* Clingy Kid

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My son is 3 years old and he gets really nervous and sad when I leave for work. Once a week he stays with his grandma and it’s okay (not always but nearly).

However when he stays with his nanny (three days a week) he is “traumatized”. He starts crying, shouting, and imploring that I stay home. The nanny says that often when I am not there he asks for me and gets really sad.

I tried explaining that I go to work because we need to have a roof above our heads, because we need to have something on our plates to eat, we want him to be able to go on vacations and discover the world, and furthermore I like working as much as he likes going to school. (I don’t want him to grow up thinking that working is difficult and boring. I want him to feel that working is cool and rewarding.) I even tried telling him I’d prefer to stay with him if I could. Nothing works.

The same story starts again every week. I would be pleased to get your advice on this.

Working Mom


Dear Working Mom,

We understand your impulse to explain to your son the reasons why you go to work. They are all such good ones!  But no doubt you’ve noticed that emotions can’t be explained away. A sad three-year-old is unlikely to say, “Gee, Mother, now that you’ve laid it out so logically, I can see that I need to put my personal feelings aside and take a broader perspective.”

The most helpful thing you can do for your son is to acknowledge his feelings.  Not when you are under pressure right before you have to leave for work, of course, but when you can find a peaceful moment to sit down with your son. Set aside your explanations and logic and focus on his feelings instead.

You might try saying something like:

“I’ve been thinking, you really don’t like it when I leave you with the nanny!”

“It makes you so sad, you feel like holding me tight so I won’t go!”

“You don’t want me to go off to a stupid job.”

“You’d rather have me stay home with you every day.”

Give your son time to reply and encourage him to air all his objections. Reflect what he’s saying in your own words so that he knows you understand and accept his feelings.

“Oh, so sometimes that nanny makes you mad! You don’t like it when she says you have to finish everything on your plate! You’d rather be the one to say when you’re hungry and when you’re full.”

“Ah, and you don’t like having to take a nap. It’s boring and you don’t feel sleepy. You’d rather watch a show on TV.”

It might help to make a written list of his grievances:

“Wait a minute; let me get a paper and pencil. I want to write down all the things that bother you.”

Your son will appreciate hearing his list read back to him out loud with plenty of emotion! Once he’s feeling thoroughly heard, you can try problem-solving:

“I wonder if there’s anything we can do to make the time with the nanny more fun, or at least less awful. Let’s make another list.”

On this new list you can write down ideas for special activities your son might enjoy doing with the nanny – make play doh, finger-paint, bake cookies, make an obstacle course – as well as his suggestions for what not to do.  He may want to keep a picture of you, or some other special talisman, in his pocket. Be sure to write everything down, including ideas you find completely unacceptable. (Quit your job! Lock the nanny in a closet!)

Afterwards you can go through the list together and check the items you both like. Then you can put your new plan into action.

If you put aside explanations of how important it is for you to work, and instead begin by acknowledging your child’s feelings, you may find out that there’s a simple problem you can resolve with a simple solution. Or you may find out that the problem is deeper. It’s possible that there’s something more seriously unpleasant going on during his day with this nanny. One powerful effect of this approach is that you will find out more from your child. Accepting feelings isn’t just a way to help your child to calm down. It can yield important intel!


* Why do kids sometimes refuse to problem solve?

When parents tell us problem-solving didn’t “work,” we often find one of two situations. In the first situation, problem solving is a great idea, and the parent can make a few adjustments to make the process more attractive to the child. In the second situation, problem solving is not the appropriate tool.

Let’s look at the first situation, where we can make some tweaks and have an outcome that is satisfying to all involved.


  1. Troubleshooting problem solving

It will not go well if you try to problem solve when the mood is wrong — the child is too frustrated and angry, or the parent is too frustrated or angry (or both!). Sometimes you can problem solve successfully in the moment, but often it is better to wait until emotions have cooled and you have a peaceful moment.

