Katie Hurley, LCSW

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)

4 Ways to Help Your Daughter Break the Silence About Bullying

 

“When your friends cut you out…it’s the worst. It’s like you’re totally alone. So when they let you back in, you take it, even if you know they’re not that nice and are really mean to other girls.”

-A sixth grade girl

 

There’s a culture of silence in modern day girlhood, and this silence can be devastating for many young girls. Girls tell me that they avoid speaking up about their experiences with bullying for a variety of reasons:

 

  • It’s humiliating
  • They feel alone
  • They fear they will be teased for talking about it
  • They fear the bullying will get worse if they tell
  • They still hope they can get back into the group
  • They don’t think anyone will believe them or understand

 

That’s a short list. Every girl is different, and every girl has her own reasons for participating in the culture of silence. But one thing is for certain: Silence isn’t helping anyone. In fact, silence contributes to the anxiety, depression, isolation, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and suicidal thoughts that can occur when girls are on the receiving end of bullying and/or cyberbullying.

 

Speaking up helps. But speaking up doesn’t have to mean going public. Speaking up can mean talking to a small group or trusted friends, or even just one. Every little bit helps.

 

When girls share their stories, not for the sole purpose of getting the other girl in trouble but to help another girl or to vent her own emotions, they take steps toward healing. They also open the door to difficult conversations that just might help another girl in similar circumstances.

 

 

Breaking the silence inspires hope and healing. When I work with groups of girls, we talk about a lot of the everyday stressors of modern girlhood. Without fail, “mean girl” behavior comes up. It’s not necessarily that each girl in the room has experienced bullying, but each girl knows that it’s something to worry about. They’ve heard the stories. They know it’s out there.

 

But an interesting thing happens when the first girl dares to share her story. The other girls move just a little bit closer. They ask questions. They rally around her. They empathize. And then they begin to share their stories and their worries. They break the culture of silence, if only for that session, and they work together to find solutions.

 

4 Ways to help girls talk it out

 

Bring it to the surface

The best way to end the stigma and break through the culture of silence is to normalize talking about bullying and cyberbullying. Girls know it’s happening. Parents know it’s happening. Don’t wait for an incident to occur to break ground on these tough topics, make them part of your regular conversations.

 

I can’t tell you how many parents ask me to avoid these topics in my groups because they don’t want their girls to worry. Girls are already worrying about it. When we silence it, we contribute to the culture of silence. Bring it to the surface by engaging in regular discussions about bullying and cyberbullying at the dinner table, when you’re taking a family walk, or when you’re just hanging out doing nothing.

 

Share little bits

It can be overwhelming, and triggering, to share your whole story. Some girls avoid talking about their experiences because it’s just too painful. I find that when girls know that they can share “little bits” at a time and start and stop as needed, the cloud of hopelessness that overwhelms them dissipates somewhat. It can take years to heal from the psychological impact of bullying. Trying to get it all out at once is difficult at best.

 

One thing that I find works well with girls is to give them the “time out” option. If they become overwhelmed with emotion, they make the hand signal for time out. That’s my cue to lead a deep breathing or mindfulness exercise to help her work through the emotions.

 

Guided conversations

Parenting myths lead us to believe that tween and teen girls are constantly pushing their parents away, but research shows that girls actually want help from their parents. They just don’t want every problem solved, and they don’t want to discuss everything the minute they get in the car.

 

Both literature and movies provide ample opportunity to discuss the many stressors girls currently face, including bullying and cyberbullying. Read together (or, at the very least, read the same book side-by-side) and initiate regular movie dates. Talk about the peer issues that arise and listen to how your daughter processes these issues. Resist the urge to come up with quick fixes. Instead, ask questions and listen as she works through the answers.

 

Encourage connection

In some of my groups, I give girls little signs that say, “been there.” When one girl shares a story about something hard, the other girls can choose to raise their “been there” signs. They are then given the opportunity to share their stories or make a comment. These little connections, even if the “been there” girls don’t actually share their own stories, help girls feel less alone in the world.

#beenthere

Imagine what would happen if girls used the hashtag #beenthere on social media to connect with other girls? It can be very difficult to stand up to bullying in the moment, but by connecting with other girls and simply being there, upstanders can stand just a little bit taller. Encourage your girl to share her “been there” moments with other girls in need. Together, they can start a revolution in girlhood.

 

Looking for more help with navigating modern girlhood? Pre-order your copy of NO MORE MEAN GIRLS today!

 

 

5 Ways to Take the Pressure Off so Joy Can Flow


Self-care is talked about so frequently that it almost feels cliché to even utter the words at this point. That’s a shame though, because self-care is vital to both our physical and emotional wellbeing. Without self-care, we become wrapped in stress and that stress trickles down to our loved ones. Without self-care, we become caught up in doing, going, and achieving, and that need to produce results becomes the baseline from which we launch our children out into this world. When they see us getting caught up in the culture of busy and running toward some inflated vision of success, they learn to do the same.

 

We need to do better. For ourselves, for our children, for our partners, and for all of our loved ones, we need to learn to slow down and tune back in. We need to stop chasing and start listening. We need to practice gratitude, spread kindness, and laugh often. We need to focus on what we already have.

 

I have fallen victim to insufficient self-care. I have lost my way once or twice, but I am lucky to have friends and family who support me and build me up when I need a little strength. I consider myself lucky to call Rachel Macy Stafford one of my friends, and I rely on her words of comfort more often than she even knows.

 

Please enjoy this excerpt from Rachel’s new book (a book I can’t put down!), Only Love Today.

 

5 Ways to Take the Pressure Off so Joy Can Flow

 

Admit your mistakes.

 

Imagine never hearing the words, “I’m sorry,” from someone you love. Imagine living with someone who never admits he messed up or she was wrong. Imagine how you would view your own mistakes. Remember this: Being human allows others to be human. Getting back up after you fall down gives others the courage to do the same. Asking for help, forgiveness, or a do-over invites joy to come back in.

 

Meet loved one’s mistakes with compassion.

