Teaching Empathy to Older Kids: Video Tips from a Japanese Classroom

Empathy. Happiness. We know we want to teach these essential life skills to our kids. But how? This series of short videos showcases the attitude one Japanese schoolteacher uses to teach his students how to be caring, happy kids. This first segment introduces Mr. Kanemori -- a kind, tough, funny teacher whose goal is to teach kids how to live a happy life -- and how to care for other people. But he doesn't sugar-coat life, and the challenges even children confront:

In the second segment, the kids learn key lessons about bullying and what it means to be a true friend. I was amazed at how long he stuck with the lesson. A good lesson for us in how long it takes to convey these complex skills to the kiddos:

The third segment gives a great lesson on how to negotiate with kids. Mr. Kanemori doesn't hide his aggravation -- but he doesn't rigidly stick with his punishment when the kids explain it wasn't fair, either. This is especially hard in parenting, because you want the kids to know you are serious in setting limits, and don't want to let them think they can run over you. Yet sometimes, the kids have a point, and we can model what a reasonable negotiation looks like:

The fourth segment shows us how even children can be taught how to handle life's tragedies. We want to bubble-wrap them to protect them from the uncertainties of life. We can't -- but we can give them skills to be more resilient:

Finally, the school year comes to an end. Have the kids learned anything from Mr. Kanemori? You be the judge. (Get your kleenex ready.)

Empathy and happiness CAN be taught -- but it's not easy. It takes more time and dedication than most of us realize. Do you teach these lessons at home? And how can we even start doing this in school?


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert Sign up for my Newsletter and Follow Me:

Parenting Tips: Talking To Children About Tragedies

 12/14/2012 Unfortunate update: It's time to talk about this again. My heart is broken, as is yours. Feel free to connect with me here or on Twitter to ask about how you can approach this in your family. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Colorado shooting has come and gone -- and now the Connecticut school shootings, and we're left trying to explain things to The Littles. One well-meaning mom criticized me on Twitter for even suggesting we talk to young children about violence. "Why even bring it up?" she wondered. Her life is much more insular than many of ours -- I have a 2 year old. But I also have a 6 year old. And a 9 year old. And an 11 year old. And those kids have completely different levels of awareness and understanding of these situations -- and they talk. In front of The Littles. So parents like us need talking points for those tricky situations. So here are my thoughts about how to navigate these unavoidable conversations. Let's be ready, because unfortunately, it won't be the last time. I was also quoted in Newsweek/The Daily Beast about the issue. I hope I made the point that parents taking their young children to movie theaters aren't the problem. Untreated mental illness and widespread availability of guns ARE. Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Parenting Tips: Talking To Preschoolers About Tragedies

The news was on, and our preschooler came into the room. Before we could turn off the TV, he saw a good stretch of footage he shouldn't have: Shootings. A deranged killer. Sobbing parents. A child murdered. "Why is that lady crying, mommy?"

Every ounce of our parenting instinct wants to wish this moment away -- to press "DELETE" on our little ones being exposed to such horrors. Erase! Rewind! Pretend like it didn't happen! They're so innocent. How to explain such a terrible, grown-up reality? Can't they stay in their little world of princesses and unicorns awhile longer?

Adding to the complexity of the situation was the presence of his 7-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister. What explanation to give them all? Our daughter jumped right in -- she had been discussing it at school. "A man who was sick in his head went to the store and shot a politician plus a whole bunch of other people!" 7-year old: "What's a politician? Like a donkey or an elephant?" 4-year-old: "Sick in his head? I was sick in my head last week! Remember mom? You took my temperature!" 9-year old: "He killed a girl my age!" 4-year-old: "Don't die, OK?"

Graduate school lists of "how to talk to kids" at various ages started swimming through my head. But how to answer the 9-year-old with her more realistic questions and fears, while not confusing the preschooler? How to explain to the 7-year-old that death for people was much more serious than finding the dead fish in his classroom aquarium that morning? How to reassure the 4-year-old that he was safe -- and so were we? And how NOT to infect them with my own fears and reactions?

I jumped into psychological triage mode. Job #1: Make sure to minimize the fear here. Explain and reassure. Job # 2: Respond to their questions -- at their level. Job #3: Fall back on our routine. Demonstrate that things haven't changed at home. Job # 4: Allow them to support each other, even as you try to correct the misinformation they may have. Siblings can be great resources for each other, giving reassurance in a way that we just can't.

If there's something big going on, and you need to stay tuned to the TV to follow anything for safety reasons, keep in mind who's watching. Mute the sound when you can, and turn it off when possible. Little kids confuse "replays" with reality, and may think things are happening over and over again.

Here are more preschooler-specific tips for talking about tragedies:

  • Don't assume -- anything. Your preschooler may completely tune out the situation. If that's the case, it's normal -- and OK.
  • Think in "fairies and pirates" language when answering questions. Your preschooler simply can't understand the world of objective reality. To him, magical thinking applies.
  • Keep it simple, and always follow up with reassurances. "Sometimes bad things happen, but Mommy and Daddy always protect you. We're all going to live for a long time, until we're very old."
  • Keep an eye out for questions coming up in different ways -- like play. We've had a lot more "shooting" games going on around here these days (despite the fact that we don't allow toy guns in the house). It gives me the chance to butt in and ask more about the games, and how they're handling things.

If your kids are having a tough time adjusting to a tragedy, make sure to ask for help sooner -- rather than later. It' far easier to help a child adjust when the trauma is new. After awhile it gets more and more difficult. Ask her doctor, teacher, or a clergyperson for a referral to someone who works with young children. Here is a nice summary by Dr. Joel Dvoskin, posted on the American Psychological Association's website:

Q. What should parents tell their children about this incident – especially since one of the dead was a 9-year-old child?

Dr. Dvoskin: Don't be afraid to talk to your kids about these events. The most important thing after any trauma is to maximize real and perceived safety for the child.... Letting kids know that they are safe is likely to help and not likely to make things worse.

Don't flood kids with too much information. The best way to decide how much information is appropriate is by the questions children ask you. Answer their questions honestly and directly, but remember that they are kids, so keep it simple (depending upon their age).

Parents should not lie to their children when talking about this tragedy. To the extent that children are unable to trust their caregivers, it is very difficult for them to feel safe.

Don't "pathologize" normal human responses to frightening events. If your children are frightened or upset, it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with them. However, if problems such as misbehavior, sleeplessness or other signs of depression or anxiety become especially severe or extreme, then seek professional help.

Limit kids' continued exposure to television coverage of the event. Depending upon their age and developmental status, they might not be able to tell if it's one event being repeated or many events. This is especially true of younger kids. Parents might even want to limit their own television watching.

Pay attention to your own fears and anger. It is unlikely that you will successfully hide your feelings from your children, who usually pay keen attention to what you say and do. Take care of yourself, and if your own feelings or behavior become extreme and problematic, don't be afraid to seek help for yourself as well.

If it is necessary to refer the child to a mental health professional, as always, step one is screening and assessment. Assess the child as a child, in totality, and in developmental context. Kids who have exaggerated reactions to what they see on TV may be kids who aren't strangers to trauma. The real question is why this event traumatized this child.... Community trauma can bring to the fore issues that were already there.

