Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Jul 21, 2011

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

I feel like Cinderella in my own home!! My college-going children have moved back home and are enjoying all the perks of adult life -- food, Internet, cable TV, erratic hours -- without any of the responsibilities. I understand that this is my problem -- I am weak about laying down boundaries in my own home. On one hand, it is great that they are back, but I do not enjoy the extra cooking, cleaning, carrying groceries. They are not belligerent or even cranky about helping but it is alwaysm "Later, Ma, later" or "Sure, I'll do that -- tomorrow" But tomorrow never comes. HELP!!!

You do your children no favor when you do for them what they can do for themselves -- like accepting responsibility and doing their fair share.

The nags, the complaints and the other old ways aren't working, so call a family meeting but be serious about it, don't tell them why and give them a 24-hour notice.  This will give you time to think of what you want to say and how to say it, so the material doesn't sound recycled or sound like you're talking to them the way you did when they were children, because if you do, they will answer you as they did when they were children.  When they're assembled, start on time and if one of them isn't there, start without him.  Begin by telling them that you know they don't want to be treated as children, so you're laying it on the line.  Then open the family calendar and ask, "Which night of the week will each of  you be cooking dinner and cleaning up afterwards?"  "Who will do the marketing each week, using the list I give to you, carrying it into the kitchen and then putting the groceries away?"  "And which day will be the best one for all of us to spend three hours cleaning the house and changing the sheets?" 

If you're firm about it, pleasant, notice their successes and don't complain about their mistakes, they'll improve.  And if one of them forgets to cook dinner or buy groceries -- you go out to dinner yourself and let them go without.  It's a matter of changing your attitude so they will change theirs.

My husband died in 2008 when my twin sons were 10. They are now 13 and I am very concerned about the lack of a male model. Their uncles lived around the country and it seems that every male "friend" of my husband disappeared. They are presently involved in Boy Scouts. What can I do as an only parent?

You're dealing with a tough one, but you can't count on their uncles to solve it.  Your boys, even now, would profit by some grief therapy, because they are still dealing with their loss and that's the underlying problem.  Look though for a group of children and teens that deals with loss from a child's perspective -- they may be called "rainbow rooms" -- and all kinds of loss resulting from death, divorce, absences of all sorts, because the young don't respond to grief like we do, and it changes all the time.  I'll  recommend a book about that, even though it's co-authored by my dear daughter-in-law, Madelyn Kelly, using research of the lead author, Phyllis Silverman, the guru of children's grief.  It's called "A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children" and it's great!

I'm getting reports that my 10-year-pld boy, who is generally a nice kid and pretty sensitive, is saying mean things to friends. My sense is that other kids brag about what they have or have done and then he tries to call them on it -- generally by saying something mean or demeaning. I have not witnessed this behavior, but I would like to put a stop to it before he has no friends. I am under the impression that all is good until his feelings are hurt, and then it just escalates -- he says something mean, then his friend says something mean, and on it goes. Do you have any ideas to try or books to read on this?

Clearly he's just getting over fifth grade, one of the key ages for this kind of behavior.

It's time for you and your son to have some in-the-dark talks -- so he doesn't have to make eye contact and can dare to be more confiding.  Ask him why he needs to be mean to these kids, and then listen and listen some more.  Then ask him how he thinks his words make his friends feel?  And how would they make him feel if someone said those things to him?  This is the time to stretch your son's empathy as much as you can. Finally, tell him that it isn't in the tradition of the family to talk like that to anyone else and that you expect him to be nicer than that and to uphold the honor of the family. He'll respond to these approaches better than threats that he will lose his friends.  You might also give him one of the great books for parents -- "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" -- because the lessons and the this/not this drawings will teach him to be kinder.

