Fear is one of our more powerful survival tools. We feel fearful as a way to alert our bodies and minds into action, when we perceive a threat. As a result, fear almost always leads to action. This means fear bypasses the prefrontal cortex, where reason resides, and heads straight into action mode. Because your thinking brain does not have time to respond to fear, your mind and body come hardwired with automatic responses. The automatic responses it will almost always go to are Flight, Fight, Freeze, Submit and Attach. Also, we often cycle through multiple fear responses, to one threat, as the situation progresses.
These fear responses happen all the time, to everyone, but often they are misunderstood by the people around us. If someone is yelling in your face and calling you names, the typical response is usually not to think ‘wow they seem scared right now. How can I connect with them?’ Unfortunately our own fear responses kick in and we also react with our limbic system, and not our cortex. Teens are not generally known for their self-reflective skills, so both parents and teens, alike, may not have a lot of insight into what’s triggered their child’s thoughts and behaviours. While everyone is upset, is not the time to try and figure it out. Find a way to calm down and reconnect, then reflect on how everyone felt during the moment of conflict. You may be surprised about how your child truly feels. It is often not the obvious message their behaviour is conveying.
You might be saying to yourself “what is my child scared of when I have asked them to put away their shoes and coat a thousand times? I don’t use punishments, threats or shame, I am not someone to be feared.” Your child’s fear response (usually flight or fight, in a scenario such as this one) can be triggered by their internal need to attach. For whatever reason, they have not complied with your request, now they sense your disapproval and are fearful about the fact that they have disappointed you. They are worried they aren’t good enough for you and their lack of compliance may hurt your connection to them. We often think “well then why wouldn’t they just do as I ask?” Well, that would be more indicative of a trauma response; attach or submit. Most teens will instead fight (self-explanatory) or flight (any avoidance tactic).
Try telling them how you feel about the mess in the hallway; “when the hallway is all cluttered up, it makes me feel anxious and overwhelmed. That’s why it’s so important to me that everyone puts away their shoes and coat.” Then go ahead and do it for them (I know, shocking). This demonstrates grace and you would be surprised how powerful this is with teens. They are often not expecting to catch a break. They may not say anything but it will sink in, eventually. It will not be as effective if you add the caveat “I’ll do it this time for you, but next time it is your job.” It is always their job but it is your job to nurture and care for your child. You get to decide when doing something for your child creates a sense of nurturance, and when it seems to hinder their developing independence.
Identifying Teen Trauma Symptoms
When someone experiences a trauma, they will often react to perceived threats in the same way they would real threats. Fear and trauma can greatly impact teen behaviour because of it’s ability to hijack our emotions. This can make it challenging to think and act rationally when we are in fear mode. Teens are in a sensitive period, where so much of their emotions are already hijacked by fluctuating hormones and development. Add basic fear responses to the mix, things can get overwhelming for teens and their families. Trauma symptoms can often become heightened during the teen years. Just because you are not aware of a trauma, does not mean one did not occur. It is a scary thought, but would you rather your child suffer in silence, for fear of making you uncomfortable, or would you like to know what to look for and how common trauma responses may manifest in a teen?
Non-age appropriate “tantrums” are a common symptom of trauma, for all people, not just teens. All teens can have extreme mood fluctuations but the ones who really struggle to self-regulate at times, may be suffering from PTSD. It can be challenging to see the difference but the meltdown will feel much more like a desperate toddler, than an angry teen. Many teens get upset over things that adults deem irrelevant or “not a big deal.” A traumatized teen may do this to the extreme. They may have an inconsolable meltdown over getting an A-, spilling milk on their shirt or forgetting to set the PVR for their favourite show. They especially tend to meltdown over small disagreements and squabbles in fear that the situation will escalate and result in a negative consequence for them (punishment, exclusion, abandonment, rejection or shame).
A persons response to trauma or a trigger is automatic and not able to be controlled. It is a conditioned response but also involuntary as it is initiated by our limbic system, and not our prefrontal cortex. It takes a lot of work to override trauma responses and almost always this requires professional help and time to practice new, healthier responses to the same feelings. All of that can be a struggle for teens. Expectations for a teens capacity to cope with trauma, should always be within reason. Seeking professional help can provide families with tools and insight into how to best support their teen, and help their family to connect with each other in meaningful ways.
The Five Most Common Fear Responses
When someone has experienced a trauma, their brain will develop automatic responses to triggers. This is in an attempt to protect the person from experiencing the trauma again but it can cause them to be hyper-vigilant and see danger where there is not and/or see manageable risk as an unmanageable threat. These responses are also typical for people in general, as they are the five most common fear responses. We have these survival skills because they are effective in protecting us but they can also be triggered into overdrive, making it difficult to figure out what is a threat, and what is not. This can cause mood fluctuations, which I believe, are sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD and Bipolarity. Understanding how anyone responds to fear may help you make sense of some of your teens behaviours.
When a teen has a fight response, it means they feel the threat is manageable. Take that as a compliment. Your teen feels safe enough to release these feelings with you. They feel secure in your relationship, at least at that moment. They will stand up to the threat and try and overpower it. This is where a power struggle is just going to further fuel their instinct to fight. Trying to slow things down and connect through compassion can help turn off that fear response and allow you both to relax and discuss the issue, rationally. Any time we yell or make threats or try and hurt someone emotionally, we are displaying fear. Something has triggered a fear response but the risk seems manageable, so fight is the automatic response.
“What do you need from me right now?” is a great place to start when you want to shift the energy and focus of the interaction. Up until this point, you have likely been focused on your needs (having a clear hallway). Just for a short time, try focusing on their needs, and then you can go back to trying to fill your need, as well. A relationship between a child and parent has to involve reciprocity, but in a secure relationship, the parent usually gives first, then the child may be motivated to connect deeper with the parent, and will give back, in a way that is meaningful to them. It is a dance we do so effortlessly, at times, with infants, but when they become bigger versions of themselves, we forget they just have needs that aren’t being met. We can help with that, like we did when they were snuggled up in our arms.
A flight response may cause a teen to run off to their room, isolate themselves, leave the home without permission, break curfew, refuse to talk about issues, etc; any avoidant strategy, may be a flight response. Often teens who were punished for challenging emotions as small children, will isolate and avoid during times of confrontation and stress. They fear further rejection and so they try and hide when they have big feelings, since that has worked for them in the past. This teen may not feel particularly secure about your connection, at this time. I will also say that some people do just tend to avoid more and the blame should not be put solely on the parents shoulders. Our society condemns feelings and celebrates the suppression of emotions. To combat this societal narrative, that is exacerbating our mental health crisis in the western world, try to create a space that supports the expression of all emotions:
“It’s ok to feel frustrated about your homework, it looks hard.”
“It can feel very lonely when you’ve been excluded”
This is when your teen does not answer, when they seem frozen. Some more traditional parenting perspectives see this as “disrespectful,” when in fact it is a fear response. Possibly answers they have given in the past have lead to negative consequences and they are frozen trying to come up with the best answer. Then they are accused of lying, when their answer is more what their parent wants to hear, than the truth. If you tend to do this at times, think back, did anyone in your life treat you this way? How did it make you feel? What do you wish they did instead?
Try not to force answers, nobody likes to be put on the spot and interrogated. Even for big challenges like stealing, drug use, risky sexual behaviour, forcing answers and using power to instil a lesson about these issues, is not going to create intrinsic motivation to not do it again. It may, however, create a deeper divide between you and your child. It may encourage them to lie to you more frequently and it may break their trust in you and your relationship. Teens make big mistakes sometimes, it is important that they know that
“everyone makes mistakes, it is what you do after that defines your character” J. Milburn
This is when a person feels defeated. When you have somehow managed to exert your power over your teen, either with a threat or shame, or something, when they finally comply with your request, and agree with you, put their tail between their legs, and do what they are told, that is submit, a fear response. You have achieved your goal of getting them to obey, but at what price? You have stripped them of their power, their pride and have reinforced a trauma response; to submit to those who exert power over you. This is dangerous, especially as they enter into their first romantic relationships, social dynamics at school and relationships with authority figures, outside the home. These can all be impacted by a teens tendency to submit when triggered. It can essentially groom them for the victim role in their teens and adulthood.
