young children are driven by their emotions and behave in irrational, maddening and often confusing ways that most parents have no roadmap for navigating.

So, what is the antidote to reactivity? Being responsive, which means taking into consideration what we know about our child, what their behavior is communicating, and what they need to cope. This requires mindfulness — the ability to calm our minds and bodies when we get triggered by a challenging behavior so we can think about our feelings and reactions and then choose a response that we believe (and hope!) will help our children learn positive ways for getting their needs met.

What does “responsive” parenting look like in real life? Taking a step back, Kyle and Wayne are able to see that what looks and feels like manipulation is actually just Jolie being clever and strategic. Indeed, Jolie would announce to her dads each morning that when they put her to bed that night that she was going to be very hungry!

At three, she is all about power and control. Dads say it’s bedtime, but not if she can get them to come back and re-engage with her. She is not “misbehaving,” she is clever and strategic. She has sussed out the situation and enacted a plan to reach her goal, admittedly a skill they want Jolie to cultivate, knowing it will serve her well as she grows. It is their job to teach her what strategies are going to be effective.

Accordingly, they make a new plan: they explain very clearly to Jolie that after lights out there is no more interaction or food — it is just time to sleep to build her body and brain.  If she calls out after the final goodnight kiss they won’t be coming back in. At the same time, they tell her that they will be instituting a small snack (a choice between a cheese stick or apple slices, for example) at book-reading time, which they called “last chance food.” This option was critical to Kyle and Wayne feeling able to implement the new plan; that if they offered her something right before bed they would be less anxious and less likely to give in to Jolie’s demand after lights out.

How did it work? The first night, as expected, Jolie tested them. She refused the snack at book time, claiming she wasn’t hungry, and then proceeded to scream that she was starving five minutes after lights out and kept it up for almost 30 minutes. Kyle and Wayne stood firm but were extremely stressed and uncomfortable. They had to keep reminding themselves that just because Jolie wants something doesn’t mean she needs it, and that clear limits implemented calmly and without anger are in fact quite loving.

Despite Jolie’s crying and seeming desperation, they are not hurting her. In fact, they are helping her build resilience as she learns to adapt to very reasonable limits and  experiences that she can cope with not always getting what she wants. This is an attribute they know will serve Jolie well in the future. On the second night she still refused the snack but protested for only 20 minutes. And on the third night, she ate the snack and went right to sleep. A parenting win! 

Responsive parenting enables you to set effective limits with love, without anger or punishment. It prevents those ugly and painful knock-down-drag-out battles that leave everyone feeling miserable and which are much more detrimental to kids (and parents!) than the discomfort children experience while they are learning to adapt to appropriate rules and boundaries. Responsive parenting takes time and patience but has huge payoffs in the long-term. It’s a marathon, not a race.

DON’T ever say that to me again! Do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!: How to Respond to Highly Sensitive, Reactive Children

This morning I very calmly and gently explained to Martin, my 4-year-old, that when he places a cup down on our glass coffee table he needs to be gentle. His response: “It’s not fragile! DON'T EVER SAY THAT TO ME AGAIN! Do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!  And this is not atypical—he explodes like this on a regular basis, whenever we need to correct him or set a limit, or when he can’t do something perfectly right away. When we try to reason with him he shuts down—he’ll often just cover his ears or run away.  We are at a loss as to why he is so hyper-sensitive and how we are supposed to set limits with him.

Children like Martin have a more sensitive temperament, meaning they experience and react to their feelings and experiences in the world more deeply. (They are sometimes referred to as “orchids” because they are affected by and reactive to even minor changes in their environment versus “dandelions” who are tough and thrive even in challenging circumstances.)

Temperament is a child’s inborn way of approaching the world—the “why” that explains the meaning of his behavior. Temperament is something we are all born with, not something children choose or that parents create. It’s why some of us revel in new experiences and others are anxious and need time to warm up to unfamiliar situations. It’s how we’re wired which influences the way we process our experiences in the world.

