Why Is She Crying?

As a new parent, when my child misbehaved I used to think, “I must not be doing the right things or else she wouldn’t be acting like this.”  The parenting books I read would describe certain methods to get your child to behave.  I would do those things, and she would still be difficult.  (I’ve mentioned my irritation with parenting books before!).  My mind couldn’t help but sense that maybe I was not doing it “right.”  There had to be some change I could make so her behavior would improve and parenting would be easier.

The hard truth is it’s part of children’s normal growth and development to misbehave, cry and act out.  They are going to throw fits, hurt other children, refuse to go to bed, whine, and hit. Maybe everyone else gets that intuitively, but this was not something I knew or understood or could even begin to grasp when I was a new parent of a toddler.  I am more of a Type-A personality, used to solving problems head-on.  If my child’s behavior is a problem, there must be something I can do about it, right?!  It was a real epiphany to me that you can hold these two truths in your head at the same time: “I am a good mom with sufficient parenting skills” AND “My child will misbehave.”

This is when I started saying the phrase, “That’s just how kids are.”  It was seriously a shock to me how difficult parenting is and how bad kids are!  Of course, I don’t mean bad, but there is a lot of unpleasantness that I was not expecting. I had to say that phrase over and over, and at first I really didn’t believe it. This can’t be how parenting really is!  Why didn’t someone warn me?!  You don’t see the worst behavior of other children in public (and if you do, you assume they usually aren’t like that), and I became obsessed with wondering how my child compared to other little kids.  Was she worse?  Better?  By how much?  I secretly wished I had a camera in other moms’ homes so I could see how things really were.

Because I had unrealistic expectations, I became unduly irritated at what I perceived as misbehavior.  One incident that sticks out in my mind is putting on my two-year-old’s shoes.  She was fighting me and kicking her feet at me.  Looking back it seems silly that I was so shocked, but at the time I was very irritated and angry!  Just put your *&%$ shoes on!  After a while (and a few kids) I came to see that as normal and even expected behavior.  I got used to the general, every day difficult behaviors.  Children will fight the shoes, the car seat, eating dinner, and going to bed.  I had to learn to be patient through all of it.  Part of the problem was I was magnifying these problems and viewing them as a reflection of my parenting skills or self-worth.  Once I truly believed this was normal behavior, I was also able to believe that I was a competent parent.

So I realized that parenting becomes easier when you have the appropriate expectations of children and when you are accustomed to their behavior. It also helps to focus on the good parts more than the difficult parts.  Reinforcing your child’s positive behaviors helps you focus your attention on what the child is doing right more than wrong. Another skill is being grateful for the tender moments with your child: when she’s on your lap and you’re reading a book; when she hugs you and says, “I love you”; when she learns how to do something for the first time.  Unfortunately, it took me quite a while to do learn these lessons.  I am so grateful that in my parenting now the tender and fun moments far outweigh the irritating moments.

You have to understand and believe that not only is misbehavior normal, but children’s behavior is very complicated.  They are motivated and controlled by so many different factors, physical and emotional.  You can’t know or understand all those factors.  Many times the reasons for their misbehavior are a mystery.  Sometimes there isn’t a quick fix to that particular problem at that particular time.  You can’t let their behavior undermine your self-worth as a parent.  All you can do is be the best parent you can be, and trust that is enough.  Again, having confidence in your parenting principles can give you the security to get through difficult situations.  It’s easy to get focused on specific misbehaviors and bogged down by what that behavior means about you and/or your child.  But it’s better to look at the big picture.  Keep your focus on your core parenting strategies, and don’t worry if they don’t work all the time or if you’re not sure of the correct response to one particular problem.

Remember, the tantrums, the whining, the stubbornness and all their other difficult behaviors are an important part of their normal development.  THAT’S JUST HOW KIDS ARE!

Stay Close to Your Children

You can work all day long at being “consistent” in your discipline and following through on consequences, but if you don’t have a bond with your child, you will not be effective. The stronger your relationship the more effective your other parenting efforts will be.  This relationship takes work and effort, but will be so worth it.  You’re going to have to be around and deal with this child anyway!  You might as well make it as enjoyable a relationship as you can.

