Five TV Shows That Teach

PEEP and the Big Wide World

(Picture Credit)

By now you all know the guidelines for TV viewing for toddlers and preschoolers (no more than two hours per day, including computer and Smartphone time, and no screen time for tots under two).  Whether or not you stick to the two-hour limit, it makes sense to unplug your kids as much as possible and let them engage in creative play.

By now you also know that it’s very important to preview everything before letting your children watch (or play).  It makes good sense.  You want to make sure that your kids are watching quality programming and not over-stimulated by it or scared as a result of watching it.  Even when something seems completely benign, sometimes the writers throw you for a loop.  A favorite curious monkey once caused Riley to fear shadows for months, and our favorite big red dog tends to take the bullying and social skills lessons a bit too far for the preschool crowd at times.  That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be watched, just be involved in the watching and make sure to preview episodes as much as possible, particularly if you have a child who tends to get anxious in response to subject matter such as shadows, the dark, or friendship trouble (frequent preschool themes).

While some parenting experts might disagree, I am of the opinion that a little screen time is a good break for kids and their parents, and can be very educational.  In other words, if you pick the right shows, your kids can enjoy some much-needed relaxation while learning a few things.

We all have our favorites for various reasons, but from an educational standpoint some shows stand out among the crowd.  Below are five shows that you can turn on without any guilt:

1.    PEEP and the Big Wide WorldSet in and around a large urban park, PEEP tells the story of PEEP and his best friends, Chirp and Quack, as they set off on daily adventures.  The adventures include everyday lessons in science.  Targeted for 3-5 year old children, PEEP is funny (even for adults) and provides endless lessons in curiosity, friendship, and science.  Best of all, PEEP encourages preschoolers to explore their own worlds.  Riley, Liam, and I have set out on many PEEP-like adventures since PEEP entered our lives, and we are better for it.

2.    Sesame Street:  What can I possibly say about Sesame Street that you don’t already know?  From language development to social skills to science to music (and beyond), Sesame Street has something for everyone.  It has the added benefit of short segments, so it’s easy to break up the show into smaller parts so it’s easy to watch it on small increments (or just cue up Elmo for a young toddler).

3.    Super WHY!:  Having fun while learning to read?  Win/win!  Super WHY! is a preschool series aimed to help children ages 3-6 develop the critical skills they need to learn to read.  Each episode begins with a preschool related problem (friendship issues, accepting differences, etc.).  The Super WHY! friends then go to the secret clubhouse, where they become literacy-powered superheroes.  The superheroes then work together, with your child, to solve the problem while engaging in an exciting adventure.  They work on vowel sounds, letter sounds, word identification, and other pre-reading skills along the way.  It’s genius.  And the Super WHY! iPhone app is a must as well.

4.    Team UmiZoomi:  Tiny super heroes with mighty mighty math powers…what’s the downside?  Team UmiZoomi introduces early math concepts while building self-confidence in preschoolers.  Children become actively engaged in counting, measurement, patterns, shapes, etc.  It’s fun and engaging and builds a love of problem solving.

5.    Dora, Diego, and Kai-LanOk, so that’s three in one.  Each of these shows introduces a new language while working on problem solving and social skills (Kai-Lan has a heavy focus on social interactions, which is important for preschoolers).  These shows are interactive and engaging, and get kids moving while watching.

Chances are, your kids will watch some TV today.  There’s no guilt in that.  Choose quality programming and watch along with them and your kids will learn new skills while spending a little relaxation time with mom and/or dad.

I shared my favorite TV picks for toddlers and preschoolers, what are some of yours?

 

“Don’t Leave Me!” (Tips for coping with Separation Anxiety)

I love when my babysitter comes.  It’s a recent development, as we’ve had a hard time keeping part time babysitters around for long.  At one point, mid-way through Sean’s year long touring adventure, my latest babysitter quit with no notice and no goodbye to my kids, who had come to think of her as family.  That was it for me.  I decided that I couldn’t possibly put them through yet another transition while Sean was on tour.  There were some long days for me, but the kids were happy and well adjusted, so it seemed worth it.

Now that Sean has been back for 6 months, and before he tours again, I decided that it’s time to get a new babysitter in our lives.  It’s time for some much needed mommy time!  And so our wonderful new babysitter entered our lives.  The kids took an immediate liking to her.  Riley enjoys adventures out during quiet time, and Liam loves the captive audience and non-stop car play when Riley and I have special time.  Everybody wins.

Still, despite the seemingly perfect match, separation anxiety creeps in from time to time.

Separation anxiety is a very normal part of child development.  It can start as early as 6-8 months, when babies first realize that their parents actually live separate lives from them.  They fear abandonment when a caregiver leaves the room to head to the bathroom.  Separation anxiety peaks between 12-24 months. Children have a strong sense of attachment to their parents at this age.  It most often strikes when a parent is leaving for work or going out for a few errands, but it can even happen at night.  Separation often resurfaces during the preschool years, when children are working on autonomy. The desire to be independent versus the need to feel protected is a near constant struggle for preschoolers.  Sometimes even the kids who rarely seemed to struggle with separation along the way suddenly decide they just want to stick close to mom or dad.

The good news is that the vast majority of kids will outgrow separation anxiety (only 4% of children suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder).  The bad news is that it can happen almost overnight, and it can be exhausting for parents.  Below are some tips to help you help your child separate:

1. Familiar faces: Starting at around 6 months, it’s a good idea to leave your baby with familiar caregivers (like a family member or close friend) even just for short periods of time (15-30 minutes) to practice separating.  Increase the time intervals as your baby adjusts to separating.  Older kids?  Leave your child with a very familiar person for 15 minutes only (while you leave the room to fold laundry or shower).  Provide praise and process the event with your child upon your return (“you did a great job playing with Grandma while I was upstairs!  What did you play that was fun?”  Repeat often and gradually increase the time.

2. Get to know caregivers: When introducing a new nanny/babysitter, take a slow approach.  Have the babysitter come to play a few times while you are present so that the kids can get to know her.  Plan fun activities to make it exciting.  Have your babysitter arrive 30 minutes prior to the time that you need to leave so that your child has time to transition and feel comfortable. Help your child engage in an activity with the babysitter before leaving. When Riley has moments of anxiety, a cooking project always shifts her focus and helps her feel comfortable with my departure.

3. Goodbye routine: Develop a short, but predictable goodbye routine. Resist the urge to sneak out when your child’s back is turned.  You want your kids to trust you, not fear that you will leave when they’re not looking.  When Riley and I part ways at preschool or just for a couple of hours during the day we always do the following:  Hug, kiss, high five, and “I love you”. Sometimes a small routine makes a big difference.

4. Stay positive: Now is the time to go overboard on how much you love your new babysitter/daycare/preschool.  When you are calm, your children sense that everything will be ok. When you respond to their anxiety with your own anxiety, they really start to wonder about their safety.  Make a positive statement (“I just know you will have so much fun playing Legos with your babysitter today”).

5. No sneak backs: If you know your child struggles with separation anxiety, you have to plan ahead.  Make sure you have everything you need when you leave the house.  Do not sneak back in to get something or to check on your child. Chances are, there were a few tears.  Allow your child the chance to regroup and move on by staying out of the way.  Repeated sightings as you gather your belongings will only upset your child all over again.

6. Gradual transition: As you get your children used to a new babysitter/nanny, take a slow approach.  Leave for an hour on the first day, and then increase the time intervals as they get used to the new situation.  This is especially important with older toddlers who haven’t spent much time away from you.  They need to know that you will come back, and that they can have fun with someone new.

7. Transitional objects: Between his car collection and his giraffe lovies, Liam is the king of the transitional object.  Some kids attach to specific objects that they cart around day after day, some need a little help finding a toy that helps them feel safe.  A transitional object is something that your child can hold or look at (a stuffed animal, blanket, picture of you) when he is feeling lonely. This can be especially helpful when your child is being left at a daycare or another out of home caregiver.

8. Provide jobs: Older toddlers and preschoolers respond really well to having a specific job.  It makes them feel as if they have some control over the situation.  Even something as simple as having your child close and lock the door behind you can make a difference.  Put your child in charge of picking and putting out snacks or setting up an arts and crafts activity.

9. Normalize feelings: Let your child know that it’s ok to feel nervous.  It’s perfectly normal to feel a little worried when being left with another caregiver.  Resist the urge to say, “be a big girl”.  Instead say something like, “I know that you feel nervous.  Remember when you felt nervous last time but you felt much better after painting with your babysitter?”  Reminding your child of another time that she was successful will help reduce her anxiety.

10. Provide a timeline: Tell your child where you are going.  Having some specific information will help your child feel a sense of control.  Give a timeframe that your child can understand.  If your child knows that you will be home after snack or before dinner, he can understand how that fits into his day (statements like “a couple of hours” are meaningless, try to fit it into their schedules).

