How to Help Your Anxious Kid Avoid Avoidance Behaviors

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Avoid avoidance? I know, sounds like I missed something there, but stay with me. In the past few weeks, my inbox has been overflowing with questions about helping anxious kids who have a tendency to avoid all possible anxiety triggers. Should parents push kids to “face their fears”? Should they encourage the avoidance because the anxiety seems to “disappear” as long as the child avoids the triggers? What’s a parent to do?

Parenting an anxious child is hard work. Just when you think you have the problem solved (nine night lights to clear up the fear of the dark later), a new trigger emerges. That’s because anxiety isn’t just about the triggers. Irrational fears and intrusive thoughts have a way of snowballing, and kids confront a lot of new information on a daily basis. For a non-anxious child, new information is fun and exciting. For an anxious child, however, new information can lead to new fears.

Add the new fears to the old fears (you can install all the night lights you want, until kids learn to cope with anxiety those Band Aids can come off at any moment!) and you have a big mess of fears.

Avoidance is a common strategy used by anxious kids. Honestly, it’s easy for parents to fall into the trap (been there). When kids avoid their triggers, they tend to appear calm and happy again. The problem is that it won’t last.

What are avoidance behaviors?

Avoidance behaviors are things kids (and by kids I do mean all ages – even the tweens and teens!) do or don’t do to reduce their feelings of anxiety. There are different levels of avoidance. For example, true avoidance behaviors occur when a child goes to great lengths to completely stay away from a trigger. If a child is afraid of reading in front of his classmates, for example, he might either try to stay home “sick” when he has to give a book report or invent reasons to leave the classroom during book report time (I need to see the nurse).

Partial avoidance, sometimes referred to as safety behaviors, are things kids do to try to hide their anxiety. Ever notice a kid who always seems to drop his pencil and disappear from sight the moment the teacher starts calling on kids for answers? That’s avoidance. Safety behaviors help kids feel in control in the moment or help limit exposure to the trigger. Other examples include avoiding eye contact when talking to people, leaving the room frequently, daydreaming to check out and even drinking and drugs in older kids.

While avoidance behaviors might give kids some immediate symptom relief, they don’t help them learn to cope with their triggers. In fact, the fears actually have a tendency to snowball when kids engage in avoidance behaviors.

Take, for example, a child who refuses to go to school due to separation anxiety. It feels good and safe to stay home, so the child engages in negative behaviors to avoid going to school. Over time, as the days add up, the child starts to internalize the message that she can’t go to school. School is scary, overwhelming and just too hard. The more she stays home, the more she believes that she’s can’t possibly cope at school.

Avoidance can actually increase the risk of engaging in negative safety behaviors down the line. Drugs and alcohol are used to dull the feelings of anxiety, particularly for those facing social anxiety.

How can you teach kids to avoid avoidance?

Like all things anxiety related, avoiding avoidance requires time, practice and patience. There will be good days and not-so-good days along the way. Try not to view setbacks as failures when your kids are learning to cope with anxiety. Setbacks are simply a call to review what is and isn’t working so that your child can continue to practice adaptive coping strategies.

***If anxiety impacts your child’s ability to go to school or participate in normal daily activities, call your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional specializing in children and adolescents. 

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With that in mind, try these five steps to help your child learn to avoid avoidance:

Unpack the triggers.

More often than not, what begins as an intentional avoidance becomes a habit over time. The kid who hides every time a dog is near no longer has to think about avoiding the dog. she just does it. It’s how she copes.

It can take time to help kids unpack their anxiety triggers and identify their avoidance behaviors. When your child is calm, talk about what it means to feel anxious (your heart races, your brain warns you to avoid something, your palms sweat, etc) and what kids of things might cause those feelings. Share your observations of your child. Ask your child if she ever tries to avoid things that make her feel scared or worried.

I always recommend having the child make a “trigger tracker” list. This helps the child gain some control over the feelings of anxiety.

Challenge exaggerations.

Anxiety is fueled by irrational thinking. What might begin as a small worry (did I leave the stove on?) can quickly snowball when intrusive thoughts take over (my house is burning down!) Experiencing a complete lack of control over the trigger can increase those intrusive thoughts. This sends kids into fight or flight mode, and flight is often the easiest option.

Teach your child to challenge exaggerations by using self-talk. Help your child make a list of the intrusive thoughts that tend to snowball, then practice making logical statements instead. When kids learn to pick apart their worries and ground themselves in logical thinking, the intrusive thoughts shrink.

Start small.