Once you find that moment be sure not to rush through the MOST important step — the first step of acknowledging feelings. If your child is having epic meltdowns every time she needs a bath, choose a calm time, far away from the bathroom, to say, “Boy, you really HATE taking a bath. You even hate THINKING about taking a bath. I bet if it was up to you, bath tubs would be outlawed. Houses would be built without them!” If your child starts sticking her fingers in her ears, you can acknowledge, “You don’t even like to TALK about baths. Let’s talk about cats instead. They don’t take baths. They just lick themselves clean.”

This may be as far as you get the first time you bring it up. If you’ve had a bad history around talking about baths, you may need to be patient, so your daughter starts to trust that she’s not going to be pressured.

Maybe the next time you bring up the bath issue, you can get a little further. “Some people like baths, and some people hate them! I wonder what it is about a bath that you hate…” (Notice that you are not asking her directly; you are inviting her to share this information with you if she is ready.)

One mom mentioned that her daughter gets red and sore if she goes too long between baths. That can certainly make a kid not want to take a bath — it probably hurts! “Oh, it hurts when you sit in the warm water… You don’t like that! That can make a person wish bath tubs were never invented!”

Now let’s consider the second situation, where problem solving is not the right tool


  1. Limit setting

Sometimes parents try to use problem solving, when the real issue is limit setting. The parent is struggling to figure out where the limit should be.

Let’s take a quick look at the issue of screen time. A parent might decide, I don’t want to limit screens entirely — there are some valuable uses, and I think my 4 year old should be able to watch a movie or play a game now and then. But I also don’t want to let her use screens whenever she wants; I’m convinced that wouldn’t be healthy for her brain development. Science and medicine can only get me so far — there are no studies that will tell me exactly how many minutes a day are OK, but based on my general understanding I’m going to decide that I’ll let her watch one hour a day on weekdays, and two on weekends so that the family can watch a movie together.  But my child wants to watch ALL THE TIME.

This is a problem, in the sense that my kid wants to be glued to the screen and I can’t allow that because I feel responsible for her healthy development.

I wouldn’t say, “We have a problem — you want to watch another show, and I don’t want you to watch too much TV. What should we do?” That would be asking my preschooler to help me set a difficult limit. Instead I might give her information and offer a choice say, “You want to watch more TV, and you’ve already watched for an hour. What else can you do now? Would you like to make play doh out of flour and salt? Or do you want to put on some music and dance in the kitchen while I make dinner?”

She may fight you on this, especially if she is used to arguing and getting more screen time. And then you can acknowledge her feelings. “It’s a bummer. You wish you could watch videos all day long and that it would be good for you! I’m putting the ipad away for now. Let me know when you’re ready to come in the kitchen and do an activity.”

One of the problem solving failures that was mentioned on Facebook was a conflict over sugar consumption. This is another situation where problem solving is not the right tool, and the real issue is limit setting. The conflict here was that a 4-year-old (let’s call her Lily) wanted to eat a lot of sugar and her parents wanted to set a healthy limit.  We can’t expect a 4-year-old to set her own limit on something that is scientifically proven to be addictive, such as screen time, or sugar, any more than we would expect that same 4-year-old to set a limit on how close to the highway she is allowed to play, if you want to look at an even more extreme example involving health.

It is no surprise that Lily rejects “problem-solving” if the idea is to create a limit that she does not want in the first place! It’s the parent’s responsibility to figure out what the limit should be. The parent does not need to consult the child to see if the child wants a limit. Not everything should be a negotiation. In fact if the parent is unclear about what the limits should be, that can create endless conflict, because the kid will keep pushing to see if she can get that one more piece of candy.

Once the parents are clear, they can give information and offer their daughter choices: “Do you want to have your ice cream for dessert after dinner, or do you want to have it earlier in the day, for a snack? The limit on ice cream is one bowl a day. A little sugar is good for your body, but too much sugar isn’t healthy.” (Keep the explanation short.)

Lily can also decide what else to eat when she craves something sweet – perhaps a trip to the produce section is in order so she can experiment with different fruits if she is so inclined.  Perhaps she and her parents will experiment with cooking — baking their own bread, inventing their own yogurt fruit smoothies — creating recipes that are healthy to eat and tasty too. These are some of the ways to empower children around the issues of food while protecting their health.

