Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Aug 29, 2013

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

Welcome to the Family Almanac.  I learn so much about your questions so please keep them coming!

My daughter is concerned that her 9 year old entering 4th grade is upset about her teacher assignment and says she does not want to go to school. She apparently has hurt feelings about a situation between her and the teacher from last school year. Any suggestions on how to discuss approaching the year with an open mind?

how to explain to 11 & 6 year old that their father isn't doing what he should be as a father and a husband

You don't.  As angry as you might be with your husband, you shouldn't trash him to your sons.  The problems are between you and the man you married, not between him and your sons

My 2.5 year old toddler is really a mama's girl. Her first words when she wakes up in the morning are "I need mommy," and she cries when I leave her, even with people she loves like her dad or aunt/cousins. I'm a SAHM so we spend plenty of time together. She starts pre-school for a few hours two days a week soon. What can I do to reduce the odds she spends the whole first day crying (which has happened when I've tried to leave her at Sunday School for an hour)?

Young children go through phases where they prefer one parent to the other and some, like your toddler, take it to extreme lengths primarily because they don't handle transitions too well.  It would be great if you could find out who will be in her pre-school before she starts and then invite a couple of the little girls over for a tea party for their teddy bears once or twice so she will have friends in the classroom when school begins.  Also, give her a school present--a school necklace that she can just wear to school or give both of you some special beads to keep in your pocket so you can talk to each other in bead talk when one of you is away.

Hi, Ms. Kelly. I'm 17 and have younger sibs 14, 9 and 6. My dad, a retired fireman, lost our house and his small business a couple years ago. The rest of the family moved to Guatemala last year, where, unlike here, they can live like royalty on his fireman's pension. I stayed with a friend's family to finish high school but have pretty much been cast adrift. I have no money for college and no skills for a job. People have been trying to help me, and a kind hotel owner has given me a job as a receptionist and lets me live in the hotel, but it's not a long term solution. But mostly I feel abandoned by my family. They say I can join them in Guatemala, but there's no money for a ticket down there and no room for me in the house. Plus what would I do in Guatemla? My family is living in a beautiful waterfront home, my sisters have horses, and I'm living on ramen noodles. I'm not close to my grandparents, who live on the Oklahoma panhandle. I'd l ike to relocate to a less expensive area but the prospects there are zero. I'd like to be self sufficient, go to college, etc. but don't know where to start. I've thought of joining the military but I'm petite (5' 2, 100 lbs), plus the thought of military service simply does not appeal. I hate accepting charity and intend to pay it all back, but how?

It's no use blaming your parents; they're did the best they could for most of the family and at 17, they probably think of you as a grown-up, not a child.  And you know what?  You are.  Even the word 'teenager' wasn't a word 100 years ago because teenagers were expected to be grown-ups. 

Think of this time as an opportunity to stretch your mind and your horizons, not an unfair abandonment.  You can use this time to prove yourself and to learn instead. 
Go to all the free museums around Washington, to the band concerts at the capitol, take free tours of the capitol, the Folger, Dumbarton Oaks. 
Dive into the public library's collection and find out what subjects you're passionate about--subjects you barely knew existed. You have a choice to grow or to stagnate; to accept responsibility or to do nothing but feel sorry for yourself.  There's no point in that.  Something will come along--who knows what--and it will turn your life around.  You just have to look for it.

Can you provide tips on not how to loose my cool (yell at the kids)? I need to set a better example and actually get what I want out of them. I try to make things fun and empower them to make choices e.g., 'you can have more time in the tub or 1 story instead of two' or 'when you do ___ then you can ___", communicate & take away privileges, etc. It drives me NUTS when I tell one kid 'not to do ___" and then the other kid IMMEDIATELY does the same thing I just told the other not to do. When I use a 'time-out' my kid gladly goes and it doesn't impact future behavior. Counting only gets them to stop when I get to 5. I try to make things fun and plan for the time to allow them to be kids (doddle/get distracted/have fun during the process) but my patience only lasts for so long and after the nth time. We do stick to whatever privilege consequence proclaimed.

You don't say how old the kids are but they sound pretty young to me.  Whatever their age however, you have to realize that they're people too and they need to be respected.

