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Overwhelmed. Exhausted. At the end of my rope. When I hear this from parents, I want to tell them to run, not walk, and get Heidi Smith Luedtke’s book, Detachment Parenting.

This month I’m delighted to interview Heidi. Heidi is a psychologist, a parenting journalist and a mom. Read on for a perspective that might be a little different than what you’re used to.

Interview with Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D.

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Claire: Detachment Parenting is an interesting title. Why did you decide on that?

Heidi: Most parents I know do not struggle to develop loving attachments with their children. In fact they may be over-involved in kids’ emotional lives and have difficulty stepping back and letting kids learn to manage their own feelings.

When parents act in a calm, concerned and detached way, they’re able to see the big-picture view of what’s happening and guide kids to make positive choices. Detachment Parenting shows moms and dads how to keep their own feelings in check and guide the coping process for their kids.

Claire: What’s the first thing a parent should do if they’re overwhelmed by their children?

Heidi: Recognize that you are overwhelmed. Give your feelings a specific emotion label. Perhaps you feel frustrated, angry or scared. Acknowledge those emotions head-on in your own self-talk. Tell yourself, “I am really frustrated right now” or “I’m afraid I can’t meet all these commitments.”

When you label feelings with words, you break out of feeling mode and into coping mode.

Now that you know how you feel, ask yourself, “Why?” Identify three things that are contributing to your emotional reaction then choose one action you can take – right away – to change the situation. Once you have action steps in mind, your whole outlook shifts from focusing on the problem to focusing on the solution.

Claire: I think most of the parents I see worry that they’re not doing enough for their kids. Detaching is a different way of thinking about their role as a parent. Especially for parents of small children, it might be hard to imagine how they could be “over-involved.” Their kids need them for practically everything, right? I wonder if you can say a little more about what “over-involved” means, and maybe give an example.

Heidi: As the mom of a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old, I completely understand why parents may feel like they aren’t doing enough.

When I talk about detachment, I am not talking about leaving kids to fend for themselves.

I’m talking about giving kids tools to manage their own behavior instead of trying to manage it ourselves.

For example, my 3-year-old has trouble sharing toys with her friends and she frequently grabs what she wants from their hands.

A parent who takes what I would call an over-involved approach might watch her child closely for signs of trouble and give pre-emptive directions in a running monologue. “Step back,” “Wait your turn,” “Don’t touch,” “Not yet,” “What did I say?” “I told you to step away,” “It’s not yours.” As the child reaches toward a toy, the parent might rush in and whisk the child away, saying, “No grabbing. We’ll have to go home if you don’t share.”

In this scenario the parent is trying to control the child’s behavior with constant intervention and the child doesn’t have any space to act (and learn) for herself.

The parent is over-involved because she’s trying to avoid friction. By doing so, she’s putting everyone on high-alert, all the time.

A more detached approach would be to describe the desired behavior before the play date and watch from a distance as kids interact. If the parent notices several children want the same toy, she might help them take turns by establishing a “schedule” where each child plays for a few minutes, then passes the toy to the next child who wants it. She’d set expectations, keep track of time, and encourage the child to pass along the toy when his time is up.

This lets the child practice waiting his turn and giving the toy away (even when he may not want to!) This approach sets a positive tone and gives kids helpful behavior-management tools. Next time they’re in a similar situation the parent can ask the child how they should handle it and let the child suggest turn-taking.

This is much less stressful for both the child and the parent, because the focus is on shaping desirable behavior instead of avoiding (or punishing) undesirable behavior.

No one is waiting for things to blow up.

Claire: That’s a great example and I’m sure some of our readers are already envisioning how they will use this idea!

I have one more question for you, which is a question I get from parents a lot. When the kids are really challenging, what are the chances they have a disorder such as ADHD? And how can a parent know when it’s time to get an evaluation, rather than continuing to work on developing parenting skills?

Heidi: The prevalence of ADHD is about 9 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Parents who are concerned their child has significant behavior problems should get an assessment by a clinician with experience in this area.

But I urge parents to do a thorough self-assessment first. I encourage parents to learn what behaviors are age-appropriate for their child. Some so-called hyper or impulsive behavior is really just kids being kids.

For instance, I don’t worry my 3-year-old has ADHD because she won’t sit for a 40-minute toddler reading time at the library or because she grabs toys from her friends.

Kids her age have lots of energy and they’re easily distracted by other kids in a large-group setting. It’s normal for 3-year-olds to take what they want–even when it isn’t their turn. If an 8-year-old was snatching toys out of other kids’ hands, I’d be more concerned. Bottom line: Make sure you have reasonable expectations.

Also, give your parenting style and home environment a good, hard look.

Have you created a positive, consistent setting? Are you working with your child to solve problems in a productive way? If your own emotions are overwhelming and everyone feels anxious and out-of-sorts, your child won’t be able to regulate his behavior in a healthy way because he’s absorbing all that icky energy.

Do what it takes to eliminate stresses and create a healthy routine before you assume your child has a medical problem. Turn off distractions like TV and computers so kids can focus. Make sure kids get adequate rest and good nutrition. Post positive family rules (with consequences) and enforce them consistently. If (despite your best efforts) your child still struggles with inattentiveness, hyperactivity or impulsiveness, seek a professional assessment.

Claire: So parents should go through that checklist before they consult a professional. That’s really helpful. You’ve given us so many great ideas we can use right away to make our homes more peaceful and functional. Thank you so much, Heidi, for your time and for sharing your expertise.

By Claire Hatch

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For more practical, stay-cool strategies consult Heidi’s e-book, Detachment Parenting: 33 Ways to Keep Your Cool When Kids Melt Down. You can check it out here or like her Facebook fan page to get similar calm-mom tips and tools.