Monthly Archives: January 2010

Parenting challenge #1: Let’s pretend

Playful Parent book cover
Today is the first day of a series of posts that will provide a bunch of small suggestions for effective discipline strategies, or parenting approaches, or whatever you wan to label them. Read more about the Parenting Challenge in this post. In short: The idea is that we can all use a few more strategies to try out in our most trying situations with our kids. None of these strategies is meant to stand alone as THE. ONE. BEST. WAY. TO. DEAL. WITH. YOUR. KID. I'll put a new challenge up every Monday and you all can come back to the comment sections with feedback about what happened when you tried it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can all learn so much from each other: we have kids of different ages, with different temperaments, we OURSELVES very different personalities (with varying experiences of being parented that have shaped those personalities), we come with different parenting philosophies, varying family structures (married, single parenting, grandparents around, siblings in the picture, etc.). I'm willing to bet that all the strategies I put out here will vary in effectiveness with all those differences.

I'm going to try not to write pages and pages about the philosophy behind this or any other technique on Monday — I want to simply put the idea out there. For the rest of the week, I'll try to provide you with some background and research (when there is some) on the strategy, interspersed with OTHER topics, so you guys don't die of boredom from this one theme. 

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, comes from excerpts from Playful Parenting. It's SO simple and yet I find it so difficult to implement if I'm in a crabby mood, generally stressed or I'm sleep-deprived (usually they coincide). The idea is to take any discipline challenge or conflict type that seems to recur and turn it into a game of imaginary play. Remember the words: LET'S PRETEND. And when you least want to do it, when you most want to put your foot down and insist that she JUST LISTEN to you… stop, breathe in, and say OUT LOUD "Let's Pretend." Say it as cheerfully, loudly, and animatedly (that's not a word, I'm guessing). This is one of those instances when you'll probably be faking it until you really mean it. With this "LET'S PRETEND…" introduction, most post 3 year-olds will stop in their tracks and you'll have them watching you for more instructions. Now here's the part that can take some practice. "Let's pretend…" what? You've got to come up with something that will pull a child into complying with your wishes without him realizing that that's actually what you're doing. But the mere act of pretending, WITH YOU ESPECIALLY, changes any power struggle into a fun way to connect and collaborate. It can work miracles. (There's a good reason why generations after generations have used the "here comes the airplane/train/car, open the station!" to get kids to eat a few more bites). Here are just a few examples:

  • If your child doesn't want to get dressed in the morning: "Let's pretend that our clothes give us super powers! Once you put on your pants and shirt, what superhero will you be? MY clothes make me SUPER STRONG, maybe yours will make you invisible/able to fly/etc."
  • If your child doesn't want to switch off the t.v.: "Let's pretend that [enter whatever character she's been watching on tv] is down the hall and wants to play with us. Who do you want to be [in the tv show]? I'm going to be [enter character]." 
  • If you need 10 more min to get ready in the morning/to finish a conversation on the phone/etc.: "Let's pretend that I'm the queen who is coming to visit your castle for a feast. You're the King who has to get all your animals ready, cleaned, dressed, and at the table ready for my inspection! The Queen will be in your room in 10 mind… QUICK! Prepare for the feast!" 

Seriously, there's way too many examples to list. I JUST used this strategy a second ago, to buy myself 10 more editing minutes with this post. I told my boys: "Let's pretend that I'm Sir Toppenhat [dear god are you ever lucky if you don't know who that is] and that I will be coming to your train station. The trains need to be all cleaned and in their right order for the big race today!" Off they went to assemble the trains for the big race. Guaranteed that if I had told them to go play so that I can finish my work they would (a) have never left or (b) if they had, they would have been back in 30 sec asking if I'm ready to play. But providing them a REASON that I HAVE TO stay away for a few minutes worked. In fact, they just called back to me: "Don't come in yet, Sir Toppenhat! We're still working on the track!"

Some considerations:

  • Kids much younger than 2.5 years old may not be as into the pretend stuff. There are lots of reasons that pretend play usually starts after that age (I'll spare you that review for another time). With younger kids, you can just ACT OUT whatever pretend scenario you want, without having to tell them to "pretend." (So, act like the big monster that will eat their food up for them if they don't eat it first; Pick up your child and fly him around the hall once he FINALLY gets his "super flying boots" on, etc.)
  • Some kids are less inclined to pretend play than others. No big reasons, just some are more fantasy-oriented than others (just like some kids like to play with numbers and letters and others are bored stiff with that stuff early on). Most kids WILL get into it with you, if you "practice" these pretend scenarios with them.
  • The older the child is, the more I would try to enlist them to make up scenarios with you. 
  • It's a good idea to come up with a few of these pretend scenarios BEFORE a conflict or power struggle arises. In the throes of these conflicts, we're often angry, frustrated and exhausted, not the best context for coming up with magical situations to play out. If you have a few pretend situations that you know will peak your child's interest, think of how they could apply in all sorts of conflict situations.

This will be a great challenge to get your input in the comments section because some of us are more challenged in the fantasy make-up stuff than others (I count myself as one of the less "naturally" imaginative… but I'm learning). Give it a try and tell us: How did it go? What did you come up with? If it didn't work so well, why? If it DID work, what was so effective? Any new insights, thoughts, concerns that come up because of this exercise for you?

