Ask the Parent Coach
- Q: My child doesn’t like to talk about school . . .
Q. My child doesn’t like to talk about school. Every night I ask how school went and what she did that day but I don’t get more than a one-word answer. What can I do to get her to open up and share?
A. Most adults live in the past and the future, as much as they live in the moment. They think about what happened that morning at work and what they’re going to make for dinner that night, but children are different. They live primarily in the moment. When you ask your child to recount what happened earlier in the day, it’s not as easy for her to deliver the information you want. She’s thinking about what she’s doing right now, whether it’s eating her snack or playing with her toys. The other common reason for this problem is that this question can feel like a demand to some children. They may feel that they “have” to give an answer and they don’t like the feeling of being controlled. This is more of an unconscious reaction and not something they can articulate. In this case, the more you push the less you’ll get.
The best way to get conversation flowing is to stimulate it in a natural way. Accept the fact that your child may not feel like sharing right now and they should have a choice whether they feel like talking at that moment. It’s better if they want to share instead of being coerced. Here are a few tips.
- Try zeroing in on something specific rather than asking a general question.
• “You had your basketball tryout this afternoon, how did it go?”
• “What game did you play at recess today?”
These questions will help your child zero in on something specific. Frame it as an open-ended question rather than a closed question.
- Stimulate sharing by modelling it. Say something like, “Do you know what happened at work today? Sarah, the woman who works in the office next to me told me she is expecting a baby. I’m so excited for her.”
- Respect the fact that your child may not want to discuss their day at that moment. If they don’t seem interested, grant them the right to not share without judgment. “You seem interested in drawing in your colouring book right now. We can talk about this later.”
- Try zeroing in on something specific rather than asking a general question.
- Q: My daughter is nine and doesn’t seem to care much about personal hygiene . . .
Q. My daughter is nine and doesn’t seem to care much about personal hygiene. I’ve noticed that as she’s entering puberty she has some body odour when she exercises and furthermore doesn’t seem concerned about washing or brushing her hair. She gets annoyed whenever I make remarks about these things. I’m worried that her friends are going to notice it and make remarks which would hurt her feelings. I don’t want to be a nag but I’m having a hard time letting go of this.
A. When your daughter was a baby you washed and took care of her small body, but as she grew you taught her how to do these things for herself. By the time she reached elementary school she was able to wash and rinse her own hair, with little or no assistance. She could brush her own hair with ease. At nine, your daughter should be a pro at it. If she’s not keeping up with your standards of self-care, however, it’s a good idea to review a few things that might motivate her in this department.
First of all, remember that nagging and reminding don’t help children learn to be responsible. Instead, they create friction in your relationship, or worse, teach your child to wait for service from you. Be clear in your own mind. This is her job to take care of – and she can do it. The things that will help are the following:
Create a healthy routine
Make time for showering nightly. Have soap, shampoo, and an assortment of shower accessories.
Emphasize the positive. Let her know how shiny her hair looks when it’s been washed and brushed or how nice she smells after she’s showered.
Take Time for Training
As she enters puberty she’ll need to learn about all the ways that her body is changing. Body odour is one of them. Find an opportunity to talk to her about it. Use tact and sensitivity. Ask if she’d like to go to the store with you to pick out some natural deodorant. Teach her how to use it and how often it’s needed.
Be a Great Role Model
Seeing that you shower regularly and take care of your hair teaches her what good self-care looks like.
If you’ve done all of these things and she still refuses to wash herself or brush her hair, she may encounter some consequences down the road. The worse thing that will happen is that a friend may make a blunt remark and this could hurt her feelings. As much as you want to prevent this from happening, it’s the direct result of her choices. The good part is that it may serve to get her attention. This is where peer pressure works in your favour. Be there to help her process the hurt, show understanding for her feelings and encourage her to think about what she can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Avoid Power Struggles
Take care not to get into power struggles. Don’t fight about this or try to control her. If you do, it could lead to resistance and opposition. You don’t want her to get an emotional payoff of feeling strong by not washing her hair. Tell her it’s her job to take of her body, not yours, then stand back and leave it up to her. Have faith she will figure it out.
- Q: My kids complain whenever we ask them to help out around the house . . .
