Before I had children, I imagined our Sunday mornings would be like this: sunshine streaming through the windows, we’d be flipping pancakes and the children would be giggling and sipping fresh-squeezed OJ and there would be lots of singing. I guess I thought parenting would just be an extended musical. Laugh with me though, because my Sundays now look like this: regularly burning pancakes which I flip with a butter knife because my children inform me the spatula is “hiding” in the sandbox; intermittently pulling squabbling children off of each other so that they don’t really hurt each other; cold coffee and no singing.
My life’s not a musical… but maybe I should start doing more singing.
Because here’s the thing: there’s neurological evidence that melodic intonation- using super inflected, sing-song voices for everything- actually activates a different part of the brain. Not only does it support children’s comprehension- especially those with delays- it calms the adult involved, making co-regulation easier.
We are all family systems, right? So it’s important to have tools and tips that can help the child- but that also help the parent. That is exactly what melodic intonation does. It’s near impossible to feel angry/frustrated/annoyed when you’re singing.
I’ll just point out that many-a-children’s show has already figured this out. The ever famous Daniel Tiger (yes, I let my children watch Daniel Tiger while I do their hair and sometimes in the car) sings through everything. His jangle for anger is: “When you’re so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four…”
It may be a show for children, but they’re on to something. Daniel Tiger knows how things can be so insanely maddening for children (and parents) and also, that its not possible to have harshness in your heart when you’re singing “When you’re so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four…” If nothing else, recognizing you need this silly song is funny (because who would have thought parenting was so hard that you need to take advice from a cartoon tiger?).
You see the point? Melodic intonation- be it a song or a chant (if your kid is older) or even just a phrase said the same way every time can save the day.
Daniel Tiger models this as well: throughout the show, he sings the same short little jangle again and again and again, until he- and everyone watching- remembers it and can make use of it. So if as little orange tiger can do it, surely you can too!
Next time I’m burning pancakes and failing to have a Sunday morning that looks like a musical, I’ll be singing my way back. Won’t you join me?
I'd barely slept the night before, because the baby was up and down, up and down, up and down. And I had a big work project on the horizon. And so when my toddlers started having an enormous fight over the single red spoon in our home, I started to lose it. Don't ask why I only bought one red spoon (lesson learned), but let me tell you, when I saw one twin grab the other's hair and yank, I really got pissed. Like a lot. I won't go into detail about all the things I imagined doing, but I will say.... I had to yell for my husband to come, stat, and high-tail it out of the kitchen.
Even the most equipped parents sometimes get upset with their children. It's impossible not to, and if you've got a child who is genuinely challenging, this feeling may come up more often than you'd like. It's important to think about contingency plans for when you just.... can't.
You need to know what to when everything is falling apart- including you. Make a plan for those moments when it feels like your belly is on fire and you are just exhausted and your child is testing every limit you set.
So if you are agitated, if you cannot project calm, and if you are starting to make poor moves....here's your plan: stop talking.
Yes, you heard us.
Slow your physical movements way down.
If its possible, remove yourself from the scene. Allow another person to take over- a partner, a grandparent, a teacher- anyone! Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Take time for yourself when you need it.
Unfortunately, it's not always possible to leave, is it? If there isn't another adult on hand, you've still got to get through the situation, right? If you're stuck in a challenging parenting situation, alone, and you're frustrated.... first stop talking and slow your movements way down. Get through the situation with the absolute minimum amount of interaction with your child.
The goal is here to not make things worse. When we are angry, we say things we don't mean. Our faces contort with emotion. We yell. This is why we want to stop talking, and why we must move slow.
Move slow? Yes. Move slow. Here's the science behind it: slowing down your body evokes a different set of neurological patterns in your brain, which you interpret as "ahh.... calm..." It's actually quite hard to remain upset if your body is relaxed and moving slowly. So pretend you're moving through sand or water or tar. Do a yoga pose. Force your brain to calm down by controlling your body in ways that... force your brain and nervous system to calm down.