Edited to Add: CLEARLY I needed more than 10 more min to edit this post properly…

Flexibility in parent-child relationships

OK, first off, we're on with the parenting challenge thingy! If you don't know what I'm talking about, read my last post
and join us! I think it would probably work best if I post a
description of a parenting approach/discipline method every Monday (and
you can forgive me if I mess up and sometimes post on Tuesday,
especially on long weekends and such). Then we'll all have that week to
try something new with our kids. Throughout the week, you all can come
back to that Monday post and leave comments about how things are going,
questions about the approach, or rants about how sucky it all went and
who the hell do I think I am ruining your family life. I'm going to do
my best to take a more gist-like approach: I'll describe a method and
then give you my take on how it might be adapted to different ages
and/or different scenarios. I'll also try to supplement the description
of the method with some empirical studies or reviews of research that
provide some support for these various methods, either in the same post
or subsequent ones during the week. And I just want to be very clear:
many of these "approaches" are going to be RIDICULOUSLY simple things
that may seem TOO simplistic. The idea isn't going to be that any ONE
of these approaches are going to help you with EVERY one of your
discipline or parenting challenges. They'll just be one more little
tool you can add to your parenting toolbox (ugh… can that metaphor
be any more overused? Sorry, but I'm too brain dead to come up with
something more witty).

Now, on to today's topic: Flexibility. A few of you asked to talk
more about this idea. Given it's one of my main areas of research,
goodness knows I can ramble on and on about this topic. It CONSUMES me.

I've studied a bunch of parent-child relationships, both "healthy" ones and those that were in some serious trouble. For the latter group, I've worked with agencies that provide interventions for families with children who have "clinically-elevated" levels of aggression and depression (with a large does of anxiety as well). As part of my work (a review is in this paper), I've tried to identify the differences between these more healthy parent-child relationships and the ones that are more distressed. One of the most ubiquitous findings that keeps coming up, over and over, is the importance of flexibility in parent-child relationships. My thinking started way back, on the more theoretical level, thinking about evolutionary advantage. In much of evolutionary theory and, in particular, evolutionary psychology, organisms are considered optimally healthy when they can readily adapt to changes in their environmental context. Similarly (and with a whole lot more academic arm-waving), we can think of interpersonal interactions as being optimally functioning when they are flexible or able to adjust to any new challenge that might arise. In contrast, when relationships or interaction patterns are "rigid" or repeated no matter what the context might throw at them, problems seem to come up.

So how on earth would you test such an assumption? I've run a few studies that have looked at flexibility (both in parent-child and peer relationships). There's a few ways we've looked at this, but one is to look at troubled parent-child relationships and look at the parent-child interaction patterns that have developed over time. We've observed (literally, videotaped) hundreds of parents and their healthy or more troubled children interacting with each other while they engaged in different types of activities (for example, they are asked to play some board games, try to problem-solve a conflict they identified, clean up a mess, share a snack and so on). In one study, we videotaped these interactions and found that children with elevated levels of aggression, depression and anxiety are indeed more rigid in their interaction patterns with their parents. I'll spare you the analytic models we ran and skip to the gist of the findings: Instead of expressing many kinds of emotions, and controlling those emotions when the situational demands changed, aggressive and depressed/anxious children and their parents remained stuck in one or very few emotional states.  For example, it was common for families to become angry in the problem-solving interaction and then remain angry when asked to change activities (for instance, play a game).  BUT! it was just as common for these families to show neutral or closed emotional states across all activities. Healthy family often got angry, it's not that they never showed negative stuff at all, it's just that they shifted in and out of these emotional states as their context changed. The inability to experience a range of emotional states as the context shifted was the strongest predictor of future problematic behaviour, more so than just how much negativity parents or children shared with each other (the predictions, in one study, went from 4.5 years old to about 6 years old).

Why would it be important for a child’s healthy development that family members display a variety of emotional states with one another?  We might expect that a task such as conflict-resolution would produce anger and frustration in most families. Playing a game or sharing a snack are more likely to elicit positive emotions.  Sometimes it's appropriate to be anxious and hesitant, other times to be excited and spontaneous. My growing thoughts about these data are that, without the opportunity to experience a range of emotional states in family interactions, children don't get to develop an adequate ability to regulate (i.e., adjust, control) their emotions. They become entrenched in particular emotional habits that feel inevitable, and they lack the skills for shifting from one state to another when it might be advantageous to do so.

I can go on and on (oh! I will, in another post, because I have some cool intervention data that shows that when families are benefiting from treatment, they're becoming MORE FLEXIBLE. Yes, yes, I am indeed a little tickled by those findings. But I'll shut up now). And I can include a trillion caveats to this research including that these findings may not hold for all cultures, all age groups, different socio-economic backgrounds, and so on. But to tell you the truth, I actually think flexibility in parent-child interactions / relationships IS crucial across all these domains… I just don't have the data.

So I'll leave it at that for now, since I've rattled on enough, and I'll ask you what you think… Do you think that flexibility, rather than the altogether lack of negativity (anger, sadness), is as important as I do? Are there cases in which you think it isn't so important? Does this ring true for you? How about the way you were parented… would you characterize your childhood relationship with your parents as "flexible?"

