One Cure for Whining

Want to know something pretty incredible about whining? Researchers have posited that it may actually be an evolution of crying at a time when children “switch from primarily mothers to greater care from other caregivers.” That means whining serves an evolutionary purpose in communication between young children and adults. Kids who whine when resources are limited tend to be heard and that means they tend to survive. Pretty clever, huh? But, stressful nonetheless.

I know my title mentions a “cure” for whining, but in reality, whining is good as far as I’m concerned. It signals that a child is emotional, under or over-stimulated, or just plain done. That kind of information can help you be an even more responsive parent. Whining tells you there’s a need waiting to be met and, if you can pinpoint what it is, you can avoid a meltdown. Before you do anything else, make sure your child’s basic needs are squared away. Hunger? Thirst? Discomfort? Tiredness? Sometimes, all it takes is addressing the underlying situation to resolve the cause of the whining.

However, when that’s not possible or when you can’t determine what the issue is, there’s another trick you can keep up your sleeve. The surprisingly powerful “First/Then” statement. It works in just about every context. Let’s say your child wants to go outside to play, but there are toys everywhere. You might say, “Not until you clean up.” That’s a pretty amorphous statement when you think about it. “Not until you clean up.” There’s no direction. No time frame. No, point a to point b.

Back in the late 1800s, Pierre Janet – a French psychologist who specialized in dissociation and traumatic memory – set out to explore the phenomenon wherein we feel like time passes more quickly as we get older. He came up with the “ratio theory” which suggests that the smaller proportion of our lives that remains, the more quickly we feel we’re hurtling toward the end. There are other theories about the phenomenon, some say it’s memory, others our biological clock. Whatever the truth is, one thing is for sure. Time moves at a snail’s pace for children. We can be sensitive to that even as we establish limits for our kids.

Back to cleaning up those toys. Giving children more of a clear directive without attempting to control their every move often helps motivate them and reduces their need to whine in order to be heard. In our scenario, you might consider saying, “First, I need for you to pick up your toys and put them where they belong. Then, you’re welcome to go outside and play until the sun goes down.” You’ve given your child a task list to check off, time-related landmarks, and the power to choose how long to do the task you’ve given. And, if you really want to level up on your Peaceful Parenting, offer to help your child clean up! The very best cure for whining is to meet your child needs.

Gentle Support for Your Resistant Child

Much of the information available about Peaceful Parenting assumes your child is neurotypical and is responsive to your relational overtures. But, what happens when your child resists your every attempt? What do you do when connection hurts?

I’ve collaborated with two dear friends of mine for this post. One friend is a mom who lives in Scotland and has a son with debilitating anxiety and psychomotor overexcitability. And, the other friend is a mom who lives in South Africa and has a daughter with an unofficial diagnosis of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). I’ll be using country abbreviations to refer to each with Scotland being SCT and South Africa being ZA.

Peaceful Parenting for Anxiety

We all three believe that Peaceful Parenting works for all kids, but we also recognize that a single approach will not foster connection with every child. The standard steps apply: create your own peacefulness, assess your child’s needs, foster your child’s emotional equilibrium, empathize with your child, and set gentle, reasonable limits. However, parents can stall out at that second step with their resistant kids. What are the deepest needs of a resistant child?

Kids with PDA, traumas, and other anxiety-fueled differences desperately want to connect with their caregivers, but the barriers can be insurmountable for these children to overcome on their own. Anxiety plays a massive role across a number of challenging childlike behaviors, and it’s something we can all understand. The trick is finding the unique approaches that can cut through the chaotic fog of anxiety and let your child know they are safe and wanted.

Anxiety can present in classic ways and not-so-visible ways. For many adults, anxiety manifests as talking incessantly about worries, overthinking and overanalyzing situations, indecision, being “wound up” and unable to relax, trouble concentrating, insomnia, sweating, gastrointestinal problems, and unexpected anger.

Kids often don’t know how to express their anxiety. They may complain of stomachaches or headaches a lot. They may be perfectionists. They may spend an inordinate amount of time doing small things and focus on minute details. They may delay beginning new activities. And, they may avoid social engagements. In small children, who are even less able to communicate their concerns, anxiety may also show up as things like stalling, becoming mean or aggressive, finger/toe/nail/lip/eyelash picking or biting, hair twirling, and inflexibility about their desires and/or their environment.