Q. My kids complain whenever we ask them to help out around the house. Getting them to do the simplest things like feeding the dog or taking out the recycling bin escalates into a lot of arguing. I end up feeling it’s easier to do it myself but I don’t like the idea that they’re unwilling to help. How can I get them to pitch in without all the fuss? Do you recommend we give them an allowance to do their chores?
A. I think it’s great that you’re asking your kids to help out around the house. After all, they share the house with you and it’s only fair that everyone pitch in with the work to keep it clean and organized. Chores help build self-esteem (feelings of competency and independence) and also develop altruism. When kids help out they are learning that it’s important to do things for others, not just themselves.
The first thing to do is separate requests from responsibilities. Requests are when you ask your child to help you take care of something at the spur of the moment. Asking, “Will you help me take out the garbage?” is a request. Responsibilities on the other hand, are things that they are expected to take care of, and are arranged beforehand. If a child is expected to empty the dishwasher each day, it’s a responsibility. Getting a child to handle responsibilities without a problem means convincing them that you truly need their help. Then you have to learn how to work together to create a system for handling jobs in your family. This is a great topic for a family to discuss in a weekly meeting. In fact, jobs and responsibilities should be touched on each time the family meets because it’s such a big part of our lives.
Instead of telling them what to do, start the discussion by explaining why you need their help. Mention your busy schedules and how much work is involved in keeping the house clean. Emphasize the idea of fairness. Most kids respond well to this message and will offer to help. The next step is to create a list of all the jobs that need to be done in your home. This list can be quite lengthy and you’ll be surprised how many jobs children can name. Divide the list into daily, weekly, and seasonal jobs. Then ask your family what they think is a fair way to divide all the work. Consider each person’s age and time commitments; sometimes teenagers with heavy homework schedules and part-time jobs have less time to offer than younger siblings.
There are two more things for you to do. One, discuss when each job needs to be done, and two, teach your child how to do their job. Take time to show them in a step-by-step fashion. Do it together at first, then hand it off to them when they are able to do it.
If children don’t follow through with their commitments, it should be handled at the family meeting. It’s important to get their input on how to handle these problems. Confront your child in a way that sounds friendly, not angry. Use an “I”-message to explain how you felt when the job wasn’t taken care of. For example, “I was very frustrated when I couldn’t make dinner because the breakfast dishes were still sitting on the counter. You agreed to put them in the dishwasher when you got home from school. I need space on the counter so I can prepare dinner.” Then listen carefully to whatever your child says. Switch to active listening at this point. “So you just forgot that one day because your friend was over and you don’t think it will be a problem again.” Sometimes it’s just an apology that’s needed and a promise to remember in the future. If the problem persists however, you will have to move into problem-solving at the next meeting. Solutions can be creative – we need a sticky note on the fridge or, if needed, a solution based on logical or natural consequences, not punishment. The whole family should be asked to think of ways to handle the problem fairly. A logical consequence might be that dinner can’t be started until the dishes are put away. As for giving kids money to do chores, I’m not in favour of it. I find it creates a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Jobs are about giving, helping, and thinking of each other. Allowances should be given separately so kids learn about the importance of handling money and not tied to jobs. Remember, you don’t want your child to say to you someday, “I just got a part time job and don’t need the money so I’m not going to help around the house anymore.”
Finally, let your kids know how great it is when they help out. Be encouraging and focus on their effort. Your reward will be children who are willing and happy to help out.
- Q: My husband’s parents take care of our two children every day after school. Although we’re extremely grateful for their help. . .
Q. My husband’s parents take care of our two children every day after school. Although we’re extremely grateful for the help, my in-laws like to spoil our children. They allow them to do whatever they want, and ignore any rules that we have asked them to follow. We find they misbehave more after spending time with them. Any suggestions on how to deal with this problem would be appreciated.
A. How many times have I heard grandparents say with a huge smile on their face that it’s their job to spoil the grandchildren---as if it’s some kind of harmless pleasure? I can imagine the temptation to give in to everything their adorable little ones want, but harmless? Hardly. It doesn’t take long for children to come to expect service at the snap of their fingers, “Snap, snap, I’ll have some Oreos and milk on the big comfy couch while I watch my favourite show. Thank you very much.” Since your parents are with your children so often, it’s reasonable to ask them to go along with your rules for consistency sake. If they pamper, it can (and probably will) have an impact on how your children behave. The challenge will be how to get them on board with you. The most important thing is finding a way to communicate that will not be construed as criticism. This solution needs sensitivity. I have no doubt they are doing the best they can, but as we all know, parenting (and grand-parenting) is a very challenging job. With this in mind, I would suggest scheduling a family meeting that includes your in-laws and the children. Explain that the meeting is needed to work out the after-school routines.
