Monday, December 28, 2009

Bring on the New Year!

As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, let’s take a few moments to set some goals for 2010. I don’t want this to be a list of resolutions that are filled with unrealistic expectations. If we do, by mid-January, we'll end up hanging our heads, feeling miserable at our lack of success. Instead, I want to identify goals that focus on respect, simple kindnesses, and bringing happiness to ourselves and others.

Watching one of my favorite Christmas movies this past week, It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence, the guardian angel, shared a very important concept when he stated, “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” We need to be conscious of the lives we touch each and every day, and make sure that we are paying attention to those around us, even during those inconsequential moments we sometimes don’t even consider important.

Please examine the list and identify the ones that you think will make a positive change in your life or the lives of the people with whom you interact. Then, when the ball drops and welcomes in 2010, let’s make a positive difference in our world.

1. I will wait as I let someone else merge into my lane ahead of me while driving, or let someone with fewer items go ahead of me in the grocery line, Life should not be so rushed that offering common courtesies effects my time, and if it is, I need to budget more time for these events.

2. I will not hang up on person A when person B is calling, nor will I use call-waiting to tell person B that I am busy and will call them back, unless it is an urgent issue. Letting the call go to voicemail lets caller B know I am busy and will call them back! I will speak to the person I am on the phone with at the time with my full attention.

3. I will not answer my phone, text, or check the Internet while having an in-person conversation with someone, unless the situation warrants it. I will maintain full attention on the discussion, and will attend to my personal and work calls, emails, or texts after we are done talking.

4. I will make sure to end my phone calls or texting when I am dealing with a sales clerk, in line at the bank, in a movie or in a restaurant.

5. I will return phone calls in a timely manner. My life is no busier or no more important than anyone else’s, and it is not respectful to forget or delay a callback.

6. I will take responsibility for my actions and not make excuses for my problems. I will come up with reasonable solutions or strategies for problems, forgive my own mistakes, and seek forgiveness from those I offend.

7. I will find something each day that makes me smile, laugh, feel good about, or be grateful for - finding those ‘penguin moments’, as I have referred to in previous blogs.

Please feel free to comment with any additional goals you feel might enhance our lives. May you all be blessed with laughter, peace, success, love and friendships in the coming year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top Ten Things to Do Over the Winter Break with Your Family (especially if you are not traveling for vacation!)

We all come from different backgrounds and have different religious views. As I list my ideas for Winter Break, I am not focusing on religion, but some suggestions may emphasize the holidays that come at this time of year. Please know that I hope that everyone enjoys his or her holidays, but most importantly, I hope that you savor the time you have together over the next few weeks as a family. I have selected my top ten things to do. I hope they inspire you to make the next two weeks fun and memorable!

Number 10: Family Movie Night:
Pick out your favorite movies, make some popcorn or serve some hot chocolate, light a fire if you’re in a cold climate and have a fireplace, and have a movie night. If you are looking to get into the holiday spirit, here are some of my favorite suggestions for family holiday movies.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
T’was the Night Before Christmas
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street
A Christmas Carol
The Santa Clause
Christmas Vacation
And for my Jewish friends, there’s A Rugrat’s Chanukah
There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein

Number 9: Bake Cookies or Cakes
The importance of bringing joy to someone else is always an important lesson for children. First, take some important health precautions: make sure no one preparing the food is sick and wash little hands often in the preparation process. If you are bringing the treats to a nursing home or other community location, find out ahead of time if there are any dietary restrictions or restrictions on accepting home baked products. Otherwise you can always bring them to a grandparent, neighbor, or other friends or relatives.

Number 8: Gifts for a Needy Child or Family
This time of year is especially hard for many families who are struggling to afford the basic essentials in life. If you happen to be among the families struggling, please make sure to reach out to your community programs that offer assistance to provide meals, groceries, and toys. While you might be on the receiving end this year, know that when you have more fortunate circumstances, you can become the giver at that point. For those of you who are managing financially at this time, please think of those around you who might benefit from your generosity. Teach your children that the holiday spirit includes doing what you can to see that others enjoy the same necessities and pleasures that you do. Volunteer your time at a shelter or free meal facility, donate to toys for tots, go to your temple or church and see what needs people in your religious community have, or go to your post office to see if they support a Letters to Santa program, where you can obtain a letter from a child or family in need, and help fulfill their holiday wishes. Many shopping malls also have programs for giving as well. Have your children participate in the shopping or service project so they can understand the joy of giving.

Number 7: Discover Your City
Imagine that you are a visitor to Chicago. What places would you and your children want to see? Whether it’s the Botanic Gardens winter fest, walking down State Street, ice skating downtown or at Wrigley Field (it’s new this year), or visiting one of the many wonderful museums in our city or suburbs, take time to appreciate the beauty of our community. For a fun evening, check out some community holiday decorations. Vernon Hills Holiday Wonderland is still our family favorite for a local treat. There is something magically beautiful about this time of year, and enjoying it as a family is a treat.

Number 6: Pajama Day!
Imagine a day where you have no responsibilities, no obligations to drive carpools or step outside your own home! Stay in pajamas and play! Make a fort out of blankets, create an obstacle course, or play board games all day. Set out a blanket and have a picnic on the family room floor. Let your imagination run wild and have some old time, family fun.

Number 5: Create something from scratch!
It is so overwhelming to look at all the things that kids want, and the price tags attached. Do-it-yourself projects offer the reward of working together, creating something from scratch, and seeing how hard work and effort pay off. Need some ideas to get your brain charged? How about making a bed for your child’s doll? We designed beds, measured the pieces of wood we would need, bought the wood and had the store cut it to designed sizes (a $5 tip was all it took). Then we bought some sale priced material and batting, and found paints and nails in the house. We spent the day assembling, sanding and painting the wooden beds. The following day, we painted designs on the beds and made the mattresses, pillows and blankets. Store-bought beds for dolls run about $150; our price, $13.50 per bed (that includes the tip!). If you don’t have dolls that need a place to sleep, how about making a bird feeder? Home Depot and Menards have instruction guides and can help with supplies, or you can gather the information needed from the internet.

Number 4: Visit your Library
Reading day! Do you know your library has movies, music, puzzles and books? They have books on CD too! You can curl up on a couch in the children’s section of the library and share a story with your child. Go through the collections and find things to check out too! Teaching children to value reading for pleasure is one of the greatest gifts you can give to them.

Number 3: Arts and Crafts Day
I have wonderful memories as a child of creating sand art bottles, making Shrinky-Dink necklaces, and painting ceramic figures. To this day, I feel like I'm five years old again when I smell a tub of Playdoh. Remember squeezing the hair out of the Playdoh fun maker? Or how about ironing leaves and crayons between waxed paper to create a collage? There are so many fun craft ideas that are free or cost very little. Again, if you are short on the creative juices, go to the internet and search low cost craft ideas for children. Get out the glue, scissors, and construction paper and let your inner-child enjoy the day!

Number 2: Winter Fun
Ok, so while I feel that, as an adult, getting around in snow is horrible. But it is beautiful and fun from the child’s eye view! So, go out and enjoy the snow. Build a snowman or snow fort. Have a snowball fight. Go sledding on the local hill, go tobogganing on the bigger slopes in your community, or even snowboarding or skiing. Remember that safety comes first with all winter sports. Ski and snowboarding lessons are important, and if you can’t teach them all the information they need, sign them up for ski/snowboard school. Practice safe sledding too by making sure the hill is clear and kid-friendly. Remember the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where Harry Bailey slides on the shovel into the lake that hadn’t quite frozen over? Accidents happen, but do your best to make sure you are showing your kids how to have safe fun! Don’t forget to dress appropriately for the weather too.

