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!