 

Separation anxiety is difficult for both parents and children, but with a gradual transition it can be decreased.  Take your time.  The more time you give your child to adjust to a new childcare situation, the easier the transition will be.

How do you help your child cope with separation anxiety?

 

 

Listen Up! (Tips for teaching listening skills)

We cringe when we hear it; we cringe when we catch ourselves saying it, and yet the phrase is oft repeated in Mommyland, “LISTEN TO ME!”  Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious selective listeners.  They do it because they can.  They know there might be a consequence if they don’t follow directions, but they’re willing to take a gamble.  They’re hoping to get by on a cute face and angelic smile.  Sometimes they’re not listening because they are unwilling to stop a certain behavior that they find funny (like jumping on the couch), but often it’s probably more of a case of your child “not hearing” versus “not listening” when engaged in an interesting activity.  A few weeks into preschool Riley’s teacher pulled me aside and asked whether or not I thought Riley had trouble hearing.  If you’ve ever heard my child talk (and talk and talk and talk), it wouldn’t be your first concern.  I used to get a kick out of the fact that my oldest niece always talked exactly like my sister as a preschooler.  Her vocabulary was unmatched.  And then came Riley.  Having spent 3 years and 9 months exclusively with me, she is officially a mini-me.  Her vocabulary is very well developed.  What can I say?  I talk a lot, and she’s often the only person I talk to all day!  Still, when you hear “hearing loss”, you can’t help but freak out a little.  As I talked quickly and in code to Sean all the way home from preschool pick-up that day, we came to the following conclusion:  She wasn’t listening.  Riley is a very creative child.  While most kids her age are more focused on drawing themselves, other people, or pets, Riley spends an inordinate amount of time creating intricate “designs” (her word) and then challenges me to copy them.  It’s nearly impossible to copy them.  When she’s in the creative zone, there’s no stopping her.  She wants to complete a project start to finish without interruption.  Her preschool runs on a fairly set schedule, which means that they make transitions at certain times.  If Riley isn’t finished with her work, the listening skills are out the window.  Like her Mommy, she NEEDS to finish before moving on.  We practiced saying, “can I please have a few more minutes to finish my work?” instead of pretending not to hear, which is her default.  We also spent a fair amount of time working on coping with making the transition even if she isn’t finished.  Rules are rules.  Listening skills are an invaluable part of life.  Children with good listening skills perform better in school, are more successful in social relationships, and have better frustration tolerance (when you can listen to other options, you are less prone to acting out when faced with frustration).  Listening skills should be taught early.  Below are a few tips to get your child on the road to good listening skills:

1. Listen to them: Life is busy.  Most of us are reachable by various means at any time thanks to the ever-evolving world of the Smartphone.  It can be hard to unplug and focus.  If we want our kids to listen to us, we have to listen to them.   Easier said than done.  Sean and I have a checks and balances system going on.  If I’m checking email and tuning out the rest he will say, “Mommy, what do you think?” to bring me back.  If he sneaks his iPhone to the table, I sneak it away from him and put it with the laptops.  There will be times when you have to take an important call or cruise through some email while you are with your kids, but during meals, baths, stories, and playtime keep your focus on them. They won’t always require an overwhelming amount of attention, but right now they do.  Give it to them while you can.

2. Eye Contact: One of the most important skills you can teach your child is making eye contact when talking to others.  Preschoolers and toddlers tend to avert their gaze quickly, often due to constant distractions.  Little kids also have BIG feelings, and if they think that they are in trouble or feel like you are mad at them, or if they tend to feel shy, they are likely to look away.  It’s hard to listen when you’re staring out the window watching the birds or searching the room for an interesting toy.  Cue them often. When Riley is in the zone and I need to tell her something, I look right into her eyes and say, “Riley, I’m sorry to interrupt but I need you to look at me for one minute please”.  Kids respond better to positive requests, so try to avoid commands whenever possible. That said, sometimes they make poor choices and you need to get their attention fast.  The important thing is to teach them to look.

3. Meet them at their level: The world is a big place to toddlers and preschoolers.  It’s much easier for a child to listen, and hear, what an adult is saying when the adult kneels down and meets the child at eye level. This ties in with #1 and #2 as well.  The best way to model appropriate listening skills is to get on your child’s level, make eye contact, and listen to them too.  Many parents instinctively kneel down to greet other children, but some do not.  Meeting them where they are increases their comfort level and encourages them to make eye contact and listen. It feels less threatening.

4. Use a calm voice: The best way to get your kids to tune out and stop listening is to raise your voice.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again.  Frustrated parents get down low, grab their kids, and then start yelling.  I know the feeling.  Loud, angry voices tend to scare kids, and scared kids are unable to listen.  Do what you have to do to keep your emotions in check (I’ve been known to run upstairs to “grab a sweatshirt”) and then approach your child with a calm demeanor.  Modeling a calm approach teaches your child that people are better able to listen to them when they use a calm voice.

5. Avoid Sarcasm: We live in a sarcastic world.  I know this because, at times, I’m a part of it.  Sometimes sarcasm is a useful tool.  It can provide a humorous icebreaker.  But sarcasm, by definition, is hurtful.  Toddlers and preschoolers might not understand the subtext of your comment when said sarcastically, but they do understand the tone.  They know that it’s used in frustration.  They know that it hurts.  Use of sarcasm will shut your child down; it will not promote listening. The same goes for rhetorical questions.  “How many times do I have to tell you to…..?” doesn’t correct a behavior.  It just makes a child feel bad, and possibly causes him/her to shut down.

6. Use a little “Magic”: I have been working with parents for many years, which means that I have read many parenting books.  The only book that I regularly recommend to parents to help promote listening skills and encourage positive behavior is “1-2-3 Magic” by Thomas Phelan. Parents routinely read the back and declare it too good to be true.  It’s not.  It’s simple.  It will keep your house positive.  It will help your kids learn to listen and follow directions.  Read it.  Refresh yourself regularly.  And follow the three easy steps every single day.  It works.

7. Repeat back: Any strategy used in anger is likely to backfire.  In fact, many young kids laugh when their parents become upset.  It’s not that they think you’re funny, it’s that anxiety sometimes manifests as laughter in young children. When asked, by a calm parent, to repeat back a set of directions kids are forced to stop and think about what was said, and ask for clarification if necessary.  Remember, simple rules and explanations are easier to retain and follow.

8. Play listening games: The best way to teach toddlers and preschoolers is to keep things fun.  No one wants to hear a lecture, but especially not the youngest segment of our population.  Joint Story Telling: I’ve used this in the therapeutic environment for years to help kids join and feel more comfortable, but it also works well with young, imaginative minds.  Start a story by making up the first line (“once upon a time” is always a crowd pleaser) then create the story with your child by alternating who says each line.  You have to make eye contact and listen to one another in order to make the story work.  It’s fun, engaging, and helps your child practice active listening skills.  Simon Says: This preschool classic is great for helping your child watch and listen.  They have to pay close attention to Simon’s movements AND listen for the cue, “Simon Says”.  Red Light/Green Light: Do your best stop light impersonation and start the road race!  This fun game also requires looking (for the stop light to face forward) and listening (for the cue, “green light”).  If they fail to stop they start from the beginning again.  What time is it Mr. Tiger?: This lesser known preschool game is great fun for kids.  The goal of the game is to get from the starting line to the tiger’s den.  They ask the question, “what time is it Mr. Tiger?” and then have to listen for the answer, and follow directions (3 o’clock = 3 steps forward).  ***These are all great group games, but can also be played with just 1 or 2 kids as well.

Listening skills can take time and patience to teach, but are incredibly important to your child long term.  Take a deep breath, get down to their level, listen to them, and calmly teach them how to listen.  You’ll be surprised to learn how much they pay attention when you think they’re not listening.

How do you work on listening skills in your house?