 

Nothing blocks joy from a home more than exasperation, annoyance, or shame in response to mistakes or missteps. Watch the other person’s face when you say, “That happens to me too,” or  “Making mistakes means we are learning and trying.” Instead of fear, embarrassment, or frustration, you might see relief, hope, or determination on that face you love. You also become a trusted source for larger infractions in the future.

 

Use meaningful measures of success.

 

When it comes to school, sports, and extracurricular activities, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers, check marks, statistics, awards, and wins. But what about good sportsmanship, integrity, kindness, and honesty? What about the happiness felt when doing what they love? Placing less emphasis on grades, goals, and appearance to notice acts of bravery, effort, and courage will allow joy to be present, no matter the score.

 

Be less of a manager and more of a nurturer.

 

I’ll never forget the teenager who found my blog by Googling: “how to remind my mother I am a human being with feelings”. The young lady explained, “I could do a million things right, but my mom could still find the flaws, and that ruins the whole day.” She inspired me to lose the manager role I’d adopted and be the loving encourager instead.

 

Seeing my children as human beings with thoughts, feelings, ideas, hopes, and dreams motivates me to periodically consider my expectations: Are they reasonable? Realistic? Necessary? Are they age appropriate? This awareness creates a home where positives are noticed, strengths are nurtured, and unconditional love is abundant.

 

Love “as is”.

 

If nothing else, make it abundantly clear that you love your people AS IS – that they do not need to DO anything, BE anything, CHANGE anything to be loved by you. Make a point to say, “I love you just as you are. Exactly as you are. I love you because you are you.” Feeling known and accepted by the people in your home not only makes for a better day, but it also makes for a better future.

Today I want to say yes to listening and laughter.
I want remember what my heart loves to do and do it—even for just a little bit.

I want to close my eyes in gratitude.

I want to open them in wonder.

I want to read a book.
Plant a seed.
Say, “Take your time,” and mean it.

I want to give a good kiss.
Leave a surprise note.
Do a little bit of absolutely nothing.

I want to
Rest
Dance
Laugh
Play

I want to fill the spaces of my life with love.

So I can breathe …

and maybe laugh a time or two.
-Rachel Macy Stafford from ONLY LOVE TODAY

This is a small sample of what you will find in Rachel Macy Stafford’s highly anticipated new book, Only Love Today: Reminders to Breathe More, Stress Less, and Choose Love (release date 3/7). With a unique flip-open, read-anytime/anywhere format, this book is soulful encouragement for busy individuals yearning to anchor themselves in love despite everyday distractions, pressures, and discord. “Only Love Today” began as a mantra to overcome her inner bully, but it is now the practice of Rachel Macy Stafford’s life. It can be a practice for all of us. Join Rachel and her supportive community at HandsFreeMama.com where you can also pre-order Only Love Today by March 7th and receive free bonus materials with your order.

5 Phrases (And 1 Question) to Help Your Tween Daughter Through the Hard Stuff

keep-smiling-kids

 

I’ve worked with a lot of tween girls over the past 18 years. They end up in my office for various reasons (I specialize in anxiety, stress, self-esteem, and learning differences), but, more often than not, we end up talking about the pressure that exists for young girls today.

On the one hand, girls have tons of opportunities at their fingertips. Options are everywhere. Name an area of interest and you can find a class or program to hone those skills and follow that dream! In some ways, that’s a very good thing. Girls who don’t want to play traditional sports, for example, find other cool sports and activities. Girls who want to skip organized sports altogether seek out other outlets to connect with other kids and follow their passions. That’s the good news.

On the other hand, the stakes feel very high. Girls tell me that the pressure to “be the best” and “rise to the top” is almost suffocating. Some consider quitting sports and other activities because they feel like there’s no point in doing those things for the fun of it – they’re expected to succeed. They also talk about the competition between girls and how it negatively impacts their friendships.

Yes, relational aggression continues to be a problem in the life of girls, and they don’t know how to manage the stress of friendship troubles coupled with the stress of rising to the top. It’s a lot.

“Move on”

Tween girls go through some tough stuff. They need to get those feelings and out and talk about the ups and downs of girlhood. The problem is…they’re not sure where to turn. Tweens have a tendency to be pleasers at times, and many go to great lengths to show their parents and other adults in their lives that they can handle everything on their own. They also hear a lot of, “move on” messages from the adults in their lives. Thing thing is, it’s really hard to “move on” when you’ve had a terrible day (or week, or month.)

I’ve asked girls to share their least favorite responses from adults over the years. Below is a small sample:

“Everybody goes through this.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Move on and find new friends.”

“Don’t worry; it’s no big deal.”

Why these phrases hurt

Tween girls tend to be highly social beings. They’re learning to gain independence and find their tribes. When the tribe fails them in some way (even if they played a role in that failure), it hurts very deeply.

Sometimes tweens internalize feelings. Sometimes they make assumptions based on limited information. Sometimes they react before they’ve had time to process, while other times they spend so much time processing that resentment and other negative emotions build up.

They are growing and changing at a rapid pace, and the world around them is full of conflicting and often confusing messages. They are entitled to a few bad days and rocky moments!

5 Phrases that help tweens

What they don’t want is a pep talk every time they express their emotions or share their tough stuff. What they need is support. I like to go to the source, and I suggest that you open that dialogue with your tween (see below.) All girls are different, and a phrase that helps one might annoy another. The following phrases, however, come up over and over again:

“I’m here for you.”

Sounds simple, right? I can’t tell you how many girls tell me they just want their parents to say these words. They don’t want corrections. They don’t want to be quizzed on what went wrong. They just want you to be there. They want to hear that they’re not alone.

“I’m listening.”

One the biggest complaints among young girls right now is that they feel like parents are only ever half listening. I’m guilty of looking down when I should look up at times; I get it. But this age range marks a critical period of self-esteem development. They need 1:1 time with us that includes tuning out the rest of the world so that we can tune in to them.

Studies show that self-esteem begins to dip for girls as early as age 9, with an average age of dip occurring at 11, and doesn’t make a comeback until later adolescence.

