Dating after a Divorce, Part One

Good for you! You've done your healing work and are ready to try dating again. But what about your kids?

At first, you may decide to simply lead a double life -- enjoying an adult social life when the kids are with their other parent, and being a full time caregiver when they are at your house.

This compartmentalization works well for many parents for quite a while. And sooner or later, many of us decide we are ready for more than just an occasional night on the town.

Below are some suggestions for parents who are dating to find a new mate. For simplicity's sake, I'll write as if your date is male, and trust you to make the appropriate translation if this is not the case.

Before you became a parent, dating was just about you. The stakes were not high - if at some point things weren't working well anymore, you could just walk away.

Now, becoming serious with someone means he will play a major role in the lives of your children. Dating when you have kids is about screening prospects out, not about making allowances or exceptions that grease the way for potential partners to glide their way in to your life.

Please set your standards HIGH. You are not only interviewing for the position of partner; this job description includes parental duties as well. Excitement on Saturday nights is no longer enough - you need someone who is also engaging and helpful with the kids on Sunday mornings.

Before you introduce your new 'friend' to your kids, do your homework! To put it bluntly -- put him through the wringer. If it doesn't happen naturally anyway because your kids get sick or your child care falls through, then deliberately cancel a date or ask to change the time or meeting place. His reaction to the change will give you a sense of how he handles the inevitable schedule adjustments that are part of the parenting package.

Watch how he treats the waiter at a restaurant. Observe him driving in rush hour traffic. Any signs of a temper? Any condescension or rudeness? Ask him about his ex if he has one, and LISTEN to his answer carefully. If there's any unfinished business there, wait until it's finished before you bring him home to meet your kids.

Likewise, ask about his relationship with his family of origin, and once again, pay close attention to his reply. Listen for red flags - unresolved anger, blame, lack of forgiveness, rigidity, etc. Don't overlook these signals! They are warnings that tell you he may not be a good fit for your family situation. (It goes without saying that active addictions automatically disqualify him, right?)

Discuss topics like whether he wants to have children of his own someday. Talk about your childhoods, your values, and your ideas about religion, discipline, and finances. You can't afford to wait until later to ask these kinds of questions.

Get it all out on the table NOW, before your kids meet or become attached to him. Neil Rosenthal over at http://www.heartrelationships.com/ has some quizzes and relationship checklists on his site that I find to be very practical and revealing.

The bottom line: Is he the kind of man you would want your son to grow up to be? (If you don't have a son, ask yourself the question hypothetically. It still works.)

If not, don't bring him home. Either move on, or let your fling run its course out of the view of your kids.

Any prospective partner needs understand that your relationship with your kids came first: it was in place before he arrived, is permanent, and will always take priority at a very primal level. There is no room in your life for a clingy, dependent or jealous man. This is not to say that your new partner will forever play second fiddle. It's simply unkind, unfair, and unrealistic to represent yourself as anything other than what you are - a parent, first and foremost.

In Dating after Divorce, Part Two, I'll cover how to talk to your kids about your new friend before they meet him or her. Part Three will address loyalty, commitment, realistic expectations, and boundaries. Since this is a very loaded topic, I suspect there will be a Part Four and Five as well, so please feel free to send me your questions.

If you'd like some support navigating the dating-with-kids territory, let's schedule a phone or email parenting consultation. Visit www.karenalonge.com for more information, or email me at karen@karenalonge.com.

About Kids and Writing

My son is very articulate when it comes to debate and dialogue, but he's always had a lot of trouble representing his thoughts coherently in writing.

He's recently started attending a new school, www.catalystedu.org, and I must admit I was a bit nervous the day he turned in his first writing assignment.

He came home triumphant, announcing, "My teacher LOVES my writing!!" At first, I thought, "Huh? Is she reading what I'm reading?" But I zipped my lip and celebrated with him.

About 10 minutes later, he casually said, "Oh, and she says there's just a few little adjustments I could make so that other people can understand me a little better." Ah-ha! There it is. So smooth, he didn't even realize he was gonna learn something. I mentally high-fived his new teacher. Sheer brilliance!

The magic? She connected with him first on the content, not on the form. Once she validated that he had interesting ideas, he became motivated to express them in ways that people could understand. He needed to know that grammar and conventions have a real purpose - they help others to more clearly comprehend our point.

The take-away for parents? Let the school handle grammar and conventions. At home, get excited about the content of your child's writing. Talk about what kind of ideas they have inspired in you, or what you learned from their writing that was new or exciting for you.

That's how parents can help keep the fire of motivation burning bright -- not by correcting the spelling or commas or capitalization. Too much emphasis on right and wrong only forges a strong link in our children's experience between writing and criticism. Instead, let your enthusiasm about the content strengthen the link between writing and communication. The rest will follow naturally.

What if rewards and consequences don't work?

Yep, it's true. Rewards and consequences often don't work. More frequently than many folks care to admit, I suspect. Here's one possible explanation for why, and what to do about it:

Imagine wheeling a quadriplegic to the bottom of a large staircase. How much would you have to pay him to motivate him enough to walk up those stairs? How many minutes in time-out will he need before he does what you want him to do? (I can wait all day, young man!)

It's a ridiculous question, right? Why? Because it's not a matter of motivation, it's a matter of capabilities.

And yet, it's often equally as ridiculous to try to motivate our kids to behave the way we want by using rewards and punishments.

The wheelchair metaphor comes from Dr. Ross Greene in his ground-breaking book, The Explosive Child. His premise is that some children lag behind others in the acquisition and mastery of the cognitive skills that allow us to tolerate frustration, adjust to change, manage intense emotions, and generate alternatives.

It's obvious that someone in a wheelchair is not walking because his legs don't function properly, and not because he's not properly motivated or doesn't care. However, cognitive skill delays are not as easy to recognize. They look exactly as if a child is simply being oppositional, defiant, or "acting up to get attention."

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Greene's assertion that Children do well when they can. The idea that kids are misbehaving for attention breaks down pretty quickly when you see a kid experiencing many negative consequences and yet persisting in his behavior.

This child may simply not yet be capable of doing what we are asking without help. For example, he may not know how to break a task down into sequential steps (so he doesn't clean his room). He may not have learned how to anticipate transitions and prepare for them (so he's not ready when it's time to leave). He may not yet be reading and processing nonverbal social cues that tell him to back off and leave someone alone (so he bullies or intrudes).

In other words, he might be sitting in a cognitive wheelchair, and we are attempting to consequence him into walking.

Here's a concrete example: two kids arguing in the back seat of the car. Pretend it's a good day; we aren't tired or hungry and we just read our parenting book last night, so our request to them is very clear: It's not safe for me to drive with all this noise. Please be quiet, or I'll have to pull over and wait until it's safe to drive again.

So far, so good, right?

Maybe.

It depends on whether your kids have mastered the cognitive skills that are required to follow your request.

What if Johnny starts poking Jane's legs with a pencil beneath your radar? It is painful and annoying, and she knows she's not supposed to hit him or scream at him. So how is she supposed to defend herself? She's gotta be a pretty clear-headed kid to come up with an alternative that will be acceptable to you while she's under duress from the poking.

Unless she's well practiced with using with the phrase, "Mom, I need some help please," what you are likely to hear instead is an earsplitting shriek of frustration. "HE'S HURTING ME!!!"

I'd reckon that more often than not, habitually misbehaving kids need assistance, not consequences. Children do well when they can. If they are not doing well, they need help figuring something out.

Many times, misbehavior is very predictable. If the same transgressions are happening over and over, despite your very best consequences, consider that your child might need your help acquiring some cognitive skills.

For example, he may need your guidance in understanding other perspectives and concerns: "Hmm, you want to relax right after dinner, and I want the dishes rinsed off before they get crusty. How can we solve our problem?"

This formula, applied often and out loud, accomplishes a whole lotta cognitive skill training:

Your concern is _____.
My concern is _______.
What can we do about this?

