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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct, don’t correct: Children—especially highly sensitive, reactive children—tend to feel shamed and overwhelmed when being corrected. When they hear “no!” their brains become flooded with emotion and they are unable to think or problem-solve. This makes it much less likely they will comply and change their behavior in positive ways.

Instead, skip the “no” and go straight to what the expectation is—what they can do. For example, if a child gets up from the table before mealtime is over, instead of saying, “No getting up to from table. Sit back down right now or there will be no more food,” you might say: “Oh, we’re still sitting at the table” (as you tap his chair to provide a visual cue). Or, if a child goes for a toy when you’ve told her it’s time to get pjs on, you might respond: “We’re putting on pajamas now” (as you gently steer her away from the book and towards the task); versus, "If you don't get your pajamas on right now there will be no books." Last week at a preschool, there was a three-year-old who was desperate to push...anything, including friends. It was clear he wasn't doing this on purpose to be hurtful. His body just craved this sensory experience. I said to him: "Henry, you love to push. It feels so good to your body. Let's see how hard you can push against this wall." He immediately got into this activity and some of the other kids joined in. Then we made it a game. I showed them how to push themselves away from the wall and clap, to add a new dimension.

An important feature of this approach is that it requires a lot less language than we tend to use when we are frustrated and trying to get our children to cooperate. We launch into a lecture thinking we can convince our children to do the right thing, but this tends to have the opposite effect. When a limit is being set it’s stressful for kids—they have to stop doing something they enjoy in order to comply with someone else’s agenda. The more we talk, the more agitated and overstimulated children become, which escalates their frustration and interferes with their ability to regulate themselves and comply. This strategy also helps you self-regulate—all that lecturing tends to increase parents’ emotional intensity. Providing a clear direction is simpler, keeps everybody calmer, and makes you a more effective limit-setter.

First/Then: This strategy lets children know that there will be a time when they will be able to have or do what they want in the near future which can engender more cooperation. For example, Jason is headed for the basket of balls before he has put away his other toys. Using “First, Then”, his dad says, “Oh, do you want to play with the balls? Great idea! First we need to clean up these toys and then we can play with the balls.” Another example: "Ruby, you are thinking a lot about how much you want to go to the playground. First nap and then we're off to the park!" When you acknowledge and validate your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants to do eventually, you reduce the stress she typically experiences when she can’t get what she wants right away. This calms her and puts her in a more positive frame of mind, which makes her more willing to cooperate

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

Tips for Helping Your Child Start School With Confidence

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

It's that time of year, when many young children are starting school or changing schools, which can be stressful. But it’s what we think of as a “positive stressor”--a challenge that is not detrimental to kids but that leads to growth. It is an opportunity for children to develop close, trusting relationships with other adults and peers. It builds confidence and helps children adapt to future separations.  And high-quality programs provide endless opportunities for developing the skills—intellectual, social and emotional—that set children up for success far into the future. Below are some ideas for how to help your child cope with this transition.

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

Validate feelings before jumping to reassurance. Labeling and acknowledging difficult feelings helps children understand, gain control over and work through them in positive ways. “I know it feels scary to go to a new classroom. That makes a lot of sense. But once you spend some time there you will see that it is a great place where you will have a a lot of fun playing and learning.” Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away. 

It can be helpful to share a story of a time when you started something new. Describe your own feelings of being nervous/scared, what you did to cope, and the ultimate benefit of the experience—what you would have missed if you hadn't forged ahead. If your child has had any past experiences with mastering something new, remind him that he has faced a challenge like this before. Emphasize the strength and bravery that helped him adapt to the new experience and how this led to a good outcome for him; for example, having fun at a birthday party or other activity he had initially been fearful of and protested going to. (This was a very effective strategy for Harris—reminding him of how he felt really nervous going to his previous school but that once he spent some time there he loved it.) This is how children build resilience. The more experience they have persevering through a challenge, the more muscle, confidence and skills they develop to master future difficult situations.

