Category Archives: 2.5 – 3 years

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…

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?

More Tidbits on Memory…and a Clip You Can Watch WITH Your Kids

Finger w-1.string 
 So many fantastic thoughts and comments lately. What a great readership! Some really interesting questions asked/points raised about memory. They jogged my own noggin' (noticeably on the decline in recent years) of a few related studies. Here are the nutshell versions:

1. One of the ways researchers get memory in people of all ages is to compare how easy it is to learn something for the first time, compared to when we have to learn it again. For example, in lots of traditional memory studies with adults, the researchers gave their participants lists of words or word pairs (sock-orange) and looked at how long it took to learn them. Then after some substantial delay, when the participants no longer consciously remembered the list, they brought them back and looked at how long it took them to learn the same list to perfect recall again. The difference in the time it took at time 1 and time 2 is termed "savings" which basically shows that you unconsciously retained or REMEMBERED some of the list. For more on this idea and the guy behind it try here

Of course, we're not going to give a baby a list of words to learn, but just think of the task in terms of something that babies CAN do. For example, in one study infants of just a few months were put in a crib and their leg was connected to a string (such as by a a loop around their ankle). The point was to see how long it took the baby to figure out that if they kicked that leg vigorously, something fun would happen (e.g. a clown doll would appear, or they'd hear a funny sound, the lights would flash etc.). Then after a delay, they brought the babies back and put them in the same crib, same set-up etc. If they got the "leg kick = funny event" link more quickly, the researchers would conclude that the babies REMEMBERED what they needed to do. Oh there's always a way to get inside that amazing baby head…

2.  The stuff you have to remember to do in future – take your medicine at 2pm, TAKE A HOLIDAY GIFT IN FOR YOUR CHILD'S TEACHER BEFORE THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL (I'm just sayin'…) – is called prospective memory (as opposed to retrospective memory, for things in the past). It's one of the first things to go when you get older. That's your head's up. 

3.  Yes, there is such a thing as photographic memory – when you can picture in your mind the actual material you want to remember, in the place where you first learned it. That's as in, you are writing an exam and you can picture in your head the page in the text book where you read it AND YOU CAN SCAN THAT PAGE TO FIND WHAT YOU ARE AFTER. It's not exactly common. Usually fades by later childhood (11 or so). Any takers?  Did any of you do this?  I definitely relied on this in school, even later on, but it got way, way harder as the years went by. I'm not sure how good a measure of photographic memory this is…but if you have a few minutes on your hands (ha ha ha…) or insomnia, Try this

4.  Another favourite line of research (honestly, can I really call it a fave when there are so many?) specifically targets childhood amnesia. Here's a link to the primary researcher's homepage if you want to have a browse. I cannot help but highlight one of her coolest recent findings. Ya know how excited I get about these things…

The researchers visited young children (about 2-3 years of age) in their homes and taught them a novel event. A machine would actually "shrink" a toy you put inside it. Read: Child puts a big toy in the front opening of the machine, then closes the door. Some flashing lights and machine like sounds go off, then they open door and find a miniature version of the toy inside. Yes, of course, it's been replaced with the mini one by way of the back door and another researcher or something, but boy do they go for it!  It's amazing!!!. This all happens at an age when language is fairly limited but then develops amazingly quickly. They know because they actually measure the children's language skills. 

Then after 6 months or 1 year, they go back to visit the same children and basically probe to see if they remember what happened on that first visit, now "ages" ago as far as they are concerned. The probing includes asking them to talk about it (verbal measure), asking them to pick out pictures of e.g. some of the toys they shrunk (visual recognition) and asking them if they remember how to work the machine (behavioural re-enactment). And oh yes, they measure their language skills again. Get this: Even though children remember what happened (as shown by their performance on the visual recognition and behavioural measures – both non-verbal), their memories are limited to the vocabulary they had AT THE TIME the shrinking machine thing took place. That is, even though they now had WAY better vocabularies, they described the event only in terms of the language they had AT THE TIME THEY EXPERIENCED IT!  This suggests of course that our so-called infantile amnesia is linked to our limited capacity to code or store our experiences in words when our vocabularies are so very limited. Note that as the children had good non-verbal memory of the event, they clearly registered it. It's just that they were limited in their ability to access those memories verbally. So perhaps this helps to explain why we later can no longer access those early memories and integrate them into our autobiographical memories when we are older and rely more on storing and accessing memories verbally. Hmmm…

6. Finally, to help keep your internet-using guilt at bay and to end the week on a lighter note, here's a fun clip on memory that you can actually watch WITH your kids! 

