“Zoom out” in times of distress


photo by alexindigo via Flickr

I have often thought parenting is like climbing a mountain: ups and downs, tricky turns, sometimes going down a little to go up and sometimes slowly navigating slippery passages. All of these trying times, however, come with incredible feelings of accomplishment at every “peak.” After listening to a recent interview with a famous author and mountain climber, I’m even more convinced.

Climbing mountains and “Zooming in” on the problem

Jim Collins, the coauthor of the book Great by Choice,  is a mountain climber. He talks about times when you get a not-so-great grip during a climb and things start looking bleak. He says climbers (ahem, ahem: parents) tend to “zoom in” on the problem, trying to find a way to get a better grasp; clinching and gripping even tighter to that bad hold. With each slight move of a finger or shift of weight in an effort to make that grip better, the problem gets worse and worse. Ultimately, if the climber can’t break out, he falls.

Undivided focus is given towards the weakening hold: the problem

Zooming in on the problem puts undue attention on the problem, rather than the solution. Teeth are mashed, knuckles are popping, and fingertips loose pressure. Bad goes to worse.

However, if the climber could simply zoom out instead of zoom in, he or she would notice the better foothold or another better grip position. Moving in any of these other directions immediately alleviates all the problems being encountered. However, if completely zoomed in on the problem, the solutions are not visible.

Are there times in your role as a parent you focus too much on the problem rather than the possible solutions or bigger picture?

I see this sometimes in a wide variety of situations where the parent gets so deep into trying to “follow through” or “make sure the child doesn’t get away with it,” that the parent is almost ensuring the behavior will escalate and cause a much bigger problem than it was in the beginning. I have heard parents say, “if he does not clean his room after I ask two or three times, I’ll go in there and MAKE him do it.” What does that mean? You are going to force it and create a bigger mess than the room ever was? ZOOM OUT, for crying out loud!

I have seen parents get so frustrated with making sure their kid does what they say, that they end up having WWIII when, if they would have gone about things differently, there would not be a problem in the first place. Adding punisher after punisher until something finally hits so hard the child submits. Physically engaging at the point of total frustration. Both parent and child typically leave this situation embarrassed and emotionally drained. I get it…it happens to all of us.

Zoom out!

Zooming out in these situations means stepping back and asking questions about why he is not cleaning his room and how you can make it more likely next time. It is about asking why she always dilly-dallies around in the morning instead of being ready on time and how you might could motivate her to move quicker and more independently in the future. It is about why YOU react so strongly in some situations and how YOU can better prepare for (or avoid) them in the future.

Put up notes around the house, put something on the fridge. Whatever it is you need to do to remind yourself to ZOOM OUT in times of distress or difficulty. Enlist your spouse to tell you to “zoom out” when things are getting tough. Look for other options. Don’t fall off the cliff because you wanted to make that one grip hold. Make it to the top because you found better solutions once you got into trouble.

What happens when one kid sucks all your energy…and what to do


When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we got all the usual comments about the difference between parenting one kid vs. two. I even heard some ridiculous statement about, “you’re really never a parent until your second child.” CRAP. Be quiet.

I’m pretty sure I was a parent when I was changing diapers, cleaning up puke, sticking thermometers in places they really should not go, and doing 4:00 am feedings before leaving for work at 5:00. Don’t even ask my wife…I’m pretty sure she immediately felt like a parent the moment that child crowned…just saying.

With all this said, there are some things that are only experienced when you do have more than one child. Every family with multiple kids I work with experiences the same problems, and we have even experienced it in our own home.

It is the situation when one of the children completely sucks the energy out of the day. Tantrums, demanding, and “NO!” is the answer for everything EXCEPT when you ask, “are you trying to ruin my day?” – you already knew the answer to that. 

It can consume you.

But, what you might not realize is that it is also likely consuming your other child too.

The hard part is not going down with the ship. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the tug-of-war with the kid who is clearly not in control and continue with the back and forth, but it is imperative that you don’t. There is nothing to be gained and a lot to be lost.

Here is what to do when it happens(you’ll feel it as you increasingly react and respond to simple little things and utter that gutteral grunt, “uuuuhhhhhh” for something that is usually easily overlooked):

Concentrate your efforts and energy on the other kid: the one doing what you want (or at least doing whatever she is doing quietly).

When I talk about this to parents, I will say, “control what you can control” or “go with the one who is the most likely to follow you.” Its not giving up on the other kid, it is simply redirecting your attention towards the child who deserves the attention.

Make cookies, play a game, take a walk…do something a little out of the ordinary or something the child really likes. You can even be blatant with it,

“since your sister is having some trouble this morning, I figure you and I can do make those cookies you wanted to make last week. You have been so nice and calm this morning, I think you deserve it. Whaddaya think?”

