Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

May 17, 2012

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

Our 4-year-old daughter starts acting out when she's hungry, but her defiant mood usually reverts once she eats. She gets a snack after her nap at day care, and I give her some peanut butter crackers when I pick her up between 4-4:30. Despite this, there is usually belligerence or a full meltdown before dinner at 5:30 (she and her little brother eat before we do since my husband gets home at bathtime).


The problem is that when she gets into that pre-dinner mood, she is likely to refuse all food, the very thing most likely to help her feel better. Yes, I've explained this to her. A timeout ramps up her behavior at this time; ignoring her and taking away her full plate once dinnertime is over will prolong the awful mood until bedtime. I'm not sure what else I should be doing.

When the blood sugar drops precipitously, so does the behavior, and it hits some children more than others, which is why some parents say that  5-7 in the afternoon should be called Arsenic Hour -- they either want to give it or take it.

Prevention is key. While peanut butter crackers are good, you might try making your own crackers with additive-free, sugar-free peanut butter (slather it on!), make twice as many and leave them at day care so the teacher can give her a heavy dose of protein at 3:00 or 3:30.  Hummus with green pepper strips or a deviled egg works too. 

My stepchild (11 yrs old) was diagnosed (by their mother) with Sensory Integration Disorder about 2 years ago. The child's pediatrician and occupational therapist believe this to be the correct diagnosis, but both also admit neither of them have done a diagnosis and are treating the child based on what the mother claims the issues are. We don't believe this is the case with the child. Long story short, the child doesn't show us any of the symptoms the mother reports. Is there a place you could recommend in the NoVa area that could do an independent assessment and diagnosis?

Lynn Balzer-Martin in Bethesda, Md., has not only devised a test for children, but also gives these tests. If your stepdaughter does have sensory processing disorder (it's now called SPD), check out the Web site  and to read the two books by Carol Kranowitz: The first one is called "The Out of Sync Child," and the other is "Growing an In-Sync Child," written with Joye Newman, so you can understand this problem better. And read any book by Lucy Jane Miller.  

The disorder was only discovered in the early '70s, and many pediatricians and parents know very little about it. But it's real and usually  fixable in about a year, not by pills but by treatment at home and by an occupational therapist. 

Dear Ms.Kelly, 

The letter-writer in today's column could have been describing my own 13-year-old daughter. Your advice to bring the daughter to a nutritionist hit home with me. My daughter decided over a year ago to become a vegetarian, but in practice this means she is a "junkatarian." She has gained a lot of belly fat in the past year, and although she and I are the same height, she is 15 pounds heavier than me. She recently had a physical, and the doctor said she was "normal" weight because she was around the 85th percentile for weight (in response to my daughter's question; I've said nothing specific about my concerns). I would like to get her started on a more healthful lifestyle without sounding critical. Do you have any suggestions on how to find a good nutritionist? Thanks.

I think the best one in town is Kelly Dorfman in Potomac, Md. She does phone consultations, but your daughter will probably be more impressed if she sees her in person. You also should pick up a copy of her excellent new book on the foods you should eat -- and why -- but sorry, the name of it escapes me!

Kelly Dorfman's book is "What's Eating Your Child?"

Dear Marguerite,

I have a son who just turned 3 years old. He does not have an easy-going personality like my other two children (he is the middle one). In fact, you might say he has something of an explosive temper. I've noticed that low blood sugar plays a role in that, but I have the hardest time getting him to eat breakfast in the morning. We just had to leave a school function halfway through because he had a spectacular meltdown. Ugh. Any tips, words of encouragement, or book recommendations?

Do check out and read their information as well as their scientific studies. You'll find that some children simply can't tolerate artificial dyes, additives and preservatives, most of which are outlawed in the E.U., and they can't handle salycilates either --which are in such healthy foods as oranges (but not grapefruits), tomatoes, apples (but not pears). This nonprofit organization will charge a small annual fee but give you a wealth of free information, although the food processors don't like this group at all.

My 6-month-old was babbling up a storm a month ago, even doing a lot of "mamamamama." But more recently, she's stopped and now screams a lot: She has happy screams and excited screams and upset screams -- many of them ear piercing. There's some grunting, too, but the babbling seems to have stopped. Should I be concerned, or is this just a phase?

