The hurried child: Are you willing to swim upstream?

As August moves forward, school settles into a familiar rhythm and the pace of family life quickens. School. Practices. Foreign languages. Clubs. Tutors. Private lessons. Games. Church activities. Homework. And the list goes on…and on…and, well, you get the picture. Our homes ring with the words, “Hurry up, we’ll be late” and we rush our kids from one activity to the next. We zip through the drive-thru and throw processed food at our kids as they attempt to finish homework in the backseat. We sacrifice their nutrition and our own sanity to the rush of one more practice or game or commitment. As parents, we have a choice to make: do we follow along with our hurried culture and sign our children up for yet one more activity (who said peer pressure vanished with high school?!) or, do we swim upstream?

Many modern day American parents have fallen victim to this underlying system of beliefs: My children deserve to be happy and successful. It is my job to make them happy and successful. If I give my child more “opportunities” (also known as classes, lessons, tutors, etc.) to obtain experience and knowledge they will be more likely to grow up to be happy and successful and I will have done my job. If we (and I definitely include myself here!) as adults recall the most happy, carefree days of our own childhood it is likely that those memories do not involve structured, organized “opportunities”, but rather (gasp!) unstructured free play with friends and/or siblings. Our children today are stressed-out, over-scheduled, and under-played.

Research is overwhelmingly in support of slowing down the pace of our children’s daily lives and of giving them back the chance to get bored, to find something to do on their own and to relish in pretend play. I could name book after book written by prestigious authors who support this notion, but, at the end of the day it comes down to this: Are we, as parents, willing to swim upstream? It is hard work. It can be exhausting. It is not fun or easy to hold to a different set of beliefs from our culture (pesky peer pressure again!). Are we willing to stand our ground and say “no” to countless “opportunities” that present themselves to us time and time again? Are we willing to listen to our kids bickering and fighting as they attempt to plow through their own boredom to find something to do? It is far easier to sit in the bleachers checking your own email as your child runs up and down the basketball court than to stick it out at home on a Saturday morning as your child struggles to find a new mode of entertainment. Remember, we have created this culture of hurriedness for our children and they will have to “detox” and adjust as we slow the pace.

Okay, you are still with me so I will assume you might be willing to swim upstream. How do we do this in a practical way?

  • Just say NO! Limit your children to one or maybe two activities at a time, depending on their age. If it is soccer season and your child really wants to be on the team, go for it! But let that be the activity for that season. I will warn you, and I speak from experience here, this is hard. There will be times when you think you are depriving your child of the chance to be the next Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Julie Andrews before he or she turns 10. You worry that you are not helping your child find his or her “thing.” Hang in there. It gets easier.
  • Unplug on a regular basis. Have technology-free time as a  family: play a board game together, go for a walk, collect items and make a collage or sculpture, take turns asking each other “what if” questions (What if you could jump into a book…which book would you jump into and why?), bake something yummy and share it with a neighbor.
  • Make family dinners a priority. The research here is so strong! Families who eat a meal together on a regular basis have kids who perform better in school and hold up under peer pressure when it comes to big stuff like drugs, alcohol, and sex.
  • Fight the urge to plan every moment. Allow for chunks of time in your child’s day that are not filled with activities and events.
  • Resist the urge to buy every latest and greatest toy or electronic gadget. Provide your child with toys that encourage open-ended play: blocks, blank paper and crayons/paints/markers, play-doh or clay, dress up clothes, boxes of varying sizes that can become anything, etc.
  • Pay attention to your child. Ask your child which activity he or she would most like to engage in right now. Watch for signs of your child being overwhelmed or stressed-out (fatigue, anxiety, irritability, poor sleep habits) and be prepared to scale

Summer’s Almost Here! Now What?

Alice Cooper’s iconic song “School’s Out” has the tendency to elicit one of a few specific emotions, especially during the months of May and June. For children and teenagers, the song prompts a sense of overwhelming joy and general youthful jubilance. No more school, no more books, no more bedtimes or alarm clocks, and no more homework- who wouldn’t be excited about that? For most parents, on the other hand, that song (along with a strange shift in their child’s behavior right around the end of school) can elicit pure, unadulterated angst. What the heck are you going to do with your kid(s) all summer? Sure, many families will split up the summer with a couple of well-timed vacations to Galveston or some beautiful Texas lake where hopefully the kids will completely wear themselves out and maybe you’ll get a few minutes of peace. But what about those in-between-vacation days when no day camp is scheduled, the overnight camp you signed them up for 3 years ago doesn’t start for another few weeks, and the caffeine your kid had at the end of school party a week ago STILL hasn’t worn off yet? I’ve compiled a list of tips, ideas, and general guidelines to help parents stay at least somewhat focused during these crazy summer months.

