Author Archives: Alison Miller

Getting Going in the Morning

I need some help with getting my nine-year-old daughter going in the morning. After her alarm clock goes off I have to remind her at least three times to get up. She plays with the cat and talks instead of eating her breakfast. She is so distractible that she can take 20 minutes in the bathroom! It doesn’t bother her to be late for school since she doesn’t get into trouble for lateness, so there is no natural consequence unless you count my irritability. What can I do?

I’m wondering whether you’re expecting too much of your daughter. She evidently doesn’t have the maturity to focus her attention and do things within a short time frame. Many young children are unable to do this.

Here are some ideas to prevent the problem from occurring:

  1. Can you get up earlier in the morning? That way she’ll have more time to get through doing the things she needs to do. The same with bedtime – can you start earlier? Young children are much more distractible than parents expect them to be, and it’s important to allow time for this rather than expecting them to be able to organize themselves like adults.
  2. Your daughter may have low blood sugar in the morning; many children do. A glass of juice right by her bed for her to drink before she does anything may help her get herself going.
  3. Your daughter is now old enough to be learning to read. Can you put up charts with reminders of what she has to do? She could help make the charts. One in the bathroom, one in the kitchen. She can check off when she’s completed something. The chart will replace your reminding and nagging. Your daughter is at the age when charts work best. She can feel proud of herself for completing a task and checking it off. You can use stickers on the cart for rewards.

We parents often protect our children from consequences that seem unpleasant for them, when those unpleasant situations are exactly what they need to motivate them to change. Here are two natural consequences you may not have allowed:

  1. Tell your daughter you won’t wake her up any more, and put her alarm clock on the far side of her bedroom, so it will ring and ring until she actually gets out of bed to turn it off. Then let it happen.
  2. If your daughter isn’t ready for school in time, take her there in her pyjamas, with her clothes in a bag. You may be rescuing her from this kind of natural consequence when she needs it to happen. If being late at school isn’t a sufficient consequence, the embarrassment of arriving in her pyjamas will be! I imagine it will only happen once.

Conquering the Mess

My 11-year-old daughter loves doing crafts but she will not pick up after herself or put away stuff after she has finished or lost interest in the project. Also she eats and doesn’t take her dishes off the table and unpacks her school bag and leaves it all over. Our house always looks a mess. After I’ve left stuff a while and asked nicely for her to pick up, I nag her, and eventually I pick it up myself, which makes me very resentful. How do I get her to do it herself?

If your daughter were living on her own, her behaviour wouldn’t bother anyone else, and there would be natural consequences for her messiness being unable to find things, living in a mess, and having dirty dishes. But because she lives with other family members, she has no consequences, and you all suffer. Her messiness is problematic to other family members, but not to her, and your nagging and resentment bothers you more than it bothers her. You reward her messiness by picking up after her. There are no negative consequences to your daughter’s leaving everything around. My guess is that most of your family are conflict avoiders, and you don’t enjoy the conflict created by confronting your daughter with this problem. If you prefer to continue this way, be reassured that when she gets to adulthood and has to live on her own, she will learn to clean up after herself unless she moves out to live with a roommate or partner who cleans up after her like you do.

If you want her behaviour to change, you will need to tolerate a period during which you make and enforce some rules and consequences. Because she’s a pre-teen, I suggest you make a family decision into which she as well as other family members have input. This would work better than just laying down a law you have made up. You could have a family meeting in which each person expresses how they feel about stuff left around. Then you could make a family decision about how to handle it.

There are several options that family members (including her) might come up with. Everything she leaves around could be put on the floor of her room and the door closed. You’d still have to pick up after her but you wouldn’t have to live with the mess; she would. She could be asked to do her crafts and homework in her room until she is able to put them away. Things she leaves around could be confiscated for a week, so that she’d get in trouble at school for incomplete homework, and wouldn’t be able to do her crafts. She could only be allowed to eat the next meal after she has cleaned up her own dishes from the last one. And so on. The basic idea is that she and no one else would feel the discomfort from her failure to clean up after herself. You won’t nag and you won’t put everything back neatly in its place for her.

