Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cranky Child? Developmental Spurt Could be to Blame

Have you ever experienced a period of time with your child where he/she was particularly cranky, moody, prone to tantrums, etc.? As parents, we have probably all had these times. In fact, I have been dealing with this with my 2.5 year old son lately. He's typically kind of strong-willed anyway, but lately it seems that every little thing has sent him into a tantrum. I have been struggling with this and I figured it was just a phase, but then it just struck me this morning--growth spurt!

Although he is my second child (you'd think I'd learn by now), I had totally forgotten how periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium often send we parents on a developmental roller coaster with our children. There is actually quite a bit of writing about this very topic; most of which was done by psychologist Arnold Gesell. As early as the 1920s he began studying children's development over many years. What he and his colleagues found is that children's development tends to happen in cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium that repeat themselves multiple times during childhood. This graphic explains it well. Notice, that in the first five years of life, the periods of disequilibrium happen roughly every 6 months. Wow, that is a lot change for little people in a short period of time. It can be difficult for them, and honestly difficult for parents too.

Although it can be difficult to deal with a cranky toddler, I think just knowing that these periods of distress are bound to come and go is helpful. It is also helpful to know that there is a reason for these changes in mood and behavior. As parents I think we often tend to blame ourselves, or our parenting strategies for our children's mood and behavior. While of course our parenting skills do have an influence on our children, it is also good to remember that development happens at its own course, in its own time, and in its own way, often without much control on our part. The folks from the Gesell Institute describe it this way,

"These rhythmic sequences make sense. They compose the process through which growth is achieved—not by addition, bit by bit, nor by a smooth homogenous enlargement, like an expanding balloon. Growth combines integration and differentiation…[it is] a patterning process involving varied alternatives in varying prominence. The process itself is inconceivably complex, but the underlying principle is readily understandable."

The beautiful thing about this pattern of development is that after the period of disequilibrium, a new skill or task is often clearly evident in our children. In young toddlers, in might be the ability to walk; in older toddlers, it might be a new understanding of pretend play. Only then, after the fact, do you understand what your child was struggling with in his/her development. 

I think we as adults can possibly appreciate this type of development in our lives. Have you ever been struggling to learn a new skill? Perhaps you are learning to play piano or learning a new dance, or even just struggling to understand a new idea introduced in a class. Your brain is frustrated, your think about this new skill all the time, you practice and you just cannot seem to master it. Then, you wake up one day and all of a sudden, you have mastered the task--you can play that new song on the piano or you can comprehend that new idea.

It's a helpful reminder that development, in all its forms, is a messy, beautiful process. Our job is to be a guiding, supportive companion with our child on this journey. 

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Parenting an Anxious Child

My daughter hates having a loose tooth. Her anxiety increases every time she has one. She will not let my wife or I pull her tooth out. She truly hates the feeling. This is because the first time a tooth fell out it was a really uncomfortable experience for her.

So now when she has a loose tooth she begins to withdraw from activities, and stops eating crunchy foods because she doesn’t want to risk the discomfort of her tooth falling out. We have found a solution as a family, while not the most frugal approach, we learned that she trusts the dentist, and when her tooth is loose we take her to the dentist and pay to get it pulled. That way she can resume participating in her life.

While this is my daughters experience with anxiety, it is important to understand that everyone has experienced fear and anxiety at some sort of level. Fear is healthy, it is the body’s response to a threat. It is when the fear response happens when it shouldn’t, or when the response to the fear is not proportional, that it becomes anxiety.

When anxiety hits, the brain goes into its survival mode and responds with fight, flight or freeze instincts. This means that the ability to think, recall, and process information is limited. Some people even “black out” and can’t recall what happened during a highly anxious moment. It typically takes the brain and body 60-90 minutes to calm back down.

In the cases of children, they may not be aware of what is happening, all they know is that they are overwhelmed. The cerebral cortex, the brains captain, is no longer in command when the brain is emotionally flooded, so children need someone to act as their captain during those moments.

However, parenting a child that is anxious can be frustrating and difficult. As the child may be clingy, aggressive, and have sleep difficulties; this may result in school avoidance or withdrawal from activities.

As parents, the best way to help a child with anxiety is to create an environment that establishes and maintains safety. Typically this is done by having a stable and consistent routine, this way a child knows what to expect and what is expected during a day.