I stay at home with my two daughters, ages 4 and 2. My 4-year-old is incredibly moody. My main concern is that she has outbursts that seem extreme. She will scream at the top of her lungs when she is frustrated by something she can't do or can't have. I know tantrums are somewhat normal at this age. When we go to the grocery store, I try to prepare her for the fact that we will not be buying any treats or gifts, and sometimes I tell her that if she behaves well she will get a sticker. I run errands early in the morning after breakfast, so I don't think she's hungry or tired. I do try to leave the store right away when the screaming begins and talk to her about how she's feeling. She plays reasonably well with her sister most of the time, but when she's particularly angry or frustrated she will often start shaking and run toward her sister to hit or pull her hair. However, she attended preschool this past year and never had any behavioral issues. She follows directions and listens well in the classroom setting. Her teacher did indicate that she wasn't too interested in playing in groups with other kids but did better in one-on-one situations. Some other aspects of her behavior are also worrisome. She is a very picky eater, to the point where she will inspect each bite of food and if she sees even a little speck or something that looks different, she will stop eating. She'll often want to wear the same outfit every day and will cry or throw a fit if the clothes need to be washed. She gets upset if she finds that her toys aren't in a particular order, and she tends to collect toys and hide them in her room so no one else can play with them. Some of these behaviors strike me as compulsive but I don't know if I'm just looking for an explanation for why things are often such a struggle with her. Does this behavior sound normal? What approach should I take to helping her manage her frustrations?

When a child has these problems, they nearly always have a physical cause and the cause is often dietary.  Some children freak out if they eat dyes or preservatives (see  Some picky eaters have a zinc deficiency, particularly if they complain about the smell of a food or the looks of it, which a zinc supplement can fix.  Some are allergic to a particular (and often a favorite) food and some can't process the casein in dairy products or the gluten in wheat and other grains, to the extent that they might be moody or have mood swings or they get constipated or have diarrhea or they're tired all the time or have joint pains, all of which can get quite serious, because nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine by the hairy little villi that are supposed to stand up and grab the vitamins and minerals as they go by.  If the intolerance is making them lie down however, the child will only absorb about a third of these nutrients.  The tests aren't great for gluten sensitivity or even the more serious celiac disease however, so a diet is the best way to figure it out, which you can google.  It is so worth it -- and to find out much more, read what my favorite nutritionist, Kelly Dorfman, has to say in "What's Eating Your Child?"

I have a 14-month-old son. One issue we have is we give him his bottle after his bath and he falls asleep on it. Will this cause dental problems? If so, how do we switch the order of things and still enable him to fall asleep? Also, for various reasons, we ended up co-sleeping with him. How do we get him into a crib and teach him to put himself to sleep? Are we in for weeks of hysterics because of this? Thanks, stressed-out Mom...

Why not give him his bottle of milk before his bath, and a bottle of water afterward -- much better for his teeth.

And then put him down in his crib, asleep or not, but go back to him within five to 10 minutes when he cries, lay him down again, and prepare to do this over and over again, but a little less each night.  He should be sleeping  without tears in about a week.

Hi Ms. Kelly, In your column this week, you said, "If he gets very little attention for being naughty -- and much more attention for being good -- he'll act better. Children want to be noticed by their parents more than anything else, and they'll behave in the way that gets them noticed the most." How does this apply when a big sister, who is 3.5, is getting rough with her little brother (14 months)? By rough I mean poking him in the face, bopping him on the head with a Matchbox car, pushing his face with her palm, hugging too hard, etc. Timeouts on the steps for 2-4 minutes don't work, longer timeouts in her bedroom don't work, yelling certainly hasn't worked. But ignoring her when she's potentially hurting someone else seems like it could only lead to sustained annoyance/pain for my son in order to teach my daughter a lesson. I do try to say things like, "Hey, I like how you are sharing Lightning McQueen with your little brother, good job, thank you, way to go," giving her attention for getting caught being good. Thank you for your help! I love your column.

Sorry I wasn't clearer.  NO, don't let your mid-3 bop your baby, any time, anywhere. Take the child away immediately and the toy, too, look stern but don't engage, don't fuss and don't give her any attention at all. 
That should be all the punishment she needs.  But when she's kind to her little brother, congratulate her, and ask her to make the corn muffins for supper when he takes his nap because he is too little for that. And to do that, she holds the mixer and dumps the ingredients into a bowl.

