Parent Q and A: Help for “I Can’t”

I receive many questions from parents and will, from time to time, feature these on my blog.  Here is a question that came in from a Mom who was seeking help for the frequent “I cant’s” she was hearing… 

Help for “I Can’t”

Question: My 2 ½ year old is always saying, “I can’t” when it comes to doing things I believe he’s able to do. I’m feeling so frustrated by this and wonder what I can do to help him (and me!)? I’m also worried about his self-confidence!

Answer: The “I can’t” stage is a tough one. Parents often feel torn about how to handle these two words. Some parents feel that they should step right in and help because it is their parental duty. Others feel that those two words are unacceptable and that their child must at least “try.”

The optimal way to handle this stage lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

First and foremost, being aware of our own feelings about the statement “I can’t,” can be useful in understanding and mitigating our reactions. For example, if your own parents didn’t have much tolerance for these words, you may have less patience when you hear them from your child. Rather than react with impatience, it can be helpful to recognize that these words are simply a communication of discouragement.

Here are 6 tips you can try to help move your child from “I can’t” to “I’m capable”:

1) Be sure your child is not overscheduled and do your best to ensure proper nap and bedtimes. – Young children can become easily overwhelmed, especially when they are tired. Whether they’ve had a long day at daycare/preschool or are simply feeling over stimulated, tired kids are simply less motivated to take on a regular or new task. In other words, they’re not trying to be difficult, they merely may not have the energy needed for the task at hand. I’ve seen many families where this phrase was used as the child’s way of telling the parents to “slow down.”

If you find that your child is having a hard time because he is tired, offer help. “I see you’re working so hard on that puzzle and the piece isn’t going in as you’d like. Would you like some help with that?”

2) Be aware of how much you may be stepping in/taking over. – It is normal and natural to want to step in and help your child, especially when you see he’s having a hard time. When we step in and take over too often, however, we inadvertently send our child the message that he’s not capable. Assuming you have taken the time to teach and model the skill he’s having difficulty with, avoid rushing in to fix or do the task for him. Instead, allow your child the space to try and let him know you are there if he needs you. Allowing our kids to struggle a bit, helps build their resilience and confidence muscles.

3) Validate feelings and brainstorm solutions. – When we validate, we empower. A child who feels heard and understood gains confidence in his abilities and will be more likely to “try.” For example, “Sweetie, I can see you are having a hard time getting your shoe on. It can be frustrating when it doesn’t go on as easy as you’d like. What do you think you could do to help that shoe get on that cute foot of yours?”

4) Use humor. – Getting silly is one way to engage your child and move him out of the “I can’t” stance, especially if he’s been able to do the very thing he’s saying he’s unable to do. For example, “Come here you Mr. I can’t get my shoe on! I’m going to get that foot! I wonder if you can protect that foot with your shoe? Here I come!!” We all know how much children love to play. By acting silly and getting the child laughing in this way, we help release some of the pent up emotions that are hijacking the more logical/rational part of his brain (the prefrontal cortex).

5) Regularly notice the efforts your child is making. – “Look at you working so hard on that puzzle.” “You’re really concentrating on building that tower.” Recognize the process and the journey, not just the end result. Research has shown that children who are encouraged for their efforts are more likely to stick with a task and take on a more challenging task in the future.

6) Break task into smaller steps and/or allow your child to take a break– If you see your child’s frustration level rising, slow down and break the task into smaller steps. “I can see this is getting frustrating. I would feel frustrated too. Let’s see if we can try this one step at a time.” You can also try offering a break. “I see you’ve been working on that tower for a while and it keeps tipping over. That can be frustrating. Would you like to take a break and help me in the kitchen? We can try building again in a few minutes.”

Sometimes our kids just need a little extra support and attention to help them through their challenging moments. When we are able to view “I can’t” as a communication of a need (in this case, a need for encouragement), we offer our child what he deserves most –  our understanding and acceptance.

