Reader submitted questions from my column Acorn Advice: Growth From Within which appears in Parent Pages magazine.
My son is headed to summer camp this July. He is 9 and this will be his first overnight camp experience. We are both starting to feel anxious about it! What can I do to help ease his fears and mine?”
Let me start by saying that I am a big proponent of sleep-away summer camp for children! I had some of the best summers of my life as a camp counselor up in Maine. Those campers were having such a blast, it made me wish that I’d had the experience as a child. Summer camp can foster life-long friendships, instill a new sense of confidence and resiliency in kids, help them hone new skills in sports and other recreational activities, and so much more! Most kids will feel nervous about such a big change up to their routines and comforts – as parents we can serve them best by normalizing those anxious feelings. Reassure your son that he’s not alone. All the kids will feel nervous and may experience homesickness for a little while. A good summer camp has trained their counselors well to support homesick campers. Here are a few tips to help in the weeks ahead as you prepare yourselves for the separation:
1. Get Familiar: Hopefully your son has had a chance to visit the camp in person with you during an open house. Anxiety over the unknown can be helped by seeing the camp and meeting staff like the Director and counselors. If he hasn’t been there yet, consider making a visit before July. If that’s not possible, visit the camp website and do an on-line tour. Allow your child to do this as much as he wants. Look together and build anticipation for the fun experiences he can expect to have; “Oh look! There’s the beach where you’ll be swimming!”.
2. Prepare Together: Go over the camp supply lists and shop together. Allow him to pick out a special item to bring to camp like a diary or a stationary set. Address and stamp the envelopes so he’s all set to write to you (but don’t hold your breath waiting for the mail either! Hopefully he’ll be too busy having fun to do much letter writing). When my oldest went away to grandma’s for a week, I sent a letter ahead so she’d have something to open later that day after we’d said our goodbyes.
3. Stay Positive: This one is tricky. You want to listen to his fears while not feeding into them. You don’t want to trivialize his worries with fake cheerfulness and platitudes like, “What are you worried about? Camp is fun!” Try to strike a balance in your discussions of camp and steer him into visualizing and anticipating the good while fully validating his concerns. Continually frame this experience as one you know your son can handle. Project confidence in his ability to cope with his anxiety in healthy ways.
4. Have A Plan: Talk about what he can do to help himself when he’s at camp and feeling homesick. It’s standard practice for camps to not allow phone calls home in the first days of camp. Can he draw you a picture? Write a letter? Talk to a friend or counselor?
5. Practice: If your son hasn’t slept away from home before, I recommend setting up a sleepover or two before the start of camp. Consider it a practice run on a small scale. This will give your child a chance to experience any discomfort or upset that might occur being away from home. Talk about the experience afterward and praise his ability to use coping skills!
I wish your son and every child headed to camp this summer a wonderful experience!
“Dear Acorn; I think my 9 year-old daughter has started masturbating. I caught her touching herself and just walked out of the room, not knowing what to say. Is it time to have “the talk”? and where should I start?”
Sounds like you’re feeling pretty uncomfortable about the situation, but I assure you it’s perfectly normal and healthy for your daughter to be exploring her body, and not knowing what to say about it is unfortunately very common amongst parents. To every parent reading this now, let me start by saying it is much easier to have these conversations with your kids when you start early! Teaching toddlers about their bodies, bodily functions, naming the body parts correctly, etc. is where some parents start the sex talk. It’s also important to talk to very little children about consent; for instance, teach that they get to choose when or if they give/receive hugs and kisses. You can teach them other ways to express their affections and give them words to use when they don’t want to be touched. Studies show that starting these conversations early actually result in more responsible sexual behavior in the teen years, and even delay the start of sexual activity.
Assuming you have not been having regular conversations about sexuality from an early age, where should you start now? How you react to this is very important so check yourself: what are your feelings around the body, masturbation, and sex? I ask this because you want to be very careful not to dump your baggage on your child. I’m sure you don’t want to shame your child or give her the impression that it’s not okay to explore or enjoy her body; unfortunately your unconscious reaction of turning tail and running, then avoiding talking about it, might have sent those exact messages. You can’t ignore this, so begin by spending some time in quiet reflection first. Sexuality educator Charlie Glickman points out that “Western societies have been influenced by the idea that sex is harmful, shameful, disgusting or sinful for centuries. While allowances have usually been made for certain situations, such as procreation, the idea that pleasure, the body, and sex are (at best) necessary evils has deep roots in many different cultures.” If you’re holding onto negativity regarding sex, I urge you to heal those wounds for yourself and your daughter. Visit Charlie Glickman’s website for support: http://charlieglickman.com
A nine year old is on the verge of puberty; a time when the body undergoes so many changes that it begs explanation and guidance from a knowledgeable parent. You’ve got a perfect window here to open the discussion. If you’re not sure what to say, talk to your doctor about puberty and share that information with your daughter. But I encourage you to take this dialogue further by learning about the ethics of sex positivity. Sex positivity, very simply, is the idea that sex and expressions of one’s sexuality is inherently positive when they are healthy, pleasurable, and fully consensual. I recommend visiting thesexpositiveparent.com website run by Airial Clark, a parenting and sexual health expert for information and resources to help you get started. Remember, your job is to take care of your child’s sexual health, just as you would their physical and mental health.
“Dear Acorn; when my kids were younger I had very little patience and lots of stress in my life. I used to vent all my frustrations in fits of screaming and rage (I know, I know. So awful). I’ve learned some better ways to deal with my stressors, but I still find myself getting loud occasionally and I get scared of the “mean mommy” coming back. I’m carrying a lot of guilt for my past parenting and would like to know how I can move on from being self-critical.”
