Tag Child

What Can I Do If My Kid Freaks Out About Routine Dental or Pediatric Appointments?

Trips to the pediatrician and dentist are commonly feared by kids. This fear ranges from mild discomfort to debilitating anxiety. Let me offer six strategies to help:

#1: Avoid unhelpful reassurances. As I’ve written in other entries, a reassurance is a cue that danger is approaching. While parents don’t intend for their reassurance to be heard this way, kids often hear “okay, time to start freaking out.” Think about this for a second. If you were meeting with me in my office and I told you not to be worried about the ceiling collapsing on our heads, you, of course, would start to wonder about the security of my ceiling. Wait until your child shows distress before reassuring, and then keep them brief and proportionate. If they don’t work, as they often don’t, try the other strategies listed below.

#2: Prepare. Confronting fears is like swimming in a cold lake. At the end of the day, it is sustained exposure to the feared object that calms a person down (i.e., one gets used to it).  Some people know this intuitively and are inclined to cannon ball in. But, many prefer to go in slowly, getting used to the water as they go. This is what preparing your child for the appointment is akin to. If you go to Amazon and type in search terms like “kid, dentist” under books, you’ll get a myriad of choices that will allow you to discuss what the medical appointment might be like. You can also get books that generally help with anxiety. My favorite along those lines is the Scaredy Squirrel series by Melanie Watt. (I have the entire series in my office, including a Scaredy Squirrel puppet.) A related technique is to visit the office on a day when your child doesn’t have an appointment, spending time in the waiting area while doing the next strategy.

#3: Relax your child. A relaxed body and anxiety are like oil and water: they can’t mix. So, you can try to train your child to flush anxiety out of his or her body. The three elements to this are breath, muscles and mind. I tend to focus on the first two with kids. I ask kids to pretend that their lungs are in their lower belly, instead of their chest, and to breath deeply, but comfortably, in and out from there. I also ask them to try to make all of their muscles like a cooked, rather than an uncooked, piece of pasta as I walk them through their muscle groups in a soothing voice. There are also resources you can acquire to facilitate your child’s training along these lines. One of my favorites is the relaxation CD that my friend Dr. Mary Alvord and her colleagues have created. Also, and if the cost benefit ration seems worth it, you can acquire a small, portable biofeedback device that can help your child get into a relaxed state; I like the emWave2 for this purpose.

#4: Distract. Once in the office, try to distract your child with something interesting. I was on the sidelines of a baseball game recently when a young girl, who was barefoot, stepped on a wasp. She started crying in terror and pain. I broke out a couple of magic tricks (I keep them with me) and distracted her, reducing both her pain and her anxiety (and delighting her mother). There are an endless number of ways to do this: read a story, play an electronic game, discuss the details of a fun activity coming up that weekend, and so forth. If the medical procedure your child is going to receive allows for this, distract your child during it as well; if it doesn’t, ask if he or she can listen to a portable music player that you provide.

#5: Reward. I wouldn’t do this unless you know that your child is going to struggle. But, if you’re confident that’s the case, tell your child that if he or she is brave, and doesn’t put up a fight, that you will reward him or her afterwards, specifying what the reward will be. Try to keep the reward proportionate to the level of challenge your child is experiencing. So, the reward can be as small as going to ride swings at a local park or as big as a trip to a water park. Then reward, or don’t, based upon how cooperative your child was.

#6: Get help. If these techniques fail please consider consulting with a qualified child mental health professional. Often these kinds of problems can be remedied quickly with treatments that beat having a couple of adults restrain a terrified child. To get a referral near you click here.

Neurotic Parental Guilt

As a child psychologist, dad and friend of many parents, I’ve noted that neurotic guilt is common among we parents. Sometimes these feelings are mere flashes while at other times they are thematic. Of course there are situations in which experiences of guilt are not neurotic as they are helpful (e.g., situations where a parent is abusing or neglecting a child and the guilt feelings motivate change). But, here I’m thinking of instances when we engage excessive self-reproach for having human limitations or for having normative human experiences. In this entry I’ll first describe some common scenarios that evoke such quilt and then suggest seven strategies for coping with it.

The first common scenario is when there is a separation at hand:

• A child leaves for college, especially if the child leaving is the first born. (Many parents report feeling shocked at how quickly this day has arrived.)

• A parent departs for an extended period of time. This commonly happens when mom or dad serves in the military, but there are many examples of it in our run-and-gun culture (e.g., as a phase of relocating to another part of the country).

• A parent is on his or her death bed.

In these and other related situations we can be swept away with thoughts that we did not get the most out of our time with our child. We can mercilessly beat ourselves up with thoughts that we should have spent more one-on-one time, done more shared activities, communicated our love more effectively or just been a better parent. A famous quote by Kahil Gibran comes to mind “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

The second common scenario is after some positively anticipated event or period of time is over such as:

• A vacation is finished.

• A holiday period is concluded.

• A weekend is over. (I wonder what percentage of neurotic parent guilt happens on Sunday nights.)

