Author Archives: Alison Miller

Addictive Computer Games

I have a 16 year old son who is constantly late getting up, doesn’t do his assignments for school (if he doesn’t like the teacher) and generally doesn’t take these things very seriously. He failed two subjects last term. He likes to play computer games on the Internet and he doesn’t seem to want to do much else or have the discipline to put school work first. Is it reasonable to take his computer system away if after a month he is not handing in assignments and doing his homework?

Computer games can be very addictive, and although I generally recommend allowing a child’s homework to be a “kid issue” in which parents don’t interfere, your situation is serious enough that perhaps some interference is necessary. However, taking away his entire computer system is going to extremes, and with a child this age may well provoke rebellion which will be hard to deal with.

I recommend you set a time, either after school or after dinner, when your son is required to sit at a desk or table and do his homework. During this time period of an hour or two he will not be permitted to use the Internet, except for research if that’s necessary for an assignment. You may need to monitor his computer to make sure he doesn’t start playing games. Allow him to play his games after this time period is up; he does need to relax. This way the gaming becomes the reward for working on his schoolwork.

If your son is cooperative, he may agree to share with you information about when his assignments are due and whether they are finished. You can then converse with him about how long his daily game-free period needs to last. He may choose not to share this with you, and you need to respect this decision while insisting on a daily game-free period for homework. Your intervention is clearing a space in his life in which he is free to work on his assignments without his computer addiction filling the space. He may appreciate this help, whether or not he says so.

If he fails an entire year, that’s the time to “up the ante” and monitor his assignments through the school in order to know what is due when. Then you can insist that the computer be turned off until he has completed whatever is due in the near future. But don’t take away his computer unless you are really at your wits’ end. That is a level of punishment which will likely evoke considerable backlash.

Coming when called

I have a temperamental son who is nearly 6 and when I call him, he doesn’t come or has to be told several times. What can I do to change this behaviour? I’m afraid that if I don’t nip it in the bud now- I’ll have my hands full soon.

Imagine that you are reading a book or watching your favourite TV show, and suddenly your husband or wife calls out for you to come into the kitchen. Do you stop what you’re doing and go to your partner? Or do you become irritated at the interruption and either ignore him or ask him to wait until the show or the chapter is finished? I doubt that you come running immediately unless you have a really controlling spouse!

Why do we think that children should be any different from adults in this regard? Young children, like adults, become involved in what they’re doing. Many young children also have difficulty making transitions from one activity to another. They get involved in doing something and don’t want to have to interrupt what they’re doing just because some adult in another room wants them to stop and come to her immediately. This is normal. We need to treat our children with the kind of consideration we would expect for ourselves. Go into the room where your son is and see what he’s doing. If he’s playing, get his attention and tell him what you want and when you need him to come. If he’s watching a TV program, wait for a commercial before interrupting him.

It helps to give kids plenty of notice when you want them to stop what they’re doing and do something else or go somewhere. “Dinner will be ready in 10 minutes.” “We have to leave in 15 minutes.” Teach your son to tell time so that he can estimate how soon he needs to get moving. You probably have a pretty good idea of how long it takes your son to get changed or use the bathroom, so give him enough notice so that he can wind up whatever he’s doing, put his toys away, and get ready for the next activity. Don’t estimate on the basis of how long it would take you – an adult can get ready much faster than a child, and children get distracted more easily than adults.

The goal of child-rearing is to produce a human being who is kind and respectful rather than just obedient. If you set an atmosphere of respect in your home by respecting your child and his interests and activities, he will repay you by respecting you.

What do you do if you’ve done all this and your son still doesn’t stop what he’s doing and come for the next activity? You may need to offer him some kind of reward (e.g. an extra bedtime story) if he comes at the times you’ve asked him to come. Dogs always come when called, because they’re trained with food treats! And if he isn’t dressed when it’s time to go to school, and you’ve given him plenty of notice, put his clothes in a bag and carry them with you in the car while he comes in his pajamas. That experience only has to happen once!

