conversation encouragers and discouragers

In the process of googling something else, I stumbled upon a list of rather commonly used expressions that may come across as invalidating of someone's right to feel how they feel.

I'm sure many parents who say this type of thing have very good intentions. (Although some may be in such pain or confusion that they actually do intend to shut their kids down.) And since most of us are also very interested in having our children talk to us about their thoughts and feelings, I thought it might be helpful to know that even well-intentioned words can shut down the flow of communication.

If you want your teens to keep talking to you, try responding with statements that express your understanding of what they just said (empathy and reflection), or your willingness to hear more, rather than trying to shift their perspective or hand them a solution.

Here are some examples of conversation encouragers:

Wow, that sounds tough.
How is that for you?
What's your take on that?

I'm sorry you are hurting.
Sounds like you really didn't like that.

That felt really out of line to you.
Sounds like you wish that had never happened.

Silent nod with eye contact.
Move closer and hug them or rub their shoulders.

Here are some examples of conversation discouragers:

Cheer up. Lighten up. Get over it.
Don't cry. Don't worry. Don't be sad.

Stop whining. Deal with it. Forget about it.
Stop complaining. Don't be so dramatic.
Don't be so sensitive. Don't take it so personally.

You've got it all wrong.
That is ridiculous.
I was only kidding.
That's not the way things are.

Well, I tried to help you.
You are making everyone else miserable.
It doesn't bother anyone else, why should it bother you?

It can't be that bad.
It's not worth getting that upset over.
You are over-reacting.

Can't you take a joke?
How can you let a little thing like that bother you?
Do you really think that crying about it is going to help anything?

You should be excited.
You should feel guilty.
You should feel thankful that ____.

You shouldn't let it bother you.
You should just forget about it.
You should feel ashamed of yourself.

You shouldn't say that.
You know that isn't true.
You don't mean that.

Don't you ever think of anyone but yourself?
What about my feelings?

Time heals all wounds.
Every cloud has a silver lining.

When you are older you will understand.
You are just going through a phase.

Although I don't endorse this guy's site, I do want to give him credit for the unedited version of the second list:

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

talking to your teen about romantic relationships

Not that I believe the subtleties of love or relationship need to be reduced to a magic formula, but I when I discovered this checklist in The Tao of Negotiation: How to Resolve Conflict in All Areas of Your Life, which I found on the business shelf of my local used bookstore, it struck me as both pithy and succinct wisdom that I'd like to pass on to my kids.

According to the authors, "the overriding difference between those relationships that work over a long period of time and those that don't has to do with the presence or absence of the following characteristics." I've put the explanations into my own words, so if you want to read the original version, you'll find it on page 186 of the book.

1) The Spark. That hard-to-pin-down-in-words magic called chemistry. Strong attraction with a sense of comfort and compatibility that is not easily explained by how long we have known each other, how much time we have spent together, logic, or reason. They don't mention it in the book, but I'd also include truly enjoying each other's company, and easily having fun together in this category.

2) The intention and the willingness to be aware of and process everything of significance. I think of this as open minds and open hearts. Each is actively curious about the other's experience, as well as willing to take a close look at their own individual contribution to the couple's dynamic. Honest, intimate communication about thoughts and feelings is one of the cornerstones of the relationship.

3) Commonality of purpose, values, and interests. Without this one, the relationship is not likely to be sustainable in the long term. You can have great chemistry and honest communication, but if your individual lives are not on somewhat parallel trajectories in terms of direction and purpose, it might be challenging to stay together. It can and has been been done, of course, most easily by couples who are very committed to #2 above, which would therefore mean they share intention and willingness to process as a common value, and thus they meet this criteria!

Good stuff, eh? I am looking forward to sharing this with my kids as they go forth into the world. And of course, they may still need to figure it out for themselves the hard way, just like I am still doing. :) But at least they will have heard these concepts, and can reference them when and if they should choose to.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

night weaning while co-sleeping

If you are a co-sleeping family that wants your older baby or toddler to stop nursing at night, I highly recommend the sensible and compassionate approach described in this article by Dr. Jay Gordon:

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my ex does not support my relationship with my teenage daughters

Q: Here is an excerpt from e-mail that I received from my ex-wife. As you can tell by the tone of this message, she is very angry, for some reason. And it is obvious that she has no inclination to help me with my relationship with my children. I appreciate anything you could suggest...

A: The email in question, which I did not include in order to preserve confidentiality, was about trying to schedule time with his older teenage daughters. His ex is refusing to facilitate this, and his daughters are not responding to the messages or texts he sends directly to their cell phones. Below is my reply:

my parenting book recommendations

Parents often ask me for book recommendations, and I'm sometimes at a bit of a loss because I rarely come across a book that I can endorse without reservation. (I'm very, very picky!)

So before I suggest a title, I typically issue the disclaimer that I hope parents will see books and other parenting resources not as instruction manuals to be followed rigidly or blindly, but rather as sources of ideas to contemplate, experiment with, and customize.

That said, here are a few resources that have been inspiring and informative for me: (Which is obviously not a book, but a website with lots of great articles, plus some inexpensive pamphlets that can be ordered.)

Becoming the Parent You Want To Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser

Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children By Ross Greene

Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It by Gabor Mate

Please Stop the Rollercoaster!: How Parents of Teenagers Can Smooth Out the Ride by Sue Blaney

Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, A Hands on, practical guide to coping with custody issues that arise with an uncooperative ex-spouse by Ross and Corcoran (and I have to go on record as saying I REALLY don't like this title, but the content is excellent. I recommend using a book cover because it pains me to think of a child thinking that one parent considers the other to be a jerk!)

I have posted a rather extensive list of recommended resources on many topics, including parenting, on my other website: I haven't updated it to include my up-to-the-minute favorites, but there's enough there to keep you busy for quite a while.

I'd love to hear your recommendations, so please let me know about your favorites by posting a comment, so others can enjoy them as well!

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

a little parental silliness can save the day

Learned something interesting from a client today. When her kids are frowning, she tells them that's great, because she's making frown soup and she could use another frown to throw in the pot.

Then she chases them around and tries to grab the frown off their face, and of course they end up laughing and smiling, and then she acts all bummed that she can't have the frown for her soup, and they gloat with glee.

When they whine, she says Oh, good, I could use some whine in my frown soup because it makes it nice and spicy. And then she chases them around trying to catch the whine, and they all end up giggling.

Frowning happens to be their family issue, but I bet this could be adapted for other issues, too. There are very few issues that can't be resolved with the silly treatment.

Doesn't have to be soup, necessarily. When my kids were little, they absolutely loved when their dad would wrap them up in blankets and roll them around like he was making them into burritos. Periodically he would say Oops, I forgot to add the beans (or cheese, or good manners, or sharing hands, or whatever the desired behavior was), then unwrap the blankets, tickle them a little, wrap them up and roll them around again.

My client reported that she's really been working on not getting caught up in her kids moods/issues and not taking them so seriously. She's been singing goofy songs and making up games as much as possible, and her days are now much less stressful than when she thought she had to stop and get serious and address every infraction every time.

So there's a few ideas to fuel your creative parenting engine. I'd love to hear what other kind of silly games you play with your kids to lighten things up at your house!

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

What to do when your child whines, "It's not fair!"

Q: My kids whine that it's not fair when one of them gets something the others don't, like a goody bag at a birthday party. What do I say to them when they tell me that I should buy them a treat, too, to make it fair?

A: Ah, yes. This one is a classic! Although we parents know that life isn't always fair, a whining child is not exactly receptive to that lesson in that moment.

So first, give empathy -- perhaps by saying, "You really wish you could have a goody bag, too."

sifting through contradictory parenting advice

There's certainly no shortage of both solicited and unsolicited parenting advice these days, much of it contradictory:

Spare the rod and spoil the child.
Never hit a child.
Set more limits and boundaries.
Let go of more control.
Loosen the reins.
Tighten the reins.


How is a well-intentioned parent supposed to sort through all of this discrepancy?