After it's over- after you've either left and cooled down, or gotten through with the minimum interaction necessary, THEN connect with someone. Connect with us. We'll help. Review our training, Consider what you can do differently next time. If you're unable to figure out what to do differently, then ask for help- talk to a parent who's been there, review our modules, discuss your challenges with others. Keep talking, until you have a plan for next time.
We all know how hard it is to stay calm when your child is having a tantrum because soccer practice is over (or in the grocery checkout line, or after school...). Especially when that lady watching you leans in and says "You just need to...."
She has no idea what you need to do. She probably has no idea what your child needs, or what it feels like to mother your child as they fall apart in a public place.
Here's the deal: no matter what you do, it's not going to work unless YOU are calm. The best methods will fail with parental calm.
There are many reasons why, but here are a few based on the research in education and co-regulation:
The research is clear: we've got to calm down. It's hard in a world with a million things happening at once and other adults commenting on your parenting, but it's imperative. The kind of calm you're shooting for is a calm that is warm and accepting. It is a calm that invites connection. Sometimes, we get calm and flat, detached and uninvolved, and totally shut down when things are challenging with our children. To be clear- this is not what we want when we think about calm. We want a quality of calm that invites the child to connect, not that blankets everyone in silence and pretends whatever is going awry isn't happening at all.
Think about the quality of calm that you like most- the one that makes your belly feel warm and your shoulder muscles relax. That presence- open, grounded, inviting- is what you want to offer to your child all the time, but especially during times of extreme challenge.
Picture this: Seven year old comes in from school. He’s hot. His baby sister has been crying the whole ride home from school because she hates her car seat. Mama is tired too, and as they stumble in from school Seven Year Old kicks off his shoes in the doorway. He is so happy to be home. He is so happy to take off his sweaty sneakers. He is ready to play leggos. But Mama sighs. She has already asked him about one hundred times to place his shoes in the basket in the entryway. Baby sister trips over the shoes in the doorway and starts to cry, again. Mama asks Seven Year Old to move the shoes. She reminds him again. She warns him he has one minute to put them away. But he is already immersed in his leggos and doesn’t even hear the fourteen requests.
See, the clinical finding is that excessive reminders- be they pleas, instructions, reprimands, updates, warnings, or nagging- make the desired behavior less likely to occur. That’s right- saying something fifty times does not make it fifty times more likely to occur.
In fact, it makes it way less likely to occur.
When you say it once, and it doesn’t lead to thee desired behavior, then the effectiveness of w2hat you said diminishes. The next time you say it, it’s even less effective, and the chance that your child will do what you ask is further reduced.
Typically at this point, the parent starts to get frustrated. Their statements get stronger. Strong statements made with lots of intensity are aversive, like punishment.
The child then escapes further- mentally or physically- from the person giving the reminders.
In turn, the non-response from the child makes the parent even more frustrated, and the cycle continues…
It is guaranteed to fail.
Do you see how, in the sketch of Seven Year Old and his Mama, they are in completely different worlds? She is worried about a clean house and a million other things- he is hot and happy to be home and ready to play leggos.
His Mama- the adult with the deeper responsibility to effectively co-regulate- needs to come into his world for a moment.
What might happen if, while they are on the porch, they take a minute to talk about their days? What is the Mama asks the Seven Year Old what he wants to do this afternoon? What if they decide to take off their shoes together, put them in the basket, have a popsicle, and build a leggo house together, if only for a few minutes?
This kind of structure promotes co-regulation: it offers both child and adult a chance to get into each other’s lives and feel each other’s perspectives.
It’s not easy, and it takes both practice and planning. It takes pushing aside the other million things tugging on your attention. It takes deciding to immerse yourself in your child’s world for a moment. But it will change your relationship with your child, and with yourself.
After all, who enjoys asking their children to follow the directions four thousand times, especially when they never ever follow them?
Praising children frequently can feel awkward, especially if you don’t have experience telling others, very frequently, what they are doing well. Most of us don’t go around telling our colleagues or spouses “Nice handwriting during the meeting!” or “Great work pushing your chair in,” or “You are excellently waiting in line.” It seems mundane, but when we are supporting children to be able to participate in daily life, this kind of praise is exactly what will help them to flourish.
