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“Raising Cain”, the prefrontal cortex, and pretend violence…

I was recently watching a wonderful PBS documentary based on the book “Raising Cain,” and was struck by a particular comment.  The narrator quotes current brain research that finds that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls impulse control, isn’t fully developed at age 18.  (More on the pre-frontal cortex here.)

This is such a good message for us to remember.  Since most parents DO have the skills & abilities for planning/social appropriateness/impulse control –we tend to forget that we haven’t always had those abilities.  Our kids–even our older teens–really aren’t quite adults yet, despite what they’d probably prefer us to believe.  All the more reason to support them with safe learning environments. 

Another one of his messages, repeated multiple times, is that “Play-acting violence is not the same as real violence, and when we treat them the same, we lose credibility with our kids.”  Such good food for thought.  By the way… the documentary is a little less than 2 hours long, and highly recommended. 

T. Berry Brazelton on Self-esteem, Spanking, and Vegetables!

The New York Times website has a blog called “Well” that recently interviewed Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, one of our country’s most known (and loved) pediatricians.  He’s the author of at least 24 books on parenting, child development, and the like, and he’s a bit of a hero to me. 

In the interview, Dr. Brazelton and co-author Dr. Josh Sparrow answer questions from readers, on several topics including self-esteem, spanking, learning from your kids, and nutrition.  I wanted to highlight 3 things for you from the interview.  On self esteem, they describe the importance of unconditional acceptance from the parent, and the opportunity for challenge, failure, and success as keys to building self-esteem. 

On spanking, they say:

Our belief is that spanking is not necessary, can be harmful, and certainly does not serve the purposes of discipline.

And on nutrition, Dr. Brazelton says:

Vegetables! I hated them as a child — and I still hate them. My younger
brother hated them more. As I watched my mother hover over him for
hours trying to shovel vegetables into him, while completely ignoring
me, I began to hate my brother even more than vegetables. Now you know
why I became a pediatrician — to stamp out vegetables, and to overcome
my guilt at wanting to kill my brother!

He goes on to advise parents: “Forget about vegetables!” and focus on exposure and avoiding power struggles instead.  It’s great advice, of course!

To read the entire post about self-esteem and spanking, click here.

Or here for the article about nutrition.

Shyness and Your Child–part 2

Do you worry about your child’s shyness?  Do other people label your child shy?  Do you wonder if shyness is a problem?

In part one of this series about shyness, I talked about times/situations where shyness is normal and not a problem at all.  But perhaps you are sure that shyness IS a problem… so today’s post lists 5 steps you can take to help your shy child.

1.  Change yourself. First of all, if you are extroverted and outgoing, you might benefit from taking a step back, adjusting your expectations a little.  However, if you are on the other end of the spectrum, take a look at your own habits or tendencies towards shyness.  In what ways are you shy like your child?  Try increasing your person to person interactions.  Be the first one to stick out your hand for an introduction.  Invite friends over for dinner sometime soon.  Make small but noticeable changes in your own social ability.  Talk to your child about what you’re doing.   Role-modeling is very powerful. I always tell parents that the most effective way to get your child to change is to let them see you changing.

2.  Help your child strengthen their self-esteem.  A child who feels good about themselves is much more likely to take the risk to reach out to another person.  BTW, self-esteem does not come from hearing “good job!” 15 times a day, it comes from being challenged, working hard, and persevering.

3.  Social skills. Make sure your child has a better-than-average knowledge of social skills.  IE, what do you say or do in various situations…  There are many good children’s books that help with this, for example: How to Be A Friend.  For parents, the book “Unwritten rules of friendship”  is a great guide to help YOU know what your child needs to know or do in social situations.

4.  Boost your child’s emotional intelligence. A child who understands their own emotions, and those of others around him be more able to navigate social situations, understand their own needs, and those of others.  So teach your child about emotions.  Make emotions a part of your family’s daily conversation.  Identify your own emotions out loud sometimes, and reflect back to your child what you think they are feeling sometimes.  For example: “oh, man, you seem really frustrated right now.”  Then take it a step further and teach your child coping techniques for dealing with those emotions.

5.  Take small steps. Sit down with your child and make a list of small steps he could take.  Little ways he could reach out, like: simply saying hi to the kid next to him on the swings, or agreeing to a playdate with a child he only knows a little bit.  Support your child is taking these steps regularly–but not all at once!  Remember that change takes a long time–months or years even, and it happens in tiny, little chunks.  I like to say that it’s like lifting weights and building muscle.  The first time you do it, the little steps are very hard, but the more you do them, the easier they get.  By the way parents, do make sure to notice the positive changes, no matter how small, and praise your child for them.

That’s it for today… stay tuned for part 3–concrete and easy(-er) tips & tricks that help with shyness.

Helping Children Grieve

Today’s post is written by author & therapist Victoria Hendricks. 

