Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

The New York Times Bestselling parenting expert helping you raise children who are happy, healthy, and fully themselves

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of. 



Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Parenting is transformative. Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.

Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)

What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved.   But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Challenge transformed into opportunity.

For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.

There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”

Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.  The situation would just escalate with this approach.

Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.

Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.

I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)

I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.

Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”

The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”

What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.

Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.

And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.

Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)

It’s all about watching for the opportunities.

As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.


Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety about School--Part 5

I keep hearing from parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety as a new school year begins.  Here’s what I tell them. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJQ0Nwk8hhY[/youtube]

Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety about School--Part 4

I keep hearing from parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety as a new school year begins.  Here’s what I tell them. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEQe2xfaQyc[/youtube]

Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety about School--Part 3

I keep hearing from parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety as a new school year begins.  Here’s what I tell them. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2pxKovH-Qc[/youtube]

Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety about School--Part 2

I keep hearing from parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety as a new school year begins.  Here’s what I tell them. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGl5DN4I_-E[/youtube]

What Kids Need Most: You Being Present With Them

Here’s my response to all the parents out there who worry that they’re not doing all the “right things” with their kids. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ6SPIW64w4[/youtube]

A Parent’s Anti-Bubble-Wrap Manifesto

Bubble-wrap is to protect things that are fragile, to cushion them so they don’t become damaged if they get jostled or banged around.  

Our kids are precious, but they’re not fragile.  They’re not delicate.

When we bubble-wrap them and protect them from any injury, any distress, or any potential challenge, we actually make them more fragile.  We communicate to them, “I don’t think you can handle this, and you need me to shelter you.”   In so doing, we deny them the privilege of the practice of feeling and sitting in discomfort and finding their way out, and of seeing that they are strong and resourceful. 

The more we bubble-wrap our kids, the more fragile they become. 

Want your children to believe that you believe in them?  Want them to be resourceful and resilient?  Want them to be able to develop a sturdy, robust bandwidth for tolerating challenges, and then rise to meet them?  Want them to know that they are not victim to their emotions and their circumstances? 

Then let them feel.  Let them wrestle with indecision, with discomfort, with discouragement and disappointment. 

Our job is not to rescue them from hard things and uncomfortable feelings.  Our job is to walk with them through their difficult moments with connection and empathy, allowing them to feel, allowing them to be active participants in problem-solving, and allowing them to discover the depth of their own capacity. 

It’s out of our deep love for our children that we want to protect them, but their capacity will be greater, their spirit larger, if we allow that love to lead us to our own courage, so that we can feel strong enough to let them discover their own strength.  

Eight Things You Say Without Talking

Most parents are mindful about their words. But our nonverbals also speak volumes to our kids.

In fact, we’re communicating all the time, often without even thinking about it.  Consider the last time you were with your kids at a piano recital, or a religious service.  You know, one where they really had to stay quiet.  When the squirming began, you might have been able to give a look or a touch that said, “This event is very important to me, and I need you to sit still, but I love having you here with me. It won’t be too much longer.” 

Or, you might have pulled out a completely different look, one that was offered with eyebrows raised as high as possible, and kind of means the opposite of “I love having you here with me.”

Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said. Something as simple as your smile—or your touch—can soothe a disappointment and strengthen your bond.   Or your nonverbals can do just the opposite.

I'm not saying there won't be times when you'll get completely exasperated with your kids.  Or that they won't misread something you're communicating and get upset.  Mistakes will be made on both sides of the relationship, of course.  But we can still be intentional about the messages that we're sending.

Here are four things you do not want—and four more that you do want—to be saying to your kids, even when you don’t utter a word.

Nonverbal Messages You DON’T Want to Send:

A deep, huffy sigh = exasperation

The message: You wear me out. I can’t stand you right now, and I blame you for making things so hard on me.

A clenched jaw or gritted teeth = fury. 

The message: I am furious with you and could explode at any moment. I’m unpredictable right now. Be afraid, very afraid. I’m not really in control of myself, and this is how people act when they are really mad.

