Motherhood Tips | Working Through Your Kids’ Complicated Emotions (and Your Own)




June 25, 2019

I still remember the weekend I packed up all my belongings, cleaned out my house, and hauled everything across town a while back. We were setting up camp for one year at my parents’ while we rented out our space to a lovely family from The Netherlands. It was all part of a master plan to pay off remaining student loan debt that we just couldn’t seem to wipe clean without some major overhaul, even after fifteen years of working full time and making monthly payments.

They say moving is one of the most stressful life events — right up there with getting married and starting a new job. I knew parts of it would be rough when we made our decision to go all out on debt repayment but I also knew we had to make a major shift in our financial plan if we wanted to ever feel a little more free. Once we signed on the dotted line, there was a lot to do to make it all happen, from arranging cleaners to buying UHaul supplies and getting everything packed up in time.

I wasn’t trying to Type A myself through this major life change, but I sure was good at it. I made the checklists. I checked off all the boxes. It felt good to be organized. Even so, two months after accepting our tenants, making child care shifts, and getting everything else arranged in a logical manner, it all hit me full force emotionally.

It hit my kids, too.

All their toys were in boxes and half the rooms in our house became off-limits last week to accommodate drying touch-up paint. My girls tried their best for about two hours the morning their playroom was cordoned off to find something else to do. The fix it guy maneuvered around them, trying to avoid their antics as I unsuccessfully encouraged them to get creative. Then one of my girls hit some kind of behavioral limit. A shoe was thrown. Some hair was pulled. There was an all-out screaming event held by the toddler. She should have charged admission it was so dramatic.

I piled them in the car, understanding full-well kids sometimes express their frustrations and stress in less than ideal ways.

“Let’s go to the berry farm,” I said, imagining myself peacefully meandering through rows of blueberry bushes with a wagon of equally-serene children behind me. “We can grab some lunch on the way.”

The kids were ecstatic, ready to spend a more enjoyable afternoon with a less distracted mom. We stopped at our favorite burrito bowl place, adding three lemonades to the order just because. I could feel the mood lift, my littlest now happily skipping along, holding my hand. She swung herself up onto my arm, making monkey noises as she attempted to climb me. The drink carrier tipped as I tried to set it down on the sidewalk so I could rearrange my crew and our food. Off we went again, past the shops and other families enjoying their days.

I’d almost made it to the car when the first lemonade fell out of the carrier, tumbling to the ground as my daughter tried again to use my body as a jungle gym, despite my admonishments. I set the carrier on the hood, presumably safe from mishap while I strapped everyone into their car seats and took a big breath.

I let my guard down too soon, though. The second lemonade made its downward turn as it slid across the wet hood, exploding like a yellow bomb as it hit the pavement. I grabbed the carrier just before the final cup met its demise, only to have the lid flip off when I tried to set it into my cup holder. Before I could catch it, a sweet, sticky film covered the console. It splashed onto the passenger seat and down to the floorboards.

Lemonade was everywhere. Everywhere.

I felt a low, guttural sound come from somewhere around my mid-chest.

And then I felt myself start to cry.

This was not a controlled, adult, tears around my eyes kind of sniffle. It was a full-on, body shaking, sobbing into my steering wheel kind of cry—the kind that makes your kids really quiet, the kind that makes you really quiet after five seconds because you realize you are surrounded only by the sound of silence. It was only spilled lemonade but somehow it meant more.

“Mommy, why are you crying?” My oldest whispered.

“Yeah, mom, only kids are supposed to cry,” I heard my baby girl quip.

“No, mommies can cry,” she responded. “Especially when they’re having a hard day. Mommy is having a hard day. All of her lemonade spilled and it ruined the car. And we’re moving, Sissy. Moving can be very hard.”

“Oh, yeah,” she answered back. “It’s okay for adults to cry about that. Don’t worry mommy, it will be all right.”

