Viewing entries tagged
communicating with kids

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.

 

 

What Do I Tell My Kids? (A Parent’s Response to the Newtown, Connecticut Tragedy)

I really don’t know what to say.  I’m heartbroken and speechless.

Facts are still coming in, and I'm just beginning to process everything myself.  What we’ve learned is that close to thirty people, including many children, were killed by a gunman this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I really don’t know what to say. 

None of us do.

But if we’re parents, we’ve got to decide how to address a horrific event like this with our own kids.  We have to find the words.

The events just took place a few hours ago, so I reserve the right to change my opinion.  But here are my thoughts on a first hearing, based on some questions I’ve already been asked.

 

Should I talk to my kids about what happened?

Usually, I’m in favor of arming children with as much information as possible.  But in this case, if you have young, even school-age, children, I’d be very careful about how much you tell them about what happened in Newtown.  It can be overwhelmingly frightening to a child (or even an adult) to hear that a person has carried a gun into a kindergarten classroom and begun killing kids and their teachers.  If your children haven’t heard about the shooting, I advise you not to open the door to that world.  It’s terrifying.

 

What if my kids have already heard?

If your children hear about the shooting from friends or the news or some other source, then it becomes paramount that you talk with them about what they’ve heard.  In this conversation, aim for four main goals:

Listen.

Begin by asking a few questions.  Find out what your child knows and how they are feeling.  A good question to ask is, “How did you feel when you first heard the news?” or, “What was your first thought?”  Listening is crucial here, because it will allow you to assess where your child is, emotionally, at this moment, and also because it will give you information that should guide the rest of the conversation.

Let your child lead the conversation.

Don't give your child more information then they need or already have.  They don’t need pictures drawn for them.  Answer their questions, and show them the respect of taking their inquiries seriously.  But address their concerns and curiosity without delivering extraneous information that will create more confusion and anxiety.

Help your child feel safe.

This is your highest priority right now. Information is important, but contextualize everything so that your child feels safe.  Explain how rare the situation is, and that they have no reason to expect that it would happen at their school.  Promise that you’re always watching over and protecting them.  Let them know they can absolutely count on you and that you will always try to keep them safe.

Be willing to return to the subject, but only if your child needs to.

Later today, or tomorrow, or next week, your child may need to talk more about what happened.  If so, talk more.  But if your child has moved on and isn’t showing any signs of worrying any more about it, then let them move on.  Don’t create anxiety by bringing it up again and again.

 

What do I do if I feel terrified myself?

I know that these types of terrible (but extremely rare) occurrences make us want to pull our children closer, and protect them more. And yes, you should hold your child close tonight and be grateful.  I know I will.  But don't allow your fears and anxieties to rage so much that your child misses out on freedoms and opportunities that produce mastery and competence.  And remember, too, that kids are very perceptive.  Be careful not to communicate so much of your own fear that you make your own anxiety theirs.

 

I feel a deep, deep sadness for the people of Newtown.  Tragedies occur, and far too often, we’re left without any answers.  I wish I had more answers right now, both for myself and to offer you.  All I know to say as we watch from afar, is that we should let this remind us of our responsibilities to our own children:  to listen to them, to protect them, to cherish them, and to communicate to them—as fully as possible—how much we love them.

 

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

How to Talk to Your Tween Girl: Keep the connection even after she's done with the kid stuff

I've recently written two articles for mom.me about communicating with tweens.  Here's the one about talking with your pre-teen daughter.

 

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She’s not a teenager yet. But she’s sure not a child anymore, at least in the way she used to be. Just last week her school notebook contained pictures of cute puppies. Now she actually talks about cute boys.

One foot in childhood, one in adolescence. Sometimes sweet and playful, sometimes moody and sensitive. She’s a tween.

How do you talk to her? Here are some suggestions.

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Click here to read the full article.

Click here to read my article about communicating with pre-teen boys.