Parenting challenge? Pick up a new parenting tool and tell us how it worked

I've been thinking about how we can all learn more from each other: How we can share what we've read and what we've tried with our kids that's worked. And I've also been very aware of how helpful reviewing all those discipline books (and many others I didn't include in that last post) has been to my OWN parenting challenges this week. Having to go back to some of those books and review my dog-eared pages was fabulous for getting me thinking about new ways to approach recurring discipline episodes with my boys (it's also made me realize that I didn't tell you the stuff I DIDN'T like about those listed books… I'm rather critical when it comes to parenting books, so you can imagine that providing you with those balanced reviews would have taken me another 5 pages). I've actually had one of the best weeks in months with my boys, largely because I've been more conscientiously applying various approaches that I've forgotten about or simply not tuned into.

I think one of the best things we can do as parents is to try to remain FLEXIBLE. I've written a couple of dry-as-sand academic articles about the social and emotional benefits to children of flexible parenting. By flexible, I mean the ability to use a whole lot of different solutions to the same discipline problem, the ability to express a range of emotions (both good and bad), without becoming stuck in one emotional state for too long, and the ability to repair interactions when things get ugly. I want to write a whole lot more about this issue of repair, and how important I think it is for parent-child relationships (and healthy development in general). I've been studying the benefits of "repair" in family interactions for almost a decade and I think it's so critical.

But back to the more general idea of flexible parenting: One way to try to become more flexible as parents is to simply add parenting tools (with some evidence of efficacy) to our toolbox. This flexibility will manifest differently for different parents, depending on what you already do, the extent to which you're happy with what's working and you're unhappy with what's not, the age of your child (of course!), and so on.  

So here's  my question/challenge: Would you all be interested in reading blog posts about, and TRYING, some different parenting techniques or discipline strategies (from the books I've already reviewed) and then reporting back on your results? The way this could work is that I could post a description of some little method or a more general approach or mindset that's advocated in one of the 10 books I listed in my last post. Then we can all try to implement the approach in the following few days and report back in the comments about how great or how completely hopeless that particular technique proved to be. This would almost be like our own little study (biased to high-hell, but still…), especially if you all were willing to give a little information about your child's age and explain the reasons for your success or lack thereof. Of course, certain approaches are going to work better than others for certain issues, different ages, different parents with various parenting philosophies, etc. But I think we could all learn something new and maybe even have some fun with this, if there's lots of participation. I would be FULLY into participating myself, of course.

Extra bonus: You won't feel like you have to go out and buy a bunch of books — I'll make sure to give you a smattering of approaches from a bunch of authors.

What do you think? Thoughts on how to make this work? Is this just a lame idea?

The best ten books on discipline

I keep promising you all a list of some of my favourite books on discipline. It's been hard for me to get down to a definitive list because there are bits and pieces that I think are great in so many books out there. So the challenge in making this list is to not overwhelm you with 40 books that you have to sift through reviews for while still being comprehensive in terms of hitting the biggies. But I AM skipping some great ones, and I hope we can think of this list as a starting point and get some feedback from readers about what's been mBooksost helpful to them as well.

Another few caveats: (1) I tend to prefer books that describe a general approach, rather than one specific technique. I like to pick and choose different techniques from various sources, but what I most value in a parenting book is a different perspective, a new lens through which I can reframe my challenges. Every time I read or re-read any of the books on this list, I am usually inspired to think differently about discipline challenges IN GENERAL. And I find that it is this fresh perspective that helps me parent more flexibly and tune into my child more consistently. (2) You'll see that the books on my list also don't generally use the term "discipline" in their titles (except for one) and that's because the authors are concerned with giving us the tools for raising happy, kind, empathic, non-aggressive children… and that's not ONLY about displine, but the whole big whack of parent-child relationships. (3) The the books on this list are ones that I continue to return to, rather than read once through, get what I need, and then give them away. So that's the last criteria I used for the final top 10 and that's why some of the more obvious ones did not make it. (4) Finally, I'm generally old-school when it comes to my favourites. I'm oddly skewed towards books that were written a few decades ago. I think they've stood the test of time for a reason (but beware: some of the language in these more dated books are off-putting, what with all the assumptions of mothers being at home all the time, fathers being secondary figures in the house, and general language that's downright sexist in our current thinking). 

My Top Ten Books on Discipline (NOT in any particular order…):

1. Playful Parenting: I can't tell you how many times I still pick up this book. It's on my night table and I often find myself rifling through my dog-eared copy to remind myself to Chill-the-f$#@-out! The book reminds us to HAVE FUN with this whole parenting gig. Easier said than done, but I find that the general approach of the book continues to inspire me to come up with new ways to approach old problems. Instead of the power struggles, the book shows us how to make conflicts into games. Instead of focusing on "discipline" and the "rules" of the house, the author shifts our focus to laughing, rough-housing, joking and bonding with our children. It doesn't solve EVERY discipline problem, but for me it gives me the gentle reminder that my toughest conflicts with my kids can often be solved better through flexible strategies that engage my children's compliance through play and imagination rather than through power and force of will. 

2. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk:  This is another on my bedside table. From the same group that brings you #3 and #7 on the list, this is chock-full of great insights about how to approach conversations with children of all ages so that they're more receptive to your wishes and so that you understand your children better. As the title suggests, the authors provide you with ways to create a context that encourages really effective communication skills — I think their approach helps us reframe communication with not only kids, but with spouses, coworkers, etc. It's compassionate, effective, concrete and can result in some seriously fabulous results, from my experience.