We realize that it is difficult to navigate this issue when you are in a culture that is not aligned with your values and beliefs. It is very stressful for parents to have their child in daily social situations where other children are  eating limitless sweets while trying to hold the line on healthy nutrition. It is extra challenging to decide what your own limits are when you’re in an environment that is not supportive, and to communicate them clearly and consistently to your child. Your child may very well feel frustrated and upset, and see an unfairness in this limit. In crafting the limit it may be necessary to make some compromises. For example, when the child is in school and all the students are given cookies, most parents wouldn’t want their kid to be put in a corner with a carrot stick. That would be too much for a 4-year-old to bear. But when they are at home they can establish their own food culture, and hopefully add some joy. It’s nicer to be told what you CAN have than what you can’t. Getting your child involved in shopping and cooking and choosing meals (from healthy choices) and even growing some veggies in a garden (when weather permits) are some of the ways to achieve this lofty goal.

If you’ve handled the sugar issue differently in the past — if you’ve said No more cookies and your child has begged or screamed and you’ve given in and handed your child the begged-for cookie — you can expect a lot of resistance to your new system. It may take your child a while to believe that you mean what you say. They’re going to use all their strategies — kicking, screaming, begging, negotiating — because these have worked in the past. It may very well get worse before it gets better. You can respond by acknowledging feelings, giving choices, or removing yourself from attack. You can remind yourself that this too shall pass. Take heart — you’re acting in the best interest of your child.

*A Praiseworthy Question


I am trying to avoid evaluative praise with my 2 yo son. I usually say “Good job!”, “Yay!”, or “I am so proud of you!”

I have been working on describing his accomplishments. But I still find myself saying “Way to go! You put the wipes away all by yourself!” Or “Yay! You worked very hard to put that puzzle together.”

Are “yay” and “way to go” still evaluative?

Thank you!


Mom in the cheering section




It sounds to me that in the case of the puzzle, you are sharing your son’s enthusiasm for his accomplishment when you say “Yay! You did it!” This doesn’t sound to me like evaluative praise.

In the case of the wipes, perhaps you’ve asked him for help with clean up? In that case, you might respond, “Thank you for putting the wipes away! That was a big help to me.” (Now you’re using the tool, “Describe the Effect on Others”.)

On the other hand, if putting the wipes away was a challenge he decided to take on by himself, and this time he was able to do it without any help, “Way to go!” is a nice way to share his sense of accomplishment.

As you’ve noticed, sometimes it can be tricky to figure out whether a word or phrase comes across as evaluative or not. When in doubt, I look for a “try it on yourself” example. Here’s what I came up with for this question:

Imagine you have a leaky toilet. Instead of picking up the phone to call the plumber (at great expense!) you decide to try your hand at fixing it yourself. After studying a few DIY videos on YouTube you manage to stop the leak! You are triumphant! Your friend walks in just as you are cleaning up, and seeing your accomplishment says, “Yay! Way to go!” Do you appreciate your friend’s enthusiasm? (I do.)

But what if, instead of your own toilet, it’s the boss’s toilet, and your boss asks you to take a look, since the plumber isn’t available until tomorrow. When you figure out the problem and fix the leak, would you appreciate hearing from your boss “Way to go!” Or would you prefer to hear “Thank you — that’s a huge help. I really appreciate it.” (I like this second response better.)

Let me know if this explanation is helpful!


*Why you shouldn’t say “you”

Hi Joanna and Julie,

We had a question come up this morning in the study group I’m leading based on your book. In the chapter on Engaging Cooperation one of the tools is “describe how you feel.” Readers are advised to avoid the word, “you.” This seems to be in conflict with the commonly-accepted statement (purported to be an assertive, respectful way to state your feelings) of, “when you ___, I feel ____.”

Is there a way to reconcile this? Is it simply that there are two (and probably many more!) viewpoints on this matter? We’d appreciate any insight!

Thank you!


When you answer, I’ll feel happy!


We’ve got to agree with you, there are many viewpoints on this matter!  We’re going to suggest that you try it on yourself and see how it feels. Imagine that you’re in a group and the leader says the following to you in front of everybody:

“When you chat in the back of the room I find it hard to hear the questions from the group.”


