Screen time and developing brains

Q: Sometimes it feels like today’s technology is so overwhelming it’s impossible to manage it as a parent. My young kids love screens – watching or playing – and it seems like in one sitting they get addicted. When we try to shut down the TV or iPad they turn into complete beasts. It’s especially hard after a vacation, or when weather has kept them indoors for a few days. Any advice?

A: It’s hard to keep up with all the screen time research and recommendations, and even harder to shift the tides at home when the kids get used to it. Parents today have a greater screen time challenge than ever before – screens are ubiquitous! If it’s not a video game console or television at home, it’s iPads or a DVD player in the car, or a parent’s phone in the restaurant or shopping cart. Plus, these games, streaming services, and apps are almost all portable so it can be easy to supply it and hard to get a kid to desire something else.

One reason there’s such a hubbub about screens in this media-heavy society is that young children have immature brains that are developing rapidly and they are unable to fully utilize media to learn the way adults can in terms of tucking it away and intentionally pulling it out later to use it in real life. Developing brains are unable to exercise self-control and curb obsessive behavior so they lack an “off switch” for activities that dump dopamine, like many apps and video games do. Perhaps more importantly, screen time is time not spent engaged in healthy activities such as physical play, parent-child interactions, mind-meandering time, and sleep. Which is why the WHO provides recommendations for sleep and active play.

Before you hide the remotes and tell your children that screens rot their brains, let’s explore it a bit further. Screens aren’t bad; rather, they’re something you can use in a healthy or unhealthy way. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges media can enhance daily life when used intentionally. The goal is threefold:

  1. Of course, limit the use of passive screen time (watching a TV show without discussion about the show) and addictive screen time (games or apps that activate the reward system in the brain). The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no screen time for babies under one-year-old and one hour for children over two.
  2. Engage in screen time with your children. Learn to play their video game and talk with them about what’s happening on the screen. Video games can teach kids teamwork, patience, perseverance, critical thinking, decision-making, timing, planning, spatial relations, and even kindness (depending on the game!). They can help children exercise their creativity and logic skills, reading skills, and improve eye-hand coordination. Talking with your child about the social interactions in movies and TV shows can help turn entertainment into something more meaningful. Writing, reading, and saying the letter S Elmo just taught you and your toddler makes it more “real,” something that exists and is useable in their world and not just Elmo’s.
  3. Balance it with other important life activities: social time, family time, outdoor play, exercise, and downtime that allows your mind to go wherever it likes without being directed by an external source. Also, sleep. Television viewing has been shown to reduce sleep efficiency without affecting sleep patterns, so it might seem that your child is sleeping just fine even with excessive television but it’s likely the quality of sleep has been affected. Blue wavelength light emitted by screens suppress secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone. A lack of REM sleep can affect mood, memory, and learning; and has been linked to migraines and obesity.
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    As with many things in life, with screens you want to strive for quality and balance, and teach that to your kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests creating a family media plan that fits your values and lifestyle. If you’re dreading changing the screen time habit- well, hang in there. Habits are hard to break no matter one’s age, and young kids who especially have the sense that everything will stay just as it is forever may be shocked and indignant when it changes. If screen time is your child’s currency, save part of it to use as reward for getting responsibilities done. And who knows? Maybe engaging in media with your children will strengthen your connection and make them more interested in doing other non-screen things with you. Win-win!

My 7-year-old son seems to have forgotten how to aim and flush

Q: My 7-year-old son seems to have forgotten how to aim and flush when using the toilet! It is so frustrating, and now his younger brother is following in his footsteps. I am sick and tired of cleaning pee. I need some advice!

A: Oh boy. And – oh, boys! It’s a problem parents of little girls usually don’t have to deal with outside of the occasional “Pee Like a Boy” experiment. It’s amazing how many intricate nooks and crannies there are on a basic toilet, isn’t it? You don’t notice them until you have to clean them, and then it takes many precious minutes to clean the whole thing and a mere nanosecond of mis-fire to mess it up a moment later.

