Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Coping with Young Kids Who Rage July 3, 2017

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors,Emotional Intelligence — Heidi Emberling @ 3:11 pm

Yep, I used the word ‘rage.’ You know exactly what I mean if you have a young child who has trouble handling their strong emotions and ends up screaming, melting down, and hitting you, your partner, your nanny or caregiver, or, most mortifying of all, grandma. Children who explode with anger can be aggressive and very difficult to manage, which is often distressing and scary for parents. Once the anger dissipates and children calm down, they might be remorseful, snuggly, sad, or just go back to playing as if nothing happened. It’s often this wild roller coaster of emotions that can drain and exhaust us as parents.

Before we talk strategies, let’s look at what’s underneath the explosions. First, a child is trying to communicate that something isn’t right in their world. Being a young child can be quite frustrating. The brain is growing faster than the body and they firmly believe they should be able to do anything and everything that crosses their mind. In addition, some children try to perfectly control the world around them, and when they can’t, rage might result. Parents and teachers of young children may prefer that a child communicate these frustrations in a calm and rational way, but that’s a higher order skill that comes with later brain development. In fact, even though a child may learn the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ at a young age, they will still not be able to fully control their impulses, nor self-regulate without help, before the age of 6 or 7 years.

So, what can we do to help our young children learn to manage their rage? First of all, stay calm. It’s no use fighting anger with anger. At least one of you needs to manage your strong emotions and unfortunately, that responsibility falls on the adult in the room.

Try stepping back and looking at your child from an anthropological point of view. Hmm. Interesting. The child is experiencing rage. Then, ask yourself a very useful question: do I approach or withdraw? If you have a hitter or biter, don’t get too close. Imagine a cat backed into a corner. If you approach, you will be scratched. Back up, but stay nearby in case you are needed for safety reasons.

Reflect on whether or not your child has access to a coping skills toolbox. Have you taught them how to express anger productively? If you haven’t explicitly taught them how to manage these strong emotions, they will just mimic whatever you do when you get upset. If you raise your voice, they will raise their voice. If you slam doors, they will slam doors. What do you want them to do when they get angry? (And I know you’d prefer that they not get angry, but unfortunately, that’s not a choice!)

Teach them some alternative ways of communicating their rage, usually involving some sort of physical response. Some examples include: stomping, pounding the floor, clenching and unclenching fists, pounding fist into other hand, or hurling soft balls at the wall. Look around at your environment. Do you have a velcro dart board? Some squeeze balls? Silly putty? A gym mat in the corner? A mini trampoline with holding bar? Do you have a cozy, regrouping spot in the corner of your living room or play area with large pillows or a bean bag chair where your child can retreat and recover? Since children are limited in their ability to control impulses or strong emotions, it’s up to us to create environments that help them cope.

When you have a child who rages, it’s critically important that you find ways to take breaks from parenting them. Intense children (and adults) can be driven, creative, and brilliant, but they can also drain and exhaust you. Make sure you’re taking care of your own needs for social interactions, exercise, date night, and sleep. If you’re not well-rested, you won’t be able to successfully manage the highs and lows of parenting an emotional child. And remember, if you need help, reach out to us here at Parents Place. We get it and we’re ready to support you on this bumpy, wonderful, exhausting yet joyful parenting journey.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Parent Educator, Child Development Specialist


5 New Year’s NON-Resolutions January 3, 2017

Filed under: Holiday Stress,Parent Support,Parents as Experts — Heidi Emberling @ 10:26 pm

This year, I challenge you to try something different. Instead of making New Year’s Resolutions, make some New Year’s NON-resolutions! Here are five ideas that release you from the stress and struggle of trying to become the perfect parent.

  1. I will NOT feel badly about missing a workout. Many of us make resolutions about getting into shape and of course exercise is important, but life with young children is hard enough to manage without the added guilt of not finding time or energy to hit the gym. Discover the great outdoors (or an indoor ice rink) on the weekends and turn a family outing into an opportunity to get the heart pumping.
  1. I will NOT worry about “family meal time” or stress about serving a frozen meal or ordering in once in a while. Children birth through age 8 do not always cooperate with family meal time. They may struggle to sit still for more than 10 or 15 minutes at the table. Instead of providing a golden opportunity for reflection, connection, and conversation, family meal times with young children can become rushed, draining, cranky experiences. Ditch the dream of a perfect, homemade dinner, adjust your expectations to your child’s developmental capabilities, and trade in the stress for an early bedtime.
  1. I will NOT worry about my child’s future and instead focus more on today. Just because your child pushed, bit, or hit another child today doesn’t mean they will become a bully later on. Life with young children can be exasperating, exhausting, and absolutely infuriating. But they are also cute. Find something to enjoy about today and parenting will become a much more pleasant experience.
  1. I will NOT wake up in February and realize I haven’t had a date night yet this year.  Find a sitter willing to do an evening once a week, or a few hours every weekend so you can go out for a bike ride or a cup of coffee.  Think of it as being a good role model for your children.  After all, if you don’t make time for yourself and the couple relationship, who will?
  1. I will NOT remain isolated in my busy parenting life, but instead reach out and connect with other parents who are also finding it difficult to get to the gym or make a meal from scratch. Find your peeps. Parenting should not be done in isolation. Go to Parents Place for a workshop or a consultation. We understand that kids don’t come with instructions.

