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.

Tips for Helping Your Child Start School With Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.)

Don't Fear Your Child's Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Toddler is Strategic, Not Manipulative

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Child: You’re not the boss of me! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Preparing Your Older Child for the Arrival of a New Baby

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Preparing for a second child is a little different than when you were expecting your first.
One major new variable is child number one, who up to this point has experienced the world pretty much revolving around him. Another big factor is that many first-borns are only toddlers themselves when that second baby is on the way, making the concept of a baby growing in mom’s belly pretty hard to grasp. With that in mind, here are some ways you can help make this abstract concept more understandable and help your older child get ready for his new brother or sister.

  • Read books about how babies are born after they grow in mom’s “bellies.” The concept of an actual human coming out of a belly is very abstract to a young child. The more you make the unknown known, the less anxiety there will be for the child.

  • Read books about having a new brother or sister. Depending on your child’s age, talk about what she thinks it will be like when the baby is born—what will be fun and what might be hard—such as when the baby has to be fed or changed at a time when your child wants to play. Brainstorm activities you can still do at those times, like reading a book as he turns the pages. To avoid setting him up for a rude awakening when reality hits, it’s important to communicate that having a new baby is exciting, but also a big change,

  • Invite your child to be involved in baby prep activities. She can help you decorate the baby’s room, pick out toys, clothes, etc., if she is interested. Avoid forcing your child to help because this sends the message that she has to be happy about the new baby, and that she will disappoint you if she doesn’t show excitement or want to be involved.

  • Consider inviting your child to attend a few doctor’s visits. You know your child best. Some toddlers enjoy these visits while others will get bored and antsy, taking your attention away from your visit. Keep in mind that viewing a sonogram is very hard for a toddler to make sense of which can cause anxiety. You could also consider sibling prep classes that many hospitals offer. You know your child best, so trust your instincts.

  • Create opportunities for your child to be with babies. Point out babies you see when you are out and about. Visit friends who have a new little one and talk about what babies are like—what they can and can’t do, how they behave, and what kind of care they need.

  • Expect your child to act out her feelings about the new baby. It is natural and common for first-borns to experience and express confusion and worry as they try to make sense of the changes they see in mom’s body and feel the approach of changes in the family the way he has known it. His behavior may change, which can include becoming clingier, demanding to be carried all the time, starting to wake up in the middle of the night, having potty accidents, or becoming withdrawn or aggressive. Since young children have a hard time understanding and expressing their complex feelings, they act them out. Try to show empathy at these moments while still setting appropriate limits. “You want mommy to pick you up, but that is not possible right now. I know that is frustrating and you are angry. I can hold your hand or you can go in the stroller.” Then follow through as calmly as possible, even in the face of his distress. When he sees you are compassionate but clear about the limit, he is likely to adapt.

Most important to keep in mind is that having that second child is a gift to your first-born; it is not something that should make you feel guilty. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that your first-born picks up on the changes he senses are on the horizon, which causes anxiety about the unknown—how his family will change and what that means for him. Being sensitive to this will help you provide the support and reassurance he needs to adapt to this major life transition. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time-Outs: Helpful or Harmful to Young Children?

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

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

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

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

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

Create a special, safe space.

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

Keep expectations for what the break will accomplish in check.

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

Choose a time limit best suited to your child.

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

Ignore the behavior but not the child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Lerner, LCSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what’s a parent to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Lerner, LCSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The “Time Timer” is an awesome tool for self-regulation and helping kids know exactly how much time they have for pretty much anything: book-reading at bedtime, meals, playtime, cleaning up.  Google it!
Clerner92762@gmail.com

 

Happy Children Aren’t Always Happy: 10 Pivotal Parenting Pitfalls and How to Prevent Them

Claire Lerner, LCSW-C

It is my privilege to work every day with the most loving, sensitive parents of young children who are struggling mightily with how to understand and respond most effectively to their children's challenging behaviors. Their stories are sometimes hilarious, like the feisty 3-year-old who, when told by her dad that the reason she couldn’t have the candy at the grocery store was because he didn't have enough money, responded that in that case he should just put back the eggs. But many are heartbreaking, like the myriad of parents who despair that the two precious waking hours they have with their child each night are spent in power struggles and negotiations: lots of aggravation and little joy.

