Archive for Discipline

Top 5 Parenting Challenges & How to Deal with Them

92861969I like this interview with Rebecca Eanes, author of the book Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide (to be released in July 2016). Eanes talks about the top 5 parenting challenges as reported by parents, and how we can tweak our approach to addressing these challenges so we have a “more positive parenting experience.” I personally feel less concerned about my experience of my parenting than I do about my child’s experience of my parenting, but nonetheless this is good stuff. I like that Eanes considers the neuroscience of child development in presenting her advice and she understands the critical role of the parent-child connection when addressing any behavior issue.

Here’s a summary of her insights about the top 5 parenting challenges along with my own 2 cents:

1. Aggression

One minute our little darling is playing sweetly with our best friend’s child; the next minute . . . scratch, pow, bam! Aggression. It’s hard to watch in our own children.

Many parents struggle with their child’s aggression toward other children. Eanes cautions parents about responding to their child’s aggression with aggression, such as spanking. Instead, model self-control. She suggests “time-ins”: your child sits with you while he calms down. If he isn’t calm, his brain remains in a reactive state. When your child is finally calm, you can let him know how his aggression made his friend or sibling feel, and we can help him make amends. This helps him get out of his own head and experience to connect to others emotionally — he’s exercising those empathy muscles.

I’ve always preferred this concept of “time-ins” or “couch time” to time-outs where the child is sent to sit in a corner (or in the dreaded “naughty seat”) because the latter is much more punitive in tone. I also think we can consider not only what our child is doing – hitting, biting – but why he’s doing it. In my experience, that’s the most important thing to remember when looking for solutions to aggressive behavior. Does our child feel safe? Is the hitting and biting happening in preschool but not at home? Does it tend to happen with only particular children or with us? What’s going on in that relationship? If a child doesn’t feel safe and secure with a person, he will become aggressive. Fear is often at the heart of aggressive behavior even if our child looks mighty when he’s slapping the child next to them.

2. Tantrums

As the author points out, there’s a difference between a toddler and preschool-aged child’s tantrum and an older school-aged child’s “fit”. Young children frequently cannot manage their emotions — their big feelings rise up in them and they really are utterly overwhelmed. Once they get amped up to a particular state, they really can’t come down without our help. Yes, we can scare the daylights out of them by screaming at them and maybe they will calm down because they’re scared of us, but that doesn’t help them regulate their emotions in the long run. Eanes says, “Ultimately feelings cannot be punished away; they must be worked through. It comes down to determining why a tantrum is occurring and giving children the knowledge and skills needed to move beyond tantrums.”

With older kids, I recommend setting clear expectations about behavior especially in hot button situations. Eanes points out that sometimes older kids genuinely feel we are not respecting them or listening to them, so we can have compassion for their experience while still requiring respectful communication with us. But sometimes older kids also develop bad habits of manipulation. They figure out that they can get what they want if they ask for it for at the right time. Because we’re less likely to say no to their requests, they know to ask for extra computer time when we’re tired after dinner or to ask for candy in the check-out stand in the grocery store when we’re distracted. Then if we do say no, they realize they can throw a fit and we’ll be too tired or embarrassed to go on. We surrender. These kids aren’t bad; they’re just being resourceful!

Before you enter your hot-button situation, remind your child of your expectations: no candy at the check-out or no computer time after dinner. And then don’t give in. While you are rested and calm, explain to your older child how their behavior is making you feel and why you have set the imposed limitation (not to ruin their lives, but to make their lives better).

3. Whining

Most parents are worn down by constant whining, even the most gentle-minded parents. Eanes cautions against heading the traditional advice to ignore whining; we shouldn’t ignore anybody important to us. So true. She offers 4 approaches to handling whining:

1) Really listen to your child. All human beings have a need to be heard and understood. Kids are no different. Sometimes whining is the natural result of mom or dad being too preoccupied with their own affairs.

2) Look for the reason behind the whining. Sometimes we’re so irritated by the way our child is whining that we forget to ask ourselves why they are doing it. Kids might be hungry, tired, lonely, or bored. Sometimes they just need a snack or help putting on their shoes so they can play in the back yard.

3) Get your child to laugh. Larry Cohen has a whole book on responding to your child’s behavior problems through play and laughter. It’s superb. The great thing about this approach is that it not only interrupts the child’s behavior, but it gives us tools for strengthening our relationship with our child.

4) Ask your child to use a different tone of voice.

4. Not Listening

We want our kids to “listen” to us because we want them to cooperate with our expectations. However, perhaps we can reflect on how we’re communicating with them. “Nagging, lecturing, counting, and demanding do nothing to foster cooperation. Punishment or the threat of punishment may compel the child to act, but this isn’t real cooperation.”

The key to cooperation is a solid connection with a child. If we ensure we’re spending quality with them doing fun, positive activities we are more likely to have a cooperative tone in our relationship with them. How do we spend the majority of our time with our child? Are we lecturing them, telling them to do their homework and chores, reminding them of how they’ve disappointed us? If so, they will tune us out just like we do them when they are whining!

Those times when we are the “rule enforcer” should be far out-balanced by those times when we are building rapport with our child through positive, fun activities. If the majority of our time with our child is spent on things like games night, going for hikes together, cooking together, even just sitting around the dinner table chatting — whatever works for your relationship with your child — then our child is more likely to pay attention to what we’re saying when we need him to do his chores or get ready for bed.

