Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Why Punishment Doesn't Stop Aggressive Behavior

Few things are more vexing than when children are physically aggressive: hitting, kicking, pushing, biting, pinching. Many parents I work with worry that this kind of behavior signals a lack of empathy. One dad recently wondered about something that is perplexing to many parents: "How could we—such loving, peaceful people—have created a kid who can be so hurtful?”  

At the same time, parents fear the consequences for their child: Will she be seen as a bully? Will other children not want to play with him? Will she get kicked out of preschool? And for themselves: Will I be alienated from the other parents who judge me because of my child’s behavior? 

These are all very natural concerns which understandably trigger intense reactions. In an effort to eliminate these aggressive behaviors, most parents become harsh and punitive. They shame: “What is wrong with you? Why would you want to hurt your friend?”  They use threats and punishment: “No TV time for the rest of the week if you hit again!” Or, instill fear: “No one will ever want to play with you if you hurt them.”  

The problem with these tactics is that while they may seem logical from an adult perspective—that they should motivate a child to stop the behaviors—they often backfire for several reasons:

  • When children feel shamed, they shut down. Their brains get flooded with negative emotion. When they are in "red zone"—their minds and bodies are out of control—they can’t take in any lesson you are trying to impart. Further, it is during the first five years that children are developing their sense of self—what kind of person they are—which is deeply affected by the messages they get from those around them. If a child is repeatedly told that there is something wrong with her, that she is an aggressive, violent, or “mean” person, she internalizes these messages. They become part of her personal narrative which she then acts on—the old self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

  • Young children don’t have the self-control necessary to stop themselves from acting on their impulses. They are not being aggressive on purpose. This can be confusing to parents who don’t see other children the same age acting out with their bodies. So they assume that their child is making a conscious choice to be harmful. But there are several important factors to keep in mind that make it more likely that a child will act aggressively:

    • Temperament. Children who have a high activity level and are more excitable and physical by nature are more likely to have a harder time with impulse control.

    • Sensory system. For example, children who are very sensitive to, and uncomfortable with, people entering their physical space may bite to keep others at bay. Children who are “sensory seekers”—who crave sensory input—may love the sensation of crashing into or pushing things with great force, including people. Simply telling a child to stop hitting/biting/pushing is unlikely to work as the drive to meet this sensory need is so strong that it supersedes his ability to use his brain to make a better decision. (To learn more about the impact of sensory processing on children’s behavior, check out this blog.)

    • Context. Any major change, especially one that is particularly difficult or painful—such as a separation, loss or witnessing a traumatic event—can lead to an increase in aggressive behavior. Recently, I met with a family whose four-year-old had seen a tree fall on their neighbor’s car during a major storm. She became extremely fearful of going outside and also started to hit and bite—new behaviors for her. Young children’s brains are still in the early stages of development. The “downstairs” brain, that puts us into flight, fight or freeze mode when experiencing stress, is much more likely to drive children’s behavior than the “upstairs” brain (the prefrontal cortex) which enables us to think about our feelings and experiences and manage how best to deal with these emotions. When children have experienced a highly stressful event, their psychic energy is diverted to cope with the big, confusing feelings that have gotten triggered and they are less able to calm themselves and self-regulate.

What are effective ways to respond to aggressive behavior?

Implement an approach based on teaching, not punishing. I suggest the following steps:

1. Stop the behavior while calmly and matter-of-factly stating the limit: “We don’t hit/bite/pinch. People have feelings and I know you don't mean to be hurtful. I am going to help your body get back in control and help you be safe.”  Then do what you need to do to stop the aggressive behavior. You might have to hold your child in a bear hug or place him in a safe space (see below.) To ensure you can maintain control outside the home, I recommend bringing a stroller with you whenever possible so, if necessary, you can secure your child and keep everyone safe. Or, you may have to carry your child, kicking and screaming, to the car to get him into his car seat to go home. Ideally, you would implement this calmly to lower the intensity level and show your child that you are in control. As you are securing your child, in a quiet voice you might repeat a mantra, such as: “You are having a hard time. I know you don’t mean to be hurtful. Your mind and body are just out of control. I will keep you safe.”  As noted above, avoid using shaming language such as "violent" or "mean". Instead, stick to objectively describing your child's actions.  

2. Offer an acceptable way for your child to get the physical need met. If the behavior is driven by a sensory need, no amount of telling a child to stop a behavior is likely to be successful. The physical drive will supersede any ability to use his thinking brain to exercise impulse control. What does work and what children need are acceptable alternatives: “If you need to hit, here’s an object that doesn’t have feelings that you can hit.” It can be very helpful to create a bin of objects that your child can safely squeeze, hit, kick, bite, etc., such as squishy balls, larger foam balls, Chewlery necklaces to bite, Play-Doh or slime, and weighted balls. Many kids I work with also find it very soothing to burrow themselves beneath couch cushions. This site has a lot of great sensory tools you might want to check out.  

