Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Aug 18, 2011

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

I have three daughters (nearly 13, nearly 6 and 33 months old). My toddler has always been a very sweet, gentle, though mischievous child. Generally quieter than her two big sisters (especially the middle one, who is drama incarnate). She also has always been great about going to bed. We would do our routine (pjs, teeth brushing, book, prayers) and then she would climb into bed, kiss me, and roll over to sleep). About two weeks ago that changed suddenly. She now will NOT go to bed. She's playful and silly, but that quickly turns to hysteria. She will NOT stay in bed. I have done the repeated putting her back quietly -- for HOURS! I I have been through this before, but not like this. I have tried all of the things I know I'm supposed to do, but nothing works. The only way to get her to sleep is to stay with her. Sometimes I have to hold her in bed (gently, but firmly). She doesn't seem to be scared of the dark (she will ask that extra lights in the hall be turned off), but she seems terrified to be alone. But staying with her until she falls asleep can take a while, and I'm at my wits' end! With three active children, I need a little bit of time just to get the dishes done! Do you have any suggestions or advice on how to deal with this issue, which is disrupting the entire household?

When a child changes suddenly -- whether she's a drama queen or not -- you need to think back to the time when it changed and then ask yourself if something happened in the day or the week before and if you can't think what the problem might be, then you need to have a quiet conversation with her, but in the dark so she doesn't have to look you in the eye when you ask her if something happened that made her act so different.  Did  someone or something scare you?  Did someone touch your body, underneath your clothes?  Are you afraid of something?  Whatever you ask, leave plenty of time for her to answer because silence can push a child to talk better than anything else.

And if she doesn't act like she had a problem, then think back to the food she's eating.  Did you start giving her orange juice for a snack or something with dyes and preservatives because some children get angry or wild or spacey or who-knows-what if they eat or drink a salycilate or something that contains a dye or a preservative.  Or she could have developed an allergy that could be affecting her central nervous system, or be reacting suddenly to the gluten in bread and other bead-like products, or to the casein that's in milk. 

Or maybe she's just falling apart, as children do about once a year -- shedding her emotional skin so she can come back in a more mature way.

But remember -- this too shall pass.

Dear Ms. Kelly, I think I've done a pretty good job of teaching my daughters, ages 8, 6 and 5, not to comment on others' personal appearance, etc. However, there are so many "challenged" children who speak or act inappropriately. When I try to explain that they can't help it, not surprisingly, I am get somewhat dubious responses. One such child has been mainstreamed in my daughter's class, where he has been quite disruptive (as unkind as this sounds, I am hoping this will have changed when she enters third grade in a couple weeks). How can I help her be sympathetic when she just wants to get her work done?

In a case like this, honesty -- and plain old facts -- will help your daughter more than anything else.  Your daughter needs to know that a child with autism and Asperger's is crippled the same as a blind child or a child who can only get around in a wheelchair.  In this case though, he can't talk as well as she can.  And then go to the library to learn all about the way he thinks and sees and hears.  The best books on Asperger's -- that condition that children have who don't know how to interact with others or empathize with them -- are written by Tony Attwood, an Australian psychologist, and you can paraphrase what he says easily, and Temple Grandin has some of the best books on autism. 

When a child knows the facts, she'll know why she should be sympathetic, and when she has to be firm with another child and just say, "We'll have to talk later."


I am the manager of a child-friendly restaurant where a certain level of noise (high) and even pandemonium is expected, or even encouraged. Every few days, however, a child has a major meltdown, screaming, knocking things off the table, going beyond even our very tolerant guidelines. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can minimize the possibility of such meltdowns, or deal w/those that do occur? The worst is when the parent pretends he or she has no relationship with the child!

You might keep as few condiments on the table as possible, and if  he melts down, then go over to this child and ask the mother if there is anything you can do to help.  It also might help if you rush food to any table that you think might have a problem.   Some children fall apart if they don't get some protein when they need it.

How do I learn to interact with my aging parent? I am in the position of not a caretaker, as that isn't necessary, but am the sounding board, the person who hears the complaints and rants, who feels like s/he should slow some of the parent's diatribes when I see them. When is it appropriate to basically become the one who takes the parent in hand and pulls them away from embarassing themselves? I feel like I am 'raising' my parent now that the partner who did that is gone... The parent is really okay mentally, but does go one too much sometimes.

You are, in effect,  raising your parent and you'll do more and more of it as she gets older because people tend to emphasize good and bad points as they grow older.  

