Sometimes parents wonder if “a little more time” may improve their child’s adjustment, simply through increasing “maturity.” The children with whom I primarily work, preschool and early elementary-age kids, are developing very quickly. So the reasoning is quite valid. With a few more months of time, some problems might evaporate. But this is not always how I see it. Sure — more “development” may make the problem better — or much worse.
Development is like a river. It is moving, and moving quickly. But when a child is struggling, moving further downstream may or not help, depending on what else is poured into that child’s river — that child’s stream of development. Like nurturing, supportive, repairing stuff … or inflammatory, destructive, or plain unhelpful life stuff.
For a struggling child in my care, behavior problems improved over a few months in Kindergarten. However, his parents and teachers added extra things to his “stream.” Therapy offered him new coping strategies. His parents enrolled in my parent workshop. They dedicated energy and effort to learn about their child’s brain and development. Both parents worked on changing their style of interaction with him. His teacher welcomed and implemented new ideas, adopting a positive approach to his classroom behavior.
But for other children, there may be fewer helpful things “in the stream.” Their bodies get bigger and stronger as development progresses. Those changes can result in greater physical conflicts at home and on the playground. Gaps in social skills are more apparent and impactful as months go by, lowering a child’s self-esteem and heightening peer disputes. With progressing development, children become more able to reflect upon themselves and their worlds. And with increasing age, they often draw painful conclusions about their self-worth and abilities relative to others.
As months pass in a struggling child’s development, family tensions may intensify. Unhealthy family dynamics may grow unhealthier still, without the benefit of parent education and support. In this scenario, time can be an enemy rather than an aid.
Yes, for some children, a few months time does make all the difference. But for so many children I meet, delaying helpful services while waiting for developmental maturity only makes problems worse.
For the child who does not simply “grow out of it,” problems may become deeper and harder to remedy. That’s why I work with younger children, when the clay is soft. The younger, the better.
Families arrive and say, “We thought about getting therapy a year ago …” or “I’ve had your card in my purse for two years.” Don’t put it off … check out your concerns early in development. And find an early childhood specialist who understands that young children are not just smaller versions big kids. Don’t just wait for growth … help it along.
Dr. Onufrak is the developer of ChildSightTools® parent programming. Visit DrBethKids.com for more information and resources. Look for my Online Parent Courses coming soon. Get my free booklet Chill Your Child’s Anger on my homepage. My Weekly 2-Minute Tip videos can be found on my homepage and on YouTube.
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.
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.
Pretending to host a radio show is my favorite Play Therapy technique. And now I have the chance to do it for real.
It 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.
It 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.
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!
Parents want lots of things for their kids.
But when they call me, there is astounding similarity in what they want. Parents arrive, hope in hand. They sit on my couch and describe children of different ages, issues, gender, and problem settings. Yet every parent wants the same thing. Improbable, but true. How can this be?
Parents yearn for their young children to connect better — with them at home, and with others outside the home. They pray for smoother interactions between their child and other kids, between their child and other adults. They wish their child could …
Get through a play date without a knock down/drag out, friend-goes-home-early;
Feel brave enough to say hello on the playground;
Handle teacher correction without feeling she’s “mean;”
Be able to tell a teacher what one feels and needs;
Have as many loving moments at home as challenging ones;
Enjoy mutually satisfying parent-child interactions.
What else do they want? Without exception, every parent who comes to my office wants “coping skills for my child.” After many years, I noticed this word mentioned in EVERY intake — not just many or most. Parents yearn for their child to acquire skills that can be remembered, applied and activated in troubling times. For their children to learn to handle a situation without aggression, withdrawal, meltdown, a freak out, or “bad choices.”
My new patient paperwork concludes with this question:
“Say you run into someone six months from now, someone who knows your family well but hasn’t seen you in a while. Somehow, things have gotten better. What would you like to be able to say?”
In the hopeful answers to this question, the same word keeps cropping up: THRIVE. “He is just thriving” or “She’s thriving now in every way …” Parents want their child to feel success, joy, light, achievement and resilient self-esteem – to thrive on every level of development.
So, parents want their children to connect and cope better, so ultimately they can thrive. Over my 20 years as a child psychologist, I see those aspirations as intertwined. But perhaps not as you’d expect.
With preschool & primary graders,
child coping is a joint venture between adult & child.
They learn and practice these skills with YOU
and apply them in the world.
Wait … don’t kids learn to cope in the therapy room?
They learn it in every room. Young children are developing their “coping systems” – a complex blend of neurological, physiological and emotional and social mechanisms for reacting and responding to challenge. Part temperament and genetics, part modeling, part impulse control, part emotional regulation. A tall order for the young ones I see. Very hard to do alone. We adults actually help or hinder children’s coping through our interactions with them.
Adult-child interactions literally build kids’ brains, fortifying the neural groundwork for either calm, confident problem solving or alarmist, defensive/offensive or escapist problem solving. What’s the difference? Asking for help versus throwing a chair; greeting an unfamiliar child versus hiding behind your leg; expressing the thought “This is too hard” versus running out of the classroom.
To help children connect, cope & thrive,
I teach adults to facilitate their child’s coping
through brain-building interactions styles.
