Princesses & Parenting

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Got some little princesses in your life? I see a lot of them in my office, sometimes in full regalia. Adorable pixies, reveling in the allure and entitlement that girly-royalty seems to bestow. Sometimes I see boys in these costumes — in pictures shown to me furtively on iPhones by parents who think I “ought to see.”

TIME.com published a recent article based on a study published in the journal Child Development, asking “Are Disney Princesses Hurting Your Daughter’s Self Esteem?” So, I got to thinking about it … and found myself reflecting far beyond ballgowns and slippers. Boys as well as girls came to mind, including those routinely mistaken for the opposite sex in the grocery store.

Princess thought took me quickly into the realm of tolerance and acceptance of variation from gender norms — tolerance within some children toward themselves, and tolerance in other kids’ thoughts about and actions toward their peers.  So, first the princess thoughts.

As a child psychologist, I find no inherent harm in a Disney princess. It’s the thinking that young kids take away from such movies and paraphernalia that matters. And that’s where parent-child conversations really count.  I believe parent talks can mitigate the effects of media and marketing.

The study by Sarah M. Coyne and colleagues revealed that young children, average age 5 years, who have higher involvement with Disney princesses showed more female gender-stereotypical play references a year later. Studies are important attempts to get an aerial view of things ~ but they cannot capture and control for every other non-measured element in a child’s daily life.  We don’t know how much parent-child conversation occurred about princess-ness.  Which could make a difference.

Talk, talk, talk to your girls about princesses and girly things.  “What do you like about Ariel?” Keep it light but get real ~ about what really matters in life.  Elicit your child’s view of the prosocial, personal, and physical attributes of these slim-waisted princesses. “Does she show kindness and help others?” “How confident or independent does she seem?” “What about her body – do any ladies you know look like that?”  And by the way, does the marketing doll even resemble the movie character? Or is it an overly-sexualized version … like the original Merida doll from Brave, recalled after a petition launched by Twitter@AMightyGirl?

Beyond the princess issue lies one of deeper and greater significance to me as a child psychologist.  Tolerance and compassion for differentness is desperately needed in the societal and political times in which we live. Perhaps more desperately than at any time in my personal and professional memory. 

Difference is everywhere. My office is peppered with gender non-conforming kids —  those whose presentation and behavior does not follow stereotypes about how they “should” look or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth.  I meet girls who so strongly resemble boys in carriage and demeanor that a bare trace of femininity is hard to find; boys who love their My Little Ponies and sisters’ clothes so much, they plead with parents to wear a twirly-skirt and flower hairband to Target.

These children’s parents are seeking help to understand and raise their kids to be happy with themselves, in whatever gender identity or sexual orientation that turns out to be — in a world lacking adequate tolerance for departure from gender stereotypes.  My office is also visited by two-mommy and two-daddy families fighting uphill battles in the outside world, seeking the safe haven of my care to resolve everyday parenting quandaries.

So, teach tolerance.  For mental health in every child’s heart, home, school, community and the world. Even if you are parent for whom such topics leave you uneasy, you can still teach your child to be neutral or kind.  Teaching Tolerance is a magazine for educator from  Tolerance.org with activities that build understanding across all kinds of difference in the school classroom and community. It is a treasure trove. 

Any adult-child conversation that promote flexible, tolerant thinking about gender stereotypes and gender non-conformity is good for every child’s self-esteem and for compassionate social development.  

Tolerance talks support children who are discovering how they feel within themselves, despite reactions from those around them. Tolerance talks help kids of typical gender expression accept others – remain neutral, discourage hurtfulness or be supportive.  

Compassion for others is good for every child’s development, a key skill for becoming a constructive citizen of the world, a healthy participant in loving relationships, and person with inner peace.  I never suspected Walt Disney was going to inspire such thoughts — but he sure did.

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For parents wanting some support for talking about the media a tolerance, take a look at: Tolerance.org   (Twitter@tolerance_org), amightygirl.com (Twitter@AMightyGirl), CommonSenseMedia.org (Twitter@commonsense) and genderspectrum.org (Twitter@GenderSpectrum).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mommy, my brain is hungry!

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Young kids tell you what they want. The iPad. Angry Birds. Skylanders and Lego Ninjago. American girl dolls and My Little Ponies.  A pop tart. A fruit rollup. Goldfish. Noodles with butter. Sound familiar?

If only they knew what their brains wanted to help regulate their physical and emotional states. Their pleas might then sound like this: “Mommy, my brain is hungry!  I gotta have some protein to focus. I need some avocado to think of something else before I hit my brother!”

 

The brain/nutrition link is elementary. The brain runs on neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are made from food, specifically protein. Neurotransmitters are carried on the superhighways between cells that are coated with fat. [Fat, you say? Good fats.] And sugars provide glucose for brain energy.  Complex carbohydrates supply sustained, long-lasting energy; simple, quick burning carbs only give rapid, short-lasting energy, leading to “zoom and crash.”

A parent might as well say,

“Blood sugar, go to your room!”

