4 Ways We Can Shift Our Language to Support Kids' Emotional Intelligence

Whether or not we validate our kids’ emotions will ultimately have an impact on their ability to manage those emotions well beyond the childhood years.

After years and years of teaching kids to “toughen up,” we now know that kids’ emotions matter (as they always have).

An increasing body of evidence suggests that kids do not misbehave because they’re bad. Rather, misbehavior is often a sign that your kid hasn’t yet learned how to express difficult feelings and emotions.

A kid who neither knows what anxiety means nor how it manifests in his body is more likely to go into a meltdown the next time he encounters an anxiety-provoking situation. Another kid will react differently. Biting, impulsivity, aggressiveness, hitting, and extreme shyness are also ways in which kids express their inability to deal with difficult emotions.

Emotions do not only affect how kids react, they also affect how they feel. It’s not uncommon for your child to develop a headache or a stomachache every time she has to go for a swimming lesson or just before school starts, if those are anxiety-provoking situations for her.

Why does strengthening kids’ emotional intelligence matter? Because kids’ inability to manage their emotions can create a domino effect in other aspects of their lives. The available evidence suggests that kids’ inability to regulate their emotions is associated with impulsive behavior, and impulsivity is detrimental for kid’s social, academic, and psychological development. Impulsive kids are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors in adolescence and even in later years.

The good news is that nothing is simpler than teaching kids about emotions. It’s neither a costly process nor does it require the intervention of a professional. In all fairness, however, teaching kids to manage their emotions is a long process and the results are not always visible at first sight.

Evidence suggests that parenting styles predict the development of kids’ ability to control their emotions. In other words, whether or not we validate our kids’ emotions will ultimately have an impact on their ability to manage those emotions well beyond the childhood years. Here are a few tips about everyday experiences you can transform into “emotion discipline” lessons.

What we tell our kids: Don’t cry, it’s nothing

  • What we should be telling them: I’m here/Tell me about it/ Crying will make you feel better/Do you want a hug?

We don’t help our children develop their emotional intelligence by invalidating their feelings. You’ve probably noticed that telling kids “it’s nothing” does not make them cry less. Instead of invalidating your child’s feelings, teach him that it’s okay to cry and then show him what he can do to feel better – tell someone, distract himself, ask for a hug – which will help develop his emotional intelligence.

Teasing kids about their fears does not make those fears go away. It simply amplifies the fears and leads to the development of other difficult secondary emotions.

What we tell our kids: What’s wrong now?

  • What we should be telling them: I know it’s upsetting. Do you want to talk about it?

Your kid will not know how to express her emotions if she does not know what those emotions are. There are many age-appropriate and easy-to-apply strategies to teach kids about emotions, and it’s never too early to start.

Indeed, the available evidence suggests that even the youngest kids benefit when we take their emotions into account. When we put our kids’ emotions into words and propose appropriate ways to express those emotions, we help them develop their emotional intelligence and teach them that they can manage even the most difficult emotions.

Bear in mind, however, that the strategies that work with your two-year-old will not necessarily work with your eight-year-old. While infants and toddlers often need our intervention to help them adopt appropriate strategies, older kids are capable of and need to be taught to identify effective emotion regulation strategies they can use by themselves.

What we tell our kids: You made me angry

  • What we should be telling them: I was angry because…

Yes, you have a right to be angry at your child’s behavior, but you can choose how you react.

Strengthening your children’s emotional intelligence is about teaching them that they too are responsible for their reactions. Put differently, teaching your child emotional discipline is about teaching him that yes, he will “get baited,” but he can decide whether to take the bait or not.

What we tell our kids: Why do you make me yell at you?

  • What we should be telling them: I’m sorry I yelled at you when I was angry. I will try and yell less.

Your kid is not responsible for how you react to his or her behavior, you are. We all lose it sometimes and do things we regret, but blaming our kids for our guilt only makes it harder for them to learn how to manage their emotions.

As in many other areas of raising kids, how we react to our emotions teaches kids how to react to theirs. When we shout and engage in “adult tantrums,” we teach our kids that throwing a tantrum is a valid response to emotions. That doesn’t mean that we should always be “perfect” parents. It simply means being able to recognize and apologize for our reactions when necessary.

Ultimately, the ability to understand your kid’s signals and respond in age-appropriate ways that minimize distress can help him develop emotion regulation skills. For instance, some studies suggest that distracting young kids from distressing situations can teach them to integrate “walking away” within their repertoire of emotion-regulation skills and thus help them develop the “self-control of emotion.”

Everyday life provides multiple opportunities to teach kids about emotions. Even simply commenting on emotions when reading a book or watching TV together – “he sure looks angry,” “why do you think she’s frowning?” – can go a long way in teaching your kid about emotions.