Listening, really listening, makes a difference. Girls often tell me that they feel like their parents only listen enough to respond. What they want is for parents to sit back and let them talk their way through their big feelings.

“I’m proud of you.”

We’re all proud of our kids. But do we all communicate that feeling to our kids regularly? Parents get so focused on results (grades, goals, scores) that they forget to talk about the little things that make them proud (acts of kindness, helping someone in need). Your girls need to hear this. Regularly.

“That sounds hard.”

The benefit of being an adult is that adults have excellent hindsight. Adults know what mistakes they made and how to fix everything for their kids! One small problem: Your tween is not you, and she needs to work through her own ups and downs. Instead of running in for the save with a point-by-point plan to solve the dilemma, try this simple phrase. It will open the door to communication and might even inspire your daughter to seek you out for help another time.

“I understand.”

Parents and other adults talk to kids about empathy fairly regularly these days (I hope so, anyway.) We do this because we want to raise caring and compassionate kids. But then we turn around and minimize their concerns when they share them.

I find that most parents do this so that their girls won’t worry too much or get overly upset about what the parents consider small bumps in the road. It comes from a good place. The problem is that girls’ problems feel very real and very big to them. When they feel overwhelmed and unsure, minimizing their problems only leaves them feeling isolated.

It also causes them to shut down.

Parenting with empathy and communicating that you understand helps build a strong connection and encourages your daughter to seek help from you in the future.

One important question

When I ask girls what they need or want from their parents when they’re upset, I get a wide variety of answers. Some want hugs and snuggles. Some want time together to take a walk. Some want to read together or color in one of those fancy coloring books together. But almost all of them wish you would ask them this one important question:

“How can I help?”

That’s it. It’s a simple question, and they might not have the answer right away, but it shows that you listened, you understand, and you’re there no matter what.

Bonus Tip:

Talking can be really hard for tweens. Sometimes they don’t know how or where to begin. A parent-child journal is a great way to communicate without the tension that can emerge when sitting face-to-face. Give it a try!

Image credit: Pexels

Dads, Your Tween Girls Need You

tween-girls-dads

A nine-year-old girl sits in my office, spinning on my desk chair. She’s avoiding a question that hangs in the air, hoping to find a distraction. It wasn’t a particularly challenging question, but she doesn’t know how to answer it. Finally, our eyes meet. After a deep breath, she spits it out.

She wants more than anything to spend time with her dad on the weekends, just the two of them. But he always spends the weekends playing sports with her brother. She doesn’t like sports very much. She likes baking, drawing, fairies, reading, looking for interesting leaves around the park, and a long list of other fun things, but she doesn’t care much for throwing a ball or doing anything that involves a ball.

At nine, she’s decided that this makes her unlikable in her dad’s eyes. She knows he loves her, he is her dad, but she doesn’t think he likes her. So she watches from afar while her bother gets the “fun” time with dad week after week. She’s too afraid to speak up because she’s fairly certain that she’s right, and she doesn’t think she handle that kind of truth.

For the record, she wasn’t right.

I’ve worked with many tween girls over the years, and one thing that comes up over and over again is the subtle shift in the father-daughter relationship that sometimes occurs during the tween years. When girls are little, adults go on an on about the “daddy daughter bond” that’s so very adorable.

“Adults swoon when little girls announce their intentions to one day marry their dads. Then those little girls begin to grow and separate, and the relationship shifts.”

A strong father-daughter bond can be a lifesaver during the tween and teen years. Growing up is complicated, and girls need stable relationships rooted in unconditional love and support. But it’s not enough to simply express unconditional love; you have to show it with your actions. You have to make time to build that bond by being present and taking an active interest in your daughter.

Dads, you’re up to bat. With you in her corner, your girl will feel confident. Resilience will emerge and healthy risk taking will increase. With you by her side, your daughter will stand up to fear and reach for her goals.

A lot of dads ask me how to do that. What’s the secret trick to building that bond? The trick is… there is no trick. But bonding with your daughter is easier than you might think.

Invite her to run errands.

Sounds boring, right? Wrong. When you ask your daughter to join you for even the most mundane errands, you show her that you enjoy her company. You send the message that you want to spend time with her as much as possible. So go ahead and invite her to Home Depot this weekend and watch her face light up with adventure (after the obligatory eye roll, of course.)

Ask her for help.

Parents are always trying to help kids, but the truth is that kids would rather help their parents and showcase their skills. Especially tween girls. When you ask your daughter to help with your weekend projects, you show her that you believe she’s strong and capable. You also communicate that you trust her with important stuff. That’s huge for young girls. Hand over the hammer and watch your girl thrive!

Read to her.

One mistake I see over and over again is that the minute kids can read independently, parents step away from reading together. Getting lost in a good book together is a great way to bond with your daughter and gives you something to look forward to together. Break out the Harry Potter, cuddle up, and grab some hot chocolate… reading with dad is a great way to spend some much-needed downtime!

Get outside!

Some girls love to throw a football while others would rather go for a hike. Time spent outside is good for the body and the soul. Build a giant leaf pile together, make a snowman, walk along the beach in search of shells, or just kick a ball around the yard. The best way to get to know your daughter is to spend time with her.

Listen (Really, listen.)

I can’t tell you how many girls sit on my couch and complain about distracted listening. They don’t use those words exactly, but they describe fighting SmartPhones for attention. Your girl wants to tell you her stories, her hopes, her ideas, and her dreams. She wants to tell you about the gross thing that happened at school and how it felt when she finally mastered that dance move. She wants to show you her art and tell you about her softball team. She wants to share her whole world with you, but she doesn’t want to do it when you’re staring at your phone. The single best thing you can do for your daughter is make the time to listen. Put away your distractions and listen to your daughter. If you don’t, she might stop talking.

Show up.

Take an interest in her interests. Learn something new from her. Ask her tons of questions to show that you’re interested and that you want to be a part of her world. And, please, show up. If she has an event at school, be there. If she has a game or performance on the weekend, be there. If she asks you take her to an art museum, make it happen.

