Responding with sensitivity when it’s hard

bracelets-2-799181-mAs an API Leader, I frequently give parents guidance on ways to respond to their children in different situations. But the truth is, I don’t always follow my own advice. As all parents know, it’s one thing to be removed from a situation and think about solutions rationally; it’s quite another to deal with a public tantrum or a kid who won’t go to bed when you are exhausted and frustrated. That’s why it’s important to have tools at your disposal to cope with these situations before they arise.

First, it’s helpful to become aware of how often you respond in a way you’d rather not and what triggers those responses. Some parents use stacking rings or bangles on one side of the body, and move one to the other side each time they respond to their children in a way they’d rather not. A jewelry-free option would be gently snapping a rubber band on your wrist. This helps you become more conscious of how you respond to your children, and any patterns that provoke a certain response.

As for preventing an unwanted response, here are a few ideas:

  • Do some kind of physical activity, such as running around the house, jumping up and down or dancing. Exercise helps the brain process stress that might otherwise be directed toward your children. It’s also pretty funny for little kids to see Mom or Dad suddenly jumping up and down, which can diffuse a stressful situation.
  • Sing what you would like to say to your child. Singing prevents you from yelling and tends to gets kids’ attention more easily than talking, because it’s out of the ordinary. It also forces you to control your breath, which will help to calm you down.
  • Have a mantra that calms you down. You can put it on sticky notes around the house, write it on your arm or just repeat it to yourself. Bonus points, if it also makes you laugh. My personal favorite is yelling, “Serenity now!” (Try not to feel better after that. It’s impossible.)
  • Leave the room. I’ve had parents express concern about this, because it seems similar to a timeout. The difference is, a timeout is a controlled response by the parent to the child. Leaving the room is helpful when you know you can’t control your response, and it will be less damaging to your connection with your child than what you might otherwise say or do. Take deep breaths, scream into a pillow, whatever you need to do to calm down. When you come back — or before you go, if you’re able — you can explain to your child what happened: For example, “I was feeling frustrated, and I needed to take a break to calm down.” This can be a great opportunity to open a dialog with your child about negative feelings and healthy ways to deal with them.

Even with these tricks, don’t expect to be a perfect parent all the time. We all make mistakes. Just be sure to take time to reconnect with your child when you do. Try to keep your stress levels low by taking time for yourself, and do the best you can.

Positive discipline is all about the right relationship

721847_mother_and_daughterSome parents misconstrue Attachment Parenting (AP) as promoting undisciplined children and martyred parents, when in actuality, Attachment Parenting has a strong basis in discipline and balance.

Parents are encouraged to look at child behavior in a different perspective than a punishment-based mindset. Children need abundant nurturing and an authentic, open bond with their parents based in trust rather than in fear.

This doesn’t mean that AP parents never say “no.” In fact, boundary-setting is very important to Attachment Parenting. What it means is that AP parents approach discipline in a different way — instead of punishing for undesirable behavior, they teach and guide their children through non-punitive ways. AP parents strive to teach problem-solving.

It’s also important for AP parents to teach emotional health by modeling. Take tantrums, for example, a natural response to boundary setting for a toddler or young child. Tantrums, or “losing it,” is a learned response for adults. A parent who “loses it” in response to their child’s behavior and punishes the child isn’t meeting that child’s need for guidance into how to handle strong emotions like frustration and disappointment, but actually teaching the child that tantrums can’t be controlled except by lashing out at others — or alternatively, stuffing emotions in the case of a parent who is more likely to not set firm boundaries. AP parents are able to identify and respond to their own strong emotions, and therefore are then able to teach their children in how to manage their own tantrums over time through emotion-coaching and problem-solving.

For example, for children — and, to be honest, adults too — a meltdown may be precipitated by tiredness, hunger, illness or a feeling of emotional disconnect from others. These contributors can be addressed, which can significantly and immediately reduce the number of tantrums. The remaining tantrums can then be addressed from a point of view of what emotional needs is the child trying to express: Does the child feel misunderstood? Does the child need more choices? Does the child need help learning a new skill?

I like to say that discipline begins at birth, because parents are always teaching their child something, even newborn babies, by how they respond and what priority they give to a warm, compassionate but balanced parent-child relationship. Positive discipline is rooted in the right relationship between a parent and child.

A sign of affection

jillian_daughterMy beautiful 3 year old, like most I would presume, is a rather emotional breed.

Juliette knows not only what she wants but can also quite effectively articulate why she wants it and why we should appease her wishes. Sometimes I joke that she is a lawyer in the making. She is clever, intelligent, determined and oh so independent.