More about this in future posts. This book is so rich with suggestions that it will take me some time to flesh it all out. In the meantime, if you'd appreciate having some one-on-one assistance with your child's habitual misbehaviors, contact me to schedule a telephone or email parenting consultation: karen@karenalonge.com


How to Hold a Family Meeting

Regular meetings are a very effective and efficient way to promote healthy family communication. Below is a structure that has worked well for many families. Feel free to pick and choose what you like, and add more of your own ideas.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

1) Post the date of the next meeting in writing on the fridge or family calendar, along with a blank agenda sheet and pencil so everyone can write down what they want to talk about as they think of it.


2) Write fun things on the agenda, like Decide family fun activity for next Saturday afternoon or Choose Sunday brunch restaurant. Also write actual or anticipated problems, such as Floor was not vacuumed this week or Garage needs to be organized before winter.


THE MEETING

1) Gather together promptly at the designated time. Bring the agenda, as well as a blank pad of paper and a pen for taking notes.

2) For the first round, ask everyone to share something positive -- something that happened since the last meeting that they enjoyed, something they liked hearing and who said it, or something they are proud of themselves for.

3) Now tackle the issues on the agenda, one at a time, using the following format. The comments in italics are examples of responses so you can hear the process in action.

a) The person who added the item to the agenda explains their concern.

The carpet is dirty, and I am embarrassed to have friends over here.

b) One at a time, other family members speak about their concerns.

Our vacuum is too heavy and it's hard for me to carry it in from the garage.

I don't like vacuuming.

I want the house to look nice, too.

I don't like nagging people until they do it.

c) Brainstorm lots of solutions that might meet satisfy everyone's concerns. No censoring at this stage of the game -- just write them all down.

Get rid of our carpeting.

Hire a housecleaning service.

Flip a coin each week to see who does the vacuuming.

Make a chart so everyone takes a turn in a month.

Make it a paying job.

Buy a Roomba so no one has to vacuum anymore.

I like to vacuum - how about if we trade jobs?

d) When the ideas start to slow down, ask if everyone is ready to discuss options. Here's where you start eliminating anything that is not workable or does not satisfy everyone's concerns.

A housecleaner would cost over $100, and we can't fit that in our budget right now.

But if we flip a coin, I could be stuck doing it two times in a row!

Getting rid of the carpet is not going to happen for a few years.

e) By now, your list has dwindled significantly. Odds are good that one of the remaining solutions will work.

Okay, let's trade our jobs then. I'll take over vacuuming, and you take over cleaning the cat box.


f) Double check to make sure everyone is willing to experiment with this option to see if it works.

Is everybody willing to try this for a week until our next meeting to see how it goes?

g) Discuss how you will know it's working, and what will happen if it doesn't. Write this down very clearly.

So if the floor or the catbox are still dirty on Saturday morning, we'll know that this plan didn't work. We can use your allowance to pay somebody else to take care of it right away, and we'll make a new plan at our Saturday afternoon meeting.

4) After you've tackled the problems, apply the same process to the fun stuff:

I want pancakes Sunday.

I want a place that's not too noisy.

I want a buffet.

Brainstorm restaurant options.

Eliminate those that don't satisfy all concerns.

Choose from the remaining possibilities.

Write the time and destination on the family calendar.

5) Read the meeting notes out loud, then pass the paper around and have everyone sign off of the agreements. This is not so you can wave it in someone's face later, it's to make sure everyone is clear on what they are agreeing to. This way no reminders will be necessary, and there won't be any arguments over selective memory issues. Keep the paper where it can easily be referred to.

So that's it! It may seem like a lot when you read it at first, but it's actually pretty simple and logical. This process equips your children with a powerful conflict resolution strategy that will serve them well throughout their lives - but you don't need to announce that! Just let the magic soak in naturally over time. It takes all the fun out of it if they think they are being taught a lesson.

If you'd like some assistance with this process, let's schedule a phone or email parenting consultation. Visit http://www.karenalonge.com/ or email karen@karenalonge.com for more information.

Defending Against Parental Alienation

The words "parental alienation" strike fear in the hearts of many a divorced parent. It can be terrifying to think that your ex might be able to turn your children against you! And it's devastating to feel powerless to protect our precious 'babies' from emotional harm.

Luckily, you have more power and influence than you may think. Your best defense is to stand tall, with both humility and pride, squarely inside your own skin. Warts and all. When children notice that you are not afraid, not hiding, and not counter-attacking, they quickly learn to see through the illusions into the truth.

This may sound simple, but it's not easy! When your kids come home reporting what their other parent said about you, your job is to remain calm, cool, and collected while listening. Act as if they are talking about the weather. Then tell them how neat you think it is that everyone can have their very own opinion about things. "I see things differently than your dad a lot of the time. I think it's fun to hear other people's ideas -- sometimes they tickle my brain!" (For older kids or teens, you might say "make life more colorful" or "expand my mind.")

Now here comes the really important part: Ask your kids what they think, and make it completely safe for them to tell the truth. "Now that I know my opinion, and your dad's opinion, I wonder what your opinion is! Tell me what you think about _______." (Fill in the blank with anything ... my car, my boyfriend, my job, my house, my attitude, my communication, my love, my parenting.)

If your child raises a valid concern, thank him for sharing it with you, and then address it head on. For example, if he is upset that you were late, take responsibility for your behavior, empathize with his feelings, apologize, and talk about how you will make a new plan that works better next time.

If she complains about something that is not negotiable, connect with her feelings rather than being too quick to explain why what she wants can't happen. "It sounds like you really hate it when I'm not home to tuck you in at bedtime. Tell me more about what it feels like when you are trying to get to sleep on those nights."

Sometimes kids are hiding a little bit behind the other parent's opinion, sort of testing the waters to see if it's safe for them to express their own. Make it safe. Tell them that there's no topic that's off limits, and that you'll do your best to keep an open mind and work on solutions with them.

When we don't try to pretend we are perfect, we are far less vulnerable to criticism and attack. Instead of saying, "Why would your mom say that?! It's just not true!!" we can just say, "Yes, I can see how your mom might think that, and it's okay with me that she has a different opinion than I do." A child who hears this kind of tolerance will feel safe telling you anything. And THAT is your very best insurance policy against attempts to alienate.

In a nutshell: Don't get so lost in anger, defense, or counter attack that you forget to show your child who you really are in every possible moment.

Funnel your energy into being the best parent you can be when your child is with you. Let the truth of who you are ring clear, and don't allow anger, defensiveness, or revenge to pollute your relationship with your child.

This is one of the most emotionally vulnerable situations that parents can face after a divorce. If you'd like some guidance and assistance as you navigate these difficult waters, I'm available by phone and email for parenting consultations. Contact me at karen@karenalonge.com, or visit www.karenalonge.com/forclients.htm for more information.

Tips on Potty Training

Keep the whole thing casual and low key. Learning to use the toilet is not a big deal that requires gold star charts and large rewards. It's just a handy skill that kids acquire in the process of growing up. Once they have it mastered, it opens up some nice opportunities for them -- similar to the way that riding a bike or learning to read expands their world.

And just like two-wheel balancing and reading, we cannot force the acquisition of this skill by doling out rewards or punishments -- the child's body and nervous system simply must be sufficiently developed before they can master it.

Since each child's physical development has its own timetable, there's no point in pressuring her or comparing her with other children. When she is ready, it will be obvious, and it will happen fairly quickly.

Set up a little potty before you think she's ready to use it, so she gets accustomed to seeing it there. The big toilet can be kind of scary for some kids, whereas others prefer it because it's more 'real'. If she prefers the big toilet, consider getting one of those seats that make the opening smaller so she doesn't fall in. (!)

There are some cute picture books about using the potty these days - read those together just like your other books. Let her see you using the toilet, and mention casually that she will enjoy feeling clean and dry someday when she's ready.

