Black Rock Publications

Parenting With Understanding: A Tie Game

Elin R. Cohen, MD

The following are some key approaches to parenting young children that are based in understanding the young child experience.


Help your child to understand and express his own frustrations and also help him to feel understood. Situations that may seem trivial to us are not trivial to him — by virtue of his age, stage, and personality. By validating that we appreciate how meaningful something is to him, we give him key tools for both expression and comfort. Usually, the result is that he will no longer have to act with greater and greater drama to prove how important the situation was in the first place. The effect may take some time as he learns the skills and as he gains the confidence of the extra validation. Example: Johnny does not like to get wet. If he spills something on himself, it is upsetting to him. To tell him that "It is no big deal," denies what he is feeling. In a calm voice, validate that you understand that he feels uncomfortable (upset, frustrated, sad, angry.. ..etc) "Oh Johnny, I can see that you got wet and that you feel uncomfortable..." Next, help him to problem solve by giving him a comfortable, dry shirt. In a small way, you will achieve a lot toward making him feel understood and comforted. Also, you will teach him the important tools of finding a way to do these things for himself, and of using the words to express his feelings.


When a child starts getting upset or out of control she will feel frightened or lost. Remember to respond with a calm and quiet voice so that your calm will settle your child. If you act out of control, she will only feel more frightened.


This is related to the validation issue. When a toddler or preschooler is involved in a project, it may be extremely important and interesting to her. Try to transition around the project she is doing when possible. Numbers or time in the abstract mean little to children of this age, and she may feel surprised and unprepared for a transition even if she has been pre—warned. Two suggestions might help:

  • Consider using an egg timer with a gentle sounding chime (for everyone’s benefit). Usually children of this age are interested in timers anyway, and it gives them a much greater sense of control over their timing than being told abstractly when to leave or change activities.

  • When possible, notice what she is doing and help her to create a good break time in her project. First, this validates how important her project is to her.

    A child’s gluing collage is a masterpiece to her. That is a good quality which warrants our support! (Think of future school reports. We want them to consider their work with pride). Second, it helps her to learn the skill of finding an appropriate break time in an activity, which is a wonderful skill to have. Example: "Susie, I can see how hard you are working on your picture. Let’s finish this part right here and then we are going to have to go get daddy at the station. We can finish all of that green part you are working on before we leave. Then we need to find a very safe place for your special project so we can finish working on it next time." If she balks or has difficulty, emphasize again how hard she is working, how well she is concentrating, and suggest that you work together to figure out a good breaking point. It is ok to make a deal as long as you get what you need from the deal as well!

Younger siblings:

I think that often the emphasis around siblings focuses on the new baby, and on bringing the new baby home. For some children the introduction of a new baby is the largest adjustment. However, for many other kids, it is equally or even more difficult to adjust to a moving, smiling, interactive younger sibling who gets a lot of attention for being cute, and who (to the older child’s horror) gets into all of his most precious things! Again, validation is the first step. This is not always the time to emphasize sharing and being a "good" big—brother. Again, remember how precious his things are to him. Expecting a preschooler to understand while his sibling destroys his block creations, coloring pictures, or plastic treasures is the equivalent of our "sharing" our work documents, real jewelry, and sentimental family treasures with our preschoolers. Imagine how frustrated and upset we might feel toward our kids if they dropped our grandmother’s wedding band down the sink, crumpled up a work document, or scribbled on a freshly painted wall—(permanent marker on the bedroom wall—I’ve been there).

We know to keep our most precious things safely out of reach, and your child would appreciate having a special place for his things as well. This should not translate into: "If you don’t like it, go play in your room" because that may seem isolating and punitive to him. Better would be an approach that validates (again) how important his things are to him, and yet allows all of you to play together. Consider setting up a large play—yard (one of those plastic, moveable, circular indoor fences) within the usual play space. You can all play together, but little sister will not be able to reach the projects that your son is working on. Also, be sure to have a treasure chest, lock—box (for those Al Gore kids), or special shelf where you and your child keep his most valued possessions. Also, you and he together can pick out a special toy for his little sister from her own toys to help make her feel happy as well. This also emphasizes that he needs to empathize with her experience. This approach, taken together, is beneficial in several areas:

  • First, it helps your older child feel that his things are appreciated and helps him feel understood.

  • Second, it helps him to learn the tools for protecting the things he cares about. Most importantly, perhaps, it minimizes the true frustration and anger he would feel toward his sibling when she would ruin his things. In terms of the sibling relationship, this approach goes much further than does telling a big sibling that he needs to "share" or to "understand".

A couple of points about all of the above approaches:

If they seem too long—winded or time consuming: You will find your own words and style which may be briefer. Also, as the kids get used to the approach, they don’t require as much explaining around what you are doing, lt becomes a more natural style for you and for them.

If it seems like this is too "kid focused": All of the above ideas should not be interpreted as giving the run of the house or classroom to the toddler or preschooler-—which is very harmful to everyone involved. On the contrary, the idea is that we are the adults and we can understand what is happening in a given situation. Our knowledge and understand of what is happening gives us the ultimate tools to resolve situations without entering into constant power struggles with our young kids. In this way, the child can feel understood while learning important self—help skills. She is not, however, "getting her way" by acting out in negative ways. Remember, if you purposefully avoid a power struggle with your child, and if you do not get down to the same level to struggle with your child, you are maintaining the adult control of the situation — even if the child does end up satisfied by the result. This is a win—win situation!! The key is to accomplish the control without the children knowing about it, so the children do not need to experience a constant feeling of frustration, defeat, and lack of control. The other important positive experience is that children feel the safety of being in an environment with boundaries.

Just because a child feels understood or happy about an outcome does not mean that he or she is spoiled.

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