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Changing Children’s Behavior: Take Some Measurements!

Does your child have so many problems that you don’t know where to start? Are you so frustrated that you can’t see or think straight? Do you feel helpless about how to make changes in your relationship with your child? Perhaps the first place to start is with a few measurements.

When behaviorists study people’s behavior, they start with a baseline. A baseline is a tool that is used to measure the frequency and duration of someone’s specific behavior. A baseline can be used to measure the frequency and duration of both desirable and undesirable behavior. This dual measurement can tell parents what they want to increase and what they want to decrease, all without a lot of screaming, hair pulling, or medication!

The first step in determining a baseline is to measure a child’s behavior when no intervention or tool is being used with the child. This way parents can get an accurate estimation of the child’s behavior. Baselines will allow a parent to measure the effectiveness of a particular parenting tool they are using. If a parent discovers that a tool is not getting the desirable results (i.e., the misbehavior continues at the same level as before or is much worse), then the parent knows to abandon this approach and try another. Parents then find a different tool to use that gets them better results. Sounds easy, huh! Actually it isn’t. But with a little practice parents can use baselines to objectively and rationally approach a behavior problem and change it.

The next step is to gather a few basic materials: a piece of graph paper, pencil, and daily calendar. Write across the top of the graph paper the behavior you wish to increase or decrease. For example, you might write: “I want to increase the number of times that Tommy takes his bath on time” or “I want to decrease the number of times that Mary hits her little brother.” Picking the behavior may not be as easy at it sounds. You must pick one behavior to focus on and not get confused with other problems at home. Be very specific about what you want to increase or decrease. Don’t write: “I want Tommy to behave.” That is too general and vague. You will never achieve that anyway, so why frustrate you and Tommy. Pick a behavior that is particularly troublesome and/or dangerous to start.

To get a baseline, simply count how many times a day that particular behavior is occurring for one week. Average it on a per day basis by taking your weekly total and divide it by seven (days of the week). That will be your baseline. Let’s say that you want Tommy to take his bath, on time, every day. At this time, Tommy only takes his bath, one time, once per week. One is your baseline. Anything you use to increase this frequency will be considered effective. Anything that does not or reduces it to zero, is not effective.

After you have picked the behavior, use the bottom of the paper to list the days of the week from the calendar (Sunday, Monday… Saturday). Along the left side of the paper you will write a range of numbers, starting from the bottom and going up. The range could be from zero to ten, if the behavior you are targeting is a low frequency problem or zero to hundred, if it is a high frequency problem. I would suggest sticking with a low frequency problem. It will make the process simpler and easier to monitor.

Now comes the fun part: picking the tool. What will you use to increase or decrease your child’s behavior? You could do what you have always done, like Time-Out or Removing Privileges. Or you could read up on a couple of books, ask a wise friend or teacher, or search the Internet, looking for various interventions to try. Regardless of where you go for your tools, choose only one. Use the tool of choice for a period of one week and faithfully measure how many times a day that behavior occurs with the application of the tool. Be sure that all caregivers (moms, dads, relatives, day care staff, etc.) use the same tool or you will not get a good measurement. In fact, if dad is doing one thing and mom another, you could be sabotaging each other’s efforts. Get everyone on the bandwagon and cooperating.

Chart the number of times the behavior occurs (its frequency per day) and the time that it occurred. In order to see if change has occurred, parents must check to see if there is any difference between the baseline number, before any intervention was made, and the number of occurrences after an intervention is made. This final number should come close to your target number. Let’s take another look at Tommy and his bath time. Mom and dad decided to take away Tommy’s television privileges if he did not get in the bath on time each day. They did this by simply stating the consequence ten minutes before bath time to give him time to prepare. If Tommy did not get in the bath on time (they gave him a five minute window of opportunity either way) they stated that there would be no television privileges the next morning and stuck to their decision. After a couple of days, Tommy realized that mom and dad were serious about this bath time business and decided to cooperate. He was able to get in the bath, on time, three times in one week, as a result of mom and dad’s new interventions. This was a definite increase from the baseline and considered successful by everyone.

Don’t worry if the change doesn’t occur immediately. Children test their parents to see if they will be consistent with these new interventions or if parents are going to fall back to old, inconsistent ways of disciplining. One to two weeks may be needed to witness any real results. If the behavior is still not changing after that period of time, find a new tool. It is also important that you be consistent. Inconsistency will reward the behavior in the wrong direction.

What if one parent is willing to cooperate but the other is not? This makes our task harder but not impossible. Simple measure during a time that you are able to control, say, during the daytime when dad is at work. Obviously, you must pick a target behavior that occurs during that time period and find a tool that you can administer alone. Children will adapt to the different parenting styles of their parents, even if they are exact opposites.

