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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Safety. Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all. It is absolutely essential.
- 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.
Conflicts can erupt between siblings or friends easily—about who sits where, whose turn was longest, who started it, or a million other reasons.
Parents often wonder what role they should play in these conflicts, and there’s a wide range of opinions—from “Stay out of it and let kids resolve things for themselves,” to “Step in and be the referee.” But what parent wouldn’t be excited to know that how they handled these squabbles might make a long-term positive difference for their child by helping them learn how to resolve conflict for themselves?! Well, you can! This method does just that.
I read a great article by Elaine Shpungin, Phd a year or so ago about a method of conflict resolution for kids. As I was reading it, my lightbulb went off because although she credits Dominic Barter’s “Restorative Circles” as her source, it immediately reminded me the Imago Dialogue, a conflict resolution model typically seen in couples counseling. I think this is because there is a common wisdom underlying many different kinds of conflict resolution: people need to be heard.
Here’s how it works.
- Kid A comes to you and complains about Kid B.
- You and both kids get together to talk for a moment. You encourage and support Kid A in telling Kid B “What I want you to know.” I also like to have the child add a feeling statement like “and this makes me feel…” The listener is just listening—no arguing or even having to agree—just listen. This step works best if the statement is fairly brief.
- After Kid A says her thing, then Kid B is asked to repeat it back so that Kid A knows she was heard.
- Kids switch roles, and Kid B gets to tell Kid A what he wants her to know, and Kid A repeats it back.
- Steps 3 & 4 can be repeated if necessary, but be careful to stay on one topic.
- After both kids have been heard, they work together to brainstorm a mutually satisfying compromise. That’s it!
Here’s a recent real-life example:
Michael finds me and complains that Jenny and Alexa are excluding him from their play. I go with Michael to find the girls. I ask the kids to hang out for a moment to talk. I ask Michael what he wants them to know.
Michael says: “You aren’t letting me play and I want to.” (“And how does that make you feel?”) “I feel sad when I get left out.”
Me: Jenny, Alexa, what did you hear Michael say?
Jenny & Alexa: You want to play and we aren’t letting you. You felt sad.
Me: Michael, did they get it? Michael: Yes.
Me: Okay, girls, what is it that you want Michael to know?
Jenny: You were grabbing all of our checkers and you weren’t supposed to. You were only supposed to take the red ones.
Michael: You want didn’t want me to grab all the checkers.
Me: Girls, did he get that right? (yes.) Okay, What is a compromise that you could all agree on from here?
They kick around a couple of ideas and come up with a modified game where he can play with them but in a calmer way. Peacefulness reigns until the end of the playdate—which was actually only about 15 minutes, but still, I was pleased.
Consider trying this with your kids. Don’t worry too much about the details (although, thankfully, there aren’t that many!) but just concentrate on helping both sides feel heard. You can read the original article linked above for more information. I’ve also found that the more I do it, the more confident and comfortable everyone is with the process–which makes sense because they are learning a new skill. And this skill, one which many adults struggle with, will help them throughout their lives.
My 4 year old daughter was born without all of her fingers. It causes her no issues in daily life. However, she does get a lot of comments, questions and stares. We are working with her on ways to answer questions, ask people to stop staring, etc…but it doesn’t seem to be sticking. She prefers just to give people the “evil eye” and make a face at them if she feels uncomfortable. Should we consider therapy for this?
- I think that the evil eye seems pretty darn appropriate for the time being. Geesh, people can be so rude, even grownups, why should we expect the 4 year old to be the mature one. I really mean that–it would be a little different if she were 16, but she’s just 4! Keep giving her the information and guidance about a better way to respond, but for her age, I think the evil eye is a pretty appropriate response. It will probably take many, many conversations about how better to respond before that will ‘stick.’
- I would encourage you to step in and set the limit/advocate for her for now, too. “Excuse me, but I noticed that you (adult) are staring. It makes my daughter feel uncomfortable when people stare at her, so I’m making a friendly request for you to stop.” or something like that.
- With kids I might just go ahead and answer whatever question they are asking (or might be thinking.) Something like “‘Oh, nothing happened, it’s just the way she was born. Her fingers look different but they still do the same things your fingers do. She loves to color and ride her bike and play catch, how about you? Do you like to do those things, too? What’s your favorite… blah blah change the subject…”
By doing the things I suggest in #s 2 and 3, you are role modeling what you want your daughter to do (and how you want her to “be”), taking the pressure off of her having to both handle her feelings about the rudeness/intrusion while trying to rise above it to be polite, plus it’s got a wonderful “I’m on your side and I will protect you from the goobers we encounter out there” feel to it. Very relationship-reinforcing. :^)
Note: I’m on leave for the summer. While I’m out, I’ll be reposting some of my more popular posts. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do. See you again in the Fall.