Rest assured, you are just one member of a large group of Moms (or Dads) of Boys who lament ever teaching their son to pee standing up. But what’s done is done, and now you’re stuck with it. However, you’re not stuck with being Pee Cleaner (at least not 100% of the time). Have a sit-down with your boys where you calmly explain that pee is making the bathroom dirty and smell bad, and it needs to be cleaner for guests and everyone who lives there. They’ll probably agree that they prefer a clean toilet too! Announce there will be a new rule: every week the boys are in charge of cleaning the bathrooms. They will clean the mirror, counter, sinks, toilet surfaces (not the bowl) and floor around the toilet (and walls, if you have especially poor aimers) with rinsed out baby wipes (no chemicals and no streaks!). Be with them and talk them through it for a few weeks and then let them do it on their own and call you to inspect the results. They re-do it until it passes inspection.

Soon after they start this new chore they’ll probably notice that pee, toothpaste, and soap gets harder to remove the longer it sits, so they might soon start thinking that it behooves them to clean up their bathroom mess immediately – or not make one in the first place! – because it takes very little effort to rinse down fresh toothpaste spit and makes their weekend job much easier.

And that’s where the real benefit comes in. This whole business isn’t about getting Master Pee Cleaner off your resume. That’s a side benefit. The beauty is that natural consequences (rather than parental lectures) teach your child to be more careful about making a mess, to clean up a mess when it’s made, and personal responsibility and mastery of a weekly chore that just comes with being part of the family. It might be a tough sell at first, but it’s a good age for them to learn that everyone pitches in with chores.

Now get some bon-bons, sit back, and watch the cleaning begin!

We brought home a puppy a couple of months ago

Question: We brought home a puppy a couple of months ago, and I feel like my children are torturing the poor thing! That might be a bit of an overstatement; they really are just trying to play with the dog but can be too rough or too insistent. They adore their new pet, but they clearly do not know how to treat the dog properly. What suggestions do you have for teaching children to interact with dogs? My children are ages 4 and 7.
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Answer: Puppies and children both need a lot of attention and care! The best way to have a happy life with a dog as part of your family is to take the time to make sure he’s well trained. This helps you, your children, and the dog. Your children, at ages 4 and 7, are not too young to understand this and will play an important role in training the dog to be a good family member. Especially if they already love their puppy, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get them involved in the process. It’s important for them to know how to interact with the puppy in such a way that will cultivate control and cooperation in the puppy as he grows. They can participate in fun games to train the dogs, which will also give them some needed guidelines for interacting with the dog. The children should not be left unsupervised with the puppy because all interactions between them are teaching the puppy something, but not necessarily what you want him to learn. Your children won’t learn how to treat the puppy well by verbal guidance alone. They need supervised experiences interacting with the puppy that show them how to be good dog owners. Including your children in the training process is the best way to teach them to interact with dogs because it provides structure, guidance, education about the puppy, and the real life experiences they need to help them learn.

Just like children, puppies need structure, routine, and to know their limits. It’s also important for puppies to know where they stand in the family. Dogs are pack animals and need to know their place in the pack. In a family, the children come before the dog. This can be established in various ways but should be done intentionally and with a lot of guidance from adults. It’s important that what the puppy learns from your children is part of the overall goals for teaching him to be a good member of your pack. Both the children and the puppy need lots of positive experiences to feel successful and happy.

On the emotional side, children are typically very good at identifying how a puppy might be feeling if you can take the time to sit down with them and calmly talk about it. You can ask them in a curious way, not an accusatory way, to imagine how they would feel if they were the puppy and someone pulled their tail or lifted their ears up, or teased them, or played with them too roughly…or whatever you see the children doing to the puppy. Talking about this calmly with your children helps them learn to be compassionate not just with animals but with people as well, including themselves! When you’ve opened a discussion such as this with them, it might also be a good time to do talk about what puppies need in order to feel happy. They can be a part of providing that to the puppy. Children can and should be included in caring for and training the puppy. There are plenty of websites that offer specific training techniques, games to play with puppies and children, and why puppies and dogs behave the way they do. There are also lots of obedience training courses in the area that would be fun for the children to participate in, although before registering it’s a good idea to check with the trainer as to whether children are welcome in the class. Good luck and have fun with your puppy!

I have school age children and work full time.