3. If your child is spiraling out of control and can’t choose an alternative, as long as he is not being destructive, and doesn’t need to be physically contained, move on. Let him know that when he’s done being upset he can try again—to go back to what was happening before the incident, if that’s possible, or to start something new. "When you are calm, we can give the puzzle another try." Or, "When you are calm, I would love to have a helper in the kitchen. I need a strong guy like you to help mash the potatoes." The idea is to show him with your actions that you are not angry and that you are still loving and connected. You have done your job which is to set the limit; you have stopped the harmful behavior. Remember, you are teaching, not punishing. If you get angry, you are more likely to intensify the interaction and make it less likely that your child will calm down and be able to learn from the experience. 

4. If your child is being destructive, put him in a safe space. When your child is being destructive and you cannot help him get back in control, it is essential to have a safe, loving place he can go that has boundaries—meaning he can’t exit it on his own. This prevents the unpleasant back-and-forth that ensues when kids keep coming out of a safe space before they are calm. It is ideal to include your child in designing the space, giving him choices of acceptable items that can be included, such as stuffed animals, squishy/stress balls, cozy pillows, and books. Putting a kids’ tent in the space can be very effective as it feels snuggly and comforting to children, especially when they are unraveling.   

When you assess that a break is needed, introduce it calmly and sensitively. Even if you are holding your child out at arm’s length to avoid his kicking, hitting or biting, as calmly as possible, take him to his break place. Keep language to a minimum – remember, kids can’t process more input when they are in the “red zone.” Perhaps just whisper, “You’re really upset and are having a hard time controlling your body. I am going to be a helper and take you to your safe space to take a break.” Let your child know that you are eager to help him problem-solve and get back to playing when he is calm. 

Be sure to have appropriate expectations for what the break will accomplish. Young children do not yet have the ability to reflect on their actions and behavior on their own without help from a caring adult. This means that the goal of taking a break is not self-reflection: “Gee, I wonder why I let my emotions get the best of me — I really shouldn’t have thrown that train at Henry’s head” is beyond toddlers and even preschoolers (not to mention many adults!). The goal is to provide a quiet place where your child can move from a state of high agitation and upset to a sense of calm. The break offers the space for both parent and child to regroup. No learning takes place when children are in an agitated, emotionally flooded state.

Many parents I have worked with initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of securing a child in a space. At a gut level, it feels rejecting and mean. They have also read or been told that time-outs are destructive and that only time-ins (when you stay with your child no matter what) are loving. But having spent hundreds of hours observing children during epic meltdowns, it is abundantly clear that the tense, aggressive, back-and-forth (physical and emotional) that often ensues when children are out of control—kicking, hitting, spitting, clawing at parents—is much more harmful than providing children (and parents!) some space in a safe and loving way. Further, for many children I work with, having a parent in the room with them during the break is a stimulant which makes it harder for them to calm down. Separations aren’t inherently or automatically harmful to young children. It’s all in the way it is executed. When providing the break is framed and approached sensitively and supportively—not punitively—it is caring, not callous.

5. Problem solve once your child is calm. Problem-solving can happen only once your child is calm. Her brain cannot take in any information when she is in the “red zone”—when her mind and body are completely out of control. When the storm has subsided, comment on what a great job she did calming herself down, no matter how long it took. Then tell the story of what happened. “You were really mad when mommy wouldn’t let you have TV time this morning before school. You lost control and threw the remote at me. You didn’t mean to hurt me—when you are upset your body takes over. I am going to help you learn to control your body—that’s my job. What are some ideas you have?” Listen to her ideas and share yours. Include in this discussion the creation of the safe space and have her help you create it so she experiences that this is not punishment—it is a tool for helping her get back in control.

When to Seek Professional Help
Aggressive behavior is expected to some degree in early childhood given the lack of impulse control in children, especially under age five. The issue is the intensity and frequency of the behaviors. If the behavior is interfering in a child’s functioning—her ability to learn, explore, and engage in a healthy way at home and in the outside world, for example at childcare or preschool—it is time to consider seeking professional help. Talk to your child’s health care provider or contact a child development specialist to do further evaluation, if necessary, to root out the underlying cause of the behaviors and to provide you with the tools and support to manage these challenging moments

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Just Say “No” to Threats Part 2--What to do when your child is the one using intimidation

Recently, I wrote about avoiding the use of threats to get kids to cooperate or to stop misbehaving. But what about when your child is the one doing the intimidating to get her way, as illustrated in these recent stories parents have shared?

