How to Prepare a Child to Travel Alone

Flying alone can be nerve-racking for both child and parent. Dr. Rutherford gives you easy steps to take before, during and after a flight to make the journey easier for your child.

Click below to watch the video.


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Stop the Complaining! How to Change Behavior With Rewards Not Consequences


It seems my 7-year old daughter complains a lot just for the sake of complaining. How can we stop it?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Let’s talk about some positive behavior modification strategies that this parent can put to use immediately to change this behavior.

The first step is to help the child become aware of what she’s doing. She’s so used to complaining that she probably doesn’t even realize that she’s doing it anymore.

From now on, whenever she complains, stop, look her in the face, and in a quiet way ask, “Do you hear yourself?”

She’ll probably respond, “What?”

Remind her gently, “You’re complaining again. Do you hear yourself?” The point of this exercise is to engage her and help her to observe her own behavior. One has to recognize one’s behavior before change is possible.

That’s the first step: to help her see and recognize her own behavior. The second strategy is to start behavior modification incentives. Remember that positive incentives work better than negative consequences, so we want to set this up to reward a positive change in behavior rather than to punish the undesired behavior.

Consider setting up a system like a sticker chart that tracks behavior on a daily basis. Every day that she doesn’t complain she gets a special sticker to put on her chart and maybe an extra story at bedtime or other treat. When she accumulates  one week of stickers (seven stickers), she should receive an additional larger reward.

Be sure to lay out the ground rules with her in advance, keeping in mind that complaining is a habit for her and it takes constant reminders and much practice to break a habit, even for adults. Experts say that it takes a minimum of 90 days to break a habit, so don’t expect too much from a seven-year old at first.

Perhaps the rules at the beginning state that she gets two warnings when she is complaining and then if she needs a third she loses her treat for the day. Then as her behavior improves and she gets two to four weeks worth of stickers, the rules evolve to where she receives only one warning before she loses the sticker for the day.

Whatever the parents decide to do, it’s important that the rules are known to her beforehand and not announced ad hoc.

When she complains, comment without a further response. Just say, “ Oops, did you notice that you complained again? This is your first warning.” That’s it, nothing more.

Be sure to make the first several weeks achievable for her or she might give up on the idea altogether. Once she receives her first reward and sees that it’s achievable she will have the incentive to continue working toward the goal of not complaining.

Successful behavior modification relies on two elements: engaging that part of ourselves referred to in psychology as the observing ego, and practicing the desired behavior to internalize the reward.

The observing ego is that part of each of us that steps outside of ourselves and sees what we are doing. This is a very important psychological ability for everyone who is socialized and living in a community with others.

The reward part helps us learn that it is better to be a nice person, and that nice people are rewarded for nice behavior.

MOLLY:This question came from a parent in Denver, Colorado. When you see adults in your practice, can you tell who was a complainer as a child? Are there any long- term consequences for this behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, there are. Most adult habitual complainers were the same way as children. The more someone is allowed to complain about anything and everything as a child, the longer this behavior will go on until it becomes firmly entrenched in the person’s personality. As she grows, she will continue to complain to friends and teachers, and later to a spouse and in work relationships.

Of course, some complaints are legitimate and should not be overlooked, but that’s not what we’ve been talking about here. No one likes to be around someone who constantly complains rather than tries to figure things out in a positive manner. This is why it is so important to address this particular behavior as early as possible.

Mind Your Manners: Teaching Social Skills to Your Children


How do you help children who don’t naturally have social skills to develop them?

MOLLY: This question came from a mom in Michigan. She added that her son is an introverted child, very smart but having trouble with manners and social skills.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): It is not uncommon for an introverted child who is very smart to have trouble with social niceties. His parents will definitely want to be aware of their roles as teachers of manners and social skills during his childhood as he will need to use these tools throughout his life.

MOLLY: What should this mom do to help him?

DR. RUTHERFORD: One of the earliest skills she can teach him is how to meet someone properly. She’ll need to instruct him that when he meets someone, he should shake that person’s hand, say hello and look the person in the eye. She will need to practice this action with him.

I can remember teaching the proper way to meet someone to you when you and your sister were young, and more recently to my grandchildren. After several repetitions children learn very quickly.

