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!

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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.  

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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.

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Building Self-Esteem as a Family

Building self-esteem is a lifelong journey that requires daily maintenance.  It’s not as simple as doing what you do best every single day because there will always be obstacles along the way.

 

Bad days happen at every age and every stage.

 

But helping your children build a healthy sense of self is so very important.

 

When children have high self-esteem they are more motivated when it comes to academics, social interactions, and athletics.  They also have better coping skills and can handle the ups and downs of everyday life with a bit more finesse.

 

Families can do a lot together to build the self-esteem of each family member.  Families that are there for one another provide a safe place for children to express their feelings and follow their dreams.

 

Families that truly put family first teach children to be supportive, kind, and caring.  More often than not, kids will take those traits and apply them to the outside world as well.

 

Below are some tips to help your family focus on healthy self-esteem.

 

Be Available:  Life is busy and kids have a lot to say.  It’s easy to redirect the kids to a different activity in order to create just a little bit of quiet time, but sometimes that sends the wrong message.  The single best thing that you can do to help build your child’s self-esteem is to listen to him.  Kids know when we tune out.  They know when we are distracted.  Be emotionally present when your child needs to talk.  Chances are, he has something very important to say (even if it’s buried under 17 stories about the playground).

 

Build an Emotional Vocabulary:  You taught them to sing their ABC’s.  You taught them to ride a bike.  You taught them to button their shirts and tie their shoes.  But did you remember to teach them to identify their feelings?  Many children fail to identify how they truly feel simply because they don’t have the language to accurately express their feelings.  Make a feelings faces poster and teach them to recognize their feelings.  Emotions often come with physical complaints.  The next time your child starts complaining about headaches, tummy aches, sore toes, and hangnails…reach for that poster and encourage your child to verbalize how he truly feels.

 

Find Individual Strengths:  Younger siblings love to follow in the footsteps of their older siblings.  It’s a way to join and strengthen the bond between them.  But all children are individuals.  Help each child find his/her strengths and interests and spend equal amounts of time on each.  Not every child wants to play sports, and not every child can sit down at a piano and play a song.  Teach your children to cheer each other on and try to avoid sibling competition as much as possible.

 

Join with Each Child:  Kids need special time, even when they declare themselves far too old for such a silly concept.  When they have 1:1 time with each parent, they have the opportunity to bond, communicate, and strengthen the child/parent relationship.  Join with your child – let him determine the activity and spend some time truly getting to know your child.  Even if that means playing a video game or two…

 

Engage in Family Activities:  As children get older and extra curricular activities start to determine what they family will do on any given day, families can start to feel scattered.  Plan monthly family days.  Take turns choosing the family activity or outing.  Consider doing a few family community service days per year, as helping others is known to increase good feelings.  Quality time together as a family plays an integral role in building family self-esteem.  Make it a priority.

 

Healthy self-esteem starts at home.  When you help your child find his strengths and learn to verbalize his feelings, you give him the skills to find success in the world around him.

 

How do you help your children build their self-esteem?

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National Suicide Prevention Week

 

Suicide claims 1 million lives worldwide every year.  1 million.  That’s 1 life every 40 seconds.  In addition to this alarming statistic, there are several million attempts each year.

 

In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death.

 

Among youth (defined as ages 15-24), suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death, claiming 1 life every 2 hours.  That’s worth repeating:  1 youth completes suicide every 2 hours.  And for every completed suicide by a youth, 100-200 attempts are made.

 

Suicide has touched my life more than once, both personally and professionally.  I know firsthand the pain of being left behind.  I know that suicide changes families, strains relationships, and leaves survivors with the impossible task of moving forward.  I know what it’s like to wonder if I could have made a difference.  I know about the what ifs…

 

Teen suicide tends to command media attention when bullying is involved.  These stories hit the airwaves and leave us all feeling horrified and helpless.  Often, the parents report making several attempts to seek help from schools to stop the bullying.  These stories pop up a couple of times a year.  They cause us to pause for a moment and empathize with the families.  They cause us to experience outrage and anger.  They cause us to voice our concerns about bullying and hatred.

