Solve Your Parenting Problems in 5 Steps

I’ve alluded to problem solving skills a few times in my earlier posts and today is the day we will talk about the steps you can take to actually solve your parenting problems.  A parenting problem can be anything from your child engaging in an undesirable behavior like hitting to you feeling dissatisfied with your own daily parenting routine.  These are basic steps that I used to teach my patients in therapy sessions.  My kindergartener even came home from school with a print-out of these steps.  I’m not comparing you to a psychotic person or a kindergartener, but in your frustrating parenting moments, perhaps you have felt a bit like that?  Have you ever caught yourself in a frustrating parenting moment saying something like, “Well, then you’re not going to get (insert child’s favorite treat or activity) today” without stopping to think about whether that was the best approach to solving the problem?  We all let our emotions get the best of us at times.  Having young children can be stressful and when we’re stressed we tend to overlook the problem solving process, but really taking the time to look more methodically and objectively at a situation can make it much easier to manage.  If you think about how you solve problems in your life when you’re in a more rational mindset, you will probably come up with these steps but most of us haven’t taken the time to step back and examine how we tackle life’s challenges.

We’ve been focussing on sleep lately, so I’m going to teach you the steps using an example of a bedtime problem I encountered with my daughter when she was about 3 1/2 years old.  Any number of acronyms can be used to help you remember the steps: STEP, SCALE, etc.  I’ll use SOLVE:

S: State the problem.  Without adding a lot of emotion to it, define the problem.

In my example, my daughter shared a room with her older brother and they had the same bedtime.  For at least half a year this had been a perfect set-up and they each fell asleep within minutes of tuck-in time.  Then she periodically started having trouble falling asleep and would talk, sing, etc. at bedtime.  There was no obvious pattern for her clearly not being ready for bed at her usual bedtime but it would happen a couple of times a week.  The more this went on, the more disruptive she would get, talking louder, preventing her brother from going to sleep, coming out of her room, etc.  We went from blissful bedtimes to quite a raucous and unpredictable routine.  S: My daughter does not fall asleep at her usual bedtime.

O: Options.  Think of every possible way you could solve this problem, even the ones that seem ridiculous; openly brainstorming just might lead to other great ideas or at least add a bit of humor to help deter any frustration you’re feeling.

  1. Change her bedtime
  2. Change her brother’s bedtime
  3. Have them sleep in different rooms
  4. Have mom or dad stay outside the room to intervene quickly when disruption occurs
  5. Have mom or dad stay in the room until she falls asleep
  6. Provide a reward for going to bed on time

L: List the pros and cons of each possible option for solving the problem.

  1. She might be more ready for bed at a later time but she might be overly tired if she still wakes up at the same time; also older brother would not like it if she got to stay up later; also her sleep duration seemed appropriate for her age
  2. Brother could be kept up later allowing sister to fall asleep with less distraction but he tends to wake up at the same time every day so that would leave him sleep-deprived; also that would eat into adult time in the evenings
  3. Baby brother was already in the picture by this point so we could move sister into her own room but then big brother might be woken up in the night by baby brother; also sister loved sharing a room with big brother and wasn’t ready to move to her own room yet
  4. Supervising from the hallway might help if she’s just testing boundaries and isn’t too inconvenient for mom/dad but isn’t a long-term solution
  5. Staying in the bedroom should help stop disruptive behavior but is a bigger adjustment to our normal routine where the kids fall asleep on their own after tuck-in and mom/dad leave the room
  6. She would likely respond to a reward but I tend not to like rewarding a behavior that had been mastered; rather, I tend to reward new behaviors the children are working on mastering then phase out the reward once the behavior is established.

V: (Choose the) Very best one.  Pick the option you think will work best for you and your child.

We chose what seemed like the simplest solution but one that might actually work and I started lingering in the hallway outside their door after tuck-in (option 4) so that I could pop my head in as soon as I heard her talking or climbing out of bed and remind her that it was bedtime and their bodies needed enough rest to be ready for a fun day tomorrow.

E: Evaluate the outcome.  Have you seen the type of progress you were hoping for?  If not, return to the previous step and try a different option, then evaluate the outcome.