First- the general guidelines. Research on brain development has regularly shown that routine matters. For kids, this can apply to nearly every aspect of their lives including having a consistent bedtime, gathering the family for meal times, Saturday morning waffles, or 10 minutes of TV time before bath, book, and bed. Concerning regular bedtimes, researchers at the University of London followed 11,000 children from when they were 3-years old to the age of 7 to measure the effects of bedtimes on cognitive function. The research showed a significant negative impact on test scores in math, reading, and spatial reasoning for those children who had consistently irregular or late bed times. I realize that maintaining a consistent bed time is much easier said than done, but even having lights out at midnight is better than waking up the next morning and realizing your teenager is still on the couch watching the 28th episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Let’s be honest- every hour of sleep counts. Speaking of watching TV for hours on end, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should watch no more than two hours of TV per day after two years of age, and none before that. Can we just take a second to think about that? Studies all over the world have shown that more than 2 hours of television viewing a day is a valid predictor of poor performance in vocabulary, math, and motor skills development later in life. How many hours a day does your child watch TV? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure those Baby Einstein videos are less brain-frying than Sponge Bob but allowing your child to watch it all day long? Probably not the best idea. So what are you supposed to do instead?

Here I’ve gathered some fun– and more importantly, time-consuming– ideas for entertaining the kiddos during the summer months. We can go ahead and assume that you know about (or have already tried) simply turning on the sprinkler in the back yard and letting the kids go wild. Depending on the age of your child, pulling out the sprinkler just may do the trick. However, for older children, fighting off boredom may prove to be more difficult. Here’s where a little work can go a long way. No, I’m not suggesting that you try to get your 15 year old a sales internship that you think will prepare them for their future career (unless they are passionate about it, that is). What I’m suggesting is this: does your teenager love animals? How about volunteering at the local animal shelter? Could your garage benefit from a thorough spring-cleaning? Have your teen set up a garage sale- and promise him or her a portion of the cash! Perhaps your hallway bathroom needs a new paint job or maybe you’ve always wanted a small vegetable garden in the backyard. Planning out and building a vegetable garden can teach the kids about agriculture, healthy eating, and the value of getting your hands dirty. Not to mention the satisfaction of literally experiencing the fruits of your own labor! Stuck inside on a rainy day? A disco party (complete with mom or dad flicking on and off the overhead lights), putting on a play or musical (don’t forget the video camera), or a trip to the IMAX at the planetarium are just a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing. This is a perfect time to create life-long memories with your family- so get outside, have fun, relax, and don’t forget the sunscreen!

If you need some more fun ideas, check out this website of 50 summer activities for the kiddos!   http://kidsactivitiesblog.com/13269/50-summer-bucket-list

Six things all children need

When I was in school, I had many professors teach about Abraham Maslow. He had a huge impact on psychology and many of his theories and studies have become the foundation for much of the work that we do with clients. One of his theories on motivation stated that we, as humans, are motivated not just by rewards or unconscious desires. He stated that we are motivated to achieve certain needs. What came of this idea was dubbed the hierarchy of needs. It’s basically a food group triangle but instead of grains, vegetables, and fruits, we have biological/physiological needs, safety needs, and love/belongingness needs among others. This makes a lot of sense to me seeing as how it would be difficult for a person to achieve intimacy with a friend or loved one if that same person is hungry (actually hungry- not skipped lunch hungry) or hadn’t slept in 2 weeks. Children operate much in the same way I think. The only difference is, children require care; they don’t come out of the womb ready to survive and take on the world all by themselves. After the bottom tier of the needs hierarchy is “achieved” (being fed, clothed, and kept warm), the 6 things that all children need sort of get all mashed together into one, large tier until they grow up.

The first thing all children need is acceptance. Acceptance by parents is the basis for forming a positive relationship from which they are able to learn to like and accept themselves. You can show acceptance through simple gestures that may seem mundane but often have a significant impact on children. For example, separate the deed from the doer. Looks like this: instead of “you are a bad kid”, go for “you made a bad decision”. See the difference?

