Children only learn responsibility from being given responsibility. Most kids are capable of taking on much more than we give them. When problems arise it is usually because the parent loses confidence, not because the child is incapable. So, if your child isn’t doing their chores, don’t give up. Try something new.
Nagging is a popular but unpleasant form of leadership. It also, you may have noticed, doesn’t work very well. So, when you find yourself giving your children the same instruction over and over again (notice I didn’t say “if?” We ALL find ourselves nagging occasionally!), stop. Remove yourself from the situation. Breathe. And come up with a stronger plan, one that gives your children real responsibility and takes you out of the role of the “Old Grey Nag.”
The first step when giving children a responsibility is to also give them the training and tools they’ll need to complete the job. This can be as simple as moving all of the dishes and silverware to a low cupboard if your four-year-old will be setting the table or as complex as giving your teen a crash course in safety rules before allowing them to babysit their younger siblings.
The second step is to set up a deadline and some logical consequences if the job doesn’t get done. I like deadlines that create a consequence. For the setting the table job, for instance, we can’t eat until we have plates, knives, and forks. So, there will be no dinner and an angry family if our four-year-old doesn’t get that job done. I recently spoke with a mom who was having trouble getting her second-grader to school because she took so long deciding which shoes she was going to wear. This one was simple: if she wasn’t in the car by 7:45, mom got to pick the shoes.
The third step is to really give your child the job. This means no reminders and no second chances. NO nagging! It also sometimes means you have to let go of the way you would do it and allow your child some creativity. Our table-setter might sometimes choose to use the fine china or the green placemats instead of the blue ones. It’s okay. In fact, they should get some kudos for truly making the job their own, as long as they’ve adhered to the basic requirements.
The fourth step is to calmly apply the consequences. Chores are hard, and almost all kids will test to see if they REALLY have to do them. They do. If they don’t, you need to be prepared to apply those consequences every single time in a boring way. No lecture, no arguments, just action. If, on the other hand, they do well at their job, a small amount of encouragement is in order. This is not a party. This is a statement like, “I noticed you got the table set early tonight.” Or, “This table looks lovely. Thank you.” Or, “We’re on time to school again.”
Phew! Think of all that work that’s going to get done, now! :)
As a therapist for children I often see the very real and negative result of too much homework, especially in elementary school. It’s true that many young children, especially little girls, can handle sitting and concentrating for several hours every day. Many cannot. Excessive homework has become a problem for many families. Children are learning to HATE learning. Parents, too!
Homework is not going away. So, we need to figure out how families can help their active young ones (who really do NEED to play) to sit down, suck it up, and get it done. Here are a few suggestions:
For children who have a hard time sitting still, the school day is hard work. Many don’t eat well at school, because they want to take advantage of every second of active playtime. The restrooms are often pretty gross at school, and the water fountains are often clogged. So, immediately after school most kids need to go to the bathroom, and eat and drink, pretty quickly. Then, they need to let go of the stress of the day. For some kids, this means engaging in some active, running around, climbing things kind of play. For others, it means a nap or quiet time reading or playing. Making sure that all of these needs (hunger, thirst, bathroom, stress) are met before beginning the homework can make a huge difference.
When it’s time to sit down to do the work, young children need help with the organizational details first. Empty the backpack, make a pile of work to be done, consult the online system or school agenda to see what has to be done today, make a list, sharpen that pencil. For children who have great difficulty with concentrating, you can set up the rules for breaks including when they’ll happen and how long they’ll last. At the end of homework time, help them to check each page and put them in the “Homework to Return” folder. When you can set up this routine very early and very consistently, they will be able to continue it without you as they grow. If you’re not home with your kids after school, make sure their daycare is doing this with them. For many kids, it’s not the homework itself that’s the problem; it’s the organizational piece.
Parents often complain to me that there is not enough time after school to get children’s needs met and the homework done. If they are in afterschool activities such as music lessons, dance, and sports, those might have to be eliminated in order to find the time. Video games, of course, should never be any part of a young child’s day. Nope, not even as a reward for getting homework done. The only reward for getting homework done is that satisfied feeling you get when repacking that backpack. Well, and it is very rewarding to know that the work is done so now the play can begin!