I've also included a couple of additional links below for more information. In the meantime -- stay safe.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Here is a nice guide from my colleagues at the American Psychological Association

And a helpful PDF that was written in response to 9/11 -- still very relevant to any tragedy -- that breaks down parents' responses by age range

Psychological Milestones: Why Your 4-Year-Old Is So Awesome

I'm really enjoying our 4-year-old. He's sort of an "Entry-Level Kid" -- no longer a squirelly toddler, he can join in the group for some fun, manage his feelings pretty well, and tells silly stories that have us rolling.

Common parenting wisdom has remedies for the "Terrible Twos." But they leave out the "Terrible THREES," which can be mighty tough.

Three-year-olds are really just glorified toddlers who still need a lot of special attention, and are prone to frequent meltdowns, tantrums, and making wacky demands.  But the difference between three and four is huge -- and hugely fun.


Here are some of the major emotional developments that come along with being four. Your 4-year-old can:

  • smoothly enter into new play situations without much help from you
  • start to be responsible for small, regular chores like carrying his laundry to the laundry room
  • take turns and share (most of the time)
  • create elaborate, vivid play scenarios, and stick with them for longer
  • be goofy beyond belief, and play around with silly words and "jokes"
  • boast and brag with the best of them
  • "use his words" more often than resorting to violence
  • start to follow rules (and even insist others do so)
  • enjoy family outings and trips more than ever

But it's not always rosy. Some 4-year-old challenges include:

  • tattling, name-calling and complaining
  • resorting to whining and tantrums when tired, sick, or overwhelmed
  • trying to change the rules mid-way through games
  • "lies" -- still can't understand the difference between "truth" and "fiction" -- and won't, until age 6+

No matter the challenges, it's a special time -- and I'm making the most out of it. Soon, he'll be starting school, and sometime in 1st grade his focus will shift away from family -- and towards school and peers. It's really our last chance to enjoy the special, intense, close parent-child bond before he starts launching into the wider world. (Sniff! I'm going off to have a little cry now -- for my awesome boy who won't be little forever.)


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: More Thinking Points


One of the reasons I produce BabyShrink is that I've had to learn the hard way with my own 4 kids -- what works, what doesn't -- and why. Those of you who know me know that my doctorate in Psychology, and a license to practice in two states, didn't get me much closer to answers. Doing a ton of research -- practical and applied -- has gotten me to this point. Why should YOU have to go through all that effort to reinvent the parenting wheel? Believe me, people -- it CAN be easier -- and a lot more fun. Keep these things in mind as you confront the seventy bazillion or so parenting challenges you face each day:

TEMPERAMENT makes a big difference. Your child's inborn nature: whether he's irritable, easy, shy, or bold (among other things), will shape the way he deals with your guidance -- especially when he's young. Pay close attention and figure out his temperament -- it will help you decide what's best for him. For instance, an "easy" baby might be pressed to give up his Binky at 6 months. An irritable, easily overstimulated little guy might be given a pass until age 2 or even 3.

AGE makes a big difference. Sleep issues (among other things) change dramatically over even a few weeks. A newborn isn't a 3-month-old, who isn't a 9-month-old, who certainly isn't a 3-year-old. You shouldn't expect your newborn to put himself to sleep -- nor should you try. But it's very reasonable to work on it with your 12 or 15-month-old. Vary your approach based on age.

FAMILY NEEDS make a big difference. Culture, style, the state of the parents' relationship, and personal preference matter. If you don't mind co-sleeping -- if it works well for your family -- great. But if the baby keeps you awake, interferes with your relationship, or you just don't wanna -- then DON'T. Your baby takes his cues from you, and he'll be fine either way. It's the "trickle down" theory of family happiness.

And now I hope you browse around for specific tips on your questions -- potty training, bath time fears, sleep issues, behavior, sibling stuff and more.

Here's another Thinking Points article, if you're interested.

(And I hope you like some of the new changes here at BabyShrink!)

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Toddler Behavior: Fabulous Fraiberg #5 - Dealing With Negative Toddlers

Here's a continuation of the previous quote from Fraiberg. I try to keep this in mind while wrestling with the baby at diaper-changing time:

The chief characteristic of the second year is not negativism but a powerful striving to become a person and to establish permanent

Toddlers -- messy and hilarious

bonds with the world of reality. We must remember when we speak of the "negativism" of the toddler that this is also the child who is intoxicated with the discoveries of the second year, a joyful child who is firmly bound to his parents and his newfound world through ties of love.....Under ordinary circumstances it does not become anarchy. It's a kind of declaration of independence, but there is no intention to unseat the government....The citizen can be allowed to protest the matter of the changing of his pants (they are his pants, anyway) and the government can exercise its prerogatives in the matter of pants changing without bringing on a crisis. When the citizen is small and wriggly, is illiterate and cannot even speak his native language, it takes ingenuity and patience to accomplish this, but if we do not handle this as a conspiracy against the government, he will finally acquire the desirable attitude that changing his pants is an ordinary event, and one that will not deprive him of his human rights.

Selma Fraiberg, The Magic Years, pages 62-62

It's a lot of work coping with (and cleaning up after) these shrimpy mess-makers, but try to remember that you're in charge, after all. Then try to enjoy the wild abandon that is the miracle of your toddler.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: What To Do About Strange Toddler Fears

I've gotten a lot of traffic lately on Strange and Sudden Toddler Fears. I've written on this before (and included a link at the end of this post), but this is such a common question that I've decided to answer it's latest incarnation, hopefully with some additional insights. Here goes: Dear Dr. Heather,

Just in the past week, my 2.5 year old has developed a fear of "going byebye", getting in the car, sitting in the car while getting gas, going outside in the snow. She screams and does what sounds like hyperventilating, but she isn't. Her dad just went on a trip for a week and it seemed to worsen then. She used to love the snow and going for car rides. Now all of a sudden she's hysterical. I don't know if maybe she feels out of control with daddy being gone. She absolutely thrives on routine. Maybe she felt safer just staying home. She was a little "weirded-out" when my husband first came home and she wanted me to hold her, but she warmed up quickly. Any tips you have would be wonderful. Thank you.


Hi Jacki,

Toddlers often develop these quirky preferences and fears, seemingly all of a sudden. Partly it has to do with their growing awareness that scary things CAN happen; parents go away, kids get hurt, things get broken or spill, etc. Yet they cannot yet totally compute how to PREVENT those things from happening. It also has to do with their OWN aggressiveness -- they see how they get mad and run away from a person or situation when they are mad, or lash out and hit etc, and worry that OTHERS will do the same thing (even if those others have never been aggressive at all). It's a completely different mindset than that of an adult (or even a bigger kid).

I would let her regress back a bit for awhile until she gets re-acclimated to her Dad's departure and return. Be extra reassuring, and stay home more when it's possible. Go out gingerly and on a limited basis, if you can, until she gets back into the swing of it. GIVE HER BACK SOME OF THE CONTROL. Allow her to make choices about going out, if you can. See if there IS anyplace she would like to go -- to the park? Grandma's? Out for ice cream? And then go there. Little by little, try to sneak in additional outings, and let her know in advance of your plans. You won't always be able to do it her way, and talk her through that. I know you don't want to go to the store today, but we need more groceries. Do you want to go to the store AND to McDonald's today, or just to the store? Giving her some choices will help her feel better. Then, as she grows more comfortable again, cut back on the rewards and incentives. You don't want her to be in the "driver's seat" forever, just until she gets comfortable again.