QUESTION: I have school age children and work full time. I feel like all I do is take care of the kids and work. How can I make time again for me and find my own identity? Can you give me some suggestions before I pull ALL of my hair out?
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Juggling being “mom” plus working can be a challenge! But as your question implies, there is still an importance to finding time for yourself, both for relaxation and so you do have a sense of your own identity separate from your ‘Self as a Parent’ and ‘Self as Career Woman.’

Some helpful hints:

(1) Let go of any guilt you have about time for yourself! I don’t say this just for the sake of letting guilt go, but because time to yourself is ultimately also in the best interests of your child. A little adult time or personal time or relaxation time goes a long way to improving mood and thus allowing you to be an even better parent. Plus if you always ignore your own needs, you are role modeling for your children that self-care is not important, and that being an adult and parent is all work and no play.

(2) Plan ahead. One general plan that can be used regularly is best, otherwise planning itself can get put off. That is, build your personal time into your weekly schedule, don’t wait for there to be “time” for it. People do best with routines and schedules. Be creative and find what works for you and your family. Maybe Saturday mornings are your time to read and relax, or Sundays you go to evening church services, or every other Saturday you go hiking, or every Friday after work you go to happy hour, or Saturday night you participate in a game night or night out with friends… Whatever you do for yourself, build it into your schedule. A regular “me time” schedule, whether weekly, every other week, or once a month, allows you to plan your time more easily. (I suggest more than once a month. Weekly if possible; every other week at a minimum.)

(3) That brings up the question of childcare for some people. Be creative! If you can afford a regular sitter for these times (every other Saturday night for example), then advertise and find one. It is actually easier to find a sitter to work a regular schedule than to scurry to find a sitter for occasions as they come up. If you cannot afford a sitter so regularly or have trouble finding one, perhaps you can barter with a friend. For example, if you like to cook, maybe you can make a favorite meal in exchange for a night of childcare. Or the most direct exchange is to swap childcare services between yourselves.

(4) Take advantage of spontaneous opportunities. While planning is essential in a busy life to having fun or relaxing adult time, don’t forget you can still be spontaneous! Some parents get into such a strict routine they allow wonderful last-minute opportunities pass them by. Don’t automatically say no to a last minute invitation, but rather take a minute or two to check on possible childcare. Create a relationship with some parents of your children’s friends that is reciprocal in this way as far as having a child over unplanned so their parent can do something that fell into their lap. Also, accept all of the help you can get! If a friend or family member offers free childcare, graciously accept. And if your child gets invited off to a Saturday afternoon jaunt, don’t always fill that time with mundane household tasks, but instead jump into an activity you truly enjoy (read, garden, go for a walk, call friends, shop, etc.).

By taking time for yourself, you will feel better and be role modeling a more balanced lifestyle for your child!

My son is showing signs he’s ready to potty train

My son is showing signs he’s ready to potty train but it’s early, 16 months old. Is there any reason to wait?

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This is one of those topics that can drive parents crazy because the experts don’t completely agree. You’ve got a range of advice from saying that infants can be trained 1 to medical reasons to wait until age three 2 when the popular age right now is 2-2½ to start training. (The popular age is influenced by day care centers requiring children to be toilet trained by age 3.)

My advice is, if you can start with no expectation of success or a timeline by when he should be trained, then go ahead. That ensures there is no pressure on him, and that you won’t feel frustrated by your own ambitious expectations. If he is showing an interest in eliminating on a potty there’s no reason not to let him do it. If he tells you when “pee is coming” or says “poopies” and you can move him to a potty, go ahead. If he makes clear facial expressions that show you he is about to go you can put him on the potty. What I would not do is place the expectation on him that he is supposed to hold it until he gets to a toilet. Then every time he goes in his diaper he experiences failure, plus, kids try to hold it too long. Probably the primary reason for the accidents that still happen occasionally in preschool and kindergarten among toilet trained children is when they don’t want to leave whatever interesting play activity they are involved in, so they try to wait too long and pee their pants. So, I would keep him in diapers, or move to pull- ups if he gets to a point of wanting (and being able to) pull his ‘pants’ up and down himself.

Also, since he is young, don’t be concerned if his interest/signs come and go. You can visit the May Clinic site for basic information on potty training. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/potty-training/CC00060

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/nyregion/09diapers.html?pagewanted=all
  2. www.babble.com/toddler/toddler-health-safety/dangers-potty-training-early/

I recently found out my husband has been cheating on me

I recently found out my husband has been cheating on me on and off for years and our marriage is hanging by a thread. Is it best for the kids (and for me) for him to continue to live at home while we try to see if our marriage is worth saving?

