Last week there was a lot of noise about that crying it out study, which indicated that “graduated extinction” (which is different from simply leaving the baby to cry) isn’t harmful to infants. On my Facebook feed I heard (like many of you heard) a lot from both sides of the debate, decrying the study as too small to be useful or hailing it as the definitive answer from science. People ask me to weigh in on research like this because I’m a counselor who specializes in working with new parents but I’m not that interested in getting parents to do things some mythical right way to raise babies because there isn’t one.
When my son was a teensy-tiny infant I thought someone should invent a sim baby program so that I could make the most appropriate parenting decisions every single time. I could try virtually feeding him rice cereal as a first food and then hit restart to go back and try feeding him sweet potato to see which made him turn out best. Because even then — when the internet was fairly primitive and we all used Netscape — there was so much information out there and such strong opinions about every little thing. It’s not like my mom’s day where the parenting experts were limited to the people you actually knew and saw on a day-to-day basis (and maybe your dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock‘s book). Now there are a whole slew of people who have opinions on every little thing from first foods to sleep habits to how to tell your child that you like the painting they made in preschool (that is if you fall in the pro-preschool camp because oh boy are their opinions about that, too).
Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to raise your baby in any particular way. I want you to raise your baby your way. I don’t want my clients making decisions solely based on the headlines generated by researchers in South Australia; I want them to figure out how to tune into what they need and what their babies need and make decisions based on that. If the researchers in South Australia help inform those decisions — whether that’s helping parents feel good about sleep training or highlighting their own reservations about it — then great.
You and your baby are a unique dyad. You and your baby and your partner and the rest of your family, you are a complicated and distinct system. However you choose to handle sleep with your baby, it’s only one of many decisions you’ll be making over the course of your parenting career. Those decisions are opportunities for you to build your family culture based on your values, wants and wishes for your child. They are opportunities for you to explore and respond to your child’s individual temperament and learn more about the person they will eventually become. And they are opportunities for you to begin to understand who you are as a parent.
There are definitely absolutes about parenting like your babies should always be in car seats and they need to be fed (how you feed them is up to you). But studies like this, while useful and important, cannot take into account the whole colorful array of personalities and practicalities that make up each family.
If you were to come to my office and say, “Should I let my baby cry it out?” I would want to know so much more like who are you? And who is your baby? And what is the context of your lives together? As frustrating as it might be, I would not give you an answer because I want to help my clients find their own answers, the answers they can stand behind and feel good about. I want them to gain the confidence they’ll need for the rest of the hard work of parenting — choosing a kindergarten and giving the sex talk and figuring out curfews. As the kids say, you do you (because trying to do somebody else will just make you unhappy).
Do I have strong opinions? I sure do. I have strong personal opinions about my own parenting choices. But as I say (often), there are lots of ways to be a great parent and to raise great kids. I don’t have a lock on the best way; I’ve just figured out what works for me and mine. For example, I believe my kids are best served by being force-fed a lot of show tunes and being lectured on the superiority of Sondheim over Webber. You will not convince me otherwise but I also promise not to visit that strong bias on you. You go ahead and listen to Phantom and I’ll just sit over here with my well-worn copy of Company.
So if you come to me for answers, I won’t give them to you but I promise you that I will help you find them for yourself.
We do not raise children to go out into the world and be perfect and build perfect relationships with perfect people. That would be impossible. We raise children to be good enough to build good enough relationships with other good enough people. Therefore, good parents are, by definition, not perfect. It’s our imperfections — deftly handled — that will help our children to grow up and handle other people’s imperfections with compassion, understanding and good boundaries.
With that in mind, these are some of the pervading myths of good parents.
Myth: Good Parents Don’t Get Angry.
Actually good parents do get angry. Sometimes they even yell and stomp around. But good parents work hard to manage their anger appropriately, apologize when they handle it inappropriately and work to get help if their anger feels out of control or truly scary. Good parents need to know that their children are going to deal with people who get angry (otherwise known as: everybody) for their entire lives. They also know that their children are learning how to handle their own anger so they learn to see the everyday challenges of living as learning opportunities for all of us.
Myth: Good Parents Always Enjoy Their Kids.
No. they don’t because the children of good parents are not always enjoyable. ‘Nuff said.
