Raise Assertive Kids in 8 Easy Steps

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In the past two days, two wonderful small moments occurred. The first happened during a chemistry lesson in my daughter’s classroom yesterday morning. When the teacher asked for volunteers to read the conclusion of the experiment out loud, my daughter raised her hand high in the air. Sounds like no big deal, right? The thing is that my daughter is never the first to raise her hand. She prefers to blend in and though she often knows the answers and yearns to show her teachers that, she doesn’t always speak up. To volunteer before the others and read in front of the class in a clear, strong voice is a big deal.

The second wonderful small moment occurred during her classroom Valentine’s Day celebration this afternoon. When another student offered to share extra balloons (he brought more than he needed), she jumped at the chance to get one. Again, this probably seems like the day in the life of a nine-year-old, except that my daughter typically thinks of others first and never reacts so quickly in such situations. She was beaming with pride when she recounted her ability to really speak up and use her voice this week. It’s something she thinks about often, and I see her working through her ambivalence about assertive communication as she grows.

Some kids are naturally more assertive than others. It can be hard to find the line between assertive communication and aggressive communication, and some kids hang out in the land of passive in an effort to be polite and respectful (like my daughter). The problem, of course, is that assertive communication is essential to building healthy working and personal relationships. Kids need to learn how to communicate their feelings, thoughts and needs in an assertive manner.

What does it mean to be “assertive”?

Being assertive means speaking up in an honest and respectful way. Assertive people stand tall, make good eye contact and speak clearly. They don’t talk over others, but they don’t let others talk over them. Assertive kids use their communication skills to do the following:

  • Give opinions
  • Ask for help
  • Express their needs
  • Disagree in a respectful manner
  • Offer suggestions
  • Speak up for others

What should I do if my child isn’t assertive?

Remain calm. You can’t force a child to become more assertive simply by saying it. Learning to assert yourself takes time and practice.

The truth is that one of the most frequently asked questions in my inbox is this: How can I teach my child to be more assertive with her/his friends (or teachers…or coaches)? If your child hasn’t found her voice yet, she’s not alone. You can practice these skills in the (emotional) safety of your home, and that will help your child find her voice.

8 Steps to more assertive kids:

Review communication styles.

Role play is always the best way to practice social skills. More often than not, kids aren’t aware of their own communication styles. They might think they speak assertively, when really they tend to have a more passive or aggressive style.

Using real life scenarios (provided by your child), act out the three communications styles. How would a passive (quiet voice, looks to the floor, has difficulty finding the words) person handle talking to a teacher about a grade? How would an aggressive (loud voice, has trouble listening, talks over the teacher) communicator cope? How can your child use assertive (practice first, maintain eye contact, ask questions, speak clearly) communication to resolve the problem?

Practice eye contact.

It can be really hard to look someone in the eye when you’re trying your best to hide in plain sight. I would know. I was one of those kids. Work hard and keep your head down – the rest will fall into place. Yeah, eventually I had to learn to speak up.

I always practice conversations that I know will be difficult or presentations in the mirror. Looking in the mirror helps you practice making eye contact in a safe place. After a few rounds in the mirror, try the same conversation with a family member. Another fun strategy? Make videos and replay them to see check for eye contact and voice tone.

Teach “I” statements.

A big part of assertive communication involves expressing your needs without blaming others or ignoring the needs of others. The key to doing this is learning the art of “I” statements.

When my kids struggle to assert their feelings, I always ask them three questions: What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What do you need? This cues them to tap into “I” statements.

Practice the art of debate.

Kids who struggle to assert themselves tend to avoid conversations that involve personal opinions. Sometimes they worry about what others will think. Other times they worry about hurting someone else’s feelings. Respectful communication does include healthy debates and disagreeing in a respectful manner, however, and kids do need to learn this skill.

Host a kitchen table debate over the weekend! Pick a topic (gummy worms versus jelly beans), have all family members (even you!) come up with their own opinions on the matter and debate the issue.

Create a word wall.

Okay, maybe it’s more like a phrase wall. Kids internalize the messages we send verbally, but nonverbal messages also go a long way toward helping kids learn to speak up.

