Addiction, Mental Health, and Parenting: Why You Need to Connect the Dots

hands

I can’t pretend to know what fighting addiction truly entails.  I have friends who fight for their sobriety every day.  They never miss a meeting…because to miss a meeting is to risk a relapse.  I have worked with young adults and adolescents who have fought for their sobriety.  They never missed a meeting…because to miss a meeting is to risk a relapse.  I have worked with children of addicts.  I’ve listened to them cry, yell, and ask the same question repeatedly.  Why?  Why is my existence not enough to keep my father/mother/fill-in-the-blank sober?

Addiction is complicated.  It might seem like a choice when you break it down to this-or-that, but then you have to travel the road of mental health, environmental stressors, and family history.  This-or-that fades into the background when you begin to peel the onion.

I’ve heard addiction referred to as “selfish”, and I can understand where people are coming from.  When you’ve sat across the office from a young child with giant sad eyes and an obsessive need to understand what role he or she might play in the addiction, you start to see the “selfish” angle.  You want to say to that parent, “Stop everything!  Look what you’re doing to your child!”  But you can’t say that.  Because that parent isn’t being selfish…that parent is fighting addiction.  That parent isn’t seeing the big sad eyes and cries for attention.  That parent is stuck in the vortex, and that isn’t selfish.

It’s same with depression and other mental disorders.  Would you call a person “selfish” for being depressed?  Would you tell you a parent to stop “being Bipolar”?  Of course not.  That would be ill-informed and inaccurate.  And yet, people do it.  They try to break it down to this-or-that.

The fact is that we can’t ignore the comorbidity factor when it comes to addiction.  We can’t pretend that addiction exists in a vacuum, and we can’t pretend that a single choice would alter the life of a family.  We can’t ignore the genetic components, the environmental factors, and the lack of resources available to the many people fighting (or losing the fight to) addiction every single day.

And we can’t pretend that our children are immune.

Every time an addict loses a battle, someone in this world is left behind.  We put celebrities on a pedestal and celebrate their amazing careers while we mourn the loss of the actors who music makers who touched our lives in some way.  But behind those celebrities are partners, children, and extended family who are left to pick up the pieces and somehow make sense of the loss.  They are the ones who suffer the most when the light goes out.

And that’s not all…

Kids (yes, KIDS) are using alcohol and drugs at an alarming rate, sometimes beginning in middle school (on average, boys start at age 11 these days, while girls, on average, wait until 13).  I won’t bombard you with statistics, but I will say that we need to change the way talk to kids about drugs, alcohol, and sexuality right this very moment.  Kids are taking unhealthy risks and making very poor choices, thereby setting themselves up for addiction, teen pregnancy, STD’s, and worse.  Because yes, drugs and alcohol can even take the lives of kids.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Check in with the CDC and SADD to arm yourself with information.

Remember that bit about comorbidity an genetics?  That applies to kids, as well.

So what can parents do?

Talk early and often:

Don’t wait until your child encounters alcohol and/or drugs to start the conversation.  Talk about it early on, and revisit it regularly.

I hear the parents joking about “mommy juice” (there is even a product by that name) and the like when they want to have a drink in front of the kids.  It’s a joke (most of the time) and it’s even a little cute (sort of)…but it sends a mixed message.  It’s not juice.  It’s wine or some other kind of alcohol and it should be identified by name.  It should be stated that alcohol is ok for adults (in moderation) but not for kids.

Instead of distracting or hiding, tell it like it is.  That sends a clear message to your kids.

Be honest:

Talk about addiction.  Talk about the effect that drugs and alcohol can have on your brain, your body, and your life.  Resist the urge to use scare tactics.  Remain calm, open the discussion up to questions, and provide information about the risks.

Talk about any family history you might and connect the dots between depression and other mental health concerns and alcohol and/or drug use.  Fill in the blanks so that your child can get a clear picture of addiction.

Identify the helpers:

Sometimes kids don’t want to talk to their parents about difficult topics, including alcohol, drugs and mental health. They might not want to disappoint them.  They might be afraid to admit that peer pressure is intense and difficult to resist.  They might fear that their parents will think less of them for wanting to fit in.

Identify the helpers.  Find a trusted uncle, aunt, or family friend who is willing to listen without judgment and provide a lifeline for your child.  Your child might not be comfortable approaching you, but that helping hand just might make a huge impact along the way.

Stop worrying about the stigma, and get the help that your family needs.  Inpatient, outpatient, individual, family…don’t wait until it’s too late.  Seek out the resources that can help you get to the other side.

Listen without judgment:

Listen to your children when they approach you with a problem, no matter how insignificant that problem might seem.  Hear their words.  Let them explain.

Listen for the sake of understanding, not for the purpose of crafting a response.

When we show our children that we are willing to listen, we open the door to future communication.  When we judge, snap, or reply too quickly, we risk shutting them down.  Open the door today, and don’t ever close it.

Stop glorifying Hollywood:

Get the magazines full of lies out of your home.  Stop putting celebrities on pedestals.  Listen to their music, enjoy their films, and laugh out loud when you watch their shows to decompress.  But stop pretending to know them.  They are people with struggles and they sometimes mess up, and that is more than ok.

