Reader call: Vacation spots for toddlers

And now for something completely different. Nina writes:

"My 4-year-old has spring break from his preschool the first week of April. I was wondering if you and your readers could suggest good places to go on vacation with my son and our 11-month-old daughter. She’s crawling but not walking yet. We live in the northeastern USA, so we’d prefer something a little warmer than what we’re experiencing now. I’d also be happy to take suggestions for a kid-friendly vacation spot during the summer. Thanks!"

This is a fun question. I’d suggest Puerto Rico because you’re in the NE and it’s a relatively short flight. (3-4 hours, depending on where you fly from). The island is beautiful and, IME, very kid-friendly because everyone just welcomes kids as part of daily life. Fried appetizers and frozen desserts are everywhere, and babies seem to love mofongo, so your kids will eat. I’d recommend going to El Yunque (the tropical rainforest) as the trails as short and easily do-able with a 4-year-old and a baby in a backpack, Luquillo Beach (very very shallow grade into the water), El Fortaleza (cool history and a big wide green space to run around on) and the art museum (well-curated, great collection of Puerto Rican art from colonial times through the poster movement throough modern scene sculptures). It’s easily manageable for non-Spanish speakers.

There’s also Florida, which I don’t really have to talk up to anyone, and the Carolina coast. Anyone else want to play?

Q&A: 3-year-old freakouts

Continuing with the theme of aggressive behavior…

In the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten half a dozen emails from parents concerned about 3-year-olds and truly agressive behavior, from screaming fits to hitting and attacking other kids and adults, to self-mutilation.

Now remember that I’m no expert. I only go by the things I’ve tried and seen work or not with my kids and all the other parents I talk to (including you all in the comments and by email). I do believe that you know your own child best, and that careful observation is a parent’s best friend. So let me break down the things that I’ve observed seem to make 3-year-olds into strange tantruming fiends.

Stuff they’re ingesting. Occasionally I’ll get an email from a parent describing a child who seems to be completley unable to contrl his or her out-of-control behavior. Discipline and even outright punishments don’t work, and the child seems to be held a prisoner of his or her outbursts. It’s as if the kid has no ability to stop.

To me that indicates that there is something physical going on that is making the child act this way. (If you’ve ever been in pain for a prolonged period, you get what I mean. So much of your energy is going into dealing with the pain that you just have no control over the rest of you, adn you can be pretty vicious with other people.) SInce it’s doubtful that your child has suddenly developed some strange illness, I’d take a look at what’s going into your child’s mouth.

By the age of 3, most kids are not under their parents’ control at all times anymore. Any hope you had of controlling everything that goes into your kid’s mouth is completely out the window. Either they’re at daycare or preschool eating who-knows-what, or with a babysitter or adult relative (who may be feeding them candy or other treats) or at playdates with other kids. That means there’s plenty of opportunity for your child to be eating things with artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and MSG. You’re going to ahve to be a real detective to figure out if your kid’s eating this kind of stuff. If s/he is, enlist the help of the other adults you child interacts with to go cold turkey on that stuff for 2-3 weeks to see if it helps. For some kids it seems to be a huge factor in negative behavior, and ocne their systems are clear of the chemicals they gain control of the actions like any other 3-year-old has (which is to say in a limited by improving way).

Transitions. Normally we think of transitions as being a problem for young toddlers ("Say goodbye to the trains"), but it hits 3-year-olds, too. Maybe even more so, because now they’re able to really be absorbed in an activity, and also to know what’s going to happen next. If you have a 3-year-old who’s having problems with transitions, try to build more time into your schedule to cushion the transition time. Maybe get to preschool/daycare pickup a few minutes early so you have time to sit down and play for 5 minutes with your child before it’s time to put on coats and go home. Develop some ritual that the child can look forward to as soon as you leave school, so there’s something positive to go toward. Talk about how hard it is to leave or switch activities. Whatever you end up doing, validate your child’s feelings, because that will help him or her feel more open about talking to you about what’s making him/her so upset. More talking means less acting out.

Loss of control. It’s still such a big issue for this age. Hey, who am I kidding? It’s still an issue for most 50-year-olds I know, so how could it not be for a 3-year-old? They still ahve no control over most aspects of their lives, from when they wake up to where they go to whether they have to share their parents with a younger sibling. It’s enough to really just piss a person off and make her want to throw something or bite someone. Giving kids as much choice as you can (with what they wear, what they eat from two or three options, what music you listen to in the car, who they invite over to play, what games to play after supper, etc.) the easier this will be for them. That might cut down on the tantrums.