Frantic rushing around = stress. 

The message: Don’t talk to me right now—and if you do, make it quick. I’m fragile at this moment, so if you stress me out any further, I might lose it. You better walk on eggshells and not make my life any harder.

Aggressive body posture = anger. 

The message:  You better do what I say—and now! I don’t care how you feel or what the circumstances are. I’m going to fight until I win, and I’ll continue to escalate and become more aggressive until I do. Power, control, and aggression are how I get what I want here.


Nonverbal Messages You Do Want to Send:

A big ol’ squinty-eyed smile = delight

The message: I think you are fantastic, and you fill me with joy. You bring fullness and wonder into my world and I love being with you.

An authentic belly laugh = appreciation. 

The message: You are funny and clever, and I enjoy you. I want to join with you in how you see things. You have my attention and I’m having fun with you.

A locked-in, responsive look = empathy/compassion.

The message: What you’re sharing with me right now is crucial—more important than anything going on around us, more important even than anything I could be saying right now. I hear that you’re really upset, and all I want to do at this moment is listen to you and be present—so I can comfort you the best I can.

A loving touch = support/camaraderie.

The message: I know you face a big day at school with challenges I’m not always aware of, but this little shoulder massage while you eat your Lucky Charms says that I’ll be thinking of you, missing you, and eager to see you again this afternoon. And this Family-Movie-Night foot rub while we watch Monsters Inc.—for the sixth time—says that although I won’t always I have just the right words to say, I will always be here for you.


This article originally appeared on mom.me.  



Negotiating the Nap

Does it seem like you’re spending an hour each afternoon just to get your toddler or preschooler to sleep for thirty minutes? Does approaching naptime produce a daily throwdown of the wills? Do you find your inner Ugly Parent emerging at this time, resulting in a nuclear naptime?

If you want to restore your afternoon oasis, here are a few suggestions—and a new way to think about the ever-elusive toddler nap.

Acknowledge the Audacity

Asking your child to go to sleep in the middle of her day is pretty presumptuous. Would you ask a falcon to pull out of a dive? LeBron James to sit out the third quarter?

An instinctual developmental drive pushes your toddler or preschooler to play, be silly, explore her world—all of which require being awake and on the move. No wonder repeating “Go to sleep” and “Be still” over and over doesn’t work. It runs counter to everything inside of your child.

Use a Gentle Approach

Remember that threats are often counterproductive. Saying things like, “If you don’t settle down, Mommy will leave,” actually arouses your child’s nervous system further and aggravates his anxiety. I know because I tried it more times than I care to admit.  And then it takes even longer for them to settle and relax into sleep.

And yelling? Have you ever tried drifting off to a relaxed, sweet sleep when a loved one is mad or yelling at you? I’ve never had the actual experience of trying to fall asleep when someone was yelling “GO TO SLEEP!” at me, but I imagine it’s pretty difficult. 

Be Mindful of Your Child’s Stage

Not only is the nap an unwelcome interruption in the busy day of your young mover ’n shaker, it also represents a significant separation. We often don’t think about sleep as a separation, but it certainly is.  Developmentally, your child regularly achieves new milestones toward independence. But almost as frequently, there are periods of regression when she is even needier, and when she has a hard time tolerating being alone. Try to stay attuned to such instances, extending more—and longer—handholding and cuddles as she needs them.

Don’t Articulate . . .

You want your toddler to sleep; he knows you want him to sleep. From the time he swallows his last bite of lunch, he’s steeling himself against sleep. So, when you tell him he has to go to sleep, you’re just asking him to fight back.

Lean Into the Need for Play

Instead, employ some naptime nuances, nudging your child toward a more relaxed, ready-to-sleep state through quiet play.  This moves him closer to relaxing, while still allowing the drive for curiosity and exploration to be indulged. Gently roll a large exercise ball up and down his body, from shoulders to feet. Take turns. Encourage him to rock his favorite stuffed animal to sleep. Even some reverse psychology might work:  “Don’t go to sleep, but let’s see if we can get your lion to fall asleep.” Lead him through some breathing exercises, like pretending you are both blowing out birthday candles really slowly.