After being told she can’t go ice-skating with a friend because Aunt Jackie is coming over for a visit, Layla (6) announces that she is going to open up her window (in her bedroom on the second floor) and then run out the front door so when her parents can’t find her, they’ll think she fell out of the window.

Marcus (3) threatens not to eat for the rest of the day if his dad won’t give him a snack-bar for breakfast.

Soriah (4) exclaims that she won’t let the babysitter in the house and will “get her dead” if mommy goes out to meet her friends for dinner.

These kinds of provocative proclamations, while not uncommon, are naturally very disturbing to parents who take them at face value and worry that they are raising a sociopath. With this mindset, it is understandable that parents’ knee-jerk reaction is to get harsh and punitive to teach their child a lesson and to shut down these kinds of threats. But this backfires almost every time, as any big parental reaction is a victory for the child and reinforces the power and validity of the irrational proclamation. When efforts to yank their parents’ chain work, the behavior is proven effective.

But children don’t mean what they say when they are in “red zone”. (Even most of us adults can recall a time or two when we said horrible things to those we loved when we were angry or hurt.) In these moments, children are using inflammatory language because they are desperate to get their point across. They also know these alarming threats often get a rise of out of parents, which is their goal.

What to do instead? Ignore the provocation, but don’t ignore your child.

This means not mentioning a word about the actual threat and instead acknowledging the underlying feeling that is driving it. The more children’s feelings are validated, the more they learn to understand and manage their emotions which reduces the need to act them out. Then you move on to show your child that you are not going to continue to engage in an unhealthy interaction and that you won’t validate irrational thinking. But you are happy to engage with her in a more productive, positive endeavor. This approach is what truly teaches children the lesson that inflammatory language and threats are not an effective strategy for getting their way.

Layla, we know you are very disappointed you can’t go skating. We totally understand that it is hard to miss out on a fun activity and that you are mad at us for not letting you go. We don't expect you to like our decision. Now, I am going to cut up some fruit to serve Aunt Jackie. I would love a helper when you’re ready.

Marcus, I know how you love snack-bars and are mad I won’t give you one. When you’re ready to choose cereal or fruit, let me know.

Soriah, you don’t like it when mommy goes out. I understand. But it’s important for me to see my friends. If you want, you can choose a book for us to read before I go.

Of course, this doesn’t mean your child will get with the program and move on right away. But if you can stay the course in the face of her persistence, once she sees you aren’t taking the bait and are not budging, she will adapt.

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Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Just Say "NO!" to Threats

“If you don’t stay in your room and get to sleep, I am going to put a gate up!”

"If you don't put all these toys away, I am throwing them in the trash."

Most parents have resorted to threats like these in a desperate attempt to get their kids to cooperate.

But this tactic often backfires because children pick up on the negativity and react to it.

It sends the message to your child that you are already anticipating that she isn’t going to comply and that you’re in for a fight. This puts kids in oppositional, power-struggle mode, especially children who are more defiant by nature. Negativity and threats tend to amplify their resistance and they just dig in their heels more firmly. (Not to mention that most of the time parents have no intention of following through on the threat and the child knows it.)

Instead, practice using a positive tone and approach when giving your child a direction.

It can make a big difference because it puts children in a more cooperative state of mind. Today’s newsletter offers a few strategies for getting your child to say “Yes!” way more than “NO!”

Offer "two great choices": “Tania, it's so awesome--you have two great choices! After lights-out, if you choose to stay in your room, your door can stay open. If you choose to come out of your room, we will be helpers and escort you back to bed. Then we'll put up our friend Mr. Gate or Mrs. Monkey Lock who will help you stay in your room so you can get yourself to sleep. You get to decide which choice you want to make.” Versus: “Tania, if you come out of your room after lights out the gate is going up!” (When I told a friend recently about this approach, he responded, "Oh yeah, I did that all the time with my kids. I called it the "choice of no choices"!)

Another example: "Brandon, you've got two great choices: if you choose to cooperate with tooth-brushing, we will have time for an extra book before bedtime; if you choose not to cooperate, I will need to brush your teeth which means we won't have time for the bonus book. You decide." Versus: “Brandon, if you don’t brush your teeth, there won’t be any books tonight!”

When you end your presentation of choices with the positive phrase, “you decide”, it reinforces the idea that you are not the one making the choice—your child is. You are just implementing the consequences of his decisions. When children feel forced to do something, the impulse is to refuse to comply as a way to maintain some sense of agency or integrity. And remember--you can’t control your children or make them do anything—and they know it. What you can control is the situation by setting clear boundaries and limits that you are able to implement. That is what guides and shapes children’s behavior. If your child makes a good choice, it results in a positive outcome for her. A poor choice leads to a less-desired outcome.

