Developmental Skylines

The child I have in mind today is growing so quickly, on every dimension of development … but each area progresses at it’s own pace.

In the preschool years, abilities unfold with staggering speed!  Children move from mouthing their toes to balancing upon them, reaching for heights.  Babbled syllables of every language on earth grow into clear speech in the language(s) of home.   Reasoning extends past peekaboo games to twenty-piece puzzles.

The rapid rise in child abilities leaves us gasping at every turn.  But advance in one area feeds expectation for comparable advance in another.   Growth spurts in another child can generate comparisons with one’s own.

SONY DSCDevelopment, however, is like a city skyline.  Buildings of varied heights mirror multiple abilities in different stages of progress.  Look at a cityscape with a mathematical eye and you can visualize a vertical bar graph.  To a child psychologist, those bars are analogous to normative, uneven growth across developmental domains. These areas are Cognitive (reasoning), Emotional, Social, Speech & Language, Toileting, Fine motor, Gross motor,  etc.  In no child do those developmental areas grow evenly.  Just like the varied heights of downtown.   And what a boring skyline it would be if the structures were uniform in shape!

Expect variation between developmental domains in your child.   Support your young ones where they are.   Lags in certain areas might foretell the need for specialized help, but not necessarily so.  If you have concerns, track your observations with detailed notes and refer to them every few months.  Public school districts offer free developmental screenings. Child psychologists conduct developmental evals.  You may consult your child’s teacher or pediatrician, who follow hundreds and thousands of children, if you are worried.   But all those professionals will say a uniform “skyline” is not the developmental norm.   And the window of typical development is very wide.

Observe your child’s individual skyline. And know that your attentive  support encourages growth in each developmental area.

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Big Upsets? The Three C’s of Calming Down

I have a child in mind … crying and wailing, stomping and screaming. How can we help young ones calm down? The secret lies with us.  Grown-ups’ reactions can determine the course of a meltdown. The ball is largely in our court.

It doesn’t really seem fair … child meltdowns inconvenience the adult agenda, right?  Then why must the adult orchestrate the calm-down? Many parents bring children to therapy to acquire emotional “tools.”  But equipping the child is only half the work.

Within the child, a meltdown is a cataclysmic force.  Like a “volcano tsunami,” an articulate 2nd-grader explained. (Now that he has such words!)  Reasoning goes off-line like the internet in a downpour.  Parents say: “There’s no talking to her when she gets like that.”   “He gets this glazed look and I can’t reach him.”  If parental agitation escalates, the child perceives a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between one’s anguished self and the adult whose help he needs.

In the young years, calming down is a two-player game.  Adult frustration can generate auto-responses, such as “Quit acting like a baby,” or “Stop it, you are just fine!  But telling a distressed child she’s “fine” is like ordering rain back up into the clouds. Calming down is a complex, full-body skill to be learned.  And no one can be embarrassed or disciplined into a learning a new skill.

To assist parents, I created a quick, portable tool: THE THREE C’s for Helping a Child Calm Down.  The work of two psychology heroes of mine, Drs. Dan Siegel and Becky Bailey (see below), inspires this approach.

  1. CONNECT with your child through empathy. Stand in her shoes. Describe your compassionate grasp of her feelings  (“Oh, this is so hard for you / You really wanted that …”).  Don’t know what’s wrong? Say, “Ohh, tell me all about it.” Empathy calms the brain’s limbic system enabling the cortex to problem solve.  This is Step One, because nothing positive can happen until your child feels “felt” by you.   The Message: “I notice and care about your feelings.”
  2. COOL DOWN yourself first (count to 10, say a mantra “we can do this”), then cool down your child.  Guide and join him in body-calming strategies – watch his reactions and adjust your moves (hug him, stroke his back, say “Let’s breathe together,” “Let’s shake out our hands …”)  The Message: “We can cool you down together – I’m with you.”
  3. COACH your child in a guiding spirit.  Start the ball rolling, point her in the right direction, let her carry the ball across the finish line.  Think of yourself as a sports coach instructing others’ children – teaching a skill.  The Message: “Together we can get through this moment.”  Coaching may look like:
    • “You be the picker – this arm first, or that one” [through a sleeve]
    • Let’s give your brain a break for a minute, and think about something happy – like HoneyBear”
    • “I  wonder if you try that [puzzle] piece over in this area …”

While not a panacea, the Three C’s form a component of my interventions across a wide diversity of child conditions, including ones that bring severe impairment.  Try the Three C’s – your child’s meltdowns may have a lot less lava!

Literature of interestParenting From the Inside Out – Daniel Siegel & Mary Hartzell / Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline – Becky Bailey.