One day, on a whim, I covered my daughter’s closet door with positive phrases like, “I can make a difference” and “I am kind and caring”. She loved it. I see her reading it often and she repeats some of the phrases when she needs them.

Have a personal motto.

Sometimes a calming, confident phrase helps kids remember to use their strong voices. I often encourage kids to come up with their own personal motto to use when they need to be strong and assertive.

Your kids should come up with their own phrases to inspire confidence, but something like, “When I use my strong voice, I solve my own problems” helps inspire assertive behavior.

Remain calm.

One of the hallmarks of assertive communication is staying calm when asserting your thoughts or needs. To that end, it helps to practice some calming behaviors:

  • Count to 10 before you respond
  • Take 3 deep breaths
  • Relax your facial muscles
  • Repeat your motto

Replace “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”.

Kids who rely on passive communication often answer questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. They do this to avoid debate, hurting someone else’s feelings or causing additional stress to another. These phrases create bad habits, though. It becomes second nature and they miss out on getting their needs met.

When you hear “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”, cue your child to start again with “I prefer”. They might not get their needs met every time they ask, but they do need to learn to express their wants and needs.

The Happy Kid Handbook includes a chapter dedicated to teaching assertiveness skills – grab your copy today!

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!

Image credit: Pexels

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.

How to Inspire Your Kids to Spread Happiness

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Today is the International Day of Happiness!  While it might seem a bit much to dedicate a day to celebrating happiness, I think a day like this is exactly what we need in this world.  Research shows us that connecting to others increases overall happiness, so it makes good sense that theme of today is making more connections.

Sure, you probably feel connected 24/7 thanks to your super smart phone, but how deep do those connections go?  How often do you carve out time to actually engage with others in a meaningful way?  We are a generation of quick wit and instant gratification, and we need to learn to slow down and consider the messages we send our children.

In this busy, go-go-go time of parenting, we need to learn to step back and find time to strengthen our existing relationships and establish new ones.

Just yesterday and elderly woman stopped me on my way into Rite Aid.  I was in a hurry, but the smile on her face told me that she needed to have a conversation.  Sure enough, she wanted to talk about polarized sunglasses.  It was a new concept to her and she wanted to know if I had any thoughts about them.  For fifteen minutes we stood in the entryway of the store, chatting about the glare, eye strain and saving money with coupons.  Then she patted me on the back and walked into the sunshine with her new polarized glasses.

Did that small connection make her day?  I don’t know, but it sure made mine!  I told my kids about it over dinner.  We talked about grandparents and getting older and loneliness…and then they talked about little things that might make other people happy.

Adults tend to be over-thinkers.  We know too much about the great big world, and that causes us to think big.  We think in grand gestures, and that can stop us from actually taking the time to connect with others.  When spreading happiness feels like another thing on the list, it’s easy to push it down. If we look to our children, however, we find that spreading happiness and establishing connections is actually quite simple.  The key is to think smaller.

My daughter always reminds me that smaller is happier by way of picking wildflowers for me along our walks.  She puts them in glasses with water and places them on the kitchen table for all to enjoy.  And we really do enjoy them. My son shows his small acts of kindness with his words.  He whispers kind words and leaves me sweet love notes almost every day.  And it works.  His child-sized expressions of love bring me great happiness – and that melts the stress away.

So how can we inspire our kids to spread kindness and happiness?

Point out acts of kindness:

This brings us back to thinking small, especially when it comes to very young children.  You know that bird nest your child created out of twigs and leaves?  That’s kindness in action.  You know that flower your child just had to pick for Grandma?  That’s kindness in action.

Talk about the acts of kindness that you see each day.  Discuss how those acts might make other people feel.  Connect the dots so that your children learn that they have the ability to help others feel happy.

Praise thoughtful behavior:

Kids do kind things because they want to show others that they care.  It’s how they express their love and gratitude.  While you probably thank them for those little pictures drawn on tiny scraps of paper, you might not be as inclined to label that action as “thoughtful”.  You should.