 

But then, we go on with our lives.  We have children to care for, jobs to do, and endless to-do lists to get done.

 

And what about the rest of them?  If one youth completes suicide every two hours…there are a lot of stories that we haven’t heard.

 

September 9-15 is National Suicide Prevention Week.  This week is dedicated to raising awareness, spreading information, and talking about a problem that affects countless families in the United States.

 

That said, below are a few things that you need to know:

 

The Warning Signs:

 

  • Declining school performance
  • Loss of interest in social activities and/or sports and other extra curricular activities
  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness, possibly combined with anxiety
  • Sleep disturbance:  Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight

 

Additional Warning Signs:

 

  • Suicidal ideation (thoughts and/or plans)
  • Substance abuse
  • Anger
  • Mood change
  • Reckless behavior

 

Connecting with tweens and teens can prove to be a very specific form of art.  They tend to hide their emotions.  They might be embarrassed to tell you the details.  Self-esteem is almost always a work in progress.  It’s a very difficult time for many kids, and parents struggle to strike the right balance.

 

What should a parent do?

 

Parents can:

 

  • Provide unconditional support
  • Listen
  • Avoid undue criticism
  • Take an interest
  • Remain connected
  • Ask open ended questions
  • Be there
  • Seek professional help, when necessary
  • Learn the warning signs

 

It is the job of tweens and teens to separate, to push parents away.  They spend their days working on proving their independence.  Give them opportunities to be responsible and independent, but stay involved.  Get to know their teachers.  Know what extra curricular activities they choose. Know their friends.  Attend their games, concerts, and plays.  Be involved.

 

Parents who allow open communication with their children stay involved.  Yes, you need to set boundaries.  Yes, you need rules.  But children need to know that they can seek help, guidance, and support from their parents.  Be there for them…no matter what.

 

Suicide is preventable.  Too many youths feel hopeless in this world.  Too many youths don’t know where to turn for support.

 

It is the job of the parent to know where to get information and where to point their child when they need someone to listen.

 

Statistics show that hopelessness is a better predictor for suicide than a diagnosis of depression.  Be involved.  Know what your child is going through.  Find ways to connect.  And be supportive, no matter what.

 

I am here to tell you that suicide is devastating.  There is no coming back, there is only moving on…and that can take a lifetime.

 

Don’t ignore the warning signs for one more day.

 

Do you need help right now?  Please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

 

What can you do to raise awareness in your community?  Talk.  Use the right language (suicide is not a bad word).  Listen.  And share this post.

 

You just might help someone in crisis…

 

 

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Kindergarten Tips for Moms

Kindergarten is a very big deal.  It marks that defining moment when our babies turned toddlers turned preschoolers officially become little kids.

 

Armed with backpacks that cover their entire bodies and lunch bags large enough to hold enough food to satisfy an entire construction site, we send them off into the big world.  The one where we probably won’t be called at the slightest sign of tears, the one where classrooms now hold up to 24, the one where they stay for a little bit longer…the one where our little kids begin to feel a little bit bigger.

 

Some kids are excited, some kids are nervous, but most kids experience a little bit of both.  Either way, the kids will adjust over time.  They will find a friend, eat lunch in groups, and learn new things every day.  Even the very anxious ones will find their way in this new exciting world.

 

But the moms?  That’s another story.

 

Letting go is an impossible task.  It’s hard to trust other people with your precious cargo every single day.  It’s hard to say goodbye five days a week.  It’s hard to sit back and watch them fly, even though this is, in fact, the real task of parenthood.

 

I didn’t sleep for a week before Riley’s first day.  She was ready.  The school is amazing.  She was placed with the teacher I requested and with her best girlfriend.  By all accounts, I had nothing to worry about.

 

But sometimes the aftermath of infertility follows us.  I fought long and hard to have her, and I don’t believe I will every truly be able to just let go.