Try that and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

And here's another popular post on toddler fears (this one is about Bathtub Fears).


Dear Dr. Heather,

Thank you so much for your help! I tried your suggestions. She got very upset at first, but I talked her thru it and gave her time to adjust. We stopped at McDonalds on the way. She did fine thru the drive-thru. She seemed better doing something familiar. She may be on her way back to herself. I won't press it too much. She seems much more settled when I reassure her that daddy is coming home at night. I think I panicked because this went on for a week, and a week can seem like forever! Now she at least talks about going outside w/o panicking. I am glad to know that someone like you is available for these times. I appreciate it.

Jacki ~~My pleasure, Jacki! Glad to Help!

Toddler Behavior: How to Handle Aggression in Your Young Child

Recently, I've gotten lots of questions about how to handle aggression in young children. It's a common concern, and it's always startling when your previously sweet little baby starts to bite, hit, or generally wreak havoc. How did this happen? Did I do something to cause this? Surely, we rationalize, he's learning it from daycare...(or a sibling, or a neighbor)...ANYONE but us, right?How To Handle Aggression in Young Children Well, he MIGHT be learning it from daycare. But guess what? Aggression is an INBORN DRIVE. Aggression is NATURAL in young children (and older children...and adults!). We ALL have some aggression in us....thankfully. Aggression helps us protect ourselves and our offspring, and, when properly re-directed, gives us energy to pursue our goals in life.

But there's a lot of parenting "advice" out there that seeks to squash any hint of aggression in our kids, and indeed to pretend that it doesn't exist. Worse, to punish the expression of it in children.

Instead, we must understand that aggression is a normal drive; as inescapable as hunger, thirst, and the developmental urge to get up and walk. When I see a child in the clinic who expresses NO aggression -- THAT worries me.

Of course, the problem is not with aggression per se, but with HOW IT IS EXPRESSED. That's the key, isn't it? Aggression must be re-directed appropriately, so as not to be destructive.

So, how do we do that, as parents?

First, get comfortable with aggression, including your own Yes, your own. I will bet that the Dads reading this won't have as much difficulty with this part of the assignment. After all, boys and men are typically more direct in their expression of aggression. I'm all for women's rights, but there's no doubt that most boys (and men) are more directly aggressive than girls and women. My husband is a lot more comfortable with our kids' aggressiveness than I am. But I've had to learn from him that it's not good for me to automatically chastise the kids simply for being aggressive -- kids need healthy outlets for their aggression, as long as they're not hurting anyone (or anything).

Moms need to understand that we, too, have an aggressive drive within us. Think about it. How do you channel your aggression? One friend of mine goes on a pounding run. Another paints vivid pictures. My sister likes horror films. Personally, I'm a head-banger. I feel so much better after a good power walk, listening to Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins or Black Sabbath (am I dating myself here, or what?). Get comfortable with your own aggression, and think about how you channel it in a positive way. Then, think about how you can help your children with the same issue.

Next, convey this to your kids: I understand you want to break that toy. I know you're mad. That's OK. But I can't let you break things. Sometimes when I get mad I listen to loud music and jump up and down. Wanna try it with me? Or: You guys can't hit each other. I know you got mad at each other. Let me help you use your words to say how mad you are at each other. Then when we're done, we'll try to find out how we can be friends again.

More tips on handling aggression For babies and young toddlers (up to about 18 months), IGNORE it as much as possible. (And yes, even babies express aggression. What breastfeeding mother can't attest to that? One minute you're having a nice nursing session, and then all of a sudden --- OUCH! Your sweet baby has decided to act out his aggressive impulses -- on your nipple!) If baby is biting, physically stop her, in as unemotional manner as possible (you don't want her to be reinforced by a big reaction from you), and try to move on. Babies will misinterpret any chastisement, and internalize it as shame. Not good.

For older toddlers, you can express your understanding of the emotion, but firmly show him what you'd prefer. You also want to praise and reinforce his HEALTHY expression of frustration and aggression. I know that little girl made you mad. I could see you were upset. But I am so proud of you for being a big boy and walking away from her. You didn't hit. Great job! And try really, really hard to stay unemotional about it yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but if your child can trigger YOUR annoyance and aggression easily, it's reinforcement for his own aggression. If you act out your aggression, so will they.

For preschoolers, you can talk more about their conflicts and help them role play or plan out problem situations in advance, or even after the fact. I know Ashley sometimes makes you mad. What will you do in school today if Ashley upsets you again? Can we practice what you might say or do, instead of hitting? Or try a role-playing exercise. OK, I'll pretend I'm Ashley, and you try using your words instead of hitting. Let's practice.

I also want to say a bit about "scary stories". Preschoolers naturally gravitate towards "scary stories", because they fulfill an important psychological function. They offer a way to SAFELY MASTER FEARS -- as well as their own aggression. Because fears and aggression are related, psychologically. Fears crop up when children start to see what their OWN aggression can cause. They then start to generalize this fear of aggression to others. Some parents or "experts" suggest avoiding scary stories, but this is actually counterproductive. It's important to give your child an opportunity to process and deal with scary things in a safe and manageable way. Why do you think the classic fairy tales have been around so long? Because they offer children a chance to process their natural aggression and fears. Of course, follow your child's lead. Don't expose him to scary stuff he can't handle. But recognize that it's important psychologically to allow him to deal with aggression in stories, at school, and at home.

In general, you want to convey your empathy and support for all your child's feelings. When he feels understood, it will be easier to show him how to appropriately channel and redirect his aggression and other negative feelings. This is an important lesson for him to learn now, so that he can manage his aggressiveness throughout his life.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Advice for a preschooler who HUGS too much

Dear Dr. Heather, My 3-year-old son started nursery school a few weeks ago. Everything is fine except that he hugs the other kids too much! They do not want him to hug them and they wind up hitting him or running from his approach. The teachers have tried to talk to him about it and asked me to please try again tonight. Today he came home with 2 more scratches on his face. I don't know what to tell him to make him understand, and I want him to have a good experience at school. Help!

London Dad

Dear London Dad,

Even though it may seem like your son is the only one with difficulties in transition to school, believe me, he's not. They all have their little variations on the theme. I myself have just now returned from dropping off my 3-year-old at his new preschool. He's not a "hugger", but he is a "clingy whiner". Another of the kids there gets upset when the teacher pays attention to other children, and another strips down to her undies when she misses her parents! This is a difficult time of year in terms of transitions to new things for our little ones. Usually, a few weeks max is all it takes to get used to a new school. But those weeks can feel punishingly, guiltily LONG for us parents!

Your little guy is so young and new to the preschool setting. He really can't be expected to get all the social niceties completely worked out yet. Ideally, you want him with a teacher who can help him to transition and learn how to interact with the other kids so that they all have fun together. This should not be a "scolding" thing, but rather a "fun/learning" thing.

