A “Death” Wish?

Q: I have a 7 year old son who just happily started second grade. He is extremely bright and normal in every way. No major discipline problems, no unexplained behavior. Maybe a year or so ago he started occasionally say to me “I’ve lived too long” or “Life feels like a dream to me” completely out of the blue. I passed it off as an immature way of explaining a feeling of déjà vu or something like that.

But recently, he came home from school with a writing worksheet where he was to fill in sentences starting with things like “I am…”, “I want…”, etc.  He had written “I dream to die,” “I try to die” and “I wish to die.” When I (as calmly as possible) asked him to explain he first looked abashed, and then said “I’ve lived too long.”

He got extremely frustrated when I asked him to explain a different way because I didn’t understand. He said he didn’t know how else to explain it, and he stormed off to his room. Later he came back out and said he doesn’t like his life. Again I asked for clarification and eventually he told me that his brother talks too much and I ask too many questions. 

I told him that we all love him and don’t want him to die, and left it alone for the rest of the night. I have sent the teacher a note asking her to take a look and give me her opinion but I am wondering if I need to seek counseling. His normal behavior is incongruous with these kind of statements, but there’s always that nagging feeling that the “I’ve lived too long” comments are not quite normal either.   

A: My youngest son (we’ll call him “Sam”), now 9, went through a phase around your son’s age where Sam said on a daily basis that he “wanted to die at age 19.” We quickly realized that he didn’t have an explanation as to why he said this—by all other accounts, he was a happy, well-adjusted child—he just had this “thing” about dying when he reached 19.

We decided the best course of action (as it is with most child obsessions) was to monitor his behavior from afar and ignore the “dying talk.” We did impose one restriction: He was not to talk about death or dying at school, because it freaked out his teachers (who have been trained to notice when any kid mentions death/dying as a suicide prevention method). We told Sam this because he had written something like “I want to die” on a class assignment.

The funny thing about kids is that they often don’t know why certain thoughts pop into their minds—and at this age, they rarely have the maturity to delve deeper into their subconscious to figure out what they mean by death or dying.

But the other funny thing about kids is that the more a grownup talks to a child about an obsession (or fear), the more that child clings to that obsession or fear. In other words, we adults—as well-meaning as we are—can escalate these things when ignoring and not trying to get a child to explain or “get talked out of” or see “reason” allows the fear or obsession to die a natural death.

Already, you’re feeding the obsession by asking him lots of questions—to which, he doesn’t have any answers (or, probably more accurately, any answers that will make sense to you, as an adult). Children are illogical beings and what goes on in their minds often won’t make a lick of sense to us.

So what to do? As long as your son appears to be behaving as usual—no deviants from his usual demeanor, etc.—then don’t worry about his dying talk. In fact, just ignore it completely. When Sam would say, “I’m going to die in my sleep when I’m 19,” we all shrugged and changed the subject.

Remember, kids get weird thoughts and are strange creatures! It sounds like your son is just in a dying phase and I suspect he will outgrow it as he gets focused on other things and matures some more.

As for my Sam? He hasn’t uttered those words about dying in a very long time.

Taming the Christmas Gimmees

From the commercials on TV to the displays in stores, everything this time of year is designed to create a green-eyed monster of envy in our kids. Today, with the holiday season starting either before or immediately after Halloween, there is more opportunities for children to get wound up about the December holidays. With so much focus in stores, in commercials, in product catalogs, etc., on getting what you want for Christmas, kids become overly focused on themselves, and thus become more stressed or bratty because of that mindset.

We live in a culture that encourages children to get all they can. Kids are bombarded with the message that they should have—and deserve to have—anything they want. Children compile wish lists that run to pages and pages of often high-priced toys and gadgets, and many kids demand gifts that are not practical (like a pony) or not affordable (like the entire American Girl doll collection).

For parents, helping kids develop a more giving, rather than getting, attitude towards Christmas is to manage holiday Christmas expectations in themselves and their children by thinking and discussing the holidays now. Keep in mind that if you ask adults today what they most remember about Christmas, it’s usually not the presents but the time spent doing something with their family and friends.