If you and your child calm down and discuss the situation and then they decide to comply with your wishes, willingly, without having fear, shame or guilt as a motivator, than that is not submit, that is connect. Not a fear response, a response to love, you have turned the tables, congratulations!
Our instinctual need to attach to others is the most powerful force within us. This instinct can override basic needs, as our mind recognizes the long term advantages of being attached to someone. It is all about survival but it is more than that. As a baby, we are completely dependant on the adults around us. Human babies attach through a variety of methods, mostly influenced by the level of reciprocity, synchrony and responsiveness of their primary caregiver. This need to attach stays with us and can be triggered during times of distress. A teen who begins to profusely apologize for their previously erratic behaviour (the meltdown) may be having an attachment fear response. They desperately seek your approval and validation and become more panicked, the more it is withheld. They may suddenly act very kind and you may think these are mood swings, but they may actually be a variety of fear responses.
If you notice your teen doing this, try and meet their need for connection. The attach response is often one used to resolve the issue. It is next level, when their brain kicks into “ok you need to calm down and make this person happy or your safety is at risk” mode. What we want is for teens to feel safe enough to experience their emotions, respond in a healthy way (cry, write, draw, talk to others, exercise, meditate) and then be able to discuss what happened. If their brains are trying to attach as a fear response, it can have the same effect as the submit response, and be quite dangerous as they gain more independence and enter into new relationships, outside the home.
Typical Teen Fear Responses
Traumatized Teen Fear Responses
Often a person has multiple fear responses to one trigger. As an example: teen gets caught talking to her boyfriend on the phone later than she is allowed. The reason she was on the phone was they are in a fight (trigger, any confrontation can be a trigger). Then the parent confronts the teen (double trigger) but because the teen trusts the parent, they begin to argue (fight). This fight escalates and parent decides that taking away the phone is an appropriate response. Now teen goes into panic mode because she will not be able to resolve her issue with her boyfriend (need to attach). This could cause her to suddenly flee (flight), leave the home and go flying into the arms of her supportive boyfriend (attach). This is how it may go in a fairly typical home, that is absent of abuse, neglect or trauma.
In a home where the child has been controlled and feels scared of their parents, this is more likely how it would go: teen gets caught talking to her boyfriend past phone curfew. Teen is startled when caught and becomes silent as soon as the parent opens the door. They may avert their eyes and have trouble explaining themselves (freeze). Then they will likely hand the phone over easily or possibly even without prompting and accept whatever punishment is doled out, without argument (submit). They will apologize and try hard to achieve the validation and approval of their parent again (attach). They will then run into the arms of their boyfriend when they finally escape the family home (attach again).
Understanding why teens may be acting a certain way can help parents support them more effectively. Many teens feel misunderstood. Traumatized teens tend to feel lost, and that feeling of helplessness and isolation can cause them to spiral out of control and make unsafe choices. Teens often make choices that we deem as poor or irresponsible. We need to try and understand where they are coming from. You didn’t wonder why your toddler poured their milk on the ground intentionally, you knew that’s what toddlers do, explore their environment. Teens also make choices that do not seem rational, we need to try and support them as they learn how to think for themselves.
Next time you and your teen are at odds, think about what could possibly be their fear right now? Also, what fear are you having and possibly reacting to? Often we are also reacting with fear; fear of failing our children, fear of being judged by society or even the people closest to us, fear for our children’s safety and well-being. All of these are triggers for parents and can also send us into a reactive mode, instead of a rational and responsive mode. Try thinking about how fear may be impacting everyone in your family. You may be surprised what you discover about yourself and the people around you.
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As a moderator for a popular respectful infant sleep support group, I often see questions about “bad sleep habits.” It’s one of those phrases that stings a little when I read it, as I know it is a phrase exploited and twisted by the money hungry sleep training industry, but what does it actually mean? “They” make you think that tending to your child’s needs is creating a “bad habit.” But it actually just builds trust and attachment, which helps develop the brain structure for self-regulation in the future. Yet, there are some “bad sleep habits.” Often the worst ones are methods used to avoid the one’s that sleep trainers tout as “bad.” The messages are all mixed up and tired parents are confused. I’m going to set the record straight on what is a “bad” habit, a “not so great” habit and a “good” sleep habit. If you have just come from reading a ton of sleep training books, prepare to have your mind blown.
“Good” Sleep Habits
Many of these options are often accused of being “bad” habits by the sleep training industry when in fact, they are the oldest tricks in the book and you know why? Because they build attachment! Attachment is our highest need, babies will sacrifice basic needs such as food and sleep in order to feel connected to their caregiver. Building a secure attachment quality is the single most important job a parent has. The rest of the world can “teach” your child everything else, you are the only one who can provide a foundation of secure attachment. Responsive care and reciprocity is the key to building secure attachment. These “habits” are simple, natural tools that help create relaxing and calm sleep environments, where your child can feel safe and secure enough to drift off into sleep.
When bed sharing: Follow the Safe 7 to ensure that your child has the safest sleep surface, while still maximizing attachment and ultimately, sleep for both of you. The article below is written by Dr. James Mckenna of Notre Dame. He specializes in mother-child behavioural patterns, specifically with sleep and is a huge advocate for bedsharing. This article is a detailed account of the scientific evidence supporting bedsharing and comparing the risks to other infant sleep options.
“Bad” Sleep Habits
Just because you are using some of these options, does not make you a “bad” parent. You are a tired parent, who is just trying to get everyone more sleep. Sometimes we take what we may perceive as the easy way out and that is ok, I am all about reducing stress load on everyone but making informed decisions is what responsive parenting is all about. Here are a few things parents do that often do not help in the long run or are dangerous and many people are just unaware of the risks:
“Not great” Sleep Habits
These are survival techniques. They are not unsafe but not really optimal for development, these options are generally parent replacements, the real thing is always better.
My two cents about positional asphyxiation and bedsharing: When you try and look up positional asphyxiation, you also get all the information about the dangers of bedsharing. Like a lot of science and data based information, it is often not based in a reality setting. When you compare safe bedsharing with safe crib use, it actually has a preventative effect, when combined with breastfeeding. What boggles me is, it is assumed that when people bedshare, they do not take safety precautions. I have not found one case of a child dying in a safe bedsharing situation but there are cases of babies dying while alone in a “safe” crib. It is somehow assumed that tired parents, when using a crib, follow safety measures but, let’s get real, there are tons of products on the market that try to make a crib more comfortable and none of them are safe. Parents who have not slept more than 30 minutes in five months are going to try things. I am of the belief that the oldest and most natural way of soothing a baby cannot be unsafe and there is mountains of research to support that claim. I’m not going to go on a bedsharing rant but I do feel we all choose to take measured risks, everyday, even with our children. People will shame parents who choose safe bedsharing, but we never shame parents who put their children in cars, even though it is way more dangerous than bedsharing, we consider this a necessary risk. Some cultures would just laugh at us and say “sleep is a necessity, love is a necessity, driving is a luxury.”
Clarification about SIDS versus suffocation, strangulation or positional asphyxiation: It was difficult to find research that I found credible for this article, as many reliable sources are still using the wrong language to describe the risks with positional asphyxiation, strangulation and suffocation. SIDS is when a baby, under 12 months, dies of unknown causes. If a baby is found in a position that caused them to stop breathing, this is not an “unknown cause.” The cause is known. When an article states that avoiding soft bedding, toys, strings, wires, gaps, bumper pads and incline infant sleep products helps reduce the risk of SIDS, this is just incorrect. There is no known cause for SIDS, it is by definition a death by unknown causes. This type of language feels like a passive aggressive attempt at fear mongering and it makes me distrustful of the article. The deaths they are talking about preventing are strangulation, suffocation and positional asphyxiation. Using the correct language will help parents make informed decisions. So many parents think bedsharing is extremely unsafe, while they think allowing their baby to sleep in the rock-and-play is safe. Information is power and it allows parents to make the best decisions for their families. Research
To read more about typical infant and child sleep Click Here
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A question that is often asked amongst those trying to become more responsive parents is “how does a time-in work? Does it not reward my child for their bad behaviour?” You may find yourself asking the same question. The confusion demonstrates a greater problem then just understanding time-ins, it is about believing in the consequences of punishments and
no longer seeing love as a reward, but rather the oldest and most natural emotional regulation tool known to man.
