Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Car-Ride Strategy – “Wish Fulfillment” June 22, 2011

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 7:12 pm

Young children need to move in order to learn. The car, therefore, seems designed to either lull children to sleep or constrain them to the point of tantrum. Add siblings into the mix and a ride to the store can quickly become a loathsome experience. Not to mention an exercise in infinite patience (or explosive reactions) on behalf of the parent driver.

One strategy that may help is called “wish fulfillment”: granting a wish in fantasy that you can’t grant in reality. You can try this strategy at other times during the day, but it tends to be particularly effective for avoiding car-ride traumas.

Let’s look at an example. I picked up my three-year old daughter from preschool one day and she said, “Mommy, I want some toast.” “OK, sweetie,” I replied lovingly with infinite patience. “We’ll be home in about 10 minutes and I’ll make you some toast.” Pause. “Mommy, I want some toast…..NOW.” Uh-oh. She’s moving to the unreachable zone. Of course, there are several ways this conversation could have continued.

1) “Honey-pie. I SAID I would make you some toast when we get home. Be patient!” This assumes two things: she didn’t hear me so I need to repeat my response slower and louder, and she actually has the ability to be patient. Which, as we all know, is not true for three-year olds.

2) “Sugar-pie. I don’t HAVE any toast in the car. What do you think this is? A store?” This can be interpreted in several different ways. Maybe mommy is making a joke, which really isn’t funny when I’m hungry. Or maybe mommy is being sarcastic, which I won’t really “get” until I’m a teenager. And while my daughter ponders the strange assumption I’ve made about the car literally being a store, she’s still not eating toast, so the desire for toast is increasing steadily.

3) “Well, I’m SORRY, baby, but you’ll just have to WAIT until we get home. What do you WANT from me?” We’re assuming she has the ability to be patient again. And now, we’ve asked her what she wants from us. Which she has already quite clearly explained. What are we, stupid?

And finally, my favorite frustrated parent response, usually given after the third or fourth repeated request:

4) “Look! I said I don’t have any toast! STOP asking and quit that whining!” (Sometimes followed by: “If you ask for toast again, I am NOT making you anything when we get home.”) Clearly, we are exasperated in this example. Will this sort of response have a calming influence or will it invite the battle? Right. Get ready for a fight.

Here’s what I did. I took a big breath and channeled my inner parenting educator. What advice would I give to a parent in this situation? (As a side note, it is my husband’s favorite hobby to say to me while I’m yelling at my children—“Is this what you teach the parents to do?” I usually give him a time-out at that point.)

I thought for a moment and said, “What kind? Whole wheat or sourdough?” Surprised silence from the back seat. Finally, a small voice emerges, “Sourdough.” I mime putting a piece of toast in the invisible toaster oven, conveniently located right below my rear view mirror so she can see what I’m doing. I turn the “knob” and say, “It’s cooking.” Silence. Then, “Is it done yet?” I drive a smidge faster. “Not yet,” I reply. Pause. “Is it DONE?” “Ding!” I shout. “Butter or no butter?” “Butter!” she says, excitedly. I mime spreading the butter and hand the “toast” to her in the back seat. Pause. “Mmmmm. It’s GOOD!”

When you make an effort to grant your child’s request in fantasy, especially when they know you can’t grant it in reality, they may more readily accept the limitations of the situation and play along with the game. In this way, you are validating their request, which is always a good first step when looking for ways to connect with your children. Let me know how this works (or doesn’t work) for you!


Negotiators and Worriers June 16, 2011

Filed under: Emotional Intelligence — Heidi Emberling @ 9:47 pm

“Five more minutes!, “I don’t want to!”, “I’d rather stay home (than go to the park, on a playdate, to the store),” “One more hug (drink of water, potty visit, story) before bedtime,” “If you give me this, then I’ll do what you’re asking…”

If any of these sound familiar, you may be dealing with an experienced negotiator/worrier.  Young children who constantly negotiate may be worried about losing “control” over the conversation, the argument, or the transition to a new place or activity.  When you as their parent or caregiver make a decision that affects their daily life (which, of course, we do constantly), they may learn that through negotiation they can regain some semblance of control over the situation or request.

