Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Mar 29, 2012

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

Are there ways to minimize terrible 2 tantrums? I've got twins, so that's 2 x 2. Help.

Some children have tantrums because they are more temperamental than others, especially when they're egging each other on.  Other children however have tantrums because of their diet.  As far-fetched as it sounds, many, many children react to the additives and preservatives in their food because the government doesn't police these problems enough and because some children can't handle processed foods. 

To find out if this can be bothering your twins, don't give your twins any foods that contain additives or any preservatives for five days.  If their behavior improves, go on to find out what foods that they can and can't eat, and the scientific studies to back them up.  And if that doesn't work, consider taking dairy products out of their diet for about a month, and if that doesn't work, take out gluten, which affects at least 133 million Americans, perhaps because our wheat hasextra gluten in it.   

All of these things can affect a child's behavior--and all of these changes are easier than tending to tantrums--and twice as many of them.

I have a 3-year old son, and we are still working on potty training with him. He's doing pretty well telling us when he needs to go to the bathroom, except for bowel movements. Even bribery has failed us at this point. Do we need to put him on the toilet every 20 minutes? Does anyone have any advice? Added to this is the fact that I will be having a mastectomy next week and won't be able to lift him at all for a while (although I have lots of help, so it won't really be an issue). I am somewhat worried about my ability to parent throughout surgery, chemo, and recovery, but I guess other women have made it through and I will too.

Three is a good time to toilet train a child, because children are usually pretty amenable at this age, but in this case, I'd stick to diapers.  You have enough on your plate, honey, and he is sure to react to it in some way.  Don't make it all about the potty.

Dear Ms. Kelly, you can probably tell from this question that I don't have children! During a very windy day a couple weeks ago, I said to a young neighbor, "You have to hold on tight or you might blow away!" His parents are really irritated with me because apparently he took me seriously and is now terrified even of gentle breezes. I've said, "I'm sorry, sweetie; I was just kidding. You won't blow away!" But he's still scared. I'm assuming this will pass in time? I 'd hate to think I've traumatized him for life.

Wind can be scary, but this little boy will get over your little joke.  But the parents?  Maybe not.  Some people are simply more uptight than others.

My wife and I have a healthy toddler. Despite trying everything medically possible we have not been able to have another child. We both want another child. Our son also seems to want a sibling because he sometimes makes up stories about things he did with his brothers. We are thinking about trying to have a baby with a donor egg. The advice we received from a psycologist is to be open with both children about the new baby's origins. Do you have any sense as to how children in each of their positions will react to the use of a donor egg?

A donor egg seems like a good idea to me, but I wouldn't be in a rush to tell a toddler and when you do discuss it, keep to a simple story line and add to it from time to time, the way you would talk about sex or nutritition or any other complicated subject.

At what point do you consider therapy for a 15-year-old girl? She is so ANGRY all the time. She is condescending to her 11-year-old brother but mostly okay with her twin sister. Her sister is very bright and very easy and quite athletic, and so the daughter struggles a lot with that. Daughter is bright and athletic, too, but constantly puts herself down. She tells friends she doesn't study and doesn't know things, but she studies a lot and knows a lot. She refuses to think she is good at anything. She is a horrible, horrible slob and you cannot walk in her room. I don't want to fuss about that, but I am seriously concerned about vermin. I usually say if she wants to do things on the weekend, room needs to be clean. But the siblings keep relatively neat rooms normally, so she always feels singled out. She gets good grades, has great friends, has two sports she is quite good at (although she disagrees) and helps around the house when asked. But whenever things don't go her way (and with two siblings, lots of things don't go her way), she gets angry and says nasty things. Is this normal? Her twin sister gets annoyed (with me, her brother), but rarely says/does anything. Her brother is about as easy as they come. They both talk things out with me, but from daughter I get a "FINE!" and a stomping away. She tells me she feels angry, but doesn't know why. When she is not angry, she is full of joy and great ideas, but if I say (so nicely!) we can't do one of those ideas, the evil side comes out. This has been going on two years! She does not want to go to counseling, but I would make her. She says she wouldn't say anything there. What to do?