We do not take this approach to be soft, or to protect our children from negative emotions. Emotions will happen, boundaries will need to be enforced and that can often trigger an emotional reaction. See the reaction as an opportunity for both of you to practice effective problem solving and coping skills. Responsive parenting is not about protecting children from harm, it is about treating them the same way we would any adult, avoiding childism as best we can.
In The Adult World
If you had someone at work who was starting to irritate you. They always leave their stuff around and they always interrupt you when you are talking to other people. How would you deal with this in a workplace setting? Would you berate them everyday until they started picking up after themselves and started showing some manners and respect? Some people may say, “well that’s different because I am not responsible for my colleagues.” What if you were this person’s boss (and they can’t be fired, it’s a unionized position)? Would you be able to yell at them? What about telling them to stay in their own office until they realize what they have done? What about setting up a rewards chart and for everyday that they put their coffee mug in the dishwasher and don’t interrupt you, they get a star, and at the end of the week, if they get 5 stars, you buy them a coffee? What about if you withhold things from them such as not allowing them to go to the staff BBQ or not allowing them to have a piece of pizza on pizza day? Would you take away his computer? What would happen if you treated your employee like this? You would likely receive complaints from HR and since this is a union job, the union would likely be unhappy. The employee may go on stress leave and you may be the one punished in the end.
How are you more likely to handle it? You would speak with them, try and empathize, try and stay calm and also try and be gracious. That’s how adults handle annoying things that people do. For some reason, when children annoy us, we feel it is our obligation to instil a lesson about not being annoying. In reality, we just further isolate ourselves from our children. They say “pick your battles” because EVERY battle will pull you further apart, so make sure you’re willing to risk it. Better yet, talk to your child, don’t worry about what the right punishment should be or how to best convince them to obey your requests, just start with talking. Tell them your feelings and ask them how they feel. The objective is not to raise obedient soldiers but rather to raise altruistic and empathetic global leaders, revolutionaries and healers.
Compassion is Support, Not a Reward
The second shift is away from believing that affection and compassion is a reward. That is conditional love. You are sending the message that “even though I know you are having a hard time I will not show you love because I am mad and I disapprove of your behaviour.” Chances are your child is mad too and you are asking them to calm down and show compassion and remorse, prior to you doing the same thing. As a parent we should model these behaviours instead of expecting our children to demonstrate them for us, before we are able to achieve them ourselves.
The reward for taking this approach is not just for the child. As you shift your focus from behaviour and obedience to trust and responsive support, you will notice your household is calmer. If you do not notice this change, you may not be fully connected to the idea of letting go of all punishment. Even though we aren’t taking away possessions, privileges or sending them to their rooms, we are often inadvertently withholding love and inducing guilt and shame when they make a mistake. This type of emotional punishment may continue to disrupt the harmony of your family. I know all of this because I once lost my way and began using traditional behavioural methods in our home. There were a lot of factors contributing to my poor choices, however, little did I know at the time, that my traditional parenting choices were exacerbating the stress in our home, making me feel like a failure and causing more behaviour issues in my child. Because everyone was mad all the time, my husband and I also fought more. It was an awful time and I allowed myself to act that way because I was overwhelmed.
Finally I decided enough was enough, I hated myself and the parent I had become. I found my way back to gentle parenting practices through connecting with attachment parenting groups online and reading lots of articles and books. I began writing about my experiences and accepting how my own behaviour and anxiety was contributing to the situation. Within a week, my son stopped telling me he hated me and wanted a new mommy. Within two weeks he went from 7-10 meltdowns a day to a few a week. Now, he has had one major meltdown in the last four months. The shift in our home was drastic and notably fast. I will never be convinced again that punishments and rewards are beneficial. I have seen how negatively they impacted my family and I won’t be making that mistake again. You have to do what works for your family and only you know what will work for you and your child. Having said that, give this approach time before deciding “it’s not working.” Give your family at least 4 to 6 weeks of no punishment, rewards, shaming, guilt or emotional blackmail. You will start to feel like you are on vacation because the stress of constantly trying to navigate how to “parent” each situation suddenly melts away and the answer is always the same….
Suggestions for Time-in
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It seems a popular topic of discussion lately is how to motivate our children to clean up after themselves. Many people use behavioural techniques such as sticker charts, rewards, taking away toys that are not cleaned up or other privileges. For some children, these external reinforcements are highly motivating, many children find them motivating, but lack impulse control and focus, so they are unable to stay on task (delayed gratification) and some children do not care at all about your sticker chart (this is my eldest spirited child). These techniques, although popular because they sometimes yield immediate results, actually creates extrinsic motivation. You might say “I don’t care, I just want them to clean their room. but you will care when they are no longer motivated by whatever reward you have been offering. See we think if we can convince our children to clean their rooms by rewarding them, they will develop habits of cleanliness and eventually not need a reward for the task. This is actually not true; extrinsic motivation, not only distracts from intrinsic motivation, it has been shown to hinder it. *this is something that behaviourists do not agree with. Most of their strategies are based on extrinsic motivation so they spend a lot of time trying to debunk the theory. I believe for this reason, you will find a lot of contrasting research on this subject.
In the gentle parenting community, we gave up on behavioural techniques a long time ago. Regardless, so many parents seem to be struggling to find a gentle way to encourage their children to WANT to clean up their toys. Many end up choosing the exasperated option of donating or throwing out a lot of the toys. I get this, but I am not sure how it is any different from the behavioural technique of taking away toys as a consequence for not cleaning them up. I am pretty sure to the child, it feels like a punishment, especially if the narrative during the time of picking up the toys is along the lines of “we have to throw all these toys out because you won’t help me tidy up!” Now I do not say this from some high horse. In moments of extreme frustration, I, myself have muttered similar phrases. (I will admit, I often catch myself saying something in a less than gentle way. I recognize it, change my tone, rephrase and move on. If what I said requires an apology, I will offer a sincere apology and spend time reconnecting before trying to continue whatever task is overwhelming me at the time).
But ask yourself, would you donate the toys of a nine-year-old or a twelve-year-old? What do you think would happen if you went into your twelve-year-old’s room and told them you were donating their Xbox because they never turn it off? Your twelve-year-old would likely be very angry, frustrated, feel out-of-control, confused, hurt, feel their trust had been broken. You say, “yeah but that’s an Xbox, we’re talking about items that cost a couple dollars.” Three-year-old’s have no concept of money. For them, everything is an Xbox. My five-year-old saw me putting puzzles in a pile for VarageSale. They were not even his puzzles, but of course, he thought they were. I casually explained what I was doing. He panicked! My usually not materialistic and generous child became obsessively protective of all the toys in the basement. Now every time I go downstairs with toys he becomes concerned that I’m selling them. He’ll yell “no, mom you can’t sell my toys in the garage sale!” Although I was not enacting some sort of punishment at that time, I realized, in that moment, how cruel it had been for me to threaten to take toys away in the past, how painful that actually was for him. He never became better at cleaning, but I did break his trust and I have still not earned it back. This was probably a year ago. When we know better, we do better, right?
So, what do I do instead?
Try to focus on intrinsic motivation. There are many factors that go into intrinsic motivation. Probably the biggest part of intrinsic motivation, that we miss as parents, is when it actually begins. Until children develop theory of mind, they can only be intrinsically motivated by joy. Theory of mind develops throughout early childhood but does not become a concrete concept until after age five, for most children. So, if something is fun, they may want to do it. Now I can hear the parents counting down the days until their child turns five, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. As they get older, they can develop a desire to live in a clean space but let’s be honest, this doesn’t usually become a personal priority until at least your 20’s, unless you are naturally a very organized and clean person. Usually these people fight their own battles, they aren’t just living in a blissful clean universe, they are constantly working to maintain order, often at the sacrifice of other, more important and beneficial things. Highly intelligent people are usually messy because they just find cleaning boring and they just aren’t willing to waste too much of their time on it.