She's probably just trying out her voice in as many ways as she can, but you can get her back to babbling sooner if you lean over her, with your face just 5-6 inches away, and say the same word over and over again. She will be unable to resist the way you move your lips and your tongue, and she will soon start trying to imitate you -- the way a trumpet player can't help screwing up his mouth if you suck a lemon in front of him while he plays.

Several therapists and even a psychiatrist have told my ex-husband that my son needs to be medicated (Intuniv) for his anger issues. He was told that once my son was on the medication he would be a lot easier to handle and that therapy would be more accepting to my son. 

My ex and I have been divorced since my son was 1 and a half years old.  Four years ago my ex decided to marry someone with 3 children. He is now going through a second heated divorce. My son took it hard. A lot of losses in his life in the last couple of years. I get along with the soon-to-be ex-wife, but my ex has a lot of anger and does not hide his anger toward me and his ex-wife.

My son has become my ex. He has no respect for me and is verbally abusive. I tell him he is bullying me. Yet on the outside people tell me that he is the greatest kid. Respectful and courteous all the time. He tells me he hates me as a mom and that I [stink] as a parent. His father gets the same response. His grades are failing, and he doesn't seem to care.

He works on occassion at a garden center, loves to play on the high school baseball team and occassionally does some umping for the little league. I need a good therapist that will work with all of us. This kid is in a state of depression. Help!

Someone once said that the unloveable child is the one most in need of love. And it's your love, and his dad's love, that he longs for. Remember, a child only blows up with the people with whom he feels the safest.

Clearly he needs some therapy to help him deal with his losses. If you're near Columbia, Md., check out Brad Sachs, who is excellent with teenagers and has written some fine books about teens and their mental health issues.

I'd go easy on the drugs, though, very easy, and look at his diet. An allergy, a reaction to dairy or gluten or those aforementioned additives and preservatives can play havoc with a child's behavior. 

He will not clean up behind himself. We argue all the time. He does not remember to take out the trash unless you remind him. Just little things you would expect him to do automatically like clean your room, do not trip over stuff he has on the floor, pick it up, etc. ...

A child is called a child because he is not an adult yet, and never is this more true than in the teen years. Try assigning a chair in each room and without lecturing him, simply stack everything he has left out of place in the room on this chair: his dirty clothes and clean ones, his knapsack, his tennis racket, his half-eaten sandwich and his empty glass. And every night before he goes to bed tell him he has to put those things away, but tell him nicely, without nagging. Be funny but firm. He will probably learn to be neat about the time he gets married, and then his wife will thank you for teaching him to pick up after himself.

My 3-year-old nephew lives 500 miles away, but I visited this past weekend and typically see him and his family a few times a year.  He is an only child, however his mom (my sister) is expecting a baby girl this fall. Since last summer he has had an au pair, but prior to that he attended day care several days a week. This year (and next) he attends a 3-hour-long preschool session 2 times a week. He spends a lot of time with adults and therefore is used to everyone being nice to him. He loves spending time with other children and is drawn to them wherever he sees them (at the park, for example).

Recently he's had a few experiences that were less than pleasant: Another boy came up to him at a playground and hit him in the face twice. At another playground a couple of boys began picking on him (saying things like "You can't touch that!"). When I took him to a park, he saw some kids his age/size running around and he began following them. The girl in front of him stopped and put her hand out -- not quite pushing him, but as if to say "stay away!"

I've always been more sensitive than his mom and have had problems with friendships from the day I began kindergarten. I don't want my smart and sweet nephew to have the same problems. What should my sister and brother-in-law be teaching or telling him to help him avoid *and* deal with these types of situations?

Children aren't cruel, but they do police each other firmly and directly. Sometimes it's hard to take, but this is the way they learn how to get along in the world and what is acceptable and what is not.

If he's being bullied, physically or verbally, the parent should step in and talk with the bully quietly and in private. Ask him why he thought he had the right to do that and how it made him feel to hurt somebody. Then tell him that she knows that he'll want to apologize and ask him if she should bring her son to him or would he rather go to him.  By respecting the bully's feelings, as well as her son's feelings, she'll be teaching her boy how to protect himself without being a bully himself.