Food Resistant

We have a 3-year old son who is “food resistant.” He rarely seems to be hungry and consumes a very limited range of foods. At every meal, he asks for a cookie, as sweet foods are his strong preference. He is also a very slow eater and we have the most success with him eating small portions of his meals if we read continuously to him at mealtime. We have consulted a community nutritionist who advised that “healthy children don’t starve themselves” and we have followed her advice by getting our son involved in cooking with us, letting him serve himself from communal bowls on the table, eating at the table with him, refraining from commenting on his eating habits etc. We have had no success in increasing our son’s consumption of food. Our son demonstrates his dislike of foods by tipping them off his plate or throwing them, despite our telling him that he can simply hand us the offending food or tell us that he doesn’t want it and we will remove it from his plate. How can we get him to eat more healthy food?

Many children go through phases when they don’t eat a lot. When your son goes into a growth spurt he will want more. In terms of his eating, you have been doing a lot of the right things, especially by not making his eating a big issue for discussion or comment.

I’m a little confused, however if he’s serving himself, why is he still throwing things off his plate? Are these foods he’s served himself, or foods you have put on his plate? You are also sitting with him for a very long time while he eats, and reading to him to encourage him to eat. This, as well as your putting things on his plate, gives him the message that his eating is an issue for you more than it is for him. The power and attention he gets from you around eating is rewarding his behaviour.

I suggest you get a little “tougher,” not in terms of insisting that he eat, but in terms of insisting that his behaviour not inconvenience you. You need to remove the pleasurable attention from your efforts to get him to eat. Let him serve himself from a selection you provide, and don’t put anything on his plate that he hasn’t chosen. Then insist that he not throw away the food that he chooses to take. If he throws food, get him down on the floor, give him a cloth, and ask him to clean it up (with your help).

Tell him that you will leave the table half an hour after the meal starts, and show him where that is on the clock. He may choose to stay at the table and finish, or to leave his meal unfinished (and you will then get rid of it). If he doesn’t finish, don’t panic he may need to see what it feels like to be hungry before he values the food put before him. Give him cookies only after he eats something nutritious. Keep your word after half an hour ask whether he wants to stay and finish or whether he’s done. Then either throw his food out or leave him at the table, and get on with your day. As the nutritionist said, “healthy children don’t starve themselves.”

Crying at Night

I have a 22 month old daughter who goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. We read a story book first, give her kisses, and then tuck her in. She usually whines and cries until 9pm. When the clock strikes 2:30 a.m. she starts to screech and cry as if she is in pain. I go in, and she is fine. I try to soothe her and leave, then after 20 minutes to an hour she is up again screeching. This goes on most nights and I’m exhausted as I have to be up at 5:00 a.m. for work. Should I check on her…make sure she is all right and then let her cry? Do I give her a bottle? Advil? Is it her teeth? She has just had tubes put in her ears due to a lot of ear infections (which I do not feel is the current reason).

Every infant needs to know that her parents are available and responsive to her needs. All night is a long time to be separated from the people you love. Many parents subscribe to a view called Attachment Parenting. This perspective sees the close attachment between the child and parent as basic to the child’s emotional health and survival. They advocate the “family bed” while the child is still very young.

While I don’t believe in sleeping with nine-year-olds, it is really good for a little one to know that her mother is close and available at night. She may well be teething this does go on at this age. But even if she isn’t, loneliness and the desire to feel safe and close are legitimate needs. Children learn to soothe themselves when they have been soothed, not when they have been abandoned. When my children were this age, they fell asleep in someone’s arms, not alone, even though their parents were working.

I note that you have to go to work at 5 a.m. This means your daughter doesn’t have you available during much of the day. I had to go back to work when my youngest son was six months old, and he began waking in the night just to spend time with me. He needed that close loving touch that a mother provides. I got a “nursing chair” which I kept in his bedroom, and I’d spend half the night in there, sleeping with him in my arms. Even if you aren’t nursing your daughter you can still hold her with a bottle. If you can’t sleep in a chair, you can bring her into your bed, or can have a bed in her room which you can share with her.

If you go to the website you will find an article on “the family bed” and another article on not letting infants “cry it out.” I recommend these. Children are little for a very short time, and how safe and cared for they feel in the world is a result of how much physical and emotional caring you give to them when they are little.

The Sweet Tooth

We are having some serious problems with our almost 5 yr old daughter. She is obsessed with sweets although we do not buy many for her. She will do anything to get them regardless of the consequences. She will lie, manipulate, steal, or just do anything to enable her to get her hands on junk food. She does get some treats periodically but within reason. Do you have any suggestions for us? It’s getting worse and her obsession increasing. Please help us with this dilemma as this is very apparent to all my family and friends. She is also chronically constipated so it’s a real concern.