Problems dealing with scary emotions. This is just a variation of loss of control, but it’s different because the loss of control is coming from inside themselves. Kids (yeah, adults, too) have problems managing and processing big emotions. It’s good for your child to have big emotions, even negative scary ones. You’ll help your child accept and manage those emotions by giving them the vocabulary to talk through them. Keep on talking your child through the tantrums and feelings, even if your child seems to be verbal enough to do it themselves. "You’re feeling really angry because you couldn’t stay at Jack’s house. It makes you mad!" Helping them give a name to the feelings is going to validate those feelings and also release some of the need to use violence to express them. Eventually you can help your child think of ways to feel better, like making a plan to go back to Jack’s house in a few weeks, or playing with Play-Dough when you get home, or something like that.

Those are the big things I can think of for this age. Anyone else either in this phase or past it who’s noticed something else? Anyone just want to commiserate about how challenging 3 can be for both child and parents?

Q&A: aggressive behavior in babies and toddlers

HS writes:

"I have a  2 year 8 month old boy who is very active. He
also goes to a daycare in our neighborhood and he had been bitten twice in the
back by some other 2 year old. When I asked about it the daycare director told
me that I should not worry because that’s the way 2yr olds defends
themselves.  I really don’t like seen ugly bite marks on my
son.  Can you suggest a way in which I could tell the director to make
sure that won’t happen again?

She also told me that because my son did not say anything
they were not able to catch the accident on time.  I want to make sure
that these ladies who are watching over my kid do their job."

Huh? "That’s the way 2-year-olds defend themselves?" So that means that they just let the biting go on without attempting to stop it? Interesting logic. So they’d think it was appropriate if you punched the mother of the other kid in the face, because that’s how parents defend their kids? Somehow I don’t think so.

There are two truths about emotions in children: 1) There’s nothing wrong with having angry or frustrated or aggressive or other negative feelings. It’s a part of being human, and we should worry about kids who never feel free to express anything negative. The only problem is expressing them in inappropriate ways. 2) One of the most important jobs adults have with regards to children is helping them learn how to manage their emotions, especially the big and scary ones.

It sounds like those daycare providers are taking too much of point #1 to heart, and thinking the kids are magically going to learn to do point #2 on their own, without adult guidance. But how could they? Kids don’t learn to talk without hearing any other people talking. Doing something as complex as managing their emotions is far more difficult, so it requires even more adult guidance.

There are several components to teaching kids to manage their emotions. The first is setting boundaries so the child knows what’s acceptable and what’s not. That should start as early as a child starts to show negative behavior. Some kids are as young as 6 months when they start scratching or hitting, and right around 9 months to a year is a super-common time for that whacking in the face, stealing of the glasses, pulling hair, etc. that many of us have experienced with our kids.

Setting boundaries (especially for kids that age, but really for anyone of any age you’re setting boundaries with) doesn’t mean being mean or punitive. It just means making it abundantly clear what’s acceptable and what’s not. How you do it depensd on your particular child and what motivates him/her. For example, my older one does not respond well to verbal cues (despite the fact that he talks all the livelong day–go figure) and has always needed me to physically intervene to show him the boundaries. So when he was teeny and bit me while nursing, I’d scream (just because it hurt) and then unlatch him and put him out of reach so he couldn’t nurse anymore right then. When he was older and pulling hair, I’d tell him No but also pick him up and put him across the room so he couldn’t touch me. When he was biting other kids at age 2, I’d watch for it and before he bit I’d put my hand between his shark teeth and the other child and guide his head away and off somewhere else to distract him. My second one responds much more to verbal cues (and he’s not anywhere near as verbal himself as his brother was at this age) so I use more of the "you can do this, you cannot do that" kind of talk with him.

While you’re setting the boundaries, it’s important to talk the kid through those boundaries to help the child get that tape in their head. Have you ever heard a little kid looking at a temptation and saying something like "I not touch that" as they look longingly at that thing? That’s exactly what you want to happen, that the kid develops an internal dialogue about what they should and shouldn’t do. So when you’re working on not hitting you, you should be saying something about not hitting people but hitting a pillow instead. When you’re working on not snatching toys out of a younger sibling’s hand, you should be repeating "Find something to trade him!" to get that tape playing in his head. It’s not going to make a change overnight, but it does get the pattern established of positive self-talk and rehearsing actions before you do them.

The other two components that are very important in helping kids manage negative emotions are distraction and giving them healthy subsititutes. Distraction has to be the single most useful discipline tool ever, because it breaks the immediate pattern and stops the negative behavior. It also gives you enough time to think about what’s happening and act instead of react when you figure out what to do next. Sometimes the bad behaviorwas just a fluke, and you don’t ahve to do anything else, because the distraction took care of it.