Yes, we are all human. We do get angry at our kids. Our kids are, in fact, the people in the world most likely to make us angry. I know, though, because I’m a mom, that those angry moments are not our proudest ones. And, because I’m a therapist, I also know that with effort and persistence we can get to the point where we’re calmer, and more effective in our parenting.
Think of your brain as having several parts. The front of your brain, just behind your eyes, is the home of the Sage part of you, the part that, when consulted, has incredible insight and wisdom. Unfortunately, we only have access to our Sage when we are very calm, when conditions are a deep blue.
In our left brains, we have the Schoolmarm. She’s very logical and can work through what the results of our future actions might be. She’s awfully slow, but, when conditions are green to yellow, she can weight the pros and cons and come up with new, good solutions. Over there in our right brains is the Hero. He’s fast. And he only shows up when conditions are red, when it’s an emergency. The trouble with the Hero is that although he is the strongest character in our brains, he’s also the most intellectually-challenged. He’s not capable of any new solutions, let alone any wise ones.
When we’re angry, the Hero emerges and takes over, repeating our oldest patterns of dealing with situations that make us feel this way. So, we yell, we shame our children, sometimes we accompany the yelling with a smack or serious punishment. Later, when our bodies calm down, the Schoolmarm and the Wise Sage show up to tell us what we should have done and how we’ve damaged our relationships with our children. But it’s too late.
How do we break this cycle? The best thing we can do to handle our own anger is to work daily on reducing our level of stress. This is because, really, the fact that your three year old just talked back to you is not an emergency. Your body just thinks it is because of all of the stress that had been building up before that happened. Daily exercise, meditation, and laughter are the best stress reducers. Getting support from a trusted friend or counselor works well, too.
Another excellent technique is to allow the Schoolmarm to think through, predict, and solve problems while everyone is calm. If you know what to do when your child talks back, then your brain is not going to send out the Hero. You’ve got it covered. We can’t predict everything, of course. We can, however, spend some quiet time with our Sage, thinking about the situations with our kids that make us the most angry, and perhaps uncovering the situations with others in our past have influenced our reactions in the present. We can read parenting books, go to classes, talk with friend about what they’re doing. All of these things make parenting less of an emergency and more of a job, at which we can be calm and effective leaders.
A wide body of research over the last twenty years has led to the conclusion that maternal depression has a significant negative effect on child behavior from preschool onward. This is…depressing, especially considering that depressive symptoms are very common in young mothers. Motherhood, it seems, is in itself a precursor for depression, especially for women with hormonal, genetic, or experiential risk factors. In my experience as a parenting coach and psychotherapist, even when the mother’s depression is mild a negative feedback loop often occurs, with mom’s negativity being reinforced by her child’s attention-seeking behavior.
There are some lights at the end of this tunnel. It seems that we can trace maladaptive behaviors of the child back to specific behaviors by the mother, and that much can be gained by teaching mothers to behave differently. A lovely study by Emily Leckman-Westin, et al* concluded that the effects of even severe maternal depression can be mitigated by learned behaviors such as demonstrating affection, responsiveness to the child’s emotional state, emotional teaching, and positive discipline. The study stressed early intervention, but was quite hopeful. When we can help mom with her depression AND teach her how to relate to her child more positively we can prevent a lifetime of social and emotional problems.
What I have seen in my practice is that we can work on these issues at any age. The catch is: how do we get these mother/child dyads into treatment? The first step is to recognize the symptoms. One thing I watch for is facial expressions. Mothers who are depressed tend to have still faces, with few micro-expressions. In addition, depressed moms tend to notice the negative about their kids, and to report more behavior problems than independent observers can see. They may express anger at their child, with attributions of intentionality on the part of the child which are developmentally inappropriate.
Once identified, the next challenge is to make an effective referral. One hallmark of depression is the reduced ability to make decisions and take action. So, observing that the child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate, or “normalizing,” may actually be counter-productive. In my experience, depressed mothers don’t believe well-meaning caregivers when they tell them that all is well, but positive messages do have the effect of giving them a reason not to act or get help. A more effective approach might be to respond with empathy to parental complaints, to take them seriously, to suggest that getting help as early as possible will lead to the best outcomes, and to give the mother a strong message that her worry about her child should be addressed, whether or not her child’s behavior is “serious.” Despite the “bad news” of the negative effects of maternal depression, early treatment can mean a healthy outcome for both mother and child.
*Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Sep2009, Vol. 50, Issue 9, p1176-84
I recently attended a lecture at Stanford on the benefits of short-term stress. It turns out that getting into “fight or flight” is actually good for you! There’s a caveat, though. To qualify as short-term, if “fight or flight” is a ten on the arousal scale, you have to get all the way back to zero, complete calm, within about three hours. That’s a challenge!
We think of childhood as an idyllic time, but actually, these days’ kids are often more stressed than their parents. They rush from one activity to the next, nose to their screens, or doing endless homework, with no time for rest or reflection. What can parents do to help kids to get all the way back to zero in their hectic lives?
Parents, of course, need help with the stress of their busy lives as well. Here’s the good news: laughing and playing with children is a sure way to bring your arousal level down to zero. Now there’s a win-win! :)
So, I totally get why parents let their kids play computer games. They are a great reward and a great babysitter. If kids don’t play games, they’ll have nothing to talk about with their friends. The adults in most households play games from time to time, and they do no harm. And, games teach kids to be computer-savvy, right?
Then there is this added factor: kids love computer games. That’s all they want for their birthday. Unfortunately, as with many aspects of the parenting job, saying yes can create more problems than it solves.
Billions of dollars have been spent developing computer games that are addictive. Some games are more addictive than others. Online interactive games that require small amounts of money occasionally to enhance the game are the most dangerous. Would you take your child to Las Vegas and plop them in front of the slot machines? If you did, and they were winning, would you expect them to willingly leave the casino to…do the dishes?
Now, it’s true that many kids can play games occasionally and not get hooked. Here’s a test to see if your kid is addiction-free: tell them it’s time to turn the game off. No tantrum? Great. Go for a long car ride with no screens, or wait at the doctor’s office for a half hour and don’t give them your phone or iPad. No whining that they’re bored? My guess is that you allow less than a half hour per week of screen time, and so your children know how to amuse themselves without a screen. Nicely done.
You can try just limiting gaming, but I have to tell you that the parents who have the most success are the ones who don’t allow any video games at all. As many an alcoholic will tell you, abstinence is easier than the superhuman task of stopping once you start.
You are bucking the culture if you do this, but it’s actually not that hard. Just say no. Don’t buy the games. Don’t buy the screens. Don’t allow other people’s screens in your house. Stay off of the screens yourself. Play games with your children that don’t include screens and do require imagination.
It’s never too late to get rid of all the games at your house. Yes, your children will protest. They will scream and cry and tell you how terribly unfair you are. Games are designed to flood the dopamine pleasure circuits in the brain. When your kids tell you that nothing else is any fun, they will be telling you the truth. In fact, it will take several weeks for their brains to re-adjust so that they can feel pleasure from normal, simple, everyday activities and play. Hold firm. The non-addicts among a hooked generation will be the leaders of tomorrow.
Okay, now, shall I tell you how I really feel about computer games? :)
At a recent conference, I was pleased to hear the results of a survey by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists which dealt with perceptions of psychotherapy in the general population. It turns out that the current generation of young adults has very little social disapproval of therapy or the people who seek it out.
As a psychotherapist, of course, I feel this is as it should be. The people I see for therapy aren’t “crazy” or “weak,” they’re just like my neighbors and friends and co-workers: ordinary, often delightful, people who need a bit of help to navigate their relationship or emotional issues right now.
One of the speakers at the conference gave us her spin on why college counseling centers are currently over-flowing. I disagreed. As the parent of three Gen-Yers, I had my own theory for why today’s young adults don’t see a stigma in psychotherapy: Star Trek. Not the original Star Trek which my parents wouldn’t let me watch in the early 60’s (because it was too violent!), but the later version my kids watched, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The main character of this futuristic romp is Captain Picard, a highly competent and charismatic man who leads the Starship Enterprise on its mission to explore the galaxy. Captain Picard is so smart and so wise that he realizes he cannot solve all of the problems his ship encounters all by himself. He has a highly diverse team around him he can trust. And this team includes the lovely Counselor Deanna Troi.
