I always think that very little children (like mine - five and under) do not always know what they really need. Sometimes they are extremely tired or hungry and, as their mother, I know why they are crying and try to meet that need, but they insist they don't feel sleepy or hungry and sometimes I have to force them to sleep or eat, and five minutes later, they are completely happy (obviously) because their need was met. What do you do in a situation like this? (Question submitted via email)
I understand what you mean when you say that sometimes the youngest of our children don't always seem to "know" what they need. As our babies grow and develop, they become more aware of their surroundings and have boundless curiosity. As parents, we set healthy boundaries for them because we don't want them to get hurt. We learn what their abilities are as they develop and know what our kids can and can't do as we stay tuned into our kids needs. Along with our children's growing curiosities sometimes comes a resistance to transitions from one thing to another. Our little ones get so tuned in to what they are doing that they really don't want to stop, no matter how tired or hungry they are. I understand that you would like a better solution than to have to push past your children's resistance and create struggle in order to see that your children's physical needs are met too.
I would say though that your kids do know what they need. They may not know how to communicate it well yet or they are learning to ignore their own signals of what they need. (See my previous post, Can your kids learn to self-regulate?, for more elaboration on that.) They need encouragement and guidance in figuring out how to do that. This is done not solely through words but through interaction. If you notice that your child hasn't eaten in several hours and tells you that they aren't hungry, is it possible that they just don't want to stop to eat? Is it possible to offer them something to eat while they are doing whatever it is they are doing? Since you are tuned in to your child and notice they are getting overtired, is there a way to offer a gentle transition from what they are doing to something calmer such as reading a book together? Or going for a walk outside?
Without knowing anything about your lifestyle or how you interact with your kids, all I can share beyond that is how I do it. I have always approached parenting from a place of respect. While I may see the big picture in the moment - they haven't eaten in several hours, they are way into what they are doing, they don't want to stop for anything, etc. - just because my child isn't thinking ahead or paying close attention to how they feel, does not mean I have to step in and force them to meet their need "for their own good." There is some middle ground here. My own approach is to not let it get to the point where they are so overtired or hungry that they are crying. I offer them snacks and have food available for them to eat when they want it. If they don't notice it, I periodically suggest it and let them know what there is to eat.
As far as my kids' level of tiredness, I am all about prevention. My youngest is 5 and I can't even remember the last time she, or any of her older siblings for that matter, got so tired to the point where they were crying. I have always approached sleep based on each of my children's individual needs and personality. I don't make a habit of telling my kids what they need or what they "should" do. I talk to them about how they are feeling, or what I am observing about them; if they are old enough to be verbal. I interact with them in ways that will help them relax and want to sleep. I also held them a lot when they were little so they would be more relaxed and would fall asleep when they needed to.
The only other thing I can share without getting more information from you is this: If one of your kids have gotten to the point where they are crying because they have a physical need that hasn't been met, and they haven't been in tune with themselves enough to ask it to be met, try consoling them before you try to meet their need. Once consoled, talk about how you both, in partnership, can meet what their need is. When your child is calmer, it will be much easier for the both of you.
Photo Credit - Chirag Rathod
Question submitted via email:
I am having trouble with the whole self-regulation thing? My child will stay up all night, sleep all day, play video games for hours and forget to eat. He just doesn't seem to get it! As much as I love the philosophy of letting him learn how to self-regulate, it has gotten to the point where this just isn't healthy! He is only 10 years old. What do I do?
I understand what a tremendous amount of faith it takes in realizing that children can and do learn how to self regulate. Very, very few of us were raised that way so it's hard for us to just let go and see how the process works because we have never experienced it. We were raised with sets of arbitrary rules that often made no sense and didn't take anyone's needs or individuality into account. Because we don't know how it works, we are unsure of the whole process. We are left feeling like we are "supposed" to do things a certain way even if those ways don't work and cause nothing but struggle and frustration for everyone.
