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Q: I am having trouble at the dinner table. My son will not sit down and eat, he takes a few bites and then tries to get out of his seat. This happens every night and I am exhausted. Please help!
A: This is a great question and one that is universal among parents of young children. For purposed of this post, I will assume this child is a toddler or preschooler.
Own Your Role When It Comes to Mealtime
Let’s start with a discussion about our job as parents when it comes to food. Thankfully, it’s quite simple: we decide what, when and where children eat, and they decide how much. In other words, once you set the plate of food on the table, your work is done. Now, you can focus on enjoying your meal, or for parents who eat separately, make a small plate with the food you are serving to your child to enjoy alongside them while they eat. This introduces a social element into eating versus a dynamic where parents are feeding children and monitoring their intake.
Align Expectations with Development
Toddlers and preschoolers tend to be more grazers, eating smaller meals more frequently. The adult model of a larger meal at dinner is incongruent with how small children eat. The good news is that this will evolve, but you’re also off the hook for trying to make that happen now. Instead, lean into what he needs at this stage in development. He may truly be done after only a few bites. Trust that he knows when he’s hungry or full.
Keeping little ones at the table for the length of an adult meal is not something we reasonably expect from a young child. They simply don’t have the impulse control to sit for very long without distractions. This “muscle” will develop (slowly) with practice; however, mealtimes must be enjoyable for that to happen. If parents are frequently cajoling children to “eat one more bite”, children will start to view mealtime negatively. Often, this is when power struggles ensue, which can lead children down a path of having an unhealthy relationship with food. In short, keep mealtime short and relaxing so children look forward to this time to connect as a family.
I strongly advise against letting children watch a screen while they are eating. Children don’t pay as much attention to what they are eating when a screen is present, which can cause them to ignore the sensation of fullness, leading to overeating. It is important that they have full agency over feeding themselves (even though it’s often messy!) without distractions to develop a healthy relationship with food.
Lastly, children often tolerate being at the table a little longer if they are in a seat that is either attached to or pulls up next to the table. Highchairs with trays distance children from the table and make them feel less connected. Alternatively, while children are small, many prefer to sit at
a smaller table nearby from which they can come and go throughout the meal to get a bite or two. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. When your child is a bit older, they will happily join you at the big table and look forward to this time to connect as a family
Q: Nighttime is the worst. She is 5 and it takes us over an hour to put her down, running and screaming around the house. I have offered “extra snacks,” “more playtime tomorrow” and nothing works.
A: This sounds like a challenging bedtime! Let’s start by breaking down the variables that lead to a more harmonious bedtime.
Get Timing Right to Avoid Overtired State
First is timing. It’s important to get this right. Children who are overtired are often wired and energized from a burst of cortisol and adrenaline that occurs when bedtime is too late. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10 to 13 hours of sleep for a 5-year-old. In my nearly 20 years working with families on sleep, I’d say that most 5-year-olds need closer to 11-12 hours of sleep. To determine the best bedtime, start with the wake-up time and work backwards. In other words, if we assume 12 hours of sleep and your child is waking at 7 am, 7 pm is the ideal bedtime. Bedtime routines typically take 30-45 minutes, so in that scenario, I’d recommend starting the bedtime routine closer to 6:15-6:30 pm.
Sleep is About Separation from Parents/Caregivers
When we look at sleep through the lens of development, it’s important to understand that sleep is really about separation from a child’s most cherished north star—YOU! The best way to help children through the sometimes-difficult work of separating from us is to ensure they are getting enough connection time.
The end of the day is often riddled with lots of to-dos and tight timelines. The stress of getting it all done often brings out the drill sergeant in many parents as they order children to brush teeth, put on pajamas, etc. Nobody likes being told what to do, and this is especially true for children who thrive on feeling a sense of agency and power as they develop their own identities. This dynamic will often lead to power struggles and frustration. To circumvent this from happening, I recommend carving out one-on-one time with your daughter before there is any mention of bedtime. This mommy-daughter time is distraction free, connection time. For kids who may be acting out, it may be that they need help to unpack their feelings about something that is upsetting them. Verbal 5-year-olds may freely share those feelings, though most simply need opportunities to either cry or laugh to release the tension. During this one-on-one time, your child is mostly in charge, creating a bit of a role-reversal with the parent. Make sure to spend time physically holding her in your lap or touching her, unless she doesn’t like that, as that will help to regulate her, as well as produce oxytocin, the boding hormone. Children are generally much more willing to go along with things they don’t like, such as preparing for bedtime, when their needs for connection and attention have been adequately met.