Number 1: Have a Kids’ New Year’s Party
For five years, we had wonderful parties for children in our neighborhood on New Year’s Eve. We decided that since midnight was just too late for the kids to stay up, we would make their very own New Year’s Eve party. The kids’ party went from 4:00-5:30 p.m. We had four groups of ten children, divided by age or friendships. Each group had one or two adult supervisors (adult friends of ours, those brave souls!). We found four separate areas of our house to hold each group, and kids rotated every 20 minutes to a different station for activities.
Kitchen: Snack – The favorite snack was build your own burger, but the burger consisted of 2 vanilla wafers (bun), green (pickles), yellow (mustard) and red (ketchup) frosting, and a Girl Scout Thin Mint (burger). I know it wouldn’t win any health awards, so we also offered fruit, water, and apple juice.
Family Room – BINGO – Traditional BINGO with prizes (pencils, stickers, erasers, nickels).

Bedroom – Charades (older kids) or Hot Potato (younger kids) -
The group was divided into two teams and we played the traditional games. Because the room was small, the kids actually did really well in participating and not getting out of control!

Basement – Year Banner (2010, for example) – Each number could be cut out, glued onto construction paper, decorated with sequins, stars, stickers, markers, etc. We would punch two holes in the top of the paper and thread yarn through the holes to make a door hanger out of the banner.
THE GRAND FINALE – Each child’s admission to the party was one can of silly string. After the last game or snack rotation, the entire group put on coats and hats and went to the back yard. We counted down to “midnight”, and then everyone let the silly string fly! Make sure to let parents know to send the kids in older coats and clothes – one year we did this indoors (what was I thinking!) and the silly string did stick onto one girl’s shirt (sorry Mallory!). Overall, these parties were so much fun and I didn't feel bad having the kids go to bed at their typical bedtime because their party was so much fun. I was also able to enjoy my adult New Year’s Eve time as well!

If your kids are older, make sure you and they enjoy a safe New Year’s party. Set a good example and please, and don’t drink and drive. Know where your children are going, make sure the party is supervised, and limit the amount of time they are on the roads as much as possible.

Most of all have a happy, healthy holiday season filled with memories in the making. My wishes are for a wonderful 2010, filled with peace, happiness, and love.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Negotiating the Relationship Between Parents and Teens - An Ongoing Discussion

Many parents ask me how they can best communicate with and relate to their teenage children. It is a hard age, and a difficult time for both you and them. For the teens, they are working on their identities, trying to maintain a good sense of self-esteem, and negotiating the pressures of peers, schoolwork, and activities. They are exploring their independence, and with the added connectivity through the Internet and cell phones, teens also feel they need to be accessible 24-7 to their peers. Parents want to have some idea of what their children are ‘in to’, who their kids are hanging out with, if they are working to their best abilities at school, while also wanting some sense of organization and cleanliness around the house. When you look at the two lists of what each is striving for, they don’t always line up or make life easy for parents!

So how can a parent maintain a solid relationship and good communication with his or her teen while the teen is working on pulling away? This will be the first in a series of blogs targeting teens and their parents. Today’s blog will focus on parental expectations for teens at home. As kids get older, engage them in conversation about your expectations and what the logical or natural consequences will be if they don’t follow the guidelines. Don’t take the cell phone away for a messy room or ground them from friends because they didn’t put dishes away. Let the consequences be related to the situation. And make sure to provide plenty of positive attention and feedback when your teen is caught making great choices. If they only hear from us when they make mistakes or challenge authority, they will learn to seek our attention through those negative channels.

The teen bedroom:
Let teens’ rooms be their safe haven. As long as things aren’t growing and it’s not smelling badly, leave it be. Ask that the door be closed if it seems like, as Dorothy said, “it’s a twister.” If you have a cleaning service, explain to your teen that his room will be entered and cleaned only if the floor is accessible and the bed is reachable. If your teen chooses not to have it cleaned, it is your child’s responsibility to change and wash the sheets. Don’t panic if the sheets don’t get changed for a few weeks. Don’t rush in to get dirty laundry either. If it’s not in the laundry basket, it’s not your job. This is a great time for your teen to learn the responsibility of doing laundry!

The bathroom:
If you have a son, a major request is aim. Keep antibacterial wipes nearby, and if your son refuses to take aim, request that he wipe the seat or floor if he is wide of the target. Towels are another sore subject with teens and parents. The request is that the towels get hung back up to prevent mold and mildew. Explain that your child can choose to leave a towel on the floor, but you will not wash towels repeatedly if they aren’t hung up to dry. Your teen can easily do the towels if she chooses not to take proper care of them, and wants a clean smelling towel after a shower. As for counters and garbage, especially when teens share a bathroom with each other, common courtesy applies. Put things away after use, take the antibacterial wipe and clean off the counter when finished, especially if toothpaste is spit on the faucet! Keep kitchen garbage bags in the cabinet in the bathroom. When the garbage is overflowing, teens can grab a bag without leaving the room, fill it up, and bring it down to the garbage on the way out the door!

The living space:
This includes stairways, foyers, living rooms, family rooms, and kitchens. Most kids take off their shoes and pile them up near the front door. Make space nearby or in the hall closet to accommodate this. Coats seem to find their way onto railing posts. Make sure you have adequate hangers in your coat closet, and you can request that by the time kids make their way to their bedrooms for the night, coats are hung back into the closet. Backpacks can be kept either by the door or in a child’s room. If your house is like mine, there are always five pens laying around in the kitchen or family room. Find a drawer that is convenient in the kitchen area and designate it the ‘kids’ supply drawer.’ That’s where pens, pencils, paper clips, etc. go when finished.

You say, "You make it sound so easy...but it's NOT!"
If you noticed, many of my tips involve convenience for the teen. Having garbage bags, wipes, and other supplies where they’re needed will help to see the job gets done. It’s understandable with everything the teens are juggling, that they haven’t prioritized keeping your home organized and clean. Have a family meeting where you discuss your guidelines. Hear what the kids have to say about managing their living space. Most of the time, if you allow for their bedrooms to be teen-friendly, they will be more likely to respect the family living space in your house.

So then you ask, "But how can a parent follow through if THE KID doesn't follow through?"
If they choose to spread their supplies all over the house, the easiest remedy is the bag/box. Let the teens know that anything left laying around in the living space of the house will be bagged for five days. Explain the purpose of the rule (for example, “You haven’t been keeping your end of the bargain up by keeping the living space free from your clutter at the end of the day.”) Let them know that anything collected will be off limits for the five days – regardless of what the item is. The bag will be returned at the end of the five days, provided the teen puts the contents away. Don’t be afraid to put a cell phone, soccer equipment, coats and shoes, books or homework into the bag. Once you follow through, your teens will know you mean business and keep your living space uncluttered in the future. Emphasize that if your teen really values his property, he will put his things in their places. Just to let you know how this works, once I bagged items left lying around. My daughter decided she didn’t “need” any of the items, so I tucked it into the back of her closet for safekeeping. Years later, when she was cleaning out her closet to get ready to go to college (yes, YEARS LATER) she came across this bag. She found treasures that were “misplaced” long ago!

Remember to visit this blog as there’s lots more to be shared on the subject of teens and parents. This is a turbulent yet wonderful time in both of your lives. Please realize that some of these guidelines may not work for your teen, as all teens are not created equally, and all parent-child relationships are unique. Try to remember back when you were the teen when trying to negotiate this time in your life. All generations find their own ways to rebel and to create their own sense of independence. Let them make decisions, positive and negative, as they test out their roles. Be there to support them when a decision goes wrong, and I hope and pray that any misjudgment by your teen will be a safe learning experience on his or her road towards adulthood. Of course, if you know your child is making unhealthy choices, you need to step in and provide strong guidance and consequences. But keep in mind also that the best way to learn many of life’s lessons is to experience mistakes, manage them, and correct them for the future.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

With Gratitude...

