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The Difference Between Threats and Consequences
An interesting question came in from a parent that has had me thinking all day so I feel inspired to talk about it this evening and would love to hear any experiences or free hook up apps you have about this topic.
Her struggle is, in her attempt to parent consciously, she would like to allow her young child to learn through natural consequences. But, telling her child, “you need to get dressed now, or you will have to wear pajamas to school”, or “eat now or you will have to go to school without breakfast” still felt like more of a threat than a natural consequence.
This is a difficult place and the definitions of these ideas often get wrongly exchanged...
So I want to start by breaking them down a bit.
Threats are empty and cruel.
They simply teach our children to fear us rather than to problem solve and understand how behavior is related to consequences.
There is a difference between natural and logical consequences and we have to be careful not to exchange the word consequence for punishment. Especially when it is handed down out of frustration and anger.
A natural consequence is one that happens to the child without the parent being involved.
If they touch something hot, they will get burned. If they run in the house and slip, they might bang their head.
A logical consequence is a result arranged by the parent but logically related to what the child did. They help children develop internal understanding, self-control, and a desire to follow the rules.
A logical consequence is respectful of the child and helps them fix their mistakes and know what to do next time.
This requires the parent to have clear boundaries and put their full attention on what would truly serve the child in the present moment.
For example, if a child does not eat their healthy meal, then the consequence is that the parent cannot serve them dessert. It is logical and connected to the action.
But, not allowing a child dessert because they did not pick up toys, is a punishment.
The dessert has nothing to do with the responsibility of clean up and you are no longer within that frame or boundary.
Consistency is crucial.
If you are not holding the boundaries, in the same way, every time, your child will not be able to believe you. They begin to think that if they cry hard enough, push back long enough, you will give them what they want.
So how do we being to draw the line?
The first thing I’d recommend is to recognize and be aware of “How you say something”. How you say something is far more powerful than what you say.
Especially with young children.
So if we take the earlier example and our child is asking for dessert but has not eaten dinner, to present it as a logical consequence, you would use a loving tone and be fully grounded in your boundary.
“I can hear that you are very excited about dessert. But I cannot give it to you until you have some healthy food in your body.”
Protesting is normal.
They may cry, beg, try and negotiate. But you don’t have to engage. Be present, calm, invite their feelings, then remind them of the boundary and offer to support them accomplishing it.
Another thing we want to recognize is where you are habitually using punishment.
Things like blame, shame, guilt, and judgment.
If any of these things are involved, you are using fear-based control tactics to manipulate your child.
A parent may feel that inflicting these painful experiencing on a child would cause them to stop the unwanted behavior.
And yes, you may receive temporary compliance, but what you are truly stopping is your child’s ability to feel worthy.
When we blame, shame and judge, our children internalize that they themselves are bad, not that the behavior is bad.
Yes, they will submit to you.
You can win, you are bigger.
But if we want our children to be respectful, caring, and empathetic people, we have to model it for them.
If we want them to know themselves intimately, love themselves, and trust us, then we have to show them that they are worthy of our respect and love, even when their behavior is inappropriate.
Punitive measures put your child into a “fight or flight” state.
They are only focused on the pain or fear they are experiencing, defending themselves, or how mean they think you are.
They are not learning anything here except to treat others with harshness when they do something they don’t like.
And in the long run, you are teaching them to rely on external forces to get motivated. As opposed to allowing natural consequences to build your child’s internal motivation.
Consider what could shift if your child felt unconditionally loved by you.
Are you able to fully respect and accept your child for who they truly are?
I don’t think we realize how much we hold our children to our petty expectations.
Our children are human beings with the same rights on the planet as we have.
Yes, it is our duty to guide them and to keep them safe.
But they have the right to express themselves and be accepted, regardless of our opinion of their thought or feeling.
I am often stumped, as a mother of a 4-year-old, when to step in and hold a boundary and when to let her learn by natural consequences.
Obviously, some situations are more clear than others.
No, you may never walk into the street alone.
No, you may not play with matches.
But other times, I wonder if I am setting a limit because of my preference due to my own personal experience and feel the need to project that on her.