If children were faced with a lot of external pressure to clean (even gentle) it can make it next to impossible to create intrinsic motivation to clean, while under your roof. Cleaning is now seen as something they do to please their parent (extrinsic motivation). Intrinsic motivation starts when they go to heat up leftovers in their dorm and notice they have no clean dishes or when they have to go to work in pants that smell like chicken grease because they forgot to do their laundry and now they’re scared to stand by that boy that they like at work because they stink. Intrinsic motivation is not something you can teach but it is something you can encourage by allowing your child to develop their own desire to clean and modelling grace.
I also find children who have trouble focusing often make very large messes and really struggle to clean them up. I think this is cause for a lot of family challenges around cleaning; so many children struggle to focus. My son has the kindest, biggest heart and I know that if he really understood how helpful it would be to clean up his toys, he probably would do it, but he is five years-old and cannot put all that together, nor do I want him to. I don’t want him to clean his room for me (ok well sometimes I do, but deep down I don’t). Luckily for me, I have a background in Early Childhood Education, where we have spent countless hours discussing and researching how to foster and expand play while still maintaining some level of order. In child care, it is a safety hazard if there are toys everywhere, so you need to keep pathways clear and clean up before most transitions. Also, many educators struggle with a lack of order. We view this issue as the educator’s challenge, not the child’s. From this perspective, we face the challenge of the natural messiness of play.
What do we do?
Minimize: Minimizing can seem unnatural for some reason. Our highly-organized brains do not want to leave most of the blocks in the box and only put a few out, it says “all the blocks need to be together.” But once you have seen the positive impact of minimizing, you tend to be more motivated to limit how many of everything you put out. Knowing this, I often still put out lots of materials (I have to meet the needs of a five-year-old and a one-year-old) but I try to take responsibility for my own choices that led to a mess that they can’t clean on their own. If you give a three-year-old 100 pieces of Duplo, you will likely have to pick up 80-90 of them yourself. They will only need a couple to build with, because they aren’t at the point of creating architectural masterpieces. Only put out 10-20 blocks. One doll, one bottle, one blanky, you get the idea. I would expect a typically developing child around three to be able to pick up 10-20, items with lots of reminders and assistance. This is not every child, I watched my seventeen-month-old clean up twenty-five fake snowballs, about five times yesterday, but he did not do it because I asked him to, it was a game, just to me it looked like cleaning.
Rotate: We rotate our toys in child care, and I also rotate them at home. One month have the kitchen out, next month the vet materials, next month set up a grocery store. Rotating toys allows you to always have something new, without adding to your toy collection. It is a way to keep things interesting and exciting. I actually love rotating toys and the children love it too! They get so excited about the new toys coming out. Putting away the other toys can be more of a challenge and lots of conversation about where the toys are going and how we can bring them back out anytime, often needs to happen. I will warn that during toy rotation time, toys that have sat in the same spot for a month will suddenly become the most desired object of all time. I try and let them choose one or two things to stay out and then start talking about what toys we should bring up from the basement. Some people may try to do the toy rotation when the child is not there but you run the risk of breaking their trust. If you are going to do it this way (admittedly, it is way easier), make sure you let the child know what you are planning on doing, This way they don’t feel betrayed, and ask if there is anything special that they would like you to leave out. In most cases, young children are so excited about all the new toys, they soon forget the old ones, but there still may be something special that you were unaware of.
Organize: In child care, everything has a spot and a label, and it is usually back in its spot, upon every transition. I would love to say my house runs the same way, but…. not even close, however, my children’s toys are never just left in a random pile (unless they are currently amidst a mess). Children have a hard time organizing their play when their toys are not organized. Imagine looking for your socks in the morning in a pile of clean laundry (we all know what that feels like). Now imagine you go to your drawer and pick out the socks you want. Which scenario was easier for you to achieve your goal? The thing is, children need this level of organization but they are not able to recognize that need. So, it is our job to find a way to facilitate expansive play without causing ourselves too much anxiety over mess. Organization does take more time but it also facilitates more learning, when your child is choosing to help you. They are exposed to far more vocabulary, as your request is not repeatedly “can you put the toy in the bin?” Instead it varies from “can you put the block on the shelf with the other blocks?” to “Oh where does your dolls blanket go? Oh, on your doll to keep her warm? You take such good care of your baby.”
Offer Variety, Not Quantity: Children do need access to materials that foster growth in a variety of developmental domains. One way of doing this is trying to focus on loose parts and open-ended materials, over traditional toys. You can have less because your basket of pine cones is used in the kitchen, used to build, used for art, used to roll down a ramp, used as a porcupine family. Another way is just to try and make sure you have materials from multiple learning areas. Especially, I would urge you to try and not genderize your children’s toys. Make sure girls have access to blocks and cars and make sure boys have access to dramatic play materials, that are not all superheroes and violence. Mostly children love to mimic the adult world (why? We still don’t know, I guess we make it look fun lol), so toys that facilitate imaginative play are usually a universal hit.
Provide a project space: A high quality child care centre would provide project spaces. This is an area that can stay messy for an extended period of time. It has been shown in research that children are often engaged in project work (long-term complex play scenarios) and when we make them clean up, they are unable to continue their play into the next session. There is so much benefit to this type of complex, extended play,
Have reasonable expectations: When your child helps you with the dishes, do you expect them to actually do the dishes or just play? Young children will just play and we are ok with this because we understand doing the dishes is too advanced for them but helping is great! Same goes for cleaning; expecting your child to make changes so that they become more organized, for a small child, this is an unreasonable expectation. Hoping they will help and asking for a little help, in a kind and very specific way, (“hey can you put that blue block in the red bin?”) helps lay the foundation for intrinsic motivation. As children age, they are more capable of understanding why they should clean but excessive pressure can make them very resistance. It can be challenging waiting for intrinsic motivation to set it, but when it does, you will be so pleased that you chose to foster this gift for your child.
I’m just going to say it and hopefully you will read on to understand my perspective…….I really don’t like the word “respect”, “respectful” even worse, and “disrespectful” is the word that bothers me the most. I say this because I feel “respect” is used as an umbrella term to define a variety of behaviours, with many different intents. Most commonly it means kind, polite or obedient. This is where I feel the use of the word is being misused to impose power on children. When it is used in reference to obedience; “when I ask him to clean his room I expect him to be respectful and clean his room without any back talk or reminders,” it is an expectation of compliance, not respect. It is nice when a child easily cleans their room but what is the bigger message being sent here? You must obey the commands of adults, without protest, or else you are disrespectful? That is a dangerous message that can make children vulnerable to predators.
When someone refers to an adult as “respectful,” what do you envision? A person who does what their told and doesn’t talk back? No! Funny enough, in the adult world, this is considered a character flaw. People like this are referred to as “doormats,” “spineless” and even “cowards.” But we say children MUST learn how to be respectful if they want to be successful in the adult world. No, the truth is “respect” in the form of obedience, is not a skill we need to teach children for success in the adult world. It does, however, at times make their lives, and ours, easier, while they are children, but at what cost to their own intellectual and emotional development? Why do we feel sorry for, and look down on the adult who is a “doormat”? Because we know that they must not be happy spending their lives meeting everyone else’s needs but their own. Instead let’s teach our children how to be kind adults. How to care for others, how to be considerate of other peoples needs, but also how to take care of themselves, how to get their own needs met and how to balance the needs of others in the process.
How do we do this? I think we need to return to the original objective… we want our children to be kind. Because really, is it about which fork to use…. or is it about being kind to other people? Holding open doors, saying please and thank you, smiling and saying hello to people you walk by on the street. That is my image of a “respectful” child and we teach these skills by modelling them. By saying please and thank you, by holding open doors, by saying “hello” to people on the street. Model being a kind person for your child. Give up your seat on the bus, let someone go ahead of you in line, express kindness and gratitude towards people who are serving you and your family. Your child will learn by example how to be kind and considerate of others.
Do Respect and Love Go Together?
Respect, when it is in the context of a loving relationship, is not simply a polite understanding of general manners and kindness; it is much deeper. Children always behave worst for their parents. This is not because they want to hurt us the most, it is because they feel safe to release their feelings within the safety of their homes. They bottle everything up and eventually need to release it. I am pretty sure most adults also have moments like this, we just have so much more freedom and experience to be able to cope (and many of us still don’t always cope in optimal ways).