This question feels especially important to me given the recent deaths of several people during a sweat lodge ceremony. We will never know the whole story, but emerging details seem to suggest that the leader of the ceremony positioned himself as an authority, and some folks may have willingly handed their personal responsibility over to him, at least temporarily.

I wasn't there, so I have no idea what actually happened. Heck, I wouldn't know what was going on inside anyone but myself even if I had been there. But it makes me think about how eager, maybe even desperate, for help we humans can become when we are faced with a problem that deeply rankles us. Sometimes it seems like a huge relief to just hand our problem over to someone else to solve.

For many of us, parenting qualifies as deeply rankling. So we seek help. We read books, we talk to friends, we attend therapy, and we google. Which might even be how you made your way to this very article!

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: You are the expert on your child. The most any professional, friend, or family member can give you is additional ideas for your consideration. It is your job to run those ideas through your own filter and clean out what does not resonate with you before you act.

So I hope no one ever blindly implements my advice. In fact, if I thought any of you were going to do that, I'd stop writing and speaking immediately! It is never my intention to tell you what to do. (Granted, I do get very passionate about this stuff sometimes, and I often neglect to mention that whole 'I am trusting you to run this through your own filter' thing. That's why I posted that permanent disclaimer over there on the sidebar ...)

What I love most is when someone writes to me and says something like, "In my heart of hearts, I have known what my child really and truly needed for years. Many people told me I was wrong. After reading your article, I finally found the courage to try it. And it works!"

It is my intention to share strategies and concepts with you that have worked for me or others. I trust that you will not swallow them whole, but will chew them, savor them, roll them around in your mouth a while to see how they taste, and spit out whatever you find indigestible.

When I am doing this advice-sorting process for myself, there are a few things I tune into. For one, I'll run the idea through my common sense filter. Does it make sense to me? Do I have any past experiences that suggest this might or might not be a viable option in my current situation?

Then, I'll run it through my heart to see if I feel expansion or contraction when I think about implementing the advice. I check for feelings of warmth or coolness, connection or disconnection.

Then it gets the gut check. For me, it's sort of a basic uh-huh or nuh-uh feeling. Yes feels like outward motion, no feels like bumping up against a wall. No feels sort of stubborn and stuck, while Yes feels like a flowing stream.

It's challenging to put these feelings into words, and the feelings will be different for each person, but my hope is that when you read about my signals, it will help you become more aware of your own.

If the suggestion or advice passes all these tests, I start to experiment with it. I remind myself of my goal, and take stock of whether I seem to be getting closer to it or farther from it when I implement the advice.

If the advice doesn't work where the rubber hits the road, I don't care how good it sounded in theory. And conversely, if the advice takes me where I want to go, I don't really care about the age, credentials, personal habits, or hypocrisy of the person who gave it to me. I just take the info and go my own way with it.

So if you decide to give anything I suggest a try, please also pay attention to how you feel while doing it, and whether it is taking your relationship with your child where you want it to go.

There's a tremendous variety of parenting options out there. I hope you'll keep sampling until you find a model that works for both you and your child.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

What should I do when my kids hit or pester each other?

Q: Sometimes my son gets ornery, and just won't leave his sister alone. He'll poke or hit or verbally harass her, and it drives both me and his sister crazy! I tell him over and over again to stop, but he just keeps going until I get really angry and blow up at him. There's got to be a better way!

A: My hunch is that when your son is hitting, his cortex is probably not online. The cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for compliance, self-restraint, logic, and reasoning, and it is not well developed enough in children to act as a consistently reliable behavior inhibitor.

what to do when your child yells at you

Q: When my child yells at me, I tell her she can't talk to me that way, and that I won't listen until she can be sweet. But rather than calming down, she often just becomes more upset at me. What is going on? I don't want to reward her lack of self-control by responding to her when she is yelling, but I don't think what I am doing is working, either.

A: What an insightful question! A little bit of brain science might illuminate what is happening.

don't overreact to teenage drama!!!!!!!!!!!

(hee hee hee - did you like all those exclamation points in the title up there? that's my idea of a real funny joke...)

But seriously, folks. Teenagers can be SO dramatic. All the parts of their brain are not yet reliably wired together for optimal synergistic functioning. The brainstem, which is in charge of the instinctive fight/flight response; the limbic system, which governs emotions; and the cortex, which is responsible for logic, reason, and learning, sometimes operate together as a well oiled machine.

When all the parts are communicating well, the cortex can settle the emotions and instincts down, thus inhibiting emotional outbursts and random running or punching. But since the lines of communication are rather tenuous in a teenage brain, they can become disorganized under stress, at which point logical reasoning loses its influence over the emotional or reactive default responses.

When that happens, big feelings can head right out your teenager's mouth without passing through a filter first. They don't think about how people might react to what they say. They just blurt it out raw. It's sort of like when I bit into a moldy date once. It tasted so nasty that I instinctively spit it out immediately - there was no time to consider how disgusting that must have looked to my unsuspecting dinner companions.

Sometime in our mid 20's, if all goes as planned, the connections between the various parts of our brain become pretty consistently reliable, and we become more able to make rational decisions about how to express our intense feelings. On a good day, that is. On bad days, unfiltered things sometimes slip through our adult lips, too.

So when your teenage daughter wails, "I am so humiliated that I want to DIE!" please don't call the suicide hotline right away. What she means is, "I can hardly tolerate this feeling of shame and I wish I could jump out of my skin to avoid feeling it one second longer!"

And when your teenage son mutters, "This world would be better off without some people in it," please don't treat him as if he is violent and dangerous. What he really means is, "I am extremely frustrated about something that happened, and I feel powerless to do anything about it, and I just want this feeling to go away."

When the brains of our teens are disconnected, it's doubly important for ours to be connected. We may be the only ones in the room at the moment who are capable of thinking rationally. We know that no matter how intense their feelings are, they too shall pass.

If we take their words at face value the first time we hear them, rather than seeing them as unfiltered emotional puke (pardon the gross metaphor, but it's just so true) then we run the risk of overreacting and adding fuel to their emotional fire rather than helping to extinguish it.

(a gigantic, important caveat: If your gut tells you that you need some help distinguishing your teenager's emotional puke from a sincerely suicidal cry for help, then please do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional for assistance.)

Often our kids and teens become even more upset when we respond with anger, worry, or fear to their outbursts, because they were hoping that our rational brain would stick around to toss them a lifeline and help them settle down.

So when your teen is hot, try to stay cool. Listen closely between the lines for the feeling that is driving them crazy, and speak to that rather than the specific words they said.

Simply acknowledge those intense feelings without judging them or trying to make them go away. We might say to our daughter who was so humiliated she wanted to die : Wow, something must have happened that you really wish didn't happen. And to our son: Holy smokes do you sound frustrated!

Don't bother trying to make them become rational right then and there by saying something like, "Now you know that's not true, honey. You have a lot to live for." Or, "You have no right to decide who should be here and who shouldn't. "

Emotions need to be acknowledged and released before the rational part of their brain can come back online. Take a breath, feel the weight of your feet on the ground, and stay calm. Let them know you understand that they are having strong feelings.

Later, after the storm has passed, they are calm, and feeling good again like you knew they would, it's time to talk about their word choice. That's when you say, "Honey, I knew that you didn't really want to kill yourself or anyone else because I know you so well. But sometime there might be someone around who hears you say that and doesn't know you well, and they might get scared and call 911 or the teacher or a counselor because they think you mean it literally. So I wonder if there's a way to express your feelings that is less likely to create some unpleasant fallout for you. What do you think you could say instead?"

Keep brainstorming together. It might take a few rounds to hit on a workable alternative. If they don't come up with anything, feel free to contribute things like, "Well, perhaps if you bookended it with, I almost feel like I could ____(kill myself)______ but of course I wouldn't ever do that, that would let people know you are just blowing off steam."