 

I prepared myself as much as possible.  I practiced deep breathing and holding back my tears so that I would be able to get through that first drop-off with a big hug and huge smile, because that’s what Riley would need.  It worked.  I was able to hold it together just long enough to get back to my car and sob to my mother (a woman who faced this impossible task four times over).

 

And as I watched the clock and wondered what she was doing every single second of that four hour window, it occurred to me that Kindergarten moms could take some solid advice from Kindergarten students.

 

Get excited:  Your child is off on a brand new adventure.  She will meet new friends, learn new things, and come home with endless stories to tell.  Soak up that excitement every afternoon.  Ask a lot of questions, listen to those stories, and be present from the moment she returns to the moment she sleeps.  Be excited about all of these firsts…

 

Smile often:  We teach our children that a smile is a sign of friendliness, but do we always follow our own advice?  Greet the teacher with a great big smile each morning, as this is the person caring for your child for the next few hours, after all.  Leave your child with a big hug and even bigger smile.  When you worry, they worry.  When you smile, they know that all is ok.

 

Be friendly:  You are sending your child off to make new friends and meet new people, but this is also an opportunity for you to do the same.  Reach out to the other parents and start building those relationships.  You are all in this together.  It’s a great time to find support and get to know the parents of the other kids in the class.

 

Listen carefully:  Listening skills are essential in Kindergarten.  The projects get a little more complicated and the instruction is a lot more guided.  Your child will spend her days listening and reacting.  Step away from the iPhone and do the same.  Ask your child questions and sit and listen to the answers without interruption.  We get very used to having them around all of the time, so it makes sense that it’s hard for parents to separate when Kindergarten rolls around.  Make the most of the parent-child moments that you have by listening carefully and taking an interest in what your child has to say.

 

All feelings are ok:  We always tell our children that it’s ok to feel happy, sad, mad, or confused, but we don’t always make room for those emotions in our own lives.  It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious about this transition.  It’s also normal to cry and feel sad that your little one is away from you more.  Make time for those emotions.  Talk to your partner, your mother, and your friends.  Work your way through it the best that you can so that you can be happy and excited for your little one on the big first day.

 

Reach out:  Get to know your child’s teacher.  Complete any forms provided with as many details as possible.  Often these forms are a way for the teacher to get to know your child.  When filling out Riley’s form during the orientation I mentioned that she really shines when given the opportunity to feel helpful.  Guess who got to deliver forms to the library on the third day of school?  She hasn’t stopped talking about it since.  Teachers appreciate input, but they also appreciate positive feedback.  Send a little note to let your child’s teacher know that your child is really thriving.  Sometimes a quick note goes a very long way toward building a great parent-teacher relationship.

 

Ask for help:  You wouldn’t want your child to sit in silence when feeling completely overwhelmed, would you?  Reach out and ask for help when you’re going through this process and if you hit any obstacles throughout the school year.  You want your child to have an amazing first school year experience, and that starts with you.

 

I’m here to tell you that I survived the first week.  I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.  I couldn’t have asked for a better classroom or a better friend by her side.  I cried my way through that first day and stared down the clock as the seconds slowly ticked away, but the look of pride and happiness on her face when I picked her up that day?  Was well worth the tears.

 

And I would do it all over again.

 

Be strong mamas, you’re about to witness an incredible transformation…and you don’t want to miss a minute of it.

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Healthy Habits, Healthy Kids

Remember those little boxes of Green Giant frozen broccoli with cheese sauce (of possibly unknown origin) that were a big hit in the 70’s and 80’s?  You might or might not have eaten that form of “vegetable” as a child.  You might have liked it, or you might have run kicking and screaming at the very first sight of the “cheese” packet.

 

You wouldn’t dare serve those to your children today, would you?

 

Probably not.

 

Parents today favor fresh, locally grown produce.  Parents today watch cooking shows, reading cooking magazines, and stalk cooking blogs.  Parents today know more about children’s nutrition than generations before us.

 

Or do we?

 

1 in 6 American children is obese.  That’s worth repeating:  1 in 6.  According to the CDC, obesity rates in children have more than tripled since you ate that cheesy broccoli in 1979.