For example, we were getting ready to leave for her swim class. It was raining pretty hard outside and a bit cold. I walked to the front door and found her putting on her flip flops. My reaction was,
“No, you need to put on socks and your rain boots. It is wet and cold outside.”
“No mommy!” she protested, “I want to wear these!”
“Your feet are going to get wet and cold and they will not be comfortable.”
“Yes they will!”
Now we are arguing over what?
How important is it really that she wear the boots?
I know her. I know she is sensitive to how things feel on her body.
I know that as soon as she gets into the weather she is going to start crying about her feet being wet, how she doesn’t like that and wants to dry them.
Then how they feel cold and can she please have some warm socks…
But here I need to ask myself, first, is this a non-negotiable situation?
Next, will she benefit more from me holding the boundary or learning from experience, hence allowing the natural consequence?
Maybe if it was freezing outside and we were going to have to walk a long way, we would be dealing with an issue of well being. But we are just going to the car which is only halfway down the block.
So knowing where this is headed, I popped the socks, boots, and towel in a bag then came back to head out the front door.
As predicted, we were maybe half way to the car when she started to cry.
“My feet are slipping! My toes are wet. Ooooh Mommy, I don’t like it.”
I admit it took everything I had to not say,
“See, I told you so! If you would just listen to me, geez.”
When we got into the car I asked her to tell me what was going on.
She repeated her complaint. I reflected,
“So wearing your flip flops in the rain made your feet feel yucky?”
Yeah, it does.
“Oh, and they feel all wet and cold and you don’t like that?”
Yeah, I don’t like it. I want my boots on now.
“Ok, I have them in the bag. Let’s dry your feet first with this towel.”
Now she knows, from experience, that she should not wear flip-flops in the rain.
Not because I made her take them off, but because she felt what it was like to actually do it.
And then I helped her to integrate the experience by reflecting it back to her without shame or blame.
How do we begin to step away from threats, bribes, and punishment?
I know that when we are parenting from a long, generational line of punitive discipline, it is so hard to break that chain. It is deeply ingrained in us.
But we do have the ability to change.
And there is a better way.
The first step is awareness.
Take a look at how you have structured your day and the routine you have provided for your child to move through.
Are you noticing the same issues surfacing at the same time each day?
What is happening?
Become deeply aware.
If you often get angry, why?
Is it during the same transition each day?
Is there a certain behavior that triggers you?
Ask yourself, what core need could be lying beneath the surface behavior?
What could your child be needing? What could you be needing?
And I am inviting you here to look past the behavior.
So if you are answering that last question with, “I need my child to listen to me.”
Let’s go a little deeper.
If your child is struggling to listen, what, in that moment could they be needing?
If you are always experiencing a melt down as you are headed out the door in the morning, pressed for time, and bribing your child to get out the door, is this really a behavior issue with your child?
Is it possible that if you got up 30 minutes earlier, got everything done, then spent a few minutes just connecting with your child before leaving, that the transition might go easier?
We often want to blame our children’s immaturity and lack of skills for our hardship and frustration.
But we are the ones who have the capacity to set our children up to feel safe, loved, confident, and capable.
They simply need to know we have their backs.
Manage your own emotional state. If you find yourself often yelling, getting frustrated, repeating yourself to the point of anger, and so on, there are some bigger questions to ask that have nothing to do with your child.
What is really important you?
Is the limit you are trying to set based on a core value or just your preference in the moment?
Are you holding your child responsible for your own needs not being met?
Threats are often spontaneous, emotional reactions to try and control the situation in the moment.
“If you don’t put your shoes on right now, we are not going to the park!”
Consequences are what naturally happens depending on the choice made.
“We need to put shoes on now so we have time to go to the park, or you will
need to play here at home instead.”
But I want to remind you here that preschool-aged children need our non-verbal and physical support. So saying this from another room and expecting them to jump up if they want it is really not fair.
You will have more success by meeting them where they are, connecting with them in their world, then moving towards the transition.
Sometimes we do not have the luxury to allow our children all day to decide.
We need to get to work, they need to get to school.
But there is something very powerful in the theme, “we are in this together!”
Barking orders, repeatedly to a preschooler is not only going to drive you crazy but is expecting them to be capable of skills they have not yet developed.