Friend Finder! (Tips for teaching social skills)

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about helping your shy child interact with others.  It was met with many thanks, but also a few requests of a different kind:  “What if my kid is the opposite?  How do I stop him from trying to befriend EVERYONE?”  There are always two ends to the spectrum, and for every seemingly shy child on the playground there is another child who follows everyone around until he/she finds a friend.  I recently had dinner with an old friend who has a daughter a few years ahead of mine.  As we chatted about how alarmingly fast the kids have grown we recounted the story of how her daughter used to run up to every other kid on the playground and say,
“Hi! Do you want to play?”  She often faced defeat because preschoolers generally favor a more delicate approach.  My friend once looked up at me and said, “I don’t know how to tell her to do it differently”.  My response?  “At least she’s initiating friendships”.  It’s hard to watch when your child faces rejection from other kids.  It’s also hard to stand back and watch when you know that approaching a different kid, or introducing yourself in a different way might make a big difference.  Riley is really into big girls right now.  She has a hard time understanding that six year old girls don’t necessarily want to play with four year old girls.  I won’t stop her if she really wants to talk to a group of older girls at the park, but I will try to nudge her in a more age appropriate direction.  Developing social interaction skills is a long process.  Just when they start to get the hang of things they move up a grade and somehow the rules change.  It’s a lifelong process, really.  The good thing about the overt child is that he/she is not afraid to try.  The tricky thing is that not everyone is looking for a friend every time they go to the park.  Some kids stick to one close friend, and others prefer to play alone.  Kids work on social interactions skills as part of any preschool program, and even in hour-long classes, but social skills require a lot of work.  The practicing doesn’t end just because they are home for the day.  While shy kids need to work on slowly leaving their comfort zones, overt kids need to learn about timing, choosing wisely, and social boundaries.  Below are some tips to help you help your child achieve social success:

1. Make a checklist: Preschoolers love lists.  Lists fit into their need for predictability in life.  If it’s organized in some way, it makes more sense.  Come up with a social skills checklist that you can review together before you send your child out with other kids.  Keep it simple.  Here is an example:

  • Find a friendly face
  • Smile
  • Say, “Hi my name is…”
  • Offer to share a toy to play together

2. Teach Reading Facial Cues: Preschoolers often struggle to understand how other people are feeling.  In fact, many struggle to identify their own feelings.  By nature, toddlers and younger preschoolers are fairly self-centered.  They have a lot of learning to do; they are often too busy to think about others.  Around four, they start to show more empathy and think about others.  But they still need to learn how to read facial cues.  Facial Cues Collage: Cut a bunch of different faces from magazine photos and have your child glue them onto a paper.  Help your child study the faces to determine how each person might be feeling.  Write the feelings underneath.  Practice in the mirror: Sit in front of a mirror with your child and make various feelings faces together.  Make a game out of it and try to figure out what each face means.  Feelings Chart: Have you bought one yet? Post up a feelings faces chart in the most used room of your house and review it often.  The best time to teach kids about feelings is when they are calm and happy.

3. Polite Behavior: Practice what you preach.  Even kids who don’t have to use any table manners at home instinctively know to use them at school, but try to set some limits about basic manners.  Yes, I know that boys will be boys at times.  Liam is living proof of that.  But that doesn’t mean that a gentle correction is out of line.  Some behaviors are just off-putting to other kids.  Your list might be a bit different, but try to set limits on the following:  Spitting, sticking out the tongue (many kids actually interpret this as “mean”, excessive burping (at least teach them to say, “Excuse me”), grabbing toys without asking, and physical aggression.  As always, please and thank you are always appreciated by others. And remember that politeness starts with you.

4. Teach Boundaries: Some kids struggle with adhering to appropriate physical boundaries because they just don’t understand them.  They honestly don’t know what it means to be “too close” in proximity to someone else.  Preschoolers tend to stick very close in some situations, but when meeting new friends it helps to understand boundaries.  Hula Hoops: The small, preschool size hula-hoops are actually perfect for teaching appropriate physical space.  Have your kids hold hula-hoops around them and then walk toward each other until the hoops touch to show appropriate space.  If you find them getting too close in a situation, “hula-hoop” is an easy clue to remind them to step back.  Knock First: Many kids are so used to going wherever they please in their own homes that they forget to knock on closed doors when on playdates or in other places.  Teach them to knock on a closed door.  Ask First: Grabbing almost always leads to trouble.  No one likes to have a toy taken without any warning.  I wish I didn’t have to teach this skill all day every day, but it’s part of having a 2 year old and a four year old.  Teach them to ask first.  When they forget, return the toy and have your child apologize and then wait for a turn.  Or choose another activity.  Close Walking: Kids really dislike when other kids bump into them.  Some kids just crave tactile input and like to be close to others, but they can be taught to allow appropriate space with others.  Play follow-the-leader, but ask each kid to count to three before starting.

5. Practice: Get ready to play some pretend and practice how to act when meeting new people and making new friends.  Host Pretend Tea Parties: Or whatever kind of event appeals to your child.  Set up the scenario, make the introductions, practice boundaries and physical space, and remember those manners!  Stop frequently to check and see how the guests might be feeling.  Ask your child to think about whether or not any corrections need to be made.  Make Videos: Break out that Flip camera and start capturing those pretend interactions.  Watch the videos back and review your checklists.  Help your child determine whether or not he/she made an appropriate introduction, adhered to boundaries, allowed others a chance to talk, etc.  Structure Playdates: The best practice is always with other kids.  Try some 1:1 playdates with a child who shares very similar interests and structure the time.  Make a list of activities and set a timer.  Check regularly to make sure that your child is allowing appropriate space and sharing appropriately.

6. Books: “Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day” by Jamie Lee Curtis is always a winner when it comes to helping kids learn about different emotions and reading facial cues.  “Hands Are Not For Hitting” by Martine Agassi is one of a series that also includes, “Words Are Not For Hurting”, “Teeth Are Not For Biting”, and others.  These are great books for teaching basic social skills.  They provide helpful alternatives to each negative behavior.

 

Social interaction skills are generally a work in progress for most kids.  There is always something to be learned.  If you focus on a few basics on a daily basis, you can help your child achieve social success at the playground, in preschool, and just about everywhere else.

What strategies do you use to teach social skills?

“I’m scared!” (Tips for targeting specific fears)

“Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood” (John Mayer).  I’m not usually one for quotes, but sometimes I find that a well-timed mantra can get you through some of the trying situations that our children create for us.  Like the tenth monster check of the evening before sleep sets in.  For toddlers and preschoolers, fear is just one of the many emotions that occupies the day.  And, more often than not, their active imaginations play a large role in those fears.  Right on cue, at around age 3, Riley started having nightmares.  She also started verbalizing specific fears.  Once willing to greet any dog she passed, at 3 she decided that it’s better to keep walking.  Darkness became her biggest fear, but the night-lights intended to brighten her room a little then cast shadows.  Those were scary too.  A little anxiety is actually healthy. It reminds us to be careful when crossing the street or ask before touching an animal, no matter friendly it appears.  Anxiety warns us of pending danger and helps us cope with new, unfamiliar situations.  It’s usually somewhere between ages 3-4 that kids start to develop fears, but it can happen earlier.  Kids who have had more than average doctor visits might start to fear even routine check-ups, and little ones with parents overseas in the military might worry about the well being of their parents at an earlier age. Kids talk.  At the playground, at school, and even on playdates, kids talk.  They expose each other to new ideas.  The catch is that they don’t often have all of the details, so they rely on their very active imaginations to fill in the blanks.  This can lead to some significant worries.  Anxiety is considered pervasive when it affects most areas of their lives.  If your child is so afraid of the dark (and you’ve really, truly tried absolutely EVERYTHING and have been 100% consistent) that he/she can’t sleep at all, it will affect his/her ability to attend school, interact on playdates, or participate in classes.  That could be considered pervasive and you should probably check with your pediatrician.  But if your child is having a hard time separating at night, and maybe some nightmares on and off, that can be helped with a consistent reward chart, then it’s just a healthy fear.  The most common fears seen in toddlers and preschoolers are: Night/darkness/sleeping alone, shadows, death, dogs, using the potty, health/doctor visits, pain/being hurt, ghosts, monsters, and natural disasters. Most of these boil down to the age-old problems:  Lack of control and misunderstanding.  Repeat after me:  “Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood”.  Below are some tips to help you help your little ones cope with fears:

1. Acknowledge the fear: We all know that monsters don’t exist.  Our kids actually don’t know that.  Often times the first instinct is to solve the problem by saying, “monsters aren’t real so you shouldn’t be afraid of them”.  Unfortunately, kids are not easily convinced.  If Jimmy at school said that he has a monster under his bed, and he even described it in detail, then monsters must exist.  Kids need to feel validated.  Tell them that you understand. A better response (while running your mantra through your head) is, “it sounds like you are feeling pretty scared right now.  Maybe I can help you figure out what might seem scary and we can solve the problem together so that you can get some sleep”.  A quick check around the room to put away any stuffed animals strewn about while you remind your child that you will check on him often will often suffice.  At one point I let Riley determine how many checks I would do each night.  She always said 7.  I have a video monitor, so technically I didn’t even have to pretend!

2. Empathize: I have to be clear about one thing:  DON’T EVER TELL THEM YOUR FEARS!!! Empathy means conveying to your children that you understand what it feels like to feel scared or alone.  It doesn’t mean telling them that you are petrified of flying and that’s something you have to work on.  Kids want to know that they’re not alone.  Tell them that when you were three you worried about shadows too, but then you learned that shadows are just shapes made when light reflects upon objects.  Let them know their fears are normal.

