Monday, March 25, 2013

Mama's Little Helper: Dealing with a Bossy Toddler


In preparing for the arrival of Lady Peanut in July, we have been putting a lot of thought into making sure the transition to "big brother" goes as smoothly as possible for Jr.  Because Jr. is quite attached to his momsie and still mastering the skills of sharing, turn-taking, and empathy, I worry that he might really struggle in learning to share his mommy and daddy with his baby sister.   I have been asking all the experienced momsies I know for their best tips on dealing with new sibling jealousy, especially during these delicate toddler years. 

I hear one piece of advice over and over.  . .

Make sure Jr. feels like he is involved.  Encourage him to be your "little helper."  In encouraging him to help with the baby, he will not feel ignored or unimportant, but like he has a critical role to play.  In doing this, you can still give him the attention he needs, while encouraging a connection between him and little sister. 

I have heard this advice so consistently that I've been very intentional lately to encourage Jr. to be mommy's helper.  Often, because my pregnant belly is becoming uncomfortably limiting, I can really use his help in fetching a diaper, picking something off the floor, etc.  Plus, he really does enjoy being helpful.  We all win.

But, could it be that being mommy's helper can have a down side?  I'm starting to believe so.  Daddy and I often help in Jr.'s Sunday School class.  There are approximately twelve rambunctious 2 year-olds in his class, and they all display typical 2 year-old behavior (tantrums, difficulty sharing, difficulty separating from parents).   (If you can relate, you may want to read my posts on tantrums and biting,My husband and I usually tag-team quite nicely on Sunday morning, and handle those toddlers with few incidents.  However, I'm getting more pregnant, and yesterday's class was unusually large.  So, I called on "mommy's helper."  Jr. responded like a champ, fetching crackers and even patting a little girl who was crying on the back. 

But, as the morning progressed I started to notice an interesting trend.  Daddy responded to two boys fighting over a truck.  Little Jr. ran over, stuck his finger out, got very close to the fighting boys and stated firmly (albeit kindly), "Share, share, share!" as he wagged his little finger.  Mommy ran to wipe a little girls runny nose.  Closely behind came Jr., with an encouraging "Blow, blow, blow!" (So ironic, he never blows when I ask).  This interesting trend continued at home.  "Mommy, sit!  Mommy, sit!"  When I complied, Jr. responded, "No, sit HERE!" pointing to the opposite side from which I chose to sit.

I think we may be crossing a delicate line from being helpful to being bossy.  Lots of 2 and 3 year-olds go through phases of bossiness, or demanding that others do things their way (often without the proper "please" and "thank you"). Bossiness is common as children become more independent, strong-willed, and start to test their boundaries.  Jr.'s bossiness isn't mean-spirited, but this is the perfect time for us to start dealing with the bossiness before he becomes a totally obnoxiously bossy brat.   Here's my plan of attack:

  1. Encourage manners by modeling, rewarding, and setting a clear expectation that "please" and "thank you" are non-negotiable necessities.  Remind him that in order to be "mommy's helper," he has to use kind words.
  2. Avoid the "cute" response (smiling, laughing, snickering), which may encourage further bossy behavior.
  3. Discourage the bossiness by having private discussions (so as to not embarrass) about using kind words with friends. 
  4. Lavish praise for any evidence of appropriate manners, friendship skills, or turn-taking.
  5. Teach that helping and serving others should be done in kindness by modeling acts of service within our house and community with a smile on our face and a positive attitude.
  6. Keep perspective by reminding myself that this is normal toddler behavior.  It is a natural and necessary stage in establishing independence.  For everything there is a season.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Things I Don't Know How To Do

As a psychologist working in public schools, I often get frantic referrals from parents or teachers who need help dealing with a child's disruptive or concerning behaviors.  Sometimes, it's a parent of an adolescent who has recently started acting rebellious, running away, using drugs, or having sex.  Or, it can be a teacher of a kindergartner who is disrupting class with extreme behaviors such as sexual acting out, threatening other students, running from class, or throwing uncontrollable tantrums.  Of course, I always want to help with these type of requests.  That's my job.  But, I sure would like to give parents and teachers this short list of disclaimers when I take on their troubled child.

  1. I don't know how to talk your child into behaving properly.  "Can you just talk to them!?"  Well, sure I can talk to them, but my words aren't magic.  A little chit-chat with the psychologist isn't going to change your child's behavior.  Some talk therapy can be quite successful, but only with older children and only after rapport and trust have been established.  I'm not in the business of giving kids a "quick scolding."  (Plus, who needs yet another scolding by an adult?) Therapy takes time and talk is often not the best path to behavior change.
  2. I don't know how to change an adolescent's behavior if they don't WANT to change.  I can't force behavior change on anyone. A child (or adult) has to really be invested in therapy in order for it to work.  I can be quite motivational and encouraging, but in the end, they have to make a decision to try something different.
  3. I don't know how to make major changes in a child's behavior without changing the environment first.  As I alluded to earlier, talk therapy doesn't really work with young children.  The best way to change a child's behavior is to manipulate the variables in the environment that are maintaining that behavior. In layman's terms, parent or teacher, you might have to change YOUR behavior and the way you interact with the child before you see a change in behavior. 
  4. I don't know how to magically fix the problem.  Once in awhile there is a quick solution to behavioral problems, but I find it to be rare.  I really need to gather a lot of data, spend some time with the child, work carefully with caring adults, and try different interventions before something works.  And, even then, it's hard to say what exactly worked!  Sometimes, it's a serendipitous combination of efforts and interventions that finally does the trick. There is no magic wand.
  5. I don't know how to prescribe medications.  Don't be confused.  I'm not a psychiatrist.  I may have "Dr." in my name, but I am not a physician.  I can not walk the halls of the school handing out Ritalin.  Sorry.
  6. I don't know how to tutor your child.  Teachers, please stop asking me to read with Bubba.  I'm much too qualified for that.  When I ask, "How can I help?" I'm not referring to literal help with academics.  (You'd be surprised how often this comes up.)
  7. I don't know how to help if parents aren't involved.  Quite frankly, I might be able to help, but without parent consent, a psychologist can not deliver psychological services to a child.  Teacher/principal, don't expect me to have secret counseling sessions with a child who's parent hasn't consented.  I'm not quite ready to lose my license.  Plus, the most effective work really is done when the parent is on board (see #3).
  8. I don't know how to answer all the "Why's?"  Sometimes, we may never know why a child acts the way they do.  We can spend hours and hours hypothesizing the origin of the problem, but the real help for your child begins when you start focusing on solutions.
  9. I don't know how to work with a child who isn't present.  If your child is constantly truant from school and I can't find them in class, I can't help them.  Surprisingly, I don't do therapy telepathically.
  10. I don't know how to remove scars from the past. On my own, I am powerless to heal your child's past abuses, hurts, abandonments, and traumas. I can help them by giving them tools and a space for healing, but past hurts never completely go away. The good news is that God can provide healing, and I can provide empathy and path toward that healing.
Okay, now, how can I help?

Have you noticed this is my first post in a REALLY long time? I've needed a little writing inspiration lately. My mind has been on hairbows, ruffles, and heartburn instead of thought-provoking writing material. So, once again, I've turned to Mama Kat from Mamma Kat's Losin' It for the perfect writing prompt.  Click on the button below to learn more!
Mama’s Losin’ It
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