“Children are not giving you a hard time, they are HAVING a hard time” Alfie Kohn.
So when you feel your child is being “disrespectful,” try asking yourself, what is really going on? It usually means they feel disconnected from you. This can be painful and cause feelings of rejection. Rejection is often met with hostility. When a child feels disconnected from their parents, it can elicit defensive behaviours. Some children whine a lot and become “clingy” when they feel disconnected, others shut-down and become withdrawn and quiet. We have a tendency to label this as disrespectful but where does that get us? Our child likely feels even more disconnected and misunderstood. Start with trying to reconnect and see how that leads to a place of love and understanding. You will forget all about wanting your child to “respect” you because you will be too busy connecting with them, which feels so much better.
One of the more difficult situations for parents is when one child hurts the other. It can often feel like you have to choose sides. Society has led us to believe if you give any attention to the offender you will only be reinforcing that violent behaviour is acceptable. This view only starts looking at the situation from the point following the aggressive act. In order to find the most effective way of coping with this situation and meeting both children’s needs, we need to look to why the incident occurred. Was there a dispute? Was the child being too rough while trying to play? Was the child trying to connect with their sibling? Were they over stimulated? The goal here is to help them learn more effective coping strategies when they are feeling defensive, playful, loving and overwhelmed. Each emotional need would require a different approach, which is why this information is vital. If the intent was to connect with their sibling, you can suggest next time they offer their sibling a hug, instead of being so rough.
When you free yourself from the obligation to punish your children for making typical childhood mistakes, you become less tense in the situation. It can be hard to change the way your mind works so I like to think of a friend or colleague instead. I ask myself “what would I do if my friend did that?” Punishment is almost never in the equation. I would be happy to make amends quickly but with our children we feel this obligation to stay angry and disappointed in them. Hanging our judgement over them, and for what purpose? What is the objective? To make them feel remorse for what they have done? When do you feel remorse? When you make a mistake? Or when someone points out you made a mistake? If someone attacks you about making a mistake, most people become defensive, leaving no space for logical reasoning or empathy, these pieces reside in the higher brain, the part that gets switched off when we start to panic.
Just think about how illogical our plan is; your child makes a mistake that they are likely aware of before you notice. You begin yelling, shaming, berating. Your child instantly becomes defensive. Their higher brain switches off. Conveniently so does our’s, because we are now upset. Then we insist that they calm down, feel remorse and make amends after we just sent their nervous system into overload. It is not as simple as just not punishing your children; a change in perspective is required. It can be one of the hardest ones to accept, given the punishment focused upbringing many of us had. Punishments are pointless, they are worse than pointless, they are detrimental. No matter what your child does, punishing them is not the most effective way to handle the situation.
I love this story that I’ve heard over the years, of an African tribe. When someone in the town makes a mistake, such as lying or stealing, they all gather and make a circle around the offender. They take turns reminding the person about all the good they have done and all the good that they are. In this way they bring the offender back to their true self. If we can take this attitude with our children, imagine the world we could live in.
The second shift in perspective is no longer believing that affection and compassion is a reward. That is conditional love. You are sending the message that “even though I know you are having a hard time I will not show you love because I am mad” chances are your child is mad too and you are asking them to calm down and show compassion and remorse, prior to you doing the same thing. As a parent we should model these behaviours instead of expecting our children to demonstrate them for us before we are able to achieve them ourselves. The behavioural perspective is “showing love to a child who is misbehaving reinforces the message that their behaviour is acceptable” Are you saying “I love the way you’re hitting your brother!”?? No, you reinforce unwanted behaviours by laughing at them, modelling them and exposing children to them either in person or in the media. By acknowledging the offenders feelings, after tending to the victim, you are validating that the feeling that caused the behaviour is real and is healthy to feel. The idea is to learn new coping strategies together.
As I was writing this, my younger son started to cry. He can’t talk yet but I could tell what happened by how my five year old was curled up in a corner, looking guilty. I asked him what happened and he told me he smashed his head on the shelf. I asked if he was upset or being silly, he said silly. From the time he confessed, he was professing his remorse and compassion for his brother. He was kissing his head and apologizing. I could tell he felt bad. So what would be the point of a “punishment?” for him to learn from what he did? He did learn!! He learned in the best way possible, by making a mistake that hurt someone else and then feeling bad about it, all I did was choose not to shame him and guilt him so he was able to process his own feelings of remorse without the influence of my judgement. Children often become defensive when we begin to scold them for their behaviour. As an adult, yes, bashing someone’s head on a shelf is a pretty serious offence but they are not adults! They are children with a lack of impulse control and an inability to foresee consequences. You know who’s fault it is that my older son hurt my younger son? It’s my fault for not supervising well enough. They are children, they will act like children, to expect anything more or less is unrealistic.
As the season of excessive shopping begin, it can feel like we are always in negotiations with our children. I often avoid places with toys on days when I feel as though my children and/or I just don’t have enough patience left in our tanks. The holidays can make it hard to avoid shopping trips. Often they are long, and busy, and boring. One of the most common challenges, that can often lead to conflicts and meltdowns, is when a child just has to have something (or multiple things).
What do you do when your child wants something?
Here are a few options
1. Ask if they have money. This puts the power back in your child’s hands. Around 5 years old we started an allowance for or eldest. 5$’s every Friday. He has the option of doing odd jobs for money too but he doesn’t seem to grasp the concept yet. We use these rules around allowance as they suit our values and our goals.2. Ask if they want to put it on their birthday/holiday wish list. This is actually the strategy my parents used and they still boast to everyone about how my brother and I never asked for too many things in the store. Children feel like there is hope. This is especially effective with children who are aware of holidays and gifts. Two year olds have a harder time with that delayed gratification. The next strategy can help during this time of cognitive development.
3. Take a picture of it to remember to put it on the wish list. By taking a picture the child feels heard. Often the concept of writing something on a list is very foreign to a young child. The impossibility of this task can make them feel overwhelmed and panicked. Taking a picture helps them have a concrete representation of their request. This is so helpful during the time when language is still developing and communication can be challenging with big concepts like delayed gratification.
4. Choose one small thing. This is a personal choice. Some families are not fond of many toys and clutter so offering to purchase something small may not be the best strategy for your home, but if you don’t mind buying your child a little something every once in a while, I think it is a great strategy to survive the store. Make sure that the purchasing of the item is not contingent on behaviour. If you choose to buy an item, buy that one item, allow a trade, if they want, but do not begin threatening them with not purchasing the item. This causes a power struggle. Children can become overwhelmed with the idea that the item might be taken away, and that makes it much harder to for everyone to stay calm.
5. Take it for a ride. I often hit up the toy section at the grocery store before starting my shop. I grab two or three small toys, a couple of books and then I drop them in the aisles as my children become bored with them (sorry grocery store employees). I recommend trying to get rid of them before you reach the checkout. That seems to be the place they get the most defensive about putting them back. You also get to find out what items are worth the money and which toys only last 5 minutes.
6. Give a gift. For a family who really wants to focus on giving to others, one option is to try to switch the focus of the conversation (would likely only work with older children). “I know you really want that game. It looks like a lot of fun. Can you think of anyone else who might like that game? Maybe we could put it on their list too?” It’s just another way to keep talking about the item of desire but shift the focus away from personal wants. I often see things that I like, but for a friend, not me. Even if I don’t buy it, it’s fun to think about buying it for my friend some day.
This article really focuses on how to respond to a want for a material item but there are many factors that go into surviving a shopping trip. Is everyone fed? Dressed comfortably? Not tired? The store is over stimulating and not meant for children so we need to keep this in mind, and possibly lower our expectations a bit. The store can be very difficult for children to self-regulate in, try to always empathize with what it must feel like to be them. Also reflect on your own energy. Are you frantic, rushed and impatient? I usually am in the store, I don’t like the store since having children. I often notice later that it was me who was actually the most overwhelmed and I just projected it onto my children, saying “they’re all done. They need to get out of here,” when really it was me who was done. On times when we are all well rested and fed, we have had some very enjoyable shopping experiences. The truth is, stores, for the most part, are not child-friendly places, a large gap in accessibility, in my opinion. This is why we are just trying to survive. Do not expect perfection from yourself or your child. It is extremely difficult to have a carefree shopping experience in an inaccessible environment. We do what we can and find teachable moments and small precious memories along the way.
