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The Arc of the Tantrum–video

 

This short video–just 3 minutes–is a little experiment in sharing information through video as opposed to written articles/blog posts. I hope you like it!  Won’t you tell me what you think?

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.I snapped a picture of this quote on the wall at the Magellan International School the other day, and posted it on Facebook.  A week or so later, it had been shared by 68 people, and viewed by nearly 7000.  Obviously, this quote resonates for many of us.

One of the first things I tell most parents that I work with is that behavior is a communication, and that understanding the message in a child’s behavior is incredibly helpful for changing those behaviors.  To put it another way, something is behind or underneath unwanted behavior; triggering or motivating or strengthening it.  Those hidden drivers are usually unmet needs of some variety.  When parents can identify what those unmet needs are, they typically find that those underlying needs are needs they want to support.  In other words: the behaviors are unwanted, but the needs driving those behaviors are understandable!

Children who are acting in unloving ways are likely to themselves be feeling unloved, unwanted, not valuable, incapable, powerless, or hurt. (*) The response those children need isn’t greater control, or bigger punishments, they need understanding, compassion, and support for their growth.   LOVE.

How should a parent respond to these ‘unloving’ behaviors?  That’s a more complicated topic than this blog post can tackle, but here’s a little basic information.  A sustainable and effective response will include: staying calm and compassionate ourselves, not taking obnoxious (or even mean) behaviors personally, plenty of self-care for the parent/caregiver, working to understand the drivers of unwanted behaviors, identifying patterns and triggers, modifying the environment to prevent problem situations and support positive ones, and using circle-back conversations to provide information/support for learning, growing, and healing.

Can you spot the need for love in a child’s unloving behaviors today?  Stay tuned for next month’s article, which will share more details about how to do this.  (Or contact me!)

(*) And, it’s worth mentioning, physical states are deeply influential: hunger, thirst, tiredness, and overstimulation can all stimulate crummy behavior.

(**)  I googled for the origin of this quote.  I didn’t really find anything definitive, but one source said that it was the words of a teacher quoted by Russell Barkley (ADHD expert.)  Anyway, kudos to that teacher, whoever she may be.  :^)

Wallow with them!

It's a Tough Life for a Pig
I love the word wallow.  It’s fun to say, plus it reminds me of two totally separate things: self-pity, and pigs in mud.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase used without one of those two things attached!

Except, I often use the phrase at work in a way that is counter to its usual definition and negative connotation.

Something that we parents don’t generally do often or well is to connect with our children when they are having upset or uncomfortable emotions.  Instead, we try to distract or minimize or rationalize or joke or extinguish those emotions.  We do it for many different reasons, perhaps because the expression is ill-timed or inappropriate in size, or because their upset is about us and we feel defensive, or because it’s about something we can’t control and we feel helpless.  But for whatever reason, we often entirely skip the step where we reflect and validate our children’s emotions.  Emotionally healthy parenting requires that we give our children permission to feel their feelings, even tough feelings.  Furthermore, our children need to feel connected to us even when they are feeling angry or resentful or worried or freaked out.  (*)

So I use the word wallow.  I don’t actually want parents to wallow in their children’s emotional states, but because we tend to err on the side of minimizing those emotions, I use a word that guides us towards the other side of the continuum.

When your child is upset or angry or worried, take a deep breath.  Mentally remind yourself that you want them to know that they have your permission to feel those feelings.  (This will help them internalize, for life, the important lesson that they have a right to their feelings.)  Reflect to your child that you see how they are feeling.  That can be done simply by saying something like: “wow, I can tell you are really feeling ___ .”   Take it a step further (and borrow a page from Imago couples therapists) and validate their feelings: “It makes sense to me that you would feel upset about that.  If I were in your position, I’d probably feel the same way.”

And then maybe take another deep breath.  Let a little space come in to the room and in to your interaction.  This is where the ‘wallowing’ happens.  Just stay in that space for a moment: stay in the space of having given your child permission to feel those feelings.  Let your child soak that in.  Don’t rush too quickly to distract or redirect.  Offering a hug, caring eye contact, or a loving touch might feel good to them right now.  This all serves to help them feel less agitated, less out of control, less overwhelmed by those feelings, and often has the very appealing effect of reducing the upset.  When your child has felt “heard” and even validated, it will be much easier to get them to ‘hear’ you and your perspective.

Important note: saying “I can tell that you feel mad that I am making you unload the dishwasher, and it makes perfect sense to me that you would really rather play than do chores” does NOT mean that my daughter can go back to playing and skip the chore.  The limits/requests/expectations remain the same.  All that’s different is that I am giving her permission to feel whatever she feels about those expectations.  But, it’s an amazing, healthy, effective, loving difference.  And, by the way, one of the long term payoffs is a much higher-quality relationship when your child is an adult.

Experiment with it if you are so inclined: see if you can find a place this week to give your child permission to feel their upset, angry, jealous, agitated, or anxious feelings.  See what happens and how it feels to both you and your child.  Good things can happen!

(*) I can’t find a citation for it, but I was taught once that the Talaris Institute studied this and found that responding in an emotionally responsive/healthy way just 30% of the time is enough to get the benefit.  Yay for not needing to be perfect!

Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?

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You say you want a revolution…

When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change.  Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow.  That desired change?—it begins in the brain.

Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better.  Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life.  This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears.  Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.

Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough.  I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture.  It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
  2. Good nutrition.  You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better.  Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
  3. Physical activity.  Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity.  Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
  4. Novelty.  Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness.  But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change.  So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation.  It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
  5. Focus of attention.  What are you paying attention to?  Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain.  More energy and information=more growth.
  6. Safety.  Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all.  It is absolutely essential.
  7. Mindful awareness.  This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting.  I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode.   Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show.  Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.

If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list.  The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.

Can we trust coaches with our kids?

I have the pleasure of writing for SWParents.org occasionally.  One of my latest articles has basic information that is  important, and so potentially helpful in protecting kids, that although I don’t usually cross-post, I will today.

This is a topic that pretty much every one of us would rather not think about.  But please do spend at least a minute on it–parents need this critical information.  We can take steps to protect our kids from predators.  Click the link below to read the article in full.

http://www.swparents.com/article/can-we-trust-coaches-with-our-kids/

Divorce-related resources on this blog

There are several articles on this blog written specifically to help parents through the divorce process.  They are collected below for easy reading.

Please feel free to email me with questions or to set up an appointment for parent coaching around divorce, co-parenting, or however you think I can help.

Video: How to talk with young children about death

As part of my work with SWParents.org, we produced a video for parents on how to talk to your kids about death.  I also share a few basic tips for understanding and responding to the various ways that children can express grief.  Please take a look if you think this topic might be helpful to you or a loved one.  Non-members can watch up to 10 videos or read 10 articles per month for free.  The link below will take you directly to the video.

See the video here.

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If not punishment, then what?

I don’t spend much time advising parents on how to punish more effectively.  In fact, I tend to tell parents that I am not a big fan of punishment at all.  So, a parent rightfully asked me the other day: “Well then, if not punishment, what DO we do?

What a good question!  Most parents punish because they believe that’s how to get kids to behave appropriately.  (But actually research has proven that more punishments do NOT equal long-term improved behaviors, and can sometimes make things worse.)   So here are 3 things that help achieve the goal of cooperative, positive, appropriate behavior more effectively, while helping to maintain a positive and long-lasting parent-child relationship.

  1. Show kids what you DO want them to do, and support them, encourage them, catch them doing it, praise them.  Give them positive options!
  2. Change the child’s environment so that it supports positive behaviors.  Simple example: don’t keep the jar of cookies where your 3 year old can reach them.  More complex example: figure out how long of a playdate your kid can handle before falling apart.  Keep playdates within that time frame until you’re both ready to experiment with incremental increases.
  3. Figure out what’s behind the unwanted/negative behaviors.  Behavior is a communication, I like to say… what is your child’s behavior saying to you?  Hint: it’s usually something along the lines of: “I’m tired and over stimulated” or “I can’t handle this much freedom,” or “I really need more time with you/attention from you,” or “Something’s not right with me,” or  “I am not getting enough opportunities to feel powerful and in charge of my life.”  When parents understand what the child’s behavior is communicating, they can better meet the underlying need… which generally has a positive effect on the unwanted behavior!

There are many, many more ways of shaping behavior, but these are some favorites, especially the last one.  A little understanding goes a long way.   :^)

Recommended Books about Death or Grief & Loss

Always & Forever, by Alan Durant, is reviewed in detail here. It is one of my favorite books about grief for kids. Highly recommended.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn isn’t about grief or loss, but it is a book about how hard it is to separate or say goodbye. That’s certainly a related theme when we are talking about grief with children. The main character is a raccoon who is about to start school. He’s sad and worried about leaving his mother–who teaches him a sweet, nurturing trick for self-soothing. I’ve known families that adopted the trick for themselves after reading the book. Very sweet.

The Bug Cemetery, by Frances Hill is about a group of entrepreneurial kids who stumble upon the ‘business’ of funerals.  The brother and sister pair offer “bug funerals,” complete with fake mourners, eulogies, and tombstones  for 10 cents.  But, when their friend’s pet cat is killed, they realize that “Funerals aren’t any fun when they’re for someone you love.”  The illustrator does a great job of conveying sadness, even anguish, in the children’s faces during the real funeral.

I like that this book illustrates that we can pretend to have a feeling, but that it isn’t the same as the real feeling at all.  Very young children often “pretend” to mourn a relative who died before they were born–and that’s normal–but I like having a tool to show the difference.  I also like the way the book shows kids ways that they can cope with death and loss–the children in the book honor their feelings and also honor the dead.

When Dinosaurs Die, by Laura Krasny Brown, is similar to their many other “When Dinosaurs…” books.  It is an informative, non-fiction book on a difficult topic, somewhat cartoonish in style, that explains facts & feelings to kids, and answers their typical questions.  The lack of a narrative makes it a little less interesting to children as a bedtime story, but perhaps makes it an even better choice for an older child who can read and would benefit from having a source of information under his control.

Of course there are many more, but consider this a beginning list.  Please make suggestions about other books to include in this list in the comments section.