It’s natural for many children to have a “sweet tooth.” Children’s stomachs are smaller than those of adults, and they often become hungry more often than we do and can suffer from low blood sugar. Much craving for sweets is actually mild hypoglycaemia.

Many children would do better with several small meals a day than with the three large ones we tend to prepare. Start off your daughter’s day with a glass of juice, even before she gets up. Then give her healthy snacks or small meals several times a day: breakfast, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, dinnertime, and evening. That should diminish her hungry feeling.

I doubt that the constipation is a result of eating sweets. It is more likely to be a result of insufficient fibre in her diet. Invest in bread and cereal! The added fibre will help her digestion. You can buy some organic cereals which are sweetened with fruit juice; these are both healthy and nutritious, and will help with the constipation.

Remember that some sweet things, like fruit and dark chocolate, are actually good for our health. Keep some of these on hand for snacks or as a reward for eating something nutritious.

Don’t be too hard on the little girl if she does steal or lie. She is not yet old enough to understand the meaning of truth and falsehood. Many children at this age have difficulty controlling their impulses, and also tend to say what they think adults want to hear. Remove temptation by not keeping non-nutritious sweet things around. If they aren’t good for your daughter, they aren’t good for you either, and they only tempt her to steal and then lie about it.

The Curious Child

Parent #1: My 20-month-old son likes to touch and explore everything. When I was in the kitchen he was always in there going into the cupboards pulling out my mixer, canned foods, anything he could get his hands on. So we have now gated both entries to the kitchen. He climbs everything and has no fear of anything.Parent #2: My daughter is very curious. When I ask her not to do something (keep away from my private drawers; stop taking apart toys; do not play with tools or electronics or valuables), she will either do it one more time or sneak into it behind my back. It seems like the more she is forbidden the more she wants to do/see, which worries me to death that she will carry on this attitude in her teens with sex and drugs. How can I teach her to respect others’ private possessions and also make her understand the dangers in being too curious?

These children have something in common insatiable curiosity. This is largely a matter of temperament. Some children are simply more active and curious than others. Often these are very intelligent children. They have a strong need to learn about everything by experience. If you have a child with high curiosity, the first step is to accept this about your child, and not try to make him be different.

If your child is an infant or toddler, you need to baby-proof your house. Have furniture which is sturdy enough to climb on. Plug up the electric sockets and put computers and electronic equipment where he can’t reach them. Put the breakable items in upper cupboards, and have stuff like plastic containers and canned food in the bottom ones, so your child can explore and play with them. Real-life things are much more interesting to most children than the fake-looking plastic items we call “toys.” Gates can be useful, but don’t lock your child out of the area where you are working or he will feel abandoned. Toddlers need to be near their parents.

Accept the mess. Kids make messes; it’s just part of being a kid. Their curiosity represents a desire to learn, and you don’t want to squash that. They will take things apart to learn how they’re made, and they don’t yet have the ability to put them back together again. Your children are more important than your perfect house.

Teach your child of any age about danger. You can use the word “Danger” to warn him about knives, electricity, and other things that could hurt him. Demonstrate what can happen by putting your finger near the socket or the knife near your arm, and yelling “Ow!” and pretending you’re hurt.

Teach your child about private property by letting her have possessions that no one else is allowed to touch without her permission, and giving her a place to store them. Then patiently explain each time she touches someone else’s property without permission that she wouldn’t want anyone doing this to her things. After some time, she’ll get it.

A school age child is old enough to have a consequence (confiscating an item) if he repeatedly touches things he isn’t allowed to touch. But before you do this, make sure there are plenty of things the child is allowed to touch and play with, including kitchen and garden tools. Young kids love to help and to try adult activities if you let them try to help when they’re little, they will enjoy doing chores when they’re older.

A child who explores in the preschool years won’t necessarily become a teenager who experiments with sex and drugs. But if your child has the kind of temperament which leads her to constantly investigate things, you need to educate her before she tries them. Educate your pre-teenager about sex, drugs, and any other dangers that are out there. She can be prepared for the wider world by learning from others’ experience, not just from her own.

An Unfair Curfew?