The best way to work on your relationship with your child is to spend quality time with him.  I recommend shooting for 10-15 minutes of one-on-one time each day.  During this time there are no expectations and no disciplining, just hanging out.  There are also no checking the phone or working on the computer.  Put your phone on airplane mode if you must, but take a break from it and give your child your undivided attention!  You could play Barbies or trucks, memory match games or just sing and talk together.  It’s just a time to “be”.  It’s really a relief and can become quite an enjoyable time to just hang out with your child.  So much of parenting interactions are centered on telling the child what’s right and what’s wrong.  It can get exhausting for both of you.  This is a nice break from that.  I’m not saying it’s easy to do – it can be hard to put aside other things that need to get done and just hang out.  It helps if you make it a habit or connect it to something else that happens daily.  For example, as soon as you put the baby down for afternoon nap you spend 10 minutes with the 3-year-old before doing anything else.

I try to revamp my schedule and find a reliable time to do this with each changing phase of life – when the kids go back to school, in summer, after a baby is born, etc.  Last year I made a goal at the beginning of summer to spend a certain amount of time with my kids each day, because I knew that if I didn’t really focus on that I would just do my computer work and errands all day and never stop to be with them (other than taking them places, which is not the same).  I told myself, this is my job – a stay-at-home mom – so make time to actually spend time with the kids!

If you feel like your child is having a particularly hard time, misbehaving more than usual or regressing, it’s a good idea to focus even more one-on-one time with him.  He needs that extra attention and love, and a dedicated time with you when he is not getting in trouble. This can be a key part of the solution to improving his behavior.

Another important part of staying close to your child is listening to him.  Listening is the kindest thing we can do, for anyone.  It is putting aside our thoughts and needs and words to give our undivided attention to someone else.  It is a great act of love.  And the child will feel loved the more we listen to him.  He will feel like he matters to you and is important to you.

Beyond showing your child you care and that he is important, listening can have a very healing effect on him.  Problems can seem less overwhelming if someone has listened to them and validated the feelings.  Everyone wants to be heard and validated.  It is essential to being human.  If you don’t allow your child to speak or express his feelings, those feelings will be pushed down and will fester and grow into bitterness.  When your child is upset, even if you feel like there’s nothing to be upset about, listen to him and help him express himself.  It will calm him down and help him figure out the solution on his own.

This all sounds great until you actually hear what your child has to say!  It’s often not that interesting, and likely not even that coherent!  It takes a lot of patience to listen to a child.  But, as often as you can (there are some situations where it’s not possible), try to really listen to what he has to tell you.  Act interested as he tells you all the details about the last Disney show he watched or how his Pokemons are fighting.  Listen and answer respectfully when he asks for something, and listen when he wants to tell you something you already know.  Many parents will cut off their child and finish the sentence or idea for them.  I feel like this shows disrespect, a sense of “I already know everything you know”.  Your child might be telling you a joke or story you know the ending to, still listen and let him finish and be proud of telling the whole thing.  Don’t contradict him off-hand.  If he says, “My teacher doesn’t like me,” don’t say, “That’s not true.”  This statement shuts down the conversation.  Instead say, “Why do you think that?”  This prompts the child to tell you more.

As often as you can, listen more than you talk.  Don’t lecture and go on and on about things.  Listen to their side of the story.  Another exasperating but crucial example of this is when the children are arguing with each other or have a disagreement.  In Use Your Words I talk more about how to handle these conflicts, but it’s important to listen to both sides of the story, in-depth, before helping them solve the problem.  People really feel empowered when they get to say their piece.

While you’re listening, empathize with them, also.  Use phrases like, “That must be hard” and “I can see why you’re upset” to let them know you understand the importance of what they are saying.  You don’t have to go on and on with your empathy, just some quick phrases to let them know you’re listening and you’re on their side.  Sometimes you can help them move on with a “Things will be better tomorrow” or “I’m sure you’ll remember next time.”

Don’t use “I told you so” phrases.  Let the consequences teach the lesson and you empathize with the sadness/disappointment.  This can be so hard because you want to point out that you knew the right way from the beginning, and maybe she should listen to you next time!  But I promise this truth will be communicated more clearly and forcefully if you DON’T say it, just let it sink in on its own.

Listen when they want to talk.  This gets to be more important the older they get.  Little kids want to talk all day long; they don’t need prompting.  But the older kids get the less they talk (which is good and appropriate), and when they become teens it’s even harder to get them to talk.  You have to be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.  This is usually at 10:30 at night when you’re about to go to bed!  But if you want to be close to your child, you have to put aside your needs and listen to them.  If you know something is going on and they don’t want to talk, say, “I’d love to hear about … when you’re ready to talk.”  If you’ve established a habit of listening to your child, from the time she was little and didn’t say very interesting things, you will have a close relationship and your teen will open up to you from time to time.