5. Back Talk

What did he just say? Back chat, giving us lip, back talk; it makes us feel like our child doesn’t respect us and we want respect. Eanes recommends that we don’t shut our child down, but that we use the back talk as an opportunity to practice conflict resolution:

We are tempted to shut it down immediately in order to prove our authority, but children learn the valuable skill of conflict resolution by being in conflict with people, and that means firstly by being in conflict with parents. Rather than being quick to shut down back talk, we can use it as an opportunity to teach our children how to respectfully communicate their disagreement and state their case.

She suggests engaging with your child about what they want or need, but to still require respectful communication. You can come up with solutions that will work for everyone. I think this advice seems most applicable to older children. Very young children tend to back talk because they’re asserting their budding sense of independence – they realize at about age 3 that they are their own person. They want to press the boundaries and press our buttons so they can see how far they can go! With little children, I guess we can do some negotiating, but I think back talking at this stage is best handled by coaching in how to speak in a respectful manner while asking for what they want or need. Setting clear rules about respect and reminding our younger kids about those rules is important.

With older kids, we assume they already know how to communicate respectfully if we communicate with them respectfully, but sometimes they lack the practice and they get into the habit of back talking out of frustration. I would not engage with an older child who is back talking; I would tell them that what they have to say is important to me, but I will not engage with somebody who is being rude to me. If the foundation of the relationship is strong — if the connection and rapport are solid — then the child will want to work things out and will figure out that they are not getting accomplishing anything with back talking. If that basic foundation is weak, it doesn’t matter what we think or say — our older child won’t care if they’re hurting us. So the problem is the weak foundation in the relationship and the back talking is a symptom of that.

Benefits of Night Time Baths for Kids

Mary Cassatt The_Child's_BathLast night after a long day exploring a nearby bustling city, my Lydia (age 6) desperately needed a bath. Not only was she covered in city “dust”, but somehow a chocolate shake found its way down her leg. When she emerged from the tub, still sudsy and smelling like lavender, I helped her dry off, slathered a layer of lotion on her arms and legs, and popped her Hello Kitty jammies over her head.

It seemed a perfect way to the end a wonderful day together. I recalled her infant and toddler years when I gave her nightly baths as part of her bedtime routine. While she still has a good bedtime routine, baths are rarely part of it anymore. Her bathing has become more unpredictable. Sometimes she has baths on Saturday night so she’ll be spiffed up for Sunday Mass, but on weekdays I usually (but not always) put her in the tub in the morning to let her play while I get a little schoolwork done with her older siblings. She loves to pretend that she’s swimming and often takes in a snorkel and goggles. So, her bathing has become part of our school routine instead of our nighttime routine.

Of course there’s nothing really wrong with that, but last night I did think about the unique benefits of the nighttime bathing routine of her little years.

1. Baths Calm Kids and Help Them Sleep

Most of us give our small kids baths at night in an effort to get them to sleep (sometimes an effort born of desperation . . . ). We know from trial-and-error experience that a bath calms them down and helps them fall asleep once they are in bed. There is a simple scientific explanation for this. Warm bath water lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles, which is a very calming. It also slowly increases the body’s temperature, then when our child gets out of the tub, his body returns to a cooler state which releases melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep.

2. Baths Reduce Bedtime Conflict

Bedtime is extremely stressful in many families. Some kids resist going to sleep. They seem to possess some super-human ability to stay awake while their parents are so tired they can barely speak in coherent sentences.  These parents dread bedtime because they know they are about to engage in a battle that leaves them depleted. This isn’t good for the parents’ well-being or for their relationship with their child.

The first thing any parenting expert recommends to such parents is developing a consistent bedtime routine, including baths, brushing teeth, and stories. Routines provide young children with a sense of certainty and safety, which is necessary for their psychological well-being. Small children in particular benefit from knowing what to expect. When there’s too much unpredictability, kids can develop behavioral issues. When kids become accustomed to their bedtime routine, they are more willing to go with the flow the evening, including transitioning to bed. Routines don’t just help the parents get the kids into their bed; they help the kids ease into sleep.  One study in particular showed that bedtime routines not only help with the onset of sleep, but with the number of night wakings as well.

3. Baths Can Heal Irritated Skin

My two older children had eczema when they were younger and I know it affected their sleep. Many studies have shown that adult eczema patients have much higher rates of insomnia. I’ve never read any such studies that focus specifically on children, but it makes sense that kids with skin issues would have a harder time getting to sleep and staying asleep because they are distracted by discomfort and itching. I think night time baths can help, especially if you include bath salts. I’ve been taking salt baths for years, and I recently learned about the benefits of salt baths for children so I’ve switched to salt bathing for Lydia. Salt baths are particularly great for kids who have skin issues. You can even get bubbly sea salts now so that your kids don’t have to miss their bubbles.

4. Baths Are Fun!

Baths provide us with a fun, easy way to connect with our kids right before bed. The sky is the limit for bath fun. Give your kids strainers, cups, spoons, building blocks, bath crayons, and lots of bubbles. When my kids were small, I even read to my kids while they were in the tub.

Fortunately, we no longer have any resistant sleepers in our house and we have a consistent bedtime routine. My husband is the star of the night time routine. He gives our kids a snack, helps the small kids brush their teeth, reads them all a story, and tucks them into bed. But he has never been one to give them baths. When they were little, I would bathe them before he got home from work, so they were in their jammies and ready for Daddy’s routine. But now Lydia is the only one who takes baths; the others all shower. But when I remember the benefits of bathing not just for babies and toddlers, but for older kids and even grown-ups, I think I might suggest it to them, especially when they’ve had a long or hard day. At the very least, I’ll let Lydia snorkel in the tub at night instead of — or perhaps in addition to — the morning from now on!