It is helpful as a parent to learn if your child benefits from mind to body or body to mind exercises to soothe. An example of mind to body is meditation, mindfulness or visualizations; whereas body to mind is yoga, hot baths or bilateral movements. Each child is different, and each situation may be different with which kind of soothing to do.

It is also important to note, as the Alcoholics Anonymous programs teaches, that being hungry, angry, tired or lonely, makes one vulnerable for relapse, and in this case, makes ones response to fear more likely.

But most of all, love your child, show empathy, and get into your child’s world to understand what increases their anxiety and what helps calm them.

By Josh Lockhart

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Friday, November 13, 2015

The Best Christmas Gifts For Children

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.,

Are you looking for the perfect gift for the children in your life?  Here are some thoughts to guide you in your search.

1.  Something that doesn't make noise.  I'm assuming you want the children to be allowed to play with the gift.  If it annoys the parents, they will hide it and maybe even exact some kind of revenge on you.  I'm currently looking for a cheap set of bagpipes for my brother's daughter because he gets loud toys for my kids on purpose.

2.  Something that doesn't make a mess.  Do you want everyone to hate you?  Then get them Play-Doh, slime, something with a million pieces, etc.  May I suggest a nice stuffed animal?  Think about the carpet in your love ones' home. 

3.  Books.  Believe it or not, lots of kids really like books and don't require expensive video games.  It's easier to choose them when they're younger.  If the child is older, there are lots of great sites for recommendations.  No, don't get them a book that makes noise!  (See #1)

4.  Experiences.  It's great for kids to receive gift cards for movie tickets, visits to science centers, zoos, etc.  They might not have the opportunity often to do such things.  Our family was thrilled when we were given tickets to The Seattle Aquarium.  We combined that with the cash we were given from my in-laws and made a whole day of it.

5.  Underwear.  It makes the kids more grateful for their other gifts.  Socks are also good.

6.  Something homemade.  What child doesn't love a blanket made by Grandma?  An ungrateful one, that's who.  But you should give it to them anyway along with some underwear.

7.  A coupon for a date.  My kids love a promise from Grandma to be taken out shopping, for lunch, etc.  They will remember the time with you more than they remember the things you gave them.

8.  Music.  A gift card for tunes for their MP3 player is great, especially since they have headphones.  (See #1 again) 

9.  Puzzles.  This is an especially good gift if you do them together.  I have stayed up as late as 3am with my son as we watched movies and did a puzzle together.  This was because I had a toddler that would destroy it in the morning if we didn't finish it that night.  Just make sure the number of pieces won't overwhelm them. 

10. Something that encourages them to develop their talents.  A new violin book?  Maybe a catcher's mitt, ballet attire, etc. 

I hope you find the perfect gifts that won't add to the pile of unused and abused toys.  What are you buying your family for Christmas?  What are the worst gifts your children have ever received? 

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Are Our Youth Dying to Get Out?

By Dyan Eybergen
Universities and colleges across Canada and the U.S. have seen incredible increases in the amount of students accessing mental health services. In 2011, Toronto’s Ryerson University’s centre for student development and counselling saw a 200 per cent increase in the demand from students in crisis. A University of Alberta survey the same year polled 1, 600 students and reported that 51 per cent within the last 12 months “felt hopeless.” Over half felt “overwhelming anxiety.” And seven percent stated they’d “seriously considered suicide,” and approximately one per cent made an attempt. Cornell University installed steel mesh nets at the beginning of the 2012 fall term under seven bridges surrounding the campus overlooking the gorges of Ithaca, N.Y.; these were the sites of 3 suicides out of 6 at Cornell back in 2010.