Sourced from Gozen.com

My friend, SCT, has learned the signs of her son’s anxious dysregulation and what she can do to help him. She says,

What I’ve found so far, and it seems to work at school too, is starting with a hands off approach. Redirecting him to go read for 15 to 20 minutes just recentres his brain. That’s if the anxiety is in the disruption phase. Funny noises, shouting, silliness, maybe something physical like jumping around. That’s usually come about as a result of being overstimulated and struggling to output it. The other little things are lip picking and adjusting his glasses repeatedly. After he’s had the quiet time, he’s more reasonable to talk to and have a cuddle.

In ZA’s case, she realized her daughter was different from infancy. She didn’t like to cuddle and would get stimulated quickly. As she grew up and became more independent, she also became happier. ZA and her husband gave their daughter plenty of respect and autonomy from a very young age, but she grew more and more resistant over time. At first, they tried common Peaceful Parenting techniques like naming feelings and hugging, but she would become enraged. They tried time outs which caused extreme separation anxiety. In their desperation, they even tried popping her on the hand, which inflamed the resistance further.

ZA learned, in speaking with professionals, that talking about feelings exacerbates anxiety in some children who can’t identify their feelings because that uncertainty is debilitating. However, it’s critical for anxious children to learn how to process feelings. It’s a very tough situation. If you’re experiencing what ZA did, she has a message for you.

Trying to explain this to the well meaning moms taking time to try and help me was either met with silence or a “Sorry, I don’t know then”, so for the most part our journey has been quite lonely as nobody understood what we were going through. It wasn’t until I found out about PDA that I’ve been able to get some advice that is applicable to us or at least some genuine understanding without raised eyebrows.

My advice for parenting a child like this is to study them and see what their tells and triggers are. Work on emotional intelligence as much as possible and teach them to recognize the signs when things are becoming too much. When they explode, dissect the hours leading up to it cause I can promise you it’s most likely been building a while. Listen if they tell you to leave them alone or to stop talking but check in and remind them you love them even when they are having a hard time. Read The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. Adjust your way of thinking how parenting should look, sometimes “giving in” is exactly what your child needs and isn’t seen as a weakness but as kindness. Be flexible, very flexible. Work on your own shortcomings and be kind to yourself when you stumble.

It is really tough parenting a child who doesn’t respond to the typical peaceful parenting strategies. It’s the toughest thing I have done in my life. In saying that, my daughter has driven me to become a much better parent and person. She’s challenged me in ways that I never thought possible and has made me grow immensely. She is an amazing, caring, insightful, funny, smart human being underneath all of her anxiety and I honestly wouldn’t trade her for anything. I can see everyday how she is growing and becoming a more confident little girl.

If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, and common Peaceful Parenting techniques aren’t helping, please consider seeing a professional for an assessment. Peaceful Parenting works for every child and every parent, but the approaches and techniques you choose have to be adapted to your child’s individual needs. Unless you figure out what your child’s needs are, you may both end up frustrated unnecessarily.

What You Can Do to Connect

Start With Empathy

Understand that your child isn’t being difficult, but rather is having difficulty. Respect your child’s feelings by not minimizing their discomfort. Rather than telling them not to worry or saying things like “You’ll be ok. It’s not that big a deal,” try to acknowledge the worry without amplifying it. Simply saying “I’m here and I won’t leave you alone” communicates a great deal to an anxious child.

As an adult and an onlooker to your child’s situation, you have a perspective that can be lifesaving. You can see if your child’s basic needs are being met and resolve any issues there. You can display empathy and let your child know you accept them as they are, anxiety and all. You can stand up for your child around other people. Instead of saying, “my child is just shy” or making other excuses, state what your child needs. “My daughter doesn’t want to play right now.” Period. Giving your child permission to boldly state their position is crucial to their ability to establish appropriate boundaries in their relationship with you and with others.

Create a Calming Area

When anxious children become dysregulated, they can’t ground themselves even if though they want to, and your efforts to intervene may escalate the crisis. That’s where a calming area can help. Create a kid-friendly space with a tent or even a blanket draped over two chairs. Put a pillow down and add in some chill out items like books about feelings, a sensory bottle, headphones or earplugs to quiet the environment, a compression or weighted vest, stress balls, sound therapy like a white or pink noise machine, or anything you’ve found that helps your child.

