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Help! I've got kids...

My Son's Insomnia

August 31, 2008

Question: My son has gotten into this pattern of tossing and turning in bed. This has been going on for five or six weeks already. He's so stressed by this that he hates going to bed pushing off bedtime every night. The truth is that I don't blame him. I can imagine how tortured he feels lying there in bed and not falling asleep. Do you have any advice for insomnia?

Answer: Getting a good night's sleep can be much easier for your child after he's been physically active during the day. Have him ride his bike, play basket ball, jog around the block when possible, at least a half an hour before bedtime. This will give his body the activity and oxygen it needs to help him relax and sleep more fitfully. A hot bath around two hours prior to bedtime can further help him relax and make him ready for sleep. (Taking a bath closer to bedtime may delay sleep.)

But once he's in bed, the worst thing for him to do when he can't fall asleep is to toss and turn. Advise him to use the time to read a book in bed, rather than lying frustrated. This way, even if he's not sleeping, his body will still get more rest than if he were up and about. True, his brain won't get to rest, but he'll gain more out of reading a book than by spending the time watching the clock and tossing and turning.

Suggest to him that he hide his clock—as watching the clock won't help him fall asleep, it will make him worried. But perhaps the biggest worry for most is the worry about the insomnia itself. Tell him that it's okay not to fall asleep. Tell him that he shouldn't try to go to sleep - falling asleep is something that requires the opposite of effort. Effort is work and work keeps you awake. The harder he will try to go to sleep, the harder it will be for him to fall asleep. Instead, teach him how to relax and let sleep come.

Teaching him systematic muscle-tension-and-relaxation exercises can help: Show him how to tense all his muscles, one at a time, then let go. He can also try falling asleep with the help of relaxation tapes simulating sounds of ocean waves, bird sounds, or other tapes with soothing music that can lull him to sleep.

Sniffing lavender oil has also been proven to help. Put several drops on a handkerchief or pincushion and have him take some long, deep breaths; the deep breathing and pleasant, relaxing aroma may help him drift off to Dreamland.

Many people have improved their quality of sleep by increasing their calcium intake. Increase foods rich in calcium in his diet: Cheese, salmon, almonds, tofu or ask your pediatrician about calcium and magnesium supplements.

There are times in a child's life that sleep comes harder for him. Sometimes it may be because of a difficult stage he's experiencing. Often the child may not even realize what's bothering him subconsciously, for instance, class friction, sibling rivalry or other stresses that he's not aware of. Don't wait for bedtime to communicate your love for your child, encourage him to talk, listen attentively and empathize with him.

See this phase as a wonderful opportunity to inculcate in your child the knowledge that G‑d runs this world, that He knows what is best for us and how to help us, and that G‑d is with us throughout our entire life and has already done countless acts of great kindness to us.

However, bedtime is a good time to reassure him once again, so that he can go to sleep with a smile on his lips.

(If the problem persists, you may want to check this out with your child's pediatrician to make sure there are no physical ailments causing his insomnia.)

Too Nice to Say "No"

August 24, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

In all the parenting books I read, and I read a lot of them, they speak about setting limits and boundaries with my kids. But I am just such a softie, that when they start to cry and plead with me, I usually give in. Is there anything really wrong with saying "yes" all the time? Can being too nice actually hurt your kids?

Too Nice to Say No

Dear Too Nice,

Your question is such an important one. Before we indulge our children, we have to weigh the consequences of our indulgence. Sure it feels good at the time, and we feel like a "nice mommy" or the "best daddy", but are we actually helping our kids, or are we only stroking our own egos? Will staying up a little later actually give this child quality time and attention, or will it only make them cranky and overtired tomorrow?

Parenting books speak about boundaries and limits because these are actually things that children need. Acquiring the traits of self-discipline and of impulse management is a necessary part of growing up. Without self-discipline, we would eat ourselves sick. Without impulse management, an adult would throw a chair across the room when angry or frustrated just like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

But since getting our way feels so good at the time, if we are continually indulged by a loving parent, what motivation will we have to acquire these essential life skills? If crying and pleading will get us our way, or help us avoid punishment, why would we ever learn to follow the rules? And without following rules, how will we ever experience the success necessary to acquire self-confidence and independence?

Somebody lacking these traits would be unable to form mutually satisfying relationships, succeed academically, or master a career. This is because people accustomed to always getting their way eventually become dependant upon getting their own way, and cannot function in situations in which they are not indulged.