How can you guide your child toward more reasonable gift expectations?

Get to the why behind the want. What is it about this present that appeals to your child? Figuring that out will help guide you in what to get your child.

Reign in the wish lists. Set a dollar limit (we do $30 or under for most gifts), plus a number of items. We also didn’t allow kids to send grandparents or relatives a list of items that individually cost more than $20 each.

Think about less costly or more practical alternatives. Maybe instead of a pony, you could offer a child riding lessons or take them to see a horse show.

Quality verses quantity. There’s a time in a child’s life when more gifts is important. One year, I bought lots of little gifts, mostly under $5, for my four kids and wrapped each separately. They will thrilled, it was affordable and fun. But as the kids get older, you can talk about the fact that sometimes the price tag of one gift means that’s basically it.

Experiences versus tangible gifts. Sometimes, you might consider offering a child an experience over a present he could hold. For example, last Christmas, my two girls wanted to see the musical Wicked, which was coming to a local theater near Christmas. Given the price of the performance tickets, we opted to make that their big gift and only gave them a few smaller presents to open on Christmas. Some families opt to go on a special vacation together around the holidays rather than open a lot of gifts.

Communicate expectations ahead of time. If it will be a tighter holiday financially, let them know that but in a way that doesn’t cause additional worry. Instead of saying, “We can’t afford a big Christmas,” try, “This year, we’re scaling back on actual presents, but we’re going to do more family things to celebrate.”

Involve them in giving. This time of year especially, it’s important to direct kids’ outward rather than inward. Adopt a family, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, and other ways to get a child excited about helping others.

Above all, remember what it is you enjoy as a family around Christmas, and try to make that your focal point, rather than run yourself ragged with piling up gifts.

A Teen and Her Five Year Old Brother

Q: My question is about sibling conflict between my 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. They are constantly fighting! And they are basically just rude and disrespectful towards each other so much of the time. I have read articles that say to let them work it out, but the hard part for me is the age gap between them. I feel frustrated when my 13-year-old gets rude to my five-year-old because I feel like she should know better and she should teach him better.

At the same time, my son gets extremely ugly in his behavior towards her, which also frustrates me because he’s not like that with other people. I feel like he’s still learning and she should already know not to say or do certain things to a little kid. The truth is she does. She is great with everybody else’s kids. She’s super-sweet and patient and loving. But to her brother, she’s not at all. She’s quick to get angry with him, and super dramatic about everything that he does. He will just go up and do certain things to her like grab something from her, and he’s even lied to get her in trouble.

Like I said, I know the articles say that I need to let them work it out, but there just seems to be so much tension between them and the age difference is what makes it really hard for me to know what to do. How do you suggest handling conflict of all types between children who are so far apart in age and development? A teenager and a preschool age child are so far apart!

A: I know how much this must hurt your mommy heart! But don’t despair—this can be turned around. A few things come to mind to help this situation.

  1. For now, don’t expect your teen to babysit her younger brother. I know, we rejoiced when our oldest hit 13 and we could leave her in charge of her three younger siblings and didn’t have to pay a sitter. But the dynamic here has gotten out of whack, so stop leaving her in charge (if you did before) until things resolve into more pleasantness between them.
  2. Be careful you’re not asking the teen to do too much to help her brother. Sometimes, we slip into the habit of relying on the older sib to help the younger one, and we do it too often—that can breed resentment and contempt on the part of the older sib.
  3. Separate them as much as possible for a while. In other words, they should interact as few times as possible while you help them work on a reset to their relationship.
  4. Make sure you’re spending one-on-one time with each of them, talking about the child in front of you, not the child at home. Kids act out when they don’t feel a connection with their parents. We take turns taking our kids to breakfast, for example.
  5. Take each one aside (not during your one-on-one special time) to check in with them about the sibling. Ask what’s going on, that you’ve noticed their relationship is frayed. Don’t accuse the child of doing something—your goal is fact-finding. Listen more than you talk. Empathize with the older one that her little brother can be annoying, and with the younger one that his sister can be snarky to him. Don’t try to fix it, don’t tell them what to do, just listen to get the tenor of what’s going on. Do this a few times over a week or so.