3. Explain their fears: Books are great for helping kids dive into the unknown.  Books explain that ghosts and monsters are not real.  Books help children prepare for doctor visits, school, and various other anxiety-producing situations.  Rely on the library.  Provide explanations about how shadows are made.  Put on a shadow puppet show.  Talk honestly about the fact that many dogs are friendly and like to be touched, but some are not. Make a list of steps for the pending visit to the doctor.  Resist the urge to lie and say that there won’t be any shots, or that shots aren’t painful.  Instead say, “you have to get a shot today and will hurt a little when they give it to you”.  If you give them the information, they don’t have to rely on their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

4. Problem-solve together: “I know what I can do so I won’t be afraid, I’ll hold your hand!”  It’s a simple solution for sure, but Riley came up with it independently.  Because of that, she feels like she has more control.  When fears crop up, give your kids some control over the fear by coming up with a plan together.  We go through an alarming amount of Band Aids in this house because both of my kids insist on one for even the slightest bump.  It gives them a sense of control.  They fixed it.  For nighttime fears make a few suggestions:  A lovey to sleep with, a picture of mommy and daddy above the bed, an extra night-light.  Let them choose what works for them. Sometimes I feel like I’m dragging half of my house around town with me, but Liam needs certain cars and Riley always brings a stuffed animal.  These are what keep them feeling safe.  Just do it.  When confronted with dogs, Riley decided to stand behind me or switch to the other side of me.  Simple solutions are often useful, especially when they provide a sense of control.

5. Practice: Play out their fears with them.  Let them run the show, but sneak in solutions along the way.  Or, better yet, prompt your child to stop and think of a solution.  For various reasons, Riley has made several ER visits and has seen many doctors.  She worries a lot about when her next visit will be.  Consequently, we play a lot of doctor.  The best investment Santa made this year was the “Pet Vet” from www.onestepahead.com.  It has all of the necessary medical tools and a pet to cure as well.  I see her feeling more and more confident in her role as “Dr. Riley” each day.  Fear of the dark? Put a tent in a dark room with some flashlights and pillows and have a camp out.  Let your child be in charge of the activities for the camp out.  Fear of getting hurt? Break out those Band Aids and help the stuffed animals feel better after a fall.  Worried about monsters? Have a contest to see who can draw the funniest monster. Hold a silly monster party and see who can act the most like their favorite friendly monster from Sesame Street.  And don’t forget that shadow puppet show to make shadows fun instead of scary.

6. Baby steps: Fears don’t disappear overnight.  Kids need consistent cues to remember that they can have some control over their fears.  Riley and I do a relaxing story before she goes to bed every night.  The last thing I say to her every night is, “I love you Riley.  Try to think about our relaxing story and I will check on you soon”.  When monsters come up in conversation, we are sure to remind them that, “monsters are fun to pretend, like those friendly monsters on Sesame Street”.  If there is a chance to play with shadows, we take it.  When it comes to fear of dogs, small exposures are the best strategy.  Visit the pet store and look from afar. Read books about dogs.  Find a friend with a very old dog and plan a visit.  Learn about breeds.  Small dogs are actually more frightening to kids because they are more unpredictable than larger breeds.  Don’t ever touch a dog without asking owner permission first.  Teach them to get down low and hold out a hand for the dog to sniff.  Follow your child’s lead.  They’re not ready until they’re ready.

7. Avoid gimmicks: I addressed this in a previous post on sleep issues, but it’s worth repeating.  Things like monster spray, no monsters allowed signs, ghost spray, and ghost free zones might offer a quick fix at night, but they also confirm for your child that these things exist.  It’s best to be honest with your kids, and come up with realistic solutions together.  A monster check doesn’t have to be called a monster check.  When Riley starts to fear the shadows I tell her that I will check her room to make sure that it’s organized the way she likes it.  Putting the giant bear away from the night-light = one less shadow to worry about.

 

Anxiety and fears are all part of growing up.  When kids learn to cope with specific fears, they gain a sense of self-confidence and control.  Help them to conquer their fears by supporting them in their problem-solving process.  But try not to rush it; the world is a scary place.

What is your child’s biggest fear?

Spoiler Alert! (Tips for increasing pro-social behavior)

One result of the high level of consumerism in this country is that parents seem to be questioning whether or not they are “spoiling” their kids.  Will the extra toys result in behavior deemed “bratty” by others?  Will they fail to learn the value of the dollar if they always get whatever they want?  Do they always get whatever they want?  Between birthdays, holidays, and other “special” occasions it can be hard to set limits when it comes to toy collecting.  While toddlers know only to throw a tantrum when they can’t have something in front of them, preschoolers are quietly learning the art of manipulation and scheming new ways to talk you into that coveted stuffed animal.  Preschoolers are also at the age where they really want to have the same clothes, toys, etc. as their friends.  Developmentally, they are learning that shared interests can equal friendship (ex:  We both like to play dolls at school, so we are friends).  When they see an interesting toy at a playdate they are likely to want that toy too.  It can make shopping trips difficult, that’s for sure.  Liam is fascinated with trucks and cars.  I could remove all toys from this house except the vehicles, and he would be just fine.  This works to my advantage during Target trips, as I just surreptitiously avoid the car aisles and any tantrums that might erupt if I don’t buy the ten pack of cars for $34.99.  Riley sees the excitement in everything.  I wouldn’t say that she’s constantly asking for things, but when something really appeals to her she lobbies hard for it.  Does that make her spoiled?  No, it makes her crafty.  She waits until she’s certain that it’s important, and then she develops a bullet point list of why she needs the special item.  We recently spent ten days discussing the importance of a $6 “Ballet Kitty” doll.  Unfortunately for my kids, they were born to a child psychotherapist.  I have no problem setting limits and, in my house, they have to earn it.  Sure, there are occasions where they get treats.  And, like my mother, I always go overboard for Christmas and all other holidays.  To me, being “spoiled” isn’t just about the amount of items in the toy chest (I won’t lie, we have a lot of toys).  It’s what they do with what they have, and how they interact with other people that matters.  People regularly ask me how to make sure that they’re not raising a “brat”.  They see other kids who they think appear “spoiled” and worry that their kids are on the same road.  I often tell moms that a good first step is to stop trying to evaluate other kids.  Yes, there are “spoiled” and “bratty” kids out there.  But there are also kids who are having a bad day, week, month.  Give the other moms a break and try to stay focused on how you can raise a kind, generous, and grateful child instead.  You never know what someone else is up against.  Below are some tips to help you raise a polite child:

1. It’s not all about the stuff: Whether you believe in a well-stocked toy cabinet or a few essentials, the important thing to focus on is behavior.  It’s not toys that make the “bratty” child, it’s how they choose to act in response to those toys and how you allow them to act that earns them the title.  Sharing is one of the most important social skills to teach, and also one of the hardest to learn.  Children feel like they have very little control in their lives; they like to have their possessions.  Start early.  Bring “share” toys to the park.  Invite friends over to work on sharing toys.  Have your child choose a few toys that don’t have to be shared, but make sure that they share the others.  Use an egg timer for toddlers to work on trading toys after two minutes.  Involve preschoolers in planning a playdate (create and post a checklist) so that they know what comes next and when to switch activities or toys.

2. Daily Manners: Manners need to be worked on daily.  Kids get busy and forget at times.  It’s our job to remind them.  While Riley and Liam remember their “friendly words” (as we call them) about 90% of the time, there’s still that other 10% when I can be heard saying, “what’s that friendly word again?”  Around here we always say please and we thank each other for everything, no matter how small.  Polite behavior starts at home.  When they master it at home, it comes as second nature in the real world.  Being grateful for what they are given is very important.  Always cue them to say “thank you”. For more information about teaching manners to your kids, see my post, “Good Manners Are Headed Your Way” http://practicalkatie.com/2010/11/15/good-manners-are-headed-your-way-tips-for-teaching-manners/

3. Set Limits: We all know that they don’t need everything they want.  The question is how willing are you to set the limit in order to teach the lesson?  Liam wants EVERY single character from the movie “Cars”.  It matters very little to him that he’s never seen the movie; he just wants the cars.  He’s been asking for “DJ” and “Boost” since the beginning of January.  It’s not that the cars are too expensive.  It’s that we just had Christmas when the request came in, and I wanted him to wait.  So we talked about them obsessively, and he was happily surprised to find them at his seat for a Valentine’s Day gift.  If you are anything like me, you have no choice but to head to places like Target with two kids in tow.  Decide in advance on a treat (we always stick to the dollar rack) to avoid power struggles in the store.  And remember, fair is fair. If you bend the rules for one kid, you have to bend them for the other(s).

