Remember the days when your little ones were just babbling their first ma-ma-ma’s and da-da-da’s and Cookie Monster was the only adult conversation you heard all day? Remember feeling a bit at sea as you tried to figure out what each grunt and cry meant and how relieved you were when your tiny tot began using actual words to communicate, even if you had to really work to translate “Mender tmowow I wost my dowie?” into “Remember yesterday when I lost my dolly?”
Well, don’t drop anchor in port just yet, parents of middles and teens, your days of feeling at sea aren’t quite finished! Yes, their vocabulary may be nearly as large as yours and they may talk enough to drive you batty, but their ability to process, analyze, and articulate their emotions, especially the negative ones, is still far from mature.
Expecting them to be able to use words as easily and with as much insight as adults is like someone handing us a box of computer components and expecting us to be able to assemble, program, and operate the computer like an expert, but without the expert’s knowledge and experience!
Our middles and teens still need help communicating their inner world to us, and that takes patience and understanding on our part while we give them time to process without adding the pressure of unrealistic expectations. Stress just increases their cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress-hormone associated with the ‘fight-freeze-or-flight response’ which essentially drains their brains of the ability to think just when they need to think the most!) which results in less communication, not more.
Case in point…a couple of days ago My Renaissance Girl injured her ankle while playing on the back porch with our new kittens. (Yes, you read that right, first of my six to end up in the ER from playing with kittens!) She’s newly thirteen, and the hospital staff all directed their questions to her instead of to me. I stood back quietly and let her navigate this new ground as long as she was comfortable, but when she started shooting me panicked glances, I stepped in and helped her out. One of the doctors rather rudely said that she should be able to answer all of their questions herself, and I literally watched her shut down. The next question was her birthday, and she couldn’t remember it. She was already in pain and embarrassed (mainly because self-consciousness and the resulting embarrassment is just a fact of life at thirteen, poor thing) and the doctor putting pressure on her like that just sent her stress level soaring. If he’d have been standing next to me, I might have Gibbs-slapped him. (Not really, but it did irritate me and my fellow NCIS fans will appreciate the reference, lol).
When he left, I just quietly waited to give her time to process. After a few moments, she said, “All those eyes looking at me…I couldn’t think!” We chatted for a moment about it, and I told her about my absolute refusal to walk up to the counter at McDonald’s and ask for a ketchup package one day when I was her age. I remember not being able to explain why it made me so uncomfortable, but looking back it was probably a combination of worrying about people ignoring me while I stood there (as happens all the time to middles and teens, unfortunately), suddenly realizing I hadn’t shaved my legs that morning, feeling like my shirt was unflattering, and a dozen other thoughts that raced through my head, but I couldn’t articulate at the time with anything more than a shrug.
So when you ask how your middle or teen’s day went at school and get that classic shrug or when you notice they’re a bit down and ask what’s wrong and get an “I dunno,” remember, they aren’t really giving you the brush off, they just aren’t ready or able to put their day or feelings into words. Pressing them to talk before they’re ready only increases their stress, which in turn causes that mind-numbing cortisol to flood their brains and slows down their processing abilities even more.
I’ve found that it’s far better to let them know you’re available to talk when they are and then let it go until later. When the house is quiet for the night and everyone else is asleep, my middles and teens tend to open up like night-blooming flowers. If I know they need to talk, I’ll tap on their door and wait ‘til I’m invited in, then sit on their bed and start chatting lightly about the day. After a bit, we’ll lapse into a comfortable silence, and then, sure enough, the words start coming. Sometimes they come out all in a tumble, sometimes slowly, awkwardly, but they get it out there so we can take a look at things and process them together.
Sometimes, though, I’m the one who hears a little tap on my door and a head poking through to see if I’m awake. We do some fancy hand signals while they let me know they need to talk and I let them know if the baby’s still nursing and they need to wait a few minutes or if I can slip away and join them immediately.
In an odd way, this time of their lives feels like a return to the nighttime neediness of infancy. One of the payoffs to the gentleness and consistency in meeting their nighttime needs then is their assurance that their needs will be met now. They seem to be more likely to approach me with the need for one of our ‘midnight talks’ based on the confidence that I’m available to them, day or night, rather than being hesitant because they are unsure of their reception.