Why I Let My Kids Fight

And no, it’s not because I’m starting a baby fight club. Or because I’m lazy. Or because I think I need to “toughen them up.”

This title might surprise those of you who know me. I’m a pretty gentle parent. I take my kids’ feelings and thoughts seriously. I strive for kindness and peace in my relationship with them and try to foster that in their relationship with each other. So why do I let them whale on each other sometimes? It’s all about forgiveness, baby.

dreamstime_xs_64981365I kind of came upon this concept accidentally. I had a quick, important phone call to make, and left the kids peacefully playing Legos in the living room while I stepped into the bathroom. (What, isn’t this where you go to make important phone calls?) Obviously, as soon as I began this important conversation, I heard shrieks coming from the living room. Yelling. Screaming. Your average toddler and preschooler brawl over the Lego they both want. But I was somewhat stuck — I had to finish this phone call and hope that when I emerged, things would still be salvageable. A minute later, my call ended and I unlocked the bathroom, ready to admonish someone (whoever looked guiltier? whoever wasn’t bleeding?) for being unkind and kiss any booboos, emotional or physical, of the innocent party. But what I saw when I opened the door stopped me in my tracks.

My 4 year old was kneeling on the ground, hugging his little sister, saying in a soothing, quiet voice, “I’m sorry, baby. I know you wanted that Lego. I’m sorry I hit you.” And to my surprise, she replied, “I fine. I fine.” As they sensed my presence, they both turned and looked at me like nothing had transpired. They returned to playing happily until the next argument broke out, as they inevitably do.

But it got me thinking. As a parent, I am constantly putting myself in the position of referee. The moment I hear someone cry, I spring to attention and ask, maybe for the 20th time that day, “WHAT happened?!” I then try to figure out who did what to whom (not an easy task), tend to the victim, chastise the aggressor, and basically, in the end, everyone is angry and crying. But what I witnessed that day gave me an alternate view of how it could be. When I don’t jump in to punish (or even gently admonish them to “be kind”), it takes away the immediate defensiveness of the one committing the error. It leaves room for genuine regret that they hurt and upset someone they love. It gives them an opportunity to make it right of their own accord. It allows them the chance to take responsibility for their actions, without me having to guess exactly what those actions were and respond accordingly.

And maybe most importantly, it gives the one who’s been hurt a chance to forgive. Because when I step in and deal with the aggressor in these fights, I rob both kids of the chance to be the forgiver and the forgiven. I insert myself in the middle and act as both. And that’s not fair. Because it’s not nice to fight, but there is joy in being merciful and showing mercy. This might seem like a stretch when talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, but so often, when given the chance, our kids will surprise us when given the opportunity to forgo parental justice in favor of sibling forbearance. And doesn’t it follow that if we give our kids practice in being merciful that they will grow up to appreciate mercy as a very real and vital virtue?

Since I had this epiphany, I’ve tested this theory many times, and the results have been pretty consistent: my kids want to forgive each other. They want to make it right. And I can’t help but notice the other effects it has on them. When they are playing together and my little one gets hurt, instead of immediately turning to me, she will often cry her brother’s name and turn to him for a consoling hug before quickly getting back to their game. Sure, I still kiss my fair share of booboos and break up some fights before they get ugly. Some days it feels like that’s all I do. But giving my kids some space in their arguments and disagreements has been fruitful in a surprisingly real and glorious way. No referee whistle necessary.

Image credit: Dmitry Naumov,

The Domestic Confessional

domestic confessional

I dropped to my knees and began mopping up the mess, grumbling as I worked.  “You have to be more careful!  Especially when it’s a full gallon of milk!  Ask Mommy for help next time so you won’t make a mess!”

I looked up at my daughter and stopped.  A look of surprise mingled with remorse was fixed on her face.

“Sorry,” she whispered with downcast eyes.

My heart dropped to my feet and my tone softened.  I tried to salvage the mess I had poured on top of hers. “It’s okay. Just ask me for help next time.”  She walked away, and I finished cleaning, by now more frustrated with myself than with the spill.

The image of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son flashed through my mind.   The father who didn’t scold.  The father who didn’t ask any questions.  The son who leaned with relief into a loving embrace of perfect mercy.  And this was a son who had intentionally spent his father’s inheritance on gambling and prostitutes!

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Yet his father greeted him with genuine love and joy.

The father must have seen instantly the remorse on his son’s face.  He must have recognized the hardships his son had already endured, and understood that his son was disappointed with himself.

Their exchange wasn’t as much about the words that were spoken, as it was about the tone of their encounter.

One of the most healing moments I’ve experienced after a recent miscarriage was in the confessional.  A flood of emotions had been washing over me since the day I lost my baby: anger, despair, bitterness, envy, resentment, self-doubt, longing, and even a little joy.  I had never experienced a loss like this before, and wasn’t sure what to do with all of those feelings.  As I prayed and asked God to show me the way, I felt pulled to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And as I knelt in church, trying to decipher my sins through a cloud of grief, I knew God wanted me to receive the sacrament face-to-face–to experience the mercy of confession in a way that I hadn’t in many years.