Happy New Year, from my family to yours!

Heidi Emberling, MA
Parent Educator, Child Development Specialist







This one has a Motor! August 23, 2016

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 6:28 pm

When my daughter was 4 years old, we visited a friend with a large cat. The cat was heavy, but my daughter struggled mightily to pick her up. When she finally managed to gather the cat into her arms, nearly toppling over with the effort, the cat began purring. My daughter looked up at me with astonishment and said, “This one has a motor!”

I think about that phrase often when I’m working with parents and teachers of young children who have “motors” of their own. These kinesthetic, full-body kids have an intrinsic need to move in order to play, explore, and learn. They are the dancers, the leapers, the twirlers, the runners, the wigglers, and the sprinters that bring joy (and maybe some exhaustion) into our homes and classrooms.

How can we best nurture these creative and energetic kids, especially when we’ve designed our classrooms and inside spaces for more controlled exploration? How do we find a balance between high energy and quiet calming activities that meet the needs of all children? How do we provide meaningful experiences for children who learn through movement and are engaged by physical challenges.

We do this through careful reflection about our daily routines, child-friendly environments, and responsive practices at home and at school. For children with “motors,” parents intuitively (and sometimes through trial and error) plan a fun-filled day of play. Parks are great places to run, climb, tumble, swing, and bike. They are also useful places to rest and regroup under a tree, near the sandbox, or at a picnic table. Meeting up with other parents of active kids is always helpful, so the child has someone who can keep up with them for a sustained period of time. Like, all day.

The exuberance of a child in motion can be fun and exciting, wild and fear-inducing. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as watching your “baby” reach the top of a very tall slide, leap off a swing at the peak of its arc, or run like a speed demon (usually in the opposite direction from where you’d like them to go). The challenge of raising an active child is not how to provide constant stimulation and discovery outside, but almost always about how to contain or manage the child’s energy when it’s time to go inside your home or classroom.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to create physical, satisfying experiences and explorations inside as well as outside. Take a look around your environment. What big motor activities do you have at home or in school? A mini exercise trampoline in a corner goes a long way to meet the child’s need to bounce and move. A crawl-through tunnel, an obstacle course, a fort made out of couch cushions or large refrigerator boxes, a hippity-hop ball with a handle—these are all excellent choices for kinesthetic learners. If you want an active child to listen, ask them to sit on a yoga ball or use a balance board or glider. Challenge them to 10 jumping jacks in a row before you call them to dinner or transition to the next activity. I guarantee that when you engage this child in a physically-stimulating way, you will get more compliance with parental or teacher requests. Try it out, and let us know what works for your full-body kid.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist



Why Don’t Behavior Charts Work? February 13, 2016

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 10:43 pm
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Whenever I walk into a preschool or early elementary classroom and I see a behavior chart, I cringe. One child who couldn’t control her impulses went home crushed because her name ended up on “red.” Another child was reminded that he wasn’t good enough for his teacher. And a child went home with a stomachache and began to hate school. The behavior chart is a reminder that the child’s hard work to control impulses and learn to self-regulate was a “failure” in the eyes of the teacher or parent.

Here’s the problem with behavior charts (or “color” charts with green, yellow, and red sections):

  1. They label the child’s behaviors, but they do not teach strategies for coping with strong emotions or solving problems.
  2. The chart unfairly targets kinesthetic, physical kids; predominantly boys.
  3. The chart undermines trust in the child-caregiver relationship.
  4. The chart is a public display that embarrasses and shames children.
  5. Even children who stay on “green” are stressed as they see their friends move to yellow and/or red.

Just imagine your boss putting you on “red” when you’ve had a bad day. No one wants their bad days posted in the break room, watched closely by their colleagues. Instead of creating a supportive workplace community, you would breed fear and resentment. I would certainly be looking for new employment if my behavior was rated publicly every day.

So, what can teachers and parents do to encourage respectful and cooperative behavior instead?

  1. Set high expectations that are individualized for every child. Children need different supports to be successful. There is no one-size-fits-all model for raising children.
  2. Give children plenty of chances to fail and recover from mistakes in order to nurture and develop a child’s resiliency.
  3. Rely more on positive guidance strategies that teach children what TO do, instead of what NOT to do.
  4. Create cool-off spaces to promote self-regulation and help children manage strong emotions.
  5. Teach problem-solving skills for a lifetime of resolving conflicts productively.

