Archive for the ‘ Ask a Psychologist ’ Category

[Question]  My four year old has started having temper tantrums again.   He hasn’t had any since he was about two years old.  Is this normal?  When should I seek help? What should I do about them?

[Answer] Dear A.,

thescream2Temper tantrums are most common in toddlers but do occur in children up to about age 5. 

In two year olds, temper tantrums usually occur due to “system overload.”  Frustration, extreme emotions, and the dawning understanding that all there “wants” will not fulfilled are major causes of temper tantrums.  Coupled by the fact that they do not have the language to express their needs and wants means they will often have meltdowns.  This is especially true when they are physically disregulated because of lack of sleep, hunger, or illness.

If the temper tantrums have just sprung up again after disappearing for a year or two, I would ask yourself some questions:

– Is my child behaving this way to get out of something? (Like throwing tantrums in the grocery store because he hates going shopping; before daycare because he wants to delay a separation; or because he doesn’t want to do something you have told him to do.)

– Is my child trying to get something I have already denied him. (For example, if you said “no” to a cookie or extra time playing before bedtime.

– When do these temper tantrums usually occur?

The answers to these questions will help you understand the reason your child is having a tantrum. If your child is successful in getting what he or she wants because of the tantrums, they will continue because your child’s strategy has worked.

What do I do when my child is having a tantrum?

If it is possible, ignore it.  If your child is at risk of hurting himself or of breaking things with his flailing arms and legs, move him to a place where it is safe.  If your child is throwing a tantrum in a public place, you can pick him up and move him to a less conspicuous spot or to the car.  (Yes, you should just abandon your cart in the grocery store and go to the car.  It will be likely to still be there when you return.)  Then make sure you return to the activity your child may have wanted to avoid so that he gets the message that temper tantrums do not work. 

What you will have to do to get the tantrums to stop is to consistently NOT give in to your child’s demands. If you give in just once, your child will keep doing it and the tantrums will be more prolonged because your child will be exploring whether THIS is the time you will give in. 

If you can honestly say that you do not give in to your child’s wish to avoid an activity or demand, then it is important to question yourself about other possibilities. 

Are there any new challenges my child is facing that may be more than he can handle? (For example, a move, starting a new daycare situation, marital strife that leads to arguments the child witnesses, other traumas or big changes for the family)

Does my child have sensitivities to sound, light, items touching his body, or sensory over-load.

Is there a family history of  mental or emotional problems which may be inherited? Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and many other disorders that run in the family can predispose a child to these disorders.

Is this normal?  When should I seek help?

The length of temper tantrum is important.  If they are brief (5-10 minutes) I wouldn’t worry too much about them.  If they last longer than 30 minutes on a regular basis, it is time to seek help.  If the temper tantrums are frequent 1-2/ day for over 3 or 4 months, it is very important to seek an evaluation.

Where can I go for help?

You can certainly call us!  We have a sliding scale and can and do help people in any socioeconomic range.  You can also contact a licensed therapist who has experience working with children as young as yours. Contact us at info (at) or call us at 303-442-4562

By Cynthia Divino, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist


* This information is intended for educational purposes only.  It is not intended to serve as or substitute for psychotherapy.

Dealing with Anxiety or Fears in a Preschool Child

June 25, 2013 | Comments Off on Dealing with Anxiety or Fears in a Preschool Child | Ask a Psychologist

Question: My 3-year-old daughter, a passionate little girl who definitely falls close to the “highly sensitive” end of the temperament spectrum, spent much of our 3-week vacation growling at every family member who entered the room and saying things like “No! You can’t be here. Don’t look at me. Go away!” In general, her first response when other kids/adults – even familiar ones whom she’s played or interacted happily with before – approach her is to push them away by yelling, growling, or telling them they’re not allowed to be there. We’ve been told that this is an attempt to gain control over her surroundings and be in charge, but I feel like maybe there’s more to it than that. She also really struggles with new environments/situations; today was her first day of gymnastics, and she spent almost the whole 45 minutes crying/screaming and refusing to leave my side or follow the instructor’s directions, even though she’s totally physical, loves gymnastic-type movements, and is very independent and focused when involved with something she loves. She thrives at preschool. Any insights into what might be going on for her in the above-mentioned instances would be greatly appreciated.