The eye contact part is very important. If the child shakes the person’s hand and doesn’t look at the person while doing it, they need to practice over and over again until they master it.  It won’t take very long at all.

MOLLY: What else could a parent teach a shy child like this one?

DR. RUTHERFORD: She’ll want to teach him to be polite, to not interrupt other people while they’re speaking, and to actively listen when others speak.

MOLLY: And there’s always the basic “Ps and Qs”, or remembering to say please and thank you…

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, saying please and thank you is perhaps the most basic social skill in our society.

MOLLY: The reader also mentioned something that she’s already implemented at her house: her kids are not allowed to leave the dinner table until they have asked at least one question of someone else at the table. It can be a simple question such as, “How was your day?”   I thought that sounded like a good and easy exercise to do at the dinner table to help learn social interactions with other people.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I agree. The exercise helps children to learn to both express themselves and also listen to other people.

The bottom line is that she’s teaching empathic skills which are very, very important in life if you want to have friends. In a civilized society, there is an unwritten code of conduct. Parents can help their children decipher this code when they’re young so that the interactions come naturally to them throughout their lives.

People who don’t receive this education early may find themselves socially awkward as teens and adults, and the lack of social skills can hold someone back from relationships, jobs, and other opportunities to grow and enjoy life.

When a Parent Needs a Time-Out


I’m alone with my kids a lot and find myself losing my temper over small stuff. What can I do?


Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): Well, that happens a lot, especially when parents are cooped up at home with the kids.

MOLLY: Yes, especially if your husband or partner works a long hours.

MOM: One parent may have full responsibility for the kids if his or her mate travels a lot, too. It’s easy to fall into this kind of behavior when you’re feeling overburdened, overwhelmed, or exhausted by demands on you.

There are a couple of things this mom can try to help ease her burden and allow her to enjoy her kids more without sweating the small stuff.

She can work on setting up some play dates for her children because that takes a lot of pressure off of her to be in the business of entertaining the child. She’ll want to gear that to the amount of time she thinks the child can handle. Some kids can tolerate only short play dates, like an hour, and some can tolerate much longer spans with friends. Either way, it can help give this mom a small break to keep her sanity and temper in check.

MOLLY: What about after school? For me, the after school hours can be tiring.

MOM: Well, after school is a little trickier in terms of playdates. A lot of kids are involved with activities, like dancing or sports or other clubs, and I think that’s really good for kids. I would encourage that.

MOLLY: That also takes the pressure off the primary caretaker a bit.

MOM: It takes a lot of pressure off the parent. But if the parent is home alone with their kids (like on a rainy day when you can’t go outside), they might think about instigating an activity together, like making cookies. Something together that would actively involve everyone in the process. Kids really like that.

MOLLY: The reader also said that she would find herself getting extremely angry when someone just spilled a drink… She is becoming really short  tempered with her kids and she’s not liking this behavior in herself.

MOM:  This Mom needs a time out. She can say to her child, “Mommy needs a time out right now and that means you have to read quietly or color quietly because Mommy needs a few minutes to get herself together.” And then, once her children are in a safe place, she can take a few minutes to herself to get composed before facing the spilled milk or the whiney children again.

Children can actually understand this because they have the same issues. She will want to redirect her kid into some kind of activity.

MOLLY: I think a lot of Moms turn to alcohol. In moderation, of course.

MOM: Well yeah, kind of like they can’t wait for that 5 pm for a drink. I certainly can understand that, you just want to watch that a little carefully. The hardest time is around dinnertime, right before dinner is ready. Probably between 4-6:00 seems to be the most stressful time for Moms and kids.

MOLLY: The witching hour.

MOM: Right, she might need to structure her kids’ time, or that might be the time they can watch a bit of television to settle down. As a mom, she will have to learn to recognize when she is losing her tolerance and know when she needs to step back to gain some perspective. Sometimes bathing kids at that time is not a bad idea because it’s an activity for them and can be quite soothing.

MOLLY: Oh, that’s a good idea and gives you a little bit of a break.

MOM:  It can give you a little break although if you have a lot of children, it’s going to be tough. Another option might be, if you can afford it, to plan to have a babysitter or a grandparent over for an hour or two during that late afternoon time to help out with the kids and dinner and give mom a break.