Breastfeeding: When Success Feels Like Failure

Most of all, I raged against the breastfeeding mothers who failed to tell me how hard this all was.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
Days into my daughter’s life, I learned that breastfeeding did not, at all, feel good. Every latch felt like a thousand tiny needles stabbing my nipple in unison. After a few moments, the sharpness would fade, replaced by my blunt determination. Nursing was the only thing that made my daughter happy.
I had thought breastfeeding would be easy to figure out, that I could leapfrog the issues that plagued others. Perhaps, because I had no experience with newborns, my brain filled the void with the most optimistic scenario.
My optimism evaporated within a week. Life became a series of marathon nursing sessions interrupted by short periods of sleep. Ten, 12, 20 times a day (and night) the pain pierced and took my breath away. I called her my milk vampire. My nipples cracked and blistered and bled.
My mother flew in from Chicago to help out. She kept me company on the couch for hours a day, the two of us watching “Bones” while I nursed her granddaughter. Sitting in my nest of pillows, I practiced each nursing position I’d been taught. I latched and re-latched my daughter, hoping each time it would make the pain go away.
My sleep deprivation worsened. My mother broke her arm, and my husband lacked the emotional endurance to soothe our always-fussy baby. In those first couple of weeks, my newborn daughter and I spent 20 hours a day in physical contact.
I expected my husband to bear these burdens with me. He expected me to soldier on, no matter the pain or misery. After three weeks, he went back to work, leaving me alone with only one effective parenting tool: my breasts.
Late one night, my husband snored while my daughter nursed voraciously. Just two weeks into her life, I wanted to scream at the pain. Instead I wept. “This can’t be right,” I thought. “This is why people use formula.”
At my loneliest, weariest time, I felt desperate for relief. I figured the signs of breastfeeding failure would be clear: If my daughter lost more than 10 percent of her weight after birth, or if the doctor mandated it. Never once did I consider that I could be in pain and exhausted, yet not quite failing completely.
I hadn’t chosen to breastfeed, not exactly. I had expected to breastfeed, the way a middle class teenager expects to go to college and expects to get a good job afterward. Feeding your child is a biological imperative. Humans have been doing it by breast for millions of years. My body would automatically make milk in the first week after birth whether I wanted it to or not. I felt entitled to an easy breastfeeding experience. Pain infringed upon my birthright.
In the dark, I hunched over my daughter like a frenzied, cornered cat, searching for escape. I saw formula dangling in front of me as the “easy solution,” the ever-present back-up plan. If I failed at breastfeeding, I knew I was supposed to transition to formula and convince myself to be happy about it. Liberated women must never feel guilty about their choices.
But nursing was my daughter’s sole source of comfort. I refused to give it up.
I needed fuel for my resolve, and I chose rage. I let myself hate formula and the people who sell it, their oily ads and counterfeit generosity. I turned on the parenting industry at large. So many useless gadgets, wasted time, and squandered hope. I seethed over the injustices of motherhood and its overflow of impossible decisions. But most of all, I raged against the breastfeeding mothers who failed to tell me how hard this all was.
I raged until I had no anger left. When I was done, I wept for my own naiveté in thinking the world was fair and all problems had solutions.
I woke the next morning, and many mornings after, feeling battered. Would my situation ever improve? I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine tomorrow, let alone next month. Every moment lasted forever. My pain felt eternal.
At six weeks, the pain disappeared. It was nothing I did, no grand revelation. Maybe my daughter learned how to suckle properly, or her mouth grew a little. I’ll never know.
Now I can think of 50 things I could have done differently. But when I look back, I can never see the moment where I should have known better. Every time I replay these events, I make the same decisions. It was all I knew. My breastfeeding experience was not a gold medal performance or an A+ on a final exam. In an alternate reality, I might have surrendered to formula.
In this reality, I’m still surrendering to the realization that sometimes success can feel an awful lot like failure.

I Wouldn’t Wish Labor Pains on My Worst Enemy, But I Would on My Husband

Without the benefit of actual experience, it’s impossible to develop the true understanding that empathy requires.