It can be tempting to tell a kid to just get back in there and face his fears, but that kind of statement feels paralyzing to a child struggling with anxiety. Anxious kids often feel overwhelmed on a good day – they can’t just “shake it off”.  What they can do is start small and go from there.

If dogs are a huge source of anxiety, for example, start by reading books about dogs. Next, find a pet grooming place that will let your child watch a dog being groomed from behind the glass. After that, find a friend with a very calm and kid friendly dog and pay that dog a visit. You get the drill.

If social anxiety is the problem, start by attending a gathering for 15 minutes then work up to 25 and 35 and so on until larger gatherings no longer feel overwhelming.

Focus on manageable tasks.

One of the most difficult challenges for anxious kids is that once their anxiety is triggered, everything feels huge and overwhelming. Teach your child to break things down into manageable parts. If test anxiety is a problem, help your child learn to study in specific blocks of time with plenty of relaxation breaks and break down the test material to one focus area per study block. When he actually takes the test, have him use a plain piece of paper to block out the section he’s not working on in the moment.

Learning to break things down helps kids feel in control of their triggers.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

All kids are different and no one strategy works for all kids (except deep breathing to calm the feeling of panic – that always works when done correctly), but there are tons of ways to practice confronting triggers.

Mirror, mirror: Have your child role play anxiety producing situations while facing a mirror. The more kids practice confronting their triggers, the more mastery they gain. Join your child to help him work though difficult situations.

Put on a social play: Writing, directing and starring in a play about your own worries can be quite empowering! Encourage the whole family to get in on the action, as directed by the anxious child. Play truly does help children gain mastery over the fears, and this is a great way to get started.

Sing a silly song: As silly as it sounds, rewriting the lyrics to a favorite tune to reflect how you can face your fears really does help. I do this to show my kids that we all have worries and sources of stress, but casting them in a new light can make us feel better.

The Happy Kid Handbook is full of great strategies to help children and families learn to cope with stress and anxiety. Grab your copy today!

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How to Help Your Negative Thinker

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Some kids are super hard on themselves.

For many years, I worked with a little girl who struggled to silence her inner critic. She constantly looked for approval and praise from her teachers, me or her parents. It wasn’t just that she needed praise – she wasn’t a kid raised on “you’re the best at everything!” – she just couldn’t stop looking for flaws.

One day she brought me a poem she had written in her free time. It was quite beautiful and far more sophisticated than you would expect from a nine-year-old. The imagery practically jumped off the page. “Do you think it’s good?” Loaded question. Her words hung in the air for a moment while I read the poem a second time. I knew that I had to choose my words carefully. Was it good? Yes, definitely. Would that response help this child move forward? No. “I love how you describe the sunset. I can picture it in my mind. What’s your favorite part?” She looked at me with curiosity for a while. The silence spoke volumes. “I never really thought about that,” she said, meeting my gaze at last.

What’s the deal with negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk is fairly common among young children, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is pessimistic by nature or needs help from a therapist. Sometimes it stems from perfectionism. Sometimes it’s a result of stress or pressure. Some kids get stuck in black and white thinking – one small failure seems like a huge failure (ex: I bombed that spelling test so I must be a terrible speller.) Sometimes it’s even a cry for more 1:1 time with mom or dad.

No one is positive all of the time. Even the greatest optimists among us have hard days once in a while. When kids get stuck in a negative loop, however, it can impact them in many ways. It’s difficult to learn, for instance, when the inner critic tells you that you’re terrible at math, spelling or something else. It’s hard to have fun on the playing field when your inner critic tells you that you ruined the whole game by letting that goal in. It’s even hard to enjoy time with friends when that pesky inner critic makes you feel like you don’t have much to offer the friendship.

What can parents do to help?

The truth is that you can’t change this behavior for your kid. Responding to negative self-talk with an overly optimistic outlook might actually fuel the negativity. Getting out of the negative loop takes time and practice. But you can support and encourage your child along the way.

Watch your words.

Do you ever catch yourself saying something like, “wow, I really stink at that game!” or “why can’t I catch a break this week?” Kids are the masters of picking up on what we say when we think they aren’t paying attention. Sure, we give great speeches about the power of positive thinking, including stories of our own childhoods, but those sometimes fall flat. What kids look for is how we respond in the moment. They watch us when the chips are down so that they might learn how to cope with the hard stuff.

Think about the words you use when your kids are around. If we criticize ourselves or our children out loud, our kids will internalize it and repeat it.

Stop overcorrecting.