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for so many reasons. First, it was the weekend that I was married, almost twenty-three years ago. I am blessed with a wonderful husband who has always encouraged me to live my dreams. For that, I am forever grateful. It also is a holiday filled with some very enjoyable traditions. I will share mine here, and ask that each of you share one or two special traditions that make this holiday important to you as well. If you haven’t found a way to enliven the day with your own sense of spirit and fun, please think about what you can do to take it up a notch – really put the pizzazz into your Thanksgiving with interpersonal touches that embrace the warm sense of the holiday’s intention, to be thankful for all that surrounds you.

Our typical Thanksgiving begins early. My husband makes a killer apple pancake, and we invite one family to enjoy the breakfast, friends from my husband’s childhood who have joined us for more than ten years now. They bring the milk and orange juice (pulp free of course) and we supply the rest. The kids eat, then run off and enjoy the special time together, playing games, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, and creating treasure hunts. After the table is cleared, my friend and I first scavenge through the coupons that fill the newspaper, and then compare size of turkeys, cooking methods, and preparation times. The men sit on the couch, reading the paper and watching the football pre-game show.

Guests arrive at 5 p.m. From the moment they come in, take-home containers in hand, there is chatter and laughter filling the house. The food is of course an important presence, but it’s the fun and connections that truly make the holiday special.

The Thanksgiving meal begins with each person at the table sharing what he or she is grateful for. My sister once gave us a small stone with the word “gratitude” engraved on it. It is passed around as everyone shares his or her blessings, praises life’s successes, cries happy tears for the joyous moments, and sad tears for those missing at the table. As a family and friends, we are growing up together, and sharing gratitude with each other holds very special meaning for us all.

After dinner, containers come out, and everyone fills them with leftovers. Each person who brings a dish makes sure to make extra so that the Thanksgiving meal can be enjoyed again, even if you aren’t the host of the party! And then the games begin. Anyone who comes to our house for Thanksgiving knows to bring a white elephant. This is a somewhat used, somewhat undesired left over item, carefully and beautifully wrapped. A game is played using dice, and the wrapped treasures are awarded if a six is rolled. Once all packages are accounted for, the gifts are opened and each person describes what is inside. There are typically some special gifts, like a vase or BBQ tools. And there are the really special gifts, the most sought after fish pen that comes back year after year or the George Foreman autograph, on a Foreman Grill postcard. Then the excitement starts as dice are once again tossed, and every six rolled allows the roller to steal a gift. When the timer goes off, what is in front of you is what you take home.

Following that craziness, the trivia contest starts. We pair up our guests somewhat randomly; one of the young guests is paired with an older guest. It’s a great way for two generations to bond and share fun and knowledge together. This year, we’re taking away all cell phones so Internet googling to find answers won’t give one team an advantage. Prizes are awarded, and laughter fills the air.

While every year brings stress and struggle in some form or another to everyone, it is most important to take time to reflect on the big or small gratitudes, successes, or triumphs in life. As you enjoy your Thanksgiving, whether on your own or in a group, please make sure to identify the positive influences in your life. If you don’t already have some traditions that make this holiday stand out, think about what you can do to bring special meaning to the day.

Don’t forget to add your comments here with your own gratitudes and traditions. Also, let me know if you would like to get more detailed instructions for the white elephant game or need some quick, easy recipes for stuffing, pies: pecan, pumpkin, French silk, and key lime; each pie has less than six ingredients and tastes fantastic. Most of all, know that each one of you reading this has, in some way or another, touched my life, and for that I am grateful.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Notes Left Behind...

I just finished reading a very special book, Notes Left Behind, by Brooke and Keith Desserich. It was an inspiring and difficult read, as parents Brooke and Keith journal from the day of diagnosis through the death of their beautiful six-year-old daughter from pediatric brain cancer. The title refers to the wonderful collection of notes that Elena left for them, scattered throughout their home, hidden in bookcases, briefcases, and pillow cases, professing her love for her parents and sister. The painful process for these parents to continue on each day as their precious child fought gallantly for her life is heartwarming and heartbreaking.

The book is filled with reminders to parents to embrace each sacred moment you have with your children. Since I work to help children and parents notice the positives amidst the chaos of their everyday lives, the journal spoke to me on so many levels. We never know what tomorrow will bring, therefore it is so important to live each day as if it is the most precious one of your life.

Yesterday, I happened to call a friend at a critical point in her day. She was feeling the stress of life, and my lunch request was her ticket to break from the seriousness and enjoy a part of her afternoon. How it made me smile when, later that evening, I received a voice mail from her stating how valuable our friendship was and that, somehow, I had that sixth sense to call at just the right moment. She shared how important it was for her to make sure I knew all of this. How often do we think these thoughts, and then get on with our busy days? How often are the last words to our children, as they rush out the door in the morning, “You forgot to make your bed!” instead of “I love you and hope you have a great day!” When was the last time you told your spouse how valuable he is in your life, and why? Or called your sister, brother, or parents to let them know you were thinking of them?

Our lives are filled with financial worries, health concerns, parenting woes, relationship struggles, world chaos and day-to-day stress that can overwhelm any one of us at any minute. It would be easy to want to push the alarm button, pull the covers over our heads, and hide out from the new day of potential disasters. But instead, when you wake up tomorrow morning, walk into the bathroom, look into the mirror, and identify your strength. Whether it’s your caring eyes, your engaging smile, your kind, warm heart, or your wonderful pancakes – begin your day excited to share yourself with the world.

When you see your spouse or children for the first time tomorrow morning, don’t focus on the rush to get moving. Instead, cuddle, embrace, and share a warm thought. Most of you reading this will think to yourself, “Who has that kind of time?” Remind yourself that the two minutes of caring and connecting will actually speed up the tired child or create intimate warmth between you and your spouse. These little kindnesses really make a difference!

See what happens when you spend your day letting the people around you know that they have made a positive impact on your day. Thank the grocery clerk for her hard work, standing on her feet all day. Don’t talk on your cell phone while the bank teller waits on you; give him eye contact, and thank him for the good service. Let the car that is anxious to get in front of you do so, and smile as he passes by. Let go of the hostility, anger, rush, and worry, and replace it with patience, gratitude, warmth, and kindness. Feel the tension relax from the lines in your face as you continue this throughout your day. You will find a renewed sense of energy and bounce in your step!

Shifting our focus and attitude does not come easy. It takes practice and patience for us. But if the Desserich’s story has taught me anything, it is that everything we fret about is what we desire when we are facing tragedy in our lives. The bickering between siblings, the mundane chores, the long grocery line – how different do you look at those things when you realize it represents that your family is happy, healthy, or even just with you?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Children with Social Reasoning Difficulties

I have always been a fan of Amelia Bedelia. She’s a character in a children’s book, and she takes life very literally. My favorite scene in one of her books occurred when she was playing baseball. She was on third base, and the next batter hit the ball. Her teammates told her to run home, so Amelia Bedelia ran to her house. Little did I know back when I was first reading about Amelia’s escapades that many of the children I work with live life much like Amelia’s character.