How to Talk to Your Tween Boy: Stay connected even as he exerts his independence

I have a twelve-year-old son.  Sometimes it's easy to talk with him, but sometimes, it's just not.  Here's an article I wrote about communicating with pre-teens. ----------------------

Attitude. Moodiness. An emerging desire for autonomy. A growing connection to friends that appears to coincide with a decreasing connection to parents. Any of that sound familiar? If you have a son who’s a tween—a 9- to 12-year-old—then chances are at least some of that rings a bell. And most likely, one of the challenges you’re facing at the moment is how to talk to your no-longer-a-child but not-yet-a-teenager son. Here are some suggestions.

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Click here to read the full article at mom.me.

Click here to read my article about communicating with pre-teen girls.

8 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tantrums

Here's a new post on Mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------

Grateful?  Really?

I know what you’re thinking: "File this one under 'You can’t be serious.'”

But I am serious.

Nobody likes a tantrum: not your little one, and certainly not you. But even though we don’t enjoy our kids’ tantrums, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the times when they get the most upset.

For example . . .

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Click here to check out the whole piece.

Should I Use a Leash on My Child?

As you can see here, I recently made a brief appearance on "Good Morning America."  I was asked to share my opinions on whether or not to use a "leash" on a small child.  Only a minute fraction of what I said ended up in the actual segment, so I wrote up my thoughts in an fuller article.  You can read the whole article at Mom.me (where it's already generating a great deal of discussion).  Here's an excerpt from the piece: --------------

You see it at the mall, at the airport, at Disneyland. A small child wears a monkey backpack, and the monkey’s tail is a tether held by the child’s parent. A leash.

Lots of people react pretty strongly against leashes for children. I even hear the practice described as “inhumane.” When I asked a friend about it, his tongue-in-cheek response was, “That’s how you get them to sit and stay.”

In my opinion, a leash is like so many other parenting tools and techniques. It’s not inherently good or bad. What matters is how it’s used: how it’s presented to the child, how and when the parent uses it, what the child’s temperament is, and why the parent is using it.

For example, I can see why a mother of young triplets might use a leash when she takes them to a crowded store. Or why the dad of an impulsive 2-year-old who has a history of bolting might feel the need to use it in airport security because he’s also attending to a 4-year-old. In fact, I’m not sure that a leash in these cases is all that different from buckling kids into a stroller to keep them contained. And, further, it might be a better alternative to what I’ve seen in parking lots, where I sometimes see a parent yanking a child’s wrist in rough ways.

In other words, I understand that in certain situations, a parent may have tried everything and eventually decided that a leash is the best way to protect her child until the child has a little more capacity for thinking and controlling impulses. Some parents are truly afraid for their child’s safety, and that fear is legitimately based on the child’s past behavior. I’ve talked to many caring parents who decided to use some form of a leash when it became a basic safety issue for their overly impulsive child who was, say, 18- to 36-months-old. And some parents feel that this provides them with a basic security that allows them to be more engaged and playful with their child.

However, all that being said, I do have three main concerns about using a restraining device like a leash.

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Click here to read the rest of the article.

 

 

Turn the Page on Conflict

I have a new article up at Mom.me where I talk about what to do when you have trouble letting go after you've had conflict with your child.  It starts like this: --------------

It was a typical morning before school, and we were on schedule. Until things began unraveling when I told my 8-year-old son he was pouring too much salt on his eggs. (We’re not talking a sprinkle or a light dusting. He could’ve cured a ham.)

For whatever reason, my criticism pushed an ugly button with my son, and he stormed out of the room. For the rest of our time before school, he unleashed an increasingly mean-spirited verbal assault that eventually escalated to his saying, “Mom, you are so mean. If I should evencall you a mom.”

Looking back now, I can see the humor in this line. But after the barrage of attacks, I had a hard time letting go of my anger toward my son. When I picked him up from school that afternoon, he was happy and had forgotten about the whole thing. Clearly, he hadn’t been ruminating on our conflict all day. He said, in a cheerful voice, “Can we go get some ice cream?” But I didn’t feel like taking him to get an ice cream. I was still hurt and mad.

