behavior is communication

Our job as parents gets MUCH easier when we remember that behavior is communication. What is your child trying to tell you? If she's verbal enough, you can actually ask her. If not, take your best guess, respond to that message, and watch the results to see if you were correct.

For example, let's say your child is kicking the table leg during dinner. What could your child be trying to tell you?

If she's verbal, you might start with a question like, "I notice you are kicking the table leg. What's up, honey?"

If she's pre-verbal, it might sound like this: "I notice you are kicking the table leg. Hmm, I wonder what's up?"

Here are some possible messages that you might hear from your child (in kid language) or generate yourself:

I'm bored and I need something interesting to focus on.

I'm tired and this rhythm is soothing to me.

I'm not hungry or I don't like the food that we are eating.

I didn't get enough fresh air and exercise today.

When we take just a moment to ask ourselves, "What could she be trying to tell me?" we become aware of a variety of potential interventions which are much more likely to be successful than simply telling her, "Stop kicking and sit still!"

If she's bored, and we are annoyed with the activity she chose to generate some action, we can offer an alternative that works better for both of us. Maybe a coloring book, if we want her to stay at the table. Maybe an invitation to carry things to the sink for us. Maybe we are happy to excuse her to go play so we can have some adult time. There are infinite possibilities.

Be sure to include her message in your response: "Oh, I understand. You are bored. Hmmm, what can we do about that? Maybe you would like to sweep the floor with your little broom while we finish eating?" This helps to lay down the language pathways that will eventually supplement and replace behavior as communication. Soon enough she will be happy to use words to tell you she's bored and ask if there's something else she can do.

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Hero Dragon

My friend and colleague Sue Kranzdorf was recently interviewed on the radio about her Hero Dragon workshops and book.

Sue embodies a deep understanding of human nature, and her model is a very powerful one that helps parents more effectively guide and support their children. I cannot recommend Hero Dragon highly enough.

From her site,

A Brief Introduction to Hero Dragon

Hero Dragon helps parents point out and improve unwanted behavior patterns in a game-like way that’s both fun and effective. When tempers flare or fussiness abounds, Hero Dragon invites family members to collaborate to awaken heroes and subdue dragons instead of escalating anger or frustration. There’s less pleading, bargaining, judgment and blame, and no distraction or avoidance is necessary. Families discuss the real issues involved, allowing for continuing improvements instead of short-term fixes. With understanding of the general principles, Hero Dragon can be molded and personalized to meet the specific needs of any family.

Please listen to the radio interview here:

At what age do children understand and show remorse?

Q: My 3 1/2 year old has had issues in preschool, and his teachers say that he shows "no remorse" for his actions. Is he capable of true remorse at this age, and if so, at what level?

A: I love this question! The fact that you are exploring this tells me that you will be an excellent advocate for your son.

I don't believe that children can feel true remorse for their actions until they are able to distinguish their own experience from that of others. According to Piaget, the ability to take the perspective of another, as well as to understand the relationship between cause and effect, is not fully supported cognitively until at least age 6 or 7.

Dealing with Constipation While Potty Training

We finally got our constipated two and a half year old daughter in to see the pediatric GI specialist, and received a prescription for a laxative. Now the poop is soft and no longer painful for her, but she still tries to hold it in for days at a time. I suspect it has become a mental issue, not physical one. She's under no pressure at home or at school to use the potty, and for now I just praise her when she doesn't hold it in and goes in her diaper. I would like to start potty training her soon. Can you please give me advice about how I can help her understand that it hurt before, but it won't now, and to help her get over her mental block to pooping?

Sounds like you have been very conscientious about making sure your daughter's needs get taken care of. She's lucky to have you as her mama.

I love that you are thinking about the issue from more than just a physical perspective. I think you are right that she may be scared that it will hurt. It's easy to comprehend why she might decide that she'd rather be on the safe side and hold it in.

The laxative will ensure that eventually she'll have enough pain-free pooping experiences in her memory that she will forget to be afraid. Keeping the poop soft is an intervention for both the body and the mind.

I also love that you are not pressuring her at home, and are advocating for the same thing at school. Well done! I'd encourage you to continue with this approach. The attitude you are wanting to embody is one of trust ... trust that it won't hurt forever, trust that her inner motivation will take her to this destination, and trust that it can happen without force. You are already doing all the right things to support her in this.

I don't think there's a magic trick that can help her understand that it won't hurt. And in fact, if there was one, I wouldn't want you to use it, because there are no guarantees that it will never ever ever hurt again. However, you have an even more powerful tool at your disposal: empathy.

If she says or shows you that she's afraid to poop, you can acknowledge her without necessarily agreeing by saying something like, Yes, I understand or You are scared right now. Often kids just need to know we understand them, and are not really asking us to fix the problem. They use our presence and love and validation to shore themselves up so they can take the next risk and start fixing their fear themselves.

So you may try saying things like this to her when you see her trying to hold it: I know honey. It hurt a long time ago, and you are scared it might hurt again. Mommy and the doctor are doing everything they can to make your poop soft so it won't hurt. Would you like me to hold your hand while you let it come out? Just be there with her. Stay connected. Don't try to change her mind or get rid of her fear. Meet her where she is. This is the most powerful way to help her, and it really does make a difference.

Inviting her to go potty along with you is an excellent way to start helping her move in the direction of independent toileting. Continue keeping it casual, emanating the attitude that Of course she'll want to go on the potty sometime soon, because it's natural to prefer feeling clean and dry.

You may want to just put the idea of having to 'train' her on the back burner for a while, to take the pressure off of yourself. You might find that it never comes back to the front burner again, because the process moves along organically and it just sort of happens by itself.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions, or would like to schedule a parenting consultation for additional assistance. Please visit for more information.

My teenage daughter rarely talks to me about anything ...

Q: I have a 15 year old daughter, and have been somewhat strict with her over the last few years. Could you give me any advice on how to get her to talk to us and get her to open up more? She rarely talks to me about anything ...
[There was much more to this email, so I whittled it down for brevity's sake.]

A: First I would like to refer you to a few earlier posts that may be helpful.

26 Ways to Get Teenagers To Stop Talking to You


Correct them.

Raise your voice.


Question their intelligence and judgment.

Criticize them.

Don't take them seriously.

Use sarcasm.

Lecture them.

Speak condescendingly.

Tell them they are wrong, misinformed, or immature.

Talk more than you listen.

Compare them to other kids: Why can't you be like ...

Tell them how worried you are about them.

Bring up something they told you out of context later.

Offer solutions that they did not ask for.

Punish them based on what they disclose to you.

Try to manipulate them using guilt or shame.

Remind them that you are in charge.

Be a hypocrite: tell them to do as you say not as you do.

Lie to them.

Demand respect, but don't give it.

Betray their trust or confidence.

Refuse to acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes at times.

Bring up a list of transgressions from the past to help you prove your point.

Predict a negative outcome for their future.

7 ways to deal with all that Halloween candy

For parents who are not big fans of sugar, chocolate, or artificial colors and flavors, Halloween presents a real dilemma. You don't want to be the heavy and spoil the fun, but on the other hand, you also may not be eager to deal with a kid who is hyped up on sugar for weeks or even months after the big day. Here are some ways to handle that gargantuan pile of candy:

1.) Let them eat all they want for a certain period of time, then throw out the rest. Share your opinions about health and nutrition with your child, and collaborate together on a time frame that feels relatively okay for both of you.

Expect major indulgence during that time. You are not allowed to make even one tiny little comment like "Are you eating candy again?" or mutter as much as single "I told you so" under your breath. The beauty of this option is that your child gets to experience his own tummy ache, sugar crash, headache, brain fog, or whatever. And when you stay out of it, he's got nowhere to place the blame except the candy.

By the way, I asked my dentist about this, and she said a few days of total indulgence is not likely to lead to tooth decay. It's far more damaging to bathe the teeth in juice, soda, coffee with sugar, or hard candy on a regular basis. So you've got the green light from her to use the approach.

Oh, and if you go this route, you might feel better about it if you focus on serving ultra-nutritious meals during that time.

2.) Let them have one piece a day. When we did this, the candy became a major focus of every day- which kind, when would they get to eat it, could they have just one more piece today, pretty please, Mom? I was the candy controller, which was a job I didn't care for. This option may deprive your child of getting to experience the joys and perils of overindulgence, and thus remove the opportunity for her to learn to regulate her own intake. Some kids will lose interest or forget to ask at some point, and then you can just throw it away.

3.) Do nothing. Just keep serving nutritious meals and snacks, and let them work it out on their own. The idea would be to fill 'em up with tempting and tasty healthy stuff, thus leaving less room for candy and giving their bodies more nutrients with which to process the junk. When my kids were little, I was too much of a nutrition and control freak for this to work for me, but I put it in the list for those of you who are more laid back and trusting than I was.

4.) Buy them off. Some parents pay money, and others prefer to exchange toys or fun activities for the candy. This can work pretty well if the payoff is big and exciting enough. I met hardly any resistance when I made the offer a day or two after Halloween. When they are getting sick of candy anyway, a new toy or trip to the aquarium looks pretty appealing.