You want to know eight words that will build your child up and inspire further acts of kindness?  Here goes:  “I love that you are a thoughtful person.”  Go ahead, try it.  Your child will smile, that much I know.

Teach positive thinking:

Life can be frustrating, even for little kids.  Negative thinking can get in the way of kind behavior and overall happiness.  When kids have an “I can’t” approach to the hard stuff, they have a hard time seeing a positive end result.

Teach them to reframe their thoughts.  Stop a negative thought cycle with these steps:

  • I can see that your frustrated.  This feels really hard.
  • Take three deep breaths with me to take a break for a minute.
  • Let’s think of some positive words we can use while we work on this problem.
  • I’ll stay with you, and you can let me know if you need any help.

Model kindness:

Take the time to make connections and engage in small acts of kindness in the presence of your children.  Bring in the neighbor’s trash cans, help someone carry groceries, hold the door wide open (even if you have to slow down and wait)…

Kids learn a lot by watching us.  Do we all have great days every day?  No.  But we can model kindness, talk about our mistakes, and teach our kids to spread happiness…all we have to do is slow down and stay connected.

Have a happy day!

Want Happy Kids? Teach Forgiveness.

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Forgiveness.

Chances are you’ve talked to your kids about forgiveness at some point. You’ve probably asked one child to forgive the other child for an unkind gesture or unfair treatment of some kind. You’ve probably talked about moving on, letting go, and getting over it. But have you actually taught your kids how to practice forgiveness?

Forgiveness is an essential life skill. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves, if you ask me. There are plenty of adults in this world who don’t practice the art of forgiveness in their lives. They might say they do. They might rely on clichés and phrases that speak to forgiveness, but do they actually take the time to forgive? Do they actually work through the feelings that serve as roadblocks to forgiveness and get to the other side?

Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a heated discussion when suddenly past issues enter the conversation? What begins as something seemingly minor can morph into an emotionally exhausting conversation filled with repressed anger and resentment that creeps out when tension spikes. These are the moments that speak to lack of forgiveness skills. These are the moments that cause hurt and sometimes irreparable damage to otherwise close relationships.

I’ve mediated these conversations in my office, and I’ve seen them in my own life at times. When people are unable to practice forgiveness, they carry with them feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment so strong that they struggle to maintain perspective. They have difficulty truly relating to and building close relationships with others when they struggle to forgive.

The benefits of learning to forgive are many. According the Mayo Clinic, forgiving people enjoy healthier relationships, less stress and anxiety, higher self-esteem, better immune functioning, and fewer symptoms of depression (to name a few). People who struggle to forgive, however, are more likely to become depressed or anxious, bring bitterness and anger to new relationships, and struggle to enjoy the present (among other things).

When it comes to raising happy kids, we need to consider the importance of teaching kids how to practice forgiveness. It isn’t just about a simple apology followed by acceptance. Forgiveness takes time and work.

Happiness is not the complete absence of stress; happiness is being able to work through stress, obstacles, and negative emotions and come out with a feeling of inner peace and a positive outlook. That’s a powerful lesson for little kids, and one that will help them for years to come.

So how do we teach kids to practice forgiveness? The obvious answer, of course, is that we practice forgiveness in our own lives. That is important. We need to use the words, talk about our feelings, and share our stories of forgiveness. When our children apologize to us, we need to forgive them out loud. When we’ve made a mistake, we need to own it and apologize and talk about forgiveness within the family. But it doesn’t stop there. Kids need to learn how to get from “I’m sorry” to “I forgive you” without glossing over the hard part in the middle.

Unpack feelings:

Kids are often put in the position of forgiving others without much discussion about what happened. Repressed feelings are a significant roadblock to true forgiveness. When we stuff our feelings, we give those feelings time to grow in size before they finally explode. They will explode at some point. They always do.

Kids need to understand that it’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, jealousy, and sadness when someone hurts our feelings. They need to express those feelings in a healthy manner. They need a trusted adult who can listen (not fix) and empathize. Kids need to work through their feelings before they can forgive.