During calm times, before a crisis hits, ask your child if they want their calming area to be in a bustling family room or in a quiet, secluded room. It’s critical your child feels that this space is a refuge and not a punishment.

Respect Their “No”

Kids who are resistant often feel that they don’t have control in their lives, so they say “no” to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed. It’s not meant as a challenge to you as the parent. You can respect their “no” while still communicating your requests. With my own kids, I typically set boundaries by saying things like “I can’t let you do that” but for a child with PDA, that simple statement feels far too controlling. Making requests as opposed to demands or other non-negotiable statements can help. “Would you [insert what you want the child to do]?” Or, “After you have finished what you’re doing now, could you [request].”

Model Cooperation and Appreciation

Use words like “we” and “us” to present tasks and acknowledge how difficult it is for the child to comply. “Let’s clean up together! Would you like to pick up toys or take these dishes back to the kitchen?” While you work together, offer affirmations like, “Cleaning is so much better when you do it with me. Thank you for helping!”

Social Stories

Social Stories are a social learning tool developed in 1990 by an educator called Carol Gray who came to understand that her Autistic students were missing information about common interactions and just needed someone to communicate that information in a logical way. It’s difficult being Autistic in a world where allistic people seem to automatically understand how things work. Social Stories help to bridge the communication gap between Autistic and allistic people.

However, Social Stories aren’t just for Autistic people. They help overcome all sorts of communication barriers and, because they involve pre-planning, you guessed it, they can help decrease anxiety too.

In this video, speech-language pathologist Carrie Clark delivers a comprehensive explanation of what Social Stories are, why they work, and how to create them. Please be aware that the very beginning of the video includes a mention of ableist functioning labels. Closed captions are available with this video.

The PANDA Approach

Consider the PDA Society approach, which helps to reduce resistance in anxious children. PANDA stands for Pick Battles, Anxiety Management, Negotiation & Collaboration, Disguise & Manage Demands, and Adaptation, and these tactics can be useful for other resistant children as well.

And, Here’s What ZA Does!
  • Read stories that highlight feelings
  • Verbalize your own feelings in front of your child
  • Share highlights and lowlights as a family every day
  • Adopt an anxiety-friendly framework to address anxiety around activities:
    • Use indirect requests (“It would really help me out and make me happy if you could do this for me”)
    • Tell your child exactly why what you’re asking of them is important
    • Point out the feelings attached to the activity
    • Ask if the activity is making your child anxious, nervous, unhappy, or scared but never in the midst of an anxiety attack
    • Ask your child why they think they’re having these feelings, if your child is receptive
    • Write social stories together describing step by step how the activity would go
    • Give your child space when it all becomes too much and give it plenty of time before you decide whether you should all move on or if you should address what happened

Final Thoughts

Your relationship with your child and your ability to ease anxiety can open the door to a genuinely fulfilling experience for both of you. For more tips on calming your anxious child, check out this Motherly article. And, for another fantastic resource, visit Anxious Toddlers (it’s not just for toddlers!) Please tell us what helps your anxious child the most and if there are any other resources we should know about.

6 Reasons to Stop Spanking Right Now

#1 Spanking Makes Minor Concerns Worse

Spanking carries serious risks of injury to children. Not only can it slow developmental growth, but there is no study demonstrating that it enhances developmental health. And, sadly, harsh spanking has been correlated with a physical decrease in gray matter within children’s brains. This year, the American Psychological Association issued a strongly worded statement about corporal punishment warning of the danger of “increases in children’s behavior problems, even after controlling for race, gender and family socioeconomic status.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also strongly recommends against spanking.

#2 Spanking Amounts to Bullying

StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” With the exception of the qualification that bullying involves only school aged children, this definition fits. Not only that, but there is evidence that spanked children are at a higher risk of becoming bullies themselves as a result of their treatment by adults.

#3 Spanking is Domestic Violence

In nearly every state in the U.S., spanking (i.e. corporal punishment) is specifically excluded from state laws against domestic violence and child abuse. If spanking weren’t violence against children, there would be no need to affirm a parent’s right to hit. Only one state, Delaware, has effectively banned spanking and, even there, lawmakers made a point to say that they were not limiting parents’ ability to physically punish their children. It then stands to reason that spanking may lead children to commit domestic violence themselves later in life and, in fact, there’s evidence that this may well be the case. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that “Legalized violence against children in one context risks tolerance of violence against children generally” and a study out of Canada found that most child abuse occurs during physical punishment.

