Decisions, decisions!

Choices are good, right? Until they’re bad.

Too many choices becomes overwhelming. We can see the results of seemingly endless choices and information when we, or someone we know, gets lost in hours/days/weeks-long process of sorting through online reviews and information in the attempt to make a decision that might have been made over a dinner conversation twenty years ago. Grownups have problems with this, and yet so many parents inflict too many choices on their children.

It’s important for children to learn to make choices and endure the consequences in small, safe, age-appropriate doses. It’s also important for children to feel like the grownups are running the show. Offering opportunities to make choices – within defined parameters – and then sticking with those choices, are great learning experiences for children.

Consider asking a five-year-old:

“Would you like applesauce or yogurt for a snack?” versus, “What would you like for snack?”

What are the odds the child isn’t going to go for fruit or low-fat dairy and will instead choose something the parent wasn’t planning to provide? With so many modern parents afraid of upsetting their children and overly eager to have their children’s approval, children are left without anyone big and safe to place limits around their world. Temper tantrums, anxiety, and entitlement are often the results.

Children benefit from parameters and calm grownups being in charge. A calm, in-charge grownup can offer safe, appropriate opportunities to learn decision-making skills and learn to live with the consequences.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.


Bigger kids, bigger headaches: When big kids misbehave in public

A few weeks ago, I made some suggestions for handling little ones and their misbehaving in public. Ultimately, little kids are easy: if all else fails, they’re portable, and you can carefully carry them out if they are truly having a meltdown. Bigger kids have more ways to be upsetting. Whether they refuse to put down their phones during a restaurant meal or behave in a whiny, inappropriate way on shopping outings, it’s more embarrassing because we like to think they’re old enough to know better and if they don’t, maybe it reflects on us! It’s also annoying because we are sure we’ve had this conversation all-too-many times already.

Our consequences should make sense in a real-world sense. The closer our consequences reflect the real world in which our children will have to survive as adults, the better. We grownups also have to stay calm; if we “lose it,” they feel as if they’ve won.

Let’s take a typical early-teen child who, at a family outing for dinner, refuses to put down the phone or, when pressed to do so, acts as if we are being totally ridiculous and unfair. Eye-rolling and sarcasm abound; responses are grunts or rude. Stay calm, grownups.

Consider this three-step process:

  1. When you arrive home, calmly state you are disappointed in (describe particular choices the child made, avoiding global criticism) and will decide what to do about this at another time. For example, instead of berating your child’s generic “rudeness” calmly delineate the offenses: grunted at the wait staff; refused to put down the telephone when asked; rolled eyes during Grace, etc. Then let it go. Refuse to engage in further discussion and do not yield to pressure to make a consequence now. Your child wants to act now because you will be behaving out of frustration, which means that the effort to anger you was successful, and, in your anger, you are apt to give a harsh consequence which you will soon retract. Double victory for youth!
  2. Plan another, similar outing soon. At the time it happens, let your child know she is not invited to come along. This is a natural consequence. If your romantic partner, or friends, or boss, took you out for a meal and you grunted, rolled your eyes and were sarcastic, you would not be invited again. You don’t have to make a big speech: just say the child was not fun company last time and you intend to have fun this time.
  3. Step 3 is harder: your child has demonstrated (via the behavior last time you had an outing together) an inability to make good choices. Therefore, your teenage child cannot be left home alone. This means hiring a baby sitter. It is unfair for you to pay for the sitter; you, after all, are not the one misbehaving in public. So, extract the payment from your child. If he doesn’t have cash on hand, take custody of some prized possession, render the child a pawnshop type receipt, and let him earn it back later. This is a natural consequence. If I incur an expense, I have to cover it.

Your child will be very unhappy with you. S/he will say you are mean, or this is stupid. Oh, well! The folks at the Love and Logic Institute would suggest you sort of agree, with a calm, cheery, “Maybe so!” Refuse to get mad; your refusal to get angry keeps you in charge.

Then go out for dinner. Enjoy your meal without cell phones, eye rolling, etc. Do NOT bring home a takeout meal for the child left at home. Do not rub it in; just be matter of fact. This is the real world. Our job is to prepare our child to cope with reality. This is a soft version of the lost jobs, lost relationships, arrests or unpleasant reactions from friends that await the adult who cannot behave properly in public.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2015

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Checkout Lane Tantrums: Quick, Easy, Healthy Fix (seriously!)

Oh, those checkout line tantrums. Parents dread them. Your child starts making demands, you say no, and suddenly you feel trapped between giving in and standing your ground. Everyone seems to be staring at you with disapproval. Your heart is pounding and you start to fear you are going to lose control. You wonder if you will see yourself on the 10 o’clock news as some sort of example of “worst parent of the year,” and meanwhile, your beloved child is on the floor, turning purple and announcing, loudly, how much you are hated.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a near-magical approach that helped you feel more in control, and helped your child develop necessary psychological skills, like having words for feelings, delaying gratification and enjoying anticipatory pleasure?