Now just remember to watch it. Good weekend.


More on autobiographical memory: What do we remember from our childhood and why?

I was writing a comment back to the few readers that responded to the last post, part of which mentioned autobiographical memory, and then realized it was WAY too long for a comment and I might as well share it with everyone. So, here are a few more thoughts about the research on autobiographical memory:

In the comment section, @sheila asked some GREAT questions, the first of which was: How do scientists measure memories and trace them forward to deem them accurate or not? There are a bunch of ways that developmental scientists look at these things, some will seem pretty darn boring because it's not like you can ASK an infant if he remembers something. So, what researchers do is, for example, show a baby a shape one day and then test whether he "remembers" it a few days later by looking at his gaze and the extent to which it implies "recognition". Or they will teach an 18 month old a sequence of play events (hit this, then this, then pop goes the toy) and then test him at 2 years old and see if he knows how to re-enact that play sequence. Ta DA! Memory! If you look at the article I linked to in the last post, they give you a bunch of details (if you can't access it and are interested enough, leave a comment and I can send the pdf file).

Sheila also described the common experience of not being able to differentiate details of your childhood memories from stories or pictures that parents and other people tell you as you are growing up. This is indeed the norm in terms of how most people think of childhood memories. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, children DEVELOP the ability to remember in different ways. At first, young babies and children tend to "encode" small, concrete details about their world. Of course, that's because that's how they understand the world around them at that early stage of cognitive development — in concrete terms, not abstract. Also, their working memory capacity (the RAM of our minds) is so limited at this age that they can't keep much in mind at the same time for very long at all. As children grow, they are able to hold more in storage, to keep more things in the mind's RAM for longer periods of time. With that developmental progression comes older children's and adults' abilities to encode more "gist-like" or "fuzzy trace" memories. So, we as adults are more likely to remember episodes in terms of their general meaning to us, their emotional valance, and so on. Both children and adults "store" memories in both the more literal (e.g., details about a task, episode, etc.) and "gist-like"  (semantic, elaborate, "relational) styles, but young children rely much more on the former and adults more on the latter. (You guys don't want me to spout on about the fact that there actually is no "storage" per se in the brain, like a treasure chest that gets opened and shut; instead it's more about patterns of neural firings that scientists are still pretty in the dark about).

@Beth wondered in the comments whether early memories can be triggered by trauma; implicitly I thought she was also asking if more traumatic experiences are better remembered. Yes, to have ANY experience stick and become a lasting memory, there needs to be SOME level of emotion involved. There's a whole lot of cool neuroscience to back this claim up — but the summary is that you need certain parts of your more "primal, emotional" brain to be firing during an event to encode it into long-term memory. So it is indeed possible that those more emotionally-charged experiences are the ones you remember best. But also, those are the experiences that will be talked about most in your family oftentimes, which keeps those memory traces alive and these re-enactments, in turn, continue to strengthen those neural memory traces.

But there is also the extreme cases of emotional memories; these are the cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD have experienced INSANELY traumatic things (abuse, war, etc.) and in some of these cases, their emotional centres OVER-fired and shut down the part of the brain that participates in storing information and forming memories during the trauma. As a result of this emotional flooding, these people often DON'T remember the traumatic events themselves (nice evolutionary survival mechanism, if you ask me). PTSD sufferers often have NO semantic memory (they can't actually remember WHAT happened), but they have EMOTIONAL traces still "stored." So, for example, a loud bang from a garbage truck can trigger seemingly irrational panic/anxiety attacks in a veteran who has experienced horrors in combat, but he won't know why because he won't be able to trace the memory back to the initial experience. (For more info, Joseph LeDoux has some exceptional research in this area).