#4 Spanking is an ACE

A study published in Child Abuse & Neglect, the official journal of the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, lays out the case for spanking being designated an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). ACEs are linked to myriad regulatory complications for children that are then expressed as undesirable behaviors. Watch this interview with Dr. George Davis, who served as the lead psychiatric clinician for New Mexico’s Juvenile Justice System for 20 years, in which he explains the connection between ACEs and interaction with the justice system. Almost all the children studied as part of the New Mexico Juvenile Justice program had experienced corporal punishment at the hands of caregivers. Spanking does not prevent incarceration and may, in fact, contribute to it.

#5 Spanking Affirms White Supremacy

Dr. Stacey Patton, child advocate, is a woman who understands the risks of spanking first-hand. She is an adoptee, child abuse survivor, and former foster youth who has become an impassioned voice against the ritualistic practices around spanking as punishment. In her research, she has discovered that “Europeans brutalized their own children for thousands of years” before colonizing the Americas and Africa; and therefore, that spanking is not intrinsic to every culture around the world. Instead, it is far more likely a practice with deep ties to colonialism and white supremacy.

#6 You Already Know It’s Wrong

Despite the very high levels of support for spanking in the U.S., many parents express regret at feeling compelled to engage in the practice. The widely identifiable sentiment, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” reveals the emotional burden parents experience when they physically harm their children in pursuit of good parenting. A quick Google search of “spanking regret” reveals just how widespread the discomfort is.

The Good News

You do not have to spank. Period. You do not have to do it. There are effective alternatives. Even though Peaceful Dad and I don’t employ time-outs or any punitive measures, I have no qualms telling you that research shows time-outs work in the short and long run. Science has effectively proven that time-outs are more effective and less harmful than spanking. So, if you must punish, please use time-outs. If you are looking to move past punishments, I invite you to continue following this blog and/or check out the Resources section for more ideas.

The Bad News

Efforts are underway nationwide to ban spanking in the U.S. That, in and of itself, isn’t a negative thing. If spanking were made illegal, hundreds of thousands of children would be spared the negative long-term consequences of physical violence. If we took this step, we’d be joining 54 other countries worldwide, nearly 30% of the globe, in leaping forward into a new era.

But – and this is a massive caveat – given the racial disparities in our legal system, parents of color would be disproportionately affected by these bans. Black parents, in particular, spank at rates nearly double that of white and Latinx parents. Black people are also far more likely to be arrested, charged, and sentenced than any other group, and their sentences are substantially more extreme.

Furthermore, Black children are more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in state care than other groups, even for relatively minor offenses. It would be utterly irresponsible of us to advocate for blanket spanking bans knowing that people of color would be drastically impacted. If we do move to ban spanking, we must keep families out of the court system and away from child services. 

I admit that I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know what to do. I know we have to protect kids, but I also know we have to protect their parents. And, this is a key reason I am so adamant about giving people alternatives and showing, through the experiences of my family, that gentle methods really do work.

Curious for more on the topic of punishment? Check out Punishments, Consequences, and Limits.

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 2 of 2

Continuing from Part 1

So, what do you do when you encounter an undesired behavior after your child has already stepped beyond a limit? If not punishment, then what?

I’ll let you in on a secret. Here’s what you do: Say, “I love you no matter what you do.” Let those be the first words out of your mouth. Communicate to your child first and foremost that their behavior does not define your relationship. It doesn’t matter what the child has done. Say “I love you” regardless. Children tend to be binary thinkers. It can be difficult for them not to regard themselves as either good or bad without much gray area in between. They need to know that they are loved, no matter what.

After your child understands that your relationship with them is secure regardless of the outcome, the work begins. If their actions have resulted in harm, they need to be given an opportunity to rectify what’s happened. And, whether or not their actions have resulted in harm, they need the chance to create and implement a plan for the future. No punishment needed.

Restorative Practices

Children do not inherently know how to be in relationship with other people. They learn and they stumble… often. If your child has done something that has caused any sort of harm, incorporating restorative justice principles can help begin the healing process.