Kids endure a lot of negative input when they’re young. Most of it is meant to help – it comes from a good place. Parents want to keep them safe from harm or help them solve problems. Parents want to raise kind, respectful and responsible kids, and that involves establishing healthy boundaries and providing input on behavior.

But sometimes it comes from the need of the parent. Not long ago, I sat in a first grade classroom and watched as the kids presented projects they made for homework. It was easy to see which were made by the kids and which were made by the parents. Parents want their kids to succeed – they also feel pressure to perform in some way – and this results in the parent take-over. Overcorrecting the homework can quickly snowball into doing for the child and completely taking over.

When parents don’t let their kids try (and don’t let the homework go back to school with mistakes), kids feel like they aren’t good enough. It’s a tough burden to bear when you’re young, and it does result in negative self-talk.

Listen and empathize.

When kids do come to you full of negative thoughts, the best thing you can do is listen and empathize. Countering every negative statement only adds to the pressure to be better or perfect in the moment of upset. Giving your child the space to vent and conveying understanding shows your child that you get it – life is hard, we all make mistakes and sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything right.

Offer honesty.

After your child vents her emotions and gets the negative thoughts out, take some time to brainstorm together. Give honest feedback. Instead of countering “I failed my spelling test and I’m a terrible speller” with “you’re a great speller! It was just a bad test!” try talking about ways to practice spelling that might be more fun and engaging.

Countering negative black and white thinking with positive black and white thinking isn’t a solution. Helping your child think about what went wrong or what has her down and coming up with a list of solutions empowers her to try a new tactic the next time. It also reminds her that she has the power to make changes.

Create a positive word wall.

Sit with your child and think about some positive phrases that might be inspiring – almost like a list of mantras to tap into when the going gets tough. Put them on a poster, decorate it and hang it on the wall. In times of struggle, the words will be there to lift her up. When kids are surrounded by positive thoughts, they internalize them.

Correct missteps.

We all have bad moments. We all say things we wish we could unsay and we all make mistakes. Instead of pretending those bad moments didn’t happen, talk about them. Correct the mistakes and apologize for your own words and behaviors.

Parents have a tendency to try to hide the bad moments from the kids, but showing our kids that we struggle at times actually helps them gain perspective. Ask them to help you brainstorm solutions to your hard moments! Kids might feel like they’re the only ones who need help, but very often they have the answers to our problems, too.

For more great strategies to empower kids to work through stress, anxiety and negativity, grab your copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK!

 

 

10 Things Parents of Anxious Kids Should Know

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As the parent of a mildly anxious child, I know firsthand how hard it can be to parent an anxious child. You want to fix it for them, but you can’t. You want to tell them not to worry, but those are empty words when the world feels overwhelming. You read everything you can get your hands on, but it never seems quite right. It might make sense, but how will it help your kid?

I get it.

I also know that it’s easier for me than it is for other parents. Helping kids with anxiety is what I do best. I know the signs and red flags and I know how and when to intervene. I also know the process of helping a worrier worry less, including the fact that often the best strategy out there is time.

I get a lot of calls and messages about helping anxious children. In general, parents want to know how to help at home and what they can do to speed up the worry-less process. Here’s the thing: If your child’s anxiety interferes with normal daily living – as in your child can’t get to school, refuses to participate in previously loved activities, isn’t eating or sleeping normally (per your child’s usual eat/sleep habits, that is) or is suddenly withdrawing from peers and family, your child needs treatment. Now. Don’t wait. Anxiety has a way of growing in size fairly quickly and it can impact the whole family.

If you’re not there yet – if you’re worried about your worrier but not sure that therapy is necessary, consider these ten things about kids with anxiety:

They can’t “just stop worrying”.

Anxious kids worry for a variety of reasons. For younger kids, separation is a big issue. For older kids, real world issues (like diseases, natural disasters or violence) can trigger anxiety. Whatever the cause of your child’s anxiety, telling your child not to worry about something isn’t useful. Your child is already worrying. Those words hold little to no value.

When we tell kids to just stop worrying, they feel like they’re doing something wrong. They’re not. It’s how their brains are wired.

It’s hard to sleep when you’re anxious.

Believe me, I get it. Sometimes when you finally reach the end of a long day, you just want everyone to go to sleep without an issue. The problem is that anxiety tends to spike at night. When kids finally slow down enough to rest their bodies, their brains tend to kick into overdrive. All those worries that they tried to stuff during the school day? Those feel huge!

They need help learning to calm their anxious thought cycles at night. Try a worry box. Consider practicing mindfulness together or using guided relaxation.