Reward all positive, behavioral changes. This will help to maintain the behavior over a long period of time. Don’t resort to bribes, such as sweets, money, or toys. This will backfire on you. Use social praise, like: “Great job” or “I really appreciated how you did that.” This is usually sufficient for children. Any negative behavior should be ignored, as much as possible.

How long should you use the baseline tool? Use the tool for as long as you need. Once you are getting positive results from your new tool, you can go on to targeting a new behavior or put the chart away until it is needed again. Behavior tools, like the baseline, have some limitations. Very smart children see your strategy and try to go around it or do as they are asked, during the specific time it is asked, and then immediately misbehave right after. For example, Tommy may get into the bath on time so that he can watch his favorite television programs, but right after the bath, he may become rude and obnoxious to his little sister. This is a weakness in the tool, not you. Ignore the weakness for now. All you are concerned with is increasing getting into the bath on time. Later you will address, with the baseline tool, the rude behavior.

The value of this parenting tool is in its ability to get a baseline measure of a child’s behavior and to test the validity of the parenting tools your are using. It allows you to cope with feelings of frustration and target behavior objectively and without negative attention to the child. This allows the parent and the child to concentrate on more enjoyable activities together.

Depressed Teenagers: The Problem, Risks, Signs, and Solutions

Is your child sad or appear to have no affect at all? Is your
child preoccupied with the topic of death or other morbid
topics? Has your son or daughter expressed suicidal
thoughts or ideas? Are they extremely moody or irritable
beyond the normal hormonal twists and turns of childhood?
Has there been a drastic change in your child’s eating or
sleeping patterns? If you answered yes to any of these
questions, your child may be suffering from a common but
devastating mental health disorder, called depression.

The Problem:

Depression occurs in 8 percent of all adolescent lives.
Research indicates that children, in general, are becoming
depressed earlier in live. The implications of this is that the
earlier the onset of the illness the longer and more chronic
the problem. Studies suggest that depression often
persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, and
indicates that depression in youth may also predict more
severe illness in adult life. Depression in young people
often co-occurs with other mental disorders, most
commonly anxiety, disruptive behavior, or substance abuse
disorders, and with physical illnesses, such as diabetes.

The Risks:

Teenagers often turn to substances to “self-medicate” the
feelings of depression. They reject prescribed medications
because of the way it makes them feel and because of the
negative social implications of being labeled as depressed.
Drinking alcohol and using other substances may make
teenagers feel better for a short period of time but the need
to continually use these substances to feel “high” creates
dependence and poses a serious health risk. Depression
in adolescence is also associated with an increased risk
of suicidal behavior. Suicide is the third leading cause of
death for 10 to 24-year-olds and as much as 7 percent of
all depressed teens will make a suicide attempt.

The Signs:

Signs that frequently accompany depression in
adolescence include: • Frequent vague, non-specific
physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches,
stomachaches or tiredness • Frequent absences from
school or poor school performance • Talk of or efforts to
run away from home • Outbursts of shouting, complaining,
unexplained irritability, or crying • Being bored • Lack of
interest in playing with friends • Alcohol or substance abuse
• Social isolation, poor communication • Fear of death •
Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure • Increased
irritability, anger, or hostility • Reckless behavior • Difficulty
with relationships

Parents often witness these warning signs but fail to act on
them. Why? Because some teens hide the symptoms from
their parents or parents chalk it up to a stage or
moodiness. Many teenagers go through a time of dark
looking/acting behavior with all black clothing and bizarre
hair arrangements. This can throw a parent off of the trail of
depression by the bewilderment of teen actions and
behaviors. In addition, many teens react aggressively when
confronted about possible depression by their parents
causing mom and dad to back off.

The Solutions:

When dealing with teen depression, it is always better to
“be safe than sorry.” Coping with an adolescent’s anger is
much easier to deal with then handling his or her successful
suicide or overdose. When parents first notice the signs of
depression, it is important to sit down with their teen and
ask them, gently but firmly, if they are feeling depressed or
suicidal. Contrary to popular belief, asking a child if he or
she has had any thoughts of hurting or killing themselves
does not cause them to act on that subject. If the teen
rejects the idea that they are depressed and continues to
show warning signs, it will be necessary to seek
professional help.