Sensitive children tend to have a harder time handling typical stressors, such as not being able to master a new skill right away or having to adapt to a change, such as a new teacher or a shift in their daily routine. And, like Martin, highly sensitive children are also more likely to feel overwhelmed or out of control when being corrected by an adult. When they feel out of control on the inside, they act out of control on the outside. While Martin expresses his feelings--in this case by shouting--another child might burst into tears or throw a tantrum when feeling overwhelmed.

Highly sensitive children are also more likely to experience anxiety. They lack an internal filter which means they are processing everything going on around them. Parents often describe these kids as not having an "off" button. They live in a state of high-alert to prepare and protect themselves from a world that can feel very overwhelming.  

What can parents do to help especially sensitive children learn to manage their emotions and cope?

  • Remain calm and try not to get reactive yourself. When we get revved up it tends to increase children’s distress, leading to more out-of-control behavior. Remember not to take their words literally. Young children are driven by emotions and are irrational by nature. When children lash out, it is their way of saying they are overwhelmed and are having a hard time coping. They don’t mean what they say. (“I hate you” doesn’t mean they actually hate you. It usually means they don't like a limit you are setting.) The more you react to their behavior, the more you reinforce it. When you remain calm they are likely to settle down more quickly. 

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings and keep language brief and simple. We tend to say too much when trying to calm children, thinking (hoping!) that, somehow, we can talk them out of their upset. But when children are out of control, they can’t process all those words and ideas. Attempting to do so just further overwhelms them. The most sensitive and effective response is to simply acknowledge your child’s emotional state. Say something brief and empathetic such as, “Wow, those are very big feelings.” (Avoid telling him exactly how he is feeling as that just triggers more defiance: "I am not angry!!") When you stay empathetic and calm, it communicates that you are his rock; that you understand and that he is not alone. 

  • Reflect on the encounter when your child is calm. Our natural impulse as adults is to use logic to teach our kids a lesson in these maddening moments. But when children are overwhelmed emotionally, they don’t have access to the part of the brain that enables them to think and reason. Wait until your child has calmed down to engage in any reflecting and teaching.

  • Retell the story: “Mommy asked you to be gentle when you put your cup down on the glass table because it is fragile and can break. I meant this to be helpful — just like when your teachers give you a direction at school — but you got very upset.” Pause to allow your child to respond. You might ask to see if he thought you were angry or were criticizing him. Explain that sometimes people hear things in a way that the other person doesn’t mean. This helps him begin to understand his feelings and reactions.

  • Recall past experiences when your child successfully managed a challenging moment. “Remember when you fell off your scooter. Daddy tried to help but you got really mad at him because you didn’t like the feeling of falling. It made you feel out of control. Daddy understood and just stayed by your side. When you were calm he showed you how to balance and you were off!”

  • Let your child know you will be his partner in learning to manage his big feelings. One of the greatest gifts you give your child is letting him know you understand, accept and appreciate him; that you won’t minimize or judge his feelings and will help him cope when he is having a hard time managing his big emotions.

It’s important to be aware that some children who are emotionally sensitive also have some sensory sensitivities. For example, a child who gets very distressed when something unexpected happens, or who flies off the handle when any limit is set, may be over-responsive to sensory experiences like sounds or tactile sensations (such as clothing with tags or seams). Children whose sensory systems are highly sensitive and reactive tend to feel overwhelmed by the world. They feel bombarded with sensations they can't cope with which can result in big emotional reactions. This is something to keep in mind and potentially explore as you are decoding the meaning of your child’s behavior. (To learn more about how sensory processing challenges can impact behavior, read this blog.)

Don't Fear Your Child's Feelings

Feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong”, and they are not the problem. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. 

