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.



 

 

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.

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.

Setting Effective Limits with Love: 9 Guiding Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional resources on positive discipline and limit-setting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Responsive vs Reactive Parenting: It Makes All the Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Toddler is Strategic, Not Manipulative

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

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

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

You're Not the Boss Of ME! And Other Bait Not to Take

 

I hate you—you are the meanest mommy and you are not invited to my birthday party! (3-year-old who was told she could not get a toy on a trip to the store to get a present for a friend.)

You’re not the boss of me! (4-year-old’s response to being told he would have to go in the stroller if he continued to run into the street)

 I will just starve! (5-year-old’s proclamation when parent said she could not have a snack bar for breakfast)

Any of these proclamations sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Young children are unbelievably clever—they are highly skilled at tuning in to 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 many parents who expect that their children want their praise and will be deterred by their anger and disappointment. 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—you just don’t engage around the provocative behavior.

So how to respond in a way that doesn’t result in a power struggle and that enables you to remain calm and loving? Remain calm--remind yourself that your child is just trying to cope with a limit or disappointment; acknowledge the underlying feeling your child is expressing--the challenge he is trying to cope with; and, implement the limit. The goal is to be responsive (showing empathy for your child's struggle while maintaining the limit), not reactive (which just fuels the flames and reinforces the behavior):

Child: I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!

Reactive response:  You are so spoiled and so ungrateful! And you cannot talk to me that way!

Responsive approach:  I know you’re mad you can’t get a toy today. It’s really hard to be in a store and not get something for yourself. I totally understand that.  Then just keep moving on.  If he keeps nagging you, start singing a silly song or talk about what he wants to do when you get home--to show with your actions that you aren't going to get drawn in.  The surest way to ensure your children won’t continue to make threats and be "sassy"  is for  them to experience that it doesn’t register a reaction.

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Child: You’re not the boss of me! 

Reactive response: We are your parents and you have to listen to us!

Responsive approach: (Let’s say your child’s reaction was in response to your telling him he can’t jump off the slide at the playground.) When you choose to do something dangerous, we will always keep you safe, even if you don’t like it. Then give him a big hug–doing the opposite of what he expects. Secure him in the stroller and move on. Stay connected and warm--be silly, sing a song, talk about what you see around you--to show that you are still present and  loving--you just aren't going to get into a battle of words over who is the boss! 

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Child: I will just starve! (5-year-old’s proclamation when parent said she could not have a snack bar for breakfast)

Reactive response: Giving in and letting your child have the unhealthy option he is demanding, while being very annoyed at him for putting you in this position.

Responsive approach: It’s our job to offer you healthy foods that you like; it’s your job to decide how much of it to eat—your body knows best when it’s hungry and full. Whatever you don’t eat we can put in a baggie to bring in the car in case you get hungry later. (Then move on—don’t respond to threats—as reacting to them or giving in makes this a successful strategy and will only put that strategy in the "win" column.) 

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It’s also important to keep reminding yourself that young children are largely driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over emotions and impulses is not well-developed. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than thinking, “I really want that toy, but it’s not right to grab, so I am going to go find myself another toy.” Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to our child’s behavior impacts how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative, or purposefully designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react harshly and in ways that escalate versus calm our child, and that don’t result in teaching good coping skills. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and are much more likely to respond calmly and ultimately effectively. “I know you want to play with the train and it can be hard to wait. But it’s not okay to grab. You have two great choices: you can give Owen back the train or I will give it back to him and we’ll find you another toy to play with until it’s your turn.”  (Remember, you can’t literally force a child to give back that toy so your limit has to be enforceable by you. To read more about setting effective limits with love, check out this blog.

When we take the bait and get reactive, we don’t gain control, we lose control. It often leads to very intense and unpleasant power struggles that are detrimental for both you and your child.

