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connecting emotionally

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.

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.

Bedtime Battles? A Few Notes and a New Perspective

“Bedtime is not for the faint of anything.”

This phrase comes to me as I finally escape from tonight’s almost two-hour bedtime, which resulted in my 5-year-old getting to sleep an hour-and-a-half too late. 

As I emerge from the dark bedroom and squint my way into the brightly lit hallway, I decide I’d better take some mental notes to avoid having to endure the forever-long bedtime in the future.  The dos and don’ts flood my mind in no particular order.

Note #1:  When reading the last story of the night, don’t use an even moderately suspenseful voice—much less a raspy, old, witchy one.  Bring characters to life with only funny or regular voices.  Otherwise I may have to resort to butt jokes to lighten the mood.  Or, the extra bright nightlight comes on, which then leads to totally insuppressible desires to make the best shadow puppets ever.  One more, Mom!  You GOT to see this one. 

Note #2.  Save time for inevitable shadow puppets. 

Note #3.  Don’t make the butt jokes too funny.  That can lead to uncontrollable giggling that’s eventually transformed into giddy-crazy.

Note #4:  If he makes a big deal about it, just let him wear the stupid boxers to bed.  I can put a pull-up on his sweaty little body once he’s already asleep.  Sure, it’s like trying to put a too-small wetsuit on someone who’s just come out of the ocean, and the whole process is made more difficult when I have to do it while hunched over in the lower bunk, but it still makes things easier overall. 

Note #5.  Put “extra fresh” water in his cup next to his bed.  Do it while he’s brushing his teeth, just before I get to lie down for the first time all day.  That’s much easier than waiting until we’ve already gotten in bed, read, put on our shadow-puppet show, and turned out the light. 

Note #6.  Plan for much, much more time. 

Note #7.  Start much earlier in the evening. 

As I get to my seventh note, I realize I’m making something of a battle plan, like a general preparing for war.  I’m preparing, anticipating obstacles to avoid, and proactively planning for contingencies.

The battle strategies above won’t ensure success, but they make it more likely.  The battle is always won at some point.  He always falls asleep.  Eventually.  But the casualties in the process—lost sleep, future grumpiness, a relationship potentially damaged by a mother who yells “No!  I don’t want to smell your feet!” and so on—can sometimes be ugly.  Plus, even as I come up with new approaches, the enemy continues to evolve as well, becoming smarter and developing new stalling techniques.

And then I get it.  It’s the word “enemy,” as it pops into my mind, that does it.  Gives me pause.  Wakes me up and helps me see the error of my metaphor.

I remind myself that the bedtime “battles” are a thing of the past for my 8- and 11-year-olds, who look forward to reading, and who, despite an inevitable plea for “one more chapter” when we read together, go to sleep without a fight night after night. 

I remind myself that sleep is a process I can’t force on my littlest guy.  He really does control that.  I remind myself that sleep is a separation, and I understand why he wants to make bedtimes last as long as possible.  After all, for these minutes he has my full attention, and we’re a tangle of arms and legs and hugs and hands on faces. 

That doesn’t sound like a battle at all.  That sounds like we’re on the same side.  That sounds like something to look forward to and delight in and that I’ll miss terribly someday. 

I’m not naïve enough to say that future bedtimes won’t be difficult from time to time.  But I’ve come to the awareness that if I change my expectations and plan better and give us enough time on nights when it’s possible, then that means we both win.

 

 

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

Help! I'm Not Enjoying My Child

Do you ever feel like things aren’t quite right between you and your child?  Before you had kids of your own, you may have assumed that when you became a mother you’d feel wonderful about them all the time.  You knew, of course, that there would be occasional conflict; you didn’t expect them to be happy when you disciplined them, for example.  But still, you knew how much you’d love your kids, and you thought that that love would help you avoid most relational conflict with them.

Now, though, as your kids have grown past the baby stage and developed personalities and desires of their own, things aren’t always as happy as you imagined they’d be.  If you’re like a lot of mothers, you may feel guilty that things aren’t better more often.  You might feel bad that sometimes you feel like you don’t even like your children or your role as a mom.  You might feel like you’re the only one struggling with your kids.  You might wonder what’s wrong with you.

The truth, though, is that relationships ebb and flow.  We know that’s true, and we expect rough patches in long-term relationships.  

Guess what?  What you have with your kids is a relationship, too.  And you’ll go through rough patches in that relationship, too. 

Sometimes, you just aren’t in a good place to connect.  Maybe you’re not taking care of yourself and your patience is chronically low.  That’s not a good match for a child who is simultaneously pushing your buttons or who is struggling with patience herself.