As I said, there are other kids there who are struggling as well with the transition, but in different ways. It's normal; we can't expect a 3-year-old to transition to such a new setting without some bumps and wrinkles. So don't feel too bad about it, and try to convey a positive attitude to him. You can practice with him how to greet friends -- lots of "high fives" and "good morning!" greetings. Give him lots of praise when he seems to improve and "get it". Help him greet his friends once he arrives at school -- stay with him 1-1 down on his level until he says hello to everyone. Don't make it a chore, but simply help him do it in a good way, and again -- give lots of praise. And when he gets home, reinforce the positive steps he took during school that day, and practice "how we say hello" to others at school.

Please talk with the teacher(s) about the issue and ask for their help and guidance and suggestions. Good teachers will have come across this before (many times!) and will not be put off by it or scold him for it. And be happy that he's a sociable little guy!

Hang in there and let us know how it goes.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Potty Training: Poop-Withholding After a Trauma

Trauma such as illness or injury can cause regression in the developmental achievements of young children. In other words, your child may develop any nature of difficulties that may not be "diagnosable" per se, but rather a short-lived reaction to something traumatic. Reader Alison's son broke his leg, and since then has become a poop-withholder. Here's her dilemma: Dear Dr. Heather,

My son broke his leg when he was about 18 months old and had to wear a cast for a month. Prior to this event, his poops were regular. After a week of having the cast on, he didn't poop and when he did, it was uncomfortable for him. This started an irregular pooping schedule for him and he has remained constipated since then.

He will now be two next week. The pediatrician suggested a suppository and Miralax. We did a suppository thinking it would get things moving since he seemed soo uncomfortable. We have tried laxative drops that he likes, but seem to give him cramping and diahrrea. When we don't give him anything, the consistency of his poop always seems soft, not hard. But he will do the poopy dance, and then have to push really hard and cries when he has to poop. The process of waiting for him to poop can eat up an entire day! He will go on his own after 2-3 days, if he has not gone by the 4th day, we have done a glycerin suppository since he seems soo uncomfortable and they help right away, but he hates it and I feel awful doing it. We push high fiber, etc..nothing dietary seems to help. I feel like it's all emotional. He will run around and around, and we will try to stop him and hold him and encourage him until he will push and go. We tried poopy prizes, nothing seems to encourage him. It is not about potty training, although we have offered for him to go on his potty. He went twice on the potty but it seemed to freak him out.

He is a sweet boy and I don't want him to be emotionally bruised from this experience. Should we take the same advice you gave to the 3 year old and ignore him when he does the poopy dance? Do we not offer poopy prizes? How many days do we wait before doing a suppository? Please help! We feel awful and don't know what to do!!

Thank you,

Alison in Berkeley

Hi Alison,

Poor guy! I assume his doctor says there is nothing wrong, medically. Have you tried the Miralax? If not, it's worth a shot. If you use, it, I wouldn't point it out to him. I think anything that smacks of parental control over his poops is bound to backfire (so to speak!). So if you use it, sneak it in. Or just tell him it's "vitamins" that you put in his drink.

On the behavioral side, you're right, it's not about "potty training" per se, but it IS about his sense of control and mastery of his own body. And that comes before potty training. He is still quite young for potty training anyway. Many preschoolers don't "get it" until 3 1/2 or even older, and that's OK.

The event of breaking his leg very possibly set him back, emotionally. It's common for physical illness or injuries to cause temporary regressions. Perhaps the experience of being so incapacitated by the cast really scared him, or he got some kind of wacky idea in his head that somehow his poops CAUSED his injury. You really can't know. Toddlers get all kinds of weird ideas in their minds, things that don't make sense to us, rationally. But they can be very powerful ideas to the little ones.

This is what I would suggest: Within the bounds of what is medically acceptable, completely BACK OFF the poopy talk and encouragement. First of all, tell him that it's HIS body, HIS tushie (or butt, or whatever your family calls it), HIS poop, and NOT MOMS OR DADS (or his doctors, for that matter). When HE is ready to make his poop, that's fine. Be matter-of-fact and reassuring. You might also reckon back to his injury to reassure him that his body works perfectly well again. "Remember when you got your owie on your leg? That's all better now. Your leg works fine again. And your poops can come out now anytime you are ready. But Mommy and Daddy will not make them come out anymore." Then, DROP IT. Really try hard to focus on anything BUT the pooping situation. Don't offer poopy-prizes or focus on his poop schedule at all. LET HIM HANDLE IT. If he asks for help, by all means, help him in whatever way he seems to want. But remember that this is a developmental hurdle that ultimately, only he can surpass.

This may all really be about a struggle to regain independence over his body. The leg injury was likely such a blow to his toddler's very important sense of mastery over his body. Now, he needs to struggle to get it back. Leaving it up to him is an important part of that process, since it is all about self-control, body mastery and independence.

I know you worry about his frequency of pooping, but believe me, helping him to regain this sense of self-control will be hugely important in the long-run. Again, check with the pediatrician to make sure what I'm suggesting is OK, and allow your son to hold it or struggle with it as long as you can. It will require some deep breathing on your part, in order to NOT interfere, but this is an important developmental process for you, too: learning to let go, as your son is now old enough to start to take over this function for himself. (And I hope you can enjoy a little sense of relief as you can let this worry lift from your shoulders as you begin to focus on other, more fun things with your son.)

It may be days, weeks, or even months as he takes steps forwards (AND backwards) toward progress. Don't let that get you down; it's normal. Big developmental gains don't happen all at once. Just keep your ultimate goal in mind and likely the power of his own normal developmental process will ultimately win out.

Not a fancy solution, I know. But one that respects his internal struggle, and the ultimate goal that he needs to achieve in order to surpass this internal dilemma of his. It's also good practice for Mom and Dad to see that he can ultimately be in charge of his developing body (and mind).

You can also read about another toddler's poop-withholding in this BabyShrink post.

Thanks for your question and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: How To Handle a 3-Year-Old's Pestering

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a 3 year-old daughter who is very strong willed and just won't give in. For example, she wants me to get her 'blanky' which is lying around the house somewhere. I tell her no, you go and fetch it, then she says NO -- I must fetch it -- and so it goes on. I keep on telling her NO listen to mummy, but she just doesn't stop and carries on, which drives me crazy. I try and ignore it, but she just continues on!!!

Help! How is the best way to go about it without giving in to her pestering???


English Mum

Dear Mum,

At this age, it comes down to this: Feed good behaviors. Starve the bad. (In terms of emotion and attention, of course.)

With parenting, I often recall the famous line in the movie Amadeus: "Too many notes!" But instead I tell parents, "Too many words!" Say what you mean, very simply, and then STOP TALKING. Look away. Convey by your body language that you've said what you're going to say...and there's no negotiation. Some parents feel somehow that it's unfair to disallow negotiation with their children. But remember, a 3-year-old really isn't capable of negotiation...but she IS capable of testing your limits and rules until you finally give in. Go ahead and give in, once in awhile, if it makes sense and works for you. But your overall message should be: Take what I say seriously. I'm in charge here. It doesn't help to have a 3-year-old feel like she can be in charge; instead, it makes her worry that NOBODY is truly in charge.

I know it's maddening, but you really must avoid extended discussions about it, and show her by your ACTIONS that you DON'T HEAR HER when she carries on like that. Explain to her once that "I know you are a big enough girl to find it yourself. Now, I am done talking about it. I don't hear you anymore if you ask me for your blanket." And then you MUST FOLLOW THROUGH with pretending not to hear her. Don't get mad, take a deep breath, and expect a tantrum on her part. Also, expect the behavior to ESCALATE for awhile, until she gets the idea that you MEAN BUSINESS.