5.) Teach them the possible effects that candy could have on their bodies, moods, and concentration, tell them you know that they will figure out what feels best for their bodies, and let it go. Invest your energy in being a good role model and preparing nutritious meals instead.

6.) Substitute healthier versions. Sunspire makes tasty chocolate, Panda makes yummy licorice, and there are lots of other options at your local health food store, including vegan gummy bears!

7.) Argue about it every day until their trick or treat bucket is empty. Tell them their teeth will rot if they keeping eating all that candy. Try to make them feel guilty for liking sweets. And let me know how that works out for ya!

My daughter is scared to be alone.

Q: Our 4 year old daughter has recently become scared about going to the bathroom alone, and also doesn't want to go to sleep alone. Sometimes when she hears a loud noise, she hits whoever is next to her. We don't know how to handle this situation.

A: You mentioned that this started recently. I'm not a therapist, but it sounds like perhaps she experienced some kind of traumatic event, and her nervous system has decided it needs to stay 'on alert' all the time.

That 'on alert' response isn't only triggered by something big, like a death or an injury. It can happen any time a child feels powerless to control something that is hurting her -- like being bullied, visiting the doctor or dentist, hearing a scary story or seeing something on television, or even witnessing something painful happening to somebody else. Some kids are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others. At age four, kids step out into the world in a bigger way, and they hear lots of things that might be scary. It could be as simple as that.

Is it okay to read my child's diary?

Q: Is it ok to read my nine-year old's diary? I certainly think so since I want to know if there is something in there that a parent should know.

A: This is a sticky question, and I'm not going to be able to give you a hard and fast answer. But I can give you my opinion, and some things to consider as you make your own decision.

How to Remove the Underwires on Bras for Teenage Girls

I'm not a fan of underwires, especially for teens. Their breasts haven't even finished growing yet and we need to corral them with metal antennas that could restrict the lymphatic flow? Yikes. Just doesn't make sense to me. But all the cute bras are constructed that way. And we all know how important it is to have a cute bra!

Enter my friend the seamstress with a magical solution. It's called a seam ripper, and is available pretty much anywhere ... Target, the grocery store, or of course, a fabric store. You can see a picture and read about it here:

You can buy whatever fabric and style your daughter wants, and when you get home, turn the bra inside out and use the seam ripper to cut a tiny slit in one end of the sleeve that holds the underwire. Push the other end to pop the little white tip out of the opening, and the whole underwire just slides right out.

You can just leave the slit there, rather than sewing it closed. It won't unravel in the wash or anything. The modification is completely invisible.

teaching social graces

My preschooler has started noticing differences in people -- the size of their noses or other body parts, their age, their clothing, etc. -- and has been making rather indiscreet comments about his observations. When I talked to him about it, he was sort of bewildered about why it wasn't okay to talk loudly about things like this in public, because a big nose is no better or worse to him than a small one. He sort of has a point, so what's the best way to explain this social grace to him?

Oooh, first, let me say how much I love that you are even asking this question. Your son sounds deeply honest, aware, and insightful, as do you. I agree that he does have a bit of a point. And I also appreciate your concern as you navigate through this topic with him.

Here's what I'd probably say:

Yes, honey, I agree with you that size does not make a nose (or whatever) more or less beautiful. And not everyone thinks that way.

Can you imagine ... some people feel bad about how they look? And, there are even some people who laugh or make fun of others who have something sort of unusual about them?

Some people have had really sad experiences when it comes to their differences, and their feelings are a little bit tender. Some people LOVE their differences and wear them proudly.

Since we don't know which kind of person is in front of us, I would feel better if we didn't mention their differences where they could hear us. And as soon as we are in the car, you can ask me anything that you are curious about, and we can talk about it.

The saying From the mouths of babes did not come out of nowhere - kids are often candid in their expressions, sometimes refreshingly so. Change may not happen after just one conversation.

Don't forget how powerful it is to teach by example. You may want to make your social decisions more transparent to your child, by saying things like: I noticed that her nose was really big but I decided that wasn't something I wanted to talk about, so instead I asked about her flower garden, because I know she's so proud of it.

I hope this helps. I'd love to hear what you think, and invite readers to comment on how you have handled this successfully with your child.


overzealous playgroup participants

There's a toddler in our playgroup who is constantly tackling the other kids, much like a football player. He doesn't appear to be angry when it happens, and his mom steps in immediately to issue a firm NO and remove him from the situation. But within a few minutes he's running across the room to "attack" once again. What can we do?

Physically aggressive kids in playgroups can really raise a lot of parental hackles, and it's almost MORE exasperating when the physicality doesn't appear to be motivated by anger. Since the attacks seem so random and unpredictable, the other parents feel the need to keep their guard up all the time, and therefore don't relax or unwind. Not much playing gets done, by either parents or children.

I suspect the mother of this child is also quite upset by her son's behavior, since it is impacting her social life as well, and she is probably concerned that they will not be welcome at the playgroup for much longer if this keeps up. She's probably feeling embarrassed and ineffectual and frustrated.

So there's already a lot of stress in the room, and we've only thought about the parents so far!

Now let's look at what could be going on for the little boy. Bryan Post and Heather Forbes, in their book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, ( ) make an unusual yet powerful suggestion about the roots of aggressive behavior. My summary of their theory is that when kids (or adults) experience stress, they display a variety of unpleasant behaviors. The nervous system heats up, and an outlet must be found to release the steam. Some kids cling, some whine, some collapse. Some cry, some hit, some grab things, and some run. Others tackle.

Stress is an internal condition, not an external one, so the same situation may be stressful for one child and not for another. Think about the sensory stimulation at playgroups - strange surroundings with unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds. Other kids may be eating food that not everyone can share. There's usually only a certain number of toys, yet manners and turn-taking are not yet developmentally online in most toddlers. Plus, the parents may be hoping for a break and some adult conversation. Sounds like a set up for a meltdown, doesn't it?

If we look at our children's unpleasant behaviors as red flags that signal a nervous system on overload, our intervention changes. Of course we still jump up and remove the child to ensure safety for all. However, we don't then expect him to control himself and send him back in to the fray.

That would be akin to taking the battery out of a smoke detector to quiet that shrieking alarm until it's more convenient for us to leave the house. We'd get pretty burned if we did that. Instead, we drop everything and get out of there, pronto.

When a child's nervous system is overstimulated, he's sending us a message with his unpleasant behavior. That message could be Get me out of here!

So if his mom asked me what to do, I'd tell her to get him outta there when he starts tackling. They may not have to go home, though. She'll want to become a detective to learn what helps him settle down enough that he can safely reintegrate.

Maybe they can go outside and run a race around the fence together. Maybe they can go to the car where it is quiet and read a story and then come back in and see how it goes. Maybe a snack in another room will help. Maybe they need to go to the park before the group meets, so he's just a little bit tired. Maybe he's acting out BECAUSE he's a little bit tired, and instead he needs a quiet morning with lots of lap time before coming to the group. There's no one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every child.

If Mom experiments with many interventions to help settle him down and finds that absolutely nothing works, it may be useful for her to have him checked out for sensory integration issues. Occupational therapy can be a huge help for some kids who don't seem to know where their own bodies stop and start.

Some kids with sensory integration issues truly don't realize they are not hugging, but tackling -- either because they don't feel the feedback in their own bodies, or cannot yet control what their muscles are doing. Some kids with sensory issues hardly feel anything, and run into walls, other kids, and big objects just to figure out where they are in space. Early intervention can be profoundly helpful. Here's a terrific website with a lot of info on this topic:

In summary, tackling other kids could be his way of saying, "This situation is too much for me." As he matures, he will develop better strategies to communicate this and to settle himself down. But for now, he needs an adult to help him take a break, or take him home if necessary. And it may be worth a checkup to see if sensory integration issues are preventing him from behaving as his best self.

What do I do when my young child becomes physically aggressive?

I'll tell you one thing that many of us wish would work but usually doesn't: Saying things like, "Stop that!" or "Don't do that!" from across the room.

When your young child starts using his or her body in a way you are not happy about, you'll probably need to use your body to intervene. If your child is hitting, you'll gently catch his hand and hold it still or push it against something that is okay to hit. If your child is kicking, you'll gently catch her leg and move it in another direction. If your child is throwing, you'll gently aim his arm at a safe target. If your child is flailing around, you'll gently hold her arms and legs wrapped up in yours until she gathers her self control again.

Notice how often the word gently shows up in those sentences? Please use only exactly the amount of force that is necessary to redirect, contain, or protect, and not one ounce more. In our parenting workshops, Robin and I call it "protective action," a term we borrow from Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication model.

The idea is that our job as parents is to keep everyone safe. This includes protecting young children from doing damage to themselves, others, or property while their developing brains are still unable to control their impulsivity. We do a child no favor when we let him hit or hurt us or anyone else. Since he's too young to be reliably in control of his body, especially while he's feeling strong emotion, we need to be his external safeguard.

