Help for Parents with Toddlers and Preschoolers
The following comes from an email I received from a parent and one I’ve received numerous times. “We’ve tried bribing him with special breakfast foods, toys and stories. When I get mad a yell at him, he laughs. I’m tired of chasing him around the house to get him dressed so I can get out of the house on time! His pediatrician said I should bring him in his PJs but I think he would love that. How do I get my preschool child dressed in the morning so I can get out of house on time! Please help!” Here are some tips on handling this frustrating situation:
RECONNECT WITH YOUR CHILD
Children crave “reconnecting” with the parent(s) in the morning after being apart overnight (this also happens after school). Parents are more successful if they spend 10 – 20 minutes in an activity with the child that makes the child feel important and special. The parent should refrain from speaking and let the child do all the talking. It can even mean just eating breakfast with the child and asking him open ended questions. A visual timer should be set, not audible. Audible timers and sticker charts don’t work for the most part. Plus the sticker charts become tiresome to maintain. Preschoolers live only in the moment and have great difficulty seeing ahead to the collection of stickers. If the child isn’t allowed to reconnect with the primary parent, then he will attempt to get that need met by running away from getting dressed or doing the opposite of what the parent wants him to do. In other words, avoiding what the parent wants him to do is his way of getting that connection through attention and feeling powerful.
PROVIDE POWER BY LETTING HIM CHOOSE
The parent can lay out two different outfits for the boy and let him pick which one he wants to wear. This will make him feel valuable and powerful and reduce the chances that he will initiate a power struggle. If the child asks for a different outfit from the two that mom laid out, mom should just calmly restate the original options one more time. If he won’t pick, the parent can say “You pick or mommy will pick for you,” and then follow through if necessary.
TAKE HIM TO SCHOOL IN HIS PAJAMAS
If the parent is already doing all of the above, then the pediatrician’s suggestion of bringing the child to school in his pajamas is a good one. But in order to make this work, it’s important to get the school to work with the parent by creating the requirement that the child cannot enter the classroom until he is completely dressed. This means that the parent must bring the change of clothes in a bag and hand the child and the bag over to a teacher, and then leave. It will be up to the “receiving” teacher to lay down the rule for the child and remain with him (outside of the classroom) until he dresses himself. The teacher should also refrain from showing any emotion (such as frustration) or speaking to the child. It’s important to note that this works because children often behave the worst only in the presence of the mother!
NEVER LET HIM SEE YOU SWEAT!
Preschoolers LOVE when they have the power to make adults react. If the parent is getting worked up over the child not putting on his clothes, such as yelling, scolding, reminding, etc., the child will love this. Therefore the parent must remain completely calm and silent so as not to give the child a reason to avoid getting dressed. The parent must behave as if it doesn’t even bother her and just be ready to leave.
Three things you can do today that will positively affect your teenager tomorrow
If you know someone who is a parent of a 16 year old, you’ve probably heard about the challenges of having a teenager at home. You may have even thanked your lucky stars that your child won’t be there for many years to come and feel a sense of relief that you don’t have to deal with those issues anytime soon. But what if you had the power to minimize or eliminate those challenging behaviors to come? Would you care enough to implement changes now that could circumvent those teenage challenges later? Here are three things you can begin doing differently now with your young child that could influence your experience with her by the time she turns 16.
Arguing to Connect
If you thought your near school-age child argues with you too much now, just wait until the adolescent years arrive. When we think back to the arguing we did with our parents, it usually brings back bad memories of being sent to our room, being slapped for being disrespectful, or grounded for what seemed like months. According to Bronson and Merryman, authors of the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children (2009, Twelve), university studies have shown that arguing is the modern age teen’s mode of connecting with his parents. It is much easier now to connect with your younger child, reading to him, pushing her on the swing, or giving piggyback rides. Because the adolescent naturally begins to disconnect emotionally from his parent, arguing can be an easy and yet effective method for connecting, and it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable experience.