Deanna is an alien with a large bust and liquid brown eyes who has the special gift of empathy. Captain Picard relies on her to help him with “people problems” among his staff, and in the aliens they encounter, and with his own emotional challenges. She is as valuable to Picard as his robot science officer, but for vastly different reasons.
The Next Generation team showed young viewers a vision of how leadership looks in the future, their future, and they are making it come true. No one is an expert in everything. The leadership of the future will be teams of experts. And knowledge of the human heart, of how our emotional brains can cause us to make poor decisions or mistakes in how we deal with other people, is going to be a valuable component in the leadership mix.
So, of course the Gen-Yers want a counselor on their team. Add a tech wizard and a sales guy and you’re off to conquer the galaxy!
One of my clients was traumatized by a bullying incident at school. He’s been playing out a typical scenario for kids with this experience: pretend games where he is the one who humiliates his therapist. I’ve been struck with what a negative cycle shaming creates. Feeling ashamed is so unbearable, we feel we have to get rid of it any way we can, and one way to do that is to be the “shamer” instead of the “shamee.” Fortunately, this child is in therapy, and he’s not playing this game in real life. Many do. I imagine the playground bully who humiliated my client was struggling to offload his own shame, creating more bullies in his wake.
Children, of course, are not the only carriers of the shame virus. Teachers can also be a part of the cycle. Recently, I’ve visited an elementary school where shaming was officially sanctioned and practiced in every classroom as a method of discipline. This was horrifying to me, but the teachers were proud of what they were doing. It’s true that you can effectively cow people into submission with shaming, thereby creating a truly silent classroom. But, at what price?
Guilt and shame are both unpleasant emotions which arise when we have made a social error. They are quite different, though, in their effects. Shame is the powerful feeling that our actions mean that we are dirty and bad. Guilt, on the other hand, is about what we’ve done, not who we are. We can handle guilt by making amends. There’s nothing we can do about being a horrible awful person, though… except perhaps to continue to act horribly, since apparently that’s our nature. Or, to pretend we didn’t do it, and blame others. Or, shame other people, convincing ourselves that at least we’re not as bad as they are.
Part of the solution, whichever side of the shaming cycle one is on at the moment, is to have some compassion. A child (or adult) who cannot take responsibility for his behavior may actually be taking too much responsibility in his heart of hearts and unable to stand the pain of the shame he’s feeling. I often tell parents to treat childish misbehavior as mistakes, easily rectified, not as indications of their characters. Let go of insisting that kids take responsibility verbally. Instead, try to move the child into guilt. Give them a chance to make amends. Atonement leads to a self-definition of being a kind of hero, the polar opposite of shame.
So, how do I work with kids who have been traumatized by humiliation? Sometimes, I’ll say, in my pretend voice in the context of play, “You just threw some poop at me! Too bad! I can just wash it off.” Sometimes, I’ll get into deep philosophical discussions with 8-year-olds about old movies. Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, a nice kid who wanted to save the world. People aren’t either good or bad. We’re all human. We’re all doing our best. And, sometimes, we all make mistakes. When we learn from our mistakes and try to be consistently kind to others, even when it’s hard, then we have nothing to be ashamed of.
One helpful way to look at stress is to think of it as a buildup in your body of the chemicals your brain puts out every time you have to make a decision or have any kind of emotion (but especially the negative ones like fear, anger, jealousy, sadness). Even answering a text puts out a little jolt of these “stress hormones.” Problems arise when the level of these chemicals in your body reach high levels. So, most strategies for managing stress are all about lowering the level of stress hormones in your body. Here are a few:
1. Exercise. Stress hormones build up in your muscles, and exercise lets them go. To keep your general stress level low, exercise in a repetitive way (like jogging, hiking, or swimming) at the same time every day. If you just need to be able to relax so you can focus on your homework, a little bit of exercise can do the trick. Jog around the block with the dog, shoot baskets in the driveway, or walk up and down the stairs 5 or 6 times before you sit down with the books. A small amount of exercise is good for insomnia, too. Try 10 windmills, 10 sit-ups, 10 leg-raises and then lay down to sleep. Don’t do too much, though! Exercise can also wake you up.
