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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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What do you wish you had done instead?

A friend asked recently for an example of a natural consequence, so I shared one that had occurred just that morning in my own life.  My older daughter, dawdling endlessly, was just about to make us late for school.  As the absolute last minute approached, I told my daughter that if she wasn’t able to walk out the door in 2 minutes, the natural consequence would be that I wouldn’t be able to walk her to her classroom, as she prefers.  (The back door that we use to get to the classroom is further away, and gets locked a few minutes before the tardy bell.)

This was a decent example of a natural consequence: waste time now, lose options later.   In theory, by identifying a likely outcome for my daughter in advance, I was helping her to understand the potential consequences of her actions, and motivating her to make different choices.

But, I added, I didn’t feel that good about it.

My daughter was very upset at the prospect of this possible outcome, and the remaining minutes we had together that morning were fraught with drama and upset.  Yes, she got out the door on time, but at what cost?  I’m pretty sure she didn’t learn anything—although I stayed calm, the (natural) consequence was so big in her eyes that she pretty much came unglued.

My friend asked me: “What do you wish you had done instead?”

Wow, what a good question!  After thinking about it for a bit, here are some options:

  1. Wake up earlier.  It takes time to handle behavior problems, and when you run low on time, you also run low on options.
  2. Slow down and be late.  (see above)  The idea of being late to school makes me very uncomfortable, but one tardy one time might have been a better outcome than the upset.
  3. Intervene earlier.  I could have put down whatever I was doing, gone to my daughter’s bedroom, and done a little light-hearted micro-managing.  I could have playfully put her clothes/shoes/etc on for her.  She would have loved it, loved the attention, loved being ‘babied,’ and it probably would have gotten her out the door in time.
  4. Plan ahead.  This was a Monday, and the first day of the week (especially after a long weekend) is often the hardest for kids.  They aren’t ready to give up the fun, the parent attention, the relaxation of the weekend any more than we are!  I could have seen this coming, and made sure that we all went to bed a little early, with tomorrow’s clothes laid out, lunch packed, breakfast set out, etc.  Mornings are always better when I do this prep.
  5. Understand her.  Identify the root cause or causes for her dawdling.  Does she want to avoid school?  Is she physically tired?  Does she need a longer/better transition from home-days to school-days?  Is her proverbial cup empty?  Does she need of a ‘dose’ of attention/fun/love?  Once I identify these causes, addressing them is a wonderfully effective way to prevent future incidences.
  6. Understand me.  Besides the never-ending ‘on the fly’ nature of parenting, what kept me from choosing some of the above options in the moment?  Do I need a little self-care?  Is something coming between me and enough sleep and the time/space to prepare for our routines?

Numbers 1-4 are basically shaping the environment to accommodate or better manage her needs.  These are great tools to have in your toolbox, and frankly, that’s about the best I can do at 7:35 in the morning.  Numbers 5 & 6, however, are the black belts of parenting—the kind of responses that allow for an ever deepening relationship between parent and child.   Understanding your child, understanding yourself, and acting from that understanding—this is where the rich, cooperative, connected, and mutually respectful relationship that we all want to have with our children begins.  So, if this appeals to you, let this percolate in your mind for a while.  Look for a moment this week when you can pull those tools out, and see where it takes you.

A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf was on the required reading list when I was in college, and the piece I remember best was the famous “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she argues that a woman must have a room of her own (with lock and key!) and her own money in order to write fiction.  Lately, I’m been thinking about how this is completely relevant advice for modern parents, too.

I’m like most parents of young kids, I think, in that I mostly get things done after bedtime or in stolen moments here and there.  But some things just cannot be done in little stolen moments or after bedtime.  I had a very real-life experience of this some months back when I was able to have several hours in my house without anyone else there, especially my (beloved) children.

Once my alone time began, here’s what I did:  I started a load of laundry, picked up the house a little, defrosted some meat for dinner, and wasted time on Facebook. (sound familiar?)  This all took about as long as I usually have to myself.

But on this day, I knew that the rest of my family would stay gone for much longer.  So I waded in to my email inbox and cleaned that out, balanced the checkbook, did more laundry, visited a blog I like, and wrote down some memorable stories about the kids.  And then, only then, could I feel my brain clearing out a little to make room for the creative work I had been procrastinating for weeks.    Then I was able to sit down and begin working on the task that required focus and creativity.

This is an issue of self-care.  One of the hardest things I’ve encountered in motherhood is looking for balance between taking care of others and taking care of myself.  But if I am going to be the best mom I can be, I have to be the best human I can be, and that requires enough sleep, good nutrition, physical exercise, mental stimulation, connection with others, and… time away and alone.  And not just little stolen moments.

What can you do to get a few hours to yourself this week?