It is good to hear you’ve learned some better ways of coping with stress. I’ll tell you what has helped me the most in life to stop beating myself up; self-compassion. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts: First, you notice your own suffering (especially when it’s coming from our own self-criticism). Then, you are kind to yourself in the face of that suffering; and finally, you remind yourself that suffering is part of the human experience and that your feelings are totally normal.
Too often we judge our own needs harshly. We say to ourselves, “Why is this so hard for me?” or “I have no right to complain.” This kind of self-talk shuts us down by disconnecting us from our feelings. I’m not suggesting we whine or wallow in our struggles, merely that we acknowledge them in a non-dramatic way; take a moment to just notice what we are feeling and what we are saying to ourselves about those feelings. A great analogy I heard about this was from Teresa Graham Brett. She says, when we need a drink, we don’t judge our body for being thirsty. So, when you feel like you need a break or you’re at your limit with something, why judge that need? Treat it like you would your thirst. If you’re thirsty, you get a drink. If you need a break, you give yourself a break. By acknowledging what you need, you can then give yourself some self-care or self-love. It’s about taking responsibility for meeting your own needs in a mature and gentle way. That acknowledgement takes care of the first step in self-compassion; noticing your suffering.
The truth is, we can’t always get what we need when we need it. But we can always take care of ourselves by accepting what our needs and limitations are. I call it Mothering Myself. I recognize those times when I have to nurture and take care of that child/person inside me who is kicking, screaming, scared, hiding, sad and/or resistant. There is an aspect of visualization to it for me. I actually see and hear a mother-self who speaks gently and reassuringly to me. I think this technique works so well because it offers a witness to my struggles. Since I do the bulk of my parenting at home with no other adult there with me, it can feel extremely isolating at times. There are times that I desperately want to turn to someone and say, “You see? You see what I’m dealing with? How hard this is!” My ‘witness’ to these difficult moments is the wise mother-self who is not attached to my anger, frustration, or sadness. She is there to calmly perceive the whole situation and to offer her clarity, calmness, and centeredness. The idea of a ‘Witness Self’ is common in many religions, though for me at this point in my life, its purpose is more functional.
I may use this technique whilst in the middle of a major toddler melt-down. I hear the voice telling me, “This is really hard right now. It’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this.” That fulfills the second aspect of self-compassion; being kind to self in the face of suffering. I may use it at the end of a long, exhausting day when all I want to do is run away. I hear the voice telling me, “Everyone has days like this; you’re not a terrible mom for thinking this way.” There I have used the last aspect of self-compassion by connecting my experience to the human experience we all share.
Somehow – and I don’t quite understand it – that ability to notice my own feelings and give myself comfort expands my capacity to respond to the needs of my children in calm, comforting ways – without judgment, impatience, resistance, or urgency.
It is the single biggest thing that has helped me as a parent.
If your inner-voice leans toward the self-critical or if you just need to be a little gentler with yourself, I urge you to try self-compassion. The great thing about it is that it is always there and available to you.
“Dear Acorn; I am starting to look at preschools for my son who will turn 4 in the Fall. What should I be looking for?”
Ahh yes, ’tis the season of preschool open houses! The choices can feel a little overwhelming, but try to relax and keep it simple. I suggest visiting a few preschools in your area and focusing on the things that matter most to you. Many preschools will be hosting open houses this month or allow you to schedule a tour. Ask the director if you can observe a class in order to get the best sense of classroom dynamics and teacher approach. All preschools you consider should be licensed and have qualified, caring teachers. Beyond these basics, what should you look for?
I strongly recommend a preschool that puts play front and center! Many preschools and Headstart programs are prioritizing academics by giving children worksheets and increasing time for direct instruction. Such approaches are developmentally inappropriate at the ages of three and four (and I would even argue at five). Academics certainly have a place in preschool, but skillful teachers will know how to make academic content fun and engaging for this age group through play, song, rhyme, drama, stories, and hands-on activities like building blocks. Play allows children to build all kinds of intellectual and emotional skills such as problem-solving and cooperation. These skills are the foundation for Kindergarten and the early elementary years. Bottomline: Beware the preschool that does not prioritize play.
A quality preschool will also understand that young children need to MOVE frequently and be taken outside everyday. Ask about the preschool’s policy for recess and other opportunities for outdoor play. Ideally, kids would be getting outside to run around at least thirty minutes a day. Research shows that direct experience with a natural environment improves student learning and behavior, and promotes emotional well-being. If you can find a preschool with green grass, trees, garden space, and other natural elements so much the better!
Lastly, the school’s approach to discipline much be considered. This is why observing a class is ideal; it will allow you to see how the teacher manages a classroom and addresses student behaviors. If punitive measures such as time-out are used, I would be wary. Time-out and other punishment/reward systems such as the popular “Stop Light” method shame children for having a problem, rather than helping them to solve their problems. Instead, look for a school that builds skills and teaches children what TO DO. For example, some schools use a “Peace Chair” as an alternative to Time-out. A child who needs a break from the group can go to the Peace Chair with an adult and practice a self-control strategy such as deep breathing. With support and guidance from a caring grown-up, the child can process their behavior and learn a healthy replacement behavior. Socialization, relationship-building, and conflict resolution are at the forefront of creating a safe and positive classroom. The classroom should emphasize manners and respect for all, as well as personal responsibility. When it comes to discipline, emphasis should be placed on teaching rather than punishment.
Now you can go into the open-houses with these three questions to filter out the better schools:
What is the role of play in the day?
What is the policy on outdoor time?
How are the students taught self-regulation and conflict resolution?