If the child acknowledges that he or she is depressed,
immediately contact your physician and seek the assistance
of a mental health professional that works with children and
adolescents. In addition, parents can help their teen by
confronting self-defeating behaviors and thoughts by
pointing out their positive attributes and value. Parents may
need to prompt their teen to eat, sleep, exercise, and
perform basic hygiene tasks on a daily basis. Doing these
daily routines can dramatically help improve mood. Try to
direct the teen to hang out with positive peers. Steer them
away from other depressed adolescents. Explore
underlying feelings of anger, hurt, and loss. Even the
smallest loss of a friend or pet can intensify feelings of
sadness. Allow the teen to talk, draw, or journal about their
feelings without judgment. And for suicidal teens, make a
“no-harm” contract for 24 to 48 hours at a time when they
will not hurt themselves.

With proper care and treatment, depression can be
alleviated and suicidal behaviors prevented. Parents and
teen may even find a new, deeper relationship developing
between them as they work through the dark feelings of
depression.

Reference:

National Institute of Mental Health Web Site. “Children and
Depression: A Fact Sheet for Physicians.”
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depchildresfact.cfm

tranPARENTcy

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that being a parent today is tougher than ever before. Blame it on the moral decay of society, the impersonal nature of technology or the breakup of the home. Either way, contemporary parents feel out of touch with themselves and their children.

The solution is not to turn back time but to open our selves up to our children. As stress bombards today’s families, parents retreat farther into their private self leaving a fully functioning but completely unsatisfactory public self to go through the daily routines of work and family life. This deprives both parent and child of the intimacy and closeness they both want and desire.

Ironically, strength comes through vulnerability. Letting children see our
frustrations, pain, and failure can be a valuable lesson to them. Many parents can’t see the wisdom in being transparent to their children. Already debilitated, they can’t understand why they should give away their power. This notion of power comes from a false parenting authority of “Do it because I said so” or “I am the parent therefore you must obey!” This is not true strength. This is force. Strangely enough, giving up this false strength will lead parents to the true power of intimacy in their family relationships.

Self discovery

Children are naturally curious. They love to explore and learn. Parents can use this drive to increase intimacy with their children. The first step is to make/take time out of busy schedules to really be with children. TransPARENTcy is achieved in those unstructured but regular moments with children. It can be in the car on the way to or from school. It can be at a regularly scheduled playtime at home. It can be during the last few minutes of the day tucking your child into bed. The actual arrangement is not as important as simply making the most of everyday interactions with children.

To do this parents need to get comfortable being in the here-and-now with children. Children are naturally present focused. They are not worried about their future or their past. Get into that present moment with your child. Be aware of the environment you find yourself in and talk about those things with your child. This is how a child learn about the world. Encourage questions. Eliminate judgment about right and wrong and instead let your child explore ideas about the world to help them find ethical answers. Talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings in as objective a manner as possible and then share your own thoughts and feelings without lecture or sermonizing.

Be Honest

Honesty is still the best policy when it comes to our emotions. If parents feel one of the primary emotions: mad, sad or glad, share them honestly. Hiding these emotions lead to negative behaviors on the parts of both parent and child. Of course if parents are going through a major depression or anxiety children should not take the place of a good therapist or become the emotional dumping ground for a parent’s stressful life. Instead, parents can model how to manage difficult feelings so that children can learn how to regulate theirs.

The truth is that parents can’t hide their emotions even if they want to. Most likely children already know when their parents are mad or sad even if they try to hide them. Children were nonverbal long before they were verbal making them experts of the unspoken expression. If mom or dad find their own emotions so horrible that they can’t be honest about them, maybe children shouldn’t trust their emotions either.

Many parents believe that by covering their own emotions they are protecting their children. Consequently, parents put on an act to only show positive feelings. This gives children a one-sided view of life making them unprepared to cope with others in the real world. This form of protection is really for the parent not the child. Children are harmed not helped by this belief.

Take risks

Many parents who want greater connection with their children never experienced it as a child themselves. It is frightening to be transparent with anyone, especially one’s children. The greatest risk of vulnerability will come when parents must admit a mistake. To avoid this risk parents try not to reveal their inadequacies to their children causing children to mistrust what parents say and do. This is not the way build stronger bonds.

If parents want to be an appropriate role model and achieve greater intimacy with their children they will need to admit their humanness. Even more frightening for parents is the idea that they might need to ask forgiveness of their child for a word or action acted out in anger. Forgiveness has a spiritual quality that transcends emotional hurts and repairs relationships. It opens doors of intimacy that would otherwise remain locked shut by hurts and resentments.

Taking this type of risks can be particularly difficult for fathers. There is an old notion that fathers must be proud, strong and therefore invulnerable. The rationale is that this behavior teaches boys how to be a man. Unfortunately, it teaches all the wrong things and ill prepares boys for future relationships. Today’s sons need dads who understand the importance of learning from one’s failures as well as successes.