After confessing my sins through a screen for so long, it was a surprising relief to sit down and visit with our parish priest like I would a friend.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to confess; I just laid bare how I’d been feeling, and the most wonderful thing happened.  I can’t remember exactly what he said, but my priest made me feel as if all of my shortcomings, all of my confusion, and all of my worries were no big deal.  Because, at that point, they weren’t.  I was there, I was sorry, and I was open to guidance.  I was the prodigal son returning, and God not only had mercy on my sins, but mercy on my grief as well.

I realized that this is real mercy: a guiding hand as gentle as our tenderest desires, eyes that recognize our remorse before our mistakes, ears that are open to our perspective rather than closed by judgement, and a heart that is so overcome with joy by our return that it instantly forgets our transgressions.

As my children go about their days, making mistakes and learning to follow God’s will, I hope that our domestic confessional can be as merciful as the church confessional–that the tone of every teaching moment is one of gentle guidance and joy in the return.  And that as I drop to my knees to clean up their messes, I take the time to look at them before the mess and say, “You are loved.”

Image credit: Baby in parent’s arms, Rotaru Florin (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

The Problem with Over-Praising Your Child

ID-100297265How dare I throw cold water on praise? Doesn’t every loving, caring parent praise her child? Yes!  And for the most part, praise is great for kids but overpraising (constant, exaggerated praise even for small efforts) can have unexpected negative consequences on our child’s well-being.

Let me say right up front, every parent probably over-praises on occasion (including yours truly), so if you have this habit, know you have plenty of company!

1.  The problem with over-praising

Overpraising can sound so phony to a child that it does little to nothing to increase her well-being. On some level, she knows that what you are saying does not correlate to what she has done.

You can inadvertently train your child to constantly seek your approval: she doesn’t feel okay unless she hears you cheer, “WOW! GREAT JOB!”  Over-praise can also give a child an unhealthy sense of entitlement – that life should be easy and everyone should admire her no matter what she does.

If a child already has a low self-esteem, over-doing the praise actually makes the problem worse. These kids interpret exaggerated praise as expectation and they end up feeling afraid to fail. So they either pick easy tasks or they don’t engage in challenges at all.

2.  How children develop self-esteem

Parents who over-praise are well-meaning, loving parents. They just want to bolster their child’s self-esteem and encourage them to succeed. Especially when a child is struggling to feel good about themselves or their abilities, it’s understandable that a parent would want to pour on the praise.  But here is how we really build our child’s self-esteem:

Love kids unconditionally. We often assume a child’s self-esteem only comes from being successful at something. But self-esteem also requires a deep sense that we are lovable and worthy no matter what we do. That’s unconditional love; love without strings attached. Self-esteem blossoms when our kids know they don’t have to do anything or even behave a particular way in order for us to love them.

Allow kids to take risks doing things they love. Help your child find his gifts and talents, and give him the freedom to do hard things with those gifts. Sometimes he will do well, sometimes not, but if he knows you will support him regardless his performance, then he will continue to strive, develop grit, and build his talents.

Be a child’s mental coach. Kids need the opportunity to do things on their own, even to make big mistakes, but they also need our guidance when faced with something that is really too much for them intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Children learn how to confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles through our guidance and gentle support. Over time, our encouragement – the messages we gave them — will become internalized and second nature to them. Eventually they will gain confidence when faced with obstacles.

3. The effective use of praise

We can nurture our child’s self-esteem through praise, too, but it should be realistic and sincere if we want to be effective. A few tips:  focus more on a child’s effort rather than the result of his efforts (“You worked hard on your painting” rather than “Your painting is incredible!”). This is called process praise. Point out specific things that you like about his project (“I love how you painted little birds landing on the house”) and ask him questions about what he’s doing (“How did you get the feathers to look so fluffy?).

This approach lets him know that what he’s doing is interesting to you, and that you are really paying attention to something he cares about. This engaged interest is far more powerful for instilling self-esteem than trumpeting accolades that are unrealistic.

When Your Two-Year-Old Crawls Like a Dog Down the Communion Aisle (and Other Pathways to Holiness)

Christmas Eve Mass was a disaster this year. At least it seemed that way. With my husband and two oldest children involved with the music at Mass, I was left on my own to manage a six-year-old, four-year-old, and two-year-old.

I should have known that things would get messy when, upon pulling into the church parking lot, my two-year-old promptly got out of the van and climbed to the very top of the nearby school play equipment. She may have been able to shimmy up a climbing wall in her Christmas finery, but her mischievous smile and gleeful chortles mocked the limitations of my high heels and slim-skirted dress. Fortunately, by the grace of God, she decided to come down on her own and walk with us to the church.

The pews were crowded and the air was stuffy, but the altar was beautiful and a sacred joy was present. We settled in and, aside from the expected wiggles of excitement, we did pretty well for awhile. But, of course, the wiggles escalated and so did my children’s voices. I finally had to take the four-year-old and two-year-old out, and the rest of Mass was a blur.

I know that at some point I had to convince my four-year-old to stop using a stair railing as a tightrope, but the most horrifying moment was when it came time to receive Communion. Sandwiched into the line, we started creeping down the aisle when suddenly, out of nowhere, my two-year-old decided she was a dog. She dropped to all fours and started scurrying down the middle of the aisle. I managed to grab her, and she went from dog to limp noodle instantly. Trying not to injure anyone around me, and still making our way down the aisle, I tried whispering to her and I tried distracting her, but she was firmly set on being impossible. If I held her, it was either acrobat or limp noodle. If I put her down, it was dog.

Acrobat. Limp noodle. Dog. Acrobat. Limp noodle. Dog.

She was a force to be reckoned with.