Give me that water bottle right now!

A father told me a story recently of a family outing that had a rough ending.  Loading up in the car after a fun bike ride, the dad asked his older daughter to share her water bottle with her baby sister who was crying and asking for water.  Older daughter refused, several times, with rudeness, ignoring, and defiance.  It quickly became a power struggle, and this dad told me later that he was so mad that he came “this” close to just yanking the water bottle out of her hand.

I think we’ve all been there (I know I have.) Especially when we ourselves are tired, hungry, emotionally drained, or stressed–our children’s negative behaviors can really push us to–or past–our limits.  Yanking, yelling, whatever your version of “not parenting the way I want to” is… everyone has had that moment.

When this father and I talked about this incident later, he was still full of self-doubt.  What was he “supposed” to do?  His daughter was being uncooperative, unkind, defiant, and disrespectful–all traits that we parents believe that we are supposed to teach our kids NOT to be.  He wondered if he had done the wrong thing by letting her “get away with” those bad behaviors.  He worried that he was teaching her that she doesn’t have to respect him, or his limits, or his authority.

My take on this scene is that the immediate need was a moment’s pause, a deep breath to help everyone regain their inner balance, even just a little.  In that moment, here are a few items our higher selves might be able to remember:

  • Right now, we are ALL tired and thirsty and hungry, so no one is at their best… these behaviors are definitely related to our physical states.
  • When a person is stressed (tired/thirsty…) they CANNOT learn.
  • This child of mine is, usually, pretty darn cool and cooperative and kind.  The behavior in front of me now is NOT the norm.  (refer back to #1.)
  • I need to calm my own anxieties about raising a good kid here, and remember that taking the long view is key in parenting.
  • When my brain is peaceful, I can see solutions or options that would otherwise be overlooked.  In this situation, there were other water bottles available, so that the immediate need (baby’s thirst) could be handled.
  • The non-immediate issues (defiance, etc) can be handled later! When we have all come back to our normal selves (rested, watered, fed, etc) I can bring this incident back up for discussion with my child.  Her ability and likelihood to listen, discuss and absorb will be 1000% improved.

When we are peaceful, we have better perspective, more creativity, and are more effective in whatever we do.  So when you find yourself in the moments of high conflict and parenting stress–just try to remember to take a breath.  Then take another… and very soon your own inner best self will show you what comes after that.

The love… and vulnerability of a parent

I occasionally attend trainings put on by a local professional organization for therapists and social workers who specialize in infant mental health.  Their meetings occur on days when I’m home with my infant daughter, and since they are a very baby-friendly group, I bring her along.  One of the leaders of the group sent me a email the other day, and made a bit of an assessment of my daughter at the end. 

Her comment–a positive one, thankfully, and one that I assume she meant somewhat casually, rolled around in my head for days.  I found myself coming back to it, and coming back to it, and coming back to it.  Every time, I felt relief and reassurance. 

I should clarify right now that I have no significant, obvious reasons to be concerned about the baby.  In my head, I can clearly see that everything is fine and good with her.   I am incredibly fortunate in that my work has given me so many opportunities to educate MYSELF about how to parent better, and I believe that my kids are beneficiaries of my learning.  And yet, I felt relief to hear a professional label my baby positively. 

What’s up with that?  I’m a professional, too– a child therapist and parenting coach, and yet I apparently needed someone else to tell me that my kids are all right?  Yeah,  I did.  I do.  I think we all do at times.  Here’s why:

  • We love our children with a red hot fiery passion.
  • Doing right by these children that we love so much is incredibly important to us. 
  • Parenting is crazy hard and Everyone makes mistakes.
  • This leaves a (sometimes hidden, even from ourselves) layer of insecurity in our hearts–with its roots in the most passionate of emotions.
  • Other people, especially professionals, hold power–whether they mean to or not–to support or undermine us.  When people judge our children–positive or negative–it goes to a deep, vulnerable, tender place. 
  • I understand this… I “get” it.  With every resource and training and support that I have in my life, I still make plenty of mistakes and feel plenty of relief when positive feedback comes my way. 
  • This vulnerability doesn’t surface every day, but it’s still there.  (Cause we love ’em.  We really, really love ’em.)

So, since today is Feb 14th, I’ll finish this with a Valentine’s message for you all.  See that child of yours?   Those pieces of your heart walking around outside of your body?  Thank you for what you have done for that child.  Thank you for your parenting.  Thank you for your hard work, your humor, your flexibility, your showing up, your dedication, your sacrifices, your love.   All the ways that your child is wonderful–you’ve helped that to come into the world.  

