Don’t Respond to Everything — and Watch Things Get Better

Don’t Respond to Everything — and Watch Things Get Better

             If you’re the type of parent who cannot “let it go,” you are almost destined to have conflicts with your child.

Marci is like that. She says that she cannot tolerate sassiness and backtalk from her teenage son.

“When I confronted him once about being sassy to me, he got an even greater attitude and I slapped him,” Marci confessed. “That’s when he said he was going to live with his father.”

Diane is like that, too. “My daughter is only nine,” Diane says, “and I didn’t expect her to be disrespectful and sarcastic yet. But she is. And when she gets a tone, I have to say something to her.”

However, Diane has also learned that confronting her daughter doesn’t make things any better. “She has to have the last word – just I like do,” she says. “So we end up getting mad at each other.”

Diane says her husband and friends have told her to just let some of that go. “I try,” Diane says, “but I have trouble doing that. It’s like I’m compelled to say something.” She says that she feels like if she doesn’t say something to her daughter, that her daughter’s sassiness and disrespect will get worse and worse.

Paul has similar concerns about his two children. “I can’t just ignore things,” Paul says. “If they’re wrong, then I have to say something.”

It’s not that you’re a bad parent or unable to parent effectively if you have to respond to everything that upsets or bothers you. It’s just that there are so many issues with children and teens, if you’re what I tend to call an “active intervener,” then you’ll be intervening all the time.

Diane comments that while she doesn’t let her daughter get away with backtalk, sassiness, or a sarcastic tone, she also tends to talk to her frequently about her temper, her schoolwork, her fights with her sister, and the way she treats her friends. “I seem to be on her for everything,” Diane comments. “She tells me I’m always yelling at her and I think from her point of view she’s probably right.”

That’s one of the problems with being an active intervener and trying to deal with every issue. Your child will feel like you’re always yelling or criticizing them. Also, when you pounce on every misdeed by your child, you don’t give them a chance to correct their own behavior. In addition, you may fail to give yourself a chance for reflection and a better understanding of underlying issues or problems.

For example, when Jeffrey was helping his 15-year-old son with his English homework, he asked his son to read aloud the chapter review questions he was trying to answer.

“Why do I have to do that?” his son asked sarcastically. “I do a lot of reading in school and you’re trying to make me read at home. I’m not going to do it!”

Jeffrey’s impulse was to confront him and demand that he do it. “Yes, you are going to do it,” Jeffrey responded. “This is important for you to learn.”

“Why should I do it; I already know how to read,” his son said.

Jeffrey waited a beat before he reacted – for the most part, he admitted later, because he was so mad he couldn’t trust what he was going to say or do. But in that brief delay, he had an insight: He’s probably embarrassed by his poor reading skills. So, Jeffrey responded in a different, less confrontational manner.

“How about if I read the questions, then you try to answer them?”

“Cool,” his son said. They were able to proceed without a fight or hostility.

By giving yourself a chance to listen to what may be going on underneath the sassy, oppositional, or even defiant behavior you get from your child, you have a chance to come up with a more appropriate reaction that may cool tempers on both sides.

A Toddler Who Never had Temper Tantrums May Not be So Great at Age Five

A Toddler Who Never had Temper Tantrums May Not be So Great at Age Five

For many children temper tantrums between the ages two and five have gradually declined in frequency and intensity. By age five, the temper tantrums associated with two-year-olds and three-year-olds are generally a behavior of the past as children now show enough maturity to get ready to enter kindergarten.

   However, there are some five-year-olds for whom temper tantrums are just beginning and when they occur are severe meltdowns. These fives who are showing temper tantrums at this rather advanced age are generally perplexing to their parents. For instance, Kari, the mother of five-year-old Raymond doesn’t understand why Raymond is having tantrums now.

   “Raymond was a perfect child,” Kari told me, “up until a few months ago. Then he became more easily frustrated and started having these temper tantrums where he would bang his head, throw toys, and hit anyone close to him at the moment.”

   I suggested that perhaps she considered Raymond a “perfect child” because he never experienced temper tantrums like other children during the toddler years.

   “That’s right,” Kari said. “My friends always told me about those meltdowns their two- and three-year-olds were having and I’d just look at them wondering what they were talking about.”