If you follow through with a plan like this (that means all family members consistently following through on what you have decided), her behaviour will change. But it will take hard work and consistency on everyone’s part.

Surmountable Challenges

My daughter doesn’t seem to want to try anything new. She whines and cries if I try to leave her anywhere. I’m worried that she won’t be ready when she is supposed to start kindergarten in the fall. Should I keep her home for another year?

When my youngest son was four years old, his father was the at-home parent while I went to work. We decided that our son would benefit from attending preschool. However, when his dad took him to preschool, the little boy whined and cried and didn’t want to enter the preschool. For a couple of weeks his dad stayed at the school with him each day and eventually took him home early, thinking the child must not be ready to separate in this way. Eventually the preschool gave us a deadline to decide, and our son was left there for an afternoon. He loved it! He was happy to socialize with the other kids and learn the new tasks the preschool provided. If his dad had continued to give in to his anxiety, he would never have learned that he could handle this new surmountable challenge.

While a healthy, secure attachment is very important for a child’s emotional health and self-esteem, it is important for parents to help their child to venture out and explore. Sometimes parents who themselves had insecure or anxious attachments to their own parents transfer their anxiety on to their children and try to keep them close when the children should be moving out into the world with confidence, facing surmountable challenges.

A surmountable challenge is one that stretches the child a little and forces him to grow up and learn new skills, but is still manageable rather than overwhelming. If we protect our children from such challenges when they balk or whine, they will not learn self-confidence. A child will not learn to protect himself in the world if we are continually there to do it for him. We cannot protect our child from every possible situation that comes up. Children need information and skills in order to protect themselves. Children who are overprotected have very little confidence in their ability to make a choice. They will often look to others (peers or adults) to make decisions for them. Children need to face stressful situations and work through them, and not be protected from them if the risks involved are reasonable. Of course it would be neglectful to allow our children too much responsibility too soon. We need to find the balance.

Keep on exposing your daughter to new situations which are manageable, like playdates, swimming lessons, or part-time daycare. If she has a shy or slow-to-warm-up temperament, she may balk at first. Don’t give in to her whining by changing your mind, but don’t just dump her there. Remain present at first and give her encouragement by saying you know she will be able to handle it. As she learns she can handle these shorter separations and new challenges it will be easier for her to make the transition to kindergarten, and she will develop into a confident adult rather than a fearful one.

Consequences That Matter

Our 15-year-old son just doesn’t do his schoolwork. The problem began when he entered his teens, and has become progressively worse. He is very bright, but totally uninterested in getting his work done. He should be getting A’s, but he barely scrapes through because he doesn’t hand in his assignments. We’ve tried making him sit down to do it, restricting his computer time, and grounding him, but nothing works.

Your problem, in a nutshell, is that your son is a teenager. At his age, kids need to feel that their schoolwork is their own and that they are solely responsible to get it done. Parents need to be out of the way.

At age eight or nine, when homework begins, it’s the parents’ responsibility to help the child organize his time, make a schedule of when homework and music practice are to be done, and help the child get his work completed before play begins. That way the child develops solid work habits. But at about age eleven, parents need to gradually hand responsibilities over to the child. This applies not only to schoolwork but to other responsibilities such as making lunches for school, getting to bed, cleaning his room, and doing his laundry.

After a child enters adolescence, anything that his parents take responsibility for is something that he will not take his own responsibility for. If you collect his laundry and wash it, he won’t bother to put his dirty clothes in the hamper or to wash them himself. If you tell him when to go to bed, he’ll stay up all night. If his school grades are really important to you and you nag him about getting his schoolwork done, he will slack off. This rebellion comes about because the child needs to become independently responsible for his own life. In a few years he will be living on his own and paying rent, and he needs to be ready by having full responsibility for lesser things. He needs to make his mistakes when they don’t yet count all that much.