Stop looking to the famous to act as role models for our children.  Taylor Swift isn’t really a role model for young girls.  She’s a young woman who sings her heart out and works hard, but how well do you really know her?  You don’t.  But you do know countless other people who can be role models…like that kindergarten teacher around the corner who dedicates her life to shaping young minds or that pediatrician who seems to make every child feel at ease in her office.

Look to everyday heroes to inspire your children.  They can truly make a difference…

For more information, or to make a donation to support research into drug abuse and addiction, visit NIDH.

 

Pin It

Tips for Talking to Kids About Predators

photo-269

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

 

 

Pin It

Common Causes of Childhood Stress and How Parents Can Help

allyouneedislove

Children experience stress for a variety of reasons, and stress can crop up without warning.  While adults tend to know when they are under stress, children often internalize these uncomfortable feelings.  They don’t always ask for help because they don’t understand it.  They might not even be able to identify their triggers or connect the dots between their emotions and their physical responses.

In general, physical complaints and behavioral changes are indicative of stress in children.  Children experiencing stress are likely to exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling asleep or frequent nightmares)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • School refusal 
  • Decreased social interaction
  • Frequent crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Regressed behavior
  • Anxious behavior (skin picking, nail biting, hair twirling)

It’s important to pay close attention to behavioral changes in young children, particularly if frequent physical complaints are also present.

While stress can have many triggers, there are a few causes that tend to pop up regularly:

Transitions:

Transitions can be difficult for young children.  Many children respond well to structure and routine, and changes (both big and small) can cause stress.  A new school. a new home, a new classroom, a new work schedule for mom or dad, a new baby…the list goes on.

Be on alert for possible signs of stress when transitions occur so that you can intervene before the stress level increases.

Parental stress:

Stress does tend to have a trickle down effect when it comes to families, and when parents are under stress kids pick up on it.  While we all do our best to shield our kids from adult issues, kids can be very intuitive and like to listen in on conversations.

Be aware of your own daily stress level and try to get the help you need so that you can cope more effectively when the kids are present.

Family discord:

Divorce is an obvious source of childhood stress, and it can linger on long after the divorce is final.  It’s very difficult for children to understand and cope with divorce, and often they tend to blame themselves or wonder what they could have done to stop it.

Other instances of family discord can cause stress for children, as well.  Sibling bullying is a very real and very scary problem.  It tends to get overlooked at times and is often thought of as normal sibling rivalry, but it can be very stressful (not to mention dangerous) for the child on the receiving end.

Even fractured relationships with extended family can take a toll on kids.  If children hear about or witness family discord, they might feel obligated to choose a side and act accordingly.  That’s a lot of pressure for young children.

Friendships can be tricky:

Making and keeping friends isn’t always easy.  Friendships change over time, and this can cause stress for the kids who tend to stick to one or two friends.  When kids feel left out they tend to engage in self-blame, and this exacerbates stress.

Bullying of any kind causes significant stress for children.

Academic pressure:

Some kids never worry about school at all, while others obsess over every single test, quiz, and homework assignment.  Some kids spend hours making sure their homework is perfect, while other fly through it without even reading the directions.  All kids are different.

Even when they’re young, children can sense the importance of performing.  As natural pleasers, this can add a significant amount of stress to the school day.

How parents can help:

  • Talk about stress:  Describe it.  Share your own experiences in age-appropriate language.  Normalize it.
  • Educate them about the mind-body connection:  Connect the dots for them so that they can begin to understand that stress can cause headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms.
  • Listen:  If we want to help our children cope, we have to listen to what they are saying.  Don’t dismiss things that seem small to you.  Those things might feel very big to your child.
  • Teach relaxation strategies:  A stress ball kept in a desk at school can provide relief when academic stress sets in.  Deep breathing exercises and guided relaxation can help your child learn to calm her senses and breathe her way through a stressful moment. Music, reading, and journaling (even for little ones – one word at a time still releases the negative emotions) are all useful strategies.
  • Prioritize a consistent sleep schedule
  • Prioritize healthy eating habits
  • Ensure that your kids get plenty of exercise and outdoor play
  • Provide creative outlets within the home
  • Avoid over-scheduling 
  • Allow mental health days:  Sometimes kids need a day off.  One day of missed school won’t set your child back too much, especially if it means caring for the soul and sending your child back relaxed and ready to learn.

Childhood stress can have a lifelong impact on children unless they learn how to manage and cope with it.  An understanding parent can be the difference between a child who internalizes negative emotions and a child who understands the importance of asking for help.  Be the parent who provides the shelter from the storm.  Your children will thank you one day…that much I can promise.

If your child appears to be under stress more often than not and the above mentioned strategies fail to provide relief, it’s best to contact a licensed mental health professional for an evaluation.