Dear Z,

The idea that your 3 year-old is trying to gain control over her surroundings is a good hypothesis and is consistent with her developmental age.  Three year olds really need to believe they are in control as they become increasingly aware of how little they can control in their environments.

However, your feeling that it may be something else needs to be respected and taken seriously.  Moms often have an intuitive sense about these things.   The most likely possibility is that your daughter may be more prone to anxiety. People experience anxiety and fear in physiologically similar ways: adrenalin and stress hormones are released, heart rates increase, pupils dilate, blood flows to extremities. This ignited fight, flight and freeze response can lead some interesting actions.  Your daughter’s growling and pushing-away behaviors are consistent with this idea.  She was really trying to scare off people who threatened her feeling of security.  Although she was familiar with these people, she may have seen them in a different context (in her own home when where she feels safe, for example).  It may also have been during a different developmental phase when she was less aware of her vulnerability. Children with anxiety disorders often throw temper tantrums or scream and cry when they are confronted with a situation that is unfamiliar.  Clinging to a safe person is normal in this situation.  Anything novel will often stimulate this fear response.

Some questions to ask yourself are:  Does anyone in your family have anxiety issues.  This could include excessive worrying, obsessive or compulsive behaviors, phobias, or being very vulnerable to stressful situations.  A tendency toward anxiety disorders has some genetic roots.

If the difficulty is anxiety, there are several things you can do to help.

Breathing Exercises

Breathing Exercises shut down the fight, flight, or freeze response as the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in.  There are several games you can play to help her do this.  Teach these when she is NOT scared.

1) The Tummy Elevator.  When she is laying down, put a loved stuffed animal on her tummy.  The game is to see if she can breath in deeply enough to get her stuffed animal to go up and stay up until the animal counts to three.  Then as she blows out the air, her stuffed animal gets a ride down the Tummy Elevator.  You should do it too.  Before you know it, you will be giggling and having fun.

2) Bubbles.  Get a small jar of bubbles and see if she can blow the biggest bubble she can.  Tell her the trick is to take a deep breath in and blow it out slowly and carefully.  Oooh and Ahhh over her great accomplishments.

3)  The Marker Blowing Game.  Get a marker that is completely symmetrical and can roll across a table easily.  Put two of them on a table so that the long side is pointed toward you and your daughter (who are standing side-by-side).  Tell her to take a really, really deep breath in and then blow out slowly to see how far she can make the marker go.  You get to blow your marker too.

It is important that breathing is slow and deep. Fast shallow breaths can lead to hyperventilation which will worsen the situation.

After she has learned these techniques and has practiced them a number of times, let her know this is something she can do when she is worried.  Then start using them before an activity that might make her anxious.


For new activities, such as going to a new gymnastics class,  tell her all about it first.  Describe it and then go visit.  Pair it with a fun activity like going out for a treat after. Then she will need lots of encouragement to try.  Reward small steps.

Stories about Conquering Fear 

Make up stories about brave animals who conquer things that are scary by facing their fear and saying things like, “I know I can do this.  I am brave and tough.”  Then when she is facing a challenging situation, you can remind  her that she can be just like the Brave Bunny (or whatever animal you choose) in the story.

Good Luck!  If it turns out to be just a developmental phase, these techniques are still tools that will last a lifetime. Let us know what happens.  If the behaviors continue or worsen, it may be a good idea to have her evaluated by a child therapist.


(There are many more of these games we use in our preschool to help kids quiet their nervous systems.  Check back in a month or two and we will have a video posted under parent resources that demonstrate some of these techniques.)


This blog is written for educational purposes only.  It is not meant to substitute for psychotherapy.  

Children Stealing or Shoplifting

June 25, 2013 | Comments Off on Children Stealing or Shoplifting | Ask a Psychologist

Stealing in an 8 year-old


I have a beautiful, mostly cheerful, intelligent and well behaved eight-year-old who never seems to put a foot wrong. However, I have recently discovered she has been stealing and, on two occasions, shop lifting. We have made her take the items back to the store, pay for them and apologize but she has admitted that “She has trouble controlling it.” She rarely keeps the items and gives them away to friends and says she does it when she feels angry and upset (although this doesn’t necessarily tie in with the circumstances). How do you think we should address this issue? Therapy as soon as possible but what sort of therapy should we be looking at?