As we are gently containing, protecting, or redirecting, it can be helpful for us to say, "I will keep us safe." This reminds us that our intention is protection, not punishment. And it lets the child know that we are stepping in for the good of all concerned, including the aggressor.

When a child is acting out physically, it's not a teachable moment. Trying to use words to stop or redirect the behavior at that point is sort of like talking to a reptile. Emotions and learning don't mix. So take protective action until your child is calm enough to listen and talk. Then you can discuss alternative behaviors that will work better for him.

watch out for questions that are actually criticisms

Are you wearing THAT?

Do you really want to do that?

Are you aware of how that looks?

You don't really feel that way, do you?

Why are you doing that?

Feel kinda slimed as you read these? Me, too.

That's because these are not really requests for information or clarification -- they are actually thinly disguised criticisms. The underlying message seeps out between the lines: I disapprove of your choice. Now I want you to justify it to me so I can show you how wrong you are.

Whoever is asking these questions has already decided that the clothing, behavior, or decision in question is wrong, unwise, inappropriate, or ill advised. Most of us, teens included, react defensively to this kind of covert attack. We're not usually eager to have an extended conversation about how stupid someone thinks we are.

Want your teen to talk to you? Try these openers instead:

I'm wondering if you might get really chilly tonight wearing a sleeveless shirt to the football game.

I see you've decided on a plan of action. Can we talk about some of my concerns?

I'm worried that the skirt you are wearing might attract sexual attention from older men. What are your thoughts about that?

I'd like to hear more about how you feel.

I'm nervous about some possible ramifications of that decision. You've probably thought about this already ... and I would feel so much better if we could chat a bit so you can reassure me that you've covered all the bases.

You'll create a much stronger relationship with your teen if you can leave disapproval out of the recipe. Assume she has good (but not always totally well informed) reasons for the choices she has made, and make a genuine request for her to share her perspective and reasoning with you.

Listen respectfully, and ask permission before sharing your concerns or opinions. Ask questions like, "How have you decided to handle any potential unexpected obstacles ... an injury ... car trouble ... or if someone you rode with starts drinking?" Bringing up contingencies this way respects our teenager's autonomy, and introduces potential pitfalls onto her radar screen without insulting her.

Strive to become curious rather than critical, respectful rather than judgmental, and you will position yourself as an ally to be consulted rather than an enemy to be avoided.

sneaking in veggies

Here's my recipe for a delicious smoothie that your kids will never know contains the equivalent of two huge salads!

2 c. fresh fruit juice (I like OJ best)
2-3 bananas (either fresh or frozen will work)
1 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)
4 c. lettuce or salad greens (I use the organic stuff from Costco that comes in a big tub. It's already washed and ready to eat.)

optional: a peach or mango if you have one handy
whey protein powder

Blend it up, adding water if necessary. The blueberries will disguise the green color. My teenage daughter has the most discerning palate in the world, and she could not taste the lettuce -- even after she knew it was in there!

Preventing Teenage Rebellion

The other morning at 7 am I was laying in bed floating in that luscious I'm-still-half-dreaming state, remembering with pleasure my son's last words as he drove away to start his new life away from home: "Bye Mom. Been nice living with ya!"

My sleepy ears heard an indistinct female voice call out a few brief words in the distance. Rapidly this was followed by a young male's exasperated voice shattering the quiet of my townhome parking lot with a piercing, "I HATE YOU!" I'm sure the intensity must have awakened any of my neighbors who were still asleep. And then, as soon as the echo dissipated, all was quiet again.

The next morning, I happened to see a boy of about 16 walking through the parking lot wearing a backpack. Right behind him, running a comb through HIS hair, was a woman who appeared to be his mother. And suddenly it all made sense.

I think it may be unfortunate that our culture seems to expect teens to be angry, disrespectful, and rebellious, as if it's a normal part of human development. It seems to me that teens act out for a good reason: We are smothering them, and it's often the only way they can carve out any autonomy or identity for themselves.

If we think anger and rebellion are normal, we are missing the opportunity to notice how we could be contributing to the dynamic that creates it. Instead of looking at our relationship and asking ourselves where we might be too controlling, we sort of symbolically pat our teens on the head condescendingly. Aww, look, how cute that he is going through that angry stage and he hates me.

I've known plenty of teenagers who didn't hate their parents and didn't need to rebel. These are the kids whose parents, as often as they could, said things like:

Check it out.
It's your choice.
Let's find out together.
Go ahead, try it.
I'll help you if you want me to.
It's okay to make mistakes.
What do you think about that?
How does that feel to you?
Can we talk about what might happen if you decide to do it that way?
How did that turn out?
What are your options?
Anything I can do to help?

These kids developed strong decision making muscles at an early age. They got to feel their own competence, learn from experience, and develop identities as individuals. Their boundaries were respected, not violated, so they had no need to build walls of anger for protection. They either comb their own hair or wear it messy because they like it that way.

What is there to rebel against when they are exercising their own judgment?

Maybe teenage rebellion is a cultural phenomenon, not a biological one. If your teen hates you more often than he likes you, take a look at how you are treating him. Have you handed over as much control over his life to him as you possibly can, including decisions about what to wear, where to work, how to spend his free time, and how to manage his schoolwork?

Have you moved into the position of advisor and resource rather than director and boss?

If not, then you are still metaphorically combing his hair. It's no surprise that he hates it. Wouldn't you?

(For all I know, that kid had some kind of combing disability and he wanted and needed his mom's help. I can't say for sure what their situation is. Her behavior might have been perfectly appropriate. But I think these kinds of questions are still useful for most of us who are parenting teenagers to ask ourselves periodically.)

Why can't my preschooler just cooperate with me?

Q: My preschool daughter seems to resist cooperating with me so much of the time. I remember you saying some kids are more sensitive to having to go along with someone else's agenda than others. What is my best response to this when I recognize it happening? Do I say more to her about my loving reasons for the agenda of getting out the door on time? Do I try to enlist her to share the agenda ... or what?

A: Yes, some kids truly do seem to need more autonomy than others, and they often have a keenly developed nose for sniffing out agendas and resisting them. In fact, it's not just kids! Plenty of adults hate being told what to do, too.

Sharing Joint Custody of a Teenager: A Reality Check

Q: I've been a divorced father for almost five years. My 16 and 14 year old daughters won't see me or take my calls. I know they would benefit from knowing me better because I could be a positive influence in their lives. I just wish they could see me through their own eyes instead of through their mom's.

A: Joint custody with an angry or bitter ex is tough enough. Add a couple of teenagers to the mix, and the potential for frustration increases exponentially. From the rest of your email, I can see that you are doing SO MANY things well! Kudos to you for communicating so clearly and openly during this truly challenging time.

The Importance of Solitude

I'm a stressed-out stay at home mom of 3 kids (ages 9, 6 and 3) and feel exhausted. My patience is shorter than ever and I need some advice on how to recharge and be a better mom, which to me means being more patient, more willing to answer question after question, and finding more effective ways to deal with many parenting issues that come up each day.

On the day I received this email, I had gotten up early to enjoy several uninterrupted hours in the mountains, and was stunned at how much better I felt, even though I was already feeling pretty good before I went.

So ... for this mom, I have one word of advice. Actually, three words:

Solitude is critical.

Raising kids is sort of like being devoured by small piranhas. They'll eat you alive one little bite at a time with their constant questions and requests and need for attention. And it's not their job to notice that we need a break and give it to us! We need to take responsibility for realizing that we are burning out, and take care of ourselves by retreating into solitude.

We don't have to go to a spa or get a massage or do anything exotic with that time. It's unbelievably refreshing just to be quiet; to finish a thought without interruption, to move at our natural pace, to let our minds and bodies settle into stillness, and to have no agenda except honoring our own impulses.

It doesn't even take that much time to recharge. A couple hours is usually enough for me. But those hours have to be absolutely mine -- no cell phone, no visits with friends, no paying bills or running errands, no accomplishing anything or being productive. All else being equal, I like to get out of my house and into nature, preferably near some running water.

The details don't really matter. What's important is that we all need time alone. Parents of young children need it even more than the rest of us, but often have a harder time finding it. No parenting advice or technique will be helpful if you are too burned out to apply it. To instantly and organically improve your parenting, calm your mind and settle your soul by taking some time for yourself.

My 13 year old girl sent a provocative picture of herself to a 15 yr old boy! 13 year old girl sent a provocative picture of herself to a 15 yr old boy! I don't know what to do!!! I feel like I am all over the place when I try to discipline her... and when I try to talk to her. What are appropriate consequences for this stuff?!?!

The email was quite a bit longer than this and contained much more information. I think you can understand my response without all the details, though:

A: First, let's examine the things that went right.

