Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Feb 23, 2012

Family Almanac columnist Marguerite Kelly discussed the ups and downs of parenting, and tips for helping children through challenging times.

My 10-year-old nephew has been diagnosed with bipolar (in the family disorder) but is too young for medication. He is demanding of being center of attention, impulsive, agressive to his siblings, loud and uncontrollable. His parents look as though they are frightened of him. Any suggestions?

In all the years that I've been writing the Family Almanac, one pattern has stood out above all others, and it is--diet.  Allergies, sensitivities and an inability to tolerate some foods can wreck a child's disposition because what is great food for one child can be a disaster for another, and that's not just dyes, additives and preservatives.  Some children can't process gluten (I saw one child completely fall apart after she had gluten--in a communion wafer!).  And I've seen a child flip out after having a glass of milk, when she hadn't had any milk for five days.  If this were my child, I'd take him off of all dyes, preservatives and salycilates (the Feingold diet), for about six days to see if his behavior improved.  If it did, I'd keep him off of them.  IF it didn't, I'd take him off of casein and gluten and see if he began to act better.  If he did, I'd keep him off of those things for three more weeks, then give him a glass of milk and see if he got worse.  If he did, dairy might be the culprit, because it seems to take about a month to get rid of casein symptoms; about three months to get rid of gluten intolerance--therefore, he should stay off of gluten for three months.  I know this sounds like a huge lot of work, but it's much much easier to care for a happy, easygoing child that a loud and uncontrollable one.

Hi, Marguerite. I love your advice and am hoping you can help. My delightful son is about to turn 3, and I am embarrassed to admit that he is still getting a bottle at night, sleeping with a pacifier and sleeping in a crib. His dad has been deployed for nearly a year, which has been stressful for all of us, so I have been reluctant to make these tough changes. Now I am feeling guilty that I have put this off for so long. We have been talking about giving the pacis, bottles and crib away to babies who need them, and he says he is on board, but I'm not sure where to start. He also has a small security blanket for bedtime that I am okay with him keeping. For what it's worth, he is developmentally normal and quite social.

I wouldn't feel guilty about this.  You're expecting too much of yourself and of your little boy.  Some children need a blankie longer than others; some need to suck more than others.  If you want to grow him up quicker, then put a big boy's bed in his room and tell him to let you know when he's ready to make the switch.  Don't take away the bottle and the paci at the same time though.  When he's adjusted to the bed, you might run out of milk for a few days and when he's used to a cup of water at bedtime, you might lose the pacifier. 

Given the recent lacrosse murder trial and numerous other incidents, including a local journalist's withdrawing from a story about massive teen drinking in Northwest DC and Bethesda after her high school student children were threatened by other students, what's a parent to do? We desperately want to give them good values, but don't want to homeschool and can't lock them up until they're 21.

There was an elegant published study on violence years ago, proving that a malabsorption of zinc can let copper go wild and cause episodic violence--particularly after having a drink--but no one has paid any attention to it.

You can pay attention to kids though by giving them parties for no reason at all--ice skating parties, swimming parties, dancing in the living room (but not the basement)--but be right there, bringing  in food all night.  Tacos works best, because you can serve the additions, and the chili, in small bowls, so you're going in with more food every 10 or 15 minutes.  Teenage boys don't object if you're bringing in food and girls don't object if the boys don't.

Dear Mrs. Kelly, you are always so kind and encouraging, even to parents who have blown it completely, so we hope you can help us too. My husband and I are devout Catholics who have been married 41 years, rarely argue and have never been tempted to stray. However, four of our five children have been married and divorced at least once. The fifth has never married but has three children by two different men. Our 11 grandchildren are wild and give us no pleasure when we visit or go out with them. Three of them were actually on "Supernanny" some years ago but the positive outcome was short-lived. Two of our teenage granddaughters have children of their own. None of them go to Church. We live carefully and are reasonably well off, but can't take care of everyone's needs. We let two move back in with us for brief periods but that was a disaster. We feel as if we must have done something wrong to have everyone reject our values so thoroughly. Can you possibly say anything to make us feel better?

How you have lived your lives is your business.  And how your children live their lives is their business.   You did the best you could and now you have to let them find their way.  Just love them, without judging them, and continue to create a haven for them to come to for family celebrations, but not to live because their lifestyle is different from yours and upsetting to you.  Remember their birthdays and if one of them needs money rather desperately, then lend it but keep a record.  If it isn't repaid, they should know that this amount will be deducted from their inheritance.  And don't be too hard on those teenage parents.  The pill caused a sexual revolution and we're kind of back to Chaucerian days.  In fact, there are more single parents under 30 than married ones--and don't even think about the marriage scene in Europe.  It's getting passe over there.