6.Then ask each one separately what would make their relationship better. Again, don’t jump in and defend one child to another, or don’t immediately dismiss the solution. Then ask the child/teen what they could do to make the relationship better.

  1. Call a family meeting. Say that you’ve noticed how each of them treat the other (they should be less likely to jump in defensive since you’ve already talked to them separately) and that’s not the way families act. Say the new rule is that for every put down, name calling, rude or disrespectful thing they say about the other sibling, they have to say at least three things they like or appreciate about that sibling. Tell them they each have to do at least two nice things for that sibling (like make lunch or hang up their coat, or bring them a pen because they asked for one and the cat is on their lap) each day before dinner, and that you’ll ask them at dinner what those things are.
  2. Do things together as a family, play games, read a book, start with small increments of time (like 15 minutes) so that you can end on a happy, rather than fighting, note.
  3. And don’t expect too much of your young teen. Sure, she should know better, but in many ways, she’s just a kid too.

Freshman Blowing (Vaping) Smoke

Q: My 14-year-old freshman has been telling me how he vapes in the high school bathroom with friends. My husband and I do not smoke or vape, and we have made it very clear that he needs to wait until he no longer lives in our house to do either. However, he keeps talking about it, telling us which vape pen he wants to buy, and today he even showed me a video of him vaping!

Why in the world would he be doing all this when we would never find out otherwise? We are not sure how to handle thing because obviously we cannot keep him home from school (where this is happening.) We can punish him when he tells us—this may stop him from making these confessions but I am not even sure about that. Why would he feel the need to tell us? It is almost like he is showing off! Any suggestions?

A: He’s telling you because he’s a young teen, he needs to confess, and he wants to connect with you. For which you should be grateful on all counts, yes? He’s not showing off to his parents, per se, but vaping is something that excites him, that has captured his interest, and that his crowd is into. And a young teen excited means he has to talk about it…even to his disapproving parents.

What can you do about it? That depends. First, I will point out that many states have laws that prohibit young teens from vaping, so check yours to see if he’s breaking the law by using electronic cigarettes. Regardless of that, I’m fairly certain his high school has rules about use of electronic cigarettes (and regular cigarettes) on campus anywhere, so find out and then inform your son that you will be turning him to the school authorities for breaking the rules. If he thinks he’s old enough to vape, then he’s old enough to face the consequences.

As to what you should do about all his vape talk, have you tried engaging him? What about vaping does he like? Does he think it makes him look cool? Is this what his friends do? See if you can have honest, interested conversations to delve beneath the surface of the vaping talk and get to the heart of the matter.

Then establish house rules. Some that come to mind are no illegal substances in the house, no smoking or vaping in the house, and no underage consumption (tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, etc.). Go over the house rules with him to ensure he understands. But also tell him that these are for the good of the family and for him as well. Remind him that he can call or text you anytime to be picked up and you’ll do it without question (those can come later).

And reconnect with him on a more positive level, such as engaging in his favorite outdoor activity or trying a new one. Find ways to show him how much you care about him. I don’t think we can spend too much time with our teens showing them our love in both word and deed.

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is from K.W. of Tulsa, Okla. She says, “I don’t know why my nearly 5-year-old daughter thought it would be a good idea to sneak off with a piece of raw chicken breast. This is the same child who refuses to eat meat normally.” Her daughter suffered no ill effects from eating the raw meat.

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

Can a Toddler Learn From Consequences?

Q: What is an appropriate way to punish a 17-month-old for being bad, i.e. deliberately disobeying when I tell him not to do something? Is time out appropriate for this age? If it is how do I even get him to stay put in a time out spot?

A: The only way to discipline a toddler is to remove and contain. A toddler doesn’t have long-term memory, so he can’t connect a consequence to the misbehavior. A toddler can know something is wrong, but the “I do this, so this happens” isn’t there.