Good luck in your search and remember, no choice is irreversible. If a preschool doesn’t turn out to be a good fit for your child, you can always find a different one.
“Dear Acorn; How many extra-curricular activities and/or sports are too much?”
Actually, I have been asking myself this very thing recently! As winter approaches, I start to feel the need to sign my kids up for swim lessons and gymnastics just to keep them active and moving during the cold months. For my family, those two activities would be an appropriate amount. Any more “extras” in the schedule would feel too hectic and cause us to sacrifice too much free time. Every family member is going to have a different level of tolerance for activity depending on temperament, interests, and other factors. Some adults and some kids will feel overwhelmed by extra-curriculars, especially after a full day of work/school. So this question doesn’t have a simple answer. You have to know what works for your child and for your family.
Some things to consider are: What are your child’s interests/passions? Are they truly motivated to participate in this activity/sport? What will they gain from participating? What other time commitments are there day to day (homework, chores, part-time work, etc)? How much driving are you willing to do? What is lost by adding this activity to your schedule?
That last question is particularly important I think. All activities and commitments come at the expense of something. Are you willing to give up opportunities for family togetherness such as shared family meals? Are you willing to spend your time driving and coordinating your child’s schedule instead of perhaps investing in your own self-care?
Finally, I want to emphasize the value of scheduling “down time.” We’re raising kids in a fast-paced culture that glorifies ‘busy’ and entertains us 24/7. Boredom is shunned. Doing nothing is considered lazy and unproductive. Slowing down in this break-neck environment can be a real act of resistance. When you leave space for your kids and family to ‘disconnect’ and just be, you are actually doing something wonderful for the brain! Brain researchers have found that down time helps us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.
Figuring out the right rhythm for your family takes some time and tweaking. Be watchful and willing to change your level of commitments should you see signs of stress, loss of sleep, grades suffering, emotional deregulation (snapping, quick to tears and/or frustration), and family disconnectedness.
“Dear Acorn; My son is 2 years and 8 months old; he’s always been sensitive and shy and since his little brother was born (now 8 months) he’s gone through different stages of adjusting and is now very hard to handle. He never listens, he purposefully acts out constantly and has become very aggressive with his brother and friends. He seems very unhappy. I’d like my boy to be happier, I’d like our relationship to be better so he listens more and doesn’t hurt his brother.”
Your son is in the midst of a major developmental stage and his world has recently changed with the addition of a new baby. The behaviors you describe, while distressing, are also normal and workable. It is not at all unusual for a compliant child to start pushing boundaries and asserting their own agenda and opinions around age 3. This needs to happen. They are struggling to define themselves as independent whilst still being overwhelmingly dependent on you. They are conflicted by their desire to grow up and stay your baby. Add to these intense emotions the inability to communicate them well and you have the typical moody mess that is the average toddler!
Here’s what I want you to understand about your little boy: If he could self-regulate, he would. He is not acting out “on-purpose” though I know it must look that way to you at times. All behavior is a form of communication. Ask yourself “what is he trying to communicate with this behavior?” Is he saying, “I need your attention” or “I’m angry” or something else? If, for example, you feel he is being aggressive because he is angry, you need to teach him a socially acceptable way to express his anger. Guide him to name his feelings. You might try saying, “Stop. No hitting. You seem angry. When you feel angry, say “I’m angry.” Next, you would need to teach the skill you’d like to see. What would be an acceptable way to release the angry feelings? Could he hit a pillow? Practice deep breathing with you? Draw a picture?
You must guide him through the upset by first helping him name the feelings and then teaching him the behavior you would like to see. You will need to do this over and over and over again. The best way to see your boy happy is to strengthen your connection. He will want to be more cooperative when your relationship is strong. Find moments during the day to slow down and connect over play, reading together, or simply snuggling on the couch. He will love this precious time with you when your focus can be solely on him.
“Dear Acorn; It has been about 2 weeks since my 6 year old watched a kids’ TV show episode and got scared. She has been having times of feeling scared and upset over the episode. It had scary princesses in it that looked like skeletons. She doesn’t want to talk too much more about the episode. I had offered to watch it with her, or watch it on my own, but she doesn’t think that’s a good idea. I offer her cuddles and tell her the show is not real and that we the parents are there to protect her. But she has periods where she gets upset and teary. Distraction does help but I don’t know if that will get rid of her having this problem. Last night she was able to go to sleep successfully focusing on happy thoughts. She probably gets scared more when she is getting tired or at the end of the day and remembers the show.”
I am so glad that you’re taking her experience seriously, honoring your child’s feelings rather than dismissing them or rushing her to ‘get over it’. A scary experience can stay with a child for quite some time even causing regression in behaviors. It is perfectly normal if she’s having moments of tearfulness and trouble sleeping. You can begin helping her by normalizing the fears. Try talking about something that made you scared as a child like spiders or the dark – something not too upsetting or graphic!. Share how you were able to cope with this fear and eventually overcome it. Choose a moment when she’s in neutral space and not too close to bedtime for this conversation. Hopefully this will allow her to open up more about what she’s thinking and how she has interpreted this scary moment in the show. If she is unable or unwilling to discuss it, that’s okay too. It can be difficult for a child so young to share feelings because they simply don’t have the language or understanding yet to articulate big, powerful emotions.
Distraction may help temporarily, but it is better to directly teach the skills of recognizing and naming feelings, and then to also teach a healthy coping skill for managing them. When she is teary and upset, can she stay with her feelings, not becoming too overwhelmed? She needs to practice feeling the upset without pushing it away or blocking it out. Deep breathing, draw what you feel, naming how you feel in your body, crying (though not uncontrollably), meditation – these are some examples of healthy coping mechanisms that can help her for life.