It has never been easy to be young. It has never been easy for youth to move away from their home towns, their families and friends and transition to post-secondary education. The pressures of making new friends, peer pressure, getting good grades, meeting parents’ expectations and living on their own for the first time have always been catalysts for depression. Yet increases in the demand for mental health services and suicide rates tell us something more is going on here. Why are today’s youth dying to get out from under the same pressures past generations found incumbent with going away for school? Two explanations come to mind:
Today’s youth are having difficulty shutting down the world around them. They can’t “unplug” and relax. They are consumed by social media; the constant need to keep in tune and in touch with the revolving world. There is more competition to get into post secondary schools than ever before: Tuition has increased and the acceptance of only the highest grade point averages is making top rated students from pinnacle high schools appear mediocre among the masses. And even with our brightest and best graduating, the job market being as it is in this current economic state, isn’t promising futures for too many. The unemployment rate in Canada this past July for youth between 15 to 29 years of age was nearly 12 per cent. Students feel they have no choice but to keep up and compete and the stress of it all is enormous.
Today’s youth are ill prepared to cope with major life’s ups and downs. Pressure, often coming with the territory of being young, is inevitable and not always removable. There is a tendency of entitlement among our youth today where many (not all) think and feel they should win at everything they put their hand to. As a parenting society, we have some responsibility to take here. As overprotective parents we made sure every kid got a trophy just for showing up. We wouldn’t allow a zero mark for unfinished assignments and we certainly didn’t want any child to feel bad or take ownership for their mistakes. We have rendered a generation unable to cope whenever something doesn’t go their way. So what do they do when they are no longer the smartest at school or they get a bad mark or are having difficulty balancing it all? In a 2011 study of U.S. Universities it was reported that 15 percent of students had cut, burned or injured themselves.
After car accidents, suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 10-24. We have to do something to help the youth of today manage the pressures of competing in a fast paced technologically driven society. We have to help them learn the necessary resilient skills to transition through life’s challenges. We have to care and nurture our children to find ways of helping themselves.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Is There a Link Between Emotional Learning and Attention?

Does your child sometimes seem to "daydream" or seem inattentive when you wish they were paying attention to the task at hand? Even as adults, we sometimes get absorbed in our own thoughts at times and cannot focus on a task we are trying to do. Have you ever considered what is going on when this happens? Well, for adults, it often has to do with a problem or personal situation we are trying to figure out in our heads. New research is showing that for children too, they may be trying to figure out emotional situations when they seem distracted or inattentive.

This new research is based on a fascinating study of kindergarten-aged children in Germany. The researchers assessed the children's "emotional knowledge" over the course of 14 months. Emotional knowledge involves the ability for people to identify other's emotions (often based on facial expressions) and the situations that prompt those emotions. The assessment given to the children also tested their ability to control their own emotional expressions.

In addition to these emotional factors, the researchers also assessed the children's language skills, self-regulation skills, and memory.

What the research shows is that there may be a link between emotional knowledge and kids' ability to pay attention. Kids in the study who showed better emotional knowledge had fewer attention problems, even after other relevant factors (e.g., demographic factors or language ability) were considered.

So what is really going on here? Why is understand emotions helpful for kids' ability to pay attention? The authors believe that the more children understand other's emotions, then other people's emotions and reactions become more predictable. Thus, children know what to expect from other people, how to manage their own reactions and can focus on other things. This not only leads to more positive social interactions, but it frees up their brain to focus on academic subjects. In other words, kids get distracted and seem inattentive when they are using valuable brain space trying to figure out why people are expressing the emotions they are facing and how to manage that.

The researchers believe this work may have implications for understanding ADHD. Developmentalists has long-suspected that the root of ADHD has to do with children's lack of executive function skills. These skills include things like working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. In this study, however, the authors found that emotional knowledge was at least as important or perhaps more important to attention skills than executive function. Yes, that's right--emotional knowledge was that important.

Wow! In the world of child development research this is pretty important stuff. For years we have understood the role that executive function plays in the development of children's attention and overall positive growth. Now we are also seeing the crucial role that emotional knowledge plays. Noted emotional knowledge researcher Daniel Goleman puts it this way,

Most of us have assumed that the kind of academic learning that goes on in school has little or nothing to do with one’s emotions or social environment. Now neuroscience is telling us exactly the opposite. The emotional centers of the brain are intricately interwoven with the neurocortical areas involved in cognitive learning. When a child trying to learn is caught up in a distressing emotion, the centers for learning are temporarily hampered. The child’s attention becomes preoccupied with whatever may be the source of the trouble. Because attention is itself a limited capacity, the child has that much less ability to hear, understand, or remember what a teacher or a book is saying. In short, there is a direct link between emotions and learning.

Ok, now that we know the importance of emotional knowledge, how can we as parents help our children gain these skills? Well, one thing we know from research is that parents who talk to their children more about what other people might be feeling or thinking, helps kids develop emotional knowledge and the ability to understand the perspective of others. So, it's really not that complicated--just talk to your children often about other's feelings. Developmentally, kids will not really be able to understand others' thoughts until they are between 3 and 4 years of age. This is the age when "theory of mind" developments. However, it's never too early to start.

von Salisch, M., Haenel, M., & Denham, S. (2015). Self-Regulation, Language Skills, and Emotion Knowledge in Young Children From Northern Germany Early Education and Development, 26 (5-6), 792-806 DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2015.994465

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

4 Strategies to Fight Homework Struggles

by: Dyan Eybergen
With the creation of routines and the development of healthy work habits, children can get homework done in a timely manner, and with less frustration.