Recognize their role:

I always tell my clients, particularly the ones with endless stories about being wronged, that even if you’re pretty sure that something is 99% the fault of someone else, there’s always that 1% out there waiting to be claimed. I have this same conversation with my kids, as well. Yes, your brother got frustrated and stormed off because you didn’t agree on a game to play, but what did your voice sound like when you shot down all of his ideas? Could his feelings have been hurt by criticism and voice tone?

When people argue or do things that hurt those close to them, big feelings are at play. Chances are, things are said and done on both ends. We all need to learn how to take responsibility for our roles in relationship issues if we want to be able to forgive and move forward.

Let go of anger:

This can be a hard one for kids (and adults). Anger is a powerful emotion, and it does snowball fairly quickly. One minute you’re fuming over a sarcastic comment that left you feeling hurt and the next you’re thinking about every moment ever that resulted in that same feeling. I see this a lot with young children in my office. One hurt opens the door to past hurts, and it’s very difficult to move forward when overwhelmed by a lifetime of hurt feelings.

Kids need to learn how to let go of angry feelings. A simple exercise in replacing negative thoughts with positive ones (rewriting the script as we refer to it in my office) teaches kids to verbalize their angry thoughts and replace them with positive adaptive statements.

You can’t force others to forgive:

There are those who choose to be forgiving, and there are those who choose to live with anger and resentment. A hard but necessary lesson for kids is that we can’t force others to forgive us and enjoy a positive relationship just because that’s the choice we want to make.

Forgiveness is a skill and it’s also a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes the choices of others will leave us feeling sad and disappointed. Opening the door to forgiveness, even if another one closes in your face, gives kids an opportunity to live a happier, healthier life full of deep and meaningful relationships. That’s a choice worth making, even if someone else makes a different choice.

Tips for Talking to Kids About Predators

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There are some parenting topics that are very difficult to address.  Melissa is back this week with some startling information and helpful tips about talking to kids about predators.  I hope you will take the time to read and digest this very important information.  Thanks, Melissa.

This week in my town there was an incident that scared the daylights out of parents of school-aged children.  Police alerted the community to what was believed to be an attempted abduction of a seven-year-old girl who was riding her bike home from school.  It was the type of scenario we all dread and fear:  man grabs the girl and tells her to put her bike in the trunk of his car.  Thankfully, she sped away and told the parent at home, who called the police.  A day later, it was reported that it was actually a case of mistaken identity, not attempted abduction.  An older grandfather whose eyesight is failing thought he was addressing his granddaughter, whom he was supposed to pick up on that particular day.

While parents across our district breathed a sigh of relief and the police department shook off their embarrassment for sounding the high alarm, others, like my husband and I, took it as an opportunity to refresh our family’s protection plan and talk to our kids—again—about “stranger danger” and safe touching.

You may wonder, won’t that just scare my kids?  Isn’t it my job to protect them and not alarm them about dangers that are not likely to happen, if I keep close watch?  Wrong.  While this was a case—albeit, a mistaken one—of abduction, which is less common, sexual abuse of children is a very frightening and common reality with serious consequences.  Like stranger danger, it should be discussed with children even before they attend grade school and reviewed on a regular basis.

If you think the possibility of a man trying to grab your child on her way home from school is alarming, listen to these facts about sexual abuse:

 

  • Child sexual abuse is the use of a child for sexual purposes by an adult or older, more powerful person, including an older child. It is a crime in all 50 states (Committee for Children).
  • Studies suggest that about 1 out of every 5 American women and 1 out of every 10–20 American men experienced some form of sexual abuse when they were young (Committee for Children).
  • An estimated 180,500 children in the United States were sexually abused in 2005-2006 (Sedlak et al., 2010).
  • Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts. Snyder (2000) found that nine out of ten children who have been sexually assaulted know their attacker.
  • The offender often uses a position of power to take advantage of a child, usually developing a relationship before any sexual abuse takes place as part of a process known as “victim grooming.”
  • Young children are at the greatest risk.  Studies show that one third to one half of victims are under age 7 when the abuse begins.
  • Sexual abuse occurs in children from every culture, walk of life, and socioeconomic status.  Boy or girl, no one is exempt from the risk.
  • Children are not likely to reveal that abuse is taking place.  Studies show that only 2-4 of every 10 victims will tell an adult at the time of the incident, and even fewer will tell the authorities.

