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?

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, http://herodragon.com/:

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:
http://www.herodragon.com/in-the-news.html


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.

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

Interrupt.

Correct them.

Raise your voice.

Cry.

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:

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seam_ripper

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:

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

My 13 year old girl sent a provocative picture of herself to a 15 yr old boy!

http://heather-forbes.blogspot.com/2015/06/manipulation-madness.htmlMy 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?

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.

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.

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.

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:

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 karen@karenalonge.com .

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.

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.

www.karenalonge.com

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:

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.

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!)

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.

What do I say if my teen asks me whether I smoked pot when I was younger?

This question comes up a lot here in Boulder, since it is, after all, the Pot-smoking Capital of the World (or something like that.) And whether we smoked pot or not, there are parents all over the country who did things as teenagers that we hope our children will not do.

So how should you answer questions about high risk behaviors you indulged in as a teenager? Ultimately, that's your call. Some parents decide to simply lie. And unfortunately, I think they may be missing out on an opportunity to impart some valuable information when they shut down the conversation that way.

Fostering Independence in Older Teens

How do you help your almost-adult teenager learn to stand on his own 2 feet and be responsible for his actions and responsibilties without feeling somewhat guilty?

Let's presume that what we all want for our kids when they become adults is happiness, success, confidence, love, and competence. Ideally, I think we want to see all those qualities in balance, yes?

If we step in too often to rescue, we may insure success, but at the price of confidence and competence.

What should I do if my child refuses to eat what I cooked for dinner?

This is bound to happen sooner or later. We each have individual tastes, and it's a good idea to make easy and nutritious alternatives available to everyone in the family in case they don't like what is being served. There's no need for you to COOK more than one dish -- kids can prepare a simple Plan B themselves.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Don't confuse respect with fear. It wasn't respect that kept so many of us in line when we were kids, although many of our parents called it that. It was fear. Fear that if we didn't do exactly as we were told, we'd pay an uncomfortable price.