I am 17 years old, and my curfew is set 1 1/2 hours earlier than my friends’ curfews. My mother doesn’t want to stay up late waiting for me to come home, yet she will not go to sleep until I am home; therefore I have to suffer with the same curfew that I have had since I was 13. Do you think this is fair, and what can I do to help my mother realize that I am growing up, and I need more freedom?

It certainly doesn’t sound fair. However, I haven’t heard your mother’s side of the story. If your curfew is 12:00 and your friends’ is 1:30, then she may be reasonable. If there’s a special reason why your curfew is early (e.g. you’ve been in trouble with the law), then she may be reasonable.

But she may just be an anxious mother, reacting to all the scary things the media says about teens, or perhaps to things that happened to her in her own teens. It’s important for teens to understand their parents’ anxiety. We parents are the people who changed your diapers and held your hand when you crossed the street. We have that intense attachment to you which enabled us to keep you safe when you were little. It amazes us that you have become so grownup, so fast. And we’re always one step behind in understanding your maturity. You sometimes still need our help – but it’s hard for us to figure out when you do and when you don’t.

I used to lie in bed wondering where my kids were, and whether they were safe. I couldn’t relax and go to sleep until they were home. I think all parents of teens experience this, unless they really don’t care about their kids. However, I knew my kids needed to have freedom appropriate to their ages, so I bit my lip and let them go out even though I was anxious.

One thing that might happen is if you carried a cell phone and called your mother at a predictable time just to let her know you’re safe. That would reassure her. But of course she would need to agree not to keep calling you every half hour.

If your mother isn’t able to give you freedom appropriate to your age, family counselling might help. An experienced family counsellor can help your mother see that kids your age need to try their wings in the outside world, and it’s important for your development that she allow it, no matter how anxious she feels. If there are issues from your mother’s own youth that are getting in the way of her letting you grow up, the counsellor can help her with these issues without you having do deal with them yourself.

Don't Leave Me

I have a 5-year-old who constantly worries about me leaving him. He asks me over and over if I am going to leave. If he does not see me in the house he will start screaming for me instead of looking for me. He won’t play in a separate room for over 10 minutes at a time without coming to look for me. I am starting to feel as though I did something to make him so insecure. Even if there are people around him that he is familiar with he screams because he thought I left him. I am worried that this will affect him in the future.

Your son doesn’t seem to know that if you leave you will always come back, because loving parents don’t abandon their children. The only way he can learn this is if you do leave and come back, repeatedly. Parents who don’t use babysitters when their children are really young can find themselves trapped in the house by preschoolers who simply don’t feel safe when out of their presence.

The child’s screaming and anxiety can easily make a parent upset, and can also make the parent give in to the child. This just makes the problem worse. He gets more and more upset, and you give in more and more, so that your leaving him even for a short time becomes a really big upsetting event.

If you’re in the house and your son screams for you, don’t go running to him. Tell him ahead of time that you aren’t going to do this anymore because he’s old enough to be separate from you some of the time. Say that he can come and look for you if he’s worried. Then ignore the screams. If he comes to find you, just say “Yes, I’m here,” and praise him for not screaming (if he hasn’t). If he has screamed, repeat your statement that you will not respond to screaming.
You need to deliberately leave your son on a regular basis with someone you trust. Begin with small trips—a half hour to go to the store. Tell him where you are going and how soon you’ll be back, then just go, no matter how he behaves. Don’t let his screams or anxiety keep you from going. Prepare the sitter for his behaviour. Instruct her to give him a treat or play a game with him if he calms down. When you return, just point out that you came back when you said you would.

Gradually extend the length of the time you’re away, so he learns that you always return. Maybe in a month or two you can take a course or go to a gym so that you’re out of the house for a predictable length of time on a regular day.

It will not harm your son in the long run to have these experiences, even if he gets upset a few times. It will harm him more if he learns that you always respond to his demands and he continues to feel afraid to let you out of his sight. The only way to cure him of this is to practice leaving until he becomes secure with it.

I'm Sick of Hearing Myself Yelling

I’ve come to the stage in my life where I’m beating myself up thinking I’m an awful mother as all I do is yell, yell, yell. I’m so sick of hearing my voice and I’m sure my son is too, however whether my voice is low or raised, my son never seems to listen to a thing I have to say or ask of him. He’s a good kid but he is constantly ignoring me. He pushes me to my limits and it seems that nothing I seem to do can make him happy.