She TOLD you. Yes, you had her phone in hand and were going to find out anyway, but nonetheless, it speaks highly of your relationship and her trust in you that she did not just wait for you to find out when she wasn't there to face the music, and she also did not gamble that you wouldn't see it. This is a big deal, and worth celebrating. It demonstrates good character that she came clean. She did not have to say it to your face but she did. You can be proud of the fact that she trusted you with a very vulnerable situation.

asking nicely

In response to my post "Ask, Don't Tell" a parent wrote:

I often ask my children nicely if they will do some task, and they answer just as nicely, "No thanks."

"How about you help me set the table for dinner?"
"No thanks, I'm playing.".
"Well - I really could use the help."
"I don't really want to right now."

What would you do about that?

A few options come to mind to experiment with:

I might say, "Hmm, you don't want to do it, and I'm too busy cooking to do it. That's a dilemma! What can we do?" and then wait to see what happens.

I might ask them if they think they could do it in 5 minutes.

I might change my question to, "When can you help me set the table for dinner?" or "Let me know when you are at a good stopping place and we can set the table together."

Knowing this is a pattern, I might try giving them more advance notice to let them bring their current activity to a close. "Honey, I'll be asking for your help setting the table in about 15 minutes."

I might bring it up during a warm and connected time together, and ask "Hey, you know that setting the table thing? I would really love to have your help, and I wonder if we could figure out a better way for that to happen."

I might try responding, "Okay, no problem. As soon as the table is set I'll serve up dinner."

I might just grab a plate for myself and fill it with food and enjoy it, and let everyone else do the same.

I might go ahead and set the table myself, which might then delay dinner or impact my post-meal enthusiasm for kid-friendly activities because I need time to recover from all the extra work.

I might set it myself and not say anything at all.

I might walk over to where they are, touch them or make eye contact, and say, "Honey, will you please help me by setting the table for dinner?" Sometimes it takes close proximity and/or contact for your request to penetrate their awareness enough to divert their attention and momentum.

To capture their attention in a light-hearted way, I might pretend to have a tantrum and lay on the floor kicking and screaming, or I might laugh and make a joke of it by chanting please-please-c'mon-pretty-please-I'm-begging-you-on-my-knees.

If I was cranky, I might take my voice up a notch or two in volume and intensity and ask again, to see if I could capture their attention that way.

I might say nothing and do nothing -- just sit at the empty table and wait.

So there are lots of ways to respond to this without resorting to orders, demands, or shame. When we are mentally caught up in thinking about how wrong our children are for not helping us, or how we must not be good parents or they would jump eagerly to please us, it's harder to think of creative ways to get the table set.

To generate even more options, ask yourself what you might do if you politely asked a co-worker for assistance, and she declined to lend a hand.

I hope this helps.

How do I get my kid to stop playing video games and go outside?

I am concerned with my child's unwillingness to do anything outside of our home. All he wants to do is watch tv, or play video games. We cancelled the cable and took away the game stations in hopes that this would encourage him to get out make friends and play. When that didn't work, we enrolled him in as many summer activities as we could afford and we have started making him go outside and walk to the park which is about 3 blocks from where we live. I feel like I am being harsh when family and friends call and say that they have seen my son out and that he looks so sad or he looks so lonely. Please if you could offer any advice or just peace of mind I would be greatly appreciative.

You don't mention the age of your son, but I'm guessing he's at least in elementary school. I'd be curious to know why he doesn't want to go outside, and to find out, I'd just ask him.

It might sound something like this: "Hey, son, I've noticed you seem to want to spend most of your time indoors playing games and watching TV, and I'm wondering what makes that so much more interesting to you than going outside. Will you tell me about it?"

You may be surprised at what is going on in his head. You may discover that he gets overheated in the sun, or feels like he's not good at sports and is embarrassed, or that the kids in the neighborhood are always offering him drugs and he'd rather not be put in that position. Would your feelings about him staying inside so much change if you found out that one of these factors was motivating his behavior? Mine probably would.

Until you understand his reasoning and motivation, your attempts to get him outside may be ineffective at best, or drive a wedge between you at worst. Find out what is going on for him, and you'll have a jumping off point for a collaboration.

So let's get you off the hook by reframing your job as a parent. You are not required to force him outside. If you were to succeed, it would be a hollow victory anyhow, because you haven't achieved anything that he is likely to continue to do for himself without your enforcement.

So what is your job, then? To communicate your concerns, invite him to share his, and then to teach him by example how to collaborate on win-win solutions.

Let's listen in on a collaboration so we can see how it might sound.

The invitation:

Son, would this be a good time to talk a bit about this 'going outside' situation? I'm not feeling good about trying to force the issue all the time, and I'd like to learn more about what's up for you. Would you be willing to tell me about why you'd rather play games or watch TV than go outdoors?

A possible response:

Well, Mom, the kids next door seem really nice, I know, but whenever there are no adults around they shoot at me with their pellet gun, and it hurts! I'd rather just stay in here where it's safe and they can't bug me. You always make me go out alone and it's just like I have a big target on my shirt.

Reflect what you heard to let him know you understand what he just said, and ask if there's more:

Sounds like you'd rather stay inside so you don't have to deal with them. Anything else going on?

After you are sure he knows you understand his reasoning and are not trying to talk him out of it, but only to understand where he is coming from, then go ahead and ask permission to share your concerns:

Can I tell you why I'm always bugging you about this?

Share your concerns:

I feel like a bad mom if I let you miss out on all that sunshine and fresh air and exercise that is so healthy for our bodies. I'm worried about what could happen to the muscles of your hands, or your vision, if you play games for so many hours in a row without moving around.

Now, time to collaborate:

Hmmm, what could we do about this situation?

Pause, to let him generate some ideas, then make some suggestions of your own if you wish:

Maybe we could ride our bikes together down by the creek, or play catch in the back yard? (It's no coincidence that both of these suggestions involve a structured activity with you, rather than just sending him out alone with nothing specific to do. Your presence will go a long way toward sweetening his experience as well as helping him feel safe and protected.)

Sort through the solutions with him and find some that work for both of you. Then try them out, and see how it goes.

You may have noticed that this technique requires us as parents to get clear about what we want and why. We may have heard somewhere that it was good for our kids to play outside, but until we can specifically understand and communicate why we think it is good, as well as open our minds and try to understand why our kids don't think it's good, we are not ready for a collaboration.

Sometimes, when we sit down to sort this stuff out, we discover that our request was rather arbitrary in the first place, and we may decide to just let it go. That's not being weak or inconsistent as a parent, it's being honest and clear.

I hope this helps. Let me know how it turns out.

When your kids don't want to see their other parent (and you kinda wish they didn't have to)

Here's an excerpt from an email I received recently:

I have two incredible kids, ages 7 and 9, and have been divorced from their father for a few years. The problem is, he is a complete trophy father when he is single, but when he is dating he is absolutely awful. The kids cry when the time comes for him to come get them, begging me to allow them to stay home. If they ask him if they can stay with me he gets nasty with them and hangs up on them, which he has done often, even calling them names at times. I have started taking my kids to a therapist, but I don't know what to do about their father. Help! Please! I don't know what to do, he won't listen to what I tell him when it comes to the kids and how they feel.

My heart goes out to this mom and the thousands of other parents who could have also written this letter. This is a deeply painful situation that pushes almost every button in a parent's psyche. I will answer this reader's question about the kids not wanting to see their father, but please know that this same advice also applies when kids don't want to see their mothers.

I'll offer several suggestions for you to chew on. You may not like some or all of them -- my opinions are usually pretty radical. I'll trust you to experiment with whatever resonates with you and leave the rest. So here we go:

It would be easy for me to jump on the ain't he awful bandwagon, and commiserate about how wrong he is for doing all these things. But I'm not sure how helpful that would be for you. If you are wanting empathy, as we all do at times, I'd encourage you to talk with sympathetic friends.

As for me ... I cannot tell you how to make their father listen to you.

I cannot help you teach your girls how to get him to listen to them.

What I may be able to help you do is re-calibrate your expectations of him with what he IS doing, and take your focus off of what he SHOULD be doing. And once you are grounded in what is real at this moment in time, any actions you need to take will become obvious.

So let's start with what is happening. What can you count on him to do? At the risk of oversimplifying and overdramatizing, let's say: partner with women who are not maternal or even cruel, ignore your kids when he's in a relationship, get angry and defensive, call them names, refuse to listen or communicate constructively, etc. Not that he's going to be this way forevermore, but for now, that's been pretty consistent, right?

When we divert our energy into thinking about what he should be doing better, we miss some opportunities to take action ourselves, and to empower our kids to do the same. So for the time being, let's assume his behavior is not going to change anytime soon, and that no amount of bringing it to his attention will impact it.

In the state where I live, being uncommunicative, mean, and defensive is not legal grounds for a reduction in parenting time. The courts will take action if there's evidence of neglect or abuse, of course, but if I am hearing you right, this is not happening in your case. I'd advise you to consult with your attorney to see if any legal action can be taken.

You mentioned you were thinking about moving out of state. It may indeed come to that, but denying kids contact with a parent can have a long-lasting impact on their sense of wholeness and well-being, and there are many other things you can try before you even think about going that route.

