I keep hearing from parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety as a new school year begins. Here’s what I tell them.
Does it seem like you’re spending an hour each afternoon just to get your toddler or preschooler to sleep for thirty minutes? Does approaching naptime produce a daily throwdown of the wills? Do you find your inner Ugly Parent emerging at this time, resulting in a nuclear naptime?
If you want to restore your afternoon oasis, here are a few suggestions—and a new way to think about the ever-elusive toddler nap.
Acknowledge the Audacity
Asking your child to go to sleep in the middle of her day is pretty presumptuous. Would you ask a falcon to pull out of a dive? LeBron James to sit out the third quarter?
An instinctual developmental drive pushes your toddler or preschooler to play, be silly, explore her world—all of which require being awake and on the move. No wonder repeating “Go to sleep” and “Be still” over and over doesn’t work. It runs counter to everything inside of your child.
Use a Gentle Approach
Remember that threats are often counterproductive. Saying things like, “If you don’t settle down, Mommy will leave,” actually arouses your child’s nervous system further and aggravates his anxiety. I know because I tried it more times than I care to admit. And then it takes even longer for them to settle and relax into sleep.
And yelling? Have you ever tried drifting off to a relaxed, sweet sleep when a loved one is mad or yelling at you? I’ve never had the actual experience of trying to fall asleep when someone was yelling “GO TO SLEEP!” at me, but I imagine it’s pretty difficult.
Be Mindful of Your Child’s Stage
Not only is the nap an unwelcome interruption in the busy day of your young mover ’n shaker, it also represents a significant separation. We often don’t think about sleep as a separation, but it certainly is. Developmentally, your child regularly achieves new milestones toward independence. But almost as frequently, there are periods of regression when she is even needier, and when she has a hard time tolerating being alone. Try to stay attuned to such instances, extending more—and longer—handholding and cuddles as she needs them.
Don’t Articulate . . .
You want your toddler to sleep; he knows you want him to sleep. From the time he swallows his last bite of lunch, he’s steeling himself against sleep. So, when you tell him he has to go to sleep, you’re just asking him to fight back.
Lean Into the Need for Play
Instead, employ some naptime nuances, nudging your child toward a more relaxed, ready-to-sleep state through quiet play. This moves him closer to relaxing, while still allowing the drive for curiosity and exploration to be indulged. Gently roll a large exercise ball up and down his body, from shoulders to feet. Take turns. Encourage him to rock his favorite stuffed animal to sleep. Even some reverse psychology might work: “Don’t go to sleep, but let’s see if we can get your lion to fall asleep.” Lead him through some breathing exercises, like pretending you are both blowing out birthday candles really slowly.
Of course, reading a story or singing a few gentle songs can work wonders. In fact, if your toddler falls asleep readily at night, play music at bedtime with which he will make a positive sleep association—then play it for him at naptime.
Offer an Option
If all else fails, it can be effective to say, “You don’t have to go to sleep, but you do need to close your eyes and be still.” This worked like a charm for a couple of years with each of my kids. But, at this stage it might be time to . . .
Nip the Nap?
If they are getting close to age 3, you might want to pull the nap. If they take a long time to fall asleep at naptime and then stay up really late at night, it might be time to experiment with removing the nap. When I pulled the plug on my sons’ naps, I had to be out of the house in the afternoon at the park or somewhere doing something fun or they would fall asleep—or fall apart. Then, they’d fall asleep easily and early, resting better at night. I found that they actually were getting more hours of sleep when I took the nap away, and then my husband and I had our evening together. However, some kids need the nap through age 5 or 6.
Give up the push toward independence. Just think about the next three months or so and how things can best work for your family. Your children’s schedules and needs will be different in just three months. Think about how best to get them some sleep and use the break instead of worrying about promoting independence or other kinds of things. Just focus on this and that independence will come later naturally.
Embrace the Challenge—and the Change
Remember that naptime battles are normal, and that getting frustrated is normal. Yes, you may occasionally model poor frustration-management strategies, but you also employ smart ones lots of times. You will be frustrated with your child a lot and that’s totally normal. But what they are doing at times can drive you crazy, so it would be weird if you weren’t frustrated. This is a phase, and no strategies are going to work perfectly. In fact, what works for you this week probably won’t next week. But it’s all normal—and it will all be different again in some other wonderful and difficult ways in three more months.