 

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5 Modern Alternatives to Traditional Time-Outs

As parents, we’re all quite familiar with the term “time-out.”  It’s often the first line of defense against a strong-willed, tantrum-ridden child.  But is time-out all that it’s cracked up to be?  Does it really stop a child from repeating whatever troublesome behavior is happening?

A time-out may stop the behavior in the moment, but it’s often short lived.  Many parents find themselves using time-outs so often and wonder why their kids are still misbehaving.  Let’s look at why this is as well as alternatives we can use to redirect misbehavior while maintaining our connection to our children.

Time-outs are traditionally used by parents to stop a child’s negative behavior.   More often than not, a time-out typically sounds something like, “Johnny, that’s it!  No more hitting!  You’re going to TIME-OUT!”  And off to his designated chair, corner, step or room Johnny goes, often by himself.  If he’s 2, he’ll be told to stay there for 2 minutes.  If he’s 3, he’s to stay there for 3 minutes and so on.

What we know is that when a time-out is used in this punitive way, it is largely ineffective.  Why?  For starters, it is helpful to understand brain development. Children at these young ages have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.  The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for logical thinking and reasoning.  It is also responsible for regulating emotions and controlling social behavior. This area of the brain isn’t said to be fully developed until early adulthood!

Thus, two, three and four year olds (the most popular ages for which time out is being used) do not have the logical reasoning ability to go off and “think about” what they’ve done and are not yet able to control their emotions in the way we might expect.  Even older children have difficulty processing their emotions and need our assistance. Thus, it’s unrealistic to believe that our child is up in his/her room or corner thinking, “Gosh, I really messed up that situation.  Next time I’ll be sure to use my words instead of throwing a shoe at my sister.”  Instead, the child is most likely thinking, “My mommy/daddy is so mean.  They don’t understand.  It’s not fair.  I’ll show them!” And younger children are most likely thinking, “This is scary. I’m going to run out of here and find my mommy/daddy FAST!”

Young children have BIG feelings and when upset, these big feelings can be terrifying to them. When we use time-outs in the way described above, we’re leaving our children alone at the very times they need us the most.  When our child is misbehaving, she is trying to communicate with us.  She is attempting to show and tell us how discouraged she is.  Children experience stress just as adults do.  This is not to say that we are going to ignore the misbehavior.  Rather, we are going to address the behavior at a time when everyone is calm, being both kind and firm in our approach.  It is helpful to shift from a mindset of imposing punishment or consequences to one where we search for solutions to the “problem” at hand.  Doing this with our child is how we model healthy conflict resolution. Teachable moments and learning are futile when tempers are flared.

So how can we help our children get their behavior back on track in a more positive way?  Here are 5 alternatives to time-outs:

1.) Check in with yourself to see if it’s really you that could benefit from a time-out.  If you find that your emotions are flaring up in response to your child’s negative behavior, first, assure that your child (and any other involved parties) are safe and then give yourself a time-out to engage your own prefrontal cortex.  Go into the next room.  Pause.  Breathe. Count to ten and center yourself before reacting to your child.  Role model the very behavior you would like to see from your child.

2.) Create a self-calming space with your child (best for kids 2 ½ and older). When everyone is calm, discuss the idea of a “cool down space” that your child can use when he is upset.  Just as adults need positive outlets when stressed (i.e. exercise, calling a friend, deep breathing), our children greatly benefit from this as well. Explain to your child that you would like to help him come up with his very own space that he can go to when he’s feeling angry, sad or upset.  Choose the location of the space.  Give it a name (“Joey’s cool down spot”). Stock it with calming objects – books, stuffed animals, pillows, blankets etc.  When your child gets upset, assess the situation and remind him of the special place he created.  You can offer to go with him if he’d like.  The goal is to teach your child how to self-soothe and take care of himself when upset, rather than lash out at you or someone else.  It is important to teach our children how to calm down before we can ask them to do so on their own.