Can you identify? Your child rages, maybe throws some verbal missiles your way, deliberately trying to hurt your feelings. Then he calms down. Moves on. All seems well from his point of view. But what if you’re not ready to turn the page?

When you fight with your sister or your spouse, you often end the conflict with apologies, new insight and deeper understanding, and then feel ready to move on. But most kids don’t consistently do this without prompting, so we’re frequently left to do some internal repair work on our own.

How can we move on? How can we let it go?

Here are five tips to help you turn the page.

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Read the rest of the piece here.

20 Discipline Mistakes All Moms Make

Some of you have seen my posts about common discipline mistakes even the best parents make.  Mom.me has just posted a re-working of those ideas as a gallery with pictures.  It begins like this: -------------------

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed moms, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

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View the whole gallery here.

 

 

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

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 lofty 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.

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time Outs

More and more, I find myself questioning time outs as an effective discipline strategy.  I’ve written some about this already, but now I’d like to go into my reasons in a bit more depth. I know lots of loving parents who use time outs as their primary discipline technique.  I’m not saying that time outs are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative we have when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

 

Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time-Outs:

#1.  What we know about the brain. 

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection, when they’ve made a mistake.

What I DO want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way.  So, instead of a time out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior.  If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully.  If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime.  That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

 

#2.  False advertising and missed opportunities. 

What’s the point or the goal for a time out?  It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior.  In my experience, time outs frequently just make children more angry .  And how often do you think kids use their time out to reflect on their behavior?  I’ve got news for you:  The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy, and problem-solving.  Putting them in time out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out.  We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices.  You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?”  Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

 

#3.  Time outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior.

Usually, we want to choose consequences that are directly and logically connected to the misbehavior.  Using a broom to whack the TV means the broom is put away until the child can make appropriate choices with it again.  Riding a bike without a helmet means no riding for a few days.

Time outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction.  As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

 

#4.  Time outs are too often used as punishment, as opposed to a teaching tool.

Even when parents have good intentions, time outs are often used inappropriately.  The idea behind time outs is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together.  Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time outs punitively.  The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but to punish her for some misbehavior.  The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

 

#5.  Kids need connection. 

Often, misbehavior is a result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling.  She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Like, maybe she’s three, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.”  So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence.  Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already.  It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

 

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting – often called a “time-in” – some time to calm down can be helpful for children.  But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time out.

 

Beyond “How was your day?” – Getting Your Kids to Talk After School

It’s a classic parenting dilemma, isn’t it?  How do we get our kids to talk to us? The conversation itself is even more cliché:

--How was your day?

--Fine.

--Anything interesting happen?

--Not really.

A few years ago I found myself almost literally wincing as I heard myself ask my six-year-old the “How was your day?” question as he got into the car at the pick-up circle.  It’s not that it’s a bad question, it’s just that I knew it wouldn’t encourage him to talk to me.

So why was I even asking the question?  Wasn’t there something else I could do or say or ask that might get him to offer some of the mundane morsels I hungered for when I’d been away from him for six hours while he was at school?

I realized I needed to be more creative when it came to drawing out meaty details about my kids’ school lives.  What I eventually came up with was a guessing game.

When I picked up my young son from school, I started asking him, “Tell me two things that really happened today, and one thing that didn’t.  Then I’ll guess which two are true.”

The game may lack a certain amount of challenge for you—especially when your choices include “Ms. Derrick read us a story,” “Me and Ryan spied on the girls,” and “Captain Hook captured me and fed me to the alligator”—but it can quickly become a fun game that kids look forward to.  It will not only open up their lives to you, since you get to hear about what they remember from school each day, but it can also help them get used to thinking back and reflecting on the events of their days.