Watching your child experiment and learn new skills through play is often one of the more enjoyable parts of parenting. It reminds us of our own carefree childhood and the joyful sound of your child’s laugh will resonate in your memory long after the days of toddlerhood have passed. Although this time is exciting, and often filled with joy and wonder, a toddlers lack of understanding about the world, can make it difficult for them to foresee what actions are safe and what actions are not. On top of their lack of awareness about risk or danger, they are compelled to try new things and learn about their world through trial and error. Sometimes it feels like your child is ALWAYS climbing, throwing things, climbing into things or jumping off of things. These are actually called play schemas. They are typical and each child usually fixates a bit on one or a few of the schemas, for a period of time, in their early childhood.
These schemas are an important learning strategy that children implement naturally. They often develop into “functional” skills. Many fundamental physical literacy skills are practiced through play schemas. Therefore it is important to recognize the need, and fulfill it, while still maintaining safety boundaries. A trajectory schema will have you dodging flying toys and jumping across the room to protect your child from many random jump attempts. A trajectory schema is about flying. What happens when I throw this block? What happens when I jump off this couch? What happens when I drop this bowl? Children want to see how fast, how far and how high they can make something fly. Throwing things is a popular use of the trajectory schema because children usually obtain a pretty decent throwing arm before they are able to connect a bat with a ball, kick with accuracy and power, or jump from very high. Many toddlers throw anything they can get their hands on, sometimes it’s because they are testing this trajectory schema they have discovered. Usually the easiest choice for any schema related, unwanted behaviour, is simple redirection. Your satisfying the need, while maintaining the necessary safety boundary.
If my child is throwing something unsafe around, I hand them a soft ball and say “we only throw balls.” If they happen to find a hard ball I would say “we only throw soft balls.” Then I would knock on the hard ball and squeeze the soft ball to show the difference. Then I would hand them the soft ball and put the hard ball out of sight. If you’re lucky, your child will be satisfied and happy with the new ball. That’s when you know it was really the schema and not that particular item. If they are not happy about the exchange, when you put the hard ball away, you can say something like “I know you are sad and angry that I took the hard ball away but you were not being safe. It was making me nervous when you were throwing it. I was worried someone was going to get hurt or something was going to get broken. Would you like to work together to find a safe way to play with the hard ball?” (you can use this for another toy too). Then you can show your child how to roll the ball back and forth.
There are three elements here:
If you discover your child is not actually interested in throwing and is really more interested in the object, you can try and model for them safe ways to use the toy.
If they do throw the unsafe object a second time, I would be more firm with my boundary; “Okay, I think we need to have a break from that toy for a bit since you are not playing safely with it. We can try again later when you’re ready to play safely.”
Now my child would start screaming “I’ll be safe! I’ll be safe!” When it comes to safety though, boundaries are important. Disappointment and frustration are feelings that everyone experiences and often our behaviour will get us into situations where we become disappointed with the outcome of a situation. Not listening to safety rules in the real world has real consequences and so does throwing a hard ball at a window or someones head. For this reason, I would not be giving a third chance, the toy would go away for a bit and I would continue to empathize with my child’s feelings, keep trying to redirect and remind them that they can have the toy back later (it’s good to specify what “later” is, even for a child who does not comprehend time).
Also, there are benefits to throwing hard items. You learn about physics (which is really at the core of the trajectory schema) and you develop physical literacy skills that are used to participate in sports that require throwing/launching hard balls (baseball, shot-put, cricket, hockey, golf, croquet). So find safe ways to practice these skills. Throw stones into a lake or sticks into a forest, away from people. Setup highly supervised, family activities that use harder items so your children can have the experience while you are close at hand to monitor for safety. Bean bags are also a great option for a heavier item that is low risk.
Empathy is probably our greatest tool as a parent (maybe even as a human being). Combine empathy with an understanding of child development and parents can begin to see how to support their children’s development while still maintaining boundaries and keeping them safe. There is almost always a way to achieve both goals and very few things in life do we get to have our cake and eat it too. Parenting fortunately is like that. With knowledge comes power but it also gives us clarity, understanding, appreciation and compassion. Try to take the time to understand what your child is working to achieve so you can support that need, without sacrificing their safety.
This is one of my favourite (and most useful) parenting tips. Anyone who has had a relationship with someone around the age of three to four has experienced the “twenty questions” exercise. This seems to be a common trigger for parent frustration and irritability, but why? Why does this bother us so much? They are talking, they are asking questions, they are engaged, they are focused on whatever they are pondering at the moment. Isn’t this what we are always looking for? Well I think that’s part of why it makes us frustrated. I actually think it makes us panic. We feel like we need to teach our children all about the world, listen to them intently and with patience and then respond thoughtfully. That is ideal but life is rarely ideal and these repetitive questions can come at some very inopportune times, like while your fighting your way through traffic or possibly looking for your child’s shoe, while running ten minutes late. Identifying why they are asking the questions can help satisfy their need quicker and more effectively. These are the types of question series I notice most often.
The run on question
This series occurs when a child has experienced a provocation. Something has sparked a flame in their mind. It’s now shooting off fireworks and provoking a flurry of questions. One question leads to another and leads to another. By answering with fact, you may actually be hindering the expansion of their thoughts around the subject. Try asking them questions and talk about your feelings instead of trying to give them all the answers. Seeing yourself as “the keeper of all right answers” is quite common in our society but it’s just not true. None of us have all the answers and telling someone else an answer isn’t always the best way to learn anyway. So when your child is onto “but why does the horse wear a coat with no arms? Aren’t his elbows cold?” You can say “hmm, I don’t know. What do you think? How would you feel if your coat didn’t have arms?”
The repeat question
The repeat question usually means the child is not satisfied with the answer that was given. Either they did not understand the answer, they don’t agree, or their question was not validated. Go ahead and validate their question then say “I don’t know. What do you think?”
The monthly question theme
Often children become intrigued in one subject for about 2-6 weeks approx. During this time, parents can feel as though they are constantly talking about and answering questions in regards to the topic of the month. In this case, help your child to engage in research. Empower them to do their own research. Go to the library, get books on the subject and next time they ask you a question say “I don’t know. Did you check the book we got from the library?”
The “I need to connect” series of questions
Sometimes children will just start asking a bunch of random questions, usually when we are busy. They have learned that questions almost always elicit a response. They use this simple strategy to try and connect with their parent. Just take 5 minutes with them. If you absolutely can’t, explain that and spend 5 minutes as soon as you can. I often babywear when my children need to feel connected to me but I am super busy. You will likely find the questions stop or slow down once you become attuned to them.
We get so focused on teaching our children EVERYTHING, we forget that children don’t listen as much as they watch. They watch what we do and they watch how we respond to them. Encouraging them to learn is about asking them questions and supporting their ability to find their own answers. It’s also a lot easier than continuing the seemingly endless game of repetitive questions.
Sending your precious little one to child care for the first time can be one of the hardest things you ever have to do as a parent. Parents with adult children will often recall how hard it was to send their child to care for the first time. This is a natural feeling because, really, children are meant to be with their primary caregiver. This concern about adjustment, sometimes seems to be even more so for responsive parents, who fear the child care centre will not be able to provide the same type of attuned and responsive care that their child is accustomed to, and then how will they cope? Sleep seems to be especially a concern as we think to ourselves, “somedays I can hardly handle my one baby, how on earth are they going to handle multiple babies, all wanting something at the same time? They must have to neglect their needs sometimes! How else would they do it?”
Do not worry about us and how we’re going to cope. We actually do know how to care for that many screaming babies at once, you figure it out. Usually a few are tired, a few want a diaper, a few are willing to play, a few just want snuggles and there are always babies up for eating. It’s not CIO if people are present and tending to the child. The first three hours of child care is usually all tears and meltdowns. It’s actually way easier than being a parent so don’t worry about us. We also have each other and the support of a supervisor, students and volunteers. Remember these people usually don’t show up until after you drop-off. In an infant room, especially, an extra person to play with a couple easy tempered babies, can make a big difference.
