5 things you can do to support and promote children’s mental health

happy_david garzon photo_freeimages.com

Thursday, May 4, 2017 is National Children’s Health Awareness Day.

We talk a lot about this thing called mental health, but what does it really mean and how can we promote it in our children?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Mental health in childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.”

Laying a strong foundation from the start can help children develop appropriate emotional, social and coping skills.

Here are 5 things parents can do to promote good mental health.

  1. Help children verbalize feelings from a very young age. The more an individual can use words to describe difficult feelings the less he or she will rely on their body to communicate (e.g. tantrums, hitting or acting out in school).
  2. Help children be problem solvers. Protecting a child from every possible failure sends the message that he or she cannot cope. Facing failures and frustrations in bearable bits helps build emotional muscle that will last a lifetime.
  3. Validate feelings rather than negate or stop them. If a child is crying, there is a valid feeling behind it. Be investigators together and find the reason for the feeling. Telling children they have nothing cry about, or telling them everything will be fine when it may not, teaches them to suppress feelings, rather than building tolerance for hard feelings.
  4. Encourage children to manage their own feelings. Just because a child is angry at you does not mean you have to fix, handle or change the situation. They have a right to their feeling and they have the power to find ways to make themselves feel better – even when life seems unfair.
  5. Promote empathy. Wonder with your child how other people may be feeling, especially when they may have hurt someone else’s feelings. Encourage children to talk through conflicts and hear another point of view. Make an apology a natural part of conflict resolution – rather than words that must be recited to avoid punishment.

This year, on National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day – and all the days that follow – let’s do everything we can to build the foundations for success in our children.

Image courtesy of David Garzon/Freeimages.com

Kimberly Bell, Ph.D. Hadden Clinic at Hanna Perkins Center

Kimberly Bell, Ph.D.
Hadden Clinic at Hanna Perkins Center

Promoting self-esteem

“GOOD JOB!!!”
The heading on the sheet of stickers says “100 Ways to Say ‘Good Job!’”, and then all 100 – from “Awesome” to “Zero Mistakes” – appear with accompanying smiley faces and abundant exclamation points. These are sold to teachers as self-esteem promoters. Everyone, especially the children, knows them to be artificial at best. But at least they are evidence of the general awareness that self-esteem is important.

But self-esteem is not so easily created, and certainly not when imposed from an external source. Self-esteem by definition has to grow from within. Students who receive praise for work they know to be less than their best feel worse about themselves, in fact, not better, to hear a perfunctory “Good job!” Older students feel dismissed, unworthy of a more time-consuming and honest critique of their efforts. Younger ones just feel vaguely guilty.

The source of self-esteem
Self-esteem is created not by stickers but by daily loving care, and from birth. Infants learn to love their own bodies as their small selves are fed, cleansed, soothed, valued, whatever hour of the day or night it might be.

Toddlers achieve self-esteem by beginning to care for their own bodies during the stressful “Me do it!” years, when parents find themselves being continually pulled between hovering over their child to prevent him from drinking out of the cat’s dish and waiting the extra half-hour it takes to permit him to brush his own teeth, button his own buttons.

By age 3 or 4 he may not require constant vigilance any more, but now his self-esteem hinges on his pleasing others by learning to obey all those rules of good behavior: sharing, taking turns, and resisting the urge to crayon on the walls or smack his sister with a toilet brush. Constantly the parent or other caregiver is there – as Erna Furman, a child analyst with a deep Hanna Perkins association, and author of several books on child development, wrote – first “doing for,” then “doing with,” and finally “standing by to admire” until the child is ready to do by and for himself.

The trap of phony praise
It is in this last “standing by to admire” stage that it’s easy to fall into the phony “Good job!” trap. If the admiration is sincere, the child senses that. If he distrusts the praise, however, he will feel not encouraged but manipulated. And if he grows to depend on the adult for confirmation that he’s done a “good job,” then he has not gained in self-esteem.