2. Relax. Meditation is an amazing antidote for stress. I recommend the yoga breath meditation you can learn from the Art of Living Foundation (www.artofliving.org). They have classes specifically for teens and young adults. To deeply relax, you can also take a hot bath, or sit in nature and just listen to the birds. For lowering your stress in general, finding some way to deeply relax for about 20 minutes at the same time every day works best. To increase your focus, or calm anxiety on a stressful day, try sitting in a quiet place and bringing your attention to your breath. You don’t have to change your breathing, just notice it as it goes in and out for a few minutes.
Many teens use video games, texting or other “screen time” to relax…unfortunately, these activities actually add to the level of stress hormones in your body. Sorry! Music can be helpful, but not if you’re trying to do two things at once. So, lay down and listen to quiet music, then turn it off before you try to focus on something else.
3. Laugh. A big belly laugh is one of the best things you can do for stress. Laughter makes your immune system more efficient, lights up your whole brain, helps you to learn more, even improves your heart and lungs. So, if you can’t help going to your computer before you hit the books, make your last stop U-Tube for some funny videos.
One of the cool things that all of the mind-body research has shown is that having a sense of humor is an essential life skill for both reducing stress and making friends. So, if you’re worried about something, or something bad has happened to you, try to take a step back and see if you can tell a funny story about it.
4. Stay in gratitude. Gratitude is the positive emotion which can’t live in the same space as anger, grief, or fear. So, if your negative emotions are triggering negative thoughts…which trigger your stress hormone response and make things even worse…try interjecting some gratitude. Think of what you’re really grateful for. Picture it in your mind and try to bring in all of your senses. You’ll find the negative emotion can’t compete. One great exercise to reduce your general stress level is to write down 5 things you’re grateful for every night before you go to sleep. There have been many studies on this, and it turns out that it’s one of the best things you can do for your stress, your relationships, and your life in general!
About a year ago, I added low-temp glue guns and some popsicle sticks to the art supplies in our therapeutic playrooms. These quickly became favorite toys for several of our young clients. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a trend: the children who have experienced a recent trauma, such as a death in the family, divorce, or another radical change, tend to “stick” to the glue.
The masterpieces these kids have created out of toothpicks, tongue depressors, beads, and glue are both beautiful and poignant. We’ve had several children whose parents have recently divorced build houses, including one with eight rooms, a toilet with “water” in it and a big screen TV. Others build more simple boxes to live in, lined with cotton balls. Some of our children who were traumatized very early in life just spend huge amounts of time gluing one stick to another stick to another stick…and then they put their creation in a box and wrap it with paper and yards of scotch tape.
As infants we start with blank slates. Every construct we have about the way the world works has to be created, one toothpick at a time. When we’re six or seven, the little house we’ve built in our mind of all of our understanding is still pretty fragile. Some of the beams in the house, and its basic foundation, are pretty secure: the fundamental beliefs that parents always are there for you, that families live together, that most unfamiliar adults are kind. If something happens to those cornerstone beliefs, though, if it turns out your family is NOT going to live together after next week, or that some adults hurt you really badly, the whole house can come crashing down.
The houses and caves and beds that children glue together as they are recovering from trauma show us the work of their inner minds. Their fragile constructs have fallen apart. It’s very comforting to glue things together, and to see, physically, that they are capable of re-building…one stick at a time.
I advise parents of children who have been traumatized to be aware of this phenomenon. They can help by providing a very boring, regular, and predictable schedule…framing for a whole wall…that includes time for dreaming, play, and glue. If people have disappeared from a child’s life, making sure that the ones still here are consistently available can also be very reassuring. Many children need to carry what we call a “transitional object,” a lovey, or blanket, around with them all the time, so they can look at it or touch it and know that, yep, some things stay the same. This is a support beam! We must keep in mind that talking about what has happened is good, but not the most important thing. What’s needed to rebuild from trauma is time, a compassionate companion, and lots and lots of repetition.
We’re thinking of starting a gallery of Popsicle stick art. Hmmm…I don’t think we have enough shelves.