Hello. My daughter tells me on a daily basis that she loves Daddy more than Mommy. She is 4. She words it in all kinds of ways: "Daddy is my favorite," "Daddy is the best," "I love Daddy more than you," etc. She also sometimes cries or has a tantrum when it's my turn to do something with her, like read bedtime stories (we trade off every other night so that we each get time with her at bedtime). It's okay with me that Daddy is the favorite, but hearing about it every single day really does hurt. I'd like your advice on how to handle the remarks and tantrums. Thanks.

Of course it hurts, and on some level your daughter knows it, but the truth will come out when feelings for one parent or the other get too intense -- feelings that change from year to year. Just try not to let your hurt feelings show, and always counter with your own profession of love for her. Read some picture books to her that emphasize a parent's love for her child -- and as usual, I can't remember their titles.

My sister-in-law just had her first baby, and she appears to be completely shell-shocked. My brother-in-law is doing everything to care for the house and baby. My SIL is a very private, uncommunicative person who doesn't seem to care much for her husband's side of the family (us). I am not sure she would welcome any help or advice. However she does seem to be utterly overwhelmed, and I can tell my brother-in-law is well on his way to being that also because she doesn't appear to be doing anything at all. It was not a traumatic birth at all; both mom and baby were perfectly healthy and fine. What, if anything, can I do? We live about 45 minutes apart.

Give her a gift certificate to a massage. Offer to take the baby for a walk at a specific time, once or twice a week. Treat her gently and kindly. She needs a lot of sympathybecause she almost certainly has a post-partum depression, which is different from the baby blues that hit every mother for a few days in the week or so after the birth. 

It's only surprising that severe PPD doesn't happen more often, because childbirth sends the mother's body through more ups and downs than it ever has before. If it doesn't go away soon, contact the Mensah clinic in
Warrenville, Ill., to see how they treat it. They can make their diagnosis based on blood, urine and hair samples Fedexed overnight, which is then analyzed before prescribing a treatment. The cost, I think, is $500, which could be money well-spent.

Hi, I have a 10-year-old daughter with Asperger's syndrome who is very bright, dynamic and imaginative. She's also sometimes overly exuberant and obsessive about her interests, which makes me worry about whether she comes across as bossy or insistent on playing/talking about only the things she enjoys (which, fortunately, are pop culture-type things that are also popular with most of her peers).

She does manage some give-and-take in her relationships, but she's a very passionate child, both about the things she likes and the things she dislikes. This sometimes comes across as rigid objection to doing things, sometimes results in her dominating conversations and sometimes manifests in other ways.

In any case, what I'm looking for is advice on how to relax and not worry so much about her stumbling along because of her quirkiness. Friendships can be tricky whether you have Asperger's or not, I realize, and I don't want my worries to rub off on her. I'd like to be Zen about the fact that everyone has rough patches socially, and you learn from those rough patches, but I know things are inherently rougher for kids like her, so I'd like help with stepping back and seeing the big picture.

Read whatever you can by the Asperger's guru Tony Attwood, keep up with the latest research, meditate every day, don't count your calamities before they're hatched and ask yourself, "Will this really matter in a hundred years?" 

If you can keep things in perspective, and supplement your daughter's interests and talents with classes and books on those subjects, you will put her in situations with people who share her own interests. And that, of course, is the secret of any friendship at any age.

Just curious about how you ID people. I recently submitted a question but would prefer to have only my initials used.

We don't require a name or initials for the chat. And Marguerite does not publish the names of those who send in questions for her Family Almanac column. By the way, you can e-mail those questions to

I never ID anyone in any way, and sometimes I even change the gender or the part of the country if the writer is afraid that someone might think the letter came from him. 

They won't allow it because of allergies. And your assumptions that all childhood behavior problems are due to food additives are strange and unsupported by science. I think the poster should ask the day care center if there is any way to address the issue that her daughter is so hungry by pickup time that she is unable to get to dinner without behavior issues. Maybe they can giveher a slightly larger snack after nap time or hand her one of those tiny boxes of raisins as everyone is getting ready for pickup.

Gosh, I forgot about the peanut butter problem, but there are many other proteins, rather than raisins, that can be offered. In this case, offering them at 3 instead of 4 will probably ease the blood-sugar drop best.

And no, I don't think that diet causes every behavioral problem, but that food and inhalants should be ruled out first because there really are scientific studies that are so  sound, and they have caused the European Union to forbid food that contain many of these additives.

