14 Dec

It’s Time to Slow Down

Hey there! I just wanted to give you a hand here on how to make things easier for you as a parent. I bet you’ve tried a lot of different things to make sure you’re the best mom or dad possible for your kids. Of course, you love your children so much and would do anything to help them be the best people they can be in life. You want them to succeed so badly that you feel your main job with them is to insist that they behave decently, make wise decisions, and treat others with kindness and respect. These are all noble goals, however, it’s one thing to want to achieve them and another to confront the reality that you’re living right now. Let’s admit it, kids can really get to you and drive you crazy! They throw fits, talk back, ignore or disobey you to the point that I bet you sometimes you wish you could just shut the door and pretend they weren’t yours.

Of course you’ve tried to reason with them so they’d understand why you want them to do what you tell them to do. And when they don’t listen, you’ve surely tried giving them all kinds of warnings and consequences. Sometimes you put them in time out or take away a privilege, hoping that it’ll get them to do, or not do, whatever it was that you wanted. This sometimes works, sometimes not. In the long run, you end up spending a lot of time thinking of ways to get your kids to obey and to act decently to other people.

One thing that rewards and punishment doesn’t do is to give kids an internal reason to want to be good. Yes, everyone likes to get rewards, but eventually the rewards get less and less effective. Your kid may love the first hour of video games you let him play, but by the time he gets to the second or third hour, it’s all the same. He just wants more and more, yet still hasn’t figured out how to motivate himself to do his school work or the chores around the house. Maybe your daughter wins the privilege of having a later bedtime or more hours with her smart phone. That doesn’t help her learn to speak kindly to her brother or sister, nor does it make her stop rolling her eyes at any “advice” you’ve given her. You can’t bribe a child into being a good person.

In fact, the only way you’re going to succeed in teaching “good” behavior to your kids is by practicing that behavior yourself. And by practicing, I mean consistently and consciously staying aware of your own moods and being able to stop yourself when you’re having a knee-jerk reaction. Whenever you see yourself becoming angry or frustrated with your child’s horrific behavior, whenever you notice yourself becoming scared that you’ll never be able to raise kids who will be respectful, kind, and responsible, then it’s time to slow down. Take a few slow, deep breaths. I mean really slow. Allow that exhale to last way longer than your inhale, because that’s what slows down the fight-or-flight reaction that makes your face hot, your heart beat quickly, and your fists clench. Once you’ve settled yourself and feel calm, you’ll see that you can think more clearly. This is when you ask yourself, what exactly do I want to accomplish with my child at this moment? Try to tease away the fears and the “shoulds” and the “shouldn’ts.” Your priority is to figure out what’s going on with your child, what emotions or ideas are possessing her that have her behaving like this right now.

Let’s look at a situation that happened with a 13-year-old girl who would not pay attention in class, usually pulled a glum face when her teachers tried to get her to do the work, and complained constantly about the other kids. When this girl, who we’ll call Laeticia, would come home with notes from the teachers, her mom would get mad and take away computer or phone privileges. Without fail, Laeticia would have harsh words with her mom and then would go to her room and sulk. Of course, this solved nothing, because Laeticia was so angry she couldn’t focus on anything other than her grievances. Oh, grievances, you say? Nobody ever bothered to try and understand what was going on in Laeticia’s head while she sat in school all day, defying her teachers and being grumpy.

If someone had so much approached this troubled girl and made it perfectly safe for her to express herself, without being corrected or reproached, without having her feelings denied or minimized, or without having her thoughts discounted as illogical or inappropriate, then she might have opened up. If an adult could have taken the time to actually listen to her without judging her words or behaviors, they might have seen something else. Perhaps she would have told them how hard it’s been for her since her father left them a few years back. Maybe she would have said that she’s lonely when she comes home to an empty house after school or when her mom doesn’t have time to sit patiently with her, because her single mom is working full time and doing all the housework each evening. Or that the lunchroom is so noisy and chaotic that she loses her appetite and then ends up irritable the rest of the day. And, if she really thought that it was okay for her to open up, perhaps Laeticia would have told her mom how much it hurt her when her friend has been ignoring her for days and sitting with other girls at lunch. Instead, Laeticia keeps all this bottled up until she gets home. And when her very first encounter with her mom is a reproach, she explodes.

Think of how it might have been if Laeticia’s mom, upon seeing the note from school, had taken the opportunity to sit quietly with her daughter and told her, “I’m here for you, honey. Seems like you had a tough day today.” Perhaps Mom could have placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, or simply stood quietly, calm and composed, just waiting and listening to her child’s story, whenever she might have been ready to tell it. Laeticia would be more likely to open up when she felt “safe” enough to let it all out. By safe, I mean that Laeticia would know that her mom wouldn’t scold her or tell her what she should have or could have done, that her feelings wouldn’t be dismissed as unjustified or petty. Whatever Laeticia was experiencing was valid and true for her at this moment in her life. What she most needed was for someone to step up and let her know that it was okay to feel her feelings and think her thoughts. With reassurance and peaceful acceptance, her mom could have help the child be okay with sad or angry feelings and not let them overwhelm her to the boiling point. When a child can see and feel their emotions, and then put a name to them, they become more manageable. Daniel Siegel, an renowned author and expert on children’s minds, put it this way, you’ve got to “name it to tame it.” Helping a child put a label on their big feelings, and doing this tentatively without having to be right, contributes to the child feeling understood and validated. Being there quietly and unconditionally, gives the child the warmth of her parent’s emotional presence. Your relationship and your empathy communicate emotional safety that allows the child to quiet her fears and reactivity.

