Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Dealing with Demanding Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to give my mom credit for this insight. On a visit when my son was three, she pointed out that every time I gave him a direction, I ended it with “Okay?” She wondered why I would ask a question when I was not intending to give my son a choice (Sam, time to leave the playground, okay?) and noted that this might be confusing to him. Once I was aware of this dynamic, I realized that it had become a totally unconscious, reflexive response that I used constantly.Sam, time for bath, okay? Sam, time to get in the car, okay?I also began to notice that this was a pervasive phenomenon in every family I worked with. Twenty-five years later, as I visit home after home, I can confidently report that nothing has changed. We all fall prey to this pitfall. And it’s a problematic one, because it is confusing to children: they hear that they are being given a choice even though this is not their parents’ intention. When children don’t comply, it results in a lot of frustration and anger. I was at a home visit recently during which a mom kept asking her 2-year-old to, “Please take your feet off the kitchen table, okay?” After several requests the toddler turned to her mom and simply said, “No, I like them on the table.”

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

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

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

What to do?
Teach your child that a choice is something she gets to pick, while a direction is something she has to do. A choice might be offering her a cheese stick or apples slices for snack. A direction might be: “It's time to come to the table for dinner.” Labeling choices and directions helps your child understand the expectation: “Charlie, I have a direction for you: it’s time to put away the Magna-tiles and wash hands for dinner.” Or, “Laila, you have a choice: do you want to brush teeth before books or after books?” You can also call directions "jobs" as kids tend to respond very positively to this concept. It makes them feel important and competent: “Omar, your job is to put all the blocks back on the shelf.” When communicating a direction, be very careful not to start with, “can you” or end with “okay?” (“Can you get into you pjs?” Or, “It’s time to take a nap, okay?”)

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

Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Fair is NOT Equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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