Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Oct 27, 2011

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

Great to be back today--and to have you back with me.


My 4 year old has been asking many questions about his grandfather. His grandfather died three years before he was born and never got to meet him. I've explained to my son that his grandfather is in Heaven and still loves him. We took a trip to meet some of his extended family who regaled him with stories all about Grandpa. However, my son still asks "Does Grandpa miss me? When can I see him? Does he love me?" Do you have any advice on trying to talk to him? All of the books I've found focus on children who have lost loved ones they knew. I don't know what to do with a boy who is so focused on a grandparent he never met.

Children are always focused on things they don't know although it often takes a close relationship to encourage children to talk about them.  And if you don't answer them?  They'll make up their own answers.  Therefore, your son will do best if he has a lot of information about his grandfather.  Pull out those old photo albums, tell stories  about him when you were four and bring his living presence into your son's life.  As for books, I'm very fond of the one co-authored by my daughter-in-law, Madelyn Kelly, called A Parent's Guide to Helping Grieving Children because it talks about the different ways children grieve at different ages.

I have read that researchers are starting to think that certain probiotics could help kids with ADHD. I think it's worth trying, but there are so many different kinds of probiotics, how can i find out which one is recommended for ADHD?

One of the most responsible pharmacies in the country, Village Green in Rockville, Md.,  can probably tell you better than I can and I'd also check into other possible solutions, particularly dietary ones.  Of all the solutions I've found, in 31 years of writing the Family Almanac, the best have been problems solved by a dietary change.  The U. S. is way behind Europe, which no longer lets stores sell foods containing dyes. has the scientific studies to back up this theory.  Gluten intolerance and dairy (casein) intolerance can cause behavioral problems too and so can allergies.  Probably the best allergist in this area is Richard Layton of towson, Md., a former pediatrician.  There's a lot of information out there, but unfortunately most doctors don't know much about it since med schools give very little training in either allergies or nutrition.

I have teenage twin girls who fight all the time. They are quite different in personality -- one more reserved, one with a temper and more verbal, etc. With every agument, I can see that each has a point. The problem is, I cannot figure out a way to get them to see the other's point of view. It makes no sense for me to intervene and declare someone "right" or "wrong" - it just makes things worse. Punishment doesn't seem to help, either. How can I get them to resolve disputes more productively? I have even thought about having them see a therapist together, although money is limited and our insurance will not cover it.

Siblings rival for two reasons, I think.  It gets  attention from their parents--and children will behave in whatever way it takes, negative or positive, to get the most attention.  You'll have better luck if you don't react but send one to wash the bathroom tiles and the other to wash the living room windows while you stay in the kitchen.  And don't answer when they squawk. 

You might also give them a copy of Please Understand Me to read, and then ask them to take the test.  It helps children to respect each other when they know that there are 16 different temperaments and that each one is perfectly fine.

I have an 8 year old grandson and a 5 year old granddaughter. Both seem to live on sweets. My grandson is tall for his age athletic and not overweight, but my granddaughter is pudgy and getting heavier. She eats virtually no "real" food but is allowed to have cookies and ice cream "for dessert" anyway. At my brother's funeral recently, she snuck into the kitchen, where I was resting, and, despite my asking her not to, ate an entire plate of large chocolate-chip cokies. Her father came in a couple times to check up on her, but said nothing. Both parents are extremely overweight, and I hate to see my grandchildren starting down this path.

Could you treat these grandchildren to a visit to a nutritionist who is used to dealing with young children?  To a tae kwan do class?  To an allergist because this problem can causing a child to crave, or hate, a particular food.

It's so important for them to keep their weight in check, and not just for physical reasons.  Adults almost always think of themselves as fat or thin according to the size they were when they were teenagers.  And has an adult ever grown up and said, "Thanks, Mom and Dad, for letting me get fat when I was a child."

Just don't make a big issue of their weight or tell the parents change their diet.  You'll get further with compliments for telling them that they look nice when they're looking thinner.

My 3.5-year-old daughter began complaining about her underpants being uncomfortable about two months ago. Since then, I've had her checked out by the pediatrician (she's fine), tried four different brands/sizes of underwear, washed all of her underwear in hypoallergenic detergent, and let her choose her underpants every morning. But still, she complains and we go through a routine where she changes her underpants several times every morning. It's maddening to watch this routine every morning, and I'm sure it's torture for her as well. But she isn't allowed to go to preschool without underpants on, so we go through this drama at least five days a week, with 15-20 minutes of underpants-changing and arguments. She takes her underpants off as soon as she gets home. Any suggestions? I am running out of empathy and patience.