COMMUNICATION is the most important thing with your child’s caregiver. It is their job to accommodate to the needs of your family, not the other way around. We also just met you so we do not know what those needs are, unless you tell us. We also forget sometimes because, yes, we do have our hands full. Remind us again, if it’s important to you, it’s important to us. Our job is to support and care for children, but also their families. Chances are the room has a “book,” ask them to write your request in the “book.” That way everyone should see it upon entering the classroom.
NURSING TO SLEEP seems to be a common concern. I have heard many parents contemplating weaning their child from nursing to sleep and even night nursing all together, in an effort to aid in the transition to child care. I get where the idea comes from, but it really is misguided. Not nursing on demand, and especially before sleep, can be difficult, for a child who is used to that. What happens is, you end up with two major transitions at the same time. Weaning against the child’s natural rhythm really isn’t easy or healthy for anyone. Sometimes it needs to be done for other reasons, worrying about them napping at child care is not a necessary reason. After 18 months, weaning tends to be a lot less difficult for the child, because the peak of attachment has hit. They are now reaching a new phase of attachment where they realize you exist, even when you aren’t there (object permanence). Nursing and sleep go together for children. Stopping nursing for sleep in an effort to transition to child care, is kind of like saying “since I can’t have broccoli for every meal, I will not eat any broccoli.” No! You eat broccoli when you can because a bit of broccoli is always better than no broccoli. Not to mention that, every nursing session you take away, you run the risk of lowering your supply and possibly weaning, before you want to. It’s important to know what can happen if you choose to try and reduce nursing sessions before your child goes to child care.
ATTACHMENT is actually built on the recovery portion of the interaction. So attachment is built when you are around each other but it is solidified when you are apart and then reunite. I think this may be surprising but, when a child is struggling emotionally at child care (nap and drop-off are most common times for meltdowns) the time that the caregiver is spending with your child, supporting them as they process their feelings, that builds attachment. You may say, “well I don’t want my child to be attached to someone else.” Don’t worry, every attachment relationship for your child, is an extension of your own relationship with them. They see a trusted caregiver as someone that you provided for them, to keep them safe, until you return. When you return, your own attachment relationship strengthens as you and your child reunite.
HOME CARE is not better, generally speaking. I hear people contemplating that home care may be better equipped to handle a child who needs support to fall sleep. I would tend to disagree with that logic and would be very wary of putting my own children in home care. One person taking care of five kids, in their home, has much less freedom and flexibility than a centre. In a centre, children are NEVER left alone. If we have to go to the bathroom, someone covers us. In home care, the children are left alone while the child care provider uses the washroom. So then, what happens when the children need to sleep? Who knows! There are no regulations and even in licensed home care, there is no monitoring. In licensed care, we have each other and that makes it a lot easier to provide one-on-one care, when necessary. My son used to take three hours (sometimes more) to fall asleep at child care (FYI this is extremely a-typical). They would take shifts, walking around with him, singing to him, walking with him in the stroller. Yeah it was hard but they never just left him to cry, then all the other children would be wake up.
FAMILIAR ENVIRONMENT So what can you do? Try to create familiarity. Instead of changing your home routine to be more like child care, work with the child care providers to make their routine more like yours at home. Make the child care sleep space similar to the one at home with a favourite blanket and/or snuggly toy. My son loved to hold this picture of me and my husband from our wedding. It was on the wall from our wedding announcement and he asked for it one day. Having a small photo album can help some children, once they have settled in. If your child listens to music or has a sound machine SOME centres may be able to do this for you. It is at least worth mentioning. You could provide a CD, a USB with music on it, or a sound machine like the one at home. My youngest cannot go to sleep without his music, so I would really want his centre to know how important that is to him at home. If you sing them a certain song(s) or read a certain book, teach the song to your child’s caregiver and give them a copy of the book. You can provide a baby carrier as well, if that is something you use for naps. I recommend doubles of these things (if at all possible) because trying to make sure you have all the important stuff every day, can be a challenge.
VISITATION is important. Visit as much and as early as they let you, prior to starting care. You can try putting your child down for naps at the school yourself, if your think they may do this easily. If your child is not that easy going, I would wait and just make your visitation times always positive. For an easy tempered baby with secure attachment they may find practicing napping at the school, with mom, helpful, thinking; “I remember being here with my mom. I had a good rest here. My mom left me with this nice person, maybe I’ll just have another nice rest here again, it seems safe.” While a child who still has secure attachment but a much higher needs temperament may think; “WHERE IS MY MOM!!! Last time I was here, my mom was here. Who is this person, they look nice but they are not my mom? This is not relaxing, I would rather play or eat.” In this case, the caregiver may need to find their own routine with the child. Maybe a walk or rocking them while singing in the common room, will be better, until your child feels more comfortable. Like I said, we figure it out, just like you did, we do too.
THE BOTTLE SITUATION If your child does not take a bottle normally, it is OK to try a bottle before you start (not necessary). I would NOT recommend doing this at nap time. You can try yourself, if they won’t take the bottle from you, try with someone they trust, while you are NOT HOME. If that does not go well just stop trying because you could cause them to have a negative association with the bottle. Just wait for child care to start. We have experience with trying to gently encourage children to take a bottle. We are also a lot less stressed about the situation. Parents and other caregivers seem to have a tendency to panic a little when the baby won’t take the bottle. The baby may sense the stress and pressure, making them more resistant.
Remember that no matter how much you try to prepare, there will be an adjusted period. Having difficult emotions about such a big change is natural and we should try to let our children go through their own process of adjustment. That’s what we as educators and caregivers do. We support the children while they go through the natural emotions that are a bi-product of processing this big change. We just wait it out. The transition to child care is a huge one for the whole family, especially when the parent is returning to work around the same time. We are there to support you, don’t worry about us.
Read more about what attachment looks like here
Read more about how to support your child’s transition to child care here: To Say Goodbye or Not to Say Goodbye
I often hear parents reminiscing with great fondness about the time they spend “colouring” with their children. It seems adults get a lot of joy out of this activity and feel as though this time is meaningful and relationship building. But what messages are we sending about self-expression, creativity and self-efficacy, during our time together? While blissfully colouring the blue in on your Anna, feeling like mother of the year because you just perfectly coloured my child’s favourite cartoon character, have you stopped to think…. what does your child think as she stares at her page and yours?
Your princess is perfect. How do you think your child feels when she looks over at your princess and it looks identical to the one from the movie? But she can’t even colour inside the lines. This well-meaning approach actually sets them up for failure from the beginning, because no child can colour within the lines at first, it takes years!! But if they were to scribble that blue blob onto a plain piece of paper, it could be a ball, a cloud, a head, a bunny, whatever! And can change as the picture evolves and they delve deeper into their own imagination.
Your child may feel they need to do something, or create something, in order for you to spend time with them. The more likely reason your child appears to be enjoying this activity, is because it is one-on-one with you. Think about all the other things you do together? Do they enjoy those too? Do those activities require them to produce something for your approval? Art is subjective. Colouring books are not subjective. Every piece of art in the world has a fan and a critic. I want my children to be inspired to create in order to fulfill an internal desire to express themselves, not to obtain external approval.
Colouring books are one of the least creative materials we can offer children. They tell children what something should look like. I can’t draw a dog that’s as cute and proportioned as the one in a colouring book, but children see these images and assume this is what an illustrated dog looks like, anything else is not “good enough.” This stifles their imagination and creativity. We want children who draw pink dogs with wings and a super hero cape because those types of divergent thinkers are the ones who cure diseases and develop technology that improves and saves lives.
Learning how to colour someone else’s drawing of a cartoon provides very little learning opportunity and actually hinders creative development. Instead of your child using their imagination to dream up what a “tree” is to them, they are told, this is what a tree looks like (when cartoon drawings of trees are usually only elms and Christmas trees). I want my child to feel free to draw a blue tree with snakes as branches and watermelon leaves. That would make me much more proud than a carbon copy of a cartoon tree.