I Don’t Like the Choices You’re Choicing Me! How to Set Clear, Enforceable Limits…with Love

Marta has told her 3-year-old, Ruby, to pick up her toys 5 times in the past 10 minutes. Marta is getting increasingly agitated and annoyed, and finally shouts at Ruby that if she doesn’t put all the toys away, Marta will throw them in the garbage.  When Ruby continues to ignore her mother’s request, Marta pulls out a plastic trash bag and starts to fill it with Ruby’s toys. Ruby becomes hysterical and Marta feels horrible and ashamed. She takes the toys back out of the bag and comforts Ruby. Marta ultimately cleans the toys up after Ruby has gone to bed.

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these kinds of scenarios. They are frustrated and angry that their children won’t cooperate, and that they are “driving the car”—taking the parents for a ride. Further, parents feel ashamed when they lose it, when they say harsh things to their children in the heat of the moment and make threats they have no intention of following through on (i.e., to never give them the iPad or take them to the playground again). Ultimately, these parents are depleted and sad, because by the end of the day all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for the pleasures of parenthood.

As I have watched these dynamics unfold on one home visit after another, it has become clear that one key factor at the root of the problem is that the limits and expectations parents set are often dependent on the child’s cooperation—to clean up their toys, get into their PJs, or climb happily into the car seat. The problem is that you can’t actually physically make your child do these things. And any time you are waiting for your child to follow a direction or trying to convince her to cooperate, she is in control. You can demand repeatedly that she not throw a ball in the house or to stay in her room after lights-out, but unless you have a plan for how you are going to follow through on the limit you are trying to set, your child is in the driver’s seat and she knows it. This is not good for her or for you.  So, as you go about setting limits, keep in mind that a limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it.

The following are key elements to an approach most parents find effective:

·         Make the choices and consequences crystal clear—and be sure that you can control the consequence: Dad has told Sadie (3 years) that he will make one breakfast for her. She can choose cereal or eggs. She chooses eggs. But as soon as Dad presents them to her, she refuses them and says she really wants peanut butter toast. She insists she won’t eat anything else and that she’ll just starve. Dad, recognizing he can’t actually make Sadie eat the eggs, responds: “Sadie—you know the rule: I make one breakfast. If you choose not to eat it, we will put it in your special to-go container that you can take with you to school in case you get hungry. You can choose peanut butter toast tomorrow.” Two days of following through on this limit—with Sadie experiencing the consequences of her choices—and breakfast battles were bygones.

·         Communicate their choices with all the positivity you can muster. Children pick up on your tone which can be contagious. Approaching these encounters with tension and threat in your voice: “If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m throwing them in the garbage”, puts them in a negative and oppositional frame of mind. I like the concept of giving “two great choices” which frames these moments in a positive light and puts children in a more cooperative state of mind: “Tessa, you have two great choices (said with a genuine smile): if you put all the toys away, you can have them all to play with again tomorrow; if you choose not to clean them all up, the ones that don’t get put away will be placed in a special box and you won’t have those to play with until (fill in the blank—however many days you think is appropriate.)

·         Always end your presentation of choices with “you decide”. This reinforces the idea that you aren’t the one making the choice. Remember, you can’t actually make your child do anything—eat, sleep, put toys away, not have a tantrum, etc. What you do control are the consequences of your child’s choices/actions: “Ben, you’ve got two great choices: If you throw the ball into the basket, you can keep playing with it. If you choose to throw it at people, the ball will go away. You decide.”  Once you follow through on the limit, I strongly encourage giving your child another chance within a reasonable period of time—maybe an hour later—so he can experience the positive outcome of making a different choice (ie, getting to play with the ball.) This is how children learn to make good decisions.

·         Incentivize with natural, positive consequences (vs. rewards or taking things away): “Natalia, you’ve got two great choices: If you cooperate with getting into pajamas, we’ll have time for one extra book before bed; if you choose not to cooperate, I’ll get you into your PJs on my own, but that means we won’t have time for an extra book. You decide.”  I find you can use the concept of saving time for almost everything.  When kids cooperate with a task or limit, it takes less time, enabling them to do more of the things they love—which in fact mirrors real life.