Or maybe your child isn’t in a good place to connect.  She may be going through a phase where she’s experimenting with being a little more independent, and it means you’re not hearing much about what’s going on with her, and this is happening at a time when you’re craving more connection.  Sometimes needs of individuals in the family are in conflict, and we struggle. 

Rough patches just happen sometimes.  Here are four suggestions to help you get some perspective on the whole situation:

 

Take the long view.

Realize that it’s normal for relationships to have upswings and downswings, and if you’re not hitting your stride with your child at the moment, it will likely come back around.  Today may be tough, but tomorrow will be better.  Or this week may be tough, and next week better.  As children develop, it’s normal for them to disconnect from their parents in various ways at various stages.  Stay consistent and loving in your interactions with your child, and have faith that things will come back around.

 

Evaluate your child’s needs.

Ask yourself whether there’s something your child needs right now that he’s not getting.  More time with you?  More affection?  More attention?  Less conversation and more independence?  More responsibility?  Often, a child acts out because he’s needing something and doesn’t know how to ask.  So do your best to listen to his actions and see what’s going on.

 

Evaluate your own needs.

What do you need right now that you’re not getting?  Time by yourself?  Time with your spouse or friends?  More sleep?  More exercise?  You know that old saying:  If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  So take care of yourself.

 

Keep investing yourself in the relationship.

Time, effort, and intention go a long way.  Just as in your adult relationships, you’ll see your relationship with your child grow and deepen as you put in the time and remain a consistent, steady, loving presence in his life.  As the relationship ebbs and flows, be the rock your child knows she can count on when she needs you. 

 

See the original of this article 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.

7 Ways to Deal With a Toddler's Tantrum

I have a new post up at mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------- I recently wrote about why we should be grateful when our little ones throw a tantrum. But aside from understanding that a tantrum is normal and even healthy, what else can we do when we’re actually in this kind of high-stress moment with our kids? I don't believe parents should ignore a tantrum. When children are truly out of control, that’s when they need us the most. We still need to set clear boundaries, but our response should always be full of love, respect and patience.

Here are seven suggestions for dealing with a toddler’s tantrum:

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View the whole gallery here.

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.

Dos and Don'ts of Being a Sports Parent

I have a new article (with gallery) up at mom.me that focuses on being a sports parent.  It begins like this. ------------

I’m no expert when it comes to sports. I don’t regularly watch ESPN or check the box scores. But as a mom of three boys who want to play every sport that’s in season, I’ve learned a thing or two over the last few years. A lot of what I’ve learned has to do with what we, as parents, can do to support our kids and help them get the most out of their time on the field or court. Having sat in the stands for literally hundreds of games, and considering that I’ve studied my share of child development research, I feel I’ve seen enough to put together the following list of suggestions. They're all based on one basic principle: How your children feel about sports, and about playing sports, often has a great deal to do with how you act while they’re playing.

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Click here to see 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.

 

If I Could Tell You Only One Thing about Discipline

Discipline is a complex and complicated subject.  I could write a whole book about it.  In fact, I’ve already started working on one. But when we talk about effective discipline and how parents can achieve the results they want when they interact with their kids, it can actually be it pretty simple.  If it were a math formula, it would look like this:

 

WARMTH  +  AUTHORITY  =  EFFECTIVE DISCIPLINE

 

The research is really clear on this point.  Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, educationally, and relationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced.  Their parents remain firm and consistent in their boundaries, while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion.  Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin.

 

The first side of the discipline coin:  Warmth

When we nurture our children and attune to their internal world, we allow them to know and believe that they are seen, heard, loved, and approved of by their parents.  Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on that belief, so that their brains are wired to expect that their needs will be met in intimate relationships.  On the other hand, if a parent repeatedly shames and criticizes his or her child, then the child learns that relationships are based on power and control.  He will store up all kinds of negative emotions that will be expressed either externally through bullying and aggression, or internally through depression or anxiety, but either way he’ll be forced to seek bigger and bigger ways to get his needs met.  His brain won’t develop in ways that make it easy to problem-solve and reflect on his experiences; instead, he’ll most likely live his life reacting.  He’ll operate from a primitive reactive brain, instead of a thoughtful proactive brain.

It’s absolutely vital that parents nurture their children and do all that they can to offer them love, compassion, and understanding by consistently meeting their needs, even when the kids are difficult and act out with “bad” behavior.