I love that you are taking the kids to a therapist, and would encourage you to see one yourself, who can help you tell the difference between your reactions to what is happening and your kids' reactions. It can be hard to sort that out ourselves.

Although it breaks our hearts to see it, crying will not damage our children. Nor will disappointment. Please understand, I don't mean to belittle our children's emotional pain, or our pain when we see our children suffering! It can feel devastating. I truly do understand that.

And given the nature of this world, no matter how much energy we put into preventing our kids from having to experience pain, we cannot. Life will make sure to disappoint all of us at some point. And that's a good thing. The ashes of disappointment are fertile ground in which the seeds of resolve, clarity, and determination can sprout and take root.

What you may not realize is how much of a difference your presence makes in the life of your kids. Because you are there, standing as an example of availability, compassion, and presence, they will never be confused about how they want and deserve to be treated. The trick is not to lose your center by becoming angry at him when you hear what's he's doing, because this takes your focus off of listening and being present with your girls.

How do we do that? We work through our own guilt and anger in therapy or with friends. We forgive ourselves for picking him as their father, or for leaving him to meet our own needs, or for any harm we think our choices may have caused to our children.

When we've done this inner work, then we can listen. We can empathize. We can stay engaged with our kids, even when they are in pain, without feeling enraged or guilty. We can witness their experience with compassion, and help them find their way through.

We teach them by example that big feelings are okay, and that we are not afraid of them, and that they pass all on their own eventually, just like a thunderstorm. These are powerful lessons that will serve our children well every day of their lives.

We avoid jumping on the ain't he awful bandwagon together, and instead help our kids to stay focused on experiencing their feelings in the moment. "How does that feel in your body? I notice your hands are squeezed tight -- what are they saying?"

We don't ask questions about the details of what was said or done, we keep the focus on their feelings. We set our own thoughts and feelings and judgments aside for processing with adults later, and we allow our kids to fully express theirs.

Here's what is amazing about this process: when the energy of feelings is allowed to flow freely, the intensity naturally dissipates. I know a mother who would sit with her son and just listen for 15 minutes or so to his intense anger and outrage after he came back from visiting his father. And then he would suddenly just run out of steam, and ask what was for dinner beore heading outside to shoot hoops or something.

She did not agree or disagree, she just let him vent. She could not fix it for him, as much as she wanted to, so she didn't offer suggestions or give advice. She could not impact his dad in any way, so she could not help. All she could do was love him and listen. And it was enough.

Years down the line, not much changed at his other house. His dad was still doing the same old stuff. But her son's feelings about it were different. He stopped taking his dad's behavior personally. He stopped thinking that if he just told his father what he needed, he would give it. He became somewhat impervious to it - he would say, Yeah, you know, that's just Dad. He still loved him. He just took him with a grain of salt. And he learned some strategies for dealing with others that will come in real handy later in life.

You may never change your ex's behavior, or protect your kids from having to cope with it. But you can let your frustration strengthen your resolve to be the kind of parent your kids deserve. They will naturally recognize and gravitate towards emotional health when it is available. So make sure it is, in YOU. The rest will work itself out.

note: There are many additional important points in my responses to the comments below, so please consider reading them for additional helpful information. 

ask, don't tell

I wonder where we got the idea that our kids are supposed to blindly obey our orders, and how that delusion persists in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. Maybe it came from the same myth-makers who told us Children should be seen and not heard.

In any case, let's just forget about that blind obedience thing. This generation of kids never received that memo anyway. It's causing a lot of frustration for parents and children alike, and creating unnecessary power struggles.

Instead of telling your children what to do, try asking them instead. You are far more likely to receive a cooperative response when you say, "Honey, think you can get those toys picked up before we have lunch?" rather than, "Pick those toys up right now!"

I know I've mentioned my little respect-and-cooperation formula before, but perhaps not in this venue.

To achieve maximum cooperation and gain the respect you desire, speak to your kids the same way you would to a visiting neighbor.

No, I'm not kidding! It really works.

If your elderly neighbor spilled her lemonade, would you chastise her, or just accept her apology and help her clean it up? Can you imagine how grateful your kids would feel to be extended the same kindness and benefit of the doubt? It's really just common courtesy, but it may not be common enough between parent and child.

Yes, of course, we all blow our stacks and yell at the kids sometimes, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about everyday interactions, where we think we are failing as parents because our kids don't instantly comply with our orders. But we're not failures - our expectations and strategies are simply obsolete.

When we treat our kids with courtesy and respect, they actually WANT to respect us back. Neat how that works out, huh? And really much simpler than trying to force compliance.

good food/bad food

Parents often think it is our job to teach our children about healthy and unhealthy foods:

"Sugar and junk food are bad for you. Eat something healthy, like carrot sticks, instead."

I'm simply not convinced that this approach is very effective. Weak food/strong food, healthy/not healthy, good for you/bad for you are all externally imposed value judgments, and are only the endpoints of what is actually a continuum of value that is different for each person's body chemistry.

Many kids respond to pronouncements and directives such as these with rebellion, rather than acceptance. (You'll find them sneaking candy bars and hiding them in their rooms, or getting 'bad food' from a friend's house.)

It's not really that surprising, is it? Kids learn best through experience. When we forget that and issue directives, all we do is clutter up their feedback loop. "I don't care if my stomach hurts or not - I'm gonna eat it anyway! She's not the boss of me!"

What if instead, we let our children's appetite and inner sensory feedback guide their choices? What if we mention our concerns and our own experiences, and then encourage them to experiment and gather information about their own bodies?

Here's how it sounds to share our concerns:

I'm concerned that chocolate might make it hard for you to fall asleep in an hour.

I'm concerned that if you eat more bread right now, you won't be hungry for your chicken when it comes.

Here's how it sounds to share our experiences:

When I have chocolate after dinner, it's hard for me to fall asleep.

When I eat lots of bread before my dinner comes, I notice I sometimes am not hungry for the meal I ordered, and I usually feel sort of sleepy and cranky after that.

I love how much energy I have all day when I have a big salad with turkey on top for my lunch!

Both of these can be followed by:

It will be interesting to see how your body feels after eating that.

I don't know about you, but I don't want my kid walking around thinking that 'bad' food has some kind of magical power over his body. I'd rather help him simply link up how he feels after eating, and then step aside so he can conduct the next experiment.

As always, it goes without saying that parents can be very influential role models by demonstrating the kind of eating habits you hope he will develop. I wouldn't advise stocking your fridge with only soda or your shelves with only candy. But I also wouldn't advise sending your child to a birthday party with a sugar free granola bar to avoid all the toxins in birthday cake! Most of us can handle anything in moderation, and being afraid of food is not healthy, either.

As much as possible, let your kids learn for themselves how they feel after eating certain things. Make the process safe by being empathetic rather than saying "I told you so!" The conclusions they draw from their experiments will be far more powerful than any lessons you've tried to teach them.

take the pressure off!

You know what 90% of my work with parents consists of? Helping them to release the conglomeration of 'shoulds' that they have gathered along the way, which are burdening them like a bunch of barnacles on a ship.

Children should eat three square meals a day.
Children should obey their parents.
Children should have an early bedtime.
Children should be potty trained by age 3.

None of these are universally true, but we often feel like inadequate parents if we can't achieve them! Maybe grazing on nutrient rich foods all day long suits your child's body chemistry better than three square meals. Maybe your child would be better off going to bed at 9:30 and sleeping in until 9 am so she can spend time with her daddy when he comes home from work at 8. Maybe your particular child responds far better to requests than orders or demands.

Who knows what works best for your family? Yep - only you. And how do you know? You experiment. You try different options and see how it goes. Books, other parents, and 'experts' can be a useful source of ideas to experiment with, but nothing can replace your intuition, your connection with your child, and your own experience.

Parenting is a journey, not a destination. It's one big ongoing experiment. We will never get it down to a formula that works in every situation forevermore. It's the flexible willow, not the rigid oak, that survives the storm.

When you let go of all those 'shoulds', you have more resources available to generate strategies that actually work instead of being frustrated that what should work, doesn't! It's okay to lighten up and play with new ideas and see how it goes.

a mother's heart

I took my 17 year old son to enlist tonight. That's him with my daughter and I at his high school graduation a couple weeks ago.

It surprises me that hours later, I am still crying. I thought I'd just say goodbye and turn my attention to the next thing. I know he is prepared. We were all prepared. I knew this day was coming for months in advance. Years, really.

I willingly signed the papers that allowed him to join before age 18. So it should have been no big deal, right?

Ha. Right. I never knew I had so many tears in me. I can't quite explain what is going on behind the waterworks - it feels like some kind of primal maternal grief. It makes no sense, but that doesn't seem to matter.

My boy is now a man.

My role has changed forever.

And I will miss him. That goofy earnest grin, thumping down the stairs on that impossibly noisy body. The pocket knives being snapped open and closed ad infinitum. The overly technical explanations of all-things-computer that I could hardly understand a word of.