The benefits of having a plan you can implement are: 1) it enables you to remain loving, present and supportive, while also in the driver’s seat—where you, not your child, belongs. I think of this as “responsive” versus “reactive” parenting. There is no need for anger or punishment—your job is to show your child with your actions that cooperating with or accepting a limit is not a choice, it is a direction. And it is not an option to obfuscate or draw you into a knock-down-drag-out battle that raises everyone’s blood pressure and results in both parents and children feeling out of control; and, 2) experiencing the consequences of their actions helps children learn to make good choices. This doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to have a total meltdown when you actually follow through—for example, put her breakfast in the take-away bag when the timer goes off to signal the end of breakfast. But remember, that doesn’t mean your approach is wrong. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit, doesn’t mean it’s not good for her. Further, keep in mind that you are not responsible for your child’s decisions—you are in charge of offering clear and appropriate choices and implementing the consequence of your child’s decisions.

The next time you find yourself in that moment when you’re about to give in on a rule you know to be a good one, remind yourself that: 1) Setting limits is loving, not mean; it is when you don’t set and enforce clear limits, and your child continues to push and push and work your last nerve, that you are much more likely to get mean; and, 2) We live in a world that doesn’t adapt to us—we have to do the adapting. Giving your child the gift of loving limits will help her be more flexible and adaptable—key ingredients for success in all aspects of her life.

Time-Outs: Helpful or Harmful to Young Children?

Claire Lerner, LCSW
What's a parent to do when one of the most commonly used tools for discipline is called into question?

A number of recent articles in popular media that denounce the use of time-outs have sent many parents, understandably, into a tailspin. Critics believe that instead of helping children calm down, time-outs have the opposite effect—causing children to become even more distressed and “dysregulated,” or out of control. Further, children can become so overwhelmed by the disruption in their relationship with their parent during time-out (and by the shame they feel for being “bad”) that their emotional upset increases and their likelihood of learning from the experience decreases. But all of these negative outcomes assume that time-out is approached with anger, shaming, and harshness by the parent. When implemented this way—as punishment—time-out can no doubt be detrimental to the child.

Giving children (and parents!) space to calm themselves can be helpful, not harmful.

Opponents of time-out often suggest “time-in,” which entails a parent physically comforting a child to calm him or her, no doubt a great strategy. But as anyone who has been the parent or caregiver of a young child knows, there are times when children are so out of control—throwing objects, kicking, hitting, biting—that they cannot accept comfort and in fact, the more the parent tries to soothe the child, the more out of control she gets. She’s on system overload. At these times, parents are also pushed to their emotional limit, their last nerve worked. When emotions (and cortisol levels in the brain) are sky-high, a break for both parent and child can be a healthier solution than an ongoing battle. Sure, in a perfect world, parents would be able to manage their reactions (indeed, the lion’s share of my work with parents is on helping them learn this very skill). But alas, parents are also human, and as hard as we may work on controlling our emotions, there are times when the only way that is going to happen is when we can take a break from the intensity of the moment.

In this situation, giving the child a break can actually be a positive parenting strategy. The critical factor is the way this break is implemented. When done calmly and lovingly, it can be an important opportunity to prevent further escalation, to provide both child and parent a chance to regain control, and to then come back together to solve the problem when both are calm. There are a range of ways to do this, including the ideas below that families in my practice have used with success.

Create a special, safe space.