I encourage you to ditch the behavior chart and move instead towards a more thoughtful and responsive approach to encouraging cooperation at home or at school. When children feel safe, cared for, and respected as active and equal participants in daily decisions, they are much more likely to learn strategies for a lifetime of successful relationships.

Heidi Emberling, MA


What to Say During Conflict Moments with Young Children? September 2, 2015

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 11:22 pm
Tags: , ,

When parents and children enter into a power struggle, two things happen. The thinking brain goes to sleep because apparently it is conflict-avoidant. And the emotional brain has to take over operations. Both people immediately stop listening to the other’s point of view. And the conversation may regress to a more primitive form of communication such as grunting, crying, screaming, or yelling. Usually this ends with someone going to her room. This is almost always the smaller of the two people.

Parents understand these patterns, but often need help to change them. The key is to keep the thinking brain awake and useful. The best way to do this is to take a deep breath. This is hard. Often, we want to launch into great detail about why we are right and the child is obviously wrong. But the thinking brain needs oxygen. So taking a deep breath gives parents a way to figure out how to avoid this fight.

While you are thinking about possible solutions, go ahead and make a validating statement. This is useful, because it helps your child keep her thinking brain active. The moment a child thinks you don’t understand what’s at stake here, her thinking brain hides in a corner and the emotional brain takes charge. Here’s an example of a typical power struggle at home:

Child: “I don’t want to put on my shoes!”

Parent #1 (stressed): “We have to put shoes on to go to the park. If you don’t wear shoes, you’ll step on some glass and get a big cut and we’ll have to go to the doctor and get a shot. Don’t you want to go to the park? Please don’t fight with me now. We’re already late to meeting our friends. Fine! I’m not taking you to the park again. And you don’t get dessert tonight. Now, go to your room!”

Parent #2 (after a cleansing breath): “You aren’t ready to put on your shoes right now. I can see that you need an extra moment to get ready. Maybe we should put on your shoes once we get to the park. Or maybe you just want to feel the grass tickle your toes! That would be fun!”

Here’s another one:

Child: “I’m not going to school! You can’t make me!”

Parent #1 (stressed and late for work): “Honey, please don’t do this to me this morning. We are already late and I have a big meeting with some very important people today. I have to get ready. I can’t believe we have to have this fight every single morning. I am so tired of this. Just grab your stuff and let’s go. Fine! I will get your stuff and you better get yourself into that car or I will really get angry! Now, get in the car!”

Parent #2: (after a cleansing breath): “Hmmm. You don’t feel like going to school right now. I wonder what might help? Here’s Teddy [insert stuffed friend’s name here]. Maybe you’d like him to sit next to you in the car? (Turn to bear) What do you think, Teddy? What? You want to sit next to [child name]? Are you sure you don’t want to sit in the front seat with me? Oh, ok. (Turn to child) Teddy wants to sit with you today? He really needs a friend.”

This all sounds good, but what if choice #2 doesn’t work? Let’s assume you’ve decided to try this positive approach. You validated your child’s point of view and even offered a creative solution. And she is still refusing to comply. You now need to set a clear limit in a supportive way. Here’s an example:

Child: “I’m NOT doing it!”

Parent: “You still don’t want to go to school [put on your shoes]. We still have to go. Darn it, darn it, darn it. I’m probably going to have to help you to the car, even though you may have a big feeling about that. I’m really sorry this is so hard for you. Later, we’ll think about some other ways to solve this problem. I know we can figure it out together.”

Positive guidance doesn’t mean abandoning all limits. There are things that must get done during the day. Unless you’re planning to stay home with your persistent child (or never brush her teeth again), you will need to set some expectations and help your child achieve them. Over time, the child learns that her parents understand her needs, listen to her ideas, and are willing to accommodate or “share power” when possible.

There are no “right” responses for every power struggle. Creative problem-solving takes work. It is difficult to defer our own needs, think creatively, and figure out an equitable solution. When you find yourself arguing with your child, stop what you’re doing, breathe, and reconnect with her. Only then, will you be able to solve the problem together.

Heidi Emberling, MA


Positive Guidance and Clear Limits: an Effective Behavioral Approach February 20, 2015

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 8:49 pm
Tags: , ,

There are many different ways to discipline a child. Often, we start out with the strategies we remember from our own childhood. Then, we may turn to advice from fellow parents. And finally, we stumble through trial and error as we learn what works directly from our children.