Might you not say, "Mom, can we talk about this later?  I've had a bad day."  Or, "Dad, I'm so sorry you're unhappy" and then ignore what she says while you wash her dishes or dust her figurines.  You might even slip in some earplugs for a while, because your parent  needs to complain more than you need to hear him complain.

Not a direct parenting questions, but I hope you and the chatters can offer some insights. I'm pregnant, and will have to tell work in about a month. I am also preparing to ask for a raise. The two are unrelated -- I've taken on new responsibilities and done them well. I think I have a good shot at getting the raise. Is it bad form to tell work I'm pregnant once I have the raise in hand? I don't want to tell work about the baby first because I worry that could lessen my odds of getting a raise. On the other hand, my boss has two kids and knows that motherhood doesn't equal checking out, so maybe she wouldn't penalize me. Does anyone have experience with this?


Your announcements to your boss are on two different subjects, so ask for the raise first and then tell her about your pregnancy next month.  Seems fair to me.

I have a 2 1/2-year-old boy who is doing well in all respects and we're having a lot of fun with him. Our current challenge, however, is mealtime. He is simply not interested in sitting down and eating, even for five minutes. He doesn't seem to object to any particular food -- he eats most everything (including spicy food -- loves green chile, for example). It's gotten so that in order to get any food in him, I put him on my lap, read him a book, and pop bites of food in him. Am I developing a bad habit here? It feels like I am. Any thoughts or advice?

Yes, you probably are setting up a bad habit. 

It's time to lower your exectations.  The appetite of a 2-year-old drops off a lot and doesn't pick up until his next growth spurt.  Just set Mr. Buzzer -- your handy kitchen timer -- for 20 minutes and tell him that he'll have to eat whatever he wants to eat in that timeframe.  And if he's hungry later, say, "Sorry, honey.  You get three meals a day and a little protein snack in the morning and afternoon and that's that."  He'll remember to eat as much as he needs at mealtime, although it may take two or three days for that to happen.

Our elementary school-age children will be attending a new school this year. What can we do to help them adjust and calm their anxiety?

Pull down a GPS map to show them the route.   Take them to the school ahead of time if you can and if not, take them there on the first day and walk through the halls with them so they'll feel familiar with the place and know where the bathroom and the cafeteria are.  Also, try to get the names of a few of their classmates and have them over before school starts, so they can mentor your children. 
Change isn't easy for anyone, but this change won't seem so overwhelming if you lower the barriers.

just figured out what extinct actually means during a trip to the Musuem of Natural History and all her dreams of having a dinosaur as a pet have been crushed. She is pretty upset. Any suggestions?

This is one of those awful moments.  I once took a child to that same museum, and when she looked at those dinosaur bones she wailed, "ALL THESE ANIMALS ARE DEAD!" and then she had such a tantrum that we could only leave, and quickly.   Apparently she thought she was going to the zoo.

Time will heal her spirit,but a kittykat might heal it faster.

My husband and I love to travel, both short weekend trips and longer vacations, but traveling with our kids usually leads to so much frustration on both sides. Our 3 1/2-year-old daughter is very excited about traveling, but this excitement translates to incessant whining once we're on a trip, usually over food but sometimes over what we're doing or the attention she's receiving. Almost every meal she will whine about how she doesn't like this food (it's food that she normally enjoys), and this seems to be done with an eye toward a particular treat food that we have once in a while at home and more often on vacation. I think she may have trouble looking forward too much to certain events, since the whining was never more awful than when we went to visit relatives in California, with plans to go to Disneyland after the visit; it did abate after we had finished with the Disney portion of the trip. We do try to make sure she keeps her nap schedule and gets enough sleep on vacation, and also try to see that she gets enough fruits and vegetables, although finding veggies can be difficult on the road. The whining still happens when we take her places without her little brother and I get frustrated because what should be a fun experience is made so difficult. Is there anything we can do to make family vacations more pleasurable for everyone?

Make everything as simple as possible.  Plan to take twice as long to do everything. 
Remember that 30 minutes is about as long as she can last, so you might bring a teenager along to a Disney-like place so she can stroll her away from the lines and the tedium  And have your 3-year-old help you plan the activity, looking at the maps and hearing about the rides, but go slow, very slow.  She's ony 3.

and I'm wondering if you can offer some suggestions for easing such a major transition for our 5-year-old daughter. We would be moving far away from family and friends, and from a house in a rural area to a smaller house or apartment in an urban area. Our girl is cautious and deeply attached to where we are, and I'm particularly concerned about her starting kindergarten in a place where the kids will have been in class together for a month or so before we arrive. I would be grateful for your advice!

