Fifth Grader Suspended from School for Pretending to Shoot with his Finger

boysplayingThis article in The Boston Globe caught my attention last Thursday. Evidently this boy was waiting in line for lunch and having a pretend “shoot ‘em up” game. He jumped ahead of two girls in line who told him not to cut. He returned to his place, but they report that he pointed his finger at them and made shooting noises and then pretended to blow off “the gun barrel.” The girls felt threatened and told an authority. The school officials took this behavior as a “threat” and followed their procedure for threats: a two-day suspension.

The boy’s father felt this was inappropriate. He talked to the assistant principal and also shared this event with the local newspaper. School officials stood by their decision as a matter of policy and considering that the girls may have really felt threatened. However, the chair of the school committee disagreed.

I probably cannot imagine the pressure school officials feel to keep schools safe. Nonetheless, I think that these children were ill-served because the school officials were bound by a strict policy.

What do I think should have happened? Perhaps someone in the school could have a good problem solving discussion with this boy and the girls. I would like to see a meeting between the boy and the girls in which the girls can tell him that they found his behavior frightening. He should know that this is not an appropriate way to communicate anger or frustration.

I also hope that adults could help the girls to understand that the boy’s behavior did not put them in danger. One unfortunate outcome of the way the school reacted is that it gave credence to the girls’ fears.

Such a discussion would give each side a chance to explain their behavior so that the other side can understand. Then together they could try to come up with other ways to manage the situation. This process is collaborative problem solving. It is a process that helps children to develop empathy for each other, and it teaches them problem-solving skills.

Perhaps people in the school officials did try something like this in addition to the suspension. I hope so, because the suspension did not each any of the children anything, and it deprived the boy of two days of school.

I would be happy to hear what you think about this incident. Please respond!

 

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Photo credit: Taylor Ward on Flickr

How is Your Garden/Family Growing: Time for New Ideas?

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I like to garden. I would say that I am “middling” good at it. This year I have had a little more time to put into it, so I worked hard to weed and water one perennial bed. I divided plants that had gotten too big, and I moved some poor performers to places where I thought they would do better. Yet many plants look crummy, and there are still places where only weeds will grow.

Now it’s the end of the summer and time to take stock. I asked a landscaper friend of mine to take a look and give me some advice. She definitely gave me a fresh look at my garden. Many of my plants have “mildew.” They have this grey powdery junk on the leaves, and they stop flowering. Chris asked, “Did you buy mildew resistant plants?” Oh, you can do that? What a concept!

She looked at another stand of plants that are always covered in little red bugs she identified as aphids. I am not interested in spraying pesticides on my garden, so the aphids have the upper hand, and these plants that started the summer with bright yellow blossoms are no longer blossoming. They look yucky. “Get rid of them,” she said (the plants, not the aphids).

Chris even gave me great suggestions to for what to plant in bare spaces. The hard part will be choosing which to plant.

This morning as I hooked up my soaker hoses, I felt some relief as I looked around the garden. My expert friend gave me new ideas to try in my garden. Next weekend I’ll pull up several non-performers and put them in the compost where they will do more good than they have until now. (The mildew plants will not go into compost.) I’ll shop around to see whether I can find any late season deals on the plants I want now. And I’ll make sure they’re “mildew-resistant.”

You are asking what this has to do with raising children, right? I am not suggesting tossing any children on the compost heap or to turning them in for better models. I’m talking about the strategies that we parents use when we try to solve problems with children.

Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Very often we parents do that very thing with children. We expect them to be the first to change. We approach problems in the same way, with the same lectures and expect the children to change. If they do change, that’s great.

But what about those times that you feel like a broken record? Time to ask an outside expert, as I did in my garden, and as I did when raising my son. (Yes, even child psychologists need help!)

Fall is a great time for new beginnings. Consider where you feel stuck with your kids. Is there another way to look at the problem? Could a parent coach offer some help?   Don’t be afraid to get some expert advice.

 

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When Life Throws You Curveballs

5394666705_c1bf3d64c5_mI don’t know about you but I have had quite the Monday: problems with television, phone and email service. At least the television doesn’t affect my work, but the other two definitely do. At this point it appears that all problems are solved, but a fair amount of my workday has been unexpectedly devoted to getting these services fixed. Fortunately, I was not dealing with a young child as well, only my husband, who is quite challenged when it comes to electronic technology.

Throughout the afternoon I had to say to myself, “It is what it is.”

I had to take deep breaths and keep listening to the tech support people giving me more instructions. I had to go back to live online chat three times before I got a phone number to call for one service.