Before counseling, I think she should see a good internist and get a complete physical work-up because the brain is part of the body and the body can make the brain act pretty foolish sometimes.  High cortisol can make a child act testy, low thyroid can make her depressed, and the  hormones of puberty can send some girls into a tantrum, particularly between 13 and 15.

If the doctor can't find a problem, I'd do therapy, definitely, but family therapy where the shrink will see all of you together, then see some of you individually and spend time alone with your daughter too.  Therapy is really just a shortcut to harmony and sooner or later, everyone needs some counseling.

To prepare her for that, the two of you might read some of the bookswritten  by Columbia, Md., psychologist Brad Sachs who specializes in teen counseling.  Your daughter won't feel so threatened if she does.

Our son is just over 3 years old. He went through a horrible biting stage from about 1 to 2 years of age, but seemed to outgrow it. We tried EVERYTHING we could think of the last time except corporate punishment which we do not believe in. I felt like time eventually phased the biting out when he was younger, but have no evidence that anything we did helped or sped the process along. Suddenly this week he has on three occasions bit a member of the family. Is there anything at all that we can do to nip this in the bud before it gets out of control again? In general he is a nice kid that is extremely outgoing and not easily frustrated. On at least one occasion the biting this week happened during a game that got out of control. But once it was out of annoyance that I had asked him to do something he didn't want to do (get ready to leave the house). He had an expressive speech delay when he was younger which I think caused him some frustration, but he is now a chatterbox and has no difficulty expressing himself.

Aa child often reverts under stress, particularly about six months after he's been at a particularly good stage.  The Gesell Institute calls it 'the age of disequilibrium' and it generally comes around 2 1/2, 3 1/2, 4 1/2 but a child can be as much as six months off these good and bad stages.  Think of the disequilibrium as a molting season--he's shedding his old behavioral skin so he can fit into a bigger one and it's a bit of a mess.

But here's one trick that this mom did for her own  biting child:  I just stuck her own little hand into her own little mouth and gently pushed up her chin.  Apparently she didn't know that a bite can hurt--and she never did it again.

How important is it really to have sit-down dinners as a family? We don't really eat dinner in the evenings, just some fruit, cheese and crackers, nuts or even cereal. More like nightly hors d'oeuvres. I have a 5-year-old, and she and I do this almost every night on the couch (since my hubby works late). She eats a very balanced breakfast and lunch, however. Am I setting a bad example?

No, it's fine--think of it as a Roman kind of meal, like Julius Caesar had.  However, your daughter should probably have at least two family dinners a week at the dinner table with you and her dad so she will know how to behave when friends invite her to eat at their houses--a custom that will soon begin.

Dear Marguerite, I am delightedly pregnant with our first baby and struggling with the extended family issues that will inevitably arise with being the parent of the first, much-anticipated grandchild for both my husband's family and my family. My in-laws are politically very different than my husband and I; we are pretty close, emotionally and geographically, with my family. We are planning to tell my parents very soon but to wait for a few months through the prenatal testing to tell his parents. But then the problems arise: his mother was an ardent breastfeeder, even anti-pumping, stay-at-home parent, and generally believes herself an expert on everything, including child-rearing. Because she has been overbearing and unpleasant to me for a decade now, I am not looking forward to her intrusive approach being applied to grandparenting. This is compounded by the fact that my mother, while imperfect, generally has pretty good boundaries and I think will be helpful and appropriate in handling the arrival of her first grandchild. Can you give us excited parents-to-be some advice on how to draw boundaries and to explain to my husband's mother the fact that she won't be at the birth and will not be one of my intimates during my pregnancy and breastfeeding days? I do want her to have a good relationship with our children, but she has very set gender role notions and I am unwilling to have her impose these on our children. Please help!