It may be easier to feel appreciative of our kids rather than annoyed at them if we are feeling more fulfilled ourselves as parents. I hear from moms that, if they can get out to see friends and do some things for themselves every so often, even if it’s just going to the grocery store without kids in tow, they find they have more patience and feel more tolerant and more able to appreciate and enjoy their kids than if they never get a break.

I think the lesson here is that parents usually do a better job at parenting if they get breaks from their kids on a regular basis, when they can recharge their own batteries and return to parenting with a fresh attitude.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success staying calm (especially during the “witching hour” using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

Surviving the Terrible Twos

My 2-year old always says “No!” to whatever I suggest. And all of the tantrums! What’s the best approach to use?

DR. RUTHERFORD: We’ve written some on tantrums before and that might be helpful to read. Two-year olds are often particularly trying for parents. To every parent, it feels like a lot of energy goes into dealing with a two-year old!

It’s important to remember that this is a developmental stage that all children go through, some more intensely than others. Here are some thoughts that may help you make it through this stage.

When your kid is having a tantrum –of course, you want to be sure that child is safe and not in an unsafe environment during a tantrum– you need to basically ignore the tantrum and let it run its course. And it will run its course! It might feel like a lifetime when you’re going through it, but it will run its course. When your child is calm, and only when the child is calm, is the time to talk to him about what happened. You’ll have to recognize that the child is a two-year old and his ability to be rational will be nothing like that of an older child. And you should be prepared to go through this a number of times without losing your cool.

MOLLY: This question was asked by a parent from Boston. I can relate because I went through the same thing when my son was two. But, as a frustrated parent, how do you stay calm while this is happening?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Granted, sometimes it’s hard to stay calm. But one thing that can help you is to keep in mind that this is just a stage that every child goes through. The other is to talk to friends or other Moms (or Dads) that also have two-year olds and are having the same struggles. There is a certain sense of camaraderie between parents when they can talk together about what’s going on with their kids.  Being a Mom can be really isolating. And if the parent is isolated, it can be very difficult for a Mom or a Dad to get through this trying period of development. You want to handle it as well as you can because you don’t want your kid to continue to have tantrums at three- and four- and five-years old.

So, some time afterward, when your child is calm, you talk to him calmly and nicely about what happened.

I don’t want to be remiss, so I want to bring up possible biological issues here: sometimes children will have tantrums if they are having a reaction to some kind of food. For instance, a sensitivity to a food dye (FD&C). Often the parents don’t know that the child is sensitive to food dyes and the child eats it and then goes through a very disturbing time at some point within the next 24 hours. So if you’re puzzled why your child is having tantrums, you want to look closely at what your child is eating to see if it might be a reaction to a food or food dyes. You’ll want to investigate the psychological and  biological issues and you’ll want to remind yourself that having tantrums at age two is a normal, developmental stage.

MOLLY: I think, for me, I’ve found that I do better when I try to do some activities with other Moms or parents together with our kids so that I remember that that I’m not the only Mom going through this. I know that with my 16-month year old, when I went to a gym class with him last month and saw the other kids his age climbing over everything and always in motion, it became clear that my kid wasn’t outside the norm in his activity level. And I talked to the other parents – we rolled our eyes together at the things our kids do!– and they had some some helpful suggestions for me, too.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Also, you can get a lot of sympathy from other Moms in your same situation, and that helps your psyche.

MOLLY: That really does help.

DR. RUTHERFORD: The old adage: misery loves company.

The most important thing to remember is not to set up a situation where the child benefits from the tantrum.  If you get a few of those times in a row where the kid wins because of throwing the tantrum, the child is going to recognize right away that this is the way to get what he wants. That can follow you into adulthood –you sometimes see adults having a mini-tantrum if they don’t get their way. It’s important to establish that this is not the best method of getting your way.


Creating a Successful Sticker Chart to Reinforce Behavior in Children

How do you create a successful discipline program using positive reinforcement?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): You’ll want to gear this to the age of the kid. Children catch on to this very rapidly.

If it’s a young child you want to have a fairly limited amount of things on the chart. At most, five things on the list for a 2 or 3 year old. When they get to be 4, you can add some more.

The most important thing is that you engage the child in the process of setting up the rewards. What’s interesting to me is that the children will often come up with harsher penalties than a parent will. There’s a lot of interesting things that come out of this exercise. One is that you get to see how your kid thinks.

