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“Mommy, I’m scared.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know.”

My eyes adjust in the darkness and I see the glow of the digital clock beside the bed: 3:12 am. 

The tiny pajama-clad figure whose face is only inches away from mine was tucked carefully in her bed a few hours before.  

What in the world could have awakened her?

These are normal statements coming from a toddler or preschooler. When they happen once, we address them with love and empathy and go back to life as normal. But when they occur on a regular basis, we start to wonder what is really going on. When we are functioning in our well-rested, clear-headed, logical-thinking parenting mode (which may not come until after the toddler years are over), we can dissect the problem and address a solution based on our knowledge base. But what about when the problem doesn’t seem to have a “real” cause? When tummy aches are not from something our little one ate or drank, when middle of the night fears are not realistic, or when other tantrums or behaviors seemingly have no cause. Parents in these situations often try every possible solution until they are desperate for the issue to be resolved.

Ironically, there might be a solution that makes no sense at all but can bring peace (and a good night’s sleep) to weary parents and children alike. It isn’t logical, but fortunately it doesn’t require an expensive gadget, a trip to the store, or even a parenting book. It is simple, but the reason it eludes most parents is that it is not always easy to accomplish.

Couch time. Yes, couch time.

What is Couch Time?

The term “couch time, ” also known as couple time was coined by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo many years ago when they noticed many difficult issues with young children were solved by parents having consistent time together in front of their children. 

Trends on how to get your baby to sleep have come and gone, but the principle of parents showing their kids that everything is good with them as a couple is one that stands the test of time. Children crave security. In a world that is constantly changing, they overhear the news, the neighbors, and they are aware there are many things that are unsure. The one thing that brings them great peace is to know their parents love each other and care for one another.

You can do this preemptively as well as to troubleshoot a challenging issue with your child. Typically, when parents arrive home from a long day at work, they divide and conquer. Someone makes dinner, someone else plays with the kids or starts the bedtime routine. Mom and Dad are often in different rooms for much of the evening—except maybe for dinner—until the kids go to bed. So here is where the simple change can begin. Instead of going separate ways when the work day is done, parents sit down on the couch together (side by side, holding hands, just like when you were dating). No devices in sight—start by putting those on mute in a different room. Then talk to each other, not about schedules, appointments, and the kids. But about life, what’s happening at work, dreams and plans, future vacations. Happy stuff. Things that make them smile. Where are the kids during this time? Hopefully right there in the room. Yes, they have to be prepped to not interrupt, and they may need a special “couch time” basket of toys to entertain them during this time. But the point is for your children to see you—their parents—in a loving, kind interaction for ten or fifteen minutes.

If one spouse is traveling, it can be even more important to have this time together in front of the children. Instead of FaceTiming or Skyping the kids first, let them see Mom and Dad having a good conversation first. Letting kids know their parents miss each other and all is well in their relationship goes a long way to avoid discipline issues for the parent stuck at home. The side benefit of all these conversations is they help the couple have a chance to talk in the midst of a busy day and even improve their relationship. That’s something the whole family can get behind.

Told you it wasn’t logical. But it works. Try it for three or four days in a row and see for yourself. Nighttime issues disappear. Tantrums become less frequent. Complaints fade away—all because there is a visual reminder to your child that all is well in their world.

Here’s the thing about children’s melt-downs: they don’t know how to stop them.

Once a child loses control and is on the floor screaming or throwing blocks around the room or biting her sister and breaking the skin, it’s all over. Her emotional control has fallen off the cliff and she has no way of getting it back on her own. What you do next is the most important thing.

Most of us react by melting down ourselves. We scream, we hit, and we lock our kids in their bedrooms. We act like children. None of this helps a child find her calm again. Most of this simply escalates things. Instead of fixing the day and helping to make certain this sort of episode becomes less frequent, we ruin the day and make certain this sort of episode will happen again tomorrow.

If we want something to change, we can’t do the same things we’ve been doing. We have to show our child techniques for regaining control.

This is exactly the sort of training provided to children in Head Start who have been identified as suffering from early trauma. Children who are angry at the world, who have been hurt deeply even as preschoolers, need help to find their emotional center. Head Start has created a program designed to actively teach calming skills. We parents of less injured children can do the same thing.

It helps to recognize that young children really don’t know how to calm themselves. We see this in babies, who are very difficult to soothe once they’ve reached the screaming-meanies phase. But toddlers and preschoolers (and even older kids) still haven’t mastered self-soothing skills either. They need our help. Here’s what to do.

  1. Give a child the gift of your calmness. Your child is standing on an emotional ledge, ready to jump. Any good negotiator knows you don’t yell at someone on the edge, you talk with him calmly. You lend your own calmness to someone who doesn’t have enough. So take a deep breath. Speak calmly and slowly. Helping your child means giving her your quiet strength.
  2. If you need to restrain your child, do so with love, not anger. Enfold your child securely but gently. Keep in mind that you are giving calmness, not fighting. This is not easy to do. It will take all your physical strength and your emotional control to keep a child from hurting himself or others while not hurting him yourself.
  3. As your child quiets, direct her attention to her heart rate. Show her how to take her pulse at her wrist or to feel her heart. Notice how fast it’s racing. Challenge your child to getting her heart rate down.
  4. Show your child how to take deep breaths. Do this together. Three or four calming breaths will steady her pulse and help her to settle. She will still be shaky, so don’t be too quick to ask questions. Let her take the time she needs to get back to calm.
  5. Congratulate your child on settling himself. Put off asking what set him off until later; probing into this now make reignite his anger and upset. Instead, suggest a different activity altogether. He may want to go lie down for a few minutes in a quiet place, or he may want to watch TV for a little bit. If he was really out of control, he’ll need some time to feel himself again.

