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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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.

“They’re boring:” Olympics 0, Minecraft 1

OlympicMoms+Logo+3This post is part of the #OlympicMoms #OlympicDads campaign! Follow on Twitter for family fitness, nutrition, and inspiration advice from 15 international professionals during the 2014 Winter Olympics. 

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minecraftA young child said to me, “The Olympics? That’s boring … I like MINECRAFT!” and proceeded to tell me the 12 million reasons why. Which I already know.

There it is, the collective gasp from my client parents thinking, “Oh no, she’s writing about my child … did my kid say that?”  Well relax, because about 20 children in recent days have said the same thing.

Okay, so it’s different now… Kids have video games, but most of us didn’t when growing up.Video games like Minecraft are addictive and instantly reinforcing.They fill our children’s minds. And they’re available every day. But the Olympics only come around every few years. Take a moment, just a moment, to explain what the big deal is.

olympic rings abstractEven if you personally don’t really care about the Olympics, MAKE yourself… for just a moment. The lessons of the Olympics are timeless, indelible, the very celebration of perseverance and effort. And aren’t these the inner resources you hope your child can find to succeed, at whatever moment or level in their lives, whatever they yearn for and try, no matter what they may grow up to be.

Here are some talking points:
  • The Olympics are ancient and have been around a long time… somewhere between velociraptors and “the 1900s.”
  • Athletes love their sport but work super hard. They practice even when they don’t feel like it!
  • Many Olympic athletes are teens who still have to do homework, pick up dog poop and clean their rooms between practices.
  • Being good at a sport requires your whole mind and whole body, not just your thumbs.
  • Some kid in your class, your school, or your community may be getting ready to be an Olympian right now; you might see him on TV in 2022 say, “Whoa, I knew that kid!”
  • People training for the Olympics fail every day – fall down, make mistakes, think maybe they can’t do it – and get back up.

Take a moment to sit on the couch with your child, by the TV or with your tablet or phone, even for one event.

Look up a background story with video of an Olympian as a preschooler, gradeschooler. They’re all over NBCOlympics.com. This athlete was once the same age your child is now. Look at him now!

Watch and talk about a single athlete… How old is he? How old was she when she first tried that sport? Who thought she could be in the Olympics … his mom or dad, his coach, himself? Who loves her, drives her to practices, and cheers her on? Did he think about quitting? How did she do in competition today? Is he a loser even if he placed 9th or 19th? Can she try again for the Olympics next year? No, she’s 16 now, and she can’t try this again until she’s 20.Do you think she’ll try again? Would you? How do you think he feels about a bronze medal?  How would you feel?

Minecraft can wait, but the Winter Olympics will be over February 23rd. Tie the score, if you can, even temporarily.

Parent Dreams … Olympic or Otherwise

OlympicMoms+Logo+3This post is part of the #OlympicMoms #OlympicDads campaign started by Dr. Lynne Kenney & friends to support & inspire parents around the globe!  

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Does it happen to you every few years?

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The Olympics return …

You find yourself watching your favorite event and feel a yearning within …

A deep wish, a poignant pull, an unfulfilled dream. Whether you actually wanted to be an Olympian or not doesn’t matter. Simply watching the athletes can stir memories of ANY dreams you did not pursue.

Activities quit, efforts abandoned, wishes that never made it to a To Do list …

So then …with your kids nestled under your arm, what do you do? Keep your thoughts to yourself, or share them?

In this Olympic season, I suggest you share them.

From childhood through your teens into adulthood, countless dreams have drifted across your mind and spirit. Adventures you’ve considered and tabled, visions you’ve pursued and prospered by. You have signed up and succeeded, envisioned and ventured, bailed before you failed, or left a dream lie dormant.

Your children could benefit from hearing about your dreams, the whats and whys, and what you think about them today.

Did you want to be a skier, a dancer, a skater, a ballplayer? A speaker, an inventor, an author, a cook? Did you sign up, or not sign up? Did you try and fail? Did you stay discouraged or try again? Were you glad you persisted, or more glad you kept searching elsewhere for your genuine talent? Did someone believe in you when you didn’t? Do you have regrets? How do you feel about your past coping with a challenge — the risky challenge of pursuing something you dearly want, despite the struggle and strain?

My core clinical belief is that child coping is a joint venture between adult and child — no matter who that adult is — at the moment of trial and tribulation. Hearing how you have struggled can deepen your parent-child relationship. And nourish your children’s coping resources for dreams of the now and dreams of the future.

Share your “Olympic” thoughts with your children to connect with them and build their resilience to cope.  Sharing your coping tales can provide a realistic model of the many shades of color between success & failure. Resilience … this is how it happens.

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Learn more about the #OlympicMoms #OlympicDads campaign by clicking HERE


“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