Do you ever feel like things aren’t quite right between you and your child? Before you had kids of your own, you may have assumed that when you became a mother you’d feel wonderful about them all the time. You knew, of course, that there would be occasional conflict; you didn’t expect them to be happy when you disciplined them, for example. But still, you knew how much you’d love your kids, and you thought that that love would help you avoid most relational conflict with them.
Now, though, as your kids have grown past the baby stage and developed personalities and desires of their own, things aren’t always as happy as you imagined they’d be. If you’re like a lot of mothers, you may feel guilty that things aren’t better more often. You might feel bad that sometimes you feel like you don’t even like your children or your role as a mom. You might feel like you’re the only one struggling with your kids. You might wonder what’s wrong with you.
The truth, though, is that relationships ebb and flow. We know that’s true, and we expect rough patches in long-term relationships.
Guess what? What you have with your kids is a relationship, too. And you’ll go through rough patches in that relationship, too.
Sometimes, you just aren’t in a good place to connect. Maybe you’re not taking care of yourself and your patience is chronically low. That’s not a good match for a child who is simultaneously pushing your buttons or who is struggling with patience herself.
Or maybe your child isn’t in a good place to connect. She may be going through a phase where she’s experimenting with being a little more independent, and it means you’re not hearing much about what’s going on with her, and this is happening at a time when you’re craving more connection. Sometimes needs of individuals in the family are in conflict, and we struggle.
Rough patches just happen sometimes. Here are four suggestions to help you get some perspective on the whole situation:
Take the long view.
Realize that it’s normal for relationships to have upswings and downswings, and if you’re not hitting your stride with your child at the moment, it will likely come back around. Today may be tough, but tomorrow will be better. Or this week may be tough, and next week better. As children develop, it’s normal for them to disconnect from their parents in various ways at various stages. Stay consistent and loving in your interactions with your child, and have faith that things will come back around.
Evaluate your child’s needs.
Ask yourself whether there’s something your child needs right now that he’s not getting. More time with you? More affection? More attention? Less conversation and more independence? More responsibility? Often, a child acts out because he’s needing something and doesn’t know how to ask. So do your best to listen to his actions and see what’s going on.
Evaluate your own needs.
What do you need right now that you’re not getting? Time by yourself? Time with your spouse or friends? More sleep? More exercise? You know that old saying: If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So take care of yourself.
Keep investing yourself in the relationship.
Time, effort, and intention go a long way. Just as in your adult relationships, you’ll see your relationship with your child grow and deepen as you put in the time and remain a consistent, steady, loving presence in his life. As the relationship ebbs and flows, be the rock your child knows she can count on when she needs you.
I’ve recently written two articles for mom.me about communicating with tweens. Here’s the one about talking with your pre-teen daughter.
She’s not a teenager yet. But she’s sure not a child anymore, at least in the way she used to be. Just last week her school notebook contained pictures of cute puppies. Now she actually talks about cute boys.
One foot in childhood, one in adolescence. Sometimes sweet and playful, sometimes moody and sensitive. She’s a tween.
How do you talk to her? Here are some suggestions.
Here’s a new post on Mom.me. It begins like this:
I know what you’re thinking: “File this one under ‘You can’t be serious.’”
But I am serious.
Nobody likes a tantrum: not your little one, and certainly not you. But even though we don’t enjoy our kids’ tantrums, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the times when they get the most upset.
For example . . .
Yesterday I spent a fun hour with the delightful Richard Fidler on ABC Radio in Australia.
How well do you handle yourself when you’re upset with your kids?
Me? Sometimes I respond extremely well, making myself proud of how loving and understanding and patient I remained. At other times, I lower myself to my kids’ level and resort to the childishness that upset me in the first place.
My message to you today is that when you respond to your kids from a less-than-optimal place, take heart: most likely, you’re still providing them with all kinds of valuable experiences.
For example, have you ever found yourself so frustrated with your kids that you call out, a good bit louder than you need to, “That’s it! The next one who complains about where they’re sitting in the car, has to sit in that same seat for the rest of the year!”
Or maybe, when your eight-year-old pouts and complains all the way to school because you made her practice her piano, you say, with your parting words as she departs the mini-van, “I hope you have a great day, now that you’ve ruined the whole morning.”
Obviously, these aren’t examples of perfect parenting. And if you’re like me, you beat yourself up for the times when you don’t handle things like you wish you had.
