Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How can I explain tragedies to my children?

Sadness and suffering are one of those things we parents often feel the need to hide from our children.  We think that we need to protect them from pain in the world.  When events like 9-11 or a death in the family occur we often attempt to distract our children or send them away, telling them the bare minimum of what they NEED to know.  We then wait in dread for the questions they will ask.  I would like to encourage you to reconsider this approach.  

Sadness and suffering are a part of life.  There is not a person out there that can fully avoid it.  Your child will face the loss of friends, pets, family and even you some day.  As parents it is one of our responsibilities to prepare them to deal with these losses in effective and healthy ways.  That is why I believe it is best to be open and honest about the sadness you feel when tragedy strikes.  

When I talk with my child and those in my care about tragedies, I try hard to strike a balance between hiding my own pain and scaring them too much.  I want to give them enough information to help them understand what has happened and why everyone around them is sad.  However, I don’t want them to be terrified of all the “could happens” in life.  I don’t want to scare them so much that they are afraid to leave my side or jump at any sound. 

My grandfather died not long ago, a man my daughter knew well.  It was sudden but he was in the hospital for a few days before he passed.  I knew I needed to explain to her why mommy and daddy were going to be gone so much and why they were so sad.  I believed it would be better for her in the long run if she was able to see him one last time. I was well aware that seeing her grandfather lying in a hospital bed with wires and tubes all over him would taint her perspective of what a hospital was for.   If in the near future she had to go to the hospital for stitches or a broken bone she would remember this event.  However, I knew that we would be able to deal with that when it happened.  That weekend, she needed to be present for at least some of this family event.  The temporary concern she had would, in the end, be a good for her.  From it she would learn that people get sad and worried but that through crying and sadness, the constant pain gets better and eventually goes away.   

The truth is she had a few rough weeks.  Part of that was due to the fact her daddy and I were very busy and distracted and part of it was her trying to make sense of what she saw and heard.  She made several comments through the week that made it obvious to us that she did not fully understand what we had said but that also made it clear she was attempting to understand and deal with it. 

What you tell a child in this type of event, whether it be a death in the family or a national tragedy, greatly depends on a few things.  What your belief about God or afterlife is, and what developmental level your child is and how sensitive he is.  And this does not just mean what age your child is.  One 4 year old might be able to hear in detail about a tornado that destroyed a town and another 4 year old might be terrified by hearing much beyond – a big storm came and broke a lot of things. 

I cannot tell every person reading this today what to say, I wish it were that simple.  There are too many variables that go into deciding what to say.  You as parents or caregivers know your children’s development level, what scares them and what faith you want to instill in them.  If you would like help with making this decision you can always contact me for a coaching session. 

The moods we have around our children become the moods they feel.  Whether you tell your child what you're sad about or not, your child is going to feel sad.  Being open and honest about why you are sad will help your child develop the emotional tools to get through loss and tragedy in the future.  As you openly work through your stages of grief your child will witness first hand a healthy way to deal with his grief. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Does praise really form high self-esteem?

Creating good self-esteem in your child means that you make him feel valuable and capable. A child with high self-esteem believes there is something he is good at and is more willing to try new activities.  Giving a child a good sense of self-esteem is like giving him wings to soar with. 

Most parents have been conditioned to think that the best way to give their child good self-esteem is to praise him and tell him “good job.”  Though I do believe you should praise and encourage your child, constant praise can actually be harmful.  
When your child is inundated with praise for every small accomplishment, he becomes addicted to it.  He hears “Great job putting the dishes away.”  “That picture is amazing.”  “I am so proud that you cleaned your room.”  That constant “reassurance” becomes commonplace to him.  He never has the chance to think about how he feels he has done because before he can even consider his emotions, we come in and TELL him how he should feel. “YOU did great,”  “I am proud.”

After a while, your child does not know he has done a good job until someone tells him.  Your child could work hard on a class assignment but doesn’t “feel” accomplished until you say, “You did a great job.”  He is conditioned to hear it from us.  Around the age of 13 (often earlier) our child begins to care less about what his parents, caregivers and teachers think of him and more about what his friends and peers think.  You have now trained him to only feel pride when others accept the accomplishment.  Your child begins to act in ways to get approval from other kids and we have a major issue with peer pressure. 

Wow I bet I just scared a few parents out there.  To think that could happen from just saying “good job” too much.  For me it is often an automatic response.  Changing this habit is hard.  But it is NEVER too late to start to form high self-esteem through teaching your child to take pride in his own work. 

1.       The next time you tell your child that he did a great job, add a question to the end of it.  “Great job putting the dishes away.  Did you work hard to finish them?”  “That picture is amazing!  Are you happy with how it looks?”  “I am so proud that you cleaned your room.  Does it feel good to have a clean room?” Ask questions that make your child consider if he likes his work and the feeling he gets from doing it. 
2.       As you begin to add these questions to your statement, eventually you will learn to put them at the beginning of your statement.
3.      Use the praise phrases for events that are really special or when you are having a special “moment.”  For example if he went out of his way to help someone or you are taking a walk with him.

Remember to let your child do things by himself whenever possible.  Things will not always be done the way you want them to and messes will get made.  But these are our “grown up” issues.  Look at the bigger picture, you are helping your child form a great sense of pride and helping him to be comfortable trying new things. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why is my child so upset about the goldfish that died 8 months ago?

You know the moment.  You are talking to your child about some “wrong” action that she has performed. You are being loving yet firm, explaining that it was not the right choice.  You are even validating her feelings and emotions about why she committed the act.  Then out of left field comes “I miss Goldie.” 

Now Goldie was the “creatively” named goldfish she had for 3 months last fall.  He died months ago.  You had a little funeral and discussed how people, animals and plants don’t live forever.  Neither you nor she has mentioned the fish in over 6 months.  How could she still be sad about the silly fish? 

There are a few possibilities for why Goldie has made this reappearance.  The first is the possibility that she has not fully grieved for the pet.  Children’s grief process follows the same pattern as adults, though it may look different.  I know that I (as well as many adults) have suddenly thought of an animal friend that passed months or even years early and I suddenly find myself missing him all over again.  Who knows, there might have been something said in the conversation or something that she saw as she was looking around that reminded her of the sad event.  This is a definite possibility though less likely. 

It could be a distraction method your child has found useful in the past.  Bringing up an event that she is aware is a sad event might work because it is difficult to argue with.  Losing a pet is a sad.  During that initial grief period there were most likely extra gifts, treats, attention and patience.  Your child might simply be longing for those things again as she is faced with getting in “trouble.”

What is most likely happening is that your child is truly sad about what she has just done and the “lecture” she is now getting. In her mind she is trying to make sense of it all.  The human brain is an amazing thing. All of these memories linked together.  The emotion of “loosing” something she is now faced with because of her actions has reminded her of the “loss” of her pet.  Her brain is connecting dots so fast that she doesn’t even know it. 

Chances are the true reason for this sudden reappearance of Goldie is a mixture of two or all three of these possibilities.  Luckily the response should be the same. 

1.        Briefly let your child know that sometimes we are sad about losing a friend for a long time and validate the sadness that has been brought to the surface by saying that it is okay to be sad about Goldie. 
2.       Let her know you are more than happy to talk about it at a different time. 
3.       Then bring the conversation back to the issue at hand. 

Don’t accuse your child of trying to distract you but don’t let it be a very long tangent.  She will soon learn it is not an effective way to sidetrack you.  If she is still grieving, you have given her the opportunity to discuss it at a later time.  Be sure to actually do this.  Her mind is just trying to make sense of everything.  Validating the sadness for the pet quickly, then moving back to the issue at hand, will help her hold onto the memory that you are now trying to address with her.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How can I make playing with my child less boring?