The kids are all right.

with love,

Katie

My Sock Drawer, circa 2001

We remodeled our kitchen (and then some) in 2001.  It was a big job, and like all remodeling projects, suffered from project creep.  There’s a great picture of me doing dishes at some point during the process.  You can see me standing at the kitchen sink with my back to the camera, washing.  It looks pretty normal, until you look above my head where the ceiling should be, and instead see the sky, and a tree, and clouds.  My kitchen had no roof.  No roof.  No.  Roof.   While that part of the project was pretty brief, all things considered, the refrigerator lived in the living room for a long time, as did our entire collection of dishes, pots, pans, etc.  Suffice to say, my house–my life–was a bit chaotic for a while.

So, you can imagine the context as I continue my story to tell you that one day during this chaos, I opened up my sock drawer and really looked at it for a moment.  It was clean.  It was organized.  It had dividers.  Things were lined up.  Perfectly.  Every sock had its mate.  It was color-coded.  Alphabetized, even.*  It would have made Martha Stewart cry jealous tears of joy.  It was the universal antithesis of chaos.

It was, one woman’s attempt to maintain some sense of control over some aspect of her (physical) home life.

Anyway, this is a story I tell sometimes to approximately illustrate the therapy concept called “displacement.”  As in: “I really wanted to have a normal home that had a roof and a fridge in the kitchen where it belonged, but since I couldn’t have that, I settled for the durn-best-organized sock drawer on the planet.”

Sometimes, we fight for control over little things, even when it’s not really what we want.  As parents, it’s good to remember this, and recognize it when we (or our kids) do it.

*  No, not really alphabetized.

**  Addendum: my kitchen did finally get finished, and my sock drawer soon went back to its normal–significantly lesser–level of organization.  Thanks for asking.  ;^)

The pothole story… a metaphor for change

Once upon a time, on a Monday, a man was walking down a road.  All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he found himself at the bottom of a big, dark place.  It was scary!  After several hours, he figured out that he had fallen into a very large pothole.  He wasn’t able to get out on his own–actually it required a lot of help to get out, but eventually he did get out.  It was awful.

The very next day–Tuesday, the man was walking down the road and fell into the pothole again.  This time he immediately recognized where he was, but he still couldn’t get out.  He needed help again.

Wednesday, when the man fell in the pothole for the 3rd time, he remembered how to get out, and–with much hard work–was able to get out on his own.  Whew!

On Thursday, the man was walking down the street again.  As he approached the pothole, he remembered his previous falls.  He even saw the pothole when he got close… but unfortunately he fell in anyway.  But he knew the way out pretty well this time, and got out quickly.

On Friday, the man saw the pothole from a good distance away.  He felt so proud of himself for spotting it, and while it took a lot of effort, he did manage to walk around it safely, and didn’t fall in for the first time in a long time!  Hurrah!

On Saturday, the man took a different road.

I love this story (it’s not mine, and I have no idea where it came from) as a metaphor for life change.  I imagine the potholes as arguments or really bad habits that we find ourselves sucked into without meaning to go there!  One of the first steps to change is always awareness, then hard work, and finally comes success.  Eventually, living our lives the way we want to–having our relationships look like we want them to–stops being a ton of effort, and we find ourselves on a smooth path with no (okay, few) potholes.

Here’s to having a smoother path before you this week!

Good for him!

As an MSSW first-year intern, I worked at a residential treatment facility for teenage male sex offenders. I didn’t ask for that job, and it was really-really challenging, but I definitely learned an enormous amount there. This is one of my favorite stories from that time.

I worked with a psychiatrist who was a super smart guy. He was completely dedicated to the kids, but not terribly patient with the interns. One day I made the mistake of complaining to him. One of the kids had just interacted with me in a sexually inappropriate way, and I was feeling gross and uncomfortable and just icky all over. I tried to evaluate the interaction in a professional, clinical way, but mostly just came up with the conclusion that the kid was “wrong” and not working his treatment program appropriately. So when I ran into the psychiatrist, I described the kid’s behavior, probably in such a way that I highlighted how “bad” and resistant to treatment the kid was. (“Bad kid, bad!”)

The Dr looked at me, and immediately said: “Good for him!”

What!?

Oh my goodness. I was just a wee bit offended and righteous. But, thankfully the doctor didn’t care, and his desire to educate me prevailed. Here’s what he taught me that day:

We really must view a child’s behavior as communication, and communication is good. That doctor wanted me to be able to recognize that a child in a treatment center for a sexual offense, who hits on a staff member, is sending a message loud and clear. And the doctor wanted me to get the correct message. The message wasn’t: “I’m a bad kid.” Rather, the message I needed to get was: “I’m not done learning and growing. I need more help with healthy relationships.” (*)

To be clear: I’m not saying that the behavior itself is good-or even okay. Rather, I’m saying that if we look at it as a communication, then we can find the good behind the behavior. There IS good behind the behavior, and our kids NEED us to choose this perspective. So, we can look at the kid as though they are intrinsically “good,” and that their “bad” behavior is a communication of need. Compare this with assuming that a “bad” behavior is a reflection of a “bad” child. Which of these perspectives will allow us to be more loving and helpful to the child as they grow? Which perspective discourages growth?!