Some children complain about tags and seems because they have a sensory disorder because the sensory receptors aren't working too well in their inner ears, in and around their mouths--or on their skins.  The Out of sync Child explains this problem well.

Silk or jersey underwear might help too, but cut out the tags.  After that, don't participate in the Great Underpants Discussion every morning.  Just tell her it's her responsibility to wear underpants to school, check when she's dressed, and if she's not wearing them, call the sitter you've arranged on standby and ask her to come over, but no treats, no TV, no good times.  Just one or two of these experiences should solve the problem, but if your daughter changes her mind and quietly puts on her underpants, be sure to pay the sitter for two hours, even if she never goes to your house.  A sitter is a mom's best friend.

Hi -- do you have any thoughts about how to handle Halloween candy? I have 5 and 7 year old boys, who will collect a ton of candy trick-or-treating. Do we let them keep it all or buy some back? Dole it out or let them decide when to eat it (with some restirctions). We try to restrict sweets during the year, but it's a constant struggle and they are sweets-crazy.

Halloween is an amazing delight to children and it shouldn't be denied, because it only happens once a year.  Tell them that they'll have to pitch the candy with the most dyes, however, and then get an insight on their particular temperaments.  The cautious child will dole out the candy to himself, a piece or two at a time, and still have some left on Valentine's Day.  The child who charges into life  with gobble it up in a few days.  Keeping the candies in separate marked bags in the freezer can slow down the process but your boys will still need to figure out their own rate of consumption because this is how they learn moderation

My son went back to college to finish college after a year of his graduation ceremony (his name was on the list of graduates but he did not received the title due to unsufficient GPA). He was depressed, took medication, got some therapy but rejected after going through two different therapists. He is not taking medication anymore, I see him in better mood and energized somehow, but does not want to look for a job until he graduates and completes his degree. He gets some work through his stepfather working on project manegement and engineering drawings for specific projects. How do I help him to gain confidence and get a job in his field? He does not even want to apply for an intership.

Many people quit therapy in their 3rd or 4th month, when they either have to dig deeper or quit, but this sounds like he is pulling himself out of the problem on his own.  He should however earn his own spending money--or go without--but he shouldn't have to work in his own field.  This is the time to define himself by trying many different fields.  He may not have wanted to study hard simply because the subjects bored him.  Let him stagger through on his own, giving him plenty of encouragement, little advice and very, very little money.

My SO's son is coming up to the DC area from FL to go to college. He's been living in a very small town and I'm afraid he will suffer major culture shock. He does seem excited, but how can we smooth the transition for him to this new environment?

The best thing about college is getting into a new environment and learning to cope with it on your own.  Just be interested in him, let him have alone time with his dad frequently and offer a homecooked dinner to him whenever you can, and give him the chance to be around children and old people too.  The segregation by age can make college kids so lonely but with your help, it won't happen too.

Hi, my 2-yr-old son has a habit of hitting his sister (4-yr-old), hard, when they're together. I try to firmly scold him, but he doesn't look at me and then just talks about something else. I've tried to put him in time-out, but he laughs! They will be playing nicely, but then he hits when he gets mad or overexcited (I think). He doesn't hit other kids in his daycare. No signs of autism, and he's normally a sweet boy. What can I do about this? My poor daughter is suffering.

This is often a problem with 2-year-olds, who don't realize that hits and bites hurt because no one hits and bites him--nor should they.  You have to look really stern and displeased when he hits his sister and use body English too.  Rather than say, "Time Out", just pick him up by his elbows and carry him to another room, without saying a word and leave him there for maybe five minutes, then go get him, with a most serious look on your face, and bring him to his big sister, saying that he would like to apologize to her.  Then tell them to hug and make up, and if he won't, take him back to the room again, for another five minutes.   There is always going to be some scrapping with childrne, but they shouldn't get away with hurting each other.

Hi, We've had an increase in the whining and tantrums from our almost 5 year old. My husband fears we aren't being strict enough, that our son is getting "what he wants" by doing it, and we just need to say no more. To me, it seems that the drama created by the "NO" and "STOP WHINING" is giving our son attention, and perpetuating the cycle more than anything else. How do we discuss this rationally and come to a consensus on how to approach the situation?

Cliches are cliches because they make sense.  As in, "You get what you want with honey, not vinegar" (or whatever that cliche is).