@Cloud expressed something I think about almost daily right now, as I try to develop family traditions that my children will hopefully look back on with warmth and love throughout their lives: How WEIRD is it that a 2.5 year old (and many 3-5 year olds also) won't remember our vacations, holiday celebrations, or any other cool events, events that they can NOW remember? I think it IS strange. But also, we have to remember (hahahahaha… ugh) that just because most children won't retain coherent memories of these special events into adulthood, they still MATTER. These experiences still make up the foundation of who our children are, how they are developing, how secure, happy, anxious, angry, and so on they WILL become. We may not be able to retrieve a perfectly intact memory of our childhood vacations (I certainly can't), but those experiences nevertheless were the basis from which we learned how to share with other kids, swim safely, dance like lunatics, trust adults, stay clear of poison ivy, read with a watch light under the covers, try different types of foods, and so on. 

And now this post is getting away from me and I haven't even BEGUN to talk about all the ways in which our memories are biased, flawed, skewed, motivated by our current situation, mood, developmental stage and so on. There are boatloads of studies that show how bad we are at ACCURATELY encoding certain types of information. And who among us has not had the fight with a parent, sibling or partner who remembered a CRUCIAL event totally differently than we did? Memory is NOT an objective, factual trace laid onto our neural circuitry… that's what makes it so fascinating for so many psychologists to study and for so many therapists to delve more deeply into with their clients.

Are those experiences that we CAN'T remember from our childhood any less influential on the person we've become than the things we DO remember? What memories would you be/ are you sad that your child will not retain? (My mother, for example, is horrified that I don't remember the details of our trip to Italy when we were 12 years old. TWELVE?!?! How could I forget that gorgeous cathedral, that ice cream cone, that gilded br
idge?! She thinks I'm brain damaged. But the thing is, I DO remember the guy on the Spanish Steps who winked at me on his moped… 28 years later, and I remember him and that wink PERFECTLY.)

– Isabela

When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


Get back to play and learn some self-control, Johnny!

Pretend play
Thanks to one of our readers, Bonnie, for suggesting the topic of today's post, this New York Times article. It would be silly for me to review the whole article here, given it's the NYTs and their writers are kinda good. So… go read it first and then we can talk a bit about some of the issues it raises.

Back?  Excellent!  So, the article presents a program that is attempting to teach children the kinds of self-control skills that we've been talking about this week — not just delaying gratification, but also being able to shift attention when you have to, being able to SUSTAIN attention when you have to, being able to wait patiently for your turn, being able to persevere without being distracted until you've solved a problem, and so on. Unlike other school programs, this particular one (called Tools of the Mind) doesn't try to teach kids with explicit directions to control themselves, nor does it advocate using behavioural principles like negative feedback for "bad" behaviour and positive reinforcement for "good" behaviour. Instead, the program is designed to foster self-control by creating a learning environment that is steeped with opportunities to USE and practice these skills. A large part of the day is spent encouraging (and even "teaching") children how to engage in "productive" pretend play. Yes, they're TEACHING children how to pretend to be princes, princesses, mommy with baby, batman and robin, and so on, all with the idea that this helps children practice and get better at sustained attention and self-control. Here's the most interesting quote out of the the whole article for me:

"Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s
followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can
control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations.
In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still
for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a
minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were
guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than
four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were
asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery
store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time,
though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the
children were able to remember twice as many words. Bodrova and Leong
say they see the same effect in Tools of the Mind classrooms: when
their students spend more time on dramatic play, not only does their
level of self-control improve, but so do their language skills."

Interesting, huh? So, at least for the 3-6 year olds, making playdates (how I loathe that word) during which we encourage kids to dress up and play house, doctor, superheros and restaurant (and hope they leave us alone to eat our cake and gossip) is just what they need to acquire those self-control skills. MAAAAAAAAAAAAYBE.

