On Parenting: Meghan Leahy took your questions about parenting

(by Katie Jett Walls)
Oct 09, 2019

Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach with Positively Parenting, joined On Parenting editor Amy Joyce to talk about parenting children of all ages.

Happy Wednesday to you all. Meghan's here and ready to answer your questions. Don't forget: If you don't see an answer here, keep an eye out for her columns. Sometimes, it takes more than this chat to really answer. Here's Meghan's latest, and don't forget to check out On Parenting for more content. Want it delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter

Okay, let's chat, shall we? 

I am close to my five-year-old niece and see her at least once a week. I'm also fat. Several months ago, she asked me why I have "a big belly." I had prepared myself for that question, casually said "some people have big bellies and some people have small bellies," and moved on. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of it. Almost every time I see her now, she brings up my belly and wants to laugh about it. Sometimes she points out my belly and laughs and tells me it's big (thanks, I hadn't noticed!), or she laughs and tells me I have a baby in my belly (and laughingly argues when I correct her), or she throws herself into my stomach and "bounces" off like it's a game. I usually just try not to react and I've tried to be thick skinned, but I'm embarrassed and have begun dreading seeing her. I've briefly explained twice that some people don't like to talk about their bodies because they're private - thinking this lesson can extend to any physical "difference" that might cause comment - but that hasn't worked. What can I say to her (and how) that puts an end to this problem without making too big of a deal about it? This has been going on for months and brushing it off is not working.

This has been going for months? Huh.

If you follow my work, I really hate the phrase "Nipping it in the bud" but in this case? It applies. The problem is that you have been giving your niece mixed messages about her treatment of you, so you need to get a message and stick to it.

Whether it be that you are fat or your eyes are brown or your hair is curly or your legs are short, we need to help children understand that every human is born different and those difference should be seen and appreciated. Not teased and not poked at.

Five year old's are known for their noticing of differences; this is an age where you can see a little bit of tribalism among the kids. You will start to see little cliques forming, and this is the human desire to feel safe among what looks like you. You will adults who are still the same way.

If we allow children to form and stay in these cliques, they can easily become mean and even cruel.

So, take your niece to the library and take out some books about how people look different. From disabilities seen (wheelchairs) and unseen (deafness and brain issues), you can begin a conversation with your niece that promotes empathy and compassion.

And I know that our culture hates the word shame and runs screaming from it, the ability to feel some shame means that you have a working moral compass. I do NOT want you to shame your niece, but I want you to call a thing a thing. "When you poke me and laugh at me, you are hurting me and it is not okay. I love my body, and I want you to stop. NOW."

Don't shy away from it, don't insult her, don't become irate. Stay matter-of-fact and repeat as necessary. 

Have you spoken to her parents about this? They can also support you, not by shaming her, but by promoting how people are different and we don't laugh at these differences.

Finally, she isn't trying to be awful. She isn't bullying you. But you aren't doing her any favors by letting her off the hook here.

When my 4 year old gets frustrated or upset or hurt, she often lashes out, physically, at either: a parent, the nearest random object, and on occasion she’ll pull her own hair or scratch herself. At times like this she’ll refuse any attempt to comfort her. She typically recovers after a minute or so. Is this typical and is there anything we can do to help her in these moments? Thanks!

Is this new behavior or has it been this way for a while?

How often does this happen a day?

These are important details..

In the meantime, when a human is upset or hurt, they feel frustrated and vulnerable. Both of these feelings are undesirable, and if language isn't readily available to them, the body will explode with aggression. It is normal.

She needs support accessing her emotions, but you don't want to do this when she already upset. Her brain has "flipped" as Dan Siegel puts it, so the is not going to take in any instruction or talking.

Instead, in quiet moments, role model processing your own emotions, watch shows where the characters are talking about their frustration, and read books where characters lose it and make amends and begin to learn their feeling words.

None of your work will be immediate and perfect...you are building emotional resilience here...slow and steady.

In the meanwhile, when she melts down, keep home and humans safe (it is only a minute) and breathe through it.

Hi. My daughter is almost 4 and my son just turned 2. I'm a part time SAHM and my mom takes care of the kids for 2 days, while my husband has them for another (yay!). My daughter has recently become potty trained (YAY!) which opened up the notion of sending her to preschool. In fact, we often told her she couldn't go to school because she wasn't potty trained (true, mostly). Alas, while we aren't exactly poor, sending her to preschool isn't in our budget. The cheapest one we found is $1000 a month. I feel awful because I think my girl would enjoy school and I know her best friend(s) are all attending preschool. Mom guilt.... Then add in my Dad's opinion. He read, recently, that the earlier kids start learning in school the better their lives will be. Well, great. Here I was thinking that it was ok to skip preschool and just let my 2 kids play together. What do you think? I'll add that my daughter is quite shy so it would help her to be socialized more, but she does warm up to people after a short period. Thanks :)


Let's just put this on the table: unless your child is in a home without books, food, and physical and emotional safety, they don't need preschool. They don't need to be "socialized" and while I am sure that there is a study that your hubs has read, I just don't buy it. There are many many studies on how detrimental pushing early academic learning is on kids...because kids need PLAY. Not work. Period.