Children with social reasoning difficulties often communicate very literally. Hidden meanings, inferences, or sarcasm are quite confusing. In addition, they do not understand idioms. If you told a child with social reasoning difficulties that you had a green thumb, she might very well grab your hand to check it out. If the weatherman said it would be “raining cats and dogs,” this child might stare out the window all day waiting for the first animal to fall from the sky. Children with Bipolar Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Seizure Disorder, and some with Attention Deficit Disorder struggle with understanding some of the social nuances that we come to understand as we mature.

How does this play out socially?

Children, or adults, for that matter, who see life in its most simple terms, very factually and literally, expect people to respond in a very predictable manner. The child with social reasoning difficulties often experiences anxiety, confusion, frustration, and feels annoyed when people don’t respond as expected.

Since thinking is so literal and concrete, statements feel like promises, and disappointment is often felt when those statements don’t happen. There are very few, if any, gray areas. If a parent tells a child that “we will try to get to the toy store,” but it turns out there isn’t enough time to go, the child feels let down because he heard it as a fact.

There is an inability to generalize information to other, similar situations. The child walks into many of his experiences without any preparation or understanding of what will happen, creating high anxiety. A child who learns to cope with life as a fourth grader is panicked at entry into fifth grade. He doesn’t use his prior knowledge to predict how his day will be.

When a situation has passed, talking about ‘what happened’ doesn’t really make sense because the experience has ended. While understanding how she dealt with an issue, what she can do differently next time, and how others reacted makes perfect sense to us, the child with social reasoning difficulties doesn’t make the connection between past and future experiences.

Some children want to have friendships, but don’t understand the social rules that go along with it. The child with social reasoning difficulties doesn’t have awareness of some of the basic friendship necessities, such as staying on topic, talking about mutual interests, taking turns, using eye contact, or attending to nonverbal cues.

How can we help teach social understanding?

The key to success is patience, understanding, and teaching. While typically developing children pick up on these lessons through life experiences, children with social learning difficulties don’t naturally attend to the very things that could guide them. So it is our job as parents, friends, teachers, social workers, and community members to assist. Here are some tools that each of us can use when we encounter a child who seems to fit the description.

Preview the experience. Carol Gray has coined the term 'social stories.' Basically, help the child prepare for what's coming through telling the social story of the situation. Going to a birthday party, getting ready for a new school year, going to a family gathering, or going on a trip all can be converted to a social story! While you can't predict every moment of a situation, you will relieve a great deal of anxiety by helping the child to understand what's going to occur. Here's an example if you're going to Grandma's for Thanksgiving:

Talk about who’s going to be there and who the child will probably sit near at the meal. Discuss the types of food to expect, and what to do if he doesn’t like some of the foods. Talk about what activities might be going on – football game on TV, kids playing games in the basement, or people helping clean dishes in the kitchen.

Compare and contrast. Helping a child to learn to generalize, or relate two different events, is crucial in reducing anxiety. Comparing and contrasting Thanksgiving at Grandma’s and Christmas at Aunt Lisa’s helps the child to make the connection between the holidays and get-togethers. Learning to identify commonalities helps the child to predict or anticipate his experiences.

Supervise and guide in the moment. Chronological age is not the predictor of social maturity. Children with social reasoning difficulties need direct guidance beyond the age typically expected. It is not unusual for a parent of a seventh grader with social difficulties who has a friend coming over to discuss activities that they can do, and then help negotiate transitions between those activities. As difficult as it might feel, remaining within earshot helps to guide the child in having a successful day with a friend.

Break down the abstract. It’s easier for us adults to explain things in a more literal fashion than to expect the child to understand the abstract or hidden messages. Here’s some examples of what we say, and how they’re heard:

"Wait a minute." This means, "I'm gonna count 60 seconds and then Mom will
answer me."

"Don't bother me now." Interpreted as, "I can bother her in 60 seconds."

"Can't you see that I'm busy?" The child might respond, "Yes, I see that you're busy, now answer my question."

It takes more time and thought for us to have to explain our intentions in a direct, concrete way, but it is so important in helping the child understand us. "I have to finish putting the steaks on the grill, and then I will help you with your homework" is much more concrete than "wait a minute." The child can visualize what will happen.

Cut out faces from magazines. Make cards from faces you cut out of magazines that depict different emotions and activities. Play games such as "What's the story?" or "What are they feeling?" with the cards. Teaching children to look at faces for social clues helps them begin to recognize feelings from facial expressions, and teaches them to tune into people's expressions for communication signals. Work to translate the face card recognition to real life by pointing out nonverbal expressions on people around you. An example of this might be, "Look at Daddy's smile - he is so happy to see you!"

If you know a child who resembles the description above, it is a good idea to read the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Marc Haddon. The author, a man who spent years working with autistic children, wrote this story from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy named Christopher, a child with autism. In it, Christopher negotiates the events of his life with the literal interpretation, peculiarities, and anxiety typical to children with social reasoning difficulties. Seeing his life as he feels it will open your eyes to the lives of these children. Understanding their view of the world is key to knowing how to guide and support them. These children represent one of my favorite groups of clients. Perhaps it is their innocent perspective on life, or maybe it’s their incredibly enduring spirits. Each one of them leaves an indelible mark on my heart because of their resilience, strength, and courage. While we have a lot to teach them about our fast-paced, sometimes cynical world, we can also learn a lot from them.

Monday, October 12, 2009

“Hey Mom, what’s for dinner?”

One of the most important things we can do with our children is share a meal together. If you’re like many families, finding time to prepare, let alone eat a meal together, amidst carpools for dance, soccer, Hebrew School, CCD, and violin practice is nearly impossible. Yet it is one of the most connecting times you can spend as a family. Take a look at what you can do to bring the family together for dinner at least 2-3 times each week. And let’s talk about what you can do to create harmony in your family during these times.

1) No cell phones, television, or other distractions. Treat this time as truly family-focused. Unless you, as a parent, are on call for your job, it is important for you to model the time as ‘family first’ by not answering your phone or allowing other things to distract you from this sacred time.

2) Don’t be a short order cook. When you plan your family meal, keep all members in mind. Make sure there is something on the table that each person will enjoy. This doesn’t mean you have to make 5 different entrees. Instead, make sure the vegetable, salad, or potato is something that even the pickiest eater will enjoy. Offer each member a taste bite of everything. This is really just a ‘pea-sized’ taste. Sometimes tasting a food over time will help develop a liking for it. But don’t force-feed the food. That creates more food issues with children than just exposing them to it and allowing them to experiment. I still don't eat green peppers or olives, and I think I'm doing ok!

3) Be creative. In our house, we once used a Sunday meal to taste different sauces. What the kids didn’t pay attention to was that they were actually eating chicken that they normally didn’t eat. But because we were tasting sauces, they attended to the teriyaki, BBQ, ketchup, honey-mustard, etc. that was on the table, and had a sheet of paper to rank each flavor. It was fun, and I learned that almost anything became edible if teriyaki sauce was used!

4) Serve your food family style, and let your little ones help themselves rather than put the food on their plates. All three of my kids were picky eaters. I was so frustrated when they were little because even spaghetti was on the list of ‘don’t like’. Spaghetti – who ever heard of a kid who didn’t eat spaghetti! One day, I was running late and didn’t have time to fully prepare the meal. So the noodles were in the strainer, the sauce in a bowl, and I just brought it all to the table. Each child was so excited to put the noodles and sauce on her plate and they all took second helpings. I never realized that having them scoop it out themselves made the difference in them ‘owning the meal’, and thus, eating the meal!

