When love and attention just aren't enough

“How much more love and affection can I give him? …. Because once you pee on your brother, you’ve gone too far, and we have to fix this now.”

What’s a parent to do when a child acts out in a big way? In a recent post, we evaluated some options: spanking, time-out, sticker charts. Bottom line, they’re unlikely to be effective, because they don’t get to the root of the behavior. We can assume the toddler is showing his baby
brother who’s boss because he’s feeling major jealousy. Punishing him will just reinforce the sibling rivalry, because it convinces him that he really has lost you.

Then, in our last post, we talked about how connecting differently with your child can turn a situation like this around. Instead of punishing, nip this behavior in the bud by focusing on prevention. Refill your
child’s love tank and give her an emotional tune-up on a daily basis, so you
don’t end up in the breakdown lane. Hard, yes–but it works. When you connect with your child in the way she needs, most of the time her behavior improves dramatically.

But what if it doesn’t? “Just how much more love and
attention can I give him?”
I call this the leaky cup syndrome. The answer is, if you’re really giving him all the love and attention you can, and it isn’t changing his behavior, it’s because you aren’t healing the feelings driving the behavior. 

Your child is showing you that he needs your love–but in a
different form. Why?  Because tears and fears don’t just go away.  First
we have to let ourselves experience them, after which they dissipate. But when kids are too scared to go near those emotions–or they’ve gotten the message that feelings aren’t okay–they stuff them down in their emotional backpacks.

But the feelings don’t stay put; they bubble up to get healed. Kids try to defend against them by getting controlling, whiny, aggressive, territorial. They might even start marking out their territory like a small mammal.

Any time children act out, it’s because they’re feeling disconnected and driven by emotions they can’t handle. Are you wondering if kids sometimes act out just because they want something? Of course. But that’s a symptom that what they want is more important to them than their relationship with you. Which is a red flag that there’s a disconnect, either ongoing, or right now, caused by big emotions. So “bad” behavior is always a cry for help.

Here’s how to help him.

1. Start daily roughhousing that gets your child laughing. Kids who are aggressive (and peeing on someone is an aggressive act) have fear locked up inside. Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to loosen up that fear: giggling and belly laughs. Try physical games that very mildly provoke a fear response, such as chasing them around the house, bucking bronco rides, or a kids against grownup pillow fight. Laughing also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin, so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection. Daily roughhousing will help your child be happier and more cooperative, and sometimes that’s all children need to work through their unhappiness.

But sometimes, laughter isn’t enough. Your child is still acting provocative. Luckily, all that laughter has loosened up those tears so that your child begins to cry more easily. That’s a GOOD thing; you want him to show them to you, so they’ll heal. 

2. Schedule a meltdown. What’s a scheduled meltdown?  It’s the same meltdown your child would have had at the supermarket, except you give him a chance to have it at home, at your convenience, while the baby is asleep, or there’s another adult for back up.

I know, you’d rather he not have a meltdown at all. But tears are nature’s way of healing big emotions. So it’s a huge gift if you can welcome your child’s upsets and help him through the tempest. Your goal is to help your child express what’s going on. Most kids can’t articulate it, of course, and the truth is that words aren’t useful to him at this point; they pull him out of his emotions. Instead, help him show you that upset. How?

3. First, connect so there’s a warm feeling between you. Do a little roughhousing and laughing. Then, set a calm, kind limit. Even “We’ll have to stop soon….I know you wish you could have me to yourself all day”  is likely to bring those feelings of need and hurt to the surface.

4. If he gets angry, ratchet up your empathy a notch. Yes, kids get angry when we empathize. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. He’s snapping at you because when you connect with compassion, it moves him back into his heart, where all those feelings are, both good and bad. Your goal is to help him feel safe enough to go behind the anger.  “Oh, Sweetie, I see you’re upset…I’m sorry this is so hard.” If you can stay compassionate enough—which is the challenge for most of us—he’ll cry. That’s what’s therapeutic, not the anger.

5. Stay present. Most of us want to run in the other direction when our children get upset. If you can respond to your child’s anger with compassion and a softening of your heart, he’s likely to cry. The more he cries, the better. He needs to show you his fear that you no longer love him, which is locked in his body. He may thrash around and sweat and want to push against something; that all helps his body let go of the fear. Don’t let him hurt you; step back or hold him if necessary. The more you create safety with your compassion, the less likely he’ll get aggressive. Breathe your way through it, and remind yourself that THIS is the help your child was asking for when he acted out.