When you give your teens this kind of feedback when they are calm, cool, and collected, their cortex can make use of it. When you try to educate them in the heat of the moment, the cortex is not online to learn the lesson. To have the most impact and influence on your teen, wait for a connected moment, share the information and feedback they need to recalibrate their behavior, and offer your encouragement, love, and support.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

New York Times article on parenting

I was thrilled to read an article in the New York Times which cites research on the harm caused by using parental love and approval as either a carrot or a stick in an attempt to control our children's behavior. Here's an excerpt:

What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.

Read the article here:

To read about parenting strategies that work within the framework of unconditional love and approval, check out these posts from my blog, or click on the discipline category in the sidebar to the right of this page:

If you'd like support as you learn to apply these techniques in your parenting, I'm available for private or small group consultations. For more information, click here or visit

rethinking crying

When I look back at my early years of parenting, I realize I had a really hard time letting my children cry or experience discomfort, even when the thing they didn't like was for their highest good. There were times that I turned myself into a human pretzel trying to keep them from feeling distress. (Weaning comes to mind.)

Many parents are much better about this than I was, and if you are one of them, you probably won't find any benefit in reading further.

But if this is a growing edge for you like it is for me, perhaps it will be helpful for you to eavesdrop on a realization I had today.

This morning on my walk, my attention was captured by a piercing wail coming from a side street. When I looked over there to see what was going on, I spotted a mother holding a young child in her arms, trying to hand him off to his father. Every time the father reached out to take him, the child screamed, "No! Mama!" and clung to her with a vice like grip. It was a scene I remembered well from the days when my kids were little.

But this time, I saw it from a different perspective. And I felt a twinge of sadness about the way I handled this situation with my own kids.

When this happened to us, I perceived my children as being in the grip of separation anxiety. And of course it is normal and typical for children of a certain age to attach more closely to the parent who they spend the most time with and who does most of their caretaking. But today in the mirror of this couple, I could see that I had inadvertently been fueling a dynamic that went deeper than separation anxiety.

These parents were doing the exact same thing we did when my kids were little: every time the child screamed, the father backed off, and the mother stopped trying to hand him over.

What I realized today that I didn't understand years ago is that when we responded like this to our children's protests, we were not doing them a favor. In a sense, we were letting their as-yet-not-fully-developed brains call the shots.

Because their dad and I were both absolutely certain that they would be perfectly safe and secure with him. We knew that they were developmentally at the age where they had trouble with transitions. We were confident that they would be fine.

But by allowing my children to cling to me; by backing off from trying to hand them to their dad in that moment because they were distressed about it, I was fueling a different kind of anxiety in them.

Kids count on their parents to be calm, reassuring, and take good care of them. They look to us as role models. Their immature nervous systems entrain themselves to our mature systems, seeking guidance about how to respond to circumstances and events.

So in essence, when I let my child's protest dictate my actions, I was putting him in charge. And in a certain way, I was validating his fears. Because by not handing him over, I was telling him that there was indeed something to be afraid of in his father's arms. Without realizing it, I was demonstrating agreement with his assessment that the only safe place in his world was with me. I was inadvertently encouraging his fear.

What I wish I would have done is to calmly, clearly, and kindly peel my child off of me, hand him confidently to his dad with a smile and a kiss for both of them, and walk cheerfully away.

Granted, that would mean his dad was left to deal with a screaming mess who was kicking and squirming and wailing. But he would have done fine with that. In fact, being present for your children while they are expressing strong emotion is a fantastic way to bond with them.

So I hope I'll get the chance to do this differently with my grandchildren some day. I hope I can do what I think is best for them with calm, compassionate clarity, and to listen to their protests with attentive kindness while continuing on the course of action that I have consciously chosen with their best interests in mind.

This might mean peeling them off of me at times. This might mean playing a much different role than I could have imagined before today. But I think it would be a powerful gift to trust in a young child's resilience, and send them the message that they are strong and capable and adaptable and I know they will be fine even when they don't yet know it, and to let them know that I am not afraid of their tears.

(This is not the way I think it is best to handle older children and teenagers, however. In my opinion, as children grow they need to be involved in plotting the course toward their long term best interests as much as possible. So I would not blindly persevere on a course of action that I had set despite the protests of a child who was old enough to have a conversation with me. I would sit down with him and talk it over.)

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

joint custody and money problems

Q: I have been divorced for over a year now, and share joint custody of my four teenagers. Aside from losing almost everything in the divorce because I could not afford a lawyer, I am having trouble with disrespectful kids.

My ex gets angry when things don't go his way. My children are beginning to treat me the same way. They get mad at me if I can't do what they want. It usually has to do with money. They never ask their dad for things they need or want, so they ask me, when I say I can't afford it they get mad and make me feel like I'm a bad mom.

never hit a child

I saw something that broke my heart last night. Some friends and I were dining on the patio of a restaurant that overlooked a plaza. A man was pacing around talking on his cell phone, which is nothing unusual, when several of his children came out of a store. One of them, a girl of about 7, blasted through the door with her face twisted in a grimace and emitted a loud wail.

In the blink of an eye, the man flew into a rage. He grabbed the oldest boy, who was about 10, corralled him in a headlock, and started punching him very hard in the shoulder while yelling in a whisper through clenched teeth with so much intensity that his face flared red and his veins popped out. The girl and the other children immediately disappeared back into the store.

After a moment, the man seemed to remember that he was in public, and he released the boy roughly and pushed him away. The boy choked back tears, cradled his shoulder, and took off. I will never forget the look on his face - a terrible mix of shame, violation, and rage.

I was transfixed in horror. The man visually scanned his surroundings to see if he had been witnessed. He began in my direction, and our eyes met.

My dinner companions had not seen the incident, so I did not mention it and rejoined the conversation. This morning, I woke up crying.

When I see a parent hurt a child, my heart aches for them both. That father's reaction was so instantaneous that it seems highly likely that when he was a child, he was a victim of abuse himself. It's also possible that he never learned how to cope with major internal stress, and he has lost all self-control.

Either way, he's simply another link in the chain of pain, passing along a legacy of domination and violation.

For rage of that intensity to be so close to the surface ... well, I can't imagine what it's like to carry that much pain. But I know someone who can imagine it. His 10 year old son.

I'm not sure why I witnessed this event. I spend most of my time working with very high functioning parents who already know that it is never never never okay to hit a child.

And then I thought ... well, I am a writer. Maybe I was shown this so I could share it with others. Perhaps there are parents who are still hurting their children, believing that it is for their own good.

Perhaps in reading this bird's eye view of an incident like this, those well intentioned parents may come to understand that when they hit or hurt their children, they are teaching a very different lesson than the one they mean to impart. Children learn what they live. That boy might indeed have hurt his sister inside that store, but who do you think he learned that behavior from?

Violence begets violence. Not remorse. Not future self-restraint. Not morality. And it certainly does not teach children how to handle their feelings, communicate with each other, or work together. Children learn those skills by watching the behavior of those they love, and receiving gentle instruction during quiet and loving moments together.

Please don't hit or spank your children. There many more effective ways to help your children learn appropriate behavior. Physically punishing a child does not teach him a lesson. It only creates feelings of pain, violation, and rage.

If only that father could have seen what I saw on his son's face, maybe he would understand ...

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

My son runs away from me in public

Q: My son is an energetic and lively 6 year old who literally hits the ground running each morning. I have some physical limitations that make it impossible for me to chase him. He does not have many friends, and because he has some behavioural problems, he is not welcome in clubs or organized sports.

He loves running away from me, no matter where we are going or what we are doing. I do not enjoy embarrassing him , but I have a backpack with a strap which attaches onto me that I have threatened to put on him if he keeps running away from me, because I am worried that he will get run over by a car or collide with strangers in the street, which is something I would have to live with for the rest of my life! He has no sense of danger or fear for the consequences of his actions, and at times he tends to blatantly ignore my verbal commands.