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

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

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

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

Be clear that going to school is not a choice to avoid protracted battles. It is very common for children to protest going to school. As long as you are sure that it is a safe, good place, when he says he doesn't want to go, validate his feelings. Let him know you understand that it can be uncomfortable when starting something new, but that going to school is not a choice. Just like mommies and daddies go to work, a kid's job is to go to school to play and learn. Keep moving forward, calmly and lovingly, even if he continues to protest. Avoid the pitfall of trying to convince him to go; that communicates that he has a choice which can lead to more stress for everyone. Once he experiences the daily routine of going to school each morning no matter his protests--that is when the push-back stops and the adaptation begins. 

Say a brief, upbeat goodbye. Children look to their parents’ for cues to help them assess a situation. If you are calm and positive in your approach, even in the face of your child's distress, you are letting her know that the new school is a safe place that you trust completely and she is more likely to make a quicker and more positive adaptation. “I know you don’t want daddy to leave. It's a new place and you are feeling afraid. I totally understand. You will feel less afraid the more time you spend here and see how great it is--that's why we chose if for you. Your job is to  play and learn here with the other kids. My job is to do my work. I can’t wait to pick you up and hear all about your day.” (It’s a good idea to find out from the teacher what the last activity will be before pick-up time so you can let your child know exactly what to expect: “After you have music, Daddy will be back to pick you up.”)  

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

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

The take home: talk to your partner or friends about any feelings you might be struggling with around separating from your child—which are totally understandable. Just avoid projecting them onto your child.

Have faith that with support from you and her teachers/caregivers, your child can and will adapt. Through the 15+ years I have been working in schools, I have seen many families pull their kids out of wonderful programs because they had a hard time transitioning. The child’s natural stress caused the parents so much discomfort they couldn’t tolerate it. They worried that their child just couldn’t do it. There are certainly some situations where there is a challenge in a child's developmental that makes participating in even a quality, loving, group care setting too stressful and inappropriate; for example, kids who have very low thresholds for sensory input may be so overwhelmed by the sound and activity-level in a classroom that they can't feel calm and adapt. But for most children, it is a gift to provide them the opportunity to experience that they can muscle through a challenge and successfully adapt to a new situation. It helps them feel less afraid and more confident about tackling other challenges they face in the future.  

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Fear Your Child's Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

For more on this topic, go to: First Feelings- https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/294-first-feelings-the-foundation-of-healthy-development-starting-from-birth

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.

Know Your Triggers: Managing Your Emotions and Reactions is one of your most important parenting tools

Know Your Triggers: Managing Your Emotions and Reactions is one of your most important parenting tools

Cherie, a very social and athletic mom who highly values team sports, feels very anxious that her 4-year-old, Martin, is hesitant about playing soccer with the other kids on the playground. He watches on the sidelines. Cherie keeps pushing him to join in, but this leads to greater resistance. So she tries bribery, which results in Martin inching his way toward the soccer field and running around the kids but not playing with them, looking anxious and sad. 

Caring for young children (really, children of any age) is an intensely emotional experience. We love our kids so deeply and want the best for them, so when faced with an incident or behavior that we worry is detrimental to the their well-being, it triggers a reaction which often leads to negative outcomes.  In the case of Martin, forcing leads to a decrease, not increase, in his desire join the play, and erodes his trust in Cherie to be sensitive to and respect his needs. Further, bribery communicates that the goal or desired behavior is so important to the parent that she is willing offer a reward for it—making it about meeting the parent’s not the child’s needs; and when the child can’t meet the need, there is a risk that he feels like a disappointment to his parent—a big burden for a little child. (Bribery can also lead the nasty little phenomenon of your child expecting a reward for everything—cleaning up toys, brushing his teeth.)