Little things feel very big.

You might think that your child’s worries are small in size. What’s a timed test when there are things like terrorism in this world? Your child’s triggers feel huge to your child. Resist the urge to minimize your child’s triggers and simply listen and empathize, instead.

Visuals help. A lot.

Children who struggle with anxiety tend to have anticipatory anxiety. They worry about what comes next. You might think that your child has the daily schedule down, but worriers tend to think outside the box when it comes to worrying – they experience intrusive thoughts (ones that alert them to terrible possibilities – like missing the bus, failing a test or car accidents).

Irrational thoughts play a significant role in anxiety. Visuals help kids boss back those intrusive, and often irrational, thoughts. Make posters for the morning routine, school and the evening routine. Keep a wall calendar up to date with upcoming events.

Breaking down tasks is essential.

Worriers tend to get easily overwhelmed by big tasks (like a long homework packet). Teach your anxious child to break down tasks into manageable pieces. Instead of tacking a list of four homework assignments at once, for example, pull out one assignment and then take a break. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to empowering an anxious child to take control of his anxiety.

They can worry themselves sick.

Sometimes anxious kids talk about their worries constantly. Sometimes they internalize their emotions. Always keep a close eye on the quiet ones – they might actually be worrying themselves into a cold.

Sleep disruption and changes in eating habits tend to go hand-in-hand with anxiety in children. When you’re not eating and sleeping properly and you’re under stress, you’re at risk of getting sick.

Every new behavior is a clue.

Life seems to be on fast forward these days. Kids and parents are highly busy and sometimes parents miss the clues that point to anxiety. Changes in behavior should always be noted when it comes to young children. If a very social child suddenly avoids play dates and going to the park, you know something is amiss. But what about smaller clues? Watch for nail biting, hair twirling, regressed behavior, frequent nightmares, school avoidance, negative statements (I can’t, I hate, I always…) and sticking closer to mom or dad than usual.

Anticipation is emotionally exhausting.

If your anxious child seems tired most of the time, it’s because she is. Anticipating bad things and worrying about when disaster might strike is emotionally exhausting. Anxious children have a tendency to worry on the inside without giving it away to the adults in the room. It’s very tiring to exist in a perpetual state of worry. Watch for fatigue and factor in downtime.

It’s hard to choose when you worry about outcomes.

Anxious children have a very difficult time making decisions. Parents often confide in me that it’s very frustrating when the child can’t even choose between ice cream flavors. What might seem like a simple choice to you might actually be very hard for your anxious child.

Practice patience and help your child consider pros and cons.

Anxious kids need comfort.

When you have an anxious child, handle with care. They don’t need toughening up. They don’t need to learn to shake it off. They definitely don’t need to just get through it.

Anxious kids need empathy, comfort and understanding. They need support at home, at school and out in the world. They will learn to cope with their anxiety, but it won’t happen overnight. They need you now so that they won’t need you so much later on.

3 Things you can do right now to help confront anxiety!

Name it and explain it.

Use the word “anxiety”. You don’t need to hide it or sugarcoat it. There’s nothing wrong with having anxiety. In fact, some anxiety is healthy. Without worry, you might run right in front of a car without even looking!

Tell your child that the worry center in her brain, the amygdala, has a heightened response. It’s job is to switch on when it senses danger – that’s what helps us make quick decisions to get out of a dangerous situation. In an anxious child, the worry center can overestimate danger and send alert signals when it doesn’t need to. In anxious kids, the worry brain crowds out the happy brain and that causes a build up of stress.

Try this worry brain activity at home to help your child understand it better.

Breathe.

Learning the art of relaxation breathing is the best first step for helping a worrier. Mindfulness programs and guided relaxation programs are great for teaching this important skill, but you can start with a little rainbow breathing.

Ask your child to sit comfortably and breathe in for a count of four, hold for three and breathe out for four. Count out loud to help your child slow his breathing. Now have your child close his eyes and breathe all of the colors of the rainbow while visualizing each color as it appears.

Boss back.

Teaching kids to talk back to their worry brains is huge. It helps them take control of their intrusive thoughts. It does take time and practice.

Ask your child to name the thoughts that trigger his worry center. Together, make a list of positive counter statements to boss back. If the worry is, “I’m terrible at math”, the counter statement might be, “I can ask for help when I need it.”

Practice regularly for best results.

For more great strategies to help your child work through childhood stress and anxiety, pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook!