Of course, reading a story or singing a few gentle songs can work wonders. In fact, if your toddler falls asleep readily at night, play music at bedtime with which he will make a positive sleep association—then play it for him at naptime.

Offer an Option

If all else fails, it can be effective to say, “You don’t have to go to sleep, but you do need to close your eyes and be still.” This worked like a charm for a couple of years with each of my kids. But, at this stage it might be time to . . .

Nip the Nap?

If they are getting close to age 3, you might want to pull the nap.  If they take a long time to fall asleep at naptime and then stay up really late at night, it might be time to experiment with removing the nap.  When I pulled the plug on my sons’ naps, I had to be out of the house in the afternoon at the park or somewhere doing something fun or they would fall asleep—or fall apart.  Then, they’d fall asleep easily and early, resting better at night.  I found that they actually were getting more hours of sleep when I took the nap away, and then my husband and I had our evening together. However, some kids need the nap through age 5 or 6.

Reset Reality

Give up the push toward independence. Just think about the next three months or so and how things can best work for your family. Your children’s schedules and needs will be different in just three months. Think about how best to get them some sleep and use the break instead of worrying about promoting independence or other kinds of things. Just focus on this and that independence will come later naturally.

Embrace the Challenge—and the Change

Remember that naptime battles are normal, and that getting frustrated is normal. Yes, you may occasionally model poor frustration-management strategies, but you also employ smart ones lots of times. You will be frustrated with your child a lot and that’s totally normal. But what they are doing at times can drive you crazy, so it would be weird if you weren’t frustrated. This is a phase, and no strategies are going to work perfectly. In fact, what works for you this week probably won’t next week. But it’s all normal—and it will all be different again in some other wonderful and difficult ways in three more months.


This article originally appeared at Mom.me.

Bunks Are Good for Brains: The Neuroscience of Sleepaway Camp

[The following interview appeared in the December, 2013 edition of the official magazine of the American Camp Association.  You can read the original interview here.]


Tina Payne Bryson, PhD will be delivering the opening keynote address at the 2014 ACA National Conference in Orlando. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of the bestselling The Whole-Brain Child, which is now in seventeen languages. She's a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who speaks to parents, educators, clinicians, and camp leadership all over the world. She is a school counselor and the child development director for Lantern Camps. Tina earned her PhD from the University of Southern California, where her research explored attachment science, childrearing theory, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. ACA sat down with her and asked her a few questions.

You're known as someone who teaches parents and educators about the brain. Is that what you'll talk about at the ACA conference?

It’s true that I spend most of my professional time talking to people about the brain. But it's also true that I'm a mom of three boys, and I've become a huge proponent of the camp experience over the last few years as my boys have attended Camp Chippewa in Minnesota, and as I've visited with camp directors and counselors and learned more about the important and meaningful work they're doing.

Put these two roles together — the brain lady and the mom who's passionate about camp — and you get someone who can go on and on explaining to parents, mental health professionals, and anyone who will listen just why camp is so beneficial for the developing brains of kids. I’m quite excited about the tremendous consilience between what camps are doing, can be doing, and what we know about optimal brain development. 

Tell us about the influence camp has on kids' developing brains?

When I visit a camp and consult with the leadership team there, I usually have two main messages. Number one: Whether you know it or not, you're significantly impacting the brains of the young people you work with every summer. In fact, it turns out that the things that build the brain and are best for kids’ development are also the very things that are important for running a successful camp with high camper and counselor retention and successful recruitment. 

And number two: if you know just a few basic facts about the brain, you can be even better at everything I just mentioned. Knowing just a little about the science of how the brain changes in response to experiences, particularly relational experiences, can help camps be even more successful — in all kinds of ways.

Your first point is that camp builds the brain?

Right. Bunks are good for brains. All the things that camps and parents say that camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character, grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?