I had no other choice. I picked her up and held her (very) firmly, and we finally approached the Eucharistic minister. And then, in the soft glow of candles and Christmas tree lights with the beauty of the creche at my side, I received Jesus on His birthday–while my 40 pound two-year-old yelled “Ow! Ow! Ow!” in my aching arms.

We made it back to the cry room (by now I was practically crying), and I wiped the sweat from my brow. We made it through the rest of Mass, and as we exited the church, our priest looked at me, smiled, and said, “You are earning so many points in heaven! Let me give your whole family a special Christmas blessing.” And right there, on the front steps of the church, we bowed our heads and received the blessing.

I’ve heard it explained that growing in holiness doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop sinning, or that life suddenly goes more smoothly, or that you are the picture of perfection to others. Rather, holiness is a deepening desire, a burning love, a longing for God and God alone–and a willingness to continue to try to overcome sin for the sake of our Beloved. But, as parents, we are still humans trying to raise other humans. There will be trials. There will be mistakes. There will be dogs and limp noodles. These are our exiles to Egypt; these are our “no rooms at the inn”; these are our swords that pierce our hearts. But if those swords pierce a heart that is full of love, then only love can flow out.

Life is messy. Parenting is messy. But a foundation of love is where real holiness lies.

I was cleaning up our Christmas mess the other day, and underneath bits of wrapping paper, toys, and new markers that had already lost their caps, I found a piece of artwork made by my six-year-old that simply said, “God I Love You.”

God I Love You by Hazel

Maybe Christmas Eve Mass wasn’t such a disaster. Maybe the blessings of that sacred day did take effect. Maybe we’re doing something right. Because in the midst of all the messiness, I continue to find love.

Bully-Proof Your Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know


Image credit: Stuart Miles (

When some of us were growing up, bullying was considered a normal part of childhood; kids were left to sort things out themselves. Now we know that repeated bullying is damaging to a child’s psychological well-being and can have long-term effects on the brain. You probably can’t completely bully-proof your child, but I talked with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life yesterday about how we can at least make our child a less appealing target for a bully.  In case you missed the show, I offered these tips:

1.  Teach your child an assertive communication style.

Bullies prey on kids who are vulnerable, so ensure your child feels confident in communicating assertively. Children develop a passive communication style when they are afraid of confrontation, have some kind of fear or anxiety about saying what they really want or need, and feel like they need to please everyone.  Teach your child that is okay to be assertive when confronted by a difficult person. This means we say what we need and that we set clear boundaries. “Don’t call me that name. Please use my real name.” “I don’t allow people to touch me.”

There is a difference between being aggressive and being assertive; teach your child the difference.  Aggressive communicators assume their opinion is the only one that matters and they tend to be intimidating.  Being assertive is different: we can be clear and firm without being dominating or loud. Make sure your child knows that it’s okay with you if he sticks up for himself when somebody is being aggressive or nasty toward him.

2.  Avoid harsh discipline approaches.

Many children become passive or submissive in response to overly harsh parenting. It’s a basic survival response. Not only will he not develop assertive communication skills, but when a child hears a lot of criticism at home or is physically punished for making mistakes, he may on some level think he deserves a bully’s poor treatment. The behavior of some parents, in fact, rises to the level of bullying and normalizes maltreatment in the minds of their children.

Choose a discipline approach that protects your connection with your child and encourages respectful communication. Even when he makes a mistake, he will know he is valuable and deserves respect. Then when a bully is violating his space or rights, he will have a deep sense that something is wrong. More empathic discipline approaches also protect your rapport with your child so that he is more likely to ask for your help in dealing with a bully.

3.  Teach your child the art of friendship.

Lonely, isolated kids are favorite victims of bullies. Teach your child from a young age how to be a good friend so that he builds up a circle of good friends. Sharing, listening, giving. These are lessons that can begin at a young age. As she matures, help your child develop perspective taking – how another child feels, or how that child’s experience may differ from your child’s.

These tips are all about teaching your child to invite mutual self-donation into her relationships which is what God wants for her. The ability to both give and receive within friendships is a powerful gift. No bully wants to mess around with that.

More for You

I’ve posted some great links about bullying over on our sister site for you:

  • bullying basics (what counts as bullying anyway?)
  • cyber-bullying (oy, there’s a whole new mean in town)
  • sibling bullying (something none of us wants to think about it, but it happens)

If you’d like to listen to my segment with the Popcak’s here you go. I come in at about 24 minutes. The Popcaks’ insights are always fantastic. In fact, the whole show was great: the topic was assertiveness training. Assertiveness is the healthiest communication style, but the fewest number of people possess it.

10 Quick Tips for Parenting a Maniacal Toddler


Ok, that title was meant as a joke. But only a little bit.

If you have a toddler who is going through a phase of testing behavior and frequent tantrums, it’s not so funny. It can feel desperate, impossible, and disastrous.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from making it through to the “other side” of this phase of parenting a strong-willed, spirited toddler.

1. Stay Calm

Stay calm? Ha! Easier said than done, right? I know. I mean, I really know. It’s so hard. Toddlers seem hardwired to observe what sets us off and then push that button over and over, right? That’s why they call it testing. They are literally testing to see if their behavior will elicit the same response from you each time.

If you can’t respond in a calm, gentle manner, it’s better to take a time out for yourself. Yes, even if that means that you both have to cry in separate rooms. I learned this the hard way. Better I deal with my anger and frustration and let my child spend a few minutes alone than allow pent up frustration to result in a less than desirable outburst on my part.