In these and related scenarios I might kick myself for moments of conflict, boredom or disengagement. I so much looked forward to having a joyful or meaningful experience with my child. And, when reality almost inevitably falls short of my high expectations–what I refer to as the “Clark Griswold Syndrome”–I kick myself with self-reproach and feelings of guilt.

I believe at the root of neurotic parental guilt is the overwhelming and gut wrenching love that we have for our kids. It is so encapsulating and powerful, that it makes us lunatics much of the time. So, my fellow lunatic, let me suggest some antidotes for this neurotic guilt:

Strategy #1: Use what we psychologists call “coping thoughts.” Coping thoughts are true thoughts that provide comfort. Wearing a pair of jeans that are so tight that they hurt serves no purpose. So, sane people swap them out. This type of neurotic guilt serves no purpose, so we do well to swap it out. Here are some coping thoughts to try on for size:

√ “Everyone has moments of stupidity, impatience and frailty. There is no escaping my humanity.”

√ “I love my kid more than my life. It isn’t possible to love someone more than that.”

√ “I do (have done) all kinds of things for my kid such as….”

√ “Conflict and disengagement are woven into the fabric of human interactions. There is no being together, for any extended period of time, without them.”

√ “Life is not a fairy tale, it’s better. But, that comes with mess for everyone.”

Strategy #2: Imagine you are in the future and your child is a parent. He or she is now coming to you for help with the exact same type of guilt you are now experiencing. What advice would you offer your future child? If your like most, this can lead you to a more wise and kind stance with yourself. (This is also one way to get in touch with what I have referred to as your “wells of wisdom.”)

Strategy #3: If your child is still living with you, or lives close to you. Try hard to do at least one hour of “special time” each week. If you do this exercise consistently you are taking a mighty step towards promoting an effective relationship with your child. (Special time is different from quality time. To learn more about how to do it see Chapter One in my parenting book, or download this article that I wrote.)

Strategy #4: Write a gratitude letter for your child. Click here for a blog entry on the specifics of this method. This can be a most profound human experience. (Be careful not to expect reciprocation though. It’s wonderful if a letter comes back at you later, but no one is served if you experience resentment secondary to a frustrated expectation.)

Strategy #5: Apologize for any real mistakes that you made and, if it’s a pattern, try to both understand the underlying cause(s) and take steps to either improve or resolve the situation. Steps for improving could include such things as spiritual direction, psychotherapy, improving health habits and enhancing your self-care (i.e., parenting from the cross is rarely effective), and I speak as someone who has taken abundant advantage of each of these self-improvement measures.

Strategy #6: A more elaborate version of the coping thought strategy would be to make a list of your parenting strengths and successes. This could be a one-and-done exercise or a weekly effort. It is a list of things you have done, or do, well as a parent. It can also include evidence of good outcomes that your child experiences or has experienced.

Strategy #7: Get helpful feedback. My personal criteria for such a consultant is that (a) he or she is wise about parenting (i.e., by experience, by training or both), (b) he or she cares about me and (c) he or she is as likely to agree as to disagree with me (i.e., someone who is only going to agree with me is of little use for this service).

In closing, and to beat one of my most treasured and favorite drums, if you think you could benefit from speaking with a good child psychologist, pick up the phone! 😉

Video Games: Good or Evil?

There are many statements floating around out there about video games that suggest they should be either vilified or, less commonly, celebrated. “Video games are purported to…

…wreck your kid’s ability to pay attention.”

…make your kid violent.”

…take care of  your kids needs for physical activity, at least if he or she uses systems like Wii or Xbox Connect.”

“…promote addictive behaviors.”

“….offer a solution to social anxiety.”

In this column I’d like to make eight suggestions about video games that will respond to these and other concerns.

#1 Limit your kids total access to sedentary electronic pleasures to two hours a day. This is the sound counsel of authoritative bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. If your kid is spending more time than this he or she is likely missing out on other important activities such as physical activity, doing homework and socializing face-to-face. Actually, if you are mostly hitting your stride as a family you may find that your kids don’t have more than two hours a day free anyway.

#2 Take the ratings seriously but also realize that they can, for any given game, not be a fit for your child. (I find some parents are surprised by just how graphic and adult-themed video games marketed for kids and teens can be.). If my kid is exposed to material that he or she is not developmentally ready for, symptoms can emerge (e.g., becoming aggressive, having a difficult time sleeping).  There are also parent advisory websites you can review content in the games. Click here for one such example.

#3 Watching your kid playing acceptable video games, and commenting on his or her skill as well as how much you enjoy spending time together, can be a useful way to spend special time. (Readers of this blog, and my parenting book, know about my recommendation to spend one hour a week, with each kid, one-on-one, doing special time.)

#4 If you’ve been reading this blog and/or my book, you know that another activity commonly recommended by authoritative bodies is for each child to sweat and breathe hard for 60 minutes a day. Video game playing activity counts towards this only if your child is actually sweating and breathing hard. If he or she can’t carry on a normal conversation and sweat is changing the color of his or her shirt, you’re good. Otherwise, it doesn’t count.