Start off by saying that you are very appreciative of the help they give you. It’s a big responsibility to take the children every day and even though they probably love seeing their grandchildren that often. Next, talk about which rules or routines need to be addressed when the children are with them. The theme of this meeting should be “planning”. An after- school schedule should be drafted to deal with the concerns you have --- when homework will be done, when snacks are given, when and how much TV they can watch, etc. Write down decisions that everyone agrees with and refer back to this if any future problems occur. Take care to avoid any blaming or criticizing during meetings. These approaches can create defensiveness. Instead, frame your concerns as “I” messages. For example,” I find it difficult to get the children to eat their dinner at home if they are having too many snacks after school.” This leads to a discussion of what kind of snacks should be offered and at what time. Be prepared to listen to everyone’s ideas and show flexibility. The focus becomes finding solutions. Follow up meetings are essential because they help you see if decisions need to be changed. This is a cooperative effort and everyone should feel comfortable with the solutions reached.
- Q: My 10 year old son is really hard on himself. Whenever he makes a little mistake he calls himself stupid. . .
Q. My 10 year old son is really hard on himself. Whenever he makes a little mistake he calls himself stupid. We try to be very encouraging and point out how great he is but he shrugs it off. He’s very smart and has lots of friends. What on earth are we going to do?
A. I hear this question a lot and I can appreciate how hard it is to hear your son put himself down in such a harsh way. Obviously, you’d like to help him feel less critical of himself. Often, this kind of problem stems from the fact that he has such high expectations of himself that it’s too difficult for him to reach them. When he falls short, he may feel quite upset with himself, and may worry about what others will think of him too. These are the moments when he puts himself down. The key here is to work on improving his self esteem. This will mean helping him set realistic standards, and also being more compassionate with himself when he makes mistakes. Helping him learn that mistakes are not terrible things is essential. Here are some tips:
• Help him set reasonable goals for himself. Try to figure out how high he is reaching in different areas of his life, behaviour, and popularity. Does he want to be the best athlete, get the highest grades, or be the most popular? Help him understand that it can be extremely difficult if he expects himself to always excel above others.
• Put the focus on effort--- not results. It’s more important that he tries things, enjoys his activities, and gets involved. His true potential will be realized even if he is not always the best.
• Whenever mistakes are made, react in an empathetic way and help him move into fixing the mistake. Don’t let him get stuck on being upset. Frame them as great opportunities to learn something, not as failures.
• Labels are hard on self-esteem – even good ones. Instead of trying to improve his self esteem by using a positive label (you’re so smart, great looking, etc), let him know how much you appreciate it when he’s helpful, how much you like and love him, and how he makes the family better by being a part of it. Focus on what he does, rather than labelling who he is.
- Q: My daughter just turned five and doesn’t like to share her toys. . .
Q. My daughter just turned five and doesn’t like to share her toys. She is an only child and whenever one of her friends comes to play at our house, she won’t let them play with any of her things. I’ve tried to teach her that sharing is important but she is very possessive. How can I get her to loosen up?
A. Sharing favourite toys can be hard for many young children, but it usually starts to get easier as they reach the age of six. In the meantime, help her become more comfortable with sharing, by creating lots of opportunities for her to practice sharing with you and other family members. Ask if you can look at her book or hold her doll several times a day. When she says yes, let her know how nice it was to be able to enjoy her things. Say something like, “Thanks for letting me read your book. I really enjoyed looking at it” This will help her begin to think about other people’s feelings. She will also feel good that she did something nice for you. Giving tends to make children happy. Play games together in which she has to take turns with you. Be sure to let her know what you want to do when playing together so she has lots of experience with give and take. Encourage her to let others hold her toys for a few minutes, then give them back to her.