The truth is, the jury is out on the science part of this claim. The crux of the article, if you read it all the way through, is
that they're not quite sure IF this whole pretend-play focus and Tools of the Mind in particular works. Equally important, even if it does turn out that it works, they have
no idea WHY. The current studies aren't even looking at the various elements in the program (and there are many) that may be facilitating greater cognitive and emotional control. And there are no other well-designed, replicated studies that have established effective strategies to teach children cognitive control. 

My guess is that there are some things we can do to help (provide lots of practice with waiting for a reward, teach self-distraction strategies, play games that require turn-taking, enforce rules about listening to others at the dinner table, etc.), but that the vast majority of children are in environments that already naturally foster these skills at develomentally appropriate ages. Executive function or cognitive control or whatever you want to call it has been shown to increase steadily over the ages of 2 and 5-ish (and it keeps going, just at a slower rate). For a fabulous paper (Carlson, 2005) that reviews the neuropsychological and cognitive studies, click on the first link in this Google Scholar search (I keep trying different ways to post original scientific papers through links on this blog). 

And in answer to the orginal question on Monday about what to do with a 1-year old that can't delay gratification: I'd say apart from Tracy's recommendations to just keep the enticing stuff out of sight, there's not much you can do… and that's TOTALLY fine. One-year olds don't have the mental capacity yet to control their impulses, thoughts, or emotions (nor will they until about the age of 2 and then, just barely).

So, at this point, your guess is as good as any scientist's: What do you do with your children that may be helping them to develop better self-control? Do you think there are some things we do that may delay these acquisitions?

– Isabela

Step Away from the Chocolate Cake: Strategies to Help Delay Gratification


 I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth.
When confronted with oh say, a 
slice of good quality chocolate cake, I’d have a hard time waiting to
eat it, such as after eating all of my green vegetables. So all this talk about
waiting to eat marshmallows got me thinking about how I would have fared with
the marshmallow task as a child. Probably terribly (but can I just point out
here that I’ve done okay…I’m just saying…). And naturally, I’m wondering what
my son would do (read: what are his future prospects in life and other enormous
parenting questions that I should know better than to worry about). So how do
young children cope when they have to delay gratification?  What are those future Bill Gates doing
to help themselves keep their little fingies off of those marshmallows? And
yes, can parents influence this emerging development of self-control?

If you watched the video at the end of Isabel’s post on
Monday (if not then try here), you were probably amused, as I was, at some of
the strategies children attempted to keep from eating that sweet, seductive
cloud of confection. They covered the gamut from the girl who just stuffed it
into her mouth, unapologetically (even remembering to clear her plate from the
table after wards – nice!), to the boy who pushed it up against his nose, to
those who just studied it carefully. But it was the boy who turned his head to
the side and just did not look at it, that really got me. Hmm… that seemed like
it might help.

Turns out that in Mischel’s early work he gave children
choices about what they could and could not look at while they were waiting
such as the real reward vs. a colour photograph of it. He also asked them what
they preferred to look at. Get this, preschool children actually looked at, and
preferred, the actual reward over the picture! In other words, they seemed
unable to anticipate that this would only drive them into a frenzy of
frustration and effectively sabotage their efforts to wait for the bigger
reward. Oh, the agony.

Children start to see the light around their 6th
birthday. So e.g. they start to prefer to cover the reward rather than to leave
it out in the open. By grade 3, their prefer to think more about the waiting
than on the eating of the marshmallows. And by grade 6, they’ve moved on to
prefer thinking of marshmallow properties e.g. that they are puffy like clouds.
So don’t worry, it’s not a write off if your preschooler is having trouble
waiting now.

The good news is: you can probably help your little one
along the way. For one thing,  out
of sight is out of mind baby!  So
whatever you do, take the tempting item away. Put it on a high shelf, in the
other room or cover it up. When you have dessert planned for after dinner,
leave the pie in the fridge until you are ready to serve it. You’ll have a
better shot at getting your little one to focus on the task at hand – dinner. You
can also help by distracting your child. Get them to focus on things other than EATING that ice cream.