What You Can Do Now
Concentrate on building a solid relationship with your child now by letting her speak up and object to your limitations and boundaries. When you lay down rules, find ways to include your child in developing them and be open if she objects to your rules. Avoid getting angry and acknowledge and thank her for expressing her opinion. It doesn’t mean you have to change a rule to her liking but if she brings up valid points and asks for modifications that seem reasonable, don’t hesitate to change the rules if it appears appropriate. Demonstrating this kind and calm flexibility from time to time can have a lasting positive effect on her that will encourage her to have discussions. Not only will this prepare both of you for respectful arguments when she is 16, it will also allow her to speak up to others when you are not around.
Letting Them Fail
We parents do not like it when we see our children struggling or having experiences of discomfort. The old nurturing parent in us rises up and wants to swoop in and make everything all better for them. But to help a child truly grow and blossom, we must stop trying to make everything all better and allow them to learn from their failures. In his book, Get Out of My Life, But First Can You Take Me and Cheryl to the Mall? (1991, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Dr. Anthony Wolf encourages parents to stop rescuing their children and to stop bailing them out when things don’t go well for them. Doing so overburdens the parents and weakens the children.
What You Can Do Now
While we are responsible for keeping our children safe from the things they cannot control, non-critical problems in a child’s life are meant to teach them valuable lessons. If your child leaves his lunch money at home, the hunger he will feel is the natural consequence that will teach him to remember it the next time. Being bossy to playmates may result in no one wanting to play with him. We can certainly offer advice but we must let go if they choose to ignore it. If we leave our daytime job to bring him lunch money or a fast food lunch, he learns that it is our job to always be there to rescue him and he doesn’t have to remember. I’ll always remember how horrible I felt as a Dad, the day my daughter called me at my office, pleading with me to retrieve her book report poster from our dining room table and deliver it to her school. To her at that moment, it was practically the end of the world if she didn’t turn it in on time, but I reminded her of my new rule of not remembering for her, wished her a good day, and hung up the phone. Letting them fail now in the early years will lead to a more responsible 16 year old in the years to come.
Giving More Responsibility
Doing things for our preschooler and school-age child makes us feel good as parents. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop doing too much for them because it validates our feeling of being needed. Most of us do our best to transfer responsibility over to them but when they object to having to take on what we are doing for them, we find we don’t like the conflict and just keeping doing it. But if we don’t learn to stop doing too much for them now, it will only become more difficult when our child has a larger vocabulary and hormonal emotions to match. In the sequel to my original book, Love, Limits, & Lessons Volume 2: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Cooperative Kids (2011, Cooperative Kids), I outline the importance of remaining steadfast at raising capable children who will become responsible teenagers and eventually responsible members of society.
What You Can Do Now
Determine key activities and responsibilities that must be transferred at appropriate times of development and do it with unconditional love (this means no coaxing, reminding, or nagging). When your preschooler is ready to put on her own socks and shoes, give her training, set up the transition, and encourage her when she struggles. When you think your school-age son is ready to get himself up in the morning instead of you having to tell him to get out of bed repetitively, allow him to buy his own alarm clock, teach him to set it, set up the official transition, and encourage him at his success. Small steps of success now will become huge steps of success when the teen years arrive.
The long and the short of it is, I belong to the camp that does not support hitting children, or anyone else for that matter, period. Now I know some of you might want to take the stance that lightly slapping a toddler’s or a preschooler’s hand if they try to touch the stove shouldn’t be classified as “hitting.” To this, I say it’s all hitting. I don’t care if it’s a tap, a pat, or a light-handed slap. No matter how you slice it, it’s still striking a person and striking, regardless of the velocity of the swing, is not OK in my book. And even if I could be convinced that patting a child’s hand is OK, who’s to say that granting permission to strike a toddler or preschooler’s hand won’t possibly lead to other punitive treatment in other forms? The fact is that it does in some families.
In most cases, a parent who strikes a child’s hand doesn’t really know what else to do in that moment. I have spent years working with parents to help them find more effective discipline solutions to replace the strike. Once they better understand their child’s behavior and practice alternative methods, there is no longer a need to hit. Then there are those parents who strongly believe that striking a child’s hand to stop them from touching the stove is justified and these parents are not interested in finding alternative methods for hitting. For these parents, I say that striking a child to change a behavior is an act that is coming from a position of fear and not love. Let me explain.