 

Pin It

Tips for Communicating with Older Children

photo-255

It’s back to school across the country, but in my house school has been in full-swing for almost four weeks.  While our family has mostly settled into the swing of things, there have been a few areas needing attention.  The biggest challenge so far has been communicating with our son regarding homework.  Since we homeschooled last year, his last public school experience was first grade, a cake walk compared to third.  This year, his responsibilities include copying homework assignments off the blackboard into his planner first thing in the morning, and then packing his backpack with the appropriate assignments at the end of the day.  He also has to remember to return home his chapter book, lunch box and water bottle.  It’s a lot for him, given the jump from homeschool to classroom.

Communicating with an older child is not always an easy task, particularly at the end of a long day.  But it is an essential component of the parent-teacher connection and to your child’s success in school.  Here are some suggestions to help your child overcome a struggle in a particular area of the new school routine.

 

Step 1.  Review the process:

Ask your student about the routine at school that relates to the area of struggle.  For us it was homework, so it began with a simple question of, “How do you know your homework assignments?”  The answer, “It’s on the board and I have to copy it.”  Additional clarifying questions like, “What happens when you first get into the room, what do you do?”  Followed by, “And then what?” until you get a clear picture of what is happening.

 

Step 2.  Search for holes in the story:

Is there something that doesn’t quite make sense?  Ask more questions.  Clarify, in a gentle way, so that you can understand what the teacher expects of the student.  If you can’t get a clear picture from your child, email or call the teacher.  It is essential that parents understand what the child is being asked to do, so that you can help him or her practice at home, if necessary.

 

Step 3.  Work on a solution:

For us, it made sense to help him create a routine.  From our careful questioning, we learned that he was using his super-hero mental powers to recall his homework while packing up, rather than checking against his planner or the board.  So he and I worked out a step-by-step routine for how to pack up his homework.

 

Step 4.  Break it down:

Your child may need to be walked through the details.  Ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you think you should do next?” to see if he can come up with the right idea.  If not, gently suggest, “Do you think it would help if…” to elicit agreement.

 

Step 5.  Write it down:

Pull out an index card and write out the steps, with your child’s help.  Use a few words with clear instructions.  The card can be put in a pencil box or backpack, to be pulled out for the first few days of getting in the habit of the new routine.

 

Step 6.  Encourage:

Encourage your child that he or she is doing great and that we all need to learn the skills necessary to be more organized.  Not everyone is born that way!  Follow up each day to check progress and tweak anything that might not be working.


Step 7.  Praise!  

Praise goes a long way toward reinforcing those good behaviors, and helps solidify them into lifelong habits.

Pin It

When Friends Say Goodbye…

bracelet

My family and I just returned from an amazing two week vacation in the Canadian Rockies.  The mountains were breathtakingly beautiful, and the experience was made even memorable by the fact that we shared it with special family members that we don’t get to see often.  Having lived near them for many years, we now have to maximize the time we do spend together, making memories and sharing belly laughs.

We had a strange return home, however.  Good family friends were moving out of state in just a day, so one of the first things we did after catching up on some much-needed sleep was to head over to their house for final goodbyes.  Seeing the last remnants of their home randomly scattered in a few remaining piles in the garage was all it took to bring our own moving memories flooding back.

Why is it so hard to say goodbye?  Even when–and perhaps, especially when– it is what you have wanted for so long, a move you know is in your family’s best interest?  Our girls gave teary hugs goodbye, while our boys went off for one last crazy bike ride down the street, forgetting the hug entirely (until we suggested he better go do it!).

Feeling nostalgic today, I went looking for an old photo of myself with my best friend from high school, opening one of the boxes that survived the 1100-mile journey we undertook just one year ago.  Not finding what I wanted, I was drawn to my old high school yearbook, laying right on top.  One glance inside the front cover revealed dozens of lengthy notes from former classmates, close friends and acquaintances alike promising to never forget each other, declaring friendship, love, and demanding that “No matter what, you have to stay in touch!”.  Sweet words, well-meant at the time, but gone by the wayside many years ago.  Of a dozen or two good friends, there is only one with whom I remain in touch, whose babies I’ve held and whose kids have shared precious beach vacations with mine.  We were in each other’s weddings and have encouraged each other through many ups and downs of motherhood and family life, even to this day.  The same holds true for friends from college, graduate school, and life beyond as my husband and I have moved our way from Boston down the East Coast.

I like to tell my daughter that friends are like charms on a charm bracelet.  You can collect many, and while they look pretty for a time, there are some–many, in fact– that you will leave behind.  Whether one of you moves, or your life changes and you drift apart.  Regardless of the reason I believe there are only a few “true” friends out there for each of us.  I have been blessed that at the end of each phase of my life, each city that I’ve lived in or school I’ve attended, I have collected at least one golden friend who remains with me, wherever I go.

Tomorrow I am driving five hours with my three kids, alone, because my daughter’s golden friend is that much closer than usual.  Both of us moved in the same year, two years ago, and our girls, true soul sisters, BFF’s for life, were devastated.  But in the spirit of friendship- and recognizing that theirs is a true friendship, one built on mutual acceptance and love– as families we have determined to do what so many of my high school classmates wanted to do: we are staying in touch.

Who do you stay in touch with, personally and as a family?  How do you determine when a friendship is “golden,” and worth working hard to keep?