The brain. I could go on and on about cutting-edge brain science and how it relates to the camp experience. For the sake of time, I’ll briefly introduce you to one part of the brain that's responsible for these skills and character qualities, and show you how it relates to the good, meaningful work that goes on at camp.

I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what's needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

And camp can help develop that part of the brain?

Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids' minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.

Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience. 

But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

It’s so great that camps that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they train their counselors already inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this “character” part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives.

So you're saying that camp aids in this development because of the challenges children face when they're away from home?

Yes, that’s part of it, but it's about much more than just the challenges, because kids have lots of challenges in their everyday lives as well. One thing that's unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well-trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encouraging them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.

So that's your first message to camp directors you work with.  That camp helps build the brain.  What's the second point?

The second is that knowing some of these basic facts about the brain can help directors and counselors be even more successful--both at helping develop great kids with the time they have them at camp, and at running a successful camp with high retention rates and happy campers and parents.

What can camps and camp directors do better?

First of all, even when camps are already doing some really fantastic things in terms of social and emotional and character development, they often aren’t as savvy as they could be about communicating in their recruitment materials how their program and decisions are contributing to that development.

It's about thoughtfully and strategically communicating to parents all the great stuff camp is doing for kids. Learning and using the language that child development experts know can make a big difference. With so much vying for children’s time, most parents want much more than just fun or better tennis skills for their kids. They want to feel confident that their child’s time is spent in ways that lead to their child thriving and being successful.

Can you give us an example of how camp does this?

There are dozens of ways that camp traditions and activities make kids better people and help them develop specific skills, like sustained attention (archery and riflery), overcoming fear (in safe but challenging activities), and serving others (helping with kitchen duties). If a camp can speak the language to make those connections, they’ll attract more parental interest.

Speaking this language also allows camp directors and leaders to clearly communicate to their staff each summer that there are more things going on than just the activity itself.

You're talking about staff training.

Yes. We want staff to keep in mind that in addition to the skills of sailing, counselors are also teaching kids about frustration management, flexibility, responsibility, etc. I love training the staff at Camp Chippewa each summer, and one of my main messages to the young counselors is always, "You’re doing more than just hanging out and keeping kids physically safe — you’re the relational safety net as well."

This is the science of interpersonal neurobiology. When kids feel connected and protected, when their needs are predictably and sensitively responded to, it actually builds the middle prefrontal cortex that I talked about earlier. There’s a hierarchy that staff should understand. When kids feel safe (physically, socially, emotionally), their social engagement system and receptivity circuitry can turn on. As a result, they're more willing to build friendships that make them want to come back. These friendships and counselor connections are a buffer against stress and homesickness and struggles. And they build character skills. In the attachment literature, this is referred to as “a secure base,” and when kids feel secure, they are capable of moving toward independence and they are better able to make friends.

So camps must create a culture and community of safety and connection. When they provide this kind of relational connection, they become the kinds of places kids want to return to summer after summer, and that parents want to keep sending their kids to.

So relational safety nets help retention rates?

Right. And there are all kinds of ways to foster this kind of relational environment through programmatic decisions. This is a lot of what Michael Thompson, the co-founder of Lantern Camps, and I are doing through Lantern Camps, where we visit camps and evaluate their programs, helping them not only provide better training for staff, and more intentional experiences for kids, but also communicate these important ideas to their staff and to parents in their recruitment materials.

Aren't camps already doing a lot of this?

Yes. The good ones are. Like I said, I am already a believer that camp can be a magical, transformative place for a child. In fact, I expect that down the road, when I think about the top experiences that made the biggest difference in who my boys turn out to be, going to Camp Chippewa will be on that list.

What I’m saying, though, is that many camps — and often, even good camps — can do even better at being intentional about what they want to accomplish. We're talking about honoring tradition and what’s working great, while also evolving, refining, and being more intentional.