 

 

3 Wishes for 2016

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I’ve never been big on resolutions. It wasn’t a thing we did in our family. We didn’t sit around the table on December 31st talking about our plans for the coming year. We didn’t write out our plans and check in every month to see if we were still on track to meet those resolutions. We just didn’t do that.

We were taught to set goals. We were encouraged to figure out a step-by-step process to meet our goals. We were cheered on and we always knew that our parents would listen and help and be there for us as we reached for our own personal goals. But those goals could be set at any time. Ringing in a New Year didn’t mean an opportunity for personal development, it meant celebrating what we achieved the previous year and looking forward to another year of health and happiness.

As I got older I saw friends fall into the trap of resolutions centered around weight loss, healthy eating and increased exercise. I admired their focus in those first few months of each year; though I stuck with my usual plan of running because it feels good and everything in moderation. I didn’t want the added pressure of meeting a goal meant to improve my overall lifestyle – what works for some doesn’t work for all.

As we crawl into 2016, I certainly do have a few personal goals on my mind. Write on my own blog more often. Finish the new book proposal. Continue to book speaking engagements to spread the Happy Kid message. The truth is, those goals have been on my mind for quite some time now. It’s not about 2016. I can’t possibly predict what will happen this year, but I can keep those goals in mind as I work my way through this year.

What I do have for 2016 is big wishes. It’s no big secret that I’m a dreamer. To know me personally is to know that a blank stare out the window isn’t a sign of unhappiness or stress but a sign of ideas rolling through my mind.

Yet sometimes I feel burdened by those thoughts and dreams. I’m a sensitive soul, and I tend to spend too much time thinking about ways change the world for the better. Some of those ideas are too big for one person to tackle. Some will always be a work in progress. And some, well, some might not come to fruition.

But I find that big ideas are always worth considering. If we can take steps to make the world a better place, we should. Even if those steps feel small in size. Even if it feels like some steps are taken alone.

With that in mind, please consider these three wishes for 2016. Together we can make a difference.

Focus on positive parenting.

I recently wrote an article about time-outs – specifically, why I’m not a fan. I believe in solving problems together, and giving children the opportunity to vent and work through emotions with someone who will listen, no matter how tired or frustrated that someone might be.

Some of the comments left in response to that article left me feeling sad, for both kids and parents. I whip mine. I pinch mine. I spank mine. I just yell and they stop. All I have to do is threaten them. The negative parenting strategies seemed to go on and on.

The article included specific strategies to decrease parental frustration and help parents help their kids through upsetting situations, and yet many of the responses focused on the so-called benefits of physical punishment and intimidation.

Children learn through trial and error. They have big feelings and they don’t always know what to do with those feelings. They don’t always get it right. But that’s what being a kid is all about – learning and growing and finding new ways to handle everyday issues.

I can’t help but consider what a child might say if given the chance to talk under such circumstances…

Please don’t hit me. Please don’t yell at me. Please don’t scare me. I’m little and I’m learning and I need your love and support along the way.

There are many wonderful therapists and educators out there trying to help spread positive parenting techniques. Pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook – it is full of practical and easy-to-implement strategies, I promise. Then follow these wonderful resources:

Talk about mental illness

Let this be the year that people feel comfortable opening up about mental health. Let this be the year that the word suicide stops scaring people into silence. Let this be the year that words like “anxiety” and “depression” hold their true meaning, and that people can use them at the dinner table as they would any other word to describe any other illness.

I watch as parents try to minimize the meaning of anxiety and depression when it comes to their kids. She’s just not herself right now. She’ll be good as new soon! I watch as people go silent when mental health becomes a topic in the room.

People are suffering in this world – and all too often they suffer in silence. It’s time to break the silence on mental illness. It’s time to learn how to listen without going silent. It’s time to learn to ask one simple question: How can I help?

It’s okay that you don’t know what to say. It’s okay that the thought of suicide scares you or that you don’t really understand the meaning of depression. But it’s not okay to judge, walk away from a friend in need or minimize the struggles of others. It’s not okay to turn the other cheek.

Let this be the year that we all learn to speak clearly and listen with open hearts.

Slow down and play

We live in a high stress world where the race to the finish is causing our children pain and heartache. They are doing too much highly structured stuff and not enough good for their souls stuff. It’s time to stop building the resume. It’s time to slow down, take back childhood and truly get back to the business of play.

In just a few weeks, parents everywhere will begin stressing about summer plans. How many camps will keep my kids busy? What enrichment programs will help them get ahead? How much do I need to bribe them to read? I’ve heard it all before, and I will hear it all again.