 

Pin It

6 Ways to Raise Strong Girls

stronggirls

It’s always something when it comes to media and the influence that it allegedly holds over children.  Always.  For some reason, people love to gloss over that whole thing about video games and aggressive behavior and video games and addiction, but put a former Disney star in an inappropriate outfit (if we’re actually calling it that) and get her up on stage for what is notoriously one of the most inappropriate nights in television history (year after year, because history is always being made) and parents go wild.  They take to Facebook, Twitter, and every other social media outlet with their concerns about these so-called role models for our daughters.  I can’t speak for you, but no pop star will ever serve as a role model for my daughter.  Why?  Because she’s too young to watch them, for one thing.  She’s too young to actually want to launch a music career.  And she’s too young to dress like a twenty-year-old.

Do we need to address the fact that the inappropriate night of television comes with a TV14 rating?  Not so much intended for little kids.  Just a thought.  And if your teen did watch that performance, I sincerely hope that you sat through it with her and discussed it beginning to end.  Confronting inappropriate content in the moment is the best defense, after all.

But it’s not just the pop stars who take the heat.  The world is still complaining about Disney…how they changed the new strong princess into a more feminine looking (and a little more wimpy) princess to fit in with the others.  Whoa.  The social media parents went crazy on that one.  And it worked.  But here’s the thing:  It was a bit of an overreaction.  You know what a lot of little girls like? Princesses!  You know why?  Because it’s fun to pretend!  It’s play.  It’s not real.  But it opens the door to a world of feelings and gives little kids a place to escape and just be little.

I must admit, I was never much of a princess kid.  I was more into Strawberry Shortcake.  And I’m not too pleased with the latest version of my old friend Strawberry.  First of all, she used to be surrounded by fruity smelling friends.  The collecting was half of the fun!  Now there are only a handful of options.  Second, although she reportedly runs the most popular cafe (also the only cafe, as far as I can see) in Berry Bitty City, she doesn’t seem to eat her delicious creations.  This new hip and happening Strawberry is minutes from a feeding tube, if you ask me.  You know who loves these dolls?  My daughter.  You know why?  Because together we get lost in play.  We make up endless story lines of friendship and learning.  We laugh, we bond, and we spend time together.  And it’s just pretend.  So I’m not really worried that my daughter will one day want to emulate her beloved (but emaciated) Strawberry Shortcake.

But I do want to raise a strong and confident girl.  I want her to know that kindness and happiness are everything, and that strength (physical and emotional) will get her through the hard times.  I want her to walk tall into this world and follow every dream she dreams.  And I want her to look every mean girl and not-so-nice boy she encounters right in the eye and say, “No thanks, I’m better than that.”

So how do we raise strong girls when negative influences seem to lurk around each corner?  We talk. A lot.  We don’t wait for bad to find them, we build them up to guard them against bad.  And we start when they’re very young…

Let them be kids:

I know you’ve heard this from me before, but it’s worth repeating.  Kids should be kids.  They should laugh, play, run, learn, make a huge mess and “forget” to clean it up, and simply be free to explore their worlds through the eyes of a child.  It sounds simple, I know.  But apparently it’s not.

I can’t tell you how often I see kids wearing clothes much too mature for their age.  They wear shoes to mimic mom’s favorite heels and skirts and shorts that are so very short that they can hardly be classified as skirts and shorts.  They wear tube tops and string bikinis.  They look like mini Taylor Swift’s running all over the place and no one stops to cover them up.  And those “Pop Star” shirts?  Talk about a mixed message!

They listen to countless pop stars singing mature lyrics meant for an older audience.  Just because a song doesn’t include foul language doesn’t make it right for a ten-year-old.

Kids need to be kids.  In their play, their clothing, and their musical choices…they just need to be kids.

Rid your house of celebrity gossip:

I get it, everyone needs a guilty pleasure.  Mine happens to be literature and reruns of FRIENDS, but I get it.  Sometimes Keeping Up with the Kardashians gets you through a rough day.  No judgment here.  Just keep it away from your daughters.

We know that “reality TV” isn’t actually real and that TMZ, OMG!, US Weekly, and every other celebrity gossip house is just that:  Gossip.  For reasons I can’t quite understand, people really want to know that stars are “just like us!” – which seems to mean that they eat ice cream cones and frequent Starbucks.  The problem with all of these magazines and websites is that they aren’t real.  They send mixed messages to kids who don’t understand, and who really shouldn’t be reading about the Hollywood dating scene.

We need to either keep that stuff from our daughters, or describe it as it really is:  A pack of lies.  Just be prepared to answer 7,000 questions about the reason for the lies, why the pictures are airbrushed, and why that scantily clad girl is being followed in the first place.

But quick question before we move on:  Do you want your kids to grow up thinking that gossip is acceptable?  Because that’s the lesson they will get from all of that stuff.  Think long term before you let your little girl flip through the next gossip magazine that enters your home…

Talk about body image:

The following conversation took place in my car the other day:

“I got so tall this summer.”

“You sure did…all of your clothes are too small!”

“Look at my legs – they’re so skinny.”