More deep, cleansing breaths.

I learned some years ago that yelling at tech support people gets them to hang up. It’s pretty counter productive, and I don’t blame them.

I confess that I did snarl at my husband when I realized how much time was going by. I could have asked politely for him to take over on the phone, but I did not.

I had to recalculate what I would accomplish today. (This is why you are seeing the blog on Tuesday, instead of Monday.)

Back to the snarling part. The fact is that life is full of these reminders that we are not in control. Parents are reminded of this big time as you and your children have different needs, internal clocks, and so forth. Or children develop needs (like strep throat) that you cannot schedule for.

For most people it is easier to keep your cool with strangers (like the people on the tech support line who are trained to be very kind). But with family most of us slip up. My husband did step up after I snarled, and maybe he experienced some mastery that he would have missed if I had solved all the problems. But I imagine that he would rather I hadn’t snarled.

Children are less able to take our point of view and say, “Mom’s having a bad day. That’s why she snarled.”

So, be compassionate with yourself when life feels out of control. Try to reschedule or reframe. Try not to blame. Take those deep breaths.

Even if your child should have remembered his math book, or the permission slip, he is less likely to learn from the experience if you go off.

Good luck and be kind to yourself. You are not in control, and it’s OK.

 

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Photo:  John H. Kim/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Why Won’t She Stop?

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Lately parents have asked me why their children won’t stop arguing. It’s a difficult problem, and you have my sympathy.

You say, “It’s time to go upstairs to take your bath.” Perhaps you even had a talk about this earlier in an attempt to avoid an argument. But now your child has been watching television, and since you have a child who has difficulty with transitions, she tries to bargain for more time.

You channel your inner parent coach and calmly say, “We talked about this. We agreed you would take your bath after this show.” Yet she bargains on. You are getting frustrated. It’s late. You want to clean up the kitchen and watch a show yourself before you drift off.

It’s a familiar scene that often ends up with both parent and child saying things they regret. Once she’s in bed and asleep, you might feel bad that the end of the day has to be so unhappy. “Why won’t she just do what I ask?” you wonder.

I want to address what you can do in the moment. (In another post I’ll talk about what you can do the next day, and it won’t be punishment!) Chances are you feel that you are in a power struggle. Or you feel that your child won’t respect your authority. Seeing it this way will motivate you to try harder to control her and assert your authority. You’ll get angrier and so will she.

Remember I mentioned that she has difficulty with transitions? When you have a recurrent problem you might consider what types of skills are involved and whether they are things your child is good at. Bedtime is a big transition. You will be less angry if you reframe the problem as your child’s difficulty with transition rather than her lack of respect or desire to be in charge.

In my experience you can have an argument with an angry child as long as you keep arguing. You need to find a way to pull yourself together and say something like, “Honey, we had an agreement. Go take your bath now.” Then you walk away. Or you might offer to facilitate her transition, “I’ll go run your bath while you take off your clothes.” If this is a no go, you can say, “Let me know when you’re ready,” and walk away.

What happens now? Your child might keep arguing, tossing remarks your way that are hard to ignore. Your child might follow you.

Take deep breaths and try to stay calm. Losing control will not improve the situation. At any rate, your child will probably see that it is difficult to have a one-sided argument.

This approach will not be magic the first time you try it. But if you can’t be provoked into exploding, she might just go take her bath. As she does this, she might toss another insult over her shoulder about what a mean parent you are. Take another deep breath and notice that she’s doing what you asked, just not in the way you wanted. Let her have the last word.

The more you can walk away from an argument, the shorter your arguments will be. You will be modeling the behavior that you would like your child to use!

 

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Photo credit: Caden Crawford on Flickr

Why Do I Feel So Defeated? 6 Steps to Stop Trying to Win and Teach Your Child to Solve Problems

hockeyplayersDo you feel like you’re in a never ending battle for control with your child? I run into parents who complain that their children won’t do as they are asked.  This leads to battles that can escalate and be hurtful on both sides.  I find this situation with parents of preschoolers right up through high school. After the battle, parents feel bad about the things their child said and about what they (the parent) said.  They wonder why kids are so disrespectful these days.  They feel defeated.

No one likes to lose, including kids.  If the level of conflict in your house has risen to the level that your child feels like complying is the equivalent of “saying uncle,”  your child is likely to defy you .  Some children say “No!” Others “forget” or say “in a minute.” Some develop stomach aches and headaches.

How do you get your child to do what you say? 