Too many parents of teens take responsibility for things that should be their kids’ own issues. We nag and coerce them to do things, then rescue them from the consequences of not doing those things. We pick up their dirty laundry and clean their rooms and make them eat and do schoolwork. They engage us in power struggles to give us the message that their lives are their own, and they need to feel the consequences of their immature decisions. They need it now, before they are out in the world and get evicted from apartments or fired from jobs.

A teenager, particularly in his later teens, needs consequences that count. That means real-world consequences, not parent-imposed consequences. If he stays up late, he needs to experience the consequences of being tired out the next day. If he doesn’t prepare his laundry, he needs to find he has no clean socks and underwear. If he doesn’t do his homework, he needs a bad grade or even a failure. If he spends all his earnings or allowance, he needs to run out of money and be unable to go to a movie with his friends. All these things tell him that what he does counts in the real world.

So back off. Tell your son his homework is his own business and that if he has to repeat courses because he fails, he will just have to repeat courses. You are no longer going to get involved. Look for areas where you can hand his own life decisions over to him, then let him make his mistakes. It will pay off in the long run.

More About Whining

I read your article on whining (Jan. 2007) with great eagerness, only to find that I’m already doing everything you recommended, and my 2-year-old daughter still whines: loud, screaming, sometimes crying, repetitive demands increasing in volume until I give in, which I usually do because the alternative is so painful to me. Even when she does get what she wants she’ll often continue to whine “eeah, eeah, eeah” and sniff, very dramatically. It drives me nuts! She is a shy girl but in a loud aggressive way. When strangers (children or adults alike) say hello or try to engage her, even if she knows some of them! she sneers at them, withdraws and starts to moan and whine (no words) and clings to me, becoming very anxious.

Whining like this can be a sign that a child is really stressed. Stress comes from a combination of the child’s temperament with the things that are happening to her. It sounds as if you have a child with an introverted temperament, who finds it very stressful to deal with more than one or two people at a time. If your life is too busy for her, she may be expressing her stress through this whining. She may not know just what is wrong, just that she feels overwhelmed and she needs you to help her calm down by having 1:1 time with her. Examine your life with her and see what stressors you can remove so she won’t be so overwhelmed. One of my sons was like this, and the message of his whining and tantrums was: “Don’t take me there, don’t overstimulate me with many people around, give me quietness and just one person to be around.” Unfortunately he couldn’t always put this into words, but had meltdowns and whining sessions instead. When I look back I can see clearly what he needed, and I wish I’d been able to give it to him more of the time.

It’s always important to become aware of and meet the child’s needs by changing the situation which is making her uncomfortable, before you try to change her behaviour. However, once you have met your daughter’s need for calm and comfort, look at what the actual whining situations are and how you are handling them. A child who initially whines because she is stressed may learn that persistent whining works to get what she wants, so she may apply it to other situations, like wanting your attention right away when you’re on the phone, or wanting a cookie right before dinner. She has to learn that you won’t give in to this kind of demand. Learn to distinguish between a situation in which she may be stressed, and one in which she just wants something. It’s normal for a two-year-old to want something right away, but she still has to learn she won’t get it if it isn’t good for her or for you.

Right now you are rewarding your child for persistent and loud whining. She has learned that if she continues whining long enough, you will give in to whatever she is demanding. This teaches her to keep escalating until you give in. I understand why you do it – that awful noise just pushes all our buttons. I know it’s hard to do, but what might work is to decide ahead of time what you will agree to and what you won’t. When it’s a yes, give her what she wants as soon as she asks. When it’s a no, tell her “I said no” and stick to it. The behaviour will get worse before it gets better, and it will probably take about two weeks to teach her that no means no and yes means yes. Once she gets this lesson, she will calm down and stop whining unless she is really stressed.

The Power of Example

This column isn’t a response to a question, because I didn’t receive any questions short enough or of general enough interest to turn into a column.

This year my 25-year-old son came over to help prepare Christmas dinner. I was working on the main course and he was baking, cleaning up his dishes and utensils as he went. He turned to me and said “Mum, thank you for teaching me to clean up the dishes while I cook.” That made my Christmas! All the rest was trivial, though it was fun giving each other cows and camels and portable toilets from the Oxfam website rather than actual wrapped gifts to support the consumer economy.

