Top three complaints our new parenting advice columnist hears – and how to fix them


Illustration by Alex Westgate for The Washington Post.

Illustration by Alex Westgate for The Washington Post.

Today, we are introducing our new parenting advice columnist, Meghan Leahy. She and the steadfast Marguerite Kelly will alternate weeks answering your questions, providing us with a fuller weekly dose of all things parenting. Leahy will also host an online chat at washingtonpost.com every other Wednesday at 11 a.m.

So, why Meghan? To start, she holds a master’s degree in school counseling and was an English teacher for gifted boys, as well as a school counselor. The D.C. resident is the mother of three young girls and spends her days as a parenting coach (yes, that’s a thing), helping mothers and fathers negotiate the bumps, bruises, slumps and brick walls we all face from time to time. Her advice is smart, clear and forehead-smackingly “Why didn’t I think of that?” wise. Reading her is, in a word, a relief.

To start things off, Leahy wrote about the three parenting issues that come up in her practice time and time again. — Amy Joyce

1. My child has stopped listening to me, and he won’t do anything I tell him to do.

Let’s start with this caveat: Everything and nothing depends on age. A 3-year-old not listening and an 8-year-old not listening are two different issues. One is simply more expected than the other. But there is a degree of severity, frequency and causality of misbehavior that comes into play with every child and that is unique to him or her.

That said, every parent experiences this. The happy toddler who wanted to be just like you now seems to say “No” for the sheer joy of it. “Time to pick up your toys,” is answered with an absolute “NO.”

“Time to get in the car,” “NO.”

“Time to eat,” “NO.”

“Time for homework,” “NO.”

There are so many refusals that the parent either is fighting with the child (and losing) 90 percent of time, or gives up and stops making requests. In either case, simmering anger and resentment are at an all-time high.
It ain’t pretty.

But these refusals aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If we have done our parenting job well, our children start to become more and more independent. Because we have fulfilled their emotional and attachment needs, the child’s brain has grown, and this new brain says, “Hey! Let’s go try some new stuff! And furthermore, I am my own person and no one is in charge of me!” And voilà, the child will start to form all kinds of opinions not previously apparent and start to assert a newfound will.

This all starts, typically, around age 3, and it cycles throughout the childhood, right through adolescence.

Yes, this is annoying. Yes, this can make for a long day.

But it is good. Really! Parents, you want a child who is asserting himself in this world. That means he is maturing, growing and feeling safe enough to find the boundaries.

So, if we can assume that your child is happily growing and developing, we can take a look at a couple of things that parents do that turn this natural emergence into a full-blown problem.

1. You begin to bribe, nag, time-out or threaten the child as a means of moving him from Point A to Point B. These are the four horsemen of the apocalypse, parenting-style. Each chips away at your natural authority as a parent, creates problems where none existed before, uses shame as a parenting tool and requires you to up the ante as you run out of options.

2. You think something is “wrong” with the child and drag him to every specialist you can find, which only serves to tell the child “something is wrong with you.”

3. You begin to carefully curate your child’s life. Trials, failure and independence are seen as negatives rather than life’s inevitable opportunities. When we view independence as misbehavior, we prevent the child from learning from natural consequences, we shield her from necessary feelings of frustration and we keep her emotional brain from growing.

So what to do? Allow your children to cry when they run into boundaries. For instance, you have said, “No more cookies.” Your beautiful child whines and cries. Don’t punish him for whining, and don’t give in. Find something (anything) to occupy you while your child works through his emotions.

You also need to keep your expectations appropriate for your child’s age and stage of development. Your 3- or 4-year-old is not socially savvy. You cannot train her to be a good friend or to not call the woman down the street “fat.” You do not ask your 4-year-old “Do you want to get into the bath now?” The answer will be no. You say it’s time for the bath.
Finally, know what you know. If you see your child is about to melt down at a birthday party, leave. No need to apologize or explain or get upset with your child. Just do what is best for your family.

So, while it is not easy, see yourself as leading your child’s emergence — as a person creating excitement around the child’s new desire to have a voice. You are building strong and loving boundaries while welcoming new opinions and voices to your family.

Scary? Sure. But this is what you want: a strong, loving, deeply connected child, right? Right.