“It’s hard to hear the questions from the group when there’s more than one person talking at the same time.” (This may lead to more discussion, such as, “I know there are a lot of things to discuss. Should we save some time at the end for general socializing and small group discussion?”)


“When you get here late we can’t start on time, and that makes everyone else feel frustrated.”


“It’s frustrating to start late, especially for the folks who have to get home on time for babysitters.” (This may lead to more discussion, such as, “Can we figure out a starting time that will work for everyone’s needs?”)


Are you feeling it? The YOU puts a person on the spot and makes him or her feel accused. Avoiding the YOU may seem indirect, but there is a very different feeling to it. It is a more neutral presentation that invites the listener to help solve the problem without making her feel called out or embarrassed and resentful (“Hey, why are you singling me out? Other people were talking too!” “I’m not the only one who’s late. Besides there was a lot of traffic. Why are you being so hung up about time?”)

We picked fairly mild conflicts for these examples. If you think about the emotional issues that come up with children it becomes even more important to describe the problem without accusing.

“When you do that to your brother he always gets hurt!” (Child thinks, “I’m rough and mean.” Or “But he did the same to me!”)


“Your brother got hurt. He doesn’t like having his arm squeezed!” (This might lead to more discussion, “What can we do to make him feel better?” Or perhaps the child will respond, “He squeezed my arm first!” In which case the parent can reply, “Oh, you didn’t like having YOUR arm squeezed either. We need an idea for what to do in a case like this so nobody’s arm gets hurt.”)

Please write back and let us know if this was helpful!


Joanna and Julie

*When siblings fight, should I give them a “time out”?

Dear Joanna and Julie,

I have 3 kids ages (almost) 5, 3, and 13 months. About 3 years ago, after reading a couple of parenting books along the same lines as yours (but nowhere near as specific and helpful!), I decided to stop using time out and other punishments and haven’t had second thoughts until recently.

My two oldest, both boys, have always struggled to some extent. They can be great friends, but they are very different personalities and my oldest really likes things just so. He has been lining his cars in rows since he was 18 months old. I have always tried to address their fights by helping them find words to express what they are thinking and feeling, helping them find a solution or compromise, and sometimes making a reparation of their choice, like giving a hug or saying sorry or inviting the other one to play a game. It’s been up and down, but for the most part I’ve liked that strategy.

Lately, my oldest has flat out refused to cooperate when I try to help him express his feelings. He just grunts. I have started taking him into another room to talk, I try to empathize and he will agree with my assessment of his feelings, but he won’t volunteer a single word to tell me how he is feeling or to work things out with his brother. I’ve tried problem solving, but with the same result. It’s a power struggle to get him to talk at all. It’s escalated into a lot of physical hurting and name calling from both boys, to the point where I can’t really be in another room and trust they will be safe. I feel like we’re getting out of control. They both lash out at the slightest thing, and I’m starting to lose my patience too. I’m just really not sure how to respond when empathy and problem solving don’t seem to work. It’s starting to make me really angry when he won’t talk, which obviously just adds to the problem. I am really tempted to go back to time out. It seems like it would make it easier for me not to lose my temper if I know beforehand exactly how I will respond instead of having to calm my own emotions before I think about how to respond. And I know they need time to calm down, too, so time out as a way for them to take a deep breath seems helpful in some ways too. I am sure part of the reason they are so hurtful right now is because they don’t feel safe, but I am at a loss to help them know how to stop hurting each other.

Do you have any ideas?

Trying not to lose it



We commiserate with you. There is nothing quite like having one of your own children hurting another. The fighting can really push your buttons! It sounds like you have done some wonderful mediating, helping to put into words how they are feeling without imposing a solution, and helping them to resolve their differences themselves. But what to do when the fighting continues?

First of all, if your instincts are telling you that you need a time out, we think your instincts are correct! If you are under the impression that we are not fans of “giving time outs,” it’s because most often we hear parents do this as a threat or penalty for some unwanted behavior (“If you do that one more time, I’m giving you a Time Out!”). You’ve already read Chapter 3, so you know why we don’t advocate this use of Time Outs.