No parent wants to use the words “child” and “death” in the same sentence.  But life doesn’t always honor our wants. In the best circumstances we can introduce children to death gradually.  We can talk to the three year old about the difference between the live ant that crawls and the dead ant that lies still and stiff.  We can have a sad, sweet funeral for the gold fish with the kindergartener.
Sometimes though, death doesn’t give us time to prepare children gently and gradually.  Sometimes a beloved uncle dies of a sudden heart attack, a friend is killed by a car, or a parent is diagnosed with a life threatening disease and then succumbs.  What can we do for our children then, when we are hurting and in shock and they need information and support, right then?
When my daughters were five and nine, their daddy died of cancer within nine months of diagnosis.  The bad news is that, even with training as a grief counselor, I could not spare them pain and after effects of that loss.  The good news is both of them feel that they understood what was going on with their daddy and his death and that they felt loved and safe, even when very sad.
So what is helpful when the bottom falls out and you and your children are faced with the unspeakable?
Tell the truth.  Tell it in simple, age appropriate terms, but don’t sugar coat. Euphemisms are confusing.  Especially avoid any likening of death to sleep, so  children won’t become afraid of sleep. Explain the “why” of the particular death accurately because children tend to blame themselves even when that doesn’t seem reasonable at all.  Truth fights that tendency. Tell your truth about the spiritual aspects of death too.  You can say that others believe differently, but telling a story one doesn’t believe isn’t helpful.
Answer questions as many times as they ask.  Sometimes children need many repetitions, and they definitely need to hear about their losses at different developmental stages over the years, so that their understanding can develop with them.
Remember grief comes in a wave form that hits cyclically.  That’s true for all of us, but for little children the waves hit close together and emotions shift quickly.  It’s completely normal for a five year old to be weeping inconsolably and then in ten minutes, be laughing and chasing a friend.  Remember anger as well as sadness is part of grief and let your child know that too and have safe outlets for anger. Let your child know that all feelings are normal and feelings pass.

Develop rituals that work for you and your child, whether telling a story, lighting a candle, or going to a grave site.  It doesn’t matter what you do, but that you and the grieving child do something together that opens conversation about the loss and allows you to share it.
Be clear with your child that she or he will be taken care of no matter how sad you are and no matter how hard things get.

Take care of yourself.  Use your own support system.  Your child needs you strong.  Love truly is stronger than loss in the end, or so it has seemed in my life, but loss hurts and we don’t need to pretend it doesn’t in order to protect and nurture our children.

Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individual & couples.  Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still, so I’m very excited to be able to include this post from her today.  If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh  AT  aol  DOT  com.


Knowing What You Know Now…

Knowing what you know now, what topics related to parenting would
you suggest that a couple discuss either before getting engaged, or
married, or deciding to have kids? (I’m imagining this post as a
conversation-I’ll go first, and you respond with your ideas, too!)

So here’s a few of my topic ideas:

  • Do you want to have children?! If so, approximately how many? (This assumes that neither person has children already, btw.)
  • What sort of timing would you each prefer for the first, second, etc kids?
  • Will one parent stay home? Which one?
  • How do you feel about your own parents?
  • How do you feel about the way you were parented?
  • Do you want to parent similarly, somewhat differently, or very differently from the way that you were reared?
  • Discuss your probable future parenting philosophy. For example,
    some people subscribe to a parenting style as described in books on
    Attachment Parenting or perhaps in BabyWise.
  • How do you think your lives will change with the addition of a child?
  • What relationship do you each have to traditional gender roles? How might that change with the addition of a child?

So, what else?! Leave a comment and tell me what parenting-related
topics you think people should talk about as part of their early
relationship. I’m excited to see what advice you’d give!

Update:  I was recently shown this website, which has a great–long!–list of questions to ask before marriage. 

Dealing with Bullies

School started back this week in Austin.  Backpacks, new clothes, anxiety, excitement… it’s everywhere right now. 

Sadly, going back to school means dealing with bullies for many kids.  The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 50% of all kids will deal with bullying in their lifetime, and at least 10% will struggle with it on a regular basis.

World of Psychology has a great post on bullying today.  Click here to read about the signs of bullying, what to do, and where to go for more help and information.

Shyness and Your Child–part 1

Do you worry about your child’s shyness?  Do other people label your child shy?  Do you wonder if shyness is a problem?

Shyness isn’t always a problem.  Really!  Humans come in all different temperaments, and thank goodness for that.  American popular culture tends to favor social, outgoing people, but (a) other cultures send different messages, and (b) neither way is “right or wrong”.  Rather, it is FAR more important that your child feel comfortable the “just way they are,” to quote Mr. Rogers.

Developmental Stages & Shyness

First of all, consider your child’s developmental stage.  Young toddlers go through stages of separation anxiety, but so do older kids, it just looks different.  The most prominent period for this (later) is when children start kindergarten.  This is a huge transition for kids, and results in shyness, or regression, or a host of other behavioral changes.  It’s normal.  In those situations parents need to continue to support and love their child, talking about the changes and your child’s feelings and how to cope.  Things will get better with time.