Here’s one last thing to chew on…As you become more aware
that it is actually quite hard for young children to control their natural
impulses, wait, delay gratification etc., you may become tempted to be more
lenient. “It’s so hard for them, this insistence on getting that Halloween
candy now is part of normal development etc., it will come in time", so you reason. But perhaps when
parents insist that children wait for that treat for after dinner, they are
effectively training them to get used to waiting and to find ways to make it
work. Maybe those kids who managed to “step away from” the marshmallow in
Mischel’s studies came from homes where this was more the case (too bad they
didn’t interview or give questionnaires to the parents). Since, according to the
research, they would go on to fare better on a host of measures including
academic achievement, you could be doing your child a huge favour by saving the
chocolate cake for after they’ve eaten their brussels sprouts (well okay, maybe
not brussels sprouts). Just a thought.

–by Tracy


Why we fear and how to deal with the scared child

Halloween is a great week to talk about fears!  Just leaving home this
morning revealed a spookier neighbourhood than I remember seeing the
last time I looked up to take it all in on the way to work.

So why do we fear? Makes sense that one explanation appeals to evolution. The idea is that we have evolved a tendency to notice quickly potentially scary things. The sooner you can pick up on that snake in the grass, ferocious lion coming at you, or huge brown bear within swiping reach, the faster you can act to avoid it, flee, get help, make some noise etc. In other words, it's essential for your survival.

Some very cool recent research has shown that children as young as 3 years of age will notice potentially scary things more quickly than non-scary things (think snakes vs. flowers). Since we find the same pattern in adults, this suggests that the rapid response to potentially scary stuff kicks in rather early. Good thing, if you want to make it past early childhood!  Rather than summarize how the researchers came to these conclusions, take a look at the video and see for yourself. Just keep in mind that since they didn't actually measure fear (which you could do by say, looking at heart rate or other biological markers), the study is really getting at PAYING ATTENTION to fearful stimuli rather than being afraid of it. Still, it makes the point quite nicely that we may be equipped to pick up on that thing that just might be about to pounce fairly early on. Check it out.

My point here is to say that fear serves an important purpose. You want your child to notice potentially harmful things and to act accordingly. Thing is, not everything is a predator about to leap. So children need time to sort out what they should be afraid of and what they don't need to fear. Think of the differences between a cartoon snake on television vs. in a 3-D movie vs. a real snake in the zoo or in your back yard.

As with everything in development, there are also individual differences in fear responses. Children vary in how sensitive they are to scary things, in how strongly they react and in what they find scary. They may also cycle through times of being scared and times when they are not. My advise?  First of all, acknowledge the fear. I hate snakes, but have no problem with heights. Others may not be the same. But telling me to just forget about it, or how so and so doesn't fear snakes will not help. So even if it's hard to understand what's scary about a Disney character, the fact is, your child finds it scary. It can be very reassuring to hear someone say, "it's okay to be afraid" or "I can understand how you feel, sometimes I feel scared too". Second, don't force the issue. There's no timetable for getting over your fears. I like to use a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy or talking my son through his fears. In other words, I try to get him to think differently about what he is afraid of in the hopes that it will affect his behaviour e.g. "That's something in your book, it's not here in your room. It can't come out of the page to hurt you.". We revisit the fearful thing every once in a while but I don't push it. Eventually, he moves on.

My little guy helped me pick out a witch's hat for Halloween, then made sure to stress that I should be a good and friendly witch. It's a small thing to ask for while we work through our fears. And hey, I kinda like to think of myself of as a good and friendly witch anyway.

Please share your stories on dealing with fears. I"m particularly interested in the first time you noticed a fear response in your child or children, the context, how old they were etc. On my next post, I'll talk a bit more about what might contribute to those early fear responses.