It's the lack of attention that changes a child's behavior, not the attention you give it.  Ask your husband to try it your way.  Also read "Your Four Year Old" and "Your five Year Old" because you'll see what other kids are like at these ages, and particuarly what they're like when their behavior falls apart every six months so they can adapt to a more mature behavior, the way a crab molts or a snake sheds its skin. 

Also, what do you think about parent-child written contracts? Good idea or not?

I think they're silly and basically counter-productive.  You're in charge, you pay the mortgage, and your child has to do what you say.  And he will, as long as he feels intellectually respected.  Ask him what he thinks about the war in Libya, the drug cartels in Mexico, the best way to get to the beach, what you should cook when Aunt Mathilda comes to town.  I have never know a teenager to rebel if he feels respected--or a pre-schooler either.  The better you know your child, the easier he'll be to rear.

Hi. Any advice for meeting the nap needs of my three-month-old as well as the needs of my three-year-old who wants to get out and explore? Since the arrival of the little one, we've been inside more because of his naps. But it makes me sad for the older son as we haven't been doing as many things for him. Is it just a matter of making the baby nap as we go or are there other ideas? Thanks!

Tea parties, with teddy bears as welcome guests, are always a nice treat and a nice way to teach manners, although bears are notoriously sloppy.  It's also a good idea to expose the baby to a variety of experiences, naptime or not, because you can't placate a second child the way you did your first.  Fortunately, she won't know any better--but she will learn to be much more amenable, whether you're in the park or on a walk.

We have a 3.5-year-old girl who has a constant need to suck her fingers as a way of self-soothing. It's already causing dental issues, so we've been trying to get her to stop- limiting where she can suck her fingers, pointing out that big kids don't do it, promising a manicure, etc. She's gotten better and likes to point out that she isn't sucking her fingers at the moment, but lately she's started to rage when my husband asks her to stop. She also has started to suck on her hair more. How can we get her to stop?

Again, you're probably looking at a sensory integration issue, as there are receptors in and around the mouth and some children need to suck more than others.  I'd quit making an issue of it and hope that her second teeth come in straight.  It will be easier to skip a home improvement job if she needs braces ten years from now than to get your 3-year-old to quit sucking  her fingers.

Any suggestions of books or other methods to teach a middle school boy (6th grade) time management skills? Bright kid, no psychiatric issues, just a kid who lives in the moment and would really rather not work on another poster or art project masquerading as social studies or English.

Set regular homework time, no TV on school nights, and agree that some homework is silly, but since it has to be done, ask him how he's going to do it and how he can get it done quickly so he can read the new book you checked out of the library for him or play a little ball.  If you focus on the interests of your child, he'll manage his time better.

You seem so lovely. And you made my day just with your warm welcome. Thank you. Sometimes just a few well chosen words bring on the warm fuzzies :)

Aren't you a dearie!  You doubled the warm fuzzies for me.

I have 3 year old twins, and my daughter can tantrum with the best of them. If she gets triggered, she can scream for 20 minutes. Usually it's when she's tired, and it happens probably 2-3 times a week at most. But when it does, it basically ruins whatever we're doing-- my husband and I have trouble ignoring it, so we get angry and frustrated, and my poor son just tries to amuse himself while she screams. Time-outs don't work-- she'll just keep screaming from her bed or wherever we put her. Threats- nope. Joking her out of it-- nope. Any advice? We are trying really hard to keep our cool, but it's difficult. (Speaking of keeping cool, do you have thoughts on the ScreamFree Parenting book?)

I read that book a while ago and frankly, I can't quite remember what I thought of it although my recollection is positive.

I think I would try what I have heard is the treatment of choice in Scandinavia, where a parent gathers  the sad child in her arms, takes her to a quiet part of the house and just coos and sympathizes with her until she feels better, which is what you and I would want if we were sad.  If your husband then enjoys your boy and she hears them laughing, you'll probably find that her her tears disappear pretty quickly.

My son is popular, does well in school and at sports and most of the time at home is easy to deal with. But on occassion, perhaps once a week he gets angry and disrepsectful to his mother and me. We are a very close family and are at a loss on how to help him deal wiht his anger. He does not act out at school only at home, and there seems to be no specific trigger.  He just gets mad and his words can be hurtful. He eventually calms down and apologizes. Thanks for your advice.

Hormones can affect the nicest kids and surprise everyone--including the kids--and they let it all hang out at home, where they feel safe..  Just continue to be close and loving to your son, to respect his opinions, even as you expect him to respect yours, and thank him for apologizing to you, which he'll continue to do as long as you continue to apologize to him when you make a mistake.  This too shall pass.