Them when she DOES find her blanket, and DOES calm down, PRAISE HER TREMENDOUSLY for being such a big girl and finding it herself. Praise and reinforcement of her good behavior is what you're really striving for here. Don't forget to praise her for even the smallest demonstrations of positive, nice attitudes and behavior. Eventually, she'll get the picture, and quit testing you in this way...and start showing you how nicely she can find her own blanket.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out more on your Little Tyrant's behavior here.

Good luck!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Helping Young Children Understand Feelings

Parents can start helping their kids to become emotionally "fluent" at a very early age. I recommend that parents keep a "running commentary" going, when observing social and emotional situations with their children. Start as young as 9 or 10 months, to get in the habit, and to convey the message that feelings are important in our family. For instance, today, my 3-year-old was having trouble sharing with his 3-year-old neighbor. As the boys struggled, our neighbor began to cry. "See," I said, "Your friend is sad and mad that you won't share the toy motorcycle. Let's see what happens if he has a turn." After several false starts, I was able to encourage turn-taking between the boys. After they had some success for a few minutes, I praised them, reminding about how hard it was to accomplish. "See, now? You boys tried hard to share, and now you're having such fun together. Great work!" It's situations just like these that build a child's capacity to understand and respond appropriately to emotions of all kinds. Bit by bit, interaction by interaction, children grow their emotional skills; skills that are essential to successful negotiation of the world as adults.

It's this foundation that I HOPE will serve our children well when they become teenagers, and need to figure out all sorts of wild and wacky social and emotional situations -- without our help. When they're little, we provide the "emotional training wheels". We have to practice with them enough so that they're ready to ride on their own -- one day soon.

There's some interesting research that backs this up. I just read a review article summarizing some research about the importance of mothers and their use of "running commentary" on emotional situations, and the later emotional adjustment of their children. Of course, I assume the effect is just as powerful for fathers.

If you're interested, check out the article here.

In the meantime, happy emoting!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: Discipline Tips & Techniques for a 3-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Heather, When my 3-year-old son hits, pushes, or bites me, my husband, or his 6-month old sister, or is throwing things or generally being threatening (he likes to act like a mad dinosaur), our response is to tell him he needs to calm down and spend some time playing quietly in his room. Theoretically, this gives him a chance to calm down, plus teaches him that the consequence of misbehaving is that he doesn't get to be around the rest of us. He gets to come back downstairs whenever he feels he's ready to be nice.

In the last week, though, he has started really testing how much he can pinch, slap and otherwise hurt his sister. This culminated in him biting her thumb - HARD. He had missed his nap and it was late afternoon, but otherwise things were calm, we were relaxing in the bedroom, and he had climbed up on the bed to give her a hug. While hugging, he apparently decided to bite her. Thankfully it didn't break skin, but it was close. Our response was to make him spend the last few hours of the day in his room playing quietly, although we let him come out whenever he had to use the restroom and to join us for dinner. We tried not to be overly dramatic about it, and talked about how he needed to stay in his room because he isn't allowed to bite or hurt his sister.

What are your thoughts on our discipline approach? Is it ineffective because he gets to play in his room (i.e. is a "naughty chair" a better approach?). I like the idea of having a consequence that is related to the crime - removal from the family area and time alone if you are not behaving as expected toward family members - but only if it works. And the recent biting and acting out makes me wonder, but maybe that's typical behavior toward a sibling. Also, he is really focused on talking about how I love him even when I'm mad, which of course I confirm and say I love him no matter what, all the time. But I worry we might be messing with his psyche in some unknown way. Okay, so I'm worried about that a lot! Your thoughts are appreciated.



Hi Cherise,

I must say that you sound very thoughtful in your approach; your thinking is right on. You seem to have developed a way of thinking through these situations that makes sense, based on your kid. Bravo!

I do think, though, that he's too young to spend an afternoon in his room; it's simply too long, at his age. The usual rule of thumb is about one minute of time-out per year of age, so he shouldn't have more than about 3 minutes in his room. Any more than that is overkill.

His biting should be met by immediate attention to the "bite-ee", plus an unemotional reminder to him about the rule against "no biting". He can then be removed for a time out, and when he returns, have him check on the "bite-ee's" condition. "Check and see if your sister is OK. She us how you can apologize." Don't over-react to biting, but make sure your approach is consistent. Overreacting is likely to INCREASE the behavior, so respond unemotionally, but firmly.

His asking about "Do you love me even when I'm mad?" is fine....as long as he's not using it to distract you from doling out some kind of consequence. I think it's great to introduce him to the concept that even though you may or may not like his behavior, or even if YOU'RE having a grumpy day (Moms are allowed!)...you love him, no matter what. And that people can get mad at each other, but then get over it; and still love each other the whole time. "Anger" doesn't equal "loss of love". That's a difficult -- but important -- concept to start conveying to your kids, even in their early years.

In terms of "naughty chair" vs. "time out"...I think it totally depends on your own preferences, the layout of your house, and last but not least....WHAT WORKS BEST for YOUR PARTICULAR KID. For some, a quick trip to the end of a hallway met by a closed door is enough to turn around the behavior. Other kids need longer time outs, or more specific locations that work best. Experiment. GO BY WHAT WORKS.....that's a BabyShrink theme.

There are also some relevant tips to look over in my "Biting Babies" post; click here to check it out.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Child Development: Help for a Jealous 3-Year-Old

There are still more people to thank, as I celebrate the first year of BabyShrink. But questions keep pouring in, so I thought I'd post this one today. It's from a mom struggling with the "Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde" attitude change in her 3-year-old, following her new baby's birth: Hi Dr. Heather!

I have a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-month-old son. I was working full-time and had my daughter in daycare (where she was the apple of everyone's eye) up until a few months ago. I stopped working and pulled her out of daycare to spend some "quality time" with her before the baby arrived.

Things were great for the first week or so, and then everything went downhill. I was trying to keep up with daycare by drawing with her, teaching her the alphabet, numbers, and how to write her name and other small words. She had fun in the beginning, but would start to become very upset and not want to have anything to do with it. She also started this "shy" thing. She hides behind me when we go anywhere and doesn't want to talk to family...she tells them she is shy. All of this has led to a lot of frustration between the two of us. I can't understand why she clammed up all of a sudden and have begun to lose my patience. She, obviously, doesn't understand why I am frustrated, which has made it an endless cycle of irritation between us.

After our son arrived, and she began to realize he needs attention as well (I include her with everything I possibly can), life became even more rough for her. She basically does anything for attention, positive or negative. I decided to enroll her in a Montessori school just to get her out of the house and interacting with others again (and I needed some sanity after sleepless nights). This has turned into a chore as well. Getting ready in the mornings is a nightmare. She is the happiest child alive when she first wakes up...then as soon as I try to get her into the morning routine...her world turns upside down. "I don't like this." "I don't want to do that." I mean...she can't even get herself dressed in the mornings! I am also concerned that she is doing everything backwards, upside down, and inside out. Letters, numbers, clothes, shoes...you name it. Is this an early sign of a learning disability? Could this be the root of our problems? The frustration just builds and builds.