Save the Best for Last
With respect to the bedtime routine, make sure it ends on something your child looks forward to. For a child your daughter’s age, this might be cuddling and reading under the covers with a flashlight or co-creating a story as she feeds you suggestions. Be sure to remind her as you go through the bedtime process that you’re looking forward to cuddling and reading with her again tonight.
Lastly, empathy goes a long way. You might say something to the effect, “I know this is the part of the day that you like the least. Let’s try to get through it together as quickly as we can so we have extra time to cuddle together—that’s my favorite part!” Staying on the same team is crucial to the success of the bedtime routine!
Q: Do you have any recommendations for what to do/say when my child won’t do his homework? Many times my child has a meltdown when he knows he has to do it but doesn’t want to.
A: Let’s start by acknowledging that very few children want to do homework, which makes sense. They’ve been at school all day, only to come home exhausted with the expectation of homework looming. Children vary widely in their ability to self-regulate and manage getting homework done, especially when faced with many appealing alternatives. Our role will vary somewhat based on the age of a child, from taking a more active role when they are younger, to a more consultative role as they get older.
Make Recharging a Priority
The school day depletes a lot of children’s executive functioning resources, leaving most mentally and emotionally wiped out by the end of the school day. For some, sitting much of the day also means they may not have expended as much physical energy as they need to. This exhaustion and/or pent-up energy is often reflected in behaviors ranging from meltdowns to back talk to stir craziness. Most kids need a clear break from school demands and an opportunity to recharge. Food, fun and emotional connection are great ways to help kids recharge. Make this the priority before initiating a dialogue about homework.
Lead with Empathy
Once your child has had sufficient time and activity to reset, you may offer a gentle reminder about homework that comes from a place of empathy and connection and gives your child some control.
“I see that you’re really enjoying the game you’re playing. I’m curious how much more time you’d like to play before getting started on your homework, which I know is a lot less fun than this game?”
If your child protests at the mere mention of homework, lean into the feeling instead of trying to rationalize or explain why homework is important. More than anything, your child needs to be heard and feel felt (a sense that you understand).
“It would be so wonderful if you didn’t have to do homework ever, you could just come home and (insert whatever your child loves to do). I know, I understand.”
Your child might join you in this no homework fantasy or they may continue to express frustration about homework. In the latter scenario, they still need more empathy from you, so offer that. Once you have the clear sense that your child feels understood and is engaged with you, you’ll likely enjoy more cooperation on the homework. From here, you might ask him if he has any ideas for how he wants to approach his homework. If he gives you a blank look, you can offer that you have some ideas and wonder if he’d like to hear them.
Strategies that work well for kids:
1. Work for a set amount of time (5-15 minutes) or until a specific task is done (one worksheet or subject area), then take a short break for movement (jumping jacks, balloon toss, yoga) or snack. Chunking the work can make it all feel more manageable.
2. Create some novelty. Sometimes choosing a different location for homework can make it a little more interesting. Often, finding a place with as few temptations or distractions is key.
3. Incentivize the end of homework by saving something he really enjoys for the end. Using when-then language can help. “When you’re done with your homework, then you can watch that show.”
A last note about homework—it’s important not to rescue or over-help, as this will only reinforce any worry/anxiety that surrounds homework. Let your child manage a much of the homework as they can. When you hear them grumble, instead of running to the rescue, simply acknowledge the feeling and offer help only when they truly need it.
Q: How do I use positive discipline with my child when they sometimes hit/fight with their sibling?
A: Let’s first start with clarifying what positive discipline means. At its root, discipline means to teach. Therefore, one of the very first questions we ask ourselves is: Is this a teachable moment? If the answer is yes, then the next question is What do I want to teach?
Navigating Big Feelings: Co-regulation
Children’s brains are developing throughout childhood, creating connections based on their experiences. The limbic system (feeling center of the brain) is on display in many of the big feeling moments parents of toddlers and preschools are intimately familiar with. This is largely because the prefrontal cortex (more advanced part of the brain that, among many things, allows us to pause between a thought/impulse and action) is in development until the mid 20s. This naturally means that childhood is riddled with moments in which children are overcome with big feelings with the benefit of the regulation that can come with a fully developed prefrontal cortex. As a result, children often need an adult’s help to co-regulate.