Four-year-old, Trevor, had become very oppositional after his baby brother, Joseph, was born; he was also very negative about Joseph, saying “mean” things about him and asking over and over when Joseph would be going back to the hospital.  Initially, Trevor’s parents reacted punitively, telling Trevor he was not being a good big brother, and putting him repeatedly in time-outs. Trevor’s anger towards his brother and his overall defiance only increased. Further, Trevor started refusing to drink from a cup, insisting on a bottle, which really worked his parents’ last nerve. Annoyed, they told Trevor he was a big boy, not a baby, and they would not give him the bottle; a power struggle ensued, only escalating Trevor’s negativity and refusal to use “big boy” utensils. 

It is the most natural reaction to feel distressed when our children express negative feelings, whether it is anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness or fear (especially when it is directed toward a sibling). These emotions make us uncomfortable, so we either overreact, or minimize them.  But these feelings are a natural part of being human that everyone experiences. So don’t fear the feelings; they aren’t “good” or “bad”—they just are. When adults ignore or try to talk children out of their difficult feelings (“But you love your baby brother—he is looking up to you!”), we are sending the message that their feelings are not acceptable. This doesn’t make the feelings go away, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for the child…and the parent. This rarely makes anyone particularly happy.

When you acknowledge and accept your child’s feelings, it opens the door to helping them learn to cope with them in healthy ways which will serve them well in all aspects of their life as they grow.  Your job as a parent is not to protect your child from difficult emotions—that doesn’t lead to happiness in the long run. Learning to value and give voice to the full range of human emotions we all feel in does.

In the case of Trevor, since nothing was working, and things were only getting worse, Trevor’s parents knew a course correction was in order. They took a step back and looked at the situation from Trevor’s perspective; they acknowledged what a big change it was to have a new baby in the family and validated Trevor’s feelings of jealousy at having to share attention with Joseph. They stopped insisting that Trevor love the new baby, and gave him a bottle (which Trevor gave up within 2 days once it was no longer a hot-button issue). His parents continued to set appropriate limits but did so without shaming Trevor, or making him feel bad about his feelings. They focused on Trevor’s behavior—what was and was not acceptable—and imposed natural consequences (we don’t hit people–people have feelings; you can hit this object). Within a few weeks there was a clear reduction in Trevor’s acting-out behavior; he even became more loving toward his new brother.

For more on this topic, go to: First Feelings-

Your Toddler is Strategic, Not Manipulative

Three-year-old Cassie is pushing the limits around bedtime, demanding an increasing number of books and songs and then calling out with a litany of problems she needs her moms to fix, such as her blankets being messed up or the animals on her shelf not positioned the way she wants them to be. Cassie’s moms are getting increasingly annoyed with Cassie and are feeling manipulated. Cassie is calling all the shots and they are angry at her for making them feel out of control. They don’t know how to turn it around. 

Children are driven to get what they want, and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal—they are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic. Your child has cleverly figured out the “system”, which means you are raising a really competent kid. He is assessing the situation and figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is a skill that will serve him well in life. It is our job as the adults helping to shape children’s development in positive ways to teach them which strategies are effective and which aren’t (which is why you don’t want tantrums to be successful as then they become a useful tactic that they continue to rely on.)

And keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything—eat, sleep, pee, poop, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child, which is what guides and shapes her behavior.  In the case of Cassie above, her moms established a clear, consistent and loving routine that they stuck to, confident that even if Cassie didn’t like it, it was good for her. (That’s why kids have parents—because we do know better!) This routine included allowing for a 5-minute period before lights-out when she could put everything into place the way she likes it; moms made it clear that after they said goodnight there would be no more interaction and that if she wants to "fix" something (rearrange the blankets if she chooses to get up and then get out of order; re-position the animals on her shelf...the list goes on) she could do it on her own. The first night was very stressful as Cassie protested vehemently, testing whether her moms were really serious. She screamed that she could never fall asleep if they didn't get the blankets back on her :"just right" But when moms held firm, by the third night Cassie adapted. Bed time became much more joyful (with moms feeling much less tense about what storm laid ahead) and Cassie got a much better night's sleep.