3.) Distract, redirect and assess the child’s needs.  Sometimes a simple distraction or redirection is all that is needed to address the situation.  This works especially well with those 2 1/2 and younger.  Rather than engaging in a power struggle, kindly and firmly state your limit and then change the environment.  Suggest a new activity – head outside, put on music and have a dance party, run around, be playful. In addition, assess whether your child might be tired, hungry, in need of a diaper change or coming down with an illness and address those needs as soon as possible.

4.) Be kind and firm at the same time.  As Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline states, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order for children to do better, we first have to make them feel worse? Children do better when they feel better.” It is important to set limits with our children.  Being kind and firm at the same time is about respect.  We’re kind out of respect to our child and her needs and firm out of respect for ourselves and the limits we are trying to establish.  Adopting this mindset (vs. a more authoritarian one) allows us to maintain our connection with our child.  The goal is to gain cooperation; the goal is not to win.  (An example of being kind and firm if your child is hitting:  “I love you and it’s not ok to hit.  Hitting hurts.  This is how we use gentle hands.”)

5.) Use reflective listening and search for solutions.  Empathize with your child; try to understand where he is coming from; once you understand his position, invite cooperation by asking him ideas of possible solutions. For example, “You really want to play with that truck and Tommy has it right now.  It’s so hard to wait.  Do you have any ideas for how you can solve this problem?”

Research on parenting continues to demonstrate that when we focus on building a connection with our children through positive guidance and mutual respect, rather than trying to get our kids to “obey,” everyone benefits.  Parents who choose guidance over punishment have children who want to come to them (and cooperate) because their child feels a sense of belonging, significance and trust in the relationship.

Managing Mealtime Battles

Ah, mealtime.  Many parents of toddlers will say that mealtimes are the time of day they dread the most.  Whether it’s because their children can’t sit still, throw food across the room or have become more “picky” with what they’ll agree to eat, it’s certainly a topic many parents struggle with.

If mealtime has become a battleground in your home, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1.) It is the parent’s job to offer healthy food options and it is the child’s job to choose what and how much he will eat.

As difficult as it may be, this is where parents have to realize that they can’t control whether or not (or how much) their kids eat.  Many parents worry that their kids will not get the proper nutrition or will wake up hungry if they don’t eat a full meal.  Remember that kids will take in exactly what they need so long as they are being offered healthy choices.  Many pediatricians will say that it’s more important to look at how kids eat over the course of a week versus just one or two days.  Take the pressure off yourself.

To avoid a power struggle, simply (and calmly) offer healthy food items (for some kids, it can take 10 times of being exposed to a new food before a child will try it) and let your child take it from there (difficult as that may be).  Also, be sure your child is well hydrated throughout the day.  Resist the urge to beg, plead or bribe your child to eat, as that will only fuel a power struggle.

2.) Be careful of becoming a short-order cook.

If your child does not want to eat what you have prepared do not make a separate meal.  Instead, have two standard choices available such as fruit or yogurt/cheese (preferably, the fruit is handheld or pre-cut so that mealtime is not disturbed for everyone else).  As your kids get older and they do not want what is being served, they can have the option to make their own meal (peanut butter and jelly, anyone?). If necessary, you can tell your child, “I’m sorry to hear you do not like what is being served.  Your options are fruit or yogurt.  You can decide.”

3.) Don’t ban “treats” or dessert.

When we deny our kids (even ourselves) of treats, the treats end up becoming the “forbidden food,” which makes it all the more interesting, desirable and what they will want the most.  Instead, we want to promote a healthy relationship with food.  Rather than thinking in terms of “good” foods and “bad” foods, it’s important to think in terms balance, moderation and portion control. So, consider allowing a small treat during the day (say after school) or, if you prefer, with a meal or after a meal (examples include a few m&m’s, a few chocolate chips, a piece of candy. Again, the key is moderation and portion control).  Don’t feel that your kids have to finish what’s on their plate in order to have dessert. This sets up a vicious cycle where kids view dessert as the forbidden food and rush through their meals to attain it.  When treats and dessert are not seen as off limits, they lose their power.  Again, parents have control over when and how many treats their kids can have. Better yet, you can ask your child when he would like to have his treat. Once he’s had his “allowance” for the day, he’ll know he can have another treat tomorrow (and if he forgets, you can remind him). Once kids are allowed to have these special foods, their desire for more and more naturally decreases.

