Ask the Expert: Solutions to Tough Questions asked by Parents

Dr. Gregory Popcak

ask an expert

Below you will find a series of questions I have been asked recently by concerned parents. These questions vary in their subject matter as well as in the age and gender of the child in question. I have done my best to provide brief yet concise solutions to the problems they are experiencing. It is my hope that you might benefit in your parenting experience from these correspondences.


Our daughter is 10 and just started her period.   Her younger brother
doesn’t understand why she doesn’t feel like playing sometimes.   I don’t
want to tell him more than he should know, but I also don’t want to hide
things from him.   What should I tell him about his sister?

Simple, truthful answers are the best.   Just explain to him that when a young girl is starting to become a woman, her body goes through changes that make her tired, achy, and sometimes, a little cranky too.   It’s sort of like really hard growing pains that come along for a couple of days each month.   Explain that for those couple of days, she is not going to feel like playing and jumping around much.

Help your son understand that part of his job of becoming a man is learning to be a sensitive brother on those days that his sister isn’t feeling well.     During those times he could be a real friend to her by offering to do some of her chores, or by trying to think of ways to make her life easier or more pleasant.   In fact, on the days that your daughter is not feeling well, prompt your son to think of those things that he could do to help her have a better day.   This kind of thoughtful service within the family is part and parcel of building the community of love the Holy Father calls us to.

For more information on teaching your kids about having a Catholic understanding of their bodies, love, relationships, and sexuality, check out my book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees.


My toddler (2 years old) is more defiant than I could have possibly imagined. What do I do? I’m very cautious about corporal punishment.

Part of the job description of the toddler is to be defiant.   As the child begins learning who he is apart from you, he takes great pride in being able to say, “No.”   Channeled and trained, a strong will is a very good thing because the same will that says, “no” to you today i the same will that will say “no” to a host of unhealthy things when your child is a teen.

Even so, there are times when a child simply needs to do what he is asked.   Remember though, don’t take his “no” personally, he is not attacking you.   And there is certainly no need to spank him.  Simply restate your request.   “Jimmy, put on your shoes.”   If he refuses, gently but firmly pick him up and put his shoes on.     If you ask him to pick up his toys and he refuses, give him one more chance.   If he still refuses, take him by the hand, place a toy in it, walk him to the toybox, and put it in.   Ask him if he will now pick up his toys on his own.   If not, repeat the process. At first, the child may laugh at this new game with mommy or daddy, but he will quickly grow tired of it after the third or fourth toy and become irritated at this offence to his independence.   At that point tell him that he can either do it on his own or you will continue to help.   Chances are, he will comply at this point.   If not, Parenting with Grace, offers additional tips for increasing your child’s compliance without losing your mind.


My 3-year-old won’t eat what is served at dinner. Should we force the issue or just let it go?

The general consensus among nutritionists, psychologists, and pediatricians is that food is about nutrition and though it is tempting sometimes, parents should resist the urge to turn this issue into a power struggle.   When considering whether your child is eating enough, don’t look at how well he has cleaned his plate look at his height and weight.     Is he growing? Is he gaining weight?   If he is, then he is eating enough.

Studies continue to demonstrate that American eating habits are simply abominable and training for poor food management starts early.   When we force our children to eat more than they are able and at times that do not coincide with their own bodily clocks, we train our children to eat, not for hunger, but for other reasons that include fear, a desire for our approval, and even boredom to name a few.   In my personal and professional experience, a great deal of damage can be done by requiring children to ignore their own bodily signals where food is concerned.   It can cause them to eat to excess, not stopping when they are full because they have disabled their own internal monitoring mechanism.   It can also set the stage for future eating disorders where food is not seen as nutrition, but as a means to wield power in the family.       From a Catholic perspective, it is an injustice to teach our children to ignore the Natural Law, which is understood as the way God made us and the world to work.   In parenting, we apply this natural law perspective, not by imposing our schedules regarding how we think our children’s bodies should work, but by listening to the bodily cues hard-wired into our children by the God who made them.