I have a very smart, often defiant 3-year-old. She seems to know all the right buttons to push to drive me absolutely crazy at times. She is capable of following directions but does so only when she feels like it. She ignores us when she chooses, pretending she doesn't hear us. (Audiologist reports hearing is normal).


She wants to control things, like who drives the car and what route we take. Sometimes she gets so highly focused on certain tasks that we can't pull her away without a tantrum, and at others we can't get her to focus at all. She shows some signs reminiscent of OCD (organizing, collecting, grouping, etc.) and others of ADHD. I cannot take her to the grocery store, mall, etc., because she becomes overstimulated, won't stay in the cart or by my side.


We try to avoid dyes and preservatives, get good sleep, quality time with parents, free play time outside. Timeouts don't work; 1-2-3 doesn't work. Behavioral problems are only at home, where she has a 10-month-old brother. Teachers at preschool say she has no social problems, no problem following directions there.


She can become angry, even hysterical very quickly, and sometimes I see her getting angry at objects (like her shirt, if she can't get it on properly, or her arm, if it won't go in the armhole easily). I know that the "threes" can be difficult, but at what point does a behavior issue cross the line into a larger, psychological problem? Do you have any parenting strategies for us? Because the ones we've been using certainly aren't as efficient as they could be.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more your child feels respected intellectually -- "Who do you think is the best character on 'Sesame Street'?" "What do you think Aunt Tilly would like to eat when she comes over for Sunday dinner?" -- the better she should act. But don't, please, let her feel that she has the right to decide. Even the most defiant child knows that she's not ready to run the show, and it makes her feel nervous to be put in that position. And do read "Your Three Year Old" by Louise Bates Ames to understand that children fall apart every year for a while. You may be going through that passage now.

If not, and you think she needs therapy, consider art therapy. Katherine Williams, professor emerita at GW still takes private clients, and she's quite good.

Don't make it about weight! Make it about nutrition, vitamins, health, strength. The last thing on Earth that will change a teen girl is her thinner mom criticizing her weight. Talk about the ethics of taking care of your body, what you put into it. It's about vegetables, not weight!

Good reminder!

What about getting some healthy vegetarian cookbooks and having fun together making meals she will eat that are not junk? She'll like that you respect her choice to be a vegetarian.

Another good suggestion.  Thanks!

... needs to have her hearing tested.

I thought that had been done.  If not, consider having it tested at the hearing clinic at Gallaudet, the world's largest university for the deaf.  They're terrific and reasonable and you don't have to go to the university to be tested there.

That was me as a teenager. Now I'm the biggest neat freak, just like my mom was. It's so funny how things change as you grow up.

That was all of us, right?

How about "Guess How Much I Love You" with the adorable rabbit illustrations? I discovered this book as an adult, and I love it!

That's the one I was thinking of!  Thank you.

Can you please recommend an area professional who could be of help with young elementary school aged boys who seem to be in trouble more than not at school. I don't want them to hate school, though they say they do. I have talked to teachers, administrators and was told the boys are still "adjusting to their new school," having come from a very different area, even though the year is nearly over. Many thanks.

You might try Kitty Montie, a clinical social worker who is in both Silver Spring and in Northern Virginia (but not at the same time).

Auntie here. I live far, far away from my family, which includes a 7-year-old niece. She's a really smart and kind girl, but I know the world in which she's growing up, and it doesn't include things like writing thank-you notes, not talking about bodily functions at the table, not interrupting, and other social niceties that a lot of people just assume that anyone not raised by wolves would be taught. I struggled for a long time to figure out these rules that everyone else seemed to know, and I don't want her to go through the same. Can you recommend a tactful way to help teach her these things from afar, such as a book aimed at that age level?

You might try giving her some stationery with her name on it.  I did that for a grandson whose handwriting I had never seen and eventually I got my first thank you note from him--written on loose leaf.  He was as effusive and said that he was saving the stationery for something important.

Obviously I'm still trying to figure out what to do for the wolf-reared children in my life. 

As for discussing bodily functions at the dinner table--a favorite at this age.  Manners take practice.  Try taking her out to tea at a fancy place the next time you visit--just the two of you.  It's amazing how quickly a child will rise to the occasion and be quite delighted with herself too.

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 handling a difficult teenager, and click here for previous columns.
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