I wouldn’t wish labor pains on my worst enemy. But I would wish them on my husband.
To be fair, I don’t have that many personal enemies. The mean girl in high school? Ex-boyfriend? They don’t deserve 12 hours of back labor that leaves them feeling like their hips are stuck in a vice. That jerk who cut me off in traffic? I hope she never knows what it’s like to vomit between blood-curdling screams.
The blinding pain, the all-encompassing agony – I don’t think anyone should have to go through that.
Except my husband.
What I wouldn’t give for him to experience labor just as I did.
Here’s the thing. He’s a good husband. The best, really. This isn’t some personal vendetta against him. It’s not like he was off romancing a mistress while I sweated through contraction after contraction. He held my hand, told me how well I was doing, and texted family with updates for hours.
And I hated him for it.
It was the same throughout each of my pregnancies. I was grateful when he gave me a foot rub, but what I really wanted was for him to know what it felt like to have swollen, throbbing feet. Sure, he was sympathetic as he hoisted me out of bed each morning. But I would have preferred that he fully understand the humiliation I felt at not being able to accomplish such a simple task myself.
When my breasts ballooned to triple their normal size, I was grateful for the cooling cabbage leaves he ran out to get (even if they were purple and stained my chest). What I truly needed, though, was for him to know what it was like to have a tiny life solely dependent on something you still weren’t quite sure how to give them.
My husband doled out sympathy for every pregnancy, birth, and postpartum ailment that came my way. But what I really needed was empathy.
Everyone knows that empathy is the trendy version of sympathy. It’s the one you are supposed to offer. But without the benefit of actual experience, it’s impossible to develop the true understanding that empathy requires. My husband could believe me when I told him my pregnancy and breast-feeding struggles, but he had no idea what they actually felt like.
Unfortunately, even talking to other moms doesn’t often provide us with the deep understanding we so desire. Conversations tend to head in one of two directions.
The “I had it way worse – why would you even complain?” exchange:
You: “I was in labor for 16 hours and pushed for another three.”
Playground mom: “Oh I wish I was in labor for only 16 hours! I was in active labor for six days, had back labor the entire time, and one contraction that lasted a solid 24 hours. I pushed for five hours while on a conference call for work. You don’t know how lucky you are!”
Or the “I can totally relate! Except I can’t.” exchange:
You: “Bed rest is really mentally and physically difficult for me.”
Other playground mom: “Oh, I know how you feel! My husband would cook me breakfast in bed on Saturday mornings and, honestly, sometimes I just kinda got bored laying there waiting for him. So hard, but such a blessing!”
You: No comment.
We crave someone who can fully share our experiences, and in turn, validate what we have been through. At the same time, we want recognition of the pain and difficulties that are uniquely ours, without having them watered down by comparisons.
More than wanting to be understood, even, we want to be appreciated. And on some level, we know that even the most sincere “thank you for all that you do” feels a bit inadequate when we think of all the aches and pains we didn’t even bother to clue our partners in on.
My husband will never fully understand what I went through with each of my pregnancies and births. But he knows the rest of the story: the sleepless nights with a child who wants to be walked up and down the halls, the panic the first time you rush your child to the E.R. with an undiagnosed allergic reaction, the pride and nerves you feel when they first hoist a backpack onto their shoulders and wave good-bye.
Occasionally my blood boils when I think of how he technically didn’t have any parenting responsibilities between the moment of conception and the moment of birth (and enjoyed a significantly lighter workload than me for the first few months thereafter). But the more years that come between the birth of my first son and the present day, I realize what a small percentage of parenting that truly was.
My husband might not ever be able to grant me true empathy. But I’ll be okay as long as he believes me when I tell him how difficult it all is.
And, yes, I plan on telling him about it for many years to come.

A Sexual Assault Pun is Not a Halloween Costume

I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

All the #MeToo headlines in recent weeks have definitely caught my attention and sharpened my Sexual Assault-Dar. I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about Halloween. I don’t find a lot of things inappropriate. I took my kids to this pumpkin massacre scene earlier in the day, and we all had a good laugh at the one pumpkin lawn-mowing the other pumpkin, whose bloody orange guts were spilling out everywhere. We took selfies and high fived.

But my daughter’s almost 10, and while she’s beginning to notice that girls’ costumes tend to involve short skirts and bathing suits, how the hell am I supposed to explain the rapey gynecologist costume to her? In a couple years, she’ll figure out that her looks are where our culture wants her to put her focus. But we can draw the line at the light riff on sexual assault, can’t we?
It takes a lot to shield her from the headlines about Harvey Weinstein and the other men being exposed in this wave of revelations about past and current abuses. I somehow kept her from knowing about the recent Las Vegas shooting – but the next one may have to be confronted.
We want to preserve the innoncence of our childrens’ experience in this world as long as possible. We are here to be their rocks, to keep their impressionable brains developing on a vector unblemished by the trauma of shootings, natural disasters, and sexual predation.
She’s old enough to process that there is racism in this world. A proud understanding of Rosa Parks’ bravery could inspire her to be strong and stand up for what’s just, to treat her neighbors with sensitivity and respect.
She’s old enough to know that hurricanes are a reality, that people on islands which bore the brunt of the storm need our help. She understands that the oceans are warming and that scientists think our environmental impact is a part of the problem. She knows we had a hurricane here in New York when she was little, and we know we can always find ways to be safe if another one comes.
Somehow explaining that Dr. Howie Feltersnatch (how he felt her snatch) is a joke about a doctor who touches women’s private parts with a creepy grin feels like a conversation we don’t have to have.
Spirit Halloween, your seasonal pop-up shops with overpriced pink hairspray and employee only bathrooms bring us much joy. But you can do better than this.
Get this crap off your shelves!
Tell Spirit Halloween what you think via Twitter or email customer service here.

