prevention is more effective than punishment

While doing some research online I came across this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?

I think there's some wisdom in this for parents. It's not uncommon for us to notice the telltale signs that our child is about to act out -- the arm slowly rising, the fist clenching, the tight-lipped frown or furrowed brow, the verbal and manual attempts to clear a space around himself that often precede a bite -- and yet instead of stepping in to help by restraining him from committing the injurious behavior, we expect the child to stop himself upon our request or reminder.

And when he almost inevitably fails to do so, we search for just the right consequence to teach him the lesson that We don't hurt each other.

What many parents don't realize is that when a child is in overwhelm - tired, hungry, overstimulated, frustrated, etc - his brain typically does not do a good job of inhibiting his body from acting on impulse. He needs our adult brains and bodies to take the burden of self-control off of his immature nervous system by stepping in to prevent him from doing harm.

We won't have to intervene physically forever. Our children mature with each passing day, and their brains become more skilled at inhibition. As we provide external restraint, we help to wire in the internal restraint that will serve them well someday. But it takes a LOT longer than we think/wish/hope for this wiring to become consistent and reliable.

Some studies suggest that our children will need us to be an external source of preventative intervention well into their teen years, especially when they are under emotional strain. Teens who can think fairly rationally and restrain their impulses under the best of conditions can still come unglued under duress.

For example, new teen drivers in my state cannot carry teenage passengers for six months after acquiring their driver's license, and then only one passenger at a time for another six months. We try to minimize distractions to set them up for success.

The younger the child, the more often we will probably need to step in to prevent him or her from doing harm. Of course sometimes its fine to let kids learn from experience -- i.e. when they forget their gloves their hands get cold -- but we don't do them any favors when we let them inflict harm to themselves, us, or others.

So we stay close when our toddlers are playing together; near enough to step in when we see the signs of impending aggression. We gently catch the hand that is poised to smack a playmate, and we say lightly and warmly, "I gotcha. I am here. I will help keep everyone safe." We read the aggression as a sign that something needs to change in the situation - it's time to end the playdate or blow bubbles or have a snack.

It is much more effective and educational to prevent a child from doing harm than to punish or impose a consequence after the fact.

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

10 year old who cries at everything

Q: My ten year old daughter cries at everything and is not very good at sharing. She's not as emotionally mature as her 8 year old sister. Every time they are in a conflict, my younger one gives in so that her older sister won't cry. 

Also, she has friends but is always being left out. Every time there is a group activity, she is the one without a group and has to be assigned. She is very sad about it.

Do you have any suggestions?

A: With just this little bit of info to go on, the best I can do is offer a hunch for you to consider, and perhaps some ideas for you to experiment with.

It's kind of interesting how aversive crying can be for us. We may find ourselves giving in a lot more than we'd like just to avoid the noisy, messy discomfort of someone crying in our vicinity. This can get sort of tricky, because in a certain way, this gives 'the crier' a bit too much of a handle on the situation. If a child senses that the people around her would like to avoid upsetting her, a few things can happen for her internally.

One, she may wonder what is so scary about her emotions, and may start to become worried or fearful about having big feelings.

Two, she may wonder who's really in charge here and where she can find the safe container she needs to release all this big stuff without freaking anyone out.

Three, she may start repressing those big feelings because they seem unwelcome or unsafe. And of course, the repression leads to an eventual explosion, which scares her and everyone else all the more when it finally comes, and the cycle begins again.

Four, the built up backlog of unexpressed emotions may start to leak out sideways, and make her sort of generally unpleasant to be around. (Not being included by her peers can be one of the consequences of this ...)

So what's the solution?

Whenever you can manage it, let her cry.

Don't try to avoid upsetting her. Let her experience the natural flow of emotions - intensity builds, peaks, is released through a good cry, and then dissipates.

When we see crying as a problem rather than a solution, and try to smooth things over so crying doesn't happen, kids miss out on the relief of the fresh, clean, connected feeling that comes after the storm.

There's an important caveat to this 'let her cry' thing. A few caveats, actually.

One, crying alone is not nearly as productive as crying in the presence of someone who loves us. The most helpful support you can give her is to stay close and calm while she sobs and rails and does whatever else she needs to do to purge the emotional static from her nervous system.

This leads naturally to the second caveat - it's VERY hard for us as parents to be that calm, close, attentive, loving presence for our kids until we've dealt with our own unexpressed emotions! There are lots of ways to do that - counseling, therapy, lots of venting and uncensored talking with friends, etc. But it's pretty critical that we do whatever it takes to offload the gunk that crying stirs up in us, including our fears about what it means when our child is crying.

For example, if we think that when our child cries, we have somehow failed as a parent, that's probably a pain we will jump through a lot of hoops to avoid. But when we've faced that fear and looked it right in the eye, our child's upsets no longer hurt us. We can see crying for what it is -- simply a purge -- and we don't take it personally anymore. We can allow the river of emotion to flow freely without trying to dam it up. The water stays a lot sweeter and clearer that way.