So, if you 1. cannot afford school right now and 2. have all the childcare you need, why are you going to push this worry?

Find or create playgroups to get your kids playing with others. Meet-ups in parks, etc. are fun ways to break up the day, get your mingling with others, and meet other parents. And THEY ARE FREE.

Don't sweat this, your kids are fine.

Hi Meghan! I love your columns and chats! My son is just about to turn 8. Yesterday he was commenting on the fact that he is the shortest kid in his class in an unhappy way (that's not exactly true but he is one of the shortest). I tried to turn the conversation around on his abilities and things he feels proud about. His dad and I are fairly short, and while I don't have any kind of idea or expectation of what he will be as he grows up, its a good possibility that he will also be on the shorter end of the spectrum. I encourage him to eat nutritious food and he is super active and enthusiastically engaged in a couple of sports and has a bunch of other interests. My question is: I assume this topic is going to come up again, especially as I believe it is coming from teasing of some of his friends. Other than listening and supporting him to focus on things he loves to do and accepting himself, is there any other thing I should say? Thank you!

Okay, I am a short woman. If I said, "Wow, I am short" and someone said, "But you are funny and pretty and smart and so cool" (ALL TRUE, BTW), I would be like, "Uhhh, okay. I am still short, dummy."

Kids don't like to have smoke blown up their you know what any more than we do. Reality is reality, and you have a short kid.  When he says he is  shortest in the class, you can agree. "You may be, but I have not measured everyone in the class this year."

You don't have to say much else. I mean, your kid has eyes. Don't cheerlead him about his other great qualities, which make him more insecure or double down on his shortness and don't be doomsday, "My god, you are short and this will be your cross to bear..."

Your only job here to let him feel crappy about being short. It can be hard to be a short boy in American; our culture prizes big strong boys and men, and that message gets in there pretty young. So, if he feels sad, say, "it is hard to feel different...I get it, I am short too."

Even better? Have your spouse share his experiences of being a short boy...when we are suffering, we like stories of people who also suffered and made it through.


I'm a single mom of two beautiful boys - 3 1/2 and 3 months. I left them both asleep (baby in a cosleeper) to take a shower this week and as I shampooed my hair I heard the baby start crying. Mom needs to be clean and a baby won't die of crying for 5 minutes so I finished my shower. I could hear that he settled a bit and when I got out of the shower I found my 3 year old holding a pacifier in his mouth, cuddling next to the baby saying "there there baby" and patting him. It was beautiful but it also occurred to me that I don't want my 3 year old to think he needs to be parenting his little brother. There have been a couple instances where he's gotten a little stressed trying to help the baby when it wasn't necessary. For example, it took me a week to convince him he didn't need to rock the battery powered swing. Any suggestions to make sure the older brother doesn't get overwhelmed by his perceived brotherly responsibilities?


I don't know...

My first concern is that, in helping the baby, your older son could accidentally hurt him, making for a mess we definitely want to avoid.

Aside from that, your son's loving instincts are awesome and we want to keep them going without placing any real responsiblity on his shoulders. If you continue to notice that your three year old is stressed to help the baby and that he is always going to him, you need to step up and step in more. Yes, this may mean showering at night for a while, as well as getting to the baby before the three year old does for a while.

This is tiring, so beg, borrow, and steal support to get some one on one time with that three year old. Some special time will go a long way to ease your son's jumpy nervous system. 

Please don't sweat it - and I'm a mom who worked full-time and had the kids in full-time daycare with a preschool component. While I think the early socialization helps, the effects don't seem to last more than a month or two. I volunteered in my son's kindergarten class a couple times a month, and at the very beginning of the year, the kids who hadn't had preschool were struggling a bit, with stamina and attention to task mostly. They hadn't been "conditioned" yet. But by the holiday season, everyone seemed to be in the same place. It doesn't matter as much as you think. In the meantime, hit up the free storytime hours at the public library, maybe your parks & rec has some inexpensive tot classes that would interest your kid (I'm thinking stuff like finger painting or mommy and me yoga), there are a lot of resources out there. And just read, read, read to your kids. That was one big impact I've seen in my kids - they picked up so much vocabulary from books. They WILL be fine.

