Focus on crying child—not irritated bystanders
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Q: I am very comfortable dealing with my 2½-year-old child when she throws a fit at home. I am able to use your Smart Love approach and hold her or, if she doesn’t want to be held, stick with her until she feels better.
The problem is when I am out in public. When she melts down in the grocery store, the dry cleaners, a hotel lobby or a restaurant, I feel embarrassed and my focus changes to trying to shut her down. I know this isn’t ideal, but I find it hard to think of her when I know she is bothering other people. Can you help with this dilemma? R.B., Barrington
A:We’ve all been there. It can be difficult to focus on comforting your child when the general public is giving you looks that say, “Can’t you shut that kid up?” It may help to keep in mind that, regardless of what others may think, your daughter is acting like a normal 2-year-old. Namely, once in a while, she gets upset and cries.
So try to use the same positive responses you would choose at home. Since you find yourself being made uncomfortable by others, the best solution may be to take her somewhere private—try going outside or into a deserted hallway, for example—and then focus on soothing her.
If you are someplace you can’t leave, such as waiting in the checkout line, try turning your back to people so you can’t see their expressions when you comfort your child. The idea is to create as much private space as possible to give your daughter the soothing she needs.
Should I restrict how my child spends her allowance? Q:What is your approach to allowances? My 11-year-old gets $10 a week of spending money.
We think she is spending too much of it on frivolous purchases such as rap music, candy and soft drinks, but when we try to talk to her about this, she says it’s her money and she should be able to spend it how she wants. Also, she sometimes talks back, doesn’t get her homework done and talks on the phone after she is supposed to be in bed.
We have told her we will dock her $1 for each of these infractions, but she gets upset, says we are horrible and unfair and sulks for days. We really need help thinking this through. T.P., Chicago
A:We admire your willingness to reconsider your policies when they are making your child unhappy.
In this case, we have to agree with your daughter that her allowance is hers to spend as she wishes. She gets less than $1.50 a day, so if she wants something that costs more than $1.50, she will learn to save. Just as adults like to have a little money to spend just for fun, that outlet is good for children as well.
We do not advocate tying children’s allowances to good behavior, including doing chores or homework. An allowance should not be a reward but a treat children can enjoy with no strings attached. When allowances are seen as rewards for behavior, children feel coerced into the behavior or resentful when the money is withheld. They do not learn to enjoy doing chores or schoolwork.
If children are not doing well in school, aren’t going to bed on time or are resisting chores, those issues need to be dealt with independently. For example, nightly bed checks might completely solve the after-hours phone conversations.
How do I handle kids with different personalities? Q: I am interested in your viewpoint about how to respond to siblings with different personalities. I have two boys, ages 1 and 4. From birth, they were totally different. The 4-year-old is high strung, sensitive and easily upset. The 1-year-old is resilient and laughs off most things. Because he is so easygoing, it is very easy to parent him.
I feel like my 4-year-old needs to learn to be tougher to cope with life, but I am not sure how to help him. We try telling him that he is upset over nothing and acting like more of a baby than his little brother, but then he gets mad. My friend told me to ignore his tears unless they are for a “good reason,” but that doesn’t feel right to me. L.G., Oak Park
A:There is no conclusive scientific evidence that personality is inborn. The preponderance of evidence suggests the opposite is true—personality can be responsive to ongoing life experience.
Keep in mind that every newborn has been affected by nine months of prenatal experience. Increasingly, research shows how formative those months are. Babies are born able to recognize their mother’s voice, to know which stories were read to them in utero and to recognize their native language.
Also, babies born to mothers who have experienced significant stress during pregnancy are more likely to produce greater than average amounts of stress hormones themselves and to be harder to soothe than other babies.
Babies’ personalities are not fixed—they can change. You can help your older boy become calmer and more resilient. The way to make him happier is by recognizing and accounting for his sensitivities—not by following your friend’s advice and ignoring those sensitivities.
We suggest that you notice what causes your son to fall apart and try to eliminate or anticipate those occasions. For example, if he becomes upset when you pay attention to his brother, find something fun for him to do beforehand.
When he does cry, open your arms and your heart to him. Like adults, children appreciate the opportunity to turn to a warm relationship when they are unhappy.
Once your son knows that he can come to you for help when he is upset, his inner sense of well-being will be more stable. The result will be that he will be more flexible and less volatile.
Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.