Your son has learned to tune you out, because you give a lot of directions and you never follow through with any consequences. You need to reduce the areas in which you tell him what to do, and have consequences in the areas which remain.

Learn to distinguish between what are “kid problems” and what are “family problems”. “Kid problems” are things like remembering to do his homework, clean his room, put his laundry in the hamper, take his lunch to school, and wear his coat when it’s raining. If your son doesn’t do these things there will be natural consequences for him which don’t affect the rest of the family. I suggest you stop nagging about these things and let nature take its course. A few hungry lunch hours, poor marks, cold walks, and bad marks will shape your son up just fine.

Save your instructions for areas where his behaviour really affects other family members. For example, toys left in the living room where they’re in everyone’s way. For these things you need to have limits and consequences. For example, remind your son once, then put these toys in the “Saturday box” where they will not be returned to him until Saturday. Another example is physical aggression with other children. Kids who behave aggressively can be told what they could have done instead, then separated for a while. No yelling, no reminding, just action to keep them apart until they can learn to play respectfully.

Chores should be negotiated with your son and there should be an agreed-upon time by which they should be done. You aren’t allowed to remind him until this time is up. Then if the time is up and they aren’t done, you can switch off his TV or video game and require him to do the chore then. Otherwise, don’t interrupt his activities to ask him to do something for you. He has a right to choose his own activities just like you do, and not to be interrupted right in the middle of them.

Once you have decided what areas you need to let go of (“kid problems”) and what you need to follow through with (“family problems”), plan your consequences for the family problems. Then make your requests clearly without yelling, including telling your son the consequences. When he doesn’t cooperate, follow through with the consequences every time. He will learn that you mean what you say.

Growling, Snarling and Biting

What type of aggression is okay for a 6-year-old boy to show among playmates (e.g. playing bad guys and good guys on the playground and tugging on kids’ arms or making threatening gestures with sticks), and should a parent step in to stop it or act in some other way?

It’s important to recognize that there’s a difference between pretending to be aggressive (as when playing good guys and bad guys) and actually being aggressive (as when threatening another child when it isn’t in play. I think you can allow more leeway in play than in actual interpersonal behaviour. A child who is threatened by another child pretending to be a “bad guy” won’t really be scared or hurt (providing the “bad guy” doesn’t really hit him).

I don’t think it’s possible to avoid good guy-bad guy play with little boys. They will do it anyway, no matter what toys they are given or denied. However, you will find there’s less “good guy-bad guy” play if your child watches less TV or plays less video games with this theme. It’s important to teach our kids that no one is fully a good guy or a bad guy. This may confuse them at first, but over time it’s an important lesson to learn.

When a child is actually aggressive he is often just protecting his personal boundaries. Animals set their interpersonal boundaries through growls and snarls. An animal is vicious if it actually bites, not if it just warns someone with its voice. Yet we expect our children not to do this. I think a certain amount of growling and snarling is okay from children. They need permission to be able to tell other kids to back off and leave them alone.

Real aggression often comes out when a child is angry and doesn’t know how to express it and to set a boundary with another child. For example, one child may “bug” and provoke another until the other child lashes out. It’s important to teach your child to use words to express what he feels or wants: “Don’t touch my stuff,” “Don’t make faces at me,” and so on. We need to coach our children in ways of verbally expressing themselves so they don’t need to resort to physical threat and violence.

It isn’t enough for a child who is being provoked to make wimpy statements like “Please don’t do that,” or “That hurts my feelings.” These just invite further bugging or bullying. A child needs to be able to give the verbal equivalent of a growl or a snarl. This can be done without damaging anyone’s self-esteem.

What’s not okay? Threatening with weapons (other than in what is clearly play). Physically assaulting another child when he hasn’t attacked you physically. Remember that physical assaults like kicking, biting, pinching and hitting often happen when the child has overwhelming feelings and doesn’t know what to say. Giving your child some strong words to use can prevent him actually attacking someone’s body.

What about physical retaliation if someone does attack you? I think this needs to be kept as an option kids need to be able to defend themselves. Martial arts training can help a child know when this is necessary, and how to do it in a way that doesn’t injure anyone.