2. Our morning/dinner/bedtime is a hot mess of horrors.

Routine issues are a hot topic as children get older and begin to assert their independence. What was once easy (putting on pajamas), now becomes a full-on war. Parents call me because they feel they are being held hostage by their kids. Will the parents ever get to work on time? Will the child ever sleep alone? Will the children ever sit down and eat a meal?

The more the parents worry, the bigger the problems become. And often one routine mess creates another. From waking the children to getting them dressed to feeding them and getting them into the car, you are punishing, begging and bribing on the daily.

Parents are exhausted. (Kids probably are, too.)

These issues are also exceptionally hard on marriages. Each parent usually has a different idea of what should be happening with the kids. One parent doesn’t mind that the 3-year-old carries his toast around with him, while the other wants impeccable manners from the get-go. While the parents struggle to get on the same page, the child feels the lack of leadership in the house. And so the routines get worse.

Even if they fight it, children love the feeling of knowing what is going to happen next. Routines make them feel safe. So even when things are wild, they know what time to wake, what time to be at school or the park, what time day care begins or the nanny arrives, when to eat lunch or nap, what time school ends, what time we eat dinner, what we eat for dinner, what time we bathe and when we go to sleep.

Without these routines, adults tend to feel lost, anxious and out of control. And this goes double for children. Children without strong boundaries and family rituals can tend to have attention problems or anxiety and may start to try to be the “boss” of the family.

It is always the parents’ responsibility to ensure that routines are clear: This is a top-down job. Of course, children grow and change. What worked last month may stop working now.

For instance, your almost-3-year-old was happy to sit and be served his dinner, but now he is running around creating havoc. You chase, threaten, yell and eventually give up.

There is a good chance that this lovely child is ready to belong to the family in a new way. He needs to be needed. He wants to put this strong body and sharp mind to work — he needs a job. Setting tables, helping with the meal, putting out napkins, passing the salt, all of it equates to involvement of a positive nature. He belongs. He is seen. Smiles abound.

Will it be perfect? No.

But routines are made by parents for children to follow, to keep them safe and to keep life moving. Routines are not meant to be perfect and easy, and accepting routines as a practice will help your parenting journey immensely.

3. My children won’t stop fighting with each other, and it feels like the house is going to blow up.

Sibling disagreements can be exhausting, annoying, hard to listen to, worrisome and downright demoralizing. Why do kids fight? Well, how much time do you have? Pull up a chair and let’s list some of the obvious reasons.

1. Because they can.

2. Because they are bored and fighting is fun. It is. Especially the really physical stuff.

3. Because it works in getting the attention of the parent . . . stat.

4. Because they can get their negative ya-ya’s out with little consequence. Punch your mean friend at school? No more friend. Punch your brother instead? Well, he’s still there, every single day!

5. Because the parents are not strongly leading the family (weak or flimsy boundaries) and the children are feeling insecure (“Lord of the Flies”-type mojo).

6. Because one of the children is deeply frustrated and has started to bully the other sibling.

7. Because the children’s different developmental stages are not meshing well (the 2-year-old takes toys because that is what she does, and the 4-year-old hits because that is what she does) and the parents are not monitoring the play enough.

8. Because the parents play “referee,” and one child is always the “good” child while the other is the “bad” child. It is a cyclical self-fulfilling prophecy.

9. Because parents assume that children are more mature than they are. Children can and should work minor scuffles out, but parents often assume that the young child has empathy much earlier than he does, that he has the ability to understand another’s perspective and that he has the negotiating skills to make both parties happy. (Hello?! Most adults can’t do that.)

So, what do you do? I don’t know! That depends on what you see.

Look at the above list and start to watch the sibling tiffs. The fights may clearly fall into one category, or you may see many reasons for them. The next step is to ask yourself what your role in the fighting is. Again, this may become obvious. If it doesn’t, then you have to wait and keep watching.

Ask yourself a few questions:

Does one child need more attention?

Is one child changing, and does she need more privacy and space from the siblings?

Are my routines a mess and do the children have no direction?

Are the kids just playing rough, and am I the only one who is bothered?

Are the kids fighting for the attention of one parent in particular?

Do I assign blame to/find fault with/punish one child more than the other?

Are the fights getting meaner, more violent and harder to break up?

Do I check out or pick up a device when they play or when they start to fight?

My hope is that these questions will lead you to the right thing to do.

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Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.
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Amy Joyce · August 6