We adopted a 9-year-old from foster care two years ago. He is doing great and has made lots of progress, but the work is far from done. Now we find ourselves unexpectedly expecting a baby. I am worried about how our son will react to the news. He is used to being the only child and seems to need LOTS of attention at all times. Any advice?

What perfect timing.  He'll be learning how to share at 9, just when he truly needs to learn that skill.

Be sure to include the boy in everything to do with the baby -- taking him to the doctor to see the sonograms and hear the heartbeat, to the hospitals for a siblings class, and when the baby is born, let him be the one who runs to get the diapers or fills the little bathtub with water.  You'll still be giving him plenty of attention, but a different sort of attention that will make him feel more important, more responsible, and even more loved.

My son (9 years old) tends to be a follower with his friends. At this point, it is mainly doing the activities that his friends want to do and not expressing his opinion regarding his wishes on what games or activities they should play. I worry that as he gets older, this will lead to "dares" that he will partake in order to maintain the friendships. How do I get him to express his thoughts and independence without him worrying that this will cost him friendships?

Give your son as many of the responsibilities that he can handle at home, and he will be more responsible with his friends, although he may always be a team player rather than a leader; most people are.  He won't be a follower though if you teach him to be a problem solver by doing every job he can by himself.

When my son was 4, he wanted to be a princess for Halloween. I tried to redirect him to a boyish equivalent, but he was adamant. I think my mistake was not giving him a firm "no" from the start, but I didn't really see any harm. The next year, he was a soccer player, mostly at my insistence. He wanted to repeat. I told him the dress and maryjanes wouldn't fit anymore and we already had his new soccer uniform. When he was 6, he wanted a "real girl" dress. He wanted to be a "teenage girl" like iCarly. He even offered to spend his own money. I gave in and got him a dress and shoes with little heels and brushed his hair in a girlish style and put some makeup and jewelry on him. He grabbed a pack of girl underwear when we were shopping, and was pretty happy. He knew he was lacking a bust, but didn't know you could fake it, so he didn't ask. He wore that dress until it was worn out and wanted more clothes but when I say no, he drops it. I've seen him looking at catalogues at girl's clothing and I know he wants more. I want to know when I'll know if this is a phase or part of his future.

Your son may be so strongly attracted to girls' clothes because he knows, deep down, that he is homosexual, and he knows because some people are born with a very strong sexual preference -- heterosexual or homosexual.  Others, however, are born with less, and then there are those who switch from one sexual preference to another, decade by decade, when they grow up -- but whatever the choice your son makes, accept it.  It is his body, his life.

Other children are medicating, in a sense, their anxiety.  Although all boys and girls want to wear and own anything that's pink or purple when they're preschool and even older, some of them only feel truly comfortable when they wear clothes of the opposite sex.  This is okay for girls, now that pants are acceptable for them to wear, but some boys use lingerie to soothe their anxieties, even though they're not homosexual at all.  The decision will be up to him -- when he's old enough to pay for the clothes he wants. In the meantime, he can wear silk boxers.

My 10 1/2-year-old daughter with ADHD tells me she didn't take my iPod, chewing gum or makeup. When I ask her where these things are, she looks me straight in the eye and denies seeing them. She has a diagnosis of ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. What is a mother to do?

It sounds like it's time for a little family therapy so your daughter can spill out her woes and you can listen to them and react to them with a referee, as it were, standing by because usually this is the quickest way for parents and children to change their ways of dealing with each other.

And as for lifting your possessions, that's pretty normal at 11, but usually from stores, not from moms.  Your daughter has taken her anger to a higher level, however, and that's another sign that she needs some professional help.