While the path to solving the range of challenges parents face is different for each family, I have found that there are a number of pivotal parenting pitfalls that cause a lot of frustration and stress—for parents and kids. When we uncover them, it results in that “aha” moment for parents that leads to important insights and the ability to make the positive changes they are seeking.  Often, it’s a matter of re-framing the issue—seeing a behavior in a developmental context and through the eyes of their child—that helps parents tune in to the meaning of the behavior which enables them to move from anger and frustration to empathy.  

These insights guide me, too, as I continue to work towards being the best parent I can be to my children, now in their mid-20’s.  Truth be told, rarely a day goes by that I don’t feel the sting of regret at how much less anxious and reactive I might have been when my kids were growing up, how much calmer and less stressed I would have been, and how much more pleasure I would have experienced, had I been mindful of and practiced these principles myself. I wish I had understood that happy children aren't always happy; that while learning to deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments involves children feeling uncomfortable and unhappy at times, muscling through these challenges is what builds resilience and strong coping skills. So when parents ask me if it’s too late for their child—fearing they’ve already “ruined” him (even at the ripe age of 3)—I can tell them the good news: it’s never too late. 

Pitfalls to Positive Parenting

1.Unrealistic expectations. Many parents expect their young children to be able to exercise much more self-regulation than they are actually capable of. Toddlers are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and expected. Trying to use reason to get them to cooperate is rarely a useful endeavor. The part of the brain that enables us to think about and manage our feelings and impulses is not well-developed until 5 to 6 years of age. Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Further, 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 or driving you crazy, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that escalate, instead of calm, your child. 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 help them problem-solve and teach coping skills.

2.  Minimizing your child’s feelings. Because we love our kids so deeply it is naturally painful to most of us when they experience and express difficult emotions. We just want to make them go away because they make us uncomfortable. But ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make the feelings magically disappear, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for your child…and you. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. When you name your child's feelings you help him understand, accept and ultimately lean to manage them in appropriate ways.  

 3.  Living in terror of the tantrum.  The root cause of challenges with limit-setting for many parents is that they are driven by fear of the tantrum which they are trying to avoid at any cost. The problem is that cost can be substantial as it results in the child driving the car, calling the shots, and parents getting increasingly angry and resentful that their child is making them feel so helpless and out of control. It’s important to keep reminding yourself that 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 limiting my screen time. I know how important it is to engage in 'real life' activities with other humans.”) Setting and enforcing clear limits is actually one of the most loving things you can do for your child.  Learning to cope with 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 outside world.

4.  Setting limits you can’t enforce. On one home visit after another it has become clear that one key factor that gets in the way of setting effective limits is when they depend 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. 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. 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) escort him back to bed. Experiencing the consequences of their choices is what helps them learn to make good decisions.

5.  Seeing your child as manipulative when she is really being strategic. 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 fascist dictators (although that's how it often feels).  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 being strategic. Seeing their behavior through this lens can reduce your anger (and horror) and instead help you appreciate what a good job you have done raising a clever child. This puts you in a mindset that makes it more likely you will respond with calm and clarity about the rules and expectations, and not let the strategies you don’t want your child to rely on, work: "I know leaving the playground is hard--it's so much fun here. But it's time to go home for lunch. You've got two great choices--you can climb in the stroller or I can put you in, which would you like?"

6.   Taking the Bait. I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party! Sound familiar? Young children are unbelievably clever; they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular. My most recent favorite from a clever and feisty 4-year-old: I am going to take your voice box and throw it in the trash! (when told there would be no 6th book at bedtime)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 engage around the provocative behavior. Instead, acknowledge the underlying feeling: “You are so disappointed that we can't read this other book tonight. I'll put it on the kitchen table and we can read it at breakfast." Then move on to show you will not engage in a back-and-forth about this. You can't make your child stop trying to draw you in but you can refuse to keep the detrimental dance going. 