Next, acknowledge her feelings. Sharing beloved toys can be hard, so let her know it’s okay if she doesn’t want to share certain ones. However, it’s also important to help her see that when her friends come over, they will be expecting to play with some of her toys. Ask if she would like to separate them into two groups. The first group are the toys that she is willing to share. Put these in the room where she and her friend will be playing. The second group are the toys that she wants to keep for herself. Allow her to select a few special ones to put away. This will help her feel a sense of control over the situation and less possessive. When you see any progress, be sure to point out how happy her friend was to play with her toys. As much as possible, let the children work out any difficulties with sharing on their own.
When talking about sharing, use good open-ended questions instead of lectures. Questions such as “Why do you think it’s nice to share your toys with your friends?” or “How would you feel if your friend wouldn’t share her toys with you?” gets her thinking of her own reasons why she should share without feeling criticized. Always acknowledge improvements and have faith in her that she will learn this important skill in time.
- Q: My five year old son is shy and refuses to say hello to people. . .
Q. My five year old son is shy and refuses to say hello to people. I feel he’s being rude especially when we take him to a party or a friend’s house. At times he even refuses to say hello to his grandparents when we visit. Should I insist he be more courteous?
A. When trying to make sense of your child’s behaviour, think about what usually happens when he refuses to say hello. Try to figure out whether there is some kind of payoff for this misbehaviour. Does he hide behind your skirt and get coaxed out eventually by everyone? If so, it could be a bid for some special attention and recognition. Shyness puts the spotlight on the child and people naturally go to extra lengths to make a shy child feel comfortable. This reaction could be what keeps him from just simply saying ‘hello’.
The other possibility is that he is refusing because he feels he’s being forced to do something and wants to prove that he cannot be bossed around. Power struggles are common when children are told they have to do something. A third and much less likely explanation is that his shyness is so extreme that he is experiencing anxiety in social situations. I’m assuming you’ve already talked to him about how polite it is to say hello when you go to someone’s house, but if you haven’t, you can have a little chat about it. You can even practice it by role-playing. Then tell him that it’s up to him to say hello when you take him out to meet people and follow through on this. Don’t remind him or try to coax him to greet people. By handling it this way he will not gain special attention or feel as though he’s winning a power struggle. After a while, with no payoff, he should give up the misbehaviour. If you feel the problem seems to be more of an anxiety problem, continue to role play it over several weeks until he feels confident enough to try it. Then encourage him to try it with an adult he knows.
- Q: Every morning I have a difficult time getting my six-year-old daughter ready for school. . .
Q. Every morning I have a difficult time getting my six-year-old daughter ready for school. She dawdles and gets distracted by everything. I am constantly telling her to hurry up but she ignores me. By the end, I am usually at my wits end, yelling a lot and feeling guilty. I know she loves school and I can’t understand why she won’t get ready without all the fuss. I need help!
A. Mornings are often the most stressful time of day for parents. There are time constraints—school bus schedules, and work—that we have to meet, but our kids often seem oblivious. However, your daughter can be encouraged to be more focused on getting herself ready for school and out the door on time if you approach mornings a little differently.
First, recognize that it is her responsibility to get ready for school in the morning. The more you interfere with her responsibility, the more likely you are to get into a power struggle with her. When she ignores you, she is telling you, through her behaviour, that she doesn’t like being controlled. The answer is to extricate yourself from this power struggle. Here’s how it works.
Three steps to a better morning (projected strategy time: one week).
Step 1. Have a friendly chat with your daughter when you are both feeling relaxed. Tell her that you don’t like all the yelling in the morning, and you want to work out a schedule with her to improve things. Discuss a detailed morning schedule, and work to get an agreement with her. Work with a clock and talk about how much time the routine will take and what time she needs to be ready to leave.
Step 2. Allow your daughter to be in charge of her time management without interfering. Expect the first week to be bumpy – she is not used to taking responsibility for herself. Do not let her see your frustration or anger if she is not on time. Think to yourself “this is her problem, and she will learn how to manage her time better if I stay out of it. I need to have faith in her that she can handle this.” Most important: do not say anything to her about getting ready.