First, don’t worry about most of those gawking fellow-shoppers. Either they haven’t raised children (in which case, they can’t know what it’s actually like) or they empathize, so let that go.

Second, put yourself in your child’s place.

You: “I could really go for a steak.”

Other adult: “No, it’s Friday. You don’t want a steak. You want a tuna sandwich.”

You: “Seriously, I really, really want a steak.”

It’s annoying to have someone tell you what you want. Of course you know what you want. You may also know (as in the case of steak on Friday) that it’s not going to happen; that doesn’t negate you wanting it. Just so, the fact that it’s not convenient, or it’s almost dinner, or any other perfectly sound reason not to have candy right now does not make your child’s desire magically disappear.

Third, apply.

Child: “I want candy!”

You: (no sarcasm) “Really, right now?”

Child: “YES!”

You: (calm, maybe coming down to child’s level by squatting, and using a gentle voice), “I know you want candy. I want candy, too, but it’s not time for candy right now.” (You are acknowledging the feeling rather than telling the child how s/he feels)

Child: “But I like candy.”

You: (still calm, still empathetic): “Yeah, it’s sad (or disappointing, or whatever word suits) when I can’t get what I want. I bet it makes you a little sad, too.” (You are helping label the emotion and normalizing it: other people feel it, other people can understand)

Child: (maybe more disappointed than mad at this point) “But I really, really want candy.”

You: (still quiet and calm) “Me, too! So…on Friday, when it’s payday and REAL grocery shopping day, we should each pick out candy. When we come on Friday, what kind of candy will you pick?”

Most of the time, children respond well to this, just as we would to someone understanding our disappointment in not being able to have what we want. We wouldn’t want someone telling us we “didn’t want that job, anyway,” or, “that house/car/college wasn’t right for you, anyhow,” and kids don’t appreciate having their feelings dismissed, either.

It takes practice and consistency to make those checkout lane tantrums disappear. A kid with a healthy memory and strong willpower (both excellent traits that are challenging to learn to manage) may persist in demands, or occasionally, after a period of no problems, suddenly restart the behavior. This is normal; just go back to the acknowledge/label/normalize/teach process and be patient. Another time, we’ll talk about how to handle the situations where a bigger child – older than four or five – becomes super-difficult in public.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2015

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

If you need an answer right away, the answer is no…

…if you need a “yes,” a “yes” takes time.

So states the Sirusas Principle, named after a former boss who asserted this to, among others, commercial lending customers who were rather insistent on getting disbursements on the strength of a phone call.

No doubt the same can be said when dealing with children, employees, friends – and anyone else whose misbehavior or request seems to demand an immediate response.

One of the old tenets of parenting, based on behaviorist research, is that we have to immediately intervene with some sort of brilliantly thought-out and superlatively consistent response to every instance of misbehavior. Not only do we inflict this impossible standard on parents (including ourselves), but we carry it out into the world at large. An employee wants an extra day off? A friend needs a favor? Your second cousin wants to know if you’re flying out for a baby shower for your third cousin’s fifth child? Car salesperson wants your decision now? We foray into each encounter expecting that we must have a great decision, instant intervention and surefooted strategy for every possible situation.

Meh, not so much.

This notion no doubt is rooted in psychological research involving birds and rats. People don’t need an immediate consequence to get the message. Even your toddler can wait while you calm down and figure out what message you want to transmit. Sure, yelling and acting like a mean, angry giant works, if by “works” you mean, terrorize your kid and teach them that “might makes right,” no matter what. Was that the lesson you had in mind? If not, announce calmly that a response is forthcoming and change the subject until you can figure out what to do, or remember what your great plan was for just such an occasion.

If you doubt a child, or employee, or friend, can wait for a response to misbehavior or a request, consider whether said person would forget a positive promise. Odds are if you tell a three year old you are going to the zoo “tomorrow,” or in “three days,” the three year old will be able to remember you promised. So, if said three year old is a real stinker at the grocery store, you can say, “Wow, I’m so disappointed. I thought you knew better how to behave at the store. We will have to have a consequence when we get home.” No yelling, no screeching, no suspicious looks from naïve fellow shoppers who have not yet learned how difficult children can be. Your child will not forget that you are “thinking.” Meanwhile, you can calm down, think it through, and come up with a response that makes sense. The consequence may mean a short period of quiet “thinking time” for the three year old – and a very short conversation (one or two minutes) about making good choices next time.

Some people feel they must act immediately or they fear they will look weak, or, knowing their own dislike for confrontation, they suspect they will simply allow themselves to be misused. This is sort of fear is a powerful force, and merits its own attention, beyond the scope of this short essay.

Whether it’s fear of looking weak or fear that you will ultimately fail to act at all, consider learning to put that reflexive need for action away and take a deep breath before you decide what to do. Perhaps you will decide that making that first decision be to temporarily postpone a specific decision is the most useful option for you.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2015