5) Once I realized that they liked to serve themselves, I also began to let the little chefs into the kitchen. Each child picked a Sunday, created the menu, went shopping for the food, and helped prepare it. Because a child was involved, there was more willingness by her sisters to try different foods. The chef was delighted to eat what she prepared, and typically had a menu choice that was kid-friendly. Our favorite was a sloppy joe recipe that combined some of the most unusual ingredients into a delicious tasting meal! The kids loved putting the odds and ends into the frying pan and were shocked at how it turned out so yummy. I’m including the recipe here for you to try. This comes from a District 102 cookbook, but the ingredients have been slightly modified. Thanks to Fran Horwitz for the recipe.

Sloppy Joes the Fun Way

1 ½ lbs. Ground beef or ground turkey
1 small bottle of ketchup
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon grape jelly
1 Tablespoon mustard
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
Onion powder, salt and pepper to taste

Brown beef or turkey in a frying pan and drain.
Add all other ingredients and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Serve on buns.

6) Don’t force your children to eat just because it's dinnertime. Babies feel when their bodies are hungry, and signal their hunger with crying. As they get older, we put them on a schedule because it socially and logistically fits into our lifestyles. Having a family meal is more about spending time together as a family, talking, laughing, and sharing about each person’s day. Food happens to be a part of it. Kids who are given opportunities to taste different foods, but are given the ability to decide how much they want to eat actually develop healthier eating patterns than children who are given platefuls of food and made to consume what’s in front of them. Sometimes a child is truly not hungry at that moment. It is important to make sure they are not snacking from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. without regard to their body hunger, because that is not listening to the hunger cue either. But a child who can get a snack when he feels hungry can also let you know when he is not hungry – and sometimes it coincides with dinnertime. Don’t make a big deal of it and most likely it will not become a behavioral or attention-getting issue.

7) Don’t make dessert the reward for finishing dinner. When you place such importance on dessert, you increase its inherent value to a child. Dessert is just a snack. Make sure you help your children attend to what kind of snack they feel like eating. Sometimes, that cool feeling of ice cream, rolling down the back of your throat, is the perfect thing. Other times, the crisp, crunchy bite into apple slices, juice dripping down to your chin, is what you desire. My favorite snack is cold, creamy vanilla yogurt, mixed with crunchy grape nuts and chewy raisins. Teach children to think about what they want to eat – this is the beginning of attuned eating - eating when you’re hungry, and eating what you’re hungry for. Sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes it’s chewy, sometimes it’s hot, other times it’s cold.

Above all, make sure family dinners are a time to check in with each person. Make dinner last as long as you can, but not so long that the children are squirming and misbehaving, so that becomes your focus. Sometimes, ten quality minutes of sitting down, self-serving the food, and sharing a few thoughts together is all it takes to help your family feel more connected. Try it tonight!! Bon appetit!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Getting a Healthy Perspective on Kids and Sports

Now that school has begun and Labor Day has passed, parents are full swing into fall sports with their children. This is a great time to put sports into proper perspective. For the sake of this blog, I am writing about kids and team sports. I am also categorizing the different levels of sports involvement for children in the following manner: new learner, casual player and competitive level.

New Learner: Many children begin their team sport involvement around age 4 or 5 when community park district leagues are introduced to this age group. Assume all children devote 100% of their growing energy to the different areas of child development: fine motor, gross motor, verbal and social-emotional. Children who appear very athletic at age 5 look different on the sports field than the child who is an avid reader at this age. Likewise, a very social child might not be a very fast runner. Each child has uniquely spent their 100% of growing energy, and at this age, skills vary greatly. Where a child is at age five is also not always a predictor of athletic success, as development takes different turns as each child continues on his or her unique growth path.

So sports at this age should be focused on skill building, friendship making, and teamwork. A good coach will not put his best players in for more minutes, or identify MVP based on athletic agility. Coaching at this age should work to teach children understanding of the game, sharing successes, learning from mistakes, demonstrating good sportsmanship and respect of the referees, umpires, coaches, parents, and other children playing the game. A parent’s focus should be the same. Don’t go over the shot the child missed, or talk about the child who stood watching the planes fly overhead. Talk about how much fun you had watching your child play, how well they worked as a team, and what fun it was seeing the two teams high five at the end. Do not let a child quit mid-season, unless there is something very negative influencing the decision. A child who is not the best on the team is not a good reason. Each child on a team is an important rung on a ladder to a successful season, and getting to the top of that ladder of success is measured by fun, camaraderie, and learning. Teach your child the value of not quitting.

In addition, children with special needs should be especially considered at this time. Many children have not yet been diagnosed, but parents have begun to notice quirks or unique traits. As these children enter team sports, they may have difficulties attending, socializing, or understanding the complexity of the rules. Patience and acceptance by their coaches, teammates, and other parents helps a child who might participate a little differently into feeling like a valued member of the team.

Casual player: Casual players are kids who enjoy being on a team, playing the game, having fun with fellow teammates, and learning the rules. They’re not focused on who wins or loses most of the time. They are out there to participate. Some casual players might even be forced to participate by parents who want their child to experience team sports, but they themselves aren’t that ‘into’ it. Parents need to remain encouraging, positive, and keep the perspective of the goal of involvement – continued development, teamwork, sportsmanship, and respect. Yelling across the field at your child or someone else’s to hustle or screaming at a ‘bad call’ by an umpire negates the positive learning atmosphere. Sitting in your car after the game, dissecting all the poor performance areas of your child doesn’t motivate him to run out there next week and play hard. Let the coach do the coaching around the game, and coaches – be encouraging, even to your own child. If you’re the coach, do you call each player and analyze the game with each child? I doubt it. Instead, talk about the positive moments of the TEAM. Spend time practicing at home to enjoy this quality time with your child while helping develop skills in a fun, casual way.

Competitive level: Some children do have skills that excel, many times in more than one sport. These children should be able to begin competing with other children at a similar ability and interest level. However, the same message applies – to keep a child invested in her development of sports skills, encouragement and support are the ticket. Yelling at missed efforts, criticizing your child, coaches, refs, or others does not help maintain interest, passion, or effort. If you continue to negatively reinforce his performance, at some point, whether now or shortly in the future, your child will burn out, tired of the negative impact of your pressure. Remember to allow the child to explore other interests as well. The child who spends 4 hours a day, 6 days a week practicing for one sport might one day come to you because his friends are all on a volleyball team and he wants to join them. You have to help the child weigh passion and skill with well-rounded development and desires. It’s not easy to make the decisions, but talking it out, helping the child understand the implications of each choice, and allowing him to ultimately make that decision, for good or bad, is an important learning moment. We all have regrets of ‘what could have been’ and your child may have them too. But we learn a lot from these moments.

The most important message here is to teach your child to love sports – playing, watching, coaching – the whole package. I have spent many years coaching children in softball, and my best memories are the ones where the kids bonded as a group. We started out each season with a pizza party to help the kids get to know each other. We had three to four lunches, dinners, or get-togethers during the season. Parents were encouraged to help coaches at practice, allowing them to spend time around us as we demonstrated learning in a fun atmosphere. Early in the season, each practice started out with name games and we taught softball terms in fun, teambuilding ways. We did not win every game. I can’t even tell you our records, or the records of any individual players. I do remember the moment the child who was so timid to swing a bat got her first hit. I do remember the cheers of support from her teammates when a child with special needs made her first put out at second base. I even remember calling a time out so the girl in right field with her mitt between her legs could finish putting her hair in a better ponytail before the next pitch. I also know that some of my players went on to play competitively in high school, and some went on to play at the intramural level. And some just throw around the ball during the summer, hopefully smiling as they remember our fun season. My hope is that all kids that participate in team sports can feel good about being a part of a team - win or lose, total athlete or ponytail fixer.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Spoofing - Know the Term - Stay One Step Ahead of Your Teen

When you are dealing with teenagers, sometimes we have to stay ahead of their game. I learned of something that is worth sharing on this blog. Typically, I have advised parents that if their teens are sleeping at a friend’s house, you should make sure that when they arrive, they should call you from the friend’s landline, so you can be sure your child is at that home. However, by spoofing a Caller ID, they can deceive you into believing they are one place, when they are actually in another. There are applications that can be downloaded to cell phones (especially ones with internet connection) that allow the teens to “spoof” the caller ID so that the number that shows up on your phone when they call in is any number they select.