#5 Many gaming systems, and their attached games, provide online access. Imagine the following scenario. You sign your kid up for a martial arts class at your local Y, a class which encourages participants to interact and get to know each other. In the class are other kids like your kid. But there is also a 44 year old divorced man who is sexually frustrated and medicating his pain with alcohol, a 25 year-old man who is struggling to control his urges to sexually assault children and a woman who medicates her severe anxiety by chain smoking marijuana. How okay would that be? Point made? For an article on some specific suggestions to promote monitoring of your child’s or teen’s online life, click here.

#6 Keep an eye on how your kids’ video gaming impacts him or her. You are the world’s leading expert on your kid. Use that expertise to gauge how a given video game is affecting him or her, if at all. For instance, I once knew a kid in elementary school who started playing a couple hours of an E rated game each week. At the same time he started becoming aggressive at recess. His parents made the connection and took steps to resolve the situation (a straight-forward banning of the game wasn’t indicated. I describe this case in my parenting book in the chapter on monitoring).

#7 Many parents ask, “should I let my kid have a video game system in his or her bedroom?” Until I see a well-controlled research study that investigates this with a sample that is large enough to allow for broad generalizations, it’s hard for me to feel strongly either way. But, my intuition, is that if you follow all the other guidelines in this blog entry, and your kid is generally doing well in life, it’s probably okay. But, I wouldn’t hook up access to television programing as there are too many ways that could be problematic (e.g., becoming too withdrawn from family life, putting it on when he or she should be sleeping). Also, keep in mind that if having a video game system in the room proves to be problematic, it doesn’t take an act of congress to undue it 😉

#8 What are the signs that the video gaming is becoming, or has become, problematic? The easiest sign is that your child is acting like he is crack dependent and the game playing is the crack. If this is the case, see this blog entry that breaks down how to deal with this kind of scenario. Otherwise, the gaming is problematic if it is interfering with any other important developmental tasks or if it is associated with symptoms. If in doubt, I’d recommend seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional. For a referral click here.

Ten Tips for Expecting or New Parents

So, you’ve joined, or are about to join, the parenting club. Welcome! No matter where you go in the world you will find you have sisters and brothers who are willing to extend an abundance of empathy, wisdom, encouragement and assistance. Indeed, consider this blog one such resource. In this entry I’d like to offer 10 tips for this phase of your parenting life. (I will write this as if you are in a two parent household, but these tips can be easily adapted to other situations.)

#1 Establish your boundaries with in-laws and other well intended people. Some in-laws are wise and know not to offer unsolicited advice. But, others need help in understanding that you will reach out if and when you want advice. I’d suggest each of you speak with your own birth parents about this. This needn’t be unpleasant and can be done in a lighthearted way. Then, insist on these boundaries lest you want to live with no end to unsolicited advice.

#2 Don’t put the pressure on yourself to act like you know what’s coming. It doesn’t matter how intelligent and insightful you are. There is no way to reason to how much love, exhaustion and lunacy you will feel, and that’s totally okay. So, try to be at peace with that.

#3 Try to accept that there is no way to prepare fully for the chaos. Sure, it’s totally okay to nest and set things up. But, at some point the preparation can become like a soldier ironing his trousers before going into battle. Developing a certain comfort with chaos is very helpful to your mental health. (As a related matter, it’s always interesting to watch couples trying to determine the “perfect” time to have a child, as if a tornado could be put in a box.)

#4 Make an active plan for couple time. If you are not disciplined and proactive about this your romantic relationship will take a heavy hit. For a related blog entry click here.

#5 Agree to a childcare plan. Many parents wonder if it’s better for the child for the mom to stay at home or not. Bottom line: assuming the person(s) taking care of your child do a good job, it’s best to do the thing that will make you and your partner feel most satisfied. There is no one right choice. It’s a matter of personal preference.

#6 Agree to a nighttime feeding plan. Your new baby will sleep for only a few hours at a time until he or she gains enough weight to not need feedings throughout the night. So, have a discussion about who will do what when. There are so many permutations of this that I haven’t space to list them. It’s just important to talk it out lest the person doing all or most of the work builds up resentment.

#7 Make sure to take maintain a self-care protocol. Like many parents, you may be tempted to go on a cross for your child, but this is rarely in a child’s best interest. Just like the tip above regarding couples, it takes a proactive plan to stay at your best for your new baby.

#8 You are going to make lots and lots and lots and lots of mistakes and that’s okay. I still remember trying to lullaby my eldest Morgan to sleep, at around 3 AM, with the melody from Hush Little Baby but with made up NC-17 lyrics having to do with how much I needed her to get to sleep. As long as you keep trying to do well you’re probably doing at least well enough.

#9 You’re going to overdo things as a first time parent, and that’s okay. I remember having wipe warmers for Morgan and our grandmother neighbor finding that to be very funny. (I would now find it to be funny too but it’s semi-disrespectful to show such to a first time parent.) It’s normal to overdue for the first one, so don’t let anybody mock you for that. (By the way, by the time you might have a third child you end up carrying him or her around by the ankle.)

#10 Set up a college fund. Even if you put in a few bucks a month, that’s something. The expense can be overwhelming later, so this is an area where it’s better to err on the side of over preparing.

