Category Archives: Parenting Challenges

Happiness, meta-analyses, sex, pain au chocolat… it’s all here!

So, at the tail-end of this week's Parenting Challenge, I've noticed two interesting trends in the emails/comments I've received: (1) Many of us don't know where to start when it comes to taking care of ourselves and (2) A lot of us don't so much want "me" time as we want quality "us" time with our partner (AWAY from the kids). 

To address the first issue, I wondered if we could all contribute one or two ideas for those parents out there so sleep-deprived and stressed that they can't even begin to THINK about what might make them feel just a little bit happier. If you're one of those parents lucky enough to have figured out how to balance (well, ok, at least CONSIDER) your own needs, what do you do to feel good? We could all use a little inspiration. And let's take stuff like exercise and taking vitamins OFF this list for now. These things often trigger too much guilt for those of us <cough>LIKE ME<cough> who can't get our butts out to the gym or remember to get to the health food store. What makes you feel lighter, happier, taken care of, centered? Even for just a very short while?  

I'll go first: (1) dropping my kids at preschool and then hightailing it to the local French cafe ALONE, with only my cappuccino and pain au chocolat to keep me company and (2) Going to a movie with a girlfriend after putting the kids to sleep (and leaving my husband to babysit).

Now, what about all of us who are craving a bit more quality time with our partners? First off, let me tell you that you are NOT alone. A relatively recent meta-analysis confirms what most of us suspected, kids are NOT good for romantic relationships. Are any of you in the mood to read a whole meta-analysis? I didn't think so. Here's the abstract at least, to give you the gist of the results:

Parenthood & marriage
From a less rigorously empirical perspective, I have to admit that it's been a real eye-opener for me to read emails about how many people find this so challenging. So many of us wish we could spend more time "like the old days" before kids, talking with our partners about something other than diapers and hours of sleep clocked. And then there's that whole sex thing… yeah, not so much. Just the other day, one of my favourite bloggers, Julia (of Here Be Hippogriffs... you guys DO read her, right?) posted about the ever-so-common libido dip (or in my case, more like PLUNGE) that mothers so often report. Not only did Julia fess up to her own concerns, but her readers provided reams and reams of comments, most commiserating with her, some suggesting strategies that have helped get things back on track (ahem). Go read them. If you're like me, you'll find the discussion very informative and perhaps even inspiring.

 Aaaaand, finally, I leave you at the cusp of the weekend with another awesome source of inspiration: The Mominatrix's Guide to Sex. This fabulous little advice book is aimed specifically at parents who want to get their mojo back (suffice it to say that I had the book Express Mailed to my house;-)). It's full of fabulous tips that cover everything from the early post-partum pragmatics all the way up to fun toys and video reviews. It's written by Kristen Chase (of Motherhood Uncensored), another one of my all-time favourite bloggers and mom of THREE kids who still manages to nuzzle up to her husband more than once per season <gasp>. She's funny as all get-out and dares to write about all the stuff I wish I had the guts to ask my OB. What I like best about her book is that it's clear she has SO been there: the sleep-deprivation, the body image issues, the awkward silence when the toddler walks into the bedroom. And for those of you who are sick and tired of me talking about partners, she's got a chapter for the single mothers out there too.

That's all I've got… What about you?

Parenting Challenge #4: Be good to yourself

Ok, I've got one for you. It's a little indirect, in terms of actual parenting practices. But it may just be one of the most important things you can do to improve your own parenting and your child's behaviour: Take some time to take care of YOURSELF. I am not kidding and I am not exaggerating when I say that this really may be one of the most important things you do in your parenting gig.

I have said it before in the context of sleep training: To be good parents, to function with balance, humour, tenderness, understanding and, yes, with authority as well, we need to feel healthy, strong and relatively ok ourselves. So often, parents (mothers in particular) are led to believe that all their needs must be put aside for their child. I'm starting to think that this is one of the most damaging messages sent out to mothers (by the media, but just as damaging, by fellow mothers): that they should feel guilty for working outside the home, for getting that massage, for leaving their child to go to the gym, for stopping for a coffee with their friend WITHOUT bringing the baby <gasp>, and so on. SUCH B.S. is what that is! (and if I wasn't trying to be so damn "professional" on this blog I might say a whole lot more colourful things).

We know how damaging postpartum depression can be: for the woman and her baby and their experience of bonding in the first year of the child's life. And it's not just new moms, far too many mothers in general are experiencing serious symptoms of depression. Maternal depression, as I keep learning in my own work and through a large body of research that I've been reviewing, can have a significant impact on children's health and well-being. In tomorrow's post, I'll review a bunch of this research, to give you a sense of how prevalent maternal depression is and how important it is to try to prevent these problems, if we can.