In general, take every opportunity you can to have frequent positive interactions with your children.  Smile a lot; laugh often; make chores and other household duties fun and enjoyable; touch and hug and talk a lot!  Overall, kids need more time and attention than most people think.  When you give it to them, and parent in a way that you can stay emotionally close to your child, you will be greatly rewarded – with positive, loving feelings toward your child and with good behavior from your child!

Stop and Redirect

When there is inappropriate behavior that cannot be ignored you’ll need to stop and redirect.  This post will explain how to do that.

Many of these posts contain overlapping principles, and this one especially can’t stand on its own.  It’s important to also read Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child (Parts I, II, and III), and Positive Reinforcement.

As you probably can tell, I’m a much bigger fan of proactive parenting than reactive.  I’d much rather think of misbehavior as an opportunity to teach good behavior.  As in, “Obviously he hasn’t learned how to do all his chores by himself, so what am I going to do to teach him?”  (Keep in mind it can take many repetitions to teach him.) Also misbehavior reminds me to express my expectations: “I expect you to pick up your toys when you’re done playing”; “I expect you to talk nicely to your family”; “I expect you to listen when I talk”; etc.  This concept is explained more in depth in Explain Expectations.

I use punishments or rewards sparingly because they are external motivators, and kids need to create and build internal motivation to be well-behaved over the long-term.  So when I say stop and redirect inappropriate behaviors that cannot be ignored, it’s not a euphemism for punishment or “consequences” (although that is a last resort).  It’s simply some strategies for how to respond when your positive reinforcement hasn’t kicked in and you need to address some misbehavior right then.

There are a few layers to this response.  First is just a simple reprimand, asking the child to stop the behavior.  Sometimes this does the trick.  Next would be trying to redirect the child. And lastly, you would need to administer some consequences.  Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

*First – Reprimand.  As you know, I’m a big believer in choosing the correct words and believe there’s a “better way to say it.”  So I have quite a bit to say about the reprimand – what to say and what not to say, and how to say it.

Just as in “How to give instructions“, it’s important to go over to where the child is, look her in the eye for 2-3 seconds, and calmly say something simple and to the point.  Try to include what TO DO also (explain the behavior you do want).  “We do not jump on the couch.  Your feet need to stay on the floor.”

Be direct, unemotional, and precise.  Don’t talk too much. Save words for the happy times.  This can be really hard!  But again, make it a game with yourself, tell yourself it’s good to learn new things/try hard things, and you are up to the challenge!  It’s important to get your message across using only a few words, with as little time spent as it is possible. Don’t lecture or try to drive home the point. The more words you use the more you dilute your meaning, and the less effective you become.  Again, you might want to write out some sentences for potential misbehavior situations and practice them.

Don’t keep reminding, saying it over and over. This just gives the child the message that you don’t think they hear you or remember.  Say it once (or twice) and expect them to remember and they will live up to that expectation.

Don’t ask a lot of questions about inappropriate behavior: “Why did you do that?” Sometimes you do want to know what the situation was or what might have prompted the action.  It’s okay to talk about it a little, asking, “What was happening here?” or “What happened right before you threw the toy?”  You’re trying to elicit information in a non-judgmental, compassionate, listening way.  And the point is to LISTEN more than talk.  However, if you’re not in an emotional state to do this, just skip that whole part of the conversation!

Give her the benefit of the doubt: “That’s not like you.” And when she balks at some instruction or reprimand, you can say something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset.  Something surely must have gone wrong, otherwise you would not have behaved in this way. You’ll feel better in a moment.” Or, “You’ll be happier and feel a lot better after you’ve calmed down.  Things happen that can really upset us.  I know the feeling.  Let’s talk about it in 10-15 minutes.”

All these sentences and many more can be found here.  Print them out – practice them!  You’ll feel dumb at first, but soon this style of speaking becomes second nature to you, and will improve your interactions with your child and your child’s behavior.

