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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


“You can tell me anything, I’m a puppet!” Why Play Therapy Works

Criss-cross applesauce, a spunky boy sits on the whimsical playroom carpet, eyes wide, mouth agape. He’s listening to my impulsive puppet Freddy exclaim, “I get so mad, I want to kick him in the leg!”  Freddy elaborates: “Why won’t he just play my game, my way, every time?”  It’s no longer any surprise. Nine times out of ten the amazed child replies, with visible relief, “THAT’S JUST HOW I FEEL!”


The child I have in mind speaks to the puppet, and he’s not alone.  Freed by genuine understanding and clear acceptance, the child opens his heart. He pours out his own troubles to the boy, girl, dragon, wolf, octopus, skunk, or chipmunk on my hand.  “I know, last night I kicked my brother,”  he offers, commiserating with the puppet.  “I hate time out.”  Another child reveals, “I did that in school and got sent to the principal. It was the worst day EVER.”

Now, I have a nice degree on the wall, with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.  But puppets are my co-therapists and their credentials seem to surpass mine.  Children tell the puppets far more than they tell me alone.  Why is this?

The answer is simple: Puppets give safe distance.   No child wants to see a therapist who fixates on her problems, nor feel there’s something wrong with herself. In my playroom, it’s the puppet who has the problem. And to a much greater extent than the child.  That’s the secret.  If a child is here for anxiety, Puppet Miranda has hilarious, unreasonable terrors.  The boy here for anger meets puppet Pedro, who mentions unmentionable aggressive thoughts … the very thoughts children harbor and sometimes enact.  The boy can hardly believe Pedro feels the same way.  And before he knows it, we are talking.  Other puppets join us, supportive “voices of reason.”  Four-way conversations ensue between the troubled puppet, the helper puppet, the child … and oh yeah, me.

Puppets help bring the child’s problem comfortably into the room. They often speak for the child, making her feel not so alone and not so BAD.  Puppets are but one of many play therapy tools. But for me and many child providers, they open the door.  Puppets are exceptional delivery vehicles for Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy, described above.  CBPT helps children try on new thoughts and rehearse new behaviors.  And guess who models those — yes, the puppets.

There are many models of play therapy, including directive (didactic in style), non-directive (following in style), and familial (incorporating parents).  One expressive mode is Sand Tray therapy, using miniature toys children select and arrange in sand.  Sand Tray helps children heal from trauma, abuse, and emotional damage too painful to speak aloud.  Regardless of the mode, play therapy provides stand-in symbols (toys, materials) to represent feelings and people, events and things, wishes and fears.  The child’s imagination creates a buffer and a flexible “space” to explore tough stuff.  Therapeutic play allows the freedom to approach and retreat from uncomfortable ideas, memories, and feelings.  Children open up about burdens such as obsessions and compulsions, low self esteem, wishes that one was “never born,” despair, rage and shame.  Play gets inner feelings “out on the table” so we can deal with them together.

So puppets are one tool of the play therapist.  The puppet-child connection is unsurpassed in early childhood psychotherapy. Children often bond with their puppets friends, proudly believing they themselves are the helpers. One child brought a nugget of puppy chow to nurture a chronically anxious puppet. “Worry Wolf,”  she entreated, “you have GOT to get hold of yourself!”  She then rattled off an expert list of self-calming tips for emotional regulation.  Well-remembered and expertly modeled.  Parents bring their children for follow-up visits, amazed with progress. In a hush, they whisper, “He’s been talking about Freddy nonstop for two weeks.”

Good.  Freddy sends a tangible and memorable message out the door – long outlasting the single hour with me.  I ought to put him on the payroll.

#parenting  #playtherapy  #puppets  #self-regulation  #angermanagement #child psychology


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.