The military will be so lucky to have him. Ever since he was a little guy, he was always willing to drop anything to help someone. We moved a few weeks ago, during the time that he was preparing his final presentation for his high school graduation. Nevertheless, he provided solo tech support and heavy lifting for me and his sister. He had so many tasks of his own to complete, but the second he got wind of the teensiest curse emanating from the vicinity of my desk, he was at my side, ready to assist.

It seems like yesterday that I first looked into his newborn eyes and was shocked to realize that there was someone already in there, not just an empty vessel waiting to be filled. I can't believe 17 years could possibly have passed since then. They have been wonderful years, truly. I love my son with all my heart, and I could not be prouder of the man he has made of himself.

I know I have said this before, but perhaps it bears repeating. The active parenting years fly by. Few of us, parent and child alike, will remember the details. But your children will remember some things after they are grown: things like whether you approved of them, trusted in them, or gave them the benefit of the doubt.

They will remember whether you had confidence in them or not, and whether you saw their good intentions. They will remember if it was safe to tell you everything. They will remember the tone of your voice.

In fact, it's entirely possible that not only will our children remember the tone of our voices, but they may even hear our words to them repeated in their own minds for many years after they have left our care.

So today, while your kids are young and making so many mistakes as they figure out how things work, please be aware of how you speak to them. You still have time to make sure that when they leave your nest, you will feel good about the inner parent they have created from your example. And while you may still cry as they walk confidently away, your tears will be those of pure and simple sadness, untainted by regret.

And how interesting that as I write these words, my tears have finally stopped. For truly, I have no regrets. For this I can thank the many excellent authors and mentors who graced my parenting journey with the wisdom of their experience, as well as my own mother, who so gracefully continues to be the source of a parenting template based on unconditional love and respect.

Oh, and I can also thank my very shoddy and selective memory, since it has not stored up anything I am ashamed of for me to remember. Except that one time, when he was a toddler and in a very defiant phase, when I snapped and swatted his bottom. I felt terrible - that look in his eyes was devastating. Until that moment, he had trusted me implicitly. For the first time that day, I saw him fear me. Ouchie.

If you find some memories that you regret, too, it's never too late to make amends. Tell your child of any age what happened, how you feel about what you did, and what you wish you had done instead. Ask about their memories, their feelings, and their experiences related to that. Ask for their forgiveness, and forgive yourself. Then move on. We are all doing the best we can in any given moment.

Goodbye, son. Good luck (even though you won't need it.)

It's time for you to fly.

postscript: what a difference 24 hours makes! there's something magical for me about expressing my feelings in writing. once I have fine tuned the words so that they feel like the exact expression of my feelings, the feelings themselves seem to dissipate. maybe the ink holds them instead of my heart -- I dunno. What I do know is that I felt immeasurably better when I went to bed last night, and the trend has continued. So in a way, the words above are already lies, because my experience has changed. But I'll leave them here anyway, in case they resonate with someone else someday.

What if my child shows no remorse?

Q: Our 6 year old son has had issues since learning to walk. Defiance is key with him. He has ALWAYS done whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. As I’ve said above, we’ve done everything we know how, and everything counselors have told us to do and none of it works. The scariest thing is through all the consequences, through all the rewards, through all the extra attention and ‘time-in’, he just doesn’t care. He will look you straight in the eye and say “I stole, I know it is wrong” with no remorse, no care. You can cry and be honest with him how it saddens you as a parent and he looks at you blankly. 

A: It sounds like he may be emotionally closed off due to some kind of internal distress. If so, it makes sense that guilt and crying and all that other stuff that may seem to work with your other kids won't penetrate his shell. Often, despite appearances, kids actually have a whole lot of feelings happening underneath those blank looks.

For starters, I'd recommend that you ask your doctor to complete a thorough medical evaluation in case there are physical or developmental issues that are impacting your son. 

Be There After School

Between the hours of 3:30 and 5 pm, I've learned the following information about my kids' classmates:

who is cutting
who is having sex
who is smoking pot
who is sneaking out at night
who is contemplating or has attempted suicide
who is being abused at home
who has access to guns

This treasure trove of data flows freely at our kitchen table on a daily basis. The precious first few moments when kids walk in the door after school are a magical window of opportunity - they are weary from carrying information that is complex and disturbing all day, and they want help making sense of it. Just like that big heavy backpack ... it's such a relief to drop the burden with a thud the second they get in the door.

For this reason, I try to make it a point to stop whatever I am doing and sit down with them while they eat a hearty snack. On the days that I miss this magic window, they have moved on to other projects by the time we connect, and the concerns of the school day are no longer so easily accessible.

These kitchen table conversations about other people's problems (or OPP as they call them on a local radio station) are PRICELESS. We hash it all out together in neutral territory. I get to say things like, "Wow, I wonder if your friends know that if they don't use condoms correctly, they could get pregnant." Or, "Gee, I wonder if she considered that those naked pictures she texted to her boyfriend's cell phone could end up being seen by thousands of people on the internet."

If my kids think I'm being paranoid or overly cautious, we often move to the computer to do some research together to prove me wrong. (And sometimes I am wrong ... but not often. LOL) Many times those informative links get emailed off to their classmates.

Of course, there's a more obvious benefit to being home after school if you can. Research tells us that an astronomical percentage of first sexual encounters and drug experimentation happens between the hours of 3 and 6 pm.

If you have to work and can't be home to supervise, here are a few ideas for supportive structures you might consider putting in place: call home frequently, text them, come home early without notice every so often so they never know when you might show up, or randomly send a neighbor to your door to ask for a cup of sugar.

You might also encourage your teen get an after school job. Something as simple as helping the mom next door take care of her young children or walking dogs in the neighborhood can be productive, income-generating, and encourages pro-social connections.

Even the most reponsible kids still have moments of brain snafu, so don't make it easy for them to get into permanent trouble while acting on a temporary impulse. Know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Our teens still need adult supervision -- not the prying and intrusive kind of supervision, but the kind that could knock on their door any second to deliver a plate of cookies, and will notice what they are up to.

Dealing with Inappropriate Behavior

How do you suggest dealing with things such as calling me names (like dumb and stupid), throwing things at me or other members of the family, destroying something in the house or other such behavior?

How do I be sensitive to my child's needs and yet still teach her about boundaries?

I'd read those kinds of outbursts as signal flares or indicators that tell you your child's nervous system is overwhelmed. When she's feeling calm and centered, those things don't happen. And once she's already gone over the edge, she's no longer receptive to reason or a lesson.

This is why parents are so often frustrated that their kids continue to repeat undesirable behaviors even after they've given them a consequence. Children who are focusing on their own pain, loss, or disappointment are not receptive to learning. Additionally, consequences alone do not teach children what you want them to do next time. They need concrete guidance during a time when their brains are receptive to learning in order to make a change.

So, what's a parent to do? First, intervene to insure safety. Gently contain your child and/or move the victim or object out of reach.

Then tell her it looks like she's feeling overwhelmed, and that you will help her. She needs your assistance with learning how to read her own cues. Saying things like, "Uh-oh, when I see you starting to push I know it means you need some space. Let me help you find some," lays the groundwork for her to interpret her internal cues by herself.

Eventually she will be able to initiate protective action on her own. Every time you read and respond to her behavior as communication, you help her learn more about her temperament and her needs, and how to advocate for them in healthy and appropriate ways.

Give her the language you want her to use by saying to the other party, "Susie is needing some space right now, so she's going to play over here on her own for a little while. Please don't go near her. When she's feeling ready to play with you again, she will come and find you."

Hopefully, children are very physically attuned to their adult caregivers, and take great comfort from their presence. So the closer you can keep her to you when she's overwhelmed or stressed out, the sooner she can entrain to your calmness and settle down. You may want to invite her sit on the kitchen floor and color while you are cooking or whatever. It doesn't mean you have to drop everything and focus on her. Just let her be close.

To recap so far: your first job is always to insure safety. Then to help her settle down (and remember to settle yourself down, too!) Emotional upset and learning do not mix, so there's no point in trying to reason with or instruct or correct an overwhelmed child. Only after she is feeling safe, calmer, and connected to you again does the teachable moment become possible.

So later that day, when she's relaxed and open, that's when you say, "Hey, let's talk about what is going on for you when you start pushing (namecalling, throwing, etc). I'm wondering if that's your way of saying (I need a break, I'm really frustrated, I'm sad that I can't have what I want, I'm tired, I'm angry, etc). And the thing is, it's hard for me and others to listen to messages that hurt or scare us, so let's see if we can figure out a way for you to tell us what's going on for you in a way that we can hear it better."

Listen to her suggestions, and decide together on a phrase or gesture that she can use to signal to you that internal pressure or frustration is building up and she's gonna blow. Do your best to respond right away when she gives you the signal - her fuse is probably very short at this point in time, and she's still learning, so there might be only a very small window to intervene before she takes matters into her own hands.