I sat listening to my very young children have a very grown-up conversation about the way life works as I pulled myself together. I looked back at them, feeling a little sheepish that the only adult in the car was having the most difficulty being wise. I saw their earnest faces smiling back at me and I remembered this truth:

Our children learn just as much from our real emotions, from our in-the-moment mistakes, even from our flat-out parenting failures, as they do from the scripted, controlled learning experiences we arrange or manipulate for them.

When they see us being vulnerable about the way we feel, they can be honest about the way they feel, too.

Now that I was a bit more composed, I explained myself:

“You know, mommy is really excited about our move and what that’s going to mean for our family—that we’re working on a goal to spend more time together and to be stronger as a team. You’re right, though. All the little parts and pieces that have to come together to make this move happen are sometimes overwhelming. Those lemonades falling—one after another—was what they call ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Every once in a while your body needs you to just let your emotions out a little so they don’t keep getting bottled up. When you least expect it, sometimes the kettle lets off a little steam. Just like that happens for you guys sometimes, it happens for mommy, too.”

I watched their little heads nod, like old sages. My kids are not always that attentive but at that moment they sure were. I had a captive audience, maybe because I shocked them a bit with my sob-fest but, hopefully, also because they truly know that feelings are okay.

They know they’re loved no matter what their emotions, however mixed up they feel. They know it’s all right to work through all the complex feelings that come with making big changes. They know it’s okay for things to be not all bad, not all good, but somewhere in-between. When you are authentic with your kids, they learn that authenticity is something to be desired.

Now, let’s not take this too far. I’m not suggesting you let your kids in on every deep, dark emotion you ever have, or that you overshare your mental play by play on the regular. Obviously, sobbing through our days is neither productive nor healthy for our children. What I am suggesting is this: it’s important to let our kids learn how to be strong and brave, to get past their fears, to build resilience.

It’s equally important that they learn how to be vulnerable.

I’m suggesting we show them that when they’re weak, they’re still lovable—that they’re still strong, even when they don’t feel like they are—that accepting and working through our emotions is another form of developing that all important “grow from your struggles” skill, that they’re part of a community that loves them no matter what.

The dinner table replay of the day’s events was pretty epic that evening, but what was most impressive was the way my kids jumped in as I summarized the story to my husband. He sat there wide-eyed as I recounted the tumbling drinks, the lemonade bath, and the crazy conversation that ensued.

“Mommy lost her marbles a little bit this afternoon,” I laughed to my husband.

The toddler piped up quickly as she slurped her noodles off the fork. “Yeah, but we helped her find them again.”

Yes, baby girl. You sure did.

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behavior tips for toddlers, toddler behavior management and emotion-coaching, motherhood hacks


Top Tips for Toddler Tantrums | How to Treat Your Child Like a Human When She is Acting Like a Monster




May 31, 2018

I’d had about enough with the toddler tantrums. My daughter was in some type of angry zone, upset at the world, mad at everyone. She woke up on the wrong side of the bed—again—and we wound up in some spiral tug-of-war of wills. Sobbing, she screamed and refused to brush her hair—I could handle all that. Then she threw a small book at her toddler sister, hitting her in the back and leaving a mark. I felt myself almost lose it. I couldn’t handle the toddler tantrum. When someone, even someone you love, intentionally hurts your baby, the feeling that surfaces (brace yourselves, it’s about to get real here) is RAGE. I’ve never felt that way toward my own daughter until the book incident ensued. It was a feeling of confusion, of desperation. A feeling that I must be doing this mom thing all wrong, that I need to go to stinkin’ parenting school myself, that I’m a mom fraud.

How I initially handled the toddler tantrum:

My initial gut reaction? To scream, be mean back, and move immediately to punishment. I wanted to treat my firstborn like the enemy or a monster. That’s not what you expected? Me neither. It’s definitely not the picture of a perfect pediatrician, but it is the truth because it turns out, I am human. As it also turned out, I thankfully remembered at that moment, so is she. She is so much more than her toddler tantrum. Well, actually, a little song started playing in my head that helped remind me. “People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed. But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best. True love brings out the best.”