MOLLY: But the chart isn’t about the consequences or the punishments; it’s focused on the behaviors you want to change and keeping it positive rather than negative. Right?

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: Behaviors like saying “Please” and Thank you”…?

MOM: Yes. With a sticker chart you reinforce the behavior on the positive side.

MOLLY: So we shouldn’t set it up that we mark the chart every time the child doesn’t say Please” or “Thank You”?

MOM: No: you mark the chart when the kid does say “Please” and “Thank You”.

MOLLY: So every time the child says “Please” and “Thank You”, he or she gets a sticker on the chart?

MOM: And then you also want to gently point out times when the kid doesn’t say “Thank You” when he or she should have.  You can say, “This is one of those times when you could have said “Thank You” and gotten a sticker. I know you forgot this time, but next time, I know you will remember.” This is the redemption issue, which is so important. The child must understand that he or she will always be able to redeem themselves in your eyes.

MOLLY: So keeping it really positive.

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: What we did when my daughter was 4 was that after five stickers (which was enough for a kid that age), we went to the bookstore and she got to pick out a favorite paperback book. So it was like a $3 reward.

MOM: You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on this.

MOLLY: Right, it was more the fun of going to the bookstore and feeling like it was her special trip to the bookstore because she earned it.

MOM: Now, for an older child who is, let’s say, 7, 8 or 9, you might think about needing a longer period of time during which to earn the reward. Maybe a month or two months, depending on the age of the child. And then it’s one reward, but maybe it’s a bigger reward. You have to plan this according to the age of the child.

MOLLY: Maybe the child gets to pick a place to go to a special lunch or something like that?

MOM: Yeah, or a game on the computer, or whatever the kid values.

MOLLY: The types of things that we could put on the sticker chart for young kids like mine might be: saying “Please” and “Thank You”, using good manners at the dinner table, not whining and crying when you want something…?

MOM: It depends on what the issues are; this will be different for each kid.

You might have a kid who has terrible table manners. They eat with their mouth open and spit the food out and things like that. I’m a big believer in learning manners at a young age so that when they are older it’s something they don’t even think about. You could use stickers for that like, “I noticed that you ate with your mouth closed all night tonight, that was terrific. That deserves a sticker or star. “

The expectations, durations, and rewards are obviously age related, but it’s all about positive reinforcement rather than negative or punitive consequences.


Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU), and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.

Is it Damaging to Call Your Kid “Bad”?

When one of my friends is upset with her child she say’s “You’re such a bad girl” or “That was a shameful thing you did”.  Is this an effective way to discipline your kid?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Los Angeles, California.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): Generally speaking, teaching children through the use of shame has been going on for generations. We have to differentiate between shame and embarrassment.

Embarrassment is something we all experience from time to time: we say something that’s not smart or we get mixed up on our information, and that’s a normal thing people go through all their lives. We get embarrassed by something we’ve done.

Shame is a much deeper issue – it goes right to the soul of the person.

MOLLY: Is there any time you should use shame to discipline your kid?


MOLLY: So saying, “What a bad person you are,” when your child does something wrong, isn’t something you should be doing?

DR. RUTHERFORD: That should be avoided at all costs. Or doing something that makes the child feel ashamed. For example, suppose the child cries a lot for whatever reason. And the mother makes the kid feel a great sense of shame about it.  “How could you cry like that” “You’re just a little baby!” (and the tone of voice is important, too, of course)… Well, that child will shut down – inside, emotionally. And it will in a sense paralyze the child if enough of that goes on.

Or, if you put your kid in the corner, facing the corner. I’ve seen people do that and it’s kinda horrible. The child feels so much shame over whatever the incident. When the kid grows up… You see this all the time, when people experience shame, they may become very withdrawn, or conversely, they can verbally attack another person as a way to get rid of the “bad” feelings inside. Both reactions can lead to difficult interpersonal relationships, and the person probably has no idea why he does the things he does.