“They’re strong, kiddo.  You’re legs are strong.  You spent the summer biking, swimming, and running around.  Your legs are super strong.”

“Is strong good?”

“Strong is great.  Strong is healthy.”

It’s important to teach them the importance of strong versus thin and healthy eating versus dieting.  It’s not so much about the actual words we use as it is about the message we send.  Strong and healthy girls grow into strong and healthy adults.  Kids begin to hear about and think about body image as young as Kindergarten these days.  Avoiding these discussions creates confusion (and sometimes even shame).  Talk about it.  Ask questions.  Answer questions.  Educate your daughters about healthy choices.  Work through these feelings together.

Praise them:

If you want to raise strong girls, you have to help them find their strengths.  Build them up.  Praise their hard work and effort.  Be specific in your praise so that they can begin to see what you see every day.

Set a good example:

Everybody has good and bad days.  That’s just life.  But if you’re constantly beating yourself up in front of your daughters…they will internalize it.  They will learn to look for flaws and engage in self-criticism.

Be strong.  Be independent.  Make healthy choices and take pride in the choices you make.  Show your daughters what it means to be a strong girl.

Listen:

Sometimes it’s hard to be a kid.  The world is an overwhelming place and kids are constantly confronted with new, and sometimes confusing, information.  Take the time to really listen to your daughters.  Resist the urge to brush off what might seem like a superficial concern because what might seem small to you probably feels very big to your daughter.

Listen.  Empathize.  Provide unconditional love and support.  And just be there for them every step of the way.

 

Pin It

Tech Time for Kids: Setting Limits

photo-144

We all know that we live in a tech savvy world.  Toddlers can navigate tablets and smart phones with alarming ease.  Sometimes that’s a really good thing, like when you have to take a very long flight and there’s a delay…on both ends.

 

If we choose to see the positive, and there are many, kids are learning some valuable tools with early exposure to technology, we can keep track of them when they are off with friends, and searching for a payphone in the case of an emergency is a thing of the past.

 

For the most part, I’m a fan of moderate use of technology for kids.  Moderate.  That’s the keyword.

 

The downside, of course, is that kids are becoming dependent on games, instant communication, and feedback.

 

Remember when you actually had to dial a phone number (fine motor skills), wait for the phone to ring 19 times (patience) before your best friend’s mom answered, had a five minute conversation with your best friend’s mom first because that was the polite thing to do (social skills), and then spoke to your friend?  Ah, the good old days.  Those days are gone.

 

Today kids text each other to make plans, they text each other during said plans, and they text each other in the dark when their parents think they are fast asleep.  They create secret email accounts to create Facebook accounts.  They create Instagram accounts (sometimes with parent permission) and secret Instagram accounts with those secret email accounts (you know, just in case they’re being watched).

 

And…they are addicted.

 

They are using Facebook and Instagram at all hours of the night.  They are posting pictures and status updates and checking every twenty minutes to see how many likes and comments they have received.

 

Instead of laughing and socializing and maybe even (dare I say it?) playing…they are wrapped up in technology and social media.  Their self-esteem is quickly becoming dependent upon how their “friends” respond to their pictures and updates.  They need to see it, so much so that they might very well stay up much later than their parents think just to check the results of the day.

 

It’s a dangerous game, this boundary-less use of technology for tweens, teens, and, in some cases, even school age kids.  It affects their social skills.  It affects their health (eye strain, anyone?).  And it affects their emotional well-being.

 

Below are a few tips for creating safe and healthy technology use in your home.

 

Set Limits:  Would you give your 16 year old the keys to your car and simply wish him well as he drove away without even asking where he was going or setting a curfew?  Probably not.  So why hand over a smartphone or tablet without setting any limits?  For preschoolers and young children set a timer (10 minutes in my house) and give warnings.  Some kids don’t transition well.  I usually say, “Finish what you’re doing” when the timer beeps.  Make sure they can see the timer.  For older kids and tweens have a specific window of time during the day when technology use is available.  Taking the guesswork out of it means fewer battles.  For teens – it’s not theirs to keep.  It’s on loan from you.  Make sure they hand it in at night and follow the rules in their school handbook if they take it to school. 

 

Never at the Table:  Not you.  Not them.  Meals are for talking and eating and being a family.  Put all technology on a counter out of eyesight and just enjoy mealtime together.

 

Model Healthy Habits:  I see more jokes on Facebook about toddlers and preschoolers referencing Facebook and Twitter.  Little kids don’t need to know about Facebook and Twitter.  And they certainly shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder!  Take a break.  Step back and check your own habits, and then move forward in moderation.  I’ve had to do that at times.  What I always find is that I don’t miss it.  Set limits for you.

 

Be Tech Savvy:  You have to stay one step ahead of your kids.  That’s your job.  Get your own accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Stay ahead of the learning curve.  You can’t bury your head in the sand and let your kids wander off into this brave new world without you.  If you hand over the iPod, it’s up to you to know what you’re kids are doing with it.