Write a note to her new teacher, asking her if you can go in to meet her early, since teachers usually are in the classroom several days before the children.  And do try to get a list of the children and invite one over for ice cream, or ask if the family can come over for a barbecue.  You'll probably find that the mother you've invited is just as alarmed about kindergarten as you are--and so is her child.

Good morning. My 17-month-old son is constantly screaming in frustration and/or excitement. For some reason, he doesn't seem to have an "indoor voice." I sense that it may be frustration in trying to do all the things his older brother does. But I'm not sure how to address it. Put him in timeout each time? Live with it? Any advice would be great!

Skip the timeouts, unless he only screams once or twice a week.  Instead, whisper to your child.  It's one of the quickest ways to calm a child down and if that doesn't work, make a funny face and ask him if you can scream, too.  And then do that.  And if that doesn't work?  Video the scene and then play it back for him later so he can see how much louder he talks than anyone else.  Finally, if none of these things work, have your son's hearing checked.  His tympanograms may be flatter than you think, so he doesn't know how loudly he's talking.

Hello, I have two adorable, wonderful, and, yes, energetic(!) boys, ages 4 and 6. I also work full-time and this summer my boys are in preschool and going to various camps and activities for the day. My husband travels often for work, including this week, and I have been getting them to and from their daily activities while also getting myself to and from work. And I have been finding that getting all three of us out the door on time (or close to it), well-fed, dressed, and happy has been quite the challenge. I was near tears this morning as I tried to tear them away from Curious George and into the car so we could leave. I let them know it's time to go (I give them a five-minute countdown) and well before we leave I am getting out breakfast, getting them dressed, making lunches for the day, etc. I find that by the time we need to leave, I have been reminding/asking/telling them to do things over and over and over with no success. They think I am bossy, they get mad at me, they don't listen, and I end up losing it. In my rational mind I know I need to tell them how things will be and let the consequences happen (i.e., if they don't come eat breakfast and then it's time to go, then they are hungry), but I am easily guilted and I fear I will make them feel even angrier than they already do when I tell them TV time (or playtime, or visiting the neighbor's dog time) is over. But these unhappy drives and their sadness and anger at me are breaking my heart. I know I need to do something differently, I'm just not sure what.

A family is a team.  Sit down with your little boys after supper and ask them what the three of you should do to make it happier to leave in the morning.  Should you fix lunches the night before?  If so, which boy would like to put in the fruit and who would like to add the juice?  Who would like to set the table the night before and what should you fix for breakfast?  Should they lay out their clothes the night before?  As tired as you are at the end of the day, these are the tricks that will make the morning happier.  And in the morning, instead of doing everything for them and therefore giving them time to watch TV and play with the neighbor's dog, keep them busy taking the lunches out of the fridge and toasting the bread while you scramble their eggs.  

A team behaves much better if you give the players some jobs to do.

My husband and I working through a difficult time in our marriage but love each other and are committed to working things out together. We've done our best to minimize arguments; the kids are old enough to pick up on some of the tension. While things are improving, we have a long road in front of us. Is there a way to balance our needs of healing as a couple while still continuing to give the children the love and support they need?

Anyone who says that her marriage has always been fine is either lying or hasn't gotten there yet. 

Make time for yourselves because a stable marriage is the greatest gift you can give a child.  Date night once a week, for sure.  And go away for one weekend a season -- even if you can only afford to go camping from Saturday morning to Sunday night, and use a friend to care for your children with the promise that you'll do the same for her. 

Marriage counseling is good too, but take a picnic and go out afterwards for a meal, just the two of you, because you don't want kids, telephones and television to interfere with the lessons you learned in therapy. This will give you time to absorb them.

Finally, be very, very polite with each other, and as kind as you can possibly be.  Words, once said, cannot be unsaid.

Thank you for your advice! Yesterday after I submitted my question, we took our girls to the dentist and learned that the toddler has a cracked tooth! I'm now wondering if this has anything to do with the sleeping. We will talk to her (and her daycare again) to see if there was any incident that might have caused this, and will address the issue of any pain etc. Hopefully this will help with the sleeping problem as well!

You have only to look at the shenanigans of a toddler to wonder why he hasn't cracked all of his teeth and his head, too. 