In my household, we established the “cozy corner.” A family I work with created the “peace place.” I recommend parents talk with the child in advance about the purpose of this safe space—that it is where people in their family go when they are losing control and need a break. (I suggest parents also use it to take a break themselves, which can serve as some very powerful role modeling.) Parents include children in designing the space, giving them choices of acceptable items that can be included. One family put a small nylon teepee in their child’s room, which provided a sense of boundary and comfort. When a parent assesses that a break is needed, it is done calmly and lovingly. Even if you are holding your child out at arm’s length to avoid his kicks and swatting at you, as calmly as possible, take him to his break place and let him know that you can’t wait until he can calm himself so that you can play again. Separations aren’t inherently or automatically harmful to young children. When separations are framed and approached lovingly and supportively—not punitively—they can be caring, not callous.

Keep expectations for what the break will accomplish in check.

Children—especially those under 3 years old—do not yet have the ability to reflect on their own actions and behavior. 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” is beyond most 2-year-olds), but to provide a quiet place where children 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, and then come back together to talk about what the child could do the next time this situation arises. No learning takes place when children are in an agitated, emotionally flooded state.

Choose a time limit best suited to your child.

One approach is to have the break end when the child is calm. Another option is to set a timer for—3 to 5 minutes—then go back to the child and check in. At this point, she may still be upset, but if she is no longer out of control and is willing to accept being comforted, you can help her move on. Remember, you’re not giving in to whatever caused the original upset—you’re just helping her learn to calm herself and to accept an alternative, for example, reading a book together instead of playing on the tablet that you had taken away, which caused the tantrum.

Ignore the behavior but not the child.

If a child is out of control but not harming herself or others, it can be very effective to just ignore the behavior. If a child is having a tantrum because you took away toys that he was throwing, acknowledge his anger (which is neither right nor wrong—it just is) and then move on. You might let him know you are going to make dinner and would love a helper when he is calm and ready. Or pick up one of his favorite books and start reading it aloud. This communicates that you are still a loving, present parent, ready and eager to engage, but that you’re not going to participate in or fuel his tantrum. (Check out this short video clip to learn about ways to help children manage their emotions.)

Using breaks mindfully, as a tool to help young children learn to cope with their strong emotions, is all about the way it’s done. Breakdowns are evidence that children are having a hard time coping with one of life’s inevitable frustrations or disappointments. They are not purposefully misbehaving, they are just reacting. Their intense emotions—and limited skills in self-regulation—sometimes cause them to lose control over their minds and bodies. A short break from interaction can help them cool down. In the context of a loving, strong parent-child relationship, giving children (and parents) this space to calm themselves can be helpful, not harmful.

To read the original post at Zero to Three, click here.

I said I want the red bowl! Responding to Toddlers’ Irrational Behavior

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Amelia, told that she can’t have a fifth book before bedtime, shouts: “You are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!” Derek, when offered a choice between carrots and cheese, not ice cream, before dinner announces: “I don’t like the choices you are choicing me!” Alex hurls a bowl of his favorite cereal off the table and screams, “I said the red bowl, not the blue bowl!” If any of these exclamations sounds familiar, you are not alone. Welcome to what can feel like the Wild West of toddlerhood.

But seen through the eyes of the child, and through the lens of development, these behaviors, while maddening, are utterly normal, and signal important milestones are being achieved. Further, these incidents don’t have to be dreaded, as they are opportunities to teach children to manage their emotions, learn to cope with frustration and disappointment, and find ways to feel in control of their ever-expanding worlds in prosocial, acceptable ways.

Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to a child’s behavior influences how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative or purposely designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react in angry or harsh ways that escalate instead of calm our child. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and be more effective in teaching good coping skills.

Here are some important factors that influence young children’s behavior that are helpful to keep in mind when dealing with challenging behaviors:

1) Young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain that controls children’s ability to think, plan and problem-solve does not start to develop until close to age three and is not fully formed until well into adolescence. So young children are largely driven by their impulses and cannot be expected to respond to reasoning or logic.  