Our kids need us to look behind their behavior. They need us to assume the best, and help them grow and learn.

So, parents, when could you say “Good for him/her!” about your child?

(*) It’s also possible that the child’s message included either (a) “Are you safe? Can I trust that you won’t be unhealthy with me even if I try to be unhealthy with you?” or (b) “I know that you are safe, and that’s why I can trust you with this communication-that I am still not safe.”

How Does Play Therapy Work?

A dad I know asked me about play therapy the other day. Does it really work? How does it work? How can play be therapy?

“Oh,” I said, “Good Question!” ;^)

Children aren’t cognitively or verbally able to process everything that happens to them in their lives (shoot, neither am I!) nor do they have the cognitive or linguistic development for insight-oriented talk therapy (what most adults are doing in their individual therapy sessions). Therefore, children find healing and growth some other way. Enter play therapy.

Play therapy does work, and my favorite explanation of how play therapy works is this: it gives the child the opportunity to re-experience and/or communicate about something from their normal life, in a context that is (a) safe, (b) under their control, and (c) associated with different emotions. There’s some fancy neurological stuff going on when this happens, but the upshot is that it allows the child to re-experience something in a way that heals.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example… Little Johnny’s father drinks beer every night and basically ignores his family when he drinks. Johnny comes to my office one day and selects the family dolls. He finds my miniature beer cans (yes, I really do have miniature beer cans) and puts one in the father doll’s hands. Then he has the child doll take the beer can from the father and hide it. Do you see what’s going on here? In Johnny’s real life, he might want to take the beer from his father, but he cannot safely do so. In the play therapy setting, he can pretend to do the thing he wants to do, and he can feel control over the whole situation in a way he never can in real life. The other major component of how this works is that while he is re-experiencing this, his brain is firing up the same neural connections that fire up in real life-but this time Johnny is in a different emotional state. He’s calmer and feeling less of whatever uncomfortable emotions he typically feels when his father drinks-and this is very healing.

Want a real-life example? From my own life, of course, I can’t share real client stories. My toddler daughter has curly hair. Our nightly hair-brushing is frequently an unpleasant chore (and trust me, I’ve tried every product/trick/approach known to mama.) But the upshot is that sometimes she fusses–a lot.  Some time ago, I gave her the brush and let her brush my hair. She loved this and we now do it regularly. When she brushes my hair, she grins and laughs and says: “Mama: CRY!” So I whimper and cry and say all of the phrases she usually says to me when I brush her hair, all to her great delight. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it the first few times we did that, but eventually I caught on-she’s creating her own little play therapy routine. Now every time we play that game, although I’m “crying” on the outside, I’m smiling inside… play therapy works! 

Oh, Good Question!

Earlier this week I had an initial appointment with a physical therapist. Towards the end of our visit, he gave me some instructions for things to do at home. I sortof understood, but wanted clarification, so I asked a question. This is where things went downhill.

Apparently, my question was a dumb one. I know this because the PT told me so. He tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, smirked a bit, and then repeated what he’d just said, with extra emphasis. The overwhelming message was “You should not have asked that-you should have been able to figure it out. Something must be wrong with you if you had to ask that question.”

Really? Really?

In the Beyond Birds and Bees workshop, I tell parents to first respond to their kid’s questions about sex by saying “oh, good question!” While there are many reasons to do this, the primary reason is that it reinforces to your child that you are an askable parent. I think I want this PT to take my class. ;^)

From the perspective of the well-informed, basic questions can seem a little funny. But let’s remember 2 things-1, to be “ignorant” simply means that the person hasn’t learned it yet. And 2, each of us also started out with small steps, teasing out nuance and learning how to make our own inferences. If 1 + 2 = 3, does 2 + 1
also equal 3? …that sort of thing. That equation looks laughably simple now, but it was a lot harder when you were 5.

As parents, we know that learning is a life-long process, and that no one is an expert in everything. Children who are encouraged to ask questions, who see their parents acknowledging that they don’t know everything but will work to find answers-those kids are better prepared for a successful adulthood. Kids who don’t get that-the ones
who are made fun of for asking “dumb” questions-will stop asking questions. It’s sad, too, because as the questions stop, the learning slows. At the end of the day, the people who asked questions are the people who will know more.

So this week, in whatever you do, consider responding to every question with: “oh, good question.” Because, really, they are all good questions.