4. Make them earn it: Riley loves books and characters from her favorite books.  We love to go to the library to borrow books, and we also like to explore our local bookstores.  She knows that a trip to the bookstore does not equal a new book or toy.  She earns those.  Riley has had a reward chart since she was 2 ½.  It all started when Liam started grabbing things from her and she chose to yell instead of ask for help.  That’s no longer an issue, and now we work on sleep related goals.  There have been others in between.  See the “Strategies In Action” tab for an example of Riley’s chart.  She earns a sticker when she meets the goal, and for every five stickers she earns a book.  Last week she chose to earn “Ballet Kitty” instead.  When she knows that she can earn what she wants, it empowers her and helps her feel like she can achieve a goal versus just hearing “no”.

5. Keep a list: They can’t earn everything they see, and some coveted items are just too big.  Riley and I have a saying when it comes to wanting new toys, “put it on the list”.  We talk about how birthdays and holidays are times when they get larger gifts.  Who says the Santa list has to be written in November?  When things start adding up I remind her of the other items and we talk about what interests her the most and why.  She even helps Liam when he gets frustrated.  I recently overheard her saying, “it’s ok Liam, we can put it on your birthday list for your party” when he couldn’t get a racecar set at Target.  If they are always being shut down, they feel helpless.  If they know they can choose to keep it on a list for later, it gives them a sense of control.

6. Empathize: I know that when I’m tired of hearing, “I want, I want, I want” I’m ready to snap.  Toddlers and preschoolers want things.  The world is a huge place with a lot of stuff, and part of their developmental task is to ask for things and then learn to cope with the answers.  It’s how they learn.  I find it helps to empathize with them.  When Liam really starts to cry over a car I often say, “it sounds like you really wanted that car and you’re sad that Mommy won’t buy it.  I know how that feels.  Sometimes I really want something new but I know that I have to wait and I feel sad about it”.  A little understanding goes a long way in the mind of a child. Riley wants specifics, so we sometimes talk about the fact that I really like to buy new jeans but that they are expensive and I can’t just buy every pair that I like.  Give them concrete examples to help them understand.

7. Praise the good: It’s not that you have to praise every little thing along the way (although I probably tend to do so!), but praising them when they demonstrate pro-social behavior helps them to feel good about their choices and encourages them to repeat those behaviors.  A simple, “great job remembering your manners” when they don’t have to be cued makes them feel good.  Focus on the positive to encourage future positive behavior.  I recently challenged myself to avoid saying “no” for three days.  I only said it twice during those three days, and both times because one of the kids was in physical danger.  What I learned is that my 2 year old is the one saying no most of the time, and that the atmosphere does change when you focus on the positive instead of constantly redirecting the negative. They need to hear “no” when it counts, but otherwise positive reinforcement makes for a happier household.  While I’ve always been a proponent of positive reinforcement, we all hit a funk sometimes.  Take it from me and try the 3 day no “no” challenge. You might find that you really don’t need it much at all.

8. Books: Check out “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” and “The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners” by Stan and Jan Berenstain, “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog” by Mo Willems, and “Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique” by Jane O’Connor for good reads on manners, delayed gratification, sharing, and other pro-social behavior.

If you focus on manners, delayed gratification, earning those coveted treats, and being grateful you will probably find that “bratty” behavior is not in your future.  Leave the “spoiling” to the Grandparents; it’s part of their job description…isn’t it?  Stay focused on the positive and watch the polite behavior unfold!

How do you set limits to avoid “spoiling” your kids?

iPhone Obsessed? (Tips for making technology work for kids)

One thing that parents can’t deny is that technology is everywhere.  From Smartphones and iPads to toys that just won’t stop beeping and flashing, kids are bombarded with advances in technology almost from the minute they enter the world.  There seem to be two distinct sides when it comes to how to handle use of technology with young children:  There are those who take the “when in Rome” approach (everybody else is doing it…) and allow it whenever “necessary”, and those who claim to avoid it at all costs.  I actually believe that there is a very large grey area somewhere in between, and that’s where we camp out.  My kids are not glued to the television, and they don’t even really know that computer games exist, but my two year old can use my iPhone more efficiently than many adults and my four year old once added a little American flag to the top right corner of the screen on my MacBook and I still don’t know how she did it.  My husband is in music, so he has no choice but to be technologically savvy.  When I met him he had the largest cell phone I had ever seen.  Seriously, like the one Zach Morris used to carry around on “Saved By The Bell”.  He had an AOL screen name on his father’s account.  He was living on the road and not really keeping up with technology.  Eleven years later he is the tech guy around here.  He moved us from PC’s to Macs and lame phones to iPhones.  The kids are baffled by the fact that their grandmother can’t capture videos on her cell phone and were horrified to learn that Mimi can’t record their favorite shows and fast-forward through the commercials.  So while they are not glued to the television day after day, they are aware that technology exists.  The question is, how much is too much?  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 avoid all TV, and that children ages 2-6 only watch 1-2 hours.  Liam is only 21 months younger than Riley.  It can be hard, make that impossible, to allow one kid screen time and the other none when they are that close in age.  It was around 20 months that I really started to introduce TV to Riley.  My husband was on tour for the summer, and the only way that I could shower was to turn on Elmo’s World.  It’s a 13-minute segment; I would say she attended to it for about ten minutes.  Long enough for a little soap and shampoo.  Mission accomplished.  When Liam came along, I stuck to the same morning routine.  He slept through all of it for many months (15 to be exact), but eventually he started playing on the floor while the TV was on.  There are those who would argue that just the white noise of the TV is a problem for kids under age 2 for various reasons (obesity is linked to kids who log a lot of screen time, and allegedly even “infant videos” can cause cognitive delays).  Liam talks more than any two year old I’ve ever known, and he only asks for additional TV time when he’s sick.  I’m not concerned about his early exposure to Elmo.  But with phones in our pockets that can download entire movies and iPads that fit into any purse, it makes good sense to think about appropriate ways to both use and limit technology for little ones.  Below are some tips for helping you make smart decisions in a tech-savvy world:

1. Consider the need: It’s easy to hand over the iPhone when I’m trying to get a load of laundry done or the dishes cleaned before preschool pick-up.  I try to stop myself and think about why I’m tempted to hand it over.  On a recent East coast trip Liam became addicted to my iPhone.  He was struggling with normal eating and not sleeping particularly well, so I took to letting him scroll through pictures or play toddler quizzing games when times got stressful.  I had to really limit his access upon our return to LA.  I try to limit iPhone time to certain circumstances (Sean is a little more loose, but I think Dads need their own systems so I don’t mind):  Long car rides, long flights, keeping Liam awake during preschool pick-up, music on the go, and during doctor visits. I have found that most of their TV shows run about 20 minutes (sometimes less).  TV time is scheduled in our house:  Morning, before Liam’s nap, during the nighttime routine (but NOT right before bed). Riley actually opts out of Liam’s shows and plays quietly, and he does the same.

2. Keep it age-appropriate: Most feature length animated movies are actually not appropriate for kids under 6.  Most of them contain themes that are scary and hard to grasp, and at least one intense scene that might cause some fears.  I won’t say, “don’t let them watch movies”, but I certainly won’t expose my kids until I’m sure that they are ready.  Liam is obsessed with the characters from “Cars”.  He chooses a different alias each day and runs with it.  He has no idea that they came from a movie.  In fact, he thinks that the trailer for the movie is as good as it gets!  Screen everything first and try to make choices that you think your kids can handle.  Elmo keeps it fun and educational for the younger ones, while Mickey Mouseclub, Dora, Diego, Olivia, and Kai-Lan all target preschoolers.  We’ve run into a few mishaps with Curious George (so pre-screen to be sure), although both kids generally enjoy it.  Riley recently had a major meltdown when it occurred to her that Max and Ruby “don’t have a family”.  I had my concerns all along, but it is otherwise a fairly calming show.  Lesson learned:  Pay attention!

3. Set limits: I’m a fan of schedules in general because kids like to know what to expect.  As previously mentioned, TV time is scheduled around here.  The kids know when it’s time and when it’s not.  We don’t have a lot of power struggles on that end.  It can be more difficult once they get started on the iPhone.  I try to provide specific parameters and stick to them.  If Liam uses the phone in the car, he knows to hand it over when we pull into the driveway.  There are times (like doctor visits and long flights) when it can be impossible to limit them.  Don’t sweat it.  If you’re limiting their screen time (Smartphones included) on a regular basis, then the special circumstances will be just that: Special.  However, if you hand over the phone every time you get in the car, they will come to expect it.  When they have expectations, the power struggles will begin.  Revert to #1 and consider the need before you hand it over so that you don’t set them up for later disappointment.  **Turn off the TV and take away the Smartphones during meals!!!!!!