Hi Ms. Kelly! Last year, when my daughter (only child) went off to college I was thrilled for her, and truth be told, hardly missed her. We talked by phone every day, and I got used to that. Meanwhile, my husband retired from overseas work and we had a great time reestablishing ourselves in the United States. But, now, after having a delightfully grown-up, in-person companion all summer, now I'm really dreading my daughter returning to college in two weeks. This summer, she worked 8 hours a day, but after that, the three of us did fun stuff together when she wasn't hanging out on her own. Because of the overseas life, this was the longest time in four years we've all three spent time together at once, and I don't want it to end yet. How can I maintain our companionship but not stifle her independence, and not be too sad myself? Thanks!

Letting go is every parent's hardest job, but because you and your daughter get along so well, and because you and your husband handled her college years so well, I'll bet you'll handle this move just as well.  Enjoy her while you can, so she'll want to come home as often as she can.

I was really interested in your column this week. I've been struggling with how many and what kinds of responsibilities and freedoms to give my daughters (ages 7 and 10) as they grow older. I'm sure kids haven't changed, but times certainly have. When I was 7 I walked to school by myself and when my mother-in-law was 10 she milked the cows before going to school. Do you have any guidelines on figuring out what they are ready for? Or any books you recommend? Thanks!

We hear a lot about the dangers in our world today but when you consider that there are 300,000,000 people in America, you realize that it is still a pretty safe place.  Children will be safer though if they go about in groups of two or more.  You can drop your daughters off alone at the library; give them a $20 bill and a list of a few items you need at the grocery store and let them go in and buy them while you sit in the car making some phone calls.  In other words, you're nearby but you're not directly overseeing them. 

At home, look at all the jobs you do and then ask yourself which jobs, or which steps in these jobs, they can do themselves -- and let them do it, with many congratulations, and a minimum of complaints when they put 40 cloves into the chicken that they're roasting, instead of 40 cloves of garlic.  They'll learn.

As for books -- there really aren't any about children from 6 to 12 that I know of except one I wrote myself -- "The Mother's Almanac Goes to School" -- which is long out of print.  Perhaps someone knows other books that covers the middle years?

Isn't there quite a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity? Between us, I'm an adult cross-dresser and quite straight.

Absolutely.  I thought I had made that clear.  As I remember, only about 25% of cross-dressers are gay.

"Your son may be so strongly attracted to girls' clothes because he knows, deep down, that he is homosexual..." Aren't you making the common mistake of confusing homosexuality with transvestism?

Sorry, just trying to cover all my bases, since some cross-dressers are gay, although most are not.

Do you have any advice for preparing an older sibling for a new baby? I see lots of advice for preparing your toddler, but my daughter will be 7 when the new baby arrives. I feel she is mature enough to handle it and can understand that the baby will require lots of time from Mom and Dad, but other than that, I'm not sure if I'm missing something that might arise as an issue for her?

Just be sure to keep giving her those ten or so minutes every day when she gets your complete attention -- no stirring of the stew, no glancing over her shoulder to read the headlines when she talks.  And you and your husband should do something special with her a few times a week -- a run to the hardware store or a steamed vanilla drink and a latte at Starbuck's while the other parent takes care of the baby.  A collection of those moments can be as memorable as a trip to Disneyland.

Look for the local chapter of Big Brothers and Sisters. I know that there are a few chapters around the D.C. area. They are often backlogged for mentors, but this is just the case that they were created to help address, a widow/widower with children who needs an appropriate gender father-figure, mother-figure for guidance. Note, I am not affiliated with them and have not used them, but I have a friend from past years who used to work for them and told me about some of the great programs and events that they host.

Great idea!

My daughter is able to communicate quite well but she will throw massive fits when she doesn't get what she wants. We've put her in timeouts, ignored her, taken away privileges, talked her through the situation, etc., but the screaming fits still happen daily. It's very hard on the whole family, including our very well-behaved 5-year-old son who never went through this stage. She is very demanding, so it's hard for me to tell if this is just her personality, a stage, or what. Any suggestions about changing her behavior to stop the fits would be welcome. Thank you!