Option 4 was clearly not the right approach for her.  Many nights she would go right to sleep or need 1 reminder but others she would be relentlessly energetic and clearly not ready for bed.  So we tried option 6.  Then option 5.  Then option 1; even with a later bedtime, she still had restless bedtimes on some nights.  Then option 2; we would put her to sleep first and that seemed to help a little, but she still had those nights where she would be up for a long time past bedtime so then her brother was kept up too late.  Then option 3; we would put him to sleep in our bed and move him into his after she fell asleep.  Trying out all of these options took a couple of months and by that time we were very ready for our easy bedtimes to return but out of options.  So, we went all the way back to the second problem-solving step: Options and came up with a new list of options to try.  This time I consulted with trusted mom friends and gained some great insight about how since having younger brother, our bedtime routine had changed a bit so we normalized that as much as we could.  But still, she had these occasional nights of wakefulness, until it hit me one day as we were driving around in the afternoon and she fell asleep, that perhaps the little catnaps she snuck in once or twice a week could be disrupting her nighttime sleep.  She had stopped napping regularly but if we happened to be out later in the afternoon, she would still fall asleep in the car.  The wakeful nights weren’t always on these nap days, but I thought perhaps the accumulated sleep from those naps was affecting her sleep schedule.  I started actively keeping her from falling asleep in the car and just like magic our easy bedtimes were back in action.  Although cutting out these car naps was the most helpful thing, we had noticed the benefit of staggered bedtimes; plus, by cutting out these occasional car naps she was more tired than usual at bedtime and benefitted from an earlier bedtime than her brother.  And that was the beginning of our 15-minute staggered bedtime between children.

This was a particularly difficult problem to solve which required several passes through the SOLVE steps, some good brainstorming sessions with other moms, and continued brainstorming that lead to the “Ah ha!” moment where I realized the car naps might be the culprit and added cutting out car naps to the “Options” list.  If you use the steps to guide you and have perseverance, even the toughest parenting problems can be solved.

These steps are great to teach your kids too!  They encounter problems daily, especially in their interactions with friends and siblings.  Teach your kids these steps to help them solve their own problems.  Instead of running to break-up every fight between the kids at our house, I’ll often holler, “Be a problem solver!” to help inspire them to work through their own problems using the same techniques I do.

When It’s Time for Co-Sleeping to End

Today I had the pleasure of helping a friend who would like to have her 5 and 8 year-old boys start sleeping in their own beds.  Presently the boys share a bed with mom and dad.  Co-sleeping offers all sorts of benefits and is very common in the younger years but there comes a time for all children when they need to learn to sleep separately from their parents.  This family has made a few attempts to transition the boys to their own room in the past but for the most part, the boys spend every night sleeping alongside their parents.  This gives me a great opportunity to introduce the psychology concept of implementing a Behavior Change Plan.  Even if co-sleeping isn’t an issue in your family, this is an incredibly useful tool for your parenting arsenal.

Step 1: Identify the Target Behavior

In this case, the behavior is co-sleeping.  With other behaviors, it is helpful to do some monitoring of the behavior and analyzing the situations in which the behavior occurs before moving on to the next step.  This behavior is pretty straight-forward: The boys sleep with mom and dad every night.

Step 2: Set a Goal.  Goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-limited)

In this scenario, the goal is to have the 2 boys sleep all night in their own bedroom.  There will be no more sleeping in mom and dad’s room.  Co-sleeping is firmly entrenched in their daily routine so we decided a gradual transition would be more manageable and set a goal of 1 month for the transition.  A quick single-night transition is Realistic but perhaps not Attainable for this family so we modified the goal by giving them more time to make it SMART.