3. Between Parent and Child: Yes, it's dated, but I love, love, love Haim Ginott. Here's a famous quote of his, that I continue to use: “If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.” It's a classic, more suited for older kids (over 3 or so) than younger ones. Here's one of a bajillion review/summaries out there: "Perhaps Haim’s genius was helping parents capture the meaning behind children’s words and deeds. There is nothing quite as soothing
for children as being understood. There is nothing quite as helpful for
solving parenting problems as the feeling of parents and children
working together. Ginott’s approach was unique because he joined great compassion with solid limits" (from the website).

4. Parenting with Love and Logic: I like this book because of its straightforward, practical approach. I like its emphasis on parental modeling of "responsible" behaviour and problem-solving. I also appreciate some of the techniques that are offered up as very concrete ways of teaching children how to make responsible choices on their own (and helping parents deal with commonly occurring conflicts like back-seat battles in the car,
homework, and keeping bedrooms clean). I have some beefs about it too, but I think it's worth the read. 

5. The Mother of All Toddler Books: Ann Douglas is awesome for so many reasons, but one of the most straightforward is that she is amazing at pulling together a whole bunch of resources, methods, techniques, and so on into one definitive compendium. This book gives you a bunch of approaches to try out with your child, depending on age, temperament, and you parenting style. It's a really great resource not only for discipline (how to deal with whining, tantrums, and so on) but also deals with other typical toddler challenges like potty training and eating.

6. Raising Your Spirited Child:  I've recommended this book before. Here's the review, which says it all… "Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's first
contribution is to redefine the "difficult child" as the "spirited"
child, a child that is, as she says, MORE. Many people are leery about
books that are too quick to "type" kids, but Kurcinka, a parent of a
spirited child herself and a parent educator for 20 years, doesn't fall
into that trap. Instead, she provides tools to understanding your own
temperament as well as your child's. When you understand your
temperamental matches–and your mismatches–you can better understand,
work, live, socialize, and enjoy spirit in your child. By reframing
challenging temperamental qualities in a positive way, and by giving
readers specific tools to work with these qualities, Kurcinka has
provided a book that will help all parents, especially the parents of
spirited children, understand and better parent their children." (From

7. Siblings Without Rivalry: From the same lineage (Haim Ginott) that brought us "Between Parent and Child," these followers of Dr. Ginott tackle siblings specifically. Lots of you mentioned sibling jealousy issues that may be underpinning the most difficult discipline episodes. This is a great book to re-think how to raise children as team members in a larger family. It provides a thoughtful, compassionate perspective on the sibling relationship in general and then gives practical approaches for addressing episodes of sibling conflict (with lots of examples).

8. The No-Cry Discipline Solution: In the spirit of her other "No-Cry" books, Pantley offers some concrete strategies that pull parents out of power struggles and into a place of confident guides for children's appropriate behaviour. I like the fact that there ARE some concrete methods that you can pick and choose from and that she's very much into taking the child's perspective in these discipline struggles. She encourages parents to remember that they know their child best and to choose the methods that will best suit their child's temperament and needs, as well as their own goals. 

9. All the Louise Bates-Ames books: If you're looking for actual techniques or methods, these aren't the books for you. But her series of books (e.g., Your Two Year Old: Terrible or Tender; Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy, etc) is fabulous for giving you a real sense of the developmental challenges and the cognitive and emotional milestones that are being hit at each age. She's also very compassionate and often funny when empathizing with parental challenges at each age.

10. Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense: Because so many of you mentioned that mealtimes were big battle grounds with your children, or that feeding was a real source of anxiety for you as the parent, I wanted to include this one. This is one of the better books I've seen out there on helping parents relax and enjoy mealtimes with their kids. There's good, solid advice about nutrition and stage-specific issues that will come up around feeding. Many parents report feeling a whole lot better after reading this book and implementing strategies to avoid power struggles.

OK, that's my top 10 list… for now. What have I missed? What book have you found indispensable when it comes to discipline or general parenting approaches?

The awesomeness of YOU… and join us on Facebook!

You guys are fabulous!  Thanks to everyone who took the time to peek out of lurkdom to say a few words. (If you haven't, but would like to, please check out the comments section on this post and let us know who you are!). It means a lot to me and it was so SO interesting to get a sense of who you are and the sorts of challenges you're facing. LOTS of great fodder for future posts: work/life balance, potty training, feeding/eating challenges, sleep (of course!), discipline stuff, sibling issues, worries about protecting our kids from developing problems with depression and anxiety, co-parenting with our partners, t.v.-watching, mommy-guilt issues (so many of you, like me, feel like you're not spending enough time, doing the "right" things with your kids… I don't think we need to change what we do as much as change our attitude and cut ourselves some slack, by the way, but I'd like to cover that in a full post). I have to say, almost all the concerns you all have brought up, I've had myself. So I hope with some future posts I'll be able to give you some research that's helped me with the earlier stages that we've already muddled through. And I hope we can also commiserate and help each other with the many issues that we share (there are SO MANY).