So what does healthy praise frequency look like? How much is enough, really? There is never too much praise, and typically each child has at least one hundred praise-worthy moments every day. One hundred! Can you imagine how awesome and motivated you’d be feeling if someone told you how well you were doing one hundred times a day? That inner feeling of awesomeness is exactly what we are trying to cultivate for our children- especially for children who have special needs and may struggle with everyday tasks or understanding language and routines.
The question then becomes… what to praise? How to do it? How to maintain your sanity while giving your child one hundred+ moments of praise?
The Positive Parenthood approach is to praise any and all fragments of behavior that you’d like to see your child replicate more often. They key word here is fragments: it really does not matter how small of an act it is that is going well, and it doesn’t matter if it only goes well for one second. What matters is that as soon as it happens, you praise.
There are fragments of behavior you can praise all the time in your everyday life with your child. For example, you ask your child to wait. You know she has trouble 2waiting. Your child happens to stand quietly for one second. Before she has a chance to fall apart, you bend over and look at your child, your face glistening with pride. You grasp her hands, squeeze them, and say “Wow! (Name) is waiting!” These are the everyday moments worthy of praise; these are the moments that will enhance your relationship with your child.
Positive Parenthood is also about catching your child doing something well. Like fragments, this is an everyday, million-times-a-day, occurrence. For example- you announce it is time to get dressed. You start to sing the getting dressed song (whatever that is for your family). Your child independently begins to walk towards the dresser. You notice, and say “(Name) is ready to get dressed! Yay!” You smile broadly and applaud.
Are you beginning to get the gist of extremely frequent praise? It needs to be often, all the time. The idea here is that we are finding the golden moments and by emphasizing them, we are going to create more of them. It is important then, that you pay attention. You must be in it with your child, which means you must first take care of yourself. It may sound simple, but it is hard work to be so present with your child that you notice these micro-moments and can praise them effusively, frequently, and with lots of affection.
Offering positive touch- in a way that works for your individual child- is an important part of giving praise. Consider times when you've done exceptionally well at work or in your family- do you love to give high-fives, do you throw your fist in the air, or do you like a big hug? All of us have different orientations to how we like to experience praise, but for many of us using our bodies to celebrate is a key element- and it's the same for your child! What kind of positive touch do you offer when you tell your little one they are doing something well?
Because many children with special needs have sensory issues, touch can be an important piece of communicating, relationship building, and teaching. Learning how to give your child the touch that is right for her or him can deeply enhance your parent-child relationship.
Many children, especially when they are over-aroused, love deep pressure. Some of the gestures they might enjoy including having their hands, shoulders, upper or lower arms squeezed. At times, squeezing the torso by having the child face away from you and firmly wrapping your arms around their torso to squeeze is a welcome gesture! Other children like the "chest press and shake." Place one hand on the chest, the other on the back, and squeeze together briefly with a little shake. If a child is working on a task, sometimes a side-by-side buddy hug is best, as it allows the child to stay focused and oriented to the task they are completing.
Other children are prone to under-arousal, and for these children light, quick moving touches are best. For example, you can grasp a child's hand a shake, or place a hand on their belly and jiggle lightly.
If your child ever flinches or recoils when you are offering touch for praise, it may indicate that your touch has triggered sensory defensiveness. If this happens, try another kind of touch on the list. You can also consult an occupational therapist who can help you to identify what kind of touch works best for your child.
The "What Meemo Said" series is written by Robin's daughter about raising her own three daughters, who are all under two. Robin's grandchildren call her "Meemo."
My husband Sam and I went away for a weekend when our twins were about fifteen months. We needed the break- the girls had been stealing, grabbing, and fighting over every. single. toy. They even fought over toys that we had two duplicates of, sometimes hitting each other over the head, often pulling hair, and always screaming and generally wreaking havoc despite our insistent requests to share, be soft, keep their hands on their own bodies, take turns, and all the rest.