 

Scared?  You should be.  Our children are vulnerable, but there are ways for parents to prevent possible victimization.

 

  • From an early age, allow your child to say no to hugs or other affection, even from family members.  Children should be encouraged to maintain physical boundaries that feel comfortable to them.
  • Talk to your child about safe touching versus unsafe and unwanted touching.
  • Be sure your child understands proper names for their private parts, and that no one other than a parent (for a young child, for cleaning purposes), or a physician may ever touch them there.
  • Teach your child that while it is important to obey adults, particularly parents and teachers, they do not have to obey adults if an adult attempts to break safe touching rules, or otherwise entice the child to act outside of family rules or expectations.
  • Be open to answering questions your child may have, and do not hesitate to review the topic from time to time, particularly surrounding events such as the one which took place in our community.

 

For more information about how to talk to your child about safe touching, visit the website of the Committee for Children, at http://www.cfchildren.org/advocacy/child-safety.aspx

 

 

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5 Tips for Raising Positive Thinkers

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Some kids are naturally more optimistic than others.  Some kids just seem to approach all tasks, no matter how difficult, with a smile and a can-do attitude,  But others…others might seem a little more pessimistic or quick to throw in the towel when the going gets tough.  That doesn’t mean that those kids are quitters.  What it means is that they need a little help along the way.

It helps to consider why some kids immediately start chanting, “I can’t…” or “I’m not good at…” when things aren’t working out as planned.  For many kids, it comes down to a few issues:

Fear of failure.

Perfectionism.

Fear of disappointing others.

Low self-esteem.

And/or…

Low frustration tolerance.

It’s not easy to be a kid, and some kids have huge ideas…the kind of ideas that might be just out of reach when it comes to developmental level.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.  Sure, you want your kids to set age-approriate goals so that they can succeed along the way.  But you also want them to reach a little so that they can begin to understand the importance of practice, patience, and learning from mistakes.

So how can you turn an “I can’t” kid into a can-do kid?  With a little bit of patience and a lot of positive energy.

Reframe it first:

If you have a kid who regularly declares defeat before even digging into whatever project takes center stage at the moment, chances are you have a little perfectionist on your hands who can’t stand the thought of failure.  And the only way to truly avoid failure is to quit before you actually give it a try (in the mind of a child, anyway).

Teach your child to reframe his negative thought immediately.  When my little perfectionist musician-in-training (not really, but in his five-year-old mind) throws up his hands in defeat the minute he forgets a song lyric, I give him a simple task:  “Flip it.”  The first few times I needed to be a little more specific, as in, “Let’s say something positive about what you can do instead of giving up right away.”  But now we’re down to two words.  Before we even discuss the issue at hand, I help him flip the negative thought into a positive.

Reframing negative thoughts helps break the cycle of giving up in frustration.  It retrains the mind to find one small positive to keep you going.  When there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you will fight to get to it.  If you all you see is darkness, you’re more likely to curl up and hide.

Look for obstacles:

Kids have a lower frustration tolerance and are more likely to become sad and upset when they are sleep-deprived, hungry, or sick.  Assess your child’s physical and emotional state before launching into a speech about following through and trying harder.  Major life lessons are often lost on exhausted, starving, and/or sick kids.

Often, a little snuggle time with mom or dad and a comforting snack can bring back the positive.

Empathize:

Remember that time that you cried for three hours after you struck out three times in one game?  Your little baseball player needs to hear that.  Or how about the time that you froze during the school play and completely forgot your lines until someone whispered them to you?  Your little actress might need to hear that one.  You get the point.  Empathize with your child.  Share your own childhood stories and talk about times that you felt the very same way.

When parents empathize with their children, their children feel understood and less alone in their frustration or sadness.  They also see that their parents survived those very big feelings and overcame whatever failure caused the negative feelings in the first place.  That can be very eye-opening for little kids.