In other words, teens can have a phone app that, when active, allows them to call you from their cell phone, yet it looks like they are actually using a home’s landline.

So, to stay one step ahead of our teens, parents need to unite and support each other. If your teen is going to spend time at a friend’s house or have a sleepover, and you have questions about the plans, call the parents. Confirm the plans. And have the parents call you when your child arrives there for the night. You need to be extra vigilant when teens want an impromptu sleepover while they are already out during the evening. Last minute plans are most often associated with peer pressure, impulsive acts, or risk-taking behavior.

Many of you reading might feel, “Not my child, she doesn’t have the techno-savvy ability to do something like that,” or “I know I can trust my child, he hangs with other teens that I know are making good choices.” If you fall into this category, remember, it takes only one teenage mistake to spiral into a lifetime of misery. They meet new friends online, at pools, at their jobs, through other friends. Their friendship circles grow so quickly, and teens with the best intentions still act impulsively and get sucked into peer-pressured activities from time to time.

Other parents feel that their teen will not feel “trusted” if we go behind their backs and involve other parents, or worry that adults will think that we are being overprotective if when we contact another parent. We are so worried about how we will look, a sort of peer pressure for ourselves, that we sometimes override our good judgment, common sense, or instincts. Remember to trust the little voice inside you. If something doesn’t seem to add up, trust that instinct. Do what you need to do to make sure your teen is acting within your family’s boundaries. Trust is something that is developed over time – it is earned when repeated checks result in observation of appropriate behavior, and trust is maintained when less frequent checks continue to result in observation of appropriate behavior. Trust isn’t something we should blindly hand out – especially during the crucial teenage years, when impulsivity can strike at any time!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How to Parent from Afar

Many of you have just gotten back from taking your child(ren) to college. I, too, am in that group. Nikki & Jamie, my identical twins, are starting their sophomore year at University of Illinois. While this year was MUCH easier than last, I still have the 3 W’s - wonder about how they are managing, worry about their safety, and wish for their happiness and success. So I thought this blog entry would focus on parents’ roles while children are away from home.

When children are little, parents really are problem solvers. Kids come to us with a problem, and we help them with the best solution. If their Barbie doll needs a clothing change and their little fingers can’t manage it, we take the Barbie, change the clothes, and just like that, we’re the heroes. As they enter school, we arrange their play-dates, talk to the teacher about how they learn best, and help negotiate the learning process, both with academics and friends. By middle school, our role needs to shift; we can no longer just provide a fix for their problems. At this point, we need to shift our assistance to help them gain independence in problem-solving techniques. We can empathize with their feelings, help them brainstorm solutions, and watch as they put their solution in place, hoping that all will work out well. If it doesn’t, we’re right there help them cope with the disappointment and to start the process over again. In high school, some parents don’t even hear about their kids’ problems! When we do, the best course of action is to be a great listener. Any advice we offer at this stage is usually ignored or rebuffed, and instead of the heroes we once were, now we are reduced to “oh, mom, you just don’t get it!” It’s not that we have changed, but when a teenager, who is trying to develop independence skills, is told a possibly obvious solution, the teen feels inadequate and lashes out at the ones who can take it the most – parents.

So, we have supported, advised and listened and now our little baby has grown up and is ready to take his or her first steps in that next stage of life. What do we do now?

The most common question I hear is, “How often should we be in touch?” Back in the “olden” days, when I was at college, there was no immediate access as there is today. We usually “signaled” our family on Sunday at 10 a.m. You know, call the house, let it ring once, and hang up. That way, the long distance call was on our parents’ dime! They would call back, and each parent would take turns speaking to us – usually with us repeating the same stories over and over. If a sibling was at home, we might have to do it again! With the innovative technology of today, free calling and texting on cell phones, 24/7 access, Internet capability, video chatting, all raise the question of how much is too much?

Sometimes, you will get calls that send worry-chills down your spine: roommate issues, class snafus, alcohol-related incidents, accidents or illnesses. There is a part of every parent that wants to get in a car or on a plane, rush to the aid of your child, and make it better. But we know that those skills we have been developing through the years – listening, offering advice if we are asked, and knowing that even poorly managed or unresolved issues all provide a learning ground for our developing adults. We want everything to go perfectly, but in reality, it’s how they manage through the tough times and learn how to deal with disappointments that really pave the way to adulthood. Give them the strength to manage on their own. Tell them that if it something is important to them, it is worth the struggle to get their needs or wants met. With those tools, success is just around the corner - for both your young adult and you as a college parent!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Helping Children with Aggressive Behavior

Aggression is a normal part of a child's development. Preschoolers have difficulty sharing, react to conflict with physical force, or throw a tantrum when things are not going their way. They are learning many new skills, from fine motor to verbal communication. Children this age can easily become frustrated with everything they are trying to master and may end up taking it out on a friend. If a child is feeling resentful or neglected, she might react by pushing another child who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes aggression occurs when a child is either tired or hungry. Young children think much faster than they speak, so a physical outburst is much more effective and timely in getting a response from another child or adult.

What can you do to help young children manage their aggression?

1. Respond quickly - Many situations are predictable. Be attentive, supervise at all times, and intervene by redirecting as needed. At times, if physical aggression occurs or a child is not responsive to redirection or 1-2-3 warning, then a time-out is appropriate. Keep in mind that time-outs are not meant to be used in anger. Stay as calm as you can so the child learns that dealing with conflict can be managed with words.

2. Help a child take responsibility for his actions - If something is broken, have him help repair it, if possible. If a mess is made, the child needs to clean it up. This is a logical consequence, and again, helps the child learn to predict how his actions will be dealt with in the future, especially if you are consistent.

3. Talk about conflict during "teachable moments" - While a child is in the heat of the moment, that is not the best time to explore other ways of managing herself. Picture yourself when angry - if someone tried to have you brainstorm solutions right then and their, you might want to slug them! During circle time, snack time, or after a nap, take the time to talk in general about problem situations and look for alternative solutions. Teaching brainstorming - "what could you have done that would have worked out better?" is a wonderful technique for conflict resolution that helps children manage behavior throughout life!

4. Be consistent in your response - A child will learn to anticipate consequences and internalize choices quicker when a logical connection is made between action and reaction, and that connection is consistent from time to time.

5. Seek help if you are stuck! - Network with the circle of people in your child's life if you are having problems managing your child's aggression. Teachers, other parents and pediatricians all have great ideas and most likely have seen the issues before. Don't feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Sometimes, a referral to your school district's evaluation team or privately to a neurologist, social worker, or psychologist is in order to evaluate emotional, behavioral or neurological difficulties that may effect your child's ability to control his aggression.

6. Teach them to self-calm and deal with frustration - Many children need to learn self-soothing skills when frustrated or angry. Helping them develop a toolbox of choices will assist them in years to come. Some ideas are: listening to music, playing a sport, reading in a quiet place, hitting a pillow, playing with play-doh or coloring. Having the tools ready to manage anger and frustration are a necessity! Some children who continue to act impulsively may need reminders on when to use their tools. I have made "Stop and Think" cards - a stop sign on the back with the words "stop and think", and on each card, a toolbox choice like the ones listed above. The cards are laminated, and can be kept on a key ring. Referring a child to her "toolbox" helps the impulsive child to stop and think as she looks at her cards to choose a healthy way to manage her temper.