When did I teach him that? I don’t consciously recall ever telling my son to clean up the dishes while cooking. I taught him, simply, by example. That’s what I do when I cook. I do it because I can’t stand the mess, and I don’t like to sit down to a meal for half an hour and then spend two hours cleaning up afterwards. It’s just the way I do things and he has learned this habit from me.

What made my Christmas, of course, was the fact that he said “Thank you.” And I realized that he has turned into a fine young man, responsible and caring with the bonus of being neat and tidy, even though he wasn’t as a child.

Example is the very best way we can teach our kids how to live. Nagging doesn’t work because it creates resistance and opposition. Lecturing teaches them to tune out. Instruction helps at the very start, when a child doesn’t know how to do something, but it’s useless for developing habits. Punishment creates resentment and a determination not to give in or a broken spirit.

But example works. The example of telling the truth. The example of considering others’ feelings. The example of setting your own boundaries and not letting others take advantage of you. The example of cleaning up after yourself. The example of facing responsibilities and getting them done on time. Think of all the habits you’d like your kids to develop, and then look at yourself. Are you doing these things? Then your kids will learn them. You don’t have to lecture or nag or punish; just live the way you want your kids to live. And sooner or later it will pay off.

Kids follow our examples in bad habits as well as good. If we go through their stuff without asking permission, we shouldn’t be surprised if they steal from us. If we swear, we shouldn’t be surprised at their colourful language. If we are rude or have temper outbursts, we shouldn’t be surprised when our kids don’t grow out of these habits. I haven’t always been the best example for my kids. But in the areas where I have, I am actually seeing the results, 20 years later! That’s exciting.


I have an 18-month old son who whines a lot. I don’t know what I’ve done to make him this way. Sometimes I have to neglect things that I have to do around the house because he won’t stop whining and follows me around the house everywhere I go. It just drives me crazy. Is there anything that I can’t do to teach him not to whine?

We parents often tend to be busy and preoccupied, and kids wouldn’t get much attention if it were just up to us. We know in theory that they needs lots of love and attention, but in practice we’re busy juggling our jobs and our household chores, and we hope our kids will sit still and amuse themselves until we’re ready to do things with them. But our kids need to interact with us for their emotional security and for their development, so young children have some built-in behaviours that are designed to get their parents’ attention. In less “developed” societies, young children go everywhere with their mothers, and play around them as they plant and till the fields or sell in the market. In ours, they’re supposed to “behave” while we get important things done. But this doesn’t meet their needs.
That whining tone that drives us up the wall is there for a purpose, to get us to interact with our children. So, before we work on how to get them not to whine, let’s acknowledge their need to spend time with us, playing, “helping,” going places, and just being part of our lives. We need to build these things into our day. Allow more time to interact with your son while you do your everyday chores. Let him hold a dust cloth and help dust, or a small broom and help sweep. Sit him on the counter when you cook and let him stir things, or give him plastic containers to play with on the floor beside you. If you simply must do something in which he can’t participate, provide him with a video or an interesting toy. But don’t expect it to hold his interest very long; an 18-month-old’s attention span is about five minutes.

When you have to do things involving your son, like changing his diaper or getting him dressed or ready for bed, allow lots of time and make it enjoyable and fun for him, talking with him and playing with him. He will only be this young for a very short time, and when it’s gone you can never get that time back again. It’s our patience and positive attitude during these interactions that shapes our relationship with our children, so be patient and positive, and allow lots of time for him to get distracted.

If you do have all these times to give your son positive attention, his need to whine for your attention should be reduced. Then you can do something about the whining. You don’t say how much vocabulary your son has, and 18-month-olds vary in how well they can express themselves. Some of his whining may come from his frustration in finding the right words to tell you what he needs. Stop what you’re doing, pay attention to him, and ask him what he needs. Help him find the right words to tell you what it is, and praise him for telling you clearly. Respond by giving him what he needs. If he whines again, look at him, and say “Tell me in words.” Again, help him find the right words to express his needs. As he learns the words to express his needs, his whining may be reduced.