Hoo-boy!  Be polite.  Don't argue.  Thank her for the advice.  And every time you do something she doesn't approve of, cut her off at the pass byblaming everything on the pediatrician.  And his word, she should know, is law to you (even if he hasn't said it yet). You and your husband have every right to rear your child in your own way, and indeed you have no option.  Every set of parents has its own style and that is as it should be.  Just practice your responses, "Really!"  "That's interesting"  "I'll have to ask Dr. X about that..."  And let your husband be the one who deals with his mom as much as possible.

My daughter is 13 going on 14. She is a twin. She and her sister used to share a bedroom. A few years ago, we gave the other twin her own room. Since then my daughter cannot make it through the night in her own room and for the past year has been sleeping on my bedroom floor. Therapy to date has not been sucessful. Any advice?

Can't the twins go back to sleepingin the same room?  One room for sleeping; one for studying and lounging around?  It sounds like she's just lonesome to me.

My husband and I have an almost-2 year old girl. She's in a great daycare while both of us work. The problem: She bites! Since August, she's bitten other kids 27 times and attempted to bite countless more times. Apparently one other parent is threatening to withdraw their child from the program if this doesn't get better. The school has now brought in a developmental consultant twice to observe the classrooms (she moved up to a new classroom in November) and a few tweaks were recommended (and implemented) but nothing significant. They now have an extra teacher to shadow our daughter, she wears a teething necklace that she chews on a lot... but still, the biting persists. The school director and her teachers all seem to think that this one parent is overreacting but... I can't really blame them. Per experts, our child shows no evidence of any sort of sensory disorder. We've been reading books, reinforcing things at home, teaching her new ways to deal with her excitement/frustration (ask for help, give a hug) and we'd love any more suggestions! We're at wits end!

You've done all the right things and so has the school.  I'd do my old trick of stuffing her little hand into her little mouth and lifting her little chin until she bites her own hand, because children really don't know that biting can hurt and I'd also teach her the words she should use to express her excitement or her frustration because some children just don't know what to say.

My almost 8-month-old is eating less and less, and I don't know what to do. I breastfeed and pump when I am at work. She used to take 3.5oz bottles at daycare, and is down to only 2 bottles. She isn't eating solids. I've tried, but she won't take a spoon and just plays with the pieces I give her. Every once and a while she takes a bite but usually spits it out. She is crying and squirming when fed by bottle or breast. On the weekends, I end up engorged because she isn't eating. She never had feeding issues before. I called the pediatrician, and the nurse told me that she was probably constipated (even though I told her that she poops every day). I'm afraid that she is losing weight. She is otherwise happy.

Skip the nurse.   Your baby needs to be seen by the pediatrician and if he brushes off your concern, look around for a pediatrician who knows that your worries are real.

My 15-year-old son was an honor roll student taking high school level courses in a gifted program until eighth grade when he was accepted into a travel soccer program. His grades deteriorated at that time and his explanation was that all he cared about was soccer. I knew that if he went to public school he wouldn't be placed in honors classes and would get lost in large classes so I transferred him to a private school where he is in two honors classes with small class size and very good academic support. He was very comfortable with the decision until mid-summer last year when all of his friends started talking about going to high school (the public school) and he started a relationship with a girl he had known in middle school. By the time school started he already hated his new school and he has since done worse this year than he even did in eighth grade. The relationship with the girlfriend has become very intense with her wanting to see him every day and him becoming very angry when I finally limited them to three times per week. They had a 50-minute fight over the weekend when she wanted to see him Saturday night (after seeing him Friday night and Saturday at lunch) and he said he had already made plans to spend the evening with his guy friends. He gives her lavish gifts which he pays for by yard work and taking money from his savings account. Two nights ago she called crying at midnight on my cell phone which he had in his room because she had a bad dream. I've tried suggesting ways to handle a situation when someone is prolonging an irrational argument and asking him why she called in the middle of the night with a bad dream instead of going to talk with her mom or dad. I've already had a very frank discussion with him about condoms and asked him if they're having sex and he denies it and I told him she needs to be on contraception if they're even thinking about it. I'm a single mom and his dad does not like to be seen as the bad guy so this is pretty much on my shoulders. I have a 21-year-old daughter who never did any of these things so this is all pretty new to me. We have a close relationship otherwise and he is a very kind, intelligent, considerate person but he lacks any drive to do well at school anymore. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions that might help me? Thanks.