Finally, I wanted to let those of you who are new to this site know that we DO have a Facebook page. Obviously, there's less anonymity there, and I understand that some people are more cautious about protecting their identity than others. But if you WOULD like to join our page, that would be fabulous! Right now, most of the action there is just me posting reminders of blog posts that are up. But there's lots of other potentials. I have always wanted that space to also serve as a community of parents who can provide support for one another, without my direct mediation. If anyone has the time (HA!) and inclination, I'd be thrilled to get more action over there and help build that community. If nothing else, you can get notices from Facebook when there's a new post. I'm still a newbie in that environment, as you will no doubt pick up.  Here's the site details (I have to change the name… On my to-do list). You can join as a fan anytime!

Have a great weekend, everyone. And, again, THANK YOU for all your great input.

Come out, come out, wherever you are…

Apparently, I missed some big "delurking day." I'm so out of the loop… CLEARLY. So, I'll try to hop on the bandwagon belatedly.

I'm feeling a little isolated right now and thought I'd throw out a few questions to you all to see if we can get a sense of who's reading this blog. (I know you're out there, you're just not commenting… which is fine, I was a lurker for a LOOOOOOOOOOOONG time before I started commenting.) I'm dying to know a little about my readers, just out of general curiosity. But I'd also like to get a better sense of what types of posts might be most relevant to you and a little bit of info about you all would help a lot. So… tell me dear readers:

1. How many kids do you have?

2. How old are they?

3. What's frustrating you most these days in terms of you children or parenting in general?

I'll go first (although many of you already know the answer to the first 2):

1. I have two boys.

2. Both are 3 and 5/6 years old (4 in March). Fraternal twins.

3. Biggest frustration: I can't get enough time with my kids during the week. I work 40 hours/week and because the boys don't nap anymore, they're in bed by 7:30. Any later, and they're in melt-down mode. So I get a measly 3 hours/day with them, and at least one of those hours are spent nagging about eating, dressing, undressing and getting out the door. And the fact that I can't figure out any way to solve this except to wait until they're a bit older and need less sleep saddens me.

No pressure, but PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE come out of lurkdom for a moment and make me feel less nerdy in this big, strange blog world…

Some strategies for dealing with the dreaded temper tantrums

Periodically, I've received emails about temper tantrums and how impossible they are to deal with. Tantrums usually escalate in frequency from about 18 months to about 2.5 years old. Most kids don't full-out tantrum anymore by the time they are 4 or 5. But apart from waiting these hellish episodes out, what else can we do? Here's just one example of an email that I think summarizes most parents' concerns:

This is an email of desperation.  O is going through another series of wicked temper tantrums – tantrum every morning when we change his diaper (doesn’t want it changed), tantrum getting dressed, tantrum when dinner isn’t ready right away every night, tantrum putting on his mittens, tantrum last night because I called “may” by its proper name “milk” AND dared to put it in a yellow cup.  Often these tantrums are accompanied by the classic face-down on the floor fist beating etc. 
So, we wait them out.  He escalates to the point of hyperventilation and my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.  We tell him, “O, I’m not going to do XX while you are screaming at me.  You have to stop whining/crying/ask nicely etc.” After a while (15-20 minutes), he’ll stop, he’ll say, “I’m done now.”  I try distraction but, often, he’s too worked up to be distracted.

This is SO classic and, indeed, distraction and ignoring are often the most commonly suggested ways of dealing with full-out temper tantrums. But there are a few additional strategies to consider. Part of the problem with the (approximately) 2-year old stage is that their verbal skills can’t catch up to their thinking skills, so they get easily frustrated. And also? 18 – 22 month-olds are ALWAYS frustrated. So are 2.5 year olds. It's just part of the major developmental transitions that they're plodding through.

Here are some thoughts and suggestions to manage those temper tantrums when they pop up:

1. The idea of ignoring the temper tantrum when it occurs and not giving into the tantrum-ee's demands is straight out of any behavioural modification program of reinforcement (It's part of the "coercive cycle" we've talked about before). Those are still good ideas. The only thing I’d add is to walk away from the child and go to another room when he’s tantruming — but remain in earshot so that he doesn't feel totally abandoned. Having you present, even though you’re not giving in, can be amping up his frustration (you are the evil being who is blocking his goal DAMMIT!). It’s not that he’s intentionally freaking out (in other words he’s not manipulating in any sophisticated way — he doesn’t have the cognitive capacity), but you ARE the object of his wrath and his hysterics are simply communicating that, as well as expelling his anger/frustration.

(Although you can see why many parents feel like they ARE being manipulated by these temper tantrums. Check out this video.) 

2. Forget the mommy guilt. Crying isn’t a terrible, bad thing that we should try to avoid in our kids at all costs. The only way our children learn to regulate their emotions is to express them first. As parents, we can try to take what we all feel, and the original poster expressed so well: “my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.” And reframe it with this: "Kids cry. Kids get pissed off.  Crying and raging aren’t in and of themselves bad (many kids just need to emote… A lot, especially when they can’t reason or talk it out). And I'm not a bad mom for simply witnessing his distress." You are doing everything possible not to escalate, you are not punishing him for his emotions, you are just there to witness them and therefore you’re inadvertently teaching him that emotions CAN be expressed (doesn’t mean he’s getting what he wants, but he can wail all he wants and you won’t hate him).