And if I could be allowed a Part II for next month, I’d like to ask: If and when he does move out, what is the best way to break the news to the kids? I’ve thought about the classic, “We love you, we just don’t love each other any more” speech, but I don’t want them to think we could just stop loving them too. Any advice?
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I am sorry to hear you are going through such an incredibly difficult time. There are complicated layers here so let’s take this in steps. I cannot just say there is a simple answer to this question.

For the first question you ask (for this month), the answer could be different for different families. So let me give you some things to consider while making the decision.

Can you keep conversations of the affairs to the therapy room (best) or at least to when the children are not anywhere in or near the house? A child learning of a parent’s infidelity can be devastating, and children overhear parents even when we think we are doing a great job of whispering or being cautious. (Some parents express to me their belief they should tell their children about an affair. I disagree, and will explain why next month when writing about how and what to tell the children if you separate.)

Research has shown one of the worse things for a child is for them to live in the midst of high conflict parents. So one question is: Can you and your husband live together while you try to see if your marriage is worth saving without it being a high conflict situation? This does not mean never having a fight, and normal levels of arguing are not harmful to children, but high conflict is. If you can keep conflict in front of the children to a minimum, then it can be good for the children not to have a physical separation of their parents. Because research has also shown it is important for children to have a strong and positive attachment to both parents. You can accomplish this in two homes; it is just easier in one.

Also, from the child development literature we know stability and consistency in daily routine are good for children, and make them feel safe. It also allows them to focus on their daily lives and being a kid versus worry about their parents. Still, you also must consider your own mental health as well. If living in the same home with him will result in you being more depressed, anxious, etc. than if you had some space, that is really important, because your ability to parent, and your ability to make decisions about your future, are better with your emotions as intact as possible so you can think clearly.

Some people stay in the home together and create space for themselves there via scheduling and dividing up physical space. Examples would be using work schedules or hobby schedules to be home at somewhat different times, one parent moving into the guest room, agreeing to be in the home on alternating weekends or at least part of weekends being away, etc. If you separate while you are working on your marriage as you describe, it is advisable to have the two homes fairly close together for convenience. While convenient for practical purposes for the children, I would also say when you are separated and working toward getting back together, symbolically you want breathing space, but not to be building distance.

Spanking Part II (Alternatives to Spanking)

Effective Discipline and Keeping Your Cool: This month we continue with a Part II follow up to last month’s ASK ANYTHING, where I said when referring to not using spanking, “It would take another column to address what the better techniques are to use, and how to control one’s own temper in the moment, so perhaps I can write about that next month.”
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It’s normal for parents to sometimes be at a loss about how to discipline their child. What they’ve tried doesn’t seem to work, or what used to work doesn’t work anymore. Sometimes a parent can become so frustrated and angry that they lose their temper and spank their child. Maybe they were spanked as a child so they view it as “normal,” or think it’s effective discipline.
For many years now, experts have generally agreed that spanking is more harmful than helpful to a child’s development in several ways. Spanking is physical punishment, and hurts a child’s self-esteem and shames them into believing that they’re “bad.” The focus is on the past so they don’t learn what to do differently next time. Physical punishment teaches them that they can’t control themselves so someone else has to, and it also teaches them to make decisions based on fear so they quickly learn to deceive and rebel. The good news is several discipline techniques have been found in research to be far more effective than spanking, and parents would rather discipline with love than hitting. Hitting one’s child happens because parents are at their wits end and/or erroneously believe it is effective so they should/must do it. Thankfully that’s not true!

Discipline builds self-esteem, confidence, and a sense of security. It tells children they’re worthy of respect and helps them develop respect for others. It teaches them about consequences and helps them develop a conscience so they make healthy and effective decisions in the future. It sends the message that they can control themselves and teaches them how to do it. It fits in perfectly with a few of our basic goals as parents: to raise kids with strong self-esteem, the ability to make good decisions, and skills to connect in healthy ways with others.