   I couldn’t help saying to her that parents should beware of perfect children. I went on to explain that, of course, no child is really perfect. They might all be perfectly wonderful in their own way, but there’s no such thing as a perfect child. And if you consider your child perfect, then either you love her to pieces despite her flaws or she is so easy to raise because she’s never gone through the typical stages other children go through. I believe that every child needs to experience most or all of the usual stages of development.

   The usual stages of development including learning to crawl, learning to use speech and language, becoming independent (which generally involves saying no and being resistant), and having temper tantrums during the toddler years. Those temper tantrums that most parents find so challenging are important because they help children learn to deal with their frustrations, regulate their anger and other emotions, and find out how to cope with not always having their desires met immediately.

   When their impulses for immediate gratification are thwarted, children are forced to learn how to cope with the resulting frustration and anger. In the process of learning how to cope, they figure out that there are better ways to handle all of the little frustrations of life besides going ballistic. The “perfect” toddler, however, doesn’t have these experiences and while they might be easier to handle for their parents, they miss out on the important advantages that tantrums provide for them. When they are older and encounter new and more complex frustrations, they are not well equipped to handle those frustrations.

   That is the situation for Raymond and his mother Kari. Since Raymond missed out on having toddler temper tantrums, those tantrums simply are delayed and come along at a later age. Now, he’s ready to enter kindergarten where children find that they are expected to sit in a seat at school, do what the teacher wants them to do, and work out conflicts peacefully with other children. Given these expectations, the challenges of kindergarten will be greater for some children, like Raymond.

   As Raymond and similar children work on the challenges of learning to regulate their emotions and control their behavior in a group setting, they may be viewed as more immature – by both the teacher and their peers. However, experienced kindergarten teachers will be able to handle such children and help them learn to follow the expectations of the first year in school while they struggle with learning to control their impulses and their emotions.

   If you have a five-year-old who is going through this stage of delayed tantrums, try to make sure he or she has an experienced and patient teacher and give that teacher some advance warning about what they’re going to be facing. By working together with the teacher in the fall, when kindergarten begins, your child can get through this delayed stage with relative ease.

What Should You Do or Say When Someone Else’s Child is Not Behaving Appropriately in Your Home?

What Should You Do or Say When Someone Else’s Child is Not Behaving Appropriately in Your Home?

Our dear friends, Brenda and Gerald, have a cute and active toddler. When they visit, we provide toys and distractions for two-year-old Kurt.

However, both Brenda and Gerald have a parenting style that might be described as something to the left of relaxed. While they are both loving and nurturing parents, Kurt is their first child and everything he does is cute, wonderful, and special in their eyes.

While we think he’s a gorgeous little boy whom we love to have over, we also are concerned that Kurt isn’t reined in enough by his parents and he gets into things that should be off limits.

Consequently, we are frequently faced with a dilemma. Do we discipline Kurt or suggest his parents do something about his behavior that while developmentally appropriate also threatens many of our prized possessions?

I know we’re not alone in this dilemma. You may face the same problem. For instance, there’s just not enough discipline or limit-setting for a child visiting your home. Or someone else’s child is teaching your child bad habits or clearly breaking rules that are established in your family for your own children.

How should you handle someone else’s child? Can you effectively intervene with a friend or relative’s child without offending the other adult or alienating them forever?

Over the years, I’ve learned some valuable approaches that have worked well for us and for other parents.

One technique which works well is to speak to someone else’s child and that parent at the same time. For example, you could say while looking at the child: “We have a rule in our house. Children do not jump on the couch. How about if we go out in the backyard where you can jump in the grass?”

By using this approach, you are letting both child and parent know about your rules and suggesting an appropriate redirection at the same time.

A second approach we’ve used is to appeal to the other parent’s need to relax and be “off duty” from parenting responsibilities. In this approach, you could say, “Mom, you just relax. You worked hard today. Kurt and I will play with some pots and pans in the kitchen.”

In other words, you’re saying, “I need to get your child away from my valuable vase collection in the living room, so we’re going in the kitchen.”

The most direct approach I’ve seen used bypasses the parent. Here you deal directly with the child. For example, if Kurt is done playing with toys and they are scattered all around a room, you can say directly to the child: “Kurt, I need you to pick up all the toys and put them back in the toy box. If you put all the toys back where they belong, then you can play with them the next time you come over.”