How to help your child through their toddler tantrum in a better way:

Sound eerily familiar? Yep, the Frozen soundtrack was my saving grace at that moment (I knew that movie would be good for something one day). Seriously, as cheesy as it may sound, that tune has it exactly right when it comes to early childhood behavior and successful parenting. It’s the crux of emotion coaching and of collaborative problem solving: an assumption that all people want to do and be their best but that traumas, circumstances, skill deficits, and developmental immaturities keep them from it a lot of the time. An understanding that our most important parenting goal should be to coach our kids toward desired behaviors, not to punish them for their ineptitudes (want tips on exactly how to do it? sign up here for our free toddler tantrum guide). Think about it this way: if you were in charge of a beginning-level soccer team and one player hadn’t eaten breakfast, leaving him without any energy, and he couldn’t run down the field, would you get mad at him or would you feed him? Missed a goal… would you sit him out of the game or would you work on his kicking skills? If he had an incomplete pass, would you run over in the middle of the game and explain in an irritated voice how he failed or would you use the next practice to build his skills? Storming onto the field in a fit of anger would not only be inappropriate, it would be ludicrous.

Becoming your toddler’s coach:

When you are a good coach, you think about where your player is going, not where they are now. You work with them toward the goals you share, and you consider it your role to teach and guide. We have to think about our parenting in the same goal-oriented way if we want to be successful. Does that mean we just let our kids run free and wild, hurting others along the way, with no accountability? Not at all. Does that mean we bend to every unhealthy request our kids make? Not in the least. Do we never get angry or upset? That’s impossible. It does mean that we first think of our children as fellow-people, who usually act out based on feelings and needs, not spite.

Here are my top tips for toddler tantrums:

We remember that, in 99% of cases, our children’s behaviors do not constitute emergencies.

There is almost always time to stop, get ourselves peaceful, and then move to action.

We reality check our deepest fears and disappointments.

In those whirlwind moments of toddler and preschool parenting, the fears that we’ve been storing down in the depths make their way to the forefront of our minds quite often. But fears like my child is on a path toward a career as a complete sociopath or my kids will never love each other, while seemingly real in the moment, are hardly ever based in reality. Remember, aiming for perfectly-behaved kids is unrealistic and unfair. We can’t let our fears dictate our in-the-moment parenting responses.

We own our own emotions and role-model healthy ways to deal with those feelings that rise to the surface when we’re triggered.

It’s perfectly okay to say to your child, “Mommy feels scared and angry right now. I need to take a second to calm down.” In fact, when we consistently acknowledge what’s going on for us inside and demonstrate how to deal with the raw feelings we have in nonviolent, non-harmful ways, we are showing our kids how they can do the same.

We broadcast and emotion coach.

“Jill is frustrated she can’t play with that toy right now” or “Owen is disappointed he can’t have an ice cream today.”

We set firm limits and rules about what is ok and what is not.

When our kids use inappropriate methods to express their emotions and get their needs met, we help them find an alternative solution. “We don’t hit. We don’t yell at our loved ones and friends. Can you think of another option?”

We use time-outs sparingly and natural consequences wisely.

A book to the back of a sibling? In my house, that is a line we don’t cross. However, time-outs don’t have to be angry, drag-out power-struggles. They can be a chance to help kids stop and get control of themselves. Check out tips from Zero to Five author Tracy Cutchlow on the topic here. If we do set a consequence for an action, we make it logical and attainable (like taking away a privilege or helping to clean up a mess that was made), not far-fetched or punitive for the whole family (“That’s it! No playdates for a month!”).

We allow, whenever possible, our children to brainstorm their own solutions.

