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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Guiding principles for avoiding power struggles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting Effective Limits with Love: 9 Guiding Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional resources on positive discipline and limit-setting:

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

 ______________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsive vs Reactive Parenting: It Makes All the Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Toddler is Strategic, Not Manipulative

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Any of these proclamations sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Young children are unbelievably clever—they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular—otherwise known as bait.  While this feels so wrong and exasperating , children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want, and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat, and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative--which is naturally confounding to many parents who expect that their children want their praise and will be deterred by their anger and disappointment. The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t engage around the provocative behavior.

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

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

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

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

 ________________________________

Child: You’re not the boss of me! 

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

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

                 ________________________________________

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

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

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

__________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time-Outs: Helpful or Harmful to Young Children?

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

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

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

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

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

Create a special, safe space.

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

Keep expectations for what the break will accomplish in check.

Children—especially those under 3 years old—do not yet have the ability to reflect on their own actions and behavior. This means that the goal of taking a break is not self-reflection (“Gee, I wonder why I let my emotions get the best of me—I really shouldn’t have thrown that train” is beyond most 2-year-olds), but to provide a quiet place where children can move from a state of high agitation and upset to a sense of calm. The break offers the space for both parent and child to regroup, and then come back together to talk about what the child could do the next time this situation arises. No learning takes place when children are in an agitated, emotionally flooded state.

Choose a time limit best suited to your child.

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

Ignore the behavior but not the child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what’s a parent to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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