  1. Give the aggrieved parties space to communicate their perspectives. If you are the aggrieved party, bring in a neutral arbiter to help.
  2. Employ the CLAIM method to guide your child through this process.
    • C: Center Yourself. Draw in your fears of judgement and be brave.
    • L: Listen. Pay attention to what’s being said rather than preparing a rebuttal.
    • A: Acknowledge. Take responsibility for your actions (and apologize and/or make restitution if necessary).
    • I: Inquire. Ask how you can do better in the future. Keep in mind that this involves labor. The other party has a right to decline.
    • M: Move Forward. Change your behavior and teach others to do the same.
  3. Enunciate the harm that has been caused, both tangible and intangible.
  4. Confirm the resolution with all parties and establish an accountability plan with your child.
  5. Support your child through their inevitable feelings of ostracization from those they harmed. Encourage them to give it time and to be kind.

Children of all ages and neurologies can benefit from modified versions of this process. BB is 4-years-old and minimally verbal, so our communication is largely through behavior, gestures, and facial expressions when he’s under stress. I assume competence as everyone should with every child. I don’t baby talk my kids. Instead, I follow these same recommendations with my children, knowing that they understand something of what I’m saying and will understand fully in the future.

The skills you impart through this process will provide your child with the tools necessary to become versed in conflict management and active listening, both of which are critical relationship skills.

Setting New Limits

Peaceful Parents try to get ahead of challenges and take proactive steps to avoid them. When challenges occur despite our best efforts, we regroup and work with our kids on resolving remaining issues and on solving the underlying difficulty before it happens again in the future. Our philosophy is that children do well when they can, and that we can equip them to do better by addressing their unmet needs and building skills.

When you learn about a challenge after the fact, try to resist the urge to punish. It can be extremely unnerving to feel like you aren’t doing anything, but I assure you, what you do instead will send ripples of goodness into your child’s future.

It’s important to talk with your child about what’s happened, opting for open-ended, non-accusatory questions like “What were you hoping would happen?” that garner a more developed response than “What happened?” Again, age will determine how far you can go.

Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, we learn disappointing truths about our kids. This can be hard for us and for them. Protecting your relationship in the face of missteps means choosing your approach carefully. Remember that children instinctively react when they are afraid. In order to reason with your child, you’ll need to keep them in a cognitive space by reassuring them that they’re safe with you.

Let’s consider a pretty common (and developmentally appropriate) difficulty for children: lying. If your child lies, you’ll be less inclined to believe what they say in the future. However, rather than undermining your relationship by saying, “I don’t trust you,” you can instead try to frame the situation in a way that can be solved. Speak factually and coach your child toward a resolution using “I” phrases to express your feelings. “I’m sad that you didn’t tell me the truth. I want to be someone you can always talk to. What can we do in the future to make sure you don’t ever feel you have to lie to me?”

In this reconciliatory space, you can help your child determine their own solutions for what to do, giving them ownership and power over their choices. Knowing that children aren’t hardwired yet for wise, measured decision-making, you can ask questions to better understand what your role will be in making sure limits are observed as part of a renewed plan for the future.

If it happens again, walk with your child through the exact same process. And, if that sounds too much like kids “getting away with bad behavior,” think about how many times parents have to turn to punishment over and over again because there is insufficient behavioral change. We’re working on moral development here. Not obedience.

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 1 of 2

Are they different words for the same thing? Does it even matter as long as children behave the way they’re supposed to? Let’s dive into this hotly debated topic and see if we can parse out the differences, the benefits, and the downsides.

First, I’d like to talk a bit about discipline. This term originated in Latin as “disciplina” and it simply meant instruction. Give a word a few centuries of cultural influence and you end up with a word that came to mean things like suffering, scourging, and chastisement in the late Middle Ages. If you don’t know what scourging means, beware because it’s nasty. It was used as a form of corporal punishment centuries ago (and, unfortunately, it’s still used in some areas of the world). A whip would be fashioned with knots or barbs to inflict the most damage possible on a person’s flesh and then the lashing would begin, mostly across the back, until the perpetrator was left bloodied and exhausted. Many people succumbed to their wounds, because they lacked the medicines they needed to treat and repair the torn flesh.

Given that trajectory, it makes sense that discipline is used today primarily to refer to physical punishment, in the context of child rearing. The steps we took to get from the intellectual pursuits of ancient Romans to the dark and brutal torture of the Middle Ages would be an interesting study. For our purposes at the moment, what I want you to know is that there is a spectrum of understanding when it comes to the word discipline and that Peaceful Dad and I land way over on the side of “instruction.”