Sometimes, with younger kids, you may have to adjust the game a bit.  My husband tried the guessing game with my four-year-old after preschool one day, and the best my son could come up with was, “One boy pooped in his pants, and two boys didn’t poop in their pants.”  (The answer, in case you’re stumped, was that no one pooped in their pants that particular day.)

So Scott shifted the game a bit, and made it a true-false game.  Their conversation went something like this:

--True or false:  You played with someone today.

--True.

--True or false:  A new friend.

--True.

--True or false:  The new friend is a girl.

--False.

--True or false:  The boy’s name is Horatio.

--False.

And so on.  After my husband made some headway with this discussion, he started in on activities from the school day.  “True or false:  You played on the swings today.

My young son had a great time playing the game (not to mention learning the word “false,” which he didn’t previously know), and Scott got to hear much more about the school day than he otherwise would have.

For older kids, you can just ask more specific questions, like “who did you eat lunch with today?” or “What was the hardest subject today?” or “Quiz me on a fact you learned in school today that you think I won’t be able to get right.”  And sometimes you can get them warmed up to talk by starting the conversation by telling something about your day or something you’re thinking about.

You may have one of those kids who’s eager to talk when you pick them up, and they’ll just launch into a full-blown description of their day as soon as they see you.  If not, be creative.  For most of us, it’s not that our kids don’t want to talk to us.  Sometimes they are just in the moment and can’t really remember the details immediately without some prompting.  Other times, they’ve been talking or interacting all day and they’re just tired.   Don’t force it.

It’s OK that they have a little piece of life away from you that’s all their own.  And it’s good practice for you to start getting used to their independence and not sharing every detail of their life with you since later on, they probably won’t be calling you from work each day to tell you who they ate lunch with or what the boss thought of their big presentation.

 

Surfing the Waves of an Emotional Tsunami: When Your Kid’s Upset, Connect and Redirect

Logic will do no good in a case like this until a child's right brain is responded to. You probably already know that your brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left side of your brain is logical and verbal, while the right side is emotional and nonverbal. That means that if we were ruled only by the left side of our brain, it would be as if we were living in an emotional drought, not paying attention to our feelings at all. Or, in contrast, if we were completely “right-brained,” we’d be all about emotion and ignore the logical parts of ourselves. Instead of an emotional drought, we’d be drowning in an emotional tsunami.

Clearly, we function best when the two hemispheres of our brain work together, so that our logic and our emotions are both valued as important parts of ourselves and we are emotionally balanced. Then we can give words to our emotional experiences, and make sense of them logically.

It’s Not Just the What but the How . . .

What we say to our kids is important, right?  The words we choose play a big role as children construct their beliefs about themselves, establish a foundation for their values, and decide how they see the world.  What we say matters. That’s why we’re used to filtering what we say to or in front of our kids.  Sometimes we have an internal dialogue that might include phrases like, “You’re driving me crazy, kid!” or “Are you EVER going to stop crying?” or “I can’t wait until you go to sleep!”; but we know not to say these things out loud to our kids.  We’re also aware that we should avoid talking about inappropriate subjects in front of our kids, so we wait until they’re asleep before we tell our spouse about how our neighbor’s house was robbed or about the latest community scandal.

We pause and make a decision about what we say before we share things with our children. We do this because we know that what we say matters and has an impact on them.

But just as important as what we say is how we say it.  Imagine that your three-year-old isn’t getting into her carseat.  Here are a few different how’s for saying the exact same what:

  • With clenched teeth, squinted eyes and a seething tone of voice: “Get in your carseat.”
  • With eyes wide, big gestures, and an angry tone of voice, you yell: “GET IN YOUR CARSEAT!!!”
  • With a relaxed face and a warm tone of voice: “Get in your carseat.”
  • With a wacky facial expression and a goofy voice “Get in your carseat.”

You see what I mean.  The how matters.