But before you step back on the fast track to busy, consider this: Kids today are play deprived. Kids today are under stress and experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression. Kids today are sleep deprived. Consider the whole child before you mark up those summer months. Consider getting back to basics and giving your child the chance to do what kids are meant to do: Play and act like kids.

On that note, I’m off to play. Wishing you the very best in the coming year. Happy 2016!

 

 

Drop Everything and Play!

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The stuffed animals went to school today. They went to stuffed animal school, anyway. The bad news is that my kids are home sick (tis the season). The good news is that they’re home sick together so they can play in between coughs and sneezes.

They spent the better part of the morning setting up the school. They started with the physical space. After much thoughtful consideration, they settled on the hallway space between their bedrooms as the ideal place to build a school. They gathered school supplies, determined a schedule (including extra time for snacks, recess and lunch – you can draw your own conclusions on that one), made important decisions about who would teach what and raided the toy kitchen for food items to keep in the cafeteria. They even discussed the ideal teaching style and agreed on a strict NO HOMEWORK policy.

After what amounted to at least two hours of set up, they took a much needed break for lunch and rest. We read together, watched a show together and played a board game. Then they got back to business. By the afternoon, they began the playing part of the play.

This kind of “high level play”, play that contains sustained play themes and involves multiple roles and symbolic use of props, requires time. Today my kids had the time because they were home sick, but most days they find the time because we refuse to over schedule in this house. Childhood is short – we choose to play.

As both a psychotherapist and a mother, I have seen firsthand the clear benefits of making time for unstructured play.

The best news is that you don’t need a bunch of props and fancy toys to encourage this kind of play. In fact, most kids prefer to create their own props. In doing so, the prop becomes exactly what they want it to be and they can manipulate it to meet their needs. This is why cardboard boxes are such a huge hit for kids. They like to take control and create their own fun.

In fact, Eastern Connecticut State University’s Child Development Center just named the wooden cash register by Hape Toys the 2015 Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination selection. After studying preschoolers at play in their classrooms with a selection of toys for one year, they found that the kids were drawn to the wooden cash register over toys with more bells and whistles.

It makes sense. With the wooden cash register, kids can manipulate it as needed. It can be used for a store or to check out books for a library. The possibilities are endless when the children use the toy on their own terms.

What’s the big deal about high level play?

We know that play is the language of children and that kids learn, communicate and grow through play. But we have a tendency to push structured activities the moment kids enter elementary school.

When I speak to groups of parents I hear the same question over and over again: What is so different? Why are kids more stressed today than they were twenty years ago. While there are multiple reasons for increased levels of stress and anxiety in children and each child has their own triggers and circumstances, I can tell you this: Kids today are play deprived.

Kids are doing a lot of things from preschool on, but what they aren’t doing enough of is the very thing that will help them thrive. We simply aren’t making enough time for play in this busy, go go go world.

Benefits of high level play:

  • Stress relief – kids work through their emotions by playing.
  • Emotional regulation – kids learn to identify and regulate their emotions through play.
  • Exploration of passions – they figure out what makes them tick.
  • Increased social skills.
  • Improved communication skills.
  • Increased creativity and creative thinking.
  • Improved problem solving skills.
  • They connect with friends, siblings and caregivers on a deeper level.
  • Try on new roles and make sense of the world around them.
  • Cope with and overcome fears and worries.

I could go on and on and on…the benefits of play are many. Stand back and watch your kids play for an hour and you’ll see your own benefits – unique to your own child. That’s the wonderful thing about play. When kids tap into high level imaginative play, they work through their own unique needs at the moment.

When is my child too old for unstructured play?

Never! I see eleven-year-old kids working through difficult emotions and stressful situations through play. I see teens let go of their insecurities simply by getting down on the floor and playing! I’ve seen adults learn to let go of their own stress by engaging in unstructured play with their kids. Truly, the power of play knows no age restrictions.

I know that it’s tempting to try every sport and enroll in every enrichment program that comes your way, but the truth is that kids don’t need constant adult direction. They time to figure things out on their own. If we don’t give them the opportunity to work through various situations independently and in a way that makes sense to them, how can we expect them to act as problem solvers out in the world? How can we expect them to gain independence?

Drop everything and play this holiday season. Your kids need it. The truth is…you probably do, too.

For more information on the healing power of play and how to encourage a playful environment, pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook today.