Superabsorbent pull-ups or diapers prevent the natural sensory feedback of wetness on the skin, which can be important information that help kids link cause and effect together. When she asks, let her switch to wearing underwear at home even if she's not quite 100% reliable yet. (but not necessarily in the car or on long outings, where changing clothes is complicated!)

Think of this period as similar to the time when the training wheels come off - they still fall a lot while they put the finishing touches on their two wheel balancing act, but with every fall they learn a bit more about how to stay upright. Every wet incident brings her closer to dryness.

When it's warm outside, consider dressing her in long dresses or T-shirts with no underwear when she's in the yard. This is the quickest way I know of to help them link up the pre-pee-sensation with what comes next.

It's a process, so expect "accidents" and don't make a big deal over rewards or consequences. A quiet word of acknowledgement for staying dry is enough.

Stickers and rewards, for some kids, only increase the stakes on their 'failures'. They not only suffer the physical discomfort of wet pants, but also become upset with their bodies for not cooperating to earn them stars.

When kids' bodies are capable of consistent control, they usually don't need to be bribed to use the potty. Wet pants are pretty uncomfortable, and that's enough natural motivation right there.

As much as possible, stay out of it. Give her control over the process. Show her what you want her to do when she's wet -- including exactly where to find the clean clothes, and where to put the wet ones. I'd recommend that you set aside a special laundry basket for this purpose, because you'll want to be washing that laundry more frequently than the dirty but dry clothes.

The reality is that we cannot control our children's elimination processes. We can, however, help them learn to take good care of their bodies, and make it easy for them to do so. Once that's done, it's time for us to step out of the picture. The more we push and prod and bribe, the more our interference detracts from nature's feedback loop.

If you'd like some additional support and guidance during this process, contact me to schedule a phone or email parenting consultation: karen@karenalonge.com

Should I talk to my ex about his negativity and hypocrisy?

From a divorced mom:
How should I handle it when he does the very things that he has asked me not to do, like speaking negatively in front of the kids? Do I even bother to mention it to him or just accept it? And how do I talk to the kids about it? I'm feeling like I should just let everything go unless it is "major" and build the relationship with the kids so they feel they can open up to me.

I love this question! Let me affirm that your instincts are right on track, and make some additional suggestions.

There's no good reason to mention things like this to your ex at all, ever again.

Treat him as if he were a business colleague. It's not your job to bring his incongruence to his attention. Nor is he likely to become inspired to clean up his act thanks to your intervention. His behavior is not your business.

Your business is your own behavior, and you are free to adjust it based upon the circumstances. For example, if you feel that his inability to remain neutral in front of the kids is not good for them, then it may be time to make some changes.

Consider dropping them off at his home rather than having him come to yours to pick them up - it gives you much more control over the interaction, and you can say your goodbyes in the car and watch from there until they are safely in his care. Be sure you are on time, since children learn what they live and you want to be modeling strong integrity.

You may choose to begin a communication notebook that travels back and forth with the kids and contains all the relevant details, which eliminates the need for face-to-face interactions during transition times.

Perhaps due to extenuating circumstances, none of the above ideas are workable. They are only suggestions to get the ball rolling. Keep on generating options and experimenting with them until you find one that works.

If there is simply no way to avoid face-to-face interactions, consider resolving to remain civil and polite no matter what he says, and refuse to take the bait or respond defensively. Your reactions are completely under your control. (but they don't always feel like it, so go easy on yourself if you slip up, and start fresh the next time)

I would not mention any of this to the kids. What I would encourage you to do instead is to live your life as the example of the kind of integrity you want them to internalize.

Take his issues completely out of your interactions with them.

Live as a shining example of integrity and acceptance, and his shadowy stuff will naturally diminish in influence and importance.

Here's a guideline to experiment with: Don't bring him up in your conversations with the kids at all. If they bring him up, focus your attention on their feelings, not on his words or actions. "So how was it for you when he said that, honey?" rather than, "Why did he say that?" or "That's not what happened."

This makes the conversation about them, not him. And showing interest in their experience and emotions is a powerful way to build a strong relationship with them. As they learn to trust that they can share things like this and you won't get all agitated or defensive, they will tell you more.

Joint custody dynamics can be extremely challenging. If you'd like suggestions and support that are custom tailored for your own particular situation, contact me at karen@karenalonge.com to schedule a parenting consultation by phone or email.

getting rid of the pacifier

My child is now 3, and I'm ready for her to be done with using a pacifier. What do you suggest?


First, let's get this out of the way: Kids don't go off to college with their pacifiers. If your child is still super attached to it, assume it is meeting a valid need for comfort, for now. As her nervous system matures, and she learns to comfort herself in other ways, she'll naturally let go of the pacifier.

That being said, here are a few ideas that might gently help the process along:

* When kids fear that their pacifiers will be yanked from them before they are ready to let them go, they often cling to them far more tenaciously. Talk in a neutral and matter-of-fact way about your hunch that soon she simply will not want it anymore, and that she can probably even feel that change happening inside her little by little already. This sets it up as a natural part of growing up, rather than a power struggle or a battle of wills.

* Suggest that someday she'll want to trade it in for a 'big kid' toy of her choice. Bring it up casually every few weeks to see if she's ready yet. I promise that at some point, she will be!

* Progressively restrict its use to inside the house, then inside her room, then only in her crib. Even if it takes a while for her to totally let go of it, it's not interfering with her social skills if she's only using it when she's alone in her crib.

* Some parents dip the pacifier into vinegar or another nasty tasting but harmless foodstuff, and then sympathize authentically with their child that it tastes so icky. It's a bit underhanded, and you wouldn't want your child to spot you doing the dipping, but it can be effective. Pretty quickly, the child 'decides' to let go of it on her own.

* Even when she is ready to voluntarily let the pacifier go, she may miss it for a little while. After all, it was a very consistent, effective, and reliable source of comfort to her. To ease the transition and replace the soothing effect that sucking provides, be sure to offer plenty of other forms of physical comfort instead. Hold her more often, rock in the rocking chair together, let her sit on your lap to read stories, or give her backrubs/footrubs.

If you'd like some guidance and support to ease the transition, contact me to schedule your own phone or email parenting consultation: karen@karenalonge.com

preschoolers and bedtime

A few tips in no particular order for parents whose preschoolers seem to be staying awake too long after going to bed:

* Watch for the magic window - she could be overtired by the time she gets to bed, which can make it hard to wind down to sleep. Eye rubbing, yawning, slower blinking/physical movement, and snuggling up to you are all signs that she might be getting tired. Try putting her to bed when you notice these happening, even if it is earlier than her usual bedtime, and see what happens.

* Create a very specific ritual together that happens after you tuck her in. Make it short, sweet, and predictable. Then breeze out with an air of confidence that she'll be fine and you'll see her tomorrow morning.

* See if you can make a deal with her - if she stays in her room without coming out after bedtime, she can do something special in the morning. Make it a new privilege or task that reflects how grown up she is now that she can stay in her room on her own.

* Mellow the pre-bed routine down even more (ie brush teeth before taking a bath, since it often involves power struggles which can be over-stimulating.)

* Consider adding a daily after dinner walk around the block to help her wind down. (You can double your efficiency if you take the dog ...)

* I found that a high complex carb bedtime snack helped - cereal, whole wheat toast, or a granola bar. Some parents find that protein snacks at bedtime are helpful for their kids. Experiment to see what works best for yours. (I learned the hard way that Power Bars aren't such a great option. What was I thinking feeding my daughter an 'energy bar' at bedtime!?)

* Lavender or jasmine are very relaxing aromatherapy: in the bath, misted on her pillow, or rubbed onto her feet in a lotion or cream. Some parents find that homeopathic remedies such as Calms Forte or Moon Drops work wonders.