6. What if he doesn’t cry? Back off, and step up the connection and safety for a few days, using the other preventive maintenance tools like empathy, roughhousing and special tools to increase safety. Then try again. (Here’s a post on that: What if your child gets angry, but never breaks through to tears?)

7. What if he yells at you to shut up? Stop talking. Words take your child out of his heart and into his head, and make it harder for him to cry. Don’t ask questions. Don’t give explanations. Don’t expect your child to be able to articulate his feelings. Just help him feel safe enough to cry. Just say “You’re safe…I’m here…Everybody needs to cry sometimes.” There will be plenty of time to teach later.

8. What if yells at you to go away? He doesn’t mean it. He’s trying to regulate the intensity of the emotion. Because he feels safe with you, his feelings come up more intensely in your presence. So he’s trying to send you away so that he won’t feel those unbearable emotions. But he doesn’t really want you to leave, because he needs you to see him safely through. Sure, he’ll calm down if you leave him alone—but that just means he’s stuffed the feelings again and they’ll pop out later. Wouldn’t you rather just help him get through them now? Say “I’ll move back to here…I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings. I’ll be right here when you’re ready for a hug.”

9. Honor his grief.  Usually after children express
their fears, they collapse into your arms in tears. He might sob like his heart is broken. In a sense it is.
But crying in your arms is his chance to let that grief out, and begin
to heal it.  Let him cry as long as he wants.  If he stops, make eye
contact.  If he has more feelings to get out, your loving gaze will
unlock them.  If he’s able to hold your gaze, he’s let out what he needs

10. Once he stops crying, he’ll probably want to cuddle. He might want to change the subject. You can just say “Those were some big feelings. That was hard work. Can I give you a big hug?” If he’s open to it, describe what happened in the form of a story: “You were so mad and sad…You yelled at Mommy and tried to hit me…Mommy said ‘No hitting! Hitting hurts!’ and Mommy held you so you couldn’t hit. Mommy will always keep everyone safe. You were so upset. You cried and cried. Everybody needs to cry sometimes. Then you were done crying, and Mommy hugged you and held you and we snuggled. Then we all felt better.”

You’ll be amazed at how affectionate and cooperative your little guy is
after you “hear and see” his feelings. He may fall asleep, or he may go
on to have a wonderful evening with you.  If you’ve ever felt better
after someone you trust has held you through a good cry, you’ll know how healing
this is.  Just magnify your adult experience by a factor of one thousand
to understand the intensity for your child.

Yes, it’s a lot of work for you.  You’ll have to breathe your way
through it each time, and probably repeat a little mantra to soothe
yourself.  This may bring up big feelings from your own childhood, so you may need to find an adult who will let YOU vent and cry safely about all the feelings this brings up in you.

But wait until you see how much closer you and your son feel
to each other.  It’s worth every bit of sweat and tears.

Not to mention, your child won’t be peeing on the baby any more.  I guarantee it.

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Everybody's got a hungry heart, especially a child with a new baby in the family

“Whereas he was once the center of your universe, he has been displaced from this paradise. He is now in time out, while you coo at his tiny rival. You cannot, of course, push back the clock to a time when he, alone, was the apple of your eye. All the same, trying to imagine how frustrated your 3 year old must often feel can help you counteract his sense of loss. Your expressions of love, gestures of devotion, and moments of intimacy with your son can help him feel less deserted and alone. Helping your son recapture a sense of shared joy in his relationship with you will turn down the fuel of his hate, and–in addition–smooth the pathway to his identification… as a loving, protective, sharing person.” — Elizabeth Berger

Every parent with more than one child knows that some sibling rivalry is inevitable. But what about when your child really acts out — like when your almost-3- year old pees on the baby? In our last post we considered whether sticker charts work for a crime of passion like this, and why spankings and timeouts just increase the amount of anger and jealousy your little one is feeling and make it even harder, over time, for him to control himself.

If you missed that post, it’s here: When You Pee On Your Brother You’ve Gone Too Far.  Bottom line: Kids “act out” when they have big feelings they can’t put into words. So they act them out, to show you. If you want to change the behavior, help the child with the emotions driving the behavior.