While these qualities are all incredibly wonderful and make her the amazing kid that she is, they also tend to be what causes us to get into battles of the will.

I have learned long ago that arguing with a child leads to frustration, hurt feelings and even more conflict. Finding ways to communicate effectively with my strong-willed daughter when we have a difference in view can be trying but, when done well, is incredibly rewarding.

The other morning Daddy was getting ready to leave for work. We were sitting down to a quick breakfast together at the breakfast bar to spend a few minutes of family time before he rushed out the door, just as we do every morning.

Juliette decided that she wanted her second cartoon — she gets to watch two each morning — prior to eating breakfast. We calmly explained that while we could not force her to come eat breakfast as a family, we would greatly appreciate if she would come spend some time with Daddy before he had to leave.

She quickly switched into defensive mode and began to argue why we should see her point of view: “Breakfast will be there after my cartoon…” “I have only watched one…” “You and Daddy can come sit with me…”

We explained once again that if she did not wish to come sit with us, that was fine, and placed her plate on the counter for when she was ready. We also explained that she would still need to wait until we were done with breakfast for us to put another cartoon on.

A tantrum ensued. The best insults a 3 year old can muster were hurled at us like bullets, tiny clenched fists full of frustration flew into the couch cushions and tears of anger began to flow.

Rather than getting angry or letting the intensity of our emotions match that of our daughter’s, my husband and I sat calmly at the breakfast bar drinking our coffee. This is not the norm for our morning routine, so we didn’t think much of it. I let her release her frustration for a few minutes.

Rather than getting upset or doling out an unnecessary punishment, we waited until our daughter was receptive and offered a simple, affectionate gesture to let her know that we were here when she was ready. When she had calmed down and made eye contact with me, I signed “I Love You.”

Ever since my daughter was an infant, Juliette has been fond of the use of sign language to communicate. We have graduated from simple baby signing to occasional sign-language classes, ASL videos and countless ASL books and flash cards. It is not uncommon for her to speak in full sentences and use accompanying signs simultaneously.

My simple act — a “sign” of affection — brought my daughter back to a calm state of mind. Without a word she climbed off the couch, walked over to us and laid her head on my lap. “I’m sorry. I love you, too, Momma,” she said.

My heart melted. This was definitely one of those moments you treasure and hold dear in your heart.

She climbed up on her stool, and we finished our breakfast together. When Daddy had kissed his girls goodbye, Juliette and I snuggled on the couch for her second morning cartoon. All was well. Peace had been restored.

Strong-willed kids have strong emotions and strong reactions to situations that they either don’t understand or don’t feel are fair. I have found that when we meet these emotions and reactions with support, love and patience, rather than anger, frustration and punishment, we are far more likely to diffuse the negativity rather than exacerbate it.

While I am sure we will have many more battles of the will, this is one that I am actually quite thankful for. That moment of connection with my daughter was like magic, and I will treasure it dearly.


kelly shealer and sonMy 2-year-old son was standing in his bedroom doorway with little sobs, tears rolling down his cheeks. All because he was so tired and it was bedtime, but he wanted to keep playing with his trains.

My heart was breaking.

He wanted me to take him back downstairs, but I was nursing his half-asleep baby sister, and his older brother was already in bed and ready for me to sing his bedtime songs.

I felt like I was doing everything I was supposed to do during a tantrum. I had stayed calm. I had talked to him about how I knew he was sad, how I knew he didn’t want to stop playing but that it was time for bed. I had tried to hug and comfort him, which he refused, so I had stayed nearby.

I didn’t know what else to try, and seeing him like that was more than I could take at that moment. I felt like I was going to start crying, too, just from seeing him so upset and from me feeling so helpless.

Then I remembered a creative suggestion I’d read recently for handling tantrums. I pulled out the nearest book, one I knew he loved. I opened it and started reading. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I didn’t tell him to come over and didn’t read directly to him.

His tears stopped almost immediately. Soon after he was sitting beside me, giggling as we all looked at the book together. The trains were forgotten about, and once the book was finished, he climbed into bed with no more protesting.

It was the best strategy I’ve found yet for dealing with tantrums, and it’s worked for us several times now. A similar concept also worked when he had a tantrum in the car, and I turned on music and started singing to myself.

However, what I’ve found is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to a child’s tantrums. What works in one situation won’t necessarily work in another.

Sometimes, the reading idea will only work as a temporary fix, and right after the book is done, he’s back to crying for what he wants and can’t have. Sometimes, he just needs me to sit beside him while he cries, to offer to hold him in my lap, to comfort him.