So know your triggers. Anticipate what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive. Using what you know about your child, think about what the behavior might mean (shouting “go away” to a family friend who has come to visit because he is uncomfortable with anything new and unexpected) and what he needs from you to cope (acknowledgment that he needs time to get to know someone and inviting the friend sit with them as they read a favorite book). That is responsive versus reactive parenting. One powerful strategy to avoid a reactive response (think: yelling, threatening, bribing, shaming) is to take your own time-out when your child is provoking a situation you need to respond to, for example, demanding ice cream right before dinner. Calmly, you state: “Hmm…this is a problem: you want ice cream but that is not a choice right now. I am going to take a mommy moment to think about how I am going to help us solve this problem.” This gives you a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond, and throws a monkey wrench into what often becomes a heated back-and-forth. (It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of the child stopping short in his tracks—so shocked at your calm response!) Taking this time-out can keep you from being reactive, gives you time to think, and provides a very powerful model for exercising self-control.  It is also a great tool for co-parents as a way to avoid undermining each other (one parent says no while the other caves) and to allow time to come up with a united plan: you announce that the adults are going to have a pow-wow and will be back in a minute to 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.”

This approach enables you to be responsive, not reactive, and is as important for you as your child, as it prevents you from behaving in ways you feel bad about and regret. It also helps your child learn to make good choices.  When Cherie got out of reactive mode and into mindful, responsive mode, she changed course. She brought a soccer ball to the playground and kicked it around with Martin, without any coaxing of him to join the other kids.  She also planned some opportunities to meet one or two other kids at the park on weekends to help Martin feel more comfortable with group play.  At the same time, she followed Martin’s lead on the playground, showing she values whatever most interests him—which is often the sandbox over running and climbing—not imposing her own expectations on him. Both Mom and Martin felt a great sense of relief and their time together was much more joyful.

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.

The Past Is Present: The Impact of Your Childhood Experiences on How You Parent Today

Claire Lerner, LCSW
This article encourages parents to reflect on experiences they had growing up in order to make conscious decisions about what practices they want to repeat, and not repeat, with their own children.

How many times have you opened your mouth to say something and heard your parents’ words come out? You’re not alone. Most parents have had this experience. It helps you see how deeply you are influenced by your childhood experiences and why it’s so important to become aware of how they shape your approach to parenting today. 

Just as you are your child’s first teacher, your parents were yours. Things they said and did, their way of being and relating to you and others, laid the foundation for many of your beliefs, values, attitudes, and parenting practices. Few parents, if any, had a lesson plan in mind. The transfer of information mostly took place through everyday interactions. You tuned in to the subtle and not-so-subtle messages they sent, which influenced how you thought about yourself and the world around you. 

Parents often re-create with their children what they experienced with their own parents.

Parents often re-create with their children what they experienced with their own parents. Sometimes it’s done on purpose. For example, a dad decides to take his toddler out to splash in the puddles because this activity is something special he remembers doing with his dad. Some parents try to do the opposite of what their parents did. A mom decides never to insist that her child play a sport because her parents forced her to do so against her will. A dad shows his child a lot of physical affection because his own father rarely did. 

Most likely, you sometimes “go home again”—act on beliefs, values, and experiences from your childhood—without making a conscious decision to do so. The amount of crying, fussing, and clinging that you can tolerate from your baby or toddler; the way you treat a boy compared with the way you treat a girl; the way you react to sibling rivalry; and your approach to discipline all may have roots in your early experiences. 

Thinking about your own childhood experiences can help you become more aware of the meaning behind your reactions toward your own child: 

  • What were some of the messages you received as a child? (About your intelligence, ability, importance, value?)

  • What influence, if any, do you think these messages have on your parenting today?

  • In what ways do you feel your parents had a positive impact on you—that you would like to do with your own child?

  • Was there anything about your parents’ approach to raising you that you don’t want to recreate with your child?

  • Are there any significant events or experiences in your childhood that had an impact on you and that now may be influencing your parenting? For example: the loss of a loved one, parental separation or divorce, significant tension between parents, financial insecurity, parental mental health issues, or parental substance abuse.

