Category Archives: Oh… the guilt

Parenting challenge #2: Be honest… you’re angry

 "Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge."  ~Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

This week's Parenting Challenge was inspired by a number of comments and subsequent discussions that were brought up in the comments section of the first Parenting Challenge. In particular, a number of us made the point that trying to be playful during conflicts or discipline episodes is so hard sometimes because we're just too damn angry to feel playful. When we feel angry, we don't WANT to come up with a cute little "pretend" scenario that will gently pull our child into complying with our wishes. Some people observed that  the "playful parenting" solutions like trying to involve our children in pretend play may only work in more calm contexts in general, rather than the more heated temper tantrums or times when we're over-the-top sleep-deprived and at our wit's end. 

This week's Parenting Challenge comes from Ginott's classic, Between Parent and Child. This book has a ton of explicit and implicit parenting gems (while at the same time feeling very dated in some of the examples, language, and so on). One of the most useful discussions I found in the book was the one on parents' own anger and how to deal with it. Ginott says that ALL parents feel angry at their children sometimes, and oftentimes it is completely justifiable. The problem begins when we try to completely deny those feelings. Usually, our children feel our tension anyways, so the first point is that when we try to swallow our anger, our children feel some strange vibe in the air that is unsettling at best for them. The second point Ginott emphasizes is that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing — it is an emotion that signals both to ourselves and to our child that something is amiss. LACK of anger in some contexts can in fact communicate indifference to the child… not such a good thing either. The feeling in and of itself isn't so bad, it's what we do about it that can have either beneficial or harmful effects. Finally, Ginott makes the point many of us have acknowledged: like it or not, angry feelings INEVITABLY arise when we're parenting. Figuring out how to deal with it best is what we can aim for (rather than the complete elimination of this "basic" / biologically-based emotion).

Here's the challenge then: Let's try to actually EXPRESS our angry feelings, instead of completely quashing them. But let's try to do so with Ginott's prescrption:

"Anger should be expressed in a way that brings some relief to the parent, some insight to the child, and no harmful side effects to either of them." 

Tall order, I know… But the idea is that we don't want to express that anger such that it ESCALATES our bad feelings or our child's bad feelings. But we DO want to communicate our frustration in a way that opens up the possibility for repair and connection, with some learning potentially thrown in. I'll talk more about repair (either this week, if that feels right, or next). But I think before we think about how best to repair interactions when they go awry, we need to first think about how we can express those negative/angry feelings in the first place. 

So, there are a few tips given in the book about communicating anger:

  • Accept, WITHOUT ANY GUILT OR SHAME, that we will get angry at our children sometimes. 
  • We can express our feelings of anger as long as we don't do so by attacking our child's personality or character (e.g., avoid saying things like "I'm so angry because you're a lazy / slow / stubborn / mean / bad / stupid / etc. child.").
  • Use "I" statements when expressing anger: "I feel frustrated when you don't listen to me." "I'm getting more and more angry the longer you take to pick up your toys." "I'm angry at you because it took me 30 min to cook dinner and you just threw it all over the floor."  
  • If the first mild expression of your anger gets no reaction, elaborate and express your wishful actions: "I'm so angry that you dumped your toys out of the bin right after I cleaned them all up. It makes me so, so angry that I don't want to play with you now." "When you hit your baby brother, I see red, that's how angry I get. It makes me want to stomp upstairs and not let you play with baby brother." 

The idea here is that expressing your authentic feelings of anger does two things: (1) communicates your dislike for some behaviour you'd like your child to change in a way that is more "real" and, thus, more easily understood and respected by your child and (2) allows for you to move on from that emotion, because it's expressed and you no longer have to expend so much energy to suppress it. This is energy you could more productively use to flexibly figure out a solution to the conflict. 

Again, I'll refrain in this first post from giving a bunch of theoretical background why expressing anger with our children might be important. I do want to add my own developmental thoughts (preliminary as they may be): (1) Very young children who can't understand the words for particular emotions are going to have a tough time with this one, but it's not impossible to start even with them. A one-year old may not fully understand the words you're using, but she may still get your facial expressions and your intentions to communicate something important, so all is not lost on the very young with this approach (and obviously, we parents are still benefiting from being able to express some of our frustration and practicing how to do so in a safe, non-insulting way, so that when they ARE old enough to understand our words, we'll be more versed at this strategy). (2) Children around the age of 2.5 years old will be able to really understand emotion terms and get their impact. Before that, you're not wasting your time, but it's more like you're setting the stage. After that, there will be variability in terms of how interested children will be in learning what you're teaching them (just like there's variability in how interested kids will be about numbers, letters, trains and dolls). (3) Children in "sensitive windows" of development, particularly the 18 – 22 month and the 3.5 – 4 year old stages may be particularly vulnerable to our expressions of anger because of the emotional challenges they're dealing with (e.g., struggles with autonomy vs. independence with the 18-month old; battling with potentially overwhelming feelings of shame and/or jealousy with the 3.5 year old). That doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to express these emotions, but being aware of our children's increased vulnerability may help us temper the manner in which we express ourselves. (4) Children over the age of 3 or so, or children with older siblings, may particularly benefit from watching their parents express anger in a non-violent, non-explosive, but nevertheless authentic way. Their cognitive capabilities are such that they may even initiate repair strategies with us… not a bad outcome. 