 Dear J.,

 First of all, congratulations on doing a great job responding to the shoplifting.  You have done everything that I would suggest as a starting measure. It is not unusual for children to steal on one occasion.  Usually if parents deal with it appropriately, the behavior stops.  It sounds like your daughter has not been able to stop so your idea that you seek some therapy is a good idea.  I would look for a therapist who is adept at doing play therapy.

 Children’s actions are usually a communication that can’t be expressed in other ways. They are more likely to “play” things out than to put feelings and thoughts into words.  A play therapist can help your child get to the bottom of the stealing and help resolve the issue.  It is important that you find someone who you feel is a good fit for you as well.  Working closely with parents and supporting them through the process is one of the most powerful ways of helping children so look for someone who will use a “team” approach to working on this issue. 

Q: We are trying to determine the best 1st step towards addressing our daughter ‘s challenges. She is in 4 th grade. We don’t know whether to start with testing or start with counseling. Some behaviors of concern include: refusing to participate in class activities and work, withdrawing by hiding hr face, age inappropriate tantrums, negative self image, inability to handle frustration, strong need for control, strong need for inclusion. Help… T.

A. Dear T,

In general psychological testing can more quickly give you a deeper understanding  about the sources of your child’s behavior.  It can also answer questions that counseling cannot answer.   Also, if you understand subtleties of your child’s functioning and how they came to be that way, you can often get to the issues much more quickly in therapy.  In your case, the testing administrator would seek to answer the following questions:

1) What are the most likely reasons your child refuses to participate in class activities.  Does she have a learning disability that underlies her resistance?  Does doing school work make her feel bad about herself and therefore she avoids the work to keep herself from feeling bad?  Has your daughter developed some obstanence as a way of coping in general.

2) How did your daughter come to have a negative self-image.  What aspects of her self-image make her the most unhappy.  How severe is this as compared with other children her age;

3) What impedes her ability to handle frustration? What can she do to overcome this?  How can you help?  How can her new counselor help?

4) What underlies her strong needs for control?  Children develop control issues for a number of reasons including:  obsessive tendencies, anxiety, early attachment difficulty or trauma and many other reasons.  If we have an idea of the reasons for that we have much more hope of finding a solution that works.

5)  What is her strong need for inclusion about?

Many of these questions can be answered during the course of therapy with a good psychotherapist but it is likely to take longer.  The question that can’t be answered in counseling is whether she has a learning disability that may be the source of many of her other issues.  The advantage of starting with psychological testing is that you have a lot of information from the beginning and can often cut several months off the start of therapy if you have a good testing report.

The reason why some parents choose to start with counseling is that the behaviors are so unmanageable either for the parents or for the school that jumping into therapy may alleviate some of the problems just because your daughter will have an outlet and you and your daughter’s teachers will have some support and advice.

There is also the option to begin both simultaneously, getting the best of both worlds.  In this case you would probably have one person do the testing and another person do the therapy.  This is necessary because having a counseling relationship that is close, trusting and therapeutic may invalidate the testing results or alternatively, the demands of the testing situation may impact the close, trusting relationship your daughter has with her therapist.

My suggestion is you make an appointment with a therapist and discuss the specifics.  Once the therapist gathers more information and gets a good history of what your child’s life has been like up to this point, he or she will be in a better place to give you advice on the best way to proceed.

The thing to keep in mind is that no matter which way you go, you are helping your daughter to become more emotionally healthy, happy, and resilient.

Cynthia Divino


Lying in School-Aged Children

November 25, 2012 | Comments Off on Lying in School-Aged Children | Ask a Psychologist

Q. My daughter who is seven and half has been lying. We have always stressed the importance of telling the truth in our family so this is very troubling to me. She recently told a staff member in her school program that my husband and I were going on vacation for a month and she was going to be left all alone. According to this staff member, my daughter tearfully told him that there were no adults who would be able to care for her. In truth my husband and I are going away for 5 days. Our daughter will be staying with her grandmother. We have tried punishing her by taking away privileges when she lies but it doesn’t seem to do any good. We don’t know what to do to stop the lying.