(Do not say this loudly as to try to affect the child who is behaving poorly…thats ridiculous, mean-spirited and will be ineffective).That is not what this is about. This is about focusing your energy and attention in the right direction.

The reality is you will be exhausted at the end of the day one way or the other.

If you do it right, your energy will be positively spent and you will be exhausted happy rather than exhausted mad.

What if…

Hopefully, the kid who is on your last nerve will come around and see what fun is being had by all and shape into place. If he does, welcome him in: this is the time when you can either get the ball rolling in the right direction or re-engage the behavior death spiral that started all of this. “

“I’m glad you could join us. Are you O.K.? Are you gonna be cool hanging out with us and being calm?”

If he doesn’t…no big deal. More cookies for you.

Trying to control everything = controlling nothing


I recently read an article called Letting Go of Control. I thought it was going to be about parents who try to control everything, but it turns out it was a more about marriage and day-to-day life, although the example given was something I think all parents can understand and respond with a hearty, “we’ve been there!” 

It did make me think there still is quite a bit more to say about parenting and parents who try to control too much. The reality was stated nicely by the author:

You see, control demands that others behave in set, predictable ways. Whether it’s the dog, your friend helping out with the kids, the restaurant, or even the weather! None of these are going to behave completely predictably. Certainly, much of the time you can predict situations and behavior, but many times you can’t. And it’s those times you can’t when you need another approach. 

When you’re in control mode, your first impulse when something goes out of control is to say, “What happened here? Who’s fault is it? Get back on track!” Which will work if you have power of life and death over the situation, but that’s rarely the case. 

Do what you can…then relax

Obviously, I spend a lot of time talking about prevention, being proactive and planning for things as much as possible. It was one of my first posts and prevention will continue to be a major theme of what I have to say. But, it would be incredibly naive to think that all things can be predicted or that all things can be accounted for. Spice of life…right? Ugh.

Things change, unexpected things happen. Batteries run out, rain falls on the birthday party, the waiter is unbelievably slow, traffic sucks, your car DVD player breaks the night before your 12 hour road trip (happened to us three weeks ago)…

@#$% happens. It is how you react that will make the difference.

Do you tense up?

When you lose control, do you REALLY lose it?

Do you break down?

Sometimes you can do more damage trying to make up for the things that went wrong than would have happened if you would have done nothing at all.

One of the benefits of being proactive and planning for things is that when things do go haywire, you are less likely to freak out because you have over-prepared. You brought the extra pack of crayons, you brought one of those weird tubes of yogurt, you have extra batteries. You can go with the flow when things happen.

But then there are times when things aren’t even that predictable. 

These are important moments, as you will teach your kids how to respond when things do not go their way!

This reminds me of several families with whom I have worked over the years that have benefitted from simply doing LESS. In the attempts to manage everything, in the attempts to cover all bases…to make sure everything was perfect and right, they simply did too much. Too much hovering. Too much talking. Too much interaction. Too much fear about what would happen if something did not go as planned or as intended.

You know these people…it makes you nervous simply watching them. Imagine how the kids are when watching you when you are this way.

Plan for what you can and let things fall into place. If all goes awry, follow the recommendations of the article:

1. Acknowledge that the situation is out of control. 

2. Focus on finding a solution.

3. Enjoy what is.

You might find yourself doing less damage, having more fun, and (oh, by the way) making better parenting decisions after all.

Hold my hand


Make sure you hold your kid’s hands when you are doing fun things and going to fun places instead of only grabbing their hands when you are doing not-so-fun things and taking them to places they dont want to be (e.g., time out, dentist, away from their play partners, etc.).

I have seen teachers and parents reach out their hands and the kids start walking (or running away from them). Yes, sometimes this is the kid trying to engage in an ill-timed game of chase, but it showed me the kids knew what was about to happen…only by seeing that outstretched hand.

In the case of a recent trip to a preschool playground, the teacher reached her hand out and it meant, “you have to come off the playground and go potty.” Those kids weren’t going down that easy. But it is not always when the kids had to leave the playground…it was at other times when leaving might have been something they wanted to do, they just did not know, so I think they were banking on their experiences of, more often than not, being taken somewhere they did not want to go (otherwise, they would have simply walked themselves).

If you need to take your child by the hand when they are unlikely to come to you…go to them. Don’t hold your hand out from 20 feet away when you are telling your kids its time to leave the pool. Its not likely to happen and you might run the risk of your outstretched hand becoming a warning sign saying, “RUN!”

Have fun when holding hands…they won’t treat you as if you have cooties on your hand at other times when it is more important for them to be with you.

Watch this…you dont want to teach them that when you reach for their hand it means something bad is about to happen.