  1. Change the question. Think of it as working together.  “How can my child and I work together?”
  2. Keep your cool.  This is a whole extra piece of work.  You probably recognize the irony of expecting your child to stay in control when you yourself lose it and yell.  Get some help with learning to walk away and calm down.  You’ll provide a good model for your child.
  3. Stop punishing.  (I know this is radical.)  Over and over I see parents who are angry and apply punitive “consequences.”  “No sleepover tonight because you wouldn’t take out the trash.”  Kids in this situation become angry and they learn to get back as well, by failing to cooperate.
  4. Talk to you child about the problem when you both are calm.  Very important.
  5. Listen to your child.   You might say,  “On trash night I ask you take out the trash, but you don’t do it.  Then I get mad and you get mad.  What’s going on?”  Really try to get your child to explain.  Really be curious and respectful.  Once you understand more, go on to the next step.
  6. Point out what you want to happen and ask for suggestions.  “I want you to take out the trash, but you say it’s a disgusting chore, what should we do?” 

If you are lucky, your child comes up with an idea that solves the problem.  But maybe you need to provide a suggestion at first.  The solution needs to consider your child’s needs and yours.

This way of solving problems requires you and your child to be flexible.  Your child might come up with a solution that you didn’t expect, but that works.  One child I knew said, “I’ll do laundry.  I just don’t want to do trash. It’s disgusting.”  The parents had to admit that that worked.  Their major goal was for her to have responsibility. But it wasn’t what they expected at all.

This approach takes time to learn.  Just doing the first three steps will be very helpful to decrease the level of conflict in your home.  You are not giving up authority;  kids need their parents to be in charge.  You are engaging you child in solving problems.  That is a skill everyone needs to learn.

Let me know how it goes.

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Photo credit: Gardinegirl on Flickr

Thinking Outside the Box to Build Self-Esteem

selfesteemIt is important to help all children to find their strengths.  For some children it is much easier than for others.  Children with ADHD or who are on the autism spectrum have more discouraging feedback in their daily lives than other children.  Some academic subjects are hard for them.  And for some the standard team sports that many children play in grade school are not a good match.

Children with poor spatial skills find sports like soccer and baseball frustrating.  How can you gauge where and when to kick or throw the ball if you don’t judge distance well?  Children with short attention spans are usually bored by baseball as well.  These are the ones who are looking for four leaf clovers in right field.  Children with poor social skills find team sports frustrating as well.   These might be the kids who get overly upset by a teammate who lets in a goal (never mind whether the child talking could stop a goal).

So, is the default to let your child stay home and play Minecraft or some similar electronic activity?  It can be very hard to buck that tendency.

I find parents need to think a little out of the box. This is not news.  If your child fits this profile, you know you’ve been outside the box for some time.  If your child is not skilled in team sports that require eye-hand or eye-foot coordination, what else can she do?  I have known children who have excelled in swimming or track.  These are team sports in which each person competes against herself.  The social benefits of sharing a goal with other kids are still there, but the interpersonal competition and judgment are decreased.

Going a little more out of the mainstream, one could take up archery.  If you don’t have good gross motor skills , you might have what it takes for archery.  This requires the kind of “geeky” focus that is just the thing for some kids on the spectrum.  Another such activity is orienteering.  I just checked the New England Orienteering Club website which says, “Orienteering is a fun, outdoor activity in which you run (or walk) a course in the woods using only a map and compass to guide you.”  Kids of a range of ages can enjoy this.  It has the somewhat “geeky” appeal of using the compass and map to find specific places along with the benefit of getting exercise outdoors.   Other children I’ve known have pursued trapeze.  Imagine what an upper body workout that is!

Then there are non athletic activities. Perhaps your young one is not at all interested in the musical instruments offered in school.  Could she have guitar lessons with a cool young adult?  Perhaps your child has a flair or the dramatic.  Are there children’s theaters in the area?

I could go on and on.  The point is that every child has a skill or interest that can a source of self esteem.  School is such a big part of children’s lives that when it is difficult, it wears kids down.  But when they find an activity in which they can excel, they can really shine.

What creative ways have you found to help your child develop an interest or skill?

 

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Photo credit:  Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Flickr

Being Curious

catreflectionSome of us like surprises.  Others like to know what’s coming.  Parents learn quickly is that life is full of surprises, some delightful, and some not so much.  Today I’m thinking about those “not so much” surprises. 

Not So Great Surprises

Perhaps you learn at a teacher conference that your sixth grader has not been passing in math homework for the past few weeks.  Maybe you have even seen your child doing the homework.