 

Establish a Contract:  Be honest.  Let them know that you will be checking their usage, what they’re doing on the computer, iPod, iPad, etc, and that, ultimately, you are in charge of tech usage in your house.  Keep the lines of communication open, but be willing to set up a contract with your child.  You can’t protect your child from every little thing, including cyber bullying, but you can be aware of what’s happening when your child logs on to her various accounts.

 

Check-in Basket:  Keep a basket in your kitchen with a sign indicating that all friends coming by to hang out should leave their technology in there.  Some people like to argue that texting gives kids a new, less threatening, way to socialize.  But when a group of kids are sitting around a room texting other people, they are missing a huge opportunity to socialize in real time!  So what if it makes you the most unpopular mom on the block?  Tip:  There is no award for most popular mom anyway, and votes swing continuously.  Make them some brownies; they will love you again in an instant.

 

Central Charging Station:  Most kids won’t just turn in their electronic devices at night; you need to set the limit.  Choose a time (at least one hour before bedtime – 8pm is good) and have your kids turn in their technology.  The central charging station should be in the parents’ room to avoid temptation.  Prolonged screen time at night can cause eyestrain, sleep disturbance, and anxiety.  Establish the limit and stick to it.

 

Above all, remind your kids of the simple pleasures of life.  Too often we get wrapped up in what’s happening everywhere else and, in doing so, we miss out on the beauty right in front of us.  Practice enjoying the here and now.  Your kids will thank you for it one day.

Pin It

The Worry Brain

A worried mind is a very loud mind, it practically screams out for help the minute the lights go down or an unexpected trigger hits.

Go ahead and panic, it whisper-yells, over and over again.  The body responds in an instant with anxiety symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid, heartbeat, muscle tension, stomach pain, and dizziness.

And that’s just for adults…imagine how children feel when panic sets in?

We are all equipped with the fight or flight response.  We need that little voice inside our brains that reminds that the pot is too hot, that we shouldn’t run in the street, or that danger is imminent.  Healthy stress is a very good thing.

But excessive stress and excessive worry can lead to health problems.  Poor sleep (including nightmares), poor eating habits, frequent colds and viruses, headaches (including migraines), stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues, and high blood pressure top the list of negative side effects of stress and anxiety.

Children have worries, and some worry more than others.  It’s a perfectly normal part of development.  Many children even have specific fears that cause the brain to go into panic overload.  Transitions, crowds, separation from parents, getting lost, being left behind or home alone, fear of failure, fear of upsetting a teacher or parent, fear of rejection, natural disasters, scary TV shows or the news, dogs and other animals, spiders, the dark, monsters, ghosts, and nightmares are all common childhood fears and worries.

As their worlds expand, children become aware of new real-life stressors and experiences.  It makes sense that their fears become larger as they experience things like fire and earthquake drills or talk about personal safety on a regular basis.

Self-talk helps children talk their way through stressful and fear inducing situations.  When children talk back to their worries, they feel some control over the situation and can remain calm enough to find a solution to the problem.

I like to teach kids about the difference between the “Happy Brain” and the “Worry Brain”.

The happy brain focuses on things that make a child feel calm and happy on an everyday basis.

Example of a Happy Brain

The CEO of the brain remains calm and in control when the “Happy Brain” takes the lead.  Worry is there in case the fight or flight response is needed, but fears are at a minimum when the “Happy Brain” is in charge.

The “Worry Brain” is a different story.  The “Worry Brain” hits the panic button when a trigger arises, causing those terrible anxiety symptoms mentioned above.  The “Worry Brain” makes decisions based on fear, and causes children to feel scared, sad, and alone.

Example of a Worry Brain

When the “Worry Brain” takes over, the CEO of the brain shrinks and the worry center expands.

Kids can talk back to their worry brains, though, and that can help them cope with stressful situations.  They can say things like:

No, worry brain!  I won’t get lost!

I can ask for help!

Monsters aren’t real!

When your child can identify her fear triggers, she can learn to talk back to her Worry Brain so that she can make a choice to help her through the acute stress reaction.

Drawing and play are two great ways to help your child identify her worries.  Pleasers by nature and not wanting to worry their parents, most young children will respond, “I don’t know” when asked directly about specific fears.

Some kids go from calm to panic in a matter of seconds.  They forget to talk back because they are too busy trying to catch their breath…

You might want to practice blowing up some balloons first to help them understand the art of deep breathing:

 

Do your worried child a favor today and draw out a happy brain and a worried brain…understanding how our brains and bodies work can make a very big difference in the mind of a worried child.

And then practice those self-talk statements…because we all know that practice makes proficient.

Here’s hoping you have a worry-free day!

Pin It

Helping Kids Cope with Stress

You might not know this, but apparently 5th grade is the new 11th grade.  The pressure to succeed, make that excel, in elementary school is alarming.  All over the country parents are complaining of too much homework, too many activities, and too much stress.

 

Believe it or not, stress is not actually a bad thing.  A healthy amount of stress challenges us to push just a little bit harder.  It’s what helps us remain focused and alert in emergency situations.  It’s that little voice in the back of your head that suddenly becomes loud and yells, “swerve!” when another car is headed straight for yours.

 

A healthy amount of stress keeps our brains active and alert.

