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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Girls’ Friendship Help to the Rescue!

What is it about girls and their friendships?  Feelings get caught up in the mix. Girls who yearn for good social connections find themselves wrapped up in painful drama.  Driven by their raw hurt feelings, girls often make retorts that worsen problems and intensify conflict.  Parents try to help but don’t always have the most useful suggestions. “Just ignore her” or “just stay away from her” doesn’t cut the cake. How do we teach girls healthy communication skills? How can we help them express feelings assertively as well as develop compassion for others?

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New book from Annie Fox

The best answers I have ever found reside in Annie Fox’s brand new book, The Girls’ Q&A Book on Friendship. Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, family coach and trusted online adviser for teens.  But in this book she aims younger — to girls in third through sixth grades, ages 8-12. Annie Fox hopes to arm young girls with constructive, healthy friendship tools before the perilous middle school years.  The delightful illustrations are by the talented Erica De Chavez.  I love Annie’s vision of parents and girls cuddling up together with this book in their lap.

In my early childhood private practice, I see many girls in 3rd grade in addition to those who return at an older stage of development.  For a long time, I’ve been yearning for such a book as this. And here it is! For my first guest blog, Annie Fox agreed to answer some questions of mine to introduce this book to my readers … for help today, or for tomorrow!

Dr. Beth’s Interview with Annie Fox

Q: Dr. Beth – Why do you think girls become “mean?

A: Annie  –  If there can be a short answer to that HUGE question, it may be that “meanness” is a cover for hurt, jealousy, frustration, feelings of rejection, etc. And of course, girls aren’t the only ones who experience those emotions! Without getting too philosophical, I believe we live in a culture of cruelty where it is more acceptable to express aggression than it is to express vulnerable emotions. Maybe that’s why many girls and boys, men and women find it “easier” to respond to hurt, etc. with meanness. It’s ironic, when you really think about it, because when we feel vulnerable (and insecure in a relationship or in our social standing within a group) what we really want and need is reassurance. We want to bring people closer to us. Being mean isn’t likely to get us what we really want, and yet, that’s the behavior many choose.

Q: Dr. Beth – What led you to create the Q&A Guide in this format?

A: Annie – I’ve been answering email from tweens and teens since 1997. They send me questions about everything you can imagine (and lots of things you probably can’t imagine! LOL). And I often ask them questions too. So the question and answer format has become a very natural way for me to teach kids about empathy, compassion, social courage, and the difference between real friends and the other kind. Like any good teacher, my goal is to get kids to think for themselves … hopefully to help them learn how to calm down and ask themselves some questions before they respond to sticky situations. Questions like: “What am a going after in this situation?” and “Can I really change someone else’s behavior?” “And if I can’t get someone to change, how can I change my own response to what’s going on?”

Q: Dr Beth –  What are the main messages you hope to promote in the Q&A Girls Friendship Guide?

A: Annie – My main messages are:

1. You have the right to choose your friends, but you never have the right to be rude or disrespectful to anyone.

2. When we’re upset we don’t think clearly and we’re more likely to do or say things we will later regret. Calming down is the best first step to resolve any friendship challenge.

3. Sometimes we need to “take a vacation” from the drama! When you take that break you give yourself time to regroup and figure out what you really want and need in a friendship. You may discover that what you want and need can be found with a new friend.

Q: Dr. Beth – Parents often don’t see girl troubles coming until it hits their daughter. Why might this be?

A: Annie – Some girls (and boys) assume that when they get to a certain age they should not be sharing their emotional upsets with their parents. They figure “I’m old enough to take care of this myself.” And sometimes they can! But other times, kids start to feel overwhelmed by what’s going on in a friendship or some other peer relationship. The emotions are so intense they may not know how to talk about them to parents or anyone! (That’s when they write to me.)

In some cases, a girl is having trouble with a long-time friend (and her parents are long-time friends with the other girl’s parents). In those scenarios, the girls find it really hard to accept that there is a problem. (“How can there be a problem when we’ve been bff’s since pre-school!?”) And when they do talk to parents, the advice they get isn’t so helpful. (“Oh, she was probably just having a bad day. Forget about it.”) Parents need to know just how important their daughter’s friendships can be. By paying attention to the signs that a girl is feeling upset, a parent can help a girl express her feelings and brainstorm some options for her next best move. I’m hoping that parents/grandparents, teachers and counselors will read the book and use it to help girls.

Q: Dr. Beth – Your book is for 3rd to 6th graders. But what are your thoughts on 1st & 2nd grade girls?  What early messages should they receive to build a foundation for healthy friendships as they grow?”

A: Annie:  I know that girls’ friendship challenges can begin as early as preschool. My book could be used very effectively with K-2nd graders as girls that age are likely to recognize the situations in the book’s Q&A. This book is designed to give girls (and the adults who care about them) tools for managing emotions, communicating more effectively, and recognizing that when it comes to friends, it’s important to have some clear standards about what makes a real friend. And it’s very important that girls of all ages recognize that a friendship is a 2-way street. Yes, we want a friend to be kind, fun to be with, generous, a good listener, etc. And we also need to be aware of the kind of friend we are to others as well!

You can visit Annie at AnnieFox.com.  Look for The Girls’ Q&A Book on Friendship at Amazon.com, where you will also find my review.  I know this book will be of help to many girls in my care – for now, and in the years to come.


“You’re Taking Your Child to a Shrink?”

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:

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“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.

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    • 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. happy20sun


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.

Development, 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.


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.