The Happy Kid Handbook on FOX NEWS Health

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Image via pexels

I’m back from a whirlwind trip of speaking at schools and media appearances to spread the word about The Happy Kid Handbook and, more importantly, to discuss childhood stress and taking back childhood. I met countless amazing parents along the way and we had some very lively discussions about helping our kids thrive.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the power of play – specifically higher level play (what it means and why your kids need it).

In the meantime, I wanted to share one of my favorite clips from the past week. I stopped by FOX NEWS Health in NYC and had a great chat about the importance of letting kids be kids. I hope you enjoy it!

Before you go…it is November and November brings gratitude – this week on PBS Parents I shared some strategies for promoting gratitude all year long. Check out, “For Greater Happiness, Teach Gratitude“.

 

Sending happy thoughts your way!

3 Reasons to Keep the Costumes After Halloween

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My son is obsessed with football. He loves watching games. He loves discussing scores and plays. He loves throwing a football with his daddy and playing some version of two-person flag football. And he really, really loves the Patriots.

So you can imagine his excitement when Franklin Sports offered to send him a Patriots costume for Halloween. But here’s the thing: He wears it almost every single day. We have yet to iron on a number, because he likes to become all of his favorite players when lost in play. If we skip the number, he can switch between players and try on every role.

Patriotsboy

For the past few years, my son has always made his own costumes. He has a big imagination and he likes to make something from nothing, and costume creating became part of our Halloween tradition. I was a little sad when he said he wanted to be a Patriot this year because I thought I might miss that part of Halloween, but when the costume arrived, it hit me: This isn’t just about Halloween. This is about the power of pretend play.

Parents often remark that their young kids have “grown out of” dress up play by about first grade. But at 8 and 7, my kids still love to dress up, and so do some of their friends. Perhaps the fact that we put Halloween costumes into the dress up bin on November 1st each year has something to do with it. Perhaps it’s just who they are. They love pretend play and they get so much out of it.

3 Reasons to keep the costumes:

Try on new roles:

Kids use play to learn about the world around them, and part of that comes from pretending to be something you’re not. Just the other day I found my daughter searching my closet for “appropriate librarian shoes”. She recently added “children’s librarian” to her future career list and she’s working on making that dream come true.

When lost in dress up play, children can escape their own worlds and enter new ones. They can work through what it might feel like to be someone else. This develops empathy and compassion. It’s also a lot of fun!

Work through fears:

Got a worrier on your hands? Dress up play is a great way to work through fears and process difficult emotions. Sometimes kids feel powerless – dress up gives them a chance to flip the script and take control of negative emotions.

Tap into the imagination:

Creative problem solving is a catchphrase in education these days, and for good reason. When kids learn to think outside the box or, better yet, pretend there is no box in the first place, they learn to persevere through difficult tasks. They develop grit.

Dress up play is a great way to tap into the imagination and think creatively. Creative thinkers make excellent problem solvers because they aren’t afraid to think beyond the directions on the page. When we give kids the opportunity to work on this through play, they thrive.

I have a confession to make: While I will sign my son up for flag football at some point, I’m not excited about the idea of him playing football in the future. Until we actually cross that bridge, he has plenty of years of dress up play time left to act like a quarterback.

Keep the costumes. Halloween is fun for a night, but dress up play is fun all year long.

Image credit: Franklin Sports

Disclaimer: Franklin Sports provided a Patriots costume for Liam. He loves it. I hope they send him one every year! All thoughts and opinions are my own.

The Happy Kid Handbook in Stores Now!

Happy Kid #1 close up

 

Yesterday was an exciting day! Thanks to so many of you, The Happy Kid Handbook made it to #1 for parenting on Amazon! I am humbled by and grateful for your support. This is just the beginning. In the coming weeks I will hit the road to talk about the book and share my passion for taking back childhood and empowering our kids to live happy lives.

There were some great articles about the book yesterday. While I did my best to share them on social media as much as possible, I decided to share them here just in case you missed something that might be helpful to you and your family.

Yahoo interviewed me a few weeks ago and shared 8 Ways to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. That was a super fun interview and I love the article.

Club Mid for Scary Mommy shared an exclusive excerpt of the book. Check out How Do We Teach Our Kids About Forgiveness? for some tips straight from the book!

My friends at mom.me shared another exclusive excerpt from the book – this one on raising kids who speak up. Read 5 Ways to Raise a Kid Who Speaks Up for more on teaching assertiveness skills.

Also on mom.me, my dear friend Sherri wrote The Secret to Raising a Happy Kid – warning, always bring tissues when reading Sherri.

By now you know I’m a huge believer in the power of play. My friend Marilyin at Roots of Action shared this article on the importance of play: The Benefits of Play are “Oh, So Big!”