If you are consistent with this pattern, your child will eventually learn how to calm herself without your intervention. It will take time. But even in the short term, you and your child will both feel better about the day and you both will feel like you’ve grown emotionally and in your shared relationship.

A meltdown doesn’t have to derail everything. It doesn’t have to be an everyday occurrence. Take the time to teach your child another way to be.




© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

You know the old saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think this was intended to keep kids from blurting out impolite truths like, “This dinner is terrible, Grandma!” But many of us have taken things a bit too far. In many families, children are forbidden to be angry, unhappy, frustrated, or afraid. Negative emotions have become taboo.

Just listen to the moms and dads around you. They tell a child, “Oh, no, you don’t really hate your brother. Give him a kiss and a hug.” They say, “If you’re going to be in such a temper, go to your room!” They say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be such a baby.” Children who express the emotions they honestly feel are corrected, if those emotions are negative. It’s as if happy talk is the only talk that’s allowed.

This is silly and it’s also unfair. We grownups feel completely justified in sharing our bad moods with everyone around. We yell, we fume, we stomp around and slam things. We feel justified in our expressions of anger and feel just as justified when we sulk, sigh, and express our unhappiness. Moms and dads are allowed the complete range of emotions and even though we might try to tone things down when we’re near the kids, we certainly don’t keep things bottled up when the children aren’t around.

But children are often restricted to expressing a narrow range of emotions. We don’t want to hear them when they’re angry. We expect kids to be civil and calm much more than we expect of ourselves to be, even though children are far less able to control themselves.

So what do we do? We hate it when children yell, throw tantrums, whine and pout. How can we allow kids to express all the emotional bandwidth they actually have without getting angry ourselves?

  1. Lower your expectations. Life isn’t always happy. For children, especially, when events frequently seem out of their control, a serene morning is hard to come by. So avoid being surprised when kids get upset. They don’t always have to be happy.
  2. Give up being 100% responsible. You know very well that you can’t make someone else happy. If your child is unhappy right now, that’s not necessarily your fault and it’s not necessarily your responsibility to fix. If there’s something you can do to cheer someone up, fine, but your child’s mood doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
  3. Avoid emotional contagion. Bad moods can infect everyone around if you let them. You’re not being heartless if you don’t join your child in feeling sad, mad, or bad. By staying calm and unruffled yourself, you keep the entire day from spiraling out of control.
  4. Be supportive. Many times a child’s disruptive actions are meant to share feelings that are hard to express another way. So your recognition of your child’s feelings might be exactly what is wanted. Say, “I can see you are upset,” or “You feel really angry right now.” Ask your child to tell you about it. Help your child in alternative ways of expressing what’s going on.

There’s a fine line here. Give your children the freedom to feel and express the full range of emotions without having to join your child in expressing negative feelings too. But watch out that you’re not so uninvolved and cool that children feel ignored and rejected.  Strong, capable people lead emotionally rich lives. Make that happen for your children and for yourself.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

If you haven’t yet been mortified by something your child says or does, just wait. It will happen.

Your child might throw a fit in the grocery store, even, perhaps, crashing a child-size cart into an end-of-aisle display, sending boxes of mac-n-cheese tumbling to the floor… as was recounted to me just this past weekend.

Your child might pipe up in front of an entire assembled group with a very vulgar turn of phrase he heard you use once – just once – and you feel all the adult eyes in the room searching for you as you try to become invisible.

Your child might make her entrance at Thanksgiving dinner wearing something… unusual… that she realizes you’d never approve, and your own mother glares at you from across the room, letting you know you’ll hear about how you’re raising your daughter as soon as dessert is done.

What do you do? How can you keep this sort of thing from happening?

Last question first: you can’t. You cannot keep your child from embarrassing you for two very good reasons. First, children realize early what buttons to push and they become masterful at pushing those, even seemingly in all innocence. We telegraph to our children what makes us most uncomfortable so that the source of our discomfort lodges in their heads. Like some intergenerational Freudian slip, what bothers us most is what our children will say or do.

Second, we are acutely vulnerable to being embarrassed by our kids because we can’t get past the idea that our children  represent us like little mini-billboards. We think that whatever our children do – the great things and the not-so-great things – sum up our skill as parents, our intelligence, our values, our worth. Try as we might, it’s hard to shake the feeling that our children are us and when they do something embarrassing, it’s as if we’d done it ourselves.

So what do we do?

The best and most important thing you can do is uncouple your own ego from your child’s. You and she really are two completely different people and what she chooses to do is her own decision, not yours. Feel free to be amused and amazed by your child but never believe you must feel embarrassed by her.

Realize that child-rearing is an ongoing, long-term project marked by great gains and unexpected setbacks. Yes, it’s your job to raise up your child in the way he should go but it’s unrealistic to think this is accomplished by magic, overnight. We all are a work-in-progress, children and parents too.

Notice that the result of this child-rearing process, if you do things right, will not be a clone of yourself.  You child is now and will become in the future a unique, independent person who will retain her ability to delight and exasperate you. Any person who is totally predictable and completely under the control of her ever-more-aging-and-set-in-their-ways parents is a person who has lost the best part of herself. You do not wish this fate for your child. Embrace her ability to be her own amazing self even if sometimes she makes you cringe.

And that person under control of others? You don’t want that for yourself either. Do not take your cues about when to be embarrassed from others who want to dictate your emotional state. Let them take cues from you! Laugh when your kid does something outrageous. Go ahead and roll your eyes and share a private oh-my! with the person next to you. If others see that you’re not bothered, they will be less bothered too and will be more able to put things into perspective.

It’s all about perspective.  Gaining the right perspective on a child’s behavior makes both you and him happier.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.