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

 

6 strategies for talking about the election with your children

boys_bw_back_cco-public-domainA few days after the presidential election, in one of our own classrooms, a 5-year-old declared, “My Mom voted for Trump.”

“Trump’s an idiot!” a 6-year-old classmate replied. And then a teacher stepped in.

In our schools, on the playgrounds, in our homes, conversations like this are going on amongst children ages 2 to 18 – often as not, unsupervised. Older children have been suspended from school for posting threats and ridiculing others.

What does it mean to these children that the country is so divided, that adults and the media are making frightening predictions of what’s to come? What does it mean to children of color or different religions? And what does it mean to their friends?

This post is not about politics, it is about the things children hear and say. How do we, as parents and teachers, help them sort it out? How do we help those who are frightened to feel safe?

Here are six strategies for talking to your kids in this heightened political environment:

1. Start by listening. Before rushing to explain, ask questions, listen to the answers and ask more questions. When your child says “Trump is mean” or “Hillary was bad,” find out what he thinks is meant by the word “mean” or “bad.”

2. Try to uncover misconceptions and provide context. For adults, presidential elections happen every four years. For young children, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Adults understand concepts like voting but often forget to explain it to young children. One 4-year-old understood voting to mean, “Whoever has the most signs.”

In general, children are exposed to much more than they are ready to understand. They hear adults talking, they perceive how we feel and they catch bits of information on the news that seem unfamiliar and strange.

If an adult doesn’t step in gently to help them make sense of it, they’ll try to make sense of it on their own, based on their limited experience in the world.

3. Understand a child’s concerns in the context of her world rather than yours. Younger children worry most about their parents’ well being. It’s scary to see a parent very upset or very angry. Ask if she noticed you were upset and if it scared her. Then reassure her that even though you had big feelings, you are OK and nothing bad is going to happen.

Older children may worry about the things that will happen to themselves or children they know if the laws change or if people are fighting. Will the family have enough money? Will a good friend be sent away? Most often, these worries can be assuaged by realistic responses. When they can’t, children need to know that they shouldn’t have to worry about it – the grown ups will be taking care of what happens and how the problems are solved.

Adolescents need to be able to talk with adults about their various questions and ideas about world affairs without it becoming a debate or argument. Just a few reality oriented comments and factual questions here and there are often sufficient to help ground them as they move forward in their thinking. They may project anxiety about themselves and worries about being out of control by criticizing everything in government and how adults are handling things – and this is healthy. What isn’t helpful is when they’re left to work out these things alone or among themselves without the grounding of safe, caring and respectful adults. That’s when talk can escalate and adolescents begin to act out.

4. Be judicious with punishment and discipline. Children who post threats, talk meanly to peers or engage in unsafe behavior are often doing so in order to ward off their own sense of vulnerability in the face of the unknown. The first priority is to stop the behavior before it creates harm to them or anyone else. After that, help them give voice to their fears in a situation where they feel safe, perhaps at the family dinner table, or in quiet conversation one-on-one. Then, after showing compassion and acknowledging their own concerns, determine what consequences are appropriate for their behavior – with a sincere apology to anyone they’ve mistreated often being the most important thing they can do.

5. Reduce media exposure. Shelter children from the media as much as possible. When they are exposed, help them understand that everything people say on TV is not necessarily true, and that watching people yell at each other or do mean things doesn’t help anyone figure out how to solve problems.

Barbara Streeter, School Director

Barbara Streeter, School Director

6. Be prepared to discuss it again. Don’t assume all is resolved after discussing a worry. Children are constantly re-thinking everything you say and do, everything they see and hear. Stay alert for signs that they’re ready for the next dialogue.

Dealing with stranger anxiety

Parenting has always been stressful, but now more than ever it seems. So my heart goes out to moms and dads who struggle with the issue of how to keep their children safe without instilling undue fear – fear that can lead a child to heightened levels of stranger anxiety.

Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development that occurs in most children around the age of 6 or 7 months, and it may last until the child’s first birthday or so.

At this stage, children are very attached to their primary providers, and they may experience considerable distress when in the company of people with whom they are unfamiliar. Often, they show this distress by hiding behind their parents, quietly peeking at the stranger and loudly protesting if he or she makes any overtures.

When this kind of behavior is seen in older children, I often wonder about angry feelings they may be experiencing. Are those aggressive feelings being projected outward and making the world seem like a very unsafe place?