Create a Family Team

Some parents complain that the reason they cannot be transparent with their child is due to conflicts in personality. When children and parents have drastically different moods, reactions and motivations, it can make connecting quite a chore. To overcome this problem, parents try and focus on similarities versus differences. While this is helpful, it is also important to concentrate on those differences that divide parent and child.

Talking about personality differences can actually be a way to connect to a child. Discuss how you and your child are different and why that makes each of you unique. Explore the various ways to process or react to life. Never define the differences as deviant, just different. Learn from the other person’s viewpoint and discover compromises that fit you both.

Parents can use personality differences to build a powerful “family team.”  Match individual interests, skills and desires so that each person compliments the others. The role of the parents, in these family teams, is to cheer lead each personality. Make the motto: “one for all and all for one” your new slogan for family transparency.

Empathy

The surest path to transparency is empathy. Empathy is the act of communicating our understanding of a child’s feelings, thoughts and needs without being overwhelmed or taking responsibility for them. This will be tough for parents who believe that parenting is simply about taking care of their child physically and not emotionally. Children with the best self-image have parents who validate their emotions. Consequently, these same children report feeling more connected and open with their parents.

Some of the most effective parenting classes have at there root the concept of empathy. The philosophy is simple: You can’t harm a child if you are being empathic with a child. And the reverse is true as well: Your child will be more cooperative because he or she feels more connected. Intimacy is rarely looked on as discipline. While it doesn’t negate the need for consistency and rules, homes without empathy get very little true cooperation. Oh,
there is compliance, in the short term, but there is little cooperation. And there is little connection.

Fortunately, empathy is a learned skill. It requires parents to do three things: give full attention, paraphrase a child’s words and reflect a child’s underlying feelings. With practice parents can use empathy to create a healthy, intimate relationship with their children.

Facing the Future Now

If it is true that families today are experiencing greater stress than families of the past. This makes intimacy more challenging. More conscious effort on the part of parents to counteract this imbalance. While our technology might continue to progress, our relationships can continue to become more impersonal. True intimacy in families require parents to use the skills discussed here to be real with their children.  This will require risk from both mom and dads. A change in attitude may be required that is different from how parents grew up. Traditional roles may need to be revised. TransPARENTcy is a skill that parents can practice to enhance family teamwork and connection.

Parenting Guilt is a Waste of Time

It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons and the sky was beautiful blue. White, billowy clouds were floating by as I sat and watched them on my front porch. The only problem with this day was I felt guilty about not being more productive. I felt like I “should” be doing something. Pulling weeds, reading some important journal paper or updating my blog. I remember this feeling as a parent too. There always seem like there is so much to do and I was always so far behind on something. Shouldn’t I be doing laundry instead of playing catch in the backyard with my kids or working on some craft? There were many times my guilt drove me to try and do household chores and play with the kids at the same time. Let’s just say, it wasn’t very effective in either area.

Many of us NEED to listen to that inner voice. That bathroom really does need some more attention but for the majority of parents, guilt is a constant critic. It is driven by the need for perfection. It fears what others will think of us. It causes us to forget that our children are more important than a clean dish put away into the dishwasher.

As a grandparent, you realize that the moments slip away into days into years into decades and then there are gone. When you realize all the magical moments missed with your child because you just had to prune the rose bush or scrub the shower (or for you working parents, work an extra hour or two in your home office), that is when the real guilt settles in. It is for what you could have done with your child if I wasn’t just so tightly wound up over the little things.

Here’s my parenting expert, grandfatherly advice:  Spend an entire weekend just interacting with your children and let guilt go for two entire days! Just two days mind you. That means the beds don’t get made, the dishes may stay in the sink (OK, you can put them away after they go to bed) and the home office door stays shut. Oh yeah, and the electronic devices are off. Yes, off!

Tell me how the experience goes by posting a comment here or sharing on twitter or facebook.

Parenting Differences: Six Truces for Divorced Parents

The most difficult problem I have when working with children, in my private practice, is the parents. When parents cannot agree on how to raise a child, and specifically, how to discipline, it is almost impossible to reach a solution. By the time parents reach me, the problem has been going on for such a long time that neither parent will budge from there position. It is only when one of the parents will give up some of the battle ground that I can help the parents help the child.

This is even truer in divorced or separated families. In these situations, the parents are more interested in returning cannon fire at the “other parent” for past wrongs then they are interested in co-parenting their children although
that is what they claim motivates their actions. They will fight with their child’s name as their battle cry, making their warring appear righteous and their violence just, and sacrificing the needs of their children for stable, cooperative parents.