Sometimes, a camp's automatic and unexamined ways of doing things aren't the most effective strategies — for dealing with homesickness, or difficult personalities, or emotional meltdowns, or whatever — and they’re not optimal in terms of what the science tells us about child development. Many camps are still doing a lot of what doesn’t work very well, which leaves kids feeling disconnected. As a result, they have a negative experience and don’t want to come back. I try to teach staff the same things I tell parents in my office, and teachers at the schools I visit. I try to help them learn how to decrease emotional reactivity and get kids quickly back to a place of feeling adaptive, stable, connected, and receptive to having fun.

I'll say again –camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways. Bunks are good for brains. After all, it's experience that changes the brain. So when kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery — these are the kinds of experiences that change the connections in the brain regarding kids' capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally.



How to Respond to a Grown-up Bully: What parents can do when coaches cross the line

Parental discussions and professional publications are proliferating on the subject of bullying, but one aspect is almost never talked about. What if the bully is an adult? 

As I saw a Little League World Series game on the television this week, I thought of two stories I heard during this last season.

Due to his new braces, a ten-year-old boy was nervous—as I would be!—about taking a pitch to the mouth. Understandably, he chose the batting helmet with the wire mask over the face when he stepped up to take batting practice.  At his first practice with the new helmet, he was mocked by his coach, who then proceeded to zip balls at his head, calling him a “pansy.

The same week, another coach in our area went into competitive overdrive, screaming at his young ballplayers and berating them.  “Be athletic, not  pathetic!” he hollered, and, “You have to know the damn pitch count!” “Stop crying and get control of your emotions! You’re twelve!!”  He continued browbeating kids for throwing to the wrong base, dropping a ball, or hanging their heads.  He even told his daughter he wasn't going to coach her next year if she continued to be upset when he yelled at her.

Other adults were nearby during both sets of events, and in the first case, did nothing.  They just watched and let it happen.  In the second story, a dad in the stands stepped in and respectfully confronted the coach, and then he and his wife followed up with the coach later.  The “do nothing” and the “do something” contrast in these moments initiated a series of conversations with other parents and professionals I know about how parents should respond when they witness an adult bullying a child. 

Here are some suggestions I've been thinking about:


Model Supportive Behavior

Creating a bully-free environment starts with you.  In the heat of a game, do you ever scream out comments that stoke an oppressive, hypercompetitive atmosphere—comments that might encourage a likely bully? Keep it positive and remember that the brain is always making associations.  If someone yelled at you each time you stepped to the plate, or made audible disappointed gasps when you missed a ball, would you want to keep playing? 


Let the Coach Feel Your Support Early

If you do have to intercede in a bullying situation, you start out a step ahead if the coach has felt your support from the beginning of the season.  When we've connected with someone and begun to build relationships with them, they trust us more when we need to suggest that they make a change.


Intercede Indirectly

A bullying coach is a rocket revving up on the launch pad. If you hope to walk back that launch, try to avoid putting him on the defensive—and give him an out if at all possible. The only win you’re after here is the one for the kid.  So you might say, "Coach, Katie's grandparents are here today.  Isn't that great?"  This may be enough to get his attention without having to directly ask him to watch what he's saying.  This is an art.  If we’re abrasive, we'll only fuel the fire and increase the coach’s aggression.


Offer to Help

This can often de-escalate the situation. Say something like, “Things have gotten pretty amped up. Can I help?”  Or you can even take the empathy angle, which can often soften the bully, saying something along the lines of “This is frustrating, isn’t it? How can I help?”


Confront Confidentially

Calling out the bully in front of others will usually only escalate things, since the adult is probably not fully in control anyway if acting in such a manner. Ask to speak privately—or even slip him a note, saying something like, “Seems like emotions are getting a little intense,” just to give him some awareness.


Set Up a Time to Talk Later

I tell parents that in order to teach our children, we have to wait for the teachable moment, which is almost never when emotions are running high. Timing is everything. Talk to the coach about your concerns at a time when he has some perspective and will be more likely to listen and make a change.


Join Forces

Confer with the other parents. Chances are they share your concern—and your reluctance to intervene on your own. But there is strength in numbers. Not only will a group approach be more convincing to the coach, it permits a gentler intervention: “We'd like to see a more positive, affirming environment surrounding the team. How can we help you accomplish that?”