But for things that are consistnent or show that a kid really can’t manage some emotions (and I’d definitely put biting, hitting, and pushing in that category), you need to give them a healthy subsititute. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry, aggressive, or frustrated. You absolutely want to make sure your child experiences those emotions without feeling like they’re something to be hidden, because in order to be a healthy adult you need to be able to process and accept your own emotions. Be very clear that the problem isn’t feleing angry, it’s biting another person in anger. To that and, you can give the child something productive to do with the negative energy. We gave my older son a braided dog chew toy (a new one I bought just for him) and when he felt like biting, he bit that. Some kids carry around special pillows that they hit when they feel like hitting someone. I’ve seen some parents get their children to run around the room for 10 minutes or hop up and down to release that physical energy.

By giving your kid a substitute to help them expend negative energy, you’re setting up their ability to consciously manage their emotions. The hope is that as teens and adults they’ll be able to think, "I feel really horrible and like I want to punch someone. Let me go out and run 2 miles instead, or scrub out the bathtub, or go down into the basement and hit the punching bag, or go over to the dojo and see if anyone wil spar with me." They’ll know how to channel that energy into something neutral (if not actually helpful) instead of turning to hurting other people or themselves.

OK. HS, if you’re still with me, what I’m getting at is that this is a serious issue, and you are totally right to be concerned about the non-response from your daycare director, both for your own son’s sake and also for the biter’s sake. There are several things here that concern me:

1) Is their ratio of staff to kids so low that they just simply cannot keep on top of what’s going on with the kids?

2) Are they not sensitive enough to the kids to realize that the biter needs a little extra attention and guidance?

3) How can they not realize that allowing your son to get bitten is not acceptable and is a serious liability? You’d think they’d at least be worried about the potential lawsuit, if nothing else.

I think you need to go in and sit down with the director and express to her that this is a huge concern for your son’s safety, and that they need to think seriously about their procedures for ensuring the safety of each child. Emphasize that this is a safety issue, not just a "kids being kids" issue. Then express your concern that the staff doesn’t know how to help the kids manage their emotions and are letting situations get out of hand. You might suggest the idea of having a biting toy for the biter and helping the caregivers manage the flow of the day so things don’t escalate and get the kids so frustrated that they attack each other.

(Oh, and the part about your son not telling them anything happened? You can’t tell me that a 2 1/2-year-old gets bit hard enough to leave a mark and doesn’t yell in pain. Why was there no caregiver there to hear his cry and figure it out? It’s not your son’s responsibility to report incidents in a detailed and calm manner–he’s a toddler.)

It’s entirely possible that the director won’t have any answer for you. If that’s the case, you may have to think seriously about finding another place for your child where he won’t be in physical danger from other kids. Of course that doesn’t help the other kid who’s biting because he doesn’t know how to deal with his frustration, of any of the other kids in the center, but your primary responsiblity is to your own child.

And do NOT let the director try to sell you the idea that the problem is with the kids. The kids are just trying to fumble their way through all the feelings coursing through their little bodies. Adults have the responsibility to help the kids deal with those feelings.

Anyone have an similar experiences with daycare situations that weren’t being handled appropriately? Any words of advice?

Q&A: charting for birth control while nursing

Susan writes:

"I’ve got one for you.  Is there a way to chart or do any other kind ofnatural birth control while breastfeeding?  I really don’t want to go
back on hormones (swore them off after I went off of them last time),
and we both hate condoms.  That leaves the diaphragm, but I tend to get
UTIs so I’d really like to only have to use it during my fertile
period.  This worked great before we got pregnant with our now-9 month
old (which was planned).  I’d like to do it again.  We didn’t do any
sort of birth control before my period returned, 7 months after giving
birth.  I’m now only breastfeeding about 5 times a day and none at
night, so I know I can’t rely on breastfeeding to prevent ovulation (as
evidenced by the return of my period).  I tried charting, but it’s now
been 2 months and still no second period.  Is there any way I can
predict when I may be fertile again?  Does temping work?  She’s still
awake a lot at night (not feeding) so I violate all kinds of temping
rules even aside from the breastfeeding.  Are we doomed to a roll of
the dice if I don’t want to use the diaphragm every time?  We really
like the spontaneity of not using anything, so suggestions of
alternative forms of birth control are only of limited usefulness.  (We
plan on having another baby eventually, so the old snip-snip isn’t in
the cards yet.)

Thanks for any advice you’ve got."

This is a tough one. I never came up with a good solution for it in the netherworld between having my period come back and having my cycle be regular again. And I was never able to find anything online or in any books about using NFP/FAM addressing this, either.