On the other hand, if you want to use the words “time out” to mean, “we need a break!” then by all means go full steam ahead.  Sometimes people (especially young brothers) need a break from each other. As you well know from experience, they can get so frustrated or angry that they can’t do their best thinking — they don’t even want to solve problems in that moment; sometimes they can’t even talk about what’s making them frustrated or angry.  And as you described so well in your email, even adults need a break in the action to regroup and calm down. So you might say, “I need a time out! Let’s separate so nobody gets hurt.” The time out or break can be a tool for all of you to use, instead of a punishment that adds irritation to the already flustered older child. (You might take a look again at pages 121 – 123, which includes a discussion of time out and some language you can use.)

Once he’s had a break from the threat of destruction from his younger brother, your son might be ready to do some problem solving. But if he is continuing to grunt angrily as you apply gentle pressure to come up with solutions… he is not ready! As you described, the more you push (with the best of intentions) the more frustrated both parties become.

We’re going to try to see the situation from your 5-year-old’s perspective. He likes things just so. His cars lined up in rows. He has a lively 3-year-old brother who probably injects chaos into his organized world. Now there is a new storm brewing.  A 13-month-old who is probably crawling and possibly learning to walk, with no concept of following rules. He is beset from all sides. It may feel completely overwhelming to your super-orderly first born. He may not understand, no less be able to express in words, his own feelings of intense discomfort when he gets overwhelmed. He knows you are extremely unhappy with his actions, but he can’t help himself. All he can do is grunt!

Joanna: I remember one conversation with my own young boys after a particularly ferocious sibling battle. Instead of trying to problem solve, I talked about how very difficult it is not to hit or kick people when you’re angry. “The anger goes right into your body!” (I made a fist and an angry expression.) “You want to punch! It’s even hard for adults.  It’s even harder for little kids. It’s actually one of the most difficult challenges for all human beings.”

When I had this conversation with my kids I could feel a palpable release of tension in the room. Finally I was going beyond the classic, “We don’t hit, we don’t hurt people” and admitting the enormity of the challenge. The physical fights lessened after that conversation.

The idea is that you are all engaged in this struggle together, and you understand it is incredibly difficult. Without pressing them to come up with any solutions or share feelings, you can tell your boys, “Let’s have a special word we can say when people are getting mad.” It could be a nonsense word: “SCRAT!”  Or a real word: “HELP!” Or they can make up their own signal. It will mean, “STOP THE ACTION!” Either boy can use the signal and Mom will come running. Or you can yell the word when you see a meltdown coming. Then  you can use your time out. Maybe do something nice for a time out like jump on the trampoline, or play with water in the sink, or make a snack, or toss some flour and water together so they can pound on dough.

The take home message is, we all have to help each other. It’s so hard to control yourself when you’re mad. If we can listen to each other’s signals, we can help each other learn not to hit. When they do manage to use words instead of fists, you can notice with great appreciation. “Wow, you were really mad but you didn’t hit. You used the signal.” Or, “You just yelled and told your brother with words. That takes a lot of self control!”

Maybe your kids have moved onto new challenges by the time you read this. But if any of the above is helpful, we’d love to hear from you again!

Warm regards,
Julie and Joanna

*Acknowledging my 3 y.o.’s feelings is not helping. Help!

Dear Joanna and Julie,

I’ve tried acknowledging my daughter’s feelings for over a year now (she’s three) and it consistently doesn’t work. Just today our dialogue went like this:
(She fell and hurt her knee)
Daughter: (crying) Momma!
Me: I saw that you fell. I bet that hurt.
Daughter: (crying) NO! It didn’t hurt.
Me: It’s okay if it hurts at first.
Daughter: It doesn’t hurt! I didn’t fall!
Me: Oh! You didn’t fall?
Daughter: No! I never fall.
Me: I bet you wish you never fell.
Daughter: (growing more upset): I really never fall!!
Me: Would you like a hug?
Daughter: No! Nothing!

Every time I try to talk to her by acknowledging her feelings, she denies everything and repeats the words “no, nothing, never, or no one”. Am I doing something wrong? Is it possible that this approach doesn’t work for some children? Is she too young for this strategy?

Please advise!