In other words, don’t get stuck in reacting and punishing, which is likely to make the child more defiant and aggressive. Instead, focus on prevention, to nip this behavior in the bud. Remind yourself that your child’s acting out is a red flag that he needs your help with his emotions, so he doesn’t act out like this again. Sure, you should set a limit, but every child knows he shouldn’t pee on the baby. He just couldn’t manage those big feelings enough to stop himself–or maybe he simply didn’t care, which is worse, because it’s a symptom that the child considers his connection to you less important than doing what he wants.

When a toddler goes so far as to pee on the baby, he’s clearly having a hard time sharing you. This starts, of course, when the baby is born. Then there’s usually a resurgence of open jealousy when the baby begins crawling and getting into the older child’s things.

But any age sibling can be a threat. Think about it. Your child has to share what are in fact precious resources: your time and attention. A sibling means he gets less. We know there’s still enough love to go around, but to him, sharing resources could even reduce his chances of survival. You know how kids act out as soon as you get on the phone? Well, your attending to a sibling is like that, but even worse. His genes haven’t changed much since the Stone Age, and unconsciously, he’s worrying that your decreased attention could be a major threat. If a tiger jumped out of the bushes, who would you save?

That’s why study after study shows that when parents are able to create a strong positive bond with each of their children, there’s less sibling rivalry. So instead of punishing when your child acts out, the best cure for sibling rivalry is to feed his hungry heart. How?

1. Re-connect. When little ones have strong negative feelings, they disconnect from us. This can happen many times a day, as children feel frustrated, disappointed, hurt, sad, defeated. These feelings often swamp them, disconnect them from their own internal compass of the heart, and leave them feeling isolated and adrift. That’s why children need us to reconnect with them, over and over, many times a day. Try a warm smile, a big hug, a joke that gets her laughing.

2. Empathize. When your older child is loud near the baby, or overly zealous in his hugs, or has a tantrum because you’re changing the baby and didn’t come right away to help him, how do you respond?  If you’re like most of us, you want to snap at him, at best. But if you can train yourself to empathize as you set limits (“You wish I could come right away when you need me, I hear you…I will be with you as soon as my hands are free”), you’ll protect that connection with your child. And that, after all, is the only reason he follows your guidance.

3. Let her be little. Sure, she can dress herself. And yes, your hands are more likely to be full, since you have a baby now. But that’s exactly why she wants you to help her. She needs to know that you’ll always be there when she needs you, even though there’s a new baby in the family. Once she’s secure that she can still count on you, she’ll be free to explore the part of her that wants to be grown-up and powerful, which includes nurturing and protecting her little brother.

4. Keep your relationship balance in the positive. Research with adults repeatedly shows that healthy relationships need at least five positive interactions to make up for every negative interaction. Because kids live so much in the moment, and because we feel guilty about yelling, we often overlook the toll that yelling and punishing takes on our relationship with our child. When you lose it, make it a practice to apologize (“You don’t deserve to be yelled at, no matter what…All of us need to express our anger in a way that’s respectful of each other…I’m working hard to do that, so you can learn to do it, too.”) Resist the urge to blame (so don’t say “If you would behave, I wouldn’t have to yell.”) And then find a way to have at least five positive interactions, and enjoy your child. That’s what puts the sweetness back into your relationship.

5. Special Time gives the child the essential–but unfortunately so often elusive–experience of the parent’s undivided, 110% attentive, loving presence. Just for maintenance, every child needs one on one time to connect with a parent every single day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. When there’s a new baby, that can be hard to do.  But it’s worth figuring out, because it keeps your bond with your older child strong at a time when your child most needs you. If special time isn’t working to reduce sibling rivalry at your house, consider whether you’re giving your child your full attention and letting her take the lead. (Here’s a whole article on making special time work for you)

Connection supports your child through whatever challenges he’s facing and helps him thrive.  It makes it more likely that your children will get along with each other as they get older. And it makes your child WANT to cooperate, rather than peeing on the baby.

In the end, it is always about love. Love never fails.


But what if you’re doing daily special time, empathizing, and your child feels like a bottomless pit? Coming up next: How much more love and affection can I give him?

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When You Pee On Your Brother, You've Gone Too Far

“This morning, he really pushed me to my limit when I realized he had peed on his 9 month old brother.
And then when I put him in time-out in his room (instead of spanking
him, which is really what I wanted to do) he peed in his heater vent. I feel like I try to be a good parent, so I don’t know what I’m
doing wrong. How much more love and affection can I give him? We’ll
start a sticker chart today and hope that works. Because once you pee on
your brother, you’ve gone too far, and we have to fix this now.”