* Is she running thoughts from the day through her head? Add some kind of clearing/closing ritual to bedtime, like putting everything that happened during the day into a big imaginary bubble and watching it drift far, far away.

* Try letting her participate in making up a bedtime story and have her put in things that happened to her today. Tie up any loose ends into emotionally satisfying solutions.


The bottom line: Experiment and be creative. You will eventually find something that works. Be sure to ask your children what they think will help them feel more sleepy. They sometimes come up with the darndest things.

If you want some additional help figuring out how to help your child sleep better, contact me at karen@karenalonge.com to schedule a parenting consultation by phone or email.

another Supermom leaps from her pedestal and lands in reality

From a mom of several young children:

I'm humbled and a bit embarrassed to find myself needing so much help from my husband and extended family. I was a capable, competent and independent woman before I had kids! What happened?

No mom is an island. Sometimes, the most capable, competent decision we can make is to ask for help.

Knowing who and when to call when you feel overwhelmed by the incessant demands of parenting is a BIG deal. It can make the difference between child abuse and not, between a nervous breakdown and not. It's not a cop out! It's a smart action plan.

It's when we CAN'T ask for help that things can become ugly and out of control.

So maybe it will help to reframe "independent" a little bit, so that instead of meaning, "I can do everything by myself," it means, "I am willing and able to make conscious choices, including the choice to ask for assistance."

If you want some help accepting help, let's set up a parenting consultation by phone or email. Contact me at karen@karenalonge.com.

Taming Tiny Tyrants: What to do if your preschooler is constantly ordering you around

from the mom of a three year old:
I'm not comfortable with her dictating how we behave -- I think she needs to realize that she can't control other people's choices. It often happens in the car; she orders me to stop singing or change the song. She doesn't like when I suggest that she covers her ears! Do you have any suggestions as to how to defuse this type of situation? It happens in other contexts as well (ie, I'm not cooking an egg correctly.)

You are right that she needs to learn that she can't control other people's choices. She's not alone in this! I know many adults, myself included, who are still getting used to that idea. :)

And it may be that at age 3 or 4, the only strategy she can think of to try to stop sensory input that is overwhelming to her immature nervous system is to try to control the behavior of others. She's going to need your help learning the more advanced social skills of negotiation, walking away, asking for clarification, or compromise.

Modeling in your own behavior what you want her to do will be key. It's a humbling and ironic moment for us as parents when we realize we are trying to teach our children not to be controlling by trying to control them!

My hunch is that her controlling behavior is a red flag that she is becoming overwhelmed in some way. It takes a while for kids to develop those internal filters that allow adults to tune out unwanted auditory input. Even as adults, some people are more bothered than others by unpredictable or uncontrolled auditory stimuli.

Since this tends to be a problem in the car, you may want to get her a toy music player with headphones. That way, if she doesn't like what she's hearing in the environment, she has an acceptable way to regain control over her personal auditory space.

If she demands that you stop singing, a response such as, "If you'd rather hear something else, honey, it's okay with me if you put on your headphones and play your music while I sing," not only demonstrates acceptance and understanding of people's different preferences, but also models that there are more effective solutions to sensory overload than ordering people around.

Later, during a quiet and connected moment with her, you might say, "Honey, today in the car when you yelled at me to stop singing, it seemed like something was really bothering you. I want to help you, but it's hard for me to do that when I'm being yelled at. Let's figure out a better way for you to let me know."

Then teach her phrases like, "Mommy, something is bugging me. Will you help me figure it out?"

When it happens with the egg cooking, she might be comparing an inner map of how it 'should' be done with what she is seeing you do, and trying to reconcile the two. She sounds very bright, and would therefore be quite sensitive to discrepancy. Developmentally, she's probably also very eager to identify the 'right' way to do things.

It would be an interesting experiment, when and if you feel like it, to go along with it and invite her to help you. Which might sound like this: "Sounds like you have an idea about how eggs should be cooked, and it's different from what you are seeing me do right now. Tell me more about your idea! "

Talking to her like this is helping her to learn and internalize the language to use when she wants to talk about a discrepancy in the future. (And it may take a while before you see evidence of this, but it IS sinking in! Kids understand concepts long before they can articulate them.)

I realize this is a loaded topic, and I can't really do it justice in a quick post. If you'd like personalized coaching on how to implement this approach with your child, let's set up a parenting consultation by phone or email. Visit www.karenalonge.com/forclients.htm for more information.

Coping Tips for Stay-at-Home Moms

This post is based on a comment from a stay-at-home mom. Please adjust the gender accordingly if it is different in your situation.

Because I deal with all the little "stuff" during the day (I don't want to go to school, I don't need a coat, he's hitting me, when can I watch TV, I am hungry and I want junk food, I want a playdate!) I am so worn down that I can't think straight by 6 p.m. Then my husband comes home, and he's the star. Warm, patient, and clever, he can get them to do anything. Which is terrific and frustrating, all at the same time!

Some days, whoever is home alone with the kids all day feels like they've endured the equivalent of chinese water torture.

We rarely even notice the first few drops. We are as patient as can be when the kids start breakfast by arguing about who has the most raisins in their oatmeal.

But as the day wears on, and the eighty thousandth drop lands with the thud of a muddy shoe on the clean kitchen floor ... well ... you know how it goes. Even though we are aware that ranting and raving are rarely successful at gaining cooperation, we just can't seem to help ourselves.

Finally, Dad comes home from work, where he may or may not have been enduring a different kind of torture all day. Nonetheless, Drop Eighty Thousand and Nine for you is only Drop One for him, so he can parent coherently, even patiently.

Is it because he's a better parent? Nah. He's just fresh. Don't take it personally. Pass the baton to him gratefully and go for a walk or run an errand. When you get back, you'll feel rested and refreshed, and are likely to be more effective again.

Some dads do not come home from work ready to parent well, and need some time to decompress first. That can be even more challenging for an overwhelmed mom who's been counting the minutes until he gets home.

If this your situation, it can help to pace yourself based not on when he will walk through the door, but when he can actually take over for you. That way you still have some energy left for the home stretch, and are less likely to feel resentment while you wait for him to take a shower, go for a run, or read the paper while he switches gears.

If your husband is not the type who can or wants to take over for you when he gets home, then you need a plan B. Rather than wish and hope that he would be different, find another backup. Maybe a pre-teen neighbor will come over for a few hours in late afternoon so you can take the dog for a walk, go to the gym, take a bath, or make dinner in peace.

If you are feeling especially stressed, you know something's gonna give. Rather than hanging by a fingernail until your spouse comes home, why not make a conscious choice to let something go? Consider pizza or cereal for dinner, or an extra half hour of tv for the kids. That way, you can actually connect with your spouse when he gets home instead of tagging and running.

As always, it comes down to this: Parenting young children can be very exhausting. We are much better at it when we take care of ourselves. And our marriages blossom when we bring in additional support from the outside. Remember, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. It's really important to stop at those rest stations and refuel ourselves.

My child cries at everything, part 2: very sensitive children

To read part 1, click here: http://www.advice-for-parents.com/2007/11/what-can-i-do-about-my-preschooler-who.html

Before I say anything else, let me first say I am assuming that you have had her thoroughly checked out by your doctor. Sometimes undiagnosed health issues can impact behavior. If there are sensory integration issues going on, an occupational therapist could teach you both some tricks that help enormously.

You mentioned that you've been reading about Highly Sensitive Children (http://www.hsperson.com/pages/child.htm) and wondering if that was just a label parents made up so they could feel like their kids are special.

Most of the folks I know, both children and adults, who fall into the classification of Highly Sensitive don't feel special; they feel annoyed by their sensitivity. And most of the parents of sensitive kids that I know don't feel like their kids are special; they feel exhausted! Especially if they are not 'sensitive' themselves - it's so hard to understand it without feeling it in your own body.