May God bless you!

Six Tips For When Your Child Has Experienced an Injustice

We parents do everything in our power to protect our children from experiencing injustice, including lobbying school personnel, coaches, other parents and law enforcement officials. However, it is inevitable that everyone experiences injustice, from the mild to the truly dreadful and horrifying. What follows are six tips for responding to these experiences after you’ve done all that you reasonably can or should to prevent the injustice or right the wrong.

#1: Let your child experience her pain. It hurts to experience an injustice. Empathic statements can help.  “You deserved that leadership position, what happened is wrong and it makes sense that you’re in pain over it.” “Being bullied is a shaming, awful experience and I understand how hurt you feel.” “Being arrested when you’re innocent is something no one should ever have to go through. You must feel more terrible than I can even imagine.”

#2: Let your child know that everyone goes through this and sometimes it happens because a person has displayed excellence. We all want to believe that we live in a just world where all wrongs can be righted and where virtuous, hard-working people do not have bad things happen to them. We all want to live in a world where others do not respond to our gifts and successes with jealousy, envy or resentment. But, in my experience, such perspectives are right up there with Disney’s “happily ever after” concept. Just as all bodies living in the world are exposed to germs and viruses, and need to learn to respond effectively to them to survive and thrive, our psyches need to learn to respond effectively to injustice when it inevitably comes our way.

#3: Teach the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.” Regardless of one’s spirituality, the wisdom behind this psychological model is sound. Indeed, it is often used in helping people to recover from addictions because it can be the antidote to many kinds of madness that facilitate self-medication.

#4: Look for the opportunity imbued within all pain. The pain must be given its due for this to work well; this is not about being in denial about the injustice, or being pollyannaish about it. However, once the pain has been given its due think of the injustice, as one poet put it, as a dragon guarding treasure. Resilient people think this way: they take the hit and expect to become better because of it. Teaching your child how to do this at a young age is a major gift. (To read more on this theme see my blog entry Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood.)

#5: Timing is everything here, but let your child know about injustices you’ve experienced, including your thoughts about what you did in response that was effective, ineffective or some combination of both. (Of course, you’re going to want to consider what material is developmentally appropriate for your child. For a discussion that highlights similar issues see my blog post Helping Children Cope with Scary News.)

#6: Teach unilateral forgiveness. In my judgment unilateral forgiveness is the psychological equivalent of an ironman triathlon. Yes, bilateral forgiveness (when the other person has acknowledged fault and has asked for forgiveness) can be, especially when the wrong has been mighty, a marathon unto itself. But, forgiving when the other person has not asked for it, or even feels justified in the injustice they’ve perpetrated, puts a person on one of the highest psychological roads a human can traverse. This is not the same thing as denying the injustice. This is not the same thing as tolerating the injustice or not protecting oneself from future manifestations of it. It is to say that bitterness, revenge and products of their sort are like poisons that hurt the victim most of all while forgiveness promotes healing and the capacity to not become owned by the injustice. Just as the case with training for an ironman triathlon, it takes lots of time and practice–often for many years and with many stumbles along the way. And, it can’t be forced. But, it’s a journey worth any effort we can offer it, both for ourselves and for our children. (To read a great self-help book on forgiveness see Forgiveness is a Choice.)

In closing, let me suggest that you may need to take additional steps if your child has been traumatized by the injustice. For a discussion on these issues see my blog post Ten Steps to Take if Your Child is Exposed to a Traumatic Event or click here to find a psychologist in your area.

What Should I Do When My Kid Throws a Fit?

Temper tantrums in childhood are nearly as common as the flu, though no one has developed a vaccine for them. What follows are the four most common problems that I’ve found are at the root of tantrums followed by four guidelines for how to respond.

Problem #1: Your child needs more positive one-on-one time with you

Possible Fix #1: One hour a week of special time

Just as plants grow their branches around obstacles to get light, kids grow their behavior towards that which gets them attention; neither process is conscious. In run-and-gun households–and aren’t we all this way these days–it’s easy to be quietly grateful when our kids are behaving and to give them passionate attention when they screw up. Sure, this kind of attention is like eating an unwashed radish, but if you haven’t eaten in days that can be a pretty delicious food. Moreover, our relationship with our child is like any other relationship in our life: speed bumps are more likely to cause crashes when the relationship hasn’t gotten enough positive attention.

My prescription would be to spend at least one hour a week one-on-one doing nothing but paying attention to your child, expressing positive thoughts and feelings about him and proportionately complimenting anything that he is doing or saying that is praiseworthy. This technique is called special time, which is different from quality time (i.e., in quality time something else is usually getting my attention in addition to my child). My space here is too limited to describe the technique, but I’ve elaborated upon it in the first chapter of my book Working Parents, Thriving Families, and a few days ago I did interview with USA Today that describes it more.