2) Toddlers are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings—that they can have different thoughts and feelings from others. This means that while they want to sleep in your bed, they know this is not what you have in mind. This new cognitive milestone, coupled with toddlers’ innate drive to exert some control over their world, leads to an all-out effort to bring you around to their way of thinking. They are extremely clever and will try any and all tactics at their disposal (calling you names, threatening to never go to sleep, or throwing a knock-down-drag-out tantrum, to name a few). This is often what many parents call “manipulation,” but which I like to think of as strategic, as beautifully illustrated by this shrewd three-year-old. When she cried out for food every night after she was put to bed (not more than 15 minutes after having passed up the snack offered at book-reading time), her parents appeared at her bedside, snacks in hand. The next morning she told her dad, “I just want to let you know that tonight after you put me to bed I am going to be very hungry!”

3) Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them at this young age. Think about it—many adults are still working on being aware of their feelings and choosing to act on them in healthy ways.

So, what’s a parent to do?

  • Stay in control when your child is spiraling out of control. Managing your emotions and reactions is one of most important parenting tools at your disposal. When parents get reactive and emotional, it tends to escalate the child’s upset and intensify power struggles. When your child is losing it, she needs you to be her rock and stay sane and rational.

  • Keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything–eat, sleep, pee, poop, talk, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child’s actions, as this is what guides and shapes their behavior. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting two and two together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

This is not manipulation, it is a smart calculation, and means you are raising a really competent kid. He is figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is awesome. It is our job is to teach our kids which strategies are effective and which aren’t. So any behaviors you don’t want him to rely on can’t be successful, or what would be the motivation to give them up?

  • Show empathy and validate the feeling. “I know the blue shirt is your favorite and you are really disappointed that you can’t wear it today, but it’s in the wash.” It isn’t feelings that are the problem, it’s how they get acted on that can be problematic. The more you validate feelings, the less likely children are to have to act on them.

  • Set the limit and provide acceptable choices. “Your choice today is the red or yellow shirt.” If your child refuses the “choices you are choicing” him, then you let him know that you will make the choice. He may throw a fit. As calmly as you can, put a shirt on him and move along so he experiences the consequence of his actions. That is how children ultimately learn to make good decisions—by experiencing the outcomes of their choices and assessing which get them what they want and which don’t. If a tantrum leads to you taking that blue shirt out of the laundry, you: 1) give him the false expectation that he will get everything he wants, making it harder for him to learn to be flexible and accept alternatives—a critical life skill for getting along in the world; 2) send him the message that tantrums or refusal to cooperate are successful strategies, which he will naturally continue to rely on; and 3) communicate that you don’t think he can handle this disappointment, a missed opportunity for him to experience that he can indeed survive wearing a different shirt—building flexibility and important coping skills.

When my son was three and my daughter one, after over 600 consecutive nights of his getting to choose the books we read at bedtime, my daughter spoke up and said, “I want Clifford!” Since it seemed utterly fair for her to finally get a chance to choose, I promptly started to read about the big red dog, when my son shouted: “I NEVER GET TO CHOOSE THE BOOK!” What planet do you live on? (said the voice in my head). Talk about irrational! I completely mishandled it (despite being a child development specialist even back then), shaming him for being so selfish and engaging in all sorts of inappropriate and ineffective responses, like freezing him out and refusing a hug at bedtime. I still cringe when I think about it 20 years later. But I ultimately learned from my mistakes and made some course corrections. It’s never too late.

Don’t Fear the Tantrum: Just because your child is unhappy with a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her

Claire Lerner, LCSW

Sabrina, 3, throws a knock-down-drag-out tantrum when told her iPad time is over. She was in the middle of her game and insists she get to finish it. Her mom, Marcella, agrees to let her have 5 more minutes—to keep Sabrina happy and desperate to avoid a tantrum. But when time is up—again—Sabrina demands: “One more minute, just one more minute!” Marcella gives in a few more times until she cracks, shouting: “It’s never enough for you! If you don’t give me that iPad right now you won’t have it again for a month!” (A limit which Marcella admits she would never implement.)