I believe that neurologists have now identified that there is a spectrum of baseline "arousal" of the nervous system, and some of us fall at either extreme. For example, some people will startle and experience an adrenaline rush when a door slams two floors away, and some people barely react when you jump out and yell at them in the dark.

If a particular nervous system is running in high gear already, it won't take much to put it over the top into overwhelm. Something like the disappointment of her pink shirt not being clean could easily set it off. It may seem like no big deal to those of us with different thresholds of stimulation, but to her, it could be the last straw. Your daughter may be crying to release excess energy.

(You may see the opposite kind of behavior in kids with nervous systems that are running in real low gear - they poke and prod and wiggle and squirm and are all over the place in their search for more stimulation.)

Perhaps you may be able to reduce some of the crying by being empathetic before you are corrective. (saying "Oh, you really wanted to wear your favorite pink shirt and it isn't clean! That IS a bummer!") Correction often adds to the overwhelm, but empathy usually reduces it. Getting her into forward motion (Let's find another shirt) isn't likely to happen until she's calmed down a bit anyway, and empathy is a very effective way to speed that process up.

It may help to be extra vigilant about giving her time to decompress, feeding her protein often to avoid blood sugar fluctuations, and making sure she gets enough sleep. Affectionate physical activity, like play-wrestling, catch-me, or don't-let-me-kiss-you games can help release excess energy in a fun and loving context. You may need to cut tags out or buy only cotton shirts or seamless socks for a while. She may do better with unscented soap.

Some parents find that reducing sugar, wheat, dairy, or artificial colors and flavorings can make a big impact on their children's moods. It's worth experimenting with. Little adjustments like these can reduce the load on her nervous system so she can handle the big stuff better, and are so much easier than walking on eggshells all the time. What's that saying ... an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

If you try those interventions and she still keeps winding up, she may simply need to cry. Crying is a pretty good way to clear the decks emotionally and physically. You might want to try letting her cry it out a time or two with no attempt to intervene in any way.

If it seems comforting to her for you to stay close by, that's absolutely fine to do. She may prefer physical comforting, or she may just want you within sight. Be present, quietly and calmly, and make no effort to get her to hurry up and finish crying, or talk her out of it, or distract her away from it. Just be a compassionate witness.

If you get the sense that she'd rather have some privacy, simply tell her kindly and gently that you'll be in the kitchen doing some dishes, and walk away. Come back and check on her periodically. The idea is not that you are isolating her until she stops, but that you are allowing her some space to see if she soothes herself better on her own. Most kids I know prefer company when they are upset, but check it out to see what helps your child. If you walk away and she amps up and chases you, that means that her jangled nervous system may need to connect with your calmer one as a role model. So stay close.

I've seen kids simply wail for 5 minutes, stop, get up, and just move on with their day, even though nothing has changed in the situation and the 'problem' has not been fixed. It can be sort of like a big thunderstorm - it just passes and the air is clean again. She may simply put on that yellow shirt as if nothing had ever happened. If so, then you know it's okay to stop walking on eggshells all the time, and just let her have her occasional cleansing cry while you keep her company or do something else.

Sensitive kids can learn to manage their temperament and function quite well in our society. School can be tough for them, but when given the freedom, they often design their personal environments to foster great productivity. Intuition, creativity, and compassion are a just a few of the many gifts that often come wrapped in a package of sensitivity.

I hope this helps.

To schedule a phone or email parenting consultation with Karen, visit www.advice-for-parents.com or www.karenalonge.com.

My five year-old just discovered "the finger." How do I get him to stop using it?

This very sincere and earnest question came from a childhood friend of mine, and oh my goodness, it just cracked me up! I've met this little guy, and he's got these twinkly blue eyes and an impish grin that just makes me want to muss up his hair and let him get away with anything. I bet he is absolutely gleeful about this new gesture!

"The finger" is a lot like swearing. It triggers an emotional reaction in some people - typically shock, aggression, or anger - and is therefore not something you want to see your child relying on for communication shorthand. On the other hand, we know that with some kids, our attempts to prohibit them from using it only inspire their creativity and determination to continue.

Here's how the talk went in our house:

Honey, it seems you've learned some new words at school, huh?

I'm not sure if you know that some people aren't bothered by those words, and some people get pretty upset when they hear them. Other people think that anyone who uses words like that must not be very smart, since they can't think of anything else to say. Of course, I know you are a smart guy, and can think of lots of other ways to say things.

So here's the deal: if you want to experiment with using that word, you can do it here at home with me whenever you want, since I am not offended by it. And when we have guests, or leave the house, since I can't be sure if the people who are around us would be offended or not, I'm going to ask you not to use it.

If you are not sure that you can remember not to say it in public yet, that's okay. When we need to go out somewhere, I'll just get a babysitter for you who is not offended by that word, and then you can stay home and say anything you want until you feel ready to try going out in public.

We never did need that babysitter. But your kid might be more persistent than mine, so be prepared to back up what you say! I predict it won't take more than once or twice being left home alone with a sitter (who has been instructed to be as boring as possible) while you all go out to the movies or skating or to dinner before he decides he can control it.

That being said, he may continue to use it with his little neighborhood buddies. I wouldn't worry about that unless they are offended. If so, then he may need to stay home for a while until he can control it. Same thing applies if he uses it at school - he may have to stay home or take a break in the office until he feels ready to control where he uses it.

The idea is to minimize the power of the word or gesture by not reacting dramatically when we hear or see it. When we get all worked up over it, we highlight it with our attention as something BIG and therefore quite interesting. Put it on the level of something like a burp or nose-picking. Socially offensive, but not a big deal. Your child will soon grow bored with it and move on.

What if my son doesn't want to do extracurricular activities?

from a reader in the Midwest:

My 7 year-old does not want to do any extra curricular activities (like sports, game clubs, science clubs, etc.) He says that sometimes he has to do stuff he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t care if everyone else is doing it. How do I interpret this? At what point do we need to teach our children the concept of working within a group or with a team for a common goal? Does he get enough of that in the classroom environment? If that is the way he feels should I just let him be himself and be independent (i.e. no organized anything outside of school)?

Ya know, I admire this kid. He knows himself pretty darn well! Not everyone is wired to love group activities. Group experiences that energize extroverts can be very draining for an introvert! I'd say to go ahead and respect his wishes. He's getting plenty of opportunities to participate in groups at home and in school.

In fact, if you excuse him from needing to do extracurricular activities, he's likely to do even better during the required team activities at home and school, since he won't have used up his whole reserve of coping skills on optional things. If your son is very creative or energetic, he may have to constrict himself to be part of a group experience, which can be exhausting and annoying. He's already doing this succesfully when he has to. It's understandable that he might strongly prefer to spend his free time doing things that he feels are expansive and unrestrictive.

If you want him to have the benefit of physical activity and the feeling of body confidence that comes from exercise, consider asking him if he's interested the solitary sports of bicycling or swimming rather than team sports like soccer and baseball. He might also enjoy hitting a tennis ball against the wall by himself, or shooting baskets alone.

There are lots of hobbies that enrich the mind without draining the energy of an introvert. Solitaire, computer games like chess or checkers, writing, art, puzzles, magic tricks, or taking care of animals are just a few. Let your son know that you think it's great that he is so clear about what he likes, and help him find solitary challenges that he enjoys just for the fun of it.

Then sit back and celebrate that you have a creative and self-aware son who is not likely to be very susceptible to peer pressure when he's a teenager!

Help! My teenage daughter wants to date, and I'm just not ready!

Ready or not, here it comes!

Here's the thing: When we simply prohibit our teenagers from dating, or anything else for that matter, we are missing a MAJOR opportunity to help them learn useful life skills while they are still receptive to our guidance and input. (Even though some adolescents don't seem receptive anymore, they are. It's just against the 'teen code of honor' for them to admit it!)