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 go straight to what the expectation is—what they 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” (as you gently steer her away from the book and towards the task); versus, "If you don't get your pajamas on right now there will be no books." Last week at a preschool, there was a three-year-old who was desperate to push...anything, including friends. It was clear he wasn't doing this on purpose to be hurtful. His body just craved this sensory experience. I said to him: "Henry, you love to push. It feels so good to your body. Let's see how hard you can push against this wall." He immediately got into this activity and some of the other kids joined in. Then we made it a game. I showed them how to push themselves away from the wall and clap, to add a new dimension.

An important feature of this approach is that it requires a lot less language than we tend to use when we are frustrated and trying to get our children to cooperate. We launch into a 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 themselves and comply. This strategy also helps you self-regulate—all that lecturing tends to increase parents’ emotional intensity. Providing a clear direction is simpler, keeps everybody calmer, and makes you a more effective limit-setter.

First/Then: This strategy lets children know that there will be a time when they will be able to have or do what they want in the near future which can engender more cooperation. For example, Jason is headed for the basket of balls before he has put away his other toys. Using “First, Then”, his dad says, “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.” Another example: "Ruby, you are thinking a lot about how much you want to go to the playground. First nap and then we're off to the park!" 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 and puts her in a more positive frame of mind, which makes her more willing to cooperate

I hope these suggestions help! If you have strategies you have found effective for engaging your child's cooperation, please send them along so I can share them in future newsletters.

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Dealing with Demanding Behavior

"Get me orange juice!" "Put my shoes on!" "Bring me my blanket!" Demands like these are not uncommon, especially from children who are more sensitive and reactive by nature. They tend to feel more out of control on the inside which leads to their wanting to control everything on the outside.

How to respond? Most parents' knee-jerk reaction goes something like this: "You can't talk to me that way! I won't get you anything when you use that tone. When you ask me nicely, I will be happy to help." This seems totally logical, but often backfires, because when we respond with a negative (and often revved-up) tone it tends to amplify children's oppositionality and escalate their distress.

That's why the strategy that I have found most effective is to start with a positive response by acknowledging the child's desire before setting the limit: "I know that you love orange juice and would like me to get it for you. I can't wait to help you with that when you ask me in a nice way." It can be very calming for kids to have their feelings validated before a limit is set. It makes it more likely they will be able to adapt their behavior. This works... some of the time. Every child is different and there are no one-size-fits-all approaches and no prescriptions for perfect toddler behavior.

As a matter of fact, and as luck would have it, just after I started to compose this newsletter today I learned about another tactic that I am eager to try during these maddening moments. It was shared by a dad who is dealing with this very challenge. When I asked how he was handling these situations, he explained that one strategy that had some currency was walking out of the room for a second and then returning to give his son a chance to try again. I think this approach is absolutely brilliant--so positive and powerful. With one simple gesture he is communicating to his child that: 1) the way he communicated is unacceptable (without shaming him or getting reactive); and, 2) that he has confidence in his child to make a better choice and will give him the chance to do that. The added element of walking out of the room for a second provides a tangible break to signal it's time to switch gears.

To solidify the strategy, I would suggest you talk with your child about how you are going to help him make better choices in these situations by developing a cuing system. Your key points would include:

  • Letting your child know that you understand that his feelings are really big and that when he wants something, he wants it right away. Sometimes that means that he demands that you get something or do something for him in a way that is not respectful which means that you can't help him.

  • Explain that you want to be a helper and here's how that can happen: since he knows how to ask for help nicely--because he's done that so many times (you always want to point out and build on positive past experiences)--you will always give him a chance for a do-over, to make a correction.

  • Let him know that the next time he says something like, "Daddy, get me my truck!", you'll simply say, "do-over" and then you'll walk out of the room for a count of two seconds and come right back in. That's his cue to start over--like a "take 2". If he chooses to make his request nicely, then you will be more than happy to help.

  • You might role-play this in advance. I am finding that to be a very powerful tool for helping kids anticipate the kinds of limits that will be set and how they will deal with them. They get to practice it so when the next incident occurs they have some muscle-memory for how it feels to make a better choice.

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Limits are Only as Effective as Your Ability to Implement Them

Today's newsletter focuses on a key obstacle to setting effective limits. I hope will empower you to feel more in control of shaping your child's behavior in positive ways while reducing power struggles.