Next may seem a bit obvious- Attention and love. Attention, along with acceptance, is what a child needs to feel loved, and is what is important for developing rapport with your children and positive feelings about self. As most of you parents may know, children WILL get attention- whether good or bad, they’ll get it. Their style of seeking attention and learning what gets them that attention will become a part of their self-image. Spend time with your child. It’s about quality, not quantity. Try this: ignore the unwanted behavior and praise, praise, praise the wanted behavior. I know, I know- you can’t ignore a kid taking a Sharpie to the wall. But take time to notice the little things your child does. Think about it. Nobody really pays a whole lot of attention to the child who’s sitting quietly, playing nicely, or uses good manners. It’s the kid who’s rowdy, out of control, or talks back who gets the attention. Tell your kid how awesome it is when they say “thank you” or “yes ma’am/yes sir”!

Next is security and safety. Yes, this is on Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs, but it looks a bit different with children. Assuming that the child already has “safety”- as in a roof over their head, no tigers chasing them, and not living in the streets of a post-apocalyptic city- boundaries and clear expectations are what we’re talking about here. Children need to know where you draw the line. Now, it is completely developmentally appropriate for children to push those boundaries- it’s what they are supposed to do! But parents, it is SO important for you to stand firm. The second that you allow a behavior that was once against the rules, your child now knows that you can be pushed past that old boundary. And trust me, it’ll only get worse from there. If your child doesn’t know where a boundary is, then there’s really no point of it being set. Make your expectations clear and consistent!

The forth thing all children need is understanding. Communicate. Listen. Get on their level and demonstrate interest and mutual respect- this encourages each of you to express your feelings and opinions openly and without fear of rejection. This includes problem-solving with your child. If your child comes home from school sad and looking dejected, your first instinct might be to call the mother of whomever did this and chew her out. But sometimes all kids need is your presence. Sit down next to your child and let them know simply that you care- “Oh man Sarah that must’ve really hurt your feelings. I’m so sorry honey.” You may sit in silence for the next 30 minutes but YOU ARE PRESENT. And that’s what is important.

Next is discipline. Create structure in your home by determining appropriate expectations. Much of what goes into discipline aligns with providing safety and security. Make sure the punishment fits the crime and stay consistent; not only with the punishments, but also between parents. Easiest and most common way to manipulate parents? Figure out which one will let you get away with the most and only ever ask that parent for permission. Your children can put a wedge between you and your spouse very quickly- unwittingly, of course.

Finally, children need values. Values are one of those subjects that are not easily taught in a lecture type setting. Can you imagine sitting your child down with a Power Point behind you and saying “Today I am going to teach you about kindness.” No! Values are best taught through what we call experiential learning. Your children watch what you do. So next time you’ve dragged little Billy to the dry cleaners with you and they have lost all of your clothes, try your hardest not to snap completely. Instead, opt for calm, cool communication to resolve the matter- your little Billy will learn that biting the dry cleaner’s head off in a fit of rage doesn’t get your clothes back. But being polite and respectful might get you a refund and payment for the amount of what your clothing costs. When it comes to teaching our children values, actions often speak louder than words.

The Teen WiFi Epidemic: Teaching your Teen to Disconnect

I recently had my sixteen year old niece over to babysit and was extremely pleased with the job she did. She was timely. She was responsible. She did an exceptional job in getting the baby to sleep and caring for her while we were out. We left home around 7pm after the baby was down and my niece was sitting on the couch playing with her phone as we left. When we returned (6 hours later) my niece was still awake and on her phone. I asked what she had done all night and she said, “Nothing, just played on my phone.” I was a bit surprised but then I remembered my teenage years and how I always tried to stay up late on the phone talking to friends and chalked it up to the “teenage thing.” The next morning we all woke up and the first thing that she did was pick up her phone and check Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat to “find out what she had missed.” We made breakfast and served it, but like a magnet attached to her hand there was the incessant and attention seeking iPhone. When she went to shower or use the restroom she took her phone with her. We attempted several conversations but and it was hard to get a word in with her because she was on her phone. As a matter of fact, she spent the entire day completely consumed with her phone. It was difficult to engage her at any level – troubling. I have a great respect for teenagers – I truly believe many people view them as a nuisance and don’t believe they have much to offer in those challenging stages of life. I disagree wholeheartedly. I think teens are exceptional and when given the opportunity can teach us adults many, many things. I have even chosen a career in which I can work with teens to encourage them and give them a voice. But even for me the cell phone use was maddening. I literally wanted to grab the phone and throw it off of our 2nd floor balcony and yell “HEY THERE!!! LIFE IS HAPPENING OUT HERE AND NOT IN THAT STUPID PHONE!” Of course I didn’t but it did get me thinking…