This moment of being in relationship with your child is an example of how your right brain––the one that sees the whole picture, the part that’s guided by intuition, that’s motivated by deep feelings of connection and love––activates and connects with your child’s right brain. It’s as if a circuit lights up and you and your child are both comforted. You finally get what your child is trying to tell you. You get it so well that you can reflect back the gist of what she’s really communicating. And, at this point, she’s calm enough to settle back into her balanced, more mature self. Her left brain––the part that can use higher level thinking to understand reason and solve problems––comes back into play. This is the moment where you can ask yourself why she may have behaved the way she did and then figure out what exactly you’d like to teach her and what’s the best way of doing this?

But first, you have to make sure your child is ready. And you need to be ready too! Your approach must be consistent with your family’s values, however you’ll do best to avoid being rigid, preachy, or judgmental. By being with your child, you signal that it’s okay to be upset. Then you help the child come to an understanding of her own feelings. That way she can eventually figure out why she acts the way she does when certain things happen to her. You then can help her with the next step, which is to try to understand how what she says or does could have an impact on others. The final step of this process would be to hold your child accountable for the ways she has hurt or disregarded the feelings or property of another person. This would be done with neutral language that is respectful and has no trace of anger, criticism, blaming, or shaming. You would gently inquire and help her to articulate her own ideas about how she might make things right with the person who was harmed by her words or actions.

Although it may seem complex and tiresome to go through this process with your child, you will be saving time and energy in the long run. Being with your child in this warm, yet firm and connected, way will help you build a strong relationship that actually encourages the child to want to behave appropriately. The warmth of this bond is what soothes the reactive part of your child’s brain and helps her make decisions that are respectful and kind to others. Eventually, this kind of listening and bonding will come naturally to you. All in all, you both grow stronger and more considerate. Call it a win–win solution.

To your peaceful parenting!

15 Jul

Nature Play Saves the Day! 5 Fun Ways to Get Your Child to Enjoy the Outdoors

If you’re like millions of other parents, you’ve been social distancing for months, haven’t traveled, and, most of the time, your kids are stuck at home––often on the computer, their iPads, or playing on a game console. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a child who enjoys quietly reading a book or playing indoors, you probably wish they’d get out of the house for some fresh air. Unfortunately, many kids have little idea what they can do with themselves when they’re outside.

Getting your kids outside, though, can help lift them, and you, out of the blues that come from being in lockdown during this Covid-19 pandemic. Research shows that people of all ages are happier, healthier, both mentally and physically, if they spend time playing in nature. Being out in nature can help your kid be more aware of their body movement in space and helps them be in tune with inner sensations that regulate their sleep, appetite and moods. Playing in nature helps a child feel calmer and more focused, and it can undo the stress of being isolated from friends and missing school, summer camp, or family. Time spent in a natural environment has been shown to decrease a person’s depression and anxiety.

All you need to do is pack up a thermos of water and snacks for you and your child, get on your bug repellent and hat, and invite your kid on a “nature adventure.” You don’t need a big park for these mini-adventures. Explore the nooks and crannies of your neighborhood and you’ll surely find bits of nature––a tree, some bushes, a home garden, or any outdoor area with plants or grass.

Here are five ideas (adapted from Joseph Cornell’s book, Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages) of how you and your child can cultivate quiet attention and an ability to focus on and observe nature while you both have fun. These activities are geared mainly for the younger, 3 to 7 or so year-old, child.

1. The Sound Game:

You and your child sit on the ground. Tell them to hold their closed fists up and then lift a finger when they hear a new sound. This could be a bird call, a squirrel’s scampering, branches rustling, or any natural sound. They might be able to pick out sounds better when their eyes are closed. Ask them if they can hear ten sounds. See if you can do this, too.

2. A Sound Map:

Bring some markers or crayons, a notepad or a piece of paper with a board to keep it steady. Mark an “x” in the middle of the paper. Have your kid choose a place to sit. Tell them to make a mark on the paper to show where the sound came from: to the right or left of the “x” or in front of them (top of page) or behind. It can be a simple mark that stands for what they saw (i.e. a musical note for a bird, wavy lines for wind). They might want to close their eyes and cup their hands in front of or behind their ears (“fox ears”) to hear better. This game can be played anywhere, but works best where there’s a variety of habitats. Let your child’s age and attention span be the guide for how long you give them to play. When they’re done, you can talk about what they heard. Were any of the sounds familiar? Did they know what made it? What sound did they like the best?

3. The Color Game:

Pick out a color that you might see in the natural surroundings you are exploring. Ask your child to find 2, 3, or more things that are that color. Or, see if they can find different variations of a color, such as different shades of green. Look at the sky, or at a pond, lake, or fountain, and see how many different colors your child can see in it.

4. Close Up Hike

You can do this with a cell phone or with a magnifying glass. Give your kid a piece of yarn or a string and have them find a place to lay it out on the ground. Have them use the cell phone camera or the magnifying glass to examine the tiniest things: insects, seeds, grasses, miniature pebbles. Encourage the child to look closely and see the details of what’s going on below them. Let your child’s level of interest be the guide to how long you give them to do this exploration. Maybe a few minutes, perhaps longer.

When you’re done doing an activity, you might talk with your child about what they liked best about this nature adventure. You can take out the markers or crayons and each draw a picture about something you saw, heard, or did. Make sure to take the time to let your child tell their story. Let them know you value what they have to say, their observations, their feelings, and their beliefs. If your child is curious about your picture, you can share something about your experience, too. Just be sure to keep it simple and authentic. This isn’t about teaching your kid about science, although, that too, can be a side topic. Try to think about this as a magical moment of storytelling where you get to bond with your child and share a connection with nature through each other’s eyes and ears.