For example, a child coping with separation anxiety may use multiple delay tactics at bedtime or upon arriving or leaving preschool.  These tactics give the child a feeling of control over the actual bedtime or separation.  Or you may have a child who is very routine-oriented.  When there is a change in the routine, even a “fun” activity can set off another round of negotiation or, at worst, a severe tantrum.  Or, you may have a child who is very rule-bound and when they see another child behaving in an “inappropriate” way, they may elicit help from a trusted adult to “fix” the out-of-bounds behavior of their peer.

Children crave predictability.  When faced with unpredictable situations, such as another child grabbing their toy or a parent setting an unwelcome limit, some children experience a loss of control and react by becoming “bigger.”  They may demonstrate a strong emotional reaction or tantrum, or resort to an oppositional response, even to an activity they typically enjoy.

One of the least helpful things we do as parents and caregivers with this type of personality is to give ultimatums.  “I said, ‘Get in the bath!”, “We’re leaving preschool right now,” “We’re not going to the park today,” “Go to sleep!”  These statements invite oppositional battles because they take all control away from the child.

Children who are experienced negotiators have a strong internal need to participate in the decisions that affect their daily routines.  Even if they cannot control the outcome (for example, “It’s bath time!”), they will feel calmer if given some power in the decision-making process.  “Do you want bubbles or not?,” “Do you want to hop like a bunny or fly like a bird to the bathroom?,” or “Do you want to bring your doll or your bath book with you to the tub?”   The outcome of taking a bath is not in question.  How you get there is negotiable.

If we want children to “listen” to us, we need to make sure we are speaking their language.  Negotiator or worrier children must feel in control of their own destiny.  We, as their parents and caregivers, must figure out how to give them that control, while still encouraging compliance with our requests.  Again, the outcome is not in question.  We will be taking a bath this evening.  However, the child can participate in the transition by making meaningful decisions in partnership with the parent or caregiver.  In this way, there is a shared power dynamic, which addresses the control need of both parent and child.


High Emotion Children June 15, 2011

Filed under: Emotional Intelligence — Heidi Emberling @ 12:15 am

I just returned from a preschool behavioral observation of a high emotion three-year old girl.  When I say high emotion, I mean that she responds intensely to all stimuli.  When she’s happy, she’s squealing, and when she’s angry or frustrated, she’s screaming or crying.  These high emotion children can trigger equally strong reactions in the parents and teachers who care for them.

High emotion children need predictable, calm caregiving techniques; exactly the opposite reaction they often elicit.  When emotions in an adult/child conversation escalate, adults are the only ones capable of calming the level of intensity.  Unfortunately, we often choose to enter the battle, instead of retreat.  It’s extremely hard for us as parents and teachers to “lose” to a three-year old.

Strategies for dealing with a young child’s emotional intensity are multifaceted.

-Environments: Where are your calming spaces?  Do you have a soothing corner with bean bag chairs, tumbling mats, or pop-up tents?  Are there physical outlets for frustration such as mini-trampolines, sit-and-spins, hanging bars in doorways, empty wading pools filled with mini-balls (for your own makeshift ball pit)?

-Routines: How are transitions handled?  Are there predictable routines throughout the day and particularly when emotions run high for this child?  Some children go with the flow and others need a lot of preparation for any changes in the daily schedule.

-Attitude: Do you speak to the high emotion child in a calm, authoritative voice?  Have you validated the child’s internal struggle?  Can you leave the room if you feel yourself getting pulled into the emotion of the moment?  How does it feel to “lose” the argument?  Is there a way for both of you to “win?”

Remember that the adult is the only one who will be able to find a creative solution in the heat of the moment.  If you’re out of ideas, you may need to leave the room, clear your head, and think of a viable solution the child might appreciate.  Sometimes, we simply cannot bend the rules.  When safety is the issue, there is no discussion.  That’s not to say the child won’t react in a high emotion way—of course they will.  And when they do, we can reassure them by validating their feelings, even when we can’t grant their immediate request.

High emotion children need predictable, steady caregiving.  It’s important to remember that intensity is a temperament trait, set by our genes.  Although intensity of emotion will be controlled with later development, young children do not yet know how to self-regulate without help.  Creating environments and routines that allow for expression of strong emotion and opportunities for self-soothing, coupled with adults who validate and accept the emotions of their child are the best strategies for surviving and thriving during those intense interactions.