The thing she needs most right now is a feeling of safety and security. To help her release the stressful feelings at night, use lots of soothing techniques such as a warm bath and lots of cuddles. Touch is so important for our children to feel calm and protected. This fear she is experiencing is overwhelming her at times, and she needs a steady hand to guide her through it. Don’t overwhelm her further by offering too many choices. For instance, instead of asking, “Do you want a night-light on and for me to sit with you?”, simply state “I am going to put the night-light on and sit next to your bed. I am here. You are safe”. A confidant approach will help her feel safe.
I believe sensitive children have the greatest capacity for compassion and empathy. Help her to navigate through the challenges of being sensitive and it will become a strength.
“Dear Acorn; I never know how much television is okay for my three-year-old. It’s all she talks about. First thing out of her mouth in the morning. Huge tantrums when we turn it off. If I don’t turn it off she will watch forever. When she’s sick I let her watch, and she’s sick a lot. The rest of the time I try to limit. But I’m never sure whether I’m under or over limiting, really.”
Too much screen time can be a bad thing. Research tells us that the more time our youngest children spend with screens, the less time they spend interacting with caring adults and in hands-on, creative play – two activities proven to be important for learning. Too much screen time is linked to learning, attention, and social problems, childhood obesity and sleep disturbances. It also exposes kids to lots of harmful advertising, not to mention images of violence and sexism. In addition, screen media can be habit-forming. Young children who spend more time with screens have a harder time turning them off when they get older (http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/screendilemma).
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American child between ages 8-18 is getting more than 4 hours of screen time a day (that includes television, videos/DVDs, gaming, apps, etc.). Children under age 6 are spending about 2 hours a day in front of screens. As a parent coach and educator, I find those numbers very troubling. The American Academy of Pediatrics has some sensible recommendations around children’s media usage that I’d like to share with you:
- Make a media use plan to help your child learn to be selective and healthy in what they consume. Take an active role in children’s media education by co-viewing programs with them and discussing values. This includes mealtime and bedtime curfews for media devices.
- Screens should be kept out of kids’ bedrooms.
- Limit entertainment screen time to no more than one to two hours per day for children 2 and up.
- Children under age 2 should not have any screen media exposure.
Developing children thrive when allowed ample time to play, explore, and interact with their caregivers and their environment. I always think about screen time in terms of what they are missing out on. Even If they watch 1-2 hours a day, that’s time they could have been outside playing, reading books, drawing, dancing, listening to music or stories, helping with a task – time they could have been bored even! Time spent in such activities builds the interior life of the child; helping them to become independent and creative problem-solvers who know how to entertain themselves. So if we as parents rely too much on TV for their entertainment, or for babysitting and soothing purposes, we run the risk of limiting their growth in some very fundamental areas. Kids need so much time to practice their skills, and they practice through play and through interacting with engaged adults. We are fooling ourselves when we think TV is providing an educational equivalent to these other activities I’ve mentioned. Bottom line: set some rules now about what, when, where, and how much!
“Dear Acorn; My kids will be back in school before I know it. What’s the best way to get back into a routine after a summer of late nights and sleeping in?”
Since I’m not sure how old your kids are, I’ll have to keep my response kind of general. My mom used to always try to “reset” us the week before school started by waking us up early and practicing for the real thing. I’m sure it was to calm her anxiety as much as to prepare us. Giving yourself some time to ease back into a routine and make adjustments as necessary is sensible. Hopefully younger kids haven’t been allowed to drift too far from their usual bedtimes and wake-ups. It’s extremely important for pre-school and elementary aged kids to have predictable routines and ample sleep. If your kids are older – think Middle-school and up – the first thing I would do is ask them how they plan to get “school ready”. Make this an opportunity to open up a broader discussion about their feelings toward the upcoming school year. What are their hopes and aspirations for the year? Look upon it as a fresh start and an occasion to set new goals. Ask what support they might need from you to be successful with their stated goals. I know some parents will say, “My kid just doesn’t care! He won’t get up unless I scream at him.” This is why some conversation ahead of time is important. You want to set the right tone so you’re seen as an ally, not a drill Sargent. Find out what is motivating to your child and work it from that angle. In addition, you can encourage your older child or teen to take more responsibility over their time management by acknowledging their past successes in this realm. Did they work a summer job? Did they keep up with a team sport or hobby this summer? Such things demonstrate their capability. Use these experiences to stay positive and focused on what works for your child. Good luck!
“Dear Acorn; How can I stop the whining from my 4 year-old?”
Whining, like any behavior, is a form of communication. Try to learn the reason why your child is whining so you can get to the root of it. Some children whine when they are tired or hungry; some whine for attention and connection; some whine because they know it will get them what they want. Whatever the reason, you can address it by first shifting your focus to what you would like them TO DO. Most parents will say something like, “Stop whining!” or “I can’t understand you when you whine”. The problem with these responses is that they don’t teach the child the appropriate behavior to use instead of the whining! Your job as the parent is not to point out the “bad” behavior, but to guide positive, pro-social behaviors.
Teach your child to use his words to express needs and wants in more appropriate ways. Start by saying something like, “Use a clear voice so you can tell me what you need. I’d like to help you solve this problem.” If your child is whining or begging for a treat, more TV time, a new toy, etc. it’s important to set a loving limit and stick to it. If the child continues to pester you, try responding with the phrase “Asked and answered”. If she continues to whine or beg, you repeat, “Asked and answered”. Next, try redirecting the child to something productive they can do with you such as helping to unload the grocery cart. Focus on what they are doing well and give a big hug. Sometimes all it takes to squash the whining is a little extra loving attention.