– Tracy

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s talk about children’s fears this week

This is such a rich topic and, given that Halloween is just around the corner for those of us in North America, it's a timely one. It's also timely because we just got a great question in a previous comment section about just this issue. Christy asked:

If you're
looking for questions for new topics, maybe something on fear? My 2.5
year old is going through a big "I'm scared" phase. Some of it seems
Halloween related (wanting to see the displays, saying he's scared and
wants to leave, talking for five minutes about how he was scared,
asking to go see it again. Repeat.) but he's also suddenly saying he's
scared of the kids at the playground, going down the slide, etc. and
talking about scary dreams, which seems to go beyond just the holiday

So, if you've been reading this blog for a while you will know that 2.5 years old will ring a bell for me immediately. That's because it is one of the developmental transition periods we've been talking so much about in the context of sleep (usually between 2.5 and 3 years old). As you'll see, all those developmental stages are equally important for a whole host of other social, emotional and cognitive challenges. If you want to know more about what's happening around 2.5 years old in terms of the cognitive changes, read this first. For the social and emotional implications, check out this post

OK, now that you're up on the developmental theory, you can see why the example that Christy gives of her son is SO VERY common at this age. Children at this age are obsessed with testing their power and control in different contexts. That's why they're always testing YOUR limits at this age — because you provide the ultimate litmus test of how very powerful your child CAN be, in a relatively safe context (it's why tantrums can be so horrible, why they seem to stop listening to any of your requests, why they are constantly wanting to "do it myself" and so on). So… when children ask to see something scary and then shy away from it immediately, and then go right back to asking for more, they're playing with this power and control boundary. They're testing just how strong they are and just how independent they can be; at the same time, they're rushing back to "touch base" with you to refill on the emotional security you can give them. The point is that new fears, and testing how "brave" they can be in the face of these new fears, is absolutely textbook at this age. So is the crazy-making "Help me/Get away from me!" behaviour. Again… they're working all this out because it's all new to them.

There's so much more to say about children's fears and there are different points to make across different age groups. But there is one thing we can generalize: New and seemingly overwhelming fears are most likely to come up during the sensitive periods in development, those transition periods I keep talking about (4-5.5 months, 8-11 months, 18-21 months, etc.). During these transition periods, kids are working out so much new information and mastering a whole set of new cognitive and emotional skills, so they're super vulnerable. And, obviously, vulnerability breeds anxiety and this anxiety can bring forth irrational fears, such as a recurring fear of the dark, or the worry that some person (or animal!) is angry at the child, or that the slide that used to be so easy to come down on may actually cause the child to break a bone. Bad dreams and even night terrors can pop up during these periods also. 

And, you know, the random proliferation of ghosts and goblins, witches and gravestones all over their previously humdrum neighborhoods can't help the poor little dudes…

What are your kids afraid of? Does anyone else notice that children can go through these periods of increased fears and anxieties and then settle down again into a more secure phase? Were you a fearful child? If so, what helped or hindered your feelings?

Reader’s question: Typical 2 1/2 year old sleep issues coupled with marital stress as collatoral damage

Here's a tough set of questions that Z. raises. Her circumstance touches on some of the most common, but often unexpressed issues that surround sleep training children. 

"…We have a 33 month old who is driving us batty right now. WE DESPERATELY
NEED a solution because the current state of affairs is bringing out
the worst in us. We have 2 boys 33 months and 13 months. They are both having
their own issues. The 13 month old is teething and learning to walk and so he is
waking up every 3-4 hours but falls back easily enough with some
patting on the back. The 33 month old has never been a good sleeper.

[...The boys sleep in the same room]… Because my eldest has always needed one of us
to fall asleep with him we used to sit with him, lie down with him,
fall asleep with him and eventually after about  an average of an hour
he would fall asleep.

Then all of a sudden a month ago we turned a corner. It seemed that we
could just tuck the kids in and they would fall asleep on their own.
We discovered it purely by accident since my husband and I were in and
out of the room and the toddler had put himself to bed. Then he did it
again and soon that is how they were sleeping. It was pure bliss
because not only was he putting himself to sleep but he was falling
asleep quicker (15-20 minutes). And that was a light bulb moment
because it seemed that our not being in the room was allowing him to
sleep faster.

