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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Over-Reactive Parenting Linked to Problem Behaviors in Young Children

Researchers at Oregon State University have published important research for parents of infants and toddlers. They have identified a link between toddlers who become easily upset and act out, and parents who anger easily and over-react. The researchers looked at children at 9, 18 and 27 months of age and found that parents who were quick to anger had children who were acting out and having more temper tantrums than normal for their age.

Shannon Lipscomb, and assistant professor of human development and family sciences at OSU-Cascades, said that “Parents’ ability to regulate themselves and to remain firm, confident and not over-react is a key way they can help their children to modify their behavior,” she said. “You set the example as a parent in your own emotions and reactions.”

This research speaks directly to the importance of protecting young children from unmitigated displays of strong adult emotion, a common occurrence in families in transition. Parents who are divorcing or separating while children are young -- infancy through toddler hood -- need to pay close attention to this research since families in transition are prone to emotional volatility including frequent expressions of anger as they adjust to the traumatic changes in family life.

For example, the disciplinary intervention of time outs should be reserved for serious behavioral problems not the ordinary and frequent testing of limits and boundaries that is the developmental norm for this age. Reliance on time-outs for every developmentally appropriate limit-testing behavior will likely result in more acting out and more temper tantrums.

Parents of young children need to primarily rely on the skills of teaching, protecting, structuring, nurturing, and scaffolding in the frequent interactions required with this age group. They need to create the norm of giving age-relevant choices to the child and quickly intervening with firm and loving redirection if the child is not able to respond in a cooperative manner.

For example, offer a choice between 2 objects that are safe and interesting to explore orally rather than simply removing the unsafe object and saying "no." Or for a toddler, offering a choice between 2 objects that are designed for pounding and removing either the child or the object that not designed for pounding. Simply saying no and expecting the child to obey is a set-up for the parent and the child. Choices and consequences are learned through multiple interactions between parent and child every day...actually every hour for the young child.

If you are a parent in the midst of family transition and you know are more emotional and more sensitive than usual, then get some help with your child to protect them from your adult emotions/issues. Ask your friends and family members for help with your child so that you get breaks to take care of yourself. Take advantage of the free programs offered at community centers and libraries where you can be with other parents with young children. Call 2-1-1 and find out what resources are available for you and your child.

Family transition is tough for everybody and we know that the behavior of the parents is critical in determining the outcome for the children. It is in the best interest of your child to have a parent who is consciously focused on responding and not reacting, and it is in your best interest, too.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I Will Not Lie to My Child!

This phrase -- "I will not lie to my child" -- is sometimes stated with great emphasis, an air of moral outrage or moral superiority, and disdain that it even needs to be verbalized. The belief/value that underlies the phrase for the disdainful is a distortion of the truth, sometimes subtle, but more often exaggerated. The implication is that the person they are saying this too has just suggested this high crime. These parents are unlikely to be open to ideas for communicating about the family issues in a more child-friendly manner.

Sometimes the phrase is expressed with a question mark "...but I shouldn't lie to my child, should I?" These parents are just not sure how to handle questions their children ask and how much or how little information to give. They differ from the first group because they really want to be helpful and supportive and they are concerned about hurting their children in some way. They are open to new information and ideas.

Here is an example of a common experience that newly separated parents have when their children are suddenly living in 2 different homes instead of the same home. A father says that he always corrects his children when they refer to the family residence as "mommy's house." Dad explains that he wants to make sure the children are not operating with incorrect information so he tells them that the house actually still belongs to both Daddy and Mommy. And then he is surprised when the children ask why he doesn't live there anymore.

When I suggest that his children don't process information like little adults but rather with the brains/cognition of a child, he becomes upset. "Are you saying that my children don't deserve to know the truth!?!?" Of course I'm not, I say. I try to explain that I am just suggesting that he consider life from their point of view and not his own. I suggest that the children most likely think of the place where mom lives and sleeps as "mommy's house" and the place where dad lives and sleeps as "daddy's house."

He nods his head in agreement. "That's right, they do. I have explained that to them, too." This time I don't have to even ask for an explanation. He freely offers it: "when they referred to my apartment as 'daddy's house' I explained that Daddy isn't able to afford to live in a house like mommy does since daddy paid for mommy's house so daddy lives in what is called an apartment." This father is earnest and he deeply cares for his children. And, he isn't able to hear how confusing his message is because he's focused on his impulse to defend himself and make sure he gets credit for his hard work and efforts in the past.

So I use a simple example from a different life area. I asked him if he agrees with the practice of selling some magazines only to adults. I ask him if he would take his 4 and 6 year olds to an R-rated movie? Would he read a Stephen King novel to the children for a bedtime story? Like most adults, he would protect his children from these materials because the content is not appropriate for them. And he doesn't think of it as "lying." He thinks of it as common sense because obviously children should not be exposed to such adult topics, emotions, images and so on.