So job one may be to talk and vent and share your own fears and feelings with a supportive adult until you feel more comfortable being present with your daughter's upsets.

Job two might be to say to both of your daughters something like this: It's okay to cry. It's normal, and we feel better afterward. So we aren't going to try to stop that from happening anymore. If any one of us needs to cry, that's fine.

This will take the pressure of the younger sister, which will be a relief for her. And it will discharge some of the power of the tears, which will be a relief for all of you.

There's so much more to this topic, and I really admire the way it is addressed on the site. Here are a few links to get you started:

please feel free to keep in touch and let us know how things unfold from here!

take care,

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

on the radio

I was interviewed on The Stacey Stern Show today! We discussed how to communicate with angry or defensive people, including our children and teenagers. Here's the link to the archived recording if you'd like to listen or share:

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

a few thoughts on truth, lying, and teasing

A conversation with a friend today inspired me to search the archives of my old website for an article I wrote about ten years ago after seeing a father teasing his young son. Here it is:

Do you tell your children the truth, and model congruence between your words and behavior?

In other words, are you trustable? Examples:

Not trustable: Telling a toddler "No more . . . juice is all gone. All gone," as you are hiding a half full juice pitcher behind your back.

Trustable: "We're all done with the juice for now. I'm going to put it away and you can have more at snack time."

Children are biologically programmed to look to their parents and elders as reference points. Ideally, they will have their perception and experience of the world validated.

What happens in their circuitry when they see a half full pitcher of juice, and a person they trust is telling them it's all gone?

They learn not to trust their own perceptions.

They learn to locate their reference point for truth outside of themselves and their experience.

When push comes to shove, the young child must acquiesce to the authority of the ones they depend on for survival. To do otherwise jeopardizes his health and safety.

Children are wired to create a bond with their caregivers. Betraying their truth seems like a small price to pay to preserve that bond, since their lives depend on it: Ok, daddy, there's no juice. My eyes must be deceiving me. Ok, mommy, I'm not hungry yet, because I just ate an hour ago, and these signals from my stomach aren't as trustable as you and the clock are.

Children need to maintain a relationship with their caregivers more than they need to tell the truth. And at the same time they are laying down the gridwork for their future interactions with the world. What will be the foundation?

When inner and outer truths align, children learn to trust their perceptions and their world.

When inner and outer truths conflict, it's a crap shoot as to which reality they will ultimately choose to align with; their own experience, or external authority . . . and how they will feel about the betrayal.

Humans are resilient, and most of the time our kids do eventually come around to forgiving our ignorant blunders in raising them. (Some take longer to do this than others.) Ignorance, while not an excuse, is understandable.

But what about intentional betrayals? Teasing is an extreme form of manipulating the sacred bond between caregiver and child. In my opinion, it is totally inappropriate for an adult to tease a young child in any way, shape or form.

Children take our words at face value, and the kind of humor used in teasing is beyond the reach of most kids. (Maybe even most adults...) Teasing is bullying, pure and simple.

It is not funny to bring a child to tears by telling him that his blanky is gone forever just so you can be the hero later and produce it out from under your chair. Teasing is a power trip, and is not the kind of humor that leads to bonding. It leads only to defense and shielding, and teaches your child to be skeptical of you. And then we wonder why our kids don't obey us immediately!

When you tease, you lose credibility.

(time out; I need to acknowledge that I'm carrying a lot of intense energy on this topic. It really does push my buttons. Ok, so now let's move on to...)

The flip side -- have you made it safe for your children to tell you the truth?

When the truth is that your child hates the dinner you just spent hours cooking, what happens when she tells you?

When the truth is that your child was afraid of the consequences and so told a lie, what do you do when you hear the confession?

When the truth is that your child really misses his noncustodial parent, how do you react?

If you really value honesty, you must be able to hear your child's truth as an expression of their state of mind/heart, not as an attack on you personally, or an indication of tarnished moral character.

If their communication results in a withdrawal of your attention, affection or approval, you can be pretty sure they will think twice before being honest about that topic again. Children will trade their truth for your approval and love in a heartbeat.

This is not to say that confessions of wrongdoing are without consequence. But we must realize that a confession is a gift given in trust, and treat it as such.

Of course a child who confesses to stealing will still be required to return the stolen property. But we can help ensure she feels relieved of the burden of maintaining the lie, and is then supported in making restitution and restoring her integrity. We need to preserve open channels of communication, and make sure that the act of speaking the truth creates a team rather than leading to banishment.

If we wish to assist the next generation in building upon a foundation of integrity, trust and honesty, then we need to honor the truth in all its manifestations. We need to offer them our truth congruently, and receive theirs with an open heart and mind.

Our children need to know that we love them, value honesty, and will be on their side helping them learn from the necessary mistakes that go with the territory of growing up.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, visit