I’m a Mom and Child Psychologist: Behaviors I Watch For

No one knows more about toddler milestones and social issues than a child psychologist. Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D. wants to help parents worry less and enjoy parenting more. Spoiler alert: She doesn't worry about picky eaters.

Francyne Zeltser and her boys. 
Francyne Zeltser and her boys. . Photo: Courtesy of Francyne Zeltser

As a child psychologist, I speak with so many parents who are concerned about their child's development or behavior. Mostly my clients aren't sure what behaviors should raise a red flag for them. They might ask: "Should I worry when my child does this" or "Is it weird that my child said that...?" I've heard it all in nearly a decade of working with families.

As a parent myself, I've even shared the same thoughts as my clients: When I became a mom to two boys, Hunter, 3, and Paxton, 1, my work only heightened some of the concerns I, like all parents, have. After all, I witness firsthand how parenting can affect kids. Parents have a whirlwind of things to worry about, but we just can't worry about everything. As long as we love our children and try our hardest to give them a happy childhood, we are doing the best we can.

Here, I share what I'm not worried about when it comes to my kids, and what concerns I prioritize instead. While there's no right way to parent, it's possible to feel confident that you're making the best parenting choices for your little ones.

Things I Don't Worry About as a Parent and Psychologist

There are plenty of things to worry about as a parent, but from my professional and personal perspective, here are the things I don't spend time worrying over as a parent.

If I spend every moment with my kids

As a working mom, I don't always get to spend all day with my boys. But what's more important than the quantity of time you spend with your kids is the quality of the time you do have together. When I am with my children, whether for an hour or a full day, I am responsive to their cues and needs; I provide undivided attention whenever possible to set them up for success.

During the work day, my children are with experienced caregivers who help teach them how to be resilient and adaptable to change. Even if you don't go to work, time apart from you and your partner can help teach your child autonomy and independence. So invite grandma to babysit! A little me-time is healthy for everyone involved.

If they are meeting their milestones

Children meet developmental milestones when they are ready. There are ranges of what is considered typical and what may be considered delayed. My colleague Jaclyn Shlisky, Psy.D., mom of Piper, 4, and Harlow, 2, told me that she constantly sees parents comparing their children to others. Her advice: Stop! "Each child learns and grows at their own pace," Dr. Shlisky says. "Focus more on how your children make progress by comparing them to themselves—if they are progressing each day, each week, each month, that's what really matters. Every day try to find a small win."

And if you do have concerns, share them with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician is your expert parenting partner so if you don't trust your pediatrician, find a new one. Also, don't worry if a delay is noted. Early intervention services are highly effective. If your pediatrician suggests that you follow up with a specialist or get an evaluation, I recommend doing it as soon as possible. The earlier a problem is identified the more likely the issue can be remediated.

If there's a change in our routine

Here's a confession: I keep my children out late on holidays and will sometimes skip a nap to do a fun activity. I've even let my kids come into bed with us and watch cartoons on vacation.

So many parents feel they have to stick to a strict schedule or their children will fall apart. There's no question that children thrive from routine and benefit from consistency and clear expectations. Children, like most people, do better when they know what to expect. But changes in your daily routine or schedule will not break your children.

Yes, you may have a minor setback or some out-of-the-ordinary behavior as you attempt to get back on schedule. But that is OK. Schedules can be adjusted, sleep can be "retrained," and bad behavior can be extinguished, but having ice cream for breakfast on their birthday can be something your child will remember forever.

If my kids are picky eaters

As long as the pediatrician doesn't have concerns about their weight or health, I don't fight my kids on food. I typically offer two meal choices: what we as a family are eating and what is currently available in my fridge (no complaints here if someone finally eats the leftovers!). If they are hungry, they eat; if they aren't, they don't.

I've also seen parents successfully offer a meal with two or more food options. For example, a dinner that consists of a protein, starch, and vegetable should include at least one item that is preferred and another that is new or less preferred. This gives your child a chance to try new foods but doesn't force them to eat them. It also guarantees that they will be eating at least part of the meal without protest.

I have found that when I try to force my toddler to try something new, he is resistant. However, when I give him the option by putting it on his plate with other familiar and comfortable foods, he is more willing to take a bite since the pressure is low and the choice is his.

If my kids have screen time

Like everything else, exposure to screens and technology can be useful, if it is carefully monitored and regulated by caretakers. Engage with your child while watching TV and discuss the characters and themes of the episode during commercials. Most devices have parental controls—take advantage of them!

I love Guided Access on my iPhone, which restricts my son to only using the app that is open and can even shut my phone down after the allotted time is over. Once the phone goes to sleep, he knows it's time to play with something else. If you have an older child with an iPhone, set up Screen Time, which lets you monitor how they are using their devices and set time limits on app categories like games or social media.