Can you come up with any hints, tips or advice for me as I am a single parent and I do not know where to turn.

happy father's day

I stumbled upon this article online today, and found myself getting all teary-eyed while reading it. A teenage brother and sister who are orphaned by their mother's sudden death are adopted by their mom's ex-boyfriend, and he steps up to unexpected fatherhood in every possible way. I just love happy endings.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

My preschooler starts to cry out of the blue!

Q: My four year old son is the sweetest child when he's in a good mood, but it can change so quickly! Here's an example:

The other morning we were getting ready to go to the park. He was so excited that he started telling me which park we were going to, and I was agreeing to everything he was saying.

Within seconds, he suddenly changed. He could not put his shoes on, so I asked him if he needed help. He replied, "No, Mommy, I can do it." He kept trying, but with no luck, so I asked him again, "Would you like Mommy to help?" Again he said no.

Why is it so difficult to change my parenting?

Q: I wholeheartedly agree with your advice on collaboration vs. consequences. Yet sometimes I still find myself issuing consequences, threats and ultimatums, even though I know they don't work! I wish collaborative parenting came more naturally to me ... any suggestions?

A: Oh gosh, it's that way for all of us when we try to break old habits. There's sort of a progression that the process of personal change moves through.

What to do when your toddler is angry about the new baby

Q: I have two sons. One is 2 1/2 years old and the other 7 months. After I gave birth to the baby, my older son's personality changed. I remember him coming to the hospital, and bursting into tears as soon as he lay eyes on his brother. Ever since then, he has been less cooperative and very distant with me, and it has caused alot of tension in our relationship. He has changed from a very loving little boy, to one who often pushes me away. There have been a few occasions where he has reduced me to tears with his behaviour. On a couple of those occasions, I have said some mean things to him, much to my disgust! Since then, I believe this has caused him to further alienate himself from me, often hitting me and shouting. He has since become much closer to his father as a result, which is something I am glad for. I just wish there was a way for he and I to become as close as we once were and for me to make up for the things which I said.

-mum of two

look for the good

I just found this while cleaning up some archived emails. I wrote it back in 2005 ...


I am all aglow this morning, having just spent 30 minutes over at the middle school with my son.

Each month, the teachers there are encouraged to nominate a student who quietly, day in and day out, makes the school a more positive and fulfilling place to be. These students receive an award for their leadership at a celebratory breakfast, which their parents also attend.

I think it's common knowledge that I'm a sap, so it will come as no surprise to hear that I always have to bring tissues to these things. It's very gratifying to hear that others recognize wonderful qualities in my son, but warm little tears were trickling down my cheeks long before it was his turn on stage.

What gets me is things like this:

A slouching, acne-afflicted teenage girl shyly straightens up and smiles as her teacher tells us story after story about her positive attitude and eagerness to help...

A tall and beautiful girl is recognized for her deep compassion and trustworthiness, rather than for her physical attractiveness and popularity...

A gangly snowboarder kid stands up there next to his choir teacher, hair all spiked up, pants halfway down his bottom, parents in the audience, and hears her tell us all that she witnessed him comforting a classmate who was crying outside the music room.

It just chokes me up. Few people passing this tough-looking kid on the street would have suspected that he had such a kind heart. (In fact, his teacher winked at us and told us to keep this info confidential, or it might ruin his reputation with his peers!)

so what's fresh in my mind is this: please, please, please make a huge effort to find something that you appreciate about your child, and tell him or her about it, EVERY SINGLE DAY.

and hey, while you're at it, why not do this with your mate, your coworkers and even yourself, too!

I could just see the wheels turning in those kids' heads up there - someone had noticed their inherent goodness and their positive action, and the recognition felt so good. And now, they want to do and be more of that. When we see the goodness in others, they usually try to prove us right by living up to it.

I'm not advocating shallow or manipulative praise, or suggesting that without external reward these kids would stop doing good deeds. I'm simply observing how nice it feels to notice and appreciate kindness, as well as to be noticed and appreciated for your kindness. And I'm wanting to remind us all of the magical power of our attention. Shine it like the sun on the things you want to grow!


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internet safety for girls

interesting article from CNN about how teenage girls can minimize the risk of receiving unwanted sexual advances online:

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grounding and curfew violations

There's an important distinction between grounding for protective or punitive reasons.

Punitive grounding is intended to apply uncomfortable consequences and restrictions which can be avoided in the future by complying with parental rules. It may appear to work in the short term, but rarely triggers permanent changes in high risk behaviors. In fact, punitive grounding often simply inspires teens to find creative ways of not getting caught. (Such coming home on time and then sneaking out their bedroom windows later ...)

Protective grounding is intended to maintain safety; to scale choices and privileges back to the zone where teens can handle their freedom without risking harm to themselves or others.

Let's listen in on both types of groundings being applied to a curfew violation such as coming home late without calling first:

Punitive: You blew it and were irresponsible. Now you have to stay at home for the next four weekends. That'll teach you a lesson!

Protective: Well, it seems like you aren't quite ready yet to handle the freedom of being out that late with your friends. I'll know you are ready when you are coming home on time or calling me to let me know when something legitimate prevents you from doing so.

For now, I'm scaling your curfew back to 9:00 to see if that's an easier target to hit. When you are consistently home on time, we can look at extending it in 30 minute increments. I'm sure it won't be long before you are ready to try 11:00 again.

Here's why I advocate for protective grounding rather than punitive: brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought, logic, planning ahead, and consequential thinking, is not fully and reliably connected to and in charge of the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain until age of 25 or so.

It's the cortex that controls impulses in order to prevent unwanted consequences. Think of the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain as the steering wheel and gas pedal, respectively. The prefrontal cortex is the brake pedal. When the wiring is not fully connected, or shorts out occasionally, your teen moves full speed ahead in whatever direction her emotions steer her. She acts first, and if she's lucky, she might think about it later.

(Insurance company statistics provide very compelling evidence of what happens until that cortex is fully wired in, which is why their premiums are sky high until the mid-twenties. And rental car companies won't even let anyone under 25 behind the wheel of their cars!)

You might protest that your teen is perfectly responsible and logical most of the time, and you are right, of course. The cortex/brake pedal has been wiring itself in since birth, and is usually fairly well connected by high school under ideal conditions. But add a little alcohol, a little peer pressure, a little mob mentality, or a little sexual tension, and the tenuous connections between the cortex and the rest of the brain fizzle out. Without the brakes, accidents are bound to happen.

Protective grounding is like lending your teenager your fully functional brake pedal. It's saying, Hey, I know your brake isn't reliable under all conditions quite yet, so I'm not going to put you on the highway in a blizzard. Let's start with the back roads. I will keep you safe, and my brakes will stop you when yours can't.

When our teens show us that they can't yet make safe choices in certain conditions, we are wise to scale their freedom back to the last level where they demonstrated consistent self-control, and then inch them forward slowly again, with our support. It's not helpful to lock them in their rooms for a month and then send them back into the fray again!

They need baby steps. They need practice. They need support, and guidance, and protection from the damaging consequences of their own impulsivity while their internal brakes gain strength and consistency.

Protective grounding provides exactly the kind of resources that the teenage brain needs to fully wire in that prefrontal cortex; safety, information, a rational and reasonable adult to imitate, and compassionate parental protection until he can trust his own brakes.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

My son is so hard on himself!

Q: My son sets impossible standards for himself and then gets upset when he can't meet them. I try to tell him that it's okay to make mistakes because that's how we learn, but he still gets so down on himself for "failing." I know how painful it is to be a perfectionist because I'm the same way. How can I help him lighten up?

A: Yes, perfectionism can be painful. And it can also be a gift. I suspect that you've achieved some amazing feats in your life because of your visionary idealism and your drive to improve upon whatever you can. No doubt your family has also been blessed with many gifts because of the kind of parent your inner drive has motivated you to become.

brain 101

this is sort of a user's manual for your brain, written by a self-proclaimed 'grumpy' scientist who is scrupulous about his research and sources. I think you'll find it illuminating, and I bet you'll learn something new about how your child's brain functions. ( and yours, too!)