A. Children often lie when they need to express something that they feel cannot be expressed well with the “facts.” For example, if your daughter told her after-school provider that you and your husband were going away for 5 days and she would be staying with her grandmother, the provider may have responded by saying, “Five days isn’t very long,” or “Do you like staying with your grandmother?” These responses would have missed the point. The message it appears your daughter wanted him to understand was that she would feel very, very alone without the two of you for a very long time. Her way of telling the tale very clearly conveyed the sadness and sense of abandonment she felt. It sounds like it must have created a sense of alarm for him if he told you about his concerns. This response was probably much closer to the one your daughter desired. It may have made her feel understood. Children sometimes embellish the facts to make them fit their internal reality and to communicate this experience to other people. In a way, through the stories, they are conveying the “truth” of their feelings. Punishing a child for these tall tales is unlikely to produce any change because the need to express the feelings is still there.

The way to help children stop “lying” in this fashion is to help them find other ways of successfully expressing their ideas and feelings. This may require change from both you and your child. Your child will need to learn new, more direct ways of expressing herself but you will need to be responsive to these more direct methods of communication for it to be successful. For example, it would be nice if your child could say, “Mom, I am really sad and lonely because you and dad are going away and not taking me.” For most children this is impossible without a lot of help from their parent. Usually this information comes out in small pieces even with empathetic, careful inquiry. Most children are likely to say, “I don’t want you and dad to go. Why can’t I go with you?” Most parents will logically answer the question about why the child cannot come and leave it at that.

What is necessary is to ask your child why she does not want you to go. It also requires that if she does tell you she is afraid she will feel lonely, you tell her you understand how hard it is going to be. It may also require that you talk with her about what kinds of things might make her fell less lonely. For example, you might tell her you will write her a note for each day that you are gone that will be left with her grandmother. Each day she will get a note from you. Sometimes it is helpful for children if the two of you make a calendar with only the days you will be gone and your return date on it. This may help her see exactly how long she has to wait until your return. This is just one example of the kind of responsiveness children need in order to communicate their feelings.

For each child there is probably a slightly different reason for feeling they will not be heard and understood. Your job is to watch your responses to her and see what particular things happen in your family that prevent this understanding or clear communication.

There are many other reasons why children lie. The most common reason is to get out of trouble when they have done something wrong. Some children have difficulty telling reality from fantasy. These need to be dealt with differently.


 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent.  They are published here to help the BIPR parenting community.

Children & the Spirit of Giving

November 25, 2012 | Comments Off on Children & the Spirit of Giving | Ask a Psychologist

Q. I get so distressed by my children’s requests around this time of year. It seems that every time I turn around my 5 and 7 year-old have another request for their “Christmas wish list.” This upsets me for two reasons. First, I would like to instill in my children the spirit of giving-not receiving- during the holidays. Secondly, I cannot afford to buy them all of the things they want. Instead of being excited about what I am giving them, I feel guilty or sad about the things I can’t give them. And I feel bad about raising children who are not giving. Any suggestions?


A. I can understand how it would be dismaying to have you children requesting lots of presents when you would like them to be focusing on giving. It would be very difficult (and atypical) for young children to acting differently however, because of the developmental issues involved. Starting from birth, children go through a phase psychologists call “normal egocentricity.” This basically means that the child thinks he/she is the center of the universe around whom everything revolves. Very young children believe that everything they need or desire should be given to them immediately. Because infants come into the world so helpless and because a part of good parenting is responding to the needs of the infant, the infant (in a healthy situation) learns that his/her cry elicits the desired response of a caregiver. This sets the stage for the child believing that he/she is the center around which things revolve. Infants and young children know very little of the world, society at large and the other responsibilities of their parents. All they know is that they have needs and wants and parents should fulfill them.

An important part of maturation is developing the understanding that others have needs too and that we cannot always have our needs and wants fulfilled. The wish to have “what we want, when we want it” never goes away; the only change is the expectation that we will get what we want immediately. This is part of the human condition. Therefore, I don’t think you should feel bad about parenting. On the contrary, it indicates that you have probably given your children the things they needed in their early years.

Children develop a wish to give when they find it brings pleasure to people they love. They feel good about making a loved one happy. Therefore, the first step is instilling a spirit of giving is to foster a nurturing relationship with your child and to accept their spontaneous gifts with enthusiasm. To help instill the spirit of giving during the holidays, you might make it a special tradition to prepare a gift basket for the needy and then deliver it to a homeless shelter. Explaining your reasons for wanting to give away food or gifts will help your child understand its importance.