Is This a Teachable Moment?
It’s important to start with an understanding that all feelings are neutral—in other words, there aren’t good or bad feelings—and all feelings should be welcome. Young children, without the benefit of well-developed emotional language, often act out their feelings (tantrums, hitting, etc.). Fundamental to helping our children develop and grow is an understanding that all behavior is a communication.
When children are beyond their developmental ability to manage the situation in which they find themselves (sharing, playing with a sibling or friend for too long) they will often act out their feeling which is a signal that they need our help to get regulated, which is called co-regulation (using ourselves to help regulate another) and usually a shift in activity.
There is little that can pull at the heartstrings of a parent like their children fighting with one another! As parents, it’s important to remember the adage “it takes two to tango”. Siblings, who often spend much of their time together, learn so much about relationships and the social world from their relationship and their shared rifts during their childhoods. As the parent during these rifts, its unhelpful to choose sides and play the part of judge and jury. Instead, your job is to play the part of emotion scientist.
What Does an Emotion Scientist Do?
An emotion scientist stays neutral and curious. They are looking to understand how each person feels. For children who are more verbal and have an emotional vocabulary, this may be easy because they will tell you. For younger children, there may be more wondering than knowing. The point is that you’re interested in understanding the WHY behind the behavior.
When two siblings fight/argue, the first thing parents need to do is help each/both calm down. We often co-regulate children by helping them to feel seen and heard. The more stressed a child is, the more likely they are to activate the threat system in their brains (fight, flight, freeze, faint). In littles, this can look like hitting/biting/kicking/etc. When this system is activated, their brains are actively scanning for threats and may mistakenly believe you are a threat. As such, I recommend taking the approach of getting down at eye level and making any communication gentle and minimal.
“You’re safe. I’m here. I’m not going to leave you alone with this big feeling.”
Now, if this child just hit their sibling, your attention should first go to the child that was hit to make sure they’re ok and tend to them as needed. As quickly as possible, return to your other child to reassure them that the two of you are ok (i.e. you’re not mad at them). This is important because as children worry that they are in trouble, they feel worse, which often leads to worse behavior (this cycle underpins why time outs don’t often work and are advised against).
We use connection to lead children out of their reactive, emotions-centered brain to a more receptive state. It is only in a receptive state that a child can learn.
What Do I Want My Child to Learn?
Once you’ve done the work of calming down both siblings, you can decide what it is that you want your child(ren) to learn (if anything—not all moments are teachable moments!). Keep in mind that you don’t need to teach lessons at every turn. There will be MANY opportunities throughout childhood to teach.
In the scenario this parent shared, hitting was given as a behavior that sometimes happens and it’s reasonable to assume that this parents wants the child to learn that they can express themselves with words without resorting to hitting. Here are some ways that lesson might be taught depeding on when the intervention happens.
· The best strategy is preventing it in the first place. If you notice your children have been playing well for a while (depends based on age) and one of them is starting to have a hard time, it’s best to insert yourself and redirect children.
· If you see one child about to hit another one, get in between and say something like, “I’m not willing to let you hit your sister/brother.” You may even have to physically restrain them to prevent them from doing so. Once calm, you would coach them on things they can say to express their upset.
· If the hitting already happened and you’ve done the work above to calm both children, the next step is to be and emotion scientist and find out what happened. After hearing from both children, you might determine that one child was playing with a toy and the other child grew impatient waiting for their turn and snatched it away. The child who had it taken from them got very upset and hit their sibling. Here is what you might say:
Sibling A: “You were playing with the train and you weren’t done.”
Sibling B: “You wanted a turn so badly and it got harder and harder to wait so you took the train.”
Sibling A: “When your brother/sister took the train you felt very mad, so you hit. When you hit your brother/sister it hurt their body and s/he felt sad.” “What would you like to do to show her that you’re sorry?”
Repair The Rupture (Ages 3+)
The final part—inviting the sibling who hit to do something to attempt to repair the rupture in the relationship—is crucial. It allows children to learn how to make amends, a step that is vital to healthy relationships, and allows both children to move forward feeling connected.