I’m so impressed with this mom, who has held her natural outrage in check and is trying to go positive with a sticker chart. And I couldn’t agree more with her: When you pee on your brother,
things have gone too far.

But I’m afraid that a sticker chart isn’t going to work any better than the timeouts are working. Why?  They don’t get to the root of the problem, which is the child’s hurt and fear. He thinks his Mom got a replacement for him. As my
three year old son said before our second child “We don’t need another boy. If it’s a boy….we can send him back, right?

This little guy defines “acting out.”  He’s acting out feelings he can’t
express in any other way.  He might not even be able to express those
feelings to himself, but they’re bursting out and making themselves
known, as feelings have a way of doing. (Even when they’re repressed. In
fact, especially when they’re repressed.)

Peeing where they know they shouldn’t is a common way for children to express anger that they can’t put into words. Male mammals often pee on things to stake out their territory and warn off intruders. And from the fact that he peed on his brother, we can guess who the intruder is!

What’s a parent to do?  Let’s consider our options.

1. Spank him. 
We’re angry.  We’re shocked.  We want to lash out.  And he needs to learn a lesson.

Actually, the lesson spanking will teach is that violence is how we
solve problems.  Research shows that kids who are spanked are much more
likely to hit others.  We can count on spanking to help our toddler
graduate from peeing on his brother to slugging him. 

2. Put him in timeout.

Peeing on your brother really is outrageous, and intervention is essential. But will timeout solve the
problem? I doubt it.

Timeout gives a clear message:  You have done something that made me very angry. (Good so far.)  At
the age of three, you probably don’t understand why you did this or how
to manage your own emotions so you won’t do it again, but I am not
going to help you with those seething emotions. You’re on your own,
(Not so good. He’s not capable of working through these
emotions on his own. That’s why he’s peeing on his brother. He’s
showing you he needs your help.) And maybe if I scare you with my
anger and reject you with this symbolic abandonment you’ll get the
message that I might stop loving you, and you’ll be terrified enough to
stop this outrageous behavior. I don’t like scaring you, but things
really have gone too far.”  

Well, we all agree that things have gone too far.  But he’s already afraid he’s lost your love, and this will just make that fear worse, which means his behavior will get worse. 

So even if he does stop peeing on his brother, he may just get more secretive about how he acts out his unhappiness. “Pee in your purse?  Of course I didn’t do that, Mom. It must have been the baby.” 

Or maybe, the timeout will be terrifying and
therefore effective.  Lose Mommy’s love?  Nothing is more important than
Mommy’s love.  Without her love and protection, he would quite literally die — from not
being touched, as much as from not being fed.  NO MORE PEEING ON THE
BABY!  He’s got it, loud and clear.  

But he’s got another message, too: “I am a bad person. If I were good I would not be on the naughty step…  I would not have these angry
feelings…I could stop myself from peeing in bad places.  If I were good, Mommy would not be mad at me….she wouldn’t have gotten a replacement.  I will pretend to be a good person so Mommy
will love me. I have to hide from her who I really am, how bad I really
am. It’s all the baby’s fault.  If it weren’t for that baby, Mom would
still love me like she used to.”

At the end of timeout, he is able to tell Mom exactly why he got put in
timeout.  He promises never to pee on the baby or down the heating vent
again. He hugs Mom in relief. He even hugs the baby.  Everything is good, right?

Except tomorrow, what about all those angry feelings pushing against his
insides?  Magnified now by the shame that he is truly a bad person. His
anger at the baby ripens into bitterness.  And Mom expects him to like this
baby, who is now nine months old and crawling and messing with his
things and charming everyone with his smiles…enough to make you want
to slug him!  Which is exactly what will happen, since those feelings have been repressed and are no longer under conscious control. They just pop out. Or they come out in defiance against mom, throwing things when he’s
mad…..Which is why kids can end up in timeout over and over, all day long.

Luckily, we’re not out of options yet.

3. Sticker Chart.

We all know that vowing to do the right thing isn’t enough to help us override our “lesser” impulses. If that were sufficient, we’d all have perfectly balanced diets and fit bodies.  We need a competing motivator, something we want as much as we want that ice cream.  So in this case, Mom is hoping her boy thinks: “I’m feeling sad and mad because Mom is always cooing over that baby… I know! I’ll show him! I’ll pee on him! … but I really want a sticker so I can get that new truck….I guess I’ll swallow those mad, sad feelings and go pee in the toilet.”