Step 3. Expect the consequences that will likely happen and prepare for late mornings. However, it shouldn’t take more than a few days for these logical consequences to make an impact. Inform her teacher about why she’s late and encourage the school to follow through as well. If you must be at work yourself, arrange for an alternate way for your daughter to get to school. (Although this is extremely inconvenient, remember it should only take one or two times before your daughter realizes you mean business.) Once your daughter feels in charge, she will step up to her new responsibility. Experiencing consequences for her lateness will also provide motivation to begin watching the clock.
- Q: I have a seven year old daughter that bites her nails to the quick. . .
Q. I have a seven- year- old daughter that bites her nails to the quick. Sometimes she bites them so much they bleed. I’ve tried reminding her, but after a point, she just tunes me out. How can I help her break this bad habit?
A. Bad habits can be distressing for parents but take heart, many children have successfully overcome these problems with the right kind of help. Most children turn to their bad habits when they are under stress or tired, or even bored. Your daughter has learned that she can alleviate some of her discomfort by biting her nails. To her it feels good. It helps her cope with a situation that she finds difficult. Once the habit becomes entrenched, she may bite her nails without even being aware that she’s doing it.
The rule of thumb when dealing with any bad habit is to down-play it. Do not criticize her, as this will only serve to make her feel so ashamed she may try to hide it from you. If you try to make her quit, by punishing her or bribing, it can easily turn into a power struggle. Besides, as you’ve already learned, nagging just leads to her tuning you out.
Instead, find a quiet time to sit down and have a little talk. This will be a one-time thing. Ask her how she feels about her nail-biting habit. Ask her if she would like some help with quitting her habit. You can point out some of the problems such as sore fingers and picking up germs. Most likely she would like to quit but feels she can’t. Be a good listener. Tell her there are some things she could do that would work. Show confidence in her, but make sure she knows this is her problem and she is in charge of solving it. Have some strategies ready in case she agrees to try. If she says she doesn’t want to do anything about it, leave it for now and talk to her again in six months. Here are some strategies that have worked for other children:
• Applying a bitter tasting nail-biter product every morning;
• Using small band-aids to cover her nails;
• Wearing thin gloves on her hands for a few days;
• Taking her for a weekly manicure and keep it up to instil pride in her nails;
• Asking her what she thinks will help her stop and implement her suggestions;
• Finding something else for her to do when she feels ‘nervous’, such as squeezing a stress ball;
• As a last resort, consult your dentist. In extreme cases, a mouth appliance has brought success.
- Q: My six-year- old whines constantly. . .
Q. My six-year- old whines constantly (or at least it feels that way.) Whenever things aren’t going her way or her three year old brother is doing something she doesn’t like, she whines. The sound of her whining really gets to me and I remind her constantly to use her normal voice. I tell her that I can’t understand her whining but it doesn’t seem to help. Any suggestions?
A. Whining can be a major irritant, particularly when it happens a lot! To nip it in the bud there are a few steps to follow. First, after everyone has settled down, have a cozy little tete-a-tete so that you can explain that you really won’t be responding to whining and why: It isn’t a pleasant tone of voice; it’s hard to understand, etc. Then let her know what you will do if she whines, namely not respond to her request, or that you may even leave the room. Explain that if she asks for things or talks to you in her normal tone of voice you will be happy to listen to her. Then follow through with this response the next time it happens.
Usually, kids whine to get your attention and to get you to give in to them. They have figured out through trial and error that whining is a particularly effective way to get you to respond and that is why they do it again and again. It works. You have to make sure that the whining does not pay off in the desired way and she will look for better ways to communicate.
Here are some ways to respond. Try them out and see what works best for you.
• Ignore the whining. Sure it’s hard, but pretend you didn’t hear the request. Act busy -- just don’t respond to it -- until they get the message.
• Give him a choice: “I’d be happy to get you a sandwich if you ask in a nice way.”
• Do the unexpected. Walk into the room with a bright, cheerful “Good morning honey!” instead of the usual “Jenna, for crying out loud, stop whining!”
• Leave the room. This deprives her of the object of her whining – which is you. You can come back when the whining stops. If you are at the mall, take her home. The pet shop, New York Fries, and Toys R Us will have to wait.
• Continue to reinforce cooperative behaviour. “Gee I really like it when you ask nicely.” Also encourage independence. Whining may be for attention, so help her learn to do more for herself.
- Q: My young son can’t fall asleep unless I stay in the room with him. . .