Lessons From Dyeing My Hair Blue

As a mother who sometimes screams, who is unsure of herself, I’m still practicing how to accept my own imperfections. My own failings.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme was Determination. Enter your own here!
It’s the end of middle school when my best friend, Janine, and I show up to a sleepover with freshly dyed hair. It is so fresh that we haven’t yet washed it because we didn’t read the box, or maybe we wanted to make sure it really stuck.
Janine is tall and lanky and more gorgeous than she realizes. She’s half-Chinese and her jet black hair barely shows glints of the red Manic Panic she chose to put in it. My long dirty blonde locks are fully blue. Our spunkiness is (in our own eyes, at least) the talk of the sleepover party.
At some point, we realize that we are going to start staining pillows and sleeping bags if we don’t wash the dye from our now burning scalps. I hop into my friend’s shower, and a few minutes later I hear screaming. Her mother has gotten wind of the fact that there is blue hair dye running down the drain of her brand new shower in her brand new bathroom.
A moment later she bursts in and jerks back the curtain. She screams at the top of her lungs, like I’ve only ever heard my own mother scream, when she sees the deep blue circling down the drain as I cover my body with my hands. She slams the bathroom door and moments later, I can still hear her raging inside her bedroom.
I jump out of the shower and pat myself dry. Quickly, I throw my clothes back on and race downstairs where the rest of the girls are cowering, wide-eyed. Janine’s hair is still covered in red dye. We exchange a look that says “let’s get the fuck out of here” and in an instant, run out the back door. We roam the neighborhood a while, then head to my house which is only a few blocks over. We tell my mom the party was a bust and Janine sleeps there instead. We both decide our friend’s mother is a horrible bitch and to never see her again.
The next day, I’m in my room when I hear a knock at my front door. I’ve hardly been upset about what happened. It’s just good preteen gossip. I’m sure Janine and I laughed about it, or said horrible things about the woman who reamed us out and ruined the party. But my hair looked awesome so what else was there to worry about? When I hear the knock, I run downstairs to get the door. My mother works from home, so I’m guessing it’s just one of her customers who doesn’t know that they are allowed to let themselves in.
I bound down the steps and when I get to the bottom, notice who’s standing on the porch. I freeze, wondering if I have time to hide. It’s my friend’s mother. I have no idea why she is here – I had plans never to see her again, and now she’s standing on my front porch. I imagine she’s looking for my mother. I’m afraid she might scream at me again. Slowly, I open the door and step onto the porch, head down.
She takes off her thick, black sunglasses and reveals her red-rimmed eyes. They are swollen and puffy in a way mine have only looked when I cried all night over a boy. I’m used to her looking so sophisticated, I realize. Her hair in a short pixie cut and her all black clothing. But right now, she looks broken. I look at her sad eyes and before I can say anything, she starts to speak.
“Sarah, I am so sorry about what happened last night. I am so, so sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am. I’m so embarrassed for how I acted.” Tears start streaming down her face. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked that she is apologizing to me when clearly, I was the asshole who showed up at a sleepover without washing the dye out of my hair. But before I can say anything, she wraps me in a hug.
“No – it’s okay,” I manage to get out. “It’s really my fault.” But she won’t let me own it.
“All the dye came out. It washed right down the drain. I ruined the party. I’m so sorry. I had no right to yell at you.” She was so sincere, so devastated, and I’d just been going on with my self-absorbed preeteen life, barely hanging onto the night before.
I’m sure I called Janine to tell her what happened the second I went back to my room. I’m sure I played it off like she was insane for showing up at my house – like, who does that? But a part of me was jolted. This woman, this 40-something, responsible mother, was badly hurting. And partly, it was because of me. But it was also partly because she made a mistake. A mistake she couldn’t take back. And for a second, I saw her as a human instead of my friend’s mother.
Until that point in my life, I hadn’t seen mothers as real people. Certainly not my own. It would be years before I really learned this truth completely. Until my own anger or selfishness caught me off guard as I struggled to parent my own children. But seeing her intense vulnerability, splayed out on my front porch like that, caused a delicate shift. I felt connected to this person in a way I couldn’t really deny. I didn’t hate her, even if I might pretend to to my friends. I understood her.
Years later, I saw her at a birthday party for my best friend’s mother. And she brought up the blue hair dye incident. “Oh! I was so awful to you girls that night … I’m so sorry!” she said. All these years and she was still carrying guilt from screaming about what she thought was the death of her new bathroom. Instinctively, I put my hand on her shoulder. I had a six- and two-year-old at home, and I wanted to bawl my eyes out right there.
“Please,” I told her. “We were brats. Are you kidding me?” I felt her relief. I, as a grown woman with my own children, understood. Parents are still human beings. Parents need things for themselves. A new bathroom. A vacation. A fucking moment of silence. Parents have deep, horrible emotions that they can’t control, the same as teenagers, the same as four-year-olds. I didn’t judge her then and I certainly didn’t judge her now.
As a mother who sometimes screams, who is unsure of herself, I’m still practicing how to accept my own imperfections. My own failings. I had once believed that motherhood itself would morph me, if by magic, into a much better human. In some ways it has, but my faults have not evaporated either. I haven’t found myself overflowing with endless love and compassion always.
On my worst days, when I’ve let my children down, when I’ve yelled, or been impatient, a thought lingers in the back of my mind – I am not the mother I imagined being. I keep a pair of dark sunglasses in my purse, even in the winter.