So when you feel your buttons being pressed, first calm yourself physiologically. Breathe deeply, from your belly, and slowly (at least a 4 second inhale/5 second exhale) without holding your breath. Ten breaths might help; a few minutes would be even better. This diaphragmatic breathing helps on a chemical level. Meanwhile, you want to be thinking rational thoughts about yourself and your child. Remember, they’re not little adults. Think of them as tiny, undisciplined scientists trying to figure out their world – social scientists, chemists, physicists… they’re constantly experimenting to see what happens. The bigger the reaction, the more powerful they feel and the more delighted they are! Throw in some compassion while you’re at it – after all, it’s not easy being a kid. You’re forced to do stuff you don’t want to do, and can’t do much of what you do want to do. If that seems like an adult reality – well, you’ve had much longer to accept this as the harsh reality of life. Part of your job is to help your child accept this.

So now you’re calm – what do you do instead of spank? Good, solid discipline involves a lot of positive, proactive behaviors such as planning ahead, focusing on the good stuff, and positively reinforcing behaviors you want to see. (Again, another whole column! ☺) Here we’ll just focus on what to do in the moment instead of spanking. First, avoid two huge parenting traps: getting emotional and talking too much. Next, ask yourself if you can allow natural consequences to be the teacher here instead of you. Not only is it a powerful learning tool, it gets you off the hook of being the bad guy. If she refuses to do her laundry she’ll wear dirty clothes to school. You don’t have to say or do anything. See the beauty of this?

If natural consequences aren’t available, safe, healthy, or fair, then choose some logical consequences beforehand and let your child know what to expect. Kids learn to trust when there’s consistency. Make sure the consequences make sense, are age-appropriate, proportionate to the crime, and something you can follow through with. Deliver the consequences in a timely manner. Kids live in the moment. It will feel unfair to them and petty to you if you’re administering consequences long after the offense has been resolved and everyone’s getting along, plus it is super hard for you as a parent to be consistent and follow through with your own consequences if they happen later. If your child left your tools out in the rain, they have to clean them instead of playing with their friend that afternoon. If the consequences aren’t working, you haven’t found your child’s currency yet, i.e., what is important to them.

Finally – attitude. Deliver the consequences with a kind and confident attitude. It sends the message that you are calm and in control, your decision is not negotiable, and that you love and respect your child. It also sends the message that you know what you’re doing which helps any child feel safe, even if they protest your methods.

For more information on staying calm and effective disciple, visit: http://www.123magic.com

If you need more information specific to your child and parent coaching, please call for an appointment with one of our psychologists.

Spanking Part I (In Laws & Spanking)

Recently, my in laws had our two children, ages 2 and 3, over for extended visits lasting 3-4 nights while I took care of our infant and my husband traveled for work. In the most recent visit, the 2-year-old was jumping out of his pack-and-play at nap time and tearing apart the room, so my mother-in-law gave him several verbal warnings in an aggressive manner and then spanked him on two separate accounts for jumping out, etc. I was immediately appalled and shocked that she did this without speaking to us about discipline first. I sent her an email after finding out, saying it was to never happen again, etc. There are a bunch of other issues we have been sweeping under the rug because we are thankful for the help they provide and don’t want to seem ungrateful, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She responded basically saying she won’t watch the kids again and she finds this punishment appropriate for a 2-year-old and she is unlikely to change her opinion, as am I. My husband doesn’t want them ever to watch them again based on her response and a bunch of other history he has with his parents. I have not responded to this email because we are shocked that they could so easy wash their hands of their grandchildren and son. Thoughts?
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Thanks for sharing a dilemma many parents face, and that brings up important topics such as spanking and navigating in-law childcare differences. Emotions run high in these topics and it can take some deep breaths and quiet time to be able to approach them.

First let’s talk in general about spanking. For most of history spanking has been used as a form of discipline and many if not most families did not consider it harmful. So while we know now that spanking is absolutely not a good choice for discipline, we need to be cautious about being too judgmental of parents who used it thinking it was a good choice.

It is safe to say virtually no serious professionals support spanking any longer as a form of discipline. Numerous studies have shown other forms of teaching work far better, and while physical punishment may at times stop an undesired behavior, it can do so with negative side effects to the individual and the relationship. So given physical punishment can have negative side effects and tends to be less effective, there’s just no logical point to using it. (It would take another column to address what the better techniques are to use, and how to control one’s own temper in the moment, so perhaps I can write about that next month.)