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

a sweet story for mother's day

You might want to have some tissues handy when you read it. It's about a Boulder woman who offers to give birth to her best friend's child.

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Parenting a high school senior

Q: During the past 3 months, my straight A daughter, who is a senior in high school, has become a C student. Her grades started slipping when she started dating -- before then she had no real interest in boys. She says she is 18 and can do as she likes. We have always been a close family and are just worried, not about our daughter growing up, but about her future. If you have any suggestions about how to take care of this I would appreciate it greatly.

-Concerned Dad
(note from karen: this question was edited for brevity)

A: It can be really painful to witness our offspring learning from experience ... even excruciating at times. We can feel so powerless -- like our children are slipping from our grasp and there's nothing we can do about it. It's easy to fear for their future. We've seen so much more than they have, and we worry that a few poor choices now can irrevocably change the course of their lives.

Helping your athlete deal with poor sportsmanship

Q: My daughter pitches on the Little League (LL) softball team. Last night, the coach of the traveling team, who is also the father of another pitcher, stood a yard from my daughter when she was doing her pitching warm-up. He then stood at the fence next to her dugout during the game and tried to intimidate her by staring fiercely at her.

I didn't say anything to him, but am really angry. My daughter said that it bothered her having him stand there, but that she finally was able to ignore him. However, she played worse than I have ever seen her play. It was so frustrating.

What should I do, if anything?

- Her Number One Fan
(note from karen: this question was edited for brevity)

A: Yuck. No wonder you are frustrated! Bullying is hard enough to deal with when it comes from another kid, but from an adult? And a coach, no less? That's out of line!

consequences vs. collaboration

How many parents have ever heard their young children issuing ultimatums? Playmates may hear If you won't play Barbies, I am leaving. Toys and dolls are ordered to Stop crying or go to your room. Even parents are not exempt: Mommy, I'll only eat these green beans if you give me two cookies for dessert.

Where does this stuff come from? I have a theory. (Of course ... don't I always have a theory?) The Top Down model of parenting teaches our children that big people are in charge of little people, and can therefore unilaterally impose their will on them. Remember that story where the boss yells at the father, who comes home and yells at his wife, who then yells at their children, who in turn kick the dog? It's a big long chain of pain.

At least the techniques for domination have been updated for modern times. These days, we rarely hear mothers threatening, Just wait til your father gets home. He'll take his belt to you! Instead we hear, Okay, Junior, if you don't get your shoes on right now, you are choosing 10 minutes in time out.

I don't believe we've come as far from our belt-wielding days as we'd like to think. In my opinion, issuing consequences is still a coercion-based technique. Many popular parenting models still tell us that we must decide unilaterally what our children should do, and then impose unpleasant consequences for non-compliance.

If little Sarah speaks to us in an angry tone of voice, we are supposed to tell her to go to her room until she can be sweet. If Timmy bops Joey over the head with a truck, he is told to take a time out. If Jenny isn't hungry at dinnertime, we are supposed to tell her there will be no more food until breakfast.

Sometimes consequences do appear to work. Sanctions may create enough pain or discomfort that the other party temporarily does what we want. Even so, if we stop and ask ourselves why they did what we want, what the cost is to the goodwill between us, and what it will take to sustain their compliance, we realize that Top Down is a lot of work. That's because it is still very much about wielding power and control.

To verify the presence of a power and control dynamic, ask yourself if issuing consequences would fly between two equals, such as a husband and wife, or two neighbors. If you don't clean out the garage by the end of the day today, I'm taking your car keys.

How about between two countries? If you don't do what we want, we will bomb you. (Well, yes, that is actually what happens sometimes, and it often triggers a major chain reaction that leaves both sides hurting.)

I think we usually squirm a little when we hear kids issuing our ultimatums back to us because we hear the disrespect inherent in the Top Down model; it's not relational, it's dictatorial.

When we take a closer look, imposed consequences may not be teaching the lessons we want our kids to learn. High level relational skills, the kind that prevent wars and lead to loving and respectful coexistence, involve acknowledging the other party's perspective as valid even if it differs from our own, and working together to generate productive solutions that feel acceptable to each side.

Children learn what they live. Top Down parenting does not teach them to listen; it demands obedience. It does not teach our kids to understand and accept different perspectives, or to consider the needs of other. It teaches them that Might = Right.

So what's the alternative? Collaboration. We communicate our concerns, invite the child to do the same, and then work together on finding a solution that satisfies both of us.

I (parent) want to stay and talk to my friend a while longer, and you (child) are ready to leave now. What can we do? (possible collaborative solutions you may decide on together: child waits in the car, child has a snack while adult finishes talking, child runs around the whole playground one time and then we go, we leave now and adult calls her friend on her cell phone to finish talking during the walk back home)

You want to play Barbies, and Amy wants to paint. What can we do? (possible collaborative solutions you may help them decide on together: Let Barbie paint, too -- maybe she can foot paint instead of finger paint. Maybe Amy can paint something for Barbie, like a beach scene. Maybe you can take Barbie outside and Amy can water paint with the hose while you give Barbie a bath. Or maybe a complete change of scene is in order: Hey, let's all head over to the park!)

If the child is too young to verbalize his or her perspective and needs, we tune in to their non-verbal messages and take a guess at what might be going on for them. I see you are dropping your banana chunks off the highchair tray. I bet it's fun to see them fall!

Then we verbalize our own perspective and needs. Bananas make the floor slippery, and I don't want to clean the floor to make it safe again right now.

Finally, we speak out loud the process by which we come to a solution that may work for both of us.

Let's put your high chair out in the yard and you can drop the bananas where the birds can clean them up later.


Here are some blocks that you can drop off your tray instead. They aren't slippery, so they won't make the floor unsafe.


Let's get you down and drop some soft toys over the back of the couch together.

You get the idea, right? A whole world of creative possibilities open up when we get the perspective and needs of each party on the table. When we work together to find win-win solutions, rather than simply imposing our will, we teach our children how to acknowledge other perspectives, and hold them accountable for cooperating rather than either becoming dominant or submissive.

I realize this is a somewhat radical idea, and it's very different from how most of us were raised, and therefore doesn't always come naturally at first. If you read this and think, Okay, but what about .... please feel free to send me your yeah-buts, questions or concerns, and I'll answer them here.

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Watch out for this major parenting pitfall

Don't expect your offspring to serve as evidence of your intelligence, hard work, or value as a person.

Sooner or later, all kids will assert their autonomy. If your self-esteem is contingent upon your children in any way, or if you fail to acknowledge that your child is an independent being with his or her own preferences and path in life, the growing up process is likely to end up being painful for both of you.

If we need our children to be Mini-Me's or behave according to our standards all the time in order to feel like we are good/smart/worthy people ourselves, we have anchored our self-esteem on shifting sands. We may find ourselves using desperate measures -- threats, punishment, bribes, and guilt trips -- in an attempt to force our children to behave in ways that we think reflect well on us. It will be hard for us to allow them to make the mistakes they can learn so much from, or to explore new possibilities.

We all know parents who have gone to great lengths to either mold their children in their own image or give them the opportunities they didn't have when they were kids. I say: Let's just skip the middleman and mold ourselves. It's never too late to become who we always wanted to be. When we take responsibility for our own lives -- for maximizing our potential, for living our own dreams -- we set a powerful example for our children. And we free them to take charge of their own destiny by pursing their own happiness.

Like sports a lot? Great! Go to the rec center with your buddies. Don't assume that the activities that bring you joy are also fun for your child. Don't volunteer to coach youth soccer unless your son or daughter asks you to. And please don't holler at your kids from the sidelines or coach Little Junior all the way home in the car.

Be careful not to make your love and acceptance of your child conditional -- don't withhold your affection or approval in an attempt to motivate athletic or academic achievement. Our children are wired to build their lives on a deep and abiding foundation of parental love and approval. If we don't provide that for them automatically, they must use precious energy to earn it from us, and don't have as many resources left over to build a skyscraper. Or they end up becoming whatever it takes to earn our approval rather than expressing their true selves.