Have fun!

–– Kim

08 Jul

Covid-19 Masks of Mad: Parenting Solutions to Calm the Storm of Anger

Covid-19 is tipping our world upside down. Your kids are just as sad and worried as you are. No wonder they’re irritable, throwing fits over the most trivial frustrations.

Your toddler has a meltdown when he can’t have his favorite cereal. Your daughter stomps her feet and turns over the game board, because she didn’t win. Your teen explodes when his sister plays his video game without asking first. Your once cheerful preteen son is dejected, because he can’t see friends or go to the summer camp he loves.

Your mood isn’t much better. You worry about the job you lost or your safety if you have to go back. If school reopens, you’re worried about your kids getting sick or bringing Covid-19 home to you and older family members. Or if school doesn’t open, you’ve got concerns about safe, affordable child care. People around you are getting sick, and, so far, there’s no cure or vaccine in sight. Your kids aren’t the only ones who feel like prisoners in their own house. It seems like so long ago when you got to party with friends, go to weddings, graduations, or funerals in person. Without wanting to, you and your kids have become experts at Zoom, Google Meets, and all forms of virtual communication.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has shown us the fragility of our mental, physical health, and financial health. As it ravages our economy and challenges our sanity, many of us feel helpless, stressed, and worried, and then mask those uncomfortable feelings with anger.

In the face of anxiety and depression, anger is something that gives us an illusion of control. Taking concrete action, even if fueled by anger, helps us feel clarity and confidence––even a physical sense of release from the doldrums of depression, worry, and apathy.

Our kids also find relief in anger, which has been shown to wreak havoc on the nervous system, affecting moods, sleep, and health. We can become physically and emotionally sick if we don’t have skills to deal with this overwhelming emotion. And, although anger itself isn’t the enemy, during this pandemic shutdown, we’ve seen a spike in domestic violence and child abuse fueled by out-of-control anger.

To break the stranglehold of anger on yourself and your family, you first need to see those feelings in yourself. As your kids’ role model, you can show them how to identify and handle those powerful emotions before they become unmanageable.

Here are a few tips for finding your calm in the storm:

1. Pay attention to what’s positive. See what’s great about your situation, your family, friends, or your child. No matter how annoying, you can find always find something about them to be grateful about.

• Write down what you love about each of your kids, or about anyone among your friends, family, or colleagues.

2. Nurture your relationships. Find time to have fun with your kids, connect with family and friends, or be friendly to your neighbors.

• Play with your kids, even for 5 or 10 minutes. Let them tell you what they want to do––this encourages connection.

• Make up routines and rituals for you and your kids to share feelings. (i.e., something I liked today; things I like about someone in the family; what bothered me today; what I’m looking forward to tomorrow).

3. Help others: see the bigger picture and be part of the solution.

• Discuss issues that affect your children and let them help you decide which community organizations you’d like to support as a family.

• Help a neighbor with groceries, pet care, or yard work.

4. Be your own best friend by taking care of yourself. Eat healthy. Get exercise. Give yourself enough sleep, even if you have to nap while kids are watching TV. Avoid numbing yourself with alcohol or by overdosing on news or TV. Spend more time outside.

• Try setting a timer to limit the time you spend watching or reading news or social media.

• Read a book, play a board game, take a walk or go to a park with your kids, practice a skill you already know or learn a new one.

5. Recognize the signs of anger in yourself. Is it tightness in your hands or shoulders, a faster heart beat, or your face feeling hot? Don’t worry about feeling these sensations. Name them and know that they don’t last forever. Like clouds drifting across the sky, they simply come and go.

• Teach your kids to meditate. Meditation has many benefits, including resetting the nervous system. Start by ringing a bell or a gong. Have your child focus on breathing slowly and deeply, feeling the cool air coming into the nostrils and the warm air going out. Let her know that, if she’s having thoughts, she can silently say to herself, “thinking,” and go back to feeling the air go in and out. After a few minutes (based on her ability to focus), ring the bell or gong and listen until the sound fades.

• When you feel you’re getting riled up, take a breather. Stop. Breathe. Let go. Connect.

6. Stop what you’re doing. Take a deep slow breath, or as many as you need to feel calm. Shake out your hands. Think about what you might be feeling. What if you were just a fly on the wall, what would you notice? How might you see things differently? Is what you were about to say or do going to be helpful or harmful?

• Do something that’s self-nurturing: wash your face with cool water, listen to calming music, go into another room (if it’s safe to leave your child for a moment), be kind to a pet, give your child a hug (if he’s receptive), or find something silly to laugh about.

During these endless days of quarantine, playfulness, humor, and creative self-care set an example that your children can follow. Your kids look to you to learn how to handle difficult emotions. Instead of unleashing the wrath, give kids tools to put that anger to good use.

To your peaceful parenting!


28 Feb

You Can Be Angry and I’ll Listen to You: The Elephant in the Room is Emotional Self Management


Yesterday, a potential act of violence was nipped in the bud by a high school student who had the courage to report a classmate’s threat. That high school, Staples HS, is in the lovely, affluent town of Westport, CT, where my older brother and his then future wife attended school. The Newtown shootings were in the same county where I grew up. For the past twenty plus years, I’ve been living one county north of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS. I can’t get away from these horrific events.