But, I have few battle tactics myself. In those moments when parents cannot agree, I offer parents some difficult truces:

The first truce is called “Squatters Rights.” The first parent on the scene gets to do the
discipline, no interference allowed. This works well for parents that cannot reach a compromise or with children who are masters at the “divide and conquer” routine. In this routine, the child, who may or may not have been the original transgressor, walks away from the crime, leaving warring parents in his or her wake. Why? Because the child has learned the art, dark and ugly as it is, of how to manipulate parents into a confrontation with one another to get out of trouble. Only parents who have recognized this routine with their children can use this truce effectively.

The second truce is called “Tag Team Discipline.” The other parent can only take over the discipline when the first parent signals for help. Just like tag team wrestling, a tag
or signal must be made before the other parent can enter the ring. At that point it is
the other parents turn to discipline and no interference is allowed from the first parent
who left the ring. Unless a second tag is made. This truce will only work when parents recognize a need to cooperate more but can’t break out of old warring patterns with each other.

The third truce is called “Two Heads are Better Than One.” In this situation, no decision
is made unless both parents have consulted one another and agree completely on the decision.
If they do not agree, no decision is made. This will put an immediate stop to children whom
play one parent against the other. It will work only for parents who are motivated to working
cooperatively together but are having difficulty knowing how to get started.

The fourth truce is called “Getting Off the See-Saw.” You have seen a see-saw at a child’s play ground. It has a long board, usually with two seats at either end, resting of a bar or
barrel so that the board can rock up and down. Parents who war with one another are like two
children playing on a see-saw. Push down on one side of the see-saw and the other side goes up. Push back on the other side and the first side goes up. Parents who disagree are engaging in a rocking motion that is self-perpetuating. It becomes very difficult to stop playing on the see-saw, especially after years of practice. This truce is only for parents who sincerely want to stop the see-saw rhythm in their relationship but cannot get the other person to stop pushing on the see-saw. It requires that the parent, who wants to get off, to moving toward the middle of the see-saw and away from their extreme position. If your husband is too lax with the kids, act more permissive and he will be more authoritarian. If he is too harsh, set some firm limits and he may become softer. The other parent can’t help put push on their end, even if it is not the one they originally choose. Eventually they will be forced to step off and stand on equal ground.

The fifth truce is called the “Ben Franklin’s Problem Solving Method.” It has been said that whenever Ben Franklin, an American Patriarch and successful business man, could not make a decision, he would take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. He would then put all the reasons for the decision on one side of the line and all the reasons against it on the other. The side with the most reasons would win. The success of this method is its reliance on logic and facts versus emotions – a dangerous area for warring parents. It will only work for parents who have had some experience cooperating with one another but get stuck on a particularly emotional issues.

The six truce is called the “Coin Toss.” Sometimes parents, even cooperative ones, cannot reach an agreement. Usually the best choice here is to decide to not make a choice. But when that isn’t possible I suggest that parents simply toss a coin. One parent calls it in the air and which ever side it lands on that parent gets the final say. Of course, I am usually joking with the parents when I suggest this truce, but if they want to use it, each parent has 50 percent chance of winning. I know for a fact that this is a higher percentage than most parents get in decision-making with each other. Humor is an important skill in parental negotiations. When parents take parenting too seriously, they lose perspective on what they are trying to accomplish and war erupts. Families today experience more stress than families of the past. This is why humor and a flexible attitude is crucial to cooperation. This truce will only work for parents whom generally cooperate with one another but get stuck from time to time.

These six truces cover the full range of situations where parents can disagree about parenting. If they do not work, find a family therapist to help the negotiations. Otherwise, war will continue. As with real wars, innocent children are often victims of even the most righteous causes.

Parenting Differences: Attract and Annoy!