And even the words we choose are part of how we communicate an idea.  For example, at bedtime you might use a threat:  “Get in bed now or you won’t get any stories.”  Or you could say, “If you get in bed now, we’ll have time to read.  But if you don’t get in bed right away, we’ll run out of time and have to skip reading.”  The message is the same, but how it’s said is very different.  It has a different feel.

Both ways model for them ways of talking to others.  Both ways are setting a boundary.  Both ways deliver the same message.  But imagine for a moment someone saying each to you.  Which one would you prefer to hear?  How would you respond differently to each?

Just like we pause and make a decision about what we say to our children, we should pause and make a decision about how we say things to them.

It’s the how that determines what our children feel about us and themselves, and what they learn about treating others.  Plus, the how goes a long way towards determining their response in the moment, and how successful we’ll be at helping produce an outcome that makes everyone happier.

 

 

 

 

Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums

Summary Bullets:

  • A child’s tantrum may originate in the upstairs brain, meaning the child is in control and is using the moment to intentionally achieve a desired end.  In moments like these, parents should respond with love, but set clear boundaries and avoid rewarding manipulative behavior.
  • If, however, the tantrum originates in the more primal downstairs brain, and the child is truly out of control, then the parents’ response should be less about setting boundaries, and more about nurturing the child and guiding him back into a state of calm and control.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you may have heard me talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain.  Or maybe you’re read about the concepts here, where I help you teach the basic information to your kids.

Right now I want to apply that information in a way that can help us deal with one of the most unpleasant parenting issues we all face:  the dreaded tantrum.

 

The Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain

The basic idea is that we can think about our brain as a house, with a downstairs and an upstairs.  The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose.  Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they’re responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).

Your upstairs brain, on the other hand, handles much more sophisticated thinking.  It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts—particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex.  In other words, it is literally the higher (and thus upstairs) part of your brain.  This is where more complex mental processing takes place, like thinking, imagining, and planning.  Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking.  Because of its sophistication and complexity, it is responsible for producing many of the characteristics we hope to see in our kids:

  • Sound decision-making and planning
  • Control over emotions and body
  • Self-understanding
  • Empathy
  • Morality

In other words, a child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being.

Two Different Tantrums

What does all this have to do with tantrums?  Well, when your child begins to throw a fit of some sort, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether it’s an upstairs tantrum or a downstairs tantrum.

An upstairs tantrum originates in the upstairs brain, and this is the strategic tantrum.  Here the child is control of himself and is willfully and manipulatively acting upset to achieve a desired end:  to get a toy he wants, to stay at the park longer, whatever.  He is purposefully employing tactics to get things his way.

When you see an upstairs tantrum, in the words of Tina Fey, “Shut it down!”  Do not give in.  Your child is in control of himself and is trying to make your life so unpleasant at this moment that you choose to do something other than what you’ve already decided is best.  Never negotiate with a terrorist.  You should still be nurturing and respectful to your child, but your primary response should be to set and maintain a boundary.

If, however, you determine that your child is undergoing a downstairs tantrum, your response should be much more nurturing and sympathetic.  If he’s so upset that he’s legitimately and honestly out of control, then he needs you in this moment.  When you determine that he’s unable to regulate his emotions and actions, then it’s unjust to punish him or try to discipline him.  If you ignore him when he’s in this emotional distress state, it’s like ignoring him when he’s physically in distress.

If his downstairs brain has taken over, he can’t remain calm and make good decisions, no matter how much you demand that he do so.  Even if you give him what he wants, he’ll continue to lose his mind.  In that instant, your job is to use a soothing voice and nonverbals (like touch and empathetic facial expressions) to help bring him back from the emotional precipice so he can regain control of himself.  Then, once he’s calm, you can talk to him about making good choices, and you can handle whatever disciplinary issues you need to address once he’s recovered and it’s actually a teachable moment.  While you’re still going to maintain boundaries, your main emphasis in these moments is comfort.