Frustrated Mom


Dear F.M.,

Kids are so different! My first son was a perfect illustration of the “acknowledging feeling” skills in action. No matter what tragedy befell him, from a bump on the head to a broken lego spaceship, an emphatic statement of emotion always helped. “Ouch, that must hurt! Let me give it a kiss.”  “Oh, what a disappointment! You worked a long time on that.” The tears would dry, the clouds would clear, the sun would shine again, and Dan was off to his next misadventure.

I felt so sure of myself, until son number two came along with a completely different sensibility. As a toddler when he suffered a bump, he did not want to hear that “bumps can hurt.” He was so upset that adding words to the experience overloaded his system. He would scream as if I had poured salt in the wound. When something precious broke, he needed time to mourn on his own before processing any other input. Again, words of intended comfort made him scream.

I learned to minimize my responses, to make a sympathetic grunt or just a few brief words (stupid lego!) offer a quick kiss, or just leave him alone for a while, giving him time to deal with the powerful wave of emotion that overwhelmed him when he got upset. I found it helped to let him set his own timetable for when he wanted comfort. I’d say, “I’ll be in the kitchen. Come on in when you feel like it.” And then leave him to sob (against my own instincts) and to seek me out when he felt ready.

We read your story with great interest. Surely your warm and loving response to your injured child was the very textbook illustration of the skills we teach. But to your daughter it was irritating! She was too upset at the hurt and the very notion of falling to be able to take comfort from hearing those words. And yet she didn’t want to go it completely alone. She cried, “Mommy!”

What’s a “mommy” to do? We’d try following her lead. She wants comfort, but nothing explicit. Too soon! How about just an “Ugh,” and a quick kiss? Or a brief hug, combined with, “Poor little knee, do you want a bandaid?” Or just an acknowledgement with a word, “Oh, ouch!” and no touch at all.

Sometimes a child would rather hear about painful or uncomfortable subjects in the third person, through storybooks for example, rather than face them head on when experiencing them personally. She may enjoy stories of heroic characters  who put up with all kinds of bumps and bruises, yet soldier on to save the town or tame the dragon.

You’ll have to experiment with minimalism and see what works. We would love to hear back from you!

*How I Sped Up the Nighttime Routine with My 2-1/2 Year Old

Dear Joanna and Julie,

The bedtime routine with Simon, age two-and-a-half, has been dragging out longer and longer. I’m short on patience by that time of the night. I’m writing to share my success with being playful.

I made a getting-ready-for-bed game, complete with laminated pieces. I had my dad do the illustrations: bath, PJs, brush teeth, use potty, find favorite stuffed animal, read books.

Here’s what it looks like, before we start:

We pull all the pictures off and put them in an envelope (not pictured) but they could just be in a pile somewhere, like this:

The one of the monkey in bed is showing his favorite stuffed animal  – bedtime grinds to a halt without the monkey so it must be found and placed in bed. Simon gets to determine the order of events, so long as it all gets done. I love having the pictures – it saves me saying “what do you want to do next, pajamas or brush teeth?” 500 times. He just can go and pick one out of the envelope.

He puts one picture on the board at a time after he’s completed each task. They have velcro on the back.

Simon was really into it and we got bedtime done in record time, giving us time to read a lot more books and sing a ton of lullabies! It felt great. I hope it continues to hold the same thrill for him!

Here are some close-up shots:

PS. (One day later)

It did the trick again tonight! Simon was tired from a birthday party and the battery died in our car so we got home pretty late, but he was downright filthy from being by a campfire so I didn’t want to skip bath. Thank goodness for that chart. We finished everything in 30 min that usually takes 60. I wouldn’t have attempted that two days ago. Even if it stops working eventually, it’s been worth it for the good it did today.

*A Clean Resolution for Resistant Bathers

This story comes to us from a reader in India:


The Flood Evacuation Story

My boys, aged 7 & 5, had just returned sweaty and tired from outdoor play and needed to shower. A couple of gentle reminders didn’t help.
Just then , a quirky idea popped into my head and I announced in an official Voice that there was a flood in the bathroom and that ducky ?, froggy ? and turtle ? need help. And the government needs brave firefighters to help.
My boys ran into the bathroom, showered themselves and their bath toys and came out. I gave them a badge (those received as party favours from endless birthday parties they get invited to ) each to honour their efforts.
They love this pretend play and I have used it many times since then.