Celebrate failure:

Ok, maybe don’t throw a party with balloons and streamers and cupcakes…but learn to find the positive in failure.  You know what the best part of failure is?  Learning something new.  Finding a new path.  Exploring a different option for the next time.  Have you updated to the iOS7 yet?  New path necessary.  They’re probably not sobbing in frustration at Apple headquarters, but you can bet they’re working on something better.

Kids need to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.  But that’s not an easy task, so they need you to help them get there.  Remain calm.  Let them cry and yell and vent their feelings, but then help them find the silver lining.  Ask questions about what might have gone wrong in order to kickstart the problem-solving process.

And learn to laugh about, own up to, and share your own failures along the way.  We all make mistakes and we don’t always get it right on the first (or second, or third) try.  When we show kids that we also struggle at times, they learn that it’s ok to get back up and try again…that perfect doesn’t actually exist.

Model it:

If you want your kids to have a positive attitude, you have to have one, too.  Watch your words, body language, and mannerisms around your kids.  You might think they’re not paying attention when you’re venting to another mom at school before the bell rings, but they usually are.  Save the venting for a time when the kids aren’t around, and rely on a positive attitude in front of your kids as much as humanly possible.

When you keep your emotions in check and use adaptive coping strategies to work through difficult tasks (deep breathing, taking a quick walk, frequent breaks, asking for help, a cup of tea) your kids learn the importance of learning to work through their feelings while tackling difficult tasks.

How do you help your kids stay positive?

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Wisdom from a 6 Year Old: How to Make Kids Feel Good About Themselves

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The other day my daughter found my to-do list.  It wasn’t a long list, but it included a few upcoming freelance deadlines.  Including one that would need to be completed that night.  Scanning the list of tasks before her, she asked about the one with the star.

“What do you have to write about?”

“Helping kids increase their self-esteem.  That means helping kids feel good about themselves.”

“I can write that one for you, Mommy!  I know all about that!”

And with that, she got to work.  The article that follows was written by my six-year-old daughter, without help or input.  I daresay that she did a better job than me!  Sometimes less is more, my friends.  Sometimes less is more.  She’s very excited to see her words on Practical Parenting…please feel free to leave her a little love in the comments.  I know she will appreciate it.

How to Make Kids Feel Good About Themselves”

By Riley, Age 6

This is what helps kids feel good about themselves:

1.  When they try new things and they get success.

2.  When people tell them they did a good job.

3.  When they do something in front of a crowd, like soccer or something, and the crowd cheers for them.

4.  When a sister or a brother or moms or dads tell them that they love them and that they think they’re really great.

5.  When they stand up for each other or when they are nice to a kid who was teased or doesn’t know that many kids.

That helps kids a lot.  And hugs and kisses, too!

There you have it, my friends.  Raising self-esteem from the perspective of a six-year-old.  Kids give some pretty solid advice, don’t you think?  

I know I’m very proud of my little writer…and I truly enjoy telling her that I love her and that I think she’s really great.

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Take Back Your Kitchen! (Tips for Raising “Fearless” Feeders)

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I get a lot of questions from parents struggling to feed their, um, let’s say “selective” eaters.  Some kids eat everything and some kids eat four things.  Literally…four things.  And it’s hard.  Even when you think you’ve done absolutely everything to make eating happen…sometimes you just get one who digs in his heels and says, “Not me.  I’m not eating that!”  Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen have an AMAZING new book out that addresses this common childhood issue.  It’s packed full of interesting information and useful tips and strategies.  Plus…it’s entertaining.  I was introduced to Jill through our fantastic literary agent, and I love, love, love this book.  It’s a must read for all parents!  Jill is here today to share a few tips on ways to take back your kitchen.  Please give her a warm Practical welcome and leave her any follow up questions in the comments – she will be checking!

Are You in Control of Your Kitchen?

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

“The kitchen is closed,” I said to my son, age eleven, who was heading in for a one o’clock snack, right after lunch. “Ahhh,” he moaned, “but I want a snack.”