Myth: Good Parents Have it All Figured Out.
Actually good parents get that this parenting thing is a process and it’s changing all the dang time as kids move from one developmental stage to another. Good parents may feel great about parenting a 3-year old and absolutely lousy about parenting a 13-year old or vice versa because those are totally different kinds of parenting, which take a totally different skill set. Good parents get help (books, friends, therapists) when they feel stuck and most good parents will eventually feel stuck because parenting is hard.
Myth: Good Parents are Fair.
Nope, good parents try to be just but they are not always strictly fair. That might mean different bedtimes, different chore expectations or different privileges for different kids. Sure, sometimes good parents take the easy way out and just buy everyone the same pack of gum — no arguing! — and other times they wearily wade into explaining yet again that just because your sister gets to go to a birthday party doesn’t mean that you get to go to Kroger’s to pick out a cupcake. Good parents learn to withstand tears and sorrow with sympathy but without giving in. Sometimes they don’t because, remember, good parents are imperfect.
Myth: Good Parents are Patient.
In fact, sometimes good parents are patient and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes good parents don’t have the energy to be patient or they’re having bad days. Good parents learn to bring this experience to build empathy with their own impatient kids.
Myth: Good Parents Have Clean Houses, Lots of Home-Cooked Meals and Amazing Holiday Traditions.
Ummm, sometimes? Sometimes not. Good parents do some things really well and other things not so great. Good parents may be terrific softball coaches with filthy kitchens. Good parents may know how to make a mean pot roast but can’t make cookies to save their lives. Good parents don’t always remember to buy pumpkins in time for Halloween or advent calendars in time for Christmas. Good parents don’t always have money for the tooth fairy. Good parents sometimes don’t notice their kids have grown out of their tennis shoes until they notice them limping across the playground. Good parents forget to pack the diaper bag.
Myth: Good Parents are Confident.
Sure, sometimes good parents look at a parenting challenge and say smugly to themselves, “Yeah, I got this.” But lots of other times good parents lie in their beds wondering if that decision they made about homework or screen time or dessert was the right one after all. They work hard to model the great grand work of self improvement, understanding and relationships. They live complex lives that sometimes create challenges they hoped their children would never have to face — divorce or death or depression. They struggle and worry and fret. They move forward because they have to, not always because they’re sure.
Myth: Good Parents are Consistent.
This is one of the things every parenting book says: Be Consistent. And it’s true that consistency will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. If you always say no to the candy aisle in the grocery check out line your kid won’t necessarily stop asking (or whining) but they’ll learn that when you say no, you mean it, which will come in handy when they’re teenagers. But sometimes the candy seems like a good idea because you’ve got such a headache that you’ll say yes to anything to get them to shut up. Good parents sometimes make short term decisions just to cope because life is like that.
Myth: Good Parents are Born, Not Made.
No way. Most of us have to work hard — ongoing — to be good parents just like we have to work on our skills to do anything else well (play tennis, bake yeast breads, create killer TED-inspired presentations, etc.). Good parents sometimes get tired of all of the self-growth and effort that being a good parent takes, particularly when they look at the 2-year old wailing on the floor or contemplate the disaster-area of an 11-year old’s room or note that the 16-year old is missing curfew. Then those good parents reach out to friends for a night out or call a therapist for help or reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen again. Sheesh, says the good parent to herself, when am I gonna get it? But the good parent keeps trying.
Do you want support in the hard work of parenting? Contact me. I’m a big fan of helping parents (and the kids who love them).
When my son was a toddler he went from wobbling baby I knew and adored to a stomping, glaring child I didn’t understand. My tried and true techniques quit working and more than once I carried his screaming self out of the store, the library and away from the park completely baffled by his behavior. I felt guilty for his behavior, I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to quit triggering his anger and I really felt guilty because I sure wasn’t liking him much.
It seemed like neither of us could do anything right.
“I’m a terrible parent,” I cried to my husband. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m ruining him.”
It was my first lesson in how developmental stages could hit both of us. I knew he was going to grow and change but I didn’t understand that I would have to grow and change with him. It was only when I was commiserating (i.e., crying on the phone) with a friend whose daughter was exactly one month younger that I realized that I’d become stagnant. I was still trying to parent a toddler and he was trying to grow into a kid.