Q. My young son can’t fall asleep unless I stay in the room with him. He wants me to lie down with him and stay until he falls asleep. If I try to tiptoe out of his room before he is asleep, he will cry and whine for hours. The whole thing can turn into a long, drawn-out process. My husband and I are planning a week-long vacation in a couple of months and I’m worried about how he will handle the separation when I’m away and he is with his grandparents.
A. Your son has gotten used to you being with him when he falls asleep and now he believes he cannot fall asleep without you. There are two problems here. One, he feels genuinely scared when he is alone, and two, he is too dependent on you.
Being scared is terrible. In fact, there’s nothing worse. That’s why you don’t want him to feel scared unnecessarily. The first step in correcting the problem is to have a special talk with your son about why you want to change the status quo. Help him be aware of how this problem is affecting you. Talk about how in the evening, there are things that you need to do that you cannot attend to because he expects you to stay with him. Also, ask him how he feels about falling asleep in his room alone – would he like to be able to do this? Chances are he would, but doesn’t feel he can. If he says he’s too scared, find out specifically what he is afraid of. Deal with his fears seriously. Reassure him that there are absolutely no monsters—that it is imaginary stuff only. Next, work on some ideas of what he can do when he feels scared. For instance, he can keep a night light on, have a special cuddly toy, or tape a picture of you on his headboard. He can remind himself that it is only his imagination on overdrive.
The next part is breaking his dependency on you. This will only be accomplished when he has experienced the new sleeping arrangement and realizes firsthand that he can do it. Ideally, work out a plan together with your son. You must show complete confidence in him that he will be able to overcome this and fall asleep on his own, and back it up by working out the new routine. Discuss how it will work, “I will tuck you into bed and read you a story. Then I’m going to give you a hug and a kiss and go downstairs to do my things. We will remember to leave your door open and the hall light on since you want to be able to hear me downstairs? I know it will feel a little strange at first to not have me lying with you, but I know you will be able to handle it. In a few days, I know you won’t feel scared at all anymore”.
Follow through. If, on the first night of the new routine your son begins to get upset and wants you, remind him of your discussion. Do not, however, go into his room and lie down with him. Unfortunately, he will likely go through some discomfort emotionally (feeling lonely and scared) before he can overcome the problem. However, there is no way to eliminate this difficult part because he has never had to rely on himself in this way before. He will probably try to appeal to your nurturing side through tears and pleas to go to him. Remain confident in him, so that he will have to look for his own inner resources to overcome this. With your help and understanding, he will do it, even if it means he cries for a night or two. After he gets through the first night solo, he will see that he can do it and be very proud of himself indeed. What a boost for his self-esteem!
- Q: My five-year-old daughter is a fussy eater . . .
Q. My five-year-old daughter is a fussy eater. In fact there are only six or seven things that she will eat (I’m serious). She is so totally resistant to anything new, and I’m so worried that she is not getting a balanced diet, that I end up making special meals so she at least eats something! How can I turn meal time from a big fight into a pleasant family ritual and still get a nutritious meal into her?
A. Any parent would understand your concerns about good nutrition. In fact many of us have gone though the very same mealtime stresses. It sounds like you are so worried about her nutrition that you are doing everything you can to make her eat. This can have some unwanted consequences -- namely that your “push” has resulted in her “pushing back.” In essence, her behaviour is saying “I will eat what I want to eat because you are not my boss. You have to make me the foods that I like!” Furthermore, aside from showing you that you can’t control her, she has become the boss over you.
It’s best to untangle yourself from this kind of battle because the reality is that she will not learn to accept a wider variety of foods as long as you try to control her. Worse, you will have to continue slaving over the stove to please her. To get out of this particular power struggle, always try to understand what your job is and what your child’s job is. Remember, it is your job is to provide a healthy, flavourful meal that arrives at more or less a predictable time, but it’s your child’s job to actually eat it. Let her decide whether or not to eat and how much. There is no need for you to have to coerce her into eating. If your child says no, she has a right to do so. Your job is to inform her of what the consequences of her choice might be – “If you decide not to eat dinner, you might get hungry later”. And realize that it’s ok for her to be a little hungry. Hunger is a wonderful natural consequence and teaches the lesson without you having to get involved.
- Q: My daughter is 4 1/2. Every night before bedtime . . .