Reflecting on these questions can stir up strong feelings. Consider discussing them with your partner or a trusted friend. Consulting a parenting specialist to meet with individually or in a group can also be extremely helpful in “unpacking” the past to benefit your child’s future.

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

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.

When Parents Disagree: How to get on the same page without anyone “winning” or “losing”

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Marriage is hard enough. Adding kids to the mix brings a lot of joy but also more complexity, as parenting requires making countless decisions each day about what kids eat, how to get them to sleep, how much screen time to allow, etc., and the biggie—what the rules, limits and consequences will be for inappropriate behavior (of which there is a lot in the early years).  Some couples are fortunate to share similar approaches about most childrearing issues. But many parents experience conflict rooted in the fact that they have different perspectives about how to raise kids based on their own upbringings, beliefs and values, and expectations for their children. This kind of tension between parents can have negative effects on children, including:

  • Children sense and often witness tension unfolding in front of them, which translates in their minds to “I’m a problem”. This can negatively affect their growing sense of self.

  • Visible discord between parents is uncomfortable and scary for young children who rely on them to be their trusted leaders—which includes being calm and in control.

  • When parents disagree about an approach, they often undermine each other. For example, one parent announces: “It’s time to put toys away and wash hands for dinner.” Their child protests: “Five more minutes…I need just 5 more minutes!” Enter the other parent who chimes in: “Ok bud, 5 more minutes and that’s it—I mean it.” Everyone is well intentioned, that’s not the issue. But undermining your partner can build anger and resentment, making co-parenting even more stressful. For children, It can cause anxiety and more acting-out behavior; from their perspective, it is confusing to get mixed messages about expectations for acceptable behavior. (It can also lead to kids using the rift between their parents to their short-term advantage, but everyone’s long-term disadvantage). It is no surprise that most children tend to behave so much better at school: the rules, limits and consequences are crystal clear and implemented matter-of-factly so children know exactly what to expect and are better-equipped to make good choices.

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do:

  • Accept that as convinced as you are that your position is best, your partner is equally as vehement about the “rightness” of his or her approach. When parents insist that their way is the “right” way, and put all their energy into convincing their partner of this notion, they tend to get increasingly polarized. Each partner may feel the need to compensate for what they perceive as the other’s inappropriate actions. The stricter parent may get more rigid and harsh to counter what is perceived to be the other partner’s leniency. The more lenient parent may become even more permissive to counter the other partner’s perceived severity. Instead of finding yourself in this unhelpful dynamic, make a commitment to sharing each of your points of view about the behaviors and situations that arise with your children on which you tend to disagree. Listen openly to your partner. You don’t have to agree, but it is very important that you understand where the other is coming from and acknowledge the validity of their perspective. This makes for a much stronger, harmonious parenting partnership and provides your child a powerful model for mutual respect and effective problem-solving in relationships. One family I recently worked with was at loggerheads about how to get their 15-month-old-Lily—to sleep through the night. Mom was at her wit’s end with sleep-deprivation and wanted to go cold turkey—after lights-out, no responding to Lily. Dad wanted to go in and rock her back to sleep. When I asked each parent to share their thinking behind their different approaches, Mom said she felt any intervention or efforts to soothe Lily in the middle of the night would keep reinforcing the night-awakenings. Dad, who got very choked up at this point, explained that, because his own father had left the family when he was 2 years old, he swore that his kids would never feel abandoned by him. Letting Lily cry, even a little, felt like abandonment by Dad. Once they stopped trying to convince the other of the “rightness” of their position, and truly listened to where their partner was coming from, these parents were able to come up with a plan that took into consideration both of their perspectives: they would peek in when Lily awakened at night to assure her they were still there and that all was well, but they wouldn’t hold or rock her back to sleep. This felt comfortable to Mom because she felt it would still give Lily the chance to learn to soothe herself. Dad could also live with this plan because Lily would get the assurance that Mom and Dad were still there and when he took his emotions out of it, he was able to see that giving Lily a chance to learn to soothe herself was being a loving parent, not a neglectful one.