 

But children today experience very high levels of stress, even beginning in Kindergarten.  The academic, social, and athletic pressure imposed upon them is unreasonable at best.  And they are suffering for it.

 

Much to my dismay, I don’t think the homework thing will subside anytime soon (although the President of France is on a mission to ban homework…anyone want to jump the pond with me?), so it’s important to teach your children how to cope with stress.

 

**Parent tip:  Paying for good grades or punishing for poor grades both impose external stress on your child.  Be proud when your child succeeds and seek help when your child struggles.  Keep your emotions away from the grade.

 

It’s imperative for parents to recognize the signs of excess stress in children.  A few things to look for include:

 

Sadness or depressed mood

Sleep disturbance (too much or too little, frequent night-wakings, frequent nightmares)

Irritability or other mood changes

Stomachaches or headaches (including migraines)

Anxiety (nail biting, restlessness, rumination, excess worries, etc.)

Eating issues (too much or too little, significant changes that are not otherwise accounted for by growth)

Frequent colds

 

Whether or not you see any signs of significant stress in your child, teaching your child to cope with stress now can only help when overload hits in the future.

 

Kiss Overscheduling Goodbye:  If your child is up hours beyond his normal bedtime in the name of homework each night, something has to go.  Kids of all ages need to learn to set limits.  In general, one team sport and one other extra curricular (art class, theater, etc.) per semester is plenty.  Your child needs downtime, social time, and enough time to keep up with academics without losing sleep.  Kids want to do everything.  It’s up to us to teach them to set limits and prioritize.

 

Focus on Sleep:  If your child has to get to school between 8-9AM each morning, staying up until 11PM is NOT an option.  Even though older children can self-monitor when it comes to getting ready for bed and completing assignments, they still need a consistent bedtime.  Weekend nights should only fluctuate by about an hour.  The older they get, the more they think that bedtime is no longer a requirement.  We have to model and teach healthy habits to ensure that out kids are getting enough sleep (which will help with those pesky headaches and colds).

 

Put Away Perfection:  Some kids put undue pressure on themselves (I would know, I was one of them) while others react the pressure imposed by parents.  Perfect doesn’t exist.  Teach your children to strive for doing their best on any given day, and to stop focusing on perfection.  The best gift you can give your child is the freedom to perform their best without comparison.

 

Healthy Choices:  You know how you reach for the salty pretzels and tend to eat on the go when you’re under stress?  We seek a quick fix when we feel our blood sugar crashing, but this actually complicates matters.  Teach your children to sit when they eat (Pop Tarts on the bus will only increase the body’s stress response), make healthy food choices (eat the rainbow), get regular exercise, and lean on their support systems.  Many children feel that they need to suffer through excess stress on their own.  Communicate with your children.  Welcome their thoughts and emotions.  Offer help.  They need you more than they are willing to admit.

 

Reframe:  When the stress cycle sets in, many kids become overwhelmed and respond to everything with a negative (I can’t, it’s impossible, it will never get done).  Teach your children to reframe their thoughts.  Have your child repeat the stressor out loud first and then say it again with a positive spin.  For example, “I can’t do this!  This math is too hard!” can be reframed to, “I think I need a break right now, and then I can tackle this difficult math homework.”  Adding a positive statement decreases the stress response and gives your child a moment to relax.

 

Teach Relaxation Exercises:  The natural response to stress includes clenched fists, tight muscles, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing.  Teach your children to calm their breathing and relax their muscles, even when under stress.  Yoga helps kids learn to control their breathing and focus their thoughts.  Invest in a great Yoga DVD and use it often.  Teach your kids to count to five when inhaling and exhaling.  Teach progressive muscle relaxation (Tighten hand muscles for a count of three and release.  Repeat on other side.  Work your way up your arms, one muscle at a time.  Then begin with toes and move up.  Finish with face muscles).  It’s also important to make sure that your kids have ample time for relaxing activities (drawing, reading, walking the dog, hobbies, etc.)

 

Self-Talk and Scripts:  Talking back to the fear center of the brain is a great way to stop stress on the spot.  When our brains react to excess stress, we often experience anxiety.  Anxiety can cause intrusive thoughts.  Teach your child to talk back to stress.  Saying something like, “Stop!  I know I can handle this.  I can finish this homework” can help stop the intrusive thoughts from taking over.  Preparing scripts in advance to tackle common stressors is also useful.  Being prepared for stressful situations can circumvent that out-of-control feeling that often results in excessive anxiety.

 

Conquer Small Obstacles:  Feeling in control of the small stuff can go a long way toward building resilience.  It can be difficult to know when to step back and when to step in.  Instead of focusing on fixing or not fixing, consider providing support along the way.  Help talk your child through small obstacles by asking questions and trying different strategies together.  When you support your child along the way, your child learns when to try alone and when to seek help.

 

Dial back the pressure at home whenever possible.  Set realistic expectations, but know that your child is working hard at school and in extra curricular activities.  And remember that a mental health day every once in a while can really reset the soul.  