Enlist a Higher Power

Unfortunately, some unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with. That’s the time to take it out of your hands—and theirs—by going above them. Inform the supervisor or governing body of the harmful words or actions. Again, it’s helpful to bring other parents alongside. Make sure that next season’s kids won’t have to face such treatment.  If you let it slide it will just keep happening year after year.


Stand Up for the Victim—Now!

Sometimes you don't have the leisure of waiting for a teachable moment. An adult bully’s actions may render nice notes and confidential conversations moot. And especially if a child is endangered—I’m thinking of the first time the coach whistled a fastball by the ten-year-old’s chin and called out “Pansy!”—you may have to go all superhero. Get your body between the bully and the child, gently guiding the latter away from the situation.


I love youth sports, and the vast majority of coaches are kind, supportive adults who really care about the kids they work with.  But we all know that there are still too many exceptions to that rule. Too often we see adults bullying children, and too rarely do adults stand up and do anything about it.  When we don't, we communicate to the children that the bully’s behavior is OK and that they are on their own.  We want to model bravery and doing what is right, even when it’s hard, and even when we feel uncomfortable.  We want to communicate to children that they deserve to be treated with respect.


This article originally appeared on Mom.me.

Promoting Independence: How to raise an independent child without pushing too far too fast

A small part of you enjoyed it when your kids would cling to your leg when you dropped them off for the first few days of school.  It’s nice to feel that our children need us.  But now, as they get older, you want to help them loosen their grip without pushing them to let go too quickly. 

Finding a balance is the first step to promoting independence, while honoring the need all of us have to be connected to others.

While there’s no blueprint for how to raise your kids to be successfully independent, here are a few suggestions for fostering healthy independence without pushing children to grow up too fast.

Attachment is not the enemy – For decades, studies have continually shown that the best predictor for how well a child turns out is if he had secure attachment to at least one person.  Repeated, predictable, sensitive care from a caregiver who’s tuned in to the way the child feels lets the child know that his emotional and physical needs will be seen and met.  These experiences wire the brain in optimal ways in terms of mental health and the capacity for healthy relationships—including how your child can provide secure attachment to your future grandchildren!  So one of the very best things you can do to promote independence is to leave no doubt in your child’s mind about your love and constancy.

Don’t push too hard or too soon – Research from a variety of perspectives reveals that when we push our children to be independent before they’re ready, it can often be counterproductive, making them more dependent instead.  For example, if a toddler is afraid to be alone at bedtime, and the parent forces him to do so, the feeling of fear once the parent closes the door may amplify.  The next night, this fear and panic and dependence are even greater because, while you may have been ready for that move toward independence, your child was not.  When children are afraid and their parents push them too hard too soon, they will often feel flooded with uncomfortable emotions and bodily sensations.  The science is very clear that when children feel safe and secure, they will move toward independence, a concept known in research as the “Secure Base” phenomenon.

But push a little – In his research on temperament, Jerome Kagan demonstrated that there’s a line we must walk in terms of how far we push our kids outside of their comfort zone in order to successfully promote independence.  As I said, if parents push too hard, the child becomes more resistant to independence.  Think about how a nervous system that’s overcome with anxiety will try even harder to avoid those feelings in the future. But if parents don’t push at all, the child will stay confined within her comfort zone and won’t overcome her discomfort and fear about taking on new independence or a new experience.  Dr. Kagan found that when parents push their children gently, incrementally, and with lots of support, children learn to tolerate more, and begin to have experiences that let them feel stronger and more independent.  For example, when I wanted to help my son not feel so fearful about going to the bathroom or upstairs without me, I would sing loudly so he could hear I was close, but not right next to him.  He was able to tolerate going off by himself for a few minutes if he could hear me, and in time, he saw that he could feel comfortable doing these things without me.