Parenting is anything but stationary. Our kids are growing all of the time and sometimes it takes a crisis in the relationship for us to realize that it’s time to change things up. We can’t parent a preschooler like a toddler; we can’t parent a teen like a tween. Those parenting plateaus — where kids and parents are perfectly in sync — are temporary. They grow, we grow and then we all have to readjust to each other.
I have found in my own life and in the lives of the families I see that the greatest push-pull comes when kids are edging to greater independence and parents haven’t caught up with this new scenario. There are predictable developmental windows when it’s easy to lose track of each other — when toddlers learn that they’re separate from their parents; when teens start looking to peers instead of mom or dad. But it can happen in less volatile times, too. Maybe a child wants the training wheels off or wants to choose their own clothes or wants to be left alone with a project. What was welcomed as attentive parenting one day is all of a sudden perceived as overbearing and we don’t even know when we crossed the line.
I tell this story a lot so you may have heard it but right around this same time when my son and I were first knocking heads he got furious with me because I didn’t remember his dream. He was trying to tell me about it at breakfast and he was so angry that I couldn’t remember it for him. For me, that sums up those trying toddler-preschooler times; he wanted me to psychically keep track of his inner thoughts and feelings but he sure didn’t want to hold my hand when we were crossing the street. No wonder I was confused, right? This stuff is confusing.
It’s painful to grow up (and not just for kids). It’s hard to make sense of these mixed messages — the 13-year old who mouths off and rolls her eyes then tries to climb onto your lap, the teen who won’t let you into his room but who wants to tell you the entire plot of Homestuck and exactly what he thinks of it. How are we supposed to know?
The answer is that we can’t know until we run into that brick wall and realize that our parenting needs updating. Conflict is a sign that things need to change. Sometimes what needs to change is our parental expectation and behavior. Sometimes it’s our kids who are dragging us to the next stage while we’re still trying to hammer away at the way things used to be.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. And it is often painful.
That first time was the worst. I really thought I’d broken him and that chaos and conflict were going to be a permanent reality. But we did work it out. I changed up my expectations, I built in more opportunities for him to feel independent and suddenly my sunshine son was back, both of us happy to be with each other again.
And after that I could recognize when the landscape was starting to change and knew to rewrite my map. Acclimating to the new terrain got a lot easier once I knew what to look for.
One of my most favorite things to do is help stuck parents because I’ve been there (boy howdy) and I know how hard it is. Hit me up if you’d like some support.
Last night for the Parenting Kids with Anxiety group we discussed the way anxiety can affect our kids’ bodies.
Somatic symptoms are often mistaken for something else, which can get in the way of getting appropriate help.
The most common somatic symptoms of child anxiety are these:
- Restlessness (inability to sit still, fidgeting with clothes or objects, chewing on fingernails, etc.)
- Stomach problems (butterflies, pain, nausea, a need to go to the bathroom)
- Heart palpitations (also panting, wheezing)
- Muscle tension (headaches, other aches & pains)
Behavior problems are common in anxious kids for several reasons including the somatic symptoms. Kids who are too tense and fidgety to sit still may be reprimanded in school, which may increase their anxiety. Anxiety is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD because it can make it so hard for kids to focus. However children with ADD/ADHD can also have anxiety and it may be missed because observers assume it’s part of the child’s attention problems.
Kids who are anxious may act irritable, mouthy, weepy and generally difficult. Part of this has to do with the somatic response; most of us act yucky when we feel yucky.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are real — they’re part of the Fight/Flight/Freeze fear reaction. In other words kids aren’t making them up or making themselves sick to get out of the things that make them anxious.
When we are afraid, our bodies go into protective mode. Our muscles get tight so that we’re ready to react. Our adrenaline kicks up, which makes us get sweaty and makes our heart and breathing come faster. The cascade of chemical reactions in our bodies can also wreak havoc on our tummies. This physical response not only prepares us to stay safe, it also tells us that we need to be afraid. In other words, anxiety happens on a self-perpetuating loop.
Imagine a 9-year old who wakes up worried about a report she has to give later that day in front of her class. As she’s getting dressed, thinking about the report, her stomach starts to hurt. She heads down to the kitchen only to find that she can’t eat breakfast. She starts to worry about throwing up in front of the whole class and this makes her stomach hurt even more. She can’t stop picturing how awful it will be to humiliate herself and she finds herself worrying even more about the report she spent all last evening getting just right. Her thoughts are worried. Her emotions are worried. Her body is worried, too.