 

The consequences of childhood obesity can be life threatening:  Heart disease and Type 2 diabetes top the list of potential medical problems, but let’s not forget about sleep disturbance, sleep apnea, breathing problems, join and muscle pain, low self-esteem, and depression.

 

The good news is that you can make changes to ensure better health, and better eating habits, for your children.  Below are some tips to get you started:

 

Think small:  You might not serve your child questionable frozen vegetables, but chances are you’ve allowed him to eat a giant muffin from Starbucks.  In comparison to our childhood, portion sizes are huge right now.  When you think about it, even the size of our plates and bowls have grown over time.  Children are eating enormous snacks and supersized meals.  Look at your child’s fist…there’s your portion size.  Avoid allowing children to eat snacks right from the bag.  Premeasure and plan ahead.  The more consistent the portions, the more kids learn what their bodies need.

 

Teach self-regulation:  One of my children will eat everything on the plate, while the other can recognize feeling full.  Most kids fall into the eat what’s there category in the preschool and school age years.  The best way to teach self-regulation is to model self-regulation.  Eat at least one meal a day with your kids.  Talk about what it means to feel full.  The “clean plate club” of years past is a dated model when it comes to healthy eating.  Kids need variety, colorful fruits and vegetables, and the ability to stop when the tummy feels full.

 

Let them shop:  Yes, it’s much easier to grocery shop alone.  It’s also easier (and more cost effective) to show up with a specific list and stick to just those items.  Kids are more likely to try new things when they are allowed to make some choices.  Let them peruse the fruits and vegetables and decide what they want to try.  My very picky three year old recently requested that we all try cucumber and yellow peppers.  The cucumber was a hit, the peppers not so much.  The best news was that he picked them, and he tried them.  Give them options.  Another great strategy is letting each family member have one night (or morning) per week to plan the meal.

 

Let them help:  You know the scene:  It’s five minutes until dinnertime and you are racing through kitchen, just getting started.  We’ve all been there.  The last thing you want is help that requires close supervision.  Kids are more likely to eat healthy foods and try new things when they help prepare the meals.  Let them wash produce, stir the pasta, or tear the lettuce.  There are always small jobs that don’t require sharp objects.  Get your kids involved and watch them take pride in their work.

 

Schedule it:  If your kids are allowed to snack all day, they probably won’t be interested in that yummy chicken stir-fry come dinnertime.  As much as possible, stick to a meal schedule.  Breakfast, small snack, lunch, small snack, dinner…it’s easy once you get into the habit.  Remember, kids often confuse boredom and thirst with hunger.  Offer plenty of water and changes of activities before sneaking in an extra snack.  Extra tip:  When my kids have had plenty to eat but still claim hunger they are allowed to snack on snap peas to their heart’s content.  Extra veggies are always a win.

 

Limit the drinks:  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  Juice is not the enemy.  Straight juice all day long might be the enemy, but 4-5 oz. of juice cut with ice and water once a day is not the enemy.  Children need water.  Children need milk.  Children enjoy a little bit of juice.  Children DON’T need soda, Vitamin water, or energy drinks of any kind.  Too many complaints about the boring nature of water?  Throw a strawberry slice in the glass.  Kids today consume excessive calories from oversized sodas, Gatorade, and Vitamin water.  Stick to the basics…they will thank you later.

 

Schedule screen time:  I do love schedules…  When kids know what to expect, they don’t have to guess and beg for more.  Stick to a TV time and game time schedule.  Be involved.  Know what they are watching and process the shows with them.  Know what they are playing and how it affects their moods (excessive game time can and will affect behavior.  Be aware).

 

Prioritize sleep:  Insufficient sleep leads to stress, exhaustion, and weight gain.  Your children need a consistent bedtime routine…and so do you.

 

Treats are treats:  Ice cream every day?  No way!  Desserts should be small and saved for special occasions.  Yes, my kids enjoy a sweet treat after dinner sometimes.  But dried fruit is just as much of a hit as two gummy bears.  Keep it healthy and save the candy and ice cream for special occasions.