“Dear Acorn; My 3 year old daughter is very friendly. She will go up to anyone and say hi. I want her to be friendly and brave, but I also want her to understand that she needs to check in with me (or dad, grandma, grandpa) before talking to a stranger unless there is an emergency. How can I teach her this without scaring her, and in a way that is age appropriate?”
There is a lot of fear mongering out there and “stranger danger” certainly plays into a parent’s worst fears. As a parent coach, I know that what you focus on grows. So take a deep breath and remember that child abductions by strangers are extremely rare. The fact is, incidents of child abduction have decreased substantially over the decades and are at record low levels. Child mortality due to crime and accidents has been on the decline for a long time as well. The truth is, there’s never been a safer time in America to be a kid.
The goal is not to keep kids safe by scaring them or watching their every move, but rather to empower them with the skills and the confidence to keep themselves safe. We want them to feel secure in their world; trusting that people and life are fundamentally good.
For a three-year old, you’re going to need to establish some ground rules about talking to strangers. Keep it simple: you can only talk to strangers when you’re with a trusted adult. If a stranger approaches you, always find your adult first before talking with them. Make sure you are giving her feedback and praising her when she follows through on a desired behavior.
Toddlers should learn both parents full names. By the age of five or six, they should know their address and at least one parent’s phone number. Talk about what to do in potentially dangerous situations like getting lost (do this with some frequency as kids need to have the message repeated over and over). Always emphasize that these lessons will help to keep her safe. I think it’s great to role-play some scenarios with the whole family. Avoid playing out graphic, violent, or extreme situations and stick to common scenarios like playing at the park and not being able to find your adult for a few minutes. Teach your child to look for a “helper” when she is lost or in danger: a police officer; a mom or dad out with their kids; a crossing guard, etc. You can practice picking out your helpers next time you’re at the playground or shopping mall. Ask your child, “Who do you think could help you right now if we got separated?” This sends the message that MOST people are good and will lend a hand when needed. Give her a short script of what to say such as, “I can’t find my mom/dad and I need help”. Practice, praise, and repeat!
Some other important skills when teaching about personal safety are physical boundaries (teaching your child ownership over their body), trusting your instincts, asking for help when you need it, and how to use assertiveness appropriately. As parents, we need to be talking about these skills in different ways according to the child’s age. For a three-year-old, that means conversations about what to do if you get lost. For a twelve-year-old, that means talking about internet safety and sharing personal information on-line. If you start the conversation about safety now and continue it throughout the years, you’ll both be prepared for each new stage of their independence with confidence and knowledge.
“Dear Acorn; What would be an appropriate age to start giving consequences? My 18 month-old is starting to test limits and I’m not sure what to do. Would time-outs help?”
All of our thoughts, feelings, and actions have consequences and they begin basically at day one. So talking about consequences in order to help children understand cause and effect can start very young. But I take it your point is about when and how to respond to the challenging behaviors of a toddler testing her boundaries. There’s no time like the present!
On the question of time-outs, I’m not a big fan. I just don’t think they serve much purpose in the long run because they rarely teach the child a helpful lesson. At best, they can be effective in the moment to pause the behavior, but unless the child is getting a chance to process their behavior and learn appropriate alternative behaviors with guidance from an adult, the time-out is basically useless. At worst, they ignite power struggles that pit a kicking, screaming child against a frustrated adult whose single mission is to put the kid in time-out and make sure she stays there. Once in time-out, the child is often left alone to think about what they’ve done wrong. This seems very unfair to a young child who can’t really understand or problem-solve the issues without the help of a calm, loving adult.
When your child is acting in socially unacceptable ways, you do need to intervene and perhaps remove your child from the situation. Try creating a Safe Space* where your child can go with you to practice calming techniques such as deep breathing (this is going to help you too, by the way!). Once calmed down, help your child label the feelings behind their behavior. For example, “You felt frustrated because you wanted a turn with the truck, so you grabbed it from your friend. I understand it’s hard to wait for a turn, but you can’t grab from people. Next time, ask your friend for a turn”.
At this young age and into the school years, so much of “discipline” is really about teaching emotional regulation. Teaching young kids the skills to calm down and to express their feelings in healthy ways is what it’s all about. Kids will make mistakes over and over and that’s okay. They are not doing it deliberately! You may get to the point where you feel punishment is the only way they’ll learn. When you do, it’s important to consider the intention behind the punishment. Are you coming from a place of anger and frustration where your intention is to blame or shame the child? Or are you coming from a place of connection and support where your intention is to teach and guide pro-social behaviors? Once you ask yourself that question, you should be able to come up with a fair and meaningful consequence or intervention.
*Safe Space is a technique developed by Dr. Becky Bailey and is part of her Conscious Discipline curriculum. Learn more at http://www.consciousdiscipline.com
“Dear Acorn; Talk to me about flying with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. Just me. Can I do this? It feels overwhelming!”
I’ve been there! It is overwhelming the first time you do it as the only adult with young kids. The best thing to calm the anxiety is to anticipate and prepare. There are basically three areas you need to cover in order to make the trip go smoothly:
Preparing Mentally: Understanding it’s going to be a long, trying day will help you ‘up your game’. The thing you’ll need the most is patience. Patience with your kids, airport workers, customs agents, annoying strangers, and even with your self. Think about what has worked for you in the past to stay calm and cool in difficult situations; perhaps it’s soothing self-talk; deep breathing; seeing the humor; anticipating the fun and relaxation once you’re there; sneaking handfuls of chocolate? Have some strategies in your back-pocket and apply liberally.