But the happiness didn't last for long a couple of weeks ago while the
kids were sleeping our smoke detectors went off (smoky oven) not once
but 3 times. It terrified them but they settled down and fell asleep.
Since then each night the toddler has a had a tough time going to
sleep. At first he needed us to snuggle for a few minutes which was
fine but the last week or so it seems that we are back to the starting
point (if not worse) because he needs us to not only lie down with him
to fall asleep but stay there the whole night.

The thing is having tasted that freedom and realized how much of our
lives we got back this setback is very hard for us. First off we were
on the edge of resentment with having to put him to sleep anyway and
now that we know that he is capable of putting himself to sleep having
to take these steps back is really hard especially since we realized
how much we need that time after the kids go to bed. Prior to the last
month or so for the past 2.5 years my husband and i have had precious
little time with each other in the evenings (our lives). And what the
freedom has shown is how much we need it for ourselves and our

So now once we tuck him in and the crying hysteria (and I mean
hysteria up to 2 hours of top of lungs screaming and crying) starts we
start to break down ourselves. We can't seem to decide on a strategy
to deal with the new situation since neither one of us is keen on
returning to the old one (though it's seeming like we have to). We are
fighting with one another, we are reacting and getting angry with our
son which makes the situation worse and I just don't know what to do.
Tonight all 3 of us have been crying, my son because he needs/wants
us, my husband and I because we feel like we have already given more
than we have.

Fortunately the younger one sleeps through a good chunk of the crying
for the most part, even though, they share a room and so right now
that is not of immediate concern but what does get to me is that when
he wakes up and cry my husband and I do go to comfort him and so I
know we're sending mixed messages and adding to the jealousy of our
older son. The question then is what do we do? Should we suck it up
and let the crying continue though it simultaneously frustrates us and
breaks our heart? Should we go back to lying down with him? Should we
maybe just sit in the same room and work on the computer or read a
book? And if we are to return to his room to ease him through this do
we do it for a month? 2 months? Until he turns 3 in 3 months? I just
need someone to tell us what to do and for how long because quite
honestly we are beyond exhausted with this whole sleep issue.

Oh how I feel for all of you. I've been there. SO MANY OF US have been there. There's a few really important issues that are at play here. Let's see if we can pull them apart so we can see this situation as clearly as possible.

1. Your son is going through one of the major developmental transition periods, (the 2.5 – 3 year old stage). We've talked about all the HUGE cognitive and emotional changes that your child is soldiering through and indeed, jealousy is one of the big emotions that come on line at this age. So are all sorts of new fears and anxieties. Yes, the smoke alarm might have "set him off" (hahahaha… ok, SO not funny, just couldn't resist. Shoot me now). One of the most interesting things about transition periods, ESPECIALLY the later ones (after 18 months or so), is that kids will often seem to be going along with no problems and suddenly, out of almost nowhere, their vulnerabilities explode all over the place. And it can take something as small as this smoke alarm incident to splay his insecurities for all to see. But one thing I'm pretty sure about: if it wasn't the smoke alarm, it would have been the baby crying one night, or a thunder storm, or watching a commercial on t.v. that he found suddenly scary. SOMETHING usually sets kids off at this vulnerable stage and sleep often goes to hell as a result because kids now have the capacity to think about these insecurities in brand new ways. So, first and foremost, this is a really, really tough age to change sleep habits, as you know. That doesn't mean they CAN'T be changed, especially if you're at your wit's end… but still, it's a tough one.

2.  So few of us talk about it, but our "romantic"/intimate relationships are the first and maybe the worst collateral damage associated with children's sleep problems. We often talk about postpartum depression, moms' capacities to care well for their kids, etc. But the stress that sleep deprivation and the hopelessness and frustration that comes along with having a child that can't seem to fall asleep on his own is HUGE. Partners often start fighting about sleep-training techniques, parenting philosophies, the pragmatics of who needs more sleep, who is getting the short end of the deal, who is being neglected, and so on. And it's so frustrating when the only thing both of your really want is some more time together, as adults, alone… Your marriage IS important and it is indeed a very legitimate reason to want to teach your child to fall asleep on his own. It's great that BOTH Z's husband and she are on the same page in terms of trying to prioritize personal time between the two of them. It's much harder when one partner wants time alone with their spouse and the other isn't making that a priority.