I subscribe to the theory that every action taken or every word spoken by a human being either comes from a place of feeling love or from a place of feeling fearful. It is my belief that when an adult strikes a child’s body, regardless of what area or at what velocity of the swing (whether it be very light or hard), that adult is doing it as a result of feeling fearful in one or more ways. Some examples might be, “I’m afraid my child will get burned,” “I’m afraid my child will not listen to me so I have to make it memorable,” “I’m afraid my child doesn’t respect my authority,” “I have to force my child to stop now because I remember the fear of getting burned myself,” “I remember the fear my parent instilled in me when I didn’t listen to him and I have to recreate that for my child,” and many others. But when a parent is taught to manage his emotions and instead, come from a position of love before he acts or speaks, he is not likely to strike the child, punish her, or yell. A parent who takes actions and uses words that come from a position of love is more likely to respond with calm understanding and reasoning by looking at the situation from the child’s perspective. If after explaining to the child, she continues to move toward the stove, then this parent is likely to place a physical barrier between the child and the heater because the motivation of the child at this moment to touch the stove is stronger than her ability to understand the reasoning from the parent’s explanation. It could also be that the child is not at the appropriate development level to understand the parent’s explanation. After the barrier is set up to keep the child safe, a parent coming from the position of love is very likely to step back and ask himself, “What need is my child revealing to me right now that keeps her moving toward the stove?” That parent is likely to take the time to identify the core human need; to play, to discover, to learn, to explore, or others. Taking the actions I described here from a position of love takes time and patience, and also requires that the parent have an adequate level of emotional intelligence to see the situation from the child’s perspective. Taking the action to strike the child is coming from a position of fear is much quicker, takes less time, and requires a very low level of emotional intelligence on the part of the parent.
Now here is the long term outcome between the two. While both parents may be successful in getting the child to not touch the stove, the parent using methods that come from a position of fear is very likely to instill fear in the child. When fear is fostered within the human soul, it is my belief that more fear is generated and quite possibly, that child will also take actions and use words as she matures that are based on fear. Fear breeds emotions such as guilt, aggression, resentment, jealousy, hatred, and other nonproductive emotions. But if the primary caretaker of the child uses a style of parenting that involves taking actions and using words that come from a position of love, it is very likely that love will grow stronger within the child and she too will see the world from that perspective. It is my belief that this child is much more likely (than the child raised with fear based principles) to live a richer and fuller life. It is this child that may more likely build stronger, more loving relationship and make smarter decisions in her life because instead of being filled with the negative emotions that fear creates, she instead will be filled with more emotions such as trust, kindness, joy, happiness, encouragement, and compassion. And the final difference in this child? She may be more likely (than the child raised with fear-based tactics) to find her true purpose in life and leave behind a legacy that will change the lives of others!
A mom once asked me for some advice on what she can do when her 4-year-old daughter runs off ahead of her at places like the mall, the airport, and large stores. She said she quickly realized that yelling and screaming didn’t work and she did’t want to resort to spanking. She wanted to know how to get the little girl to stay with her and not run off?
It can be frightening for us and dangerous for our child. They run ahead at the mall and disappear around the corner or worse yet, they run out the door into a parking lot and straight into the path of a speeding vehicle. We know how dangerous these situations can be but our children don’t. They haven’t yet developed enough logical thinking nor experienced the fear that we have. So the challenge is getting them to cooperate and behave with caution without truly understanding why.
Our children often run off ahead of us and sometimes even do it while looking over their shoulder and laughing at us because they can. Basically, it’s fun to do because they usually feel small, unimportant, and manipulated and this becomes an instant opportunity to do something that makes them feel powerful and big, or it gives them inappropriate attention. This is especially true if they know you have an issue with them running ahead. Our challenge as parents is to help them understand, teach them about safety, and to do it by seeing the world through their eyes.