Step 3: Identify Potential Obstacles

This is a family-wide Behavior Change Plan so 4 people have to be fully on-board with the program developed.  Mom would be alright with co-sleeping continuing longer because although the boys are getting big for the family bed, she does get a good night’s sleep with them.  Dad is the major motivator for making the transition but mom realizes that the timing is reasonable.  The older son is fine with either option.  The younger son is less motivated to change.  So looking ahead, we can foresee that there may be difficult moments when the younger son is upset with the change and mom may be tempted to revert to the family bed.  The whole family should sit down and discuss the plan below before initiating change so everyone knows what to expect.  If the boys question the change, a simple statement like, “Mom and dad have decided it’s time for you two to start sleeping in your own beds” will suffice without making it a big discussion.  Mom will have to remind herself throughout the process that she has committed to this transition and that there will be benefits to having the boys in their own room (more independence for mom and dad and night, more intimacy between them as a couple, the boys gaining a sense of independence and perhaps even strengthening their bond, etc. ).  Dad will play an important role in supporting mom throughout this process.

Other practical barriers exist too.  There’s a dust mite allergy involved so mom had to do some prep work to get the boys’ beds in working order.  Also, the boys are used to a single bed so even though the twin beds are pushed together in their bedroom, mom is going to look for one of those foam connectors you can put between the mattresses to create the appearance of a single bed.  The boys are happy to cuddle together still so by supporting that behavior in the new bedroom, we ease the transition away from mom and dad’s bedroom.

Step 4: Develop A Plan

Week 1: Co-Sleeping in Mom & Dad’s Room.  We decided to schedule 1 more week of co-sleeping to make sure that mom didn’t feel rushed into the behavior change, to allow everyone another week to be mindful of this experience before it ends, and to get the bedroom set-up just right for the big transition.

Week 2: Co-Sleeping in the Boys’ Room.  Now we take dad out of the situation and have just mom fall asleep with the boys in their new bedroom and sleep with them all night.  This gives the boys a chance to get used to sleeping in their own room but with the comfort of mom they’re used to.  This week will begin on a Friday to be sure we minimize any sleep disruption on school nights.  Dad will miss mom for one week but when he gets her back, it will be just the 2 of them, finally.

Week 3: Co-Sleeping at the Start of the Night.  Again starting on a Friday, mom will fall asleep with the boys but when she wakes during the night, she will quietly move out of the bedroom and sleep in her own room.  Mom may be a little more tired this week so Dad should be ready with that support and encouragement.  Mom anticipates the boys will cuddle after she leaves and will be fine for the rest of the night.  If either boy gets up and comes to mom and dad’s room, mom will walk them back to their room and remind the boys that they have each other to cuddle and that mom will give them a big snuggle in the morning.  This is where mom really needs to commit to the plan, even if the younger boy is upset over the change.  She can remind him, “It’s time for you to sleep in your own bed and your brother is there to keep you company.”

Week 4: Snuggles with Mom at Bedtime.  Mom will snuggle with the boys in bed for a few minutes but before anyone falls asleep, she will say goodnight and quietly move out of the room and sleep in her own room.  Again, if at any point during the night the boys enter her room, they will be walked back to their room.

Step 5: Reward Progress.  If mom and dad stick by their decision that this transition is for the good of the family overall and that this is the right time to make the change, praise and daytime snuggles are all that’s necessary to get this plan to work.  Some people prefer to use more incentives to motivate change, anything from dessert to points that accumulate toward the purchase of a toy.  The utility of incentives depends a great deal on the specific child.  Anticipating the worst case scenario of the 5 year-old waking up mom in the middle of the night and crying that he wants to get back in her bed, mom can think about whether he would respond to additional incentives and if so, plan that out in advance.  Otherwise, she’ll just be ready with a loving but firm redirection back into his room and the promise of a big hug in the morning.

Step 6: Revisit & Revise.  Hopefully in one month, those boys will be happily sleeping in their own bedroom and mom and dad will be enjoying more time to themselves in the evening.  They’ll even be able to start planning date nights since the new sleeping arrangement will allow for a babysitter.  But it’s possible that some unforeseen obstacle will pop-up during the transition that will need to be addressed and that is no problem.  We’ll just rework the plan taking into consideration the changes and keep working toward that goal.

Looking down the road, there may be exceptions to the rule that we need to plan for.  For example, what if one of the boys is sick and asks mom to sleep with them.  Or what if they’re camping and all sleep together, then the boys expect that again when they get home?  My suggestion is to always try to stay as close to the goal behavior as possible.  So, if the child is sick, sleep in their room but try to keep away from inviting them back into your room.  If you go camping, when you get home just remind them, “At home we sleep in our own beds, but we’ll look forward to sleeping together again on our next camping trip.”