One important point your experience highlights is the importance of talking about discipline prior to having others care for our children (so often, maybe most often, we forget to do this). In the moment, your mother-in-law disciplined her grandchild the same way she has always disciplined children I imagine, i.e., verbal warning/threat and spanking. As parents we should assume our parents are going to discipline our children the same way they did us, and if we are not OK with that, we need to preemptively engage in a conversation about this before we leave the children with them. The tone of that talk is important. It should be structured in a way that the message is something like: “We deeply appreciate any childcare you can assist with. We know no two sets of parents do things exactly the same. In us talking about parameters that we agree are important to us in raising our children, we have agreed to a no spanking policy. We want to check in with you that you will be OK with following this part of our parenting design for our family.” Sometimes an initial response may be to say there is nothing wrong with occasionally spanking a child, or your kids will end up spoiled, or are you trying to say they raised you wrong, etc. Do not bite into any such lead; your role is to avoid negativity. Responses to that are things like: “Our intent in thinking about how we want to raise our children is not to judge how anyone else raises theirs. We simply are sharing what we have decided are the important aspects of raising our kids with people close to us who are involved in the kids’ care to see if we can all be on the same page.” (I’m not saying to never have the conversation about physical punishment being bad and about the various research, just not during this conversation.)

In some families the grandparents will agree and then all is well. In some they will not agree, in which case they are no longer a viable childcare option for the parents. Since the latter can result in anger by the parents having lost this (often free) resource, I will say it is an important time in life to remember what I call the importance between expectation and appreciation. In life it feels better to be appreciated and to appreciate things than it does to expect. For example, if my husband appreciates things I do for him that feels good for me, if he expects me to do them that doesn’t feel as good; or reverse, it even feels better to appreciate what he does for me than to just expect it. As parents, with grandparent childcare, we want to come from a place of appreciating it if it can happen, but not expecting it. We can’t expect our parents to care for our children exactly the way we want them to. For those of us who luck out and get parents who naturally do, or will by design, care for our children as we wish, that’s just something to really appreciate. For the rest of us, if you let go of the expectation you can let go of any anger.

I think you and your husband have been feeling a lot of appreciation, as you said, feeling thankful and not wanting to seem ungrateful resulted in you sweeping some things under the rug. But of course once hearing your child had been hit you needed to be direct about that not happening again. Let me give you some suggestions as to where to go from here since you haven’t responded yet to her email.

First, her response is not shocking to me. I don’t think saying she won’t watch the kids again is washing her hands of her grandkids necessarily. To the contrary, as she explained, she finds this punishment appropriate for a 2-year-old and she is unlikely to change her opinion, as are you, so one logical conclusion is she not watch the kids. Since the exchange occurred mid event versus in a more ideal preemptive format described above, she’s in a reactive defensive mode (normal for human beings), reacting to being told (not asked, no discussion) how to parent and to never do something again that she considers perfectly OK. I’m not suggesting you should have asked per se, I’m just pointing out humans sort of naturally go into a defensive mode when told versus asked.

In fact the situation may not ever progress past that, i.e., she may not provide childcare if she doesn’t agree to do it the way you do it. At joint events such as general visiting or holidays, etc., then you and your husband provide the discipline, not the other adults there, so her not agreeing to provide childcare for your children is not the same as washing her hands of her grandkids. Childcare isn’t a responsibility of grandparents, it’s just super nice when they choose to provide it.

But maybe it can progress. From here, I suggest an approach something like the one below (not necessarily verbatim, but this gives you an idea of an email; you could also talk face to face):

I want to start by saying this email is written in a positive tone of voice. Since email is just read, sometimes it can be easy to misinterpret it as someone being upset or angry when they are not, so I just wanted to say that so you know nothing I write here is negative.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. You are probably correct that none of us is likely to change our opinion about spanking. I apologize if in my email where I said spanking was to never happen again my tone was rude. I was reacting to being very upset XX had been spanked; that is a discipline practice XX and I have decided is not going to be part of our parenting, and it is a practice that is upsetting to me. While I recognize others find it appropriate and I don’t want to come from a place of being judgmental about other parents’ choices, it isn’t something we are choosing for our children.