2.  Get Down to Their Level

It’s amazing how crouching down to a child’s eye level can change the dynamic of a tough conversation or meltdown. Look them in the eye and address the misbehavior, and give them an alternative as a distraction. For example: “I won’t let you throw that toy across the room. Would you like to go outside and throw a ball to get some energy out?!”

3.  Never Ask Why

Too often, when I toddler is getting geared up for a melt-down, they have no idea why.

“Why would you hit your sister like that?!” may seem like a reasonable question for an adult, but for a toddler, it’s like asking why the sky is blue. A better response might be, “I won’t let you hit your sister. Did you want to get my attention?” or “I won’t let you hit your sister. Are you feeling angry? Can you tell me what is making you angry?” And then listen.

4.  Identify the Root Cause

At some point last year, I was completely at my wit’s end with my toddler. We were having daily battles that ended with both of us in tears. I wanted so badly to understand why he was behaving this way, but I was so much “in the thick of it” that I couldn’t stop to analyze the situation with any clarity.

Looking back on it, I can see that it was an incredibly stressful time in our household; of course our bright, intuitive 3 year old was picking up on the tension. He was looking for consistent, reassuring reactions from me and wasn’t getting them, since I was so preoccupied with the emotional energy I was pouring into other things. Once these things resolved themselves and our entire household was more peaceful, the testing behavior diminished drastically.

The lesson here is not to underestimate how much outside stresses affect small children. They are incredibly intuitive, and when they sense stress, they need to be reassured by their parents that all is right with their world.

5.  In Calm Moments, Help Them Name Their Feelings

Toddlers are often frustrated because they have such big feelings and their limited vocabularies don’t have enough words to express them! Frustrated, Disappointed, Sad, Tired, Angry, Too-Silly are a good start. Being able to put a word to a feeling can take away a lot of it’s power for a small child and help him regain control.

6.  Practice Methods for Calming Down

Again, when they are happy and calm, talk about some ways to start feeling better if they’re upset. Show them how to take nice deep belly breaths, sing a sweet little song, have a sip of water, or make a silly face. (You’ll have to see what works for them- all kids are different!) Once they get the hang of it, you might be amazed at how they can do some of these things without any prompting from you.

7.  Make Sure They’re Well-Rested

Did anything good ever come of an exhausted toddler? Enough said. Same goes for hunger.

8.  Model Saying Sorry

I’m not proud of it, but while we were going through a particularly challenging time with our toddler, I often lost it. I yelled. I was desperate and angry and acted from those emotions. But each time — without fail — once I had calmed down, I sat down and said, “I’m sorry I yelled, buddy. I’m going to try not to do it again, ok?” Almost always he would respond, “I’m sorry, too, Mama.”

In this way, I was able to model both repentance and forgiveness. Being a parent doesn’t mean never acknowledging your mistakes to your kids. It’s ok to tell them you behaved in a way you know you shouldn’t have. It lets your kids know that it’s ok when they lose their cool sometimes, too, and it’s never too late to apologize and move on.

9.  Give Yourself Some Grace

I can’t stress this enough. While it’s important to say sorry to your child when you lose your cool, it’s also important to forgive yourself. Feeling guilty about mistakes you make as a parent will only make it harder to go through a tough time with your child. If you say or do something you regret, apologize, try not to do it again, and move on. Treat yourself with the same gentleness that you want to give to your child.

10.  Pray

Do you feel like it would take a miracle to get your child to stop having melt-downs and pushing your buttons?! Then pray for one! You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to pray a full rosary, but when you sense things “heating up,” pause for a moment, and simply say, “Holy Spirit, please guide my words and actions.” Or, “Mother Mary, help me to be patient and loving, giving my child what he/she needs in this moment.” This immediately puts me in a calmer, holier mindset, and we can move forward with the graces that even a simple, short prayer affords us.

Image Credit: David Castillo Dominici (

Dealing with Disobedience


I’ve posted some great links over on our sister site, Intentional Catholic Parenting, all about handling DISOBEDIENCE!  Check it out!

Helping Your Child Gain Emotional Control


image credit: Stuart Miles courtesy

Every parent at some point grapples with a child who “loses it”:  she uses negative behavior like tantrums, hitting, spitting, etc. in order to deal with her overwhelming feelings of anger or frustration. But every child also has the potential to attain emotional control over time as they mature. How does that happen though? Is there anything we can do to help her along?  Sometimes we can feel helpless and frustrated.

I talked about this recently with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life.   Here are 3 things to keep in mind as you make this journey toward emotional control with your child:

1.  Have reasonable expectations

Sometimes we expect too much emotional control in children too early (or we expect them to be fully in control all the time without reminders).  Some parents may punish for their child for not “keeping it together”. But emotional control is something that emerges over time; it can’t be ordered into a child.

Remember that babies have zero ability to control their emotions.  It’s normal to feel frustrated or worried when your baby cries or seems angry, but the best thing we can do is support them through their meltdowns.  When parents are responsive and warm toward infants when they are distressed, over time they will gain more emotional control.

Toddlers have big feelings, but immature verbal skills – they just can’t find a way to say what they need to say fast enough, so they become overwhelmed. This results in tantrums, crying, or acting out some way. As preschoolers and young children develop their communication skills, they develop an increased ability to handle their feelings.  When the do have a tantrum, it is rarely due to manipulation:  they are probably in true distress and they need help coming back to emotional peace.