All this is not to say that you should feel any obligation to cook 14 different meals in an attempt to coax Johnny to eat.   It is enough that you prepare a nutritious meal for the entire family.   If your child would prefer not to eat it at the established time, even though you might require him to remain at the table in order to participate in this family time, simply wrap your child’s portion up.   If he is hungry before the next meal, offer your child his meal in lieu of a snack.   This will prevent him from waiting you out so that he can gorge himself on junk food instead of the healthy choice you have prepared.


I’m worried about stress in my preteen (11 years old) child. What are signs of stress that I should be looking for?

A recent study discovered the alarming statistic that children considered “normal” by contemporary standards exhibited the same degree of anxiety and stress demonstrated by child psychiatric patients of the 1950’s.     Rates of childhood depression, anxiety disorders, drug use, and suicide are skyrocketing.   Clearly, to quote Madeline’s Miss Clavel, “Somesing eez not right.”

Stress is endemic to our culture, and unfortunately, the most effective antidote to stress, close, supportive relationships, is also under attack.   Time magazine recently reported that the average American family spends approximately 15 minutes a day actually relating to each other.   The rest of our time is consumed by activities; school, work, clubs, lessons, and other commitments for both parents and children.   And that was a two-parent family.   All of these activities, valuable and enriching though they may be on their own, have the cumulative effect of choking off the lifeline of every human person; intimate contact with others.

So to return to your question, is your child stressed to an unhealthy degree?   Consider the following questions.   Does he seem to enjoy things less than he used to?   Is he struggling with perfectionism?   Is his school performance deteriorating?   Is his behavior taking a dive?   Does he seem more irritable than usual? Is he struggling with concentration or comprehension?    Is his relationship with you or his siblings strained?   Is he sleeping more or less than usual?   Is he eating more or less than usual?   Does he not seem to have many friends?   Does he complain of non-specific aches and pains?   Answering, “yes” to two or more of these questions may indeed mean that your child is suffering, to one degree or another, a greater amount of stress than is healthy.

What to do about it?   Two simple things can make all the difference.   First, simplify.   Insist that your child focus on one or two extra-curricular activities at a time, at the most. Too many lessons, sports, or hobbies cease to enrich one’s life and begin to clutter it, creating stress in their wake.   Don’t be fooled if your child says he likes all the business, he may be addicted to that adrenaline.

Second, strengthen the parent child relationship–even if you think it is already good.   Use to time you gain from cutting back on outside activities to increase the amount of time you spend enjoying life as a family.   Play more games together.   Read aloud to each other.   Make time for regular family prayer and praise.   And as Pope John Paul II suggested in this letter on the Lord’s Day, make sure that at least one day a week is reserved for activities the whole family can enjoy.

As intimacy increases, stress decreases.   Stress proof your child by giving him time to be, to love, and to be loved.


What would be some wise things to say when our near teenagers go through the “puppy love” stage for a member of the opposite sex? I want to say faith-affirming things about love and sexuality without talking over their head or minimizing their feelings.

Briefly, here are some tips.

  1. Teach the meaning of real love.

Real love is when two people want to help each other become better, stronger, godlier people; when you want to be around someone not merely for the pleasure that they can give you, but for the kind of healthy, virtuous person they help you be in their presence.      Teach your teen the difference between real love, and “feeling love.”   Mary Beth Bonacci’s book, Real Love is a great resource.

  1. Teach your child to be a friend first.

In our culture, friendship has become dissociated from romance.   But true romance is the flower that blooms on the stem of friendship.   Anything else is not true romance, but mere chemistry.   Chemistry dies.   True romance becomes more vital with time. Be friends first.

  1. Lay ground rules.

Don’t be afraid to start telling your teen now what your expectations about dating, curfews, attire, etc. are.   Let your son or daughter know that you will expect to meet–and preferably get to know–his or her date.

  1. Don’t panic.

Your teen will probably date a wide variety of people in an attempt to figure out his or her own likes and dislikes.   Don’t panic.   Pray A LOT.   Give patient counsel.   Say “no” when you must, but generally, lead your child to the truth, don’t force feed it to him or her.