While I can’t hope to encapsulate the entire meaning of these words in such brief statements, these self-penned working definitions will help you understand the distinctions I’ll be making later on.

  • Punishment: A negative, arbitrary ramification determined by a parent/caregiver and applied in an effort to correct unwanted behavior.
  • Consequence: A negative ramification stemming from a child’s action that occurs either without the influence of a parent/caregiver (i.e. “natural” consequence) or with the influence of a parent/caregiver in direct connection to the infraction (i.e. “logical” consequence).
  • Limit: A boundary defined by culture and/or family in the interest of safety, socialization, or education.

Punishments

Parents punish because it works. It stops the behavior in the moment and shuts the child down, so the nuisance is gone. However, punishment doesn’t work the way most people think it does.

We know that the logic center in human brains doesn’t fully form until around age 25 and that regularly coaching kids on how to reason through problems is a crucial part of teaching their brains how to think logically. However, punishment does not rely on logic. It relies on fear and control to coerce children into compliance. Children may run away, fight back, shut down, submit, cry, or become overwhelmingly exhausted when faced with punishment, especially physical punishment. You might find it interesting that these are all instinctive survival responses to stress that we all have, children and adults alike. And, if these children are not reasoning through their experiences, they may be falling back on innate self-preservation measures.

Punishment is effective beyond the immediate moment of infraction only when the enforcer is present and the punishment is severe enough to elicit strong fear. This is why, sadly, punishment can slip easily into abuse when the diminishing returns lead to escalation. Punishment is demoralizing and hurtful from the child’s perspective.

Consequences

Many parents shun punishments but desire a method of demonstrating to children that their behavior is unacceptable. Natural consequences can be a fantastic teacher. Pull the cat’s tail and you’ll get scratched. It doesn’t take a parent intervening to make that happen. Natural consequences are automatic and often unavoidable.

Children learn a great deal from natural consequences as they form relationships. When children are mean to their friends, their friends may not want to play with them anymore. That’s a natural consequence that leaves space for the child to learn how to repair a friendship. Natural consequences can be very useful, but they can also act as punishments.

Sometimes parents let natural consequences happen, knowing their child will be hurt. They want to “teach the child a lesson” (which is a surefire sign that indirect punishment is taking place). If you tell your child not to touch a hot burner on the stove and the child reaches for it, you have two choices: let the child be burned or intervene. One is cruel and the other is educational. Natural consequences don’t have to take full effect for a child to learn.

Logical consequences are selected by parents and may involve input from the child. In that sense, they are preferable to punishment. They are intended to be directly related to the unwanted behavior. For instance, a logical consequence for breaking a rule about running through the house and destroying a family heirloom might be helping to clean up the pieces and then having a time out to sit and chill.

Consequences can be effective and they can also be abused. To complicate matters further, you run into the trouble of children not recognizing the difference between a punishment and a consequence, which defeats the purpose of making the distinction in the first place.

Limits

Limits are respectful boundaries that allow all parties to be in relationship with each other and know what the guidelines are. It is possible to enforce a limit without adding on a punishment or a consequence. Limits define expectations and parents can then walk their children through how to appreciate and abide by that expectation.

The difficulty remains in terms of the child’s interpretation of a limit or a consequence. It may feel very much like a punishment to be reminded of a limit. That’s why it’s important to give the child power over the situation. Giving children power can feel foreign in a culture that diminishes the autonomy of kids, but hear me out.

Dr. Laura Markham has an absolutely fantastic primer on limit setting that I refer to often. I will try to do her justice in my explanation. For a limit to be most effective, it must:

  • be reasonable to the mind of the child (“When we throw dirt, it can get into people’s eyes and hurt them.”)
  • be explained to the child beforehand (“When we get to the park, please remember that dirt must stay on the ground and not be thrown at other kids.”)
  • be enforced consistently and with gentle firmness (“I see you’re having trouble not throwing dirt. Would you like to swing or go down the slide instead?”)
  • be under the authority of the child (“Looks like you’re still having trouble not throwing dirt. Let’s head home for now and come back tomorrow when you’re feeling calmer.”)

At any point in the exchange, the child may feel angry or coerced. Remember to remind your child of the expectations they affirmed and avoid using their behavior to assign a punishment or consequence. Your child doesn’t reason the way you do, especially if your child is under the age of six. Young children do not reliably have the ability to apply episodic memories to their future decision-making. Your young child is not considering the possibility that a consequence or punishment could result from their behavior.