Adam and Brian are entrenched in breakfast battles with their 3-year-old, Sadie, who lollygags and gets up and down from the table for a seemingly endless array of urgent tasks she insists must be undertaken. She keeps going back to her room to make sure her teddy’s blanket is still on securely. Or, she looks for the toy she wants to bring to school that day to put in her backpack. Her dads vacillate between trying to convince her to eat—telling her she will be hungry at school—and making threats such as no dessert after dinner if she doesn’t stay at the table. None of these tactics motivates Sadie to sit and eat. When they announce that it’s time to leave for school after the more-than-adequate 20 minutes they have allotted for breakfast, Sadie has taken maybe 3 small bites of her toast. She starts shouting: “I haven’t had time to eat and will starve!” Exasperated but worried that she will be hungry at school, Adam and Brian give her five more minutes which turns into 10 and then 15. They finally, angrily pick her up and get her into her car seat. With Sadie in hysterics, they scold her for making everyone late and lecture her all the way to school about how it is her fault if she doesn’t eat. Everyone is miserable.

I see this dynamic play out in home after home: parents unsuccessful at getting their kids to cooperate—be it to eat, sleep, put toys away—by trying to convince them to comply using logic (you’ll be hungry!), threats and bribery. The problem with these tactics is that they all put the child in the driver’s seat. Whenever parents are in the position of trying to convince a child to comply with a direction and are waiting for her to agree to the expectation they have set, the child holds all the cards. This naturally makes parents feel out of control which leads to reactive and harsh responses that only intensify the struggle and reduce a parent’s ability to be effective.

The key is for parents to make a critical mindset shift which is to recognize thatyou have no control over your child. He’s a human being and you can’t make him do anything, including eat, pee in the potty, clean up his toys, or go to sleep. The only person you control isyou. But the good news is thathowyou choose to respond makes all the difference. When it comes to getting kids to cooperate, rather than begging, bribing, cajoling or convincing, let your child know exactly what the expectation is and what his choices are. And, most importantly, be sure thatyou can enforcewhatever limit you set so that you maintain control. Consider: 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. You can’t make a child clean up her toys but you can place the ones she chooses not to put away in a special basket that she doesn’t have access to for a day or two. You can't make a child get in his car seat, but you can let him know that his two great choices are to either climb n himself or you will put him in (while ignoring all his kicking and screaming.) And recently, for a "runner", we told her that her two great choices were to hold an adult's hand while walking along the city sidewalk or to go in the stroller, even if it was just to move from the car to the house, to make it clear that running into the street was not an option and we would be in total control of making sure that didn't happen.

In the case of Sadie, the solution we came up with went as follows: Adam and Brian told her the amount of time she would have for breakfast and used aTime Timerto provide a visual for time elapsing. They clearly explained that she has “two great choices”: she can eat enough to fill her belly during breakfast; or, if she chooses not to fill herself up, then they will put the remaining food in a to-go container for her to eat on the way to school in case she gets hungry. Recognizing that they can’t actually make her stay seated at the table, and that running after her results in too much attention for unwanted behavior, they would no longer chase her down or keep trying to get her to eat. Brian and Adam felt this plan was fair, developmentally appropriate, and would put them back in the driver’s seat. After two days of implementing the new system their breakfasts battles were bygones. Sadie sat at the table for longer and ate more, once her constant getting up and down no longer resulted in a lot of attention or the power to extend the meal and make everyone late.

To read more about effective limit-setting, read on.

Lessons from the Childrearing Trenches: Children are Strategic, Not Manipulative

Our three-year-old, Cassie, is pushing the limits around bedtime—it’s never enough. When we tell her she can choose between 2 books and a lullaby, or 3 books and no lullaby, she responds: “I don’t like the choices your choicing me!” We say we’ll lie down with her for 5 minutes, but then she insists on “just one more minute” which turns into one more, then one more, and soon it’s 20. When we finally leave an hour after our “supposed” bedtime, she keeps coming out of her room to complain about a litany of problems she needs us to fix: her blankets are messed up or the animals on her shelf aren’t positioned correctly. When we tell her that she needs to go to sleep, she starts shouting that she can’t because she doesn’t feel safe without her blankies on the right way. She gets us right in the jugular! How in the world can a 3-year-old already be so manipulative? She’s totally playing us.

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 protests or threats result in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting two and two together and making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Note to self – negotiation and threats get results.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic and smart. Your child has cleverly figured out the “system”, which means you are raising a really competent kid! She is assessing the situation and figuring out successful ways to get what she wants—a skill that will serve her well in life.