I can also understand how it would make you feel sad to be unable to give your children everything they want. Children seldom expect to receive all the gifts on their list, however (especially if they have been forewarned).  Typically, they are so excited about the gifts they did receive, that they quickly forget about the ones they didn’t. Therefore, you need not feel guilty about what you cannot buy them. It is also useful to help your children prioritize their lists so that you understand what is most important to them and why. I hope the rest of your shopping is guilt-free. Happy Holidays!

 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994.  The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.

Toddler Hitting

November 25, 2012 | Comments Off on Toddler Hitting | Ask a Psychologist

Q.  My 18 month-old daughter, “Karen” , has started to hit me. It seems to happen whenever I tell her she can’t do something she wants to do. I can’t understand it; my husband and I don’t hit her at all. Why is she doing this and what can I do to get her to stop?


A. You have already made an important step in understanding your daughter’s hitting because you have identified what usually precedes it. It sounds as if Karen hits when she is feeling angry or frustrated. Let’s talk about 18 month-olds and what might lead them to hit.

Children of this age do not have many resources available to them to communicate their needs and feelings. Eighteen month-old are not able to say “NO! I want the stick you just took from me. GIVE IT BACK!” Language skills are just beginning to develop. Most 18 month-olds have only a few words that they know and use regularly. On the other hand, the resources they do have available to them are increasingly coordinated motor skills. Children of this age are quite mobile. Eye-hand coordination is improving. 10 month-olds have learned that pointing, gesturing, grabbing and other hand motions are effective in helping them get what they want. Because infants and toddlers tend to use the most successful resources they have available to them. Karen is likely to use her motor skills to let you know she is feeling angry or frustrated and to communicate what she wants you to do about it. Therefore, she may hit even if she has never seen hitting before.

So the question really is, how can you help her manage her anger or frustration better and express it in different, more acceptable ways. Karen is going to encounter many more situations that make her angry and frustrated with each passing day. It is therefore important to start helping her understand and handle difficult emotions, now. Many child psychologists believe that one of the earliest ways mothers may help with this process is by being “affectively attuned” to their infant or toddler. In plan English, this means being “tuned in” to your child’s emotions and communicating your understanding back to the child. For Karen, this might mean saying, “OH! You WANTED that stick I took away from you,” in a tone that exactly matches the intensity and feeling of her motor action. But this, in itself, is not going to stop the hitting.

To stop the hitting, you need to do three things: 1) Let Karen know that hitting is not acceptable, 2) allow her to express the emotion and let her know you understand, and 3) let Karen know what she can do instead In this case, you might catch her hand before she hits you, say in an empathic tone, “I KNOW, you’re MAD AT ME for taking that stick away.”  Then,  still holding her hand, explain calmly that she can hit the floor but not you. You might even model hitting the floor for her as you say it. Then redirect  her attention to an interesting substitute object or engage her in an activity. In situations that are not immediately dangerous, (like running with a sharp stick or sticking a harmful object in her mouth) you may want to try to get the objectionable object away from her by offering her an interesting alternative object as a substitute. Infants and toddlers will often abandon even a tightly held object if they see you have something that is more enticing. This will help avoid many frustrating incidents.

A final brief comment about Karen’s hitting. You have probably heard of the “terrible twos” This doesn’t abruptly begin on the child’s second birthday. Starting in the second half of the second year of life, i.e. 18 months, negativism begins to emerge. It could be that Karen is one of the early starters in which case, you may be able to stop the hitting, but she will be expressing her wishes much more. Trying to see this stage as an important milestone in which the child develops a better sense of herself and becomes more independent, can help parents get through this challenging time.


Here are some final comments.  Children often learn the most about how to handle difficulty emotions by seeing how their parents handle those emotions.  Make sure that you and your husband are able to express your emotions productively without flying off the handle.


 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994.  The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.