As usual, I could go on and on with elaborating why this might be a tough strategy to implement, the kinds of contexts that it would be impossible to do so, and the different types of children for whom it might work or blow up in our faces. But I want to leave most of that discussion to you. Let us know: Do you express your feelings of anger to your children? Do you think it's a good or bad idea to do so? When you try to communicate angry feelings, how does your child react? What makes it difficult for you to talk about your angry emotions? Were your parents able to communicate anger in a way that was not terrifying or soul-crushing? 

Can I ask you something? Guilty as charged.

After that last novella of a post, I thought I'd keep it a tad more brief today. I'd like to start putting up some posts that get us all contributing a bit more in the comments section. I would love to hear from you about some suggestions about how we could facilitate that better. All ideas are welcome!

In the meantime, how about I ask you a few questions about yourself over the next few months? First off, I'm just deeply curious about who our readers are. But also, I'd like to generate questions that might help with brainstorming ideas for future posts and, equally important, questions that may just help us know each other better (you know, in that totally anonymous, confidential, woo-woo disembodied world of the interwebs sort of way).  I'll answer whatever I ask, so it's a more even playing field. (And feel free to ask your own questions in the comments section). So… here it goes:

What do you feel guilty about? (Yes, I know, I KNOW, my upcoming business trip away from my kids has me focused on some pretty OBVIOUS issues I have). For better or worst, so much of what we do or don't do as parents is tainted with feelings of guilt. Here's my (incredibly SHORTENED) list of things that I feel guilty about:

- leaving my kids (duh)

- sleeping in on the weekend and letting my husband make the kids' breakfast

- HATING, HATING, HATING to read Thomas books, so much so that I finally bought CDs that go along with the damn books and I plonk my kids down on the couch to listen to them when they ask ME, their one and only mother, to read it to them

- skipping brushing my kids' teach in the morning about 2 times/week (when we're late for preschool… we're ALWAYS late for preschool)

- being late for preschool

- not cooking dinner for my kids 3 times/week

- yelling at my kids (but tell me… why WHY, WHY can't they JUST. PUT. ON. THEIR. SHOES?!)

- Not making eye contact with my husband until I've been home from work for 30 min. or more.

- Exercising when I should be playing with the kids.

- Not exercising.

And I could go on and on and on.  But it's your turn…

Strategies for easing separation anxiety (Ours or theirs?)

Let’s start with the necessary caveat: What follows is based mostly on my own experience, the experience of my trusted and often brilliant friends and colleagues and a whole lot of reading about related and unrelated topics. I have found very little trust-worthy science on evidence-based techniques that help ease or prevent children’s separation anxiety related to longish (a few days or weeks) separations from parent(s). Of course, there’s a whole lot on children’s separation issues, but in terms of an actual “how to” manual, program, or list of stuff that’s been “proven” effective? Not so much… But if you’re a mom like me who is always looking for ways to help my kids cope with (or even delight in) my trips away from them, I hope you find some ideas here useful.


So, first and foremost, I think that the sorts of things that will help our kids through these separation periods will vary wildly from one child to another. I talked mostly about age or stage of development in the last post, but there are a whole host of other considerations to keep in mind. For one, there’s the child’s temperament. Some kids are so mellow and easy-going that separations aren’t that big of a deal in the most dramatic of cases. These kids may need very little in the way of preparation and thoughtful strategies. Other kids are very sensitive/emotional/fragile/spirited in general and separations, even one night out on the town, may be highly problematic. We’ve talked a little about temperaments before here and here and, as usual, you know your child best and you’ll have a sense of what’s most appropriate for him or her.