How to respond? The first order of business is a mindset shift. You have to keep reminding yourself that you cannot control your child, nor is it your job to do so. You can’t make her do anything—eat, sleep, pee, poop, be kind or respectful. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child, which is what guides and shapes her behavior. You can’t make her sleep, but you can put up a gate to provide a boundary to prevent her from repeatedly coming out of her room to delay bedtime. You can’t stop your child from saying nasty things to you when she doesn’t get her way (like the child who recently told her dad he was a “poopy person” for not letting her go back outside after dinner to play with friends), but you can ignore the provocation and address the underlying issue, instead: “I know you don’t like my decision. That’s okay.” And move on. Remember, any big reaction to unwanted behavior is reinforcing; and, your job is not to convince your child of the fairness of your limit. (See previous newsletter for more on that subject.)

In the case of Cassie, Chris and Sabine established a clear, consistent and loving routine that includes a 5-minute period before lights-out when Cassie can put everything into place the way she likes it. This concludes with her parents tucking her in with her 4(!) blankets organized “just so”. They make it clear that after they say goodnight, they will not come back in. If she chooses to get up, then she needs to rearrange the blankets herself. (They had her practice how to do this so she could experience that she was fully capable of this task.) Here’s what happened: the first night was very stressful. Cassie protested vehemently. She screamed that she would never fall asleep if they didn't get the blankets back on her “to make me feel safe!” (Kids are unbelievably adept at getting their parents in the jugular.) But Chris and Sabine held firm, and by the third night Cassie had adapted. Bedtime became much more joyful, especially because her parents felt much less tense with worry about what storm lay ahead. And, Cassie now falls asleep much more quickly and easily.

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: When It’s Not Okay to Say, “Okay?”

I have to give my mom credit for this insight. On a visit when my son was three, she pointed out that every time I gave him a direction, I ended it with “Okay?” She wondered why I would ask a question when I was not intending to give my son a choice (Sam, time to leave the playground, okay?) and noted that this might be confusing to him. Once I was aware of this dynamic, I realized that it had become a totally unconscious, reflexive response that I used constantly.Sam, time for bath, okay? Sam, time to get in the car, okay?I also began to notice that this was a pervasive phenomenon in every family I worked with. Twenty-five years later, as I visit home after home, I can confidently report that nothing has changed. We all fall prey to this pitfall. And it’s a problematic one, because it is confusing to children: they hear that they are being given a choice even though this is not their parents’ intention. When children don’t comply, it results in a lot of frustration and anger. 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.”

While it seems simple to just kick this unhelpful habit, that’s not how we operate as parents. These knee-jerk reactions tend to be pretty persistent. The only way most of us are able to make a change is to become conscious of what is driving us to act as we do—what the trigger is. Otherwise, the impulse wins out over what we know is “right” almost every time.

For me, and most parents I have talked with about this phenomenon, the root of our reaction lies in a discomfort with giving directions. It feels dictatorial and authoritarian, which is inconsistent with who we are and who we want to be as parents. We know how important it is to nurture children’s sense of agency and independence. Telling them what to do feels contrary to that goal.

The mental shift we need to make is seeing that children thrive when they know exactly what is expected of them. The same is true for adults. We feel less anxious, more in control and better able to complete tasks at work when our boss is clear about what the expectations are. This is precisely why children tend to behave better at school than at home: good teachers have no problem giving directions, and children love them all the same. Making marching orders crystal clear gives kids the information they need to make good choices. They clean up after snack so they can move on to an activity; they put the sandbox toys away so they can earn the privilege of playing with them the next time they go to the playground.

What to do?
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. It makes them feel important and competent: “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 take a nap, okay?”)

You can also build choices in to the task you are directing your child to do.It’s time to set the table. Do you want to put the napkins down first or the plates?Or,It’s time to leave the playground. Do you want to hop like a bunny or take really big steps like a dinosaur to get to the car?

Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Pause and Problem-solve--A Handy Tool for Helping Children Get Calm and Cope

On a recent visit to a preschool, I was working with the teachers to come up with strategies to help the children learn to become good problem-solvers. The greatest obstacle to this, the teachers noted, was helping the children remain calm when facing a challenge so they can persevere to solve a problem. They find this is especially difficult for the “big reactors” who tend to go from 0-60 in the blink of an eye. Common tactics, such as deep belly breathing, weren't working as well as the teachers would have liked. They couldn’t get the kids calm enough to even use this soothing tool.

Since I have had some success with the use of cues or mantras for children—a phrase you use repeatedly to throw a monkey-wrench into a detrimental dynamic—I decided to try a new one out with a class of four-year-olds. It is designed to help build self-regulation. I call it Pause-and-Problem-Solve, and it has proven to be quite powerful for helping children regroup in a positive way when a breakdown is brewing. In this newsletter, I share how you might use this tool to encourage your children to become good problem-solvers. Here are the key steps:

  • Start by acknowledging that all of us lose it sometimes. Share an example of a time when you had a meltdown out of frustration or disappointment. This, in and of itself, can be a very powerful experience because your child sees that everyone has these moments, even adults. Then, ask your child to think about a recent time when she fell apart in the face of a challenge. If she has a hard time recalling one, share some examples you have observed. Just be sure you recount it very matter-of-factly, without any tone of criticism or negativity: “Remember when you were so disappointed and mad when you wanted grape juice at the restaurant and they didn’t have any. You were so upset that we had to leave. That made you even more mad and sad. That was a really tough day.”