Sometimes, in fact, words are unnecessary. If a child is absorbed in a project he might well feel interrupted, even patronized, if an adult bursts into his castle building, dinosaur drawing or playclay modeling with effusive burbles and coos. “Standing by to admire” can sometimes mean just smiling and nodding, and then going about one’s business as the child continues with his, permitting his satisfaction to come from within.

If words are called for, however, a better choice than “Good job!” might such praise as: “You must feel good about being able to climb up to the top of that climber. You have been working hard at that. Last week you had to stop half-way up and now you’re at the very top.”

The child will benefit from hearing what exactly is being admired, and also from reflecting on how he feels about his accomplishment – not how the adult feels. You certainly don’t want him to start doing a “good job” only to win your praise; he then might be just as likely to start intentionally disappointing you if he is angry.

Obstacles to self-esteem
But what if he sincerely tries, and sincerely fails? What if the climber is just too high, the puzzle is simply too difficult, his drawing of a dog persists in looking like a drawing of a duck, and he comes to the caregiver wailing his discouragement?

Then the admiring adult is called upon to notice the effort and intent, the tiny steps that might in time lead to an accomplishment of the difficult task, and admire those. In fact, the parent has every reason to admire persistence and patience more than the completion of a tricky puzzle – and the child will recognize that conviction, and be reassured by, “Try again tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be a little easier. Or maybe the day after that. Soon you will be able to do that puzzle.”

And then there’s the matter of what you say when the first words that pop into your head aren’t “Good job!” but “Terrible job!”

The toys he promised to pick up are still scattered all over the floor, he woke up the baby with a sneaky pinch, he gave himself a disastrous haircut with the scissors he wasn’t supposed to touch. If you tell him of your displeasure, will he have a permanently damaged self-esteem? Of course not.

In fact, the spirit of “terrible job” – although perhaps not those exact words – is the message you want to convey, as opposed to “terrible kid.”

If you can keep your wits about you, you might follow the format recommended for admiring his successes: Tell him exactly what he did that distressed you, and then suggest that probably he feels bad about what he did and will feel better if he can make amends somehow. And then help him find a way to do that.  He could get to work picking up those toys, or give the baby a cup of juice or a cracker to make up for having disturbed her, or sweep up the hair that’s scattered all over the floor.

Parents’ self-esteem
Our own self-esteem is involved in whether or not our child can climb to the top of the climber, finish that puzzle, or go all day without pooping in his pants.

We would do well to remind ourselves that while our approval or disapproval is enormously important to our children, we should seek to gain our own self-esteem not through their accomplishments but through helping them own their own successes and failures, without looking to us for the ultimate judgment.

As Mrs. Furman so aptly put it, “Our self-esteem can rise with the thought, ‘I helped him toward becoming his own person and liking himself.’”

Image courtesy of Marin/Freedigitalphotos.net

Coaching and Modeling Good Behavior

Promoting civil behavior in children

grandpa_imagerymajestic_freedigitalphotos“We’d love to have you visit us but whatever you do don’t bring any preschoolers with you,” a grandfather remarked at a dinner party one evening.

It seems he had been visited by his children and grandchildren and was still reeling from the event. “They never listened, didn’t want to do anything, were picky about the food and got into arguments about toys,” he continued. “Kids today are like that.”

How agonizing it must be for loving parents, so invested in their children’s well being to feel as though friends or relatives are not enthusiastic about an upcoming visit.

How very puzzling and sad it must be for a preschool child to get the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) message that he is a nuisance or, heaven forbid, not liked very much.

So what is causing the grandparent mentioned above to express such negative reactions? What is missing in the wealth of rich opportunities we are now able to provide our children. How can we include thoughtfulness about and respect for others? Where can we find the balance between encouraging our children to become confident and assertive and, at the same time, sensitive and respectful of others?

Parents today are very aware of children’s needs and often bend over backwards to understand and pay attention to them. This generation of parents sacrifices itself to be sure children have opportunities for many and varied experiences.