  • Make the focus what your child needs, not which one of you has the better approach and “wins out”. Agree to think together about what your child’s behavior is telling you and what will help him cope. This should be the goal you both share and to which you are ultimately committed.

  • When your child engages in behavior that calls for a response from you, and it’s a not life or death matter such as running into the street or climbing on the counter, take a mommy/daddy time out. This helps you avoid being reactive and working at cross-purposes. It looks and sounds something like this: In a very upbeat and wondering tone, without anger, one parent turns to the other and says: “Hmm, this is a problem. We’ve explained to Henry that grabbing toys is not okay, but he is not cooperating with this rule. So, Henry, Daddy and I are going to take a minute to put our heads together to figure out how we can help you follow this rule.” This strategy is often enough to motivate a child to correct his behavior and make a better choice, so shocked that you are not being reactive and, instead, are working as a team. You can put a timer on for one or two minutes to come up with a plan you both feel comfortable implementing. This gives you and your partner a chance to collaborate on a united response.

  • Identify what each of your strengths or comfort-levels are for different parenting challenges and use this knowledge as a positive, parenting tool. The parent who is less anxious about their child’s daredevil nature would take the lead when they go to the playground in order to allow the child to take risks while keeping him safe. The parent who has more patience would deal with the temper tantrums. The frame is not that one parent is “better” than the other. Each parent has different trigger points and you are using this awareness to support each other and be effective co-parents. It’s a strength, not a weakness, and it benefits you and your child.

What about if you don’t live with your co-parent?

Children are very adaptable. They quickly learn what the expectations are in different settings and with different people, and act accordingly.  (It never ceased to amaze me that my children did for themselves in daycare that I was still doing all the time for them at home!) Begging to stay up late works with my grandma but not auntie. Mom will feed me but my teachers expect me to use utensils and feed myself.  The same goes for living in two separate homes and by different sets of rules: children will adapt to the expectations in each setting.

It is indeed ideal for separated parents to try to agree on an approach to childrearing, as children tend to adapt more easily when there is consistency in rules from one setting to another. But when there are disagreements, many of the same rules apply as those for parents sharing a home:

  • Accept that you cannot control the other parent. The only person you have control over is yourself. Focus on what you can do to tune in to and nurture your child’s unique needs. Trying to make your co-parent do it your way is rarely an effective strategy.

  • Agree that nurturing your child’s healthiest development is a shared goal. Your focus should be about what your child needs and how to best meet those needs. Avoid using the conflicts around childrearing as opportunities to get back at or punish the other parent. If possible, plan regular times to communicate about what each of you are seeing, experiencing and learning about your child and what this is telling you about what he or she needs to thrive. For example, many years ago when my ex-husband and I separated, we noticed that our son, who was 6 at the time, had a much harder time when his Dad did school drop-off. He would get very upset and have a hard time coping and making the transition to school. When we talked about it with him, he was actually able to articulate that he hated the image of his dad driving away from him. So we changed our plan so that I did drop off whenever I could and his dad picked him up at the end of the day—for the reunion, if you will. This solved an unanticipated big problem.

  • If you can’t agree on basic expectations and approaches to discipline, matter-of-factly acknowledge that there are differences in your homes without throwing the other parent under the bus, which only causes more distress for children who are trying to navigate through an already complex situation. “That’s right, Mommy and Daddy have different rules in our houses. Mommy’s rule is you can eat in front of the TV; Daddy’s rule is no TV during mealtime. I know you like Mommy’s rule better because you love TV. But we’ll tell stories instead at our meals.” Once your child sees that you are sticking to your limit they adapt.

Kids don’t grow up in perfect worlds, nor do they need to. What children do need are parents, whether living together or not, who demonstrate respect for each other, communicate calmly, without anger, and who make their child’s needs the central focus of their decision-making. And if you need help doing this, you wouldn’t be the first. Helping parents establish this kind of partnership is a major part of the work we do together to help them be the parents they want to be to their children.