Disconnecting from technology is difficult these days on everybody, particular teenagers. The good ol’ days of riding down the street on your bike to meet up with your friends are gone…now they just “hit them up on Twitter or Instagram.” It can be challenging as a parent to allow independence and creativity while still setting effective boundaries in regards to the use of technology. Recently a three-year research study was conducted by the Brown University School of Medicine and the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology reflecting the effects of technology on our kids. The results were such that clinically, we are seeing an increase in symptoms typically associated with anxiety and depression. The symptoms include: short-term memory problems, decreased attention span, sleep deprivation, excessive moodiness and general dissatisfaction. The study results were such that when a child or adolescent unplugs, particularly at night, the symptoms decrease. Bottom line, unplugging is necessary.

So-as a parent how do you get your teen to disconnect? How can you allow them the space to express themselves via social media and communicate using today’s technology while encouraging them to look up and see the world around them? How do we ensure their safety? Here a few tips to make it a bit easier:

  1. Give in…a little. Let’s face it- technology is here to stay. As parents you need to learn how this stuff works. Teens love to text- so text your teen. Figure out how social media works so that you can be aware of the dangers and limitations. Google it. If you do not know how to “Google” it reach out for help J
  2. Don’t be the Secret Cyber Stalker Parent: You don’t have to secretly set up a Twitter or Facebook account and cyber-stalk them… just communicate. Tell your teen what the expectations are for social media and that you will be monitoring their activity. Let them know what the dangers of posting things you can NEVER EVER take back. They need to know that you are looking and they need to know what the boundaries are. Respect them enough to let them know what is acceptable and what is not.
  3. Set time limits: Be very clear on when it is inappropriate to be on your phone. For example, when we are at the table we talk to each other and not on the phone. When we have company over, no phones. Leave your phones in the living room before going to bed. Put this in writing if necessary.
  4. There must be consequences: You cannot have limits without clear consequences. This does not have to be complicated. For example: a drop in your grades=less time on your phone daily. The more you communicate the less room for discussion when consequences are implemented. To an extent of course – part of being a teen is testing the limits, so be ready. Again, put this in writing if necessary.
  5. Be an example: Disconnect yourself as well! Model good behavior. If they cannot eat dinner and text, neither can you.
  6. NO texting and driving. Period. No exceptions.
  7. TIME: Spend time with your teenager. Find out what THEY like and DO IT. If you hate video games and your kid loves it – try it! When its time to do something you like be sure it does not involve technology like a walk in the park or time at the driving range. Teach them to enjoy life unplugged and to remember how important a real conversation with another human being is. There is no better way to get to know what your teen is doing than to talk to them and leave an open door for them to talk to you. YOU are important to them regardless of how often they say they hate you.
  8. Let them practice: You will have to give them some wiggle room at some point. How can they practice all the good things you have taught them if you don’t trust them enough to give it a shot? I am all about having boundaries, teenagers need and want them, but have a little faith in the work you have done and let them prove you wrong before bringing down the hammer.

3 things every parent of a teenager needs to know

If you have ever looked at your teenager and thought (or even said out loud) “what the heck were you thinking?” then you know how utterly bewildering it can be to get on the same wavelength as your child. We all know that teenagers can speak an entirely different language than adults (think “bae”, “basic”, “yolo”, and “I can’t even”) and it’s completely normal to have difficulties communicating with your teen, much less understanding them. So, in attempt to alleviate some of these difficulties, I have come up with a few tips and guidelines to surviving your child’s teenaged years.