The heart of the matter, though, isn’t what time these chats take place. It’s that they take place when our middles and teens are ready to share, when they’ve had time to process their experiences enough to get them out in the open where we can work through the rest of whatever processing, analyzing or interpreting they need.
Through these interactions with our children we are not only helping them to get things out instead of bottling them up, but we are also letting them know in a very tangible and practical way that they are not alone in coping with life, a valuable lesson indeed when you consider that one of the mantras of depressed, bullied, and/or suicidal youth is “I feel so alone.”
In addition, rather being an indication of immaturity or undesirable dependency, a child being willing to talk through challenges, as well as just the ordinary stresses of life, is actually showing a healthy openness to sharing and growing. And the beauty of it is that each time we help our children through the ‘processing process,’ it prepares them to do a bit more themselves the next time, and the next, and the next until one day we realize we haven’t heard that little midnight tap on our door in a while…and we sleep a bit better in the knowledge of a job well done.
[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon]
Your once fearless five-year-old suddenly refuses to leave your side at the park saying, “I’m afraid the birds will eat me,” while eyeing the tiny swallows hopping on the ground as if they’re evil geniuses plotting his demise.
Your three-year-old, whom you once found proudly grinning while sitting atop the refrigerator, has abruptly decided the swings are objects of abject terror that will, “Fly me to the ground.” (Translation: I’ll fall off!)
Your six-year-old who has slept like a log in his own bed for years is suddenly resisting bedtime and climbing into your bed with you at 3 am every. single. night.
Your happy little four-year-old suddenly becomes withdrawn and clingy, refusing to play with her playdate friends and wanting to sit in your lap. And, even worse, she’s started sucking her thumb again!
The preschool and early elementary school years are sometimes marred with exaggerated fears, odd anxieties, nightmares, night terrors, and other evidences of insecurity that can make the most confident of parents feel a combination of dismay, frustration, worry, and failure. Regression is a common accompaniment, from pottying accidents to night-waking to thumb-sucking. Often, acting-out behaviors also increase in this time period.
So, what in the world is going on?
No, it’s not an environmental-toxin-induced, super-early-onset of adolescent-hormone-overload. And, normally, it’s not a trauma-reaction to life changes such as moving or starting preschool or school, though those events can exacerbate the issue. (Be aware that these behaviors can, rarely, indicate an anxiety disorder, stress-overload, or abuse. If you suspect any of these things may be causing your child’s behavior, seek a professional evaluation.)
Typically, though, sudden anxiety behaviors in preschool/early elementary aged children are simply another normal stage of development, an indication of cognitive growth. In other words, as odd as it sounds, fear can be a sign of maturity!
Children in the three to six-year-old age range (Keep in mind that this is a rough age estimate. Children are individuals, not pre-programmed robots!) are beginning to realize that their parents aren’t the all-powerful beings that they once believed them to be. This realization can be very uncomfortable for them, causing them a great deal of unease as they are concurrently beginning to realize that there is a whole, big, wide world beyond their safe, little home, and that that world is full of potential dangers, hazards unknown, and just a lot of really big, scary things.
So what is a parent to do with their newly timid little house-mouse?
First, be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all miracle ‘cure.’ You know your child better than anyone else, and being responsive to her unique needs means taking your cues from her as to what may help or hinder her journey through this uncomfortable stage.
That said, here are some ideas that may help:
- Before forcing your child to ‘face his fears,’ consider whether someone throwing a spider on you if you are deathly afraid of spiders or locking you in a closet if you’re claustrophobic would be helpful to you in overcoming your fears. If the answer is ‘NO!’ then honor your child’s feelings and move on to another solution.
- When your child voices her concerns, resist the urge to minimize them. If she says, “I’m afraid of monsters coming in my window,” try not to say, “There’s no such thing as monsters.” Remember, she’s realizing you aren’t all-powerful, and that means you aren’t all-knowing, either! Rather than be reassured by your words, she’ll simply think you don’t know about the monsters and can’t help her and keep her safe. Instead, you can brainstorm ideas together to keep the monsters at bay. While you don’t want to say that monsters actually do exist, you can say something like, “Let’s think of ways to keep you safe. What if daddy throws the monsters away in the trashcans outside and the trashman takes them away?” Don’t be afraid to be seriously silly. In other words, take her fears seriously, but offer silly solutions that offer visuals of the monsters (or whatever the fear is) going away forever.