Homework time can often be very stressful for children and their parents. Children can feel overwhelmed due to the amount of homework assigned, they may have a lack of understanding of the instructions, or they may just not want to interrupt their leisure time to get it done. When children do not comply with their parents' requests to complete their homework, it often becomes a source of conflict between them. Working together to create an environment of support can lessen the angst families feel about the homework experience.

1.  Establish a Working Relationship with your Child's Teacher

Parents should make every effort to connect with their child’s teacher and coordinate ways in which to communicate with each other regarding the child's performance at school. When a parent is aware of their child's class curriculum they are in a better position to help their child. Parents who support the teacher's efforts in the classroom at home ensure continuity in the child's learning. If a child struggles with a homework assignment, the parents can lend understanding to the problem because they will already be familiar with the assignment's objective.
When there is dialogue between a parent and a teacher, students who are having difficulty or have missed homework assignments are more readily identified than if a parent and a child's teacher have no contact. Keeping in touch on a regular basis with a child's teacher will help impede a learning problem should one develop. The parent and teacher can agree on ways to best assist the child.

2. Create a Homework Routine

Parents and children should work together to devise ways to create an atmosphere that is conducive to getting homework done. Start by asking a child where they are most comfortable working; if he prefers silence or background noise (radio, classical CD, hum of the dishwasher); if he wants a parent nearby or want to be left alone with intermittent checks. Such questions can facilitate an area where the child is able to focus and not be distracted. Working areas can be reassessed as often and as necessary as need be if they do not meet the child's needs. Younger children require less autonomy and as they get older, more and more responsibility for their homework can be shifted to them.
Parents and children should also decide on a specific time each day when homework is to be done. When the time of day is consistent, children will expect that it is going to happen. Children work well under structure and routine.

3. Maximize a Child's Learning Potential

When helping children with their homework, parents need to identify their child's learning style and work with their child's strengths to deliver content and explanations in a way that will make sense to the child.
Parents need to come up with ways to motivate their children and make the experience of doing homework a pleasant one. For example, if a child is overwhelmed with the amount, parents can break it down in to chunks and instruct the child to do a piece at a time with a break in between.

4. Identify if there is a Bigger Problem

If a child appears to be persistently struggling with specific subject material or basic fundamentals to learning (reading and writing or math concepts) parents should consider if there is an underlying learning disorder or whether or not the child is experiencing anxiety that may be preventing learning from occurring. When such issues are identified, they can assist children in getting preferred accommodations and modifications implemented within their educational program.
Homework can be a daunting task for all concerned. Developing a relationship with a child's teacher, establishing routines and working with a child's learning strengths can certainly lessen the amount of frustration over homework. If problems continue despite intervention, early identification of a learning disorder will aid in getting children the assistance they need so that they can reach maximum potential in life.
When parents take a pro-active approach to teach their children management skills and healthy work habits it will not only facilitate the homework process, but also serve children well in their future professions.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Dear Parents: Never Assume