Good For Him! Tale from my grad school internship with the sex offenders. So many stories, this is one of my favorites.
Oh, Good Question! An unpleasant experience with a medical provider sparks a post on encouraging questions.
My Sock Drawer, Circa 2001. This post isn’t even particularly old, but I like the story enough to repost it anyway. ;^)
First & foremost, the best advice I can give you not only applies to this conversation, but many, many other difficult ones:
The most important thing for a parent to do in any difficult conversation is simply to BE & STAY open to communication. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to give your child a particular piece of information, or say a particular phrase. Parenting is never accomplished in one moment. Parenting is all about repeated experiences/events/conversations. Remember–it’s all about the RELATIONSHIP, and you want to have the kind of relationship where your children know that they can come to you to talk about difficult, awkward, or emotional topics. So: make this a “talkable moment,” be honest, calm, serious, supportive, loving, and listenlistenlisten.
That said, I know I’d want some concrete advice, too, so here goes:
Recommendations differ for different ages. The youngest children may not need any information–if they haven’t been exposed and you’re sure they won’t be, you may very well be able to avoid the topic of this event altogether. (read footnote #1)
Children typically do better when they hear difficult/emotional information from a trusted source first, so consider bringing the topic up yourself with an older child. They are likely to overhear something somewhere anyway. It’s important that they be able to get accurate, age-appropriate information from you to help them balance–or correct–what they’ve already heard.
Your child may not have a strong emotional reaction to the news–it is an abstract concept to many of them. Instead, they may be curious or confused. This is normal.
An older child/teenager may be able to understand the bigger picture and may indeed have an emotional reaction. Remember that there is a wide range of “normal” emotional responses, including anger, fear, sadness, confusion, and more.
Younger children sometimes ‘test out’ emotions, by reacting to this sort of information with stronger feeling than you might expect. This is typically a normal and healthy way for children to learn about emotion. Use your intuition with regard to whether it’s an ‘experimental’ emotional response or a sign that your child is having (too) hard of a time coping with this or other hidden problems.
It’s absolutely fine to share YOUR feelings with your child, as long as you are doing so (relatively) calmly, with role-modeling or teaching in mind. In other words, try to talk about your feelings, not demonstrate them.
Do you have to drive by the building? If your young child asks you what happened, you can say
“A plane crashed into that building today.”
With older, or more inquisitive children, you might add in more details, either intially, or as part of the conversation, including phrases like:
- A man flew a plane into that building.
- He did it on purpose.
- A man who worked there died, as did the pilot. Other people were injured.
- That building has many government workers in it, and the pilot blamed the government for his problems.
- It’s normal to feel angry, even very angry sometimes, but it’s not normal to act out feelings like that. He has hurt many, many people with his choices.
Tune in to what is ‘behind’ your child’s questions. What sounds like a request for more information may actually be your child’s indirect request for reassurance. They may need to hear that: they are safe; such acts are actually rare, that planes/buildings/Austin are all safe places for them, and that you will keep them safe.
Be prepared for questions to come up again later, even much later, and at odd times. As children develop, so to does their ability to understand the world. They may “re-process” this information in 6 or 12 or 24+ months, and need to talk about it with you again. Just be patient and loving and remember to focus on open communication. (footnote #2)
FYI, some of the signs of a child who is having serious problems adjusting can include: persistent somatic complaints, problems sleeping or eating, inability or disinterest in normal/previously enjoyable activites, depression/sadness most of the day more days than not, talk or hints of suicide or worthlessness. If you see these signs, please consult with a professional right away.
#1. But. Please don’t avoid talking about death in general, okay? It’s much easier for children to grasp the concept when they get to learn it abstractly, not while also processing a serious personal loss.
#2. Also, hold your precious babies close tonight. I’m doing that, and also sending a little loving light in the direction of the children and grandchildren of (all) the victims and the pilot’s 12 year old daughter, too.
Question: My child keeps unbuckling his carseat, what should I do?
