Ferberizing Your Teen

Ferber-izing is a self-soothing technique where young children are taught to self-comfort when it comes to bedtime. The Ferber Method is a behavioral tool also to be considered for older children.

A mom is in the mall with her toddler and preschooler. The preschooler sees the Tollhouse Cookie sign, the image of a drool-worthy chocolate chip cookie displayed against the familiar yellow background. Her preschooler points to the confectionary delight and says:

            “I want a cookie.”

The mom sighs. “No.”

            The preschooler whines, “But mommy, I want the cookie.”

            “It’s almost dinnertime.” Mom reasons.

            Now the toddler, bound in his stroller, points to what his older brother wants. “Cookie.”

            “No. No cookies.” (Mom looks like she needs a nap.)

            Now both boys are whining for the cookie. The preschooler stomps his foot. The toddler bears an expression that is akin to someone losing his puppy.

            Mom gives another audible sigh and says, “Fine. Only one cookie each.”

            The only seconds ago storm of emotions felt by the young children is gone, their grins bright enough to light up the sky.

            End scene.

            Unfortunately, the scene above isn’t fiction. Years ago, that very event took place with me as the observer, my friend as the mom to her two young boys. I remember silently judging my friend:

            How could she just give into her boys? Doesn’t she understand that she’s teaching them to walk all over her? 

            Of course, it’s easy to judge when you aren’t the one who’s sleep-deprived and in the line of proverbial fire. After all, it wasn’t my kids puffing out their adorable cheeks in frustration, their large, innocent eyes begging for a little treat.

            There’s a technique, invented by Richard Ferber, called The Ferber Method or Ferberization. The technique’s goal is for young children to learn self-soothing—specifically regarding “sleep-training,” by allowing children to cry for specific, predetermined intervals before receiving external comfort.

Watching my friend next to the Tollhouse Cookie Company with her young children made me wonder if we can’t extend this idea of “Ferberizing” to our daily interaction with children.

So, I applied The Ferber Method to my own children over the years, allowing them to sit with the very things they did not want to sit with in an effort to grow. Some examples include:

  • If my son wanted pancakes, having him crack the very eggs he feared cracking.
  • Bringing my child to an animal shelter when he was reluctant to be near or touch dogs.
  • Apologizing to another child he hurt (despite never meaning to)

And then…they were teenagers…

Who knew teenagers could use some Ferberizing??

Ferberizing is based on the idea of self-soothing. Teens face a panoply of challenges and stressors that foster a great need for self-soothing.

Only the shape and form of Ferberizing looks different than it does at 5 or 10 years old. Young children may have the tantrums that parents can resolve to walk away from (i.e., the screaming meltdown in the grocery store); teens may turn to drugs or alcohol or fall into a bad peer group for self-soothing.

What can we do? We can be present; we can listen without judgment; we can remind them we are there for them and support them, loving them unconditionally.

But here’s the tough part:

We have to accept where our kids are, regardless of where that is and what that looks like. And just like those young children at the Tollhouse Cookie Company, we need to let them experience their physical, verbal, or spiritual tantrum in order for them to grow. We need to let our teens figure it out (while reminding them we are always there to listen and advise—when asked!).

The instinct is to want to fix, to have our children grin like my friend’s young kids did once they knew cookies were in their imminent future. But the “fix” is a short-term gain with long-term consequences. Sure, the cookie will taste sweet in the moment, but the lessons learned were:

 If I make enough noise, I get my way.

Mom is easy to walk all over.

Mom’s job is to please me.

Teenagers are much more subtle when it comes to “pushing” for what they want (i.e., money, a car, a later curfew, etc.) Get comfortable with your own boundaries while letting them know you are there for them—a balancing act, for sure. The more you put the onus on them, the more you are nurturing their autonomy, their ability to self-regulate. 

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