Another source of variation comes from the other side of the equation: parents. Your parenting style, beliefs, the cultural norms you were brought up with, your own history of separations from your own parents and your own personality/temperament will determine in large part the sorts of strategies you chose to implement or stay away from.  My parents, for example, went away on vacations without my brother and me over the course of my childhood. I  now understand how fun that must have been for them, but for us, the kids, we LOVED staying with our grandparents — they were WAY more permissive, gave into our every whim, and showed us and taught us whacky things we would never have been exposed to otherwise.


Then there’s the support system available to you when you do consider leaving for extended periods. Some parents may have a large family of close relatives living close by that would be thrilled to take their children for an extended visit: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and so on.  Others have nannies or babysitters that have been close to their children for years. Still other parents may have a spouse or romantic partner that is ready, willing and eager to FINALLY have the kids all to him/herself. And then there’s always neighbors and close friends that may have fabulously close relationships with our children and who may be happy to take our kids for a weekend. These multiple attachment figures may be crucial for how children adjust to our departures. BUT… other parents don’t have the luxury of these support systems; or they may have them, but they don’t live nearby. Having to leave our children with people who don’t adore our kids and who our kids don’t likewise love can be so, so difficult and make long-term separations almost unbearable or simply impossible.


Finally, there’s the context of the separation that matters. Leaving because you “have to” for work or some stressful, distressing event (visiting a sick loved one, funeral, etc.) compared to leaving because you “want to” have an adult holiday which is child-free can feel very different both for the child and the parent. All these conditions will make a difference in terms of what sorts of strategies you feel comfortable using and which ones will be effective. 


Here are some ideas that I’ve used or I’ve heard has worked for other parents (there’s nothing particularly original about them, so please add your own in the comments):

