Your child is falling apart. Another volcanic meltdown, drowning in a tsunami of tears, siren-like screams. If you knew what specifically was wrong, you’d know what specifically could help. So you resort to the strategy that helps you the most in adult life: specific questions.
In 20 years of being a child psychologist, and the years of training before, I learned the cardinal lesson: “Wh” questions shut a child up faster then you can say ice cream sandwich.
- Shut down a child’s own narration and conception of the problem
- Block a child’s sharing of the salient details to him
- Pigeonhole a child’s thinking into your categories of thought
- Build a child’s frustration with us adults
- Make a child more upset from the communication gap
May I suggest an alternative ~ my 5-word Fix: “Tell me all about it.” It may sound similar to asking … but this approach to inquiry is completely different. How so?
Naturally, you have to ask “wh” questions at some point. Probably several, to get the clarity you need. But starting out with nine “wh” questions will create more problems than progress. “Tell me all about it” may be the most productive start.
You can add “I’m so sorry you’re so upset.” When you’re lost, interject, “Help me understand; tell me some more about this, honey.” (Hint: forget about solving this problem right now; her brain needs empathy too cool the limbic system down.)
This 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.
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.
Even 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.
- 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?
Does it happen to you every few years?
The Olympics return …
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?
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?
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.
Learn more about the #OlympicMoms #OlympicDads campaign by clicking HERE
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.
Imagine your sleeping child … rosy cheeks, languid limbs, lost in dreamland. And you have to wake her up. You know it will a challenging transition to the waking world. Instinctively, you know — the journey from sleep to wakefulness is a colossal transition between brain states. So you offer a gentle nudge, a tender stroke, a soft whisper. You know gentle brain transitions keep everyone happy.
Moving from play to clean-up is a brain transition, too. A shift from flexible fantasy to order and organization. The enormity of this shift and effort it requires often elude us. “OK, playtime is over, time to clean-up” we rattle off, expecting an immediate shift. The resulting push-back tells us an earthquake has just erupted, the young child’s resistance like the rumble of tectonic plates! It’s a very strenuous brain shift for young kids, especially those age 7 and under.
Stern voice, expressions of displeasure and threatened consequences are simply not effective ways to inspire clean-up. Young kids need a bridge, a navigable, appealing bridge from the tragically sad end of play to the brutally unappealing work of cleanup. We grown-ups can build that bridge in thin air.
What is a Brain Bridge? It’s a development-wise, brain-smart style of engagement that helps young children shift (body, mind, & soul) from one activity to another. Such as, from play to your next agenda item! The Play-CleanUp Bridge links the right hemisphere and the frontal lobes. This notion vastly over-simplifies brain function, but the general concept is instructive. So, what do those brain areas have to do with play and clean-up?
Play lights up the right hemisphere. Not this brain area exclusively, but significantly. The right hemisphere, which delights in symbols, fantasy, imagery, creativity and spontaneity lends a lot of support to imaginative play.
Clean-up requires the frontal lobes and their activities called Executive Functions. From only a few of their names, you’ll detect their relevance to clean up: Response Inhibition (stopping one’s play), Task Initiation (starting to clean up), Working Memory (remembering 2+ step directions), Sustained Attention (resisting getting sidetracked). These behaviors take SKILL power, not just will power. Brain specialists say the frontal lobes require 18 to 20 YEARS to fully develop! And we want clean up done (with cooperation, no less) in ten minutes?
So let’s build a Brain Bridge. The work of cleanup is simplified by incorporating the spirit of play. Your young child has been reveling in her right hemisphere. Join her there for best results.
1) Celebrate first. Wrap things up with joyful concluding remarks! Comment on your child’s play and how fun it has been. And get down on eye level instead of towering overhead.
2) Give a countdown with fingers. Time is a total abstraction to the young child, let alone its passage. Make it visual. Say you have 5 minutes left and show fingers. Not just 5 fingers but 4, 3, 2, 1 and zero fingers as you sit nearby. Add the encouragement, “You can have a lot of fun in 5 minutes!”
3) Talk to the toys. This highly effective back-door brain route sneaks messages to the frontal lobes and bypasses the volatile limbic system. Address the toys: “Guys, I’ve got some kinda sad news – it’s almost clean-up time. I know you’ve had fun with Brandon, but you can play with him again tomorrow.”
Advise the toy to obey your child. “T-Rex, in a minute Brandon is going to put you in the bucket … I know you’re sad to get picked up. But it’s important you listen to him, because he knows it’s clean-up time. You can do it, T-Rex.” If the child says, “T-Rex can’t understand you!” just reply, “I know, I’m pretending.” And co-pretending will resume.
4) Make piles. To kids, picking up a toy-strewn floor is akin to cleaning up the planet. Help this job look do-able. Cluster like-items into separate piles for your child. Describe what you’re doing. Teach these skills by being your young child’s frontal lobes, modeling skills to come.
5) Thank the toys for the fun we’ve had. Farewell play-talk borrows lightness from the imagination, facilitates emotional coping and supports cooperation. (Dr. Dan Siegel would say it integrates the left & right hemispheres too, which helps kids self-regulate.)
6) Describe each item & action: Bye yellow chopper, curly ribbon. Is your child using one hand or two? Do toys drive or dance into their buckets? Cleaning up can take 150 separate behaviors. Describing them gives your child credit and celebrates objects as they get put away.
7) Meet them halfway. A.k.a., give it to them on a silver platter. Hand your child the toy. Point to where it goes. And hand him the next thing. Soon you’ll hear “I can do it myself!”
8) Add pretend media. Narrate like a fascinated radio host or a Monster Truck announcer. Tell America how fast Megan is cleaning up. Want to grow your child’s executive function skills? Then keep this task appealing with joy and fun in your voice.
9) Invite “Searching Eyes.” When items go unnoticed, say “Use your searching eyes to see if anything is hiding from you.” (Note: This is the opposite of “You missed that one.” Why demean and deflate when your child is working so hard?) Exclaim, “You found it! That puzzle piece couldn’t hide from you!” Searching and finding fills a child’s heart with achievement and pride.
10) Give a Praise Re-cap. Crouch down, arm around your child, and gaze upon the cleaned-up landscape. Recall each thing put away. “Amazing! You put away all the books, markers, frogs, snakes & lizards. What an excellent cleaner-upper today. You really know how to do it.”
When you build a Brain Bridge, you respect your child’s mind and, in the process, your child’s spirit. And that benefit extends long after the last lizard is put away.
* * * * *
References: The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson; Smart But Scattered by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare; The Family Coach Method by Lynne Kenney.
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.