Base your self-worth on your own behavior, not your child's. Even better, if you can swing it, is to see yourself as valuable simply because you exist, or God created you, or whatever other cool unconditional gig works for you.

In any case, make something of your own life, and let your child do the same. Give freely of your love and approval, with no conditions, and you will give your child the kind of foundation that can support a skyscraper of a life.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

my beef with tough love and logical consequences

Huge disclaimer: I am feeling tender and sentimental today. This will affect what I write, for sure!

Okay, so here's what got me started on this. As I headed down to the kitchen for a bite to eat this morning, I noticed that my teenage daughter's bed was unmade. Downstairs I found a wadded up sweatshirt on the kitchen table, a half eaten muffin on the counter, yesterday's lunch box with a smashed sandwich still in it, and tennis shoes blocking the basement door.

A disaster area, right? Some parenting experts might say that I should make her clean up the mess the second she gets home, or make her pay me for cleaning up after her, or make her do other chores for me in return. They might say I need to make a chore chart for her, or ground her until she starts taking responsibility for her things, or call a family meeting and set clear expectations for morning routines.

You know what I did instead? I just smiled, and cleaned it all up. It was obvious she had overslept this morning. If my best friend or husband overslept, I would not punish them or call them irresponsible. I would help them. And it would feel wonderful.

Besides, no one else looking at the scene could interpret the gifts in it. I knew that the half-eaten muffin was left there for me. She's seen me eat her leftovers all her life, and she knew I would probably enjoy those final three bites of our last chocolate muffin. She left the tennis shoes by the door to remind me that she did not have practice this afternoon.

I took great pleasure in making her bed for her, because I know she loves coming home to a neat room. While I was in there, I noticed her laundry piling up. I know she hates doing laundry, so I grabbed it and added it to my own to take care of today. In just a few short years, she will no longer live here with me, and my house will be as neat as I want it to be. Also very predictable, and very quiet. I bet I will look back fondly on these little messes then.

Please don't let any parenting expert, including me if I ever try, tell you that your kids will turn out rotten if you are kind to them or cut them some slack or give them the benefit of the doubt. We all need a helping hand sometimes. Part of loving someone is doing nice things for them. It's okay to extend that same kindness to our children. Never, of course, to the point of resentment! But it's fine to be generous when you can give freely and graciously.

If your child forgets her lunch, you won't be rewarding irresponsibility if you drop it off for her on your way to work. You'll be teaching her by example that no one does everything perfectly all the time, and that people who love each other help each other when they can. I'm okay with those lessons. Very okay with them.

ps: if I found a mess like that in my kitchen every morning, I still wouldn't feel the need to resort to tough love or logical consequences. Instead, I'd talk with her about why I want the kitchen cleaner, listen to what she wants for the kitchen and her morning, and we'd come up with a new plan to experiment with that takes both of our desires and abilities into account. Collaboration can be a very effective replacement for consequences.

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My child is stealing things ...

Two similar requests for advice came in recently:

Q: My teenage daughter has occasionally "borrowed" secretly from her older sister for the past 10 years. When confronted and forced to return the items, she is sheepish and never offers an explanation. Her sister gets quite angry and wants me and her mother to "do something." Any suggestions?

Q: I just found out that my daughter and some friends had been implicated in several thefts from classrooms at her elementary school. She admitted taking things, but can't seem to explain why she did it. I've talked to her for hours, taken away privileges, and imposed consequences. What else should I do to make sure this never happens again?

A: I volunteer for our local Restorative Justice (RJ) program, and I find several of the RJ principles to be very useful in parenting. More likely than not I have distorted these concepts for my own purposes by now, so you may want to google Restorative Justice to learn about them in their purest form ...

a free resource for parents of teens

My colleague Sue Blaney , a highly respected source of grounded and practical information for parents of teenagers, has just released a new free e-book: Secrets to Success in Parenting Your Teen.

I've facilitated parenting groups based on her book Please Stop the Rollercoaster! How Parents of Teenagers Can Smooth Out the Ride and recommend it regularly in my parenting consultations.

It's perfect for book discussion groups, and even includes tips and questions for those who want to use it that way. No special facilitation skills are necessary. You can order the book here:

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

Joint Custody: Should I force my kids to go with their other parent even when they are crying and screaming?

Q: I'm a stepmom of two wonderful kids, age 9 and 12. Their mom has "episodes" because of her bipolar condition. She will yell and scream at them, and say ugly things about their Dad and me and other family members. When the episodes are over, she is a very loving person and just does not understand why the kids cannot or will not just forget what has happened. The kids are both at a point that they are afraid to go with her for her visits.

We do understand that she has the right to see the kids, but we are very worried about their emotional state if we physically force them. How far do we go without jeopardizing our own relationship with them because we are forcing them to see her? How physical do you suggest we get with the kids? Should we pick them up and force them into her car? She has already called the police when they would not get in immediately.

We are talking and trying to assure them that they are strong kids and they can handle anything with their mom, and that in time it will be better… but of course we don't know that for sure, and I don't want the kids to think that we are lying to them.

- concerned stepmom

A: First and foremost, let me compliment you on your compassionate insight into the situation. Your kids are very blessed that you understand their desires, their confusion, and their experience. Please don't ever underestimate the power of just one adult in their world who can validate and understand what they are going through.

natural birth control

Just read an article in our local weekly paper about the dilemma some families are facing as the economic conditions intensify: having to choose between buying food or birth control. Talk about a terrible double bind! How sad and ironic to decide that you must risk creating more mouths to feed in order to take care of the children you already have.

I dunno why every single high school health class isn't teaching this most basic and empowering health information: women are only fertile during a few days of their monthly cycles.

There are reliable and simple ways to assess your own fertility signals, and you can use the information to help you avoid pregnancy, even if your cycle is irregular. It also helps you know when you have the best chance of conceiving, if that's what you want.

Using it to prevent pregnancy does require abstinence during fertile days, and is therefore not as convenient or practical as, for example, an IUD, but it is free and available to every woman.

And although it does nothing to prevent STD's, and it's not 100% foolproof (no method is ...), basic fertility awareness education could greatly reduce the odds of an unplanned pregnancy. So I'm doing my part to spread the good word.

Here's a site I like with info about The Two Day Method:

I also recommend the book Your Fertility Signals by Merryl Winstein.

graphic goody

just heard about this today, and thought it was really neat:

You type in a bunch of words and this program turns them into colorful word clouds, which you can then print for free.

I'm thinking it could be a neat gift from parent to child -- a graphic representation of their strengths and wonderful qualities. Suitable for framing, even!

The most frequently used words show up the largest, so if, for example, I want the word KIND to show up big, I would list it more than once. I'm going to make one for my daughter right now.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

Helping children deal with frightening memories

Q: My 6-year-old son has been recently traumatized by viewing a video clip of an extremely scary scene. My older daughter showed him this clip. My son is now extremely upset at night, can not sleep, covers his head with blankets, and can not be alone in any room of the house. He will not even go outside alone. He keeps asking when the images will go away in his head. This has been going on for 3 weeks now. I am worried about his mental health. Should I take him to a therapist?

Thank you,

A: Dad -

I'd better start with a major disclaimer here: I am not a therapist, and do not diagnose or dispense medical or psychological advice. If your gut tells you to take your son to a therapist, please do so.

That said, there are some things you can try at home first that might be helpful:

stroller or sling?

I'm not one to put a lot of stock in research or studies, because in my opinion there are truly too many variables to take into account and it's impossible to delineate a pure cause and effect relationship.

However, I do like to use studies as a trigger for personal contemplation and experimentation. Below is some interesting food for thought about forward facing strollers and their potential impact on language development.

Before I share the link and my thoughts on the stroller or sling question, let me preface it by saying I have a very sensitive nervous system. Certain kinds of lights and sounds, crowds, scary movies or stories -- stuff like that bothers me. So when my kids were little, I didn't use strollers. Something just felt weird to me about putting my little baby down at knee level, especially in crowds. Might have been pure projection on my part, since I wouldn't have liked being down there on my own facing the strange world by myself. In any case, it felt right as rain to carry them on my hip in a sling.