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these kinds of dilemmas: the 2-year-old who won’t go to sleep until she has been read an ever-increasing number of books so that bedtime is now 2 hours long; or the 3-year-old “fascist dictator” who is holding the family captive with his endless demands for control—over EVERYTHING. These parents are exhausted, frustrated, angry and resentful; they are also sad and feel like failures, because by the end of the day they feel like all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for love or joy.

As I watch these scenarios unfold, it becomes clear that one major root of the problem is that parents are doing anything possible to avoid the tantrum and keep their children happy. The problem?  This approach just leads to more tantrums, and to missed opportunities to help children learn to adapt to life’s limits—to cope with the inevitable frustrations and disappointments we all confront as we make our way through this world. That’s why limits are loving, and why avoiding them is not.

The following are some key principles that many families I work with find helpful for establishing clear and appropriate limits while remaining loving and present.

  • Change your mindset—see limits as loving. Parents who feel they are being “mean” when their child is upset that they won’t read that 8th book at bedtime (“just one more and then I’ll go to sleep!”) or prepare a 3rd meal after their child has rejected the first two options (that she had requested), naturally have a hard time following through with a limit. Their child’s protests trigger strong emotions that flood their brains, making it hard to think through what their child really needs in that moment. This results in the kids driving the car—calling the shots—which leaves parents feeling out-of-control, manipulated and angry. Many times parents don’t even recognize this loss of control when it is happening. Unfortunately, and ironically, this usually results in parents actually getting mean—they lose it and start yelling, shaming and punishing, which leaves everyone feeling miserable and the child having learned little about better coping skills.

So, keep reminding yourself that limits are loving, because they lead to flexibility and the development of effective coping strategies—accepting a cheese stick instead of candy, or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits. This ability to adapt is what ultimately makes children happy and helps them be successful in the outside world, now and in the future  Observe any child care center or preschool class and you will see how children learn to cope effectively with limits: not being the line leader or snack helper; having to lie down on a cot for an hour even if they aren’t tired; needing to share their favorite toy…the list goes on.

  • Keep in mind that young children are not misbehaving on purpose; they may have learned unacceptable behaviors because they are effective in getting their way or yanking your chain and gaining control, but they aren’t purposefully trying to drive you mad. With this perspective, you will be better able to implement limits calmly and with empathy for how hard it is for your child to learn to manage her strong desires and impulses. And when you are clear about expectations while remaining loving, and avoid a lot of anger and shaming, your child does not get consumed with upset about the “break” in the relationship with you in that moment. She is able to be calm and adapt more quickly.

  • Establish and enforce limits that you know are good for your child. Don’t assess them based on your child’s response. If you think setting limits on screen time or how many kisses you give at bedtime are good for your child (kids who get 2 or 3 are no less well-adjusted than kids who get 20)—go for it. But don’t expect your child to be happy about it, or thank you for ensuring that they get ample time to play pretend or do a puzzle versus interacting with a beloved screen. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if your child is unhappy at times, that he is an unhappy child and you are not a good parent. Quite the opposite. So don’t fear the tantrum. Just because a child doesn’t like a limit, and is unhappy in the moment, doesn’t mean it’s not good for him. (I have yet to hear a 3-year-old say, “Thanks, Dad, for not letting me have those M&M’s before dinner. I know how important it is to eat my growing foods.”)

