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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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Stories

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.  ;^)

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.  ;^)

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!