I don't know what to do. I try to nurse my 2-month-old before she wakes up so I can spend some time with her in the mornings (just us)...but everything just blows up in my face.

I love my daughter to pieces and want life to be happy again for her. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you! G.

Hi G.,

I've been there myself. Your little angel becomes a terror when a new baby arrives on the scene. You try hard to arrange for some rare "special attention", but they throw it back in your face. And your daughter is old enough to know which buttons to push to get you upset.

But don't forget that kids REGRESS when a new baby comes on the scene. They also famously behave way worse for you, as opposed to a teacher. So your plans for "keeping up the schooling" after she came home were perhaps doomed to fail.

Getting ready in the morning (or NOT) is also a famous 3-year-old strategy for making parents nuts. So please don't worry that your daughter is unusual or abnormal -- she's not at all, from what you tell me. (Of course I can't evaluate her myself, so take what I say with a grain of salt, and check with her pediatrician to make sure).

All you can do is DIAL BACK YOUR EXPECTATIONS, try to EMPATHIZE WITH HER SITUATION, and try to TAKE THE EMOTION OUT OF YOUR REACTION TO HER. This doesn't mean you should allow her to monopolize every situation; she needs to remember how to wait her turn and share. But you have to go back several steps in the "lesson plan" for her behavior. She's been hit by a ton of bricks, in terms of a new baby on the scene, and she's old enough to understand how much it jeopardizes her previous place in the sun.

You, as well, are in a different place -- you're exhausted with a new baby, and upset with your daughter. HANG IN THERE. This is sort of a "do whatever works" time. I know you want -- and need -- some kind of routine and predictability, but right now, you just need to get through each day as reasonably as possible. If she wears her pajamas to Montessori once in awhile -- so what? If she's late sometimes -- so what? She's only 3.

Focus on what she IS doing right. Praise her mightily when she behaves "like a big girl who knows how to wait for her turn so nicely". Make her into your "helper" with her brother, and point out what she is able to do -- and what he's NOT yet able to do. When she regresses into a tantrumming 2-year-old, take a deep breath and try not to over-react. YES, she knows better, but she's just not capable of it that second. Don't take it personally, just deal with her as a 2-year-old in that moment. And when she's a little angel again, don't hold a grudge, even if she was a little devil only a minute ago (easier said than done, I know, but keep trying).

About her doing everything backwards and inside-out; it's tough to say, but usually we don't diagnose a formal learning problem until second grade. She's obviously upset with you, and she knows it makes you upset when she does things backwards. So again, dial back your expectations and let that stuff go for awhile. You will have plenty of formal schooling time and firm rules for school in her future, but relax while she's still in preschool. Try to get in some fun "big girl time" when she is open to it, but don't put the pressure on her that "the baby is asleep and so we have to make the most of our time together!" If it happens, it happens. If not, maybe next time.

HANG IN THERE, and let us know how it goes.

Click here for a related post; this on one a 5-year-old who started hitting her new baby brother.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Potty Training Tips: MORE on Poop-Smearing: A Complicated Case

"What," you may ask, "is the most popular 'lurkers' topic at BabyShrink?" Is there a common theme that brings the most readers to this site? Yes, there is.

Every day, I check my WordPress "Stats" to see what parents have been reading on BabyShrink. I think it's hilarious that each and every day I get several Google "hits" from people entering in phrases like this to the search box:

My toddler smears poop everywhere, what do I do?

They end up on this page, which is my all-time most-read post. And if you've read the post, you know that I laugh from all-too-knowing experience.

But every so often, I get a question from a reader who needs more help with this problem; it's progressed past the point of my suggestions. So yes, dear readers, it's time for yet another poop-smearing post:

Dear Dr. Heather,

My three-year-old daughter has been smearing poop, and it has increased in frequency. Not only does she smear her poop everywhere, but she also has a corner in my living room where she, for the lack of a better term, "marks her territory." She knows when to pee on the potty and does it fine. But more lately, she will strip off her pull-up and go to that corner to either pee or smear her poop. I don't know what to do since EVERYTHING I have tried seems not to work. I have had extreme difficulty with her potty training, which her doctor said is normal due to the fact that she is extremely hyperactive and just doesn't want to stop. He says she is afraid to miss something. I realized that almost a year ago her father stopped coming around, and it has been almost a year since she began this frustrating habit. But it's gotten worse lately and I don't know if it's an outcry towards me because she is possibly mad at me for her father not being around?? Also I am a single mother and although I was able to quit my job and be with her recently i am still not able to give her my 110% attention all the time. I don't know...all I know is I need help. I can't handle this...nor can I STOMACH this anymore!! Thank you for your time.

"Tired of Cleaning Up After the Little Stinker"

Dear Tired,

Sounds like you have a complex problem here. If her pediatrician says there is nothing medically or developmentally wrong, you can try using some of these techniques:

First, try some concrete behavioral strategies. Does she have a usual time of day when she poops? Most toddlers do it about the same time each day, and only do it once. If she does, watch her closely until she's made her poop. Don't let her wander away from you unobserved until she has pooped. Then you can give her a little more free-reign after you know she's done for the day. Also, you can dress her in a more restrictive way until she has done her poop. Get a larger size onesie, with perhaps some leggings over it, to put her in until she's pooped. If she lets you know in advance that she needs to go, fine. You can help her get undressed and to the toilet. If not, it's OK for now if she goes in her pull-up.

You might also move around things in "her corner", making it a difficult or unappealing place to spend her time. Experiment with furniture in the room to see if you can re-configure it to "eliminate" that place where she usually goes. Change around the whole room so her association to it is also changed. Make "her corner" a more focal place of the room, so that it's not a hideaway, and she can't have any privacy there.

Don't make a big deal about using the potty right now. She's giving you mixed messages about being ready, and in that case, the advice is usually to back off from potty training. Let her be in charge of when she uses the potty. But do be clear with her that smearing poop or going on the floor is NOT an option. It's yucky. Mommy does not like to clean that up. But when she DOES successfully use the potty, make a big deal out of it. Hurray! What a big girl! It's so nice and clean when you go in the potty! Consider giving her a small treat (one jelly bean, for example) every time she does go to the potty, even if it's just to pee. And try not to be scolding if she goes in her pull-up. Just be matter-of-fact about it, and clean it up.

I also would not use punishment if she smears poop again. You might remove her from the "scene of the crime", since you have to sanitize it. Be serious, but neutral. Remind her where she should go, and that poop does not belong on the walls or the floor.

Also, it's important to give her plenty of opportunity to play with acceptable, squishy, messy things like finger paints, play-doh, even mud pies. She clearly likes the feeling of it; give her ample opportunity to make a mess in an acceptable way. Tell her when you're playing with messy things, "This is fun to be messy. We can be messy with paints!"

You ask about the impact of her Daddy leaving, and whether that is related. I can't judge that from here. But you can ask yourself about the impact it has had on YOU. If you have been upset, if things have been very different around the house, you can bet your daughter has picked up on that. But is it related to the poop-smearing? Difficult to say. If you need more input about that, I would suggest talking with a licensed therapist who has a specialty in working with young children. And if you're having trouble coping, please seek out some help. A little bit of good therapy can go a long way -- and help you to trouble-shoot when difficult times arise!