Answer: This is a great opportunity to fabricate a teachable moment. Make sure to do these things ahead of time:
- Talk to him about the reasons for staying buckled in
- Completely clean the car out ahead of time–no toys, etc
- Set your own emotions to the side here. They will sabotage your plan.
- Set up an event where he’s likely (and then does) unbuckle.
- When he does, pull over as soon as you safely can. Don’t react.
- Let him know that you were going to go to ‘x’ (must be somewhere he would want to go) but that you can’t drive him places when he isn’t being safe.
- Sit (have a book or magazine for yourself). Pretend to read the book if you have to, your goal is to not interact (ie, reinforce) his behaviors. Be boring. The car should be boring. You want him to get bored.
- Wait until he gets back in the carseat, buckles as much as he can. (this may take a while. Be prepared.)
6. Now go home–not to the desired destination.
7. Talk to him about safety and that if you can’t trust him to stay in his carseat, you can’t drive him to fun places/events.
8. Plan to repeat this a few times.
Be extra sure to be totally on your game. Don’t feed/reward the behavior by providing ANY excitement. Don’t even talk (after your initial request) until he’s back in the seat. He needs to learn that cars are a method of transport, and that the supercool stuff happens once you get where you’re going. Chances are he needs to unlearn that there is a lot of (parent-provided) excitement (conflict, power struggles, yelling, strong emotions, oh my!) to be had when he removes his seatbelt.
After you’ve done this at least once, you can ‘front-load’ for success by talking to him ahead of car rides, reminding him of how hard it can be for him to choose to keep his body in the carseat, but also reminding him that when he does not choose to keep his body buckled in, he really feels upset and disappointed when he doesn’t get to go to the fun places he likes going to. You can also ask him–again: ahead of time–if there is any way you can help him make good choices during the ride, offering a suggestion if necessary (play his favorite song, sing something together, bring a favorite book in the car…)
This isn’t a foolproof plan (what, in parenting, ever is?) but it’s a great jumping-off place. Good luck!
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.”
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.
“What should I do about those Bratz dolls?”
As a parenting
coach, I hear this question from time to time. Many parents find them
offensive–whether due to their clothing, makeup, or accessories like
the party bus with a hot tub and martini glasses. It’s not just parents
that worry, either: the Bratz dolls were specifically named in a report
by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the
Sexualization of Girls, who stated that it was “worrisome when dolls
designed specifically for 4 to 8 years olds are associated with an
objectified adult sexuality.”
So, what’s a
parent to do? Refuse to buy them? Outlaw them at home? But what about
when she goes to a friend’s house? And she wants them for her birthday!
Here are some suggestions.
Keep these thoughtz in mind:
- Remind yourself
that you only get to wage a certain number of battles in your parenting
lifetime–so it’s smart to pick and choose them. Temper your response
- As offensive as
you may find them to be, playing with Bratz doesn’t automatically do
harm. Really! It’s not on the scale of, say, eating lead paint. Rather,
their effect is on your daughter’s mind, her assumptions, her beliefs
and values. And that effect, thank goodness, can be mitigated by an involved parent.
- This is a teachable moment. Consider this an engraved invitation to talk to your daughter about at least one important belief, family value, or social construct.
Actionz to take:
- Ask your
daughter questions. What does she think of their clothes/makeup? How
old does she think the dolls are? (Most kids say pre-teen or teen.)
Does she know anyone that age who looks like that? If she saw a
real-life person dressed in a short mini-skirt, fishnet stockings and a
feather boa, what would she think of them? Does she think a real girl
her age should dress like that? Why/why not?
- Share your
concerns. Calmly discuss your top 2 or 3 complaints with your daughter.
Very important note: remember to present your opinions in gentle terms.
If she identifies with the dolls, and you are overly critical of
them–she may well experience your criticism as personal. It might be
helpful to be prepared to throw in something positive about the dolls.
- Compare and
contrast how the dolls spend their time with how real pre-teens/teens
spend their time. The Bratz motto is “Passion for Fashion”… ask your
daughter about what she really feels passionate about. (also: where are the adults? Who bought that party bus?)
thought–this is an opportunity to role-model that it’s possible for
parent and child to disagree, to discuss calmly and to still love each
other afterwards. You’re planting seeds of many varieties right
now–most importantly: (a) we can still discuss when we don’t agree, and
(b) it’s good to think critically about the messages/values we
encounter in our lives. Truly, those life lessons are some of the most
important and healthy ones we can teach our children. Let me know how