3. Try this set of responses, from the fabulous book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (works for some, not others). Give words to his feelings, mirror those emotions, repeat the rule you're trying to enforce, fantasize with him about his wishes. The steps are as follows: (1)  When he’s starting to whine/complain (but is NOT tantruming yet), give him words to express what he feels (e.g., O, you’re feeling so mad that mama won’t let you watch TV! Mad, Mad, MAD!), (2) Scrunch up your face and look mad, so he gets that that’s what he looks like and YOU get that that’s what he’s feeling, (3) Repeat your rule, accepting his feelings, but not his behaviour ("You can only watch TV after dinner; You can be mad at mommy but you can’t throw things/scream, whatever"), (4) Fantasize with him: "You know, I ALSO wish it was TV-watching time. I LOVE watching TV with you O! I wish mommy didn’t have to work, but I can’t WAIT until after dinner when we can watch together." Seriously… sometimes this set of steps work MIRACLES. The trick is to REMEMBER the steps in the heat of our frustration and anxiety.

4. Provide him with lots of opportunities throughout the day where he has the illusion of control (if not the reality). He’s being told what to do all day long: with parents in the morning, with child-care providers or at daycare, during mealtime, and so on. Children sometimes need to feel like they have some say in the way their day unfolds. Most of you have heard this stuff many times and have mentioned this in the comments sections. Provide choices: Do you want the blue or the red pants today? Do you want to take off your diaper now or after breakfast? Do you want to have cereal or toast?. Also, I'd suggest being very attuned to his behaviour so that you can catch him being strong, good, powerful, brave. And then praise the hell out of him (he needs to feel his power and control and that you recognize those things, not just put him down for it).

5. Look for reasons for escalation of tantrums: Sleep changes? Nap dropping? Missed snacks? Missed meals? Too much sugar/preservatives? Too little sleep at night? Sick? Teething? Too many transitions? Working on new skills (e.g., verbal)? This doesn't help us deal with the tantrums in the moment, but it does help us understand them better and it may help us to avoid them sometimes as well.

What are your favourite ways of dealing with temper tantrums? If you're past this stage with your child, what was the best advice you received?

Effective discipline strategies for toddlers Part I

Alright, alright, let's get down to some concrete suggestions for some discipline practices that work for the younger ages. I've pulled these methods from various sources including some fabulous books (that I will list in a separate post with lots of link-love), parenting programs (both intervention and prevention programs), and wise parents around me. To be clear: I have not come up with any of these methods on my own. And when I say these methods "work," keep in mind that what I really mean is: that they work for some kids, some families, some of the time at some ages and not others. I will also clearly state that all the strategies that I advocate are non-aggressive and generally non-physical. Especially with the under 3 or so group, I'm throwing out this caveat because many parents advocate spanking (at least as a last resort) in the toddler/pre-verbal stage. When I get the strength and the time, I will finish the post I've been working on that addresses spanking, but that's for another time (in the meantime, you can go join this thoughtful discussion on the topic).

I wanted to cover some of the most successful methods for the under 2 years old group first. This is the age at which children are very limited in their verbal abilities, so they often get very frustrated because they can't communicate to us what they really want. I'd say the vast majority of behavioural issues emerge at this young age because children feel misunderstood, ignored, or just plain frustrated that they can't get you to UNDERSTAND what they want. Their RECEPTIVE language, however (especially after 12 – 18 months) is quite good. So they may UNDERSTAND you, but they just can't COMMUNICATE with you. Can you IMAGINE how infuriaDisciplineting and frustrating that could be?

Another caveat before we get to the list: I think of discipline episodes as two-sided. The first is the emotional component: All parent-child conflicts are emotional and offer opportunities for parents to learn about their children's inner lives and to also teach their children some important lessons. We want to teach our children to understand and regulate their emotions while also being able to communicate what they feel to others in effective ways. Conflicts of will that often involve applying some discipline strategy provide the most common context through which we can do this type of emotional learning and teaching with our children. The second component to discipline episodes is the behavioural one: we want to teach our children to behave appropriately, safely, with kindness and so on. Following many, many wise authors (again, links to books are coming in a future post), I think we need to acknowledge and accept children's emotions and allow them to feel them without fear of reprisal while still teaching them appropriate ways of ACTING on those emotions. I'm going to focus on the behaviours in this post and talk more about emotions and how to label and work with them in another post.

Here are some of the top strategies that could work for you and your young children. Keep in mind that some of these methods could work brilliantly at older ages too, while others may be less appropriate. Also, you'll note that these methods are ways to AVOID a power struggle. My aim (in theory, unfortunately not always in practice) is NOT to "show my kids who's boss" but to gain their compliance and teach them new skills through other means.

1. I maintain that one of the most effective strategies for avoiding coercive cycles or nasty discipline episodes is to ANTICIPATE the most commonly-occuring conflicts and find ways of AVOIDING them

2. Children under 2 can often be easily distracted. So, if a 9-month old is spitting his food all over the floor, read him a book/sing him a song/rattle a funny toy and see if his attention is diverted. If your 18-month old insists on pulling the cat's tail, start playing tug-of-war with him with your scarf instead. And so on…

3. Teach your pre-verbal child sign language. (This is kind of in the middle of the emotion/behaviour split). The link I provided (and there are tons more; go ask Dr. Google) allows you to put in all sorts of words and watch as an overly-smiley lovely young woman shows you the sign for said word. Personally, I don't really think you need to spend the money on a DVD or book, not at first anyway. Ten simple words will do at first (even less: milk, sleep, all done, MORE, banana, etc.). Babies as young as 6 – 9 months will eventually GET that the word is the same as the gesture, but most babies won't actually start USING the signs until about 1 years old or more. For those of you uninitiated, you'll be tempted to scoff. Beware the baby sign-language scoff lest you miss something that will SO WORK for you. Giving your 1-year old the ability to communicate to you that "NO MOMMY!  You have it all wrong… I want MILK, not water/a hug/my soother!" or "NO! Don't take that away, I want MORE!" can be priceless. For SO MANY children who do not have the ability to talk yet, a few simple signs can be the key to avoiding innumerable tantrums and, just as precious, the key to connecting with your child in a way that you never realized was possible at such an early age. Baby sign-language: Not just for the granola-hippie-hemp-eating mommies anymore (mmmm… granola!).