What Do These Disciplinary Techniques Look Like in Real Life?

Imagine a boy called Caleb. He wants to walk to the park with his mom and his siblings to get some fresh air and play a bit. It’s a little chilly outside, but he’s all warm from being cozy in his house. He doesn’t realize that he’s going to get very chilly while on the walk and he will be unbearably cold by the time they reach the park. His mom checks her weather app and realizes it’s too cold to go without a jacket, but Caleb really doesn’t want to wear one and he tells her just that. What should mom do?

Punishment: Mom chastises Caleb for talking back and not obeying and declares that they won’t be going to the park now OR for the rest of the week.

Natural Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. He huddles down shivering while his siblings play.

Logical Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. Mom gives him a picnic blanket and instructs him to wrap up and sit on a bench while his siblings play.

Limit: At the house, Mom says, “I understand you don’t want to wear a jacket. However, I’m not willing to let you be cold. Would you like to carry a jacket or put it in a backpack to take along?” Mom won’t leave the house until she knows Caleb will be safe and warm at the park. The power to leave the house is in Caleb’s hands and the need for a punishment or consequence is avoided entirely.

Which of these techniques would you prefer to employ? What successes have you had with each? Have you run into any difficulties?

Continue to Part 2

BB Just Bolted Into the Road!

We were at the supermarket when it happened. LL is home with Peaceful Dad, and I had BB with me. It was an ideal opportunity to let him participate in the shopping process.

I had him holding onto the cart handle with me as we cruised through the store. I pointed out the groceries we needed and told him how many to pick up. He counted along as he picked up each item, “one, two,” which is pretty incredible considering he was barely speaking just one year ago. We arrived at self-checkout where he scanned the items and slipped them into bags (almost entirely) by himself.

Uh oh. There was a twinkle in his eye. My body instinctively started toward him even before I registered what was happening. He ran. When autistic kids do it, professionals call it elopement. Whatever you call it, it’s terrifying watching your child run toward danger.

I knew I had left behind all my groceries, my phone (with credit cards), and my car keys, but I didn’t care in that moment. It was all replaceable. I ran. I yelled, “stop!” I clapped my hands to get him attention. All to no avail. Everyone at the store entrance stared at me with surprised expressions. They were frozen. A store employee yelled “hey!” and a man in the crosswalk area spun around and grabbed BB, letting his own cart continue careening through the lot. I caught up a moment later and took BB’s hand. I thanked the man and calmly started back as he looked on with a stunned expression. He had enforced a limit and, in the process, showed BB that bolting is not acceptable.

I saw everyone watching me and I knew they were waiting to see what I would do. Would I be a proper southern mom and whoop him right there in front of God and everyone or would I be “that mom” who didn’t know how to discipline her child? I could have explained loudly, “He’s autistic and he bolts sometimes!” But, I make an effort not to reveal aspects of his identity he hasn’t consented to me sharing, and I’m actively working to destigmatize autism. Neurotypical kids bolt too. It’s kid behavior and I want folks to be understanding of children. I didn’t explain anything. I simply let the “thank you” stand.

We walked back into the store and completed our transaction while I told BB that running into the street is dangerous and that he’d scared me. I told him that I’d keep him safe next time by using our wrist tether. Prevention is key when it comes to childlike behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be this way forever. We’ll try again and he may still bolt. It’s ok. These instances are decreasing in frequency as he gets older. If you have a bolter too, I get it. Gentleness is for runners just like it’s for kids who reliably stick right next to you.

I will continue to teach my son how to walk safely next to me with and without the tether. I’ll ignore all the moms online who crassly liken tethers and harnesses to dogs on leashes. I’ll thank the strangers who step in to help when we need it. And, I’ll know I’m doing my best.

You are too.

A Pyrophile Without a Fire

We just got back last night from a mini-getaway to the mountains, courtesy of the generosity of loved ones. It had been so long since we’d had a change of scenery! We visited the tallest mountain in our state, and BB climbed the last bit of the way up with me, just under a mile on steep terrain. He breezed right through, while I huffed and puffed my way, stopping passersby to ask “how much farther?” But, it was AMAZING. I left feeling invigorated, relaxed, and glad we’d taken the time away.