Yes, there are times when we can’t be in two places at once. Our children know that. But there are also times when we need to create balance and show up for our girls. Please, I’m begging you; make that happen as often as possible.

“Your daughters don’t need grand gestures and expensive gifts to feel connected to you; they simply need you.”

As someone who spent most of my tween years playing H.O.R.S.E. in the driveway with my dad I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, that relationship instilled a confidence in me that I still carry with me to this very day. And all you really have to do is show up.

Image credit: Pexels

 

5 Ways to Help Girls Feel Self-Confident

girls-self-confidence

Image credit: Pexels

“I don’t get it. She’s smart. She’s kind. She’s athletic. She has a ton of friends… but she doesn’t see it.” A mom of an eleven-year-old girl made this statement, but I hear some version of this over and over again. It always leads to the same question: Why doesn’t my daughter have any self-confidence?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question. Are young girls under more pressure today than they once were? Perhaps. Are they exposed to media content above their developmental level? Yes, this is often the case. Is that why so many young girls feel they don’t measure up?

According to key findings from the Dove Self-Esteem Fund’s report, Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report of the State of Self-Esteem (2008), 7 in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members. Think that’s bad? Think on these findings:

  • 62% of girls feel insecure or unsure of themselves
  • 57% of girls say they don’t always tell their parents certain things about them because they don’t want them to think badly of them
  • The top wish among all girls is for their parents to communicate better with them, which includes more frequent and open conversations about what is happening in their own lives
  • 75% of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking or drinking when feeling badly about themselves

Something to consider before we move on: 91% of girls age 8-12 turn to their mother as a resource when feeling badly about themselves.

When we shift gears, the question becomes, “How can I help?”

The truth is that there is no easy button when it comes to guiding young girls through the murky waters of preadolescence and adolescence. It takes time and a lot of patience.

Start by making a few small changes:

Listen more than you talk

Young girls often tell me that parents are terrible listeners. As a nine-year-old once told me (in a moment of frustration), “My mom always says, ‘Listen! Listen!’ but she never listens to me. I don’t even get to finish my story and she has three ways to fix is so she can stop talking to me.” That young girl’s mom was not actually trying to shoo her daughter away. Her intention was to help. Her need to fix, however, clouded her ability to listen, and that negatively impacted their communication.

Listen for the sake of listening. Your daughter turns to you because she trusts you to be there for her. It might be hard to resist the urge to jump in with solutions or start calling the school and other parents, but right now your daughter needs you to listen with both ears and empathize.

Believe in your daughter

If you want to raise a daughter who believes in herself, begin by believing in your daughter. I utter these words often.

Young girls can be their own worst critics. When we add on external criticism, it can be downright overwhelming for them. It’s not our job to highlight what we perceive to be their failures or missteps in an effort to inspire them to do better in the future. Parents often tell me that they believe this builds resilience in kids. Tell them where they messed up so they can get it right the next time. The truth is that this leaves kids feeling worthless. They already know that they failed the test, lost the game or sang out of tune… they don’t need us to go through the play-by-play in an effort to correct. They need us to provide support and empathy.

To raise resilient girls, the best thing we can do is to believe in their abilities, even when they have a terrible day. They can and will learn to work through those obstacles in their own time.

Connect

I’m as guilty as the next parent when it comes struggling with the work/family balance, and it’s hard to ignore that flashing, beeping phone. That’s why I keep it on silent and leave it upstairs when my daughter is around. I don’t want to break my connection with her to deal with an email that can surely wait.

High on the wish list of things girls want their parents to do better: Spend more time together. You might feel like your daughter is pushing you away, but I’m willing to bet that she feels like you don’t have enough time for her.

Make time to be together. Get out into nature and go for a hike. Read a book together. Play Monopoly (yes, really). Snuggle up and watch a movie. Whatever you do, be present. Shut out the rest of the world and place your focus on her.

Ask questions

Young girls often tell me that they feel like their parents quiz them about all the wrong things. Parents ask about grades, tests and quizzes, sports and lunch, but they don’t always ask questions that lead to meaningful conversations. What is it that our daughters really crave? They want to feel understood!

Instead of the usual questions about high-pressure stuff, try some of these:

  • What was the best part of your day?
  • What was the worst?
  • What’s your favorite song right now?
  • If you could do anything you wanted instead of going to school today, what would you do?
  • Do you have a favorite character from a book you’ve read recently?
  • What do prefer to do when you have downtime?

Another great way to get kids talking about the more important things in life? Play a game of 2 truths and 1 tale. Take turns telling two true statements and one tale, and try to spot the tale. You’ll be surprised what you learn!

Tell about you

One more thing that I hear a lot of from the young girls who sit on my couch is that conversations with parents feel one-sided. We ask a lot of questions about them, but how much do we share about us?

Sharing our own stories can be powerful for our daughters. The more they get to know us, the more trust we build.

Just the other day my daughter asked me, “Did you ever know any tricky girls when you were me age? The ones who are friends some days but not every day?” This sparked a wonderful conversation about friendship, empathy and understanding.

Don’t be afraid to share your truths. Where your story left off just might be where your daughter’s story begins…

How Heavy is Your Backpack? An Exercise in Empathy For School Age Kids

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The end of the school year can be tough. As parents, we feel like we’re crawling to the finish line. We’re so close, but there’s still so much to be done before we close the books on another year. For kids, it can be a bit of a mixed bag of emotions.

They look forward to summer. More time for fun and less work to be done. Long summer days that fade to night. Swim-soaked hair and watermelon dripping down chins. They long for summer long before summer arrives, it seems, but they also feel sad or nervous about the end of the year. It’s hard to say goodbye to a teacher and a class full of friends.

The other day at school pickup I noticed a lot of tired faces. They’ve worked hard all year and they’re tired. They’re ready for a break. He cheated! You cheated! That’s not the rule! I don’t want to play! The little arguments feel big and important. Hard moments seem to crop up at every turn.

When the complaints roll in, it can be tempting to blame the other child. Believe me, I understand. I know the feeling – the child retells the story and you just want to jump into the past and fix the problem for them! You clench your fists because you just can’t imagine that kids argued so passionately about kickball… again.