#parenting #child #meltdowns


Regressions: Back to a Safer Time

Regressions – what are they all about? A child with clear speech returns to baby talk  … a potty-trained child reverts to accidents.  Many parents are concerned and frustrated by  backward steps.  After the triumph (and convenience!) of growth forward, regressions can perplex and annoy adults.

Behavioral regressions are temporary steps backward to a safer time, to take a break from uncomfortable challenge. It is a coping strategy. Coping is anything one does to try to manage an uncomfortable state.  Development is tough work!

We adults can no longer remember growing on so many developmental dimensions at once. An adult-world analogy might be: starting a new job (cognitive), resuming exercise (gross motor), learning a foreign language (language), taking piano lessons (fine motor), and mastering a new cell phone (emotional – haha!) all at once.  You too might fall back on an easier skills while your muscles were sore and your brain tired.  You might even throw down your complicated new phone and cry!

Grown-ups may call-out regressive behavior: “Why are you talking like that? You’re a big boy now,” or “Why are we having accidents? You’re not a baby anymore.”  The assumption is that a teaspoon of embarrassment might jog the child back into age-appropriate behavior.  But such responses miss the child message – which is, “I’m anxious, I’m overwhelmed right now, this growing up thing is hard.”  When a child sends a message that is missed, the response is often anger – either internalized (as resentment) or demonstrated (acting out).   Shame never feels good. What to do instead?

1)   Notice the regression and ask yourself, why might this be happening at this moment?  Coping with younger sibling in his life? Working hard on one developmental task (toilet training) may temporarily leave less energy for work on other tasks (puzzles. language, emotional regulation).

2)  Check in with your child.  “Jordan, I notice you are using your younger boy talk lately.  I wonder if something is bothering you today.”  Few young children can answer  How, Why & What questions. So offer your guesses in “wondering” statements like, “I wonder how you are feeling about baby sister these days.”  Offer support and understanding statements. “Yes, I’ve had to hold sissy a lot after dinner.” Your child may offer, “Yeah, and Daddy doesn’t tuck me in like you do!”  

When your child shows a regression, take the cue – something is taxing her capacities.  Child growth does not emerge in linear lines. Knowing this allows us grownups to accept and observe regressions, interpreting them with gentle acceptance and support.


Welcome to A Child in Mind!

No matter what day it is, I always have A Child in Mind … one returning today, one who visited yesterday, one whose words still circle through my thoughts, one whose message will only unfold to me a few days from now.  Every day, I am a student of the young children who entrust their hearts to me.  And it is one fascinating, demanding class!  My office playroom is the classroom in which I will spend my career, criss-cross applesauce.

I am Dr. Beth Onufrak, a clinical child psychologist in private practice.  Young children are my exclusive service population, ages 3-8. These are my reflections upon what children reveal in the course of a clinical day. Children’s inner needs, worries, wishes, contemplations – are all wrapped up in “behavior.”  Behavior can express or obscure these inner feelings and needs.  This blog presents the lessons children teach me about what they feel, need, and do.  It adds research findings that guide my work. My aim is to help parents, teachers, caregivers, and pediatric professionals interpret child needs and respond with solutions.


Tangles, Knots & Child Therapy

What do many family struggles hinge upon? Parent/young-child misunderstandings that leave families feeling tangled up in knots.

Consider the young child: Development unfolds every minute, changing the landscape of what he or she can perceive, understand, attempt and accomplish. Growth springs forth while slower-maturing abilities hold a young one back.  Intense emotions swell long before emotional control comes online. Kids are frustrated with inner and outer limits and grown-ups who don’t understand them.

Consider the grown-ups: Parents can be frustrated with children whose mystify.  Rapid development makes youngsters seem capable of much more than they actually are.   Child reactions can seem illogical.  Youngsters seem “manipulative,” demanding and unreasonably attention-seeking. Frustrated and desperate, out of answers and energy, parents arrive at my door are hoping for answers “yesterday.”

A strong a parent-provider team in child therapy and good old-fashioned time can unravel such knots. Some believe child evaluation is just like looking under the hood of a car. If so,  the “engine” has to trust the mechanic before revealing how its parts work. My job is to discover what it feels like to be Michael, Michaela, David, Danielle. Progress will wait until we all glimpse life through the child’s eyes. And when we do, parental cries of “OH, that child!” evolve into sighs of “Ohhhh … now I see.”  Until that moment, basic behavior modification efforts often fail, and spectacularly so.  Child therapy that involves parents closely in the process can help folks achieve elusive turn-arounds in family life.

Through this blog, I share my learning experience as a child therapist.  Parents, teachers, caregivers, and pediatric professionals may find insights into kids in their care by coming along with me.  Join me each entry to see what I’ve learned from A Child In Mind that week.