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.
So, you’ve been concerned about your young child for quite some time. You’re not sure if you need a child psychologist … maybe, maybe not. Starting therapy is not like signing him up for soccer! It’s a larger decision. Some friends say get help now; others say, “it’s just a phase.” You and your spouse may not even be on the same page about your child.
A few new good ideas would be soooo nice. So you read articles, blogs, posts, tweets … but none seem to address the specific issues in your life with your child. You’d love specific parenting advice, some face-time with an expert, and the support of other struggling parents like you. A safe place where you wouldn’t have to worry about judgment. And it would be great to “test drive” a therapist before signing up for care.
That’s when a workshop may be “just what the doctor ordered.”
Workshops are one of my favorite clinical activities. For one, I can talk with grownups and don’t have to sit criss-cross applesauce on the carpet! More importantly, they serves my deep need to help more than one child per hour. Workshops serve my growing drive to get basic, customized, high-quality information to parents of young kids in a cost-effective format.
And these days, cost-effective things are more needed than ever! Workshops extend child psychology services in an affordable, comfortable, helpful way so people don’t have to forestall something this important. That being, helping your child connect, cope, and thrive.
For many years – 13 to be exact – I resisted the notion of holding parent workshops. How could I ever help children I’ve never met … especially when each child is so unique? Then it hit me. Week after week, along with the customized advice I dispense, a set of core principles and “prescriptions” kept coming in handy.
For any given child & family, about 50% of my interventions are singular and customized; the other 50% come from foundational elements of pediatric mental health & balanced parenting. These common elements are pervasively, predictably helpful across a wide range of diagnostic conditions, family circumstances and child problems. From these elements, the content of my Parent Workshops was born.
In the hot Phoenix summer of 2013, I launched my first workshops. Feedback from the initial sessions revealed what parents really need. In addition to facts, approaches & strategies, they craved something else as well. They needed the opportunity to …
- step away from their busy lives
- reflect deeply about their children
- absorb new ideas while out of the house, and
- receive laughs, tissues & high-fives from other parents.
Workshop attendees found encouragement through another week of tantrums. And cheers after sharing a breakthrough. Some of the best moments occurred as I listened in the circle. And whadya know … I actually helped children I had never even met. Several, in fact, in a few hours time. As Mr. Rogers used to sing, “It’s such a good feeling …”
Workshops in development include: My Child & Me and ADHD and You & Your Anxious Child.
For details and registration, visit the Workshops tab on my website at DrBethKids.com. If you’re a Phoenix local in the Valley of the Sun, take a look or tell a friend. If you live elsewhere, look into parent workshops near you – for facts and friendship, solutions and support.
I have a child in mind who is running through the house, tracking mud along the journey, jumping on the couch, scrambling up on a countertop, dropping clothes in the hallway, making tsunamis in the tub.
These phrases are ingrained in the sub-conscious minds of most adults. They fly out of our mouths like pre-recorded messages. Actually, we do have “recordings” in our minds, for better or worse, from parental words spoken to us. These are often the first words we spout forth, even without thinking – they are part of us.
But STOP & DON’T are the least effective words to change children’s behavior. My job is to look through a child’s eyes, listen through a child’s ears. A child may hear:
“Anthony, stop that right now or there’ll be no XBox when we get home.”
I usually hear the following translation:
“Anthony, cease this action right now, even though you are physically activated and completely engrossed in it. Calm yourself down, generate a list of other things you could do, select an alternative acceptable behavior, and re-route your mental and physical energy into that. Otherwise, you will lose a privilege several hours from now, long after this moment has passed.”
In psycho-babble, we are asking him to deploy his emotional and physical self-regulation skills and use executive functions. OK, let’s switch to plain old English! Only telling him STOP/DON’T asks him to take control of his body and emotions, suppress a strong impulse, and make a measured decision about what to do instead. All of which require his frontal lobes … which are still growing.
Grown-ups can act as a child’s frontal lobes. Tell him what TO DO instead of what NOT to do.* It’s an extra thinking step — in an already busy day — but it yields the best results in the now and promotes learning for next time. It’s teaching. And it’s loving. It keeps YOU calm. Best of all, it’s effective.
Your effort to convert STOP/ DON’T responses into DOs will pay off. The trick: imagine what your child would be doing if she were not doing this behavior.
- If his shoes were not on the couch, his sneaker feet would be on the floor.
- If she were not running through the house, she’d be using her quiet walking feet.
- If he weren’t squeezing the family cat, he’d be using soft hands.
- If she weren’t hitting brother in the car, her hands would be on her own side touching her own things.
- If he weren’t scribbling, he’d be drawing slowly and carefully.
Sometimes the STOP/DON’T moment is urgent – like hurting or breaking. The first reasonable DO conversion might be “please come here by me.” There you can explain what needs to stop and what else your child can do.
“DO commands” do the initial work for you child’s frontal lobe – they tell her what to do instead. In my experience, children are more likely to comply with constructively phrased, friendly but firm DO commands. Begin with “You may” to add an element of courtesy and authority, a respectful and effective combination. Follow with praise for any amount of effort, however small, and generously describe any response going in the right direction. DO commands are teaching moments.
- “You may make small waves under the water; thank you for trying little waves. Ooh, that’s a little one!”
- “Walk slowly and carefully with that cup of juice, please. Excellent trying! You are really watching that cup.”
- “Hug me with gentle arms, please – oh, that feels so good, thank you for being gentle! “
- “You may move over here [point] away from sissy to make your building. Good job starting to move your stuff.”
DO commands readily lead into detailed praise. When you notice spontaneous displays of DO behaviors you’ve been teaching, give a specific praise! Add lots of description. I call this “Positive Noticing,” detecting and commenting upon cooperative DOs that occur even without your prompting. Quite simply, “catch ’em being good.”
Try some DO commands. They have changed the lives of many families in my care! Make a list on your fridge converting your most frequent STOP/DON’T commands to DOs. The extra thought will pay off as your child advances in self-control and emotional regulation.
* These ideas are drawn from the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) treatment model developed by Sheila Eyberg Ph.D., University of Florida, with whom Dr. Onufrak trained in her doctoral studies.