Participation in their children’s activities is taken for granted and children are always included in family events. The idea that children should be seen and not heard has been dispatched to the trash bin of yesteryear’s unenlightened parenting.

However, while working hard to make the world a child-friendly place we have often allowed it to become child dominated.

Good behavior is learned behavior

We all know that one learns to love by being loved. It could also be said that a child learns respect and appreciation for others by having those responsible for him appreciate and respect him. Not only does he absorb these characteristics from the behavior of those around him but also through the coaching he experiences from toddlerhood on through preschool.

But how then, do we model appreciation and respect and what are some of the ways we can coach our toddlers and preschoolers to be civil? How can we prepare them to behave in age appropriate ways outside the home and when do we begin?

An example of modeling might be this story of a young mother visiting friends. As lunch was put on the table, two and a half year old Sarah loudly exclaimed, “I don’t like chunky peanut butter. I only like creamy peanut butter!”

To some, such assertiveness seems rude. To others, the assertiveness is admirable. How wonderful if the mother can quietly coach Sarah by gently saying, “Mrs. Smith made these sandwiches especially for this lunch. Could you try one?”

Should Sarah object, a glass of milk will be just fine. A missed lunch won’t harm her and she can be reassured they will have a little lunch when they are back home. Here, Sarah can observe her mother’s behavior, hear her words and the tone she uses, feel her respect for their hostess and at the same time experience Mom’s acknowledgement that she prefers smooth peanut butter to chunky.

Preparation for difficult situations

Since young children change significantly as they grow from toddlers to preschoolers we can think about the challenge of sharing and the importance of preparation. We can also consider what words and actions might avoid unnecessary confrontations. Preparation doesn’t necessarily hold up with toddlers because when the “chips are down” and a friend grabs his favorite toy he will react.

But this shouldn’t discourage us from saying a few preparatory words. They might go something like this, “Jason is coming. He likes trucks. Let’s make sure there are trucks to play with.”

Now, when the upset occurs, and it will, we can move in calmly, acknowledge that they both like trucks and then distract them with things to put in the trucks or with boxes into which they can park them. This is respectful of the fact they are only 2 years old.

Since our toddler is egocentric and able to think of things only from his own point of view, the abstract idea that Jason has feelings is not yet within his understanding. Our approach to the situation gives a clear message of respect and benevolence. He is absorbing our demeanor, and this is the beginning of helping him think of others.

As our toddler gets older and he can now keep in his head other times when he has played with his friend Jason, we can begin to help him share.

For starters we can prepare our 3- or 4-year-old for an upcoming visit and help him think ahead. Recognizing his attachment to certain toys and respecting that, we might say, “Jason and his Mom are coming over this afternoon. I know it’s sometimes hard for you to let him play with some of your toys. Last time he really wanted to play with your dump truck. Can you let him play this time or should we put it away?”

This is not only knowing about your child and his developmental level but respects how attached he is to his special toys. It is also giving him some control over what will happen.

Showing respect

Important also is how we listen to our children if we expect them to listen to and respect us.

One of the examples of how we might model expected behaviors might be the way in which we use the phone. We might forego answering our phones if our child is in the middle of a serious conversation with us. Calls can be returned later but concentrating on our child now gives him the message that we think what he’s saying is important. Also, answering our phones when we are on the phone with someone else should be avoided. Children watch.

Another opportunity is when we are in a group of guests and our young children burst into the room in the full bloom of an argument demanding that it be settled. It helps everyone to quietly excuse ourselves and find a private place to talk, rather than embarrassing everyone by flooding the room with anger and demeaning words.

It is respectful of the guests and of the children. It models for the children how and when to talk about conflicts and where to do it in the most appropriate ways. We can gently coach children not to interrupt or at least to say, “Excuse me,” when something can’t wait. Gradually, it is our hope that the kids will learn to wait when we are in conversations with other adults just as we, in turn, will wait until after their friends have left to discuss potentially embarrassing issues with them.