How My Relationship With My Father Influenced My Tenacity

Maybe he was never home because his work was the main thing putting a roof over our heads. He didn’t speak English, nor did he have a college degree.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
It’s almost eight months since the day my father passed away. By that point, we weren’t really speaking to one another. We were more like neighbors under the same roof. Two weeks before he died, my growing tumor turned out to be curable. It was also his birthday.
Who knew two Tuesday’s later he wouldn’t come home?
That’s the thing. No one knows why people die. Death just happens. What you take from it is what matters, because the grief will always be there.
The day he passed, I struggled to eat. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t cry. I was just numb. I still feel numb.
How do you differentiate between the determination to do nothing but prove someone wrong and the determination to carry out someone’s legacy after he passes away? I didn’t have anyone to speak to about this. I found myself in a unique situation. I was angry at my father but wanted no one to forget his name.
He had a machista type of attitude. He was a guy’s guy who, while not the best husband, was a good father. Watching the dynamic between him and my mother throughout my childhood and after moving back home affected my view of him. He never showed emotion other than pure joy, so I sympathized more with my mom. Also, as a workaholic, he often wasn’t home.
I never cared to consider that maybe he was never home because his work was the main thing putting a roof over our heads. He didn’t speak English, nor did he have a college degree. He had diabetes and his leg had been amputated. But he was a man’s man, and he took on everyone’s burdens anyway, including my mother’s fifth and most recent battle with cancer and my two-year journey to find a cure for my health troubles.
I saw how hard he worked. I saw how much pride he took in every little thing my siblings and I achieved in our academic and professional careers. Even though I have a completely different personality than his, it is all based on things I learned from him.
I always called my father out on everything. I never took no for an answer. I always spoke my truth, which was different from his. That, in itself, is where my tenacity comes from.
Left with so many unanswered questions after his death, I sometimes get angry for not being angry with him anymore. There are so many things he could’ve done better. As much as I prayed for our relationship to get better, I think there was always some ray of sunlight that shined through its cracks.
I am not a parent yet, but I know the invisible shield of confidence that comes from a parent reminding you of your worth. There is no such thing as saying “You can do it” or “I love you” too many times. As tough as things may get, your kids remember everything.
Because of my father, I work hard. He not only shaped my career ambitions, but my personal ambitions as well. I’ve made myself a promise to not get married or bring a child into this world  until I can do everything my father did for me as a child.
My goals are big. I can thank my father for that.

Peace and Love During Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies.” Still, I do not forget where I came from.

“Mommy, I wish it was just the three of us,” my five-year-old son Owen said suddenly.
I sighed and mentally prepared myself for what was coming. My little boy adored his father, so I assumed that he meant Daddy, himself, and his big sister, Julia. Instead, he uttered these names: Julia, Owen, and Liam.
My heart sank.
Although still young, my youngest child was beginning to understand. Physically, it was just Owen and Julia. But they also had a big brother whom they never met. Liam was our firstborn son and died at only nine days old.
My husband Brian and I found out we were expecting our first child on January 1, 2008. Everything was going along perfectly – until that day. I was just over 20 weeks and due to have my anatomy scan.
“I found a problem with the baby’s heart,” the doctor said.
Our joy turned to devastation with those words.
It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies. Still, I do not forget where I came from.
On October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared the entire month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Prior to our tragedy, we had never heard of it. We had never imagined this would be our fate.
Liam had been gone for a few weeks when Brian and I headed down those steps to the church basement in October of 2009. It was dark, quiet, and somber. Everyone was getting ready to light their candles in honor of all our babies.
Until then, Brian and I lived in complete isolation. The bereavement support group and cemetery became the only places where we felt solace. I remember being a “newbie” amongst all those who had experienced loss.
“The pain does soften,” they would say.
At the time, I absolutely refused to believe them. I do now. I have been writing about neonatal loss for several years. It still feels raw and painful, but it’s different somehow. Many of us liken it to a scar – something that will never go away.
Nine years ago, I was a very angry and bitter person. I lashed out at friends and family. I refused to attend events. My own despair was so great, I could barely think at all. I couldn’t see anything beyond my pain. I didn’t want to. I had no idea on how to move forward. The decision to try for a second child was made mostly by my husband.
After Julia’s birth, I felt guilt. I felt as if moving on was a betrayal to Liam. I also felt comfort and joy, which was both scary and beautiful at the same time. I had similar feelings after the birth of Owen.
Slowly, I realized that I was allowed to have both emotions. My sadness for my first baby would always be there. So would the happiness for my living children. They could co-exist.
Today, I still light my candle. I do so, not only for my Liam, but for other angels that we have lost along the way. On October 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness day, I joined countless others who have experienced this unbearable pain. The candle lighting forms a “wave of light” across the world. In this way, all of our babies will be remembered.
I often wonder what I would say to someone suffering a recent loss. I am not sure any words would suffice. I feel their anguish. Our baby’s lives, no matter how brief, leave footprints on our hearts forever.
They are loved.
They will never ever be forgotten.