Q. My daughter is 4 1/2. Every night before bedtime we put out the clothes she will put on in the morning. We do this to avoid all those early morning arguments about what to wear. But this is backfiring on me as she often goes into temper tantrums over last night’s choices. Now she wants to change her mind, and if I won’t let her – because her choice is inappropriate for the weather, for example – the argument escalates. How can I put an end to this?
A. If it makes you feel any better, this kind of argument is probably going on in three quarters of the homes on any given morning. The reason, in part, is that children (just like you and I) are particular about what they wear. Sometimes it’s about comfort. If you have one of those very sensitive children who are irked by a scratchy material, too small shirt or even a crooked seam on their socks (yes, really), you have to understand that their comfort will be of great importance to them and should be respected. At 4 ½, your daughter is old enough to pick out her own outfit to wear. In fact it’s a great way to help her become independent (which greatly raises self esteem).
Having said all of that, it sounds like what you are experiencing is a good old fashioned power struggle. Essentially, a power struggle is a kind of battle in which both sides feel they need to win. If this is a common occurrence, you can bet that your daughter is getting some kind of payoff for the behaviour – which is winning. One way for her to win is to get you to back down. This proves that you don’t have control over her. In her mind, if she gives in to you she feels defeated, weak and powerless. Another way to achieve her goal is to make you lose your temper.
The essential strategy is to defuse the power struggle. Make sure the clothes in her dresser are all appropriate for the weather at that time of year. You can also make a routine of both of you checking the thermometer and the weather forecast. Teach her that shorts are only OK to wear when the weather is over 24 C. Also teach her how to match clothes and other accoutrements. Within that framework, let her pick out what she wants to wear, as well as being able to change he mind. Once you have done your job by teaching her these things, you can let her do her job, which is to dress herself.
This approach has two immediate benefits. One is that, by making what she wears her responsibility, you are letting her know that you think she can do it, which is very good for her self esteem. The other is that by avoiding the power struggle, you reduce the conflict in your relationship with her. The truth is, many of the battles we have with our kids really don’t have to be fought. What to wear is definitely one of them.
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- Q: My 6 year old seems to want to torment his little 3 year old brother to tears . . .
Q. My 6 year old seems to want to torment his little 3 year old brother to tears. He says mean things and engages in activities like pushing, pulling, kicking that seem typical of young boys, but I am concerned that they will really hurt themselves and also that my older boy will start bullying people. It seems he lacks empathy and compassion. It does not seem to bother him if his brother cries or that he hurts him. I don't know what to do!
A. There is nothing more upsetting than seeing your child get hurt, especially when it’s your older child doing the hurting. It’s easy to rush to the defence of the younger one in tears and be angry at your older son. Unfortunately, this approach usually makes the older child feel more defensive and less remorseful. Retorts like, “He started it” or “You always take his side” are common. Furthermore, it won’t likely reduce the fighting.
The key is to not punish big brother but show that you are upset that someone is hurt. Focus on the younger brother and deal with his injury, “Ouch, that looks like it really hurt.s“ as you examine the bruise on his leg. But since he has to learn how to get along with his brother, support him in telling his brother how he feels. “You look very upset with your brother. Let him know that you don’t like it when he kicks you like that.” Let him deliver the message himself, instead of you getting involved. This way, you won’t start the problem of one feeling you are playing favourites, because if that happens he will resent his younger brother that much more - and as a result be more aggressive.
Follow up with talks, (at teachable moments or during family meetings) about using words when we get angry, instead of fists: “It’s not okay to hit even when you are angry. Use your words instead.”
However, if you feel your six-year-old is truly trying to hurt his brother and the fighting is more serious than the typical sibling fare, it would help to consider why. Is he angry about something specific? For instance, is his little brother playing with his toys? Is he feeling jealous? Use Active Listening to try to get to the root of the problem. If your older child feels you understand his point of view, even though you don’t approve of how he’s handling his feelings, it will help him have less resentment towards his brother. “Boy, it must be hard having a little brother around who always likes to play with your favourite toys. Would you like to put some of them in your room so he knows they are not for sharing?” Keep the lines of communication open. To ensure safety, watch them carefully and if it looks like someone is about to get hurt seriously, separate them and ask them both to cool off in their rooms until they are calm.