All this is not easy given the current themes on TV, the computer games and in the movies where being assertive, interrupting one another and rudeness appear acceptable.

Often the popular movies include kids with quick, smart-sounding back-talk, which is not limited to their peers but includes adults. As with other themes in movies and on TV, we can watch with our young children and point out that what is done in the movies isn’t always the kind of thing that shows respect and thoughtfulness of others. We can talk about how we might all feel if someone talked to us in those words.

If we begin the process of coaching our children in toddlerhood perhaps, in adulthood they might be able to listen when people are talking before talking themselves. Perhaps they will begin to be more aware of the needs of the people around them.

Perhaps then grandfather will say, “Do come visit, and be sure you bring your wonderful preschoolers with you.” And perhaps these children will contribute to a more civil society as they grow.

Leaving children for the weekend

No matter how laid-back the parents of young children are, they sometimes need a weekend get-away to take a break, tend to out-of-town family matters, attend a function where spouses are invited, etc.

When this need arises for the first time, they might have some concerns – especially if their child already fusses when a sitter comes for just the evening.

If the sitter can be someone your child already knows, such as an extended family member or good friend, so much the better.  There is already a relationship forming and the sitter knows some of the family routines and where to find things.

However, if none of these options is available you may have to choose a sitter your child has never met, but has good references and is recommended by someone whose judgment you trust. As parents, you will want to meet her and interview her before she comes to your house to meet your child.

Preparing for departure

Not too far ahead of the time you leave, you will want to tell your child of your upcoming plans and who will be staying with him/her while you’re away.

Your child will probably protest and won’t understand why she cannot go with you.  She will feel angry and left out.  The best way to get over left-out feelings is to have your child be a part of the planning. For example:

  • She can help you pick out the clothing she will wear while you’re gone and put it in a special place.
  • She can be a part of planning the menus for the meals she and the sitter will have together.
  •  She can pick out the games she might like to play with the sitter.
  •  You could take her to the library to pick out some new books they can read together.
  •  She could help make a plan for an outing while Mom and Dad are gone – the park/playground, the zoo, a movie suitable for young children.

As for you, Parents:  Even though there may be protesting that makes you feel guilty about leaving your unhappy child, don’t be tempted to try to sugarcoat the feeling by telling her about all the fun things she’ll be doing with the sitter while you’re gone. Instead sympathize with her and tell her the things you’ll do to help take the sting out of her missing feelings. For instance:

  • It would be very helpful if you would leave short notes for your child to read – one for each morning you’re gone and one for each evening.
  • Making a plan for a telephone call each day you’re gone will reassure her that you’re thinking of her.
  • Suggest that she draw some new pictures for the refrigerator to show Mom and Dad when you come home.
  • Leave a picture of the family together for her to look at so that she will have a tangible connection when she feels the “missing” the most.

When she can still feel “connected” she is less likely to be sad and angry because of a left-out feeling.

Time to leave

When the leaving day arrives, you as parents hope you’ve thought of everything – notes for the sitter, the name, number and address of where you’ll be beside the telephone. The bags are packed and in the car. The sitter has come and already has your child engaged in the game or book you suggested. You look at each other and are tempted to sneak out without saying “goodbye” and risking an upset.

Don’t you dare! When your child finds that you have gone without a hug or goodbye, she will really feel abandoned. It’s better to go to her, tell her you are leaving and give her your hugs. Tell her you will call her at the time that was arranged and now she and the sitter can finish the story or game. There will probably be tears, but you know that you and she will live through them.

Let me tell you a true story that one of our Grannies told about when she stayed with her 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter while her parents were on a trip.

It was bedtime. They had called and after they hung up, she was crying on her bed. I said, “Oh, Jadey, I know how hard it is to have Mommy and Daddy away. Would you like me to read to you before you go to sleep?” She raised herself up on her elbows and cried out, “NO – I just want to lie here and miss my Mommy and Daddy!” and she again flopped down on her tummy.  Jadey’s Granny reminds us that “We all want to do that at different times in our lives – well beyond 4 or 5 years of age.