7. Talking too much when children are in distress mode. Most of us tend to feel a need to either try to talk our children out of their upset, reason with them, or teach them a lesson. When your child is triggered he is on system-overload; the more you talk, the more likely he is to escalate and get even more dys-regulated.  He just needs you to be a soothing, loving presence until he can get calm. Then you can process what happened and brainstorm how you can help him resolve whatever the problem was, or deal with it differently next time…and the time after that. Also avoid asking your child why he did what he did.  Young children are often acting on impulse, not with premeditation.  When we ask them for a reason for their behavior they feel compelled to please us by coming up with a response that is often nonsensical. When they are calm, ask how they felt and then you can help them make a connection between that emotion and their action: “You were mad mommy had to feed baby and couldn’t play with you. When you’re mad sometimes you hit to get the mad out.  Let’s brainstorm other ways to be mad that aren’t hurtful—because I know you don’t mean to be hurtful.” (It is very important to send this message so that children don’t internalize negative feelings about themselves as being the “bad”, “aggressive” child as that only begets more challenging behaviors.)  Also note that when young children laugh or look away when you are talking to them about their “misbehavior”, this does not mean they are sociopaths with no empathy—it is often quite the opposite: the kids who respond this way are often the most sensitive and tuned in to other’s emotions and reactions. They get flooded with shame when being corrected and their discomfort results in laughter or turning away to protect themselves from the intensity of the interaction.  

8.  Being reactive. This is a biggie—managing our own emotions. When we react with anger, annoyance, shaming, etc., it just escalates our children’s distress. Your greatest tool in teaching your child self-regulation is practicing it yourself. This is no small feat but is important to keep working on as the benefits of being responsive vs reactive are huge, for your child and you. Being responsive means anticipating 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. This might mean taking a mommy/daddy time-out. 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: “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 rule and then move on. Remember--don’t fear the tantrum! Your child has to experience some discomfort in order to learn to be flexible and make good choices. 

9.  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 or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. (One cry of frustration from my 3-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response—fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better—setting a pattern of him relying on me to be the fixer for years to come.) When parents 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 they are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems (which, by the way, can lead to placing blame on their parents for everything as they grow!) See your child as a partner in solving problems. Starting at around 2.5 to 3 years of age, children begin to understand logic—why things happen. This means they can start to participate in problem-solving. “Throwing balls at people is not okay—It hurts. What are other ways you can use the ball?” “Two boys, one truck, what should we do?” The more children feel they are a part of the solution, the more likely they are to cooperate with it. Life is a series of problems to solve every day, so nurturing this skill in young children is one of the greatest gift you can give them.

10.  Being too hard on yourself; trying to meet some standard of “perfect” parenting. Being a “perfect” parent doesn’t mean never making mistakes — it means being committed to learning from them. Don’t waste your energy berating yourself and feeling guilty when things don’t go the way you want or intended; that just sends you down the rabbit hole of despair and makes it more difficult to see your way out. Mistakes are just part of the process—learning through trial and error. (FAIL=First Attempt In Learning) Being a “perfect” parent means that when things aren’t going well you take the time to reflect on what the cause of the problem might be--what is your child telling you with his actions and why might your response not be most effective--to provide the data you need to make a course correction or redo. And don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have yelled. I was angry and lost it. Let me try this again.” You are modeling taking responsibility for your actions as well as self-awareness and empathy.  

Alas, it is true–children don’t come with manuals, at least not written ones. However, if you watch closely, listen carefully, and are tuned in to and open to what your children are telling you with their actions and words, and see them in the context of their development, unique temperament and life experiences, you will have most if not all the information you need to guide them in becoming awesome people and citizens of the world. At the very least I hope these guiding principles make parenting a little less stressful and a lot more joyful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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...