4.ATTEND like mad to positive behaviours you want to encourage and try to ignore or at least respond in a flat emotional tone to behaviours you want to discourage. (Again, this stuff comes straight out of the behavioural techniques of Skinner and those whacky pigeons he taught to press bars for food.) This is SO IMPORTANT to remember: Your attention is like crack to your baby/toddler. The number one thing your child craves is your attention, preferably your smiling, adoring attention. You can use that beam of attention to tune your child's behaviour — when she is doing stuff you want her to do, or just being an adorable, sweet child, praise the hell out of her, smile gloriously, do a little dance, throw a mini party. When she is doing something you would like her to stop doing (that is nevertheless not harming her or anyone / anything else), withdraw your attention: in response to the slamming doors, throwing food, screeching at pitches only young dogs and mothers can hear, walk into another room or pick up a book to read or start lavishing loving attention on her sibling instead. As SOON as she stops the yucky behaviour and does something more to your liking, start the happy dance, pick her up and mush her sweet little cheeks into yours, smile and clap and generally go over the top. I know… sounds ridiculous. But it is UNCANNY how well this can work if you can keep your cool and keep your eye on the goal: you want to simply stop or redirect the behaviour, NOT let her know that you won some battle of wills.

5. Focus your requests on what you DO want your child to do, not what you DON'T want him to do. Babies and toddlers have miserable shor
t-term memories so they'll remember the LAST thing you've said in most cases. If you tell Johnny: "Don't bang the glass table. Banging the glass table will break it," he will likely hear, "wah, wha, wah, bang the glass table, break it." Instead, focus on an alternative behaviour you would prefer him to do: "Don't bang the glass table. You CAN bang this drum. Come on, bang this drum with me!" Also, they may not KNOW an alternative behaviour that would be alright for you and still feel fun for them; kids need us to TELL them and SHOW them what we're ok with.

6. Related to #5, when our child DOES misbehave (for example, hits another child or grabs a toy from another child's hand), teach him the more APPROPRIATE behaviour once the situation has been diffused and PROVIDE HIM THE OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTICE that more appropriate behaviour. Oftentimes we reprimand our children for doing something wrong (for example, we give them a time-out), but then that's the end of that. Most often, we don't give them the chance to practice the more appropriate behaviours we hope they'll use next time (using their "strong" words, sharing, asking instead of grabbing for a toy). This "do-over" is ESSENTIAL for giving children the skills to deal with situations differently the next time they arise. I've heard this idea from several sources, but I'm a big fan of Sharon Silver at ProActive Parenting, who emphasizes how powerful these learning experiences can be for children.

OK, having written another novella, I'll stop now and give you a chance…  What have I missed? What works or worked best for your toddler?

Most common cause of early discipline problems

We're back to thinking about discipline this week (and I could probably go on for weeks to come, so stop me when you get bored, 'kay?). Before we get into specific discipline strategies, I wanted to give you a bit more background about some of the research that's gone into understanding the development of defiant behaviour. In particular, I want to focus today's post on the most common parent-child interaction pattern that's associated with the development of oppositional, defiant and/or aggressive behaviour. There are SO MANY studies that have focused on this deceptively simple pattern, often referred in the research literature as "coercion" or the "coercive cycle." The pattern was first documented and analyzed by researchers from the Oregon Social Learning Center, most notably by Gerald Patterson (my academic mentor's mentor, a brilliant and inspiring man, and one of the most interesting and awesome people I know). Patterson collected videotapes of hundreds of parents and children interacting with one another in their own homes. And here's one of the most common interaction patterns he identified…

The coercive cycle starts with a parent requesting something of her child — let's say, mom asks her child to put away the blocks he's been playing with. The child responds by either ignoring mom or saying "NO!" The parent then responds to this defiance by escalating her request (either by increasing the urgency with which she delivers her request, raising her voice, threatening to take away privileges or threatening to punish, etc.). The child continues to refuse to comply (either actively or passively, but either way, he's not budging). Mom again escalates her request. The child then starts to whine (eeh gad that whiiiiiiiiiiiine), scream, cry or tantrum. The mother gives up: utterly exhausted at this point and realizing how much easier it would be to just pick up the darn blocks herself.

Who among us has not experienced almost this precise interaction? Who among us has not been frustrated enough, sleep-deprived, exhausted after a full day at work, desperate enough for a little peace that we have just given up? Sometimes we need to just pick our battles, right? Right… to a certain degree.