7. Reinforce positive behavior - I can't say this enough. If you can catch a child doing something good, it is a great motivator for a child! Kids are born positive and wonderful. Even the most difficult child has great moments throughout the day. While some days, seeing the miserable moments might be easier, a child who is fed a diet of positives grows self-esteem! Getting attention is such a motive for children's behavior, so if a child knows he will get attention for making the "smart choice", he will do just that!

As children get older, we need to teach them to be assertive and good self-advocates. They need to be able to stick up for themselves, get their needs met in positive ways, and manage conflict through verbal discussions and brainstorming solutions. So it is important to help our young children to deal with their anger and disappointment, rather than just restrain their aggressive feelings.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting Ready for School

As the summer comes to a close, parents are busy organizing school supplies, buying fall clothes, and comparing class lists and teacher selections. It is a hectic, nerve wracking time. We worry if this year will be successful for our child. Will he make friends? Will the teacher encourage learning and spark a true interest in my child? Will my child be the victim of a class bully? We want our children to be safe, love to learn, and grow in every regard. As I look back on each year in the lives of my own children, and the children who I see in therapy, I am reminded of my own angst when I sent my twins off to preschool for the very first time. I know that at the beginning of each school year, parents revisit the same worries, wishes, and hopes for our children. With that in mind, I wish for every child a year filled with successes that are measured by the size of her smile, the pride in his walk. I wish for each child the courage to try new things, the ability to manage failures with a focus on how to improve for 'next time', and with the hope that each day will start with love, laughter, and happiness.

by Debbie Gross
August, 1992

I watched her go on the very first day
I waited for the tears
They came, but they were mine.

I wanted her to say, “I can’t go, don’t send me, Mommy.”
Instead she waved and said, “Bye, you can leave.”

My wings of protection
Were they large enough, long enough
To reach her from afar?

Did I teach her all the things she needs to know
To manage on her own?
Will she ask to go to the bathroom?
What if her shoe gets untied?

Will that stranger who led her away become her friend?
Will she tie her shoes?
Give her a hug if she feels sad?

I can’t believe how long this hour and a half seems.
I left her a lifetime ago.

Here she comes.
She looks bigger. Smarter. Prouder.
She survived.

And so will I.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Am I in Control of My Technology, or is Technology Controlling Me?

I saw an interesting sign at the local service station, which uses it’s signboard to motivate travelers who pass by. The quote, by Joe Bob Briggs, said, “Apparently we love our own cell phones but we hate everyone else’s.”

We are annoyed when someone we are with spends “our” afternoon together texting others. We are bothered by the person standing in line at the bank carrying on a phone conversation as if she was the only person in the room. We watch the car in front of us swerve back and forth, only to pass him as he chats on his cell phone. We cannot believe that someone would sit in a restaurant and carry on a full voiced conversation on their phone!

Yes, these are the phone manners that we are displaying to our children! In wanting them to develop appropriate social skills, both on and off the cell phone, we forget that these are the examples that we set each and every day!

When did the need for such an immediate response begin to dictate our lives? What could possibly be so important that it cannot wait for a private, secluded, uninterrupted moment? We are demonstrating to our children that immediate gratification and skewed priorities are the driving forces of our lives. Our children actually worry that their friends will get mad at them if they do not respond immediately to a text!

Let’s all take a good look at ourselves. It’s time to make some changes. If we want to teach our children to nurture their friendships and family relationships, we need to let the phone rest! If you want to have a phone conversation while driving, use a hands free device and speak-to-dial feature. Don’t think you are that one great driver that can read a text, send a text, and be focused on the road. If you’re at the dinner table with family or friends and your phone goes off, only check it if you are in a profession that requires your 24/7 attention or if your children are out and might need you. Only answer it if it is one of those emergency calls. Spare the store clerk, bank teller, and fellow restaurateurs from your disagreement with your boss, spouse or friend. Let’s show our children that technology is great, but it is not in control – we are!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Parents are Role Models for our Youth

Sometimes we forget just how important our influence is on our children. Below are four tips to think about as you go about your day. It will help guide you in how you approach your children, and help you to encourage them to be the best they can be through positive guidance and acceptance.

When children approach you in the morning or after school, greet them with eye contact, a friendly, warm face, and a welcoming voice.
Sometimes we’re busy getting dinner ready, we’re distracted by our own day-to-day moods, or sometimes we’re holding onto a previous, negative situation. Start each day, and each welcome, on a positive, fresh note.

Keep discussions with other adults about a difficult situation, a problem with a child, or a personal struggle clearly out of earshot of children.
Sometimes we need to vent, however, when a child hears you talking with a stern look on your face, he might assume you are discussing the most recent problem you and that child might have just experienced. It is important to problem-solve child-related situations with your partner or support system out of earshot of the children. In addition, children need us to model that we don’t gossip.

Every child has positive attributes or behaviors that we need to notice, even more than the negative ones.
A while ago, I heard a story about researchers who were observing the mating and migration habits of zebras. They would paint a spot on the rump of a zebra. In a few weeks, they would return to the area, only to find the zebra was gone. After setting up video tracking devices, they found that the spotted zebra became the target of lions because it stood out from the pack. Don’t put a “spot on the zebra” by constantly shouting out negative commands to your misbehaving child. Redirect in positive ways, privately deal with conflicts, and work to balance the positive to negative comments to be at least 3 to 1. If another child is on-task, and one is off-task, comment positively about the child on-task rather than calling out the one off-task. Chances are, the off-task child will get on task to receive your attention!

We encourage children to ask for help if they need it; know when you need to get help and where to get it from!
Sometimes, we think if we can’t handle it ourselves, it will reflect badly on how we view ourselves, or make us doubt ourselves as parents. Find adults in your life to help follow up with a problem where you need support. Brainstorming difficult situations with supportive adults often leads to wonderful solutions You are not alone!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

But Mom, EVERYBODY has one!!!

There just doesn’t seem to be an end to the “I want” - when children just HAVE to have the latest, greatest toy. Most of the time, the toy gets put off to the side within a few days or weeks, only for the next “I want” to come along. How, as a parent, do you deal with this?

Our society bombards us with the newest, fastest, biggest, latest, greatest products everywhere we turn. It’s no wonder that our children get caught up in the frenzy. Whether it be a TV ad, movie prop, friend’s toy, or store display, our children are always wanting more, more, more! It’s hard, also, as a parent, to think about denying our children the newest technology or most popular toy on the market. When we finally succumb to the pressure and buy the item that is so sought after, we see, within a short time, that a newer model is already making our product obsolete! There is no end in sight!

So, how do we, as parents, not get caught up in the fury? How do we say “no” to our children, when the neighbor has said, “yes, yes, and more yes!”? Are our children going to be at a disadvantage if they don’t know how to text by age 6, help Mario find his brothers by age 7, or burn a DVD by age 8?

One strategy is to help your children make a wish list. These are things that they want, but cannot go out and purchase right now, whether it is logistics, financial, or need/want reasons. The wish list can be for the holidays, a birthday, or something they can purchase when they have saved their money. Teaching children to delay gratification is an important life lesson. In addition, as children work towards theirs goals, they might change their minds and decide on something else!