But will a delayed reward be enough in the face of these big feelings? Imagine the jealous farmer finding his wife in bed with the tractor salesman.  The promise of a new farm implement isn’t going to provide enough motivation to keep him from getting his shotgun.

And yes, peeing on your brother would be classified as a crime of passion:  “I really want to show that baby who’s boss…. but Mom would be really mad and then no sticker…but how would she even know? And the way she was cooing over the baby earlier….Heck, who cares about the danged truck?!  I’m just too mad!! Watch out, Baby!!”

Competing positive impulses only help us manage our behavior if we’re able to manage the emotions driving the behavior.  

Think about our own attempts to control ourselves. A competing impulse (fitting into a new dress) MIGHT work against our urge to eat ice cream, if we’re eating the ice cream out of habit. But if the feelings driving us to eat the ice cream are too big for us manage, we’re going to eat it anyway, dress or no dress.

And ice cream doesn’t really qualify as a crime of passion, the way peeing on the baby does.  These are the same big emotions that drove Cain and Abel, remember?  

So I’m betting a sticker chart isn’t going to work.  If we want to help our child manage his behavior, we’re going to have to help him manage the stormy, tangled-up feelings that are driving that behavior.

Is the answer just more attention? Don’t miss our next post, How much more love and affection can I give him? And then we’ll wrap up this little series with some real solutions. Can’t wait? They’ll be geared toward helping our children manage their emotions, so they can manage their behavior. Stay tuned.

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2014 MCAS Results: Stagnant Performance in Third Grade Reading, Critical Indicator for Children’s Future Success

September 19, 2014 by Alyssa Haywoode

In Massachusetts, 43% of third graders are not proficient readers, according to the 2014 MCAS results released today. Statewide performance in third grade reading is unchanged since last year and has remained flat since 2001, however several Gateway Cities made progress this year.

third grade below trendline

Chris Martes, President and CEO of Strategies for Children, issued the following statement:

“The 2014 MCAS scores show that the state’s third grade reading proficiency rates have not changed since last year. This year, as in 2013, 43% of third grade students did not score proficient in reading. That’s roughly 29,000 children who did not meet this crucial educational benchmark.

The consequences of reading failure at this age are significant. Struggling readers are four times less likely to graduate high school on time than proficient readers, jeopardizing their prospects for participating in our global knowledge-based economy.

As a former K-12 superintendent, I know that the solution to improved early reading outcomes involves more than just teachers and school leaders. Everyone in the community has a role to play, from families to early education providers to the business community. When this happens, as we’re seeing in communities across the state, best practices and creative collaboration start to emerge and the goal of reading proficiency becomes more attainable.

Many Gateway City school districts made gains in third grade reading this year, including Pittsfield, Chicopee, Worcester, Haverhill, and New Bedford, however many still struggle to get more than half of their third grade students to proficiency.

We know from research that the path to literacy begins at birth, as does the achievement gap. Recent research from Stanford University has found a language and vocabulary gap at 18 months between young children of advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. By age 3, children from low-income families have vocabularies that are on average half the size of their more affluent peers. A child’s vocabulary at kindergarten entry is strongly correlated with reading performance in high school.

We ask state leaders to continue to increase investments in high-quality early education and pre-k. Language-rich early education programs, led by qualified well-compensated teachers, are the key to helping children enter kindergarten ready to succeed. All children deserve the opportunity to attend such programs. Advancing our early learning system is truly the next phase of education reform.

To close the achievement gap and maintain our status as a “the education state,” the next Governor of Massachusetts must make high-quality early learning a priority and be a champion for young children.”

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In Quotes: In Texas it Takes a Village

September 19, 2014 by Alyssa Haywoode

“Our community’s early childhood needs are bigger than any one entity or particular funding strategy can fix on its own. The fact is that children who start behind stay behind, and it is a community-wide challenge to ensure all kids start off on the right foot.

“It’s time that we rally around this idea — that starting early truly does matter.”

Scott McClelland in the Houston Chronicle opinion piece, “McClelland: Broader access to pre-K programs a necessity,” September 13, 2014. McClelland is president of H-E-B Houston and chair of the Greater Houston Partnership Education Advisory Committee.

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