Can you think of a behavior you want to change in your own family?  Try out this Behavior Change Plan and become your own mommy psychologist.

Bedtime Routines

Yesterday a dear friend asked my advice on managing her tired 10 year-old who gets “tanky” – tired and cranky.  I gave her some quick on-the-spot advice and will elaborate more below, but I just have to take a second to enjoy this landmark event.  I’ve been saying for years and years whenever people ask me what I plan to do when my kids are all in school or ask what aspect of psychology I plan to return to (clinical, research, teaching, consulting), that one day I want to write a book on parenting and psychology and later parlay that into a little consulting career for parents of young children.  People often ask me parenting questions and I’ve enjoyed answering them individually and now that I’ve got this blog up and running, it’s the first step to sharing my tips with a larger audience.  Exciting stuff!

Back to the topic at hand: What to do with a tired child.  This topic is so large I’m going to initially divide it into 4 posts (Bedtime Routine, Bed Time, Sleep Hygiene, and Bedtime Sneakiness) with much more to come on sleep training after that.  As a quick preface to bedtime routines, I must highlight the fact that well-rested kids and well-rested parents are primed for success.  When either party gets tired, parent-child interactions suffer.  Sleep is incredibly important.

Now on to routines: I cannot stress enough the importance of routine in your child’s life.  Children thrive on consistency and predictability; it helps them to navigate through all the changes they are experiencing physically and the new learning experiences they encounter daily.  I will talk more about daily routines in future posts.  Today we’ll focus on bedtime which is arguably the most important part of those routines.  Bedtime routines are not just for kids; they’re an important for adults too and are part of our next psychology lesson: Sleep Hygiene.  This refers not just to how cleanly you are for bed but how your entire sleep routine and environment are set-up and whether they’re conducive with getting a good night’s sleep.  Bedtime routines are just the first aspect of sleep hygiene we’ll discuss.

I think of the bedtime routine as everything that happens after dinner.  After clearing plates and wiping up any crumbs that spilled off of their plates, my kids head straight to picking out their clothes for the next day then off to bath or shower.  Then it’s time for pajamas, hair brushing, dental floss and toothbrushing, then off to story time.  Usually Dad reads because he has not spent as much time with them during the day and I start tackling the dishes and making lunches for the next day so all that gets done before that last child goes to bed and we still have some time to ourselves in the evening.  Each child gets to pick at least one story before bed, more if I got dinner on the table early enough and if bath time goes smoothly.  The number of books is made clear at the start of story time to avoid any later negotiations and the child with the earliest bedtime gets to pick first.  After their story, that child says goodnight to their siblings and Dad and I walk them back for “final potty” and tuck-in (which is a quick event) while Dad gets the next child’s story started.  Then we repeat the process 3 more times before Mom & Dad go off-duty for the night.

It’s the same thing almost every night.  The kids are almost always asleep within minutes of being tucked-in.  I love hearing babysitters say, “The kids went to bed so easily, it was a breeze.”  And grandparents say they’re happy to watch the kids for date night because they’re so well-trained at bedtime.  Having a reliable bedtime routine benefits you and your children.  Yours can be totally different than mine as long as it’s consistent and involves getting them into “calm and quiet” mode to be primed for sleep.  Our routine has changed slightly over the years; for example, we used to read in their beds but after the 3rd child that got a little cramped so now we read in the living room.

Now of course there are going to be some times when the routine is modified.  For example, if we go swimming and shower earlier in the day we skip bath and go straight to pajamas.  Or if we go out to dinner and service is slow and we return home too late to fit in a bath without sacrificing bedtime, as long as they’re not horribly filthy we’ll skip bath.  I let them know the plan on the drive home from the restaurant and remind them as we walk in the door, then off they go to quickly get pajamas on to still have time for a story – unless we’re super late and that needs to be skipped too.  The beauty of a reliable bedtime routine is that the kids can go with the flow for an odd night here and there because they are comforted by the knowledge that the routine will be back the next day.