Once again, I'd look for a physical problem, especially a dietary one.  Of all the issues I've come across, that has been the one that bothers more children than anything else, as I explained in an earlier answer.  The slightest problem will set these children off.

My 12-year-old daughter eats and eats and eats. I know she's hungry (having grown two inches in the past four months) but she's starting to put on an unhealthy amount of weight, and her food choices always go toward sweets and simple carbs. Yesterday I discovered she had gotten into the baking chocolate and ate six or eight ounces. I've talked to her about healthy choices, helped her make a list of foods she can eat whenever she wants, had her look at what an acceptable portion size is and learn to read nutritional labels. She's good for two days and then back to the cookies. I can't police her all the time and want her to be able to moderate her own behavior. I don't want to make food an issue or be overly controlling about food. I'm fine with having sweets around for treats and I model moderation myself, but other than just ridding my house of everything except fruits and vegetables, what can I do?

I'd take your daughter to see a nutritionist, and an allergist too, since children often crave (or hate) the foods to which they are allergic.  A child will often do what she should if she knows exactly why she should do it.  And if the person who tells her is a professional and not a member of the family.

Our neighbors are great, but their elementary-age kids less so. Their girl is bossy and the boy is often mean or rude to both kids and adults. We can't avoid them so how do we prevent our younger kids from copying (or being hurt by) their unsavory behavior?

If they haven't started copying them yet, they probably won't -- especially if you bring up their behavior at the dinner table and ask why that neighbor child said such a mean thing yesterday, and that he must be very sad or upset to act in such an ugly way.  Your wondering will make them wonder, and you have more influence over your child than anyone else.

I spanked my son (3) today because he refused to either go potty (20 minutes of pleading, treat offers, etc.) or let me put on a pull-up diaper this morning and we couldn't get in the car to go to school unless one or the other occurred. After struggling to pull on the diaper with my child screaming, only to have it ripped off, I spanked him. And I feel terrible. Any advice for other options in this situation? I need to get him to school without him peeing all over himself either in the car or as soon as he gets there.

Apologize and if you still feel bad, wake up your little boy and apologize again.  If you don't, you'll keep right on feeling terrible and so will your child.

You also sound awfully tired and stressed, honey, like a mom who needs more time to herself and there is probably no way to get it.  Instead, set the alarm at least a half-hour earlier and take your sweet time about everything, so he will be more relaxed and will go to the potty on his own.

And ask a friend to watch your little boy from Saturday morning until Sunday night so you and your husband can go to a B&B for the weekend or even camping on a public camp site because, like every parent, you need some time away from your child to remember all the fun he's brought into your life.

I'm not sure if this is the proper forum in which to comment on today's column titled "When a mum abdicates," but this boy's behavior is a textbook case of borderline personality disorder. While I understand advice columnists cannot make diagnoses, please urge this mother to have her soon clinically evaluated. Common-sense parenting (consequences, etc.) only escalates the behavior and leads to disastrous consequences. These children have no emotional skin, do not feel heard and feel invalidated everywhere they turn. All the key words are here: never happy, impulsive, extremely negative, always been a challenge, roller coaster, etc. Every mother of a borderline has said she doesn't feel like the same person she used to be & wonders if she is the cause. Educated clinicians no longer wait till a child is 18 to make this diagnosis because early intervention using dialectical behavior therapy can make all the difference in the world. It is estimated that 5.9 percent of the population is borderline. The rate of suicide by borderlines is 400 percent that of the normal population, and the rate of suicide committed by the ones who love them is uncounted but probably higher. This really is a public health emergency. Please help spread awareness of this awful disorder, at least by encouraging involvement of professionals. Thank you.

You've made some great points, but if this child has a dietary problem -- or any other physical problem, all the therapy in the world won't make it go away.  That's why I always think parents should rule out a physical cause first.

And on that note, thank you for joining the live chat today and I hope you'll come back next month.

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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 thank-you notes, and click here for previous columns.
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