- Help your child to make a ‘nightmare safe’ out of a shoe box. At night before he goes to bed, sit with him and encourage him to put all his scary thoughts in the box for you to take and keep safely away from him while he sleeps. Let him know that if he does have a bad dream, he can come to you even if it’s the middle of the night, and you’ll help him to put the scary dream in the box so he’ll be able to go back to sleep.
- Avoid phrases such as “You’re a big boy now” and “Only babies do that.” Focus instead on encouraging your child to do the things you know he can do. For instance, if he’s usually able to climb the ladder on the slide but gets ‘stuck’ halfway up and asks for help, start by moving near so he knows you are close and willing to help him if needed. Then verbally encourage him, “I know you can do it. I’m here if you need me.” But don’t pressure him. If he gets upset or insists he can’t do it, help him down. Remember, it isn’t really about the slide at all. It’s about seeking reassurance that you can still be trusted to take care of him, that he’s still safe with you.
- If the occasional monster in the closet or under the bed needs to be evicted, try reading a book like Go Away, Big Green Monster! and make your own ‘Monster-Away Spray,’ to send all the scary monsters packing. The ones we made didn’t match the colors in the book perfectly because we just used foam stickers and googlie eyes from our craft box and blue spray bottles from the bargain bin at the fabric store, but my girls were thrilled with them. We filled them with water (and added a little spritz of febreeze in my six-year-old’s bottle because, “Monsters can’t STAND flowers!”) and then Daddy and Big Brother took turns pretending to be monsters and ran away squealing from the girls when they got sprayed. Role-playing with children (and just playing with them, period!) is a powerful tool in helping them learn coping skills. Now, a bit of bedtime spritzing in closets and under beds is all it takes to make my girls feel confident that they’ve rousted the beasties so they can sleep in peace!
- If regression is an issue, keep in mind that your child is self-comforting by returning to a time she felt safe. Rather than punishing, ridiculing, bribing, or in other ways trying to ‘control’ the behavior, offer comfort in appropriate ways to demonstrate that she can trust you to meet her comfort/safety needs. This applies to acting-out behaviors, as well. Set boundaries, certainly, and provide plenty of guidance, but remember that punishment tends to push children farther away rather than connecting with them. Since your child is reacting to a feeling of disconnection from you in her new understanding of your non-superhero status, pushing her further away will merely exacerbate the issue, not solve it.
- Just listen. This is the simplest solution to a rather complex problem. Slow down and make time to just take a walk with your child. Sit with him in the evening and watch him color or play a quiet board game with him. Lay with him in his bed for a few minutes before he sleeps and chat about the day. Just the fact of you taking the time to focus on him, to be quiet with him, to enjoy his company, and to reconnect with him will go a long way towards soothing his fears.
- Even if your child isn’t introverted by nature, the following table offers some wonderful tips that translate well into this brief anxiety stage:
Remember, just like all the other stages of development, this ‘age of fear’ won’t last forever. Staying connected with your child and keeping the communication lines open through the ages and stages of development will help to ease their way as well as keeping your relationship strong and healthy.
[Portions reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon]
Last night I had a horrible nightmare. I woke up in the middle of the night, shaken and scared, heart pounding, and instinctively reaching out for my husband’s hand. I just needed that warm, human connection for a moment to reassure me, and then I’d be able to go back to sleep. But I couldn’t reach him.
My hubby is all elbows and knees when he sleeps, so we’ve got a mini-mountain out of a rolled-up comforter down the middle of the bed to protect my little nursling, who sleeps tucked against my side every night. Last night she was a bit restless from teething, poor thing, and I couldn’t reach around her far enough to touch my husband’s hand. I tried shifting her, but she started waking up. I tried stretching my leg out just to touch his foot…well, his knee, actually, since he’s about a foot taller than me. But I just couldn’t reach him, no matter what I tried.