Problem #2: Someone is experiencing a significant stress

Possible Fix #2: Try to either eliminate/reduce the stress and/or increase resources

All of us break when our stress/resources ratio tips too heavily to the stress side. Resources are enhanced when we do things to rejuvenate ourselves, child and adult alike (e.g., socializing with friends, seeing an enjoyable movie). When we break we tend to break in the direction of our vulnerabilities. Adults may drink more, yell more, withdraw from others and so forth. Kids may tantrum. So, ask yourself whether there has been a recent increase in stress in your child’s life or in the life of someone else in the family. If yes, a starting point might be to see if such can be eliminated or reduced. If not, then I would try to be patient and try to increase everyone’s care.

Possible Problem #3: Your child doesn’t feel like doing something

Possible Fix #3: Incentivize future occurrences of the something

 One of the most important tasks we parents have is to grow our child’s capacity to do things when she doesn’t feel like it. No psychological muscle better predicts success in both vocational and interpersonal pursuits. So, if my child is freaking out just because she doesn’t care for a rule or restriction that is developmentally appropriate, I would set up an incentive for future occurrences. Lets say she’s freaking out because you’ve told her to clean her room. Perhaps you might decide that, going forward, access to TV is earned each day by having cleaned the room appropriately (i.e., to spec and without freaking out). You are not taking TV away in these instances. Your child is either deciding to earn or not earn TV based on her behavior. No matter what you’re going to insist on the room being cleaned, less you create a training program for throwing fits, but whether it results in the TV being earned or not is dependent upon your child’s choices.

I have a much more detailed description of setting up a range of behavioral programs in my parenting book. You can also find additional guidelines at this blog post: Seven Tips for When Your Child Refuses to Do a Chore.

Possible Problem #4: Your child is showing the expression of a diagnosable psychological problem

Possible Fix #4: Seek our the services of a mean-lean-healing machine

 Tantrums are like fevers. You know there’s a problem but it could be many different things. Like a fever, you try treating it yourself first if it’s mild. However, if it persists, or if it’s serious (e.g., the tantrums are violent), then it’s good to do as you would do with a medical problem: seek out the services of a clinician well trained to diagnose and to treat the problem(s). To find possible candidates, click here. Here are some related blog posts:

Signs That a Kid Needs Mental Health Services

Seven Common Myths About Counseling

Affording Mental Health Care

Ok, here are some things to try at the point of the fit, keeping in mind that these may not work or be appropriate for your child.

Guideline #1: Don’t reward the bad behavior

Caving in to your child’s demands often creates a training program for the bad behavior. Your child gets the idea, often not even consciously, that throwing fits gets him his way. Moreover, I wouldn’t increase your positive attention during the fit, which leads to the next guideline.

Guideline #2: Extinguish the flame

Your attention can act as oxygen for the flame. For example, lets say your child throws herself down on the ground in a fit of anger. I would, if she won’t hurt herself and others or damage property, and if it’s possible for you given other demands on your time, leave her alone as she calms down. You might say as you leave: “What you’re doing is inappropriate. Let me know when you’re ready to clean your room.”

Guideline #3: Use timeout

Timeout can be done in ways that are not effective. But, if you’ve gotten some good counsel on how to do it, this can be a good time to use it (again with the parenting book?!…sorry, its just that there is just so much relevant information that I can’t cram in here and I don’t want to leave you hanging).

Guideline #4: Do a psychological autopsy

Once everyone is calmed down, which might be after the fit, later that day or sometime after that, I would sit down with your child and deconstruct what happened. We all lose IQ points when we’re upset. We do well to wait until everyone’s brain is fully back online before doing this work. Some of the best teaching can be delivered through questions: “What happened yesterday when I asked you to clean your room?” “What do you think about how you acted?” “What would be a good way for you to make up for what you said and did?”

If you have two adults parenting in your household it might be good for the parent who was not involved in the conflict to do this autopsy. If the transgression was slight, a heartfelt apology may be sufficient. If not, simply apologizing is not good for your child’s character development. Therefore, I would look for a proportionate reparation he could make, for his sake (e.g., using his own allowance to replace a magazine he ripped up, writing out an apology, offering to rub mom’s feet ;-).

Dealing with this issue can be a true pain in the neck, and make one wonder what exactly are the criteria for arranging for an adoption out of the home, but it’s very important work. And, you are to be saluted for taking it on!

A Dozen Ideas for Dad-Daughter and Mom-Son Activities

Many of we parent-lunatics want to create special moments with our kids amidst the madness of our hectic lives. This entry offers ideas themed around potential dad-daughter activities and mom-son activities. (Please be sure to read the four caveats at the end.)