As we continue to talk, Dad begins to understand the similarity between the adult issues he is sharing freely with the children and the adult materials he would protect his children from. He begins to identify his own over-sharing of detail and the fact that he has been repeatedly giving his children information that they have not asked for and, equally important, he realizes that the details he has given them have not helped and in some cases have clearly been confusing or troubling to the children.

As he processes his situation from a different perspective, he is able to realize that he's feeling defensive and competitive with Mom, as if the children's love for him is based on the financial details of the marital relationship rather than the simple and wonderful reality that the children love him because he is their 'Daddy."

Friends and family members can be more of a liability then an asset during the break-up of the family because they are so emotionally invested. It's important for Mom and Dad to identify people within their support system who can listen with both caring and objectivity. Honest feedback delivered in a caring and supportive manner goes a long way in helping parents process one of the most challenging family situations any of us can face - the shattering of the dream of a happy family all living together and sharing a long, fulfilling together. The transition from that dream to a new dream is rarely easy for anyone.

Some basic guidelines can help. Don't talk about adult issues in front of the children. When you feel a sudden emotional reaction to something your child says, stifle your reaction and bite your tongue. Words once spoken can't be taken back and the impact cannot truly be undone. Make a commitment to yourself as a parent and to your children that you will make every effort every day to respond to difficult topics and not react.

Who Taught You That?!

Don't make disparaging remarks about the other parent in front of your child.

Don't use your child to gather information about the other parent's home.

Most co-parents in family court have heard these cautions from a judge, lawyer, mediator, or counselor. Some parents comply and some don't. Some parents at least make the effort to comply and some don't.

A prohibition against such behavior is routinely made a part of court orders which -- at least in theory -- means contempt of court if a parent does engage in such behavior.

Some parents use a work-around, either consciously or unconsciously, to find a way to implicitly criticize the other parent. Here are some variations:
Who taught you that?
Where did you learn that?
You never did that before!

These are not so subtle ways of disparaging the other parent. The child can tell from both the question and the tone of voice that someone in his or her life is clearly doing something wrong. And, it's clear to the child that the parent asking him or her the question would NEVER allow the child to learn something like that because the parent asking the question ALWAYS does everything the right way!

Some of the problems with this approach are obvious. The most obvious is that moral superiority and moral outrage are not very attractive on anyone! One problem may not be so obvious. The parent in this situation is assuming a couple of things. First, that the behavior of the child is someone's fault other than the child and second, that the child would not be doing this unless the family ____________________________ . You fill in the blank. The filled in blank is some version of family life being different now than it used to be.

What's the problem? The parent is letting the child know that he or she either isn't responsible for their own behavior, or is communicating that they just can't help it. However, most of the time, children's behavior is developmentally appropriate to their age, personality, sibling and peer status, and development in a number of areas. Rarely is a child's behavior only the result of one person or a particular life situation. Blaming someone (like the other parent or their friends/relatives) or blaming a life situation (like separation, divorce, or a restraining order) gives the Child an excuse to behave badly. Even if there is a direct link between a divorce and a Child's unkind/destructive behavior toward others, the problem is still the behavior and the Child is responsible and needs to learn the natural consequences of that behavior.

If your child spits in your face, which of these actions do you think addresses the issue:
(a) at the first opportunity, write a note to the parent in other home asking them to please tell the Child not to spit in your face;
(b) ask the Child "Who taught you to do that?"
(c) put the Child on time out immediately and limit his or her contact with other people for the rest of the day because of the choice he or she made.

Hopefully, you picked the third option. It's the behavior that is the problem, not where it came from or who is responsible or what it might mean. If the behavior is happening right now with you, then it is your problem. And it is your responsibility to address it in a firm manner that clearly communicates your expectations about the child's behavior. If you allow the behavior to occur without a consequence or without an adequate consequence because of your personal conflicts about your adult life, then the Child gets the message that it's okay to engage in bad behavior because there is someone else to blame and someone else to hold responsible.

Respect your Child and his or her ability to learn, care and make positive life choices. Empower your Child to claim responsibility for his or her own behavior. Nurture your Child's self-esteem by assuming he or she has the ability to become a competent partner in relationship to other people.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why “Here and Now?”

STAY IN THE HERE AND NOW is one of the toughest guidelines for parents to follow in the supervised visitation environment. It is hard for them to simply be with their child, play together, and participate in shared activities and shared experiences.

Adults relate to a large degree by asking questions and children do not. If you watch and listen to children of almost any age you will not hear them interacting by asking and answering questions. They look at each other, greet each other, and immediately engage with each other in some kind of activity.