As I lay there, trying and failing to reach him and too scared to go back to sleep, I thought about how it would be to be a helpless baby or small child, scared and alone in the dark, unable to reach out for the comfort of human contact from those I trusted and loved the most. And my heart broke at the thought of parents who’d been misled and intimidated by self-proclaimed parenting ‘experts’ into sleep-training their precious babies instead of responding to their cries.
Love has many faces, I think we can all agree. Sleep-training parents love their little ones as much as cosleeping parents, of that I have no doubt. All of us are simply trying to do our best, with the knowledge and experience and belief system we have, to give our children the best start in life possible.
In our home, love dances through our days in many forms, from a hard-working man to a homeschooling mama, to a gaggle of silly, messy, adorable children who make every day an adventure.
And at night, love takes the form of cosleeping. Love whispers quietly in the soft snores of a big bear of a man I’ve coslept with for more than 25 years now and in the snuggles and dream nursing of our newest little blessing. In the deep of the night, love is a six-year-old stumbling sleepily into our room and settling onto the always-available pallet beside our bed or a teenager, woken by the 4 am thumping and bumping of their father getting ready in the dark to head out for work, slipping into my room with a quiet, “Mom, are you awake? Can we talk?” (The best conversations with teens always seem to be those wee-hours-of-the-morning talks )
It does my heart good to see that, as science reveals new facts about the dangers of crying-it-out (CIO) and the value of cosleeping (whether it’s bed-sharing, a side-car, or room-sharing) in improving breastfeeding success, more and more parents are turning away from the separation-style parenting popularized in the 1950’s with its forced-independence and baby-training emphasis and are moving back toward following their God-given instincts in raising their children.
Just as I, an adult mother of six, yearn to have my needs met even when that need is a simple touch to soothe me back to sleep after a nightmare, I want to always try fill those spaces for my children, day or night. Cosleeping with our children won’t be forever. It’s a brief season in a lifetime of ever-changing needs. But it is one face of love that, for us, meets so many needs simply and naturally that I can’t imagine life without it!
Interested in learning more about safe cosleeping? Check out the links below. If you’re looking for ways to gently wean your little one into their own sleeping space, here are a few ideas:
1.) Place a mattress beside your bed and start out each night there with your little cosleeper, then move up to your bed when they are fully asleep. When they wake, be sure to either take them back into your bed with you or join them on the mattress to make the transition as seamless as possible. (You can also start out the night in your bed as usual and move them to a small toddler bed beside your bed once they fall asleep fully if that works better for your space.)
2.) When you feel they are comfortable with the new arrangement, move the mattress a bit farther from your bed, either against the wall or at the foot of your bed, and repeat the same process of starting the night with them and welcoming them into your bed or joining them on the mattress if they wake.
3.) The next step is to move the mattress into their room and repeat the process.
4.) When you feel they are spending enough time in their room each night to feel comfortable with it, you can try staying with them until they are almost asleep and then telling them you are going to the bathroom or to brush your teeth (make sure you actually do what you say you’re going to do!) and will be right back. Come back quickly so they will be reassured that you can still be trusted. If they follow you or get upset, wait and try this step again in a week or two.
5.) When they are happy to stay in bed waiting for your return, start letting them spend a bit longer alone. Always tell them what you are going to do, and always do just what you said. Make sure to return when you are done so they know they can trust you and don’t need to come get you.
6.) Over time, this gradual weaning will result in them falling asleep on their own, and you can move on to the stage of books and cuddles and hugs and telling them goodnight, then leaving them with the reassurance that you’ll be back to check on them in a bit. Of course, always come back and check like you said you would!
7.) I can’t emphasize enough that this is a trust issue. The more that you honor what you say and stay in tune with their needs, the smoother and easier the process will go for both of you.
SIDS: The Latest Research on How Sleeping With Your Baby is Safe | Dr. Sears Official Website | Pare
Dr. Sears is considered the leading authority on gentle/attachment parenting and is a proponent of co-sleeping. Here he examines the research linking decreased SIDS risks with the increase in co-sleeping rates. Dr. Sears~ ”Here are some ways to educate parents on how to sleep safely with their baby.”
Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone
“In Japan where co-sleeping and breastfeeding (in the absence of maternal smoking) is the cultural norm, rates of the sudden infant death syndrome are the lowest in the world. For breastfeeding mothers, bedsharing makes breastfeeding much easier to manage and practically doubles the amount of breastfeeding sessions while permitting both mothers and infants to spend more time asleep.”
Why frequent night-waking is normal and protective.
Sleep Safety from Dr. Sears
Links to research and safe cosleeping guidelines.
Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple – Breastfeeding Reporter – Unintended Consequences
“By emphasizing how to create a safe sleeping environment—rather than trying to browbeat parents into avoiding bedsharing—more babies’ lives would be spared. And as an extra plus, more families would also get a better night’s sleep!”
How They Do It In… Japan
“Whereas many Western parents view a child’s sleeping in his own bed as an important milestone toward independence, the Japanese emphasis is on promoting a sense of closeness and security in small children to help them become more confident and capable in the long run.”
[By L.R.Knost, author of Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages now available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
There is a lot of debate in the blogosphere about Helicopter Parenting and Bubble-Wrapped or Cotton-Wool Kids. I make no apologies for protecting my children. They say crime is down. Maybe per capita it is overall down. Maybe there are less arrests or convictions or whatever. Or maybe there is less shoplifting and littering and other non-violent crimes. Or maybe ’they’ are wrong. I don’t know, and I don’t care.
Walk into a Wal-Mart and look at the wall of missing children, and you’ll see new faces nearly every day. Turn on the news, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear about a new heinous crime against a child. Misspell something on Google, and the sites that will appear in your search results will sicken you.
But if none of that were true, I’d still be the protective parent that I am. I’d still be that parent because of one sweet little local girl who was lost forever to a fiend. When I hear the name Jessica Lunsford, my heart shivers to a blood-curdling stop for a brief moment, and I have to catch my breath.
I remember the days after she went missing. I remember praying for her safety, praying for her family, praying for the rescuers and volunteers who were searching day and night for her. I remember checking for news updates multiple times a day, a silent prayer in my heart, begging, “Please, God, please.”
And the whole time I was praying, the whole time rescuers, family, friends, volunteers were searching, she was mere yards from her home being kept in a closet by a depraved monster who abused her and then buried her alive.
So, yes, I do guard my children closely. Outside play is free, muddy, messy, regular…and supervised. Bike riding is a family activity. Public bathroom trips are on the buddy-system. Sleepovers are almost exclusively at our house.
My children are homeschooled, but the oldest two started out in public school. For those few years, I drove them to and from school. I chaperoned field trips. I volunteered as a teacher’s aid.
There is more history to my journey, of course. There are happenings in my childhood I won’t share. There are people in my past who did what they should not.
And there are other things that led me here, to this place of mama lioness guarding her young fiercely, to this 5’1” person who could and would take on the most ferocious of threats to protect her children, to this gentle mother who will face the vileness of the world fearlessly and boldly to guard her little ones’ hearts, minds, and bodies. There is more, so much more I have seen and heard and experienced, but that will remain unsaid.
I will not apologize for protecting my children, no matter what the newest label or theory or study shows. My children are free to climb trees, hang from monkey bars, and play king-of-the-mountain on huge dirt mounds. But they aren’t free to hang out at the mall alone. They can scavenge their daddy’s workshop for scrap wood and other ‘treasures’ and use his tools to build…well, whatever their incredible imaginations come up with! But they can’t walk to the store by themselves. They can troll the beach for shells and explore the rocky inlet for sand dollars and sea urchin. But they aren’t allowed to surf the internet without supervision.
Freedom to explore. Freedom to grow. Freedom to discover. Freedom to become who they are meant to be. All within the boundaries of parental guidance and protection. That is how it is in our home. And our home is truly a happy and safe place to be.
[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon]
Almost from the moment a baby is born, parents teach them not to share. “No, no, sweetie. That’s mommy’s” and “That’s daddy’s, not yours” accompanied by the removal of whatever the forbidden item is are daily realities for little ones. This is unavoidable, of course, since bacteria-ridden keys don’t belong in little mouths and iphones don’t work well when soaked in drool.