As newborns, they would lay down in the sling horizontally. It also felt weird to me to carry my little baby upright or forward facing, like their little heads just bounced around too much, and like they were somehow too exposed and unprotected. With them tucked in the sling, napping and nursing were a piece of cake, and I could get on with my business.

As they grew, they progressed to sitting on my hip. I absolutely loved being able to see what they were looking at, and I was constantly talking to them about all kinds of stuff. I preferred the sling to the backpack, because I liked seeing where their attention was focused, but at times, the backpack just made more sense, so I used that too.

I chalked all this up to just being a strange and quirky and sort of fringe-y type of person. Now there's this study which says that other folks felt the same way, even strongly enough to do some research on it.

I'm not saying strollers are bad! Of course all parents need to find strategies that work for us and our kids. I only share this article to perhaps support those of you who may feel a deep preference to carry your baby, and don't really know or understand why. Perhaps it may help you to clarify and honor your intuition. It may also provide those of you who find strollers to be your best option with some ways to consciously enrich that experience for your child.

Which reminds me ... there was a powerful book that supported and validated my intuition back when I was a new parent, and I still remember it fondly: The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Here's the link to her site:

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Should I join Facebook or MySpace to monitor my teen?

I read an article recently suggesting that parents who did not have a Facebook or MySpace profile were missing the boat. It even went so far as to say that conscientious parents should be requiring their teens to "friend" them, which means they can have full access to each others' profiles, thus seeing all their conversations and pictures, as well as those of the other kids they communicate with.

My first response was to cringe. And then, since I try to have an open mind, I attempted to find a good reason to make myself do this. But I could not come up with anything.

So I ran it by a teenager I know who is wise well beyond her years. Her reaction? Shock and dismay that parents would feel the need to go to that extreme to find out what their teenagers were up to. Her suggestion? Just ask them.

Yep, it's that simple. Say to your teen, "Hey, I've been hearing about this Facebook thing lately. Will you show me what it's all about? Can I see your profile sometime?"

This simple request is powerful. It's casual, it's curious, and it lets your teen know that you are aware of their use of technology. It also gives them time to clean up anything they don't want you to see.

When they show you, don't read every single word or follow every link. You'll get the gist of it on the home page. It's okay to be curious, "What's the story behind that picture?" but don't go digging for trouble! Ask them to share their favorite things with you. Keep it light and playful. Ask if they can help you search for the profiles of some of your friends sometime since you don't have your own. Let them man the keyboard while you relax and enjoy the ride.

Teens want some basic privacy, just like we adults do. When I was a teenager, I would have felt totally violated if my mom listened in on my three hour phone conversations. And she, more than likely, would have been bored to death. Luckily, she had better things to do!

Today, Facebook and texting are the methods of choice for teen communication. "Friending" my daughter would be like picking up the phone extension in another room and eavesdropping. I'm just not willing to go that far. It feels like a violation of her privacy. I don't need or want to know every little detail about her social life. Ditto with reading her text messages, her diary, or her email. It's none of my business.

Additional food for thought from the teenager I consulted:

- It's very easy to create a profile under another name. If you force your kids to "friend" you, they can simply create another profile where they have their "real" conversations. Other teens will not communicate freely with yours when they know that you can read it. Duh! Teens who are determined to have private communications will always find a way.

- "If parents feel the need to spy on their teen, something has already gone wrong in their relationship."

- If you monitor and control your teens too tightly, you are giving them the message that you don't trust them. Be careful about this - sometimes it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some will decide that if they will 'do the time' anyway, they might as well 'commit the crime.'

- The natural consequence of demonstrating responsibility is additional freedom. Parents have to let go sometime! It's a wise parent that respects and acknowledges autonomy.

- Teenagers have plenty of opportunity when they are away from home, including while they are at school all day, to get into trouble. Microscopic monitoring does not teach them how or why to make healthy choices when no one is looking.

- A better intervention than monitoring, spying, and controlling is to educate your teens about potential consequences. For example, cut out articles or send them links to websites about teen drinking, teen pregnancy, etc. Some kids learn best from anecdotal stories, some prefer statistics. Be casual and offhand. Leave relevant books and articles on their desk without saying a word. Let them learn with dignity and privacy, rather than hammering your lesson in over dinner.

- Or ask their opinion about something you heard or a story you read in the paper -- a drinking and driving accident, an abduction, or an overdose. (Look what came out in the conversation when I asked her about this Facebook thing!)

- If you don't freak out, your teen will freely tell you almost everything you want to know. Freaking out means: prying for more information, yelling, crying, guilt-tripping, being disappointed in them, making accusations, jumping to conclusions, over-dramatizing, over-reacting, punishing, or making assumptions/generalizations.

- If you want your teenager to continue to share details of her life with you, don't judge, question, or criticize what she tells you!

- "Teens who have never been shown respect by their parents don't respect themselves." She drew this conclusion from watching her friends being parented from a young age, and seeing the choices they are making today. In her assessment, the parents who were most controlling and invasive simply drove their kids' risky behavior underground. Those are the girls who are sneaking out their bedroom windows at midnight to meet boys from Facebook.

- "If parents are willing to go to all the work of creating a profile so they can spy on their kids, why don't they instead put that time and effort into educating their kids about the potential consequences of risky behavior, and listen/support/encourage them as they navigate their way through these choices?"

I couldn't have said it better myself.

And as always, this is just my opinion. You may decide to get a profile and 'friend' your teen for reasons that make good sense to you. My goal is simply to present some additional information to consider as you make your choice carefully and conscientiously.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

Parental Alienation Q&A continued

Q: My daughter hates and despises me... says she will run away and hide or fight if I try to pick her up at her dad's for my parenting time. I am devastated. What should I do?

- Sad Alienated Mom #2

A: Oh my, I'm sorry. That must have been very hard for you to hear.

Please don't believe her when she says she hates you. What she means is that she feels terribly angry and confused and upset. Kids go to extremes in their emotional expressions. If they say they are so mad they could punch someone, it's their way of describing the intensity of their emotion. It's not an indicator of true intention or premeditated violence.

Parental Alienation Q&A

Q: I read your article, Defending Against Parental Alienation. I seem to be already doing all of these things, but my 2 kids (9 and 12) are not speaking to me. They live out of state, and I have custody of them in summer and on school holidays. Their stepmom is very angry with me because I told someone in confidence that I was concerned that she may be trying to alienate my kids from me, and somehow, word got back to her.

Since then, my kids won't return my calls or text messages, and periodically send me texts saying I am mean and demanding that I "take back" what I said about their stepmom. I am working with my counselor on this, but wondered if you would also have any suggestions (which I would bounce off of my counselor first before implementing) on what to do or not to do? I will see them for spring break, but they don't know that because they think they can just decide not to come.

-Sad Alienated Mom

A: Dear Sad Alienated Mom,

My heart goes out to you. I'm so glad you have a good counselor - this is one of the hardest possible situations for a parent to face, and you'll need a source of support where you can be completely candid and release all of your feelings in confidentiality.

My daughter complains about her dad's girlfriend

Q: My daughter comes home upset about lots of things that happen at her dad's. Lately, the biggest problem is that she does not like his new girlfriend. How do I handle this? Should I tell her to talk to him about her feelings? It's complicated, because sometimes I've seen my daughter be nice to her, so I don't even know what is real here. Should I tell my daughter that she's sending mixed messages?

A: This is a great opportunity to practice your empathy skills, because you have absolutely no control over this situation. Sometimes we are tempted to try to get our children to talk to their other parent about their feelings, but I think it is far more helpful to stay with your child's feelings in the moment than to try to help her solve anything.