As parents we need to help our kids spot the loop and interrupt it. This takes practice and attention.
For somatic symptoms, parents can help their children identify their physical response to anxiety. In the kids’ groups we’ve taken outlines (like Gingerbread Men) and drawn in where we feel our worries. Kids are often surprised and relieved to find out that symptoms like sweaty hands or shakiness are common. Knowing what’s happening can help children feel more in control of their anxiety response.
Interrupting the physical part of the anxiety loop means addressing the physical symptoms. Deep breathing, hugs, rocking, and taking a time-out can all help children get their bodies and minds calm. Taking a cool drink of water or splashing cold water on one’s face or wrists can help decrease sweaty symptoms or decrease blushing.
I also really like a set of muscle relaxation exercises created for children with autism who need to prepare for blood draws. They’re simple and easy to remember even for very young children. Some of them are unobtrusive enough that kids can do them under their desks at school or in the car before heading off to an event. You can find them in this PDF, Taking the Work Out of Blood Work, on pages 11 to 13.
The exercises take practice to get good at them and parents can do them with their kids before bed since that’s a great time to practice getting calm. That way when children do start to feel anxious, they’ll be prepared with familiar exercises they already know how to do.
If you’d like to come to the next group, just sign up for an email reminder at the Parenting Kids with Anxiety web page.
Parents can get stuck when it comes to talking to kids about difficult subjects. Sex, divorce, adoption — parents come to me wanting to know what to say and when.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because there aren’t easy answers. Like I always say, kids are individuals so even though we can look at child developmental tables and make general guidelines (like these from Child Welfare Information Gateway about adoption and these from Today’s Parent about the birds and the bees) applying them to your actual real life and actual real child is more challenging.
Like, what if you’re not comfortable with the topic? And what if your child is asking questions that the guidelines say they shouldn’t be asking yet? Or what if they’re not asking questions the guidelines say they should? Or what if your 7-year old asks while his 4-year old brother is in the car with you both? Whose development are you supposed to be talking to then?
Here’s the thing I want parents to know — those of you concerned about doing it wrong are unlikely to do that. Seriously. Parents who are putting thought into this — enough thought to read through this post — are pretty darn likely to be thoughtful in their sharing. So know that. Know that you may not say the exact right thing but that’s not the same as saying the entirely wrong thing.
Kids do get confused. We tell them things and they don’t understand it. This doesn’t mean that you told it wrong or that they weren’t ready to hear it. You say something and they listen and they think about it and they mix stuff up or get things wrong or forget what you said and then they need to hear you say it again.
Ok, my daughter gave me permission to share this with you.
When she was 5-years old she started asking some very particular questions about her adoption. (She hasn’t given me permission to share those particulars so let’s just stay general.) I answered them. They weren’t easy questions — they were a little more in depth than those charts say she’d be asking — but she asked so I answered. Two weeks later she asked them again. A few days later she made a statement that made clear that she was still confused.
Each time was an opportunity to correct her confusion, to help her process the information and to move her forward in her thinking. After those three times she could talk about the topic clearly and could even reflect back on her confusion. She could explain to me why she thought what she did and — importantly — move past the facts that were tripping her up and share with me her feelings, which in some ways informed some of that confusion.
This is the thing about learning — learning needs to happen at different times and in different places to really stick. When we say, “I don’t think a child that age can understand that” we’re ignoring the fact that how children grow in understanding is through discussion.
Think about a common kindergarten activity, the one where you put a wet paper towel in a ziploc bag, stick a seed in it and tape the whole thing to the window so you can watch it germinate. Do kids really get what’s happening? Do they understand the entire complex process? No, of course not but they are beginning. We don’t wait until they get the hard core science and then tape the bag to the window, right? Of course not. We introduce it early, we introduce it again later, we build on the complexity, we answer their questions. We work to be age appropriate but we also push a little. A kindergartener is not necessarily going to ask you to show her how seeds grow but that doesn’t mean she won’t benefit from watching a bean sprout against her window.
New context and repetition leads to understanding.