This was the case recently when my son wanted to leave the house and go to the park, which was not something I could say yes to at that time. To him, it was so unfair. He didn’t understand why we couldn’t go right then. I tried to empathize with him and acknowledge his feelings, but there was nothing I could say to make it better. We sat on the garage stairs together for several minutes, my arm around him as he cried. Suddenly, he stopped crying, stood up, turned off the garage light, and went back into the house.

There’s a lot of trial and error in finding the right method of handling a tantrum, but I hope my son knows that I’m there for him and trying my best to figure out what he needs in that moment. It’s still a struggle for all of us when tantrums happen, but little by little, we’re finding new ways to help him deal with those big emotions.


angry“I see your hand is squeezing his toy. Your face is getting very red. Your feet are stomping the ground.”

There’s something very reassuring about being seen and affirmed like this.

Describing what you observe is happening in a non-dramatic, non-judgmental tone of voice is called mirroring, and can be used as a positive discipline technique as well as an attunement exercise in learning how to respond with sensitivity.

The simple act of mirroring can be very helpful to prompt someone out of their “reptilian” midbrain and into more rational thinking and behavior.

We can also mirror what our child says: “So you’re extremely angry because he got a bigger bowl? I heard you say that you want the same size as he gets. Is that right? You feel he always gets better things.”

Reflecting back to someone what they’ve said is a quick way to help them feel heard and understood. And when we feel that way, we have less reason to do big, disruptive things to get our needs met.

Like any positive discipline technique, mirroring shouldn’t be the only tool in the parenting toolbox and it shouldn’t be used too early during a meltdown, or too often. After all, we want our children to fully feel their feelings and process them. But at a certain point — discerned by a connected parent — mirroring can really de-escalate a blow-up.

Mirroring works so well in my family, that I even appreciate it when my spouse does it for me! I probably wouldn’t appreciate it very much if a stranger or mere acquaintance began giving me their view of my play-by-play, but in an intimate, trusting relationship, one or two observations can generate just enough of a pause for calmness to get a foot in edgewise. Or it might prompt the last explosive outburst and then calmness.

Mirroring also encourages self-reflection. Self-reflection could be described as mirroring for oneself.

I sometimes forget to do it, but I’m training myself to remember: When I’m feeling big, bad feelings, I need to stop. And access the feeling. And name the feeling. And acknowledge the feeling. Then go on. It’s like the feelings are trapped inside, zinging and pinging around, but naming them gives them an escape route. Very cool.

kara cardenAs someone who has practiced meditation for a long time — another excellent parenting tool! — I’ve always benefited from attempting to become a “witness” or “observer” to my life. I think mirroring is helping my kids develop this mentally healthy ability, too.

Emotions and feelings can get very big and amorphous. Getting grounded in our bodies is a “state-regulating” tool that will help me and my children for our lifetimes.

The Hard Heart of Parenting

My body tenses. Teeth clench. Heart hardens.

I don’t hurt him. I don’t yell. Yet, my heart hardens with frustration.

My agenda to clothe my two-year-old collides with his interest in remaining naked. He wants to play with his trucks on the bedroom floor; I have a morning adventure planned. After several attempts to wrestle him into some clothes, he runs out of the room crying “No!”

My son says “Stop!” and “No!” frequently these days. He even asserts his will while mimicking favored construction trucks.

“Beep, beep, beep!” he says. Usually he does this while putting his hands on my legs and pushing me backward.

This morning I miss his “Beep, beep, beep!” which always makes me smile. I imagine it would translate to something like: “Back up Mom. Give me some space. Who needs clothes? Can’t you see I’m really enjoying this moment of being naked? I have no interest in your morning agenda. Let’s play trucks!”

This morning, instead of construction sounds, he shouts and cries. I feel my body tense. I feel my frustration. I remember to breathe. I remember my intention to soften into empathy.

I walk into the front room where my little naked boy cries in anger. My heart’s hardness melts as soon as I kneel down to connect at eye level. His face is blotchy, his eyes red, his nose runny. He is bawling. He is angry. Yet, I stay present. I sit on the floor.

“You are mad at mommy right now. That’s OK. I love you. I’ll be here when you want a hug.”

He yells again and runs into the kitchen.

“Take a deep breath,” I tell myself as tears filled my eyes.

Grief resides in the dark waters of the hardened heart. As I make room for my sadness, a gentle space of compassion opens. This space is wide enough to include all of the feelings swirling around, and through, both of us.