  • A limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it. This means it is not dependent on your child’s compliance. Think about it: you can’t actually make a child clean up her toys. You can demand repeatedly that she put her things away, but as long as you are in the position of trying to convince your child to do something, she is in the driver’s seat—she is in control, and she knows it. Instead, you can clearly explain that she has two great choices: if she puts all the toys away, she can have them all to play with again tomorrow; if she chooses not to clean them all up, the ones that don’t get put away will be put in a special box, or on a shelf high up, and she won’t have those to play with for a day or two. This is a consequence you have control over and sets up a clear structure that helps your child make good decisions as she experiences the outcome of her choices. Another common example—telling a child to sit on the steps as a “time-out”. This is rarely effective as the child can keep getting up and you have to keep coaxing them to sit back down. You can’t make a child stay on the step and attempts to do so typically lead to an increase in both the child’s and parent’s distress, raising the volume and intensity, making it less likely the child will calm down and be able to learn any lesson from the experience. It is usually much more effective to establish a place in your home that is safe and has boundaries where your child goes to cool off (that is not punishment!) when his whole mind and body is out of control (For more on this topic, go to: http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/01/time-helpful-harmful-young-children/

  • Have a plan. Without a plan, reactivity rules. The child provokes a situation, such as procrastinating eating breakfast. She takes one bite every 5 minutes to delay the inevitable—brushing teeth, putting on shoes and a coat, and heading to child care. Dad starts to feel out of control—his daughter is calling the shots—and he feels his blood pressure rise. How can he make her get a move on? (Remember—any time you are trying to convince your child to do something, she is in control.) He tries coaxing and bribing her to eat faster (which naturally results in her slowing her pace—power is oh so pleasurable to the young child). Then the reactive, right brain completely takes over and Dad crosses to the even darker side: he yanks her out of her high chair (as she is screaming “you’re hurting me” which amplifies his annoyance and adds some guilt), says all sorts of awful things to her, straps her angrily into her car seat, and everyone starts their day miserable. Sound familiar?

So, anticipate these kinds of events and have a plan that includes clear choices with consequences you can implementIt may go something like this: “Layla—we have 20 minutes for breakfast. We’ll put our friend Time Timer* on to help you keep track. When Time Timer beeps, whatever you haven’t eaten can go in your special take-away container to bring in the car in case you get hungry.” Keep in mind that you are not responsible for your child’s choices—you are in charge of offering clear and appropriate choices and implementing the consequence of your child’s decisions.

The benefits of having a plan are that: 1) it enables you to remain loving, present and supportive, while also in the driver’s seat—where you, not your child, belongs. I think of this as “responsive” versus “reactive” parenting; and, 2) your child learns to make good choices. This doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to have a total meltdown when you actually follow through—putting her food in the take-away bag when the timer goes off. But remember, that doesn’t mean your approach was wrong. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit, doesn’t mean it’s not good for her.

  • Make the choices very clear and concrete and present them with all the positivity you can muster. I’m a big fan of telling kids, in a very upbeat voice, that they have “two great choices, which is awesome!” (Children pick up on their parents’ tone which can be contagious. Approaching these encounters with tension and threat in your voice: ”If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m throwing them in the garbage”, puts them in a negative and oppositional frame of mind.) Be sure each choice you offer has a clear outcome. Layla quickly changed her approach to breakfast—eating most of her food while at the table—after just 2 days of her Dad’s newly implemented plan. Understanding clearly what her choices were, she was able to make a better decision for herself (and her dad)! Here are some examples from families I have recently worked with:

  • If you throw the ball into the basket, you can keep playing with it. If you choose to throw it at people, the ball will go away.

  • You can cooperate with getting into pajamas and we’ll have time for one extra book because we’ll have more time; or, I’ll get you into your PJs on my own and no time for an extra book.

  • You can stay in your room and get yourself to sleep; or, we will put the gate up to help you follow the rule to stay in your room at bedtime.

The next time you find yourself in that moment when you’re about to give in on a rule you know to be a good one, remind yourself that we live in a world that doesn’t adapt to us—we have to do the adapting. Giving your child the gift of loving limits will help her be more flexible and adaptable—key ingredients for success in all aspects of her life.

*The “Time Timer” is an awesome tool for self-regulation and helping kids know exactly how much time they have for pretty much anything: book-reading at bedtime, meals, playtime, cleaning up.  Google it!
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