  • Explain that when we lose it, our brains get flooded with feelings and we can’t use the thinking part of our brains. Refer back to the examples of times you both lost it and how this made it hard to solve the problem and just increased frustration and distress.

  • Ask your child to share a story of a time when he faced a challenge and he was able to muscle through it—how he calmed himself and persevered. You want to remind him that he has the power to persevere and how doing so resulted in something really positive for him. For example, rebuilding a tower of blocks that fell; finishing a difficult puzzle even though it took a lot of tries to find the correct spaces; or, working hard to figure out how to balance on his scooter after he almost gave up.

  • Teach your child about Pause-and-Problem-Solve. Explain that it is your job as a parent to help her learn to be a great problem-solver, and that you have a fun idea about how to do that. When she faces a challenge and starts to fall apart, you’ll use the cue “Pause and Problem-Solve” to give her a chance to take a little break to calm and regroup so she can use her amazing brain to come up with a solution. This worked great for parents I recently worked with who had the four-year-old who lost it when she couldn't have the grape juice she wanted. The next time she was faced with a similar situation, using "pause and problem-solve" enabled her to get calm, choose an alternative, and stay at the restaurant instead of having to take a walk outside when all her friends and family were still at dinner together. Her parents were then able to remind her of how great the outcome was when she was able to pause and problem-solve. This reinforced the power of the tool and went a long way toward helping this reactive little girl develop a stronger ability for self-regulation.

This tool’s positive impact is based on the way it is presented to children—that you are a helper and are being supportive, not reactive or judgmental. It inherently conveys that you have confidence in your child that he can master the challenges he faces. Thus, the association made with this strategy is positive and more likely to work. Further, the beauty of this system is that it is not just a great tool for kids, it can also be very useful for those of us, adults, who are big reactors and need help putting on the breaks.

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Fair is NOT Equal

A spate of parents I’ve seen recently have expressed a lot of frustration over the fact that every time they say “no” to their kids, they are accused of being unfair. This is a major trigger for parents, sending them into reactive mode. They either start to defend their decisions to their children or they give in. Both responses validate that their child’s assessment of the situation is accurate or reasonable, when in most cases it is decidedly not. For example: Jonah, 6, who protests that it’s not fair that his older brother, Sam (age 9), gets to stay up later; Stella, 4, who explains that it’s not fair that she has to sleep alone when her parents get to sleep together; and, Lucca, 5, who insists that it’s not fair that he has to share the Magnatiles with his brother who isn’t as serious about building as Lucca.

Just because in our logical minds these protestations can seem irrational doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t actually feel an inequity is taking place. In some cases, it is just a strategy to get you to change your mind and give in to something your child wants. Kids are clever and will use whatever tactics work to reach their goal. But in many cases, on the face of it, the rule does seem unfair to children—that a sibling gets to stay up later or that parents get to sleep together but the child has to sleep alone.

And sometimes there are contextual factors that we need to be sensitive to. For example, I recently met with parents who have a 6-year-old, Liam, who constantly feels like a victim. As we unpacked how he may have developed this sense of himself, it turns out that when he was a toddler, his older brother was diagnosed with a serious illness and went through three years of intensive treatment. The parents had a large group of friends and family to help. But Liam likely sensed that his parents were distracted (understandably) and consequently started building a narrative that his needs were not as important as those of his older brother. Add to that the fact that Liam now has two younger siblings, including a new baby, amplifying his worry about whether he will get the attention he wants.

It is important to be sensitive to the underlying forces that influence your children’s behavior and the lens through which they filter their experiences. Even if your kids have not gone through a family trauma like this, many experience tough periods when they are trying to make sense of their place in the family. Temperament is also a factor: children who are inflexible by nature tend to develop very fixed ideas about how things should be and thus have a very hard time when things don’t go according to their desire or plan. This often results in the refrain: “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

The goal is to help children see that not getting everything they want is about healthy and developmentally appropriate limits, not about love or favoritism. Liam’s parents want him to create a new narrative that is not one of “I am a victim, always being deprived”, but one that sounds more like, “When I can’t have everything the way I want it, and my parents set limits, it doesn’t mean I am not loved or valued.” Mature as this outlook may seem, over time, children can and do internalize this very important concept.