*Too Many Tantrums

Dear Joanna and Julie,

I have just finished reading your book and I think it’s an amazing book! I have a 5-and-a-half-year-old son, “Kevin,” as well as a 2-year-old.  “Kevin,” has always been a difficult child for me. He always has temper tantrums  (like every hour) over tiny matters. He  says he is very angry and he needs love from me. For example, when I don’t answer his question immediately or when I raise my voice  he starts to wind up and say ‘I am angry!’ Sometimes he throws things .  He always says ‘Mummy please give me love’. If I ignore him, it turns into a 30 min temper tantrum disaster.  If I sit him on my lap and give him a kiss or hug and try to do the tools , he is ok.

The thing is, because he does it so often,  I find it impossible to have the patience, and also I don’t think a 5-year-old boy should be having so many tantrums!   I want to know what exactly should I do when he has a meltdown? Telling him I really don’t like to see anyone being angry doesn’t seem to lessen  his tantrum.  And I have been using the tools for a few weeks now. Please help!

Yours truly,

Tired of Tantrums


Hi ToT,

It sounds like your son is feeling very needy of your attention right now, and you are feeling pretty frustrated. A temper tantrum every hour is a lot to take!

From what I understand, Kevin is actually pretty articulate about what he needs – love and attention! And when you sit with him on your lap and give him hugs and acknowledge feelings, it really helps. But you don’t want to have to do that a dozen times a day, and with a five-year-old, it certainly feels like he should be able to function without quite that much attention.

I’m guessing that with a two-year-old brother taking up his mom’s attention, Kevin may be feeling extra needy of some babying, while at the same time you are feeling extra needful of Kevin acting like a big boy. Two-year-olds are so demanding! The problem is, the more you press Kevin to be the big boy and not to need so much attention, the clingier and more desperate he will feel. The more we push away, the more they grab on. I went through this with my middle child, who went through a clingy, fearful stage. I became so frustrated; I was always acting impatient with him. A friend kindly told me that my impatience was making my son more clingy. I was working against myself.

So how can you muster the patience to give Kevin what he needs, and ultimately give him the strength and confidence not to need quite so much babying, while retaining your own sanity?

I am going to suggest that you throw yourself into babying Kevin. Invite him into your lap. Tell him he’s your super baby who can run and jump and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The strongest baby in the world! Acknowledge all his feelings (“Sometimes you like your little brother, but sometimes it’s a pain in the neck to have a two-year-old around. You miss the good old days when you were the only baby!”)

Give him ways to help out.  Maybe he can read a picture book to his little brother, or blow soap bubbles for him to pop, or build blocks towers for him to topple. Then use your praise and appreciation tools to help Kevin feel good about his role as an older brother. “I see a big smile on your brother’s face! He really likes it when you read to him.”

Resist the urge to tell him that you “don’t like to see him being angry.” As you noticed, that doesn’t work. He needs to feel accepted and loved even when he’s angry, just as we all want to be accepted and loved, even when we’re frustrated with our children. We wouldn’t want someone to tell us, “Hey, I don’t like to see parents who are frustrated with their children!” It would make us feel wrong and bad about ourselves.

But what about when you’re at the end of your rope, after the 5th or 6th tantrum of the day? What about those times you just don’t have it in you to be loving and patient?

Tell him how you feel, without making him feel bad about himself:

“Kevin, I can see you need some loving and hugs. Mommy doesn’t have the patience right now for that. My patience is the size of a tiny little pea. You can come sit with me in the kitchen while I make dinner, and I’ll be knowing how sad you are while I cut these carrots. After dinner my patience will be bigger, maybe the size of a watermelon, and we can sit down together and hug and read stories.”

Or maybe you can ask him to show you his feelings in art. “Kevin, I have to diaper your brother right now, so I can’t sit down with you. But I want to know how you feel. Can you show me with the crayons? … Wow, look at those blue and black lines zooming around. That shows me how mad you are! Show me more…”

No doubt there will be plenty of times when you don’t feel the patience to use any skills at all. That’s just because we’re human. We can’t expect 100%. But the more times you are able to accept your son’s feelings, either by cuddles or just in words, the more he will relax. And eventually he will start to have fewer tantrums, and feel more confident and sunny.