MOLLY: What would you see in an adult that was shamed by their parents as a kid? What kind of person are you as a parent going to create using these types of shame tactics?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think you’re going to create somebody on either end of the spectrum.  Possibly an adult who is withdrawn, very careful what they say, measured in their words with a great fear of being spontaneous. It cuts down on their creativity because they are afraid of making mistakes. They don’t ever want to feel that sense of shame again. Which is really, a pretty terrible feeling.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can see especially in boys but you can see it in girls, too, a lot of aggression.  You can see this aggression especially when they feel like they’ve done something wrong or are experiencing a sense of shame. And of course people experience shame from time to time when they’re adults for all kind of reasons. Someone might say you made a mistake at work, or you didn’t do something right, or you said something stupid… That’s when you see a lot of defensive aggression directed at the people closest to them.

MOLLY: Defensive aggression? What does that look like?

DR. RUTHERFORD:  The sense of shame will be triggered off inside you. See, it’s always sitting inside of you – like a virus – and the person constantly feels that they have to defend themselves against that sense of shame. They don’t want to experience the shame so they verbally attack the person whom they feel is causing it, or even just witnessed it. They never really connect it up in any conscious way about what’s going on inside of them, and they don’t learn from it.  They verbally (or physically) attack the person who is making them feel the shame as a way of ridding themselves of the bad feeling.

MOLLY: So for instance, in a marriage, they might be abusive to their wife?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, it’s very common. It’s perplexing to the spouse because they don’t understand where all this aggression is coming from. It’s not a healthy way to resolve problems.

MOLLY: So using shame creates a lot of issues now and later.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes it creates a lot of issues that never get resolved. Instead of shame, you would want to use positive reinforcement.

MOLLY: How would you change it from saying, “You’re such a bad girl for throwing food on the floor or spilling your milk?”

DR. RUTHERFORD: You could say, “We’re having a few problems here in our family and some of the problems we’re having are X, Y or Z. So let’s see if we can make this better for you and the whole family.” It depends on the age of the child, but certainly you’d want to do this when the child is verbal which is usually around two-and-a-half years. You would want to engage the child and make a sticker or star chart (more on that to come in a future posting).

MOLLY: Instead of shaming her, figure out how you can address that behavior by rewarding her for good behavior instead of punishing her for bad behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, you can do this by creating a sticker or star chart with rewards for good behavior, or by withholding privileges of something they like as an incentive for changing behavior. For example television time or desert.

MOLLY: So instead of saying you’re such a bad girl for throwing your food on the floor, you can say “You know that’s not okay in our house. The next time you do that you’re going to lose your TV privileges for a day.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes… You could say that. But you could also say something like, “How do you think we can solve this problem together so that you are not throwing your food on the floor?” It’s very interesting to watch kids come up with their own ideas about solving problems.

Or, if your kid keeps spilling their milk, the parent could say, “What if we put your cup of milk in a different place on the table so that you’re less likely to spill it?” or “Maybe we should use a top on our cup so it won’t spill?” This can be a very practical tool for resolving problems.

So, it has multiple good impacts on the kid. One is that the kid isn’t shamed if they throw or spill food on the floor.  Two is that they’re learning a way to resolve a particular problem while at the same time they’re learning a process of resolving a problem. This can be a very long process for a child.

For instance, when your 4-year old daughter spilled her milk during her visit here, we talked about a “safe zone” for her cup on the counter. I noticed that afterward she mentioned it every time, at every meal. This is a good example of problem solving for a young child.

MOLLY: And this is something they can use for the rest of their lives?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, they will use it for the rest of their lives. The process will stay with them. It’s a wonderful skill to have for all kinds of circumstances when you’re an adult. It’s not just the content of what you’re teaching the kid, but the process.

MOLLY: How you’re addressing the problem?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. They’ll begin to think like that and be able to resolve problems in a more positive way as they get older. For instance, there was a wonderful example in the television show “Mad Men,” when the mother of Don Draper’s children (Betty) used shame a lot as a way to discipline her children. You could see the emotional distance between the kids and their mother.

Later in the show there was a scene with the Dad and his new girlfriend (Megan) at a restaurant where one of the kids spills milk on the table. The father and the daughter looked at each other apprehensively, ready for an angry response from the girlfriend. Instead Megan said something like, “This kind of stuff happens all the time. No big deal, we’ll wipe it up.” The father and daughter looked at each other with amazement. There was no shaming but instead there was a practical solution to resolve the problem.

It was a striking example of different ways of parenting and of not using shame as a parenting method.