Now my daughter has refused to partake in the birthday party for her, her twin brother and her son (my grandson), given at her twin brother's house by his wife. The problem is that my son's wife doesn't want to include my grandson in the festivities. He is a wonderful model of a teenager and the family feels he should be included with the adults. What is the best answer, so as not to hurt feelings any further?

Usually children are invited to their parents' birthday parties, but if he goes, the other grandchildren should probably be invited too.  He may be a model child but it can hurt his cousins if you flaunt it.

Also, you might ask your daughter, as a special favor to you, to go to her brother's party, if only for a little while.  However, this situation may reflect a deeper family problem and you might suggest a few sessions with a family therapist--after the party has taken place.

How do you manage a teenager who behaves perfectly normal with her friends but ignores and acts rude with family?

I'd have to wonder how her family treats her.  Do they ask her opinion about the mid-East wars?  What she thinks about abortion? What she would do with the money if she won the lottery?  If she could help anyone in the world, who would she help? 

Teenagers have a million ideas that they are working out and if the family doesn't respect their ideas, they won't respect their family. 

If little kids don't follow instructions until you remind them, how much reminding is necessary before yelling becomes acceptable?

If you don't want yelling in your house, don't yell.  It's a rule we all break sometimes but when you break it,  you need to give your child a hug and give yourself a time-out.

Little children don't follow instructions very well.  That's why we call them children.

My almost 14-year-old daughter has wide mood swings. She can be very sweet and considerate; minutes later, she is yelling at her brother or one of us for making noise, laughing too much, eating too loudly (really!). It is ruining our family life. Any suggestions on how to respond to this inappropriate behavior?

Some kids are hit by hormones much harder than others and some kids explode rudely because they don't feel appreciated enough.  And some children explode at home because that's where they feel so loved, and so safe that they can dare to blow up. 

If you do think that your child needs psychological help, read the books by Brad Sachs, a Columbia, Md., psychologist who specializes in teenagers or let your daughter work with him for  awhile.  He's excellent and so are his books.

Hi. My almost-4-year-old son has some slight speech problems. He's been seeing a speech language therapist since the start of the school year and things have gotten much better, but people still struggle to understand him. Whenever he talks to others, I have to "translate" by repeating what he says. I do it more in the way of, "Oh you'd like to show Grandpa your turtle?" way rather than, "He said he'd like to show you his turtle." But I'm not sure I'm handling this correctly. Any advice? Thanks!

That's great that your son is getting speech therapist, but it will be awhile before he's understood by everyone.  In the meantime, it sounds like you're handling the problem really well.  And if you don't believe me, then ask the speech therapist.  She'll have the best word on this subject.

While I don't think my mom expected the friends of her "good", evangelical children to be drinking (and we weren't), your solution to the issue was one she practiced. She had parties for our friends about monthly at our house playing games outside or taking us ice skating, to the pool, organizing trips to the amusement park, ski trips, etc. My dad was considered hilarious for the way he'd poke fun at everyone. And because my parents knew my friends so well it was even easier to make them my confidante about all my teenage troubles, which meant she got to advise me about how to respond to things. Being hospitable to your childrens' friends is huge!

Parties are also the places where children learn what is socially acceptable, but adults have to be around and to welcome them wholeheartedly, so they will know what's right and what's not.

My 3-year-old was probably ready for potty training around the time her twin siblings were born. Fast forward seven months and we finally have time to devote to her potty training but she is very resistant. We have her in underwear and she can hold it but is afraid to pee in the toilet. How can I help her?

Some children like to know exactly what happens to their pee and their poop when it's inside their bodies and when it's released.  Look for a book to explain it (there are some), so she'll will know about sewers and such, and pick up a copy of a good new book called A Day in the Life of Your Body, so she's  know how her food and drink is processed. 

I am a different person now that I've discovered my gluten intolerance. It makes me groggy, cranky and depressed. It was like I was walking around in a haze all the time. It was hard to figure out that gluten was the culprit, because the reaction is not immediate. It would take overnight for the symptoms to appear. And it does take a long time to get out of your system. For me it took about two weeks just to start feeling even a little bit better.

Thanks for telling us.  This problem--called 'the Irish disease' by some--affects millions of people but doctors seldom consider gluten intolerance or casein intolerance either.  And yet it is the cheapest, quickest solution.

My ex and I divorced two years ago, and he has been slowly lessening his involvement in our son's life. He works on the weekends he has custody, only seeing him a few hours at a time. He never comes to baseball or soccer games, doctor's appointments or parent-teacher conferences. As this has occurred, my son (almost 7), has been lashing out at me, regressing in a lot of behaviors (dressing himself, etc.) and blaming me for his dad's behavior. I love my son to pieces, but I don't know how to handle this.