My husband and I have a wonderful, delightful 16-month-old little girl. We both work full time and she has been in daycare since she was about 5 months old. We are both getting antsy to move abroad. It's been a dream for both of us. We are thinking of moving abroad (assuming we find a job for one of us) for two to three years and then coming back. Should we worry that we are taking her away from all of the "familiar" things in life? Of course, we will both be here.

No, GO! The more you can broaden a child's world, the richer she will be, for memories matter far more than money. She will also stretch her brain when she hears -- and speaks -- another language and will become more empathetic too.  Moreover, she will have friends in two countries, instead of one.  GO!

I love it when my daughter's meal is brought to the table as soon as it is ready, even if the adult meals are not yet ready. This allows me to cut up her food and have it cool down a bit. She's never actually had a big meltdown in a restaurant, but she does get cranky when she's hungry. And she gets even crankier when her food arrives with everyone else's and she can't eat for another five minutes because it's too hot for her.

How smart you are to ask for her meal to get to the table first.

You might also try "Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct." Mo Willems is better-known for other books, but this one is fun and it ought to make her laugh.

I didn't know about this Willems book but love his work and am sure it would be a great book to offer.

I have sort of the opposite problem of Extinct. My just-entering kindergarten daughter is very analytical and scientifically oriented. She is extremely interested in biology, animals, birth, death and the human body. She recently had a cat die and wanted to save the bones and look at them under her microscope -- but we said no. When she's asked about where babies (human or animal) come from, we've stuck with the basics about the birds and the bees, without getting into the mechanics. Now, she's asking about mechanics. I have no problem telling her about sex, but I could also see her alarming her unassuming kindergarten friends with this newfound knowledge. I'm quite confident she'd take the information in stride, but I don't want her to be in the position of upsetting other children (or their parents). I also don't want to avoid her questions. Thanks for any advice!

What a nifty little kid!  Why not tell her and then remind her that other children may not know these facts yet, so she shouldn't tell them what she's learned.  And keep giving her lots of books about biology; plastic skeletons and take her to as many museums as possible, including the great insect zoo at the National Zoo.

Made me laugh. Reminds me of a friend of mine who accidentally stepped on his daughter's new kitten and killed it. The entire family was distraught. As he was trying to console his daughter, he said they could go get a new kitten tomorrow. She looked up at him and said, "how about a horse?" - which she got!

Love it!

My not-quite-3-year-old is very close to his mom. However, sometimes when she is trying to get him to do things he hits her -- sometimes hard. Unfortunately, she has gotten very upset a few times, yelled at him, and nearly started to cry. My son is instantly horrified at what he has done and starts to cry himself. My son also hit me once or twice, but I made light of the situation and told him that I would tickle him back and that seems to have ended the problem for me. For my wife, though, I think it is too late to try this.

Each parent deals with a problem in his or her own way.  

Frankly, I don't think it will hurt your son if his mom sheds a few tears the next time he hits her as long as he isn't yelled at too.  If your little boy gets horrified by the reaction to his action, he'll quickly learn that he shouldn't hit people. 

Consequences can teach children better than anything else.

Our toddler daughter doesn't get to read a bedtime book if she doesn't eat a reasonable amount of dinner. Our problem was that she would spend a huge amount of time playing with the food instead of eating, and then was still hungry and wanting to eat when it was time to move on to the bath and bedtime routine. We used to sit at the dinner table for an hour trying to cajole her into eating. Now she eats when we sit down.

This can work -- as you've proved so well -- but some children need to get their consequences much sooner than others or they forget all about them. 

Kids raised in military families have been dealing with type of change for a long time now, and most of them are fine. As the product of a military family that moved every three years, I can tell you it gave me a love of discovering other cultures and helped me become a person who can easily adapt to change.

When the parents treat a move as an adventure, the children love the move.  And when parents treat it as a crisis, or even a troublesome event, the children respond accordingly, don't you think?

Tell them that if they can't behave when you tell them to turn the TV off, that next time, when they ask to watch TV, you will say no, since they don't know how to turn it off and listen. You may have to keep repeating it: if you behave this time, then next time you ask, I will probably say yes. A few mornings of them not doing what they want (i.e., watching TV) might actually be useful. Also see if they should be doing another activity in the AM.

Threats can work but I think you'll find that the nag level is lower--and the happiness factor higher-- if the children are involved in the production of any family activity.

It's one o'clock and time to go!  Thanks for joining me today.

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