A second period of developmental shyness is normal around the early stages of puberty, too.  Body changes are accompanied by greater pressures from peers, and emotional and hormonal shifts.  It’s a tough time, and shyness is often part of the picture.  Again, just keep supporting, loving, talking, and teaching and things will get better with time.

Introverts & Extroverts
An extrovert is someone who ‘gets their energy’ from interacting with others.  An introvert is someone who gets their energy from within, from being alone.  Which one is your child?  A shy child might be a perfectly happy and content introvert, with no need for fixing or changing.
Is your child happy?  Do they think their shyness is a problem?

I encourage you to ask them!  In a non-confrontational way–perhaps when it’s just the two of you in the car going somewhere–bring up the topic of shyness.  For example: “John, did you have a good time yesterday at Dan’s birthday party?  If your son says “No,” talk a little about why he didn’t have a good time.  Perhaps he himself felt that his feelings of shyness kept him from enjoying himself.  If you son says “yes,” you might say “You know, I noticed when I picked you up that you were playing by yourself in the back room.”  Perhaps this will spark a conversation.  But simply, your goal is to find out whether your child themselves thinks that shyness is a problem.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on shyness.  Part 2 is here, and part 3 is here.

Book Review: When I Feel Angry

“When I Feel Angry” is a children’s book by a therapist, Cornelia Maude Spelman.  She’s also the author of “When I Feel Sad,” reviewed earlier here.  When I Feel Angry is also aimed at the younger crowd, from apx 2-9 or so years of age, depending on your child’s reading and interest level.

The main character of this book is a rabbit.  She talks about times when she feels angry:

“I feel angry when I have to stop a game at the best part and clean up my room, or when we finally go swimming it rains.”

She describes how anger feels:

“Anger is a strong, hot feeling.  When I feel angry, I want to say something mean, or yell, or hit.”

She elaborates on the different between a feeling and an action taken in response to a feeling (did I mention the author is a therapist?  ;^)  )

“But feeling like I want to is not the same as doing it.  Feel can’t hurt anyone or get me in trouble, but doing can.”

And then our little rabbit tells kids how she handles her angry feelings:

“I can take deep breaths and blow the air out, hard, to send the anger out of me.  I can make my anger cooler by running, riding my bike, or doing something I really like to do.”

The last few pages acknowledge that sometimes anger is a healthy response (yea!) an covers three more important points: sometimes things can’t be changed, sometimes it’s “me” that needs to change, and sometimes it’s “you” that needs to change.  (again, this is a very healthy message about anger!)

So, consider this another ‘highly recommended” book to keep in your child’s library.  If you’d like to buy this book, you can click on the picture of it below–it’s a link to the book’s page on Amazon.

ADHD & heart screening tests?

If your child takes medication for ADHD, are regular electrocardiograms necessary? Well, it depends on whom you ask, apparently. The American Heart Association says yes, and the American Academy of Pediatrics says no.

For more details, visit today’s post on this topic on the “On Parenting” blog, written by Nancy Shute–it’s an excellent blog, by the way, one that I look forward to reading each week myself.

Coping Skills for Kids–part 2

Yesterday, I defined coping skills.
Today, I’m listing some ways to help your child improve their coping skills.

  • First, talk to your child about emotions.  They need to be able to recognize their own emotions (as well as the emotions of others) in order to cope with them! 
  • Second, define the term “coping skills” for your kids, and talk about when you use them.  (Give concrete examples.)  Tell stories of times in the past when you saw your child handling their emotions well–what specifically did you see them do? Talk about that and praise your child. 
  • Third, sit down with your child, and brainstorm things your child likes to do.  Riding her bike?  Playing with the dog?  Reading a book?  Check!  The parent should write down every idea your child identifies, plus a few of your own.  It’s fine if the list includes video games, eating candy, and/or clothes shopping, but just make sure that there are healthy/free/easy/quick/always accessible activities, too.
  • Fourth, once you’ve got a rough list of fun activities, make a fun art project out of it!  Rewrite the list on a big piece of paper, and decorate it together with your child.  Maybe even draw tiny pictures representing some of the activities!  (just have fun doing it.)  Talk about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  Post the final version up on the wall somewhere prominent–the fridge, for example.

Now, you’re ready!  The next time your child is mildly upset, do this:

  1. Validate their feelings.
  2. Ask if they’d like some help from you.
  3. If they say yes, walk with them over to the list, and have them pick 1 thing.
  4. Do the activity.  Alone or together, their choice.   (one of the great things about this step is that your attention is built-in praise for your child’s positive behavior–using a coping skill is a big positive, and one that we want to encourage!)
  5. When you’re done, process!  Talk about your child feels now, as compared to before.  Be sure to clarify at some point that the coping skill doesn’t ‘fix’ the original problem–it simply makes us feel a little better in the moment. 

So, if you go through these steps, and rinse/repeat a number of times, then you will likely find that your child starting to make this a habit–a positive habit!  And soon, you’ll see your child using their coping skills for upsets that are bigger than “mild.”  Ahhh, a very happy achievement this will be!