But the challenge comes when our little ‘reflectors’ are expected to share their toys with anyone and everyone who takes a liking to them. (Keep in mind that “their toys” as defined by a toddler are anything they own, are playing with, want to play with, don’t want to play with but want to remain available, etc.) It’s fully acceptable for us adults to not share our ‘toys’ with others, though. How often do we invite friends over and hand them the keys to our car? And yet we get to choose our own friends, do the inviting, and we have adult reasoning skills and judgment in place…things small children don’t have control over or access to!
The primary learning mode for little ones is imitation, but still we expect them to somehow have the cognitive maturity to learn to share despite their parents not sharing their ‘toys’ with them and despite seeing their parents not sharing their ‘toys’ with their own friends.
On top of that, we’re expecting them to grasp some pretty intricate and tricky relational nuances. What does ‘being a good friend’ entail? Why is someone taking something I want an acceptable part of friendship? If they can take what I want, why can’t I take what they want?
And, to round off the difficulty, ownership is an advanced, abstract concept and sharing is even more so. The difference between sharing and giving away forever or between someone borrowing your things and someone stealing from you is rather nebulous in the mind of a child. Now add in a complete inability to grasp time concepts (They get my toy for a minute? How long is a minute? When mommy tells me ‘just a minute’ when she’s on the phone it seems like forever before she’s done!) and to understand other abstract concepts such as permanence, and you can see the murky waters tiny people are expected to navigate when it comes to understanding sharing!
Obviously, little ones need help overcoming all of these obstacles. Punishing them, calling them selfish brats, forcing them to share, etc. are all counterproductive, not to mention damaging to the very relationship that is pivotal to eventual understanding of the concept of sharing. Going back to that primary learning mode of imitation, the key to teaching a child to share lies in the trust relationship being built by gentle, responsive parenting:
1.) When a child is secure in their relationship with their parents, when they know they will be heard, when they trust that their needs will be met quickly and consistently, much of the impetus behind the refusal to share is removed simply because the child isn’t living in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ response. (This is not to say they will share freely, no matter how gentle the parenting. The afore mentioned obstacles are still in play, and your little ones are still human. What it does mean is that some of the impediments to sharing are removed and the stage is set for learning.)
2.) Within the context of the parent/child relationship, be mindful of how often you say ‘no’ or ‘mine’ and try to offer alternatives in the moment to model sharing.
3.) Be aware of the fact that your child isn’t choosing their own friends at this point and neither they nor their little playmates are skilled socially yet. Stay nearby and in tune with your little one so you can step in and help them deal with any sharing difficulties such as snatching or tug-o-war with a toy before they escalate.
4.) Use concrete words to guide your little one in social situations. For example, try “Use your gentle hands” instead of “Don’t snatch/hit/push.”
5.) Resist the embarrassed-adult-knee-jerk-reaction of scolding your child, snatching toys from them to give to another child, and punishing your child for a normal developmental stage. That kind of reaction not only doesn’t model self-control, but it also doesn’t model acceptable social behavior, which is exactly what you’re upset about your child not displaying!
6.) Prepare for playdates by putting away any treasured toys such as special lovies or new toys that you know your little one will have trouble sharing. Honoring their feelings about these few special things will help them to feel more comfortable sharing their other toys because you are showing them in a concrete manner that you will help them to protect and preserve the things that matter to them.
7.) Play sharing games with your child daily to practice this advanced skill. When she says “Mine!” respond by smiling, picking up something of yours you don’t mind her playing with, and saying, “This is mine. I’ll share!” and hand it to her. Often little ones will start running around picking up their toys and bringing them to you to ‘share’ and wait for it to be reciprocated, resulting in a back and forth, back and forth sharing game that taps into another excellent learning mode for children…play!
Above all, keep in mind that sharing is a learned skill and it will take time for your small one to grow into a socially skilled little butterfly. Creating an atmosphere of trust, modeling sharing, and honoring their feelings will surround them with a safe environment in which they can develop the skills needed to become the most treasured of friends!