3. Like Z., so many of us get into horrible battles with our spouses in the heat of sleep training or, rather, trying to cope with our children's sleep patterns. One of the most important pointers for sleep training in general that we give in our book is the following (excerpt from Bedtiming): "

"Whatever sleep-training method you choose, develop a concrete plan during the daytime hours, when you feel maximally rested. Do not come up with a strategy in the throes of the 5th waking of the night at 4 am. The sleep deprivation and inevitable frustration will likely make this middle-of-the-night plan less feasible and more irrational, and its implementation more haphazard. We suspect that many a marriage has been sorely tested in the wee hours of the night by the eruption of sleep-training debates." 

Most of us can't think of a strategy in the middle of the stress of hearing our child wail and weep for us. Add to that the COMPLETELY NORMAL resentment that builds from never having a moment of "us" time, and the situation can get pretty dire. I would suggest that Z and her husband need to step back and come up with a plan during the day, when they're both well-rested (HA!) or at least feel somewhat clear and coherent. If they can get a babysitter for a couple of hours so they can have this discussion over lunch or coffee at a cafe, even better. Come up with a strategy that both can agree about and make a promise that neither partner will reneg on this plan for some set number of days (whatever feels right or realistic for both of you). Then they can review the progress and rethink the plan if they have to (if the first plan doesn't work).

So… what CAN you do? Here's a few of my suggestions, but as you know, I'm not terribly optimistic about the success of ANY strategy at this stage/age. But here are a few thoughts:

  • I'm sure you've already done this, but talk to your son about the smoke alarm: why it went off, when it goes off, why it's a sign of everything working right, etc. You can try setting it off in the day with a match or something, so that he sees  how easy it is to do and how banal the trigger can be. Some people may want to avoid this talk, in hopes of the child forgetting the initial fear, but there's a good chance that he won't get past it without some help from you.
  • Because your child is in a vulnerable stage, whatever sleep-training method you choose, I'd suggest picking one that at least allows you to check up on your child periodically. So, for example, many parents have had success with telling their toddler that they will be back in 5-10 min, after they've completed some household task. The child may cry, but he can be reassured that you WILL come back. Then you do. Lather, rinse, repeat as long as it takes for him to be asleep. This will give him the assurance that you are indeed around, you are checking on him like you check on his little brother, but that you will not sleep with him throughout the night. At 2 1/2 years old, so much of what's going on in the child's mind is about testing his social power, social influence, his place in the family hierarchy. It's his developmental job to push as hard on your boundaries as possible and it's up to us parents to set those limits so that our kids understand that they are firm, but with lots and lots of love and support to back it up.
  • CONSISTENCY is key here. This is true at all ages and with whatever method you choose, but ESPECIALLY when a child is particularly anxious and vulnerable, like most kids your son's age. When you come up with a plan with your husband, make sure it's one that you BOTH feel you can stick with. If you don't feel like you can let your son cry for 10 min, make a plan to be with him every 5 min. If you can't handle any full-out crying right now, then don't try any sleep training method for the time being.  Waffling between sleeping with your son and putting your foot down will ultimately HEIGHTEN his anxieties and perpetuate his sleep problems. The best thing you can do for your son now is to make his world as PREDICTABLE as possible.

Obviously, I simply can't get myself to give you a step-by-step technique. I find it way too presumptuous of me to thrust my parenting style onto
you (and my preferred sleep-training methods that work for my kids onto your kids).

OK, I've written a second book with this post.  I DO go on and on sometimes, don't I? So, help Z out with this one… Any other parents going through similar situations? Any other concrete sleep training suggestions? Support?  Anyone's marriage tripped and recovered over similar circumstances?