Protective action was very appropriate when your daughter was a young child. Now, too much protection of her as a teenager may actually backfire. How is she going to learn anything without the opportunity to gain experience?

In my freshman year of college, there was a girl down the hall who had been prohibited from dating in high school. Within her first week of dizzying freedom, she managed to become dangerously drunk, lose her virginity, and get kicked out of the dorm for violating curfew. All in one night! I'm betting her parents wish they had allowed a more gradual initiation to take place while she was still at home.

Please, let your daughter practice dating while she's under your watchful eye! It's the ideal opportunity to empower her with information and strategies.

When she thinks she's ready to date, sit her down and map out the ground rules and consequences. Let her know your concerns. She may have no idea about the realities of date rape drugs, sexual violations, or what to do if her date gets behind the wheel after drinking.

Go ahead and bring up all the scary stuff. Help her troubleshoot what she would do if those things happen. Let her know that you will allow her to work her way up to a real 'date' in baby steps, so that by the time she is alone with a boy she'll be prepared to handle anything.

Let her start by with going out in a mixed gender group of friends. Then let her go on group dates, then double dates, then out for a dinner date alone (but in public!) After each date, debrief with her. Ask how it went, ask if there was any red flags or potential problems, and ask if she felt comfortable. In this way, you are helping her tune into her own gut instincts (and you want that since you can't be there to watch over her forever), and to identify her own readiness to take the next step (or not). You are also taking rebellion out of the equation. (it's hard to hear my protective gut instincts if I am busy sneaking out the window to prove that my parents aren't the boss of me!)

I issue a blanket offer to my kids: If your inner alarms go off at any time for any reason, you can call me and I will come and pick you up, no questions asked. I believe that is one of the very best insurance policies of all.

Your daughter needs your help. Teach her how to keep herself safe, and then let her practice her skills incrementally. You'll both be glad you did.

what can I do about my preschooler who cries about everything?

Today's question comes from Lisa, who asked me to write about preschoolers who cry about everything:

Some preschoolers are a bit more tender than others. They have a harder time with transitions, take social interactions very personally, and seem to need a lot more attention. They are easily overwhelmed by changes in routine, and once they are overwhelmed, they have a very hard time calming themselves down. Often they will continue spiraling emotionally out of control until they receive the help of a calm and caring adult.

This is where it gets tricky! We adults often find ourselves becoming impatient and exasperated when the crying and whining goes on and on. The more upset our child is, the more strain we feel on our own nervous systems. The more we want them to stop crying, the harder it is to provide the calm and caring presence that could help bring it to an end.

So here's what to do. When your child is crying, and you feel the tension building in yourself, take a deep, slow breath. Calm yourself down first.

Then, get down to your child's level, look at her, and ask her if she wants you to hold her. If she nods, go ahead and bring her into your lap and comfort her.

If she doesn't want to be held, just sit yourself nearby and be with her. While you are holding her or not, speak some guesses as to what might be going on for her. "Oh, you weren't quite ready to leave yet." "You wanted more." "You wanted that toy." This is not an endorsement, it's simply an acknowledgement of her feelings. Kids start to calm down very quickly after they feel understood.

You might be thinking, "Yeah, right, that's sounds nice and everything, but I have things to do!!" Which of course is true, but let's think about that for a second. Which takes longer and costs more of our energy - trying to move on ahead with our schedules while dragging around a crying child, or investing a moment now to have a cooperative and willing helper for the rest of the errand?

Until she has calmed down, her emotional state will prohibit any kind of reasonable conversation. A crying child needs to be comforted before any learning will take place. Current brain research tells us that learning is simply not occurring while a child is in a state of emotional distress. Period.

So job one is to comfort the child. When she feels understood, you'll see her start to relax a bit, and the storm will start to subside. Sometimes, just this release of energy will be enough to allow you to continue with your activity - stimulation just builds up in the nervous system and needs to vent through crying in order to return to manageable levels.

Other times, after your child calms down, you can talk a little bit about what might have triggered the blow up, and troubleshoot ways to avoid it. For example, you may decide your child needs more warning before a transition, or that it works better to run errands after naptime, or that an earlier lunch might head off a blood sugar crash.

In any case, you'll be able to think much more clearly about all this after the crying has stopped, so don't put pressure on yourself to figure it out on the spot. Simply take a deep breath, soothe your child by holding her (or sitting nearby) and see if you can understand where she's coming from. Later, when things are calm, you can make some changes to her routine if necessary.

For more on children who cry at everything, see my post http://www.advice-for-parents.com/2007/11/my-child-cries-at-everything-part-2.html

For information about scheduling a parenting consultation with Karen by phone or email, please visit www.advice-for-parents.com or www.karenalonge.com.

how to get your teen to talk to you

You might not like this one! It's simple, but not easy.

LISTEN.

Don't teach, don't judge, don't correct.

Don't interrupt, don't dismiss, don't diminish.

Don't try to fix anything, and please, don't freak out!

Sit down, maintain eye contact, pay close attention, and don't say a thing.

Wait until you think you will burst inside if you don't get to make your contribution, and then go ahead and say hmmm or uh-huh.

Listen with the intention of understanding her perspective, not changing it. Teens want to talk to their parents! What they don't want is to be lectured, corrected, shamed, or turned into fixer-upper projects. They want to be heard and understood. Nine times out of ten, after hearing themselves talk for a while, they will generate their own elegant solutions.

If she asks for your opinion, respond by asking what she's already considered. Ask about the pros and cons of each. Then and only then, when it's clear you have been invited and she has run out of things to say, share your opinion. Be sure to issue the disclaimer that it is indeed only your opinion.

Follow it up with an expression of confidence in her ability to work it out, and a loving reminder that you are standing by ready to assist if she wants your help.

Simple, but not easy! However, when you see how well this works, it becomes much easier to remember to do it.

If you get over-eager and jump into providing solutions, it's okay. We all do it! When you become aware of it, just take a deep breath, sit back a little in your chair, and quiet back down.

Teens are usually very forgiving, and will just pick up the ball and run with it again.

Listening in this way helps your child to perceive you as a resource, rather than an obstacle.

how to make learning easier

There is some amazing content here. Wish I would have seen this years ago, when my kids were in elementary school ...

http://www.diannecraft.org/tutoringinstructions.html.

soothing your baby

Trying to soothe your baby? Work your way up to full contact.

Rather than immediately picking her up when she fusses a bit, first try talking or singing within earshot, and/or moving yourself within view so she can see you. Then try looking into her eyes and smiling, followed by a gentle pat, and finally slowly rubbing her back, feet or head.

And then go right ahead and pick her up if none of that has helped to calm her down.

Being present for our children in these progressive steps is a wonderful way to foster healthy attachment - your child experiences you as available, attentive, and responsive, and she also gets the opportunity to gently expand her self-soothing abilities.

what to say about poor grades

from my 16 year old son:

Parents need to remember that just because their kid is failing math does not mean he will fail at life.

I hear a lot of angst from parents about grades. It makes us feel so powerless to see our offspring not working up to their potential! We try consequences, punishment, privilege removal, microscopic supervision, bribes, and lectures. Sometimes, these things seem to work, and their grades improve.

And sometimes, we only cement our teens' determination to have some control over their choices. Academics are not a battle we can truly win, because ultimately, the motivation for all REAL learning comes from within.

Step into your teen's shoes (combat boots?) for a moment, and imagine hearing this from your parents:

Honey, I have no doubt that you can successfully accomplish anything you set your mind to. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help, and good luck!

At the very least, this takes rebellion out of the equation.

If things get tough for my kid, I want him to see me as a trusted resource who is on his team and will help him figure out what to do, rather than being fearful of my reaction and hiding the situation from me.

Not only that, but there's so much more to success than grades. Skills such as honesty, responsible communication, self-awareness, curiosity, creativity, and compassion are at least as important for success in real life as academic discipline. Even if your kid is not a great student (and mine is not), he can still be a great person.