Tablets can also be great educational tools. Many schools have individual iPads for students to use for assignments, and they are often a must-have on long car rides or in waiting rooms. Again, it's all about how you engage.

I've had my 3-year-old use my phone for a virtual scavenger hunt while sitting in the waiting room for an appointment. I named items that I saw in the room that he would quietly find and photograph them using my phone's camera. As long as you and your child interact with technology or the screen together, it can be an incredibly valuable tool that you don't have to fear.

Hunter Pax
Sibling love: Dr. Zeltser's sons play together in a ball pit. . Courtesy of Francyne Zeltser

What I Do Worry About

On the flip side—and equally as important as knowing what not to sweat—is knowing what types of things are worth worrying about as a parent. Here are the things I prioritize as both a parent and a child psychologist.

Who my kids' friends are

We go from deciding where our kids sit during circle time to dropping them off at school often without even being allowed to step foot into the building. How will I know if my son is making good friends and can advocate for himself?

Focus your energy toward getting to know your children's friends and educating your children on how to make good friends. Set up playdates or enroll them in extracurricular activities and talk to your child after the event about how they think it went.

It's OK to suggest things they may want to do differently during the next playdate. For example, if you observed that your child never got to choose the activity, you can say, "I noticed that you always agreed to play what Johnny wanted to play. What did you want to play?" Then help provide your child with a script of what they can say or do next time. Role-playing is a great way to help your child develop self-advocacy skills. You can pretend to be the friend or engage siblings in a social role-playing activity.

I also try to encourage my son to do activities that are of high interest to him, as opposed to choosing an activity just because it's popular. Expose your child to a variety of activities and pursue the ones that your child seems to enjoy. This can help teach them to be a leader and not always follow along with the crowd. Plus, they'll be will likely meet peers with similar interests.

If my child is kind

I sometimes observe children acting mean, not because they are actually mean, but because they have heard or witnessed others being mean. Kids are like sponges, they take everything in, even when you don't think they are paying attention.

I always try to teach my children to use kind language like "everyone's included" and "kindness counts." I also have honest (age-appropriate) conversations with them about when they observe others being unkind. We discuss what we observed and explore what other options the person had that could have led to more positive outcomes.

Teach empathy: Your child does not have to like everyone, but they should still be kind to everyone. You should also model this behavior for your children. For instance, invite the whole class to playdates that are held at the local park and greet other families with a smile, even if they don't reciprocate. When my children and I observe someone being unfriendly we try to evaluate the situation from a different perspective: Is it possible that the person is just having a bad day?

If I am making the right educational decisions for my kids

As educational standards shift, so do societal expectations. So much so that it often feels like our kindergarteners are being prepped more for college readiness than social adjustment. As parents, we are constantly faced with the question of if we doing right by our children. Have we signed them up for enough extracurriculars? Should we enroll them in public or private schools? Enrichment or intervention? The options are infinite and the future is unknown.

While I can't tell you what's right for your kids, I can confidently say that no decision you make for your children is set in stone. If you think you may be pushing them too hard, try pulling back and see how they do. If you're unhappy with their school, class, or extracurriculars, call a meeting or make a switch. If your child is struggling and falling behind, request an evaluation. You are your child's best advocate and the ball is in your court. There is no "one size fits all" to education, so trial and error is your best bet.

If my child is happy

Sure, I know my toddler is happier playing than doing homework but is he really truly happy deep down at his core? This is something that feels so out of my control as a parent. Rather than just worry about it, ask your children directly how they are feeling every day and try not to be dismissive of their concerns. It's important to validate your child's feelings and show them that you're here to listen.

It's also important to realize that while it's common for a child to be nervous the night before a test, it could be a sign of a bigger issue if your child expresses constant worry about nonspecific causes, is hesitant to engage in activities that would otherwise be perceived as fun, and/or is constantly complaining of physical symptoms (stomachache, headache, etc.) that are not related to medical issues.

If this is the case, talk to your child about how they feel and try to get to the root of the problem. If there is something bothering your child, suggest strategies for them to use. Then follow up with your child on how it went. If your child is still struggling, seek professional help. Low-level issues that are not addressed can turn into larger problems later in life.

Knowing what concerns to prioritize makes the parenting journey much calmer. If you're feeling worried or stressed, remember that you are not the only parent to feel this way. You can turn to your friends, family, or professionals (like a school psychologist or pediatrician) for help.

Francyne Zeltser is a licensed psychologist, certified school psychologist, adjunct professor, and mom of two in New York. Dr. Zeltser promotes a supportive, problem-solving approach where her clients learn adaptive strategies to manage challenges and work toward achieving both short-and-long-term goals. You can connect by email: DoctorZeltser@gmail.com.

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