But for today, let's just see if we can take up this challenge: Try to do one SIGNIFICANTLY "good thing" for yourself this week. This is going to feel almost impossible for some of us and very easy for others (a lot will have to do with the age of your child/children and how much support you have).

  • For those of you still suffering through major sleep deprivation, with a wee one who has just come into this world a few weeks or months ago (or many months ago, for that matter), this challenge may even piss you off: how on earth can you do something nice for yourself when you can't think straight, take a shower, or sleep more than 2 hours in a row?! For those of you in this camp, a few suggestions: (1) Think about the EVENTUAL possibility of sleep-training (even if you're not ready for it yet) and read this to remember that YOUR sleep is integral to your health and well-being and your ability to parent. You can deal with the sleep deprivation now… we all eventually get through it. But don't feel guilty when you and your family are ready for a change. (2) Do something nice for yourself, even if it feels like a tiny thing. This will require you getting some help from your partner, your friend, a family member, a paid sitter… ANYONE. And then choose that ONE thing you really want this week, whatever YOU most want: Take a bath instead of a shower for a whole 30 min, meet a friend for a coffee WITHOUT the baby, get someone to take ONE of the 10 bajillion feedings you do at night and sleep through it with ear plugs, order in your favourite type of food, go shopping for a spring dress, WHATEVER. Just choose that something and follow through with it. You are SO worth it.
  • For those of you with slightly older children who are getting SOME sleep, this is a much more open challenge. What have you been dying to do for yourself but feel too guilty to indulge in? Is it a massage? Take it. An hour or two alone reading a book? DO IT! A date night that you've been meaning to book with the sitter for 4 months? Do it THIS week. A girls' night out without kids? A weekend getaway? Joining the gym and making the committment to go? A movie night alone?  Doesn't have to be a big deal, doesn't have to cost anything… just something within your reach that you will do for yourself.

You get what I'm driving at here. This parenting challenge is meant to get us to PLAN for something, ANYTHING, that will make us feel happy. Of course, this challenge will hopefully be a good thing for many of us personally. But I promise you that this IS important to your parenting as well. You'll see in tomorrow's post: I'll cover the research on the many detriments to children and the challenges mothers face when they do become depressed. For now, let's try to get out of our funk if we're in one, and take care of ourselves.

Tell us: What are you going to do for yourself this week? What are your challenges when you try to take care of yourself? Does this feel doable to you? Does it feel relevant to your life?

Parenting challenge #3: I feel your pain… now do as I say

I'm traveling overseas for work, so I'm going to have to keep this short (for me, anyway). This week's strategy was mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago, on the post dealing with temper tantrums.  (If you're new to the blog: WELCOME! You can find the first and second Parenting Challenge here and here). 

I have found this method useful for both my kids since they were about 18 months or so. It can work in loads of different contexts… but, as usual, it won't work for all kids, at all ages. For this strategy in particular, I think it would be really helpful for parents to pipe up with their experiences because I find that temperamental differences and our own emotions play a particular large role in how well this works.

The step-by-step discipline strategy comes from the fabulous book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk. It's meant to convey to your child that you understand his FEELINGS, but do not approve of his BEHAVIOUR. Unfortunately, I left my copy at home so I'm hoping I've got the precise sequence here (feel free to correct me, for those of you well-versed in the method). The idea is that when your child begins to melt down, argue, tantrum or otherwise freak the frack out, try the following steps: 

(1)  When he’s starting to whine/complain (but is NOT tantruming yet), give him words to express what he feels (e.g., "Jonny, you’re feeling so mad that mama won’t let you watch TV! Mad, Mad, MAD!" or "You're really frustrated that no one will listen to you!") 

(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." 

The idea of trying to empathize, accept and "join" with our child while she's feeling particularly vulnerable and out of control is a fabulous one, I think. For many children, the core reason why they become so upset sometimes has less to do with the surface features (e.g., I want more candy/tv/to push baby etc) and more to do with the frustration of feeling misunderstood or not heard. So these steps are meant to address that core need and, as a result, can work miracles in diffusing a stressful conflict. 

As we discussed at length with the Playful Parenting challenge, I think one of the most challenging things about implementing these steps is REMEMBERING to do so when we are frustrated, angry and/or anxious about our child's behaviour. Also, some children feel overwhelmed when they're faced with their parent mirroring their emotions too intensely, so it can be difficult establishing how much is too much "empathizing."