  1. Do your homework.

I can’t possibly do this question justice in the space allotted for this column, but I have dedicated entire chapters to this question in two of my books.   Both, Parenting with Grace, and Beyond the Birds and the Bees are chock full of practical tips and helpful insights that will help you convey the Catholic vision of love to your children.    Pick them up today so that when young love starts to bloom in your household, you’ll be able to handle both the weeds and the flowers.


My five year old goes through stages in which he says he doesn’t like this particular brother or sister.   What should we say to him?   Or, should we ignore it as his way of venting frustration.

While it is his way of venting frustration, and it is common for children of this age to say such things, I encourage parents to begin teaching their children more appropriate ways to express their frustration as early on as possible.

By using what I call, “do-overs,” you can train your child how to express his frustrations in a more respectful way.     Try to identify the trigger event that caused your child’s frustration, then say to your child, “I know you are angry at your brother because he took your toy (or insert other offense here), but you may not say, “I hate you”   (or insert offensive phrase here).   Instead,   please say, “ I’m sorry I was rude Joey.   It was my turn. Please give it back.”     Have the child repeat this phrase to his brother. (break the phrase up if necessary, but keep it as short as possible.

When I first describe this technique, many clients think I am expecting too much.   Then they try it, and are amazed that after two weeks they have a different child on their hands.   Good discipline teaches children what to do, not just what to stop doing.   If you consistently use this technique in those times when your children are being disrespectful, you will teach them to both respect their feelings and express those feelings in a respectful way.     For more information on do-overs and many other effective discipline strategies, please see my book, Parenting with Grace.


What’s the best approach to determining when your child is ready to participate in organized sports? The child’s interest? A specific age? The parent’s goals for raising well-rounded kids?

Organized sports are a wonderful way to help children gain self-confidence, teamwork, and good motor coordination, but they are hardly the only way to accomplish these worthy goals.   If our children express no interest in organized sports it does little good to push them to participate just to satisfy our own parental desires.

Physical activity itself is important, however, and a parent should encourage their children to engage in all forms of physical play and activity, especially children who are otherwise sluggish or uncoordinated.   An important part of having a good sense of self is knowing that one can make one’s body do what one wants it to do.   Self-esteem is also enhanced by knowing that I can set challenging goals and meet them.   But if a child does not have any interest in organized sports then he can accomplish these ends through a multitude of other activities like vigorous play, bike riding, hiking/exploring, building things, climbing trees, rollerblading/skating, and other physically challenging pursuits.

In short, while encouraging physical activity is important, organized sports are entirely optional.   Expose your children to them as one of many forms by which they can express themselves and let each child choose the activity that best suits his or her personality and tastes.


My 12-year-old thinks it’s preposterous that she has chores to do. Even though we think all the children have appropriate chores — based on each one’s age and skills — she is downright recalcitrant about doing her share. How can we convey that her role is important, and required?

One of parents biggest mistakes is getting into arguments with children about the value of chores and other responsibilities.   Of course, it is always good to try to explain the importance of chores and get them to appreciate the value that everyone, “receives according to their need and gives according to their ability”   but some children either can’t get this concept, or more likely, prefer not to.     Too often, in the face of such sullen stubbornness, parents back down.

Having already tried to explain the importance of her role, it is now time to focus on compliance, not understanding.   Responsibility is an acquired taste, and some children acquire the taste later than others.   Even so, attitude follows action.   By focusing on compliance, you provide a structure by which your daughter will eventually learn to appreciate the value of stewardship–even if she learns it kicking and screaming.

Instead of arguing with her, let the consequences do the talking for you.   Make the rule that nothing else happens in her life until her chores are done.   Then, if she uses the phone, gets on the computer, or does anything else before her chores are done, she loses that activity at least for the rest of the day, if not the week.  Likewise, if you ask her to do a chore and she cops an attitude, explain that her attitude conveys a need to practice giving cheerful service, and give her another chore on top of the first.   Furthermore, if she would like to continue complaining, you would be happy to oblige her with many more opportunities to practice cheerful service.  Then give her “the look.” You know one.   The “don’t cross me young lady” look that you get when you’re really serious about something, and don’t say anything else.    Children learn to appreciate your rules when their misbehavior inconveniences them more than it inconveniences you.   Let your consequences do the talking, and in no time, she will change her tune.

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