While we debate whether and how automatic and semi-automatic guns are regulated, who should be armed, and what security measures must be taken in schools, the national discourse is missing a key point. Anger management is not being taught in schools, nor in many families. Our children need to learn how to manage strong feelings without resorting to violence. School shootings––as well as other instances of violence in households and in the streets––can be prevented if children can be educated to bridge their differences while respecting one another.

There are many programs out there that teach children about anger management and conflict resolution, however, in many cases, schools are giving priority to academic subjects, because that’s what gives them the high test scores that bring in better ratings for the school. Too often, school administrators show woeful ignorance of the fact that children who are socially and emotionally well-balanced have the greatest chance of succeeding academically. To be successful in life, and in school, it’s critical that children learn to express their feelings in a way that others can understand. Appropriate self-expression opens the gateway to good communication and the ability to understand and cooperate with others. The ability to handle stress and strong emotions is an essential life skill that parents, caregivers, and school personnel should actively encourage and cultivate in children.

When young people are given the opportunity to discuss issues that truly matter to them without being ridiculed or dismissed, they build resilience. They learn to trust others to listen and have more confidence that their needs will be met. Giving children the privilege of growing up in a climate of kindness and respect will go a long way to solving the problem of kids wanting to kill off their teachers and classmates. And, in the case that someone is left out, at least that person’s classmate will be more inclined to report him to school administrators, who will listen and will take appropriate measure to prevent an act of violence.

Peace begins at home. Let’s work to hear what all of our children are saying. Let’s practice kindness and acceptance, beginning with each other and each child. We can arm our children with the skills of emotional competence so we don’t need to build an arsenal in our schools and our homes.

To your joyful parenting!

17 Aug

Why Punishing Kids Doesn’t Work & 3 Steps to Finding Solutions to Problem Behaviors

Mother scolds the child

Many adults complain that parents ignore or excuse kids’ rude behaviors and don’t punish them enough. “Today’s children are entitled” “They tyrannize their parents.” Parents should teach them a lesson, they say, by giving them tough consequences––a good slap, scolding, or time-out.

I disagree. Punishing isn’t the most effective way of delivering a message of respect or responsibility. Here are some reasons:

  1. Criticism, shaming, and blaming do nothing to teach children how to cooperate and be accountable. Not that a parent should condone the unruly or disrespectful child’s behavior. Far from it. You should be firm about what is acceptable and what’s not. Help your kids be open to learning by approaching them from a place of kindness and respect, not anger and retribution. When you hit or yell at a child for being disrespectful, you’re relying on physical or emotional pain to be the teaching mechanism. True, your kids will remember the pain, but it won’t teach them the long-term life lesson you’d like it to.
  2. Slap your kids and they’ll focus on how unfair and hypocritical you are, not on what you’re trying to teach them. They see their parent lose control and do something––hit or scream––that they know you don’t want them to do. Or, if they’re smart and sneaky, they may strategize how to get away with the behavior that you’re punishing them for by hiding it better next time. Some will hold onto their resentments and plot how to get back at you. Others do this unconsciously by underperforming at school, picking on their siblings, or finding passive-aggressive ways of disappointing or undermining you.
  3. As much as you might like to, you can’t control your kids’ thoughts. If you put kids in time-out and try to get them to “think” about what they did wrong, they quite possibly might sit there and stew in their anger at you for putting them there. They’re not saying in their heads, “Oh, I’m so lucky to have parents who care so much about me that they’ve given me this opportunity to think about how to improve my behavior. I’ll use this time wisely to contemplate why I behaved so poorly, and then I’ll surely figure out how to become a nicer human being!” No, that’s not how it works.
  4. Your kids may take the blame and shame to heart and begin thinking of themselves as “bad” or “unworthy.” You don’t want to diminish your child’s self-respect while trying to encourage respect for others. Doing this teaches them to submit to others, even if it means losing dignity, or gives them carte blanche to wield power over others by trying to force them to submit.

Three Steps to Finding Solutions for Problem Behaviors

In the heat of the moment, neither of you is capable of logical thought. Upset adults react to their children’s upset. This means that they, too, have lost control. And when adults’ judgment is clouded by raging emotions, they’re not able to respond skillfully to their children’s misbehavior. So, Step One is:

  1. To get to the bottom of misbehavior, first you and your kid need a cooling off period so you can get back to your senses. This might mean a positive time-out where each of you finds a calm, safe place to relax and pull yourself together. In your peaceful place, you might listen to soothing music, read a funny or inspirational book, or look at pictures or objects that are calming to you. Your children’s positive places may be equipped with pillows, fun books, stuffed animals or other toys that make them feel relaxed and peaceful. Once you and your child are calm, proceed to Step Two:
  2. Figure out what’s really going on. Take time to connect emotionally and show empathy for your child. What emotions are motivating the misbehavior? When a child acts up, they’re in an upset state. Research shows that people who are upset are in their “reptilian” or limbic brains and their logical, reasoning brains are off-line. To get them into a more balanced, rational state, you need to calm them, or allow them time to calm themselves, and then show empathy. Without condoning the poor behavior, you begin by connecting to your kids emotionally so your kids can access the higher level cognitive skills needed to work on solutions. Use your intuition and be sure to act from your heart. An emotional connection can involve a hand on the shoulder, a kind expression, or a statement showing empathy for the feelings they’re expressing. Only after you’ve connected can you re-direct.
  3. After you’ve established connection, it’s helpful for you to ask “curiosity questions.” Gently inquire with open-ended questions. Encourage kids to figure things out for themselves, instead of telling them what to think. When kids find the solutions themselves, they’re more likely to act on them.

Here are some questions you might ask (from Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline: the classic guide to helping children develop self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills):

“What happened?” or “What’s wrong?”