Yes, they are capable of putting pants on their legs, shirt over their head, and even some have mastered socks.
But the ability to follow direction, hold a concept of time, have empathy to the fact you can’t be late...well, those are all years away.
So if you let go of the expectation that they should just, go get ready or even finish their breakfast by staying at the table on their own, your stress level will go down.
But what happens when your child is standing there in pjs, crying, and proclaiming that they will never exchange them for clothing and not going to school?
The most important thing to note is that your child is 100% emotional here.
No amount of logic is going to motivate them. If you want cooperation, you have to go through an emotional connection.
The biggest tool I can offer you is Empathy.
This is not the first time I have talked about this and I promise it will not be the last.
Empathy inserted into any situation will bring connection.
Your goal is to allow your child to feel heard, seen and felt.
Even just 2 minutes of reflecting their voice with compassion can put you back on the same team.
“I hear that you do not want to go to school. You feel so cozy in your jammies and want to stay here and play. I wish we could do that all day together.”
And offer a physical connection. A hug, to hold them, to hold their hand.
Take a deep breath and keep yourself grounded.
At some point, you will have to transition into leaving. Using a calm tone, you can offer the choices at hand.
“Sweetheart, we have to leave in just a few minutes. I can help you get dressed now, or we need to pack your clothes to get dressed at school.”
I am not pretending that this is the line that gets your child to stop crying and go with the flow.
But empathy really does reconnect and often get you on the same page.
I have personally had to pick up my screaming child in pajamas and put her into the car seat.
Not a fun or flattering scene. But the key is our energy and how we feel about the situations we find ourselves in.
And I have to admit, that that whole scene happened because I woke up late.
When we take the time to observe the patterns at play, we can make conscious decisions to adjust them when they aren’t working.
If every morning when it is time to leave, your child refuses to put their shoes on and throws a fit about leaving.
Instead of looking for a strategy to get them to put their shoes on.
Start at the beginning of the morning routine.
What does it feel like?
Is it enjoyable?
Does it flow or are you all over the place?
The most powerful position you can take is to always be on their side.
Let go of the fear that you are going to lose control, or that you have to control them.
Your child truly wants to be in harmony with you, they want to cooperate, they want to be good.
All children are intrinsically good.
If they are not cooperating, it is because they can’t.
There is a basic need not being met (and these go beyond hunger and sleep. Basic needs also include attention, connection, autonomy, affection…) or maybe they have some stress built up that they are struggling to release.
I am brushing on a few things tonight that could all go way deeper.
I would love to hear from you.
What challenges are you facing?
Where do you get stuck?
Please submit any questions you have.
What breakthroughs have you experienced?
Share in the comments what has helped you move into conscious parenting and find more connection and love.
All the best,
I am a Waldorf early childhood educator and have loved your work for some years now. I am now podcasting and creating ebooks for parents to support them in parenting. I would like your permission to use a couple of your articles in an ebook, on discipline, that I am creating and will sell on my website.
Your article titled, ‘The Difference Between Threats and Consequences’ and The ACTION process (A Step by Step Guide) that you created. They are both wonderful! I will, of course, credit you, include a link to your website and mention your podcast! I look forward to hearing from you! Warmly, Chinyelu
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Hi Am Nisha, I read your write up which is so effectively articulated. And will surely make a point to inculcate. However I am scared of few behaviour I have already exhibit to my 4yr old son and if you can help me understand if I can undo it and how?
Needless to say am in a state of guilt most of times and really couldn’t differentiate when and how to behave to just make it right for my son.
These days i have noticed he trying to manipulate situation may be because he wants to avoid some reaction from us, sometimes he is unnecessarily being rude to others (this happens in our presence only no complaints as such from school), shows ‘Tit for Tat” kind of behaviour, etc
Can you pls help?
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I just discovered your podcast and i love it. Finally an answer to the question i keep asking myself since my twin girls can decide what they want.?
This has helped me to realize with my teenage son that he just moves slower and is actually not procrastinating like I thought, so if I get in the car sooner and wait for him to come out to the curb, it takes him about 5 minutes, so if I go out earlier we leave earlier and we’re on time. I am setting him up to succeed by altering my actions a just slightly.