So yes, there is actually something fundamentally wrong with saying "yes" all the time.

Part of parenthood is socialization. A baby is born uncivilized, and his parents are responsible for painstakingly teaching their child how to function as a productive member of society. This is why the child's "debt of gratitude" to his parents is so great.

Furthermore, self-control and an ability to delay gratification are necessary for the performance of any kind of spiritual act, whether fasting on Yom Kippur, making Kiddush on Friday night, or even prayer. Parents who wish to nurture their child's development as a spiritual being capable of having a relationship with G‑d need to be able to withstand the pressure of giving in to their children's demands for immediate gratification because spiritual gains require patience.

When you attempt to set limits with your children, they will initially resist your efforts, since they are so accustomed to getting their way. You will need to persist, and stand up to the anxiety generated in you when they beg and plead. If they see that you will not back down, they will eventually accustom themselves to your rules. Children are amazingly adaptable.

If you find you simply cannot enforce effective discipline, then it is time to seek professional help, in order to prevent your children from developing behavioral problems at school, in the playground, or on the street.

How Not to Yell at Your Kids

August 17, 2008

Yelling Comes Naturally

No one has to teach parents how to yell – it seems that this behavior comes naturally to so many of us. When we accidentally touch the hot handle of a frying pan, we yell. When a child refuses to listen, we yell. It just wells up from inside – unless, of course, we choose to put a lid on it.

In order not to yell, we have to find unnatural solutions to parenting pain and frustration. We have to take care of ourselves as well as our kids. It's not healthy for us to stuff our upset deep inside where it can fester; it's sure to cause us physical and/or psychological harm later on and it may also lead to some very nasty parenting when it finally erupts like Mount Vesuvius. If our children's behavior disappoints us, irritates us, enrages us or frightens the daylights out of us, we need to spend time with ourselves processing those feelings. We may also need to spend time with others (spouse, mom, friends, rabbi, counselors etc) to fully resolve our feelings and devise an appropriate parenting plan. Our emotions are ours to deal with. They are completely separate from our parenting interventions. Or at least, they ought to be.

We've Got Twenty Years to Figure This Out

Realizing that we can step out of a parenting moment to take care of ourselves can be quite liberating for parents. Unless the child is standing in the middle of traffic, there is generally no emergency occurring that requires our immediate action. Children fight. They've usually been fighting for several minutes before a parent enters the scene, so they can fight a few more minutes while the parent takes a moment to calm herself down before opening her mouth up. Children don't listen. Since they're not cooperating anyways, there's no harm in Dad taking a few minutes or even a few hours to figure out how he wants to handle the situation. Children don't go to bed. Instead of wasting precious time trying to get them there, parents can turn to each other for support and brainstorming over a nice cup of chamomile tea.

In other words, there is no rush. You've got twenty years to raise a child. Better to slow down and figure out what you can do that might actually be productive and healthy for all of you instead of rushing in impulsively to quickly "fix" whatever seems to be the trouble. These quick fixes all too often involve anger – both on the part of parents and kids. Angry parents do poor parenting and cause lots of harm. Stepping out of the parenting moment allows parents to calm their upset before they try to create a solution to a parenting problem. The solutions that they create once calm, are much more likely to be successful, enduring fixes. Those created in the heat of the moment usually solve a behavioral problem for only that moment while creating an emotional problem for a lifetime.

Alternative Strategies

So a parent has stepped out – to cry, journal, consult, eat chocolate, meditate or otherwise settle her nerves. Now she is ready to create an anger-free parenting intervention to address the situation before her. What are her choices?

First, she needs to review the foundation of her parenting plan – the 80-20 Rule. When the parent gives 80% positive attention (that is, 4 out of 5 good-feeling communications), kids are more cooperative. Period. (It's important to count all instructions and requests as "bad-feeling" communications when you perform this calculation for yourself. See my parenting book for a detailed explanation of this intervention.) No matter what is going wrong with the child's current behavior, the parent needs to check where he or she is in his or her daily parenting ratio and make adjustments as necessary.

The parent may then choose from a variety of interventions in order to address the specific issue at hand. Emotional Coaching – the naming of a child's feelings – will usually be involved before any other technique is employed. This creates a bond that fosters cooperation and allows a child to submit more gracefully to punishment when it is required.