You might even caution your child to just stay away from the kid who keeps calling him a cheater. Just stay away. Avoid the child – avoid the problem.

As hard as it can be, I try to focus on empathy when these stories come home. First, I listen to my child. I empathize and provide compassion. I let my child talk it out. Later, I revisit the situation and talk about empathy for others.

“The heavy backpack” is an empathy project I’ve been doing with kids for years. It helps them think about how others feel and learn the art of perspective taking. It’s simple but powerful.

How heavy is your backpack?

We all carry emotions with us. For kids, it can be useful to think about the image of carrying an invisible backpack stuffed with our feelings. Many kids tend to be “stuffers” by nature. It’s hard to talk about feelings, and many kids don’t have a well-developed feelings vocabulary. They stuff their feelings until they explode.

Kids can identify with the process of stuffing a backpack. When it’s light, you hardly notice it’s even there. When it gets too full, it’s hard to lift. When it’s so full that you can’t possibly fit one more thing in it, you can’t even push it from place to place.

When kids stuff their feelings, it’s like shoving them into a backpack. At first, it might feel only a little bit heavier than usual. Over time, the weight of the backpack drags them down.

They struggle to concentrate. They feel overwhelmed, anxious or even depressed. They might cry, yell or have a complete meltdown. The feelings, once stuffed safely inside the invisible backpack, suddenly become too big too carry and they spill out – everywhere.

The only way to cope with them is to work through them, but I find that many kids don’t have that opportunity. Often, they are told to “move on” or “get over it”. What they internalize is this: Your feelings don’t matter. This isn’t important.

Their feelings are important, though, and the only way to help them work through those big emotions is to empty that backpack, one feeling at a time.

Unpack the backpack.

What am I getting at? Why should we talk about invisible backpacks? Talking about those backpacks we all carry (but don’t always acknowledge) helps kids develop empathy for others. When they recognize what they carry in their own backpacks, they can begin to think what other people might carry in theirs. Instead of reacting quickly when something goes awry, they can think about how the other person might be feeling and make a positive choice.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Place an empty backpack on your child’s back and ask him how it feels. Ask him if he can jump up and down with it on.
  • Explain the invisible backpack. Talk about times when you stuff your own feelings and what that feels like.
  • Get some wooden blocks or other heavy objects and explain that these will represent the feelings we stuff.
  • Pick up a block, assign a feeling to it (ex: I felt super frustrated when I got stuck in traffic and was late to my meeting, I’m worried about a friend who isn’t feeling well, etc.) and place the block in the backpack. Do a few more and toss them in.
  • Ask your child to think of things that weigh him down – stuff that happens that he tries not to think about but still make him feel mad, worried or any other feeling (Ex: I didn’t know my spelling words, sometime said I cheated in soccer, I couldn’t sit with my friends at lunch). Have him add his blocks to the backpack.
  • Ask your child to try to think about feelings that might weigh his friends down. Talk about those things and add some blocks to the backpack.
  • Have your child try on the backpack full of blocks. Ask him how it feels now that it’s stuffed. Ask if he can jump up and down.
  • Explain that this is how people feel when they carry around big emotions. This is why we don’t always make the best choices and sometimes we overreact or say things we wish we didn’t.
  • Ask your child what he can do to be a helper if it seems like a friend might have a heavy backpack. How can he get help if his own backpack gets too heavy?

Talk about empathy.

A few weeks ago I asked 21 first grade students if they knew the meaning of empathy. Only two kids raised their hands. One of them was my son.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of empathy of kindness, but I often find that kids don’t actually know what empathy means. If they don’t understand it, how can they practice it?

Talk about empathy with your kids. Discuss what it means and how they can be empathic friends. We can’t just expect kids to understand and practice empathy without first providing information and guidance. When we take the time to teach, they grow into empathic and compassionate citizens.

The next time your child comes home full of big feelings about the events of the day, get out the backpack and blocks and rely on empathy to help him work through his feelings.

For more great strategies to teach empathy and help kids work through their feelings, please check out THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

Studies Show Harsh Discipline and Spanking Are All Harm and No Good – Try This, Instead

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Breaking news from Science Daily: The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to act out, defy their parents, engage in aggressive and antisocial behaviors and have both mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

According to a new study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, spanking is associated with the above-mentioned unintentional detriments and is not associated with either immediate or long-term compliance. Long story, short: This meta-analysis of 50 years of research on spanking proves what we already know – spanking doesn’t work.

You can find the study here.

I’ve worked with countless parents over the years. Sometimes parents come to me because they want to avoid spanking – they remember what it felt like and don’t want to repeat history but they don’t know what to do. Sometimes parents want to stop yelling. Sometimes parents feel they are too permissive and their kids don’t respect them. Others are baffled by the behavior they see and want to figure out what they can change in their parenting style to improve the family dynamics.

One thing I’ve heard over and over again: “I was spanked and I turned out fine.” This is a fairly normal defense mechanism parents use to pack away the hurt and focus on the positive. In many ways, it makes sense. People use these statements to prove that their parents didn’t hurt them – it’s hard to admit that the people you loved the most as a child hurt you in some way.

But the truth is in the research: This meta-analysis included over 160,000 children and is the most complete analysis of the effects of spanking to date.

I find that spanking and authoritarian parenting tend to be generational. This is how my parents did it, so this is how I will do it. When I help parents work through their stuffed emotions about these parenting styles, however, I find that a world of hurt hides beneath the surface.

Side note: New research out of Iowa State University found that “harsh parenting” may increase a child’s risk for obesity and poor physical health later in life. You can read more about that here

We aren’t destined to repeat the patterns of previous generations. You can love your parents and make different choices for your children. It’s okay to move forward and think about what works best for your little ones. 

One of the problems with finding a parenting style that suits each parent is that it’s fairly difficult to find adequate support once the kids are beyond the preschool years. Information and groups are everywhere for those first five years, but then, poof!, it all disappears. Parents are left to sort out conflicting advice found on the Internet.