This approach puts both parents and child on notice that there are some definite rules in this house. One of those is that toys get put back where they belong, and if toys are not put back, then they are not to be played with during the next visit.

Another way of dealing with a visiting child and the behavior you don’t like is to ask the other parent for permission to handle a situation. “I’m concerned about Kurt getting bitten by the puppy if he keeps teasing her. Do you mind if I show Kurt how to be more gentle with the puppy?”

Once a parent gives you that permission, you are free to handle the situation and their child in an appropriate way. If they don’t like the way you handled it, they can jump in quicker and deal with it themselves in a future visits.

These approaches aren’t likely to alienate your friends, but they do allow you to have some measure of control in your house. At the same time, it will reduce your resentment of both the visiting child and his parents.

How to Use Time-out Successfully with Your Child

How to Use Time-out Successfully with Your Child 

If you want to use time-out with your child, what do you do if he cries, screams, or refuses to stay in the time-out chair?

Many parents encounter these kinds of problems when attempting to use time-out. A father I recently talked to said that when his son refuses to go quietly and sit in the designated time-out chair, they end up having a battle that causes an escalation of problems.

“What started out as a rather simple consequence for a misbehavior becomes a terrific power struggle,” this father of a four-year-old said. “I don’t think anything positive is accomplished.”

Another father said he would physically hold his child in time-out. “The only problem with this,” he said, “was that I had to threaten or add another punishment and I didn’t feel good about that.”

How should you handle time-out so it accomplishes what you want?

There are several guidelines I developed over the years as I worked with parents and their young children and these guidelines can be helpful to any parent wishing to use time-out.

First, time-out should be used for somewhat more serious misbehaviors. The reason for this is that if you try to use time-out for too many rule infractions, you run the risk of using time-out too often. Any punishment or negative consequences used too frequently will lose its effectiveness.

Second, young children should be trained to use time-out. How do children know how they should respond to time-out? They don’t unless they are told – and taught. I taught parents to practice time-out with their child before there was a problem or before it was to be used in a real situation. By explaining what time-out is and showing a child what was expected during time-out, the results were much more successful for parents. By having time-out rehearsals, children got to sit in the time-out chair for a short period of time and parents could hand out positive reinforcement for this rehearsal.

Third, designate a chair and a place for time-out that does not put the child at risk for creating new problems. For example, sending an angry child to their room, may lead to the child angrily destroying objects or trashing their room. A quiet place or a small area with few distractions and without anything they can destroy works better.

Fourth, if the child runs around, screams, or refuses to go to time-out, remain calm. And avoid a physical battle with your child. Let her run around or avoid the chair, but eventually (since you shouldn’t allow them to do anything fun or interesting in the meantime), they have to go to time-out and serve their time. I always found that when children figured out that they could not avoid time-out and that their parent was not going to chase them or engage in a power struggle, that ultimately they learned it was better to serve the time and get it over with.

Fifth, the time the child stays in time-out is not important. As with almost any negative consequence, the fact that there was a consequence is often much more important than the type or duration of the consequence. For a child who is resistant to time-out, it’s better –at least in the beginning of using time-out – to make it short and successful. That is, get your child in and out of time-out quickly so that you can praise or give attention to the cooperation she displayed.

Finally, after time-out is over, make sure there is a brief discussion of why the child was placed in time-out. For example, asking a child why he was in time-out can help you determine if the time-out helped to teach a lesson. If your child doesn’t know or has forgotten, then your job is to explain it to her.

You could say, for instance, “The reason you had to sit in the time-out chair was because you hit your sister. I don’t like it when you hurt your sister. I want you to remember to be kind to her.”

When Children are Out of Control, Only Four Things Need to Change

When Children are Out of Control, Only Four Things Need to Change

When parents complain that their young children are out of control, there are usually some very predictable things going on.

For instance, Camille, the mother of two boys, ages three and five, was a parent who said that her children were so bad they were making her crazy.

“They start fighting with each other as soon as they get up in the morning,” Camille said. “But things get worse as the day goes on. The boys throw food at mealtimes, demand different things to eat than what I’ve prepared, break their boys, refuse to help when it’s time to put their toys away, and they never go to bed on time.”