  1. DO tell your child you’re leaving, if she’s at the age that she can understand your words. It can be incredibly distressing to have the separation foisted on a child without the parent discussing it first with her. Of course, if the child is 6 months old, this won’t likely matter, but past the age of 8 or 9 months, I would say it’s important for the parent leaving to even briefly tell the child what to expect.
  2. Personally, I would NOT tell the child about the impending separation until about 1 or 2 days beforehand. Knowing too far in advance may only serve to heighten anxieties and prolong them. Of course, this will have a HUGE amount to do with how you know your child. Some kids need LOTS of time to prepare for transitions and this may not be the right approach for them, but for many children, keeping in mind a day or two in the future is just about all they can do.
  3. Some parents find it useful, especially for young children, to create a picture book or digital album of photos of the places mom will be visiting. These pictures can be put into a “book” and read to the child while you’re away. The ending can be about how soon you’ll be flying back and how fun it will be to play again together (with appropriate pictures to accompany these sentiments).
  4. Focus on the positive: Draw your child’s attention to as many “good things” about the impending trip as you can. Kids take so many of their emotional cues from us (remember the research on social referencing?). For example, for my upcoming trip, I told my kids that when I get back, we’ll be going to get a Christmas tree right away and I played up how much fun decorating would be. I also told them all the great things they’d be doing with their father: you’ll be going to a restaurant almost every day! You’ll be going on forest adventures! You’ll get to watch a DVD every night if you want! These are all “special” things that they love and wouldn’t be doing if I was around. (Mean old mama). And of course, the classic trick: tell them you’ll be bringing back a special present for them. Some of you may have issues with the bribery aspect of this, or the “materialism” (for what it’s worth, I usually end up spending very little money; things like cool rocks and fun postcards and zippy dollar-store cars usually suffice) or the fact that it makes kids so focused on your gift rather than the pleasure of seeing your face again when you return. For me, there is nothing that gives me more relief and helps me get over the period of separation as seeing my kids’ faces light up when I return — I really don’t care if it’s about the toy, I just want them happy. I respect and understand why others may have opposing views (and please let me know! I’m sincerely interested!). Also, in the past, the promise of a toy when I return helps with phone conversations when I’m away. I remind them that I’m looking for just the right present for them, they ask me what it will be, I tease them a bit about it being a surprise, and the excitement and joy that that brings seems to help with thinking about mama so far away.
  5. Allow the caregivers that are taking care of your child while you’re away to talk about you and your absence. Some grandparents or caregivers might be tempted to distract the child when she brings up your absence, in hopes of lessening the child’s sadness… but ignoring or trying to distract the child at that point may just heighten anxieties. I was actually surprised to hear how infrequently my children brought me up over the course of my business trips. But when they did, my parents or husband made sure to reassure them that I was indeed coming back very soon, that I missed them and that it was ok for them to miss me.
  6. Call them… or don’t. In my experience, and in conversations with lots of other mothers, I find this to be a tough call. Some kids will become very reassured to hear your voice when you’re away — it seems a good thing to remind them that mommy’s still “out there”, thinking about them, she hasn’t disappeared. On the other hand, some children will BECOME distressed from hearing your voice. The phone is this funny thing — it sort of connects you, but it’s also pretty darned frustrating because you can hear mommy, you can speak to her, but you can’t HAVE her. She’s perpetually out of reach and that partially met goal of connecting with mom can be the source of incredible frustration that can turn into pure rage and a deep sense of loss. I think the extent to which kids react well or poorly to these phone conversations has a lot to do with temperament. But it ALSO may have a great deal to do with the age/stage of the child. I think the early sensitive stages that I’m always referring to, in particular the 18-21 month transition period, may be the hardest for phone conversations. It’s because of how vulnerable children are to separations in general during these phases and how needy they can be. They may be coping just fine without you, but when you call, that neediness and vulnerability (and the potential anger that can be triggered by the sense that you are purposely withholding your love from them) can be a lot to take.  And you can’t physically comfort them, which is what they’re often looking for at this age. From personal experience, this was the toughest time I ever left my kids — when they were just over 17 months old. But it was MY fault… I called. They were having a perfectly fine time with their father and until I decided to call, more because I missed them and wanted to connect than any perception that they were having a hard time (my husband had repeatedly reassured me that they were doing great). One of my boys did fine with the call and took it all in stride (yup, the temperamentally easy one). But the other, oh the tears… It was like he SUDDENLY realized I wasn’t there and the waves of vulnerability overwhelmed him. Needless to say, I cried far more than he did after that call (Marc called me that night to tell me, over and over again, how quickly he bounced back and how effective watching Mary Poppins was to wiping out any residual sadness).  And I never called again during that trip. My advice to parents who are leaving for the first time, or for the first time during a more sensitive stage, is to (a) trust your gut and (b) if you feel you need to call, do it once and feel it out, keeping in mind that it might be tough and you may want to make that the last call of your trip if it is difficult for the child.
  7. When children get a little older, approximately 3 years or older, try video skyping if you have the capacity. There’s something about seeing a face connected to the voice that I think is MORE reassuring to a child than just this disembodied voice on a phone. It can also be fun and exciting to kids, to get on a computer to talk to mom (but younger than 2 may be very confusing and creepy, so feel it out and maybe practice a few times before your departure, with younger ones). We’ve tried this once with my kids and they LOVED it. For this upcoming trip, I started what they call a “chapter story” before I left. I told them 2 chapters and then when I skype them on my trip, I plan on continuing a chapter per night over the course of the trip and finish the story when I return home. That way, I figure they’ll have a sense of continuity, they’ll get to see and hear me and know that I’m still out there thinking of them, and they’ll get some exciting “screen time” which seems to be a strange form of crack for my kids.
  8. Finally, depending on the age and temperament of your child, expect some “reunion distress.” This is a VERY common reaction that almost all kids have at some point or another during their development. It can be just as distressing, or more so, for the parent who has just returned as it is for the child. Basically, instead of the child being thrilled to see you and excited about hugging and kissing you, he reacts with either extreme anger (hitting or pushing you away) and/or by withdrawing. My husband studied reunion distress for years and it’s ubiquitous (I’ll spare you the links to his rather dry papers on the subject). Children who are securely attached to their parents often feel the first jolts of anger at being left when the parent returns. It’s as if, when you were gone, they could hold it together with the knowledge that you were returning. But once you’re back, they sure need to let you know they did NOT appreciate being left. During these reunion periods, my suggestion would be to not take it personally. Give the child some space and time to adjust to your return. Let her know you love her, that you’re sorry you had to leave her, that you’re excited to play with her again. Stay close — it might be tempting to withdraw also, but try not to. Usually, these episodes subside rather quickly, but sometimes they can leave a residual moodiness and sensitivity for days. Spending extra time with the child, being extra sensitive to her needs is usually enough to get her over the hump.


PHEW! Is this the longest post I’ve EVER written? I had no idea I was embarking on a tome on this subject. Hmmm… do you think all this writing about separations may be a way for me to cope with my own impending trip away from my BABIES?!?!  My sweet, helpless, mother-less babies!!!  Ahem. Well, there you go (Whispers to herself: They will be fine. They will be fine. They will be fine).


What are some of the other ways that you’ve prepared your children for a separation of some length? What’s worked best? What doesn’t work for your children?