You probably don't have to do much to push this girlfriend away, because she seems to doing a fine job of that herself.  If she wasn't, he wouldn't make a date to go out with the guys on a Saturday night.

I would, however, add your name to his savings account, so you would also have to sign off on a withdrawal.  A 15-year-old boy is too young to give lavish gifts to a 15-year-old girl.  I'd also have him check in his cellphone with you when he starts his homework at night and keep the computer in an open space so he won't be quite so tempted to text her when he should be doing his homework.  And of course, no going out on school nights or having her over  when you're not home.  If  this relationship goes on much longer however, I'd ask the girlfriend's  parents out for coffee so you can agree on some sensible boundaries for these kids. 

The more objectively I look at my marriage, the more it looks like it's ending. I don't know how to discuss this with my 13-year-old. My SO thinks that divorce is horribly traumatic for children of any age (including grown) but staying together until the child dies of old age is not an option for me. Any ideas or suggestions would be most welcome.

You and your SO are, I hope, seeing a marriage counselor together and are working through the boredom--the tedium--that marriage can fall into, and are taking occasional child-free weekends away to be together, even though you feel so apart.  Marriage may be difficult sometimes, but divorce can be even more difficult, especially for a child. 

You might also write in a journal, recollecting the good and the bad that befalls your marriage and every marriage, so you can look back and see if there is a pattern to your problems, if it's improving, and if you can find a shred of hope in your journal.  If  nothing else, it will be a place to put your angry or desolate words, rather than saying them out loud, because words, once said, cannot be unsaid.  Remember this:  almost any problem can be worked out if you try hard enough.

I am a house mother in a home for four women and their children who would otherwise be homeless. The children have been through many changes in their life and two 2 year olds and a 5-year-old have problems hitting others. Please recommend. We talk about gentle hands, some mom's give time outs. However, the behavior continues. I know this is learned behavior, and I want to help them unlearn it. Thanks

Sometimes--often most of the time--it's the parent who needs a time-out.  A few minutes to call her own, to take a shower, to read a short story, can be heaven, especially to a woman who has been through too much.  And when a child hits, walk him away from the scene, take him in your arms, say "I love you" and rock him gently until he calms down.  Sometimes that all a child needs to get rid of his anger, at least for a little while, and then he will need a little loving again, but if he gets it often enough, his outbursts should be fewer, his anger less pronounced.

What's your philosophy on kids and video games/technology?  Should all kids at least have what their friends have, less they feel deprived of the cool stuff?

Every family is different and so are their possessions.  Children don't need everything their friends get, of course not.  Some video games are fine, if they're not violent, but it's the amount of time your children spend with electronics and screen time that matters, not whether they play the games.  They are bound to play some of them and it would be better if they played the games you know are safe.  Just please limit their screen/game time so they have at least as much time to play outside and to do some chores.

My 8-year-old nephew has admitted that he's been sexually abused by his mother's boyfriends as well as his teen aged half-brother. I placed a call to DCFS, who did a very basic investigation and then said there was nothing wrong. My nephew has also admitted to sexually touching his 5-year-old half-brother and a preschool-aged neighbor. His mother (my sister-in-law) is not concerned about the allegations and continues to operate as nothing is wrong. Are there any other options I might take to try and help my nephew?

If I were you, I'd try to spend as much time as possible with this nephew so you can give him some respite for what seems like a most difficult home life, and also to see if he's lying about all those advances from many people.  He may be trying to blame others for things that he did or wants to do.  Whatever the reality, this youngster needs professional help, if you can possibly pay for at least a little therapy. 

Thanks for joining us today. I just wish I could have answered all the questions but I'll try to respond to some of them in my Local Living column on Thursdays in the Post.

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 feeding solid food to a baby, and click here for previous columns.
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