And so do you.  To do that, have a meeting with the kids when all is calm and tell them that you're tired of yelling and that you're going to lower your nag level to three nags instead of 7 or 8, so you won't lose your temper.  You might cut the time-outs to one or two every week or so; they're just not very effective if you hand out too many of them.  If you really want to give a time-out, give one to yourself:  five minutes to read alone in another room or just to lie down is a great way to break up a scene before it turns bad.  Also, let your children  save face.  When they disobey, ask them to run into the next room, turn around three times (fast!) and bring back that nice little girl who always does what she's told.  Parenthood is the most demanding, creative job you'll ever have, honey, but don't despair.  You're learning all the time and so are they.

Any tips on how to keep a 5 yr old & 3 1/2 yr old in their beds all night long? The younger is quiet as a mouse and we don't notice her. When the older comes in, we all wake up at say 4 or 5am. The sneaking into mommy/daddy's bed has got to end! (but part of me loves the cuddling and knows I will be sad when they don't want to be around us/be as affectionate when they get older)

If you stop fighting it, you can both enjoy her early morning visits and the cuddling that comes with it but tell her she absolutely can't talk or she has to go back to her own bed.  And then take her back to her bed if she does talk--and at first, she will.

My eight month old son sleeps really well, thank goodness. But he has never successfully put himself to sleep, which everyone seems to hold up as really important. He has gotten much easier to soothe to sleep over time. Putting him to bed isn't hard; he just needs to be fully asleep before being left alone. I really don't mind helping him go to sleep right now, but I do see that he needs to learn before he gets too old. And maybe it will only be harder for him to learn later. Do you have any views on when one ought draw the line in this respect? Might he need to mature a little more and then he'll learn on his own? Or do I just need to accept that I am going to have to let him cry himself to sleep eventually? Any thoughts would be appreciated. I am going back and forth between wondering if I am doing him a disservice by not giving him this skill and thinking that it is crazy to try to fix a nonexistent problem. Thanks.

According to the French, babies can sleep 10-12 hours at night by three or four months because their synapses have connected, and the connect because their parents don't pick them up every 2-3 hours when they seem to wake up and maybe give 1-2 squawks before they fall into their next sleep cycle whereas Americans pick up their babies as soon as they stir.

That news is a little late for you but you can put a doll in his crib, wearing your scarf that you've tied into a dress, put a dab of your perfume on it and tell him that it's a 'mommy doll' to keep him company because you really need to go to sleep yourself.  And the reason to do this?  Soothing oneself to sleep is the first thing a child can do for himself and therefore it should be encouraged because independence will be so important to him for the rest of his life.

My mother could never keep a confidence to save her life. She got a kick out of publically humiliating me by telling all of her siblings and cousins when I did anything wrong growing up or mistakes I've made as an adult. I am still angry at her for this but she says she did the best she knew how to do. HOw do you suggest we come to an impasse?

Some people get into a way of acting and reacting, of talking and getting attention, and unless they're called on it early, they follow it for the rest of their lives.  It's too bad but since you can't do anything about the past, why not write down all the things she did right and concentrate on them?  You have the choice of controlling the past or letting the past control you.  Which choice would you rather make?

As our toddler has gotten older it has become increasingly more difficult to get him to sit still in one place during timeouts. We have begun to simply take away a toy or treat of some kind, but how can timeouts work if he can simply get up and get the attention he is seeking. Picking him up over and over again and placing him back seems to defeat the purpose.

The only good discipline is the kind that works.  And timeouts don't work after the first few weeks unless they are used very sparingly. 

With a 2 1/2-year-old I'd simply introduce some new activity every 10 minutes or so--while he's still content with the old activity--and give him attention and praise when he's good and ignore him when he's not.  A child of any age likes attention and he will do whatever he can to get the most attention he can get even if it's negative attention.