Thank you so much for this article!
We are going exactly through this at these point and these words felt very enlightening.
I read these pages with interest. For the last time I have threatened my child with putting the light out and ‘no books’ if he won’t let me brush his teeth. Teeth brushing is a nightmare. It takes threats of withdrawing chocolate in the morning and threats of putting the light out and no books at bedtime. He also hits us both, and other children. I told him if he hits me then he won’t get chocolate. I told him to stamp his foot instead of hitting. I feel that we are always on the move together because when we are at home he wants me to play all the time with him but I can’t anymore. I can play for say an hour and then I need a cup of tea or make his lunch. Then I canplay for another hour. Then I need a break again. My lovely son has had me looking after him full time since he was born 3.5 years ago. He is an amazing wee boy, such a character. When it comes to brushing his teeth it can take an hour. He doesn’t like toothpaste. I have tried every brand. He also hits me and his dad but had improved on hitting other children ie. he does it less now thankfully. After the threats not working I would pin him down on the floor and brush his teeth. The consequence of not brushing teeth cannot be understood by a child. But if they won’t open their mouth for the toothbrush what do you do ? It’s not like a one off treatment of a course of antibiotics. Teeth need brushed twice a day every day.
Hi Mama-San, So many of us were raised this way. We are in the midst of a huge paradigm shift and parents right now have the hardest work to do. We have so much to undo. Generations and generations of programming based on fear and control.
It will be very helpful for you to understand where your daughter is developmentally. Her language may be developed and even sound sophisticated, but her ability to follow directions on her own, navigate emotions, or have empathy for others is still a while away. Preschool age children still need our support. They can take great pride in their abilities, but expecting them to just listen to you is expecting more than she is capable of right now. Dr. Daniel Siegel is a great resource!
When she is not listening to you, it could be a few things.
1. She has a basic need not being met. These are not always so obvious. It could be hunger, sleep, connection, autonomy, play, attention….
2. She feels you are trying to control her instead of connect. No one likes to be bossed around. No one. If you want cooperation, you have to go through connection.
3. She has stress that needs to be released from her body. Sometimes when children are pushing back, they simply need to cry.
If she starts yelling at you, don’t take it personally. It is not about you. Stay with observation, not opinion.
“I see your body is very tense right now. You must be feeling frustrated to be yelling at me like this. Come close to me and let’s have a hug.” Physical connection is so healing. (I would also guess here that you yell at her? Remember that we are modeling for or children how to handle stress.)
The key thing to remember is, all behavior is an attempt to meet a basic need. I invite you to look past the behavior. Get curious about what she could be needing. And try to always hold the theme, “We are in this together.”
I was raised with threats and negativity. Now as a mom I’m trying to give my kids a different experience and it. Is. So. Hard.
I have a 3 and half year old and a 19 month old and am a SAHM. My older daughter is in the throes of being a “threenager.” ?
I often find myself asking more of her than is really fair, but I’m struggling to know how to respond when she is being willfully disobedient. I don’t want to punish, but I’m overwhelmed and at a loss. If I tell her to clean up toys, and she refuses what is the consequence? She often yells at me, “I don’t want to do it, I want my way. I said no! (Or yes as the case may be). How do I respond to her yelling at me?
Hi Ally, You are so welcome! Your intuition is spot on. You say, “he’s continuing to do what he fells like because he has no understanding of what that means”. Expecting him to respond and remember a boundary or rule from a verbal request is beyond his development. As exhausting as it can be, they need our physical support. Try to lean away from so much talking and into being with him. He needs to experience his autonomy,explore, run, jump, climb…find a place for him to safely play and not have to worry about a dangerous edge. You observe that he does not understand the boundary of the street. This tells you that anytime you are going near the street, he needs to hold your hand. He may not want to. You can offer him 2 choices and your value that the limit is based on. “I need to keep you safe from the cars in the street. You may hold my hand or I can hold you/put you in the stroller, etc” Check in with yourself to make sure your energy and tone are not projecting frustration at him, but instead holding a confident tone of- I got your back! I love you and will keep you safe.
