Dads, Your Tween Girls Need You

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

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

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

For the record, she wasn’t right.

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

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

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

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

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

Invite her to run errands.

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

Ask her for help.

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

Read to her.

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

Get outside!

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

Listen (Really, listen.)

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

Show up.

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Pexels

 

5 Ways to Help Girls Feel Self-Confident

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Image credit: Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start by making a few small changes:

Listen more than you talk

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

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

Believe in your daughter

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

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

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

Connect

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

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

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

Ask questions

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

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

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

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

Tell about you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How heavy is your backpack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unpack the backpack.

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

Here’s how to do it:

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

Talk about empathy.

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

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

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

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

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

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Bear hug.

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

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

Read old favorites.

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

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

Whisper talk.

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

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

Blow bubbles!

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

Color together.

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

Bubble bath.

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

Create a cozy spot.

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

Take a mindful walk.

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

Walk down memory lane.

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

Check out.

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

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

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

 

Image: Pexels

Raise Assertive Kids in 8 Easy Steps

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

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

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

What does it mean to be “assertive”?

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

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

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

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

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

8 Steps to more assertive kids:

Review communication styles.

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

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

Practice eye contact.

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

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

Teach “I” statements.

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

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

Practice the art of debate.

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

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

Create a word wall.

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

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

Have a personal motto.

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

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

Remain calm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Help Your Anxious Kid Avoid Avoidance Behaviors

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

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

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

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

What are avoidance behaviors?

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

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

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

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

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

How can you teach kids to avoid avoidance?

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

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

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

Unpack the triggers.

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

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

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

Challenge exaggerations.

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

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

Start small.

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

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

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

Focus on manageable tasks.

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

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

Practice. Practice. Practice.

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Pexels

3 Wishes for 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on positive parenting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about mental illness

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

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

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

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

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

Slow down and play

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

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

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

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

 

 

Drop Everything and Play!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the big deal about high level play?

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

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

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

Benefits of high level play:

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

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

When is my child too old for unstructured play?

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

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

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

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

The Happy Kid Handbook in Stores Now!

Happy Kid #1 close up

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get out and play!

3 Phrases That Will Strengthen Your Bond With Your Child Today

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I trust you.”

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

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

“I believe in you.”

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

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

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

“I will always be here for you.”

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

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

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

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

 

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