Dear Parents,
I've had some very hard learning experiences in recent years and months.  I hope you can avoid some of them and the consequences that follow. 
First of all, don't assume your kids feel the same as you did when you were a kid.  My mom said when I was little, I was so obedient, she thought there might be something wrong with me.  I don't really identify with a lot of behaviors that kids exhibit.  There was one time I remember where my mom threw the gingerbread house in the trash can, declaring the candy was too old to eat.  It was sitting on top, so I ate some of it.  I had been drooling over that candy for weeks and to be told I couldn't have any?  Never!
What I don't understand is the latest situation with my daughter.  After our move last year, our dental visits were a little delayed and I was probably doing a terrible job nagging my kids about their teeth as we were packing and I was dealing with frequent contractions.  I was so heartbroken to learn that my daughter had a major cavity.  The dentist filled it and said we would need to watch it because it was pretty deep.  It could develop problems later.
One evening I asked my daughter if she brushed her teeth and she said she had.  I said, "Come here and let me smell your breath."  She said, "I was just joking."  Of course, I explained that a "joke" isn't when you lie to your mom to get out of doing something.  Apparently her filling wasn't traumatic enough an experience for her and I continued to tell her night and day to brush her teeth.
Just a couple months later, there was what appeared to be a blister on her gums right next to the tooth that had been filled.  As I suspected, it was infected.  The dentist said it would have to be pulled and a spacer put in its place to leave room for her adult tooth.  She was extremely nervous about having it extracted and silly me, I thought she would get serious about taking care of her teeth after this.
Now that we have a baby, it has made it harder to keep tabs on my other kids, especially with stairs in our new house.  When my daughter would run upstairs to "brush her teeth", I believed her.  The water was running and everything.  Then one morning I suddenly felt like I should say again, "Come here and let me smell your breath."  She frowned, acted like she went up to do it again, and sulked all the way to the bus stop.  She finally told me she hadn't seen her bubble gum toothpaste since she went to Grandma's house.  I said, "Are you telling me you haven't brushed your teeth since Grandma's house?!  That was two weeks ago!!!!"  Her silence was her answer.  Oh my gosh. 
I'm not just baffled by how she could lie to me, but how can she tolerate the feeling of her teeth not being clean?  I remember being about age 4 when I couldn't stand to go a day without brushing my teeth.
It doesn't matter that I've talked to her many, many times about losing teeth and that she actually had to have one removed.  Her bottom line is that she doesn't like brushing her teeth, so now no matter what I'm doing, I have to follow her upstairs and watch her do it or do it for her.
Last year one of my sons put on a pretty convincing act that he was getting his homework completed, but his grades showed otherwise.  It turned out he had never learned how to access his email at home that was needed in order to log in to Google Classroom where his assignments were.  Why didn't he tell me or his teacher?  I don't know, but I do know he cares about his grades.  He frequently cries about them.
Apply these things to many situations.  Have you talked to your kids about pornography until you are just sure they get it?  Think they would never look at it?  Think you can leave the house without logging off?  Think again.  Just because you explained doesn't mean they understand or that they won't be curious. 
Never assume, "My child would never do that."  I have been shocked quite a few times that one of my children has done something I didn't think they were capable of.  I'm sure we would all love to trust our children, but they are capable of more than we realize sometimes.  Thank goodness for baby teeth because my daughter might learn her lesson by the time her adult teeth come in, but what if I fail my children when it comes to more serious issues?
This isn't meant to be negative, but we all make mistakes and we need to remember that so will our children.  They will make the same mistakes repeatedly, just like us. 
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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Help your child build their self-esteem by understanding it's parts.

Frequently we hear people say that they have low self-esteem or low self-value or worth. These can mean many different things to different people.

This is the lens that I view self-esteem from that it is made up of three parts: self-concept, self-efficacy, self-worth. An individual’s Self-Concept is the answer to ‘who am I?’ Usually it comprises their past, present, and future traits, characteristics, performance and accomplishments. Self-efficacy is what you can do with who I am. An understanding of whether one can succeed in particular situations, which has an impact on motivation. Self-worth is the individual’s perceived value of what they contribute to their society, work, and/or family. Self-esteem is then the combination of concept, efficacy, and worth; plus the feeling how much control over one’s life. 

It is helpful to think of self-concept, efficacy and worth, each as sides of a triangle, and that self-esteem is the area of the triangle. Then it is possible to see that as someone’s concept, efficacy, and worth grow so does their self-esteem. As those three shrink, so does their self-esteem.

To help someone build their self-esteem, it is not just about helping them feel good about themselves or having confidence. It starts with the Johari Window principle. Helping them understand themselves. There are parts to a person that only they know about and that they and the people around them know. Then there are also blind spots, parts to a person that only people around them see. One of the first things I recommend is for a person to talk to a couple people that care about them (usually parents or extended family) and learn more about themselves, their family history, and what they think they will become.

Next after learning more about “who I am” – increasing self-concept, it is then important to understand what you can do with what you know about yourself. For me personally, I have learned in my family history that only three people have lived past the age of 80 – all female. So I know I have a limited time, almost an expiry date, which helps motivate me to do things and enjoy the present moment at home and at work.

After learning who one is, what you can do with it – and if that brings motivation, it is now interpreting the perceptions about the value you can contribute to society. Perception is influenced by feedback from family, friends, and society.

With all those parts combined, that makes up self-esteem.

While it is important to build self-esteem, it is even more vital to know what self-esteem is so that the smaller sections of the triangle can be built up.

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