Older children and teenagers still have a hard time controlling their emotions in certain circumstances. When they act out badly, though, it may be the result of manipulation and not cognitive immaturity. On the other hand, I try to remind myself that everyone has bad days and everyone has a decreased ability to cope with stress when they are hungry, tired, or hurt. I know I do!  I don’t excuse the bad behavior, but I try to understand WHY they are doing these things and explain to them how their choices are not effective in dealing with the stress.

I think kids of all ages need tips and strategies for handling their emotions before going into a hot button situation. Rehearse potentially difficult scenarios while your child is calm and happy.

2.  Respect your child’s emotions even if she expresses them inappropriately

Children experience anger, frustration, fear, and irritability just like we do. These feelings are not bad – they are actually gifts given to our children from God to help them discover him, to help them come to equilibrium and peace.  The problem we parents are dealing with is rarely the actual emotion our child is experiencing, but rather her clumsy attempt at expressing or managing the emotion.

Affirm your child’s feelings, but give her tips or direction in how to manage them better. “I can see how angry you are that your brother broke your toy. I feel angry, too, when somebody harms something I care about. However, we must never hit or scratch somebody when we are angry. Instead, use your words.”

Hopefully our older kids and teenagers have benefited from our support and coaching in early childhood.  In my home, if my older kids display inappropriate outbursts, I try to show them that I understand where they’re coming from, but I make it clear in no uncertain terms that hurtful or destructive choices are an unacceptable way to express these feelings.

3.  Model emotional control, but it’s okay to be honest about your feelings

It goes without saying that if we hit or scream when we are experiencing big feelings, our kids will do the same thing. I imagine every parent at some point has blown her stack, and at these times we need to apologize and explain that we didn’t handle our feelings very well.  But, again, this doesn’t mean that our anger, frustration, or hurt feelings are BAD. I think learning how to express to my children how I am honestly feeling without invading their boundaries or going overboard has done two things: 1) God has used these interactions with my kids to help me grow up (the relational skills I have learned as a mother have come in handy in my grown up friendships!) and 2) my children are witnessing an adult feeling upset while remaining in control of her actions. That is a more powerful lesson than any lecture will communicate!

Our purpose is to support and mentor our children when their feelings are overwhelming, so that eventually our compassion becomes part of their natural response to emotional stress.

If you’d like to hear my whole interview with the Popcaks, here you go.  I come in about 20 minutes into the show.  But the whole show was great.  The topic was “You Did WHAT???!  Handling the Crazy Things that Kids Do”.


What’s Your Communication Style?

communicationI heard Bill Sandoval on his Catholic radio show last week describe The Five Communication Styles, a concept explored through the work of psychologist Claire Newton.  Recognizing these styles and how we tend to communicate can help us become more effective communicators with our spouse and kids, and help us guide own kids in developing more effective communication skills, especially when dealing with difficult people.

Here are the 5 styles of communication:

1.  Aggressive

The aggressive communicator is demanding, abrasive, intimidating, and explosive. They tend to be very sarcastic or they threaten, blame, and insult the other person. “You are crazy.” “Don’t be stupid.” “You make me sick.” “That’s about enough out of you.” “Stop OR ELSE.” These are things an aggressive communicator might say.

Newton says, “This style is about winning – often at someone else’s expense. An aggressive person behaves as if their needs are the most important, as though they have more rights, and have more to contribute than other people. It is an ineffective communication style as the content of the message may get lost because people are too busy reacting to the way it’s delivered.”

People on the other end tend to become aggressive in return or they avoid any kind of confrontation with the aggressive person out of fear. So clearly this communication style is ineffective, because the other person actually avoids us or they want to attack us back.

Hollywood promotes aggressive communication too much and parents should be aware of it. Pay attention to the discourse in movies and popular television shows: the “hero” often has an aggressive communication style and this is portrayed as cool or admirable in some way. I’ve even seen some children’s cable television programs that portray families communicating with one another sarcastically and rudely, and too often the writers try to make it seem normal or funny.

I think many of us are drawn to empathic, gentle parenting partly because we experienced aggressive communication in our childhood and we know it is scary. Children in the long run absorb our message better if we speak to them respectfully and without threats. Teenagers often rebel against aggressive communicators.

2. Passive Aggressive

I have to say that this communication style scares me the most.  Newton explains: “This is a style in which people appear passive on the surface, but are actually acting out their anger in indirect or behind-the-scenes ways. Prisoners of War often act in passive-aggressive ways in order to deal with an overwhelming lack of power. People who behave in this manner usually feel powerless and resentful, and express their feelings by subtly undermining the object (real or imagined) of their resentments – even if this ends up sabotaging themselves. The expression “Cut off your nose to spite your face” is a perfect description of passive-aggressive behaviour.”

Passive-aggressive types can be very sugary sweet on the surface, even touching the person’s arm to communicate warmth, but they are manipulative, tend to gossip, and are two faced – they are nice to your face but spread rumors behind your back or they sabotage your efforts without you knowing it. (This sounds eerily like some behaviour in my dorm at an all-women’s college!)

I suspect that some children of aggressive parents become passive aggressive as they mature. They have to find some way to protect their sense of dignity, but they are too fearful to confront the parent or speak their mind. But when this coping strategy becomes a habit, the child is harmed even more because it affects their other relationships which could have been a source of healing and love.

3. Submissive

Newton explains: “This style is about pleasing other people and avoiding conflict. A submissive person behaves as if other peoples’ needs are more important, and other people have more rights and more to contribute.”