 

Get out and play:  The best thing about being a kid is that exercise is really just having fun.  Yes, some kids are homebodies (I have one of those) and require some convincing, but it’s so very worth it.  Kids should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to the AAP.  Swinging, sliding, tag, jumping rope…these are just a few fun activities that count as exercise.  Walk often, take family bike rides, or go on nature hunts around your town.  And when the weather turns cold?  Hula hooping, obstacle courses, yoga, and somersaulting will keep their bodies moving.  Get creative and make it fun!

 

Above all, model healthy choices.  Drink your water, eat your vegetables, and get your exercise.

 

What healthy choices will you make this week?

 

 

 

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The Summer Olympics: A Family Affair

I spent my childhood summers on the Connecticut shore.  From late June until the first day of school, we left our lives behind and enjoyed summer on the beach.

 

We enjoyed tennis, sailing, swimming until all hours, crabbing, climbing rocks, and, of course, sand castles galore.  The possibilities were endless.

 

We rode our bikes everywhere.  Apart from a grocery store trip here and there, we practically never got into the car.  We were surrounded by friends and given the freedom to go our own way in a little borough so safe that a parent was always nearby.

 

We were sun drenched and exhausted each night, having spent the day on the move.  So much so that TV was never necessary.  It wasn’t that restrictions were in place; it was simply that we didn’t crave it.  We were tired, content, and ready for sleep.

 

There was no battle to decrease screen time.  Sure, we watched the occasional show but, for the most part, we enjoyed the quiet.

 

Except during the summer Olympics.  During those summers, my mom would tune in a bit and show us various competitions.  We cheered for our athletes and watched in awe as those incredible men and women pushed themselves to new heights.

 

I loved every second of it.  And, I believe, I learned a lot from the Olympics.  I learned about following dreams, teamwork, and hard work.  I learned about optimism, sportsmanship, and setting goals. I learned about togetherness.

 

Fast forward to today.  Screen time is scheduled in our house.  Unless sickness descends upon us, our kids only tune in at certain times each day.  It works for us.  Sometimes a little too well (a mom needs to shower once in a while).  They don’t ask for more and they don’t protest when I hit the off switch.  They know the limits.

 

But this summer, I am happy to tune in a little extra.  This summer, I am happy to teach my kids the lessons I learned from Olympics past, and cheer on our athletes as much as possible.  As a result, Riley is planning our own backyard Olympics for this weekend.  She’s caught Olympic fever, for sure.

 

Below are five good reasons to tune in as a family this summer:

 

Promoting togetherness:  Chances are that when your five year old is glued to Jake and the Neverland Pirates you are probably washing dishes, folding laundry, and maybe even returning an email or two.  You’re probably not sitting side by side discussing the plotline of the show.  When you watch Olympic events as a family, you are actively engaged with your children during screen time.  You can discuss the various competitions and cheer for your country together.  There is a reason people throw parties to watch major sporting events:  It builds community and increases the fun factor.  Cheer together, learn together, and enjoy the experience together.

 

Geography:  Watching the parade during the opening ceremonies reminded me that I really need to brush up on my geography.  One thing that I love about the Olympics is that people from across the globe come together to compete.  Use this opportunity to teach your children about different countries and cultures.  Better yet, have a few International days:  Try some new foods, learn some key phrases, and pull up some pictures to show the kids the landscape.  Learn together.

 

Teamwork and rules:  I truly love the depth of competition during the Olympics.  I also love that even the individual athletes are competing for a common goal.  They each represent their country.  It’s powerful, when you stop to think about it.  Take this opportunity to highlight moments of teamwork.  Look up the rules of each sport to help your children understand how the competitions work.  Talk about working together to achieve victory.  Some people complain that there isn’t enough competition for kids these days, while others complain that there is too much.  In watching the Olympics, you have the perfect opportunity to show your kids what teamwork and sportsmanship look like.