I've gotta run now. I may be less involved in the discussion early on in the week, given my trip, but I'll be checking in regularly and hope, as usual, that you can join in the challenge if it feels right for you and tell us about how it's going in the comments.

Is being mad all that bad?

I've been thinking about this week's challenge a lot, as I try to implement more constructive ways to express my anger to my children. And one of the things that keeps coming up for me is: How bad IS it really, to lose my cool, to lose my PhD and to just be, well, my Romanian mom to my own children? My mother was a yeller. When she was (or is) mad, she yelled in the most stereotypical "Latin" style. She was also one of the warmest, most affectionate and most supportive parents I know. I never for a moment doubted her love for me, her adoration, her over-the-top belief that I was the smartest, most beautiful, most perfect person in the world (she literally expressed these things daily). But if I messed up, she wailed at me. She freaked. She was known to go on some nutty tirade for hours before she finally calmed down. And she would never EVER use "I statements" or try to constructively problem-solve with me about whatever the problem happened to be (she would later, but not in these conflict moments). And she was even known to call me "lazy" or "insensitive" or "thoughtless" or other things that, indeed, attacked my personality or character. So how did I come out of that relationship with a reasonable sense of self-worth, confidence, and so on? How did I come to see her angry tirades as one of her personality flaws rather than something scary or damaging?

I realize this is starting to sound like I'm saying, "Hey, what's the big deal with all this anger?! My mom freaked out on me and I turned out alright. It must be fine to rage against your kids." But let me be clear that I'm NOT saying that. I think there are lots of good reasons to try to constructively communicate our anger without frightening and belittling our children. And believe me, I'm not into making a big huge argument on a case study of 1… particularly when that sample of 1 happens to be me. But I think I'm not the only one with this experience. So what I've been wondering is how our children are "protected from" or "resilient against" their parents' angry outbursts. I'm particularly interested in this because I think that a whole lot of us WILL lose it once in a while, despite our best intentions and our copious reading of parenting books and blogs. We'll lose it and then we'll wonder how much we are actually damaging our children.

I don't have a direct answer to this question, but here are some thoughts. First off, it may be that the more global family context (the general warmth, connection, and loving support that is just FELT or UNDERSTOOD among family members) is more important for long-term development than any single episode during which parents might screw up once in a while. There are a few studies that seem to suggest that this is true. Second, John Gottman's work with marital couples is interesting to think about in this context. He finds that the most successful marital interactions (i.e., the ones that don't end up in divorce) are the ones that maintain this "golden ratio" of 5:1 of positivity to negativity. In other words, he finds that couples who remain in their marriages for a long, long time (I can't remember the span, but I think his studies go out to 20 years at least) express five times the amount of positivity than they do negativity. The reason this is SO FREAKING interesting to me is that there are at least 3 types of relationships that can maintain this 5:1 balance and they are SO different: (1) the "validating" couple are the couples that talk a lot about their emotions, they share their fears and empathize a whole lot with each other and they have a relatively few negatives expressed daily, but not a lot, and still 5 times as many positives, (2) the "withdrawn" couple: they have almost NO negatives and relatively few positives, but again, the ratio of 5:1 holds, and (3) the "volatile" couple (count me in this group): these are couples that express a whole LOT of negativity, but a whole lot MORE positivity, again, 5:1 ratio.

So, what I'm thinking is that maybe that "golden ratio" holds with parent-child interactions too. Maybe if we screw up, lose our cool, rage in front of our kids or even TO our kids, maybe it's still relatively ok if we balance that with a boatload more positive stuff every day. I have no idea what the "golden ratio" would be for parenting… but I could see 5:1 being a good start. Of course, I want to believe this because I DO screw up and I will continue to do so, I suspect. But I also think about this because I really believe in the power of cutting ourselves some slack. I think that if we allow that we will sometimes lose our cool and that doesn't mean we're parenting failures, it will set up the conditions for us to more easily repair our interactions with our children. The alternative is often that we feel intensely guilty or frustrated or ashamed when we DO lose it. Equally likely is that we feel resentment towards our kids for "making us" rageful, mean, bad parents. And the intensity of these emotions can often make us feel stuck such that we can't flexibly move to a place where we can re-establish a connection with our kids. This all has to do with how important I think repair really is in our relationships with our kids. I'll address this more in the next parenting challenge.

Does this ring true for any of you?

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? 

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…