What Newton is talking about here is different from the self-giving love that we frequently talk about on this blog. As the heads of our domestic church, parents have to consider the vulnerability of family members in determining whose needs are met first. A young baby’s needs are more urgent than a teenager’s, because the teenager has the emotional ability to postpone getting his need met in order to meet a higher good. A baby is not cognitively capable of adjusting their own expectations or conceptualizing when their need might be met, so they become legitimately distressed when they are hungry, tired, or even bored.

Newton is talking about a person who puts the needs of another person before their own out of fear of rejection. They apologize any time they are asking for what they need, they always do what others want to do and act like what they want to do doesn’t matter, they brush off compliments, and avoid conflict at all costs. People on the other end actually end up feeling frustrated and distant from the submissive person. You can’t have true friendship with a submissive communicator.

4. Manipulative

A manipulative communicator tries to control you, but they don’t do it directly. Instead, they say things that leave you feeling guilty or sorry for them. One of my relatives had a mother-in-law who would say things like “Oh, you two go off camping. Don’t worry about me. If I have a stroke I’m sure somebody could find you to let you know . . .” This is a classic manipulative communication style.  Newton explains: “This style is scheming, calculating and shrewd. Manipulative communicators are skilled at influencing or controlling others to their own advantage. Their spoken words hide an underlying message, of which the other person may be totally unaware.” Of course my relative felt badly for her mother-in-law and guilty for wanting to camp with her husband, but if she canceled her trip she would in the end feel resentful toward her mother-in-law.

While toddlers rarely have tantrums that are motivated by manipulation, older children can sometimes develop manipulative tantrums. In fact, if this communication style can become a bad habit for them. They may cry in the middle of a store when asking for a treat because they know you’ll be embarrassed and give in. It’s important to guide older children in expressing their needs and desires honestly, assertively, and respectfully. We should never “give in” to manipulative tantrums.

5. Assertive

The most effective communication style is assertive. Newton says that when we communicate assertively, “[w]e have the confidence to communicate without resorting to games or manipulation. We know our limits and don’t allow ourselves to be pushed beyond them just because someone else wants or needs something from us. Surprisingly, however, assertive is the style most people use least.”

Assertive communicators have a high self-esteem and are capable of perceiving the experiences and feelings of others. They protect their own rights and recognize that they, too, have needs, but they also consider the rights and needs of others. They ask for what they need, but they do it respectfully. For example, they would ask, “Could you please turn down the volume on the television? I am having a hard time studying” rather than screaming and cursing at the t.v. watcher (this is aggressive communication) or accidentally-on-purpose unplugging the t.v. (passive aggressive) or walking around pouting because they can’t study well (manipulative). They just ask for what they need, but they do it with a respectful tone. When you are dealing with an assertive communicator, you feel like you can trust their word and you can offer your own opinion without being attacked.

It’s interesting to note that the attributes of the assertive communicator are shared by folks who possess a secure attachment disposition. Securely-attached children and adults have self-confidence, recognize the needs and experience of others, and expect to be treated with respect. But even our securely-attached children need guidance in communicating assertively. We can give them lots of practice during conflicts with siblings and friends, and by providing a good example ourselves!

Image credit: artur84,


How to Survive Teen Drama with Grace

Teenagers.  I am living proof it is possible to actually enjoy those annoying, hormonal, child/adult hybrids who have taken your phone, tv., computer and fridge hostage.

One of my sons, in his early teens, had just announced he could not stand living under our roof another minute,

“I’m out of here!,” he bellowed, “and don’t expect me to come back!”

The door slammed and he tore off on his ten-speed bike. Of course, my father was visiting and witnessed this dramatic episode. After a few minutes, Dad turned to my husband Michael and wondered, “Aren’t you going to go after him?”

Michael calmly kept reading, then looked up and explained, “Oh, I’m not worried. The only place near enough to bike to is one of his buddy’s and they don’t feed kids over there. He’ll be back when he is hungry enough.”

melanie photoSure enough, hunger brought my son home late that night. We did not need to pronounce any ultimatums because the recognition he still needed to live at home and attempt to get along with our rules and his family was humbling enough. No need to rub his face in the facts.

Teenagers are often humiliated by their mistakes in judgment so they relish the opportunity to catch us in the wrong.  For example, Michael’s usual response to swearing, disrespect or a poor attitude was, “Leave that sort of stuff at school!”

One evening at the dinner table on a Sunday, Michael yelled in anger at the dog.

David had just filled his plate and was coming back to the table. He leaned over, looked at his dad and with a twinkle in his eye and a huge grin on his face said, “Leave that sort of stuff at church, eh Dad!”

Michael snapped out of his bad mood and had to smile. The kid was right. David’s humour diffused the situation and Michael was the one who had to apologize this time.

Teenagers have a deep inner compulsion to rile their parents and flaunt rules in a blind attempt to figure out who they are in and of themselves. If I remember this fact, I don’t overreact to obnoxious behaviour. I like to compare teenagers to two-year-olds because the very same dynamic is unfolding, only this time it is a stressful transition from childhood to adulthood which requires many years to complete. I read somewhere that young adults finally get an adult brain when they’re 25! In our family, we actually celebrate this birthday and welcome our offspring into full adulthood.

Sometimes teenagers, boys especially, like to prove their new-found strength. David loved to come behind me in the kitchen and with a huge grin on his face pick me up and swing me around or even turn me upside down!

“Oh well,” I’d think to myself, “This too will pass, this too will pass.”