Divorced Parents Have Different Parenting Styles

November 25, 2012 | Comments Off on Divorced Parents Have Different Parenting Styles | Ask a Psychologist

Q. My wife and I have been separated for 7 months and are in the process of divorcing. We have very different rules for our 5-year-old daughter. For example, there are different bedtimes, different morning routines, and different behaviors that each of us do not tolerate. I think my daughter ‘s mother is much too lenient with her. Consequently, my daughter thinks she can get away with murder at my house. She always complains,  “But Mommy lets me stay up until 9:00” By the time she adjust to being at my house, it is time for her to go back to her mom’s house. Do you think it is ok to have different rules at each house? Wouldn’t it be better if my ex-wife and I had the same rules at each of our houses?  How do I get my ex-wife to see that the things she is doing are not good for our daughter?


A. Optimally, it would be very helpful to your child if the rules were identical in both households. However this is usually not possible. Overall it is not so important that you agree but that each of you are consistent with your own rules. Even in two-parent households in which the parents agree on most issues, there are differences in the way each parent treats the child and differences in the types and degrees of behavior that are tolerated. Children learn to adjust to these differences and behave accordingly. If they know they can get that special toy in the store by whining long enough even though mom has already said no, the will do it with mom but not with dad (with whom this behavior has proved futile.) Likewise if Dad gets angry or gives consequences for not leaving the playground after 3 reminders that Mom does after 2, the child will leave when Dad is ready to give his third reminder and when Mom is ready to give her second. Children know these patterns unconsciously and are usually not confused by the difference between two parents.

What is confusing however is if each parent is not consistent. If one day it is ok to continue playing until the third reminder and the next day for inexplicable reasons (for the child), it is not. It is equally hard if the child does understand the differences. For example, “if mom is in a bad mood I am not allowed to roughhouse but if she is in a good mood roughhousing is encouraged.” This puts a burden on the child to be continually watchful of the parent’s mood so that they will know what to expect. The type of vigilance this requires of the child is extremely stressful and not conducive to optimal development.

There are some areas in which it is more important for the parents to have similar rules. Bedtimes and mealtimes are two examples. Biologically children’s bodies adapt to particular rhythms of sleep and (to some extent) eating. It is very hard on a child to have to adapt to going to bed at 8:00 three nights of the week and 9:00 four nights per week because of the way the body tends to expect sleep or food at a particular time based on the pattern of previous days.

Therefore, it would be helpful if you and your child’s mother can agree on a bedtime that is in the best interest of you child and both stick with it.  This is more important if there is joint physical custody in which the child spends approximately half of each week in each parent’s household and much less important if the child is spending every other weekend with the non-custodial parent. It the two of you cannot come to an agreement, get a consultation from an outside professional source.

Other than the exception listed above, it is far more important that the parents not belittle or criticize the other parent’s style than it is that they have exactly the same rules. If you child complains about something her mother allows but you do not, it is much better to respond, “It must be difficult that the two of us have different rules. But while you are here, this is the rule in this house.” On the other hand, it is very hurtful to the child to say, “I can’t help it if you mother continues to make bad decisions about…” Children perceive even subtle put-downs and are very torn-up emotionally by them.

Here are some final comments about this issue. 1) Many of the problems couples have while they are married remain unresolved after divorce. Unfortunately, these problems continue to be acted out with each other around the issues with the children. It is very difficult therefore to keep from making derogatory comments about the ex-spouse to the child because it is at those moments when the memory of the issues comes back in full force. Despite the difficulty this entails, it is very important to refrain from doing this. When parents do this it makes the child feel as if they must make a choice about who to love. 2) Children may try to spell out the differences between parenting styles in an attempt to understand the reason for divorce and the difficulties and differences that remain between the parents. Also, children are masters at using weaknesses in a situation to get what they want. These are probably two of the reasons your daughter complains to you that her mother allows her to stay up later than you do.

 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994.  The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.  

Arguing in Front of Children

November 25, 2012 | Comments Off on Arguing in Front of Children | Ask a Psychologist

Q. My friend tells me she and her husband have a policy of never arguing in front of the children. My husband and I do have sometimes heated arguments in front of our children. Is this likely to hurt my children?


A. The question of whether or not to argue in front of your children depends a great deal on what you mean by “argue.” If children are able to witness their parents or other adults they admire having disagreements that are respectfully and satisfactorily resolved, it can be extremely beneficial. These types of experiences give children a model for compromise and conflict resolution. It also helps the child understand that it is OK to disagree with loved ones. It may even help children understand that an argument can bring people closer if their parents are closer as a result of the dispute.