 

The Point:  Remain Flexible, Providing Both Boundaries and Nurturing

The point here is not to get rigidly locked into one response for every tantrum.  Instead, do what’s most loving.  I know, I know.  People always say that the proper way to address a tantrum is to ignore it.  But if it’s an upstairs tantrum, you should directly address the inappropriate way your child is communicating, and if it’s a downstairs tantrum, he may need you to help him calm down and pull it together.  You’ll need to employ boundaries and nurturing in both cases, but if your child is still in control, emphasize boundaries; and if he’s lost control, emphasize comfort.  Even though it can be challenging, try to look beyond how difficult your child is making things for you in this moment, and provide him with what he most needs right now—clear communication about where the boundaries are, and lots and lots of love.

Magic Wand? Yeah, right. (Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do when your child is upset.)

One day my seven-year-old became furious with me because I told him he couldn’t invite a friend over to play.  He stormed off to his room and slammed the door.  About a minute later, I heard the door open, then slam again.  I went up to check on him, and taped to the outside of his door, I saw the picture you see here.  (You can see from the drawing below that he regularly uses his artistic talents to communicate his feelings about his parents.) I went into his room and saw what I knew I’d see:  a big child-sized lump under the covers on his bed. I sat next to the lump and put my hand on what I assumed was a shoulder, and suddenly the lump moved away from me, towards the wall.  From beneath the covers, he cried out, “Get away from me!”

Often at times like this I can become childish and drop down to my child’s level.  I’ve even been known to say things like, “Fine!  If you won’t let me cut that toenail that’s hurting, you can stay in pain all week!”  (Sometimes I'll throw in a "See if I care!" for good measure.)

But this particular day, I maintained control and handled myself pretty well.  I first tried to acknowledge his feelings: “I know that makes you mad that Ryan can’t come over today.”

His response?  “Yes, and I hate you!”

I stayed calm and said, “Sweetie, I know this is frustrating, but there’s just not time to have Ryan over.  We’re meeting your grandparents for dinner in just a little while.”

After that, he returned to the familiar refrain as he curled tighter and moved as far away from me as possible:  “I said get away from me!”

I reminded him of our rule about talking with each other respectfully, then I went through a series of responses, the ones I regularly talk to parents about.  I comforted; I tried to use nonverbal connection like touch and tone of voice before I tried to problem-solve; I empathized; I tried again to explain.  I even offered an incentive to talk:  a playdate the next day.  But at that moment, he refused to calm down or let me help him in any way.

The point of this story is a reality that people rarely talk about:  Sometimes there’s just nothing we can do as a parent to fix it in that moment.  We can work to stay calm and loving, and fully present in the situation, but we may not be able to make things better right away.  Sometimes we have to just let our kids work through the moment themselves.

This doesn’t mean that we’d leave a child crying alone in his or her room for a long time.  And it doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying different strategies when our child needs our help.  In my case, I ended up sending my husband into my son’s room, and the change of dynamics helped him begin to calm some, so that later he and I could come back together and talk about what happened.  But for a few minutes, all I could do was to say, “I’m here if you need me,” then leave him in his room, shut the door with the anti-mom sign on it, and let him ride it out the way he needed to in his own timing and in his own way.

I’m writing about this because I’m someone who’s a parenting expert and a pediatric psychotherapist who works with deeply troubled children.  People come to me for advice on how to handle problems with their kids.  And I want to make it clear that for me, like you, there are times when there just isn’t a magic wand  we can wave to magically transport our kids to peace and happiness.

Sometimes the best we can do is to communicate our love, be available if they do want us close, and then talk about the situation when they’re ready.

And lucky for me, a few days later, it was his dad who got the next note.

 

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot? (revised)

Auto-pilot may be a great tool when you’re flying a plane.  Just flip the switch, sit back and relax, and let the computer take you where it’s been pre-programmed to go.  Pretty great. But I’ve found that auto-pilot is not so great when I’m disciplining my children.  It can fly me straight into whatever dark and stormy cloudbank is looming, meaning my kids and I are all in for a bumpy ride.  So instead, I’m always working on DECIDING how I want to interact with my kids when I discipline them.