I love your answer about framing it with 'the lads chatting'. It's also still really early in the year and huge adjustment no doubt. I would expect him to have mixed feelings at this point.

YES! Three cheers for mixed feelings!

How many times have we made big or small changes and NOT had mixed feelings? TOTALLY human and NOT a problem. Not allowing ourselves to experience a range of emotions IS the problem.

Our son has been clingy since his first wave of separation anxiety hit in his 9th month. He refuses to go to any other person except his parents and daycare lady. He hates physical proximity to his aunts and uncles who have visited him almost every week since his birth. Daycare drop-offs too are tough on some days, specially after long weekends. We are struggling to have a social life because he clings to us literally like a monkey when we visit/host our friends. It gets physically exhausting wrangling He seems to do fine one-on-one with one of his aunts but when he sees her in a group, he again refuses to go to her. We are at our wits end. Weekends are getting rough. We would like to take up our family/friends' offers to baby-sit him but are terrified of doing that. He also doesn't show much interest in other kids at the park though he has kind of warmed up to some kids at the daycare. He loves going shopping and to the farmers market every weekend. He rushes to the local store counter because they give him candy. Basically, he seems okay roaming among absolute strangers but doesn't like socializing with our friend circle. Is this normal toddler behavior? Other kids that we see frequently at the minimum are comfortable around other adults, if not, being outright friendly and accepting hugs and cuddles.

Unless there is neglect or some kind of abuse happening here, this clinginess is normal and WILL pass.

Ride it out with humor and well, just let him cling.

When you need to hand him to someone, do it and let him cry. He is not going to die from it....just don't hand him off to make him cry and "learn" from it.

And yeah, this time sucks. It is exhausting. When he is asleep, you need to dance, wiggle, yoga, exercise off that energy. And in the meanwhile, have people come to you and just hold the kid.


My mother recently retired. She wants to help out more. So I told her she could come by the house on Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school. My daughter, a first grader, loves her and has fun with my mom. Yesterday, I came home to find that my mom bought 5 bags of marshmallows and a big bag of Froot Loops. She told me that my daughter went back four or five times to the items at the store and begged her to get them. While we're not a strict "no sugar" household, it took all of my fortitude to not start getting angry at my mom right in front of my daughter. How do you think I should handle this going forward? It's hard enough getting my daughter to eat healthy food and now I have 5 bags of marshmallows and a big box of Froot Loops that are a "gift" from her grandma.

Ah, the cost of having grandma watch the kids....SUGAR.

If this is going to be a twice weekly thingy, you can set some ground rules, sure...but you really have to think what you want to go the mats for. Can we accept some sugar? Can we aim for more baking or creation of food with grandma? If grandma were here and there, I would let it all slide, but that's a lot of sugar twice a week.

So, just be gentle and clear with your mom. And be ready to offer OTHER IDEAS other than what you just don't want.

I meet up with 3 mom friends of mine twice a week and we go to a park or indoor playground with our kids who are all 4.5-5 years old. My daughter plays really well, she does a great job sharing, doesn't hit/push, and I can't even remember the last time I actually had to correct her at one of these playdates other than to remind her to not leave the boundaries of the playground. The other kids do have the occasional behavioral problem, which I know is completely normal. But what is the etiquette when one of their kids, say, pushes my daughter or steals a toy out of her hand right after she picked it up? Sometimes, my friends will say something to their littles but more often than not it goes unacknowledged. Should I just let it go, or is it appropriate for me to correct their kids directly myself, or should I ask my friends to correct their kids? Each option has a drawback in my mind but I'm curious what you think.

I wouldn't say anything. It is why we get together with other kids...to have this stuff happen!

If you see gratuitous toy stealing or pushing or some behavior that is really extra, go ahead and step in yourself. "Oh hey, Frank, Sally just found that truck...so let's her play with that for a minute." Take it back and hand it to your kid.

It doesn't have a to be a "thing" if you don't make it a thing.


Thanks for joining us today. Meghan will be back Oct. 23. In the meantime, check us out, and take a look at Meghan's weekly columns here

In This Chat
Meghan Leahy
Meghan Leahy is a D.C.-based parent coach. She holds a master’s degree in school counseling from Johns Hopkins, taught high school English, and was a Parent Educator with PEP. She is the mom of three girls.
Amy Joyce
Amy Joyce has been at The Post, well, for a long time. Her first foray in to online chats were related to work. Now she's happy to chat about fun (but would like to believe the two can be one). She has been a Business reporter, editor for Weekend and the Going Out guide, and is now editing and writing for On Parenting. When not at work, she can be seen unsuccessfully dodging wiffle balls in her front yard.
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