Parenting coach and columnist Meghan Leahy answered questions recently in a Washington Post online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: Are you sick of talking about mealtime yet? I'm fully on board with giving the kids a few options that they can take or leave. A few options meaning a carb, protein and vegetable. But what if they eat only the carb and either (1) immediately ask for more or (2) finish eating but then ask for a snack or milk an hour later because they're hungry?
A: It depends on how hardcore you want to be. You are the parent; you decide. If you have served the food and that is that? Then — done. No more. If you want to offer another serving? Decide it. If you want to offer one healthy snack before dinner? Decide it.
It is far more important to be in charge of the decisions than it is to make the "best" decision.
Q: My 4-year old son is extremely smart, inquisitive and sweet most of the time. Recently, mostly when he's tired, he's begun hitting, kicking, punching and pushing anyone who is in reach — me, my family members and his twin sister. He refuses to cooperate with anything, even something he usually wants to do, such as coloring, reading, etc., when he's in this state. It is extremely difficult to get him to stop acting out or even distract him. I'm hoping this is a sign of a growth spurt and not the "new normal." What say you?
A: I say it may be normal, but an ounce of prevention would go a long way here. You have established the pattern (fatigue + people around + people trying to get him to cooperate = aggression and violence), so well done on identifying this. Because you know why this is happening, you can take direct steps to prevent it. For example, does your son need more sleep and better-quality sleep? How can this happen?
When your son begins to spin out, you need an action plan to keep him safe from himself.
1. Do not talk to him or use reason.
2. Physically take him to a safe place away from his sister.
3. Keep him there until the aggressive energy leaves his body.
4. Keep yourself safe while you do this (watch your nose).
Also, make sure that he is eating enough and that there aren't any funky reactions to food. Please see your doctor if this gets worse.
Q: I'm committed to becoming a choice mom and have started thinking about all the things that go into that. One of those is medication. I am currently on a medicine for a severe sleep disorder that is in that dreaded "use only if the benefit outweighs the risk" category. Without that medicine, I can't focus, I am constantly in a state of extreme exhaustion, etc. But this is a baby that I want more than just about anything in the world. My doctor has given me the facts and says it's up to me. How do I make that kind of decision knowing the medicine that keeps me functioning could hurt my baby in ways that might result in stillbirth or other ways medicine hasn't studied?
A: Seek a second opinion, and seek the opinions of many different types of doctors.
I know you are treating a sleep disorder, and it sounds very serious — but please seek ALL help for both treating the disorder and possibly preventing it, too.
Please, don't get pregnant on this medication. The work that already goes into the pregnancy to lose the baby to stillbirth is not a good gamble.
Are there other ways you could become a mom?
Q: In a world where everyone overshares, I'm careful and calculated as to what and how much I share of my infant son. My in-laws, however, are not. Establishing boundaries with them has been one of the toughest parts of being a new parent, and I'm uncomfortable with my son having his entire life documented on social media. How do I address their oversharing without sounding like a controlling jerk?
A: I feel like this gets to be a strong request and that they need to respect it. To make this request, you may need to feel comfortable feeling like "a controlling jerk."
Q: How do I respond to a 3-year-old who tells me she hates me when she's mad or frustrated? She picked this up from her older sister, who has since stopped using "I hate you" out of frustration. Little sister doesn't understand the meaning of the words, but it would be nice to find some ways to discourage this as the go-to for anger. Not acknowledging the phrase hasn't put a dent in it.
A: How do I respond to "I hate you"? With not a speck of attention. I would double down on my connection and floor time with the 3-year-old and fill her up with lots of love and snuggles. This will pass.
Q: I recently found out my mom may have only months left to live, barring a miracle. I have two wonderful kids — one is 3 and one is almost 2 — who adore my mom. My husband and I work full time, my husband is finishing a degree this December on top of work and kids, and I thought we were a bit overwhelmed even before my mom's diagnosis, which has been very difficult for me. This morning I found out I am pregnant with our third baby on top of all this! We wanted a third but thought we were waiting given everything else (I am on birth control and still nursing my 1-year-old several times a day). I am guessing you will suggest removing everything unnecessary from our lives (already pretty good at that) and get more paid help (but how do you even pay for three kids in day care?!). Not even sure what my question is, but just feeling overwhelmed.
A: I think you need to lie down and have a good, long cry. Grief and fear are appropriate emotions to what you are facing, and I think you and I both know that no amount of strategizing will take away from them. Yes, more support almost always helps, but nothing can hop over grief and fear — not when it is warranted. All you can do is carry on, day by day, with the life you are living — with special care to where and how you are spending your time.
This is not a time for accepting more work or more offers to assist others. This is a time to ask for help. Emotionally and physically, and I promise you, if you even have five acquaintances, life has taught me over and over that people love to step up. Whether it's child care, meal prep or listening, people want to support us. We just need to let them in.
So, to support your mom, you need support. Call a meeting with your spouse and outline the next six months. Get your needs clear. Get your priorities in order. Be very clear with your spouse about the true needs of the situation. Keep this list and reference it. You are in a tough spot, so make your environment as calm and ordered as you can.
Q: I have three boys, one 8-year-old and two 6-year-old twins. One of the twins, let's call him Thief, has had a few incidents of stealing from stores. Big brother had a sticky-fingers spell, and I think we resolved it pretty well, but that approach isn't working with Thief. We've been careful not to shame him, and instead say, "Whoever took this item from the store should tell us. We'll be so proud of you and help you make it right." He always eventually 'fesses up, crying. We say, "Look, you can't steal. It's wrong. Ask if you want something. Now we return it to the store and say sorry." We read up and theorized he was developmentally ready to make more decisions about buying items, so we got consistent about allowance, $2 a week per kid. It's pretty clear Thief is now stealing money from his brothers. He can lie like a champ. (He very convincingly said, "It wasn't me," to a babysitter, who marched the boys back to a 7-Eleven and had a security tape pulled. Only then did Thief confess to stealing candy.) But the problem isn't resolved. We're working with the siblings to treat money like it's valuable (put it away in a secret spot in your room), but we don't know what to do about Thief. We're not getting at the fundamental problem. (He's dying to have a yard sale or a lemonade stand to make money. I'm not sure if "more money" will solve the root of the problem.) Suggestions?
A: I cannot tell you why, but I would seek out a counselor or a parent coach. Don't get worried, I don't think your son is a sociopath or is going to grow up to be a criminal, I just think an outside voice, perspective and someone to guide the whole family on this front could be helpful.