“You’ll need your hair brushed before we can leave. You want to keep playing right now. What should we do?” The toddler years are full of magic and wonder, but they can also be full of stress and turmoil. When your kids act like little monsters, first attend to your own emotions, learn to respond versus react, and use tantrums and “bad’ behavior first and foremost as teaching moments—steps along the path to emotional self-regulation and effective problem-solving. If you do, you’ll build a team of healthy, resilient human beings.

Want more tips on dealing with toddler tantrums? Sign up for our FREE Toddler Tantrum Game Plan here.

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parenting hacks, parents guide to tantrums


Parenting Advice | How I (Don’t) Do it All… and Why You Shouldn’t Either


Babies, Parents, Toddlers


May 18, 2018

This month, I’ve been doing a lot. More than I usually do. And I’ve been getting a lot of questions for parenting advice about how I do it. On the surface it looks like I’m up to my ears promoting my book, staying active on social media and writing blog posts. I’ve also had a ton of questions about how I balance a side-business with my full-time physician job and my two young kids. My secret weapon? The key to my sanity? I don’t do it all. I know that, if I did, I would be unhappy, stressed and, ultimately, not very successful at anything. Instead, I live by five guiding life and task management principles. You can, too, no matter if you’re a stay-at-home mom, a working woman or a mix of both. Here they are: Prioritize Your Priorities This may come as a shock but, it turns out, I am not Beyoncé. I do not have a full staff of assistants working for me, an unlimited budget, or a private jet. Nope, I have a real life with pressures and demands. Some demands and pressures loom a little larger than others, taking up more mental energy and time than they should. Instead of letting those demands run me, I try my best to keep them in check. The best way to do that? (1) Have a super clear sense of my priorities. (2) Get clear in my own head about, not just what I have to do, but what I want to do. (3) Limit my 100% level efforts to my top three priorities and let the other items on the priority list act as icing on the cake. (4) Be honest comfortable enough in my own skin to care less about meeting others’ expectations of my priorities than about being true to my needs and goals. You can get more information here about our self-care survival guide and other free parenting resources. Find a Passion My daughter came leaping downstairs this morning, full to the brim with excitement. “Do you think I could strum my ukulele a few times before school?” she asked hopefully. I had to laugh. Usually, my girl is like a slumbering bear in the early hours (turns out she takes after me in more ways than one)—hard to wake, easily aggravated, and difficult to motivate. But something was different today. We signed her up for ukulele lessons last night and even bought her a used instrument, complete with a small wooden dolphin decoration and sparkles embedded in the paint. She found a passion. And passion changes everything. Passion makes a difference for adults, too—particularly for moms and dads. Stuck in the day-to-day grind of parenting, the early months and years can feel like a never-evening cycle of drudgery—a song on repeat that keeps playing and playing. Our minds can get stuck in mental overload mode, even though they’re full only of the mundane. We can only take so many diaper changes, feeding sessions or nap attempts. For me, working on my passion project (running a blog and writing a book) doesn’t really feel like work—it’s self-directed, I can do as much or as little as I want to do and it’s something I care about deeply. The same is true for most people who find a project to get excited about. Maybe your passion project is a cause you want to learn more about or be involved with, even if only virtually. Maybe your passion project is not a project at all—it’s exploring music lessons for yourself or nurturing your love of gardening. It doesn’t matter what it is or how big or small it is—it matters that you have something. Focus on Your Strengths, Delegate the Rest I’ll never receive an award for best housecleaner (or even a sixth-place consolation prize). Actually, my housecleaning skills are completely lacking. I’ve come to grips with this not so sad reality. Same goes for keeping close track of late start school days for my kid’s preschool, remembering to walk the dog or making lunches for myself to bring to work. You probably have some “weaknesses,” too. So what? Instead of spinning your wheels on to-do list items you’ll never get to or will never remember, delegate to the others in your house or in your proverbial village. When it’s financially feasible, hire a housecleaner. Put a partner in charge (it will be one of the best moves you ever make). Delegate, delegate, delegate and stop feeling so guilty that you’re not superwoman—no one is. Take Full Advantage of Technology Thank goodness we live in a modern world where, for a small fee, we can automate almost everything we do. I would wither on the vine if it were not for autopay and Amazon Prime. I also take advantage of healthy meal kit delivery systems like Sun Basket and One Potato, use my calendar reminders to keep me organized, and “read” almost everything in audiobook form. Can technology be a negative force in your family, keeping you from spending focused, quality time with the ones you love? Sure it can. You have to treat your smartphone and your computer like the tools they are, not like the distraction they can often become. Make Time for Self-Care Ever notice how, when you take a weekend to unplug or even an hour to relax, you’re actually able to accomplish more in the hours or days to follow? Self-care (dedicated time spent caring for yourself—either alone or with others) is never a waste. Quite the opposite. When we re-group, relax or re-focus, we’re able to offer those who depend on us or who partner with us the very best of ourselves. We can be more present and more peaceful. Trying to do it all or be it all? Please, please don’t. It’s such a waste of energy and it never works out how you hope it will. Something’s gotta give eventually. Instead, identify and live by your priorities, use the resources around you, and work first from your strengths. Your excellent example of imperfect balance will lead the way for your kids to eventually do the same.