 

Perseverance:  You don’t get to the Olympics by quitting when the going gets tough.  You have to work through the struggles and give it your all every day.  Talk to your kids about what it takes to become an Olympic athlete.  All of these athletes started out in the kiddie pool as toddlers, but they worked and persevered until their dreams came true.  The Olympics are an excellent lesson in determination.

 

Optimism:  It takes a positive attitude to reach difficult goals.  You have to believe in yourself and trust that your hard work will be rewarded.  Teach your children about the power of positive thinking.  Record some of the athlete interviews that highlight their childhood dreams.  This is a great opportunity to show our children that dreams are worth fighting for.

 

And then get out there and organize your own backyard Olympics…you can even download medals here!

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When in Doubt, Hug it Out

I’m sure you hugged your kids today.  You probably even hugged them a few times.  Hopefully you hugged them at least more than once.  But if you stop to think about it, I mean really think about it, how many times did you hug your kids today?

 

When babies are in utero, we carry them around in the safety of our wombs for about 40 weeks.  Safe in snug in that warm little space, we nurture them with the food we eat while they grow and develop.  We talk to them, we sing to them, and, instinctively, we rub our bellies.

 

When they finally make their way into this shockingly cold world, we wrap them up tight and keep them safe and warm.  And we hold them constantly because the simple act of touch can soothe a newborn in an instant (most of the time, anyway).

 

We continue to hug them and hold them as they begin to grow into toddlers and explore the world around them.  We kiss their boo boos, hug away their tears, and rub their backs as they fall asleep.

 

From that first moment of conception, babies are conditioned to rely on touch as measure of comfort.  They trust that we will be there for them, both emotionally and physically, when the going gets tough and times are good.  They crave that interaction.  They reach out to us, crawl toward us, and slobber us with big, wet kisses.

 

They are soothed by the familiar touch of a parent.

 

But a strange thing sometimes happens when children grow older.  Some parents start to pull away from physical affection when children become more independent.  Boundaries shift.  Hugs and kisses become less frequent (particularly in the United States, according to some research).

 

It’s a shame, really, because so much good can come from the simple act of hugging, hand holding, and even just a pat on the head.

 

Research shows that touch decreases stress hormones and activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex – the area of the brain linked to feelings of reward and compassion.

 

The latest research into the healing power of touch points to many benefits, including:  Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, increased attention/focus, decreased stress, more cooperation, better immune system functioning, and even increased weight gain in premature infants (as studied by Tiffany Field) to name a few.

 

While much of the research indicates increased positive reactions when touch is provided by a loved one, one study even found that a friendly pat provided by a teacher resulted in students being three times as likely to speak up in class (Nicolas Gueguen).

 

Bottom line:  Kids need touch.  We all need touch, really.

 

Below are five reasons to hug your kids more and more each day:

 

Belonging:  Hugs, kisses, and physical affection between a parent and child increase that child’s feeling of belonging and trust.  In short, it helps them feel safe.

 

Conveys compassion:  When you hug your child often (not just when times are tough) you show your child that you care.  As John Mayer recently wrote, “When you show me love, I don’t need your words…love is a verb”.  You have to show it, every day.

 

Decreases stress:  Research shows that physical touch decreases stress hormones, but you don’t need to read the research to make sense of this one.  You know that moment when your sad/overwhelmed/frustrated child melts into your arms and finally lets it all out?  That’s the power of a hug.  That’s stress relief.

 

Bonding and communication:  Hugging and other forms of physical affection are known to increase bonding between parents and children and improve communication.  It makes sense.  The closer we feel, the more open we are to verbalizing our feelings, needs, and desires.

 

Increased immunity and resilience:  Hugging your kids more often can help them become more resilient to stress and improve their immune systems.  It’s true.  Who doesn’t want healthier kids who are better able to cope with stress?

 

Everybody needs a hug now and then, but if you give and receive hugs often…you just might find that your whole family will be better for it.  So get out and there and hug your kids today!  (8-12 times per day, at least.)

 

Incidentally, kids who are deprived of physical affection can become porcupine-like and recoil at the slightest act of touch.  Isn’t that heartbreaking?  Let’s put an end to that, shall we?