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Remember what attracted you to your mate when you first got married? Are those characteristics that originally attracted you to your partner the very things drive you crazy now? The old saying “opposites attract” may have a lot of truth when it comes to creating a balanced parenting relationship but it is also true that those styles of parenting can rips homes apart and be a source of constant parenting struggle. It is natural for people to want to fill in the gaps of their personality or find a compliment to their own skills and abilities. These different styles unconsciously “round out” their parenting roles. This is why one partner may be more aggressive, more organized, more emotional, or more controlled than the other partner and why together the two personalities seem, at least at first glance, to be a good “team.” Just as values are largely unconscious and tucked out of parents awareness, certain styles of parenting that were attractive early on in the parenting relationship are also largely unconscious. Parents may have fallen in love, not just with the other person, but with their ability to make firm decisions or feel passionate about something. Parents may have even fallen in love with characteristics they lacked or felt they never could adequately provide for a child. The ability of one parent to follow a budget or use common sense may impress another parent whose checkbook is always unbalanced or feels their finances and life are out of control. The other person creates a sense of balance in their life that translates to a feeling of balance of love and limits during child rearing. After a while, though, these attractive attributes can become annoying. The parenting partner, who provided a sense of stability early on in the relationship and could offer common sense when the baby cried all night long, is seen as boring, emotionally detached, and too rigid later on in the relationship. PARENTING PERSPECTIVES Parenting changes how people perceive themselves. Setting limits on one’s checkbook is different than setting limits on a child. And nurturing oneself is very different from nurturing a totally depended, often demanding infant. This evolution from “partners in love” to “partners in parenting” creates a feeling of imbalance. Having a child forces the partners to merge two sets of cultures, parenting values, and beliefs. It also brings up positive and negative memories of a parent’s own childhood. Parents, who had abusive parents or whose partner had abusive parents, may fear their own children being abused. And parents who idealized their parents may feel incompetent when comparing their own parenting skills to their parental figures. Now, as parents, the positive attributes that attracted one parenting partner to another, reminds partners of negative traits in there own parents. The organizational skills they admired in their partner and in their own parents also remind them of the compulsive, rigid behavior of their parent. The spontaneity and attention given by one’s partner also reminds them of their parents smothering overprotection. DECISION, DECISIONS Having children also force partners to make decisions they never had to be make before. It requires them to act cooperatively with one another on such things as who stays home with the child when he or she is sick; how to deal with a bad grade on a report card; or how to handle a child who has an emotional or behavioral disorder, all of which can result in parental disagreements, arguments, and resentments. Even the value that parenting partners must be, act, or react in the same manner can be disastrous to a balance of love and limits. Fortunately, these differences can become the groundwork for a fuller relationship if partners are willing to learn from one another rather than continue the vicious cycle of anger and resentment. This is possible only where both parents make an honest attempt at communication and cooperation. In addition, partners can learn from one another’s differences and incorporate the others strengths into their own parenting style. LEARNING FROM DIFFERENCES The first step to learning from the other parenting figure is to accept that differences are acceptable, even necessary, in the parenting relationship. If one parent is to develop certain parenting characteristics they never received from their own parental figures, they must accept and allow the other person to demonstrates these qualities. Believing that the other parent has something valuable to offer the parenting relationship will create cooperation in the difficult task of raising a child rather than resentment. The second step is to learn new ways to parent from the example of the other parent. Getting out of the way and letting them “do their thing” will not produce growth in one’s own parenting skills. Letting the other person have their way is not synonymous with learning. This can become learned helplessness, which results in negative feelings toward oneself and the other partner. While one parent may never be quite as good at setting firm rules at bedtime, they can learn to do it more frequent and more consistently than they have in the past, simply by learning from the example of the other parent. The third step is to agree to disagree. Not every parenting decision will be made in total agreement. Nor should one person, regardless of how confident or aggressive they are in making decisions make every decision. Parenting partners can take turns on how to take care of night-time fears, with one parent singing and holding the child one week and the other parent scaring away the bedtime monsters with a flashlight, the next. Or they can compromise by finding a third, equally agreeable solution to getting their child to stay in bed. If an equally agreeable solution does not present itself, partners can always “agree to disagree” by waiting until a third solution does becomes possible. “Agreeing to disagree” is helpful when a discussion becomes “heated” and partners need to wait until both parties are feeling “cooler” and better able to see the other person’s viewpoint. This behavior is a powerful model to children. It demonstrates that parents can be different and disagree without engaging in a physical or verbal battle. It communicates to the children that “we are working it out.” And relationships can continue to be satisfying (or balanced) even when an issue is not yet settled. The fourth step is to recognize that the negative or uncooperative behavior seen in the other parent may be a reflection of a characteristic of their own personality of their past and not the other parenting partner after all. It may be a habit learned from parental figures in one’s own childhood about how to deal with a frustrating situation or cope with a problem. Take time to reflect on your own past and talk with the other partner about childhood experiences. Insight, not ignorance, will lead to intimacy. And the fifth step is to have a discussion on balancing parenting styles free of name-calling, blaming, or shaming one another. Don’t make the other parent feel bad by labeling them “stubborn,” talking about them in front of friends, or constantly pointing out their flaws. If this is too difficult to master, parenting partners will need to find help to deal with these destructive communication styles. While it is true that “opposites attract” it is also true that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

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Attachment Disordered Children – Radio Show Interview with Ron Huxley

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If you didn’t catch my radio show interview this morning you can listen to the archived mp3 at http://toginet.com/shows/theparentsplate/articles/1314 Brenda Nixon, host of the Parents Plate radio show, invited me to chat about the controversial diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and the current state of mental health treatment of traumatized children today. I shared some great ideas in our hour long discussion that you will want to listen in on…everything from how children are diagnosed to attachment neuroscience to practical parenting tools. I even shared on why children with attachment impairments “Monster Up!” – a phrase I coined. Take a moment to download or stream the show at http://toginet.com/shows/theparentsplate/articles/1314

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How can you punish an abused child?