Time out isn’t an effective tool to change a child’s behavior at all—not for toddlers, not for preschoolers, not for any child, so eliminate that from your consequence toolbox. For toddlers, the most effective way is to remove a toddler from the situation (like a playdate when the toddler starts hitting, for example) and containing him (like putting him in his crib when he’s has a temper tantrum).

My favorite tip for handling toddlers is one that really works. Don’t tell a toddler: “Don’t climb on the table.” Instead say: “No climbing on the table.” For some reason, the “don’t” contraction trips up the toddler, obscuring the message you’re communicating. Using a simply “No” instead is much more effective.

And finally, remember not to negotiate with a toddler—just stick to your guns and deal with the temper tantrum that’s sure to follow when you tell your little tyrant in short pants “no.”

A Bright Son Making Bad Choices

Q: My very bright 10-year-old son simply refuses to obey. He is child #2 out of 4 kids. He seems to take up all of our parenting energy. He spent a lot of time in the office for the first half of grade 5, often aligns himself with the trouble makers in social situations, and doesn’t seem to care about consequences. It seems that the problems occur everywhere—within our own family, at school, at church and with grandparents. I have never been a parent who pays my children a lot of attention, but he seems to crave attention (even if it’s negative) and he definitely thinks he is a “big fish.”

We had one big incident at school last year, after which he was in his room for a month, with nothing to occupy him. His behavior improved marginally for a short time. I have told him he has this year to improve his behavior or he will not be going to junior high next year as I cannot trust him to make good decisions with the freedom he’ll have there. I fully intend to follow through. Any suggestions?

A: Ah, the child who won’t obey is a familiar figure to us all! I know how frustrating this must be for you, especially because you can see the pattern of bad behavior and the looming teen years with all the potential for disaster.

A couple of things come to mind about this situation, but before that, I should remind you that a parent does her job not because she expects the child to straighten up (although that’s her hope), but because it’s the right thing to do. Thinking that you’re going to find a silver bullet that will make your child behave is an exercise in futility, so just don’t go there. You apply pressure (consequences) to negative behavior in the hopes that the pressure will reach a child’s heart and enact change for the better. But sometimes, we apply the correct amount of pressure, and the child refuses to bend. That’s because a child is the only one who can change his behavior—you can’t. Accepting that and still continuing on with your role as one who applies pressure when necessary is what makes parenting a challenge.

Now, let’s talk about consequences. You’ve yet to give this child an offer he can’t refuse. A big incident at school and he’s only in his room for a month? You saw “marginal” improvement in his behavior after that, but nothing long term. You needed to make a big impression (a la The Godfather Principle), and instead you made a medium impression. Think about what your son loves to do.

Here’s a real-life example. A few years ago, my oldest daughter needed a wakeup call (she was around your son’s age at the time), and I had noticed how much she loved to read. So to reorient her behavior, I banned books from her life until she went 30 days in a row without doing the thing she had been doing. Was she upset? You betcha. Did she miss one of the 30 days? Nope. Have I had to do something that drastic again? No, but it’s always hanging out there as a possibility. The beauty is that she won’t know what I’ll assign as a consequence (aka pressure), but she knows she won’t like it one bit. So figure out what that number one and number two things are for your son and proceed accordingly.

Also, threatening something so far in advance as not going to junior high is worthless as motivation for his behavior improvement. He has no reference for such a thing and therefore can’t care about it! So just stop with that threat, even though you’re prepared to follow through. If it’s not something he can visualize and want, then it’s not something he’s going to care about.

Finally, it sounds like overall you’ve lost a connection with your son. If you don’t already, start taking all of the kids out one at a time on a regular basis. My husband and I take turns taking one child at a time out for breakfast. The schedule is posted on the fridge and they all enjoy spending special time with mom or dad. Also, make time each day to connect with your son. If he likes jokes, find one and tell him after school. If he enjoys throwing a football, grab it up after dinner and play catch for 10 minutes. Make sure you greet him in the morning, and when he comes home after school, not to tell him stuff to do, but to let him know you care about him—even when he doesn’t want to talk much.