This is typical of what you find in children who are terrified of the boogey man, burglars, ghosts, etc. As one savvy boy put it, “I think that’s just my mad feelings coming back to get me.”

So, what do you do?

First and foremost, keep your cool. Children are masters at picking up on their parents’ anxiety.

Very matter-of-factly reinforce the importance of not talking to strangers. But then, prepare the child in advance for situations where contact with strangers will be unavoidable – like at the airport, as an example.

You can say things like: “Mommy and daddy will be with you and keep you safe.” Or if a school field trip is planned, you might offer: “When you go to the museum, there will be strangers, but you’ll be with your teacher. And the school staff will keep you safe.”

Also, remind your child about police officers, whose job is to keep us safe.

If you suspect your child is projecting his/her own anger, encourage the use of words for feelings. “You seem angry; I wish you could tell me about it.” If your child seems scared of strangers to the point of panic, seek professional help.

More Parenting Tips available at www.westpsychotherapy.com.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

A simple test to know if a child is ready for Halloween frights

Halloween is right around the corner and houses are decked out with witches, spiders, graves and bats.

Some adults seem to be involved in a strange competition to see who can create the most ghoulish, terrifying images and haunted basements, etc. All of this scariness is appropriate for older, school-age children and teenagers. But it can be very confusing and downright frightening for preschoolers and young children who don’t have good reality testing.

How do we know they don’t have good reality testing?  Because they believe in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. Older children with better reality testing will tell you there’s no way Santa can go all over the world in one night and he’s too fat to come down a chimney. But younger children believe he can.

I vividly recall a terrified, 6-year-old coming to her therapy session with tears in her eyes. She just saw a coffin open up in someone’s front yard and a “dead person” popped out. She then proceeded to make scary noises and jump out of the dark at me, so I would know firsthand how frightened she was. Then she asked me if dead people “get out of their graves” at Halloween.

I hope you will keep these thoughts in mind as you decorate and celebrate Halloween. If your school-age children are going to be around little ones, don’t permit them to wear frightening costumes. If you have younger children, serve as a protective barrier from scary Halloween sights, sounds and activities. Keep Halloween fun, as it was meant to be.

Photo courtesy of Victor Habbick/Freedigitalphotos.net

A sense of what matters at Hanna Perkins School

An all-hands staff meeting at the beginning of the school year offered a good opportunity for Barbara Streeter, director of Hanna Perkins School, to remind everyone of the care given to the thoughts of preschool and kindergarten students.

She asked people to be conscious of magazines that are left in waiting areas throughout the building – removing any that contain scary images or content that isn’t appropriate for young children.

“It’s always important, but particularly so in the beginning of the year,” Streeter said. “They are working so hard at being independent human beings without their parents being here; they need a predictable, safe, comfortable and controlled environment.

“They notice everything and they hear everything,” she continued, “So please be aware of the conversations you have with other adults if there are children around.”

While the same courtesies could apply at any school, Hanna Perkins’ focus on the ability to discuss feelings provides frequent reminders how young children struggle with the unfamiliar and unknown.

Their effort to make sense of adult conversations or new sights is confined to their own, limited experience of the world, and it can lead to wildly inaccurate – perhaps troubling – interpretations. This is what development professionals are referring to when they talk about magical thinking in young children.

Too close to home: Young children may overlook the fire-fighting action, focusing instead on flames in bedroom windows. Photo of drawing from “My Fire Engine” by Michael Rex.

As Exhibit A, Streeter held up a picture book about fire trucks – seemingly appropriate for preschoolers. Who, after all, isn’t fascinated by fire trucks and the heroes who drive them?

But it is no longer part of the classroom environment at Hanna Perkins because more than one child has focused on the pictures of flames shooting from windows of a house that – to a 5-year-old – may be a very good rendering of their house.

Exhibit B was another book, Storm is Coming, by Heather Tekavec and Margaret Spengler, which Streeter skimmed through at the meeting.

It’s about a farmer who observes, out loud, “Storm is coming.” The animals – like young children – misunderstand his meaning. They think Storm is a person – and a scary person at that, based on the concerned tone of the farmer’s voice. As they wait fearfully in their cozy barn for Storm to arrive, the animals welcome the darkening sky, then the rain, wind, thunder and lightning – hopeful that each of these phenomena will scare Storm away.

It’s a book that Streeter predicts children will enjoy because they will get the joke early, and they’ll relate to the situation of misunderstanding information that comes to them from the world of adults.