4.) Kids model what they see.

Make sure you have a variety of healthy options on your plate.  Model how fun it is to try new foods and how enjoyable meals can be.  Again, simply enjoy your food without putting pressure on your child to enjoy his.

5.) Try finding out what your child is willing to eat.

Sit down with your child at a time when things are calm. Enlist his help in making a list of the foods he is willing to eat and consider setting up a meal chart with him.  For example, choose a mealtime (breakfast, lunch or dinner), add the days of the week and for each day of the week, have your son choose one of the items on the list that he would like to eat (using pictures of the items can be helpful).  Getting kids involved in the creation of routines is a respectful approach that models problem-solving and decision making, while increasing the likelihood of gaining cooperation.

6.) Get kids involved in the process of cooking and meal preparation.

Our kids are always looking for ways to belong, feel significant and in control.  What better way to help meet these needs then by enlisting their help in the kitchen? Take your child to the grocery store with you.  Go to the produce area and point out all of the vibrant colors.  Pick up a vegetable and ask him what he thinks it is.  Talk about where it comes from and the amazing things that fruits and vegetables do for our bodies.  Remember, food is energy! Ask your child what he would like to help you make using the fruits and vegetables he sees.  Get out a recipe book, preferably one with pictures and give him some choices.  Not only is this a way of educating your child, but think about the bond and sense of connection you are creating in the process of choosing healthy meals and cooking together.

Above all, give your child the message that you love him unconditionally and trust that he will make healthy choices for himself, when he’s ready.  It takes two to have a power struggle, so avoid accepting the invitation by trying the above suggestions.

Bon Appetit!

How Parents Can Increase Cooperation

How can I get my kids to “listen”?!

This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked in my parent coaching practice.  After ruling out a true hearing issue, I often remind parents of the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

When parents say that they would like their kids to be better “listeners,” often, what they really mean is that they would like their kids to cooperate; to reply with a simple, “Ok, Mom/Dad” after a request of them is made. I let parents know that this goal is attainable, so long as they are willing to adopt a more positive mindset to achieve it.  Among other things, this mindset involves viewing the parent-child relationship as one based in mutual respect and understanding what underlies behavior.

Long gone are the days of the “children are to be seen and not heard” mentality.  Modern parents are beginning to realize that this generation of kids is more sophisticated (think about how well a 2 year old can navigate an electronic device) and have strong voices of their own.  Rather than attempting to quiet these voices (and behaviors), through punishment (including yelling and nagging), it is important that parents really start to listen themselves, to the underlying messages that children use to communicate, namely through their behavior and actions.

According to Rudolf Dreikurs, MD and Alfred Adler, MD, two prominent psychiatrists who studied human behavior and children extensively, children have basic needs they are trying to get met.  They have the need to feel valuable and significant, powerful and capable, to experiment and explore and to feel love and give love.  Ultimately, kids are always searching for a sense of belonging and significance.  They long to feel a sense of connection and a sense that they are worthwhile to those around them.  When children feel their needs are being met, they feel loved and valued. Kids will seek ways of getting these needs met in either appropriate or inappropriate ways; whatever works and whatever we’ve trained them to do.  For example, let’s say you take your young child to the store and she begins to whine and cry because she wants that shiny toy on the shelf.  You respond with a “No,” which was the opposite response your child wanted to hear. So, based on previous experience, she proceeds to respond with a louder and more demanding request for that same shiny toy, given it worked in the past.