In retrospect I realize we should have talked with you specifically about our parenting plans and design in advance, and asked in advance if not spanking was a childcare design you would agree to when the children are in your care. I think one reason we didn’t is that we are greatly thankful for and appreciate the childcare you provide and we have not wanted to sound ungrateful, so maybe we avoid some topics. We have no desire to micromanage how you care for the kids, but again in hindsight, it would have been better communication to bring up the things that are of big importance to us so we could all reach agreement in advance and hopefully avoid conflict such as this. I will try to do that in the future.

You said in your email given this all you would no longer watch the kids, and I see how that could be one logical conclusion since we differ on this topic. Obviously we respect that decision if that is your decision. Another option would be, we respectfully request that you consider caring for your grandchildren within the parameters of our parenting choice of no physical discipline.

~~ Now, this email sample is assuming your husband even wants them to care for the kids. Maybe he doesn’t. In which case I would suggest sending a similar email but simply not asking she change her mind about watching the kids. By similar email I mean, as you can see, the point of the email is to end the conflict and not to fan the flames. (This is done by the email coming from an “I/we” perspective, personal responsibility versus blame, positive tone, and future focus.) I can see no point in fanning the flames or engaging in a battle.

~~ I am also assuming throughout that you did not discuss a no-spanking policy in advance. I have assumed if you had you would have mentioned it in your question. When one is discussed in advance and grandparents agree to but break it, parents need to decide whether a second chance is warranted or not, and if so under what conditions. It can be hard for even well-meaning grandparents who have been spankers to change, and they may need help learning new forms of discipline. If they are game there are books, on-line resources, or even child psychologists who can do a 1-2 time consult/coaching. As parents there may still come a time you decide grandparents, or other family or friends, engage in discipline that is too verbally or physically harsh and you do not include them in your network of people you utilize for childcare. Your children may still have wonderful relationships with these people interacting at any number of events; they are just not left alone in their care.

I hope that helps what is actually a very complex subject. For example, there is still a whole other level of the history between your husband and his parents you touched on but didn’t describe enough for me to take it into account. That begs the question of what unresolved issues as adults we should just leave unresolved and what ones it may make sense for us to try to still work out with our parents…

Coping with the Loss of a Loved One

Q: My 8-year old son was very close to his grandmother who just passed away. My wife and I aren’t sure if his reactions are appropriate or if we should be concerned.

A: It is never easy to lose a loved one regardless of age. While there are five stages that are commonly referred to in the grief process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, it is important to keep in mind it is not a linear process. In other words, individuals may go through the stages in a different order, return to some stages, and may even spend more time in specific stages. Depending on a child’s age, they will demonstrate their progression through the stages in different ways. It is also common for grief to resurface later when there are birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, family reunions, etc.

Before jumping into common ways children grieve based on their age, it is worth acknowledging other variables beyond age that can play a role in the bereavement process. Some of these factors include:

  • Gender
  • Development
  • Culture
  • Personality
  • Ways your child typically reacts to change and stressors
  • Relationship with the person who passed away
  • Cause of death (e.g., traumatic accident, illness, etc.)
  • Understanding of death
  • Earlier experiences with death and/or loss
  • Amount of support available to them
  • How others are modeling their ability to cope with the loss

While babies and toddlers do not understand death and do not have the ability to communicate with language how they are feeling, they still can demonstrate loss in other ways. Some common behaviors that are exhibited for this age group include: looking for the person who has died; experiencing possible weight loss; crying more than usual; displaying irritability; wanting to be held more; not engaging in typical activities; and being distressed, anxious, and on edge. If they are typically more responsive or expressive, they might be noticeably quieter and more reserved. While there are similarities between how babies/toddlers and preschoolers respond to death, preschoolers may also experience the following: dreams or sensing the presence of the person who died; changes in eating and sleeping habits; bed wetting/soiling; and a regression in progress (e.g., crawling again even though they are able to walk).

