Praise is another one of the classic parenting techniques that is now subject to some controversy. I don’t mind tipping my hand here–I’m firmly in the pro-praise camp. But, like so many other areas of parenting, the devil’s in the details, so to speak… The way that praise is given makes a huge difference.
Alan Kazdin, president of the APA and the director of Yale’s Parenting Center has written a book called “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.” I’m reading it right now (just page 39 so far) and will post a review when I’m done. (hint: so far I like it a lot.) The thing that drew me to his book was his instruction on how to praise. I’ve been searching for some concrete, simple, and easy directions for some time now… after hearing one too many meaningless “good jobs!”. (sometimes from my own mouth, btw. sigh.)
So, Kazdin says to think of these 3 guidelines on how to praise:
1. Be very, very enthusiastic!!! (I’ve watched the DVD that comes with his book, and he really, really means this.) Super, super, super enthusiastic.
2. Be specific. Ditch the generic ‘good jobs’ and replace them with specific descriptions of what you liked: “I’m really impressed that you put your toys away the first time I asked you!”
3. Reinforce with a touch.
He also says that praise should be immediately following the desired behavior, clearly linked to that desired behavior, and frequently given.
I’m interested to hear from any parent readers who try this–does it feel different from what you’re doing now? How does it go over with your kiddos?
“When I Feel Sad,” by Cornelia Maude Spelman, is a great book that I frequently recommend to parents. It’s a book for children, ages 2-9 or so… There are only a few words on each page, and the book starts with descriptions of times that kids feel sad:
“Sometimes I feel sad. I feel sad when someone won’t let me play.”
After several pages of examples of age-appropriate sad situations for kids, the main character (a guinea pig) describes what sad feels like. It’s a wonderful explanation for a child:
“Sad is a cloudy, tired feeling. Nothing seems fun when I feel sad.”
Then main character talks to a loved one, which starts her on the road to feeling better.
“When I feel sad, there are ways to feel better. I can tell someone I’m sad.”
She plays with friends, feels even better, and the book closes with:
“The sad feeling goes away and I feel good again. When I’m sad, I know I won’t stay sad!”
While the plot isn’t quite as entertaining as “Knuffle Bunny” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” it’s still an excellent book to have on any child’s shelf. Teaching our children about emotions is a very important gift we can give them, and this book is a useful aid. Click below to buy it on Amazon.
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!”
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.”
Therapy is good stuff. Kids usually LOVE going, and parents love the progress they see. You want your kid to get what they need and their health (physical and mental) is a top priority. But, money doesn’t grow on trees and you want to make sure that you’re maximizing your time, money and energy.
So, here are a few tips from a therapist on how to get the most out of your child’s therapy.
- Have a “grown-ups only” meeting with your child’s therapist every month or two.
- The more you and the therapist talk, the better you’ll both be able to help the child.
- Have both parents participate/attend.
- Ask for homework. (Homework is like getting an extra session per week, for free!)
- Do the homework. ;^)
- Show up early. Use the 5 minutes you’re sitting there to talk with your kid about your week, your goals, your feelings, the homework. It helps transition to “therapy-time.” Plus, Murphy’s law guarantees that
the one time you show up late for a session, will be the time when something deep, meaningful, and difficult will come up. Those few minutes make a difference!
And my best tip:
Participate in family therapy. Children are deeply affected by their parents. I tell every parent I work with two things:
- The single most effective thing that you can do to get your child to change is to let them see you changing.
- You are probably the most motivated ‘client.’ Children, whether due to age or inexperience with the world or something else, don’t usually know that their world/emotions/interactions/relationships can be changed, and that talking about these things can help them change.
There are many more (whole books have been written, in fact) but this is short list will get us started!
I had the pleasure this week of being interviewed by Elizabeth Dannheim of KEYE news. She was filming a story inspired by two women with an unlikely friendship. Unlikely, because one of them is the “mom” and the other is the “stepmom.” Elizabeth interviewed me at my office, and asked me questions about parenting, step-parenting, divorce, what it’s like for the kids, and how I help families in similar situations. It was very fun, but also a bit of a surreal experience. When they had me do “action shots” (ie, typing, walking down the hall and closing my office door,) it was all I could do not to laugh-I kept thinking: “This is just like on TV!” ;^)
The story aired on Monday at 5pm, and is available on the KEYE website for a little longer. Click here if you’d like to watch it-it’s short, just 2 minutes.
You’ve probably heard that astronauts practice their work underwater, right? I remember learning that as a child and thinking it was “so cool,” because I could then pretend that I was an astronaut the next time I went swimming. ;^) Remembering this recently, I was struck by how similar this is to therapy. Keep reading and I’ll explain.
Before going into space, astronauts practice and practice and practice. They practice the things they’ll do, the experiments they’ll run, and the hardware they’ll install. But since their work in outer space will be conducted in a zero-gravity situation, the astronauts have had to come up with a way to simulate zero-gravity here on Earth. To this end, they have built enormous pools for practicing their work, because the buoyancy of being underwater simulates the zero gravity of outer space. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s close enough, and it allows them to get more skilled and confident in their tasks.