Do you recommend that approach for a three-year-old? I'm pretty sure he'd eat everything the first day if I expected him to learn moderation.

No, I wouldn't recommend it to a little child.  I'd toss out most of it and dole out a piece or two at a time.  Besides, he can't count.

I realize this may be really "out there", but a (real) story my sister told me about a young child of a parent (for whom my sister was caseworker) made me think of it. Just as a precaution--make sure there isn't any hint or possibility of sexual abuse at the preschool.

Good point, unfortunatley.

Our elementary school collects excess Halloween candy the week after the holiday and ships it to soldiers serving abroad. Kids love to give their candy to this cause.

What a lovely idea.  Do you mind if I add it to my repertoire?

I have a 13 year old who is not interested in school and has no self-motivation to do well, or even complete his homework. I feel like I should continue to nag him about it because I want him to understand that it's important and I don't want his grades to be terrible. He doesn't care if his grades are terrible, This causes some stress in our house. How much "hovering" about homework is appropriate and when does it start to backfire?

The more you hover, the less responsibility your son will take for himself.  Provide a good, well-lit work space for him to do his homework--with no tv nearby--and sit near him while you pay your bills and write your notes, but keeping an eye on him without talking much or correcting him either.  When his homework time is up, that's it.  His grades are his business.  If he wants to be singled out for them by his teacher and be kept off of a team he will learn that every action has a reaction--and so does every bad grade.

You mentioned using a time out in another room to stop a two-year old from hitting. I've done what you mentioned with my 2.5 year-old son for various offenses - hitting, biting, etc. However, he just starts screaming and runs after me. He won't stay in time out. Is there a strategy for keeping a kid in time out without creating a mini-jail in one's home?

Cut the time down to one minute, gradually increasing it to 2, then 3, which is an eternity to a young child.

Hi, my son is having problems with chronic but functional stomach pain. He's on Miralax for constipation, which he's been treated for for a year now. He sometimes has extreme pain that has him missing school. Otherwise he's in sports, too. We don't have pesticides, preservatives, dyes in the food, and we're avoiding dairy and wheat. His GI has run tests for lactose, gluten, and other tests, and says he may be lactose intolerant, he's on the borderline. He's also taking ADHD meds that cause constipation. I'm thinking of following an IBS treatment plan. Any advice? Also, we have a GI, pediatrician and psychiatrist for the adhd, and they are moving pretty slowly on this, i.e. telling us to give our son more Miralax for another 3 months and come back for another visit. Should we be moving faster on this, or is this stomach pain truly "tolerable"? I hate to see my son in ANY pain.

It's very hard to diagnose gluten intolerance and even its mean cousin, celiac disease and it can take 3 months for the problem to disappear.  I'd keep him off of both dairy and gluten (Whole Foods has a big section on gluten-free foods now) and also I'd ask the doctor about giving him vitamin C, because it's water soluable.  If he takes too much his stool will get loose and he may even get diarrhea until you adjust the dose--but he won't have to take medicine for his constipation.  I'd also get a second opinion--perhaps Dr.  (?Stephen) Warfield in the District or the aforementioned Richard Layton in Towson, a pediatrician for years and now an allergist.  People go to see him from all over the country because he knows so much about so many different issues that can accept a child's physical and emotional being.

I ask this in all honesty and don't mean to be snarky: where are these "standby" babysitters you often mention? I don't know any and my friends don't know of any.

When I was in that same boat, I called my church and asked if he had any parishioner who had time on her hands, thereby finding a lonely mother of 12  grown children who started sitting for everyone in the neighborhood and eventually ran our nursery school too.  Sitters never come knocking on your door, but there are a lot of lonely people in every town; you just have to go knocking on their doors.

You gave sweet advice (hold and comfort her while she cries) which would be great if she was just "sad"... but these are tantrums because she's not getting her way (Mom's not driving the car; she's not getting ice cream, etc). So I could hold her all day and she'd still be screaming about that particular thing. Does that change your answer? Giving in seems all wrong, but ignoring her makes the screaming endless (and our frustrations rise).

A child has a tantrum because she's sad and doesn't know how to express it.  It's not giving in to hold a crying child, --and it won't last all day--but it should change the tension factor in your house, especially if you talk to her after she's gone to bed, but do in the dark, so she, and you, will be more confiding 

Again, thanks for joining me.

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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 a college grad who won't grow up, and click here for previous columns.
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