I hope this helps. If you'd like help working through this process, I'm available for parenting consultations by phone and email. Please feel free to contact me at .

he's leaving the nest

Over the course of the 17 years since my son burst into my world and made me a mother, I've washed countless dishes, done magnificent amounts of laundry, and picked up more things from the floor than I can ever hope to estimate.

And today, as I was washing the blender that he left full of dried oreo milkshake residue, I couldn't stop the tears from pouring down my cheeks. Because in just a few short months, he will be graduating from high school and enlisting in the military. And you know what? There will be no more oreo shake residue on any of my dishes. And although I could not be happier for him or prouder of him, still ... the tears come.

So although it's hard to see what I'm typing through teary eyes, I'm writing anyway, because I want to tell you something important: Please, don't make a big deal over small things. Someday, those things that drive you crazy about your kids will also make you cry.

In the final few months we have together, the last thing I want to do is harp on him about his stupid dishes. I find myself offering to do his laundry. I am cherishing every mess he makes, knowing that soon, my house will be spotless, and quiet, and he'll be sending me letters and emails instead of sitting down with me spilling hot chocolate all over the kitchen table while he tells me about his day.

I think he must be feeling it coming too, a little bit. He's been asking to join me when I run errands for no good reason. He's been taking me out for lunch, and asking me to go shopping with him or help him start packing up his room. All is as it should be - he's ready, and it's time for him to take over full responsibility for his own life.

So I guess I just want to send you a message from your future: Your days of hassle and mess and noise are numbered.

Do your best to keep your sense of humor and perspective on all the chaos that comes with having young children.

Find one thing each day that you can just let go of, and laugh together instead.

Go find your children right now, and hug them for no reason.

Indulge them sometimes just because you can.

Give in more.

Buy them something at the checkout stand every once in a while.

Let them eat freshly baked cookies with milk for lunch. Join them.

Go out in the backyard and run through the sprinkler with them.

Make more messes together.

When you are standing in my shoes, I promise you will not regret doing these things. Parents sometimes think they CAN'T lighten up, or their kids will not learn good values. But that's not the case - they are learning far more from watching you than from what you teach them. So spend less time teaching, and more time playing.

It's really okay to relax, connect, and enjoy your kids.

If not now, when?

Thoughts on Preventing Sibling Rivalry: Don't Even Try to Treat Your Kids Equally!

As I headed out the door earlier this week to meet up with a colleague to  speak to a group about sibling rivalry, I asked my teenage daughter, as I always do, if there was anything she thought parents should know about the topic of the day.

"Sibling rivalry?" she asked, bewildered. "What's that?"

"When brothers and sisters feel like they have to compete for their parents' attention," I explained.

"Compete!?!" she snorted. "That's ridiculous! I know I am your favorite, and I can have your attention any time I want it!"

I was sort of taken aback for a moment, not knowing quite what to say to that. Then I quickly decided that if my son, who is the older one, says the same thing, then we are All Good. It's not a problem if they both think they can receive what they need from me when they need it!

As I was processing this, she said, "But, seriously, Mom, .... you love us so equally it's almost painful."

This really shocked me, because "equal" is a concept I simply never associated with love. For some reason, it just never occurred to me to worry about sibling rivalry. We baked a cake the day she was born to celebrate him becoming a big brother. Soon I was wearing her in the baby sling most of the day, and life sort of went on as usual for my son.

I didn't make a big deal about special time, equal time, or, really ... equal anything. Doing that would have required scorekeeping, which I am notoriously bad at. There's no little chalkboard inside my head. (It's probably a learning disability or something.) So instead, I just tried to be there for both of them in the ways they each needed. That, I could handle.

I guess I have sort of a radical theory on the whole sibling rivalry thing: Perhaps if parents don't tie themselves into knots trying to make everything equal, or trying to "make it up" to the older child, but instead focus on meeting individual needs as they arise, then the kids won't get so caught up in scorekeeping and comparisons, or see each other as rivals.

I'm not so sure the older kid actually loses out on as much as many parents seem to think anyway. When his sister was born, my son gained a worshipper, a follower, a fan, and an ever ready playmate who adored him and was at his beck and call. Is this supposed to be a bad thing?

Before she came on the scene, no one else had ever looked up to him with absolute trust and unshakable admiration. No one smiled with their whole body and lit up like a Christmas tree when he came in the room. No one followed his every move with rapt attention. Whatever he lost in terms of my attention, and I don't believe it was actually all that much, he more than re-gained in her attention.

Of course, as always, we need to meet our children where they are. If the older sibling expresses disdain for the younger, we just listen, without correcting or judging his feelings. Feelings are only feelings after all - they come and go, and move along much more quickly when neutrally acknowledged by a loving and caring parent who does not freak out.

But we don't need to feel guilty about "dethroning" our eldest. That throne gets kinda lonely after a while. Bringing home a sibling changes things -- for the better and for the worse, but mostly for the better.

If he sometimes wants the baby to go back to the hospital, empathize with him. Babies are noisy and messy and demanding, and it's okay for parents to admit that. We all feel ambivalent about change. That's normal. Letting your child know it's okay to feel that way will help him make peace with his own feelings, and he will relax when he sees you are not scared or angry.

We set appropriate boundaries on actions, of course, so we won't let him act out his feelings by hurting the baby. But talking, even yelling, about feelings ... well ... that's a mighty fine way to release them.

It's repression that drives this stuff underground, where it festers and comes out as rage. Instead of trying to convince him that he loves her, or that things aren't as bad as he thinks, or that you will spend some alone time with him next Tuesday to make it up to him, try just bringing it out into the daylight. Talk about the hassles together. Laugh about it. Grieve the changes together if that's what needs to happen.

But leave guilt out of the equation. It's just not necessary. You have enough to handle already.

Should I drug test my teenager at home?

Do-it-yourself home drug tests are inexpensive and readily available over the counter. Should you drug test your teen? Here are a few things to consider while making your decision:

What are you going to do if she tests positive?

First, be aware that the tests are not 100% reliable. A positive result should be confirmed at your doctor's office.

Second, be aware that drug testing is not the same thing as treatment. A confirmed positive result will require a response from you.

Will you call a drug and alcohol abuse counselor?
Will you tell your teen to stop and let her know you will continue testing randomly?
Will you sit down with her and find out what is going on in her world, and why she is using?
Will you ground her until she turns 18?
Will you call the parents of her friends?
Will you rant and rave and threaten and then hope you scared her straight?

Obviously, some of these interventions are more effective than others!
The point, for the purpose of this article anyway, is Plan Ahead.

What are you going to do if he tests negative?

Will you offer a reward or an incentive?
Will you speak a quiet word of appreciation for your son's character and good decisions?
Will you scowl and wonder out loud how he cleaned up so fast?
Will you coldly remind him that he'll have to do this again sometime soon?
Will you thank him for his patience and understanding?

How are you going to bring it up?

The best time to do this is before you suspect she is involved with drugs. However, if it's too late for that, here's one possible way to broach the subject.

Honey, we know it's tough to be a teenager today, and that you face a lot of temptation. We wouldn't feel like we were doing a good job as parents if we didn't make use of every possible tool at our disposal to support you in making healthy choices.

We want you to know that we bought a home drug test today, and we'd like you to take it. We've decided it makes sense to randomly test you periodically until you are 18. We hope that you understand why we are doing this - we care about you very much, and your health and well being are very important to us.

Please take this into the bathroom, and when you come out, no matter what the results are, we want to hear what you think and feel about all of this.

Unless she's a civil rights buff who passionately advocates for teen privacy laws on the debate team, if your teen freaks out, she is giving you a big clue about the impending result, yes? Give the test anyway. It's very important that you follow through.

Please notice, this talk did not sound like this: I know you are using drugs and lying to me about it! Go take this test right now, and I'll have proof that I am right about you! What red-blooded kid could take this sitting down? You'll have a nasty power struggle on your hands. If you take responsibility for it yourself, rather than blaming or predicting or implying that her character is flawed, things usually go more smoothly.

Random drug testing can be a fantastic deterrent to peer pressure. "No way, my parents could test me anytime!" is a pretty strong reason to Just Say No that other kids easily understand. Start testing while they are in middle school to maximize this benefit, and keep it up all the way until high school graduation. It will just become a way of life for your teenager.

This article only scratches the surface of this emotionally charged topic. If you'd like some help figuring out the best way to handle this in your family, I'm available by phone for parenting consultations. For more information, visit

You may also be interested in the articles and information at

don't interrogate your kids -- try this instead

My kids complain about being interrogated by their dad when they are with him. I want to know what's going on in their lives, but I don't want to follow in his footsteps by plying them with questions all the time. How else can I get them to talk?

Parents are often eager to hear what happened while their kids were away at their other home. It's hard to feel excluded from 50% of your child's life!

And yet, if you suspect you may be asking too many questions, you are probably right. If your kids respond with "I don't know," it may be kidspeak for, "I don't care enough about this topic to bother talking about it," or "This is an uncomfortable subject," or "I don't want to tell you." Sometimes, it might even mean, "Dad said not to tell you." In any case, it's a dead end.