We were fabulous parents when our kids were young, all was fine, kids happy, respectful, etc. Now, our children are 17, 14 and 9 (with special needs) and we feel like we're drowning. Everyone talks about parenting young children, but somehow appropriate parenting advice is harder to find as the children age. And they never want to go to sleep. I am worried about my 14-year old son. He started puberty early, probably around 11. He doesn't communicate a lot with the family, preferring to retreat to his room with his headphones and music (he is learning the electric bass online and has been an avid pianist for a long time). Recently, he's started getting really dismissive towards his parents and had a huge fight with my husband over the weekend (complete with "I hate you") that started when his father tried to get him to stop playing the bass and speak with him. He also has been fighting with his 9-year old special needs brother over minutia (move your foot, no, blah, blah). He's not the kid in the corner with a blanket over his head and is friendly with kids at school, but no obvious close friends. We're getting concerned that he is too much of a loner. We are very watchful of drugs and alcohol, but haven't seen any signs. But, we have always limited the screentime and he does resent these limitations and tries to sneak around them if given a chance. Can you give us any suggestions and maybe recommend some resources for help? This is really having a negative impact on our family life.

I'd stop this behavior in its early stages rather than waiting for puberty to end.  To do that, I'd get some therapy for him and for the whole family because everyone sees a problem from his own vantage point.  By talking together, you'll hear how he perceives embarrassments and injustices that you never knew he felt and he will hear how much you love him and how distressed you are that he dismisses you.

Two psychologists come to mind.  Neil Shiff, in DC, is an excellent (though pricey) family therapist and Brad Sachs, in Columbia, Md., deals with teenaers very well and has written books about them too.

We have 9 year old b/g twins, and our bright and articulate daughter appears to be constantly negative and argumentative on issues big and small. I find it draining and demoralizing. Any ideas regarding how what in my behavior might elicit less negativity from her, or at least affect me less? Second, she is skinny and - what I don't know how to deal with - eats slowly and seemingly reluctantly, unless it's junk food. She claims rather quickly that she is full, but shortly afterwards announces that she is hungry or starts looking for food again. I am trying to get out of the dynamic of ensuring that she eats a certain minimum amount of healthy food at each home meal, but it's tough given how thin she is and how she sometimes appears not to have enough energy. A regular pediatrician check-up is going to happen soon, but there are no underlying medical issues so far. Any ideas regarding how best to deal with food issues would be very welcome.

Children always look for ways to win their wars with life and food is apparently her weapon of choice.  I'd begin by clearing out the cabinets of all junk food, junk cereals, sodas, etc. and replace it with fresh fruit and vegetables, natural peanut butter, oatmeal or eggs for breakfast and good, multi-grain breads but don't make a big deal about it.  If there's nothing but healthy foods to eat, she'll start eating better and so will the rest of the family.  I push healthy foods because I've probably seen more problems caused by diet than anything else, either because someone is allergic to them or can't tolerate the lactose or the gluten or because their bodies can't handle the dyes or the preservatives in junk food or the salycilates in perfectly healthy foods like tomatoes or oranges.  Kelly Dorfman has a good book on healthy foods and Doris Rapp has a good one on allergies. 

The idea of confiding your marital problems to your six-year-old son is appalling.

I agree.

I think you're answer to her was pretty lame. "don't worry, things will work themselves out, just buck up." Have you taken a look at American teenagers these days? they are hardly grown-ups equipped for independent living, for better or worse. Maybe you can try again & give this young woman more concrete resources for furthering her education and starting her adulthood on a solid footing.

I think there are two things a 17-year-old needs to become an adult:  the skills of life--cooking, painting a wall, things like that--and culture shocks, to learn that there is a bigger world out there.  And then a trade, or college.

I find it hard to believe that the young lady cannot attend college or trade school at least part-time on a scholarship, especially given that she has no family in the country and is, essentially, an emancipated minor. She desperately needs some training program and part-time work in order to survive.

For basic food/health insurance, etc., you should check with the Department of Social Services--you probably qualify for food stamps and Medicaid (so that you have some type of health insurance), plus maybe other forms of public assistance. Since you're still a minor, you might qualify for WIC or other forms of assistance, too. If you stay at the receptionist job for, say, 6 months or a year, you'll have experience, so you can start applying for other jobs. As for education, check into loans and grants for college. You could probably take community college classes at night while you work during the day to get started on a degree--just focus on the basic requirements for now, until you figure out what field you want to pursue. There are options and help out there. Good luck!

Thanks for joining me today--and I'm sorry I couldn't answer so many of your questions.  I'll try to answer some in my Family Almanac column on Thursdays in Local Living

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 one of her recent columns on a baby's napping schedule or click here for previous columns.
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