Let's listen in on how it sounds to give empathy:

My ex calls too much when our kids are with me

Q: My ex just can't seem to leave our six year daughter alone while she is with me. He calls my cell phone several times a day, and if we don't pick up, he'll call back five or ten more times in rapid succession until he eventually talks to her. Recently he got her an email address and told her to check her email every day. It feels so disruptive and intrusive! How can I get him to back off?

A: Yuck. I don't blame you for feeling irritated!

I'd make a direct request by sending him an email. I wouldn't expect that he'll actually honor it, (although you never know!), but it's important for your own integrity that you are clear in your communication: Please leave a voice message if we don't pick up. She will call you back when we have a free moment. I'd prefer not to receive multiple follow up calls. 

My ex talks negatively about me to our kids

Q: I read your article about parental alienation. I have been dealing with my son’s father for several years now. All along, I've stood my ground, been open to allowing our son to have his own opinion, and somehow not given in to defending myself to my child. It does worry me that constantly hearing these negative comments will somehow damage my son in the future. I follow the guidelines in your article pretty consistently. Is there something else I could be doing to smooth the edges? 

A: Thanks so much for writing. First and foremost, let me commend you for the way you have handled this challenging situation thus far. Your son is lucky indeed to have you as a clear, conscious, and compassionate role model.

free parenting articles - very helpful strategies!!!

stumbled upon this site today, and spent hours reading free articles about an approach to parenting that is very similar to what Robin and I teach in our Inspiring Connections parenting workshops.

It's amazing stuff. Be sure to check out the ones about sleep, whining, aggression, and siblings. Aw heck, just read as many as you can. This approach is truly insightful and effective, and these articles will very likely transform your entire perspective on your role as a parent. I'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

The Magical Power of Empathy

Parental empathy, which is nothing more than simply reflecting your child's emotion and perspective by repeating it back, is the magic wand I wish I'd known about when my kids were little.

The magnificent book and DVD by Dr. Harvey Karp, The Happiest Toddler on the Block didn't exist back then. I muddled my way through to it eventually, and to be honest, I'm still working on making it my default response.

I still catch myself jumping into offering a solution to her problem right away, and I swear, every single time I do that, I am met with defensiveness. My daughter is the perfect barometer for me!

Here's a hot off the press example from my laundry room last week:

My daughter: I hate laundry!

Me (feeling cheerful and helpful): I can just throw yours in with mine tonight, honey.

My daughter: It's just that I REALLY hate laundry. I have no time to do it, I need my jeans for tomorrow, and I just hate it.

Me: I can take care of it for you.

My daughter: I just HATE it! I always have SO MUCH!

Me (starting to get annoyed, gritting my teeth just a little): Honey, I just said I would do it for you.

My daughter: But I just REALLY REALLY HATE IT!!

Me (finally waking up): It just drives you crazy that it keeps piling up all the time.

My daughter (sighing and settling down): Yeah, it sure does.

And she put her laundry in the washer and went upstairs, quiet and peaceful as a lamb.

I, on the other hand, just stood there with my mouth open, wondering, "What just happened here?"

It still amazes me how irrelevant actual solutions are most of the time. My tendency is to think I can help by taking away the source of the problem. But once there's an emotion triggered, it simply has to be acknowledged before anything else can happen. Nine times out of ten, she settles down after receiving empathy, and no actual solution is ever found.

Another example: She needed a filling, which she hates getting. For years, whenever we'd leave the dentist after getting bad news, I'd spend the whole car ride home trying to convince her that it wouldn't be that awful. (Remember, last time you said it wasn't too bad? This new dentist is so great. She's really gentle and experienced. I'm sure it won't hurt. We can tell her you want one of those little things to hold your mouth open for you. Maybe you can wear your iPod. Yadda yadda yadda.)

But old dogs really can learn new tricks, so this time, I said not one word in the car. As we left the office, I said, "Oh man, I know how much that is NOT what you wanted to hear today." And then I SHUT UP and concentrated on my breathing the whole way home.

She went straight to her room. An hour or so later, she came out, and it was like nothing had ever been wrong. Same thing happened when she was complaining about a difficult homework assignment. I finally stopped trying to "help her" figure out who she could call for help, and started doing dishes nearby. She decided to go for a run, and came back fine. Turns out she works through things much faster on her own than with my "help." Can you imagine? :)

She just needed empathy. Not solutions. So that's my new motto (inside my head.) Empathy, not solutions. Empathy, not solutions.
Believe me, I still need a lot of practice, and have to remind myself every day after school while she's telling me about the Drama of the Day. Here's a peek at my inner dialogue: Take a breath. Wait. Empathy, not solutions. But I have good advice! Empathy, not solutions. Breathe. But if she would listen to me, I could tell her what to do to make this better! Empathy, not solutions. Breathe. Sit back. Wait. Only express understanding - no fixing. Breathe.

And the truth is, if she really does want my help figuring something out, she always comes right out and asks me. And it never ever happens until I've given empathy first.

Parenting sure is a process, ain't it? I'm learning new stuff all the time.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

My daughter won't drink milk, and I'm worried about her bones.

I stumbled across some interesting research about milk and other dairy products that I wanted to share with you. It seems to suggest that your daughter may actually be wise in her refusal, and that if she gets plenty of exercise and eats plenty of fruits and vegetables without overloading on animal protein, she's giving her bones exactly what they need to grow up strong and healthy:

The 12-year Harvard study of 78,000 female nurses, published in the American Journal of Public Health (1997, volume 87), concluded:"There is no significant association between teenaged milk consumption and the risk of adult fractures. Data indicate that frequent milk consumption and higher dietary calcium intakes in middle aged women do not provide protection against hip or forearm fractures...women consuming greater amounts of calcium from dairy foods had significantly increased risks of hip fractures, while no increase in fracture risk was observed for the same levels of calcium from nondairy sources."

Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000) looked at all aspects of diet and bone health and found that high consumption of fruits and vegetables positively affect bone health and that dairy consumption did not.

The analysis of all research conducted since 1985 concluded:"If dairy food intakes confer bone health, one might expect this to have been apparent from the 57 outcomes, which included randomized, controlled trials and longitudinal cohort studies involving 645,000 person-years." The researchers conclude with typical scientific reserve that:"The body of scientific evidence appears inadequate to support a recommendation for daily intake of dairy foods to promote bone health in the general U.S. population."

... physical exercise is the key to building strong bones (and is more important than any other factor.) For example, a study published in the British Medical Journal, which followed 1,400 men and women over a 15-year period, found that exercise may be the best protection against hip fractures and that "reduced intake of dietary calcium does not seem to be a risk factor."

And Penn State University researchers found that bone density is significantly affected by how much exercise girls get during their teen years, when 40 to 50 percent of their skeletal mass is developed. Consistent with previous research, the Penn State study, which was published in Pediatrics (2000), the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, showed that calcium intake, which ranged from 500 to 1,500 mg per day, has no lasting effect on bone health.

"We hypothesized that increased calcium intake would result in better adolescent bone gain. Needless to say, we were surprised to find our hypothesis refuted," one researcher explained.

I'll stop there, but you can find a ton of additional information on the web about connection between calcium, protein and bone health. Milk might indeed be "nature's wellness drink," like their ads proclaim, IF you are a bovine! Even the FDA's newsletter says, "Cow's milk contains a different type of protein than breast milk. This is good for calves, but human infants can have difficulty digesting it."

Mother's milk is nature's wellness drink for growing babies and toddlers (and, by the way, it also happens to be very LOW in calcium!) Each species produces milk that is perfectly biochemically customized for their own offspring, which continue to grow and mature even without any additional milk after weaning.

Hmmm. Maybe this is why the dairy industry has to spend lots of money to try to convince us that drinking the milk of another species is actually a good idea?! Ewww.

Personally, I'm with your daughter on this one. I'd rather exercise and eat a nice leafy green salad (or one of my green smoothies) instead of drinking milk any day ... in fact, I can't even remember the last glass of milk I drank. Must have been at least 10 or 15 years ago. But I do dig the occasional ice cream cone, grilled cheese, or milkshake. I'm a fan of moderation in all things, including moderation!

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit