Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Strong Willed Parenting Lesson Two

One of the biggest problems with strong willed children is the issue of power or control (as reflected in characteristic 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 12). This is due to their need to know who the boss is – and their subsequent desire to fill the opening if there is any possibility it is not currently occupied by a dominating force. They really do want to be the boss and will fight to obtain the position. (Now I have to admit, I remember thinking it would be so cool to be in charge when I was a child. I actually looked forward to the day I would be an adult and “the boss”. But now I look at the job and cringe. What was I thinking? This isn’t any fun, really.) I often caught myself saying to the SWC in my home “I really don’t want to win. God tells me I have to win because I am your parent. So I can’t give up….” This always gave him a pause, and actually sometimes ended the struggle of the moment because every child knows it is unwise to fight with God.

The fight for control is manifest in many different behaviors and scenarios:
~ Often the SWC will get a charge out of the fight itself, just to see if they can wear you down and get you to give in.
~ Sometimes it is due to their inability to admit they were wrong.
~ It may be seen as the opportunity to make someone else angry or get them to explode.
~ Occasionally it is stubborn refusal to obey.
~ Sometimes it is out of a desire to influence the environment and make a decision of their own choosing.
~ It could be to get attention - negative attention is still attention.
~ Sometimes it is simply to win.
Whatever the motive, the result is the same - parent and child locked into a dispute so intensely that winning and losing becomes the main concern rather than gaining sensible outcomes or meeting the needs of the situation.

The problem is often we as parents do give up and allow our SWC to set the agenda for us. As mentioned earlier, we can fight with our SWC 24-7, so we run the risk of getting worn down. I just knew that if I gave into my SWC and changed my mind, the next time it would be a bigger fight and I might give in again. I often made decisions to do things myself in an effort to avoid the fight (I will placate myself at this point to say I was choosing my battles not giving in). So we need to stop and think before we make a request of our SWC or respond to one of their requests. Think: Am I automatically saying no out of convenience or habit? Is this a point worth dying over? Can we meet in the middle and both be happy? What could I lose if I change my mind?

There are solutions that can assist us in the power struggle with our tenacious offspring.
1) Negotiation – I know I covered this in an earlier blog: January 11, 2010.
2) A choice within boundaries – This solution gives our SWC the opportunity to choose. The problem is if you don’t give them some guidelines/choices they may choose something we cannot provide - or allow - leading us into a battle of the wills.
3) Expectations with deadlines – This gives the child the details of the expectation with the freedom to address it in the manner they choose.
It is wiser to focus on what YOU will do, not TELL them what to do. Strong willed individuals bristle under ultimatums. “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” literally courses through their brain. It is the backbone of the strong willed personality. But somewhere deep inside is an individual that will often bend over backwards to help someone out. Teachers are often very successful at working with SWC if they simply ask them to help with tasks in the classroom. If we apply this technique in the home we will find there is a softer side to our SWC - that of assisting.

The other piece of control that we must consider is concerning other adults in our child’s life. These are the adults that have to prove they are in charge, typically by being overly harsh, critical, or cruel. These adults regularly risk the relationship with our child in attempts to achieve conformity through any means. Conformity is rarely seen in SWC because they have such creativity, and when an adult attempts to force particular behaviors from the SWC they will always revolt. If you are in charge, a child assumes that it is a given position and there is really no need for you - as an adult - to prove it. But SWC have an uncanny sense for insecure adults; it may be the way they walk, talk, the turn of head, or possibly the way they smell. Regardless, SWC always know when an adult is weak, probably by the adult’s use of ultimatums. These particular adults may eventually crumble under the tenacity of the SWC but in the battle will harm the relationship by continuing to struggle. A SWC thinks something like this: “If you have to prove you are the boss, you must question your own authority and ability to control me. Give me a little while and I will find your weakness, proving that you are ultimately correct and not capable of being the boss.” Let us keep in mind that strong willed children grow up and become strong willed adults. Strong willed adults know they are in charge of the child merely by position - it is a given, so why waste time proving we are in charge? We simply display it. But this is not true for the “I gotta prove I am the adult here” mentality. And these are the individuals that will lock into the battle of wills with a SWC not looking at the bigger picture of healthy development. Because of the possible detrimental effect these adults can have on a SWC I always suggest shielding them as much as possible from extended contact.

Let me conclude this blog with a slightly humorous story (although at the time I did not find it in the least bit funny.) When my family was young we had two dogs that needed cleaning up after in the yard. As the diligent parent I continuously looked for teachable moments in which I could instill responsibility in my offspring. (Ok, maybe I hated doing the “dog-doo-duty” and was really hoping to push it off on my unsuspecting children, but at least it looked like a good lesson to the rest of the world…) At dinner I declared I would pay an increase of allowance to the individual that would assume the weekly responsibility of “dog-doo-duty.” Being a little entrepreneur, my son (around 4 years old at the time) asked the outlines of said duty and the subsequent financial payoff. I really hated the job so I offered $10 for the task, at which my loving spouse declared he would do it for $10 and not pay more than $5 to our aspiring offspring. This began the struggle of the century - one my son remembers to this day - which lasted more than an hour when finally I asked “Son, what are you trying to prove?” At this point he firmly planted his feet, put his little fists on his hips (kind of a Peter Pan stance from the movie “Hook”) and declared full voice “I am darn well gonna win!” I have planted that image indelibly in my mind to help me remember the calling of my little strong willed boy in this great vast world….”I am darn going to win”….may you also remember.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Commodities for the Strong Willed Child

Commodity (noun) 1. Traded item- an item that is bought and sold, especially an unprocessed material; 2. Useful thing- something that people value or find useful. A commodity is a motivator or, to some, a bribe. It is the item I am willing to earn or retain through my behavior. This is a behavior modification concept seen most often in the early childhood and elementary classroom. It is a concept used by the best of our teachers because it works the most effectively in a short period of time. It is a concept we as parents of strong willed children (SWC), must utilize regularly. In my career I have utilized the concept of commodities regularly with great success, so it is well worth mentioning here.

Step 1. Identify your child’s commodity. What one thing does your child value, maybe more than any other thing? When my son was young it was his stuffed dog. He took “Little Puppy” with him EVERYWHERE! They were virtually inseparable. One night I was at a banquet with my parents (Daddy was out of town and I needed a companion). Around 8:00 I receive a cell call from our favorite baby sitter announcing she was having some difficulty with the three year old male in my household. According to the sitter it was time for bed and he boldly announced he was NOT going to bed and she could not make him. I suppose this struggle went on for some time before she finally contacted me. Now I was a bit perturbed being removed from an adult activity by anything smaller than a major catastrophe at home, so I asked to speak with my little man on the phone. (Let me state now, you might question the recall of this conversation based on how my 3 year old is speaking.  But he really did speak like this at three, both of my children spoke very well at an early age - especially my SWC who was trying valiantly to keep up with his older sister.) The conversation went something like this:
   Me: “James it is time to go to bed.”
   J: “I’m not tired.”
   Me: “I don’t care - it is time to go to bed, and Christy is in charge, so get ready for bed.”
   J: “You can’t make me. You aren’t here.” (A valid point, but a bit displaced, because I can’t truly make my SWC go to bed when I am there, I can merely manipulate the environment so he will go to bed.)
   Me: (a bit taken back because he really is correct on this point, and a bit scared because he is only just three years old….) “James, Christy is in charge just like Mommy is. She has told you to get into bed and you will obey her. If you do not get into bed, Little Puppy will be put in time out.”
   J: (knowing that the stakes have been raise, but refusing to admit defeat) “I won’t care ‘cuz I will be asleep by the time you get home so I won’t notice Little Puppy is gone.” (Another valid point, one intended to prove his superiority, or at least stubborn resolve to win.)
   Me: “Oh no sweetie. Little Puppy won’t be in time-out tonight - that would be unfair to not let him sleep in bed tonight. No, Little Puppy will be put in time-out tomorrow morning when you get up.” I finally got what I needed, I found his commodity; there was a long silence and then a burst of repentant crying. No words, just tears.
   Me: “Now go to bed like Christy says, and there will not be any more problems. I will see you in the morning.”
   J: just tears.
A SWC’s commodity can change with time; it can be many different material items throughout their lifetime. It could be a cherished item (like Little Puppy) or it could be a desirable activity. The list might include: toys, books, peers, money, cell phones, computer time, activities, time alone with a parent, a later bed time…. It depends on the child’s interests and their age. The most powerful commodity I have found over the years, as a parent and a counselor, is attention. SWC hate being ignored or isolated. (Just keep that little nugget of information tucked securely in the back of your brain; it will come in handy later I guarantee.)

Step 2. Identify how the commodity can be manipulated for your advantage. For example, we had  several commodities at our house during the early years. There was Little Puppy, there was isolation, and there were bedtime books. Our children were guaranteed two books a piece every night before bed if they had a good day. My daughter always got two books (she was the compliant child) so my SWC knew there would always be a bed time story. But being the keeper of “fairness”, he wanted to be sure there were two books of his choosing also. Every morning at breakfast I would make the passing comment: “I wonder if this will be a four book night. I sure hope so, I love to read bed time stories” in hopes that my positive comment would set a good tone for the rest of the day. If the statement was not enough, and the evil powers of The Will overtook my beloved child, my SWC might choose to lose a book. But never fear, there was always the possibility of self redemption, and extra good behavior the rest of the day might earn back that lost book. It is very important to plan redemption into the management plan of your home. If you err and forget the possibility of redemption, your SWC will have no reason to improve their behaviors. If I have lost the thing I want the most, and there is no way of earning it back, I can guarantee I will want a bit of revenge. I will then have no motivation to improve my poor decisions and I will make you suffer!
     Another example of the use of commodities was with one high spirited child (this title is given to the more than extremely strong willed kids - I have only met a few high spirited children in my life). She had been the recipient of several psychological evaluations from well-meaning professionals, and she had not been able to learn to control her instincts. After some study we determined her commodity was computer time. So every day she started with 30 minutes of computer time. She would lose five minutes for specified behaviors of defiance, and she would earn five minutes for specified behaviors of compliance. It was completely under her own power, and reliant only upon her choices. After only two weeks she had earned more time than she desired on the computer daily and her compliant behaviors were more habitual.

Step 3. Institute what you have learned and teach it to your SWC. No explanation necessary, so I won’t.

Remember your SWC may be missing the skills necessary to be successful. Or maybe this wonderful configuration of the childhood brain is necessary to be the strong leader they were born to be. Regardless, the SWC in your house is a blessing of many kinds, just keep watching - you will see it if you are patient.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Strong Willed Parenting Point One

POINT ONE : Pick Your Battles Carefully

A strong willed child (SWC) seems to get a sort of adrenaline buzz from fighting with others, be it parents, siblings, peers, the pets….whatever will fight back. Often a SWC will start off their day with a disagreement, a kind of caffeine kick for a kid. My child, starting in preschool, began the day asking for clothing advice. The two choices were presented with his anticipation held in check, A or B. I quickly learned that no matter what I picked he would disagree and begin a mini-argument. If I refused to participate, he would head into his sisters room, with the same battle plan in-tact.
Thus I developed a set of guidelines- simple, to the point, and easily remembered. It went like this:   Did you get it out of the school drawer? (I labeled it school - good pre-reading skill to boot)    Does it have holes in it?    Is it clean?    Did you wear it yesterday? (All important criteria for a boy - because they really love sleeping in their clothes - it saves time in the morning.)
Now most parents would assume that question number one would be enough, and for an average tempered child this might be true, but not with an SWC. This is due to their inability to infer information (characteristic 13 previous blog). With SWC we must be as specific as possible since we, the adult, might not consider all the possibilities involved. As with the clothing debate if I had simply stopped with the first question I would be assuming that the clothes in the school drawer were the ones I put there the last time I did laundry. But this may not actually be the case because many of our SWC are creative (characteristic 6). This creativity can mean many things: the possibility that my SWC decided to store other things in their school drawer; that they rearranged their living area without re-labeling; that they did not stuff all the dirty clothes in this drawer when in a hurry cleaning up the bed room. So as a parent of a SWC I cannot assume that things are in any particular order unless I have checked right before I make the statement. Thus the need to be specific is established. (SUB POINT – Be specific when giving directions or expectations)

SO knowing that our SWC are often times very literal we must regularly check to see if we are being direct enough in our interactions with our children. It is never enough to say “go brush your teeth” but more important to indicated all the necessary details “go to the bathroom, brush your teeth with your toothbrush, and toothpaste please.” ( I always try to be polite in my parenting because it sets the standard and is a good example.)Such detail is necessary because SWC are creative and will fill in the blanks with whatever they find interesting - or easiest - in times of instruction.

BUT I digress, (thus the need to make this a series because one topic so easily leads to several sub-points) back to Picking your Battles….because SWC are not afraid to battle (characteristics 3, 4, 7, and 12 ) and desire to make themselves heard, we can battle more often with them. I have actually witnessed strong willed children pulling their parents into unnecessary battles on unrelated topics (and being extremely successful) through the smoke screen technique. This is when they blow smoke - an unrelated or unnecessary piece of information -into the communication in an attempt to change the focus of the conversation. It is a pretty successful approach considering how many adults actually fall for it. Many of these conversations begin with “yeah but…” which is simply a means of excusing said behavior. Another technique is to get you completely off the topic and pick at the nuances of detail. All simply put, a ploy to avoid personal responsibility in said situation and get away with the disagreeable behavior. (SUB POINT – Watch for diversionary tactics/ smoke screens. Always remember what was the real point of the problem not necessarily the details.)

Picking your battles carefully involves one primary question: What is it I am willing to give my life defending? (For most parents the response I get is RESPECT.) These are the battles we refuse to give ground on; these are the battles we will die before we lose. It is important to identify what is non-negotiable in advance, because these are the battles our SWC will most consistently pick. All other battles may be negotiable.

PARENTING APPROACH – Learning to Negotiate
Learning to negotiate is a very effective method for working with your SWC. To negotiate simply means: I get some of what I want, and you get some of what you want. Neither of us loses, and both of us win - a little. Because SWC want control this is a good way to teach it to them. For example my 4 year old knows it is time to go to bed but they are busy playing with their blocks. Now noticing the Characteristics list from the previous blog, it is good to note that SWC like completion of tasks - it is part of the routine approach to life -so interrupting an activity without closure can lead to a battle of the wills. So I give a five minute warning that it will soon be time to get ready for bed and my preschooler goes right to the fight. I calmly ask (very important to stay calm when negotiating with your SWC) if they want to negotiate, and teach the skill along the way. I ask how long they want to continue to play (keep in mind that time is abstract to a child of this age so you can win every time - they just don’t know it), they say “forever”, I say "how about half of forever – ten minutes". They say "more!", and I say "ten minutes is what I can give but if you brush your teeth fast and get on the pj's quick I will go two extra minutes, it is up to you." If they fight I say “Oh well you just wasted your five minutes arguing so go get ready for bed.” Now many adults would tell you that children are not capable of negotiation, but they are, what they are not so good at is seeing the adult starts out with an unreasonable request and moves to the reasonable request, really getting their way in the end.

Another form of negotiation is the concept of commodities (a topic I will save for later.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Strong Willed Parenting

All parents begin the real parenting journey with the terrible two’s, but parents of strong willed children don’t just get the terrible two’s. No they progress to the threatening threes, frightening fours, fearsome fives, sickening six’s………until elated at eighteen. Let’s learn a little about the strong willed child, mainly for those that are new at this - or just need someone to point out what you have already become familiar with…
Common Characteristics of Strong Willed Children: (taken from a list I was given once, but with a few modifications)
1.  They lust for power and independence. (This often becomes the main issue when conflicting with a strong willed child. The need for power/control.)
2.  They consider rules to be more like guidelines.
3.  They don’t do things just because “you’re supposed to”-it needs to matter personally.
4.  They refuse to obey - they seem to always have a few terms of negotiation before complying.
5.  They almost never accept words like “impossible” or phrases like ‘it can’t be done.”
6.  They can turn what seems to be the smallest issue into a grand crusade or a raging controversy.
7.  When they are bored, they would rather create a crisis than have a day go by without incident.
8.  They can move with lightning speed from a warm loving presence, to a cold immovable force.
9.  They show great creativity and resourcefulness - seems to always find a way to accomplish a goal.
10. They may argue the point into the ground, sometimes just to see how far into the ground the point will go.
11. They are not afraid to try the unknown; to conquer the unfamiliar; to take what was meant to be the       simplest request and interpret it as an offensive ultimatum.
12.They may not actually apologize, but almost always makes things right. (This characteristic causes many parents to fear they have some sort of psycho-path on their hands. The real question becomes how long does it take for a strong willed child to take personal responsibility for their bad behavioral choices? In my experience 10 minutes to a few days depending on how tenacious everyone involved is.)
13.They often miss the point of discipline and encouragement due to lacking the skill of informational inference.
14.These kids make INCREDIBLE adults, very self motivated and less influenced by outside pressure. So hold on, the light at the end of the tunnel is NOT a train.

It is important to remember these are common characteristics of the strong willed child - they are really not out to get you, and they sometimes cannot control their innate response due to these characteristics. A strong willed child’s primary goal is determining who has the power, not to make you feel like an unloved parent.

So who can we blame?
As much as I believe this is the grandmother curse, (you know the one “I hope you have a kid just like yourself”,) we might want to look at the statistics: There are nearly three times as many strong willed children as compliant, so nearly every family with more than one child has a strong willed child; and males outnumber females by 5%. So if you don’t have a strong willed child yet stop having kids as your probability increases with off spring. In my experience strong-willed parents have a higher chance of having strong-willed kids, possibly due to God having a sense of humor (but that is unproven at this point). There is also a high correlation between SWC and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Also unproven is the strong suspicion I have that there is a brain/behavior connection here. Unfortunately I have yet to find the neurological link between brain function and personality traits, but keep in mind neuroscience is still a pretty young field. Do be encouraged that I am searching the research fiercely and will share my knowledge as soon as it is reported.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Racism in the Home

Racism and prejudice starts at home.  It is inbred not instinctual. It is the comments and editorials we make at home around our children. It is statements on how someone else is inferior, un-valuable, undesirabls.  It is body language, verbal comments, and more blatant than we realize.  Children are designed to learn unconsciously by watching the adults around them.  If you are walking through a forest and notice a bear you will respond, a child may not be directly frightened by a bear but will instinctually respond to your response because you are there to protect them.  You provide their needs, and you provide subconscious information about the environment.  So even though you may not be saying you don’t trust or like a certain individual, your body is screaming that information to your children.  And it may not be people of different colors or cultures that you are responding to.  It could be income, body size, education, handicaps, accents, lifestyles, or other characteristics.  And through that response, or belief, we are teaching our children about what we believe. Then your child watches the world around them and integrates the whole picture into a belief system about themselves and others, and begins to live it out. To beat racism and prejudices we must start by looking at ourselves and then teach our children.
Typically, inaccurate beliefs begin out of ignorance, a lack of understanding or education about the cultures of others.  It is safe to say that identifying as an American tells us little about who we are.  This country is full of different cultures and habits that are based on location, income, religion, education, so I have a very small chance of understanding you based on any of these influences alone.  I need to get to know you, even a little to get any idea of who you are.  And to truly judge someone we must know them at least a little bit.
Another influence on racism is the beliefs individuals hold on the value of others.  I believe in innate value.  In my mind anything that is alive is valuable period.   It is impact that we can measure, or evaluate.  You will have either positive or negative impact on your environment, rarely do we have neutral impact.  We can control our impact, and we do have power over it to some extent.  We may not be able to influence another person’s interpretations but we can pretty well decide whether to have positive or negative impact.  So, if every living thing has value, then the difference between those living things is irrelevant.  I need to treat a tree as though it has as much value as a person. One person has the same amount of value as another, however they may have a different impact.  If everyone saw all people as valuable regardless of our differences it would impact how we treat others.  But superiority seems to be an innate need.  And that causes problems.  I must survive, and the weakest gazelle is eaten by the lion.  My reptilian brain is designed to keep me alive, and if I perceive a threat I will instinctually respond to survive. But are different cultures truly a threat to our survival, or an over-reaction from the brain that we need to control?
Neurology does play a role from the perspective of survival.  But our brain is known to over-react in many ways.  We as evolved humans should be able to apply our lobes and recognize true threats verses perceived threats.  And perceived threats rarely kill us. To stop prejudice and racism we must realize that we are all created equal, regardless of all the influences that change us.  Then we need to act as though we are all equal, all valuable in our own ways.  Finally, we need to teach our kids to love and accept all others as they already naturally do.  When I was little my parents hosted foreign students from Denver University.  On a regular basis our house would be visited by people from exotic places, with wonderful languages, and beautiful appearances.  And occasionally, to my delight, they would bring children with them.  I did not care that we could not understand each other, we still played perfectly together.  And when they moved back to their foreign homes, I was sad and missed them.  Then in elementary school Denver Public Schools decided that our school was too white and we boarded buses for the other side of town.  To us this was a treat, we got new friends, and missed part of our classroom time because we had to ride the bus.  In middle school I was the minority both at school and church.  By high school my brothers and I dated and made friends based on personality with little concern of appearance.  So I was lucky, I was raised to see value in all, and know that differences were exciting not scary.  And for me it started in childhood, modeled by my parents and lived out by their lives.  But to say to you I am not prejudice is to lie.  I found out in grad school I truly struggle with stupid people, ignorant individuals that want to come to a quick conclusion.  Whether they are judging a handicapped child, a fat adult, or a baggy panted teenager.  I struggle with judgers, so I am not prejudice free as much as I would like to believe I am.  And did I pass that prejudice on to my own children, probably- I will have to ask them to see.  But ignorance is a choice, being judgmental is a choice, to feel superior is a choice.  Culture, color, size, upbringing are not choices.  If we want to stop racism and prejudice, we MUST start at home, with our children. And if it is too late for that, get to know someone very different than yourself and see what happens to your judgements.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Adolescent Suicide Today

Because of the recent increase of teen suicide and suicidal attempts I have begun to question clients, (ok let’s be honest I ALWAYS question clients, its what I am paid for) but this time it was with a specific purpose in mind- prevention.  I began asking my teen clients why so many kids are suicidal these days. And they were happy to talk about it, so in summary this is what I got: Too many pressures and expectations for success/perfection; No one seems to truly care, instead interactions are based out of self-centered motives; Bored; Directionless.  I even had one teen say that parents needed to get into their teenagers’ life, “the kid is going to act like they don’t like it, but they truly want it, so parents can’t give up no matter how much they complain.” Looking at the list, many of these things are outside the teenagers influence and full control so, we as adults may have to intervene. But I have found any problem in a teenager’s life is more effectively solved if the teenager is a piece of the solution.   So maybe if we look at the ideas and problem solve together we might prevent the problem.
First, I want to take the wise 15-year old’s statement about getting in to our kids lives.  We as adults often think we know how hard it is to be a teenager, but do we actually know how hard it is to be a teenager TODAY? I knew people were talking about me in high school but I really did not have solid proof, it was all suspicion and fear, not facts that would hold up in court.  Today kids have proof, all of it electronically based, but solid proof of how others think about them -because so many people seem to think it is important to advertise their thoughts and opinions (which can be helpful in an educational blog let’s say, but not in jealous gossip). Not only are their blunders, fears, and failures public, but they see how everyone else is doing life so perfectly.  Perfect clothes, perfect faces, perfect bodies, perfect grades, perfect plans, perfect vacations…..and they believe they are the only ones falling short.  Now some of this is neurological development and some of this is an illusion, but it is difficult for the teenage brain to register the true significance and truth in relationship to themselves. So ask your kids what it is like in their world, maybe even give them what it was like when you were a teenager, they love stories of the olden days.
Second, we may have to be okay with less than perfect performance academically with our kids.  There are more important life lessons and character traits than getting straight A’s.  And some kids are just not capable of getting A’s no matter how hard they work.  But it breaks my heart when a good kid tells me that their parents don’t think a 95% is good enough because it could have been higher.  What they are hearing is no matter how hard they work it will never be good enough.  It was recently proven that the brain works better when encouraged, not surprising to any of us, but some parents still believe telling others it wasn’t good enough will inspire them to work harder.  Historically I cannot verify this as fact, instead I will tell you many teens will give up, or start to rebel, which is much worse than a low grade. This sense of failure can be so great to an adolescent that they will take drastic action to relieve themselves of the pain and stop disappointing you- frankly a child’s life is far more important than their academic achievements. Along this same point, kids talked about the pressure that teachers put on them in their assignments.  One teen relayed that teachers will give them an extensive assignment with an unreasonable deadline, and because of all the extracurricular activities they stay up into morning hours completing the assignment.  Lack of sleep creates bad neurological connections and impulsive behaviors, so suicidal ideation can rise.  This is where we might have to intervene – it was not unheard of for me to contact the teacher myself and explain the constraints on my child’s time with an apology that I told my child to go to bed instead of finishing their homework.  I asked the teacher to give me the bad grade -  I am okay failing as an academic Hitler if it kept my kid alive.  No job is worth losing a life over, and if I can do things to keep my kid alive I am going to do so regardless of how the teacher views me. When it comes to achievement’s, our kids and our own, we need to keep them in big picture perspective.  You can have straight A’s but no character, you can have a high paying job and no life. If your kid gets into an Ivy League school congratulation, but if they are unhappy and suicidal in that school what good is it? Learning healthy life balance starts in high school so decide with your teen what healthy expectations academically look like, and how to achieve them without harming themselves.
Third point: no one cares.  Well we are the generation of selfies, so what more do I need to say? Honestly all kids want to know that others believe in, and care about them.  I guess you could look at all my rantings on the negative effects of electronics in our lives to get more ideas of what may really be going on- or I could once again state how important it is to the developing brain to see relational engagement.  I think everyone wants to be someone else’s top priority, just once, or maybe even regularly.  My son once said, “if your parent isn’t there for you, what’s the use?” So, get into their lives and show them you truly care by being engaged and present, for their sake alone.  Ask them how you can best support them and then do it.  Give them ideas on how they can support others inside and outside the home.
Finally, I will take the last two together because that is how they were first presented to me, “I wanted to kill myself because I am bored and directionless”. Wow. Is this a statement of activity levels or a sense of overall purpose/value?  Let’s look at it from a practical perspective first.  I know the bored part is a surprise because of all the activities available to us, and very few of today’s kids actually experience boredom. Instead boredom is being solved by surrounding adults, with packed schedules and pre-planned activities.  It is difficult to develop a skill if we don’t get a chance to practice it.  So we have a generation of teenagers that were so busy doing planned activities, or adults supplied all their needs, that they never learned to resolve boredom.
Add in the ingredient of “directionless”, the feeling of having no idea what I want to do in the present or future.  If I have no idea what direction I want to go, things in front of me might be meaningless, so I don’t engage in them.  This can cause feelings of hopelessness, and hopelessness is a common denominator of suicidal ideation. Direction can be both specific and broad.  In a specific sense direction can be based on daily schedule and routine, or pre-planned activities.  In a broad sense direction can be life or career goals, or simply a sense of purpose.  In truth we have led our kids to believe that they need to have their life figured out by their junior year of high school, and this is terribly overwhelming.  We start looking at colleges, degrees, and careers.  But if we were truly honest we would acknowledge that very few adults use their degree, and change careers several times in their adult life.  So why all the pressure to declare our degree in the junior of high school?
Directionless can also be a symptom of not feeling like my life has value or purpose.  Humans have an innate need to feel like we have a purpose, but if my purpose is narrowly focused I may have a more difficult time finding value in it.  The adolescent brain is not developed enough to take on big picture perspectives, to think outside the immediate emotion, but more stuck in the negative present. So finding value today in relationship to the future is difficult for them. Also teenagers that don’t have an adult in their life pointing out their talents and what their interior strengths are, will be more directionless.
As a parent how do we solve these problems with our teens?  Simple conversations about your teens likes, dislikes, interests, or talents can make a huge difference in their sense of purpose and direction.  I work with teens on their passions, things they have done that they love, or that gives them energy. In my mind having a job you love makes life more fulfilling and a far healthier life.  But discovering what that job may be might start by watching personality trends in childhood and adolescence, and getting input from people around us.  If we look at parenting like a business plan we might be more successful.  Good corporations have business goals, and all their decisions lead to the achievement of the goal.  If I make a goal as a parent, to develop character, healthy decision making, creativity, or whatever I deem a good goal, all my interactions and decisions with my child need to lead to accomplishing that goal.  Then I can effectively measure my success and redirect as necessary.  But this does not involve indulging, or giving into our child’s every desire.  Learning to live with disappointment is a necessary skill. And knowing I am loved even when I don’t get me way starts early in life. The bottom line is our kids are under tremendous pressure to be perfect in all ways, and they measure their value on the responses they get from other people. If their only input is from other kids and the culture, their perspective will be skewed and they will feel they do not measure up.  We need to be paying attention, listening, encouraging, correcting, directing them, and loving them unconditionally. Showing them that they are a priority of our heart.  

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Still Faced

Engagement. It seems to be the answer to all the problems I am facing in my office clinically this month.  Engagement.  What exactly does that mean? According to my computers Smart Lookup it is “The action of engaging or being engaged”. So what does engaged mean? Engaged- “to occupy, attract, or involve. To participate or become involved in”. So the answer to all the problems I am seeing in my office this month is simply: Engage. Ok sounds too simple to be paying my hourly fee to hear simply “You just need to engage more”.  I think for the cost I need to elaborate.

Here is some background info for those of you that are still with me.  Colorado has the highest teen suicide rate in the country.  To those of us that live here that comes as a shock because we simply live in the most beautiful place in the country.  People are healthier here because the altitude requires less body weight to function well, there are open spaces and trails everywhere you look, and so many people are out enjoying themselves there is the peer pressure to get outside yourself.  And being outside is supposed to make people happier. But we have a huge teen suicide problem and I am definitely seeing an increase clinically.  Also I am currently dealing with more sexual assaults, and girls that have been taken advantage of sexually because of being pressured or not listened to.  I am seeing more kids that are having anger issues at an earlier age, and anxious children at an earlier age. And I am not alone, my friends in the field are seeing the same issues. So when I see an increase of specific populations in my office I start to research.  And my favorite source is the clients themselves.  I start asking questions and learning from the kids. Then I look around our culture and see if I am noticing cultural trends.  Finally, I look at what the research gurus are saying. With all this info at hand I have come to a conclusion, which if you have followed me for any length of time, you may see a repetition of theme here….. We are disconnected and it is killing us!

Let me give you the experience that sent me into my recent blog rant.  I was at a local park with my daughter and her kids.  We are playing at the swings, pushing higher and higher, and laughing loudly.  A girl about 5 years old approaches the nearby swing and stands next to it, waiting for her mom to catch up.  Mom arrives a few seconds later but is busy talking on her cell phone and does not engage with the child to play for about five minutes.  When Mom does hang up and play it lasts maybe three minutes until the phone occupies her again.  She removes her daughter to talk on the phone and goes to sit on a nearby bench.  The little girl follows and just hangs out by the bench.  Mom hangs up and then starts to text.  The little girl starts to throw a temper tantrum and fights with mom.  Mom tries to discipline her and the child runs off.  Mom follows trying to engage the girl but she just turns her back and ignores her mom.  Now as I am watching this, not too obviously, it starts to feel familiar.  Three days before I was at a training for Royal Family Kids Camp and they showed the “Still Face Experiment.”  If you have ever taken a child development or a psychology class you probably saw the Still Face Experiment. In the research, they take a mom and a young child into a room and allow them to play naturally- you see mom and baby imitating each other, giggling, just having a good time with each other.  And then they have the mom go still or flat faced, expressionless, unresponsive to the child.  What the child does first is they try to engage with the mom, when that is unsuccessful they become reactive or louder, when that is unsuccessful they become distressed and then withdrawn. And I realized that was what I was seeing here at the park. Have you ever watched a person on their phone, texting or using as an electronic device? They become still/flat faced, emotionless.  Our children are seeing this and it is effecting their brains.  The still face experiment is research on attachment disorders.  Research on how our children neurologically respond to unresponsive or unengaged adults.  Engagement changes the brain in positive ways. Disengagement changes the brain in negative, life affecting ways.

So let me apply this to my original rant. At a basic cultural or societal level we have become more interested in our devices and less engaged with each other. (Yep I said it less-engaged) Through this shift we are becoming less respectful to others desires and more concerned with meeting our own needs; we have become unhappier with our lives and dissatisfied with ourselves and others; we have begun to expect gratification instantly; and we have started to purposely isolated ourselves from the physically present environment. (Actually kinda sounds like the traits of an average teenager) So now I am going to watch and see if we are actually creating more attachment disorders in our children. 

If you want to be the solution instead of the problem start to engage. Put away the phone and pay attention to the moment. Make electronic free zones, time periods, and activities. Get creative and live in the moment. Lay on the grass and watch the clouds.  Look for an actual four-leaf clover and talk about leprechauns. Take a day on the beach in your front room with swim suits, beach towels, and blue sheets.  Have a tea party.  Finger paint with pudding. Have a whip cream fight. Throw water balloons or run through the hose.  PLAY IN THE MUD! There are a million ideas and the whole family will benefit from it.  But as one wise teen client stated to me, get into your kids’ lives no matter how much they complain about it, and have some fun no matter how much they resist.  (I guess they actually want their parents attention!) Simply put : Engage.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What's That You Say?

The human body.  What a magnificent creation! Whether it be the Adonis on the sports field or the uncontrolled flailing of a newborn baby.  A source of both pain and pleasure.  Have you really paid attention to your body lately – not in the “do I look fat in this dress?” sense, but in the interior physical experience sense? With all my work with trauma clients I have become keenly aware of the power of paying attention to our body.  I will not try to impress with you with all my reading, research, and wonderful rearing- but instead try to narrow it down to the brass tacks, the important stuff that is easy to remember. 
We are created in a way that our entire body works together and even communicates what information the subconscious brain is receiving.  It all works through the central nervous system and is very efficient in communicating to the brain information necessary mostly for survival.  Things like- boy am I hungry; ouch that hurts; something is not safe here; or I really love this – just to list a few.  And since our body does not think in words like our brain it uses physical sensations to convey the message. But as we age we have a tendency to become less reliant on our bodies and more reliant on our brains.  This is all well and good except through only going cognitive we are missing out on a lot of important information.  Information that only our body can convey.  So we are going to start very basic, a format that you can easily teach your children. 
When your body has an experience it records it in the muscles, it physically remembers it- then the brain interprets it. And experience influences the way the brain interprets the experience.  However the body does not put a meaning on the experience, it leaves it in the lower or reptilian brain.  The bottom of the brain is our automatic responses, things like breathing, digestion, heart rate, you know the normal stuff we do without thinking.  The top of the brain does the thinking, planning, and interpreting.  But there is one more important thing the bottom of the brain does- the fight, flight, and freeze responses.  These responses are necessary for effective escape or survival in dangerous situations.  Unfortunately, our brain is so good at these responses it often overgeneralizes and applies the response to anything that may seem threatening. For example: my baby brother takes my favorite truck and I fight! I imagine a scary monster under my bed so I freeze (and maybe scream to mom when I get my nerve up.) I am told no so I run away.  All understandable I suppose but not necessarily effective in solving the problem at hand.  But that’s the way our reptilian brain works, it responds without thought- you know automatically.  The part most adults are unaware of is that the body is designed to give us a physical warning before it responds- it may be a brief flicker of feeling but it is there if we become aware and listen for it.  So, we need to become aware of our bodies so we can hear the tender voice when it speaks.
To listen to the body we first have to become quiet- really quiet, and notice our body. The best way to start such an unusual process is to sit quietly and notice your body: the position on the chair; our feet on the floor; the temperature in the room.  Then move to noticing the inside of your body: maybe tension in the shoulders; the rate of your heart; the warmth of your appendages. If you can do that, you are way ahead of the general population.  The next step is noticing what your body is doing in times of changing emotions.  For example: Getting bad news about a loved one or a personal goal- you may feel it in your heart.  Anyone that has ever received negative information has felt it in their heart, your heart actually feels broken! Another example might be if you are looking forward to an activity you might notice it in your stomach, possibly similar to butterflies in the stomach.  Or consider, if you have ever been in a dark place and you suddenly feel your skin crawl, it actually feels creepy- that is a form of fear.  All these physical feelings are our upper brain trying to give us messages of things to pay attention to.  And if we listen the situation may turn out differently than if we are completely unaware.
Now let’s apply this to our children.  Children are naturally physical beings, they experience everything physically (this is why they cannot look at the pretty things, they must touch them.) The difficulty for children is the interpretation of the physical sense- they often lack the words to convey the experience, but they are very in tune to the physical feeling. When working with kids I explain their brain similarly to the form above, and we practice noticing our bodies.  Then we talk about how different things feel inside and I use an example of anger- this is the strongest sensation in the body typically thus easiest to identify. Some kids have more difficulty than others with this process, and I have not yet come up with a conclusion why, but I do know that everyone can learn to listen to their bodies if they just try.  If you are going to try this with your child I suggest trying it at bedtime, when they are stalling going to bed and want to do anything possible to stay awake and engaged.  From my experience bed time (and potty training) are the absolute best time to engage with your kids, they are much more receptive and participatory when stuck in one place with no escape. The other times I would practice this is by modeling the behavior in daily conversation, for example: “When you gave me a hug today my tummy got all fuzzy and happy inside.” This example includes the necessary pieces for a young child- cause or trigger event, physical description of how it feels, and labeling of the feeling for future communication.  Or you can ask how their experiences feel when they are engaged in the activity. 
The goal of teaching this to our children is to help them apply it at times when they are responding in fight/flight/freeze, typically those misbehaving moments.  If they can notice the physical warning that they are about to lose it they will eventually be able to choose not to lose it and respond more appropriately.  But more importantly, mindfulness, or the awareness of our physical experience, is the foundation of healthy whole personhood.  Individuals that practice body awareness will be more prepared for negative and positive experiences in their daily lives.  And hopefully if traumatized they will be better prepared  to heal quickly.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Just Tell Them No

Just tell them no.  Seems easy enough, two little letters, one short word, so much meaning.  But it isn’t really easy.  Many young girls today find themselves in what seemed innocent situations that end badly. Many young boys today find themselves in what seemed innocent situations that they couldn’t seem to stop.  And we as parents see report after report about teens that get raped or assaulted because of drugs, alcohol, or the inability to listen and stop. In my office I deal with the aftermath of these situations and I find myself angry because of what culture, media, and people are promoting to undeveloped brains as their CHOICE. And then we look at them incredulously and ask the simple questions: “Why didn’t you say no?” Or “Why didn’t you stop?” News alert- every one of those girls said no at least once or we could not consider it rape or assault (unless of course they are drunk or drugged). And every one of those perpetrators ignored the no.  So then I started to want someone to blame, because this is becoming epidemic, and our babies are getting hurt.  But who to blame? The perpetrator? Most definitely, but remember they often are undeveloped brains who thrive off of instant gratification.  Should I blame the media- writers, producers, sponsors, etc?  Maybe, but they are faceless money rich entities.  Should I blame the schools? Nope.  Should I blame us parents? Wellllllll……. I know as a parent that I cannot take credit for my kids good decisions or their bad decisions- I can only create an environment for their success.  But then I have to really ask, “What role can a parent play in this current chaos?” This is what I have come up with (how was that for an introductory paragraph, wow!?).

 When my children were young we started a standard in our interactions with each other- we listened to the word no.  For example, my kids loved to be tickled so there was a lot of tickling in our house. And as tickling goes there would be over stimulation and my children would say “NO” or “STOP”.  At this point I would automatically stop, and end the game. They would then say “Ok now tickle me.” And I would tell them, “You told me no/stop so I listened and stopped.  If you need a break say wait, then we will start again.  I need to listen when you say no/stop, because that is a serious word and it needs to respected.”  This became the rule for any time a person said no or stop and the reason behind this was simple. I wanted my children to know that they needed to listen when people said no or stop.  And I wanted them to know it was a serious word and not use it flippantly. More specifically I wanted my boy to know when a girl said no or stop he did, no matter how much fun or energy was invested in the particular activity. 

 The other thought I came up with has to do with dogs- well at least my dogs made me think about it.  When you have dogs and they know they are going to be fed they seem to be able to tell time, and they start to get excited a little early.  They may refuse to leave your side, go outside, or take a nap.  They diligently anticipate you going to the food container and putting dog food in their bowl.  When you finally get up to go to the dog bowl they are completely excited, jumping and falling all over just to get to their spot for food.  Now I have been told by dog trainers that you need to teach your dog self-control and you do this by delaying their gratification.  You make them sit quietly while you put the food down and they do not get to eat until you tell them. So delaying gratification teaches your dog self-control.  Now let us apply this lesson to parenting….when a child is insisting, whining, and begging it is often hard to not give into immediately just to give our ears a rest.  And research is showing with the video game and media world we have created our kids have not fully learned to delay gratification, instead they want it NOW! “My way now” is no longer just found in our terrible two’s.  Do we as parents need to teach our kids delayed gratification and self-control more effectively?

 My last thought is based on conversations with teenage girls.  They are perplexed by their own giving in to the pressure of a sexually aroused boy.  Pressuring or badgering does work in many cases.  So this one is twofold.  We as parents need to teach that no means no, and you won’t get your way if you badger me.  Often in my office I work with families on this very topic and it goes something like this:
Parent: “Little Johnny has an absolute meltdown when they don’t get their way or we tell them no.” 
Me: “Johnny is this true?”
Johnny: “Maybe”.
Me: “When your parents tell you no, how often do they give in when you whine, beg, or bother them?”
Johnny: “Ummmmm, well, there was this, actually …… never.”
Me:  “So why do you keep it up if it has never worked?”
Johnny: “I’m optimistic?”
Now sometimes as parents we do give in, but most of us don’t, and they keep it up anyway because every human brain is addicted to dopamine (the happy chemical in your brain) and the desire for that overrules logic regularly.  But if we help our kids learn to not badger, or beg- and to respect the word no/stop- they will be in the habit and less likely to violate another person. 

  I know as a parent that we cannot do it all perfectly, and even if we did these little people still have free will and may choose poorly.  But frankly we have to do something, and instill the abilities to be healthy individuals making choices that don’t harm.  And to do this we have to instill respect and develop character.  Nothing else seems to be working in this area. Colleges are giving training on what consensual sex looks like to incoming freshmen.  People are you-tubing advice and opinions. Media has reported over and over the negative outcomes.  But unfortunately it is not decreasing the incidences of victimization. When you want to change a culture you start with the kids, and you teach them what you want them to do young.  Let’s turn this trend around, one family at a time, infecting the culture and society like a virus.  It starts with us at home. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Cellular Parenting II

      A few years back I had two young girls in my office talking about how afraid they were to ride with their dad in the car.  The reason? Not because of driving impaired, or issues with road rage.  Nope, simply because he was texting while driving, and not doing both well.  Now I had a dilemma on hand.  I am a mandatory reporter- that means by law I have to report to authorities any act of abuse or neglect.  And the fun piece is I don’t have to decide if the behavior is abusive, I just have to report it and let the authorities decide. Remember, I have two kids reporting they are being put in harm’s way by what could be considered neglectful or abusive parenting because serious harm could occur.  So I call Human Services and ask a question: “Am I required to report driving hazards of a parent as a mandatory reporter?” The response, “Ummm, I don’t know, that’s a good question.” So they ask around but no one knows, and they refer me to the local police department.  Same question, pretty much the same response, accept the officer said “as a law officer I cannot ticket a driver for dangerous driving unless I directly observe it.” So even if the parent is making the risky choice of texting while their vehicle is moving, and the children in the car are scared because they feel it is affecting the driver in a dangerous manner- it at this point is not considered child abuse or neglect.  My response: we better figure this out before someone innocent dies!
            As you see I correlate this with my last blog, because both are entitled Cellular Parenting- both a problem with priorities.  Really, what is the most important part of having children? We need to decide that on an individual basis, weighing in on the long term outcomes of those choices.  Making our phones more important than our kids = possible attachment disorders.  Making our phones more important than our safety = possible death.  Or on a smaller scale- displaying behaviors that our kids will later imitate and maybe not manage as well as an adult…oops, possible death again.  What is your goal as a parent?  It’s sort of like a business plan- decide it and live by it.  If it is to raise healthy adults that are independent by 18, then live that way.  Pretty simple, but true. Someone is always watching and may end up becoming just like you, so be careful, or at least mindful, of your choices.