*Doesn’t punishment prepare kids for real life?

Dear Joanna and Julie,

Firstly, I really love your new book on how to talk to little kids. I think it’s an amazing book and very easy to read with great real life examples.

Secondly, your book mentions not to punish kids for their misbehavior, rather teach them how to fix their mistakes so they know how to solve future conflicts as they grow older. Now how does that prepare them for the real world where people receive tickets for not speeding or passing stop signs. Another example is if an employee repeatedly comes late to work or doesn’t get along with his coworkers, he may be fired. Aren’t these punishments/consequences for an adult’s wrong doings?
Please explain.
Thanks so much,

Real Life Mom


Dear RLM,

You’re asking the important questions! I’m going to start with your last example. If an employee repeatedly comes to work late, (or fails to perform the job adequately in other ways) he may be fired.  Why is the owner of the business firing this guy? Not in order to punish him, but to protect his business. In our book we advocate taking action to protect yourself, other people, and property.

The respectful way to approach this miserable employee would be to tell him how you feel, what you need, and to take action if he is not able to carry out his job. The final blow might sound something like this:

“Hey Bud, I need to be able to count on my delivery person to be here at 8am every morning. I hear that you’re having car trouble, and that public transportation is unreliable, and your shoes are pinching your toes too much to walk.  Unfortunately I have to hire someone else who is able to get here on time.”

That is very different from a punishment, which might sound something like this:

“Hey Bud, you’ve been late for three mornings in a row. Now I’m going to punish you so that you can learn to behave better. Every time you’re late, I will confiscate your cigarettes and candy bars. Or make you sit on this uncomfortable stool for 20 minutes. Or smack you on the bottom.”

In the first scenario Bud is sad that he lost his job, but perhaps he is able to reflect on the fact that he needs to make more of an effort to get to work on time in his next job, because now he knows that employers won’t put up with that, no matter what his excuses are.

In the second scenario Bud is probably angry, humiliated and contemplating a lawsuit against his employer for physical or mental abuse. He is not reflecting on strategies for arriving on time.

It’s true that Bud was fired as a consequence of his lateness. But the boss’s motivation was not to cause suffering in order to make Bud learn a lesson. He fired Bud to protect his business. Motivations matter. Bud will feel very differently about being fired if it is done respectfully, without intent to cause extra harm in order to “teach a lesson.”

A similar dynamic occurs in our home when we take action to protect ourselves instead of punishing the child. (“I’m very upset! I don’t want the couch drawn on! I’m putting the markers away for now. ” instead of, ‘Bad boy, now you get no dessert because you drew on my couch.”)

But what about the speeding ticket?  Don’t we punish people with fines in order to get them to drive more slowly? Well, studies suggest that while those fines help fund local government, they don’t actually encourage a change of behavior. This study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17366333 shows that drivers who receive speeding tickets are not deterred from repeating the offense; in fact they are more than twice as likely as other drivers to receive another speeding ticket in the following months.

Drivers will certainly slow down in the presence of a police officer so they won’t get caught. But as soon as that officer is out of the picture, they revert to their previous behavior.

As parents we are not looking to achieve the effect of having our kids behave well only when they are in danger of being caught. We’re trying to raise a person who is internally motivated to drive in a way that doesn’t endanger others, who has a sense of empathy and compassion for other human beings. That will not be achieved by means of punishment.

What’s more, we don’t want our kids to fear and avoid us the way most drivers fear and avoid traffic cops. That’s not the relationship we’re looking for!

If I had a teenager who repeatedly drove dangerously, I would take action by confiscating the car keys. I wouldn’t do it to punish him, but rather to protect him, and to protect other drivers sharing the same road. I might say something like this:

“I can see how tempting it is to drive fast and enjoy the power of speed! I can’t let you use the car until we figure out a way for you to drive safely. I would never forgive myself if someone got hurt.”

That is very different from a punishment, which doesn’t address the problem of how to change behavior.