Coming home

So, you did it.  You spent a weekend away and feel refreshed for it even though the planning felt endless. Don’t be surprised if, after the first hugs and kisses when you return home, they are followed by signs of your child ignoring you. She might even find a reason to become angry with you about something. Maybe the gift you brought her was “dumb.”  Maybe what you’re preparing for dinner smells “yucky.” She might fuss about going to bed because “it’s not fair” that you get to stay up later.

This reaction is pretty normal for a young child who has had to “suck it up” and stay with a sitter overnight for the first time. She felt left out then, now it’s your turn.

All of the careful planning and good preparation in the world can’t make up for the fact that you left her behind and had fun without her.

Image courtesy of Rawitch/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Emotional Intelligence

2 boys_david castillo dominici_freedigitalphotosThe foundation for future learning is established between birth and age six. During this time, a child transitions from dependence to independence, and develops an emotional blueprint that informs every aspect of his or her life.

Emotional intelligence – the ability to understand and manage feelings – is considered the driving force behind intellectual and social achievement, and the strongest indicator of human success.

Emotional intelligence can be fostered most effectively during the preschool years, regardless of the genetic or temperamental predispositions with which a child is born. It is an area in which we can make a difference. Children who receive the gift of adult mindfulness during these early years develop essential assets, such as

  • Curiosity
  • Problem-solving
  • Competence
  • Mastery
  • Creativity
  • Management of worries and fears
  • Ability to focus
  • Self-control
  • Kindness
  • Self-advocacy

By understanding this and addressing a child’s inner life, all children can be helped to cultivate  critical life skills. Children who receive the gift of adult mindfulness during these early years develop essential assets, such as flexibility, relationship-building, conflict management, self-awareness, self-discipline and planning skills.

Through emotionally-based learning, children are best equipped to build resilience and maximize their own potential.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos.net

 

Birthday parties – a little bit of sanity please

“Happy Birthday, dear Billy…” oh no…the candles are burning and everyone is singing, but Billy is definitely not a happy birthday boy.  In fact, tears are rolling down his cheeks and the wish he’s making as he blows out the candles is for everyone to just go away and let him play with that cool truck in the pile of presents.

How could it be that this perfectly planned event was not a wonderful experience for the honoree?  It was held at a special location, which specializes in kids’ parties.  All fifteen children from Billy’s preschool class plus his 10 cousins were invited and there were lots of exciting things for kids to run around and do.   There was a magician to entertain them, pizza, a special cake, and a piñata to whack away at.  What more could a child possibly want?  Well, yes, maybe a pony for everyone to ride—but that’s for next year.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? In our modern, competitive world, many birthday parties for young children have become occasions for keeping up with—or even outdoing—other parents. “Ashley’s party was so lovely; the girls and their mothers went to a fancy hotel for a fashion show—whatever can we do to compare with that?”

Children’s parties can also become social events for the adults, either as a way to entertain friends or to gather the extended family for a reunion.  In both of these instances, the focus is on the adults and the children may get lost in the shuffle, either to run amok unsupervised or to have too much attention showered upon them when they are unsure of what they are expected to do.

Perhaps parents want to feel that they have done everything to make their children’s lives as perfect as possible.  In our fast-paced world, parents may feel guilty that they are not giving their children the time and attention they should and so try to make it up to them by throwing a grand and glorious birthday party.

Similarly, in the hurried world of two working parents, Mom may think, “why should I have all these kids running through my house making a big mess to clean up?  If we have the party at Chuck E. Cheese, I can have the rest of the weekend to get other chores done.”

All these are possible explanations for the overdone, inappropriate, chaotic birthday parties we see.  If only parents would examine their motives as they plan for this important milestone in their child’s life, perhaps the scenario would be a different one.