Emotional Rollercoaster

Q: During many play activities, our 4-year-old daughter becomes quite emotional about anything she perceives she cannot do. This could be creating something out of Play-Doh, trying to draw something or throwing a ball. She oftentimes doesn’t even try, fail, then breaks down. She simply breaks down before even trying, crying and yelling “I can’t do [x].”

Moreover, when we try to come alongside to show her how to do something, she becomes stubborn and obstinate, showing no patience or desire to learn. The overall theme is “If it doesn’t come naturally to me, I don’t want to do it.”

We’re not sure if this is typical 4-year-old behavior, or if this something unusual about her temperament. When I’m around and my daughter acts like this, I often tell her, “In our family, we don’t say ‘I can’t do it.’ We try to do it, and if we have trouble, we ask for help and try again.” How can we help her overcome this giving up and keep trying?

A: I love this question because all too often, we gloss over or ignore or move past this kind of behavior—or get impatient with the child who exhibits it. But we miss many teaching opportunities and bonding times with our kid when we take shortcuts to training.

As to your question about whether this is typical kid behavior—it is. Some kids are more prone to this type of behavior than others. Usually, it’s just a stage, but that doesn’t mean you simply let her get away with it, so to speak. While you can’t argue/reason a child out of her emotional response, you can guide her in learning to overcome that response. For example, one of my daughters cries when she’s frustrated with herself that she can’t do something and has since she was a toddler. We’ve helped her with coping mechanisms to guide her past the unwanted tears and encouragement to press on through the difficult subject or project.

So here’s what I’d do if she were my daughter: Ignore her outbursts of saying “I can’t do X.” She’s responding in the moment, and it’s better to leave her alone to calm down than to try to encourage her to try again. Once she’s calm, you can ask her if she wants to try it again. If she still says no, then leave her be. Telling her your family doesn’t say we can’t do it is great—keep saying that to all your kids—but it’s better to let her figure some things out for herself.

But, and this is key, give her more opportunities to fail and try again by giving her tasks or chores she might not be able to do perfectly, or things she’ll need to try again and again to do. Kids always want the easy way out and not trying is the easy way. Also show her how to break what look like insurmountable tasks into small increments, like getting upset that she can’t make a dog out of clay. Tell her to start with the body, just work on the body, then progress to adding legs, etc. Some kids get overwhelmed by the big picture (can’t see the trees for the forest). When she’s calm after an incident, start to show her how to accomplish what she wants to accomplish, but try not to force her. When she gets discouraged, pause to give her a chance to recover. You can encourage her to calmness by having her take a deep breath, stand on one foot, do jumping jacks, when you see her start to get emotional.

Much of parenting is figuring out how much to push a kid—when to step back and when to step up. You’ll discover that balance as your daughter grows, and as long as you’re giving her plenty of love and a safe environment in which to fail, she’ll figure it out and learn how to move past failure into success.

Appropriate After School Schedule

Q: What is an appropriate afterschool game plan for a first grader and third grader? Can you give me some advice on how to handle homework, chores and bedtime for this age? What type of expectations should we have?

A. I love this question, mostly because so many parents start the school year without even considering what kind of afterschool schedule their kids should have. We get so focused on school, we forget there’s other hours in the day that need our careful consideration as well.

I’m of the firm belief that less is more when it comes to kids and their schedules. As a result, our four kids do very little compared to my kids’ peers–and frankly, they like it that way. Maybe because that’s what they’ve always known, but I think it’s because we give them plenty of time to be kids–carefree and footloose, so to speak.

Here’s how you can come up with a schedule that will work for your entire family. Jot down your priorities as a family. For us, it’s eating dinner together and having time to relax (in other words, free time!) and having a flexible schedule that allows us to visit grandparents frequently and do things together as a family, and keeping Sundays blocked off for church and family. That means we tend to avoid signing up for things that involve dinnertime practices or that have regular Saturday events or games.