Or perhaps you hear that your child is clowning around in social studies.

Sometimes parents are surprised even though the behavior is not unusual. We adults just hope things will change.  Perhaps you ask your child to take out the trash.   You hear, “Sure, after I’m done with this.”  Now it is bedtime and the trash is still where it was.  Against your better judgment, you’re surprised.

The Talk

Often a parent’s impulse at these times is to sit the child down for a “good talk.” But grownups often do much of the talking at these times.  “A good talk” turns into a “good lecture.”  You repeat good sensible advice and tell your child what she should do.  At the end you ask for buy in, “So, you’ll do it that way now, right?”  and perhaps your child says, “Yes.”

But have you learned anything about why your child has behaved in this way and what might actually help change the situation?  Likely not.

Curiosity Helps the Relationship and Leads to Problem Solving

Here’s another way to respond.  Be curious.

First of all, you will need to manage your emotions.  If you are very angry about the problem, you child will become defensive and you won’t learn much.  So,  count to ten; take deep breath; wait until you are calm.

Then begin a conversation with your child about the problem.  You might say, “Yesterday when I met with Ms. Taylor, she told me that you haven’t been passing in your homework.   What can you tell me about that?”  You describe the situation in neutral terms without accusation.  If your child gets defensive, say, “I’m not mad.  You’re not in trouble.  I just want to understand.”  Now keep asking and listening and reassuring until you think you really understand what is going on.  Perhaps you know already.  But very likely you will learn something new.

This puts you and your child in a much  better place to do some problem solving.   If you have listened without judgment, your child feels understood and is much more likely to engage in solving the problem.  You can now wonder together how to manage so that she turns in the homework and has her concerns addressed as well.

In other blogs I will talk more about the actual problem solving, but for now, try practicing curiosity.  See what you can learn.

 

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Photo credit:  Jue Wang on Flickr

 

Tag Team Parenting

(TONGUE IN CHEEK!)

(TONGUE IN CHEEK!)

To my great dismay when my now young adult son was in middle school, he became a fervent fan of professional wrestling.  I don’t mean to sound elitist, but I objected to the violence (yes, I know it is all scripted) and the objectification of women.  However, I was powerless against my son’s testosterone and his father’s tacit approval (he hadn’t out grown professional wrestling).  In time I just let it go.  Fortunately, our son learned his values from us and not from WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

You may wonder why I bring this up. I could write a blog about choosing one’s battles—a lesson I studied hard during the middle school years, but that is not today’s topic.  WWE taught me the term, Tag Team Parenting.  In a tag team match the two wrestlers in the ring have team members outside the ring.  If a wrestler can get close to his teammate and tag him, he can trade places.  Someone who is being pummeled tries to get close to his buddy and tag so he can leave the ring and fresh wrestler can come in.

If you have a two parent family, you can see how this approach could be quite useful.  Yet very often parents side off against each other when they face children’s challenging behavior.  Being a good team is tricky. Here are some points that make it easier.

  1. Get past the blame game.  If you hear your partner in an argument with your child over homework again, do you get angry with her as well?  If you step in angrily, saying, “Let me handle this,”  you are likely to aggravate the situation or undermine your partner.  You child will be likely to exploit this rift, as in, “I only want Dad to help me with homework.”
  2. Get on the same page.  You can only tag and get help if you both agree about what needs to be done.
  3. Offer support.  By talking about situations after the event you can get to the place that you understand that you want to help each other, rather than prove the other wrong.  Then when trouble arises, you can ask, “Can I help?”  and you can be helpful.
  4. Accept that you might have a blind spot.  Parents are not equally gifted at all ages of childrearing.  One might really understand grade school children but be provoked and befuddled by middle school kids.  You might think you are doing fine, but your partner might see a different, better way.  Be ready to listen.

If you can come to agreement and respect each other’s efforts, it will be easier to tag your partner and get help that feels like help and help that really helps your child.  Parent Coaching can give parents a neutral place to sort out what their common goals are and come to respect each other’s efforts.  Good luck in the ring of child rearing!

 

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Photo credit:  Carl Smith on Flickr

 

Surviving and Thriving in the Land of Special Needs

thriveBeing the parent of child with special needs is a stressful job. I am not telling you anything new.  Today I am thinking about the supports that you need in order to stay on the job being the loving parent and advocate that your child needs.

Many parents have been hurt and angered by things that (well-meaning) educators, neighbors and family have said.  Parents feel guilty that they have envy parents of neighbor children who seem to get their homework done and have time for ballet and sports.  Meanwhile you, the special needs parent, take your child to psychotherapy, occupational therapy, and a tutoring. No time for ballet or sports, even if you child enjoyed them.  Life is not fair.  Two major ways to fortify yourself are to find people with similar struggles and to take care of yourself.