When we got back, they would look at us with a pleading in their eyes, point to the other childs' toy, and say "twooooo...." It turns out, she had taught them to count to five when they wanted the other child's toy, and then put their hand out, palm up, to ask for the coveted toy. While this definitely sounds like something that would not work for twins under two, lemme tell you something: it worked.
To date, when they want a toy, and especially when they start fighting/grabbing for a toy their sister has, we remind them to count. Now they can both kind of count (though don't worry, we're pretty sure they don't know their numbers yet even if they can recite the sing-song-y 1-2-3-4-5 in exchange for a toy), and they pretty consistently will give up their toy to their sister if she counts. Honestly, one of them will give up a toy about 80% of the time if she's counted on, and the other will give it up about 60% of the time, and sometimes they still cry- but they will almost always hand it over. Sometimes they immediately start counting on each other again, but they do it. And truth be told, they've counted on me trying to get my Diet Dr. Pepper and they kind of think if they count on me when I have my cell phone I'll give it up, and sometimes they try to get each others' unfinished ice cream by counting, but you know, most of the time it still works.
Here's proof, with the coveted hose while watering the garden:
So, why'd it work?
Connection, rhythm, repetition.
When Meemo started this little intervention, they already were what I like to call, #meemoexclusives. She'd already done the work to know them and love them, she'd already spent the hours looking into their eyes at eye level and talking to them about their toys and feelings and routines. So, there's that, and it's really important. Because there was already a connection, she had something to build off of when she introduced the new concept... counting and then giving up a beloved toy.
Secondly, she sang. I mean she really just counted, but it was in a sing-songy kind of voice, that had some rhythm to it. So . no, they didn't learn how to count at fifteen months, but they did learn to recognize how counting sounded, and they figured out that that song meant they were about to give up as toy to sister.
And finally, she did it all the time. She repeated and repeated. She made them hold out their palm, face-up and wait for a toy, every single time. She made the other one give the toy up, every single time. At first it was like 1-2-3-4-5, the child got the toy and within two hot seconds the other child was counting back, so and then again and again and again. It took a lot of do-overs and a lot of counting and some tantruming too, but eventually they got it.
And then Sam and I- and the others around the babies- got to reap the benefits. It wasn't totally free, they still tamtrum about it sometimes. But we all do it enough, and again and again and again, and we all can count in one language or another, and we do. And they give up toys. It doesn't work automatically if another person teaches your kid something like that and you want it to work for you too, but it does make things easier. You'll have to build off of your own relationship, and you'll have to be consistent and sing-song-y as well, but if the base is there, you don't need to reinvent the wheel, either.
So forced sharing? It's so necessary when you have multiple kids. It doesn't work exactly as it should when you don't want to share your wine or you cell phone, but everything can't be perfect, so we'll just be here, counting on each other for all the things. And if my kid comes to your house and starts saying "twoooooo, twoooooo..." you'll know exactly what she wants.
fThe True Stories series tells the stories of parents who tried everything, and after they came to Positive Parenthood, something finally worked. Names and identifying details have been changed, but the stories are every ounce the truth.
AJ had never, ever left a park on his own two feet. You know that mom who has to drag her kid out of the park, and he is screaming so loud that all the other parents kind of pretend not to stare but are actually staring, and the mom feels mortified and awful and judged and like the worse parent ever? That was AJ and his parents every time they went to the park.
Until it wasn't.
AJ was on the climbing wall, and the sun was setting and it was getting to be time to go home. Three more minutes, his dad sang. Three more minutes, he repeated back in the same sing song voice. Two more minutes, his dad sang and he echoed. One more minute, his dad sang. One more minute, he sang back as he played. And then it was time to go. All done park, his dad chanted with him. The chant wasn't over yet, though. Together, they sang I'm leaving to the car in 5-4-3-2-1. AJ took his dad's hand, and his mom walked alongside them, and together the trio sang Time to go in our car and then its time for driving, over and over and over again until they got into the car. AJ walked the whole way.