I'd insist on family therapy for the three of you.  You may find that your ex doesn't know what to do when his son visits, or finds that it makes him too sad to be on the outside, looking in. 

If he won't go, then I'd consider art therapy or music therapy for your son.  He's feeling more rejected and angry than he can handle.

You answer lots of questions by talking about diet. Fine. And if that doesn't help? Couldn't you at least consider that possibility and address it too? Your advice is great--when you actually give it.

If that doesn't help, I'd insist on a full physical workup, and if that doesn't work, I'd suggest a good family therapist because this person keeps the conversation on track, so it doesn't go around in circles; lets each person express himself in safety, and acts, in effect, a referee.  Unless it's an emergency though, I think all of these suggestions should be tried before anyone takes a pill to change behavior.  Sometimes they're necessary, but a book like the prizewinning Anatomy of an Epidemic may change your mind about the frequency that drugs are prescribed.

My 12-year-old nephew is impulsive, defiant and compulsively lies. Up until about a year ago I would have sworn it was borderline ADHD or something of the sort, but his constant moving and picking has really dropped off. Now, he lies instantaneously. For example, he went over to the farm next door when told to stay in the yard. I saw him at the farm, called him home and asked what he was doing over there, to which he replied, "I wasn't at the farm." He doesn't seem to have an interest in much of anything unless prompted. "I don't know" or "I don't care" are his standard replies to nearly everything. Punishments like loss of privileges do not seem to help either. He was prohibited from using an iPod after taking it to school one day, but then sneaked upstairs at 1 am to try to retrieve the iPod from his parents' bedroom. He is intelligent and got all A's and B's up until this semester, where he has now received several F's. He is smart enough to do the work, he just doesn't want to, and his parents (and extended family) are at their wits. I have suggested that his mother try the Feingold diet and to send him to a psychiatrist. What else can we do? He was adopted from overseas at the age of 2 and has always had a bit of an indpendent streak, but this is just spiraling out of control.

Nothing is the hardest thing to do, isn't it?  I'd definitely send him to a shrink, and the parents to a parenting class (Parenting Encouragement Program classes --PEP--are great), and I'd try all those diet suggestions too. 

I really don't find your answer at all helpful, Marguerite. I truly feel for these people. It's hard when your children don't accept the values you have lived by. These are not people who gave lip service to their morals but who practiced what they preached. You weren't at all appreciative of that. For what it's worth, Sad 60 Year Olds, I do feel for you.

I'm sorry I displeased you, and sorry for the parents too.  But I'm not one to look back and wonder what I did wrong but to look forward instead. 

I received this question in last month's chat and didn't have time to give it a thorough response. Here it is now:


My husband and I are both unemployed and we and our nine children -- 2 to 17 -- are about to become homeless.

Fortunately, family and friends are stepping up, so this is not as dire as it might seem. The two oldest children will be moving in with high school friends and my husband and I will live separately but nearby, each with two of the younger children. Three of our children however, are 12, 9 and 8, and they have no place to go.

Some wealthy relatives, who live on farms in Alberta, Canada, have offered to take them in, which would have some advantages. Our children love their cousins and their lives would probably be better than those of us who are left behind but the thought of their moving 2500 miles away makes my heart hurt. I’d prefer to tuck them in nearby but am not sure that this is an option.

We’re hoping to be back on our feet soon but that may or may not happen. Until then, what should we do?  


Answer: We admire our brave forebears for immigrating to America but we should probably admire their parents even more.

Letting go of children is the hardest job that you’ll ever have, even if the children are grown and they’re just moving across town. To let school-age children cross a continent--and cross a border too--has to hurt much more.

And yet sometimes we have to do things we never wanted to do--or thought we’d have the courage to do--and it looks like this may be one of those times. If it is, so be it. Life is full of tests and each one we pass makes the next test that much easier.

If three of your children must go to Canada, the whole family will be unspeakably sad but send them off with your blessing and as much good cheer as you can muster. If you and your husband handle this transition well, you can give these children bigger, broader horizons; turn them into problem-solvers for the rest of their lives and make your family even stronger.

To do that, make sure that the children know that the move is temporary and that a season—or even a year or two—away from home will enrich their lives, not weaken it, because every fresh experience will be another culture shock to them and the more culture shocks they get, the more they will appreciate differences in people and places and the more curious and empathic they will be. 

Even the chores they do will help them grow--and they will do chores because everybody on a farm does chores, no matter how rich the farmer or how much help he hires. Feel grateful for that. The chores your children do will make them more competent and competence is a child’s greatest need between 6 and 12.