“What do you think caused it to happen?”

“What were you trying to accomplish?”

“How do you think this affected _______ (the other person or people)?” or “What do you think _______ (someone) felt when this happened?”

“What did you learn from this?”

“How, in the future, can you use what you learned?”

“What ideas do you have for solutions?”

You’ll get a better understanding of your child’s world if you listen carefully, and show empathy and acceptance. Try to avoid asking “why” questions, which invite defensiveness.

For some adults, showing empathy sounds like a “reward” for poor behavior. They believe that kids should “pay” for their misbehavior. However, research has shown that punishment, punitive time-outs, scolding, taking away privileges, and other forms of parental retribution only serve to further activate the child’s limbic system, where dysregulated emotions run the show. Punishment triggers the limbic-based fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, setting the child up to resist and react. At best, the child learns nothing in the process––except perhaps to suppress anger or resentment, better hide the undesirable behavior, or turn the anger inward as low self-esteem or unworthiness.

You have a choice as a parent. You can go down the path of imposing consequences when your kids misbehave, or you can make an effort to connect to your kids with empathy, kindness, and firmness. One strategy for doing this is asking the right questions and allowing children to work on the solutions themselves, and with your help when needed. This opens the door for you to teach them life-long skills in cooperation and problem-solving––a win-win for everyone.

To your joyful and wise parenting!


10 Feb

Taming the Monsters: Your Words Can Work Magic

kids fighting children hitting

It’s been too silent and you know there’s gotta be something wrong. Your household is never this peaceful unless everyone is fast asleep. As soon as you enter the kids’ room, your 3-yr.-old lets loose with a flood of tears that brightens his cherub-like face and a wail that assails your senses. Your 5-yr.-old son, Jordan, is sprawled on the rug, his arms encircling a wide array of toys. He’s imploring you to take his side, “Randy is trying to take them. Their mine! I had them first!” And then, there’s Randy, who manages to whine through his tearful fit, “he hit me!”

Normally, your first instinct is to blame Jordan, because you think he should know better than to hit. He’s been told repeatedly to “use his words.” As the older brother, he knows that’s what he’s supposed to do. Why is it that, as soon as you turn your back, he reverts to this aggressive behavior? Fortunately, you remember to take a deep breathe. You stop and get clear about the whole situation. Then you remember. You were not in the room. You realize that you actually don’t know what happened. It’s all conjecture! You then try to imagine how your older son might have perceived it. You think about what he knows about behaving himself when faced with an irrational, grabby 3-year-old. What exactly are the limits of his self-control in face of his presumed knowledge of “correct” behavior? You tell yourself, quite logically, that 5-year-old Jordan does not really get why his little brother is always into his toys. It’s quite possible that he’s frustrated. Maybe he’s trying to set them up in a way that, to him, looks awesome. Who knows what story he’s telling about those toys in his head? And then, suddenly, the Little Monster is swooping in to demolish everything. You bet he’s mad! And frustrated.

One of the most basic strategies to help a child get control over their feelings is for the adult to name that feeling. Even if you’re not entirely spot on, you can do your best to approximate what you think your child might be experiencing internally. To Randy, the one who got hit, you might say, “oh, that hurt when you got hit and you were sad you couldn’t play. You really want to play with Jordan and he didn’t let you. Those toys are not for grabbing. You can ask for them when he’s done playing with them.”

Then, you might continue with your older child: “Jordan, I see how mad you must be at Randy. He messed up what you were trying to do. It’s so frustrating. He’s not for hitting. You can tell him how mad your are and you can let him know that right now you’re playing with those toys and you don’t want him to take them.”

Of course, Randy will insist, “but I want them,” and he’ll try to grab as many as he can in his little hands. Jordan will then be all over him again. You’re the referee here. Wanting to prevent bloodshed, you go into the “ring” to physically separate them. Again, you let Jordan know that you totally get it––he’s mad at his brother for ruining what he did, but he may not hit his brother. You also tell Jordan he can say he’s mad to Randy and he can tell Randy that he didn’t want him messing up his set up. You can give Jordan another strategy to deal with the situation: perhaps he can ask his brother to wait a few minutes and play with them another time. Jordan simply isn’t mature enough to problem solve this on his own, especially in the heat of the moment when his upper-level thinking skills are off line. Literally, he’s in his lower brain, the emotional limbic part, that has no connection to the part that can reason and “work things out.”

When you name the emotions, or at least attempt to approximate what you think your kids might be feeling, it has the effect of connecting to your child and this will calm them down. Author and neuropsychiatrist, Daniel J. Siegel,  describes this fundamental parenting strategy as “name it to tame it.” (The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Siegel, D. J., and Bryson, T. P., Bantam Books, 2011). By helping your children in this way, you are giving them the tools to learn to become aware of their emotions, and eventually, have self control.

When you acknowledge Randy’s sadness at not getting to play with what his big brother is playing with, you are helping him to understand what’s going on emotionally. This can calm him enough to tame those big, out-of-control emotions, and it can help him reframe the experience so that he could eventually negotiate to have a turn with the toys. And, when you let Jordan know that you understand how mad he is at his brother, you’re giving him a chance to cool down and get out of his lower brain, which operates on the basis of fight or flight. You’re helping him soothe the limbic area of his brain so he can use his “higher” brain or cerebral cortex––the part that uses logical thinking. With the “name it to tame it” approach, your son will eventually learn how to use this part of his brain to think about how his actions could affect other people.