Honestly? That’s why I wrote THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK. It’s a resource to help parents cope with the ups and downs that can and do occur along the way.

One of the most frequently asked questions I find in my inbox is this: How do I get started with positive parenting? How do I change everything and start over?

The good news is that if you’re asking that question, you’re already making changes. It takes time, patience and practice to try new parenting strategies. Change almost never occurs in a day – there will be slips and falls and tears and frustration, but the end result will be worth the effort.

Set healthy boundaries.

Kids need boundaries. Chances are, you already set some. When you set a certain bedtime and stick to it, that’s a healthy boundary. When you teach your kids look twice before crossing the street, that’s a healthy boundary. You get the point.

Kids come into this world full of curiosity and questions. They don’t have all the answers and they certainly don’t make the right choices every time, but they do look to their parents to fill in the blanks. It’s up to us to teach them about physical health, emotional health, safety, social interaction skills, problem solving skills and coping skills. Sounds like a lot, I know, but I’m willing to bet that you tackle some of these in small ways every single day.

Start with your expectations. I don’t have a ton of “rules” in my house, but I do expect kindness, respect, forgiveness and empathy. Do we mistakes? Yes. Do we work through them together? Absolutely.

Parent the child you have.

It’s fine to have a blueprint of rules and expectations. We all have certain ideas about how we want this parenting gig to go when we first begin the journey, but we also have to consider the individual needs of the kids we have. If you have a highly introverted child or a highly sensitive child on your hands, yelling and sarcasm will crush that child. Telling and extroverted child to “just stop talking” is akin to telling her to be someone else. Thinking out loud is how she processes her thoughts.

Get to know the individual needs of your child and meet him where he is. When we parent our kids with personality in mind, we help them thrive.

Remain calm.

Kids can really set parents off. Meltdowns, in particular, are a source of stress for many parents. It’s hard to know what to do when your kid is falling apart in the middle of the soccer field, after all.

Remain calm.

When parents meet anger with anger (or frustration with frustration), the situation only gets worse. Engage in deep breathing to calm your own reactions and empathize with your child. Stop worrying about what other people think and stay focused on the little one in your arms.

Be okay with big emotions.

Many parents are triggered by the feelings of their kids. Kids cry and parents want to fix the problem. Kids yell and parents want to hand out time outs. It takes time to learn how to process and cope with emotions, and yelling and crying are simply ways to vent those very big feelings.

Let your kids express their emotions. Let there be tears. Let there be foot stomping. Let there be yelling when times are tough. You can work on coping skills when they’re calm but shushing their feelings in the moment (or distracting them with candy) will only lead to a bigger meltdown later on.

Find the hidden picture.

All behavior is communication. Most kids don’t have the sophisticated social skills to say, “I’m feeling really jealous of Johnny right now and I would like more 1:1 time with mom, too,” so they hit Johnny, instead. Or they yell at Johnny. Or they hide Johnny’s toys and tease him while he tries to find them. Kids need help communicating their feelings, and it’s up to us to teach them

Look for clues to identify the underlying problem and talk to your child about how he might be feeling. Hunger, exhaustion, jealousy, anxiety, anger and loneliness can all result in behaviors that seem defiant on the surface. Dig beneath the surface to help to your child uncover his hidden emotions and learn to cope.

Try family meetings.

A weekly check in to talk about how things are going can be a great strategy for families. It’s a time to discuss what’s working, what’s not and how all family members are feeling about the current family dynamics.

When families communicate and listen to one another, they learn to work together for the greater good. Take the time to check in and engage in open and honest communication as a family. Your kids will benefit from having a voice, and you will find ways to improve the family dynamics as a result.

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How to Deal With Explosive Temper Tantrums

How to deal with explosive behavior

Josh* was seven-years-old when his mom reached out to me. I will never forget the phone call. Two minutes into her description of her son’s temper tantrums that occurred frequently and seemed to last “forever”, she broke down into tears. Feeling alone in the situation, the family quietly dealt with Josh’s tantrums behind closed doors and didn’t seek advice from anyone. They were exhausted, embarrassed and frustrated. The tantrums, which I later discovered lasted approximately 45 minutes in duration and occurred about three times per week, were negatively impacting the family.

Mom and dad were out of energy and out of ideas. They fought constantly and lost their patience with Josh regularly. His sisters, both older, began to shut down. They avoided him and pulled away from their parents. Nothing seemed to work.

This family felt very alone in their struggle to help a child with explosive tantrums, but the truth is that tantrums aren’t just for toddlers and many families face very similar situations.

Tantrums can and do occur in the school age years. As parents, we tend to reframe big kid tantrums as “meltdowns”. Many school age children have difficulty coping with their emotions and lack the ability to verbalize their feelings. Meltdowns occur when emotions build up and kids need to release their feelings. It’s common for kids to direct these pent up emotions toward their parents or care givers. The good news, if you choose to see it, is that this expression of misdirected frustration is actually a sign of trust.

What makes a tantrum “explosive”?

Tantrums shift from average to explosive based on a number of factors.

  • Length: Explosive tantrums tend to be long in duration
  • Aggressive behavior: Can include hitting, biting, throwing things
  • Excessive screaming (can include cursing and verbal threats)
  • Behavior that can be considered dangerous for the child or the bystanders (ex: jumping from a moving car)
  • Can occur across multiple domains (ex: home, school, baseball practice, etc.)

Note: All children are different and you should always evaluate your child’s behavior against his own baseline (his average daily behavior).

Why do children engage in explosive behavior?

It’s important to remember that behavior is a form of communication. A child who is so overwhelmed that he lashes out is distressed. There is no one reason that triggers explosive tantrums, but there are a few things that explosive children tend to have in common:

  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Poor (or no) coping skills
  • Lack effective communication skills
  • Poor impulse control
  • Lack problem-solving skills

There is a tendency to view explosive behavior as “manipulative”. Children who experience explosive tantrums tend to run high on emotion and low on coping skills. They aren’t trying o manipulate – they are trying to communicate.

What can parents do?

Remain calm.