Am I just a wimp? Sleep deprivation and how much is too much

I've been noticing a rather sad pattern to the emails I've received lately. A whole lot of them, before getting into the actual sleep problem to be discussed, start off with something to the effect of: "Maybe I'm just a wimp, but…" or "I realize most moms can cope with 4 hours of sleep but…" or "I know it could be a lot worst but I'm just not the type of person who can go on [enter pitiful small number of hours of sleep]…" Basically, a lot of you are feeling like you SHOULD be able to go on being seriously sleep deprived for months on end without complaining, feeling exhausted, or wanting to just check out of this  mothering gig. Many of you are also feeling like everyone ELSE is coping so much better with the exhaustion than you are. I've already posted my perspective on how important it is for parents to consider their own health and well-being in general, and sleep needs in particular. I thought I'd bolster my argument with a few links that might drive the point home for those of you who are still struggling with the idea that sleep is for the weak.

  • First off, you are SO not alone. More than half of all American women feel they'd be better parents if they got more sleep.
  • This article is one of hundreds out there summarizing the poor outcomes related to sleep deprivation:  "Poor sleep can weaken the immune system and affect concentration,
    functioning and judgment. It causes changes in appetite and sexual
    interest. Studies have found that people who sleep six hours or less a
    night have an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and
    stroke… poor sleep may actually [cause] depression, mood and anxiety disorders"

  • As if we needed a study to confirm… "Sleep loss leads to emotionally irrational behavior" according to this study (summarized here because I can't link to free access of journal article). 

Do you feel guilty about sleep training?

    While we're on the topic of guilt… I'd like to ask you all: How do you feel about starting to sleep train, if you haven't yet? If you have sleep-trained, were you confident about that choice before you made it? Were you anxious, confused, did you feel guilty about it? Or were you simply at your wit's end when you came to the decision to sleep train your child?
    From my experience, many parents feel awful about finally coming to the decision that they MUST sleep train their kid because they can no longer function as one of the walking dead. But putting your own sleeping needs (desperate as they may be) before your baby’s sense of emotional security seems like the epitome of poor parenting. Mothers in particular are often given the message by the media, friends and family (including fellow mothers, unfortunately) that their first and only priority should be their child’s happiness. Parents’ own health and well-being should be considered secondary, if at all.
    We started off our book trying to dispel this dangerous myth right away. From our perspective, parents who are considering sleep-training their babies for reasons beyond just the well-being of their child (gasp!) are not only perfectly normal, but are doing the right thing. A seriously sleep-deprived family can become an unhappy, unhealthy one.  And this unhealthy state of affairs has massive implications for parenting and the child’s long-term well-being. Here are some of the facts we compiled about the necessity of sleep.

  • A new baby typically deprives parents of 400-750 hours of sleep in the first year
  • Being awake for 17 hours straight leads to the same kind of impairment as a blood alcohol level of .05% (in other words, you could be arrested for driving at that level of impairment)
  • Fatigue is involved in approximately 1 in 6 fatal road accidents
  • Sleep deprivation affects both long- and short-term memory 
  • High-level problem-solving skills are most impaired by lack of sleep (this would include figuring out the best way to make your child sleep better, making the right choices for childcare, figuring out how to mix the formula, avoid allergens, give the right dose of reflux medication, and so on)
  • Prolonged sleep-deprivation has been repeatedly linked to depression (and many studies have shown that untreated maternal depression can have serious long-term effects on child adjustment)
  • Some studies have shown that women need an hour more sleep than men per night; not getting this extra sleep may be one reason why women are far more susceptible to depression than men
  • The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear accident have all been attributed to human errors due to sleep deprivation

So, from my perspective, your sleep is as important as your baby’s. Again, that's because sleep affects the kind of parent you are which, in turn, has an impact on your child's development. You just can’t be the parent you want to be if you’re exhausted, crabby, irritable, and irrational. And when parents don’t get enough sleep at night, the household starts to fall apart. Quite literally, your parenting, your work, and oftentimes the quality of your marriage will start to unravel if you don’t get enough sleep to feel and function normally.

Papa sleep My husband is constantly amazed about how torn and guilty parents
feel about considering sleep training their children. He doesn't
understand it because to him it's obvious: Parents need adequate sleep
to function well as parents. Babies need us to help them figure out what's safe, predictable and good for them. I, on the other hand, understand the mixed
feelings too well.

So, why do we feel so guilty when we consider sleep training our children? Is it a mom thing? Are we simply defenseless to the cries of our babies? Is it evolutionarily futile to try to crawl out of the swamp of hormones to recognize our own needs? Who is that voice in our heads saying "you are so selfish?" Is it more of a problem with societal expectations of super mom? And if you've never felt guilty about sleep training, how have you approached this challenge with confidence?