What about a three- or four-year-old who whines? This may be a habit left over from the time before he could clearly express his needs in words. Again, you need to make sure the child gets plenty of positive attention and opportunities to participate in your life. Then say “Tell me in words. When you whine, I don’t know what you want.” Keep repeating this message, and each time he tells you clearly what he needs, pay attention to that need. If he whines a lot, examine yourself to make sure he gets enough opportunities to interact with people. At this age, kids need other kids to play with some of the time, and you may need to arrange such opportunities to take the heat off you.

What if your child is whining for ice cream right before dinner? Give a positive response “Sure, right after you finish your dinner.” And make a mental note that he probably needs to be fed earlier. Each time a child whines, analyze the situation to see what is your child’s genuine need, and then find a way to meet that need, while encouraging your child to figure out what he needs and ask for it clearly in words.

Learning to Separate

I have been home with my five year old since his birth but just recently I started working part time, with irregular hours. Now my son will not leave my side. He thinks that if he does not see me I will leave. I can’t even go to the restroom without him or he’ll throw a fit. I do not know what to do. My husband gets upset with me and blames me and I also blame myself because I would never let him stay over at relatives’ homes. I am overly protective of my children. What can I do? How do I help him to be independent?

This is a big adjustment for both you and your son. I always tell parents of younger children to be sure to go out sometimes and leave the child with a sitter, so that the child can learn quite early that if you leave you will always come back. A child who has never been left doesn’t have the assurance that a parent leaving isn’t permanent.

However, that’s all “water under the bridge” now, and blaming yourself will do no good, nor will your husband blaming you. Blame is like a “ball of fire” that we throw around at one another when we are frustrated, and it can destroy families. The important thing is to acknowledge the past mistake and move on.

Your son is old enough for explanations. Tell him that you are not going to go out without him knowing, so he doesn’t need to worry that you will leave behind his back.
I know you may be tempted to do this to avoid a fuss, but this will only make him more anxious in the long run. Tell him that you will always let him know before you go.

Each time you have to leave, explain to him in clear, simple language where you are going and when you will be back. If you get a chance to show him your workplace, that may help, since he will know where you are when you aren’t with him.

If your son is with your husband or relatives or a reliable sitter, and you know he’s safe, you just need to turn your back and go to work Do not make yourself late by hanging around until he calms down, because if this happens he will learn not to calm down. If his caregivers have difficulty handling him, they can promise him an incentive like a snack or a video if he cooperates with them. They can also remind him of where you are and when you will be back. Teach him to tell time, so that he can understand when you’re coming back.

Since your son is five, he might also benefit from some time “going out” himself, to a playgroup or activity with other children his age. After all, he will be starting school soon, and he needs to learn to socialize and to handle separations so he’ll be ready when school begins.


My 5-year-old daughter is extremely jealous of her two-year-old brother. If he sits on my knee she will not sit with him but goes in the corner and pouts. If he’s playing with a toy, she will grab it from him or if he has a blanket she will rip it away from him and send him flying. How can I handle this?

Jealousy is really normal when someone has been an only child and a sibling comes along. Little Susie has been the center of everyone’s attention, the cute little one, and suddenly her place has been taken by her baby brother, who is too young to play with her but can steal adult attention without any effort. To understand how she feels, imagine your husband (or wife) brought home a new younger wife (or husband), and told you to help look after her, let her use your personal possessions, and share his time with her. He might explain that because she’s younger she needs special attention, but it won’t take away from your resentment and feeling that you’ve been replaced.

It takes patience and understanding to accept a child’s jealousy of their sibling while forbidding cruel behaviors. First and foremost, it helps to understand how the older child feels when she has been replaced as the youngest and most special family member. You can acknowledge these feelings in words “It’s hard for you when he gets all the attention.” You can give her special attention to make up for what she loses from other people. Sometimes this may involve allowing her some privileges as though she were younger than she is, just so she won’t feel left out. You can tell her how she was treated when she was her brother’s age. Emphasize that you love her just as much as you love him, and point out the special privileges she has because she’s older.