4. Keep it educational: PBS and Nick Jr. do a pretty good job of keeping their preschool programming educational.  Prescreen to meet the individual needs of your child (they are all different), but try to rely on the experts versus the word on the playground.  Spongebob is not intended for four year olds!  Make the best choices for your child.  There are a lot of great Smartphone apps for toddlers and preschoolers.  Read the parent reviews and test out the apps before you hand them over.  Keep it focused on learning:  You can never have too much letter/number identification, matching, opposites, letter/number tracing, etc.

5. Keep talking: I’m the first to admit that sometimes you just need a distraction so that you can make that important phone call.  But for the most part, I ask questions and keep them engaged while they are using my iPhone.  I try not to just hand it over and walk away.  If they are playing a quizzing game I ask them questions about the game.  I watch them trace letters and comment on their progress.  Sometimes I need to keep them busy, but for the most part I try to keep them engaged so that they are not just tuned out to the world around them.  If you limit the time and keep them engaged, you can make technology work for you.

6. Out of sight, out of mind: We have a little tech corner in the kitchen, far away from the table and not really visible from the play area.  This is where we charge/store the laptops and iPhones when not in use.  When the technology is out of sight, they almost never ask for it.  When they see the laptop on the kitchen island or can grab the iPhone out of my purse, they start asking!  Limited access = limited overload…for everyone.

7. A few of my favorite apps: Liam’s favorite thing to do is to scroll through the pictures and videos stored in the phone.  I actually think it’s a good thing for him.  Kids love to see their baby pictures and it gets them talking about family memories.  But there are some great apps out there that keep them learning while keeping them busy.  Toddler Teasers is by far my favorite app of all time.  Kids practice identifying shapes, letters, numbers, colors, animals, etc. and are awarded with “stickers” to place on a page.  They also get lots of cheers along the way.  iTot Flash Cards is a good one for the younger kids to attach words to pictures.  Alphabet Tracing is great for preschoolers who really want to start learning how to “write” numbers and letters.  It doesn’t teach them to write with a pen, but it shows them how to make the letters.  Peek-A-Boo Barn is fun for toddlers.  They try to guess the animal sound coming from the barn and then see the animal when the barn opens.  Cars Match is basically memory, but all cars.  Great for boys!  Kids Painter is a fun finger painting game that focuses on creativity.  Balloons is another good one for toddlers.  It actually works on impulse control, as they have to learn how much is too much when blowing up a balloon.  Kids Puzzle has a few different puzzle boards and different levels for toddlers and preschoolers (although Liam quickly mastered the preschool level and didn’t really bother with the toddler one).  Cake and Ice Cream is fun for everyone.  It really just works on creativity.  My kids get a kick out of trying to build the most outlandish cake or put the most scoops of ice cream on the cone.

 

Technology:  Limit it but don’t fear it.  Evaluate your needs and use it in a way that is beneficial to your family.  But by all means, don’t bring it to the restaurant!

What do you think?  Are kids on tech overload these days?  What apps and shows would you recommend?

Perfectly Imperfect (Tips for helping kids cope with failure)

“It’s RUINED!  It’s not right and it’s ruined!”  Dramatic?  Yes.  A regular occurrence for Riley?  Absolutely.  Many toddlers and preschoolers struggle to cope with disappointment and frustration when things don’t go as planned. Riley is an art perfectionist.  She spends a fair amount of time planning out her “projects” before she gets started, and then she works very deliberately to make things just right.  When something (or sometimes someone) causes her to miss a step and things look different than anticipated, she falls apart for a few minutes.   Cue the calming strategies (time to blow up balloons! See last post).  Liam isn’t so concerned about his art (fortunately he still believes that scotch tape can fix everything), but try to mess with his cars and you might end up hearing, “no!  That’s not right!  I like it this way!”  Kids are in hot pursuit of control at this age.  They have so little that they can control:  Their clothes (please tell me you are letting them choose their own outfits by now), maybe what they eat, and what they draw and play.  It’s not much, when you take into consideration that they probably endure a 12-hour day and might or might not take a nap during that time.  They really want things to go their way when they are creating and playing.  Riley has been known to burst into tears when a drop of water accidentally hits her painting, and Liam completely falls apart if someone knocks over the bridge he built from blocks.  They act as if they’ve been wronged (“why did you make me ruin this?”), but the truth is that they’ve just lost control…again.  Sean and I are both perfectionists.  This doesn’t bode well for our children.  When Sean gets off stage he’s generally in an adrenaline induced state of euphoria.  So basically he’s cracking jokes and talking non-stop.  But every once in a while (and by that I mean twice that I’ve seen in 11 years), he emerges in a funk.  Why?  Because he played an incorrect note.  One, singular incorrect note during a 90 minute show can ruin the whole the experience for him.  Similarly, I cringe every time I find a single typo in a post that’s been up for even one hour (chances are it hasn’t even been viewed yet).  Our poor little children have perfectionism in their genes.  The good news is that we are the masters of exaggerated accidents around here (so much so that the kids coined the term “oopsy Daddy” for even the slightest mistake made in plain sight).  We’re hoping to head it off at the pass before they start really putting pressure on themselves.  While perfectionism isn’t a medical problem (and some fellow perfectionists might argue that it leads to a better work ethic), it does cause kids to put undue pressure on themselves.  And the truth is, the world isn’t perfect and neither is anybody in it.  Below are some tips to help you help your kids cope with imperfection:

1. Empathize: Kids love to hear that their parents once felt like them.  The world is an overwhelming place at times; it’s nice to know that someone else has survived the same circumstances.  The logical thought is to want to jump in and help “fix” it when something goes awry.  Sean and I just discussed this very topic last night.  We want to be able to say, “look!  It’s all better now!” when the art project fails in some way.  What she needs to hear is that we understand what she is feeling (loss of control). Riley responds well when I say, “it looks like you’ve really been working hard on this painting, and you didn’t want that water spot there.  I remember when that happened to my painting when I was 4, and it really upset me”.  She almost always responds, “but how did you fix it?” after she dries her tears.  Which brings us to #2:

2. Problem-solve: Keep in mind that that the empathizing portion of events might take a few minutes, and you might need to take a little walk around the house while you tell your child just how well you understand the feeling of wanting that water spot to go away.  Once your child is calm, you can move into problem-solving mode.  Ask your child what she thinks will help first, then offer two suggestions of your own. Often times they can solve the problem independently once they are able to calm down and move forward.  Grab the pom-poms (metaphorically, of course) and praise her as she embarks on her problem-solving strategy of choice! Sometimes they just need to hear that they are capable of “fixing” mistakes, and that sometimes the finished product is even better than they imagined.  It never hurts to cheer them on a little when the chips are down.

3. Talk about imperfection: Newsflash:  We do not live in a perfect world.  It’s ok when things don’t go according to plan.  We were running late for preschool this morning and the kids just wouldn’t get their shoes on.  When I finally got them into the car and turned around to answer a question Liam asked, I got soaked by an open cup of water left in my car.  There was no time to change.  Riley looked at me, concerned, and asked, “Mommy, what will you do about your wet shirt?”  I smiled and said, “wait for it to dry!”  Certainly I have my moments where I’m ready to blow because everything seems to go wrong at exactly the same time, but I try to keep it in check and use it as an opportunity to teach the kids that you just can’t plan for everything.  Instead of making an excuse, talk about the events leading up to a playdate being cancelled at the last minute.  Point out your own moments of imperfection (appropriate to age and ability to understand).

4. Exaggerate small errors: Is there anything funnier than Daddy spilling ice cubes everywhere?  Not in my house.  Sean is the master of, “oops!  What did I do NOW?”  Liam, who fancies himself the comedian of the family, has really picked up on this and loves to exaggerate his own errors now.  Just this morning he misplaced his water cup and then spent a good ten minutes saying, “Mommy, look what I did now.  I put it on the couch!”  It’s much funnier when he says it, I swear.  Take the pressure off of small failures like spills, wet clothes, etc. by laughing at your own similar failures.  The other day I was making waffles for Riley (in state of complete sleep deprivation) and I forgot to spray the waffle iron before putting the batter in.  She looked like she might cry about the sticky waffles until I jumped in with the “oopsy Mommy” routine.  We had a good laugh about those sticky waffles while I made a fresh batch (and yes, I pointed out my problem-solving strategy of spraying the pan this time!). 

5. Talk about practice: Toddlers and preschoolers fail to understand that many things just take practice.  Riley can’t stand that she can’t play the guitar like her Daddy and ice skate like me.  While she loves to watch us excel at things, she is easily frustrated when she can’t just simply copy us and succeed.  We talk a lot about how much Daddy has to practice, even still, to play the guitar as well as he does.  I recently decided to teach myself how to hula-hoop in order to show the kids that some things just take practice (I’ve gotten surprisingly good over time).  I try a little bit each time when we are outside playing.  We laugh when the hoop falls to the ground and discuss the fact that I need to practice more often.  The other day Riley watched me for a few minutes and said, “look Mommy, your practicing is working!  You’re doing it!”  I wouldn’t say that practice always makes perfect, but often practice makes better.