Try some of these strategies, and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: Is My Little Kid a Controlling Bully?

Hi Dr. Heather, My almost-4-year-old is extremely controlling. She tries to control everything, including telling us to stop whistling or singing, and trying to control the other children at her preschool. She has always had an outgoing personality, and is very determined. We have tried ignoring the situation when she tries to control us, which has significantly helped. After weeks of us reacting the same way to a particular controlling behavior, she will subside. Now, the problem is when she tries to control the other kids in her school.

Is there anything we can do at home that will change her controlling behavior toward others when we aren't around to handle the situation? She is also a very sweet and affectionate little girl who loves to laugh. It is her mix of control and determination that is concerning us.

Thank You,


Hi Jenelle,

We've got a 5-year-old who tries to do the same kind of stuff. It is annoying, to be sure! We've done what you have; ignoring the behavior. Eventually, it works (even though it can take WEEKS, as you experienced!)

But when it comes to school behavior, it is a different story. First, arrange a meeting with her teacher to talk about it. Find out how frequently your daughter tries to be "bossy" at school. Ask if it's impacting her ability to make (and keep) friends. See if it's interfering with the teacher's lesson plans. The degree of your response will depend on the answers to those questions.

If it is a significant problem at school, you want to coordinate your approach with her teachers. Make sure everyone (including teachers' aids, enrichment teachers, etc.) is involved in creating the plan, and everyone responds similarly. The more everyone is "on the same page", the faster the offending behavior will decrease. You know your daughter responds to the "ignoring" approach, so use what works, just expanding it into the school setting. Then get at-least weekly updates as to how the plan is going.

You can also engage in some play-acting of the scenarios she encounters at school; ask her teacher to give you some examples of what tends to happen. Don't scold her, but rather wait until you have some time together. Tell her you heard from her teacher that there was a problem between her and another kid, and you want to learn what happened, and how to try to make it different next time. Then start a "pretend" scenario, asking her to play it out with you. Switch roles so that she has the opportunity to be the "boss-ee". Talk about how it feels to be bossed around. Play-act different ways of responding to similar situations, then ask how THAT felt. Again, try to keep any scolding tone out of your voice; she won't listen as well if she feels defensive. Sum it up with a quick rehearsal of how she can "ask people nicely", or "wait her turn", or "let people try things their way", or whatever the issue is.

And no, I'm not necessarily concerned about a determined and "head-strong" 4-year-old. She's at an age where you have the ability to characterize her attitude in either a positive (or negative) way -- and your attribution will "stick", over time. So look for the positive side of her personality. This dedication and intensity will help her be a leader and a hard worker. And look at it this way; you won't be worrying about your daughter getting bullied at school!

Try these suggestions on for size, and let us know how it goes.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: Help! How Can I Stop My Toddler from Hitting our Pets?!

Dear Dr. Heather, My 15 -month-old terrorizes animals. We have a small dog and a few cats, and any time the child sees one of them she goes running over with her arm cranked back to whack it. If she has anything in her hands she will use it as a club. If the animal is on the ground she will grab it by the back and try to crush it into the floor and sit on it. After this greeting she will say "gentle" and pet the animal nicely, evidently to make sure it appreciates the difference.

We don't smack her, we don't smack the pets, so why is she so violent? How do I get her to stop before she gets bitten? Luckily we have very complacent pets but I'm sure even the most patient animal will defend itself eventually.

Thanks for your advice, Christine

Hi Christine,

I know it's hard to see your baby so aggressive with animals. Now that your toddler is big enough to move around and check out her environment, she wants to feel, grab, and test everything out. We're all born with aggressive instincts; it comes from evolution and our animal roots. But she has no way to understand that aggressive handling of things will negatively affect them permanently. She can't yet understand that crushing the kitty will HURT it. (And she won't understand it yet, even if you explain it to her a million times.)

She's not yet cognitively able to understand the impact of her actions on others. She's just exploring, and using her own natural (and normal) aggressive instincts. But it's not really "violence", in the sense of really intending to hurt someone. So don't jump to conclusions about your toddler's personality or temperament. She's just doing the usual toddler thing. And she's clearly also trying out the "gentle" actions she has seen you model.

So, what to do? Your daughter is at what I consider to be the most difficult age of childhood; the 10-20 month window is when babies become toddlers, physically, but they haven't yet fully transitioned into their non-baby minds. So what you get is a big, mobile baby, not fully in control of her body, with all this pent up energy and interest in the world, and not a lot of coping strategies to manage the unavoidable frustration that comes along with it. My shoulders still tense up when I recall my own kids' passage through that very tricky time.

Johnny Depp said that having a toddler is like constantly being on suicide and homicide watch. You always have to be prepared to prevent your toddler from killing herself, or someone else. It's a dangerous time! All you can really do is provide as much safety and structure as possible -- and this usually means a 1-1 parent-kid ratio at all times, until she gets into a slightly more predictable (and manageable) stage.

But with all that parent-toddler time, you do have the opportunity to model good behavior, demonstrate how to touch others (including animals) appropriately, and generally navigate around the great big world. Many of your lessons won't bear fruit for quite some time, so pace yourself. But feel confident that eventually, your daughter and your kitties will be the best of friends!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: What Should I Do If My Baby Is Difficult To Console?

Is my baby just "difficult", or is there something wrong? And if I do have a "difficult" baby, is there anything I can do about it? BabyShrink reader Tina is struggling with this issue. She writes: Dear Dr. Heather,

I need some good advice on how to stop my 2-year-old from screaming for everything she wants. She doesn't yell just for fun; it is always out of anger. I hate to sound negative, but she really has seemed like a miserable soul from day one. She was a very hard baby to console as an infant, she is strong willed, and throws huge tantrums. I have tried telling her to ask mommy quietly, and that works a little, but she keeps doing it. The tantrums we pretty much ignore as much as possible until she calms down and then we talk to her, but is that doing much good? She also screams out in the middle of the night.

Another problem is that she won't go to anyone but me, not even her daddy! This really bothers me and I don't know how to handle it because it makes me feel very trapped. She is OK after a bit of crying if I leave her with someone, but if I'm there, she wants nothing to do with anyone else. Is that normal?

Thank you for whatever advice you can offer, because I don't know where else to turn.


Dear Tina,

Like many parents out there, you are having a tough time with your little one's behavior. You wonder whether there is something "wrong", per se, or if this is simply her personality and temperament? And if so...what then?

You ask about your daughter preferring you to all other adults. It is common for a toddler to show a strong parental preference for one parent over the other. And this changes over time; when she's three or so, she'll likely start becoming more interested in her Daddy.

I'm worried that you feel she has been "miserable" since she was born. First, find out if there's a medical or developmental problem. Start with her pediatrician, and share your concerns. Are there digestive problems? Some other medical concern? Get treatment for that first. Some pediatricians have a good "take" on infant temperament, and might have something helpful to suggest in that regard as well. You can also ask for a referral to a pediatrician who specializes in Developmental/Behavioral pediatrics. These are specialists who are trained to evaluate child behavior and temperament more fully. They may also be "plugged in" to a larger group of Early Intervention specialists who can help too.