Camille added that by the time they do go to sleep at night, she is very angry with them, she feels like a bad mother, and she wonders what she is doing wrong.

Like other mothers and fathers who say their kids are out of control, Camille explains that she’s tried “everything.”

“I’ve tried being nice to them and tried using rewards,” she said. “I tried time-out and I even spanked them. But nothing works for more than a couple of days and then they are back to being disobedient, naughty children.”

There are several predictable elements in Camille’s situation which I see in other families with poorly behaved children. The common aspects are these:

      1. Children who have taken advantage of a parent who has tried to be loving and kind.

      2. Parents who have failed to be consistent in applying discipline.

      3. Parenting approaches in which rules and limits are not firmly enforced.

      4. A lack of structure and routine.

When parents recognize these elements and take measures to change them, they can gain control of their children and create a more normal home life. But to gain the control and begin to change their children’s behavior, they have to make sure they change the four elements given above.

The first step is to look at how the children have taken advantage of you. Often, I see that parents who have lost control have tried to be “nice and loving,” but instead become doormats for their children. Some of these parents seem to equate being loving with being passive and allowing the children to make too many decisions. To correct this, there must be a change in attitude and approach.

In this first step, you have to give yourself an attitude re-adjustment. By recognizing that your passivity and attempts to be nice have gotten you in this situation, you can reverse this by adopting more of a “get tough” attitude and demeanor. It doesn’t mean you are not loving, but it does mean you are tired of being pushed around and you are going to be less “nice” and take on more of a no-nonsense approach.

A good place to start is to write and print out a list of basic rules. Once you have done that, read them to the children and tell them that they must follow these rules or there will be consequences.

The second step is to expect that one (or all) of your children will test you almost immediately.  If you anticipate this, you can be ready. You must be ready to crack down on the first violator of a rule. This must be done quickly and firmly. The consequence may not matter, as long as it is not harsh or cruel. It could be time-out or a removal of a privileges or desired activities. And you are to carry this out with calmness and an attitude that tells your children that you are now in control – of them and yourself. The message should be clear: You are no longer Mr. or Mrs. Nice Guy. You are taking back control of the house.

The next step is to monitor their behavior and provide immediate consequences for all violations. That’s where the consistency comes in. You do not let things slide. There will be consequences for every rule violation.

Finally, don’t worry about your kids thinking that you are mean. If they have to think that at first, that’s to your advantage. When they obey the rules and do what you expect of them, then you can provide fun activities, hugs, and verbal praise. In the meantime, you are no longer going to give them the usual opportunities to take advantage of you.

Observe your Child to Learn how they are Developing Self-Control

Observe your Child to Learn how they are Developing Self-Control

The ultimate goal of all discipline is to teach children self-control. That’s what parental discipline and child guidance is all about: allowing our kids to grow up to be adults who can discipline themselves.

Whenever you’re faced with a misbehavior, you might ask yourself how you can enhance your child’s ability to regulate her own behavior? If you ask yourself this, two positive things may happen. One thing that could happen is that you give your child the opportunity to test their self-control, and the second thing that could happen is that you get a chance to evaluate yourself by seeing how well your child is learning to control their own behavior.

But the only way these two things can happen is if you don’t intervene immediately when a misbehavior begins. Therefore, you would be able to see whether your child can stop herself or whether she recognizes that she is misbehaving.

Suppose your three-year-old is playing a bit too roughly with the family cat. In an effort to protect the cat or teach your child a lesson, you might be inclined to get involved immediately. However, if you want to see how much control your son has or see whether he can reverse a behavior once begun, you can just observe. Often, children around this age will correct themselves and say aloud what he has often heard you say. For instance, a three-year-old might turn a somewhat aggressive mauling of the cat into a hug while saying, “Be nice to kitty.” If you had been too quick on the trigger, you would not have seen how much your toddler had learned and how his self-control was coming along.

Another example, could involve your teenager. If your adolescent daughter has had some difficulties managing her anger, you may be concerned that this could be a major problem when driving the family car. You may have thought that the last thing you need is an angry teenager behind the wheel of a car. So, the next time she gets angry, you might watch and see how this plays out.

Is she able to bring herself under control fairly quickly? Has she learned anything from you about a less explosive way to deal with her anger? By silently watching, you can gauge how much progress she has made and you can determine whether she is ready to use your car.

What I’m suggesting is that observing misbehaviors may be a way to figure out how much self-control your child is able to use. This could be termed “purposeful ignoring” and is done for a specific reason: To measure your child’s self-control.

However, there are other ways of determining your child’s ability to regulate his or her emotions and behavior. However, in addition to seeing how much progress they are making, these other discipline approaches encourage children to use their own self-control. When you intervene too quickly, you are not allowing your child to use their own self-control skills.

One of these other techniques is to give a signal. By signaling you give your child an opportunity to pull himself back together. With this technique, you do not ignore the child, but you let him know that you are aware of the situation and that you expect him to gain self-control on his own.

Most of us parents have used this technique at one time or another, and it often works well. For example, at a movie or a concert, you may have nudged your child with your elbow when they were whispering too loudly or making a noise that disturbed others. This signals to the child that you are aware of what they are doing and that you want her to stop on their own.

Some parents use prearranged signals (such as a particular hand gesture or even a particular word) to alert a child that they should regulate their behavior. Another signal, again that most of have used, is to say our child’s name, add their middle name, or say their name with an unmistakable tone. This is a clear signal that they need to alter their behavior.

Giving signals can be very effective if the misbehavior is just beginning and if your child is still in control and is capable of pulling themselves together. Typically, these techniques should be used before a child is out of control and before the problem behavior becomes too serious.

How Should a Stepfather Handle his Defiant Stepdaughter?

How Should a Stepfather Handle his Defiant Stepdaughter?


John has a 12-year-old stepdaughter. But John is concerned that his stepdaughter, Olivia, has recently become defiant with him and talks back when he asks her to do things.

“For instance, when I tell Olivia it’s time to go to bed or that the dishes need to be put in the dishwasher,” John said, “ she will straight up tell me no.”

John said that because he and his wife work different shifts, he and Olivia are home alone frequently and he has to make her do things.

“But I don’t believe in spanking a child of her age and I will not physically force her to do things — like drag her to her room for bedtime,” John said.  “What should I do?  I don’t want her to feel she gets away with things, but at the same time I would like for her and me to get along.”

He wonders if it would be easier to just ignore Olivia and let her do what she wants instead of arguing.

John has never had children of his own, although he has helped raise Olivia since she was seven. What he doesn’t understand is that as many children move into adolescence they become more sassy, defiant, and oppositional. This may be especially true with a stepparent who tries to use discipline.

However, since he spends so much time with his stepdaughter, there are bound to be some clashes. It is important that he accept that it is inevitable in any relationship with a teen that there will be conflicts. Even if John were Olivia’s biological father, the same conflicts could be taking place.

It is also important for John – and for you if you are a stepparent in a similar situation — to avoid power struggles with Olivia. You can’t force any teen to do what they choose not to do. Therefore, it’s important to win their cooperation. Establishing a better relationship and winning their cooperation relies on the absence of power struggles.

Often to avoid these battles of wills, you may need to alter how you ask a teen to do things. Furthermore, you should also find alternative ways to respond to their defiance, sassiness, and flippancy.

For example, when it is time for your stepdaughter to go to bed, you could say, “I need you to go to bed soon.” In other words, when you want her to do something, instead of giving an order (“Go to bed”), tell her what you need or what you’d like (“I’d like you to go to bed”). And don’t put a time limit on it. Don’t say, “Go to bed now” or “You have to be in bed at nine o’clock.” Giving an order or a command simply sets up rebellion and defiance.

Also, when she says no or tells you, “I’m not doing that,” you need to be able to either ignore that or to say something which avoids the power struggle. For instance, if she says, “I’m not going to bed; it’s too early,” you can respond, “I know you don’t want to go to bed because it’s too early, but that’s what I want you to do.”

This kind of response indicates you understand her position and you are not really telling her what to do. Instead, you’re letting her know what you’d like her to do. That gives her an out. She still might refuse, but it puts the conversation on a different level if she is responding to something you’d like versus something you are telling her she must do.

If like John, you spend a great deal of time with a stepson or stepdaughter who is now an adolescent, you will be responsible for some of their life and you must provide some guidance. Therefore, you can’t just let them do what they want in order to avoid conflict. At the same time, it’s not about forcing them to do things. As kids become teenager, compromise and negotiation take on a greater role.