Although many of their experiences will be different from yours, you can keep your family together as long as everyone tries hard to strengthen the connection. If your children keep a journal about their lives in Canada, for instance, they can occasionally scan in some pages and email them to you, and then you and their sibs can understand their new lives better. You’ll not only find out what they’re doing in more detail but you’ll see how differently each child reacts to new traditions, new cultures and new ideas. This, in turn, will let you jump across any gulf that might lie between you when they do come home.

You, your husband and your stateside children should also email to the children in Canada as often as you can, because the family is a team and every player needs to know what’s going on. Even fragmentary notes, silly pictures and the family’s latest money-making ideas will be appreciated but handwritten letters will be read over and over again because your loops and dashes will make these children feel closer to you than any typescript you could choose.

And, of course, the whole family should Skype regularly because Skype is the best way to keep a separated family in touch—and it’s free. Even if someone has to borrow a friend’s laptop, it will be worth it just to hear a voice that’s changing; to listen to the 9-year-old’s book report and to see if a Canadian haircut looks the same as a cut that they might get in the U. S.

There are many ways for a family to be together, even when it’s apart.

What is your opinion on giving a grade of zero for homework not turned in correctly? My son turned in two homework assignments, one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. He turned in the Tuesday homework on Wednesday and vise versa and received a zero on both. I have read about giving kids 50 or above as a zero affects the rest of the grading period, and a 50 gives them a chance. Or is it a life lesson? I only wish that I myself never made dumb mistakes and am glad that people in my job do not grade as harshly.

Each school has its own routine so you need to synchronize your strategy with the teacher, so it really will be a life lesson. 

There is a new software program--I've forgotten the name--which more and more schools are using and it's great because the child can go on it every day to see what his marks are which really helps him stay on top of his work.  Also, you needs to work out a system at home to help him organize his homework, so he will take in the right work every day.  It's not each for children to follow adult procedures without help, but he'll learn from this mistake if you let him work out the problem for himself as much as possible.

Hi Ms. Kelly. My son is 21 months old, and while he's a very happy child and well-adjusted, he has one security attachment that I'm not sure how to deal with. It's my hair. And although he naps well generally at daycare, he definitely wants it most when it's time to sleep. I'm not sure how to 'break' this attachment, or if I should let it run its course. Is he getting close to an age where it will naturally end? Or shave my head, which isn't very appealing? Or should I work on getting him to get himself to sleep on his own and hope that the attachment ends that way? If so, how do I do that? It seems like if he knows I'm around he'll want it (kind of like in your column the other day). The other night when I was out, he threw a fit when my husband tried to get him to bed, but within 20 minutes of my being home (or my hair rather), he was asleep. Any advice is appreciated!!! (And my hair-do will be grateful, too!)

I'm amused--a hair fetish and he's not even two! 

I wouldn't worry about that so much as I'd worry about needing you to fall asleep.  It's an important skill and every child should master it, but this hair attachment doesn't seem like such a biggie to me. 

My 7-year old boy seems to treat me (mom) with a lot less respect than he does his teachers or his dad. It drives me bonkers! He is very loving in general, but he seems to be testing boundaries. It's like having a teenager. Suggestions? Thanks!

Maybe he's acting like a teenager because the first weak hormones of puberty are released when a child is around 7 which is why he acts a bit rambunctious.  It is time for you to be as respectful to him as you can when he's being good and to lift one eyebrow, as imperiously as possible, when he's not, but don't say anything.  This usually makes a 7-year-old shape up (and a 17-year-old too)

Maybe it would be helpful for the parents to talk honestly and openly with their kids and ask for their input on "what went wrong"? If the kids know and realize the parents really don't know, and would like some insight, maybe it would help. Then again, if they feel they can't be honest and candid with their parents, maybe that says something, too. Seems to me the parents just want reassurance that they did everything "right," but really, only they and their kids can answer that one!

That's a good idea, although they might do it one child at a time because they can listen to them better althuogh they may be surprised to find that each child has a different reaction.  And they'll be different because parents keep changing and growing and so do their children and also because their temperaments are probably different too.

First, why are you so involved with your child's homework? How old is your child? Don't you think it is better for a CHILD to learn lessons NOW than when they are out in the work world - and therefore consequences are HIGHER? Seriously, stay out of it. Let your child handle it. Be there for support.

I liked your answer better than mine.

It's time to go, but thanks so much for joining me today.  I learn so much from your questions.

In This Chat
Marguerite Kelly
Marguerite Kelly has written the syndicated column Family Almanac since 1979. She is the author of several books, including "Marguerite Kelly's Family Almanac" and "The Mother's Almanac."

Read her latest column on training a 10-month-old baby to sleep through the nigh, and click here for previous columns.
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