At some point in the process of child therapy most parents mention to me, “It kind of seems like you’re training us …” Down the road, many parents also share a common disclosure, admitting somewhat sheepishly but with deep pride: “I noticed he really started to change when I started to change. I had no idea ….”
Child therapy is composed of direct child intervention AND parent guidance. Parent workshops go straight to parent guidance. Workshops pump parents full of information that lower the temperature of child problems.
For instance, parents learn why yelling never works. We think the louder we yell, the more kids will remember the lesson next time. Right? Wrong. Yelling activates the threat center in the limbic system in the brain, taking blood and oxygen away from the thinking cortex. Yelling literally incapacitates the child’s cortex from problem solving. Thinking goes off line. Good coping doesn’t get rolling like that.
You can learn to help your child Connect, Cope & Thrive via child therapy or a parent workshop. Or, you try to apply these few concepts and see if things improve:
Child coping starts at home in every interaction you share.
Your own calm coping is the best model for your child’s coping.
If your child’s “upset elevator” goes up, keep yours down.
Promote your child’s coping through calm connection that models the cool you want them to achieve. Remember, you are building his or her brain in these early years. Parents are the most important part of child therapy.
Dr. Beth’s Parent Workshops & Saturday Seminars resume September 2014 including: Savvy Solutions for Your Challenging Young Child; You & Your Anxious Child; and The Child-Sight Model: Change Your View and What You Think, Say and Do. Visit DrBethKids.com for details. Photo credit: by Beth Onufrak
Away papers, away email, away almighty phone.
HE IS HERE, all peals and squeals, with a cheek-breaking smile,
awash in giggles deep and rippling,
body bursting with the joy of movement.
Farewell, logic; I have no need of you this hour.
Agenda, hold your horses; I may use or abandon you.
Patience, hover near and help me.
Child, take my hand, take my brain.
Make me soft enough to trust, real enough to tell.
– Beth Onufrak
The photo above was taken in my office playroom on a sunny Phoenix winter afternoon.
The child’s white board drawing of a flower and heart is labeled, “You can bloom.”
You’ve wondered and waited ~ with your worries and wishes. You’ve hoped this was “just a phase” in your young child’s life. Time after time, you’ve reassured yourself, “He’ll outgrow this; he’s young” or “she has so much time.” In talks with your partner, you’ve raised your concerns … and talked yourself out of them as the weeks and months (or years) passed. There have been periods when he blossomed and was doing just fine. Times when those problems seemed far behind her.
Then the difficult days return … An event occurs, a moment arrives when it’s all too clear – you cannot manage this yourself. You are out of ideas. You begin to ask around, look online, make some calls. Make an appointment with dread and hope, shaky nerves and eager heart. Nearly every parent who seeks child treatment describes these phases. Now that you’ve made that call, you wonder what (or whether) to tell family & friends. The reactions of others can be a gnawing concern:
“I’m not even mentioning this to my mother, she’d have a cow.”
“I can just hear my dad now … ‘MY grandson is not crazy!’ ”
“We’re not telling our friends, they wouldn’t get it – she’s an angel at other people’s houses.”
You are not alone if this story sounds like yours. In fact, you are entirely typical. You may feel wary of following your plan while anticipating disapproval from others. It is hard to seek outside help. So hard that many families put it off a little longer. A good number of parents arrive moist-eyed and shake my hand confessing, “We should have been here two years ago. We knew things were getting bad, but we just weren’t ready.”
How do you know when it’s time? The following benchmarks may tell you: When you have tried countless strategies, but the problem keeps worsening; when you’re starting to worry about the safety of your child and those she plays with; when the problem is hampering friendships, school, and family life; when your child doesn’t seem to enjoy “being a child;” when there are more “bad” days than good and his or her self-esteem appears to be suffering.
How do you select a child mental health provider? At local community mental health centers, staff assign a therapist to match your needs. If you select a health insurance provider or elect to private pay, your choice will be more personalized.
- Ask trusted people. You’d be surprised how many parents have struggled behind the scenes just like you. Many have a favorite provider they count upon.
- Look online. More and more providers have websites and social media presence. How do they describe their practices? Check out their Facebook business page posts. What do they Tweet? How do you like their material?
- Call for an initial inquiry. Do you feel comfortable interacting with the office staff?
- Understand medication vs. therapy. Medication is prescribed by psychiatrists, physicians & nurse practitioners. Therapy is provided by psychologists, counselors, & social workers
- Ask if a parent-only intake is possible. Not all providers can offer this. However, such an intake allows coverage of sensitive topics you don’t wish to discuss in front of your child.
O.K., so you’ve made an appointment. Or you’ve begun the process and feel ready to tell people.What do you say? I offer these suggestions:
We’ve found a provider who specializes in young children.
We need “new ideas” to address a big problem that just isn’t going away.
We want to help our child now before the problem grows so we can have “better days” together.
After meeting your therapist, assess how you feel. Provider-family “fit” is very important! But a degree of unease is natural until you all settle in. Be open to sharing information. Providers cannot truly help your child or family without the “full picture.” Know that any personal information you share is entirely in service of your child. Also, be ready to change yourself! Providers help young children by giving their grown-ups “new ideas.”
Seeking help for your young child is a step of courage. And it can make a world of difference! Intervention with young children sweeps stones off the path of development before they become boulders. Begin early so the only thing weighing upon his young shoulders is sunshine.