Parents often tell me that they just don’t know how to play with their kids or that it seems boring.  Most of the time parents comment that there is not enough time in the day.  Understanding how collaborative play benefits you and your children might motivate you to set aside the time and engage, but how can it be made interesting?

The first thing to do is to think about your childhood.  What were your favorite things to play?  Chances are you would still get a kick out of playing with them.  I used to love to build with Lincoln Logs and when given the chance could spend hours putting together a entire village.  Pull out some old pictures of you from childhood or talk to your parents if you can’t remember. 

The smallest thing can spark the imagination of a child.  Play with children is not “entertaining” them.  Most of the time you don’t have to do much beyond getting on the floor.  Children come up with the wildest ideas, just take the idea and run with it. 

Let go of all the “grownup” things in life. Look at the world through the eyes of your child during your play time.   Be silly and have fun.   

Here are a few specific ideas.  I hope they spark your inner-child.  And feel free to comment at the end with your own ideas. 
  • Play School – their turn to be teacher
  • Run around like monkeys or another animal
  • Dance to some music
  • Play a sport your child likes
  • Write a story together or draw a several pictures that make a story
  • Blind Guess- Put a bunch of random objects in a dark colored pillowcase.  Ask them to put their hand it and without looking guess what it is.  Let them do it for you. 
  • I spy
  • 20 questions, think of a cartoon character
  • Do a Lego’s set with them
  • Play Barbie’s and dolls
  • Dress up.  Let them dress up in your clothes
  • Be super heroes.
  • Get out all the matchbox cars and put together a track with card board. 
  • Video or computer games (if you have them) believe it or not are a great way to bond.  Most kids have a favorite and would love it if you knew a little bit about it.  And they will love beating you at the game even more.
  • There are tons of new ways to do old board games.  Or get out your old board games. 
  • Color or paint. Sometimes the simplest thing is the best. 
  • Build a fort in your living room or under your dining room table. 
  • Have a tea party.
  • Tickle monster, wrestle and chase are great impromptu games to play.  Just make sure you are not always the one chasing or tickling.  Give them some power in it too. 
  • Take a walk together and collect things.  You could keep a box of the things you collect or you could make a picture from the collection. 
  • Make music with stuff from around the house: pots, pans, and plastic containers, whatever.  Create a parade for when dad (mom) comes home. 
  • Pretend you are an animal and let them be the owner
  • Line up chairs and make a train.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Managing Stress - Strategies for School Year Success

            A few years back, I had the pleasure of working with Anna, a bright and lively second grade student. This child was a free spirit. She enjoyed being active and had a lot of pent up energy to release after a long day of school. Each day she'd come home and run all over the house. Getting her to sit down and do her homework seemed like an impossible task. The stress it caused as everyone in her family worked to get her to sit and focus was overwhelming. By the end of each evening, everyone was emotionally and physically exhausted. And guess what?  The homework still wasn’t done.
            As I met with Anna, and her family and considered their situation, I knew we had to create a system that would work for everyone and reduce the stress and effort it would take to get Anna to cooperate. But before we could move forward with a plan, we needed to define our expectations.
            Did we expect Anna to sit and do 30 minutes of homework?
            Did we expect her to complete her assignments without a break?
            Based on her temperament, it was clear that we'd need to accept small, focused amounts of time sprinkled with an outlet for physical activity in between.
            As we devised our plan, we included a healthy, nutritious snack that she could enjoy while she was working. We also created a chart that outlined her new afterschool routine so she could see what we expected. From the chart, she'd know she would first have to wash up when she came home, then she could spend a few minutes chatting with her mom, then her homework time would begin.  The chart had pictures of her doing activities, like jump roping, dancing or jumping up and down in between chunks of homework time so she could clearly see and look forward to her breaks.
            After a few weeks on her new schedule, Anna experienced a sense of control as she learned to manage her responsibilities more effectively. The work became less overwhelming and the stress level in the home went down significantly.

Adina Lederer
ACPI Certified Coach for Parents and Families
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