Discipline styles vary along a spectrum, from the heavy-handed authoritarian (“it’s my way or the highway”) approach, to the hands-off permissive (“oh, sweetie, I wish you wouldn’t do that”) approach. Usually, when one parent tips too far towards one end of the spectrum, the other parent retreats to the opposite end. In my work, I describe it as the “parenting seesaw” of discipline styles. Problems occur when either parent moves too close to the edge of the seesaw. The result of either extreme is an increase in negative behaviors from the child, making both authoritarian and permissive parents feel ineffective.

Positive guidance strategies move us closer to the center of the seesaw, towards a more balanced, cooperative parenting style. A cooperative approach includes clear, consistent limits, appropriate to the age and developmental level of the child, and the ability to share power whenever possible. It takes time and patience to figure out how to share power with children without feeling like you are losing control of any given situation. Funny enough, that’s how children feel too. If they never experience a “win,” they will fight every limit parents set. If they see you will compromise when you can, they are more willing to work with you to find a common solution.

Dr. Ross Greene in his book, “The Explosive Child,” encourages parents to sort a child’s challenging behaviors into three baskets, according to how critical it is to change the behavior. Basket “A” is for non-negotiable, safety concerns when you don’t mind enduring the meltdown. Basket “C” is for negligible arguments that aren’t worth the battle. And Basket “B” is for teaching children critical compromise and negotiation skills. Basket “B” is where we practice the balanced approach of a cooperative parenting style. The goal is not to force a child to give in and get what you want. The goal is to find a compromise you can both accept. An added benefit is that you will be teaching your children how to solve problems and resolve conflict effectively.

How do you recognize when you’ve strayed too far away from the balanced approach? If you have threatened or bribed your child to do what you want and you don’t feel good about it, you are at the authoritarian end. If you are so frustrated that you have thrown up your hands and your house resembles the novel, “Lord of the Flies,” you are at the permissive end. To regain balance, take a deep, cleansing breath and see if you can find a mutually-beneficial solution to the situation at hand. What does your child want? What do you want? Where is the compromise that works for both of you? It’s hard to balance at the center of a seesaw, but the opportunity to teach life-long skills through your caring, positive discipline approach is well worth the effort.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist


Impulsive Behaviors of Toddler and Twos December 6, 2014

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 4:15 am

Even though we all know that two-year olds are impulsive, it can still be tough to manage aggressive behaviors such as biting, hitting, pushing, or throwing. When a baby swipes at us or throws a rattle, we may think it’s cute. But somehow, it seems like toddlers and twos should “know better.” When they hit or throw, parents wonder if the child is destined to become a “bully.” And sometimes, even infant/toddler caregivers may feel ineffective when faced with “aggression” in young children, to the point of asking a family to leave the childcare facility if parents can’t “fix” the impulsive behaviors.

Before we discuss strategies, let’s look at the young brain. The limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, is the first to develop. This system houses the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When a child is “triggered” by someone grabbing their toy, for example, they may hit, run away, or be completely subsumed with strong emotion. Two-year olds are impulsive and emotional for brain-based reasons. As they grow and develop, so does the brain. But not until the pre-frontal cortex gets formed in a young child, does the capacity for impulse control and the ability to control strong emotions kick in.   When does this happen? Not until a child is six or seven years old. (Sorry.)

As a parent or teacher of young children, you have the rare privilege of watching this process unfold over time. Luckily, you don’t have to wait until a child is six or seven to begin to see behavioral improvements. Four-year olds, for example, are much less likely to dart into the street or touch a hot stove than two-year olds. But even though young children may learn the difference between “right” and “wrong,” they will not be able to fully control this impulsivity until this brain development occurs.

In the meantime, there are still proactive strategies for managing children’s aggressive behaviors. One successful intervention technique is to stop the aggressive behavior and then immediately withdraw or neutralize your attention. Focus your first aid on the “target” or “victim,” and provide the aggressor some time and space to cool off. If the child is in full tantrum mode, she may need to cool off in her room or some other “safe” space.

Once the situation de-escalates, it’s time to start teaching new skills. How do you want your child to express anger, frustration, or disappointment? Teach her a replacement behavior that works for her, preferably something she can do that’s physical, not verbal. Asking a child to come “ask for help” when angered is not useful, because she isn’t in “thinking” brain, she’s stuck in “acting” brain. Model these new strategies. In moments of anger, show how you jump up and down, clench and unclench fists, take deep breaths, hit a pillow, stomp on the floor—whatever you think might be an appropriate replacement behavior to express strong emotion. Watch your child and see what she does naturally. If her impulse is to kick, teach her to stomp hard instead. If her impulse is to hit, teach her to clench her fists, “shoot” energy out of her fingertips, or hit her fist into her hand. Then, praise the times your child chooses an alternative way to express anger. With practice and consistency, the child will adopt the new, more acceptable, behavior, especially if she starts receiving positive feedback for choosing a different anger response.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education