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Beyond the Pencil Grip: Tips for Kindergarten Prep

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It’s almost that time of the year again…the time when parents everywhere start questioning whether or not their kids are truly ready for Kindergarten.

 

You can search for “signs of Kindergarten readiness” and find several well-organized lists of skills that most Kindergarten hopefuls have mastered.  You can print them out, check them off, and feel good for a minute when you realize that your child can hold a pencil, identify several shapes and colors, and recognize her name on paper.

 

 

But the truth is that all kids are different, and scoring well on a checklist doesn’t necessarily paint the complete picture.

 

Emotional readiness plays a HUGE role in Kindergarten.  Many kids will shift from small preschool classrooms to much larger Kindergarten classrooms.  They are not as likely to receive the same 1:1 interaction to which they’ve grown accustomed.

 

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t ready; it simply means that you need to prepare.

 

Riley, the life of the party at home, is quiet in large groups and reluctant to assert her needs, even when under stress.  She would rather move on in silence than have all eyes on her.  While she is more than ready for the intellectual stimulation of Kindergarten, we are spending this summer working on her emotional readiness.  It’s tough being an introvert in an extroverted world…believe me, I know.

 

Below are a few tips to help increase your child’s emotional readiness for Kindergarten:

 

Express emotions:  In this results oriented world full of competitive child rearing, sometimes teaching feelings identification is forgotten.  The truth is that kids need to learn how to label and express their feelings so that they do not resort to hitting, punching, biting, or screaming.  Slow down when you read and point out facial expressions.  Talk about how the characters in the book can ask for help, feel better, and get their needs met.  Invest in a feelings faces chart or make your own with a snapshots of your child acting out various feelings (or have your child draw them).

 

Ask for help:  Assertiveness can be difficult for adults, so it stands to reason that it seems impossible for some kids.  Kindergarten students need to be able to ask for help when the going gets tough, both with academics and social issues.  Praise your child when she asks for help.  Practice with relatives, friends, and neighbors.  When you see your child struggling to seek help, get low, whisper words of encouragement, and help her find her voice.

 

Practice delayed gratification:  It’s no big secret that larger classrooms = increased wait time.  Despite what you might hear on the playground, the vast majority of Kindergarteners do not understand the concept of time just yet.  If you have an impatient youngster on your hands, now is the time to start practicing delayed gratification.  Try to avoid the infamous, “just a minute”, and be specific instead.  Use the timer on your phone or, better yet, a sand timer or kitchen timer to teach your child the meaning of three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, etc.  While she waits, provide gentle reminders that you will be there when the timer beeps.

 

Focus on cooperative group play:  Due to her reluctance to assert her thoughts, needs, and feelings in large groups, Riley tends to get lost in the crowd.  Group activities are often the focus of Kindergarten.  It’s a good time to organize small playgroups at your house.  Have a few activities available (board games, art projects, doll house) but step back and let the kids direct the play.  Be available to help, but encourage the kids to compromise.  The more they practice working in groups before the start of school, the more comfortable they will feel when school actually begins.

 

Teach social skills:  Some kids will know several other kids in the classroom from preschool, while others will feel like the new kid.  The first day of a new classroom can be overwhelming at best.  Trust that the teachers will spend those first few days helping the kids connect and make friends, but prepare your child in advance.  Let your child show her personality.  Let her choose her clothes, backpack, and school supplies.  Use visits to the park to practice making introductions, playing together, and asking questions.  Teach your child to look for a friendly face.  It’s always tempting to dress our kids to perfection on the oh-so-important first day, but when you’re forced to be someone else, it can be very difficult to truly make a friend.  Let your child shine.

 

A couple of details to teach your child:

*Your (and your spouse’s) first and last name

*Home address (# and street)

*Phone number

*Any allergies

 

Your child will learn how to draw shapes, identify colors you’ve never even heard of, and probably read.  Try not to worry about where your child falls on the academic spectrum and focus on building up her emotional readiness instead.  She will thank you for it (someday).   

 

 

 

 

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