To Nurture Your Children’s Problem-Solving Skills, Avoid Solving Their Problems

Claire Lerner, LCSW

Josie, 2 ½ years, wails when her mom, Tamisa, drops her off at preschool for day 3 at a new program. Previously, Josie had been in a family child care home with just 5 children. Tamisa feels sick to her stomach leaving Josie—the teachers have to peel her off Tamisa at drop-off. Even though the teachers tell Tamisa that this is very normal—it takes time for young children to get comfortable and feel safe in a new environment and Josie is calming more quickly and participating more each day—Tamisa is seriously considering just sending Josie back to the family child care home where she seemed so much more content.

It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is often to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. (One cry of frustration from my 3-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.) Often, the driving force behind solving our children’s problems is to protect them from feeling bad about themselves—like a failure; but we are actually doing the opposite, sending the message that they are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems (which, by the way, can lead to placing blame on their parents for everything that doesn’t go right for them for years to come.) It also teaches that failure is to be feared, or something to be ashamed of, when it is in fact a critical component of the learning process.

Take the example of Josie: with empathy and support from Josie’s teachers, Tamisa was able to manage her anxiety and give Josie more time to adapt to this new experience, Tamisa changed her goodbye routine from one that showed worry and lack of confidence in Josie’s ability to handle this change—hovering and communicating with her tone of voice and body language how concerned and upset she was—to an approach that was validating, sensitive and positive. She acknowledged that starting something new can be scary, and that of course they will miss each other—that’s only natural—but mom’s job is to go to her office and work and Josie’s job is to play and learn at this amazing school. Within two weeks Josie was running joyfully into the classroom—making friends and engaging in all sorts of new activities—and protesting when it was time to leave.

So, don’t fear those moments when your child is facing a challenge; see them as powerful opportunities to help your child see herself as a good problem-solver and build resilience. This means getting comfortable with your child’s discomfort—a natural part of mastering a new skill.  (Picture your child learning to ride a 2-wheeler; if you never let go, your child never experiences the teetering—which can feel a little scary and uncomfortable—that leads to figuring out how to eventually maintain her balance and the incredible sense of pride she experiences when she masters the challenge.) Acknowledge her frustration and discomfort while showing her that you believe she can solve the problem. See yourself as her coach: guide her to try different spaces to figure out where the puzzle piece fits; brainstorm with your 3-year-old what else she can use for a cape (after you’ve told her the table cloth is off limits); ask your 4-year-old and his friend for their ideas for how to share the T-Rex they both want. While it is no doubt easier to swoop in as the fixer, acting as a supportive coach will build your child’s self-confidence and help her learn to muscle through life’s challenges.

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!
Clerner92762@gmail.com

 

Managing Your Own Emotions: The Key to Positive, Effective Parenting

Claire Lerner, LCSW

This article discusses the influence parental reactions have on young children’s behavior and provides guidance on ways to respond that help children calm more easily and learn better coping skills.

Being the parent of a young child is an intensely emotional experience. There is the pure pleasure of cuddling, nuzzling, playing, laughing, exploring, and delighting in your baby’s daily growth and discoveries. And then there are the challenges—the moments of stress, anger, frustration, and resentment—at not knowing what a baby’s cry means and how to calm her, at the totally irrational demands of a toddler, or at the aggressive behavior of an older child toward a new baby. These experiences naturally evoke strong feelings that can be hard to handle. 

But it is important to tune in to and manage these feelings because it is how you react in these moments that makes the difference in your child’s development. Your response impacts his ability to learn good coping skills and guides his future behavior. Imagine a 2-year-old who is falling apart because he can’t cope with the fact that you gave him his cereal in the blue bowl instead of his favorite red bowl (as unbelievably irrational as that might be— such is life with a toddler). Reacting with anger and frustration is likely to further distress the child rather than help him calm and cope. Learning to manage your own reactions is one of most important ways you can reduce your own—and your child’s—distress. It also teaches children how to manage their own emotions—a skill that helps them do better in school and in building friendships and other relationships as they grow. 