WHAT TO DO? First of all, think of everything from your child’s perspective.  How old is she?  One easy rule of thumb is to invite the same number of children as the age of the child, so three guests are perfect for your three year old’s party.  Send cupcakes to the pre-school to celebrate with all the classmates; let the actual party be a private one which will be a pleasure for your child only if it is kept at a size which she can manage.  Similarly, plan on a manageable length of time, two hours is plenty.   Be sure to state the hours on the invitation so everyone knows just what to expect.

Second, remember that the simplest things are new and wonderful to young children.  Think of what your child loves to do.  If he is a nature lover, go to the nearby park and have a simple scavenger hunt for acorns, bird feathers, and yes, even a piece of litter (can’t start too early with cleaning up the environment—and, of course, you brought hand-wipes to clean them up afterwards).  If it’s a nice day, spread a cloth on a picnic table and ice some cupcakes, have some lemonade, play a few games, and go home.  Oh yes, the goody bag: a little ladybug toy and a few pieces of your child’s favorite candy are a nice souvenir of the day.

If she would love to have a tea party, invite the guests to bring their dolls and provide all the makings of a pretend tea party at home.  The children could make the sandwiches and, of course, pour the pretend tea (lemonade with a touch of tea for color) for themselves and their dolls.  A fun craft activity, such as a picture frame, for the photo you take of each girl with her doll, would be a nice favor for guests to take home.

What to do with those boys when it’s bad weather?  How about the scavenger hunt indoors?  Hide items, which go along with your party theme, around the house.  Play a beanbag toss game or rig up a balance beam for the junior Olympians to walk across.  Get some scraps of wood for them to glue together and paint or show the DVD of some old (short) cartoons that you loved as a child.  Let the boys make their own pizzas or string cubes of fruit on bamboo sticks for kabobs.

When there are fewer children and the activities are based on reality rather than overly stimulating fantasy, there is less random running around and everyone is calmly involved. When you think of themes for the party for children who might become over-excited, choose the real vs. fantasy, for example:  astronauts, the circus  (without the wild lion), the Olympics, or explorers digging for hidden treasure but nothing about ferocious, scary things. When parents don’t take on too much and the party is planned with the child’s best interests in mind, it will be just as pleasant for them as it is for the child.  Not to mention the easier cleanup when there are not hordes of kids running rampant through the house.

The planning and preparation are as much fun for the birthday child as the party itself, so involve her as much as possible.  Picking out the invitations and decorations at the dollar store or making them yourselves, making the cake, setting the table and filling the goody bags are all major ingredients of a memorable occasion for a child.

Some kids can take being a party host in stride, but others may need you to go over the entire scenario before the event so they know exactly what will happen when and pretty much what they will be expected to do and say.  When you plan the Birthday Party taking into account your child his age and interests you will find its economically sane and results in less clean up and a happy child.  Save the elaborate party for the wedding reception.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The importance of talking with children about feelings

The situation: Four-year-old Michael was misbehaving. The teacher, Mr. Carpenter, was speaking quietly to him, helping with feelings the young boy could not express verbally.

caring-teacher-1622554-1280x960_freeimages_Heriberto Herrera“Michael, if you are missing mommy and feeling sad, we can talk about her, think about her and make her a picture,” Mr. C said. “You can miss mommy and still feel like a big schoolboy who can manage and be safe.”

Nearby, Alex had been watching this interaction out of the corner of his eye while building with blocks. Unexpectedly he lashed out at Julia, who was working next to him, knocking over her building. Julia yelled,” Alex is mean and being bad!” Alex appeared unconcerned about what he had done and continued building.

The assistant teacher, Ms. Dowd, approached Alex and Julia, hoping to find out what happened. Frustrated, Julia described the incident. Ms. Dowd turned to Alex, wondering why he would do such a thing and not apologize.

She asked, “Are you angry at Julia?” Alex refused to speak, then teared up and put his head down. It was only when Mr. Carpenter approached that he looked up, longingly, ready to speak.