Find the sweet spot – In the end, then, it’s okay to push a little hard, but it shouldn’t be TOO hard.  For example, I’m a big fan of sleepaway camp once kids are old enough.  Parents will often ask me, “How do I know if my kid is ready?”  Here’s what I say:  If you think your child will be a little homesick, but you expect her to return having had a wonderful experience and wanting to go back, then it’s a great time to let her stretch and overcome.  But if you think that stretching is going to be traumatic and cause your child to be more fearful and less independent, then sleepaway camp may have to wait another summer or two.

Treat each child as an individual – The sweet spot and timing may be different for each child.  Each of my two oldest sons, for example, went to camp at age nine.  One of them would’ve been ready regardless, simply because of his temperament.  The other, though, might not have been able had I not provided lots of secure base-building and nurturing incrementally as he took steps toward independence early on. The key is to give all of our kids the experience of being able to tolerate something difficult in a way that they get to conquer their uneasy feelings so that they can expand what they’re able to handle in the future.  This is resilience!


The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.



Second Thoughts About Sleepaway Camp? How to Warm Your Child’s Cold Feet

Last month your child was completely gung-ho about attending sleepaway camp.  But now that the weather’s turning warmer, that enthusiasm might be turning to apprehension.  Doubts, fears, anxieties, and even dread are normal for kids who are going to be away from their parents for a period of time, especially if it’s their first time, and especially if they are introverts.

We’ve got checklists for all the gear our children need at camp, but it’s also helpful to compile a checklist for preparing them emotionally if they are experiencing some cold feet or worries.  It might look something like this.

An Emotion-Prep Checklist for Sleepaway Camp:

  1. Talk directly about feelings.  It’s really unhelpful for parents to dismiss a child’s feelings and say, “You’ll be fine.  You’ll love it!  Don’t worry.”  (Has someone telling you “Don’t worry” made you say “Oh, OK. I hadn’t thought of that.”  Not helpful, right?)  Instead, if you sense your child is having some worries and he’s not bringing them up, you can begin the conversation by saying something like, “Some kids feel nervous about camp as it gets closer.  How are you feeling about it?”  And whether or not your child is initiating the discussion himself, it’s important to really listen and validate those feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them or dismiss them.
  2. Problem-Solve.  Find out what your child’s specific worries are, and then collaboratively problem-solve with her.  Most kids worry about being homesick, but it might surprise you what they are concerned about.  Kids worry whether they’ll like the food, that they won’t be good at the activities, that they’ll wet the bed, and even that their shoes will get wet.  Whatever the worries, it can be helpful to brainstorm together and talk about the “what ifs,” and what she can do in the circumstances she’s thinking about.
  3. Normalize the feelings.  Just knowing that other kids feel that way, too, and that it’s normal to feel worried about doing something that’s different, can be quite helpful.  Talk about a time you stepped outside your comfort zone and how you felt apprehension at first, how you handled your feelings, and how the experience ended up being great. (Make sure to pick a resilient story—no stories about how it ended up being even worse than you could’ve imagined.)
  4. Give kids a strategyor two to help them calm their worries.  One thing you can begin now that will give them tools they can use while they’re at camp is something I use with anxious kids in my private practice.  I give them an assignment that each night, once they are peaceful and relaxed and ready to fall asleep, they should place their hand on their chest (pledge-of-allegiance style).  Only when they’re feeling calm and peaceful.  After doing this every night for a few weeks, the brain makes a connection between the sensation of the hand on the chest and a feeling of calm relaxation.  Then, when the child is feeling worried or upset, he can easily place his hand on his chest wherever he is, and his body will begin to relax and his mind will begin to feel calm. 

    Another strategy is to teach him that while his feelings might feel really wild and stirred up, if he pauses to take a few deep breaths, the worries will settle, allowing him to see clearly again.  The best thing I’ve found to teach this is the “glitter ball” analogy that Susan Kaiser-Greenland created.  You can teach this to your kids by having them watch this super-short video with you.  Then send a glitter ball, or a small snow globe, to camp with your child, explaining that he can shake it up and watch the glitter settle when he’s feeling upset. 