Make sure that your daughter gets some 1:1 time with you if it’s at all possible, since this is one of the biggest losses for a child when a younger sibling comes along. Hopefully there is another parent or grandparent who can look after the little brother so you and your daughter can have this time. Tell your daughter that if she wants some special time with you, she can ask for it, and you will find a time for just the two of you, without him present. Then when you’re having 1:1 time with her brother, point out that she gets her special time too.

At the same time you need to set limits on some behavior. Let her know it isn’t okay to hit or pinch her brother or to grab his toys or blanket. But don’t spend time scolding or punishing. If she hits or pinches him, comfort him and ask her how she would feel if an older kid hit or pinched her. Tell her we don’t do to other people what we don’t want people doing to us.

This is the time to teach about private property by giving some to each child. “You can keep the toys you don’t want him to touch over here, out of his reach. And you need to leave his blanket alone, because it’s his, just like your special truck is yours. He can’t touch your truck, and you can’t touch his blanket.”

As your children grow up, you need to coach each child on how to resolve their conflicts at each age. If you’re able to do this well, you’ll find that by the time they reach their late teens they’ll be the best of friends. Recently when my younger son got married, his older brother gave a speech about him which brought tears to everyone’s eyes, saying how important his brother was in his life. I as so thankful when I remembered how they used to fight from the time the younger one was two. They have overcome their jealousy and become the best of friends. Hopefully your children will be able to do likewise.

Scary Thoughts

Our 6-year-old boy is sweet, talkative, joyful, articulate, generous, neat, and obedient. However, lately he has been having scary thoughts that he tells us about. Killing the family. Killing his friend’s family. He doesn’t really even understand why or how, but his conscience is really causing him pain. He sees these thoughts as wrong and bad, and although he loves us very much he is scared he is becoming a bad kid. We have told him that he is a good boy, scary thoughts happen, and what matters is what we do, and how we act towards others- which for him is nice, courteous and thoughtful, well beyond his years. We are scared. Any advice?

Frightening thoughts are fairly normal between the ages 6 and 9. Kids hear things on the news; they see movies and TV shows – and all they hear and see is violence and killing. Even if we try to protect them by limiting their television access, all it takes is overhearing the news (e.g. of a high school kid killing people with a gun) and kids get scared. They don’t know how to interpret all this. When the media are full of violence, kids think that’s all that exists outside the protective environment of their home. Add in school, where kids talk to other kids and teachers may even talk about keeping yourself safe, and kids think this is a dangerous and scary world. They don’t know that the media blow it all out of proportion, that these events are rare and that’s why they’re news. They don’t know that what happens in the movies and on TV shows does not represent real
You need to teach your son that TV and movies and even the news don’t depict life as it really is, that these frightening events hardly ever happen, and that kids or teenagers from loving families aren’t the ones who do this kind of thing.

Most kids, however, have fantasies and fears about being killed rather than about being the killer. There must be a reason why your son is different. He sounds as if he is really concerned about whether he is “good” or “bad,” and is trying very hard to be a “good boy.” In fact, he sounds so well-behaved that it must be a tremendous effort for him. Your response to his concerns also suggests that you are emphasizing “being good” a little too much. He needs to know that everyone makes mistakes, and that our mistakes don’t mean we are “bad people.” He needs to learn to laugh at his mistakes rather than take them too seriously. He needs to be able to goof off and not always be neat or obedient. He needs to be able to be in a “bad mood” sometimes and have it accepted, not to always have to be joyful.

Another issue is how you handle his anger and his other negative emotions. All children get angry sometimes, and they need to know that their anger is acceptable and that they will be listened to rather than rejected when they feel angry. Parents make mistakes, too, and kids can get angry at these mistakes. It’s possible that your son is angry at you but feels unable to express it because he may not feel loved when he is angry. So he comes up with these fantasies instead. Encourage him to tell you in words when he feels angry, and pay some attention to his concerns. If he can learn to express his anger directly, it will not come out indirectly in these frightening thoughts.