Dads: 12 Things You Can Do with Your Daughter

  1. Spend one hour a week doing nothing but paying attention to her and reflecting positive, specific and truthful messages.
  2. Let her paint your nails or apply makeup
  3. Take her for a trip to buy clothes or jewelry
  4. Brush her hair (at least 100 strokes)
  5. Go for a jog together
  6. Take her to a trip to the city to see some sights and a show
  7. Go for a long walk in nature, stopping along the way to study interesting flora and fauna
  8. Take her bowling
  9. Take her to get her nails done
  10. Sing karaoke
  11. Let her see you doing special things for her mom
  12. Model to her that real men are affectionate, attentive, gentle and prioritize family life

Moms: 12 Things You can Do with Your Sons

  1. Take him fishing
  2. Play catch
  3. Play an interactive video game with him
  4. Spend one hour a week doing nothing but paying attention to him and reflecting positive, specific and truthful messages.
  5. Find a pond where you can try to find frogs or other small creatures
  6. Take him to see his favorite sports team play
  7. Take a trip to the library and show him all the cool books that are there on topics he loves
  8. Teach him how to do resistance training
  9. Let him see you doing special things for his dad
  10. Take a trip to a museum of natural history and afterwards ask him to make a drawing memorializing the trip.
  11. Model to him that real women are not subservient to men, are faithful and value their minds at least as much as their bodies.
  12. As you prioritize your family life, make sure he sees that you have outside interests and goals.

Some caveats:

• The organization of these ideas by sex is to be taken lightly, at best (e.g., maybe your son has the interest in fashion or your daughter in the sports team). So, think of these as 24 potential ideas for any parent-child relationship.

• The appropriateness of some of these activities will vary as a function of age (e.g., resistance training).

• Don’t worry about the ideas involving money if they aren’t practical. Required elements are creativity and commitment, not cash.

• Some of these ideas won’t apply to how your family is structured (e.g., single parent households). But the spirit behind each idea, with a pinches of creativity and commitment, can be extrapolated to other ideas.

Do you have other ideas you’d be willing to share?

Eight Tips For When Your Child Freaks Out About Sleeping Alone

Research suggests that attitudes about sleeping in the parental bed, or co-sleeping, vary across cultures. If a given culture finds this to be acceptable, and the family enjoys it, then there doesn’t seem to be any problems affiliated with it. So, this blog entry is not for those situations. This entry regards situations in which a kid expresses distress at sleeping in his or her own room, the most common cause of which is anxiety.

Tip #1: Consider whether you or your family’s dynamic is facilitating your child’s distress. Sometimes it is a parent who feels anxious about a kid sleeping in his or her own room (e.g., “what if a burglar breaks in and I’m not there to help?!”). Or, it may be that the kid sleeping in the bed averts dealing with a problem in the primary adult relationship (e.g., one parent wants to avoid conflict over sex). Dealing effectively with such underlying issues sometimes can make the surface problem go away on its own.

Tip #2: Avoid avoidance. This is good counsel across all domains of a kid’s life. Anxiety is fed when a kid avoids developmentally appropriate and safe situations because of fear.

Tip #3: Approach the situation with a calm, kind and firm manner. In regards to we parent-lunatics: when our kid hurts we hurt worse. Because of how our kid’s distress makes us feel, we sometimes react without considering whether the distress is good for our kid to experience (e.g., we remove the distress, we get agitated at our kid, we cave in).

Tip #4: Avoid excessive reassurance. A reassurance indicates that there is something potentially dangerous at hand. When explaining this principal to parents I’ll say “imagine I told you not to worry about the roof of this office collapsing on us. Can you sense the discomfort you’d start to feel about the security of the roof?”

Tip #5: Figure out the pacing of the “exposure.” Exposure means allowing (or sometimes forcing) a child to face a developmentally appropriate and safe situation that distresses him or her. If the amount of distress is manageable, the strategy may simply be to insist that he or she sleep in his or her own bed. If the amount of distress is more severe, you can introduce a schedule (e.g., at first you sleeps in your child’s room for a week or so, then you transition to sleeping there only until your child falls asleep, then only for a few minutes as your child settles in and then not at all).

Tip #6: Consider reasonable steps for promoting your child’s comfort. You might decorate the room in a motif pleasing to your child, allow him or her to sleep in special pajamas, leave on a night light, leave your child’s bedroom door open or allow him or her to fall asleep to music or an audio recording of a familiar story. (You don’t story to be so novel and interesting so as to keep your child up. You also want to be sure to turn it off after your child falls asleep as the quality of his or her sleep will not be as good if it remains on. The same goes for music.)

Tip #7: Many kids don’t need this, but you could always set up a reward program. For milder instances this could be as simple as putting stars on a calendar and offering a treat when 7-10 stars are earned (e.g., having a sleep over, purchasing a desired video game). For more entrenched and difficult situations you can set up a daily reward (e.g., TV is earned the next day by having gone to bed properly the night before) as well as a bonus (e.g., a trip to a local water park is earned after 14 nights of sleeping in the bed). (If you set up a program where X number of days earns a reward, it typically would not be required that the days be consecutive.)

Tip #8: If the above self-help interventions do not work, seriously consider consulting with a child psychologist. There may be other complexities at play or your child may need treatment for an anxiety disorder (most of the time anxiety disorders can be treated efficiently and effectively through cognitive-behavioral therapy). To find a provider near you, click here. Below are some related blog posts that you might also find to be of interest and don’t forget to follow me at my Twitter feed: @HelpingParents):

My Child Gets Afraid A Lot. What Can I Do?

Mom Arrested For Giving Her Daughter Xanax: CBT Can Help to Avoid Such Sad Stories.