How to Find the Sweet Spot in Discipline: Parenting Advice From a High School Teacher

There is a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.    

Imagine your least favorite teacher, the English teacher who thought everything you wrote was lame, the foreign language teacher who never let you say one word in English during class, or the chemistry teacher who wished the students weren’t there to get in the way of the science. Chances are, they ruled their classroom like a ship at sea. They were the captains and, if you wanted to get home alive, you did as they said.

They all had a look: the look that could freeze you to your chair, choke a whisper back down your throat, and make you want to duck and cover. It was a powerful piece of magic, that look.

As a teacher, I had a look of sorts, but because I preferred comradery to tyranny, it wasn’t quite as piercing. My look said, “I see you and I know what you’re doing. Things are going along swimmingly right now, so let’s not mess that up, yes?”

It usually worked. Without a word, they’d get back to the task at hand and the waters remained undisturbed. After a decade of this, I’d gotten my version of “the look” honed to perfection: respectful but assertive, friendly but uncompromising.

Then I had kids, and the second they became self-aware, “the look” got shot to bits. They didn’t care to keep the ship sailing. They’d rather torpedo our little outing to the park, our healthy dinner, or our calm bedtime routine. They were anarchists at heart. “The look,” I discovered, was too nuanced. Kids aren’t into subtlety.

However, I wasn’t ready to slap some corporal punishment on them or “lay down the law” – what would effectively be taking 10 paces back and turning for a duel. I wanted to discipline, but I also wanted to work on the respect thing together. Fear-mongering would get us nowhere.

I think modern parents fight this battle all the time, between what our parents and those before them considered necessary discipline and our own desires to be friends with our kids. Too many hard lines make you the enemy, and no lines make your authority as parent disappear.

There is a place in the middle, though, a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.    

Make the family rules together

By discussing as a family what’s valued, allowed, and respected and what’s not, you’re giving your kids ownership over themselves and how they want life at home to look. Let them make suggestions. Let them see you write it down. Put it on the fridge like the House Doctrine it is. If they can feel invested in it, they are much more likely to abide by it.

Give do-overs

One thing the older generations rarely did was the do-over. There were no second chances. That’s a hard line to walk. Perfectionism is impossible and humanity is all about what you do after you fail. What does the rebound look like? Giving your kids do-overs teaches them that there is a right and a wrong way to behave, but nothing is irreparable. Life is about practice. The do-over lets them practice better behavior and gives you a chance to offer cheers at the end instead of punishment.

Be a creeper

Yes, I mean that. Parents are clairvoyant in many ways. We sense approaching trouble. When you get that feeling, that the crayons are about to go from paper to wall or the sharing of the favorite costume or toy or food is nearing an end, creep on over and hover in their vicinity. Let them see you in their line of sight. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Like seeing the traffic cop half a mile ahead, it hits the brakes on potential rebellion. And you don’t even have to say a word.

Don’t take it personally

It’s so easy to get our feelings hurt when our kids disrespect us or ignore the Family Rules, as sacred as we made them out to be. In the end, they’re just kids. Chances are it’s not malicious. We have to keep moving forward, giving the do-over, and finding ways to buoy up our self-worth separate from our kids. We can’t build our identity and our days around how they feel about us. In the end, our job is to raise responsible, honest, big-hearted people who will keep the world running as best they can.

Parenting like this isn’t about extremes. It’s not stirring up fear or sitting back like a pal. It’s about creating a safe environment with mutually agreed-upon rules that encourages self-awareness. The aim is to give everybody the chance to get better at being themselves.

Managing Your Teens' Attitude Takes This Shift in Yours

By shifting my focus from protecting myself to helping my teenage daughter manage her angst, I learned to “not engage.” 