So you haven’t yelled at either of your kids, yet. You haven’t taken one side or another. You’ve simply helped each of them connect with the emotional turmoil they’re feeling, and helped them to slow down enough to calm the storm. As a parent, you need to deconstruct what’s going on in your children’s minds so you can respond appropriately to each situation and each child. That way you can teach them the skills they need to become more aware of their emotions and how to express them appropriately so others can understand. You’ll be giving them access to social skills they need to become happy and successful adults. Welcome to the mindset of Parenting Made Ridiculously Simple!

–– To Your Joyful and Effective Parenting!

21 Sep

Conscious Parenting: 4 Simple Steps to Keep Your Cool as You Grow Your Child’s Brain

discipline, responsibility, conscious parenting, mindfulness, mindful parenting, creative problem solving, Dr Becky Bailey, STAR method, calm parent

This Sunday morning, 6-year old Mary Sue got up well before her parents, so excited to be making them breakfast––”the best-est, special-est breakfast ever!” she thought. From the frig, she got out all the yummy stuff she could think of, eggs, olives, pickles, ketchup, and salsa, dragged out the step stool, and climbed up get a big mixing bowl from the cabinet. As she yanked the bowl out, it slipped out of her small hands and came careening down, knocking over the egg carton on its way to the floor. There was a huge crash as the bowl shattered on the kitchen tiles. Mom and Dad arrived in the kitchen rubbing their eyes and saw Mary Sue standing in the middle of a big, gooey mess. Broken eggs and ceramic shards were everywhere. “I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!” Mary Sue was bawling, “I wanted it to be a surprise. Now it’s all ruined!”

Well, if you were her mom or dad, what would you do? Of course, above all, you’d be concerned for your child’s safety. There’s broken ceramic all over the floor. And, admittedly, you’re upset that there’s this monstrous mess! You wish your daughter had just slept a bit later, or maybe, just maybe, would have thought to ask for help. On the other hand, you value her independence and love the fact that she put so much effort into trying to do something special for you.

If your goal is to teach your child to take responsibility for her behavior, you might give Dr. Becky Bailey’s STAR approach a try:

  1. “S” = Smile. Yes, even if that seems counter-intuitive, you’d be surprised how smiling relieves stress, takes your child off the defensive, and allows you to return to your senses.
  2. Next, “T” = Take a deep breathe, which calms your heart rate.
  3. “A” = And hold it.
  4. Then, “R” = Relax!

When you’re relaxed and calm, you can see things more clearly so you don’t let your surprise and upset get the better of you. It becomes more clear that your child was simply acting like a child and not deliberately trying to push your buttons. Your calmed state of mind allows you to connect emotionally with your child. Coming from a place of mindful awareness, you become a role model for composure––showing her it’s possible to deal with distress without losing your cool.

On the other hand, had you chosen to do what many parents do automatically, which is to scold, criticize, or punish, you’d be triggering your child’s survival mechanisms. Questions or commands such as, “why didn’t you ask me for help?” “what on earth do you think you’re doing?” “how come you’re always making such a mess?” or “you’re in time out! go to your room right now!” only feed into the fight, flight, or freeze reaction. What you’ll get is your child screaming back at you, defending herself, running off, or shutting down and turning her fury inward at herself. This latter reaction can cause a life-long pattern of anxiety, depression, and low self-worth. Your aim is not to provoke feelings of incompetence, guilt, and shame, but to encourage creative problem-solving. Ultimately, you want to get her into a calmer, more rational state so she can learn to make good choices, even in the most challenging situations.

Rather than give way to those rote reactions you learned from your parents, and your parents learned from their parents, you have a choice! You can make a conscious effort to boost your child’s sense of personal competence by creating an emotional connection with her. Once this connection is made, right brain to right brain, she’ll be reassured that she’s safe, physically and emotionally. Keeping a kind, soft expression on your face, holding her in a reassuring way––if she’s open to being touched––or, possibly, just placing a hand on her shoulder or back, you are showing her, in no uncertain way, that you’re there for her, no matter what.

Best of all, you’re calming your child’s reactive state so she can get her rational brain back on track. You’re helping her use those upper level thinking skills that allow her to solve problems logically. With your support, and once you’re grounded in the present moment using the STAR method, your child can become more cooperative while acquiring skills that will help her have a happy and successful life.

To your joyful parenting!


07 Sep

How to Tame Tantrums: One Strategy That Really Works!


Three-year old Jake was desperate to play with his older sister and her friend, who were setting up an family camping outing with their Playmobile toys. He had played alone since lunchtime and wanted to be part of the fun. The girls had just gotten the campsite set up, having placed the toy family at the campfire, when Jake asked to bring in his favorite toys, a gang of dinosaurs. But the girls saw no place for the dinosaurs in their story and told Jake, “no, leave us alone!” Jake turned bright red in the face, did all he could to contain his tears, and then lashed out. With repeated kicks left and right, he proceeded to destroy the entire, elaborate scene that they’d spent hours putting together. Pieces of the girls’ camping haven were now scattered in every corner of the room. Jake stood there fuming, glaring angrily at the girls, and looking helpless and defeated.

As a parent, how would you deal with Jake? Would you punish him by putting him in time out? Or yell at him to stop bothering his sister? Perhaps you’d tell him, or the girls, to be “nice,” or else…? What other choices do you have?

With the understanding of why your child has tantrums, you could take a more proactive stance. In most cases, the child having a tantrum is totally out of control and needs your guidance. In full-blown tantrum mode, the child’s upper level thought processes are entirely off line. He has lost the use of his cerebral cortex, the part that gives him the ability to think, be flexible, and express his feelings. Utterly dysregulated, he doesn’t know how to deal with the big emotions he’s feeling, nor does he have the tools to ask for what he needs. He needs your help to soothe his distress.