Coincidentally, I also learned about the positive effects of negative ions on our bodies. I’m very science-minded and I eschew pseudoscience, so when I saw a post about “ions,” I was immediately skeptical. Turns out there’s real science! This piece takes a conservative position and is, in my opinion, realistic. From what I’ve read so far, spending time in nature has measurably positive impacts on humans. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that we can always use more time outside. A trip to the mountains was just what we needed.

BB had such a great time! He got to reconnect with Peaceful Dad and me, even sleeping between us at night. It recharged his little heart. But, we did encounter a challenge.

We spent the first full day of our trip running around visiting all sorts of natural features, playgrounds, and landmarks. Toward the end of the day, BB started to dysregulate. We were still out and about, so we had to help him on the run. We had stopped in at a state park to check out their playground and that’s when it happened. BB saw fire. BB LOVES fire. 

A glamper was behind his cottage firing up the grill to start the evening meal and BB was on a mission. He tried every trick he could think of to get to the fire. I didn’t want to put a stranger in the position of having to tell my child no, which he inevitably would have had to do for safety reasons. I told BB that I knew he loved fire and that he was so sad he couldn’t play with it. I explained that the man was on vacation just like we were and that we should give him space. BB disagreed. He started to cry. Then began to wail and scream. Then he fell to the ground.

I offered a hug and he wanted me to carry him, so I did. We arrived at the playground and LL immediately began to play happily with Peaceful Dad. But, BB couldn’t regulate. He cried and cried no matter what I did. He asked to swing and continued crying there too. I stayed right with him and held space for his emotions. After some time, I asked him if he wanted to go see the boats instead. The park had rentable canoes and paddle boards on a small lake. He indicated that he did, so I called to Peaceful Dad to let him know we were walking down to the water. BB’s cries began to soften and, by the time we got to the water, he was excitedly pointing out the different boats.

He just needed to work it all out for himself without being rushed. He napped on the way to get supper and then had a wonderful, peaceful sleep safe between two people who accept him completely.

When Friday Turns Fractious

Fridays are always difficult in our house. Both of my children begin to give way to the stresses of the week past and, right around 4:00 PM on any given Friday, they crumble. Today was no different. As I attempted to fold mountains of laundry, my children both stopped playing to find me. Right in front of me, Baby Bear (BB) pushed Little Lamb (LL) to the floor with dramatic flourish. She immediately began to scream and wail. BB, having very little sensory tolerance for the sounds of his sister’s cries, ran out of the room and began pushing items from whatever surface he could find right onto the floor. It had happened so fast that I hadn’t had time to intervene. Impossibly, only a few moments had passed and yet parts of the house were already wrecked.

There’s no question how much havoc dysregulated children can wreak in seconds, but what caused this outburst? Well, we had reached the inevitable point of After-School Restraint Collapse, or in this case, After-A-Full-Week-of-School Restraint Collapse. This very real, very difficult phenomenon is the answer to the question of why children can behave so wonderfully in school only to come home and lose control. It’s difficult for us adults to manage a busy schedule and come home to more responsibilities. We don’t always handle it in the best way either. Children, especially small ones, have ever so much less ability to self-regulate than we do. So, when they reach their safe haven, all of that tension bubbles to the surface, and it has to go somewhere.

I soothed LL who had developed the hiccups from crying so intensely and, when she felt better, I let her lounge on my bed so I could go find BB. I had to address his violence toward his baby sister. I brought him back into the bedroom, as he had cooled off in the interim. I asked him if he needed a hug and he did. He began to cry. The stress must have been unbearable. When he stopped crying, I lifted him onto the bed so we could be level and I said to him, “You were really upset early when you pushed sister. You’ve had a long week at school and you needed to push something to feel better, right?”

He began to cry again, but this time, he angrily yanked my glasses off my face and threw them to the ground. I picked them up and put them on and, again, asked if he needed a hug. He did. So, I hugged him tightly for a long while and told him I loved him. When he was relaxed, I pointed to LL and told him that it hurt her when she got pushed to the ground. I asked him how he could help her now that he was feeling better. So, he slid off the bed, went around to her, and laid his face against her arm. It was only for a moment and then he ran off, but it was an act of love. For the rest of the night until bedtime, he remained dysregulated, but he didn’t push LL again. And, yes, he willingly helped me pick up some of the items he had upset.