“I’m sorry but the kitchen is closed, buddy. It’ll be open for afternoon snack at three.”

This dialogue happens quite often at my house. Even as a childhood nutritionist who knows a lot about nutrition and feeding children, my four kids are no different than most kids—they want to eat what they want to eat, and when and where they want to eat it.

Staying in control of my kitchen is a daily juggle. I’m really no different than most parents who juggle feeding, food and the kitchen. But, since I have worked with loads of families, I know that many parents struggle to stay in charge of their kitchen. It’s no wonder! With 23% of kids and 83% of teens snacking daily, more and more parents are trying to assert some control over their kid’s eating.

I’ve got the answer: reclaim control of your kitchen.

I wish I had a statistic to show you how many parents have lost control of their kitchen, but I don’t. What I can say is this: if you have a 24/7 kitchen (open for consumption all the time) or are struggling with your child’s appetite or eating, then you may have lost control of your kitchen.

But I bet you’d like to get it back.

When parents try to reclaim control, they may go about it the wrong way. Some will restrict portions, second helpings or access to all desirable foods in order to control how much their child eats or what they eat, while others will reward their kids with sweets to get them to eat the healthy food, or finish their meal.

You don’t have to use these unproductive methods.

The answer isn’t to strong-arm children to eat this or not that, but rather to reclaim the positive control and leadership that is part of parenting and feeding. Research on childhood development and education tells us that children thrive with routine, structure and boundaries. Just visit a preschool and it’s easy to see teachers showing kids the day-to-day routine, which helps them develop self-control and trust. Employing structure and boundaries to eating does the same, optimizing self-control, hunger management, and ultimately reinforcing the family diet.

Start with Food

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When I was growing up, my mother only bought soda for a party, and purchased one bag of Lay’s potato chips and one package of Oreos for the week. Today, parents purchase two to three bags of chips and cookies, plus more snacks. I remember my mom saying, “Go ahead and eat it now, but you won’t be getting any more until the next shopping trip.” Today, parents run back to the store when they run out.

Often, parents don’t realize how powerful the grocery list can be, as it is the key to setting the first boundary: the food that is available to eat. Remember, food that is brought into the home will be eaten. If it’s uncomfortable to watch kids snack on cookies, ice cream, chips or soda each day, then bring them into the home less frequently. Or, eat them outside of your home.

Kids need to see daily examples of nutritious foods, offered in varying patterns. Strike a balance of food that favors plenty of fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and lean sources of protein, whole grains and healthy fats, and low fat dairy items, and make sure to set a limit on sweets, fried foods and soda (but don’t exclude them). There is room for all kinds of food!  Balance is the key.

Build in Structure

Adopting a structure with eating is the best way to ensure children get the nutrients they need each day for optimal growth and development. With over forty daily nutrient requirements, children need to eat every three to five hours, depending on their age (younger kids eat more frequently than older kids), and in smaller portions than adults. Schedule meals (three a day) and snacks (one to three a day) at regular times, so kids don’t get too hungry or too full to eat. Close the kitchen between meals and snacks (no eating).

That’s right, I said close that kitchen. Today, many families have an open-door policy when it comes to the kitchen. Kids are able to help themselves any time of day, to almost anything. Even I tried the snack shelf in the refrigerator when my oldest was a toddler, but I quickly learned that she was hitting up the fridge every hour, on the hour, and not finishing anything she chose to eat! Grazing, which is what an open-door kitchen policy and similar approaches will encourage, sabotages a child’s appetite for meals, setting them up for eating poorly or selectively.

Add in More Boundaries

Set a consistent location for most eating. This helps children focus on what they are eating, and teases out distraction, which can abbreviate eating. Don’t cater–serve one meal for the whole family, and avoid meeting special requests for picky eaters. Make sure to set a menu that represents at least one or two things each family member can eat (milk counts!). Introduce new foods regularly, and make sure there is a food item or two that will be accepted by even the pickiest of eaters. Being a little bit unpredictable with the menu keeps interest up and allows you to be adventurous with food variety—a key to healthy eating.