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at home with baby, guide for moms


Raising Children | What I’m Doing To Keep My Children From Becoming Complete Jerks


Elementary School, Toddlers


March 15, 2018

It’s not looking good for my family’s gold star status chances today. One of my children is at the indoor play gym posturing for her position in line for the slide. The other is grabbing her sister’s toy out of her hands, seemingly oblivious to the shrieks of offense and horror coming from her sibling. Raising children is hard.

Cue pediatrician mom. I’m full of understanding about what’s normal at all kid ages and stages but I’m faced with the reality that MY kids are acting like complete jerks. And commence re-committing to the idea that, while perfectly-behaved kids are indeed totally overrated and totally unrealistic, it’s also my responsibility to not let them stay complete jerks their whole lives.

For me and my kids, preventing jerkdom means that, when they do act unkind or selfish, I try my best to use it as it as a learning and guiding opportunity.

Somehow, though, my authoritative parenting style (firm but loving, high expectations with consistent consequences, high level of emotional responsiveness) is often met by other parents with a lot of shock and negativity depending on the crowd.

I think it’s because, as a culture and as a generation, we’re having a hard time these days figuring out where to land on the parenting style spectrum. There’s a lot of talk about letting our kids work it out themselves, about being more hands off.  While I agree that helicopter parenting is no good, I also know we can’t just let our kids run amuck.

Passive parenting is being super responsive and loving but having hardly any rules or expectations. It has its own major downfalls. Lord of the Flies didn’t turn out so well and neither will a candy shop full of tiny humans with a “me complex” left to their own devices. I’m sure your kids are perfect angels all the time but none of the other kids I’ve ever met are. Nope, the children I know need clear expectations and boundaries.

Now, can people take it too far with the whole rules and regulations thing? Can getting overly involved in every squabble hinder a kid’s ability to learn how to problem-solve on their own?

Absolutely. I’m not talking about holding your kid’s hand through every single social situation they encounter. I am saying, though, that it’s our obligation to be explicit and consistent as we teach our kids values like compassion and kindness.

I’m also not saying that setting boundaries means we can’t use Positive Parenting to implement our “I Will Not Let You Become a Jerk” plan. In fact, looking at what’s behind the behavior your children exhibit (hunger, fatigue), you can guide your kids to make their own good choices. Giving realistic expectations beforehand when possible are all great tools for setting and enforcing boundaries. Tracy Cutchlow writes all about these positive parenting techniques in her book, Zero to Five.

As a pediatrician, I see my colleagues working tirelessly to impart balance in this area to the parents they meet. Encouraging parents to not be afraid TO PARENT. Almost needing to give permission to set a limit, set a boundary or set a consequence.