YOU are the expert on your child.

No author, professor, therapist, or consultant can trump what you know about yourself and your children.

Consider what you hear or read and see if it resonates with your own inner guidance and intuition. If it makes it through that filter, then experiment with it.

If it is not effective, or the price you or your child pay feels too high, then pitch it out and try something else.

taking care of yourself

Needs are part of the human experience.

In our Inspiring Connections parenting classes, Robin and I teach The ABC's of Five Core Needs:

Autonomy
Basic Essentials like food, water and safety
Connection
Contribution
Creativity

We all get snarky when we go too long without getting these core needs met, and then we aren't the kind of parent, spouse or friend that we want to be. Therefore, consider yourself Permitted to find ways to meet your needs, and to help your spouse find ways to meet his/hers! Just like they always say on the airplane -- secure your oxygen mask before securing that of your child's. If you pass out, you're no help!

There are plenty of ways to take care of yourself without compromising your values as a parent, so it's not an All or Nothing situation. There's quite a range of possibilities between having baby in bed with you and letting baby cry it out alone for hours. See the sleep entry in the newborns topic for some suggestions.

Parents are giving their children a powerful gift when they acknowledge their own human needs, as well as their children's, with neutral matter-of-fact acceptance, rather than hiding them because they seem like weaknesses. Modeling has a greater impact than anything else we do as parents.

It's wonderful for our kids to experience the joy and connection that happens while we brainstorm creative ways for both parties to get their needs met. That's a major life skill that will serve them well.

formula for making changes that last

Big changes can happen in small increments. Take baby steps!

When you want to make a change or try a new experiment, it's okay to take it slow. Look for the smallest possible step, one that is so small that it almost doesn't even register on your radar screen as a change. A step that makes you say, Sure, no problem! I can do that easily!!

For example, if you want to help the baby start learning to soothe himself a bit, first try waiting just 5 seconds longer than you usually do before going to him when he starts fussing. Try it out, and see how it goes.

When it feels like you are ready for more, look for the next smallest possible adjustment and make that one. Maybe try waiting 10 seconds. For some parents, their no-brainer time increments are measured in minutes, not seconds. That's fine - there's no right or wrong here. Adjust your steps until they fly under your radar. Only you know what constitutes a baby step for you!

Continue on in this effortless way until you are where you want to be. My friend has a needlepoint on her kitchen wall of a saying that's been in her family for generations: Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it's a cinch! I find it strangely comforting in a cheesy sort of way.

teaching your teen to drive

As I write this, my son is out driving on his own for the first time. I am pretty much calm enough to write down a few ideas about teaching kids to drive. Forgive me if there are typos!

- Let the most relaxed parent do most of the teaching. (Not the white-knuckled dashboard-thumping, imaginary-brake-slamming one.)

- Put 'em through the ringer. Mountain roads, ice, snow, rain, dark of night. (Hey, that sounds like the post office motto, doesn't it?) Let them experience the extremes for the first time while you are with them and can offer guidance. Take them to a big parking lot in a snowstorm and let them learn how the car handles in adverse conditions.

- Communicating faith and trust in your teen's abilities will be far more helpful than projecting your fears by issuing warnings and dire predictions. Which voice do you want them to hear inside their heads when you aren't there? The one that shrieks, "Oh no!" or the one that says "Okay, I know you can figure out what to do here."

- Notice what they do well and point it out very specifically. "Nice job making that turn tight enough so you ended up in the right lane." "Glad you looked both ways and noticed that guy coming on his bike!"

- Make your expectations crystal clear, as well as the consequences for any violations. Cell phones? Radio? Passengers? Destinations? Speeding? Write it all down, go over it, and have your teen sign it before you hand over the keys for independent driving.

- Reiterate your "call anytime and I'll come pick you up anywhere no questions asked" policy. It still applies, even after they are driving on their own. The teen brain is not at 100% reliability yet. Offer them a buffer that will keep one impulsive decision from dropping a whole lotta dominos.

- And my most recent idea, spawned just about the time I heard the garage door go down: Petition your teen's guardian angels for extra protection! I dunno, I figure it sure can't hurt.

getting baby to sleep longer at night

Not getting enough sleep at night?
Perhaps one of these suggestions will be helpful:

Swaddle baby tightly at bedtime to keep him from startling himself awake.

Let baby sleep in a portable crib in your room for easier night feedings.

Don't pick her up at the first murmur. Wait a bit to see if she settles herself down. -OR- If you have one of those babies who gets all wound up when in distress, DO comfort her at the first murmur! If you aren't sure what kind of baby you have yet, try both and see which strategy works better.

After a feeding, put baby back down while still woozy rather than holding him until he's all the way asleep.

Keep the lights dim and don't get very enthusiastic with your voice or make a lot of eye contact during night feedings. Daytime feedings can be fun and playful, but nighttime should be all business.

Make sure baby is getting lots of calories during her daytime feedings.

Try a white noise machine.

Read Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block for suggestions about how to effectively soothe your baby any time of day.

Nap whenever the baby naps! Sleep is a Very Important Need, and takes precedence over laundry, dishes, and everything else for now.

parenting as yoga

Parenting is the ultimate asana! Like any good yoga, it bring us to our edges every day.

When we are at our edge emotionally or mentally -- the place where we think we can't stand it a second longer -- we don't always have to run away.

Sometimes we can stay there and breathe a bit, and we may find we can go a little deeper into the interaction, or we may decide to retreat. Either choice is okay.

It's the deep breath that allows us to decide and choose rather than react.

a tried and true stress-buster

Feeling stressed? Remember to breathe deeply.

Allow yourself at least one calming deep breath before taking a soothing action for your child.

Actions are more effective when they spring from a place of inner alignment. (and oxygenation!)

communication guidelines to teach your teen

My daughter is going into 8th grade, which really should have been included in Dante's levels of hell. She sure is suffering while she works things out for herself socially.

Most of the time, all I can do is rub her back and dry her tears and witness the fury and pain as it releases from her system. She rights herself much more quickly than I remember doing at her age. Heck, who am I kidding -- she's quicker than I am even now!!

While searching for some kind of lifeline to throw to her, I remembered a three part guideline I heard somewhere years ago, a sort of algorithm that helps us decide whether to speak our thoughts out loud or not. Thought I'd write it here since I will surely need to refer back to it myself:

Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?

Ten Strategies for Co-Parenting with an Uncooperative Ex

Many single parents are sharing custody of their children with angry, bitter or wounded exes. Below are some practical and easily implemented strategies that require no cooperation from your ex and will make life much easier for you and your children.

1) Be available. Save your shopping, errands, and visits with friends for the times the kids are not with you. When they first arrive at your house, just sit down, away from your phone and computer. Consider sharing a snack at the kitchen table for about an hour, during which kids can unload their stories, complaints, news updates, school projects, etc.

Be still, and make yourself available for them to physically and emotionally reconnect with you. Give them time to re-calibrate to the rhythm of your home before you expect them to jump into chores or homework.

Of course, in order to be truly available for your kids, you need to:

2) Take good care of yourself. Get regular exercise. Spend time with a good friend or therapist who can listen without judgment to all your feelings. Write in a journal. Work through your anger and pain. Eat well. Don’t sacrifice your health or sanity thinking it’s noble or necessary for the good of the kids.

Just like they say on the airplane regarding the oxygen masks, secure your own lifeline before helping your child. You don’t have much to offer if your own basic needs aren’t being met.

3) Do not judge the other parent within earshot of your children. This may sound impossible, but let me assure you, it can be done. Your ex lives forever inside your children’s DNA. If you speak condescendingly about their other parent in any way, your child feels insulted. We may see the distinction and separation between parent and child, but our children do not. Keep your judgments to yourself until you can safely vent them with your supportive listener from tidbit number 2.