So here’s hope: Those not-so-great parenting moments are not necessarily such bad things for our kids to have to go through. In fact, they’re actually incredibly valuable.
Why? Because these less-than-perfect parental responses Continue Reading »
Here are some things parents say to me about their discipline frustrations:
–I don’t feel like I have an overall theory of discipline. It’s more that I just do whatever comes out at the time. Sometimes my reaction or instinct is really good, and other times I’m being just as immature or reactive as my toddler. I just feel like I need to give more thought to it and have a plan.
–I feel disempowered. I think I’ve been told a list of things that I should NOT do –spank, yell, etc. – but I don’t know what I CAN do, other than just take a toy away. So I find myself making empty or meaningless threats (“Do that again and you’re going to be in BIG trouble!”) and then I’m just so frustrated. I don’t know what to do in the moment.
Do these parents’ comments resonate with you? I can certainly identify. I remember how clueless I felt as a new parent, and even though the stories often end up being funny in retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how I responded at times when my kids acted out.
The Parenting Expert Gets Taken Down by Her Own Reactive Brain
One day my three-year-old got mad and hit me. I guided him to his time-out spot at the bottom of our stairway, sat next to him, and smiled. I lovingly (and naively) said, “Hands are for helping and loving, not for hurting.”
While I was uttering this truism, he hit me again.
So I tried the empathy approach: “Ouch! That hurts mommy. You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”
At which point he hit me again.
I then tried the firm approach: “Hitting is not OK. Don’t hit any more. If you’re mad you need to use your words.”
Yup, you guessed it. He hit me again.
I was lost. I felt I needed to up the ante. In my most powerful voice I said, “Now you’re in time out at the top of the stairs.”
I marched him up to the top of our stairs. He was probably thinking, “Cool! We’ve never done this before. . . I wonder what will happen next if I keep hitting her?”
At the top of the stairs, I bent over at the waist, my pointer finger wagging, and said, “NO MORE HITTING!”
He didn’t hit me again. Continue Reading »
Toddlers and preschoolers see their grown-ups and older siblings doing everything so easily. It can be frustrating and discouraging for these little ones to try and try, and not be able to do what they see everyone else doing.
Knowing that self-esteem can come from being competent at something, there are several ways we can empower our toddlers and preschoolers and give them opportunities to feel capable and competent:
Let them do things for themselves.
Sometimes it’s hard for a parent not to step in and quickly do something a child is trying to do. Especially if the child is taking a long time to, say, figure out how all of the chalk pieces will go back into the box. (Sometimes I want to pull my hair out when I’m watching my own four-year-old meticulously try to fix the Velcro fastener on the back of his Continue Reading »
One day my seven-year-old became furious with me because I told him he couldn’t invite a friend over to play. He stormed off to his room and slammed the door. About a minute later, I heard the door open, then slam again. I went up to check on him, and taped to the outside of his door, I saw the picture you see here. (You can see from the drawing below that he regularly uses his artistic talents to communicate his feelings about his parents.)
I went into his room and saw what I knew I’d see: a big child-sized lump under the covers on his bed. I sat next to the lump and put my hand on what I assumed was a shoulder, and suddenly the lump moved away from me, towards the wall. From beneath the covers, he cried out, “Get away from me!”
Often at times like this I can become childish and drop down to my child’s level. I’ve even been known to say things like, “Fine! If you won’t let me cut that toenail that’s hurting, you can stay in pain all week!” (Sometimes I’ll throw in a “See if I care!” for good measure.)
But this particular day, I maintained control and handled myself pretty well. I first tried to acknowledge his feelings: “I know that makes you mad that Ryan can’t come over today.”
His response? “Yes, and I hate you!”
I stayed calm and said, “Sweetie, I know this is frustrating, but there’s just not time to have Ryan over. We’re meeting your grandparents for dinner in just a little while.”
After that, he returned to the familiar refrain as he curled tighter and moved as far away from me as possible: “I said get away from me!”
I reminded him of our rule about talking with each other respectfully, then I went through a series of responses, the ones I regularly talk to parents about. I comforted; I tried to use nonverbal connection like touch and tone of voice before I tried to problem-solve; I empathized; I tried again to explain. I even offered an incentive to talk: a playdate the next day. But at that moment, he refused to calm down or let me help him in any way.
The point of this story is a reality that people rarely talk about: Sometimes Continue Reading »