“When your child is at his worst, that’s when he needs you the most,”
– Daniel Siegel, No Drama Discipline

Try to remember this the next time your kid drives you crazy. Your connection with your child comes first, and, besides protecting him and others from harm, and keeping property intact, this is more important than anything else. The upset child is in a reactive state: his “reptilian brain”––the part that’s wired for fight, flight, freeze or faint––is on alert. He can’t listen to reason or logic. By approaching with an empathic and nurturing attitude, you can help soothe out-of-control emotions and lead him to a calmer state where he can experience self-control.

Through your gestures, body language, and facial expressions, you can show him that you really understand and feel his distress. This might mean quieting your voice to a warm, friendly tone, giving a gentle touch or a hug, sitting down on the his level, and softening your facial expression. You might gently pick him up, rub his back, and soothe him, letting him know that you get how much it hurts. All of these gestures signal to your child that he is safe and he is not alone. You are setting limits of physical safety by preventing him from harming himself or others, or from damaging property. This helps re-integrate the brain, which means he’ll have moved from being reactive to being receptive, and will be able to use some higher level thinking.

When he’s calm enough to look you in the eyes, you could use a few quiet, empathic words to show you get it (i.e., “you really wanted them to let you play” or “you felt left out”) and go on to redirect him about asking for what he wants by telling him something like, “you can say, ‘I want to play, too.’” By connecting in a soothing way, you’re training his brain to self-regulate, to cope with anger and frustration. You’re helping him regain self-control. As a result, he’ll be able to listen to the limits you’ve communicated to him and absorb the message (i.e., “kicking your sister’s toys is not respectful. You can tell her you’re sad she’s not letting you play”).

By being there for him emotionally, you give him a foundation for learning upper level skills such as sound decision-making, emotional regulation, personal insight, flexibility, empathy, and morality. These skills, which he’ll need to enjoy a balanced and meaningful life and healthy relationships, are governed by a part of his brain that won’t fully mature until he’s in his mid-twenties!

So, the next time your child throws a big, messy tantrum, keep in mind that you are a co-builder of your child’s brain. Jump in and connect with him emotionally. You’ll not only be teaching your child to self-calm and make positive choices, you’ll also be deepening and strengthening your relationship with him.

To your joyful parenting!


26 Jun

What’s Empathy Have to Do With It?

Your 4-year old child is having a fit. He’s begging for M&Ms at the checkout line and you’re telling him “no.” Everyone’s staring at you, waiting for you to do something about this out-of-control little monster. Your son already knows you have a rule about not asking for sweets in the supermarket, but, obviously, this isn’t preventing him from trying. You’re at your wit’s end. You don’t want to give in––knowing that it would only give him the message that, if he screams long and hard enough, he’ll always get what he wants. You also don’t want to leave the store without the groceries. You’re in a no-win situation, yet, you don’t want to concede or lose face.

What do you do? Well, you’re best bet is to just STOP! Stop doing whatever you’re doing. Stop thinking whatever you’re thinking. Inside your head, you may be saying: “this is so embarrassing, how do I get out of there?” or “why am I such a terrible parent?” Don’t let yourself get trapped in these thoughts. Acknowledge your anger, frustration, irritation, and the fear of what might happen to your child if he acts this way his entire life. Know that the dirty looks you’re getting coming from onlookers are just their exasperation and not a reflection of your worth as a parent.

Free yourself from self-judgment. Take a moment to breathe deeply. Fill your lungs with clean air, and then, with your exhale, release all negative thoughts. Be aware that the opinions of others, including other family members, may be clouding your view of reality and of what your child needs in this moment. Give yourself a chance to regroup. Consider that, as a parent, you are committed to teaching your child what’s best for him. Collect yourself. Tell yourself you can do it. Be aware of your emotions and also how they filter your perspective. Your child’s misbehavior upsets you, because it reminds you of the countless other times you’ve seen him act out, and also, probably, of your parents’ scolding of you or your siblings when you were a child. Your parents likely felt just the way you do right now. Even if the actors are different and the details of the story are changed, the script remains the same and it’s still playing in your head.

Now is the time to put on your detective hat. Be curious about the cause of your child’s emotions. As you open your heart to what your child might be experiencing, you’ll realize that acting out is your child’s number one way of expressing strong emotions. Yes, it’s the emotions that drive the behavior! When children are in the throes of their emotional, “lizard” brain––the part that keeps them in the fight, flight or freeze mode––their logical, reasoning upper brain goes offline. It simply doesn’t function. Even if at other times they show the ability to be reasonable, they can’t do this consistently. If they are tired, hungry, frustrated about a litany of injustices that happened at school or at the day care, they are less able to cope with a “no” to something they want or being told to do something that they don’t want to do. And so they blow their fuses. They lose control of their frontal lobes, which would otherwise give them skills for dealing with the challenging situation.

This is entirely understandable when you pause to think that even us adults lose our cool sometimes. Think of when you’re overwhelmed by work, deadlines, a demanding boss, a complaining child or spouse, or a tough commute. Sometimes you just want to bitch, moan, or lash out at anyone nearby. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rude gesture to your fellow drivers on the road or a harsh word to one of your family members. Or else you just want to crawl into a dark cave and hide. Admit it. You’ve lost your cool before. As an adult, more often than not, you can get a handle on these situations and keep your wits about you. You sense when you’re about to explode or shut down and you put on the brakes. You find a way to handle your emotions that will cause the least amount of harm to yourself and your family.