This may seem simple enough, but AJ was eight and AJ had been to a lot of parks, and really, truly, this was the very first time AJ left without being dragged, kicking and screaming, from the park. This was the first time AJ's parents weren't mortified to the point of wanting to cry themselves as soon as they got into the car. So what was important about this time? What was different?
They primed him: Not the cursory "we're leaving in five, kid" that you hear all the parents say *because that's what you're supposed to do,* this was real. It was meaningful. It was sing-songy, and AJ did it with his parents. They didn't shout it over their shoulders so that later they could throw their hands up and say, well, I did give him a warning. They sang it right to him, and he sang it right back.
They shared control: When it was time to go, AJ's parents shared the control with him. Together, they counted down from five, and they waited for him to be fully present with them, and they were fully present with him. They sang together. They didn't order him around. They allowed him to participate in being about to leave, and getting ready to leave.
It was a shared experience: From the time that there were five more minutes, it was a shared experience between AJ and his dad. They looked at each other. They sang to each other. They waited for each other. They were doing something together. It's critical that AJ's parents were with him in these moments, really, actually with him. They helped him sing and count, and they counted and sang themselves, not because they were doing it for him, but because they were sharing the experience with him.
And that folks, is how its done. OK, ok, we all know its not easy. But it is possible.
The "What Meemo Said" series is written by Robin's daughter about raising her own three daughters, who are all under two.
The glass was sweating in the late afternoon sun, a beautiful icey pink with strawberries floating in it. The pizza was hot out of the oven, and the scent of melted cheese and basil filled the air. We sat down to dinner, and Sienna refused to sit in her high chair. She settled on my lap and we blew on her pizza.
And then she saw the beautiful pink sangria glinting in the sun, and that is when everything started to get a little nuts. I mean I can hardly blame her, lusting after the sangria. Except for that she's not quite two, and I just can't justify letting her sip the alcohol even though she was screaming for it, and even though there were big, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Papa tried to distract her with his bottle of root beer, which she also could not have. She cried harder. I rolled my eyes. Her twin sister started to cry because Sienna was crying. So much for the peaceful summer pizza with a glass of sangria before bath and the rush to bedtime.
I was eating ice cream with my mom after the twins were asleep , when I stared into my eight week olds' eyes and proclaimed, "we'll keep you baby, if you promise to never act like your big sissies did tonight at dinner." Here's what Meemo said:
They all act like that. You acted like that. She's gonna act like that. Then she said that it didn't have to be this way. Sienna didn't have to scream for the sangria, ruin dinner, throw her sippy cup across the table, make her twin start crying to, and then cry because she wanted the root beer and the sangria. We could have said, "Sienna, I know you want that sangria. You really want it. You really really really want it. You really want it really bad." We could have empathized. We could have let her upset about it, we could have made sure she understood, and then we could have held the limit, sans offer of a root beer bottle she could also not have.
But we're not Meemo, we're adults who want a glass of sangria and so I rolled my eyes, but I sort of listened too. Because obvi I don't want this to be my everyday. Dinner was crazy-town, and I scrambled to eat my last scrap of pizza on the way to the bath, and I wrinkled my forehead because it was stressful and the ice in my sangria melted and it got watery and not as good which didn't even make it worth it that the screaming ended shortly after they got in the bubble bath. Sound familiar? You, like me, might know it doesn't have to be this way, but you, like me, might sometimes just need a glass of sangria on a Sunday night.
So, what's important here? What could we have done instead so that I could have had the damn sangria before all the ice (and the child in my lap) melted down? Here's how we could have turned that sh*t around:
CONNECT, EMPATHIZE, HOLD THE LIMIT.
Sienna needed connection. She needed to be recognized, validated, and heard. Sienna needed empathy. God knows she wanted that sangria just as much as I did- I could have empathized. And finally, Sienna needed the limit to be held, not the root beer to be offered. I mean I wasn't gonna give her the sangria, but Sam could have also not offered her the root beer. Getting anything right takes a whole lot of getting it wrong first. Besides, as one of the children upon whom Meemo herself practiced, I promise you, she didn't always get it right either.