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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the Childrearing Trenches: 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 Fear Your Child's Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time-Outs: Helpful or Harmful to Young Children?

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

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

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

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

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

Create a special, safe space.

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

Keep expectations for what the break will accomplish in check.

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

Choose a time limit best suited to your child.

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

Ignore the behavior but not the child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Lerner, LCSW

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

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

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

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

Tune in to your feelings.

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

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

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

Remember: You can’t make your child do anything— eat, sleep, pee, poop, talk, or stop having a tantrum.

What you do have control over is how you respond to your children’s actions, as this is what guides and shapes their behavior. If throwing a tantrum results in extra TV time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention (a primary goal for older siblings dealing with major rivalry), your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Tantrums work! Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

 

Putting It All Together

The Scenario:

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

Step 1—Tune in to your feelings:

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

Step 2—Tune in to and validate your child:

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

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

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

Step 4—Set the limit and provide choices:

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

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

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