Here's the problem: This little scenario happens to ALL of us, at some point. But the OPPORTUNITY for this type of interaction happens hundreds of times over the course of a week (and often over the course of a DAY). And each little episode teaches the child something (as well as the parent). For the child, he learns that if he ignores long enough, whines loud enough, or full-out tantrums quickly enough, he will get his way. This is the "coercive" part of the cycle. The parent is ALSO learning something: Mom learns that if she gives up quickly enough, then peace and quiet will be restored to the household. In "behaviourists'" terms, both the child's "coercive" behaviour and the parent's withdrawing behaviour is being reinforced by this scenario. What is compelling about this situation is that, in some ways, it is so banal, so innocuous. In the moment, the interaction doesn't seem like a big deal at all. In the short run, both the parent and child are actually coming out the other end of this feeling relatively relieved and alright. BUT!  Wash, rinse and repeat hundreds and thousands of times and, in the LONG RUN, we've just created a potential little tyrant, one that now whines at EVERY. SINGLE. REQUEST. One that throws himself on the floor screaming and flailing each and every time we say "no" to one of HIS requests.

A few more points to emphasize about the coercive cycle:

1. When I say that the child is being "coercive," I don't mean that she is INTENTIONALLY and CONSCIOUSLY doing something to piss off her parents. These patterns develop outside of consciousness — which is part of the reason they can be so tricky…

2. For almost all children and parents, these mini-conflict scenarios start emerging most notably at around 18 months and continue on through early childhood. As we've talked about already, oppositional and defiant behaviour is COMPLETELY normal at this age. It's what we DO about it, as parents, that really matters.

3. Between 2 – 4 years old, these behavioural issues may not seem so serious (and they're not, at this stage). Children are small, can't do much damage, and their defiance can be relatively contained (and kinda funny too). But the trouble is that if we DON'T start attending to the defiant and aggressive behaviour early on, these are the skills and strategies that our children will take with them into the classroom, playground and into the homes of their peers as they get older.

SOURCES: There's loads of data I can link to that has identified the coercive cycle as a strong causal process that leads to the development of oppositional and/or aggressive behaviour. Here are just two of the summary articles that pull together this large body of research: Hinshaw, 2002 and Kazdin, 2002. If you're interested in the actual original studies, email me and I'll send you a few. Here's my own review of the research literature in the area (although I do NOT recommend reading it unless you're really into esoteric modeling, dense and inaccessible writing and the application of complexity/chaos theory to psychology). Perhaps the best two books on the topic — with all the data and theory summarized — are authored or co-authored by Patterson.

So… do you recognize the "coercive" cycle in your family? How about in other families that you see around you? Are there strategies you use to try to avoid these scenarios? Under what circumstances do you find it almost impossible to avoid these situations (I'll tell you mine in the comments if you tell me yours…)?

The US edition of Bedtiming is HERE!

I am THRILLED to let you all know that the US edition of Bedtiming is out! For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, a couple of years ago, my husband (Marc Lewis) and I wrote a book that was first published in Canada. The US edition is now out (published by The Experiment) with a brand spanking new cover and subtitle (nothing else of substance has changed from the Canadian version, for those of you who have asked).

Book cover
We wrote Bedtiming while trying to figure out the ins and
outs of our own children’s sleep habits and how to ultimately change
those crazy habits so that we could regain our sanity. The book goes through the best ages and stages to attempt your favourite sleep-training method. There are several chapters outlining the developmental research that points to several sensitive stages across infancy and early childhood — these are the stages we recommend that you avoid sleep training. There are other stages that children are more resilient, more focused on the "external" world of objects, and less anxious about separations — these are the stages we recommend giving your favourite method a go. The feedback I've received from several readers is that they have found the chapters that outline all the cognitive and emotional developmental stages useful in and of themselves, just to understand what is going on in the mind of their own child. I LOVE this because it was exactly our intent — we are developmentalists and so consider these developmental milestones so intrinsically fascinating and useful to understand for a range of children's issues (including, but not limited to, sleep training).

In terms of sleep issues: We are very clear in the book (like I am on this blog) that there is not one perfect sleep-training technique that is right for all children and all families. There's a chapter in the book that summarizes the pros and cons of the top 5 or so sleep-training
methods, but we don't recommend one over any
other. The method is yours to pick, according to your parenting philosophy, your own upbringing, cultural background, support system, your child's temperament, and so on. The main message of the book is that the TIMING of sleep-training may be just as (or more) important to success than the method you pick.

This blog was
first developed as a place to talk about the issues raised in Bedtiming, to highlight particular research findings that form the basis
of the book and, most importantly, to provide readers a space to ask
questions and trouble-shoot through their own sleep-training highs and
lows. If you go through the archives for the first 6 months of this blog, you'll find loads of Q and A's associated with the issues raised in the book. I hope that I can continue to use this space for that purpose, for those of you who pick up a copy and have additional, more specific questions.

For those of you who HAVE read the book, may I ask you to share with people what you thought of the book? I'm VERY open to critical feedback (as much as lavishing praise ;-)). I'm not good at this self-promotion thing at all, but I think it would be very useful to readers of this blog if they could access honest feeback about the book from real parents in the trenches (I promise I do not delete any comments, btw).

(To purchase the book, just go through any of the links under BUY THE BOOK, over on the left hand side of the blog… or go old-school and visit your nearest bookstore. Pssst… it's a bargain online at $10 and change).