 

The second side of the discipline coin:  Authority

It’s just as vital, though, that parents remain the authority in their relationship with their children.  Kids need boundaries so they can understand the way the world works, and what’s permissible, versus what crosses a line.  A clear understanding of rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives.  Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, flexibly deal with not getting things their way, and contain urges to react aggressively toward others..  By saying “no” and drawing boundaries for our children, we’ll help them know that rules exist that offer safety and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.

 

Discipline as a Two-Step Process

Emotional responsiveness plus authority.  They go hand in hand, and when we discipline, we need to communicate both to our children.  You can think of it as a two-step process that can happen in either order.   You provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone:  “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and I’m sorry, but you broke that rule, so now the skateboard can’t be ridden for the rest of the week.”  And, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences:  “I know that my taking your skateboard away makes you really sad.”  You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m letting you face your consequence because I love you, and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be a responsible person.”

We want our kids to learn that relationships are about respect, nurturing, warmth, consideration, cooperation, and respecting other people.  When we interact with them from a perspective of both warmth and authority – in other words, when we repeatedly pay attention to their internal world, while also holding to standards about their behavior – these are the lessons they’ll learn.

I’ll close by emphasizing the point that was a bit of a revelation to me when I first understood it in relation to my parenting:  It really is possible to be calm and loving, and to connect with our children emotionally, while disciplining them and setting clear boundaries.  I don’t always do it, and neither will you.  But it’s important, and it’s healthy and helpful for everyone involved, when we combine clear and consistent consequences with loving empathy.

 

 

 

 

A Different Take on Spoiling

The other day a reporter asked me to respond to a few questions about spoiling, and what it means for our kids. With the holidays coming up, this seems like a pretty timely subject. Here’s how I answered the reporter’s questions about what spoiling is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. WHAT IS SPOILING? DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY SPENT? TIME? NEVER SAYING NO? ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Let’s start with what spoiling is not: Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself. In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.

SO HOW DO WE SPOIL OUR KIDS?

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.

 

How Much Am I Screwing Up My Kids When I Don’t Handle Myself Well?

How well do you handle yourself when you’re upset with your kids?

Me?  Sometimes I respond extremely well, making myself proud of how loving and understanding and patient I remained.  At other times, I lower myself to my kids’ level and resort to the childishness that upset me in the first place.

My message to you today is that when you respond to your kids from a less-than-optimal place, take heart:  most likely, you’re still providing them with all kinds of valuable experiences.

For example, have you ever found yourself so frustrated with your kids that you call out, a good bit louder than you need to, “That’s it!  The next one who complains about where they’re sitting in the car, has to sit in that same seat for the rest of the year!”

Or maybe, when your eight-year-old pouts and complains all the way to school because you made her practice her piano, you say, with your parting words as she departs the mini-van, “I hope you have a great day, now that you’ve ruined the whole morning.”

Obviously, these aren’t examples of perfect parenting.  And if you’re like me, you beat yourself up for the times when you don’t handle things like you wish you had.

So here’s hope:  Those not-so-great parenting moments are not necessarily such bad things for our kids to have to go through.  In fact, they’re actually incredibly valuable.

Why?  Because these less-than-perfect parental responses give kids opportunities to deal with difficult situations and therefore develop new skills.  Here are some of the ways these moments, while not optimal, can still be valuable:

  • The kids have to learn to control themselves even though their parent isn’t doing such a great job of controlling herself.
  • They get to see you model how to apologize and make things right.
  • They experience that when there is conflict and argument, there can be repair, and things become good again.  This helps them feel safe and not so afraid in relationships.  They learn to trust, and even expect, that calm and connection will follow conflict.
  • They see that you’re not perfect, so they won’t expect themselves to be, either.
  • They learn that their actions affect other people’s emotions and behavior.
  • If we were perfect with them, the first time a friend or teacher was reactive to them, it could be shocking and terrifying to them.

Abuse, of course, is different.  Or if you’re significantly harming the relationship or scaring your child, then the experience is no longer valuable for either of you.  In fact, that’s going to damage you both, and you should seek the help of a professional in order to make whatever changes are necessary so that your children feel safe.

But as long as you maintain the relationship and repair with your child afterwards, then you can cut yourself some slack and know that even though you might wish you’d done things differently, that’s still a valuable experience for your child, even if it means he has to control himself simply because Mom is mad at the moment.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t aim for the extreme good when we respond to our kids in a high-stress situation (or any other time).  The more loving and nurturing we can be, the better.  I’m just saying that we can give ourselves a break when we’re not perfect, because even those situations provide moments of value as well.  They give our kids opportunities to learn important lessons that will prepare them for future conflict and relationships, and even teach them how to love.