Side Note: If your child’s behavior is disruptive to someone else (guests are over, you’re out in public, he’s thrashing around and hurting you or a sibling), you’re not going to continue this “talking” phase for long.  Just like many things in parenting, the spoken reprimand is the ideal, the first step in attempting to change his behavior, but many times it takes more than that.  Many difficult behavior situations don’t have one “right” way to deal with them.   The goal is just to get through that situation without getting overly angry and saying or doing something you’ll regret.  Stay calm and deal with it through talking, or when necessary, removing the child from the situation.  Don’t worry too much about the particulars of how to handle this extreme situation.  If, for the most part, you are following all the other principles I’ve outlined (in this and other posts), you’ll have an overall parenting vision or plan and a framework of skills to fall back on.

*Then – Redirect. If the spoken reprimand is not working and the misbehavior continues, your next step is trying to redirect the child.  The point of this is to redirect the child’s attention to something positive, either something different to do or something else to think about.  Then, hopefully, she will forget about the problem at hand, and stop the problem behavior.  “Let’s play with this toy instead.”  “Did you know that daddy will be home soon?”  “Have you tried the purple crayon?  That’s mommy’s favorite color.”  “After dinner let’s play a game together.”

You don’t have to worry about “teaching the lesson” or letting the child know that the behavior was wrong.  If you’ve said a sentence or two about what not to do and what to do (“When you take her crayon she feels sad.  Let’s just color with these crayons.”), that’s one step to teaching the correct behavior.  The other step comes later, when you catch her doing the correct behavior and comment on it.  You don’t have to make the child perform the correct behavior right then, like share the toy or say “I’m sorry.”  That just puts you in a power struggle, and you have a good chance of losing!

Redirecting a child is a skill that can be difficult to master, but brings so much satisfaction when you find just the thing that gets the child’s attention and helps them forget the problem/misbehavior.  Experiment with different distractions and be creative!  Point to a bird out the window and start talking about where the bird is going and how they make their nest and how they teach their babies to fly.  Or talk about a time when your brother hurt you and how you felt and what you said to your mom and what she said in response, etc.   It takes a lot of emotional energy on your part, and it doesn’t always succeed, but it’s worth the effort and it can be fun!

*As a last resort – Administer consequences. Most misbehaviors can be addressed using the above two strategies. You want to administer consequences sparingly because the more often you give consequences, the less powerful they become. If you are always saying, “No computer time for you today!” it will lose its force.  I recommend the book Love and Logic for a more in-depth look at these principles.  They coined the terms “natural and logical consequences”.  Natural consequences are those you don’t have to say much about, i.e. if they don’t take their coat, they are cold – and you let the cold teach the lesson, instead of you telling the child what a mistake it was to not bring a coat.  Logical consequences are the ones that you think up to fit the misbehavior.  Your consequences must fit the misbehavior and be immediate. One example is taking away a toy that was used to hurt someone else.  Or removing the child from the table at snack time if she was making a mess with her food (and, obviously, you’ve tried the reprimand and the redirect FIRST).  It is ineffective to say, “No TV when we get home!”  That is taking away a privilege (watching TV), but doesn’t really have anything to do with the current misbehavior AND is so far away in the child’s time reference that it will not change his behavior next time.  (Plus, there’s a great temptation to go back on your word and let the child watch TV anyway because you realize you’re only punishing yourself!).

When you need to administer consequences be kind and calm.  You can empathize with them, “I know it’s hard when you can’t play with that toy you want.  I know you will remember next time to use it appropriately.”  You don’t have to be angry at them.  If you are, that focuses the child’s attention on you and how mean you are, rather than her own behavior getting her into this situation.  Administer consequences with compassionate sadness.  Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re okay.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part I

This is such an important topic, and there is so much to say about it, that I’ve divided it into three parts.  Click here to see Part II and Part III.

Also, for a list of parenting sentences that you can refer to and practice, click “There’s a Better Way to Say It!”

Positive speaking is the second most important parenting principle, after Explain Expectations.  I really believe it is the key to effective parenting.  There are so many powerful effects our words and tones can have on children, for good or for bad.  This principle really began to take form in my mind when I moved to a new area and met a wonderful woman who had seven children, all quite young.  She was a positive person by nature, always smiling and reaching out to be friendly to others.  I felt like she was a really impressive mother (with impressive children!) and decided to observe her more closely.  The most striking thing was how positive and kind she was to her children.  No matter what she was telling them (to not interrupt her, to go do something, to not do something) it was always in a calm and kind manner.  This is not to be confused with being passive or a push over.  She was calm and kind BUT ALSO firm and following through with her instructions.  This was the epiphany to me – you don’t have to be mean to discipline!  Isn’t that a revelation?!  In my mind you had to act and look mean to get your point across, to let them know that this was really “not okay!”  But no, it turns out a soft answer turneth away wrath (and produceth better behavior, too!!)