I sit on the floor and patiently remain present for him. I watch strong emotions move through his two-year-old self.

Yes, he will feel angry. He will feel sad. This is part of life’s flow. How do I respond to the energy of his anger and sadness? Will I try to make him laugh and distract him? Will I respond with my own anger? Do I take it personally? Can I breathe and gently hold space for his pain?

I can choose to soften around these hard edges. I can choose to breathe in gentleness. In this choice, I feel the freedom that comes from releasing the patterns of generations.

For certainly, the hard heart is passed on, inherited. Years before I decided to become a mother, I was committed to transform the negative aspects of my childhood. It took a great deal of therapy, meditation, dance, yoga, and travel to soften the scared and angry parts of my heart. Motherhood takes this process to entirely new levels. May I be grateful for this extraordinary opportunity to put into practice all that I’ve worked hard to uncover about the truth of love.

A minute or two pass. My son comes back to me. He reaches for me. I hold him. I feel the tension within — and between — both of us release. He looks at me and I wipe tears from his face.

“Outside?” He points to the door. Can we go outside?

I smile. “Yes, we can go outside. Let’s get dressed and go for a walk.” He nods and hugs me again.

I release my morning agenda as he welcomes my help in getting dressed. I take a deep breath. A few minutes later, we walk hand in hand into the sunlight.

Transitions in Attachment Parenting: Infancy to Toddlerhood, Part 3

We are continuing this series with two more of the most common challenges of transitioning from infancy to toddlerhood as your baby grows. Here is what parents had to say …

img_3259What do you find most challenging about transitioning from using AP in infancy to using AP in toddlerhood?

Challenge: Not Listening

  • “NO! NO! NO!”
  • Not listening
  • Defiance
  • Frustration with the idea that if you establish a strong connection, they will want to please you and behavior won’t be an issue 

Tip: Set realistic expectations for obedience.

True, toddlers won’t necessarily jump to your every command, but what looks like “not listening” may be a toddler asserting his very new, very powerful sense of autonomy. Young children begin to realize that they have power to make their own choices and take charge of their own actions. What helps with this behavior (and ultimately your relationship) is to do everything you can to encourage this autonomy. The key is to direct children’s newfound power in useful ways.

  • Model cooperation and listening skills
  • Offer limited choices
  • Ask for their help
  • Show appreciation for their contributions
  • Encourage their efforts
  • Celebrate their successes
  • Listen to their feelings and all attempts at communication
  • Physically step in to help or redirect when necessary
  • Establish a child’s sense of significance and belonging

All of these things will help with “not listening” by strengthening your relationship. But while relationship matters, it is not a foolproof cure for undesirable behavior. After all, you’re parenting a very young child with a very immature brain. No matter how strong your relationship may be, until that prefrontal cortex develops, self-control, behavior and “listening” skills will be an issue. But they will develop in time! So hang in there and in the meantime, stay attuned to your toddler and aim for relationship over obedience. In the long run, this truly is the most important part of discipline … even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment.

early-aug-2007-015Challenge: Tantrums

  • Discipline and tantrums are very hard.
  • Allowing her to cry tears of futility instead of trying to stop them …
  • Dealing with the intense frustration of pre-verbal toddlers
  • Tantrums!

Tip: Teach your child the language for the feelings he is having by empathizing with him.

You may be taking the most helpful steps towards the prevention of tantrums—ensuring your toddler gets regular, healthful foods, adequate sleep, and plenty of cooperation and help with his frustrations—but despite even the most diligent prevention measures, tantrums will happen. Toddlers are simply too immature to handle all of life’s frustrations calmly.

Remember that while it is unpleasant, a tantrum is normal and very appropriate for a toddler, so do your best to stay calm. A child’s brain has mirror neurons that pick up on the emotional state of his environment. In other words, calm begets calm. You may be able to stay composed during a tantrum and provide the calmness your child needs, but it’s also OK to step away from the fit or a few minutes to collect yourself and refocus if you need to.

A tantrum doesn’t need a punishment but simply some time to pass. Stay nearby to ensure a child’s physical safety as well as to touch base as needed. When a tantrum ensues, let your toddler know it’s OK for him to be mad. Have patience with his lack of communication skills, stay nearby and allow him the space he needs to cry. Check in periodically with inquires of, “Would you like a hug?” or other reassuring comments. It might take a while for the explosive feelings to work their way out of his system, but when he is ready, take time to reconnect. Offer empathy and words of acceptance.