When parents yell, command and/or criticize kids during explosive tantrums, the aggressive and explosive behavior increases. These tantrums are very difficult for parents to manage. Practice deep breathing techniques when you’re calm so that you can calm your senses when your child engages in explosive behavior.

Use calming phrases (on repeat) and don’t give in.

It’s tempting to give in the moment an explosive tantrum begins, but giving in won’t necessarily stop the behavior and it certainly won’t help long term. Giving in reinforces the behavior.

When your child is calm, talk through some calming phrases that you can use when he’s upset. “I know you’re upset; I will help you calm down” works for some kids, but many kids are specific in what words actually calm them (versus inflame them).

THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK is packed with great strategies to deal with big feelings!

Log it.

Keeping a tantrum log helps. I know that writing down the event is probably the last thing you want to do once it’s over, but keeping a log helps you establish patterns and find the triggers. When you know what sets your child off, you can make a plan.

You don’t have to fill a page. Start with this:

  • Time of day
  • Length of tantrum
  • Behaviors that occurred (screaming, hitting, breaking things, etc.)
  • Possible triggers
  • Interventions that worked
  • Interventions that didn’t work
  • Baseline status: Where it occurred, last time child ate and what, how much sleep the night before, what was coming next

Create a daily discharge plan.

Kids need to vent or discharge their emotions. In addition to the fact that kids are sitting for longer periods and expected to learn and even play (sports) at an accelerated pace, many kids spend the day in survival mode. They stuff their emotions to avoid a meltdown in front of peers and save it for home.

Create a safe space for venting emotions. Some kids respond well to venting while drawing, some need to yell it out and some like to write it down then tear it up. Find a strategy that works for your child.

Set clear limits and expectations.

As parents, we have a tendency to provide stern reminders of our expectations and limits when we’re under pressure, but many kids fail to internalize those limits and expectations and need reminders. Make your behavioral expectations and limits clear when kids are calm. You don’t need 100 house rules, you simply need to talk about your expectations and provide frequent reminders.

Structure is essential for kids who tend to have explosive tantrums. Keep to a consistent bedtime, have consistent meals and snacks and factor in downtime.

Increase 1:1 time.

Sometimes explosive kids struggle to relate to or bond with their parents. They often feel sorry after their tantrums and carry around feelings of guilt. Plan regular 1:1 time with your child to spend time bonding with him and getting to know him better.

time-bonding-parents

Deal with your feelings.

Many parents experience frustration and resentment as a result of their children’s behavior. Some also feel sad and anxious. Work through your own feelings about your child’s behavior so that you don’t bring those feelings into the mix when your child experiences a meltdown.

Many parents benefit from their own therapy or parent education to work through these feelings.

Be aware of possible underlying issues.

Explosive tantrums can stem from other underlying issues. A few to consider:

  • ADD/ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Learning differences
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD)
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder

If your child experiences explosive tantrums more than twice a week (on average) into the school age years and fails to improve, seek an evaluation. If your child displays any suicidal behavior (thoughts, actions, plans) or is a danger to others, seek immediate help.

This article does not replace an evaluation from a licensed mental health professional.

*Names, genders, ages and other identifying features changed.

 

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

 

Childhood anxiety is tricky business. There are a lot of misconceptions, and often times it either goes unchecked or becomes a blame game. Parents get blamed. Kids get blamed. Even teachers and schools get blamed.

Here’s the deal: Anxiety has a genetic component. Some kids are more anxious than others, but they don’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder. Others do. “Bad parenting” doesn’t cause anxiety. Kids don’t create their own anxiety. Circumstances can trigger anxious feelings, but they don’t cause anxiety. Blaming holds little value when it comes to helping kids with anxiety.

Uncovering the worries and unpacking the feelings are different than blaming. In helping kids understand their triggers, we empower them to use adaptive coping strategies when they confront those triggers.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes kids (of all ages) have huge, anxiety-based meltdowns and it’s really difficult to know what to do in the moment. Sometimes they yell and scream and tell you to go away, even though they secretly want you to stay. This isn’t a test. Anxiety is overwhelming and kids have a tendency to say the opposite of what they mean when they’re overwhelmed with emotion.

So what can parents do when kids are in meltdown mode and talking doesn’t even feel like a possibility? The strategies below are some favorites as identified by many kids in my office over the years. Note: All kids are different and not every strategy will appeal to every kid. Try a few to figure out how to help calm your child when she needs you the most.

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Bear hug.

Sounds simple, right? The problem is that sometimes kids scream things like, “go away!” or “leave me alone!” or “I’m FINE!” when they’re overwhelmed by anxiety, and this causes parents to back away.

I’ve had many kids sit on my couch and say that what they really want (even when they say otherwise) is a big bear hug from mom or dad. The combination of pressure and loving embrace helps release some of the tension contributing to the anxious feelings and provides a safe space to release those emotions.

Read old favorites.

Think twice before you start donating old picture books. Just because your child can read chapter books doesn’t mean she’s ready to move away from the old favorites that brought her joy in her earlier days.

Reading old favorite stories helps kids tap into memories of early childhood – this feels calming and soothing for many. Reading to your child can help your child focus on breathing and listening and staying present in the moment – all good ways to reduce anxious feelings.

Whisper talk.

When kids experience overwhelming anxiety, all of their senses are heightened. Everything seems loud, bright and just too much. If they run away and slam the door or cover their ears and yell it’s because they want to block it all out.

Whispering, not necessarily about the triggers, can help soothe your child. Remember back when your whispered to your baby? Big kids also feel soothed by a calming voice. Whisper about the clouds in the sky or the butterfly out the window. Whisper about ice cream cones on a summer day. Whispering a favorites list can be a great calming strategy.

Blow bubbles!

Blowing bubbles isn’t just for little kids. The combination of getting outside into nature, fresh air and deep breathing (required for bubble blowing) are known antidotes to anxious feelings. Get outside an blow bubbles when you’re anxious – no matter your age!

Color together.

Kids tell me over and over again that what they really want when they’re feeling intense anxiety is for parents to stay with them while they calm down. Coloring together is a great way to soothe those intense emotions while spending time together. Those adult coloring books are popular for a reason – get some!