The children who we teach to colour inside the lines will always feel stuck within that invisible societal box. The children who draw fish with wings and fairies in karate uniforms are the children who will figure out how to save our planet, how to provide energy to the world without destroying it, how to end child poverty. A colouring book tells a child that what you have to draw (and by extension what you have to say or think) is not worth even drawing, so here I’ll give you this black and white cartoon, you can attempt to fill in the presumed colours.
Another concern is access to open-ended art supplies. Keeping art supplies locked away hinders creative development. We’re telling them that creativity is only acceptable when it is done with our supervision and on our schedule. Most of the children who do not have access to art supplies cannot articulate that they want a crayon and paper. Even if they feel inspired, they have no outlet for their creativity, so they learn this aspect of their minds is useless and devalued. In fact it may even feel forbidden, or bad, depending on your child and what type of language is being used during conversations about mess and art. I find it surprising that some very enlightened parents, who truly value their children’s verbal expressions, can just completely discount and discredit this important means of communication and self-expression.
Plain paper and crayons are the most beneficial for children’s fine motor development and creativity. They are open-ended, limitless and encourage divergent thinking. I want my child to look at a blank page and see possibilities, not feel fear about having to come up with an original thought.
Creative expression is an powerful outlet for thoughts and feelings. It’s can be a very effective responsive parenting tool. Offering a few markers and a clipboard with plain white paper, while you and your child sit in the comfy corner, can demonstrate that drawing, and ultimately writing is an effective self-regulation tool. Thoughts and feelings can be expressed in a healthy and productive way.
So now that I’ve made you feel a bunch of parenting guilt over a seemingly special activity you do with your child, I’m sure your left asking, what should I do, then? Please know that every parent who is sitting down to colour with their child is an amazing and engaged parent, who loves their child. But, just as we thought giving time-outs was helpful, this is another one of those things that we think is such a good idea, but really there are so much more effective ways of engaging in very similar activities. These tips can help refocus your creative art experiences with your child, so you both can make the most out of your time connecting and creating together.
I would like to add that this approach is not an alternative view. It is the approach that we are taught and use in the field of early childhood education and child development. It is best practice and has been proven to be effective at fostering creative development. Many people responded to this article saying their child never felt hindered by seeing them colour better than they do. It’s funny because I have yet to meet a child who was not hindered by adult involvement in their art. One of the first things we are taught is not to make play dough balls for children. Once you make one, they never want to try and make one themselves, they just keep asking you to make them because yours are better. I have seen it over and over again. Instead we sit with them and discuss the various ways one might create a play dough ball. Yes, we may only end up with one blob of play dough after, 30 minutes, instead of a table full of perfect little play dough balls, but the benefit of that time spent together, in discussion about artistic processes and creation is far more beneficial than your child seeing you can colour inside the lines better than they can.
I was recently asked “what unrealistic expectations can harm children?” Sadly my answer is most. Many expectations for our children are rooted in an unfulfilled personal need, not in a desire to fulfill our children’s personal goals. It seems to be a misconception that high expectations are necessary for motivating a child to be successful. Herein lies some of the problem, we are getting confused between expectations and believing in your child. It is important to show your child you believe in them but that looks very different from having high expectations. Believing in your child may sound like “she’s such a good writer, I can’t wait to read what she writes next. She may make a career of it someday.” An expectation sounds more like this “I expect my child to put effort into their writing. I know they are capable of writing at a much higher level than they currently are. I expect them to try harder as I know they could make a career of it, if they just tried harder.” More important than anything is that we encourage children to believe in themselves. Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful and fulfilling; “you seem to really enjoy writing. It’s a good feeling to know you’re good at something.” So what common expectations can make your child feel more judged, than motivated? There are some themes that we can try to look out for. Asking yourself, “why do I want this for my child?” is a great starting point.
Lack of knowledge about child development often puts unrealistic expectations on behaviour and development, especially self-regulation. This makes it difficult to support your child’s needs if you really don’t understand them. This includes sleeping, eating, toileting, developmental milestones (walking, talking, self-regulation), cognitive abilities, emotional regulation, the list really goes on. If you believe a one-year-old should be able to understand the consequences of throwing their cup and maintain impulse control enough to tell their brain not to do this super cool thing it just discovered, well you are likely setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. Understanding why they are throwing the cup, how little they understand about why you don’t want them to and knowing about their lack of impulse control can help you have realistic expectations and develop a plan that is attainable for both of you; much easier way to parent.
Expectations about making similar life choices, such as expecting them to marry, expecting them to be interested in the opposite sex, expecting them to have children or follow the same religion. These can all be harmful and may create a divide between you and your child. Children are attached to their caregivers, even if it may not always feel this way. Even insecure attachment is attachment. Children need to feel validation and acceptance from their parents as part of the attachment relationship. Even if you are passive aggressively disagreeing with their life choices, it can be almost impossible for a child (even an adult child) to accept the lack of unconditional love from their attachment figure. They may continue to try to gain your acceptance or feel a need to shut you out. If you are struggling with this, start with empathy. Before acceptance, comes empathy. Your child will see you trying and that will most likely have a positive impact on your relationship.
Expectations about success. Expecting your child to do well in school almost certainly sets you both up for failure. Your child will likely never be able to meet your expectations and that pressure can cause mental health issues. Academic pressure has been linked to mental health challenges in adolescence and young adulthood. It’s also been shown that when a child feels pressure to succeed academically, they can sometimes resort to unhealthy strategies. Children may cheat on assignments or tests for fear of disappointing their parents. They can also resort to unhealthy coping strategies to escape from the pressure, or to keep up with it. Stimulant drug use is becoming increasingly common in universities and colleges because students feel overwhelmed by academic pressure. They feel the need to maintain a perfect GPA, so they turn to medication to help them stay up and finish school work. I understand this pressure, as I put very high academic expectations on myself in college, but I was older, so I coped by reducing my stress load outside of school and seeking support. Often people who have just entered college don’t have the emotional life skills to know how to cope with this kind of pressure in a healthy way. It is fine to hold yourself to high standards, but it requires a lot of external support, not pressure, to maintain those standards.
Expectations about social relationships and social standing. Do you expect your child to be popular like you were? If they make friends with kids you would not have hung around with, are you disappointed in them, or happy that they have the confidence to make choices that fit their own unique personality? It is difficult to watch our children make friends that we don’t particularly care for, but, just try to think about how you would have felt. How did you feel when your parents disapproved of a friendship? You likely did not think, “gee, you know my mom is right, Billy is a jerk.” Even if as an adult you can now see that, in fact, Billy was a huge jerk, and not a good influence. Don’t look at it from your adult/parent perspective, with all your reason, logic and life experience. Look at it from your child brain. Empathy is not looking in a window at someone’s life, it is trying to understand what it is like to live their life, with their brain, their reason, and their life experience.
Expectations about similar interests can be cause for a lot of family outings gone wrong. I think many parents envision their children playing the same sports as them, enjoying the same leisure activities, having a similar sense of humour. I have actually yet to meet the parent-child combo that were that much alike. Even children who are similar to one of their parents, tend to be different in some significant ways. If your child plays the same sport you did, they often will play a different position, and then that child who has similar interests, may be quite different in temperament or social standing. It’s really quite silly to expect our children to be like us. Did you want to be like your parents? It’s wonderful to have something to share together, but make sure it is something you are both interested in, and not just something you want them to be interested in. This is crucial to creating a bonding experience for everyone.
Expecting your child to provide you with the love and support you were lacking as a child can be a recipe for insecure attachment. It is concerning when a parent-to-be says they want to have a baby so they’ll have someone to love them forever. It is wonderful to receive the love of a child, There really is nothing like it, because it is so unconditional and pure, but we need to focus on giving love. Children will naturally attach so we don’t need to worry about them loving us. They love us even when they hate us, it is a matter of survival for them. We need to have confidence in that bond and recognize that the best way to encourage your child to love you forever, is to give them unconditional love and acceptance. This is not just something we feel inside, it is intentional and it requires more than just thoughts and feelings. It requires action, regular and consistent action, that demonstrates your unconditional love and acceptance of your child. Often people will say “of course I love him, he’s my child.” It is not enough for you to know that you love him. He needs to know it too. The expectation should not be on the child to meet the parents need for love, rather the expectation is on the parents to meet the needs of the child, emotional and otherwise.