You were really angry!
That was really sad for you.
It doesn’t feel good to be so upset.
It’s OK to feel mad like that.
We all get mad sometimes.
I love you!

Remember, you don’t have to change the limit you set (i.e., give the child what he wanted) if you have evaluated your course of action to be appropriate. You are only acknowledging his feelings and being emotionally available to support him through them as his brain chemistry restores. Your empathy teaches emotional intelligence as your toddler outgrows a tumultuous age.

Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 of this series … Watch for Part 4 coming soon!

Epic Meltdown


Have you been there?  I hope so, simply for my sake as I am in need of some mommy comforting.  We had a meltdown of epic proportions this week, at the tire store, in public, with everyone watching.  No, seriously, if only I could have harnessed that kind of energetic passion (to put it nicely) I would convert it to electricity and power my house for a year.

The story goes that I ran out of diapers for the 3-year old.  I think, ‘great time to encourage her potty-training ready signs and just get out the pull ups.’  She refuses to use the pull-ups and doesn’t like the panties but has had 100% potty success today. The warning lights in my car for the past week can no longer be put on the back burner, and so the necessary tire appointment is approaching fast.  Let me take you through it.  Picture the tire store, quiet yet busy in the mid-week, mid-afternoon.  In walks me with 3 young ladies ages 7,5, and 3.  I am schlepping purse, snacks, books, drinks, toys, coloring crayons and coloring books, stickers, suckers, change of clothes, pull ups and smartphone (everything but the kitchen sink) in hand, in 3 huge bags, and we go in for new tires. It looks like we are moving into the lobby but we have one and half hours wait, not too bad.

I must have looked like a chicken with no head.  I was hopping around there like flubber that was set free.  Getting up to fix the chair, find the book, do the math, read the sign, go to the potty, kiss the boo-boo, fix the hair -it was exhausting.  I look around the room in desperation, hoping that someone with throw me a bone, by that I mean a ‘its okay, I’ve been there, done that’ smile, but no takers.  I laugh aloud as I see I have even thought to bring myself a book that I couldn’t possible read in this environment.  My children are exhausting me but at least they are appropriately quiet.

The blissful moments of ‘appropriately quiet’ didn’t last long due to my three-year-old.  Long story short, I almost left my dear, sweet youngest child at the tire store (kidding…. I think). Meltdown one happened after I asked her to pick up something off the floor.  As three-year-olds do she made a mountain from a molehill, put her hands on hips and screams, “NO, I’m not going to do what you say!” It escalated fast.  Tantrums 2 and 3 I am a little fuzzy about now, but number four I remember well.  The random thoughts running through my head: (from another AP blogger) ‘how brave of her to express her feelings,’ how embarrassed I am that MY kid would act this way – mean I am an API leader, that tantrums are normal and actually healthy for the brain, if she pees on this carpet how will I clean it up?, why is my 5 year-old licking her hand?, when will the car get done? Do I have tequila at home for a margarita later? It IS five o’clock somewhere, how much is this costing me?, ’ just to name a few.  I survived the day, WITH new tires on the car.  *Whew!* Mission accomplished.

In relaying the grueling details to my husband that night he just swooped down into the conversation and gave me his benevolent perspective about why our darling youngest daughter was having these major meltdowns, “Maybe she is not ready for potty training…”

I looked at him with my bug eyes, “Oh, gee, ….”

We are back to diapers.  Apparently people in the trenches can’t often see the whole battlefield, or remember the path to the goal.  She is not ready for potty training and I will respect that.  Period.  I wish I had recognized it earlier but I am not perfect and the supermom cape really doesn’t exist.

As the day wrapped up and I looked at her in my arms, with a happy tear this time in my eye and saw a sweet, precious, sleeping face I was reminded of several parenting lessons:

  1. How grateful I am and how necessary my husband is in child-rearing.  After we left the tire place, I took her straight to dad’s office and got a breather, the both of us were able to calm down.
  2. That no matter how good of a mother you are, this WILL happen to you eventually.   Attachment parent or not.
  3. Although I did have tears in my own eyes during this whole fiasco, I was proud I didn’t lose my cool or scream.  I stuck with my philosophy of discipline, despite how it looked to the strangers there.
  4. It is good to come home to a hubby and a glass of wine after a long day and be reminded that I really am a good mother, despite one bad experience.
  5. I lived another day.  They lived another day.  It is a good day.

Okay, so number five did NOT occur to me at the time, but I am glad that one day is over.  I am grateful I have some perspective and that I can now smile and really sit with my parenting education I was just given by my youngest child.  I survived an epic meltdown and lived to mother another day.