  1. You don’t always have to be the fixer. I realize that for most of you, this goes against every fiber of your being. You want to help your child. You want to save them and shield them from the evils and hurts of this world. You want to call that mean girl’s mother and chew her out. But the bottom line is this: unless the problem is a legal one or involves the safety of someone, then you don’t always have to fix it. Sometimes all your teen needs is a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. If your teenaged daughter comes home after being dumped by her boyfriend who is now dating her ex-best friend, you’d be shocked to realize the power of simply sitting down next to her and hugging her tight. I can almost 100% assure you that she doesn’t want you calling his parents, talking to her ex-best friend’s parents, or telling her what you think she should do. There is power in simply saying “I’m so sorry that happened to you. That must’ve hurt so much.” And sometimes that’s all they need.
  2. Empathize! Think back to when you were a teenager… would you ever want to go back to that time? Most of us wouldn’t! Yes, there are probably a lot of great memories from that age, but mostly it consisted of drama. Friends who backstab, heart-wrenching break-ups, prepping for try-outs, stress over grades and sports and homecoming and prom dates and cotillion and pimples and college applications and SAT’s… get my drift?? Every so often, it may be helpful for you to put yourself in your teenager’s shoes to get some perspective. You may not be able to understand why your teenager locks himself in his room after school until it’s time to eat but when you were 17, did you want to hang out with your mom or dad while they helped with little sister’s homework? That’s not to say spending time together as a family isn’t important- just be thoughtful when picking your battles.
  3. The harder you try to control your teen, the more push-back you’ll get. Parenting is a constant trial and error game of kite flying. My dad eloquently perfected this analogy. When you let a bit of string out, it may take a moment for the kite to stabilize before getting straightened up and flying strong. Sometimes, you have to reel the line back in a bit (or a lot) for the kite to catch wind and show you that it’s ready for more line. Get it? In reality, you have never truly controlled your child. If you had then there would’ve been no sleepless nights, no tantrums in the middle of Bering’s, and no arguments over when she gets the car. Ultimately, your teen is going to make his own choices. You can control the encouragement, consequences, love, support, and guidance that you give your teen. Keep your expectations crystal clear and there will be no room for “how was I supposed to know that?!” or “but you didn’t tell me that!”

Couples Therapy 101: Staying jolly through the holiday season

Let’s face it-the holidays can be very overwhelming once you become an adult. Gone are the carefree days waiting for Santa the night before Christmas, now you worry about how you are going to pay for all of it. Christmas is now filled with finances, time crunches, crazy holiday shoppers, and for some the worst – the in-laws are coming to stay over! The holidays are filled with extended family and extended family can be a touchy and emotionally charged subject for many couples. Hey, you may LOVE your family to pieces and cannot wait to spend the holiday with them, but your spouse…not so much. You may LOVE your spouse’s family but an extended amount of time with them can drive you to madness. It can be difficult to determine the best way to deal with your frustrations around the relatives and many times those frustrations can be projected onto your spouse. This can put an additional strain on your relationship at a time when stress levels are already high. So, what are the best ways to stay jolly through the holiday visitors and ensure you are able to enjoy your spouse during the season? Try these tips to ease the holiday stress and make sure the memories from this season are the best yet!

  • Give them a break: If your relatives are the ones visiting make sure you are communicating in advance about all the details of the visit. If you have activities you would like to enjoy while your family is in town let your spouse know. Be specific about the activities that are most important for you to enjoy with your spouse and give them a break on some of the ones that are not. If you enjoy shopping with your parents and you know your spouse hates it—give them the day off. Suggest he or she do something they enjoy doing. This will take the pressure off of you to enjoy shopping and your spouse will come back renewed after enjoying a break.
  • Change your expectations: Your partner’s family is likely not going to change. If you’re expecting that one of these years a family much like your own will walk through the door, you are setting unrealistic expectations. Embrace them for who they are and hold on to the fact that they created the person you spend your life with – they have done something right!
  • Set boundaries: Discuss what has been a touchy area in previous visits and find a middle ground. You are a team so you need to present a united front. Respect your partner’s boundaries and understand that this may be a difficult time for them.
  • Remember it’s temporary: This is just a short season and they will be gone before you know it. Soon enough you will be free to enjoy your home and your spouse again. Dwelling on the negative will only make the time go by slower.
  • Have FUN and share it: So you love to play golf and your father-in-law has never tried it. Set up a tee time with him. It’s a lot harder to be unhappy when you are doing something you love. People appreciate it when you take the time to share with them something that you enjoy and even if he is not into it – you’re still on the course! Enjoy! He may just enjoy it too.
  • Fight Fair: So you are trying your best but something a relative did has you all worked up. Remember to communicate this with your spouse without attacking their character or family. Attacking their family can be just as bad as attacking them directly. Voice your opinion about the direct behavior that is bothering you. Behavior can be changed but character is much more difficult and words are not easily taken back. Don’t let this one holiday set you up for a disastrous year!
  • Catch the holiday spirit: Be thankful for family-there are many out there that wish they could have one more holiday with their annoying cousin, hyperactive nephew or weird uncle. Life is short-make memories that will last.