    If you do these two things in the weeks before your child leaves for camp, you can build some skills and empower him with some tools he can pull out when he needs them.  This allows him to avoid becoming a victim to his feelings, but to be able to use his mind to change how he feels.  (You might try some of these tools too, if you are feeling worried about sending your child off!)

This moment is a great opportunity to teach kids that while we should pay attention to our feelings, our feelings shouldn’t rule our worlds.  If you talk, listen, normalize, and strategize, you will be preparing your children to go to camp with the best chance of overcoming their fears and learning something really important about themselves—that they are braver and stronger than they think.  You’ll be doing much more than just prepping them for camp, you’ll be prepping them for life.


The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Present-Tense Parenting

You know one mistake I make as a mom?  I forget to live in the present moment with my kids.  I worry about what’s coming in the future, or I obsess about something from the past.  When I do this, I miss what they are really needing, what they are really communicating, and what is really happening.

Does that ever happen to you? 

When we practice fearful-future parenting or past-preoccupation parenting, we can’t practice present-tense parenting.  We don’t give our kids our best, and we often miss what they really need from us.  When we’re not parenting in the present tense, we end up thinking in rigid ways, like this:


Oh no!  My six-year-old is still in pull-ups at night!  What if he never gains control of his bladder?
This is future-tense parenting, and it can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.  It’s normal to worry about the future—I can identify with that—but the problem is that you’re letting fear get the better of you.  Your son will be able to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, just as he learned to feed and dress himself.  I promise. (Unless something very unusual is going on, he won’t be in pull-ups when you send him off to college.)

When my nine-year-old was sick last week I let her stay home from school and watch movies.  Now she’s sick again. I’ve set up a bad pattern, so I’d better make today less fun.
This is past-tense parenting, and it’s also destructive.  There may be times that you see a genuine pattern that needs to be addressed.  If so, then by all means address it.  But don’t let one event in the past so overshadow what’s happening right now that you end up failing to nurture your daughter when she really needs it.

My mother-in-law says I should let my newborn “cry it out” when he wakes at night.  I don’t want him to develop bad sleep habits, so if I don’t nip it in the bid right now, he’ll be a bad sleeper his whole childhood.
Again, fear-based, future-tense parenting.  Babies aren’t able to manipulate.  They cry to communicate when they need something.  Your job is to meet those needs, right now.  If you worry too much about the future, you’ll deprive your baby of what he needs in this moment:  a mom who will be there for him anytime he tells her that he needs to be fed or held.

My thirteen-year-old forgot to turn in her Spanish homework last week, and now she’s turned in her math homework late.  I’ve got to cancel her dance class, since she needs to spend more time being responsible!
Again, there really is something to be said for nipping a problem in the bud.  But be careful not to overreact to a situation based on limited information.  If your normally responsible middle-schooler makes one mistake, that shouldn’t cloud your judgment about her any time she messes up again. 

My ten-year-old picks on his little sister.  She’s crying now, so her brother must be upsetting her again.
Past-tense parenting.  Even if your son is usually the instigator when sibling conflict arises, that doesn’t mean he’s the culprit every time.  If you march into the room and look at him and say, “What did you do this time?!” before you have all the information, you’re going to risk alienating him and damaging the trust in your relationship.

My seven-year-old cries wolf all the time, pretending to be hurt or sick when she’s not.  I need to teach her that that’s not the way to get my attention.
This one is a tough one for most parents.  After all, you don’t want to reinforce a pattern that makes life harder for you, your daughter, and the whole family.  Still, I always say to err on the side of nurturing too much, rather than too little.  Kids often go through this attention-seeking phase because they have a need for your attention.  And just because you are there for your daughter and connect when she needs (or just asks for) comfort, doesn’t mean that she’s going to seek attention in this way all the time.  In fact, you can’t spoil children by giving them emotional connection.  The more your daughter feels your love and constant affection, she’ll be quicker to move through this phase, and she’ll do so knowing that you’re on her side and have her back.  All because you were able to parent in the present tense.


The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.