Pin It

Tips for Empowering Girls

My birthday is right around the corner.  Like in a couple of days right around the corner.  And while I don’t usually celebrate my birthday (you might not know this, but my brother and I agreed to stay 29 forever.  Best pact I’ve ever made), I’m making an exception this year.

 

Not because it’s a big one.  Please, friends, don’t rush me into a new decade.  Let me enjoy my, ahem, late-ish thirties.

 

Not because I want presents.  Ok, maybe I’m just a little bit curious about the contents of the J.Crew box that arrived last night.  But it’s not about the presents.

 

And not because I do enjoy some Ducle de Leche cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory (hint, hint).  And a little Sterling Cabernet (hint, again).

 

None of those reasons stand out this year.

 

The reason I’m bringing my birthday out of retirement is that the United Nations declared October 11th the International Day of the Girl.  In doing so, the UN has established a day to recognize the rights of girls and the unique challenges that girls face across the world. The UN is committed to ending gender stereotypes, discrimination, violence, and economic disparities that disproportionately affect girls.

 

Now that’s a day I can get behind.

 

Before you start thinking that maybe these issues don’t affect your daughter(s), consider this:

 

In America, 1 in 4 girls do not graduate from high school.

 

And…

 

54% of 3-5th grade girls worry about how they look, and 37% worry about how much they weigh.

 

Are you ready to empower your girls?

 

Empowering our children starts at home.  We can’t avoid the difficult conversations with the hope that those issues will resolve themselves.  They won’t.

 

Body image begins to affect girls in 2nd and 3rd grade and, in some cases, even in preschool.

 

Bullying happens.  Admit it.  Look for the signs.  Be proactive.  Stand by your child.

 

The pressure to be perfect is as much external as it is internal.  Choose your words carefully.

 

Competition can be healthy, but it can also lead to undue pressure and poor choices (even on the field).

 

So what’s a mom to do?

 

Open the Lines of Communication:  Bottom line:  Your kids won’t talk if you won’t listen.  You can’t jump in with a quick fix every time a problem arises, and sarcasm and eye rolling (or very heavy sighs) will cause your child to shut down.  Listen before you respond.  Allow your child to vent and process her emotions.  Ask follow up questions.  Let your child know that you are there, without judgment, to listen and help at all times.

 

Start a Mother/Daughter Journal:  It’s no big secret that girls start talking less the older they get.  More often than not they are embarrassed or afraid to bring up difficult topics.  A mother/daughter journal on your daughter’s bedside table gives your daughter the opportunity and space to write you a note that you can read and respond to while she is at school.  Maybe it’s the highlights of the day, maybe it’s the latest trend that she just has to follow, maybe it’s the girl who bullied her during lunch…the back and forth without the fear of judgment gives your daughter an opportunity to feel heard.  Bonus:  It gives you time to think when difficult questions arise.

 

Volunteer Together:  Helping others is a great way to spend time together and feel good about something you’ve done.  Search for monthly volunteer opportunities and choose one that appeals to both of you.  Spend some time doing good to feel good together.  Quality time spent together is always a bonus.

 

Date Nights:  Schedule a weekly date night (or afternoon) with your daughter.  Being involved and present is the key to strengthening your bond, particularly when puberty hits.  Get your nails done, go out to lunch, walk on the beach…find a fun weekly activity and don’t cancel!  Our daughters need to know that they are a priority.  Show them by prioritizing special time.

 

Mother/Daughter Book Club:  Looking for a new way to instill a love of reading?  Organize a monthly book club with a few of your daughter’s friends and their mothers.  Have the girls take turns choosing the books and leading the discussion.  Reading with your daughter helps foster the relationship and keeps you involved in her interests.  Bonus:  Take turns creating healthy, fun snacks for book club to address good eating habits.

 

Watch What She’s Watching:  Kids are plugged in and tuned out today.  We live in a technological world, and that isn’t going away.  But that doesn’t mean you have to sit back and remain in the dark.  My mother watched every single episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 with me.  I have never forgotten that.  It helped us stay connected during those pesky teenage years.  Watch the shows that your daughter is so excited to see each week.  Discuss them.  Get excited with her.  If it’s important to her, it should be important to you too.

 

Peer Mentoring:  Some schools have peer-mentoring programs in place, but many do not.  Consider establishing a Big/Little Sister program in your daughter’s school to help girls support one another.  When girls are empowered to support one another, competition decreases.  Empower your girls.

 

Discuss Body Image & Bullying:  Girls think about appearance and weight.  This is a reality.  Girls worry about body image.  Girls bully other girls and tease them based on appearance.  I wish they didn’t, but they do.  Talk about it.  Discuss healthy choices.  Discuss the meaning of empathy and what to do when someone bullies.  Point out those ridiculous ads plastering the magazines and talk about reality versus professional touch ups.  Don’t be afraid to tackle the difficult subjects.  The more comfortable your daughter is in her own skin, the better she will be able to cope with the ups and downs.

 

I’ve said enough.  It’s up to you now.  And I’m off to eat that cheesecake…

 

Would you just do me one quick favor?  Please help me celebrate my birthday this year by empowering your girls and spreading the word about the International Day of the Girl.  Thank you, my friends.

Pin It