Depending on the issue, the CLeaR Method of positive discipline may be appropriate. To apply the CLeaR Method, a parent asks herself, "What behavior do I want from this child?" The parent then waits for that behavior to occur or creates an opportunity for it to occur and then Comments on it, Labels it and temporarily Rewards it. For instance, a toddler has been hurting his baby brother by slapping him on the head. Mom takes the toddler's hand and helps him to gently stroke the baby. As she does so, she comments: "You're touching the baby so softly now." She labels: "You're being so gentle." She rewards: "I think you deserve a candy for being so gentle with your baby brother." (The reward will only happen the first few times that the desirable behavior occurs and then it will be rapidly "thinned out.")

It is also possible that the behavior in question requires more traditional "bad-feeling" discipline. In this case, the anger-free discipline strategy called the Two-Times Rule can be employed. In this method, the negative consequence does all the teaching and parental emotion is not employed at all.

Finally, in cases of rudeness, parents may want to use the intervention called The Relationship Rule – a series of steps that teaches a child how to control himself when he is upset (a skill that begins with parental modeling!). More information about each of these parenting strategies is available and hopefully, we'll also explore them more in depth, in future articles.

These 5 skills will see a parent through any parenting issue that presents itself over the two decades of raising a child. They not only replace yelling and other destructive interventions but they help ensure that children will maintain life-long loving relationships with their parents.

Mommy, I'm Bored!

August 10, 2008

Question: My children, 3, 6 and 10 years old, have a difficult time occupying themselves. It's almost like they always want me to entertain them, take them to exciting places and keep them busy. I'm constantly hearing "we're bored!" or "what should we do, now?" What would be reasonable to expect from children at this age? Do I need to be a full-time comedian/entertainer or should they be able to occupy themselves for some time on their own, with me nearby keeping an eye on them? I need some help in learning how to make them more independent!

Answer: You have really handed me an open-ended question. The point you have made is one of the central themes of our times. Has all parenting become a process of keeping our children entertained and amused? Is all a parent really supposed to be doing is to keep his/her children happy until they are old enough to live on their own? The answer is no. We, the parents are supposed to be teaching our children how to be a fully functioning part of a family in order to teach them the lessons they will need to cope in the world as well as raise a family of their own. To do this they must learn by doing! Not just watching the process or being told about the process but actually experiencing it first hand, by being part of the process. What does this mean? It means they must be active members of the household as early as possible!

What this means for you and your young family is that they are supposed to be by your side helping you as much as possible, throughout the day, according to what is age appropriate. For instance, your three-year-old can help set the table. I encourage all parents of young children to invest in a cheap set of plastic dishes so that young children can help and if they drop some dishes, it's no big deal! Your six-year-old can peel carrots and run to get you most things, help you in the garden, dust, pick up things and more. As for your ten-year-old, he can do almost anything except drive the car! This includes laundry and cooking!

Everyone is on a learning curve and it will take them time to gain any proficiency at their jobs. But if you don't start, you will never finish. In the beginning you will say to yourself that you can do it faster and better so it seems that it's not worth the effort, but then they will never learn. Think of yourself as a supervisor, teach them to do anything that they can and praise them specifically for the jobs they have done; this specific praise for real accomplishment leads to real self-esteem. Be specific not global in your praise and let them know that what they have done was truly helpful to you and you appreciate it.

The underlying point that they should understand is that we are a family and we pull together and that's what makes a family stronger. If this concept of the family working together is what is really behind this new initiative, then your children will grow to understand that this family unity is normal and positive. A gradual change will occur, when thinking of the family, there will be less of the "I" and more of the "we" in their outlook.

Also don't forget that with every move they make to help you, they are in fact fulfilling the fifth commandment, "honor your father and your mother." The positive spin-offs in personality, respect and peace in the home are beyond measuring.

The other thing I would suggest is to bring your children into your "sphere of influence" whenever possible. While you are doing tasks that only involve your hands, you can still communicate with them and often that's all they want—just to be near you and have you notice them. They seek your attention. Don't fight it, instead use it and give it to them as positively as possible. That also includes getting them to help you, as long as you're communicating during the process they will find it to be a positive experience.