Passion is always a hot topic. Should a kid have just one or is more really better? I enjoyed writing this article for Psychology Today: How to Support and Nurture Your Child’s Passions.

And you don’t want to miss 5 Steps to a Happier Home on EverydayFamily.com.

Thank you so very much! If you didn’t get your copy, please check it out!

If you did, and you want to stop by Amazon and leave a review…I will owe you a giant hug and a latte!

I’ll have some bookstore and speaking dates for you soon…stay tuned!

Get out and play!

3 Phrases That Will Strengthen Your Bond With Your Child Today

 

It’s easy to talk about and practice unconditional love when we are rested, happy and healthy but when times get tough – the act of unconditional can fade away. And that’s just it. We all talk about it often. Of course we feel huge love for our children. But do we show it? Do we make sure to communicate it?

Unconditional love isn’t just a feeling in our hearts, after all, it’s an action we take to communicate that feeling.

I was overwhelmed with exhaustion. A cold morphed into croup – the kind of croup that triggers the asthma and results in a desperate call for help in the dark of night. There were treatments and visits to the doctor and more treatments. There was little sleep. We were both overwhelmed and bone tired. Worry kept me awake, standing guard over her little lungs while she finally slept. It seemed as though it might never end this time. Nothing worked. Until it did. Finally, the light emerged.

But getting back to the daily grind was no easy task. That kind of illness, that inability to take a single breath – that leaves little ones scared and clingy. That triggers worries and sadness and difficulty sleeping. Although I was running on empty and wanted to rush through the process of reentering the world, I knew I couldn’t. I had to find the strength and patience to continue to practice that unconditional love. I had to help her through the next steps – to wash the fears away.

It wasn’t easy. I used a few strategies from the book. We did rainbow breathing together and practiced bossing back that pesky worry brain. When she was ready, we both tentatively let go. Our eyes met through the window of the classroom, both sets lined with tears. I watched and waited. She opened her book. Slowly, I walked away, placing my trust in unconditional love.

Kids need to know that we are always there for them. They need to hear the words and feel our arms wrapped around them. When we build them up with love, they are better able to spread their wings and fly.

There are countless things we can say and do to communicate unconditional love. Try these:

“I trust you.”

We spend a fair amount of time guiding our kids, as we should. We teach them to play well with others. We show them how to mediate conflict. We give them strategies to cope with the hard stuff. But at some point, we have to trust them. We have to believe that they can take it from here.

Communicate that to your child. Trust that your child can make good decisions, stand up for what’s right and walk away from what isn’t. Build your child up by trusting in her ability to thrive while she’s away from you.

“I believe in you.”

Many kids are pleasers by nature. They run to us with every little accomplishment because they want us to cheer for their success. They want us to know that they can do it! The hard part is empowering your kids to believe in themselves. We want them to carve their own paths – to find happiness by reaching their own goals. Not by pleasing us.

“I believe in you” is a frequently used phrase around here. I use it when they struggle to make decisions, when they walk into their classrooms each morning, when they step onto the field or dance floor or when they question their own abilities.

“I believe in you” puts your faith in them and empowers them to reach their own goals on their own timeline to make their own dreams come true. Powerful stuff.

“I will always be here for you.”

Growing up is hard work and sometimes letting go feels like jumping into the great unknown without a parachute. Kids need the parachute.

You know you’ll always be there to love them through their successes and failures, but kids need to hear their parents communicate this to them.

“I will always be here for you.” Say it often. Set it on repeat. Make it happen.

There will be ups and downs along this journey. There will be long days and longer nights and heartbreaking moments that bring you tears, but there will also be laughter, happiness and moments of pride that can’t be put into words. Be there for all of them, both in words and in spirit.

 

For more strategies to empower your kids to live happy lives and teach your kids how to cope with the hard stuff, preorder your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook today!

 

 

The Happy Kid Handbook on California Charter

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Things are getting busy as we prepare for the 10/20/15 launch of The Happy Kid Handbook! If you’re curious about the book, check out this clip set to air on California Charter this week!

I chatted with host Brad Pomerance about all things Happy Kid, including how to reduce stress, why our kids are so busy and the importance of understanding temperament when it comes to parenting our kids.

We had a blast comparing parenting stories and discussing where to go from here. I hope you enjoy it!

Please consider preordering your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook today! Incidentally, I still have a few cute feelings faces magnets left to distribute for preorders…get yours while they last!

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To see a few specific relaxation strategies from the book, please check out this article on Quartz!