Here are some DOS and DON’TS for teaching and to help gain their cooperation:
A friend with two preschoolers came to me for some advice. When parking at a store, her children would immediately try to run off toward the store through the large parking lot as soon as she released them from their car seats. I suggested she have them help her make signs using yellow poster board, black markers, and some paint stir sticks. The signs could read something like, “CHILDREN WALKING” or “PLEASE DRIVE SLOW”. The children were instructed to march in a single file slowly holding the signs high in the air and with Mom bringing up the rear. She told them that their job was to get cars to drive slowly so everyone would be safe. They felt important, motorists knew enough to slow down, and Mom received the cooperation she wanted. It even created some excitement for the children in wanting to go to the store and “make a parade.”
One parenting “gimmick” to avoid and what to do instead
The following scene is all too common and one I’ve witnessed endless times. A toddler or preschooler is in the shopping cart and she won’t sit down. Afraid the child might fall out of the carriage, the parent orders her to sit down, but the child ignores the parents demands. Instantly, the parent “pulls out” a parenting gimmick she learned recently and delivers the, “One…Two… ,” and those of us in the aisle wait with baited breath for the final number THREE. At this point, one of two possible actions are likely to occur; the child will sit down out of fear for whatever usually follows the number three, or the child will remain standing and cry or scream in defiance. Of course, those of us near this poor mom are wondering what she will actually do if the final number three has no effect on the little girl.
The Problem at Hand
Programs that teach parents to count to three are basically gimmicks for parents to use to treat the symptom of a behavior problem and not the problem itself. They are intended as “microwave solutions” for those who are unable to control their own emotions or who need a “quick fix” to regain control of the situation. Even if one can make the case that these “counting” methods do work, it is my belief that they were designed to be used in only certain situations and over the short term. Adults who read these books or attend the trainings make the mistake of believing that counting to three is actually a long term solution to misbehavior and try to use it in all instances of challenging behavior. What makes it all worse is that programs like these are backed by research projects and deemed as being evidence based programs promoted by some (not all) professionals in the behavioral health field. Because of all of this backing, parents easily accept counting to demand obedience as a valid method of effective parenting.
Why Counting Doesn’t work
The primary problem with counting to three to create a compliant child is the absence of an enormous aspect of effective parenting; seeing the world through the child’s eyes. The father of individual psychology, Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937) wrote extensively about the importance of identifying the goals and intentions of any human’s behavior in obtaining his cooperation, especially a child’s. One of Adler’s students and a famed child psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs (1897 – 1972), went a step further and actually defined the goals of a child not wanting to cooperate. Some of Dreikurs’ goals that provide payback for a child to hold out for getting the number three is satisfying the need for more attention, power, revenge against the parent, feelings of inadequacy, or even just because it’s fun to make mommy or daddy get angry. In many instances, the child may even be willing to risk personal injury (spanking) or not eating (being send to bed without dinner), just to get these basic human needs met.
The Results of a Misguided Method
For one moment, try to imagine what it might feel like if you had the desire to get more attention from your significant other and it wasn’t being satisfied. Your partner is always too busy, gone from the house, or constantly absorbed in something else like television or the Internet. You try everything to get his or her attention, but to no avail. Then when your partner needs something from you, the feeling of resentment rises up and you have no motivation to give them what they need. They then begin to count with the pending threat that something bad might happen if you allow them to get to the final number three. Once the number two is announced, you have three seconds to decide to comply in order to avoid what might happen next, or defy the threat and say, “Bring it on!” If this continued to happen over time, what might you be motivated to do? Perhaps leave your significant other, or become the “good person” and succumb compliantly to a tyrannical force. This is what a child may feel who has had the “counting” method of parenting used on them on a regular basis.
What to do Instead
If your child is not cooperating with you, it could be a result of feeling small and unimportant, or a lack of you establishing firm and clear boundaries that she can understand. If you’ve been inconsistent and have given in to her demands in the past, then she may think, “Why can’t you abide by these demands on every trip to the store.” Find ways to help her feel powerful and significant by giving her pictures of items to look for as you go up and down the aisle. If she feels important to you on the trip, she is more likely to help you get your needs met. Come up with agreements before going into the store, such as letting her pick out the carriage or establishing what you are and are not willing to buy on this trip. If she is overtired and you’ve taken her shopping with you, there is no microwave solution to the problem, she needs sleep. In this situation, the best solution is to leave her with a sitter while you do the shopping. If this is not possible, you may have to shop on a different day. Forcing her to endure the shopping trip and comply with your demands does not work for anyone. When we make the decision to raise children, we give up some rights to have things exactly as we want them, every time. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves the question, “Do I want to have everything to my liking or is it more important to have unconditionally loving relationships with my children who will carry on the same with their children?”