Example: You are getting ready for supper and bring your children into the kitchen to help you. Your three-year-old is given some crayons to work at the kitchen table, your ten-year-old washes some vegetables and hands them to the six-year-old to peel them with a peeler. Your ten-year-old is busy getting down bowls and helping you with other things, measuring things, breaking eggs, mixing things. (Your six-year-old likes to mix things too!) As it gets closer to supper your three-year-old is given the plates and cutlery to set the table, with either your help or the help of an older sibling. During the whole time they have been in the kitchen, you and your children have been either singing or you are relating an experience you had as a child or a story or even asking them about their day. This then becomes true family time. A similar situation will take place for the end of the meal when you are cleaning up with the help of you keen work force.

They want to be with you. Let them. I personally would get rid of the TV, severely limit the time spent on the computer for any thing that is not homework and focus on helping your children read better. I've seen this work wonders and it releases the mind to be more creative.

Think about this, sit back, plan your moves and how you will present these changes to your children. You can say, "I realize I need some help and the best helpers I have are right here!" Start with one point in your day and expand as you get your routines down pat. With a little work, keeping your children busy will no longer be a problem. They will be helping you and you will be together singing and communicating about your day and just having fun as you work together. Times they need to be "entertained" will be at a minimum and planned into your day.

Your children are about to enter the world of mastery where they find out how capable they are and if you thought you were proud of them before, you are just going to burst now! Wishing you and your family all the best!

Why We Yell

August 3, 2008

Some people wonder why parents yell. Here's the logic:

Kids can be so maddening! You call them and call them and they don't come. You tell them and tell them and they don't listen! Sometimes you just have to yell to get them to pay attention. When you yell, they finally take you seriously.

Another good reason to yell is because it lets off steam. It is extremely frustrating to be running around all day, doing errands, going to work, running the household, taking care of everyone and THEN find that Junior's idea of a good time is to mercilessly tease the baby at bath time. How much can one mother take? Yelling prevents ulcers by releasing tension.

And by the way, we were yelled at plenty and nothing terrible happened to us. We're nice, well-adjusted members of society. O.K., maybe we don't have the greatest relationship with our parents, but hey, we turned out O.K.

Finally, we can't really help it. Yelling is born in our genes and raised in the models our parents provided. It's natural. Not yelling is not natural and takes way too much self-control – something like going off sugar, coffee and white flour for the rest of your life. If we weren't supposed to yell, our vocal chords would have been pre-set at mute.

So there you have it – the most common explanations (rationalizations?) for parental yelling. And although they all contain elements of truth, there is another side to the coin that must be considered:

The more we yell at kids, the more nervous habits they'll have. Hair pulling, nose picking, blinking, bed-wetting and other symptoms of stress increase the more parents yell. The more we yell, the worse the physical health of kids will be: more headaches, stomach aches, colds and flu's. The more we yell, the more behavioral problems our kids will tend to have: disobedience and defiance at home and/or school. The more we yell, the more social problems our kids will have: being victims, bullies, having trouble making and keeping friends. And the more we yell, the more distracted kids will tend to be when it comes to schoolwork. No one child from a yelling home falls apart in all these ways at once; each child's vulnerability will determine the area(s) of functioning that may be affected.

And there's more. If we yell at them for two decades straight (i.e. right through the teen years) then as adults they will tend to have: more personality disorders, more relationship problems, more depression and anxiety, more health problems, more parenting difficulties, more dysfunction of every possible kind.

The more we yell at our kids, the less they like us. The less they like us, the less they want to be like us. In not identifying with us, they may reject our teachings, our values and anything that we want to impart to them. Thus the more we yell, the less we can influence our children in the direction we want them to go. Passing on our Jewish heritage, teaching them right from wrong, imparting our most important lessons – our ability to do all of this is seriously threatened the more we yell at our kids.

Plus, chances are good that the kids we yell at frequently for two decades won't love us so much when they grow up and leave home. Some will never talk to us again. Some will move to the other side of the world and call only occasionally. Some will stay close enough to fight with us forever. We may or may not see our grandchildren. And our grandchildren are very likely to be yelled at because we've filled our kids' brains with the "yelling program." When we yell at our kids, we yell right down to the grandchildren and beyond.

So, while it's tempting to yell for all the reasons cited earlier, it's probably too high a price to pay for the gaining of a little cooperation. Fortunately, there are harmless and powerful alternatives for gaining a child's cooperation. They are worth the trouble to learn.

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

What makes your child tick? How can you learn to communicate better so your child will listen? Dealing with bedtime fights? Teaching gentleness? Arranging allowances and chores?

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