Support Groups

Finding parents who have similar struggles is an essential part of coping with this complicated life.  It is affirming to learn that other parents deal with the same trials in the school system or the healthcare system.  If you become close to some parents you can share your dark feelings about wishing you had a neurotypical child, and likely you find out that you are not alone.  You have permission to be different, and the shame you might feel melts away.  You can also share the wonderful ways that you and your child cope and triumph with people who understand the struggle.

Where do you find these parents?  You might start with your local school system.  Under the federal law, IDEA, school systems are required to have a PAC or Parent Advisory Council.  This body offers a liaison between parents of children with special needs and the school administration.  PAC’s offer informative events. It’s a place where you can advocate for children and meet other like minded parents.

There are also organizations formed to offer online or in person support groups.  In my area two excellent ones are the Asperger’s Association of New England and the Federation for Children with Special Needs.  These organizations offer parents online and face to face ways to network with other parents.  They also offer excellent information about dealing with school and healthcare systems.  There are many other similar organizations.  For Attention Deficit Disorder there is CHADD which has online and local face to face parent groups.

Self Care

As you go from meetings to appointments for your child, don’t lose sight of taking care of yourself.  If your well is empty, you have nothing to give.  Consider the basics: get enough sleep, find ways to exercise, and take some time for fun.  Maybe you allow yourself to watch a trashy television show.  Maybe you find a way to fit a walk into your routine a few days a week.  There’s no reward for most worn out parent, so take care of yourself.  You will also be modeling good habits for your child.

Lastly, you might benefit from your own psychotherapy as you accompany your child on this journey.  It can be depression to confront your child’s disability.  Having your own psychotherapy can help you move from that sadness to acceptance and advocacy, and even pride and delight in your child’s accomplishments.

 

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Photo credit:  Tony Kelly on Flickr

 

What if She Grows up Like Auntie Agnes?

costumeMany of us have a “black sheep” in the family. Sometimes that person has a mental illness and sometimes not.  It might be someone who caused you or your parents great unhappiness in your childhood.  At any rate, you know someone fairly close to you who caused havoc in your life.  That relative provides a model of what you do not want in your child and a model of what you fear.

Yikes!

When you have just gone through an angry, out-of-control episode with your child, you might think of Auntie Agnes and fear the worst.  You panic.  You might over-react.

Jumping from the Past to the Future

Family history is a burden to many parents.  We start to work on particular behavior problems.  It might seem to be fairly straightforward to me, but I find that the parents are very, very concerned.  This is one reason that it is essential for a psychologist to get a good family history.  When I learn about the relative or parent with bipolar disorder or substance abuse, I can begin to understand why this parent is especially alarmed.

Back to the Present—The Only Place You Can Work for a Better Future

My job at this point is to bring the parent back to the present.  The present might be that this is a ten year old with a brittle disposition who is quick to anger.  Temper tantrums have hung on much longer than usual.  Clearly this is a problem, but it does not predict major mental illness.  I re-orient parents to the problem at hand, a child who needs help managing strong feelings.  I reassure them that we cannot predict the future.  I can further reassure them that they are doing a very good thing for this child by getting help for the family now.  In fact, getting help early makes it less likely that the child will have major problems later.

We know that untreated anxiety and difficulty managing emotions can lead to serious behavior problems, such as rage attacks and substance abuse, later in life.  The young person who learns to understand his emotions and to manage them is much less likely to develop such problems.

Yes, Genetics Count—But So Do Treatment and Good Parenting

Of course, we know that some mental illnesses have a genetic component.  This is true for alcoholism, mood disorders, and anxiety.  But genetics are not the whole story by any means.  Children who learn to manage their feelings and make better decisions will be less likely to become addicted or to be driven to poor choices based on strong emotions. Remember, the frontal cortex (the part of our brain that helps with mature decision-making) does not fully mature until the early twenties.  I have observed a big change decision-making during the college years.

Stay in the Now Where You Can be Effective

So, pull yourself back into the present.  If your child is ten, remember that she is not yet a teenager.  You have time to help her cope better before then.  If your child is fifteen, remember that he is not yet a young adult.  He has time to learn to be less impulsive.  And brain development is on your side.  Try not to focus on the terrible things Auntie Agnes did.  Focus on your child now.

 

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Photo credit:  Ghostlygavin on Flickr