Come play with me! 7 tips for more successful playdates


There have been several occasions when moms have asked about play dates: how to make them more successful, how to get kids to play together without ripping each other’s head off, and how to get them to play away from the parents. These are all very nice things. These are all things we all want for our kids.

However, sometimes it does not come that naturally.

Here are the barriers I have heard:

“He wants to go over, but as soon as we get there, he crawls and hides behind me and acts like I’m about to throw him to the wolves. He ends up playing right beside me or forcing me to play with him with the other kid(s)…not the point.”

“She plays great with everyone else, but there is this one kid she just cannot stand to be around. They seem to be friends sometimes, but I am starting to think they just don’t like each other. The problem is, her mother is my (best friend/sister/sister in-law/etc) and we are going to be together. It’s not like I can avoid going over there, even though I already do that some.”

“He will not play unless it is his idea. If someone else wants to play something else, he will do his own thing or force them to play his game.” (The opposite of this is also true in which the kid in question goes along with everything like a trained seal, even though he hates playing Legos).

Well, there is hope.

Sometimes it simply takes more effort to make it work. Put down the Mojito and join in the fun.

Here’s what to do:

1. Like I have mentioned before, if you get that feeling in your gut that things are going to go poorly, they probably are. Don’t wait for the disaster. Prevention and teaching in the moment will be the greatest cure.

2. Plan ahead. A lot of times kids do not do well managing the wide open opportunity of “go play with your friend.” Before you go over, think of several games/activities your kids can do while they are together. Present the options at the outset of the play date. Make it fun, be excited.

3. Start each activity with them to make sure it gets off to a good start and everyone is doing their part. If you have problems with turn taking, and there is turn taking involved, you might want to stick around for a bit to make a big deal about “your turn!” Many times parents wait too long to do this and end up intervening after things have gone bad. Don’t wait.

4. End it before they do. Often problems arise because the kids have difficulty managing the end of an activity just as much as they do the beginning. What usually happens is one of them wants to stop and the other does not. This is when you will hear the footsteps, “mooooommmmy, he doesn’t want to play with me anymore.” Use your instincts (or the clock on the kitchen counter) and go in and check to make sure they don’t want to move onto something else (remember, your list of activities?) before they declare the game or activity over: “Hey, guys…you having fun? Do you want to keep playing here, or do you want to go make brownies?”

5. Give them the language. It is always helpful to give your kids things to say in certain situations and to practice that ahead of time. Say, “no, thank you,” “can we share that?” or “you did awesome.” Pay attention to the language they use and make a big deal about it.

6. If you have a kid who is clingy at these times, it is important to do all these things ahead of time, before he has the chance to cling on you. I do not want him or her to get more access to you after clinging to you. Be involved more at the get-go and slowly encourage more and more independent play. Fade out slowly. Come back often at first, then fade back more.

7. Lastly, if all else fails and things do not go well and the kids are not playing nicely and are mean to each other, it is often a good idea to give them time to play by themselves. One of two things is true: a) they want to play together and they will be motivated to do so and, therefore, limit the meanness in the future, or b) they really don’t like each other and simply want to play by themselves.  If b) is true more often than not, you need to do more work on the front end. It will be more effortful, but follow the steps above and see what happens.

Some of you might have kids who would never realize you were gone and would make grilled cheeses for themselves and their friends if they got hungry.

Awesome. Take a break, catch up on The Hunger Games and get a tan in the backyard. For the rest of us…try these things and remember: prevention, prevention.

What are your playdate experiences?

Thought of the day – 5/10/12


I would rather laugh about being over prepared than cry about being underprepared.

I would rather the table next to me see me playing a game with my kids while waiting on dinner than see me carrying them out wailing and screaming.

I would rather my kid repeat something nice I just taught him to say to a friend and praise it than wait for him to say something that might not be as nice and punish him.

I would rather go ahead and put half the shoes away to make it more likely she will finish her task when I ask her than ask her to do something I know she is not likely to do.

I would rather set up opportunities where all I have to do is reinforce appropriate behavior than wait to punish the inappropriate behaviors to “teach a lesson.”

I would rather say “as soon as you…” than “if you ever do that again…”

What would you rather do?

Thought of the day – 5/8/12


Hang in there folks, with Teacher Appreciation day today and end of school year parties to come, this one is winding down. Summertime means pools, parties and vacations. Get ready for 3 months of schedule disruption, food on the go, and worn out kids. All of it is good, especially if you are prepared…

We have talked a good bit about being prepared and proactive and how much that makes a difference, behaviorally, with your kids (and emotionally for the parents). Here are two posts that talk about preparation, but there are more.

Type “prevention” in the new search box on the right side of the website and catch up!

http://bit.ly/pyTgBs – What airport security has to do with your kid’s behavior

http://bit.ly/ILZuyi – party preparation and knowing when to say when