Preparing Logistically: This covers all the details like when to arrive at the airport, what to pack, getting bags and baby-gear checked, what to eat, keeping kids entertained on the plane, navigating airport exit and bag pick-up. Think it all through. Can someone drive you to the airport, park the car and help you get bags checked in? When do you need to leave home so you arrive at the airport with lots of time to get to gate before boarding? What documents do you need to travel with? If flying internationally, you may need a notarized letter giving you consent from the other parent to take children out-of-country. In my experience, it’s better to minimally pack things like cosmetics and clothing, especially if you’ll have access to washer and dryer on the other end. You want to be hands-free as much as possible while ushering kids through the airport. The kids can wear little back-packs of their own as ‘carry-on’. I’d fill them with mostly snacks. Over-pack on snacks! Food selection at the airport is dicey and pricey. Put small toys, books (light-weight ones), paper, crayons, and headphones in children’s backpacks. A word of caution: If you think your kids can just ‘plug-in’ the whole ride, you’re setting yourself up for potential disaster. Some planes don’t have screens or appropriate program for kids. Sometimes the noise of the engine makes it impossible for kids to hear the show. Bottom-line: Don’t rely on screen-time to save you!
Preparing Kids: With little kids, it’s best to talk it up a week or two ahead of time. Read books about the airport and flying so they get an idea of how it all looks. They will mostly be focused on the fun and excitement of the experience. It’s good to temper some of that energy by letting them know it will also be difficult at times. My little ones liked the idea of having some responsibility over their own bags and knowing that they had to “help Mommy” throughout the trip. If you are worried about your child’s behavior at the airport or on the plane, consider doing some planned teachings in the days leading up to the trip. This simple exercise will help to reinforce the behavior you want to see. Here’s how it works:
Identify the expected behavior and describe it for child: “I expect you to stay close to Mommy at all times; that means next to my body or holding my hand.” Give a rationale for the expected behavior: “This is to keep you safe in the airport so I don’t loose you.” Role-play the expected behavior: Set up a simple role-play for your child to practice the desired behavior. Little kids will love this part. Doing it over and over will reinforce it! Give Corrective Feedback: “You started to wander away without asking permission. What should you do instead?”
When the situation is real, you can prompt the child to remember the planned teachings. Catch the low-level misbehaviors as much as you can and say “Remember what we practiced at home? Stay close to me.”
“Dear Acorn; Thank-you for your response to my question about yelling. I’m working on noticing my triggers and calming myself down before I blow my top. One thing I should have said last time I wrote was that yelling is the only way to get my kids to listen to me! When I don’t yell, they just ignore me. I’d like them to be more respectful.”
Kids almost never want to do what we tell them, but they almost always copy our actions. Parents can and should be assertive, strong leaders in the family. Your kids will want to follow your lead when your authority comes from a place of authentic connection, rather than a place of dominance and control.
It’s true that yelling can be effective in the moment. Fear works like a stun gun to temporarily silence children. But yelling is just a quick fix. You’ll notice the bad behavior coming right back an hour later. To get your kids to listen to you and cooperate more, you’re going to have to stop making this about you. When your kids don’t listen, do you feel annoyed? Powerless? Incredulous? Are you thinking, “How dare they!” or “What is wrong with them?” I know. My thoughts and feelings go to the same places. If I don’t catch myself, the tension mounts and I can find my voice rising with my temper…
In such moments, I’m not really considering the thoughts and feelings of my child. I’m not considering her internal world or how she’s experiencing this moment. I’m not looking for solutions or lessons to teach. I am seeking to regain control of the situation and control of my child. The problem with this is that we both feel badly with the outcome.
When I think about power struggles, I realize there’s two ways I can handle them: I can use control or I can use connection.
Control seeks to use my power, size, and assumed superiority over my child to force my will and gain my desired outcome.
Connection seeks to relate to my child’s ‘in the moment’ experience and to find collaborative ways of moving forward toward a mutually amicable outcome.
As parents, we can lead our families using the principles of connection, rather than tools of dominance and control.
To keep yourself on the path of connection, try following my 5 Cs when conflicts arise:
1. Calm Down: Slow down and get calm. Use deep breathing to relax or find a healthy strategy that works for you.
2. Connect: Connect with your own feelings first and then with your child’s feelings using compassion and empathy. Validate the feelings you’re both having out loud.
3. Clearing state expectations: Tell your child what you would like them to do. You can be assertive. You can empathize. Example: I know it’s hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. I understand you’re feeling _________ about that. Here’s what we need to do ____.
4. Collaborate/Compromise: Ask for your child’s ideas and thoughts. Be open to their in-put. Is there a creative solution? Is there a compromise? Example: What can we do to help you get ready for bed? Would you like to bring your bear to watch you brush your teeth?
5. Consequences: When your child still resists, you may need to correct. Discipline should only come from the calm, centered place of connection. Consequences work best when they’re meaningful to the child. Example: If you don’t brush your teeth now, we won’t have time to read as many stories as you like.
If you’re still encountering resistance, go back to step one. The really cool thing about these steps is they save so much time! They work to de-escalate tension and re-focus your attention on problem-solving.
It’s important to mention that even while following the path of connection, you will still encounter resistance and challenges from your children. After all, they are human-beings, not robots. Disagreement is a natural and healthy aspect of all relationships. What I like best about this approach is that over time, children come to see the parent as an ally in tough times, not the enemy that needs to be defeated.
“Dear Acorn; My New Years’s Resolution was to stop yelling at my kids. So far, I’ve mostly kept it under control, but the other day I was really worn out from work and just lost my patience. I was short and snippy with the kids throughout the evening and then finally just lost it at bedtime when they weren’t cooperative. Any suggestions on how I can get a handle on the yelling? I feel awful about it afterwards and I always apologize, but this is not how I want to parent”
You are not alone. I say that emphatically because every parent I have ever coached struggles with yelling at their kid(s). Yelling is a symptom of a worn-out, stressed, and frustrated parent. The fact that you feel badly and are writing to me about it, means you care deeply about your children and are committed to your growth as a parent.
Here’s a simple exercise to help you get at the root of your yelling. I want you to start noticing your triggers and writing them down. From the brief description you gave me, a trigger could be bedtime. What other parts of the day are challenging for you? What kinds of behavior push your buttons? For example, many parents feel triggered by backtalk. They react with anger or hurtful words of their own. These reactions are not the conscious response. The conscious response comes from a place of calm, considered action. Once you begin to notice your triggers, you can anticipate them and hopefully learn to catch yourself before you start yelling. With time and practice, you move from unconscious reaction to conscious response.
So, how do you catch yourself and calm down? That’s the next step after you become aware of your triggers. You describe feeling worn out and getting snippy in the evening. These are likely some of your warning signs. But you can’t see them or feel them when you’re moving fast, multi-tasking, and distracted. If that’s daily life for you, you’ll need to be intentional about setting aside quiet moments throughout the day to check-in with yourself.
These ‘check-ins’ can be just a few minutes long. All you need to do is slow down and pay attention to your body. Go somewhere quiet. The bathroom is usually my retreat. Take some deep breaths. Notice how you’re feeling in your body. Notice your thoughts. Name your feelings; be compassionate with yourself; and think about how you want to respond to your child.
It may sound something like this: “I am exhausted. My shoulders are tense. I need help. I just want to get these kids to bed and get some peace. I can do this. I can calm down. I can help them calm down. I don’t want to end the day with bad feelings…” All the while, you are breathing deep, steady breaths.
If I find myself in the middle of a frustrating or heated moment with my kids, I often call time-out. For myself. I allow myself a few moments to deep breath and wait for the conscious response – what’s the rush, anyway? When I go back to engage, I do so from a calmer place. Often, this is enough to affect the energy of the situation and we all de-escalate faster.
Becoming more aware of your triggers, as well as your feelings and body sensations, takes time and daily practice. I find it helps to have accountability and support when trying to change a behavior like yelling. Let your whole family know this is something you’re working on and request their help. Most of all, be kind and patient with yourself.
For more support on how to develop these skills, check out the website:
The parent section has great information and lots of printable tools to use.
“Dear Acorn; Help! My child is really struggling in school this year with paying attention and getting his work completed. I have had a conversation with the teacher about his ‘distracting behaviors’ like fidgeting, talking out of turn, and talking to other kids when he shouldn’t be. I worry that he’ll get labeled as a trouble-maker and poor student. He loved kindergarten last year and the first couple months of first grade seemed positive. I’m not sure what’s changed, but I want to get him back on track sooner rather than later. Where do I start?”
The transition from kindergarten to grade one is difficult for most children. The play aspects of kindergarten take a backseat as more direct instruction takes over. That means a whole lot less movement and creative play-time for kids. It is normal for a child of this age to have difficulty sitting still, paying attention, and keeping on task. A six-year-old’s body is made to move. Adults need to appreciate that children exert a lot of effort during the school day just trying to be still and focused. That exertion causes mental fatigue for many kids and can lead to issues with their school performance and behaviors. I know when my six-year-old comes home, she is often cranky and bouncing off the walls. At home, she can release all that pent-up energy. Rather than label any child a problem, let’s look at the environment and ask if the child’s needs are being met there.
Since movement and learning are connected, I would advise you to look at that piece first.
Talk to the teacher about the amount of physical activity your child gets throughout the school day. Recess and P.E. classes are vital to a kid having “distracting behaviors”. Exerting physical energy throughout the day could help his attention and behavior. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist says, “In order to create actual changes to the sensory system that results in improved attention over time, children NEED to experience what we call “rapid vestibular (balance) input” on a daily basis. In other words, they need to go upside down, spin in circles, and roll down hills. They need authentic play experiences that get them moving in all different directions in order to stimulate the little hair cells found in the vestibular complex (located in the inner ear). If children do this on a regular basis and for a significant amount of time, then (and only then) will they experience the necessary changes needed to effectively develop the balance system–leading to better attention and learning in the classroom”.
I also hear you saying you’re concerned about a negative stigma being attached to your son. To work against this, spend some time focusing on his strengths. What does he love to do? What makes him curious? When he is paying attention or concentrating on something, what does that look like? When are the times he’s able to focus? Look for what works for your son to successfully complete tasks and then share that information with his teacher. Hopefully the teacher will be receptive and find ways to incorporate your son’s interests and strengths into his learning. The most important thing at this young age is to make sure your son loves learning and feels positive about school.
Finally, I would talk to your son about his school behaviors with understanding and empathy. Let him know the teacher’s job is to help him learn, but that you understand it’s hard to learn when your body wants to move, or your mouth wants to speak, or your brain is having trouble thinking. If you approach this challenge from the perspective of understanding and meeting his needs, you are far more likely to keep your relationship strong and his self-esteem in tact.
“Dear Acorn; My question is about the holidays and how to keep the family craziness in check. With the changes in scheduling, traveling, bedtime, and diet during the holidays, I often don’t realize a meltdown is about to happen. Is there a way we can balance out all the changes and stimuli?”
My family spent a few years flying from Seattle to Toronto for Christmases. It sucked. We always arrived sick from whatever germs we picked up on the plane and exhausted from the time change. Of course, we were all still expected to make merry and fully participate in the festivities. There was a lot of pressure to make the most of this special family time after all. The result was we’d get cranky and snippy with each other and feel let down by the whole experience.