“You never let me do anything! I hate you!” Fists balled, eyes flashing, my 14-year-old daughter stood in our kitchen, screaming at me. I imagined her sentence hanging over our heads, the letters a blood-red Hallowe’en font, dripping, rising, expanding, pulsing.

Her words were a cannonball to my heart, but anything I said would only escalate the exchange. So I tried not to engage and just stood there, gritting my teeth and silent.

Yeah, that didn’t work. Even my clenched teeth gave her a ticket to Sarcasm City.

“Oh, sure. Grit your teeth, Mom. Sure. You’re the one who’s suffering here.”

Oh, angry teens are difficult! Amazing, really, given that we all were them ourselves not that long ago. Yet dealing with a snarky, rude child in a way that doesn’t make things worse is incredibly difficult. At least, it was for me until I had a bit of an epiphany.

Most of the advice I read about conversing with angsty teens was along the lines of “don’t engage” and “don’t take it personally.” Yet I found it extremely difficult not to take a sentence like “You’re the worst mom” personally, given that I was the mom who was the subject of the sentence. I tried though. I’d bite my tongue, ball my fists so my nails dug into my palm, do whatever I could to keep from responding in kind, or even just gently chastising in the name of trying to rein in her behavior.

Even when I didn’t respond to her barbs, I was pretty keyed up. I don’t know whether she could sense my pent-up anger and frustration or whether it was more of a Zen thing in which my negative energy stayed in the room. But neither the times I responded nor the times I kept my mouth firmly shut successfully neutralized the argument.

In a moment of solitude one Saturday afternoon, I found myself leafing through old photo albums, seeking glimpses of the lovely daughter I knew was buried somewhere under all that anger. I found lots of them: baking cookies together, me teaching her to swim, her curled up on my lap while I read to her. Gazing at her open, sunny expression (which I hadn’t seen for months) made me smile and wince at the same time.

I was putting the albums back on the shelf when it hit me. The photos that jumped out at me had the same underlying theme: me, being her mom. Guiding her. Teaching her. Leading by example.

Somewhere along the line, somehow, I’d lost the thread. I guess that while I was busy trying to guard my own flank, I’d forgotten some of the main tasks of parenthood. My job wasn’t to duck my head and scuttle through her teen years. In fact, my job wasn’t (and never had been) about what was best for me, but rather what was best for her.

What was best for her was for her to hear her own words. My tight jaw let her rocket past them. My reactions kept letting her control (and shift) the conversation. Look at the pattern. She’d say something dreadful, to or about me. I’d react, whether with words or a visibly-maintained silence. She’d explode at my reaction, no longer even thinking about what she’d said to provoke it.

I had to trust that her open, sunny core was buried in there somewhere. I wanted her to remember that her words mattered, that they had impact. I needed her to also see the words she’d uttered as I saw them, hanging in the air, dripping blood on the floor between us.

Then, maybe then, she’d start to learn to curb her comments. Because I’d help guide her to see the consequences of her words.

I’m her mom.

I’d teach her.

That’s the epiphany that let me change our dynamics. Once I realized that my role in dealing with her anger wasn’t to try to dodge it but rather to let her see its impact, that a big part of parenting remained my obligation to guide her, I was able to truly stay calm. By shifting my focus from protecting myself to helping her, I learned to “not engage.” And I did so not because it was best for me, but because it was best for her.                               

My job is to teach her.

Slowly, our pattern changed. She’d say something dreadful, to or about me. I’d react calmly. Because I actually felt more calm, showing it was easy. Her words would still hang between us, but as I learned to stop adding my own emotions to our exchanges, I gave her the space to see them, too.

Was it a total cure for her behavior? Of course not. However, more than once, she’d flounce out of the room when I didn’t react to her barbs, but would find me a few hours later to apologize.

Thankfully, those years are behind us and she’s a lovely young adult. I’m pretty sure, though, that the lessons I was finally able to teach her will last for both of us.

Why the H-Word Is Allowed in Our Home

Understanding the vital role of connection in brain function makes it easier to step back, and listen to the feelings underneath the ugly words.

“I hate that vest! I’m not wearing it!”
“I hate going to the grocery store!”
“I hate you!”
This kind of hate speech is allowed in my house.
My kids, especially my five-year-old, utter “the H-word” more often than I’d like. When I hear it my chest tightens, my jaw clenches, and I have to force myself to take deep breaths.
Banning my kids from saying “hate” would make me a hypocrite, however. I’m guilty of telling my husband “I hate when you pick your teeth at the table!” I can’t count the number of times I’ve complained that I hate our local grocery store’s un-intuitive online shopping tool (possibly more than I hate taking my children grocery shopping).
Also, having a rule means enforcing it. I struggle to get my kids to brush their teeth every morning before school. I feel like I’ve climbed Mount Everest by the time they’re tucked in for the night. I don’t want to give my precious energy to the enforcement of another rule.
Moreover, all parents know telling kids they aren’t allowed to use a certain word is an excellent way to ensure they use it as much as possible. Research shows that kids are 11 million times more likely to do the thing they’ve been expressly told not to do. And by research I mean my own informal studies performed totally unscientifically, using my own children as subjects.
The main reason I haven’t banned the H-word is that I want my kids to be free to express themselves, whether it’s about a vest they’d rather not wear or the kind of mother they wish I was. When they act like little dictators, they’re not trying to drive me crazy. They’re trying to tell me something. Says Kate Orson, Hand in Hand parenting instructor and author of “Tears Heal: How to Listen to Our Children,” “When a child says ‘I hate you!’ it’s like they are waving a red flag saying, ‘Help! I’m not thinking well! I need connection with you and some help with my feelings.’”