I recently watched a movie called “Unthinkable” (CAUTION: Movie spoilers ahead) and was shocked by the intensity of the violence. At first I turned it off then later went back to finish watching the movie. There was something about the plot line that drew me back in. The subject matter was simple: A terrorist sets up nuclear bombs throughout America, is captured, and then tortured to tell their locations. Yes, tortured. Aside from the more obvious political messages here, there was a subtler, frightening psychological message.

No matter how much the terrorist was tortured physically or mentally he never broke. He suffered but he continued to play mind games with this capturers till the very end. What would hold a person together despite such horrific punishments? I realized what the answer to this question was when the terrorist stated that “he deserved this” for all the bad things he had done. The movie never really described what these “bad things” were but it was enough of a mindset for him to endure unbelievable torture. His captors tried everything to break him: reason, empathy, brutality, mind games, more brutality and finally more brutality. They just kept upping the ante on the terrorist with the belief that eventually everyone breaks. He didn’t.

What struck such a cord in me was that many of the children I work with, who have been mistreated,  have this “terrorist” mindset. Their behavior says: “What can you possibly do to me that I have not already endured in a much younger, more vulnerable state as an infant or young child?” So many of the children who adopt this “defiant” attitude have a deeper narrative that they deserve the punishments they are getting. Children internalize their abuse and believe that they are responsible for what happened to them. In fact, they often believe that they are “damaged goods” unworthy of love or kindness or anything good. They may set up caregivers to make them angry and want to punish them. It is easy for an adult caregiver to play right into this narrative and reinforce the very thing they want to change in the child. They may not beat them or leave them in a closet for days but we do use other punishment-based techniques (lock them up, move them from home to home, shame them with words or actions, make them carry out sentences, etc) all with the hopes that they will express their guilt and shame and change their behaviors.

I think the end goal is a worthy one. We want to help the child see things differently but our methods need some updating. Hope for this is coming from the field of neuroscience which is why you will see so much of this in this blog. It may not be the final answer but it is allowing us to see the small, hurting child behind the big terrorist mask. It is telling us that children’s brains and minds are affected by their mistreatment and we must go back and redo attachment-based treatments to help them rebuild the mental and physical capacity for love and affection and moral reasoning too.

I know it sounds like I am hard on the adult caregivers. I guess I am but we are the ones who have to do something different. We can’t expect the child to “get it” and explain it to us. We have to look deeper to see the alternative narratives for the child to live out. That will take time and patience. Unfortunately, we caregivers are products of our own culture and parenting narratives. A shame-based approach to parenting is how many of us were raised and so, it is the only approach we  know how to use. If time out for an hour in a child’s room doesn’t work, what else is there? More time in the room? Perhaps we should yell louder or threaten more? Obviously not. The answer to my title: How can you punish an abused child, is simple. You can’t.

The mission of the Parenting Toolbox blog is to give parents more tools. I used to teach a lot of court-ordered parenting classes where parents where referred to learn non-punitive parenting skills. I quickly learned that you got no where trying to debate the punishment mindset. I realized that I couldn’t really win the “spank/no spank” argument. I might get some compliance from the parent but there was no change in insight. My focus became teaching other things the parent could do by giving lots of parenting tools. This worked. It is my vision to see parents better equipped and hurt children healed with this blog as well.

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Why can’t your child pay attention?