One of the realities of joint custody is that we miss out on sharing some experiences with our children. It's not fair to ask them to fill you in on every little detail just to satisfy your own curiosity. It can be tough to let go of this, but it's important that we learn to connect with our children in the present moment, rather than trying to dredge up their past.

Sometimes, especially if we are worried, we push for more information by asking probing questions even after our kids have sent the "that's enough" signal. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to encourage your kids to talk is not to ask more questions, but to do more listening.

So just sit down. Be still. Wait for him to unwind a little, and give him a stationary target for his communication. To increase the odds of being noticed in all your receptive glory, sit in the kitchen close to the snack cabinet.

When he ventures into your vicinity, smile and say something mild like, "How's it going?" Your reaction to his response is important. Kids are always probing -- will she freak out if I tell her the truth? Will she get mad at Dad when she hears this? Will disclosing that create a hassle for me?

To increase your odds of passing those kinds of tests, be like Switzerland. Stay neutral. Don't freak out, don't jump to conclusions, don't raise your voice. Just take in it stride. Nod your head, sit back a little bit, take a breath, say Hmmmm. Don't share your opinion unless asked. Don't consider it a teachable moment and try to make a point. Just accept the information calmly, and leave a lot of empty silence around it.

Mom: Hey, how's it going?
Son: Aww, okay I guess.
Mom: Yeah? What's up?
Son: I'm pretty mad at Dad. He took my cell phone away.
Mom: Ohhh, hmmm. That's a bummer, huh.
Son: Yeah.
Mom: Nods, waits, and says nothing. Trusts that if she gives him some time, he'll say more!

Yes, I know, this seems simple, and is not necessarily easy. If you'd like some help figuring out how to be like Switzerland, I'm available by phone and email for parenting consultations. Visit or email for more information.

Book Review: The Science Of Parenting

I'm jumping the gun on this review a little bit, since I haven't yet finished the book. So far, it's been a fascinating read, chock full of validation for the solid advice I received at La Leche League when my kids were babies: You will not spoil your child by meeting his needs for contact and attention. When these needs are fully met, he will eventually grow out of them. He won't be clingy forever.

Chapter after chapter, the message is clear: Kids that receive the physical and emotional attention they need when they are young grow up into courageous and independent adults, not the whiny clingy extra-large spoiled brats many of us were warned about.

I have a great example of this in my own home. My son was a high need baby; content when he was held, carried, and nursed often, and furious when he was left alone. He required a lot of my attention. And when his needs were finally met, he grew out of them. Big time. He's now one of the most self-sufficient, responsible, and independent teenagers imaginable.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, by allowing him to cling to me when he needed to, I was allowing his brain to borrow functioning from mine, and to learn how to comfort itself by imitating what I did. Had I forced him to be independent before he was ready to be, for example, by leaving him to cry for hours in an attempt to teach him to self-soothe, his brain would have lost its role model. He needed close and frequent contact for regulation, stimulation, and protection. And when his brain was developed enough to provide these things for itself, he gave up clinging and got on with the business of exploring and expanding. (Still coming back for an occasional hug as needed ...)

The mother in me found a lot of validation in this book for my parenting choices. The skeptical statistician in me noticed that the author was making some big leaps and perhaps drawing conclusions about cause and effect that may not be fully supported by the research. But in any case, she makes a compelling case for giving freely of our time and attention when our children are young, and not pushing them too quickly to master complex emotional tasks such as dealing maturely with disappointment without our assistance.

Uh oh. Now I'm more than halfway through, and my uneasiness is growing. The author seems to be a big proponent of behavioral psychology; she endorses stickers, charts, and rewards, as well as ignoring undesirable behaviors.

As you may know from my other articles, that approach does not go deep enough for me. I want to know what is motivating the behavior, so I can redirect or educate at the level of causation rather than at the level of consequence and effect. Yes, time out is far better than spanking. And I think as parents, we can do much better than time out.

So while there are some gems in this book, and it takes some steps in the right direction, I can't give it 5 stars. Maybe 3 1/2, with plenty of encouragement to actively engage your discernment muscles while reading it rather than simply absorbing everything unfiltered.

what current brain research tells us about effective parenting

I"ll skip all the scientific details for now and jump right to the bottom line:

Our children do not learn anything when they are stressed out. (and neither do adults!)

Functional MRI's have allowed us to see the brain in action. We now have evidence that during stress, the part of the brain that is in charge of learning and integrating new information goes on hold while the blood supply is diverted to the part of the brain that is in charge of the fight/flight/freeze response.

When we yell at our kids (and we all do it sometimes) we are introducing a stressor that disrupts their ability to learn. So lessons imparted while screaming, punishing, or guilt-tripping don't actually penetrate to the part of the child's brain that can make good use of the information. This is why we are so often frustrated by catching our kids repeating the very behavior we so adamantly taught them was inappropriate.

If we want our kids to retain and have access to alternative behaviors that we find more acceptable, we need to talk it over with them after both we and they have calmed down.

My bestest briefest parenting advice in one word: WAIT

Wait to teach until you feel calmer. Wait until you are back in control of your breathing to let your child know what was not okay about his or her behavior.

Wait until you are thinking clearly about what you DO want instead of just prohibiting what you don't. Wait until you are cool enough to ask your child to participate in generating alternatives with you.

Of course you know I'm not suggesting you let your child get hit by a car while you do some yoga breathing. Life-threatening situations require immediate physical intervention. But sometimes our minds react to mild daily infractions as if they were life-threatening. It's at those times when a little bit of delay can do a lot of good.

So go ahead and put a stop to the behavior in a responsible way. Then take a time out for yourself until you are ready to have a reasonable discussion about what happened, why it was not okay, and what might work better next time. For toddlers, you may need to give physical guidance with your body - saying pet the doggy like this while you are holding your child's hand in yours and guiding it gently.

Remember Mary Poppins singing just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? It's the same thing with parental guidance. Suggestions delivered with love and respect are much easier for our kids to retain.

Easier said than done? Yeah. We are all wonderfully human. Luckily, kids are very forgiving, and easily accept apologies. It's never too late to say, "Oops, I'm sorry for yelling about that. I'm feeling a lot better now ... can we back it up and try to figure out a new plan together?"

If this all sounds good but you think you might need some support to pull it off, I offer parenting consultations by phone, email, and in person near Boulder, CO. Contact me for more information: or visit the client information page on my website:

My child is not eating the lunch I packed.

Okay, let's get this eating thing all squared away. Here's a nice little formula for you to use:

Your business: 1) What you purchase, serve, or otherwise make available. 2) Maintaining and modeling a healthy relationship with food.

Not your business: What your child chooses to eat.

Lots of parents have those reversed. They think that taking good care of their kids means that they must force them to eat certains kinds of food and restrict others. All kinds of goofy situations spring from that misconception - running the gamut from creating stress that impairs digestion, intractable power struggles, and on up to eating disorders.

When my kids were little, before I figured out this formula, I would serve them veggies for lunch and then sneak into the kitchen and break into my stash of chocolate while they ate. Then I realized that hypocrisy is at least as toxic to our bodies as junk food, and that the whole good food/bad food dichotomy was not healthy either. It set food up as a force that was stronger than they were, and that's not an empowered position to make choices from.

I also wanted my kids to maintain awareness of their hunger and sensory feedback, and placing strong taboos on certain foods only thwarted their own inner guidance. Besides, if children learn what they live, it seemed like a good idea to bring my own behavior into alignment with what I wanted them to become. So I stopped prohibiting and demonizing certain foods, and focused instead on my own integrity and listening to my own body's signals.

Assuming your child is of sound mind and body, he or she truly does not want to starve. Hold firm to your values by preparing foods you believe are nourishing and eating them yourself. Don't bother bribing with dessert - serve fruit and make it part of the meal.

Talk about nutrition, help your child get involved in the shopping by teaching her how to read labels, letting him pick out which veggie to eat with dinner, etc., and then relax and enjoy your meal together. If you are packing a school lunch, put a little note in there, or something that expresses love and appreciation.

Many times, when kids feel harrassed about food, they simply decide it's not worth arguing about and go underground; pitching out that nice hummus sandwich and eating cupcakes and twinkies from their friends. It's okay. It happens. We cannot control what they do with what we pack.

Kids need to learn how to listen to their own bodily signals, and we do them no favor when we try to protect them from experiences that are natural feedback loops. They need to FEEL the sugar crash before they can decide they prefer to avoid it. Just keep preparing and packing the nutritious stuff and don't worry about it. They will carry out their own experiments.

You might also consider collaborative problem solving. Express your values and concerns about nutrition, and your wish to provide nourishing options. Then find out why your child is not eating her lunch, and put your heads together to come up with some alternatives that work for both of you. You'd be amazed at the variety of food options available these days! They even stock vegan gummy bears sweetened with fruit juice at my local Vitamin Cottage. There are many win-wins to be found.

Ultimately, love and respect are the most nourishing things you can serve to your kids. Kids eat that right up every time, and you don't even have to go farther than your own heart to procure an abundant supply.