6. Do copycat squiggle drawings: Riley loves this, mostly because she gets to give me directions.  I let her draw a “design” for a few minutes, without peeking.  When she’s finished, I try to copy her design.  It’s nearly impossible to make an exact copy of most of her complicated designs, so I often say things like, “wow, sometimes it’s hard to do it exactly the same way, but I’ll sure try”.  Then I let her tell me where to fill in the gaps, and we switch roles.  I try to really focus on just doing our best.

7. Don’t let them win: At around age 3, kids start to take an interest in games.  While early success makes it more fun, as they start to approach age 4 it’s important to let them come in second place sometimes too.  The truth is, they will start to play games with other kids in preschool and they won’t always have the deck stacked (note:  I have been known to stack the deck to make Candyland move along a little faster…that game is LONG!).  Instead of referring to winning and losing, we cheer when the first person gets to the finish and then wait while the other players get there too.  It’s not about competition at this age; it’s about finishing the game and enjoying the process.

8. Distract: If the feeling of failure is so overwhelming that the tears won’t stop, it’s time to move on for a little while.  Sometimes kids just need a break from what they’re doing.  If I’m knee-deep in something that isn’t going as planned and is becoming frustrating, I walk away from it for a while.  Sometimes kids need to do the same.  They can always try again later, but trying to force them to fix a mistake or just get over it might cause them to feel more overwhelmed by the situation.  Help them choose another activity and give that one a try another day.

9. Revisit: By revisit I don’t mean point out past failures, but it can help to remind little ones that they were able to solve a problem in the past.  I often remind Riley that she once felt like the rock wall at the park was just too hard, but she kept trying and now she can get to the top in seconds.  I tell her my own stories of practicing something to get better and better.  Use their past successes to help them face future difficulties. 

Feeling like you’ve failed is a tough pill to swallow when you’re little.  They have their whole lives to work on things but, like the rest of us, they want things to be perfect the first time.  Try to take perfect out of your home and focus on attempts and small successes instead.  You might find that it helps your child feel more in control, thereby increasing her success.

You tell me:  How do you help your kids cope with the feeling of failure? 

Calm It Down…(Tips for helping your kids relax)

Even on the very best days, the ones where the kids get along beautifully and we get lots of exercise and eat well, I can usually count on things to go awry during the final hour of the day.  Sean recently sent me a text during this hour to get a grocery list.  I hit back, “milk, fruit, and maybe a lobotomy”.  He immediately hit back, “what happened?”  Nothing happened.  It was 6pm.  The bedtime routine starts at 6pm sharp.  If I am even one minute behind schedule, it’s mayhem.  They start playing “chase”.  Sometimes they move on to “hide the toy” (a favorite of Riley’s in particular).  Often they make non-riding toys into riding toys and zoom around the family room, just barely missing countertops and walls.  It always starts with high-pitched laughter and ends with tears.  During the final countdown (as I refer to it in my head) they are tired, silly, and not as inclined to listen.  If I can get them upstairs and send them to their respective rooms to choose their pajamas right at 6pm, we’re good.  If I’m still furiously finishing the dishes and time escapes me, the fast paced games begin!  I can always count on Sean to be home (provided that he’s not on tour) on Sunday nights, and sometimes Saturdays, but the rest of the time it’s a one-woman show around here.  I’m a well-oiled machine when it comes to the bedtime routine, but there are still nights when the kids attempt to run wild or start picking on each other.  These are the nights when I fall back on my training to calm things down a bit.  If there’s one thing I do well, it’s help kids learn to relax.  Sean once came home early to find us engaged in one of our favorite calm down strategies.  He watched in amazement as the tone of the room went from tears to complete calm in less than two minutes.  Kids get tired at the end of the day.  Tired looks different on every child.  Riley tends to cry more when she’s tired, while Liam starts to laugh uncontrollably at every little thing that happens.  When it gets to that point, it can be hard for kids to calm themselves down.  When Riley is really tired and upset she will say, “I’m having trouble calming myself down right now”.  She recognizes that she doesn’t feel calm, but she doesn’t know how to get there.  I’ve found that a few well-timed strategies can really help her (and Liam) settle down when they start to feel out of control.  Below are some tips to help you help your little ones relax:

1. Feelings Chart: I know, I’ve mentioned this before.  I’ll keep it short this time.  Kids cycle through countless emotions during the day.  It’s hard to keep up.  Often times they’re not sure what they are feeling.  When they learn how to identify their feelings they can start to ask for help.  Check www.amazon.com for a “Feelings Chart” and use is daily to help your kids attach faces to feelings.  Click the “Strategies in Action!” tab to see a picture of Liam using our chart.

2. Balloon Blowing: This is our favorite family strategy for calming things down a bit.  I came up with it one night when Sean was on tour and the kids were really missing him and struggling.  It worked immediately and continues to work well every time we use it.  When things start to go awry I stop them and ask, “what kind of balloon do you want to make?” This gives them a chance to refocus on something else while they come up with all sorts of complicated designs.  Then we all take a deep breath in as we hold our hands to our mouths (as if blowing up a balloon), and slowly exhale as we blow up our fancy balloons. Liam is so into it that he added the feature of tying a string around it.  Then we look up and watch them float to the ceiling. Clearly the premise of this strategy is teaching them relaxation breathing (using big, slow breaths helps release pent up tension, both emotionally and physically).  With the added visual, the kids are really able to participate and enjoy the process.  **You can download a video of this in the “Strategies in Action!” tab.

3. Coloring Feelings: Another way to help kids learn to identify feelings is to attach a color to each feeling.  You should let your kids choose, but often red = angry, blue = sad, yellow = happy, green = calm, etc.  This is a strategy to practice at various times, not just when they’re completely frustrated.  Take some time in a calm moment to help them choose the colors to attach to their feelings.  Give them a blank piece of white paper and ask them to color how they feel today.  You will probably get a lot of yellow pages if you only do this during calm moments, but if your child is having a hard day it might help them to release those feelings a little by coloring some blue, black, brown, etc.

4. Color Breathing: This is another variation of relaxation breathing.  Once your child has learned to associate colors with feelings you can help them use those colors in times of frustration.  Cue your child to slowly take in a long yellow breath and release the red while they exhale.  Prompt them to fill their bodies with yellow air in order to get the red, angry air out.

5. Cognitive Restructuring: I know these are big words for little kids, but it’s actually fairly simple.  Often something as small as a picture not coming out as planned can send a little one into a tailspin.  Riley spends quite a bit of time mapping out her “projects” before she gets to work, and she gets upset if Liam accidentally causes her to make a mark that she didn’t intend to make.  When you strip away the psychological explanation, the basic principle of cognitive restructuring is replacing a negative thought with a positive (recall Jack Handy from SNL).  When Riley starts to get upset and yell, “it’s ruined”, I will sometimes cue her by saying, “who always loves your art work?”  “Mommy and Daddy always love my art work.”  She doesn’t always say it enthusiastically, but it does sink in.  Similarly, when she gets frustrated because she can’t accomplish something quickly and starts to yell, “I just can’t do it” I will remind her to flip it and say “I can do it if I calm down and try again”.  This strategy is not always appropriate and can be hard to grasp.  Sometimes little ones just have bad days and need their parents to help out.  But it can help with small frustrations.

6. Relaxing Story Walk: Riley and I end every day with what we now call a “relaxing story walk”.  This is a variation of guided imagery, which works very well with young kids.  Each night as she settles into bed I ask her to pick a location for our walk.  We start the story by taking two deep breaths as I say, “tonight Mommy and Riley are walking to…”  We stop for deep breaths regularly along the way.  We often go through a garden, rainforest, or to the beach, although we’ve been as far as China, through Candyland, and to Daddy’s studio.  We stop to smell flowers, collect pretty shells and stones, and eat a snack.  She keeps her eyes closed during the story and gets to describe the colors she sees and objects she collects along the way.  **Note:  As Sean learned the hard way, the adult has to remain in charge of the story!  If you give them too many opportunities, they will get excited and take over the story.