In my last post I talked about how parents can change a child’s brain. Hopefully you can begin to believe that this is possible. I think it suggest a very different approach to parenting. Instead of trying to “manage” a child’s behavior, we can begin to explore how to “train” a child from the inside out. One of the areas parents might really benefit from this approach is to help them pay attention. I am not talking about dealing with diagnosable Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders but that might be applicable as well. I am simply thinking about ways to get your child to look up from the cell phone or hear your request to come in for dinner, the first time, when they are engaged in play outside. Would you like to say something the first time and be heard without repeating (yelling) it again? How about on a more personal level: Wouldn’t you like to be able to focus on your families needs without feeling overwhelmed and stressed? How many things try to capture our attention in a day? How many times do our children have to ask a question before we turn to focus on them? This is what Amishi Jha, the brain scientist,  is talking about in the short video clip (see below).
People in today’s society have so much demand on their attention that they are constantly battling what to pay attention to. This is true for our children as well as ourselves! Unfortunately, what occurs is that we live our life in “instant replay” mode. We are constantly having to go back and review what someone said or someone did.
We hear our children fighting from the other room and have to go back and rewind our mental tapes to understand what is going on and how we are going to intervene. We don’t have the luxury to live in the moment and deal with only one thing at a time. Consequently, we engage in shortcut strategies to survive. Our children do the same. The brain has an Executive System to deploy attention and memory resources to problems as they occur around us. This is probably why so many of us parents work on crisis mode with our children. We may miss good things our children do as our emotional resources are concentrating on putting out fires. We feel we don’t have the capacity to focus on what is working due to so much focus on what is going wrong. As you can imagine this creates a vicious cycle for parent and child.
How do we keep the play button of the brain on the present moment instead of being focused on the past moment or future moment (on what we need to do next)? Mindfulness researchers would ask this question by saying “how do we pay attention to our present moment without judgement and stay calm in the midst of stressful demands of life?” There are a lot of books that look at mindfulness out that can inform parents on this. My favorite is the book “Parenting from the inside out” by Daniel Siegel. We also have the knowledge of our spiritual practices that can inform a more mindful, present-focused parenting. It may be useful to start meditating on how to pay more attention to our children, in the moment, and model better attentional skills in our children simultaneously. Click link here to watch Amishi Jha talk about how to train brains to pay better attention: Amishi Jha: Building Attention Learn more on this topic and other real life parenting tools in our ParentingToolbox Newsletter. Click here now!

Parents can change a child’s brain

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Some of the research listed below suggests that parents (and teachers) are in the brain changing business. Although parents might struggle with changing a child’s “mind” they inevitably have a role in the child’s developing brain. A child’s experiences in life can alter the structures of the brain for good or ill. The most important experiences are those they share with their caretakers. This might put a lot of weight on parents already weighty lives and cause them to feel that can’t do anything right. The only result, they might joke, is pay for the therapy latter! Fortunately, those therapists have long known that optimal is better than perfect. The idea of the “Good Enough” parent is a comforting one, to myself at least. We don’t have to do everything perfect. It is more important that we try, even in the event of failures (blow our top, pick the child up late from preschool, can’t help with a math assignment or get a divorce) a child can come out OK. It is our overall efforts and results that children judge us by and it is our consistent effort to provide structure and nurturing that create the healthiest brains/people. I will share more parenting tools that allow parents to manage this balancing act in the Parenting Toolbox’s newsletter: The Family Work Bench. Get a subscription now! image Source: http://committedparent.wordpress.com/2007/10/27/if-youre-in-the-parenting-business-youre-in-the-brain-change-business/ “No matter what business you’re involved in, first and foremost you’re in the brain change business.” So asserts Houston neuro-psychiatrist, Bruce Perry. In line with that premise, it makes great sense to know at least a few of the basics about how your own and other people’s brains grow and change in ways that could possibly help make them work like Einstein’s, Michelangelo’s and Mother Teresa’s all rolled into one! imageThe brain is perhaps best thought of as a collection of interconnected endocrine glands – roughly 52 indiv- idual parts controlling different actions. They all must work together to “process energy and infor- mation.” Thinking about the brain in such terms – as a network of organs that must optimally process the energy and information of our daily lives – turns out to be a very useful template to help us understand our own and others’ reactions to the world, and to make good decisions in response to them. Ideally, we only want ourselves and our family and friends involved in activities that their brains are developmentally suited to handle, and perhaps a little bit more. It’s the “little bit more” that can become tricky, which is how we build resilience in ourselves and our kids. I’ll be discussing resilience often in these columns. Associations Make it Happen Another important way to think about our brain is as an associating organ. By that, I simply mean that it learns a lot by putting things together. Things like words and pictures, upand down, hot and cold, thoughts and feelings. By pairing things that make the brain feel good with things that we want ourselves or our children to learn, the neurons in the brain become richly connected. A variation of this is sometimes known as “Grandmother’s Rule: You may do what you want to do – when you’ve done what you need to do.” By pairing preferred actions with less exciting necessary duties, like brushing teeth and going to bed at a set, regular time, reinforced learning takes place Plastic is as Plastic Does Finally, one last thing to realize and remember about the brain and the business of trying to change it, is that the brain is exquisitely “plastic.

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