Another strategy is to help kids learn to manage money at an early age. Don’t dismiss this because your children are older now and you feel it’s too late. These skills are life necessities. First, establish an allowance that fits within your budget and is a manageable amount for your child’s developmental age. Some experts say $1 per year is a good baseline. From that money, the child should divide it into fourths: donations, long-term savings, short-term planning, and immediate spending. Each month, decide on where to take the donation money, and have your child be involved in the process of making the donation. You can research charities in your area and give him two or three choices to choose from at younger ages. As your child gets older, have him research where to donate the money. In addition, put the long-term savings money into a savings account in the child’s name. Have your child put the short-term planning funds in a safe place, and this is the fund that the child uses for her wish list goals. And the immediate spending is really for the child to use right now.

Parents sometimes want to point out how children should spend both the short-term and immediate money – noting practical ways, avoiding purchasing “stupid” wasteful items, etc. I think that the best lesson in spending is to experience purchasing mistakes. My daughter, Carly, and her friend were famous for going to Target and finding the most ridiculous things to purchase. They would each save until they had ten or twenty dollars, then head off to Target with money in hand. The purchases included Tamagochis, listening devices, a pen recorder, a .5 mp digital camera (yes, that’s ½ megapixel!)…the list goes on. Frequently, their interest lasted the day, until the kids were bored or realized the limits of the item. It was important for her to have control over her choices, good or bad, and be able to share her mistakes without ridicule or criticism. Today, at 16, Carly is a much more thoughtful purchaser.

In addition, your child might ask for that cute shirt from Abercrombie (that costs $42), but when you immediately buy it, YOU will own the passion about that shirt. If it sits in the closet amongst the other shirts that maybe get worn once or twice, you find yourself constantly asking about why the shirt isn’t being worn. You end up in a power struggle over the shirt! But it has no true value to the child. However, when you ask him to use his money for it, he has to think about if he really needs or wants the item before spending HIS money. In addition, when the child does make a purchase, the item has more internal value, and therefore is taken care of better and used more (provided, of course, it is a worthwhile purchase, unlike the items listed above). But remember, both the worthwhile purchase AND the frivolous purchase, when made by the child, have value – one as an internal, feel-good value, and the other as a valuable lesson in learning to think before spending.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why Do Kids Misbehave?

There are four main reasons for misbehavior in children, as described in the STEP Manual (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting by Dinkmeyer & McKay). These are attention, power, revenge, and feelings of inadequacy. I will briefly describe each, and then share some key ideas in dealing with misbehavior in a very positive manner.

Attention – you’ve seen this many times. As soon as you get on the phone, those previously quiet kids become out of control and immediately and persistently need your attention. Parents spend so much of their time actually rewarding misbehavior for attention, that they actually teach kids to misbehave to get the attention! The more you talk, explain, and negotiate to quiet the attention-seeking misbehaving child, you are actually letting her know that making the wrong choices gets rewarded! At that moment, a child doesn’t think about whether the attention she is getting is negative or positive.

Power – you have it, they want it. From answering “no” to your every request, to avoiding their chores, homework, eating, and yes, even toilet training! Many moms and dads get sucked in to “one-upping” the child in power struggles. Many parents today were the ones raised by parents who felt kids had to respect their parents – or else. So they are taken aback when a child comments back or mouths off to an adult. The parent might typically answer back with a punishment that withholds some toy or activity for a period of time. When the child answers back again, the parent typically says, “fine, then make it 2 weeks!” Back and forth it goes, with the child eventually getting grounded for life for a small infraction, but a BIG mouth! The parent never (obviously) can follow through, so the child learns that back talking gives them the power to engage in a fight with an adult.

Revenge – someone takes his toy, he hits, screams, or kicks to retaliate. Verbal revenge typically sends parents through the roof – you send a child to timeout, and he screams “I hate you!” over and over while sitting in the corner. We find ourselves arguing back and forth with the child who is SUPPOSED to be taking a timeout! In addition, at very young ages, children’s physical responses are much quicker and get a much stronger response than their verbal ones do. The young child with emerging language skills who has a toy taken away by another child will get an adult to run to the rescue a lot faster when she hits or bites the offending child. By the time the child has figured out what to say, the offending child might be long gone! Likewise, when we raise our voices to deal with problems with our children’s behavior, they learn to yell when they are angry or frustrated. We sometimes model exactly the behaviors we want to extinguish in our children!

Inadequacy – hopefully you don’t see this often, as it represents the child who doesn’t feel good about himself, so his misbehavior just reinforces how “bad” he feels or how “bad” he believes he is. A child who hears many negatives (“don’t do that” or “stop it”), or who has developmental challenges, or grows up in an environment that is in turmoil, whether from family dysfunction or problems with society (work stressors, violence in neighborhoods are examples) sometimes cannot separate out the environmental or developmental factors from himself. This is the hardest type of misbehavior to address in counseling, first because the child might feel so hopeless at such a young age, it is heartbreaking, and second, because the child doesn’t have enough self esteem to believe he has a right to happiness or good things.

Positive Interventions That Are Easy to Carry Out

Your eyes are the key! Most of the time, when we are dealing with a misbehaving child, we give them our guidance, and then keep looking at her, almost as if we expect a response. Say what you need to say, and move on – with your eyes as well as your conversation! Look away, walk away, break the eye contact. This is an especially powerful tool with kids seeking power. Let’s say you just told your child he cannot have a cookie before dinner. Don’t wait for the next response, which most likely will be to object to your decision. Change the subject, and direct your eye contact elsewhere. For example, after telling the child he can't have the cookie, turn your attention to getting dinner ready and state, “Hey, I’d love your help with seting the table. Here are the plates.”

Don’t fall victim to the “Okay?” syndrome! Watch how many times, during the course of a day, you end your directives to your children with a questioning tone (voice raising at the end of the sentence) or with the word “Okay?” This gives a child the false belief that he has a choice in the matter! For example, you tell your child, “It’s time to put your shoes on, OK?” When she responds with “no,” you’re left with a dilemma. Either you insist she puts them on, because you really need to leave soon, displaying that choices aren’t really always choices, or you have to step back, wait a minute, then instruct again – without the questioning sound at the end.

Give appropriate choices, as often as you can, to empower children to make choices and to teach them that when you don’t give choices, there is no discussion. From the time they can understand and respond to your prompts, begin teaching simple decision-making. Asking if he would like apple juice or milk, does he want to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt, or would he like the basketball or the tennis ball to play with all help to teach a child he has some control in his world – when the control is offered. Keep choices down to two or three for kids under the age of five. As kids get older, make sure to increase number of choices when you see they are able to handle the options. Be careful to allow for a small amount of time to decide, but don’t sit and agonize as your child makes you wait and wait! If you ask about the milk or juice, for example, if she doesn’t give you an answer, give one reminder (you need to let me know if you want apple juice or milk). If she doesn’t respond, say, “I’ll choose for you this time – and then go get your choice for her. Don’t discuss it; simply state, “Since you can’t decide, I’ll give you milk." And then get the milk. If you wait for a response, typically that will result in your giving the child eye contact (power) and the child will provide a response; “NOOOO, I want juice!!!” When she gets mad at your choice, simply say, “Next time, when I give you your choices, you need to make a decision so I don’t have to.” If she chooses not to drink the juice, that’s her choice! Don’t then engage in the next power struggle over that!

For the inadequate child especially, but for all others as well, make sure to notice the positives. Catch the child doing something great, and point it out. Encourage him to try something new, and let them see you make mistakes, identify them, and then shrug them off as if to say, “we all are not perfect.” Help your child feel good about him or herself by encouraging choices, providing attention under positive circumstances, and deescalating power struggles and negative attempts to get your attention.

Please share your comments on this blog, and how you can use these tips to positively deal with your child’s misbehavior. And remember, children’s misbehavior, and how we address it is, in a big way, how our children learn to make smart, healthy choices in life.