Why you must listen

The power of listening as a means of fostering connection is stronger than many of us realize. But listening takes time and patience, after all. And who wants to listen to a kid’s angry outburst? Many of us have been told the best way to extinguish our children’s undesirable behavior is to ignore it. But in “Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges,” authors Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore, M.A. use neurobiology to flip that notion on its head. They explain that in order for kids to engage their prefrontal cortex, which allows them to think well, they need to feel connected to an adult or caregiver.
How does connection influence thinking? Just below the prefrontal cortex lies the limbic system, the brain’s social-emotional center. The limbic system is responsible for interpreting body language, tone of voice, and all kinds of other cues that determine whether we feel safe and connected with the people around us, anxious and afraid, or anywhere in between. According to Wipfler and Schore:

When your child feels connected and protected, her limbic system can do an important job: It can coordinate communication between all parts of her brain. It opens access to her prefrontal cortex, so the reasoning center of her brain can hum. Connection “turns on the lights upstairs.”… Through no fault of your own or anyone else’s your connection with your child will break often. When she feels threatened, frustrated, or when another feeling floods her system, she loses her sense of connection. Shazam! Her prefrontal cortex shuts down. She literally can’t think.

So when my kid yells “I hate you!” she’s already feeling disconnected from me. In my experience, disciplining, yelling at, or ignoring her only escalates her behavior. This is consistent with Wipfler and Schore’s work, which suggests that my negative reaction causes further disruption of our connection, which results in her impaired ability to engage her prefrontal cortex (i.e., her ability to “behave”).
I’m not saying my daughter’s occasional hateful outbursts don’t hurt my feelings. On good days, they sting. On bad days, they make me wonder if I’ve ever done anything right as a parent while I hide in the bathroom with the shower turned on to muffle the sound of my sobs. But understanding the vital role of connection in brain function makes it easier to step back, take a breath, and listen to the feelings underneath the ugly words.
Orson permits her daughter to say “I hate you” as much as she wants, but that doesn’t mean Orson ignores it. On the contrary, she sees the words as a demonstration of her child’s “disconnected state and upset feelings.” She described a recent interaction between herself and her daughter. Upon Orson’s return from a three-day trip, her daughter said, “I don’t like you.” She says, “I knew this was because [my daughter] had some feelings about me being away and that I needed to reconnect with her, so I moved in close, gave her a hug, and she started giggling. Laughter is one of the ways children naturally release stress and tension and get better connected with us, so if your child says they hate something you might want to turn it around playfully.”

An alternative response

For parents struggling to find an appropriate response to “I hate you,” Orson recommends trying humor. “You could say, playfully, ‘What!? That can’t be right. You must have been eating that word muddle soup that turns your words around and you say the opposite. I’m sure you love me really.’ And see if that elicits some laughter.”
Humor is not always the best medicine, however. Orson cautions it’s important to read your child and the situation. “Sometimes if children are really angry, then being playful around it can make them feel more angry, in which case you have to be the best judge of what’s going to work well in the moment.” Another alternative to the playful approach would be to move physically closer and make eye contact. At that point, they might actually start crying, “as they sense your connection and can let go the feelings behind the anger.” In this case, not only have you resolved the issue at hand, but according to Orson, this kind of tirade is less likely in the future “because your child has let go of the feelings behind it.”
I’m not saying I encourage my kids to act like brats. For example, I wouldn’t allow them to say they hate the dinner Grandma is serving or to tell a friend they hate her. In this type of situation, Orson recommends gently setting a limit, which looks very different than whisper-yelling at your child “We don’t talk like that!” or threatening to take away her favorite doll. (In my experience these “strategies” are rarely effective anyway). Orson recommends moving in closer to your child, crouching down to their level, making eye contact and kindly – without shame or blame –  saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t let you say that,” and explaining that it hurts the other person’s feelings.
Hate is a strong word and an even stronger emotion. I’m not saying I like to hear the word in my house, but I tolerate it because I want my kids to know their negative emotions are just as valid as their positive emotions. I want them to grow up knowing that whatever they have to say, I am listening.