Children of primary school age will experience some of the reactions mentioned above, but in addition may also blame themselves for the death; be easily distracted and/or forgetful; experience anxiety or increased fears; not want to go to school; feel embarrassed or different from others to the extent they may try to conceal their loss; and exhibit defiant behaviors. The next age group includes older children, ages 10-12. All the above noted for primary school aged children applies with the possibility of the following: anxiety about the safety of loved ones and themselves; strong emotional reactions (e.g., anger, guilt); and an increase focus on what happened (e.g., “How did grandma die? What did the doctor say? Could we have done something else?”) They may also experience a desire to please adults and not worry them, which in turn takes away from their ability to grieve (i.e., their attention and energy is re focused from grieving to pleasing).

In addition to reactions discussed above, teenagers commonly display forgetfulness, are easily distracted, and have a hard time concentrating at school. They may not want to go to school; be overwhelmed by intense reactions (e.g., anger, guilt); have difficulty expressing themselves; experience an increase in anxiety/fears; worry about the safety of others and themselves; and have questions about death. They may engage in risk-taking behaviors (e.g., substance use); make jokes to mask their true feelings; act as if they do not care; have strained interpersonal relationships; experience isolation and a decrease in self-esteem, and express physical complaints (e.g., headaches, tummy aches). While teenagers may want to be around loved ones more, they may also at times withdraw and express a desire to be alone.

While the above mentioned highlights common reactions for different age groups, it is important to keep in mind that the various variables can result in other reactions that could still be deemed
appropriate. If there is concern related to the duration and/or intensity of symptoms, it could be helpful to meet with a child psychologist for assistance.

Expectations for the Holidays

Q: Everywhere I look there seems to be something about the holidays and my daughter (age 7) has definitely noticed. She has already given us her wish list for Christmas and from the way she acts, it is clear she expects to get everything on her list. We know she is going to have a hard time when she realizes she did not get everything she wanted. Any suggestions on how to deal with the inevitable disappointment and possible tantrum that will result?

A: First off, you are not alone! Many parents are in the same boat. As you noted, there is mention of the holidays everywhere we look and stores never fail to highlight the gift giving aspect. This unfortunately can overshadow the true meaning of the holidays and place greater emphasis on presents. While having ways to manage disappointment on the day children are opening presents is important, we encourage parents this year to initiate the coping process before that. Start by discussing gratitude and giving, but without presents all around tempting all focus to be on wondering what could be under the shiny wrapping paper. One way to achieve this is by modeling the desired behavior. From very early on, children turn to their parents for clues on how to respond in situations. Be aware of how you are expressing gratitude. If a co-worker gives you the same gift again this year before heading off for her vacation to Hawaii, do you verbalize disappointment over dinner by saying to your family that your co-worker is cheap and not creative with gift giving, but spends so much money on vacations? Or do you express gratitude for her thinking about you this holiday season and remembering to bring in your gift before she left the office for the next two weeks? Try on a daily basis to express your gratitude about even simple things like a great dinner or no traffic on your drive home from work. Your child will notice!

In addition, consider taking time to discuss the true meaning of the holiday(s) being celebrated. Emphasize the holidays are not just about receiving, but they are also a time for us to reflect on what we already have and finding ways to give. Giving back to the community can be a great way to demonstrate this and can be done in many different ways. Find a way to give back that works for you whether it be volunteering at a soup kitchen, arranging a toy drive, or dropping off items at a food bank.

Writing thank you notes as part of the routine when gifts are involved is another option. This can be tedious, but it sends children the message they are not entitled to presents. Instead, the gift was a thoughtful and kind gesture. For little ones, encourage them to draw a picture in the card expressing their gratitude or have them tell you their message and you can write it. As children get older and have stronger writing skills, the torch can be passed to them and they can complete their own thank you cards.

Now for the disappointment that might ensue the day of. It can be mortifying to be amongst others when you hear your child loudly voice their discontentment. Create a plan beforehand as to how you plan to handle this situation. This plan should include staying calm and not shaming your child. Being shamed does not help children learn the points mentioned above, but it will definitely make them feel poorly about themselves and further exacerbate the situation. Try finding a private place where you can communicate one-on-one about their disappointment, but during this conversation, also sharing about what it was like for you when they reacted negatively. If the above suggestions were already implemented, you can always re-iterate what was discussed regarding what the holidays are really about. Most importantly, provide them the opportunity for a “do over.” A “do over” allows both of you to have a positive experience, so the remainder of the day is not clouded.