Bubble bath.

Pour your child a nice warm bath with plenty of bubbles, turn on some relaxing music in the background and let the stress and anxiety melt away.

Create a cozy spot.

I always encourage parents of anxious kids to have a designated stress free zone in the house. Stock it with favorite books, coloring books and other supplies, stress balls, soft pillows and blankets, journals and any other relaxing activities that appeal to your child.

Take a mindful walk.

Mindfulness + nature + exercise = decreased anxiety. It’s a simple equation. Don’t spend the time talking about anxiety and stress. Notice the green grass, the fluffy white clouds and the flowers just in bloom. Trust me.

Walk down memory lane.

Sometimes big kids need to be reminded that they’re still those little kids who always sat on your lap and asked for one more story…just taller and more knowledgable. Get out the family photos and walk down memory lane together. Talk about favorite days, favorite trips and favorite memories.

Check out.

I can’t say this enough: We need to work together to take back childhood. If kids are under more stress today, we all have to own our role in it. Skip the soccer practice (the team will survive). Take a season off (your kid will still be an athlete). Take a break from the community musical (he can go back to it next time). You get the point.

Childhood is in crisis because kids are expected to do too much every single day. Check out. Bring back free play and downtime and family time. Take back childhood.

For more on helping kids cope with stress and anxiety, get your copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

 

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How to Help Your Quiet Child Connect

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Ask my son about his day at school and you will get a play-by-play of his two recess periods. You’ll find out what they played, who said something funny, who scored a goal (or a run or something else) and who got frustrated with the game. If anyone cheated, you’ll hear all about it.

In first grade, playing with his friends is everything. Sure, he’s a math enthusiast and loves science and history, but recess is by far his favorite part of the day. When the day is done, however, so is he. No need for play dates. No filling the spaces with extra curricular activities. No busy social calendar. Recess has him covered.

I get a lot of questions from parents concerned about their “quiet” or “shy” kids. They worry that their kids struggle to make friends. They wonder if their kids are lonely or sad at school. They don’t know how to help them “fit in” with the other kids.

This is a natural worry among parents of kids with all kinds of personalities. Somewhere deep down in the recesses of our emotional memory banks, we all remember that time when we didn’t fit in or felt left out. We don’t want our children to experience that kind of hurt. We want to fix it before it happens.

Here’s the thing: More often than not, the so-called “shy” and “quiet” kids in question are actually perfectly content. It’s their loud, talkative and highly social parents who worry.

Here’s the other thing: There is a difference between a child who struggles with mild social anxiety or has difficulty engaging with peers and introverted children.

One more thing: Try to avoid the labels. “Shy” can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Identify formation starts early and takes time. A kid who is always called “shy” will eventually act the part.

Introverted children enjoy downtime. They like to be alone and draw energy from doing various quiet activities on their own. For introverted kids, school is a real energy zapper. They need after school time and weekends to recharge. They aren’t avoiding other kids, they’ve just had their fill.

As for the kids with mild social anxiety or the kids who tend to be quiet in groups, you can help them practice a few skills to make the process of connecting easier (and less anxiety producing).

Respect their preferences.

Not every kid wants to play every sport and join every group. Some kids genuinely prefer 1:1 play. I was that kid. I loved afternoons with my best friend but dreaded birthday parties and group play. I wasn’t anxious about fitting in, I just preferred a smaller environment.

Understanding and respecting your child’s preferences is crucial. Forcing your child to fit some mold won’t help your child connect with others. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. Instead of forcing your kid to attend every party or meet large groups of kids at the park, ask your child who she wants to play with and start there. Also? Step back and let the kids play. Quiet kids need time to develop relationships. Micromanaging the play date or planning big outings are counterproductive.

Don’t push.

You can’t force your child to want to have play dates and make new friends. If you do, your child will likely feel anxious about the whole process of making friends.

Put your needs (and feelings about it) aside for the time being and provide support. Ask about friends here and there, but resist the urge to pepper your child with questions about the lunch table, recess and the latest activities the kids are doing.

Teach a few “meet and greet” skills.

When children end up on my couch for “difficulty making and maintaining friends”, I find that many of them need help with social interaction skills. They either steamroll conversations in and effort to be heard or they stare at their feet and wait for the moment to end.

Try these tips to help your kids meet new people:

  • Notice the eyes: Instead of hissing, “look up” every time your child meets someone new, prepare your child in advance by teaching her to focus on the color of the person’s eyes. Zooming in on this detail can make the meeting feel more manageable.
  • Loud and proud: Quiet kids tend to have quiet voices. Practice speaking in a hour voice at home by pretending to use a microphone to give a speech about Lego building. Instead of saying “speak up” when your child talks to others, get low and whisper, “loud and proud” as a reminder.
  • Be curious: Sometimes kids worry about how they will answer questions when they meet new people. Teach your kids to be curious about others by asking questions to start a conversation. This decreases some of the anticipatory anxiety that can crop up in social situations.

Practice conversational skills at home.

Ever been stuck in a group at a party where one group member talks on and on and always finds a way to circle the conversation back to his own interests? Many adults lack basic conversational skills. Excessive chatter is simply a coverup.

Teach your child the art of sliding in and out of conversations. This is best done at the dinner (or breakfast) table. If your quiet one tends to watch without comment, stop and point out times to slide in with a comment or question and slide back out.

Practice ice breakers.

Sometimes the hardest part is finding something to say. I often encourage my kids to follow these two tips when meeting new kids:

  • Find out one interesting thing about the other child. Your child can practice simple questions like “do you have a pet?”, “do you play a sport?” or “what’s your favorite thing to do after school?”
  • Share one interesting thing. When the other child answers a question, your child should practice responding with his own interesting fact (“I have a dog, too!)

While these ice breakers might sound simple, many kids freeze up in large groups or new social situations. Practicing at home helps.

Friends make school more fun and actually help kids feel more confident in the classroom. But social interaction skills don’t come naturally to every child. Some kids need a little extra help at home!

For more great tips on helping kids connect with others, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK!

 

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