Signs That a Kid Needs Mental Health Services

Seven Common Myths About Counseling

Affording Mental Health Care

The 10 Most Common Mistakes Good Parents Make

What follows I find, in my professional and personal dealings, to be the most common mistakes we parents make. At the end of each of them I’ve listed the chapter in my parent book Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference (WPTF) that offers an expanded discussion and specific strategies for dealing with each problem as well links to related blog posts.

#1: Imagining that there will be more time for the family next week.

One of the most important exercises I ask parents to do in my practice is “special time.” This activity, which is different from quality time, takes one hour a week. So, so many parents believe that it will be easy to “make” this time (there is no “finding” the time, only making it) each week only to learn that it is extremely difficult to do so consistently, an insight that is instructive.

When parents describe a week when they did not complete special time they stress how unusually busy it was. While there certainly can be exceptionally busy weeks, most of the time the only thing that rotates is what is causing the extreme busyness, not the extreme busyness itself.

See Chapter One, Complete One Hour of Special Time Each Week With Your Child in WPTF for more.

Related blog posts:

The Value of Unplugging

Conversation Starters for You and Your Teenager

#2: Parenting from a cross.

The research makes it clear that our collective parental self-care is often quite poor and that this causes significant stress on not only on us, but also on our partners and our kids. My experience is that the number one reason we good parents fall into this trap is because we are consumed by work and family duties. An image comes to mind: the oxygen masks having dropped in an emergency situation on an airplane and a woozy parent, who is not wearing an oxygen mask, is consumed by securing a child’s mask

See Chapter Seven, Take Care of Yourself and Your Relationship With Your Significant Other, in WPTF for more.

Related blog posts:

Six Tips for When You Lose It With Your Kid

51 Truths (As I See Things Anyway)

Effective Romance Helps Effective Parenting

Lions and Tigers and Vows, Oh My! 10 Tips for Taking Your New Year’s Resolutions from Oz to Kansas

#3: Praising poor performance.

The pervasiveness of this leaves me feeling confident that you could go to any youth baseball game in your community this weekend and likely hear examples of parents praising their kids for striking out, or making errors or for other kinds of poor performance. We know that facilitating our kids’ self-esteem is important. But our compressed and crazy-busy lifestyles sometimes cause us to use techniques that are either not helpful or that facilitate negative outcomes (e.g., self-entitlement).

See Chapter Two, Discover, Promote and Celebrate Your Child’s Competenites, in WPTF for more.

Related blog post:

Five Questions for Effectively Parenting Kids in Sports

#4: Trying to undo a kid’s pain.

One of my favorite quotes is by Kahlil Gibran in his great, little book The Prophet: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” We good parents hurt worse when our kids hurt. So, we try to take it all away; if we are successful we limit our kids’ wisdom.

See Chapter Six, Promote Health Decision Making, Independence and Adaptive Thinking, in WPTF for more.

Related blog post:

•  Failure: An Important Part of  Psychologically Healthy Childhood.

#5: Missing the middle ground on discipline.

 It’s amazing how often the word “discipline” is equated with butt kicking. Actually, the root of the word is “to teach.” I would argue that the top outcome effective discipline promotes is our child’s capacity to do things well when he or she doesn’t feel like it. This is the psychological muscle group that best predicts success in our culture.

It is easy to wrap ineffective discipline strategies in truisms. The parent who is soul weary and disengages from discipline might say “you can’t make all their decisions for them. Kids have got to learn to make their own mistakes and to figure things out for themselves!” Likewise the harsh and unyielding parent (it takes less time to parent in this way than to discipline effectively), might say “kids have to learn respect and to do as they are told!”

To discipline well is one of the most challenging and time consuming aspects of effective parenting. As we are so, so tired and so, so overextended, it’s easy to miss the boat.

See Chapter Five, Practice Sound Discipline, in WPTF for more.

Related blog posts:

Six Reasons to Avoid Spanking

Seven Tips for When Your Child Refuses to do a Chore.

Top 11 Tips for Parenting Teens

#6: Enabling sleep deprivation.

There is an epidemic of sleep deprivation among our youth. The more researchers examine the consequences of this, the more we learn how impairing a lack of sleep can be across all the major domains of a child’s or teen’s life. Again, it is much, much easier to let this go than it is to ensure that our kids get enough sleep.

See Chapter Eight, Emphasize a Healthy Lifestyle, in WPTF for more.

Related blog posts:

Is Your Kid Getting Enough Sleep?

A Chronic Health Problems in Teens: A Lack of Sleep

Helping Your Child Get a Good Night’s Sleep

#7: Warring with other adults in a kid’s life.

My read of the scientific literature on divorce adjustment suggests that the two best predictors of child and teen adjustment to divorce are the number of changes that he or she endures (with fewer being better) and how well the parents get along. And, don’t even get me started on how important it is to a child’s education for parents and teachers to partner effectively. However, we parent-lunatics, often go to war with these other adults. The banners we fly as we march to battle usually articulate very important issues; however, we often don’t let ourselves be fully aware of the shrapnel our kids are taking.