It is imperative that you accept that there is more than one way to do things. Maintain a ‘no comment’ policy on what happens at their other house. Don’t ask them why it’s that way, or why their mom said this or their dad did that. Simply acknowledge their communication in a neutral way, and reflect back whatever feelings they might be having. ‘Hmmm, sounds like you might be feeling disappointed about that situation.’ This way kids can stay in their own experience and move through it, without feeling like they need to defend the other parent from your attack.

And prepare ahead of time for when your kids get old enough to become curious about why you got divorced. You’ll need a neutral and nonjudgmental answer. Here’s one I read somewhere that I liked: Get out some pots and lids of various sizes. Show the kids how even when there’s nothing wrong with either the pot or the lid, not all of them fit together. “Mommy and Daddy just didn’t fit together anymore.”

4) Do not judge your children’s feelings. Just listen. If your kids come home extremely angry about something that had happened at their other house, follow the ‘no comment’ policy. Don't make their feelings right or wrong, but simply reflect them back to them. Within a few minutes, the emotional storm typically will have passed. Your kids will suddenly seem fine -- they may give a deep sigh of relief, ask a totally non-emotional or non-related question, or simply move on to do something else.

There does not need to be a resolution to the situation that frustrates them -- no problem solving is necessary, and nothing at all may change in the situation. But kids do need opportunities to vent their frustration, and to feel love and acceptance while doing so.

Telling kids not to feel that way, refusing to allow them to speak of their other parent in your home, making excuses for their other parent, or jumping on the blaming bandwagon with them will only inhibit the clearing of their emotional energy. Just listen.

5) Teach your child to solve his/her own problems. In that idyllic world of healthy co-parenting, you can hold a family meeting with all of you present to address any problems. For those of us in the adequate but not ideal world of parallel parenting, that’s not an option.

Instead, help your kids to learn effective communication and problem solving strategies, and practice them in your own home.

Do not intervene in any problems they are having with their other family. After reflecting back their feelings, you might encourage them to speak directly to their other parent. But don't worry if they decide not to.

This can be hard to do, but it's important to let them take full responsibility for their actions and choices regarding their other parent. Your job is to keep your own lines of communication clear and available for them.

6) Buy doubles. It’s embarrassing how long it took me to figure this one out—we had far too much stress about boots or snow pants being at the wrong house at the wrong time.

I finally went to the thrift store and spent just a few dollars on extra clothing. Now there's always a backup pair of boots or winter coat available at my house if they forget to bring back what they wore to their dad's or the weather takes us by surprise.

7) Don’t use your kids as messengers, or ask them to speak for you or their other parent. And don’t think you can fool them, either. They know when you are plying them for the scoop on the other parent, no matter how subtle you think you’re being. And they hate it.

Unless you suspect abuse or neglect, what happens at the other home is not your business, so don’t ask for details. Of course you can listen if the kids want to tell you something, but don’t pry.

Don’t wonder out loud what Dad was thinking when he fed them fast food for both breakfast and lunch. Don’t ask if Mom’s boyfriend went to the carnival with them last weekend. If you really MUST know, ask your ex and leave your child out of it. Kids hate being asked to spy for you. They may feel that giving these answers is a kind of betrayal, or fear that they will be punished for something that was not under their control.

(a little sidenote here: don’t ask your kids to keep secrets from the other parent. This puts them in a terrible position. If there’s something you don’t want the other parent to know about your life, simply do not tell the children about it.)

Develop a direct channel of communication between the parents. Email is excellent for this, because it can be referenced later if you forget what was decided, and it does not intrude like a text or phone call. Sometimes there's a back door option on voice mail to send each other messages without ringing the phone. Some parents send a communication notebook or folder back and forth in one of the kids’ backpacks.


8) and the corollary: Don’t speak for the other parent. Sometimes kids will ask why Daddy won’t let them spend their allowance the way they want to, or why Mommy won't let them play video games, or the like.

It usually takes more will power not to speak for your ex soon after the divorce, when you still know him or her well enough to have an idea about the reasons why they do things. But it might not take long for you to honestly have no clue what he or she is thinking, at which point it becomes easier to refer the kids directly to the other parent for the answers to this type of question.

It’s important that you give the other parent the opportunity and responsibility to speak for themselves with their children. Don’t run interference. Don’t defend or protect the other parent from the true consequences of their actions. Let them explain to your child why they were late, rather than covering for them. The sooner your child faces the reality of who their parent is, the sooner they can get about their business of forgiving them and making whatever adjustments need to be made.

9) Free your children to love both of you without reservation or fear. And any new partners, as well. Please, do whatever internal and emotional work you need to do so that you are not threatened by your child’s love for your ex or stepparent. This might the most important tidbit of them all.

Show your child how a candle can share its flame to ignite other fires without losing any of its own light. Love is infinite—it cannot be diminished by sharing it with others. Let your child know that it’s OK for her to love both mommy and daddy, regardless of how they feel about each other, and that you are confident that she has so much love inside her that it can never run dry.

10) Be a storehouse of happy family history. If it is true, your child will love hearing that she was conceived in love, or that Mommy and Daddy were so happy when he was born. Kids with co-parents usually get to see them engaging in peaceful and productive, sometimes even warm, interactions. Many kids hardly ever see their divorced parents in the same place at the same time, and even less frequently do they witness an actual interaction.

My daughter was only three when we divorced, and has no memory of her dad and I being happy together. So I gathered some pictures of good times that included various permutations of her family forest (it’s bigger than a tree) and I hung them in a big collage frame in her room. She beamed, and told me that her favorite was the one of me and her dad holding her when she was a baby.

And when she asks, I tell her stories about her birth, and how we loved her so much, and how we would take her on walks around the neighborhood together. Little, everyday kinds of stories, to fill in the blank places in her memory with joy.

That should be enough to give you a good start. Oh, wait, just one more:

On the hard days, when you’re tired or frazzled or overextended and you slip up, please forgive yourself and just start again. Be gentle with yourself ... parenting after a divorce can challenge us to the core, and you’re doing the best you can in any given moment.



Copyright 2006 Karen Alonge

advice to fathers with sons

Thought you might enjoy reading this summary of a parenting consultation I did last night for a divorced dad whose six year old son was having problems with anxiety. Seems to me that some of this advice could be relevant for fathers and sons without issues as well ....

Your son might prefer to connect with you while doing a physical activity side by side rather than tell you his feelings; try shooting hoops or playing a video game together rather than wanting him to sit and talk. Watch for things you and him do together that you both find relaxing and fun - and plan to do more of that.

What boys want more than anything from their dads is approval. He hopes you see him as strong and capable and smart. You are his hero, so he takes your opinion of him very seriously. Don't take that responsibility lightly.

Remember that whatever you focus on in him, he will want to do more of. So focus on his resilience and strength rather than his temporary feelings of anxiety.

Decide carefully what messages you give him now, because your voice is so important to him that he will carry it in his head forever. One day, he will share it with his own son.

When he gets anxious, the best thing you can do for him is to keep yourself calm. If you start to feel upset or pressured to make him feel better, take a few deep breaths or a drink of water or a bathroom break to settle yourself down before you try to be there for him.

After you are calm, then just be there with him. You don't have to fix the source of his anxiety - sometimes he won't even know what triggered it. Just be there, sort of like a big strong calm rock in a stormy sea.

Being strong and calm yourself sets an example for him that you are not worried about him, that his anxiety will pass, and that you are not going to leave him all alone to cope with it.When you stay calm, it's almost like you are a life raft on that stormy sea, and he can climb in with you and feel safe. That's what every kid needs from their dad - shelter in the storm, and strength to borrow when they can't find their own.

And as you mentioned, your anger at his mom could easily pollute your relationship with him if you let it. So find some other way to deal with your thoughts about her. Challenge yourself to never speak negatively of her when you are with your son.

She has no power over your relationship with him - that's all up to you. Be the best dad you can be, and leave her out of that equation.