I had to make a pact with myself when my daughter was that age. I would say it ONCE, then move to loving action. Repeating myself triggered me so much. I was holding an expectation, so feeling disrespected by her. Which seems ridiculous after learning what they are really capable of;) We want to set our children up for success. If he cannot resist digging in the trash can, move the trash where he cannot get to it. We had to rearrange cabinets and keep the garbage inside one with a child safe latch. You also want your home to be a “safe space”. This means you can go to the bathroom, spend a few minutes handling laundry, etc, and your toddler is going to be safe as he roams the house without you.
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Forgot to ask also…at nap time we do have a routine, but as soon as I get up to leave she panics, breathes heavy, etc…she always asks for one more book, one more song, one more kiss, after I oblige she always asks for another. My question is, does there ever come a time when she stops asking for things and actually falls asleep peacefully? I’ve yet to see it. Even as I’m shutting the door she starts screaming for one more something….
Thank you for your resources Christina and your quick reply to my questions!!!! I’m definitely checking them all out!
In response to your reply, you asked how I was feeling when my 3 1/2 year old is tantrumming…I’d say 95% of the time it’s total frustration, anger, annoyance if I’m being honest. I’d consider myself a no nonsense person so the whole idea of empathy is rather new to me. I don’t remember receiving this as a kid so it’s definitely new territory. The tantrums just happen so.much that it’s hard not to get completely frustrated and over it. My response often times is yelling as when I ask her to do something calmly she just laughs and doesn’t respond. We’ve tried so many techniques (not just for tantrums but other behaviors), ignoring, 123 magic, time outs, reward charts, walking away, happiest toddler, mirroring back emotions (which felt like patronizing), quiet step (she won’t sit down unless I sit with her and I can’t usually because I’m carrying her younger sibling)etc and nothing has seemed to change. The one constant is kind of our inconsistency because if something isn’t working we try throwing something else at it. So anyway…it’s frustrating and hard at times but I’m excited to grow in this process. We also are in a process of transition with her having an 8 month old sister too and she often purposely screams and yells just to wake her up which drives me crazy!!!
Any tips for helping with sharing/empathy for other children? That is a biggie in our house and a HUGE trigger for fits. I know it’s her age too, but it’s a constant battle to the point where I don’t even want to take her anywhere. If her sister, a playmate or child on the playground picks up a toy, she immediately wants it, tries to forcefully grab it, and when she can’t have or when I step in, queue giant meltdown, screaming, throwing herself on floor, kicking, etc. I don’t usually give in but that hasn’t stopped her from doing it. The only way she stops in those situations is when the other child is finally done with the toy and she gets a turn.
Eek on the suggestion to remove naps! It helps my sanity as a SAHM honestly to give her a nap. I don’t know that we could do a bed time that early, her dad doesn’t usually get home until like 6 to help with dinner, baths, etc. She usually goes to bed at 9 and is up by 730/8. I’d be willing to give it a shot though. It’s just hard juggling her and my younger child myself. Btw baby doesn’t go to bed until 9 either so there is no such thing as adult time in our home hahaha.
Thank you again. I’m devouring your work and hopeful to make some positive changes. I’m sharing these with all my mom friends as well!!!! I appreciate your help and insights!!!
This was a much needed read for me today. Thank you!
I have an almost 17 month old and I feel like I am in the throws of learning about setting boundaries while simultaneously trying to nurture his development in learning cause and effect. I try to maintain a basic routine in our day and am open to him exploring whatever interests him as long as it’s safe.
I guess I’m confused though on how much he is actually understanding me at his age. I can say again and again that he can’t walk into the street because he will get hurt, but he’s continuing to do what he feels like because he has no understanding of what that means. I tell him not to play in the garbage can because it’s dirty and move his attention elsewhere, engaging with him yet he’ll still go back to the garbage. I was convinced it was my reactions to these things and so I constantly am aware of keeping emotions in check as I find that I get frustrated after repeating myself so much. I’ll eventually take him inside after so many times of not listening or take him upstairs so he has no option of getting in the trash. I feel like I’m always trying to be empathetic to what he is experiencing and I try to vocalize his frustration as I see it. But I guess my real question is if he’s just to young? Is this just a part of his development we have to get through until he understands more, or am I missing a need of his?
Thank you for any words of wisdom!
Dear Jenn, Thank you:) “Strong willed and emotional” is a common state for 3 and 4 year olds. I think gaining some understanding of what is going on for her developmentally will help you not take it personally. There is a series of books that cover each age simply and directly by Louise Bates Ames. Here is the link for the 3 year old:
You say that the problems come when she doesn’t get what she wants. I invite you to take an example and sit with it for a moment. How are you feeling in that moment? What are you thinking? Check for self doubt, criticism, judgement or an expectation that things should be different. We all want things we can’t have. She is still learning to cope with those feelings of disappointment. Your role here is to have clear, consistent, boundaries that are based on your core values. Having a strong rhythm to your week and day will help her to feel safe and confident about where she is headed.
What is most important about those challenging moments is how you feel, speak, and connect with her.
This article I wrote may also be helpful:https://www.fatherly.com/how-to-teach-child-emotional-intelligence-1510197286.html
I run a Waldorf inspired preschool from my home. So I understand the drop off struggle well. Fellow conscious parenting guide, Janet Lansbury, did a wonderful 20 minute podcast on this subject here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/podcasts/
It is one of the first episodes called “How to say goodbye to your child at school”.
3 and 4 year olds are testing boundaries in order to feel safe. They are developing at such a rapid pace. She wants to be sure that you have her back, are leading the way, and that she does not have the power to push you over.
Crying and tantrums are all they have to release stress from their body. It is important that we create a space for that to be ok. She will learn to navigate these emotions if she is not dismissed, distracted, shamed, etc for this behavior.
Children love ritual. Create one together for nap time. Do it in the same way each day and she can trust and rely on it.
My daughter (4 1/2) has had the same bedtime routine for years. Most of the time is goes fine. But there are times when she says, “I need more books! or I am not tired!” If I observe her I can see she is holding tension and needs to cry.
I may even say it. “It is time to turn the light out now. It seems like you may need to get some sads out of your body first. I can hold you for a few minutes if you need to cry.” And she usually will. She may even latch onto something to help get it out like, “I want more books….(sob sob)…I want more books…”
I never engage in negotiation, explanation, logic, etc. I just sit quiet and non-verbally send her love. When our children are emotional they have no access to logic. We often try to reach our children through left brain activity when they are not there. If we want cooperation, we have to go through connection. Empathy is magic. She just wants to be heard, felt, and seen.
One thing that I highly suggest to any parent with a young child is early bedtime of 6:30/7. That sounds crazy to most people, but the parents who I have helped onto that schedule are incredibly grateful. If your schedule allows for this, I would consider skipping the nap and starting the night routine early. This will give you much needed adult time in the evening.
I will share our routine with you:
4:30pm Bath time
6:00 Brush teeth, potty…
6:15 In bed for stories and snuggles
6:30 Lights out.
She is normally asleep by 6:45. She does not wake up until 7:30am.
Wishing you all the best. Please reach out if you have more questions.
I just found your posts and am living them!
I’m struggling alot with my 3 1/2 year old daughter A. I also have an 8 month old. A is extremely strong willed and emotional. She has a large vocabulary and often tells me exactly what she wants. Our problems come when she doesn’t get what she wants.
She started preschool this fall, two half days a week, and she has extreme separation anxiety. She used to cry for 45 mins after I left, now she has good/bad days but her teachers assure me she’s much better. Some days at drop off she tells me to leave after a few kisses. But most days she keeps saying she needs me and wants me and I can’t get her engaged in anything to distract her from my leaving. As soon as I tell her I have to go she literally drops whatever she’s playing with and runs at me. She carries a blanket and will often ask a teacher to read to her after I leave which helps but she always wants adult attention. They do an hour of free play first and that’s her weakest area. She doesn’t show much interest in her peers, just her teachers. Any advice on how to ease drop off? Or mornings are admittedly rushed but we do have a 20 minute ride to school to chat and decompress. Any advice also on helping her want to play with other kids her age? Thank you!!!
Also…nap time is a ridiculous struggle. Always has been. We have the same routine every day, several books, songs, kisses…but she always cries and screams for more…”just one more book”, “I need one more kiss” etc. She’s been like this for years and nothing additional I give her is ever enough, so I give up and let her eventually tire herself out. Is there anything else I can try? Thanks
Hi Katie, my heart goes out to you. I remember all too well the sleepless nights of my daughter’s first 2 years. I would need more information on what is going on to help much. The cycle of the day and night are all connected. When looking at building a healthy rhythm or routine, we need to begin with sleep and meal times.
Both of your children would benefit from 12 hours of sleep at night.
The 15 month old still having a nap on top of that.
We could dig into routine building if that would be helpful to you.
My daughter is also a light sleeper. What saved my life was a white noise sound machine. We turn it on when she goes to sleep then any other noises that happen through the house do not startle her.
Whatever we do for/with our children to get them to sleep at night is what they will need again if they wake up. That is sleep training. For example, if you rock your child to fall asleep then put them in bed, when they wake up they need you and rocking to get back to sleep.
I feel your frustration and that point of “losing your mind”. I was in that cycle when my daughter was just over a year old. I could not handle the cry it out method. Leaving her alone felt so wrong and I did not want to foster abandonment issues.
The direction I took was not easy, but it felt healthy and it worked.
She was used to being nursed to sleep so I had my work cut out for me.
I told my 1 year old one morning, “My sweet, we are going to start a new way of napping and sleeping today. It will be difficult for us both to learn, but our bodies and minds will be healthier and stronger.”
Not that she could really understand me, but I needed to say it out loud for myself and I believe they pick up our intentions.
I told her every step that would happen. That I would put her in her bed with her lovey, her non spill cup of water, and her favorite blanket. We would turn on the sound machine and night light, and she would put herself to sleep.
She would learn to do it all by herself, but I would be there to support her.
The first 4 days were awful! I sat in a chair knitting, writing, etc while she screamed for me to take her out of the crib. I would take deep breaths to keep my energy calm and centered and offer her loving looks while thinking, “You can do this!”
She cried the first 2 days for at least a half hour before calming down and falling asleep. By the 5th day, she only cried 5 minutes.
We were able to move into a fun bed time ritual that ended with me blowing her kisses from the door. That lasted until just a few weeks ago when, at 4 1/2, she is needing some more support to work through her fear of being alone… another topic;)
Guilt is there just waiting to slip in at any moment.
The advice that helped me the most was to get clear on what I wanted, what was the best for us both, and why I was setting the limit. I took some time and wrote everything out on paper, read some information on sleep schedules, and developed a clear picture ahead of time. So I did not feel guilty or question myself in the midst of the storm.
Feel free to expand on your situation so I may be of better service to you. If you prefer to connect privately, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi Kris, Thank you for reading and asking such a great question! The first thing to understand here is the developmental level of a 3 and 5 year old. Sometimes our expectations of them far exceed what they are really capable of. Especially if they have shown you at one time that they can do it, then shift back again. Right now, they are showing you that they need more support. You could also be missing their “sleep window” if they are having a hard time falling asleep. That second wind is no joke.
A couple of quick suggestions would be:
1. Take a look at bed times. A 3 year old still needs 12 hours of sleep. If they need to get up at 7am, they should be asleep by 7pm. At 4 1/2 my daughter is still in bed by 6:30 for stories and asleep by 6:45pm. She sleeps until 7:30 am. If I wait until 7 or 7:30, she is up until 9pm on a second wind. I work with all of the parents in my preschool on this. They are amazed:) Not only does it change the behavior of the child to be fully rested, it gives you much needed adult time in the evening.
2. Back up and evaluate the evening routine. Work on doing things together instead of expecting them to follow directions. Move with them though each activity, make it fun. Of course, give them opportunities to be independent, but offer a verbal request only once. If they do not follow, move to loving action. Repeating yourself will only undermine your authority and start to trigger you.
3. If they are not able to settle their bodies and fall asleep alone, they need your help. Children LOVE ritual and routine. Take a moment to write down exactly how you would like the evening to look. Be specific about times so you know where you are headed. Not to be rigid, just intentional. You can even let the children know what is going to happen at dinner time. “I know it has been hard for you to get to bed and fall asleep, so this is what we are going to do so your bodies can grow strong and healthy.” or whatever is authentic to you.
Creating the mood of rest and relaxation is key. Speak softly, keep minimal lights on, but most importantly, believe that they can do it;)
Show them you have their backs. Offer them something to help relax. I give my daughter a full body, pretty firm massage every night. She Loves it! Even just a foot massage can release tension from the body.
And if you need to, sit in a chair in their room until they are asleep.
I have 6 children that need to nap in one room every day that are ages 2-4. The only way they are going to fall asleep is with my support. If I walk out, there is a party immediately. I turn on the sound machine, tuck each of them in, rub them one by one, sing soft lullabies, then sit in meditation or read. My presence is enough to hold the space and limits.
They all fall asleep within 20 minutes.
I am not sure of your dynamic, but I have seen a lot of success in creating an earlier bedtime for the younger sibling. Not only do they usually need a bit more sleep, but it is very special for the eldest child to have some one on one time with you.
I hope this is helpful! Feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com
Wow, thank you so much for this, I am in tears after reading.
Ok my biggest challenge by FAR is keeping my cool in the middle of the night. My kids (daughter is 4 years and son is 15 months) are both very wakeful. They have been since birth. I will never do “cry it out” but gentler approaches don’t seem to have an effect. Ok but I guess that’s a story for another day…
So last night I was up 3-6am with a wide-awake toddler and a coughing big kid. I can stay calm for the first 20-30 minutes but then I just lose it. Yes obviously the bottom line is we all need better sleep habits, and I am working towards that. But some nights are going to be rough and I can not keep losing my mind at 4am. It makes everyone feel horrible. But at that hour, so ao little sleep… I just feel like I have no ability to keep it together.
Hi Christina, thank you for your article filled with good advice. I did have a more specific question relating to natural consequences – what would be your suggestion for a 3 and almost 5-year-old who have trouble following directions at bedtime, both regarding bedtime routine but even more so after being put down not staying in bed with lights off, etc. (they share a room).
Thanks Jessica! Please let me know if you have specific questions. Happy New Year!!
Thank you! I have been searching for help finding the words to say to become less threatening and an example to my child when conflict happens. I feel like this will be my new mantra!
Dear BW, Thank you for the kind words. I want you to know and believe that it is never too late to shift your family dynamic or repair a broken connection. Showing our humanity is a gift to our children. And your girls are entering a very special time.
Their self-awareness is growing stronger. They will begin to have questions about themselves and their purpose. They will challenge your rules, ask about the truth of “God”, and question right and wrong.
Now more than ever they need your confidence in them, your acceptance, empathy, and curiosity.
Your girls chose you!:) They are beyond lucky, they are blessed to have a conscious, striving parent on their side.
The book, “Conversations with God for Parents” may be helpful to you at this time.
Dear Jame, Thank you so much for your honest comment. You are not alone! We love our children so much and want the very best for them. But the programming within us from our own early childhood and the limiting beliefs we gather throughout our life make it very difficult to be present and conscious with our children. I invite you to contact me anytime with deeper questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. All the best to you and your family!
Dear Angella, I am so happy to hear it was helpful! Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or specific challenges you may have. You are very welcome:)
My twin girls are almost nine. I wish I had read this years ago. Thank you for the reminder to pay attention to what I need to do in order to be fully present for them and not blame my children when I’m not meeting my own needs. You are a wise woman – lucky child, yours!
Thank you for this article.
I see parts of both myself and my wife described. Definitely suggestions that can be useful.
I try to be engaged, mindful and intentional with my 3 y/o. I do find myself falling back to age old, antiquated techniques. Altering course hard when it that occurs to me, much like a shot to the chest.
This article offers more tools for anyone’s cache. Reflection, mindful, intention- all good for parenting.
Hey Christina – thank you so much for this wonderful article. Would definitely put into practice the tips given her for my very independent 2 years old. And you’re right – she is good (as you say all children are)… Not using threat is very important… And telling her about natural / logical consequences mostly gets her to do what is right for her. Thank you so much once again.
You are so welcome Michael! I appreciate you as well:) Please don’t hesitate to ask questions or share challenges. The podcast is truly inspired by our community. XO!
Thank you, Christina. That was really well written and such a good topic for us. I appreciate you.