Managing strong, negative emotions is surely much easier said than done. But it’s worth the effort, because the payoff is huge, for you and your child. Here are some helpful guiding principles and strategies: 

Tune in to your feelings.

Feelings are not right or wrong. It is what you do with your feelings that can be helpful or hurtful. What’s most important is that you tune in to and own your feelings so that you can make a conscious decision—versus a knee-jerk reaction—about how best to respond. 

Look at behavior in the context of your child’s development and temperament.

Having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to your child’s behavior impacts how you manage your own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If you see the behavior as manipulative, or to be purposefully hurtful (i.e., biting, hitting), then you are more likely to react in ways that escalate instead of calm your child. And intense, angry reactions rarely result in teaching good coping skills. If, instead, you see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then you can approach your child with empathy, making it much more likely you will respond calmly and effectively. 

Remember: You can’t 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 children’s actions, as this is what guides and shapes their behavior. If throwing a tantrum results in extra TV time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention (a primary goal for older siblings dealing with major rivalry), your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Tantrums work! Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

 

Putting It All Together

The Scenario:

Three-year-old Jonah announces to his mother, Lauren, “You are the meanest mommy, and I hate you”, and then kicks her after Lauren tells him that the playdate is over—it’s time for Liam to go home. 

Step 1—Tune in to your feelings:

Lauren is feeling furious and wants to say: “You are the most ungrateful child ever! Liam has been here for 2 hours and I have put aside everything I needed to do to supervise, make cookies with you, set up the painting project, etc., etc. It’s never enough!” But she knows reacting angrily will not teach her child anything and will just increase both of their distress. She takes some deep breaths and thinks through how to respond to help Jonah learn to manage his strong emotions and accept the limit. 

Step 2—Tune in to and validate your child:

This is where having appropriate expectations comes in. Lauren reminds herself that at 3, children are still largely driven by their emotions and that the goal is to help Jonah learn to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments. So she tells him calmly, “I know you are sad and angry that Liam has to go home. You have so much fun playing with him. It is always hard when a playdate ends. But you will be okay.” It is very important to communicate that you have confidence that your child can handle his difficult feelings. When you swoop in to make it all better, you inadvertently send the message that he can’t handle disappointment, which makes it less likely he will learn this important skill. 

Step 3—If your child throws out some bait, don’t take it:

Young children will use any strategy possible to get what they want, such as more TV time or extra dessert, or to avoid doing something they don’t like, such as getting dressed in the morning or brushing their teeth. The best way to eliminate behaviors you feel will not serve your child well in the real world is to ignore them. So in this case, it means Lauren not responding to Jonah’s provocation, “You are the meanest mommy…” She doesn’t allow it to divert attention from the limit she is setting, which is usually the goal of throwing out some bait— to control other’s actions and avoid something the child is uncomfortable with. 

Step 4—Set the limit and provide choices:

“It’s okay to be sad and angry, but it’s not okay to kick. Kicking hurts. I know you don’t want to hurt me, you’re just having a hard time controlling your body because you are so upset. So your choice is to take a break where you can calm your mind and body, or you can come help put the carrots into the salad for dinner.” If Jonah can’t yet pull himself together, Lauren will just move on, showing him with her actions that she can tolerate his being unhappy and disappointed, and that she trusts he has the ability to calm himself. This leaves Jonah with the choice to stay upset or pull himself together and hang out with his mom. 

Managing your own emotions helps you feel more in control and frees you to respond to even the most challenging behaviors calmly and effectively.

Source: http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-adv...

First Feelings: The Foundation of Healthy Development, Starting From Birth

Claire Lerner LCSW

It's so important for parents to help their child learn how to cope with their feelings. Learn how parents are their child's guide in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges, starting on day one.