Our kids have lots of daily and weekly chores. For first and third graders, such chores might be loading the dishwasher, setting/clearing the table, taking out the trash, making lunches (and making their own breakfast), being responsible for their belongings, sweeping floors, mopping floors, taking care of a family pet’s food/water, etc. I have a chore book that outlines age appropriate chores in my webstore (only $2.99) that also gives instructions on common chores.

Bedtimes for these ages should be between 7 and 8 p.m., leaning toward earlier. They will be more tired at the start of school and kids need lots of sleep! Sleep should be a top priority, over sports and other activities. Kids who don’t get enough sleep don’t do well in school, etc.

Some elementary schools are finally seeing the wisdom of NOT assigning homework or very little homework, especially in the lower grades, but if yours isn’t one of them, then my advice is to stay out of homework as much as possible. I set an end time that homework had to be done (generally a half hour or so before the child’s bedtime), and then let the child decide when to do it. Some kids like to tackle it right away after school, while others need to play in the fresh air before their brains are able to handle more school work. If your child is struggling with homework directly after school, you might need to suggest a break before homework. Give the child space to do it, and don’t hover, etc.

One rule in our house that has served us well is that we never signed any papers or helped with any projects, etc., in the morning—that cut down on the AM chaos and also helped our kids to make sure everything was ready for the next day the night before. Yes, there have been tears when a child realized she’d forgotten to get our signature on something, but when we stood firm on that policy, the child learned not to wait until the last minute on things.

Overall, make sure your kids have plenty of free time. Play is essential to their well-being and academic success. I’d go so far as to say that free time for play is even more important than organized sports. Free play develops your child’s imagination and rejuvenates their mental and physical well-being.

A Child’s Frustration

Q: My 11-year-old son has autism. Recently, he told me that he should not live because he will never be able to achieve his dreams, that he will not be able to have a wife and children because he can’t have friends and he has problem to follow simple rules. He’s also said that he should not belong in this world because he can’t stop doing noise with his mouth even if he tries. He can’t stop putting his fingers in his nose, and everybody finds him disgusting. He can’t stop reading at night when it’s forbidden. He doesn’t want to do chores because it’s boring and he finds it really difficult. He said his sister is always on his back and she is not playing as the rules (he’s right).

In the last year he has changed and become more frustrated. He reacts to everything like it’s the end of the world, where he used to smile and laugh. A lot of people intimidate him at school. Tonight it crushed my heart. Any suggestions?

A: It’s always difficult when a child expresses his fears and anxieties in such a way—kids feel things so keenly and they don’t have the adult experience to know that what’s their reality now doesn’t have to be their reality tomorrow or the next day or the next month, etc. And they lack the skill set to enact change, especially bad habits.

At 11, your son is probably starting to experience puberty in some ways, so his emotions are likely to be all over the map, which means he’s not able to moderate his feelings. Everything’s a crisis!

How can you help as a mom? Along with the following suggestions, I’d also recommend talking with an autism specialist to see what you can do to help him navigate this time as his body starts to change and grow more.

  1. Ask him to identify which habit he wants to change the most, then help him devise a plan to conquer it. Don’t offer suggestions, rather guide him into finding solutions that he can work on.
  2. Share some of your own struggles to change something about yourself—how you tried and failed and keep trying.
  3. Read stories or books about people who overcame hard things by perseverance, etc. Watch movies on the same theme. The more you expose him to other stories of perseverance, the more he’ll absorb that storyline for himself.
  4. Stop trying to talk him out of feeling like he can’t have his dreams. Instead, ask him what he wants to work on to achieve those dreams—show him how to break things into small, tiny steps. He wants to follow simple rules. How does that start? By breaking those rules into steps.
  5. Also tell him that following through with his chores will help him in other areas, like his conquering his bad habits. Show him more clearly the line between cause (do your chores even though their boring) and effect (he develops a stronger ability to keep with something).
  6. Remind him that Rome wasn’t built in a day—that things take time. That he’s been doing these bad habits for a long time, so stopping will take time too.
  7. Above all, remind him in both words and deeds that he’s loved and that he’s exactly who God made him to be, warts and all. If you’re a believer, then reading Bible stories of heroes who fell but God still used them can be of great comfort to kids.