I’m not a perfect parent to my kids, by any means. Sometimes I look back on my parenting decisions with regret. It can be especially tricky to navigate when creating structure for a more sensitive, spirited son or daughter. Some kids, based on their temperament or personality, need more redirection or firm boundaries than others. But I do believe that passive parenting doesn’t do children any favors. And I believe that authoritarian (demanding or harsh) parenting tactics usually don’t turn out so well either. Like a bridge without rails, the path of life becomes more precarious without the security that comes from structure.

I’m trying hard to not let my kids become jerks. Even while I accept that sometimes they will be selfish and mean no matter how hard I (or they) try.

It’s our natural instinct to be selfish. Add in their limited self-regulation skills and their high sensitivity to hunger and fatigue. Now it feels like an uphill battle to get involved and hold them accountable. It’s worth it, though. In fact, their future friends, partners, and bosses all depend on the hard work we’re putting in now.

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gift registry, baby shower ideas, new baby, baby gift, advice for new moms


motherhood advice, raising children, how to raise a kind child


Mommy Guilt | Yep, Mama. You Are the Problem…and the Solution


Parents, Toddlers


February 22, 2018

“Well, she’s your daughter.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that before. It’s usually in reference to some sensitive, drama-queen episode my husband is watching my daughter work through with his eyes rolled so far back into his head they might very well get stuck there. It could be the household motto.

He’s right (and he doesn’t mean it disparagingly. He’s just calling it like it is).

She is so much like me. We’re both sensitive, we’re a bit anxious, and we’re definitely drama queens. Sometimes I feel like she is, in fact, me on steroids – uninhibited and uncensored. And it has been true since the beginning. She used to sob when we left her with a sitter – even if only for 15 minutes. She tells my spouse and I that we’re not being kind if we use a tone of voice that has a hint of irritation. She’s easily worried and easily offended. But her struggles are also her strengths. With sensitivity and high emotions comes high levels of empathy. While she is intense and easily frustrated, she also has a huge heart. If there is no justice, she is crushed. If she senses sincere need, fear or pain in others, she is there to lend a hand. “Maybe a hug would help,” she says to her friends or sister when they are teary or injured. “It will be ok. I’m right here.”

I’m all about trying to see the issues that challenge her as strengths (she’ll be the head of some world-saving, peace-making nonprofit when she grows up, no doubt) and psychological research strongly supports that approach.

But, when she’s having her most difficult, high-emotion times, it’s harder to focus on the positives. Instead, like a lot of moms I know, I go searching for reasons why my kids are the way they are. Often, that search leads me right back to myself and to a whole new level of mommy guilt. I find myself forgetting that my children are a mix of genes (not just mine, my husband’s too!) and environment. That there are tons of individual temperament components that influence how she deals with and reacts to the stresses that come her way. That my own tendencies are not the only influence on how my child turns out. More importantly, I lose sight of the fact that those amazing, perceptive, emotionally in-tune parts of my child’s makeup are also an extension of my genetic attributes and that the fact we share some of those characteristics puts me in a unique position to empathize with and encourage her as she works through it all. Even if they don’t verbally express it at each visit, this grating part of mommy (or daddy) guilt is underlying the questions of so many of the parents I come in contact with at my practice. It’s especially relevant when it comes to behavior and mental health issues, but it’s also there when it comes to all sorts of other health conditions. Obviously, the attention and the effort we put into our kids makes a difference, but, even if we try our bests to better ourselves and our kids, we have to remember it’s not all about us.

If you are feeling guilty that, by just being you, you are messing up your kid, take heart.

Yep, you are part of the problem…but you’re also part of the solution. And you’re just the mama your kid needs. For more on toddler tantrum help, check out our free guide here.

Want more help winning at parenting without losing yourself?

Check out our self-care and newborn care courses.

Know a mom-to-be who could use some help caring for herself and her little one?

Grab the book! Out March 17, 2020.

teaching children, for toddlers, for preschoolers, motherhood advice

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