Below is a roadmap for responding to protestations of "it’s unfair!" that enables you to be empathetic while maintaining the limits that you feel are important for your child:

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. This is always the first step: “I know you feel it’s unfair that Sam gets to stay up later. You don’t like that rule. I totally understand why you would see it that way.” If you skip this step, your child is likely to keep upping the ante to show you just how fiercely unfair he believes this rule to be. Remember, feelings are not the problem, it’s what kids do with their feelings that can be problematic. The more you validate their emotional experience, the more likely it is that they will calm down. Being heard and understood is a salve. Labeling feelings is also the first step in helping children learn to recognize and manage their emotions.

  • Let him know that fair is not equal. “Mommy and daddy are in charge of making rules for each child based on what you each need to grow healthy and strong. Sam gets to stay up later because his body doesn’t need as much sleep. That’s what happens when you get older. He went to bed at 8 when he was your age and you’ll be able to stay up until 9 when you are his age. So, you’re right, it is not equal.” It is critical that this is communicated matter-of-factly, to show respect for your child by explaining your thinking, not to defend your rule. If you start justifying your limits to your children, you are communicating that it is valid to call them into question. This erodes your authority and gives your child inappropriate control. It also reinforces the power of the "IT'S UNFAIR!" protestation.

  • Let your child know it’s okay if he doesn’t agree. “I know you don’t like this rule and don’t agree that it’s fair. That’s okay. You don’t have to agree with or like it.” It’s very important to avoid the trap of trying to convince your child of the wisdom or rightness of your limits. This is a common pitfall for many parents. It puts the child in the driver's seat as it conveys that the rule is only legitimate if the child agrees with it. It's important to get comfortable with the fact that just because your child doesn't like a limit doesn't mean it's not good for him.

When you consistently respond in this way to irrational proclamations of “it’s not fair!” and keep reminding your children that fair is not equal, at some point simply repeating this mantra suffices. They know exactly what it means and they are more likely to accept the limit and move on more quickly.

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 into our room and wants to sleep with us.  We’ve been able to get him back into his bed, but he won’t let us 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. We want to be sensitive to his fears but at the same time help everyone get more sleep.

This is a very common phenomenon starting at around 3 years, as this 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 she is 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 her 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 her until she 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 she is only okay if you are with her; that she is not safe on her 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. 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 will not always be 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 him as he works through his 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: saying they had a bad dream results in a lot of attention in the middle of night and often lands them a spot in their parents’ 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 consequences.

The following strategies can be helpful in making a plan for how to deal with middle-of-the-night wakings: 

  • 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 return 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 scary beings lurking around. 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 keep monsters and other scary things at bay. The risk of these kinds of solutions is that they suggest 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 reduce bedtime fears in several ways:

    --Incorporate the lovey into your bedtime routine. Bear can sit with your child while reading and cuddle with her 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 other stressful times.

    --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 at night. Have her help you explain to her 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 her 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 her fears. Keep in mind that the more you intervene, the more stimulating it is for your child, and the harder it is for her to fall back to sleep. The key elements should include the following:

    --Let your child know that if she wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream she can remind herself about her worry vs. thinking brain, that the fears aren’t real, and that she has all the soothing tools you have identified above to help her calm herself.

    --If your child calls out to you in the middle of the night, let her know that you will go in one time to reassure her that all is well and to remind her about her worry vs. thinking brain and about all her soothing tools. You can help her 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 becomes just another variable that leads to power struggles. Use your judgment—you know your child best. 

    --If your child comes to your room in the middle of the night, quietly and calmly escort her back to her own room. (Remember, there is no need for anger or punishment. Your child is not misbehaving or purposely trying to drive you mad. She is acting on her feelings and needs your support and appropriate limits to help her cope.) Remind her of her worried vs. thinking brain and all her coping tools, tuck her back in, and leave. Let her know that if she chooses to get out of her 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 her stay in her 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 her back into her room. Be sure to remind her that it is her choice—if she stays in her room then there is no need for the gate or lock.

    --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 she is safe and secure in her room on her own.

    --In the morning, be sure to emphasize that while she was afraid, she stayed in her room all night and now she sees that she is perfectly fine and that the fears were in her head. This is the foundation you can then build from, continuing to remind her about her 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. Prompt him to call out to you or to get up and come to your room. 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. Have him 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 your child 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 her experience that she 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 she falls back to sleep with the caveat that there is no interaction—that it is not talking or play time and her job is to get her mind and body back to sleep. With each consecutive night the parent moves the chair farther away until he/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.

Copyright Lerner Child Development, LLC 2019 All RIghts Reserved






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.