See Chapter Nine, Establish Collaborative Relationships With Other Important Adults, in WPTF for more.

Related blog post:

11 Important Tips When You Meet With a Teacher

#8: Enabling excessive use of sedentary electronic pleasures.

Let’s face it, if our kids are plugged in they leave us the hell alone (and that’s good as we’ve got TONS to do) and they certainly seem to enjoy themselves. However, if a kid is doing this for more than two hours a day, it is very likely that she or he is missing out on important developmental outcomes (e.g., being physically active, developing skills for face-to-face interactions, learning academic material).

See Chapter Eight, Emphasize a Healthy Lifestyle, in WPTF for more.

Related blog posts:

Can Parents Trust Movie, Television and Gaming Ratings?

10 Tips for Parenting Your Progeny’s Online Life

10 Strategies if Your Child is Addicted to World of Warcraft

#9: Enabling a poptart-pizza-pasta diet and lifestyle.

Unfortunately, it’s cheaper and easier (e.g., more convenient, less hassles from progeny) to eat poorly than it is to eat well. I was at a restaurant recently with my eldest doing special time. As I was paying the check at the entry area an array of sumptuous bakery items was on display, to which I said “They look really good. But you might just as well inject a vile of glucose in your butt.” To which my eldest said “you say that all the time.” (My second eldest recently had a wittier retort: “but that wouldn’t taste as good.”) My saying this “all the time” to my kids is my way of howling at the moon as I find the marketing of unhealthy foods in our culture to be incessant.

Of course, it takes time and effort to ensure that our kids sweat and breath hard for an hour at least five days a week, even if the activity is fun (the guideline is actually for seven days a week, but I’m trying to be Dr. Flexible).

See Chapter Eight, Emphasize a Healthy Lifestyle, in WPTF for more.

Related blog post:

Kids’ Physical Activity: 7 Thinking Traps

#10: Excessive self-reproach, worry and lunacy.

At the end of the day we parents are shepherds, not sculptors. We often oversubscribe our kids’ outcomes to what we do and don’t do, to what we say and what we don’t say. While our efforts matter and make a big difference, so much of what happens in our kids’ lives is outside of our control (i.e., as they grow older the stakes rise and our control diminishes). Moreover, we are the best intentioned humans on the planet who work our butts off. And, every single one of us screws up on a pretty consistent basis. So, let’s cut ourselves some slack and have our self-talk be what we would have our kids’ self talk be, in the future, should they end up having kids…we can only hope that we can be there to see it, especially if we can simultaneously kick up our feet and enjoy a tasty beverage.

See the Introduction and Epilogue in WPTF for more.

Related blog post

We Parents are Lunatics

Mental Health Concerns Are Nearly Universal By Age 21

Earlier this year a landmark study on the prevalence of psychological disorders in youth was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Examining youth living in 11 counties in the southeastern US, it is the first to track kids’ mental health status from ages as young as 9 through age 21 (a total sample size of 1,420). The authors–Drs. William Copeland, Lilly Shanahan and E. Jane Costello and Ms. Adrian Angold–note some key findings in their report:

• Assuming that there was no incident of psychiatric disorders among the missing cases (an unlikely event), 70% of the sample met criteria for a mental health disorder, at some point, by age 21. (This is referred to as the unimputed number.)

• If one were to assume that the rates of psychiatric disturbance are the same among the missing cases, the frequency of a mental health disorder by age 21 rose to 82.5%. (This is referred to as the imputed number.)

• Child participants entered the study at one of three different ages: 9, 11 and 13. Among the youngest cohort (i.e., entered the study at age 9), the rates of having a diagnosable mental health problem by age 21 was “higher than 90%.” The authors note “This suggests that the experience of psychiatric illness is not merely common but nearly universal.”

• When examining the imputed analyses, these were the most common disorders: substance abuse–42%, behavioral disorders (e.g., ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder)–23.5%, anxiety disorders–20.9% and mood disorders–14.8%.

While all research studies have their flaws, and this one is no exception (e.g., an under representation of African-American and Hispanic children), this study numbers among those contributing to the notion that mental health disorders and physical disorders, as they manifest in youth, have many similar characteristics:

• The odds of having at least one by adulthood are nearly universal.

• Most are not chronic or severe.

• Most can be cured or effectively managed through evidence-based interventions.

• Most will either worsen, or promote needless suffering, when they go unrecognized or untreated.

However, there is a key way that mental health and physical disorders in youth are substantively different. As the authors indicate: “Only about one in three individuals with a well-specified psychiatric disorder received any treatment at all, and even when treatment was obtained, it rarely conformed to best practice recommendations.” I find myself wondering when we will grow weary and intolerant of this needless suffering that our babies endure.

If you, as parent or caregiver, would like to find an ally in your neighborhood to help you to understand whether a child or teen under your charge could use help along these lines, click here. To read a consumer guide for child mental health services, see Chapter 10 in my book Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference.

You may also find value in reviewing posts I’ve written on related topics:

Affording Mental Health Care

Signs that a Kid Needs Mental Health Services

Seven Common Myths About Counseling

Millions of Teens are Suffering Needlessly

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