If you watch parents, they are often unkind or curt with their children.  They treat them like second class citizens, sometimes in subtle ways.  Children need lots of attention, and they are not just being annoying when they try to get attention.  It sounds trite, but treat your children like you would treat a friend.  (I know, I know, friends don’t pull on your pants and say, “Mo-om!” over and over, but that’s why they say parenting is hard!).  You have to take the time and effort to speak to your children kindly, and explain things to them, and teach them appropriate behavior, and a thousand other things that take time, but the investment will be SOO worth it.  It really will pay off in a better relationship and in better behavior from them.  You will feel more positive about your parenting efforts and about your child.  It’s worth the time and effort!

Speaking kindly is especially hard to do when you are angry or irritated.  See Parenting without Irritation and Practice Patience for more advice on that.

Here are a few ideas related to this principle, the list of ideas is continued in Parts II and III.

*Don’t lecture.  When you need to redirect your child, be brief and unemotional, try to use 6 words or less for the most part.  Save all your words for focusing on the good behavior!  (See Positive Reinforcement).  Some parents like to talk and are naturally longer winded.  I am not one of those; I am not much of a talker anyway, so I don’t fall victim to the temptation to lecture.  I’d much rather listen by nature, which served me as a benefit in parenting.  If this is not your strong point, you’re going to have to work on this.  There is a lot of listening in parenting!  If you want to talk, make it about future expectations (in a kind way, not a “here’s what you’re doing wrong” way. See Explain Expectations).  When you are reprimanding or disciplining, that is not the time for a lot of words.  That is not a teachable moment – children are turned off and not paying attention.  Going on and on about something just makes them irritated at you and doesn’t inspire them to do the right thing next time.

*Validate their feelings.   News flash: children are people.  People like to be validated.  Don’t you feel better when someone says, “That must be hard” rather than, “Just get over it!”  We can always be on our children’s side, even when they misbehave.  We can always empathize with them and validate them, even while following through on the consequence we established.  Say Jane was hitting her brother with a hard plastic toy.  You’ve asked her not to 2-3 times (coming close to her, looking her in the eye, explaining why she can’t), so now you’ve put the toy up high and she is crying.   You can say, “I know it’s hard to not play with that toy right now.  You’ll get to play with it later.  How about this one for now?”  instead of, “Well, it’s your own fault, if you could ever learn to not hit your brother with that toy then you would be able to play with it!” Your role is not to dig in the shame and guilt, but to unemotionally administer the consequence and empathize with her distraught.

This may sound very foreign to some of you, to be empathetic when they are upset about consequences of their own misbehavior, and it takes some practice to get right.  Sometimes the validation can come off as sarcastic, like, “Oh, so sad you can’t play with that toy, why do you think that is?”  You have to be coming from a kind place to pull it off, and it takes practice to get to that place!

Another example is when your spouse has reprimanded or administered consequences to your child.  You can go to the child and empathize, while still being firm in agreeing with what your spouse did.  After asking what’s wrong, your crying child tells you how daddy took away the toy and put it up high.  You could say, “It sounds like you’re very sad about that.  I’m sorry that happened.”  Saying ‘I’m sorry that happened’ is not the same as saying ‘daddy shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘you weren’t doing anything wrong’.  It’s just validating their feelings.  The child is sad about something, and I am empathizing with the sadness; I care about her and her feelings.   Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re ok.

There’s a lot written and said about the importance of validating feelings in marital relationships, and the same principles apply in parenting.  Children want to be heard; they don’t necessarily want you to fix the problem right away or tell them what to do about it.  They just want you to listen to them.  Sometimes they will tell you they want you to do something about it, but sometimes they will just finish telling the sad or hard story and then be done.  Sometimes they take a long time to get the story out or the story is really boring!  But you listen anyway, and validate the feeling at the end.  “Sounds like you had a rough day.”  “You’re feeling very angry right now.”  “You must be tired after doing all of that!.”

One funny and cute idea I read somewhere about listening to and validating children was to say, “I’m going to write that down!”  If the child is angry about something she doesn’t like or want, the mom says, “Ok, I’m going to write that down.”  Even though the mom doesn’t intend to do anything with the idea or the paper it’s written on, the child feels thoroughly listened to because her opinion will be written down!

For more ideas, see Part II and Part III