A book children will appreciate; it understands their misunderstandings.

The school occupies only a portion of Hanna Perkins’ facility, so Streeter also reminded staff members who are not involved in the school’s day-to-day activities that hallways and facilities in that part of the building are off-limits during school hours.

In explaining this, she cited the practice of one noted Northeast Ohio pediatrician to put a smock on all babies during well-baby visits.

If parents wonder why it’s necessary, Streeter said, the doctor’s response is something to this point: “When is a baby too young to deserve privacy and respect with regard to her body? When is it too soon to convey to a child that her body is precious, valued, belonging to her, and deserving of protection?” 

“We feel the same way here,” Streeter said. “When are children so young that they shouldn’t get the same respect that adults get? Walking into their classroom or onto their playground space is no different than when someone walks into your office.”

Finally, Streeter reminded the group that the facility doesn’t decorate for, or celebrate, Halloween.

Older children have learned to understand the concept of scary fun – though some don’t enjoy it as much as others.

But children in preschool and kindergarten are still learning the difference between real and pretend. “At this age, scary fun isn’t fun; it’s just scary.”

That doesn’t mean Halloween is ignored completely at Hanna Perkins. “We talk about it in class,” Streeter said. “The children may want to share their feelings. There are usually a lot of questions.”

 

Dealing with bullying – from both sides

Bullying, a topic of concern to parents nationwide, is really a 2-year-old trouble. Toddlers can be very mean—biting, hitting and snatching things from others. This is why it is important for parents to be firm with toddlers.

“No. That’s mean and mommy (or daddy) want you to be a kind boy.” This message has to be repeated over and over again through the years whenever you see your child engaging in hurting behavior. Parents must be watchful and immediately intervene.

If your child is engaged in a group activity with peers and gets aggressive, he/she needs to be temporarily excluded. “You can join us again when you’ve settled down, but there’s not going to be any meanness. Kickball is meant to be fun.”

In my many years of work with bullies, I have never met one who did not eventually describe an incident of bullying directed at him or her.

Sometimes they were bullied by a parent, sometimes not. But all reported someone glaring at or making ridiculing/threatening comments to them. And this very behavior was passed along to a younger or somehow more vulnerable peer.

Here it is important to remember that a bully is looking for a particular response — a child who will be intimidated just as he or she was. But bullies need to talk about the incident that scared them and made them feel unsafe rather than doing to others what was done to them.  And they also need to apologize for their mean behavior and realize that adults will be watching them to assure it doesn’t happen again.

Bullies get great excitement out of intimidating. So children need to take the excitement out of it by acting bored in response to their meanness.

Then the bully will move on to another who will fall into their trap. But this is a tall order for children.

So, if your child has been the victim of bullying, it is important to devise a protection plan. Don’t be too quick to jump in there and offer suggestions. Let your child take the lead.  “It’s important to keep you safe. How can we do that?” In this way, you are helping your child be active (rather than passive) on his or her own behalf.

This protection plan may well include school personnel. For example, your child may need to tell the teacher if someone is mean to him/her, or stay close to staff on the playground.

Every now and then I run across a child who will not abide by the protection plan and seems to invite bullying from multiple sources.  In this situation, the child is part of the problem and needs professional help. Likewise, if a bully continues his or her mean streak—get counseling.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

7 things you can do right now if you’re suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety

mother-and-baby-1453666-1279x856_douglas john_freeimagesIf you suspect you may have more than the baby blues – any feelings of anxiety or depression that you aren’t sure you can easily handle yourself – the first step is asking for help. Don’t hesitate. Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMAD), as the general category of afflictions is now called, is a real medical condition. It’s not your fault, it’s not your imagination and it can be treated effectively.

But it can take a few days to get in to see your doctor or a mental health professional. In the meantime, here are 7 things you can do right now to help yourself:

  1. Get as much sleep as possible: Sleep can be hard to come by with a new baby. Nap when the baby naps, and let your partner know you need some support to take a break. If you’re a single mom, reach out to any family or friends for respite.
  2. Join a support group online: This will quickly connect you with people who are dealing with similar emotions. It’s not a substitute for the personal, professional help you may need, but it will validate that what you’re feeling is real, and will help you to feel less alone. Here’s one resource.
  3. Exercise: Take a walk or find exercise videos online that you can do at home.
  4. Relax: Do some simple meditation or breathing exercises, or try yoga. Many websites have instructions on how to begin meditating or doing yoga.
  5. Take time for yourself: Spend whatever time you can doing something you enjoy. Taking part in activities that make you happy will help you recharge.
  6. Spend time with other adults: Contact and conversations with adult friends and relatives, even for only a short period of time, are vital.
  7. Eat a healthy diet: Shortly after giving birth, many women become deficient in several essential nutrients. Make sure you’re eating several balanced meals a day, filled with proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.
    Kimberly Bell, Ph.D. Hadden Clinic at Hanna Perkins Center
    Kimberly Bell, Ph.D.
    Hadden Clinic at Hanna Perkins Center

If you feel your symptoms need immediate attention, don’t hesitate to go to your local emergency room or call 911.

Image courtesy of Douglas John/freeimages.com

10 postpartum symptoms new moms should know

in-blue-1251227_Marinela Prodan_freeimagesOf all medical complications associated with pregnancy and childbirth, postpartum mental health difficulties are the most common.

Up to 80% of new mothers experience symptoms usually referred to as the baby blues. But as many as 1-in-5 new mothers suffer more severe symptoms that should be evaluated and possibly treated as postpartum anxiety or depression.

With May being designated National Maternal Depression Awareness Month, here are 10 symptoms new mothers should take seriously:

Symptoms linked with anxiety disorders:

  1. Concern about being alone with your child due to scary thoughts or fears of things in your house that could cause harm.
  2. Racing thoughts that refuse to let you settle down, and which create a strong urge to keep moving.
  3. Physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches and shakiness.
  4. A sense of dread, as if something terrible is going to happen.
  5. Fear of reaching out for help because your child may be taken from you.

Symptoms linked with depression:

  1. Changes in sleep or eating patterns (i.e. sleeping or eating more or less than normal).
  2. Thoughts of hurting yourself or your child.
  3. Feelings of emptiness and a lack of interest in activities that you typically enjoy.
  4. Feeling angry, irritated or resentful toward your child and/or partner.
  5. Not feeling bonded to your child, or feeling guilty about the feelings you have toward your child.

If you or someone you know exhibits any of these symptoms, please ask for help. Talk to your OB-GYN, your pediatrician or call an outpatient mental health clinic in your area.

If you don’t feel satisfied with the answers you are getting, don’t stop asking. You can visit Postpartum Support International (PSI) for an online directory of resources in your area, or call PSI at (800) 944-4773 to get a local referral.

If you’re in the Cleveland area, Hanna Perkins Center (216-991-4472) is equipped to help with consultation, therapy, support groups and knowledgeable referrals as needed.

Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMAD) is the medical classification for a variety or specific medical conditions, including postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. These are temporary when treated. So don’t be afraid to get the help you need; you are not alone.

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

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

For more information check out these respources:

Intern Lillia Borodkin assisted in research and writing this post.

Image courtesy of Marinela Prodan/Freeimages.com

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

happy_david garzon photo_freeimages.com

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

The forgetful child and feeling forgotten

As a child psychoanalyst, I provide consultation services to tutors who work with children who have learning troubles.  My job is to help them understand that behavior is a meaningful communication. Children can’t always tell you how they’re feeling; they let their behavior do the talking.

Recently a tutor reported that a boy showed up for class without his school supplies. So, the tutor gave him a pencil and paper only to learn that he “forgot them somewhere” by second period. This “forgetting” happened over and over again.

So, what was the boy really saying to his tutor? Was he feeling forgotten?

Sometimes children believe their parents get so busy during the day with work or, worse yet, taking care of younger siblings, that they forget all about them. Of course, as is true of all behavior problems, this is just one possibility. However, it’s worth exploring.

You can do it by saying something like this:

“You seem to be forgetting a lot lately. I wonder if you ever feel forgotten. Maybe you think I get so busy while you’re at school that I don’t think about you.”

Then see what he/she says. If this is the issue, encourage your child to elaborate as much as he/she can and then acknowledge, “What a sad thought that you’re feeling forgotten.  So, how can I help you know that I keep you in mind?”

This could be something simple like putting a note in your child’s lunch: “I just wanted you to know I will be thinking about you. Love, Mom.” Or maybe you could put a picture of you and your child in his backpack with a note that says, “When you get home tonight, I’ll be so glad to hear about your school day.” Often these little reminders can be quite helpful to children who worry about being forgotten.

Image courtesy of ImageryMajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net