Pay attention, parents, because that is how children connect and relate to people. Exploration and experience in a shared relationship with significant others leads to emotional connection, feelings of security and happiness, and moments of shared humor and enjoyment. Spending time in the "now" with another human being is how you create, maintain, nurture, develop, rekindle, or rebuild relationships.

Children live in the present moment, not in the past. Very young children do not even have any idea what yesterday, today, and tomorrow mean. Actually, they don't even understand "wait just a second." They only know "NOW." The child is hungry NOW! The child wants picked up NOW! The child wants you to hand them something they are pointing at that you can't even identify NOW! And so on.

Many parents who have experienced a separation from their child/ren want to show pictures of good times they have had in the past. Or they want to bring a home video from the past from a birthday party or some special event to show the child. These tangible, concrete objects have great meaning for the adult who has well-developed cognition and memory, including the ability to invest strong mental and emotional energy into people, places, things, and ideas.

Children are not just small adults...they are different in every way. Their brains work completely differently from grown-ups. For example, if an adult hears the phrase "the Prince of Wales" or "the Princess of Wales" they think of a royal personage with a particular lineage and place in the world. Children may just get confused because they had no idea that Sea World even had a Prince or Princess!! So instead of bringing photos or a home video, bring a ball, or balloon, or bubbles, or a game. Bring something you can talk about and enjoy together in the NOW!

If something makes a Child think about the past it is because something right in front of them that they are experiencing right this moment links them back to an image, word, idea, or feeling. The key is EXPERIENCING not thinking or talking. And that link is quite transitory and may not even be expressed in a way that an adult will know that it occurred. However, parents often bring up the past as a way to get the Child to focus on something that is meaningful to the parent but it's not going to connect that Child to the parent in a helpful way if at all. That is because it has nothing to do with what the Child is experiencing with all of his or her senses in the NOW! It takes the Child completely out of the very moment in direct relationship to the parent which is really where that parent wants the Child to find and feel a meaningful connection.

"Do you remember when..." is usually an attempt, often benign and misdirected, to manipulate the Child’s thoughts and feelings as a way of reassuring the parent that the Child remembers and loves the parent. That dramatic shift in focus away from NOW -- which may not even be understood by the Child -- makes it harder for the Child to just be present, connect, play, and interact. The physical, emotional and mental presence and focus of the parent in the HERE AND NOW is what will naturally create or remind the Child of a positive emotional experience with the parent.

Another common inclination of adults is to talk about the future. "Maybe someday we can...." Again, don't go there. The "future" for children is much, much sooner than the "future" for a parent. Do you remember the night before a special day when you were 3 or 5 or 13 or even 15?! That night seemed to last FOREVER :-(

Adults are reassured by the notion that "someday things will be different." And that's a good thing because it helps us hang in there, do the next step, tolerate the inconvenience, find opportunity in the chaos and so on. Not so much with children. The best example is the drive from you home to Disneyland. How many times do the kids say either "are we there yet" or "how much longer 'til we're there?" Pay attention parents. Try to think about what you say from the perspective of your child. And if you don't know how a 3 or 5 or 13 or 15 year old thinks...Google it!

Parents in supervised visitation sometimes make a casual reference to their Child like, "maybe next visit we will...." The next visit comes and the other parents might tell the Supervisor that the Child hasn't been fed because the visiting parent had told the Child at the end of the last visit that they would walk to a nearby restaurant this week. Then the visiting parent shows up with no intention of going to the nearby restaurant because, to the adult, it was a maybe plan and not a promise. Not so for the Child who may be anywhere from disappointed to inconsolable and that Child is HUNGRY NOW! Future promises are incredibly easy for a parent to make even when they are unaware that is how it is experienced by the Child. Safest to stay in the NOW or make sure you remember what you suggest/promise for the next visit and deliver on that.

If you think that your Child needs reassurance right NOW because he or she is having feelings that hurt, how about saying, "I love you," or "I with I could make you feel better, but I will always love you." Stay in the NOW and provide nurturing in the NOW. That will reassure your Child that you are here for them and that you are strong enough and capable enough to handle their sad or hurt or lonely or angry feelings.

There are plenty of resources available for parents to read and learn about the developmental ages, stages, needs and appropriate parenting approaches for children of any age. Take advantage of that and be proactive. If you are someone who learns better by reading, listening and discussing information, then take a parenting or co-parenting class.

We are all able to only live in the NOW. Our brains may be able to take us into the past and project into the future, but that is not where we live. Most adults need to pray, meditate, exercise, do yoga, and engage in a multitude of other behaviors in order to just be in the present moment. Your Child wakes up in the moment and lives there all day long. Learn from your Child/ren. They have much to teach all of us.