It’s bad enough that you’re running 100 miles an hour, juggling a zillion tasks, and running late against your schedule, but on top of all that, your child becomes uncooperative and decides to throw a tantrum. Your initial reaction of feelings of anger and resentment cause your blood pressure to climb, so you muster up the strength to calm yourself and try other methods. Some of those methods include pleading, begging, and bribing, but even those don’t seem to work well. Finally, you pick up your screaming child (assuming she’s not too big for you) and try to contain your patience as you carry her to the car.
I bet your feeling exhausted just reading the previous paragraph. I also bet you can’t remember giving your parents this much trouble. And even if you did, it probably resulted in a spanking and being sent to bed, teaching you that this behavior didn’t pay. If you’ve read my past columns or my book, you may have read about what causes this kind of behavior in young children. If you haven’t, go to my Web site to learn more. So for now, let me offer you 8 means of stopping tantrums that work more effectively. They won’t all work in every situation, nor will they all work with every child. Be ready to try one until you find what works best for you and your child.
EASE THE CHILD’S FRUSTRATION. Tantrums are a child’s way of expressing frustration toward you, a lack of power, or your boundaries. If you can, comfort your child in the moment and do it without giving in. Remain with him silently and hold him, rub his back or just be there close to him. If he hits you, leave his space without words.
DON’T REACT. Responding to the tantrum gives it undue value and may motivate the child to prolongue or repeat this behavior. Do the best you can to ignore it and pretend it’s not happening. Avoid the urge to send her to her room or to time out.
DON’T GIVE IN. If your child is screaming for a toy in the department store, it is too tempting to buy him the toy to get him to stop the fit. If you buy it, you have averted some embarrasement and hassle at the moment, but worse, you’ve taught him to do it in other situations.
SET UP BOUNDARIES FOR “HOT” SITUATIONS. Only you know your child better than anyone. If you know that she screams for candy when you take her into the store, think ahead and set up boundaries to avoid these situations. Go over rules ahead of time before entering the store and get her to agree to them. The more often you set them up and follow through, the sooner she will adapt and not react to these triggers.
KNOW YOUR CHILD. Many tantrums are triggered by fatigue or hunger. Only you know your child better than anyone else so look for patterns that lead to him being hungry or tired and plan for it. Yes, this means you might have to change your schedule to NOT be in a store at a certain time or feeding him off schedule before leaving the house. The point is that you have the power to alter the sequence of events if you plan ahead.
USE VISUAL TIMERS OR VISUAL SCHEDULES. Two modern-day parenting products now on the market make avoiding tantrums much easier. Visual timers allow a child to see visually how much time she has for an activity, and visual schedules introduce her to the fact that her day is broken down into individual segments of time and tasks. These two visual cues change your child’s perspective on what to do and how long to spend time doing it.
REDIRECTION. Mild tantrums can be stopped or avoided all together by getting a child interested in something else. If your toddler is fascinated with the knob on the stove and you know that coaxing him out of the kitchen might set him off, instead, exhibit excitement about something in another room or out the window.
WAIT IT OUT OR MOVE FORWARD. There will still be times when nothing seems to work. If this is the case, ask yourself this question; “Can I wait this out with minimal impact to my schedule or anyone else’s?” If you can, “pull up a chair” and wait it out. The storm will eventually blow over. If you can’t wait it out, conjure up loving thoughts of your child and pick him up as gently as possible. Don’t speak and move forward with what you have to do.
One day my granddaughter was having a tantrum in her car seat in the back seat. My own fatigue and weariness had me on the verge of getting angry so I pulled off the road into a parking lot, shut off the car, and got out to sit on the hood of the car. After just a few minutes the screaming died down and I felt calm enough to get back into the driver’s seat. The tantrum went on for just a few minutes, but at a much lower decibel and I felt much more calm on the ride to our destination.