Even if you’re not traveling long distances, the interruption to daily routines can have a big impact on little kids and cast a ripple effect to the adults, or is it vice versa? Either way, there’s an argument to be made for sticking to some order and maintaining the structure of your day. There is enough excitement built into the holidays without throwing in late bedtimes and sugar highs.
I’d spend some time discussing this as a family first; get clear about your intentions for the holiday. Is your intention to relax together? To celebrate? To deepen bonds with extended family? Once you’ve set some intentions, think about the actions and attitudes you’ll need to adopt to live those intentions.
You may need to set some ground rules or guidelines so everyone knows what to expect. For example, let your relatives know that your child has a set bedtime so they can plan meals and activities accordingly. If there are dietary restrictions or preferences, let that be known well in advance. The hardest thing is when family members don’t respect your wishes or think you’re just being a party-pooper. You don’t have to defend your choices and you don’t owe anyone an explanation. But, if you choose to engage a family member who doesn’t get it, I suggest keeping it short, sweet, and humorous. Try saying something like, “Katie is really sensitive to sugar so we don’t want to overdo it. Nothing will shut this party down quicker than one of her meltdowns! If you want to give her a treat, she loves being read to”.
When it comes to the holidays, I really believe that less is more. My family now spends Christmas in our own home and we save the traveling for New Years. We also try to be selective about how many holiday events we attend in the weeks leading up to the big day. There is so much we could do, but we remind ourselves it’s about quality, not quantity. When you keep it simple and focus on what really matters to you the rest will fade away.
“Dear Acorn; In need of some positive words to explain something to my husband. The only time I really get to myself is after the kids go to bed. However my son still wakes up most nights every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours. And a majority of the time he will not settle back down for anyone but me. But I NEED to get out of my house and do things for MYSELF. So occasionally I go for a walk at night. Last night I’m out walking and I get a text to come home NOW. I walked home- I get there and one of the first things my husband says to me is, “I’m sorry but you can’t go out for walks anymore”. The baby had gotten so upset he projectile vomited and wouldn’t stop screaming. So I KNOW first hand how intense it can be to just hold your child when they are that upset and I do not want him to be upset, but I can’t not go out for walks right? I chose not to address it last night because it made me mad so I’ve waited until I am calm. But how do I explain to him without basically saying “just deal with it”? That I need to be able to go out?”
I think many mothers will relate to this question. It is so important that parents carve out time to themselves for self-renewal. This seems to be especially hard for mothers. Time to yourself is not a luxury with little ones; it is a necessity that needs to be at the top of a family’s priority list. Why? Because you can’t get water from a dry well. The paradox of self-care is that when you take time away from your loved ones, you actually come back with more of yourself to give. It sounds like you understand this, but are having a hard time working out the boundaries with your husband.
Unfortunately, there is this assumption that mothers just instinctively know how to soothe crying babies and can meet their baby’s needs in ways fathers just cannot. With the exception of breast-feeding, I can’t think of a single soothing technique that fathers can’t provide. The truth is, most modern mothers learn about what works for their babies through trial and error. They are thrown into the fire and have to figure it out. Over time, we learn about our babies; we bond with them; and we gain the confidence and the skills necessary to take care of them. In short, we develop our own intimate relationship with our child.
The point that I would like to get through to your husband is this: you need your own intimate relationship with your child. Mother should not be the mediator between you and your child. It is not her responsibility to pass off a happy, sleepy baby for you to ‘babysit’ so she can get a little time to herself. So yeah, in a sense he does just need to deal with it and figure it out. Let him know he’s not alone and you are there to support him.
Like you said, “I KNOW first hand how intense it can be to just hold your child when they are that upset,” so you are in a great position to be able to empathize with your husband. Screaming and crying are one thing, but projectile vomiting is scary. He probably panicked and that’s why he texted you to come home. Let him know you understand how stressful such times with baby can be. He may also be feeling anxious about his ability to care for the baby under such duress. That feeling is likely not unfamiliar to you either. Talking about these feelings and fears will help both of you gain a better appreciation of the other’s experience.
If you are in the habit of being ‘first responder’ to your baby fussing, it may take some time for everyone to adjust. Both you and your husband must share in the solution. Sit down together and brainstorm some techniques that have worked to soothe your child in the past. You can also talk about ways that you cope with excessive crying. Keeping our own stress-levels down is an important factor is calming baby. Some of these will work for your husband and some won’t. Over time, he’ll discover new techniques and coping mechanisms based on his strengths and temperament. My husband shared his love of music with our children by bringing singing to our bedtime ritual. The lullabies became “Daddy’s thing” while I get to be the preferred story-reader. When you allow for these differences, your baby benefits from interacting with a broader range of personalities; he begins to understand that different people can care for him in different ways. This is helpful when it’s time for babysitters or daycare providers to take over.
What is one small step you and your husband could take right now to facilitate you getting more alone time? Could you hold back at home when baby starts fussing and let him take care of it? Could you start by taking shorter walks and building up to your ideal? See if you can negotiate the parameters while sticking to your guns about requiring the time for self-care.
At first, your child may resist and still get upset when you leave. Do not be discouraged. Your child might be unhappy, but remember he is safe. As hard as it is to see him upset, you are demonstrating your confidence in your husband and in your child by leaving them alone together. Hold the bigger picture in your mind: by encouraging a fuller participation in your child’s life, your husband will deepen his understanding and love for your child. By taking good care of yourself, you are renewing your energy and spirit. Both are very worthwhile pursuits that will benefit the whole family.