He reached out to Mr. Carpenter and sighed, “I wanted you to help me with my missing-mommy feelings the way you helped Michael.”

The lesson: Every early childhood classroom should include the “language of feelings.” Addressing behavior (what a child is actively doing) is different from addressing feeling (what a child is experiencing on the inside).

As adults, we tend to focus on the doing instead of the feeling, because it seems easier. It takes a little extra time to help a child listen to the feeling voice inside, and find a constructive way to express that feeling voice.

We might think we know how a child feels, but often the child surprises us.

Alex’s actions seemed angry and unfeeling, but inside he was longing and hurting. His teachers might have thought he acted out because he wanted “attention,” but Alex needed some kindness and compassion.

He did not know how to express his lonely, missing feelings. He saw Michael receive comfort and consolation from Mr. C, and Alex wanted the same for himself. What a good idea to want to feel comfort from a compassionate person you trust.

Learning points

  • Help the child figure out ways to express feelings safely: Use words, get a hug, take a walk,
  • spend some time calming down.
  • Praise the child for using words instead of acting out (yelling, tantrums, hurting others).
  • Help the child with difficult feelings while you are calm.
  • Use the “language of feelings” in your classroom.
  • Label specific feelings: happy, sad, jealous, mad, excited, surprised, lonely, hurt, scared…
  • Trust that when the child knows the words for feelings, he or she will use them – though it may take practice.
  • Upset and anger directed at a child creates more upset and anger.
  • Remember, the adult is always the model for the child; you are the model for your student.

Image courtesy of Freeimages.com/Heriberto Herrera

How young children learn to protect themselves

Every day brings new reports of adults in some position of responsibility who take advantage of the trust that children place in them.

All of us have to worry about our children’s safety, and it’s easy to wonder what we should be doing to safeguard them from predators.

Parents of school-age children can talk about the importance of speaking up whenever anything feels uncomfortable. Parents of adolescents can talk even more directly with them about sexual assualt.

However, dealing with the issue of self-protection with preschool children is very different.

We want to caution parents against scaring or confusing very young children with lectures about not speaking to strangers, or protecting themselves against improper advances from anyone other than Mommy, Daddy or grandparents.

These messages can be utterly confusing to little children. It can be scary and upsetting, and can cause them to overreact in many ways.

For instance, they can become afraid of going to sleep, of the dark, of speaking to anyone. They can become overly excited and engage in mutual sexual play; or pretend to go looking for imaginary molesters, which shows that they are acting out what they are trying to understand.

Needing to protect oneself is a big responsibility that young children cannot possibly take on by themselves. We must be with them at all times, or place them in the care of family members or someone who has been checked out thoroughly and found to be completely trustworthy.

But there are things parents can do to help young children resist the advances of people who want to take advantage of them – though children need a long time to achieve mastery of the care and protection of their bodies.

They learn these skills by observing the things we parents do every day.

For example, they observe how we behave with strangers, who we talk to and who we avoid.

A young child goes from being totally cared for by his parents to wanting to do things for himself: feeding, washing, toileting, and dressing himself. And parents welcome this evidence that he is growing up and wants privacy and control over his own body.

Here is what Barbara Streeter, Education Director of the Hanna Perkins School, says about helping children protect themselves:

“What protects a child best is a sense of self-worth, an ability to know when he is being treated disrespectfully, and a sense that he has the right and ability to defend himself.”

To help a child develop those attributes and abilities, Streeter offers the following thoughts:

  • Always treat the child with respect, physically and emotionally.
  • Listen to and observe what he likes/dislikes and respond accordingly.
  • Protect her from intrusions of other adults – such as unwanted kisses, hugs, tickles, jokes, teases, insensitive doctors, salesmen, etc.
  • Support a child’s “no” to others when spoken or communicated non-verbally.
  • Assist a child in finding ways to defend himself when playmates and siblings are unkind in any way.
  • Show respect for – and support – a child’s need for privacy and control over what gets done to his body (eating, toileting, dressing, administering medications, etc.).
  • Avoid activities that make a child feel helpless (for example, adults overpowering a child by showing off their physical strength or engaging in excessive tickling).
  • Assist children in developing respect for “personal space”.
  • Carefully assess any person a child is being left with, and seriously consider any doubts you or the child might have.
  • Listen to what children have to say; let them know that we don’t automatically assume people in authority are right and they are wrong.