While this may be an old-fashioned, common sense approach (remember how your grandmother fed the family?), it works. How will you take back control of your kitchen?

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Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert and mom of four. She is the co-author of the new book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (LINK: www.fearlessfeeding.com) You can also find her over at her blog, Just the Right Byte (www.justtherightbyte.com) or her website (www.JillCastle.com

Isn’t Jill great??  Now go ahead…leave her some questions below!!!!

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Happy Moms, Happy Kids

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Want happy kids?  Of course you do!  Stop by The Huffington Post to read 7 Secrets of Highly Happy Children!

We’ve known for quite some time that maternal and/or parental stress trickles down and causes stress for children.  Numerous studies have shown that even infants can sense stress and react with a stress response.

But a new study out of Boston Children’s Hospital and published in the journal Developmental Science found that a mother’s perceived social status predicts her child’s brain development and stress indicators.  In this particular study, children whose mothers saw themselves as low social status were more likely to have increased cortisol levels and less activation of their hippocampus.  What does that mean?  They’re stressed.

It seems like the hidden dangers of stress are all over the news these days, and yet we live in a society that thrives on stress.  Clearly this isn’t working for our children.  It’s time to work on finding happiness, so that the trickle down effect sends happiness trickling down to our little ones.

Happy moms raise happy kids.  And all moms deserve to be happy.

Tips for prioritizing happiness.

Surround yourself with positive:

Any mom knows the power of the tribe.  Parenting is hard work and having a supportive network of friends and family truly makes the difference between feeling like you can handle just about anything and feeling utterly alone in this thing.  But it’s important to make sure that your tribe is a happy one.

Negativity is contagious.  So is stress.  On the bright side…happiness is too.

Surround yourself with people who will lift you and help you through the hard days without bringing you down along the way.

Keep the venting short:

It’s important to vent those overwhelming feelings when life is hard, and it’s really important to have a supportive ear on the other end of the line.  But it’s essential to keep it short.  You can get stuck in a negative cycle of constant complaining and venting that increases your stress and potentially leads to symptoms of depression.

People love to joke that a long talk with a friend is akin to a therapy session.  The truth is that a therapist won’t just sit back and let you spin a cycle of negativity for 45 minutes.  A therapist will step in and help you through those feelings to get to the other side.

Set a timer.  Get it out.  Then move on to the happy stuff.

Get your me time:

“I can’t find a single second to just sit down.”

It’s a common refrain in mom circles.  And for good reason.  No matter the ages of your kids, there is always something that requires doing.  Being a parent is a full time job and a lifelong commitment.  But you have to find some time for you.

It’s critical for moms to learn the art of self-care while parenting.  We need to de-stress.  We need exercise.  We need an hour (or a few) away here and there to rejuvenate and just enjoy some quiet time.  Sometimes you have to get creative, but me time can be done. I have one mom friend who worked out a running schedule with two other moms on her street so that each mom gets to run alone a few days a week.  Many moms alternate child care to give each other some time to be alone.

Your mental health is important – for you and your kids.  Find your time and feel happy.

Get organized:

Bottom line:  Lack of organization leads to unnecessary stress.  Find a system that works for you (ask around and check online, there are some very creative moms out there with amazing ideas) and prioritize de-cluttering your home and your mind.

When you feel more control over the day-t0-day stressors that sometimes get you down, you will begin to feel more confident.  This leads to greater overall happiness for moms.

Weekly stress assessments:

Choose a day to check your stress each week.  Start with a list of your most common triggers, and add and delete as necessary.  Find a quiet moment to sit down and review how the week went.  Were you less stressed?  More?  What helped?  What didn’t?

Self assessments help people gain some control over their own well-being.  Assessments can help you shift from feeling completely overwhelmed to confident in your ability to thrive, no matter the circumstances.

Final thoughts:  When you feel confident, you feel happy.  When you let go of stress and take some control, you are more likely to experience more positive feelings overall.  And that’s the stuff that you want trickling down to your kids.

Don’t forget to stop by The Huffington Post for 7 Secrets of Highly Happy Children!!!!

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