It wasn’t that long ago that the conventional wisdom was that babies were pretty much blobs who didn’t think or feel much before they could speak in words around age 2. The idea that a 6-month-old could feel fear or anger, no less sadness and grief, was preposterous. But thanks to an explosion in research on infancy in the last 30 years, we now know that babies and toddlers are deeply feeling beings. Starting in the earliest months of life, well before they can use words to express themselves, babies have the capacity to experience peaks of joy, excitement, and elation. They also feel fear, grief, sadness, hopelessness, and anger—emotions that many adults understandably still find it hard to believe, or accept, that very young children can experience. Research has also shown that children’s ability to effectively manage their full range of emotions, also known as self-regulation—is one of the most important factors for success in school, work, and relationships into the long-term.

So a critical first step in helping your child learn to cope with her feelings is not to fear the feelings, but embrace them—all of them. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. When you help your child understand her feelings, she is better equipped to manage them effectively.

One major obstacle in doing this that I see quite often in my work with parents is that they are operating under the false assumption that having a happy child means he needs to be happy all the time (something I still have to keep reminding myself despite the fact that my children are in their 20s!) Muscling through difficult experiences, mastering struggles, coping with sadness and grief, builds strength and resilience, and is ultimately what brings children a sense of contentedness and well-being.

What can parents do?

Starting in the earliest months, tune in to babies’ cues—their sounds, facial expressions, and gestures—and respond sensitively, which lets babies know their feelings are recognized and important. This might mean stopping a tickling game with a 4-month-old when she arches her back and looks away, signaling she needs a break. Or taking a 9-month-old to the window to wave good-bye to Mom when she is sad to see her leave for work.

Label and help toddlers cope with feelings.

Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment can be overwhelming for young children. Naming these feelings is the first step in helping children learn to identify them, and it communicates to children that these feelings are normal. This might mean acknowledging an 18-month-old’s anger at having to leave the playground as you help him into the car seat; validating a 2-year-old’s frustration at his block tower falling again and again; or empathizing with a 3-year-old’s sadness that his grandparents are leaving after a long visit.

Don’t fear the feelings.

Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do—or don’t do—with them that can be problematic. So listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, you are sending the important message that feelings are valued and important. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time.

Avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings.

This is a natural reaction—we just want to make the bad feelings go away. Don’t be sad. You’ll see Joey another day. But feelings don’t go away, they need to be expressed one way or another. Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them. You are sad Joey has to leave. You love playing with him. Let’s go to the window to wave good-bye and make a plan to see him again soon. When feelings are minimized or ignored, they often get expressed through aggressive words and actions, or by turning them inward, which can ultimately make children anxious or depressed.

Teach tools for coping.

If your 18-month-old is angry that iPad time is over, guide her to stamp her feet as hard as she can or to draw how angry she is with a red crayon. Help a 2-year-old who is frustrated at not being able to get the ball into the basket brainstorm other ways to solve the problem. Take a 3-year-old who is fearful about starting a new school to visit the classroom beforehand—meet the teachers and play on the playground—so that the unfamiliar can become familiar.

The fact is that our children’s emotional reactions trigger our own emotional reactions, which can lead to a knee-jerk need to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our child distress. But it’s important that we manage our own feelings and avoid this temptation, as it creates a missed opportunity to help children learn strong coping skills. Instead, see these experiences as teachable moments to help your child learn to name and manage the emotions—positive and negative—that add depth and color to our lives. Show your child that a full, rich life means experiencing both the ups and the downs. Feelings are not “good” or “bad”—they just are. You are your child’s guide in in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges. And it starts on day one.Most important to keep in mind is that having that second child is a gift to your first-born; it is not something that should make you feel guilty. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that your first-born picks up on the changes he senses are on the horizon, which causes anxiety about the unknown—how his family will change and what that means for him. Being sensitive to this will help you provide the support and reassurance he needs to adapt to this major life transition.