In the process, it would be worthwhile for you to look into the Early Childhood Intervention programs in your area to see if there is someone who can help you with this. All communities in the United States have a free program that will evaluate the development of any referred child, from ages 0-3. They will look at all domains of your baby's development (including social and emotional development), and offer intervention services, if needed. Ask your pediatrician's office for the name of your local agency. It's important to know that your baby's development doesn't just refer to rolling over, walking, and talking. Her emotional and social skills are a crucial part of her development as well.

If this is not a medical or developmental problem, it could be a problem in the parent/infant relationship itself. All babies are different, and some have truly challenging personalities. Some parents are lucky enough to have a complementary temperament; they can "roll with" their challenging baby's antics. But most of us struggle with frustration as our challenging babies "push our buttons".

What strikes me about your question is the fact that you feel "trapped" and helpless. This isn't so unusual, and I don't want you to feel guilty about it. But it does show that you need help and support in dealing with your daughter.

There are a few well-trained therapists out there who specialize in Parent/Infant Therapy; they work with the parent(s) and baby together. They seek to understand the unique personalities of the parents and the baby involved, and help everyone cope and adjust better. One of my Child Development Heroes, Dr. Donald Winnicott, wrote that "there is no such thing as a baby". A baby cannot exist alone. There is only a parent AND a baby, together. Therefore therapy can't be focused on only the infant; the main caregivers need to be involved as well.

This kind of therapy is extremely effective. Please don't hesitate to try it if you need it. I also suggest that you reach out to other friends, family and community resources to help you feel more supported in what sounds like a lonely struggle for you.

You can also read Stanley Greenspan's The Challenging Child. Dr. Greenspan is an excellent resource on child development, and the book is in paperback.

I'd also like to hear from other readers out there who have struggled with the temperaments of their babies. What tips can you share with Trina?


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: BabyShrink's Hubby Referees Playground Battles

Mr. Dr. BabyShrink, introduced here, is the playground expert. So I'm letting him handle the following question, sent in by reader Ben: Dear BabyShrink, I have a 3-year-old son who gets pushed around on the playground. He is active but friendly. At the playground, my wife gets involved and tries to work out the disagreements that occur between our son and other children. She becomes too protective, and I think I can be the same way. When do we let our son take care of his own battles, and when do we step in?

Ben in LA

Dear Ben,

Here's What Not To Do When our daughter was about the same age, she was pushed flat on the ground by a little girl on the playground. I immediately went into “kick ass mode”, and yelled “Hey you, little girl” at the top of my lungs. I immediately saw that I had scared both girls. I tried to collect myself as the other parents gawked, and I realized I was over-reacting. I walked up to the girl who did the pushing and said, “Honey, we do not push at the playground. We wait our turn. When she's done, it will be your turn”. I could see that both girls didn't hear one word I said. My daughter was still startled and frightened by my tone, and the other little girl was just staring at this big man who had yelled at her.

After talking with our daughter later, she was able to say that she was most upset about me, and not the altercation with the other girl. I had to apologize for my over-the-top reaction, instead of helping her figure out how to handle other kids' pushing on the playground.

Here's What I Should Have Done In the future I will let my BabyShrink wife handle playground skirmishes. But in all seriousness, it would have been better to have stayed quiet, and allowed my daughter to handle it herself first. She was not in any real danger, and I was right there if she needed help. I think it’s natural for parents to over-protect and over-react in these kinds of situations. However, reacting this way, we are conveying the message that the little one cannot handle their own affairs. Parents get in the way and become the focus of the problem, instead of allowing the child to learn to resolve the situation on their own. Children develop incredible social skills by handling difficult situations on their own, as long as safety is not an issue.

Help Them Think It Through, For The Next Time After a parent witnesses “a situation”, it is helpful to talk to your child about the way she handled it, and help to brainstorm other ways of dealing with it in the future. We need to put our Neanderthal instincts in check as much as possible. Our kids will stop bringing these situations to us if they know we will over-react. Children will lie to please their parents, instead of discussing the difficult situation.

When parents become too emotionally charged, it usually does not lead to a good outcome. This is one of the most difficult aspects of being a parent: keeping your emotions in check. How do you do that? Take a deep breath and think about how your response will be heard by your child. "Good enough parenting" takes thought and sensitivity. Show understanding, and confirm the facts. Don’t make a scene. Children do get bruises on the playground - don’t have a coniption about it. Calmly teach your child how to verbally defend herself. And if that doesn't work, have her ask a parent or teacher for help.

I want to thank my friend Jeff for helping me edit this post. Jeff is the stay-at-home Dad to four kids, ages six and under!

Parenting Tips: When Your Parents and Kids Unite Against Their Common Enemy -- YOU

VickisphotoDear BabyShrink,

I have two children; a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl.  We are lucky enough to live close to three sets of their grandparents who all want to spend time with them.  The problem is that the kids have picked favorites.  They only want to spend time with the "fun" ones (the ones that let them eat whatever they want, watch whatever they want and go to bed whenever they want).  This has resulted in tension with the grandparents who believe in rules and boundaries.  The kids have also told my husband and me that they don't want to live with us anymore.  I realize they're just being kids, but they're also hurting feelings.  How do I speak to them about this in a way that they can grasp? 

Sincerely, Vicki

Hi Vicki,

Thanks for the picture! Your kids are adorable, and you can't really blame them for responding like they do when they're showered with gifts and given no limits. At this age, they're just following the cookies and the Wii. Social skills are not really their strong suit, yet.

But it is important to set a standard for them in how they treat people, and family in particular. In every family, there are differences in the way one set of relatives relates to the kids, vs. the other set. Differing cultural traditions and values can play a role. Sometimes, one family has tons of grandkids (and therefore less time and money to spend) and the other side has few, so therefore more time and money. The general level of intensity of the relationships within the family often dictate things, too. For instance, my husband's family is more involved in general in the lives of their friends and family. My family, on the other hand, is more "live and let live".  Neither is better, just different. Kids have to get used to the fact that everyone is different; and that's OK.

Grandparents have the inalienable right to spoil their grandkids; nothing I can say will change that.

But your children will learn over time, with your help, that you can't "judge the book by it's cover". Treats and presents are great, but they're not everything.

The kids do have to learn that some things in life cannot be controlled; Grandma X gives cookies and candy, Grandma Y gives fruit and crackers. All you can do is talk to the kids gently (but frequently) about manners, being polite with everyone, and the fact that everyone is different. Perhaps the less-lenient grandparents have other attributes: Maybe they can teach the kids to fish, or go camping, or how to sew. The grandparents also have to come to terms with the fact that they will each have different standards with the kids.

You can talk to all the grandparents (probably separately) about your dilemma. Try to generate some empathy for the kids, for the other set of grandparents, and for YOU in the situation. Talk to the lenient grandparents about the bind they put you in. "I don't want to deny you your right to spoil the grandkids. I don't want to control your time with them. But when they come back home to rules and to be with us, they're impossible, since they've had so many goodies. They even told us they don't want to live with us anymore, or visit with the other grandparents. Can we talk about toning it down just a little bit?"

Also, talk with the other grandparents about your plans to address it. Show them you mean business when you insist that the kids are nice and polite. Really play up the cool things that they CAN do with these grandparents. Show your kids that their tantrums aren't going to get them anywhere; they still need to have a cordial relationship with all family members.

Good luck and keep us posted!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink