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Cooperation Counts

  • Connecting With Kid Agony

    January 24th, 2018
    upset child

    Image Credit: Melissa Segal

    by Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    Kids of all ages can get crabby very easily, and so can the adults.  This is a recipe for a LOT of crabbiness and begs for a solution, but one that can avoid War. The following is a true story in a family therapy session:


    The problem:  Susan, age 6, was sensitive about everything, and the slightest thing would set her off.  Over time Susan and her parents began to actually believe that she could not help herself, but if that turned out to be true it would be a long life for everyone.


    Enter Susan’s 3 year old sister Sasha who was the Queen of Getting Her Own Way, and while this was pretty much age appropriate, the Susan and Sasha combo often led to Large Scale Skirmishes.


    The scene: Sasha had a pair of kid friendly scissors she was using to make a flower.  Suddenly Susan grabbed the scissors away from her sister. Sasha registered her objection loudly and so did Susan!


    One solution: Connecting with Kid Agony Strategy


    1) Dad was encouraged to respond to crying/escalating Susan while refraining from the temptation to scold her for ‘the grab’.  Instead he was encouraged to head in this direction:  “Oh no.  You really wanted those scissors and Sasha did too.  Now you’re both upset!.. It’s so hard when Sasha  wants what you   It’s just not fair!” As Dad was connecting with Susan’s ‘agony’ he wanted  to find a way that the kids wouldn’t stay stuck in their joint fury.  He offered a favorite snack to Very Upset Susan who wanted the snack but dove under the couch leaving the scissors on the table.   Dad:  “Wow!  How amazing.  You went under the couch to take space from the trouble.  Double wow!  Here’s your snack.”

    When Susan came out from under the couch and began to eat, Sasha saw her opportunity to grab the scissors that had been left on the table!  Susan continued to eat her snack- now uninterested in the previously very important scissors!

    2) Mom:  “This doesn’t help anything.  Sasha got what she wanted and she needs to learn that she can’t always get her own way.


    Meanwhile:  Sasha was happily making her flower and Susan was enjoying her snack.  Both were quiet and had moved on, but Mom wanted to teach the lesson- right then and there.


    Jean:  “Let’s remember that Sasha is 3 and her job is to put in a good effort to get what she wants…when she wants it.  And if she can upset her sister while doing so, she is likely pretty proud of herself.


    Nothing ever gets settled when anyone is upset- no matter how tempting it might be to teach the lesson right  then and there. The time for mentioning anything about grabbing, teasing, taunting, etc. is when everyone is calm.


    Furthermore, the all-important point can be achieved by catching the kids making good choices  like when one or both of the kids just happen to ask nicely for an item the other one has, or if someone offers to share something.


    And when everyone is calm we might remember the event in story form like “I remember this afternoon when Susan decided to grab the scissors from Sasha when she was trying to make a flower.  I remember you both ended up really angry with each other, but Susan I also remember how you decided to dive under the couch to take space when you were so upset!  And I remember that you both decided to settle down- Sasha, you made your flower and Susan, you enjoyed your snack.  Way to go girls !!!”


    Peace is a good enough goal and connecting with kid agony can be a nice way to head in that pleasant direction.


    Philip the Cat

    Philip the Cat – Photo by Jean

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    Philip is my 10 year old gray and white skinny cat. He is a lovely cat, but he is the fussiest eater with two or four legs that I have ever met in my entire life! The vet says he must gain weight.

    I have shared this information with Fussy Philip, but he is unimpressed.

    These are the ways that Mr. P. has trained me: I offer him canned food- the kind the vet says would be best for him.
    He sniffs the can, and if he starts to lick it, that is the signal that he will eat it. This happens for a period of days so of course I go out and buy a ton of it, but as soon as I do, he refuses to even sniff it. Dry food is another matter. I need to put it on the counter, and tap three times. Then he might eat it. If I put it in a bowl, he absolutely will not.

    When I travel, friends come in to feed Fussy Philip. They don’t know what I am talking about when I leave a long detailed list of instructions about the food thing. They tell me he eats lots of things, has no preference about food on the counter, three taps, and so forth. WHAT????

    Kids often act a lot like Philip. We hear they are well behaved in school and at other people’s houses, but at home it may be an entirely different story. WHAT????

    Now that I think about it, I’m glad that Mr. P. decides to eat when I am away, and I’ll take it when the kids are like angels at school and on play dates, but there sure are a lot of mysteries in this world!!

    Kids playing in the pool

    Image credit: Jimmy Smith

    By Jean Hamburg LICSW

    “Emergency!   We’re in crisis!”  was the message on my service from a frantic mom.  “The kids are out of control, and I have no idea what to do, but I wanted to give you a heads up before our meeting today.”


    My work as an in-home family therapist means that I am prepared to help everyone find ways to navigate the incredibly complicated journey of family life -in their living rooms as well as in their yards .


    Once I asked a Dad what family peace would mean for him, and his quick reply was, “The absence of blood.”  We had a good laugh about that one, but he was speaking the truth!


    As I parked my car in the driveway of the frantic family of phone message fame I heard the sound of laughter coming from their yard!  Then I was SPLASHED, and realized that the kids were playing with water that originated from the pool.  I laughed AND RAN BACK TO THE CAR TO GRAB MY UMBRELLA.  Our ‘work’ had begun!


    Actually, Mom had taken matters into her own hands after the frantic call.  She had pushed the re-set button by turning the sad scene into a silly one.  Brilliant mom.  Happy kids.  Having fun together did the trick. Poof!


    Turning around trouble can be powered by something as simple as silliness.  Sounds like a plan to me!


    March 16th, 2016
    Illusion of road going in two directions

    Image Credit: Thomas Lieser

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    It’s a known fact that kids can be masters at keeping adults off guard by setting traps.



    It’s easy to respond to these completely non-pleasant scenes by telling the kids to stop it. Unfortunately, that does not work.
    In the heat of any miserable moment, if there is any adult response at all, consider the following. At least these phrases are neutral, and not as likely to fuel adult or kid ‘fires’.
    “Thanks for letting me know that’s what you’re thinking (or feeling) right now.” “I’ll wait.” “I hear you.” “This isn’t working out for me. I’m going to take a quick break.” “I’m not sure what to say right now, but I’ll get back to you.”


    It was an ordinary Saturday morning and The Kaleb Kids including Stacy- age 12 months, Paul- age 8, and Brian-age13 were at the store with their Mom to do the weekly Big Shopping. Everything was going beautifully until suddenly ‘it’
    happened. Brian was ‘at that age’ when irritability could set in fast, and suddenly it did! When he was upset he got belligerent, openly refusing to cooperate with anything, and usually threw in what his worried Mom called ‘locker room’ talk. Use your imagination!
    So- there they were in the cereal aisle. Brian wanted a specific kind, and it wasn’t on the shopping list. No one else liked it, and there was literally no money to spare this week- which had already been discussed clearly.
    Trouble ensued. Mom consciously kept her cool even though she was running on hot. She reminded everyone that there was no wiggle room on the shopping list for extra requests. Brian would have none of it, and immediately everyone in Aisle 7 along with many others knew it! Parents with younger kids scattered as the now Rated R scene in the cereal aisle escalated dramatically.
    The Kaleb Kids all knew that Mom reminded them frequently in ordinary conversation that she was not going to argue with anyone. She said that there are enough wars in the world and she didn’t need them in her own family so she always said, “I’m not going to argue with anybody because that only gets everyone more emotional’. So until the specific Kaleb kid had settled down she always just said over and over as soothingly as she could, “I hear you.” “I know it’s hard.” “I’ll wait.” She was a big believer in respecting the fact that kids of all ages need to have their emotions, and they show them in various ways and lengths of time.
    Today was just the same, but when she realized that Aisle 7 now resembled a ‘locker room’, she said to the other kids,” Get ready. We might need to take a break outside. If we do, please stay with me. We can just leave the cart. We’ll come back another time, and try again.” If this were to happen, she would certainly shower the cooperators with praise for their courageous choice.
    There could be multiple outcomes to this all too familiar scene including: Taking the baby and Paul to another close by location and checking back, just waiting, moving to the end of the aisle while checking back in-and out- with Brian, or sadly leaving the cart even though the longed for popsicles would melt, but the important thing is that Mom had a respectful, clear plan in place when there was an Escalation, and she was ready to follow through calmly even though she was boiling inside. She avoided like the plague phrases that even resembled “Stop it ! Why are you acting like this? We already discussed this so why are you acting up?” Mom drew the line!
    There will always be various scenes when kids of all ages have Big emotions, but it is important for adults to find ways to avoid the traps because it is useless to try to problem-solve when anyone is upset. Waiting until everyone is calm, moving on, and re-connecting with each other are the top priorities, and adults are the only ones who can make that happen. No pressure!


    Image Credit: Jean Hamburg

    Image Credit: Jean Hamburg

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW


    In every parent world lurks the possibility of the Dreaded Meltdown.  These always uncomfortable scenes happen under the best or worst of circumstances.  They can be predicted or come as a complete surprise.  Meltdowns show no favoritism regarding age, temperament or location so here are some tips to not only survive, but even to thrive.


    At the top of every adult wish list is for the meltdown to stop.  Actually, they always do, so that wish is granted-over varying lengths of time.  The trick is getting to that longed for goal while still maintaining some sense of adult dignity, not inadvertently making things worse, and preserving the relationship with our at that time unreasonable any age child.


    Tip #1:  Consider the top goal as moving through the trouble, and getting back on normal track. Some parents insist that a meltdown is over and done when the kids learn a lesson, apologize, and even promise never to……..again for the rest of their entire life. This is simply not reasonable or effective.


    Tip#2:  Timing is everything. Consider the no expectations if either the child or adult is ‘upset’ plan.   Adults can easily inadvertently escalate the already ‘on the edge’ child of any age. “Young man- pick up that shirt you just threw!” “Don’t talk to me like that!”, “I can’t believe you’re acting like this. Stop it right now!”


    Tip #3:  Replace with safe phrases like “I hear you.”  “I know.”  “I’ll wait.”  And ‘clear the area’ by encouraging other kids to play elsewhere because there is no limit to who can easily fuel the ‘fire’.


    Tip #4:  Periodically offer a hug or a snack, t.v,  or an option to call a friend, etc.  If the goal is to get through the trouble then offering an ‘ending’ is a wise way to go.


    Tip#5:  No problem is ever solved when someone is upset.  It is a known fact that the exact opposite is true.  Score another reason for the goal to be to move through the trouble time


    Tip#6:  Reconnect emotionally with the previously in meltdown mode child of any age.  Re-connecting happens at another time when everyone is calm.  This is the most important part of every relationship-finding the peaceful places together, enjoying the calm after the trouble, moving on, and getting back to enjoying each other .


    Appreciating the rainbow is far preferable to staying stuck in the storm.


    Thumbs up

    image credit: jw_nerd

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    Although it is tempting to send the kids to time out if one is at home, or just leave when one is in public, other methods can be considered.

    Time-out means many things to many people including:
    “I’ve had it.” “Take some space and think about it.”’
    “Let me know when you’re ready to behave.” “Learn the lesson.”
    All of the above and many more.

    Actually, when kids are acting up it is usually a red flag of some sort. Often the red flag is a mystery, but at other times very clear as in when kids of any age cannot get their way!

    When adult ‘outbursts’ join with kid ones then Even More Trouble is alive and well.

    No one of any age usually comes up with solutions to problems when emotions are running on high; therefore it is up to the adults to set the tone.

    What if the goal of a time-out would be for adults and kids to just take a break and move on? This kind of break can mean a lot less stress for everyone!

    After all, the real goal of every relationship is to get through the trouble and enjoy each other as much and as often as possible!

    Turning Around Trouble

    September 18th, 2015
    Image Credit: Deana Zabaldo

    Image Credit: Deana Zabaldo

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    All parents have been there. Kids of all ages just won’t cooperate. Caring parents buy multiple parenting books, and read them! Groups are researched, and attended. Book clubs spring up in order to put experienced parental heads together for solutions to problems in the dreaded category of TROUBLE.


    It is a well known fact that kids of all ages usually do not find that problem-solving in the Trouble area is of much interest to them. Typically Trouble Times remain until there is a miracle, and that could take a very long time.


    Parents diligently search for new ‘scripts’. This is tried, that is tried, and still there is Terrible Trouble. Sometimes weary adults slip into the land of getting worn down. At the very least, this usually gives double messages to kids who are masters at going for the goal of getting what they want.


    Sometimes complicated challenges can have simple solutions and in the Trouble department this often has to do with changing the mood.


    TICKLING: Tickling is an under used technique in parental bags of tricks. Children younger than two and Much Older have been known to decide to stop jumping on an illegal couch, eat something green, brush teeth that have turned a frightening color, put shoes AND socks on their own feet minus the wail of ‘I can’t do it’, start homework, or help a sibling.

    CHASING: When a child of any age is determined NOT to cooperate, and if an adult will not need a medic from a certain amount of exertion, inviting the refuser to a game of chase can turn into just that – a game changer.


    WAITING: Sometimes just waiting can be pretty powerful. This, however, needs to be done minus adult anger or ‘I give up’. The script for waiting needs to lend a sense that the adult is in adult mode. This does not mean in a Captain of the Ship or ‘You’ve got me. I give up’ tone. Instead, “This is just not working out for me right now. I’m going to take a break, and we can try to work this out when we’re both more calm”.


    SILLINESS: When a child is stuck in a less than pleasant place, being silly is easy as well as a whole lot of fun. Adults with many different personalities from serious to silly have been known to, in the middle of what sounds suspiciously like an Argument ,drop onto all 4’s and pretend to be a kitten.


    When kids of all ages plant their symbolic feet into the land of “I won’t! You can’t make me!” it is time for a new script. Changing the mood is a must.


    Tickling, chasing, waiting, and silliness are available in an instant, can be loads of fun, and they don’t cost a thing. That’s what I call a bargain!

    Image Credit: Erica Feliciano

    Image Credit: Erica Feliciano

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    Kids of all ages can get pretty determined when they don’t get what they want, and all kinds of trouble can emerge in the blink of an eye.

    The Basen kids, ages four to fifteen, all loved bologna and inhaled incredible amounts of it. Their Mom couldn’t imagine it being nutritious, but everybody begged for bologna, and if it wasn’t produced in bulk, the ensuing scenes were loud and exhausting.

    All of the Basen kids had perfected ways to try to wear down their poor Mom who just wanted to make sure that her kids had a decent chance at being healthy. Whining, wailing, begging, tears, tantrums, and refusing to eat ANYTHING unless there was bologna included were common scenes. Mom used a variety of strategies to try to settle down the troops—all to no avail.

    Then she had an AHA moment and this is what she decided to do:

    Every time the kids decided to make a good choice in areas completely unrelated to the longed-for bologna came the high fives, thumbs up, hugs, cheering, and amazement about their courage and bravery. She found that there were actually many chances for her to be amazed if someone decided to come in on time, put their bowl in the sink even when they ordinarily hated such a chore, decide to put on pj’s, even when that was the last thing on any list of fun, when one of the kids helped a sibling, was thoughtful about letting someone else go first, and so on.

    Mom trained herself to catch the kids making good choices even with things that they usually did very well.

    Then came the time to enter the challenging Land of Bologna.
    She decided to spend some special time with each child, and shared that she REALLY UNDERSTOOD how that child longed for bologna. She wanted each of her children to know that she REALLY UNDERSTOOD, and how hard it was to have limits on the (to them) tasty stuff. She shared how she had noticed how each child had proven how brave and courageous they were about deciding to make good choices, like deciding to put the mustard away even when they didn’t want to.

    Then she shared The New Bologna Plan that included getting a package of bologna on Mondays for each child. On each package was their name in indelible marker. They could eat it all at once or one piece at a time, but when it was gone, it was gone and there would be another package the following Monday.

    She even gave the kids information about what the plan would be if they decided to ‘help themselves’ to another person’s package. If that happened, everyone’s bologna would be kept in their neighbor’s refrigerator and would ‘come home’ at certain times—with ‘supervision’. The neighbor had agreed. Mom even gave them a few days to get used to the idea before the plan would start.

    When anyone ‘objected’, she understood how hard it would be to be limited in the previously in-bulk format of the beloved bologna.

    The kids knew the plan. It started in three days so they could get used to idea and complain if they wanted. Mom understood.

    Over time, the bologna did (sadly) need to travel next door, but mostly it stayed in the Basen refrigerator, and no matter what, Mom was sympathetic but unyielding. Eventually, bologna took its proper place in the Basen kids’ diets, their food choices expanded, bologna related scenes faded, and it all worked out just fine!

    Family fun in pool

    Image Credit: eLLen

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    This is a classic parental lament.


    Kids tend to hear perfectly well when it’s time to get ice cream, but when it’s time to get out of the pool they suddenly become deaf.


    The problem can be incredibly complicated. The solution can be simple if adults are armed with a few tools and a plan.


    Ten year old Jeb loved to swim, and Mom did everything she could to set him up for success. Each time before they went to their friend’s pool, they agreed on the pool rules, which included a time warning before the anticipated departure from the perfect pool. The sad truth is that agreeing is easy when a child is on dry land.


    Things usually went delightfully well until the agreed-upon time warnings. Then Jeb acted like he had never seen or heard of the person who had, until that moment, been known to him as his Mom. As a matter of fact, he purposely swam across to the deep end and couldn’t or didn’t hear a thing she was saying


    The easiest response for poor Mom could have been to scream at him that if he didn’t get out of the pool he would likely not see one for the rest of the summer—or for that matter, for the rest of his natural life. Usually, this is ineffective.


    Indeed, there might be a written accounting of The Awful Afternoon When Jeb Wouldn’t Get Out of the Pool, and there might be a consequence, or the whole ugly matter could disappear from everyone’s radar screen, and hope for the best the next time.


    No matter what, it is a good idea to at least listen to kid accounts, even if it is VERY different from the truth. Connecting with the kids and including them in solving the problem has more of a chance to improve the next pool scene than punishing them in ways that place the Bad Guy Hat on parental heads; this will only make everyone mad at each other, which usually causes things to be worse. Consider:


    Mom (calmly) at another time when nothing was going on: “I’m really curious: The other day we agreed that when it was time to get out of Ginger’s pool, even if you didn’t want to, you said you would. What happened?”


    Jeb (not calmly): “You never gave me time warnings. And I was only in the pool for a few minutes. It’s just not fair. You’re always doing that. You never even let me have a good time. I actually don’t care if I never see another pool again!”


    It’s tempting to head for letting our adult emotions get the best of us with “Don’t talk to me that way young man!” or “That is most definitely NOT the way it went, and you know it!” A brief break here might help, and then consider:


    Mom (in the it’s not easy, but it’s right mode): “I hear you, Jeb. How can we make it better for everyone next time? We both want the pool fun to happen.”


    Including the kids in problem-solving often helps. Avoiding the tempting traps of needing the real story or teaching the lesson of obeying pool rules again and again can lead to hard feelings towards each other. A safer way could be to stay connected with the kids and move on.


    After all, having fun in the pool with our kids is really the goal. Let the splashing begin!

    About Accountability

    June 16th, 2015
    accountability sign

    Image Credit: United Workers

    By Jean Hamburg, LICSW

    Accountability is a fact of life, but in parenting land the concept turns out to be a complicated one. Just for starters, there is the age factor.
    Accountability for a 2 year old is very different than for a 17 year old, and that includes all of the ages in between.

    Many parents believe that kids need to ‘learn their lesson’. In order to make sure that deed gets done some of the usual go-to methods might include punishments, lectures about right and wrong, explaining (often multiple times), eliciting apologies, and repeating the offense along with an acceptable do-over explanation to top the list.

    Others believe exactly the opposite-that the way children learn to behave well—to make the right choices- is to help them along by gentle reminders, encouragement to do the right thing, and to cheer them on.

    There, of course, is no one correct way, but it is important to be ever aware of how adults get messages across in ways that will be respectful to children of every age.

    Scene 1

    Justin, age 4 has lied. There is no getting around the fact that he DID hide his green beans under the table, but to hear his version he had nothing to do with those green things under there. Never mind there were 4 witnesses. Justin sticks to his story.

    Justin’s parents may find it tempting to use the “Don’t lie to me young man” approach, and threaten to leave him behind when they go to the pool if he doesn’t tell the truth-now!

    Another approach (among many) could be to let it go for now, and at another time when everyone is comfortable use the “I’m so curious. What was that all about when you decided to say that you didn’t put the green beans under the table. I’m thinking you didn’t want to eat them. What do you think?” Next could come listening :”Oh, I see. Now I get it. You REALLY didn’t want to eat them. Well, let’s see what you decide next time. Someday you might like to give it a try. We’ll see.”

    Scene 2

    Mary, age 12, has gone to the mall with her best friend even though her parents specifically told her that she could enjoy being with her friend, but under no circumstance did she have permission to go to the Mall. But Mary did go, and not only that, she told her friend’s mother that it was perfectly fine for her to do so.

    Mary’s parents could ground her ‘forever’, or they could choose to wait until everyone was calm, and notice the issue, and ask Mary to tell them about her decision to go. Respectful listening can keep everyone emotionally connected and more in the mood to problem-solve reasonably- minus punishing, and a consequence is very different from a punishment. If the consequence for this poor choice is not done in anger, and when it is over it is over, that heads for accountability.

    These scenes and many like them strike terror in the heart of well meaning parents who just want their kids to tell the truth, and do what they are told.

    Deciding how to handle any kid-issue is challenging when adult emotions are added to the situation but no matter what direction accountability takes, calm adults and kids have a better chance at a healthier resolution. Waiting for everyone to be settled is the way to go even though it is tempting to ‘take care of the problem right now’. We tell the kids to ‘stop and think’, and it turns out that’s pretty good advice. Settling an issue with kindness and compassion while staying emotionally connected to our children of any age has a chance for a better outcome. Lying about green beans and trying to get away with something is important, but in the long run problem-solving in peaceful, kind ways is what really matters.

    Contact Jean for consultation options at: jeanhamburg@comcast.net __1-877-813-0004

    Cooperation Counts (sm) is a service of Jean Hamburg, LICSW

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