First of all, you have to realize that our kids are born already knowing how to do some very basic self-regulation. Babies know when they are full. They know when they need to sleep. They know how to get our attention when they need it. They are born innately knowing how to do all of this. They un-learn how to do many of this through external circumstances.
They unlearn this skill through rules that parents feel like they are supposed to enforce that in reality do not make sense for the child or for their family. Parents make their kids eat things they hate. They make their kids go to "sleep" when they aren't tired. They get them out of bed when they really need more sleep. They put them on an artificial schedule that doesn't fit with the child's individual needs, very often, from the time the child is born
They also unlearn self-regulation from seeing parents set bad examples. They see their parents push themselves to eat more than they should or skip meals. They see them work too hard or stay up too late. They see them spending way more time then they should in front of the computer. Whether they mean to or not, sometimes parents are the ones that show them how to push things further than they should.
I also have to say that even with parents that do not force arbitrary rules and schedules and those have control of themselves, there are kids that get so into something that they overdo it all on their own. Normally I would I would suggest giving it a little time if what they are doing isn't harming anyone, including themselves. To get back to your specific question, since you say it's at the point where it isn't healthy for him, don't be afraid to step in and give some guidance. Ask him how he is feeling. Pay close attention to any changes in behavior that indicate that maybe he should take a break because he isn't listening to how he his body is feeling. Is he getting agitated? Does he look happy? Tired? Bored? Tuned out? Overstimulated? Is he eating? Talking with him about how he's feeling as well as talking about what you are observing about him will help him to eventually pay closer attention to when he needs to take a break.
To use my own family as an example, two of my kids are polar opposites when it comes to this issue. Recently one of them has really gotten into an online game that he will play with his friends. He will get on Skype so he can talk to them while he plays and it's really easy for him to get sucked in for hours. However, he stops when he's hungry or when he wants to go and do something else. My other son however had a much harder time learning to stop when he needed to at the same age. He wouldn't pay attention to the fact that his eyes would start to hurt after a while of playing and I would have to step in and tell him that his eyes looked tired. He would forget to eat, which he has a tendency to do anyway and gaming would make this tendency worse. I have learned to just work with each of my kids' personalities and individual needs and help them pay attention to certain things when they needed to. They have learned to self regulate but not without gentle, respectful guidance. They still need reminders sometimes.
Things can change too! One of them may be going through a growth spurt and they need more hours of sleep than they did previously. There may be some scheduling changes where they have to be certain places at certain times that they weren't used to and they will need reminders of that. The key is to keep working with your child.
Wanting your child to learn self-regulation does not mean that you just sit back and not be a parent to them. It is knowing your child so well that you are able to guide them to do what is right for themselves.
I have received more questions on the topic and will continue to stay on the topic as long as I need to in order to answer them all. If you have more questions, don't hesitate to submit them as well!
Photo credit - fd's photostream
I wanted to pop in from our busy, fun summer to ask something of you. I would absolutely love it if you could send me parenting questions that you would like to hear my perspective on. Anything goes! The most recent question I received was about unschooling and kids learning how to self-regulate. If you have any questions specifically about that, or any other subject, feel free to either submit them in the Comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to cover at least one question per week.
I hope you all are having a fun filled season!
As a Parent Coach and Mentor, my passion lies in empowering parents to make the best decisions they can for their children and their families as a whole. As a well-trained coach, I can be your facilitator and accountability partner for long-lasting, meaningful change that has a permanent, positive impact for your family. By focusing on the values that you hold most important in your life, I can help you create and maintain the type of parenting relationship you want to have with your children, now and into their adulthood.
I am a homeschooling mom of four children in Massachusetts. I am also the author of a book called The Herbal Beverage Book, which can be found on amazon. When not coaching, writing or spending time with the family, I enjoy Hayao Miyazaki films, new and classic Dr. Who episodes, anything related to American history and a great glass of mead.
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