For example, let’s talk about consequences.  For most parents, when we need to discipline our kids, the first question we ask ourselves is, “What consequence should I give?”  That’s our auto-pilot.  But through my years of parenting, I’ve begun to significantly re-think my use of consequences.

My four-year-old, for instance, hit me the other day.  He was angry because I told him I needed to finish an email before I could play legos with him, and he came up and slapped me on the back.  (I’m always surprised that a person that small can inflict so much pain.)

My immediate, auto-pilot reaction was to want to grab him, probably harder than I needed to, and tell him through clinched teeth, “Hitting is not OK!”  Then I would, of course, give him a consequence.

But how effective would that really have been when it came to teaching my son?  And would it have addressed the issue behind his behavior?  Maybe, but maybe not.

So instead of that consequence-based approach, I’ve shifted to begin my discipline by asking three different questions:

1.     Why did my child act this way? If we look deeper at what’s going on behind misbehavior, we can often understand that our child was trying to express or attempt something that they didn’t handle appropriately.   If we understand this, we can respond more compassionately, proactively, and appropriately.

2.     What’s the lesson I want to teach in this moment? The goal of discipline isn’t to give a consequence.  The goal of discipline is actually to teach, but we forget this easily.

3.     What’s the most effective way to teach this lesson? Answering this question may allow you to be more creative and effective in teaching the lesson, instead of just doing the same thing over and over.  In fact, answering this question may reveal that your current practices aren’t actually teaching the lesson you want to teach in the best way—or, it might affirm what you’re already doing.

When I felt the small-hand-shaped imprint of pain on my back, it took me a moment to calm down and avoid simply reacting.  But when I could ask myself these three questions, I could see more clearly what was going on in my interaction with my son.

#1:  He hit me because he wanted my attention and wasn’t getting it.

#2:  The lesson I want him to learn is not that misbehavior merits a consequence, but that there are better ways of getting my attention than resorting to violence.

#3:  While giving him a time-out might teach him that lesson, I decided it would be more effective to remind him and give him the words to communicate his needs.  So first, I connected with him by pulling him to me and letting him know he had my full attention.  Then, I acknowledged his feelings and modeled communicating these feelings:  “You really want me to play, and you’re mad that I’m at the computer.  Is that right?”  Finally, once he was more calm and I had his full attention, I could get eye contact and explain that hitting is never all right, and ask him to list some alternatives he could choose the next time he wants my attention.

I’m not saying that there’s never a time to use consequences.  They can be an effective tool you want to consider when it’s time to discipline.  I’m just saying that consequences aren’t the goal of discipline.

So the next time you’re disciplining your child, do your best to avoid switching to auto-pilot, and instead, stay focused on what it is you want to teach and accomplish.  That will benefit not only your child, but the relationship you two share as well.

 

 

Ask Tina: How can I get my daughter to do what I ask the first time I ask her?

Q:  Tina, do you have any suggestions for getting my daughter to do what I ask the first time or to help me not have to repeat myself over and over? A:  The best suggestion I have for not having to repeat yourself so much is to stop what you’re doing and focus on the situation.  I usually find that the reason I’m repeating myself is because I’m preoccupied with other things and not following through immediately when one of my sons doesn’t do what I’ve asked right away.  By the time I notice that he hasn’t done what I asked, I get even more frustrated because now it’s been so long since I first told him what to do.

Of course you wish your daughter would just do what you say, but one way to at least cut down on the nagging and frustration is to stop what you’re doing, kneel down, make eye contact and put your hand on her arm or shoulder.  Then turn your voice way down, almost to a whisper.   Ask her to repeat what you’ve said.   Say, “Maybe you didn’t understand what I wanted you to do, or maybe you’ve forgotten, so I am going to say it again.  Then I want you to jump up two times to let me know you know what to do, and then go do it!”  You can also try something funny:  “Hmm.  I think I told you to do something, but I don’t know what it was.  Maybe you can go do it and then surprise me!”