When children learn how to protect themselves, it’s not through our lectures or admonitions, but by observing the way their parents respect them and take care of them.

It’s a big job, but no one ever said being a parent was easy. We salute you and wish you well in doing that big job.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A parenting technique that really works

At a gathering of parents sponsored by The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development (HPC), Licensed Independent Social Worker and HPC Child Psychoanalyst and Therapist Deborah Paris addressed a range of questions and concerns, including this one:

 Q: I keep hearing about “attachment parenting” and other parenting techniques. Is there a particular technique that you like?

A:  My preferred technique is whatever works best in promoting healthy development. It begins with understanding there are certain goals in raising young children:

  • Self care
  • Self regulation
  • Self determination

What makes people healthy is developing this sense of self – not us as parents doing for them.

You know, we do a funny thing these days. On one hand we see the helicopter parent, who is over-involved in everything the child tries to do. On the other hand we sometimes act like children are little adults, and we expect all sorts of things from them that they aren’t ready to handle – like sitting quietly through a long meal at an upscale restaurant.

In both extremes, what’s happening is the parents are trying to control the outcome. It’s as if by just doing or demanding all the right things, everything will come out fine. This is actually leaving the child – as an individual person – out of the equation.

If you insist on controlling the outcome, then your child is going to struggle to learn and practice self care, self determination, self regulation. It will be about you instead of about them.

But if you start from the perspective of what the child needs and what is going on inside of him or her– as opposed to adopting a specific parenting “technique” – you’ll end up in the right place.

Children have an inner world that is understood (or misunderstood) from the perspective of a 2- or 3- or 4-year-old brain. Be sensitive to this. Work with them to identify and resolve misunderstandings and misconceptions. Help them learn those things the developing self requires.

If you want to call this a parenting technique, I’d say it has a pretty good record of success.

Image of little boy courtesy of Julie Moore/Stock.xchng

 

A collection of holiday wisdom: All the Grandmothers’ seasonal writings in one location

The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but all the excitement and traditions of the season can create stress in young children that grownups, in their own enthusiasm, can easily overlook.

Here is a collection of previously published articles by the Hanna Perkins Grandmothers that may help you see the holidays as they really look through a child’s eyes – so you can create the best kind of memories for the young people in your life.

  • Keeping holidays focused on the children It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up. The ... Read more
  • The Santa Question This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually. The Tooth Fairy No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a ... Read more
  • Handling holiday disappointments Grumpy Ballerina“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams over the PA system in Walmart – and as we pile gifts in our shopping cart we halfway believe it. The kid riding in the cart, eyeing the decorated artificial trees and ... Read more
  • The spirit of giving: How children’s gifts are recieved It was Christmas morning. As the family sat around the little tree, under which was a modest pile of wrapped gifts, Nina could not contain herself. She ran to the tree, pulled her gifts away from the others and distributed them; one for ... Read more
  • How little ones learn to love giving We Grandmothers are certainly aware that today’s families live in times of “Hurry Up” – that mothers and fathers both work and have to deal with malls filled with gifts of every shape and color. We recognize time is a precious commodity, so ... Read more
  • Excitement vs. Fun In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun. A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is ... Read more
  • A holiday wish: Simple delight in your children What quality would we Grandmothers most ardently wish for you parents of young children in this final, bustling season of the year? Well OK, you didn’t ask, but we’re going to tell you anyway. Not patience, not insight, not mediation skills, not tolerance for ... Read more