If you and your spouse have difficulty satisfactorily resolving your disputes, it is probably not helpful to have the children witness these discussions. For example, if one partner is always giving in to the other, it may give children the wrong idea about compromise. If decisions are left unmade because of difficulty resolving problems, children are not taught to adequately resolve disputes.

These are some subjects that are inappropriate to discuss in front of children.  Sexual conflicts, marital infidelity, and divorce are examples of these topics. It is not helpful to have disagreements about discipline of the children in front of them. This often undermines the authority of one parent and prevents the parents from presenting a united front to the children. This is extremely important where adolescents are concerned. In general, all discussions about the children should be left for private times unless the purpose of the discussion is to elicit the input of the child or the children in question.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell if an argument will get out of hand. If it appears that is leading in a direction that is potentially hurtful to your child, agree to continue the argument in private at a later time. “Arguments” that lead to physical violence are not only hurtful; they can be emotionally abusive of the child. If the arguments reach a point where your child is frightened, it is best not done in front of him/her. It is also not appropriate for children to witness either parent verbally abusing the other. This gives children several very damaging messages. It gives them the idea that conflicts are very dangerous. It models verbal aggression or victimization. It may also give children the idea that they can be verbally abusive to one or both parents.

Some final comments about this issue. It is often distressful for children to see their parents angry with one another. Most children have very clever ways of stopping or getting in the middle of an argument between the parents. Children choose these times to misbehave or get in their own fights. At these times it is best if the parents momentarily stop their argument, explain that they are having a discussion, reassure their child that it will be resolved, and that each parent still cares about the other. It is also helpful to let children know that it doesn’t concern them, and that it is not their job to stop the discussion. Spend some time with your child after the argument is over to allow him/her to talk about feeling and to help him/her understand that sometimes disagreements are unavoidable, necessary, and helpful in a relationship. If that is the situation they witnessed, it will help reinforce the idea that conflicts can be beneficial if a satisfactory agreement is the result.

 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent.  They are published here to help the BIPR parenting community.  

Bad Influences

November 25, 2012 | Comments Off on Bad Influences | Ask a Psychologist

Q. My 13 year old daughter has been hanging around a girl who I believe to be a bad influence. This girl is wild. She dresses promiscuously, lacks supervision at home, skips classes, and encourages my daughter to stay out late. She is rumored to be using drugs. I am worried she will encourage my daughter to do the same. So far, my daughter has only followed her example one time-by coming home an hour after her curfew. She seems to be maintaining her good grades. Should I forbid her to see this girl?


A.  The surest way to get your daughter to make the changes you fear is to forbid her to see this girl. Adolescents choose friends that are “wild” for a variety of reasons. During adolescence, teens try on new clothing, hair styles, behaviors and (sometimes) friends in an attempt to explore who they are. At times choosing a “wild” friend may be an attempt to provoke a reaction from parents.

Sometimes teens secretly identify with a characteristic of the new friend. For example. The surge of hormones that is common at this time can cause heightened sexual feelings which can makes some teens feel out of control. Having an overtly promiscuous friend may help make the teen feel more “normal.” If the change in friends is accompanied by a drop in grades, an increase in noncompliance at home, lying, stealing or other antisocial behavior, it may be a sign of a more serious problem, i.e. depression or substance abuse.

Since your daughter remains unchanged in many respects, it sounds as if this is a part of the experimentation that is characteristic of adolescence. What you can do is to continue to set consistent limits and consequences when your daughter violates a family rule. Therefore, if she comes home late, make sure there are fair consequences. Being grounded for a certain period of time or setting a temporary, earlier curfew are typical consequences for this type of rule violation. Your daughter will soon get the message that if she follows her friend’s example, there will be unpleasant results. This will either lead to a rejection of the friend’s values or a rejection of the friend. I have heard many children and adolescents say, “I don’t hang out with her (or him) anymore. She was always getting me into trouble.”

If a parent forbids contact with a new friend, their teen often will tenaciously hold onto the friendship. They will often continue to see the friend secretly and ßmay begin to adopt more of the friend’s undesirable behaviors in an attempt to rebel against parents.  Unless your adolescent is in imminent danger, try to be patient and wait it out. Reassure yourself that you are doing something about the problem by enforcing household rules and maintaining firm limits.

 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent.  They are published here to help the BIPR parenting community.