So, therapy. Therapists help clients identify skills that need strengthening, provide education when needed, and sometimes, our offices can be very much like an astronaut’s pool. Problems with your Mother-in-law? We’ll role-play your last conflict and you can practice gentle assertiveness. Trouble staying calm when your toddler is acting like a wild animal? You be the toddler and I’ll be the parent, and we’ll experiment with different responses. Perhaps the client is a 4th grader who has difficulty navigating around a bully-we’d practice what she could say the next time the bully calls her a name. And sure, it isn’t exactly the same, but it’s about as similar as outer space and a pool. What’s exactly the same is you. You (or your kid) are present in both situations. Any thinking and feeling about the problems, with a focus on thinking positively and practicing solutions, will help train your brain to move automatically towards those solutions in future experiences. If you can practice and get skillful in the simulation, then you’ll be a step closer towards responding the way you’d like in the real world.
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!
Teaching emotional intelligence is an enormously important thing for a parent to do. But how? For younger kids, it’s all about giving them the language to conceptualize and communicate about their experiences. This is worth repeating: kids must acquire language tools that will allow them to (a) conceptualize their experiences, and (b)
share/communicate about them-and the child’s emotions are a very important part of their experience. So, it’s important to teach this stuff, and luckily, it’s also pretty easy.
Step 1: Identify your own most common emotions. You can choose from a very wide variety of emotions (happy, annoyed, silly, angry, loving, sad, excited, frustrated, anxious/worried, joyous), but pick 3 basic ones to start.
Step 2: Start describing your own emotions, and say why you are feeling them. (out loud, in front of your child.) Deliver this information in an emotionally neutral way, as much as possible. It may help if you first identify predictable times/events when you feel those feelings, so that you’ll be prepared with a bit of a script. (For
example: annoyance while driving, joy at the end-of-the-day-reunions, feeling silly or happy during playtimes…)
Step 3: At essentially the same time, begin reflecting for your child what emotions you think they might be feeling
at any given moment. For example: “Ooh, you look really frustrated.” or “You look like you’re feeling proud of yourself for that!” If you have a child with a good attention span for discussion, you could add in an extra sentence that clarifies what s/he was doing that suggested a particular emotion. For example: “You’re yanking on that strap and
yelling-I can tell that you are really frustrated!” Also at this stage-start describing emotions you observe in other people around you. “Look Susie, Billy is crying. He feels sad because you grabbed his toy.” Or, “Wow, John, look at Grandma’s big smile-you really made her feel happy when you said that.” (Note: for those of you thinking: “You
can’t make anyone feel a particular emotion… I agree with you-but this is a conversation with a small child. They’re learning vocabulary and observational skills. We’ll save the higher level self-actualization lesson for 4th grade. ;^) )
Step 4: After you’ve been describing your own emotions and reflecting your child’s emotions for her/him for a few
weeks, start asking your child if they are feeling a particular emotion. For example: Oh, “did that loud noise scare you?” or “Are you feeling angry that I took that away from you?” The goal here is simply to support their understanding and use of emotional vocabulary.
Step 5/Level 2: Once your child begins to use emotions in their daily vocabulary, give yourself a pat on the back! Annnddd… now you’re ready for level two… time to begin talking about how you manage your emotions.
For example, you might say: “When I feel scared, I take a deep breath and talk about it with someone I love.” Or “When I feel angry, I take a deep breath, close my eyes and count to 10.” (side note: taking a deep breath is both an ancient wisdom and a modern miracle-a technique that we’ve know about for eons, and one that modern research repeatedly
finds to be effective in managing many things.) Anyway, this conversation teaches your child some all-important coping skills (for dealing with the inevitable stressors of life) while underscoring the message that you are an empathetic and supportive parent.)
Allright, there ya go! Good luck, and take care.
Update: a silly (but cool!) graphic to illustrate this entry:
It can be such a relief to know that other people are struggling with the same challenges that you are. It can also be
comforting, in a way, to find out that there are problems out there
that you don’t have. (well, it’s true!) To that end, this post is the
first in a multi-part series about the most common parenting conflicts.
I did a small survey and have summarized the results below. (In other
words, this is neither scientific nor exhaustive.) But I think you’ll
find common ground all the same.
Typical areas of conflict between parents:
- Discipline: (strategies, thresholds, undermining vs united front.)
- Anxiety: (differing levels and differing triggers)
- Self-care: (Who gets personal time! Who is getting more! There is Never Enough!!)
- Sex: (hormones, feeling over-touched, the importance of reconnection.)
- Lifestyle issues: (diet, TV, language, work vs play)
- Balance and Sharing: (household labor, ‘owning’ the kids, reading parenting books, extended family, role modeling, competing for love.)
Steps that can help:
- Define a common problem.
- Use “I” statements. Avoid blame and ‘making wrong.’
- Active listening skills (body language, focus, “uh huh,” rephrasing, empathetic response.)
- Reach out. Ask friends, family, professionals. Ask for help. Ask
for camaraderie. Ask for distraction. Ask for advice. Both parents must
- Acceptance, compromise, communication.
- Counseling. You get the help of an ‘expert’ with training and
experience in these exact issues, plus a dedicated hour each week to
focus on growth.
In future posts, I will delve a little deeper into the different categories. First up: discipline. Come back for more!
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.