In moments like these, parents have a choice.  They can choose to get upset at the demand, insist that the child “stop whining,” ignore all requests or angrily give in as they wonder what others might be thinking and just want the behavior to stop.  Sound familiar?

Happy boy hugging his mother and smiling

Another, more positive and mindful approach to this behavior involves that of understanding that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child who is looking to get her needs met.  Instead of responding angrily (which only creates fear and resentment in the child), parents can take a deep breath and remind themselves that their child is not out to get them. When calm, they can attempt to convey an understanding of the child’s needs in a respectful way.  Otherwise known as being kind and firm at the same time.  This approach also relies on the use of emotion coaching – a way of educating children about their feelings by labeling them and accepting them for what they are – not right or wrong, simply part of being human.

To give an example, here is how that same parent could choose respond to her child’s “misbehavior”:

Child: “I want that toy!”

Parent: “Wow, sweetie, I see that you really want that toy and toys are not on my list for today.”

Child (getting angrier): But, I WANT it!

Parent (taking a deep breath and remaining calm):  “I know it can be really upsetting when mommy has to say no to something that you really want.  I would feel frustrated too.”

Child (softening after feeling acknowledged):  “Pleeeease mommy?”

Parent: “I know you feel disappointed and I understand.  Here, let’s find a piece of paper to write down your request so that I can remember it for a time when toys ARE on my list.  Want to help me write it?”

Child (realizing parent understands her feelings): “Ok.”

Certainly there are many other responses the child could have.  She could persist in making her request, hit or lash out at the mom etc.  However, what we know is that when children feel heard and acknowledged for what they are feeling, their need to misbehave greatly decreases.  Understanding brain development also informs us that so much of what children learn comes from what they observe.  When Mom was able to model calm behavior, the child’s mirror neurons (specialized neurons responsible for empathy and understanding of what another person is feeling) were activated and she was therefore able to “mirror back” the calm she was observing in and feeling from her mother.

When parents use traditional forms of punishment, such as time outs, yelling and taking away privileges, the child’s behavior may stop, but it’s typically only temporary and at a cost.  Namely, the parent-child connection is weakened.  A weak parent-child relationship does not bode well when one is looking to increase cooperation.

So, when wondering how you can increase the likelihood that your children will listen (i.e. cooperate), consider how you are delivering your message.  Are you barking demands and insisting that things get done how you want, when you want?  Or, are you realizing that children are people with feelings, agendas, wants and needs of their own?  If you want to be “listened to,” first, try listening to your child.

Consider asking for what you want versus telling what you want and empathize with the fact that it’s hard to stop doing an enjoyable activity, to hear the word “no” etc.

To assist, here are a few examples that are likely to increase your chances of hearing the words, “Ok Mom/Dad” as discussed earlier:

“What is your plan for cleaning up the toys?” vs. “Clean up your toys.”

“What is next in your bedtime/morning routine?” vs. “Go brush your teeth.”

“How can you and your brother find a solution to this problem?” vs. “Stop fighting.”

The goal in parenting should not be to win.  Ideally, the goal is to create a solid, respectful relationship with and connection to your child. This feeling of connection is what makes your child want to cooperate because he feels listened to and respected by those most important to him – his parents.

Why Is My Child Lying?

Lying is a topic that has been coming up a lot lately in my work with parents. As Andrea Nair points out in this wonderfully written article, lying can sometimes be a symptom of a bigger, relational issue.

She says, “The issue could be as small as the child being temporarily distracted and not really hearing what the parent is asking, to using avoidance tactics to try and get out of a mistake.

The first question to ask is, “Does my child feel safe enough to tell the truth?” What have been the consequences of telling the truth when a mistake has been made in the past? If punishments have been used when a child comes clean, that child might feel too scared to admit a mistake. The goal is to not make lying a better alternative than getting punished for admitting wrong-doing.”

Read on for some helpful ways to approach your kids when you feel they have not been so truthful…

Read full article “What To Do When a Child Lies” by Andrea Nair

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