Not so with your kids! Children are not yet wired to have self-control under stress. Their prefrontal lobes, which control the logical part of their brains, are not fully developed until they’re in their mid-20s. Yes, folks, mid-20s! As a parent, it’s your job to help your children gain the skills that further the growth of this upper-level, reasoning brain. Now that’s a job skill you probably didn’t know was part of the deal when you signed up to be a parent!

If you’d like further information about parenting for peaceful families, contact Kim at 561.351.4256. True North will hold monthly Healthy Parents’ Evenings, beginning in September (see http://kimwallant.com/services/). You can join other parents in these informal gatherings to share and support each other in your parenting adventures.


20 Apr

Encouraging Kids to Talk About Their Art

How do you encourage children to be more open about the artwork they make so they’ll really tell you what’s on their mind?

Do you ever find yourself telling your child that his drawing is great, that you really like it––only to see him try to make that same drawing over and over again, just trying to please you? We’d all like our children to be able to create something because they enjoy making it, not because someone else wants them to do it. We’d like them to express what’s really on their minds or in their hearts without trying to find out if it’s good or bad according to someone else.

Watch out for the trap of them asking you if you like it. Even if you really do like the piece, resist the temptation to say so. When you compliment something a child does, you’re not doing anyone a favor, in fact, it can be a disservice. Here’s why. By gushing out positive comments in response to your child’s inquiry, you’re telling her that you approve of what she has done, you’re focusing on the final result and not acknowledging the process that went into creating it. Instead of having her seek your stamp of approval each time she completes a “work of art,” how about trying to find concrete details that show you are really looking at the specific qualities of her effort? Show her that you appreciate the energy, imagination, and courage it took for her to put her work on paper (or whatever form). This way, you are returning the power to your child. She will learn to appreciate her own work and be proud of her creative effort. You’re giving her the gift of self-esteem, and you’re contributing to her ability to be internally motivated. With the confidence she gains, it will be easier for her to overcome creative challenges. And if she doesn’t quite accomplish what she wants to, it will be more likely that she can pick herself up again and try again.

Try not to say what you think it is. You never know. Even though something in his picture looks blatantly like an airplane to you, it actually may be some new species of robotic bird or an alien space craft. You just don’t know. You don’t want to take the risk of mislabeling anything in his picture, because this can be discouraging. A child might walk away believing that he is not as great an artist as he thought he was, because you didn’t immediately know what he was drawing. On the other hand, what you want to do is give the child the opportunity to open up about his story. You might say, “tell me a story about this picture.” Or perhaps, you’ll describe some specific things you see in it that can’t be mistaken for anything else. Try saying, for example, “there’s a lot of green over there” (and point to what you’re looking at), or, in a tentative way, “wow, that person [again, don’t try to identify who it is, or even the gender, if it’s not clear] looks mad (or happy, or sad,…)!” Maybe you see lots of circles, or wiggly lines, or other shapes. Simply observe it in a scientific and genuinely curious voice. “You put some squares here and a little bit of blue swirls right over there…” This provides a springboard for your child to elaborate on his story. He won’t be trying to offer you something that he thinks you’re expecting. You’ll be giving him the gift of a clean slate where he can tell his very own story. All possibilities are open!

Your child’s stories are hers, not yours! Kids can be spontaneous and inventive when it comes to inventing drama and dialogue for the people, animals, and things that they draw, paint or sculpt. It’s a real treat to hear you child tell you all about what’s going on in her picture, but beware! Treat your child’s stories with the utmost respect. You might be able to peer into your child’s private world––her beliefs, wishes, hopes, and dreams, when you ask questions like these: “If [point to one of the figures, shapes, or objects in the picture] _________ could talk, what might it say to you?” Or, “what would ________ say to [point to another thing in the child’s picture] ____________, if it could talk?” You’ll be bowled over by some of the dialogue your child makes up about her characters or the other things she’s drawn! Remember, though, that your child is being vulnerable by opening up about some of the thoughts and feelings most important to her. Don’t interrupt with your own characters and dialogue. Let her be the director of the drama. Don’t be an elephant in the china shop by trampling on the content or style of her story.

You’re better off not trying to guess what your kid’s picture means! When a kid draws or paints a picture, he’s making his own imaginary world and it says a great deal about what’s going on for him. Every detail in the picture is special and has it’s own coherence and reason for being in the picture. Looking at the whole picture, even the most chaotic scribble, you’ll have an indication of what the child’s state of mind is at that moment. Resist the temptation to believe you know exactly what he’s saying. You don’t. Adults tend to want to interpret children’s artwork, but we can serve children better by empowering them to describe their own experiences. To do so, we might suggest that they attempt to visualize themselves inside of their own pictures. For example, to get a feeling for your child’s view, you might ask him: “what part of the picture do you like the best?,” or “if you could be anywhere in this picture, where would you want to be?” If you’re willing to sit back and listen with no agenda of your own, you’ll get a whole different perspective on your child and his picture.

Your child’s intent and focus on the art is what’s important. You want to let her own the experience of making the piece, from start to finish. What she likes about it, what she experiences when she sees it, whether she wants to hang it up, fold it into a tiny package, hide it, or throw it away is her choice. To help her hone in on what the picture might mean to her, you could ask if she’d like to give it a title, “what would you call this picture if you wanted to give it a title?”

Last, but not least, know that you’re giving your child the best gift of all when you give him the opportunity to talk about his work. Enjoy and cherish the moments when he allows you to explore his inner world by his side. You’re opening the door to his brilliance and creativity. Know that, when he shares his thoughts and feelings, he gives you a window into his own magical world.

Playfully yours,