My feeling is that you’re stuck with the usual suspects (condoms, diaphragm/foam/sponge/etc., or abstinence) if you’re only going for the short-term until your cycle becomes regular again and you can temp. If you want to hold off on pregnancy for another year or more, you could look into getting an IUD put in. There are two on the market right now. Mirena has a hormonal compenent, and the copper IUD does not (so if you’re off hormonal birth control, you’d want to go with the copper). You have to have it inserted and taken out by your provider, and it’s kind of expensive, so it’s better for longer-term birth control. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in, call your provider and ask about it.

Is there anyone out there who knows more about NFP/FAM than I do who can address the issue of knowing if you’re fertile when your cycles aren’t regular again?

(Those of you out there scratching your heads because you have no idea what we’re talking about with "temping" and NFP/FAM and knowing when you’re fertile, welcome to the wide world of learning your body’s signals that tell you when you’re ovulating and when you’re not. If you know when you can get pregnant, you can act accordingly to prevent or initiate pregnancy. NFP stands for Natural Family Planning, which is the family planning method of choice for Roman Catholics*, and involves abstaining from sex during the woman’s fertile times. FAM is Fertility Awareness Method and is the same thing, only it allows for using other forms of birth control [such as condoms] during the woman’s fertile times. NFP/FAM works best for couples in committed relationships, obviously provides no protection against STDs, and takes a couple of months to ramp up into, during which you’ll have to either abstain or use backup birth control methods to avoid pregancy.

To get started, check out the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler, M.P.H. or check out this site on FAM or this site on NFP.

* NFP is NOT "the rhythm method." The rhythm method involves assuming a woman is fertile on day 14 of her cycle and just abstaining right around then. NFP has you watch your own body’s signals to figure out on any given day whether you’re fertile or not, and acting accordingly. The rhythm method has a low rate of effectiveness, while NFP has a rate of between 80-99% effectiveness depending on  how strictly the couple sticks to the guidelines.)

Q&A: eating healthier while keep your child’s weight up

Vickie writes:

"This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while but have delayed asking you about since it seems like a ridiculous question to me!  I should be able to figure it out myself but can’t.

My husband and I are on the wrong side of 30, so we really should be watching what we eat.  He’s had to monitor his cholesterol in the last year.  My cholesterol is on the normal side though my NP suggested going lower-fat to improve the numbers.

How do I cook so that my husband and I eat better but not jeopardize our son’s appetite & growth?–He’s always been low on the charts for weight; currently he’s about 23 lbs and is 33.5 in, in height.  I worry that he’ll stop growing if I use fat substitutes and skim milk when called for in recipes.  I can’t imagine making pancakes for him using butter after using spray when I cook for my husband and me! Plus he likes french toast, which my husband uses whole or 2% to cook, and of course that’s also what he makes ours out of.

I’ve never really liked tracking calories or food anyway (which probably explains why, 17 mos post partum, I’m still 30 lbs overweight.  I just got my Ttapp videos this week and am excited to start, though I still can’t follow the instructions very well).

We don’t have generally good eating habits overall; we still like to snack (though I’m trying to give up chips, and my husband’s snacking on nuts) and eat more than 3 meals.  We do tend to eat more fruits and veggies now that we have a kid because he likes and needs them.  We walk a fair amount each week but otherwise are too cheap to engage in more organized health plans.

Thanks for your input!"

This is the kind of question that’s perfect for Ask Moxie because the readers are going to have a million ideas for Vickie.

I think you should focus on cooking the way you want to for your health, and then add in higher-calorie "supplements" for your son. For instance, make the pancakes the way you’re going to make them, but then add on butter or peanut butter (my brother’s favorite) or full-fat yogurt as a topping for your son. And make sure you’re giving your son enough fat in his snacks. Avocado pieces are so healthy for children, and he can also eat full-fat cheese, yogurt, and milk as part of his snacks, and nut butters if he’s old enough and isn’t allergic to them.

As long as he’s getting plenty of supplementary fat and calories, it’s going to be great for him to be eating meals that are mostly vegetables and other healthy foods. And think what wonderful habits you’ll be creating in him by training him to reach for vegetables first.

I do want to caustion you and your husband not to get tunnel vision by focusing on the fat issue too exclusively. Carbs also play a big role in fat loss/gain. My bet is that you could clean up your diets a whole lot by cutting out things with high fructose corn syrup and/or artificial sweeteners (which mess with your seratonin receptors to make you feel hungrier) and snacks with empty calories, and making sure you eat 5 servings of vegetables a day minumum.

Everybody else, what do you have for Vickie and her family? Also, if any of you do T-Tapp, how long did it take you to feel like you could do the moves decently? (For me, I learned the 15-minute routine in a week or so, but it really took me a good 3 weeks to feel like I had any competence with the longer workout.)