 

An after-school tantrum can reflect low blood sugar.  Classroom distraction can reflect inadequate intake of quality protein. Poor impulse control can reflect deficiencies and DHA and EPA.  I am no longer content to blame behavioral problems on “psychological” issues when the body may be the problem, or at least part of it. How silly that distinction even sounds… the distinction between mind and body is history.

Parents bring kids to psychologists to help change how their minds work … when it’s children’s bodies that often get them into trouble. The unspoken assumption is that the child mind can control his body, given the proper “tools.” But it’s more and more clear to me ~ we often have to help the body and brain first before I can do much with the mind.

Nothing is more proximal to your child ~ closer to his interior being ~ than what’s in his cells at any given moment.  

… closer than your hug, your touch, your loving words or threatened punishment … closer than therapy interventions. 

 

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Knowing children’s brains are hungry, I now routinely recommend a nutritional consultation at the commencement of care.  Sometimes, I advise parents at the intake to return in 30 days after  implementing nutritional changes.  No longer can I accept parents’ money and take their time if I believe a child’s body needs help before her mind can respond. How would I know this?


Over the past 4 years of my practice, my referrals for child psychiatry consults have plummeted.
 Why? Because parents are trying nutrition first with profound results. Many kids accept new food routines and even request specific foods at key times. They quickly recognize how different ~ and better ~ they feel.  These children actually start to say, “Mom, I need some protein…” My colleague Jan Katzen, former Montessori teacher and Certified Nutritionist, often says, “I have yet to meet a brain that does not respond to better nutrition.”  Jan is one of my most valued referral sources. Learn more about her at http://www.NutritionforLearning.com.


Do I lose business with all my nutrition referrals?
 
 Sort of! Some kids improve by eating differently and no longer need my services.  But more often, kids come back after a nutritional boost. Then therapy is more efficient and effective. That’s because a child’s brain chemistry and blood sugar is working with me.


Findable, affordable foods could potentially transform your child’s brain and body from dysregulation to balance.
 
Changing the timing and composition of snacks and meals can make all the difference. Canned black beans, apples with almond butter, stone-ground tortillas, walnuts and cage free eggs can turn around brains and behavior. Not being a nutritionist, I’ll stop there and leave it to the experts.  Picky eater?  Nutritionists of often have sneaky ideas for helping gradually change your child’s palate.


Does changing your child’s diet take some time and money? Yes. So does therapy. Try one, and you may not need the other.

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Child nutrition a module in Dr. Onufrak’s ChildSightTools® parent seminar series, delivered live in small-groups through out the year in her Phoenix, AZ office.

A Radio Show … For Real

Pretending to host a radio show is my favorite Play Therapy technique. And now I have the chance to do it for real.

reel to reelIt started in 1970 with my father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder.  The thrill of that device was intoxicating and addictive … surpassing by far the allure of any toy. From the living room floor, I’d “broadcast” countless hours of shows. Commenting upon momentary whims, meditating on the arrival of my grandparents, singing self-authored songs, interviewing  family members. Beseeching my grandfather to record a bedtime story, preserved for posterity.

And along the way I grew up,  preserving detailed recollections of my development ~ emotional, social, physical and cognitive. Those recollections keep me close to the child mind, fostering insights that assist me today as a Clinical Child Psychologist and Play Therapist.

A Play Therapist must be a flexible, creative creature with a diverse collection of tools. The top of one’s head is often a rich source of inspiration. And one day, from that very location, an idea struck me ~ an impulse rooted in my own childhood play.

A reticent sensitive young boy on the Autistic spectrum was having a hard time settling into in therapy. Until I handed him a microphone.

microphoneIt was not a real microphone – but it was real enough to him. He took the wooden ruler in his hand and began to disclose the observations of his mind and yearnings of his heart to an imaginary audience. “Callers” ~ kids and adults, in as many accents as I could devise ~ requested his sage advice. The “Dr. Beth Show” became our therapy modality as I witnessed his coping efforts advance with grace and confidence. “The Show” became a dependable play therapy tool which has helped many child clients since.

So, when the VoiceAmerica.com Talk Tadio Network contacted me, I was incapacitated by laughter. Soon thereafter, incredulity morphed into musings ~ and musings into a clear vision. I began to imagine a child psychology program that could inform and support parents of young children wherever they are.  With delight, I accepted invitation to host a weekly radio show.

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Child Psych Central: Discover the KidBrain will launch December 11th at 10AM PST on VoiceAmerica.com. 

The show will feature my discussions with child mental health experts, local, national and international. We’ll cover issues that cross my desk weekly in my clinical practice.  My guests and I will explore early childhood conditions, issues and services to inform parents in an in-depth, accessible way.  I will ask my expert guests questions I believe parents would ask if they were in studio with me.

Find it on the Health & Wellness channel. Podcasts will be available on  iTunes and social media outlets. My Facebook and Twitter feed will feature guests and links to every episode. This blog will also feature guests and show topics to help you find resources for your family.

Please join me for the launch of Child Psych Central: Discover the KidBrain! Catch it on December 11th at 10AM Pacific on VoiceAmerica.com. Pretending was great fun – but I know this will be even more.  Hearty thanks to my colleagues, friends and client families for their advance support. Tune in – this time, for real!