7. Squeeze Ball and Stretching: Preschoolers love to learn about how their bodies work.  Many adults have trouble recognizing the physical symptoms of frustration and thus miss the cues to slow down or use a different strategy.  We can teach preschoolers the physical signs of stress and frustration by teaching them about their muscles.  A squeeze ball (which you can find at Target) can be used to teach kids to tighten and relax their arm and hand muscles.  When we are under stress, we often tighten our muscles but forget to relax them.  Using a squeeze ball helps them practice this and shows them how it feels to release the stress in their muscles.  Stretching out our legs can also help relieve stress stored up in our leg muscles, and teaching them to gently stretch their necks from side to side can relieve pressure in that area.  There’s a lot to be said for yoga, and many kids love to do it.  Look into classes or grab a mommy and me yoga DVD and start stretching!

8. Books: “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss is a great book for helping kids attach colors to feelings.  “Ready, Set, Relax” by Jeffry Allen, M.Ed. and Roger Klein, Psy.D is a great tool for teaching progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.  It is intended for elementary aged kids, but I have used it with teens and also with younger kids by shortening some of the scripts.  Teaching your kids how to use their muscles to relax their bodies is invaluable.

 

Helping kids learn to calm themselves down is a process.  Some days they will head off to their rooms to look at books and play with toys and calm themselves down independently, while other days they might need extra hugs and kisses.  Be patient and try to introduce them to a few new strategies to help them learn to help themselves.

How do you help your kids relax?

Feeling Shy? (Tips for helping your child interact with others)

I was at the park with my kiddos the other day when a familiar power struggle broke out right before my eyes.  The nanny (who is actually the uncle) for a three year old girl leaned down to her and said, “why are you standing here?  Go play with those other girls.  We came here to play, not to stand around”.  I happen to know (small town) that this particular child is very shy.  She’s super sweet when she comes out of her shell, but it takes a while.  She prefers the safety of her uncle when at the park.  He spent a few more minutes trying to convince her to look Riley in the eyes and say hi before shaking his head in frustration.  I tend not to reveal myself as a child psychotherapist often, as it generally results in one of three scenarios:  1.  The joke:  “So are you analyzing me right now?!” (I’m not).  2.  The help:  “Can I run a few things by you about…?” (Yes, but can we also be mom friends?) 3.  The walk away:  This is where I feel like people think I’m judging them (I’m not…too busy with my own kids!) so they keep a distance.  The point is, the uncle doesn’t know and I didn’t step in.  Instead I said something along the lines of, “well, a lot of kids are shy at that age, I’m sure she’ll grow out of it”.  That’s actually true.  I think there’s a misconception among some parents and caregivers that once a child hits that magical preschool age shyness and separation anxiety will disappear.  The latest research indicates that shyness is a personality trait, but that doesn’t point to a lifetime of being alone.  It just means that some kids are naturally more outgoing than others.  I was a shy kid.  I was the third of four kids in my family, and the others were always more naturally talkative.  I stuck close to my mom, had one very best friend, and really didn’t mind playing alone in my room.  While some kids had one invisible friend to keep them company at night, I actually created an entire school!  At some point during elementary school I started branching out and playing with other kids too.  And at age 36, I have a great network of friends.  To my mom’s credit, she didn’t push me.  I remember a few “blind playdates” with some other kids similar in personality, but for the most part she was probably just content that I had my best friend down the street, and we played together almost daily.  I see the same scenario at the park often:  Parents seem to become anxious when a child won’t engage and immediately start a lengthy explanation about shyness and trying to break the pattern.  The truth is, some kids just need a little more help reaching out socially than others.  Riley will play with anyone right now.  I often catch her listening in on conversations (we’re working on that!) to try to figure out where she might fit in.  This morning she declared, “Mommy!  I just heard that the girl over there is also Riley.  I will go tell her that’s me too!”  And off she went.  Liam is a little slower to warm up.  He has a couple kids he knows well and gravitates toward, but other than that he can’t really be bothered.  I’m not concerned.  When I see the little girl gripping onto her uncle as he impatiently tries to send her away, my heart goes out to her.  I still remember that feeling.  I also understand his frustration.  He isn’t being guided.  He doesn’t know how to help her socialize, and that frustrates him.  He also has another to child to care for at the same time.  It isn’t easy.  Shyness is very common among two year olds, who still tend to struggle with separation.  It’s also fairly common among preschoolers, who might need a little extra help making transitions and finding a first friend.  Below are some tips to help your shy child start to blossom:

1.   Label the FEELING, not the child: Many parenting experts are in agreement that labeling a child “shy” creates a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Suddenly they have the perfect excuse to play alone constantly, they are just shy.  While it’s true that your child might qualify as a “shy child”, you don’t need to harp on the title.  Instead, try to spend time helping your child understand the feeling.  “Are you hiding behind my leg because you’re feeling shy around all of these new kids?” will help your child focus on how she’s feeling at that moment.  Make the connections between feeling shy and feeling scared.  Once your child can understand her feelings, you can start to think about strategies.

2.   Observe: I often tell parents that a great first step to helping kids feel more comfortable in group settings is to watch from afar.  Go to the park regularly and watch the other kids.  In between rides down the slide, quietly point to other kids and just state the obvious.  “It looks like that little girl brought her doll to the park.  That’s a good idea.”  Don’t push the interactions, just comment on what other kids are doing that looks fun.  Just remember to keep a low profile.  A running commentary in a loud voice is potentially embarrassing to a quiet child.  Observe from afar.

3.   Get involved: In the case of the uncle of the shy girl, he clearly stated that he just wants her to play with other kids so that he can sit back for a minute.  I totally get it.  Don’t we all?  But the best way to help a shy child is to join with them until they feel comfortable.  Get in the sandbox, hop on the swing, slide down the slide.  Getting involved helps your child to feel less anxious and start having fun.  Kids are more likely to join with other kids when they are happy and enjoying themselves.

4.   Bring share toys: 90% of the time, I forget the sand toys.  They are in a bag next to the stroller at the front door, and yet they stay there most days.  It’s a shame because the sandbox is the social hot spot at the tot lot.  We all know the unspoken rule at the tot lot is “if you bring it, you share it”.  But being dutiful parents, we also take the opportunity to teach appropriate manners by having our children ask if they can borrow toys and reply yes when another child asks.  It’s an instant social interaction.  It’s also a great place to play next to other kids and see what they’re doing.  Riley often ends up making soups and cakes with three or four other kids, after starting out with just Liam.  Bring the sand toys! Other crowd pleasers include:  Sidewalk chalk (they can create “murals” together!), bubbles (who doesn’t love them?), bouncy balls, and cars/trucks.  If you bring it, they will come!

5.   Keep it small: Try to schedule a short playdate with a familiar friend (who is similar in interests and personality).  45 minutes is plenty.  Expect to be involved.  Slowly move back when your child starts to adjust and engages with the other child.  Do this weekly if you can.  Stick to no more than one other child at a time to avoid over-stimulation.

6.   Take a class with a friend: I’ve heard parents talk about enrolling a “shy” child in preschool early in order to force socialization.  It’s not the quick fix that it might seem.  If your child is afraid to separate at the park, he/she probably won’t have an easier time at a new school.  It might be best to enroll your child in a fun class with a familiar friend.  Find a music or gym class and treat it the same as the 1:1 playdate.  Stay close until your child feels comfortable, and then gradually back away.

7.   Avoid putting your child on the spot: We all do it.  “Show Daddy (or insert name of grandparent here) what you learned at ballet!”  We do it because we’re proud and excited when our little ones learn new things.  But this is a quiet child’s worst nightmare.  There is nothing worse than being put on the spot when you’re really not a fan of performing.  Let your child share his/her accomplishments in his/her own way.  Coach the grandparents to quietly ask questions about ballet, school, etc.  The performing will come when your child is ready (and most likely when you’re not looking).

8.   Do some prep work: Have a big birthday party to attend?  My honest answer is to tell you to stay home.  Some kids (Liam) just don’t do well in overwhelming environments.  But I know that’s not always possible.  Break out the puppets and practice.  Find out what’s happening at the party (music, bounce house, character appearance) so that you can talk about it in advance.  Play out the different scenarios to prepare as much as possible.

9.   Stay positive: It can be frustrating when you feel like your child is the only one playing alone at the park (he’s not) or when the teacher says he’s not making connections at school (give him time).  Praise him when he approaches a child at the park, or allows another child to share his toys.  Talk about it on the way home.  Remind him on the way there that he had fun playing trucks with another boy the last time.  Be gentle with your prompts and generous with your praise.  Make him feel like he can do it, because he can.  And try to remember that every child has something unique to him/her.  Try to focus on building that strength.  The social interactions will come when the comfort level improves.

Many parents have asked me if acting shy correlates with low self-esteem.  It doesn’t.  Sometimes children who keep to themselves are actually very self-confident, they are just not ready to share that with the world yet.  Give it time.  And don’t push.  The harder you push, the faster they run.  Pay attention to your child’s cues and, before you know it, “shyness” will be a thing of the past.

How have you helped your child socialize with other kids?