Small children easily forget and become distracted.  So give simple instructions, and only one or two in a row.  Also, stay focused yourself, so you don’t become distracted and then discover ten minutes later, when it’s time to leave for school, that your daughter still hasn’t put her shoes on.

To some extent, this will always be a battle you’ll fight with your kids.  But focus on helping them execute your instructions, and before long you’ll see real improvement, which will at least decrease the amount of daily frustration you feel.

Ask Tina: My Child is Lying to Me. How Worried Should I Be?

Q:  My almost-five-year-old son is starting to lie.  I’m worried that this is starting a terrible pattern, and I don’t know how to handle the situation.  I’m just really upset because I’ve always stressed how important it is to tell the truth.

A:  First, take a deep breath.  This is typical behavior for a child.  Most kids tell fibs at this age.  In fact, lying is developmentally normal, and if he’s doing it to avoid getting in trouble or disappointing you, it is actually evidence of a developing conscience and moral code.  He knows what he’s done is wrong, so he lies to avoid being bad or to avoid getting in trouble or losing your approval.   If he’s doing it to be silly and trying “story-telling” out, it’s evidence of creativity and imagination.

So now, let’s talk about how to respond when kids are lying to deny that they did something wrong.  When I know my son is lying, I try not to say, “I don’t believe you,” or, "You're lying."  Instead, I say, “Why don’t you take a minute and think about what really happened and then start over.”  Sometimes I also say, “It’s really important that you tell me the truth and tell me what really happened so I can believe you when you tell me things.”  For smaller children, it's even OK to sometimes simply say something like, "Hmmm, I'm not sure about that.  That doesn't sound to me like how that would have happened," and then pause and let them respond.

Once my kids got to be about 6 years old, I was able to use an analogy—something about a glass full of how much I trust their words, and when they lie, it's like I pour out some of the trust and the glass gets emptier and then it’s harder to trust.  But when they tell me the truth, even when it’s hard, the glass fills up and I can trust them more.

Another time with my son,  I think he was about 4 or 5 at the time, I knew he was trying to lie, but when I asked him to go back and think about it and tell it again, he said, “I don’t want to tell you.” I told him that was honest and I appreciated it, and then I gave him assurance that he was free to tell the truth:  “If you tell me the truth, I won’t be mad.  We’ll just talk about it.” He told me the truth, and then I gushed about how great it was that he told the truth, even though it was hard, and he felt proud (thus reinforcing honesty).

So usually when my kids lie, I don't focus so much on the actual behavior they’re trying to cover up, and emphasize trust and truth.  (This has changed some, by the way, as my oldest has grown into adolescence; for him I typically address both issues fairly equally.)  I usually talk about how I want them to tell me anything and that lying isn’t OK, and then sometimes just talking about that is enough of a .  Since the point of discipline is to teach, I often find that the conversation itself teaches the lesson in the most effective way.  

The last suggestion is to make the truth-telling just an expected part of the family code that you reinforce frequently:  “We tell the truth in our family.”

If your child is telling tall tales about sort of random things, you can join in by amplifying the stories and making them sillier and sillier.  Lean into the imagination!

And if your child is lying to impress and feel better about herself, she’s showing you that she might need some strokes or to feel better about herself.  Find some ways to do that authentically in an area she does well in or catch her being good and amplify some things about her in proactive and positive ways. 

From Black and White to Technicolor: Helping Your Child Express A Wide Range of Feelings

Making a child aware of the emotional rainbow that exists within them is one of the best ways to help connect the left and right hemispheres of their brain. When they come to understand their own mind and the minds of others, they can then move beyond a black/white assumption that feelings are good or bad, happy or sad. Instead, they can begin to understand the broad spectrum of emotions they experience, and learn to name and express them. Once developed, these skills will last them a lifetime.