When our kids are driving us crazy it’s easy to get locked into negativity. They’re being terrible, we’re trying to get them to quit being terrible, which often causes us to also act terribly and then we’re all being terrible with and at each other and that’s where many people are by the time they land in my office.
When this happens, one of the best things parents can do is to look for times their kids are being good and then praise the heck out of them. (Even if they’re not being all that good.)
To explain how this works, let’s use Goofus (as in Goofus and Gallant) as our example. Do you remember them? They’re from Highlights Magazine and Gallant does all the good stuff and Goofus is just plain rotten. (As a kid I didn’t really like either of them because Gallant was so good he made the rest of us look bad and Goofus seemed like the kind of boy I wanted to avoid during recess.)
For absolutely understandable reasons, Goofus’s parents are likely pretty sick of parenting him. Per Highlights:
- Goofus barrels through people in the way and bosses them around.
- Goofus is rude when responding to others’ ideas.
- Goofus uses his book with dirty hands.
- Goofus berates the bus when he misses it.
- Goofus yells when he can’t get what he wants.
- Goofus takes the last apple.
Man, Goofus, seriously. GET. IT. TOGETHER.
What all this means is that Goofus’s parents probably sound like this all of the time:
- Watch where you’re going!
- We do not talk that way in this family!
- Stop touching that!
- What is wrong with you?!?
- Go to your room!
- Put that back!
Given his track record, it’s no wonder Goofus’s parents are always steeling themselves for yet another Goofus screw up. They’re behind him before he’s done anything wrong saying, “Careful! Watch it! You better clean that up when you’re finished!” and he’s got it in his head that he’s a lousy person, someone who does mess up all of the time so why even bother?
Seeing as we’re the ones with fully developed frontal lobes, it’s up to us parents to disrupt the pattern. Goofus’s parents are the ones who have to help themselves (and help Goofus) see him as someone who can and will do better. And often this starts with finding ways to say, “Good job!”
When Goofus grabs his book with dirty hands his parents could ignore the urge to tell him to go wash up and instead say, “Goofus, you are such a great reader!” (Unless the book is a priceless edition or belongs to someone else, it can always be replaced so ignore the grubbiness for the sake of paradigm changing.)
Of course some things demand intervention — safety issues, for example. Parents can’t ignore it when Goofus (per one Highlights example) brings glass into the pool area but because they’ve learned to let go of things like dirty hands on books, Goofus is more likely to listen. First they can say, “I love the way you pay attention to your thirst signals, Goofus! That’s a smart thing to do in hot weather” before adding, “But let’s get a plastic cup to be sure you stay safe.”
Some days it’s a lot harder because some days Goofus is probably even more awful than usual. On those days, parents can and should find any little way to praise him. Even if it’s just, “I really appreciate the way you walked across the room there, buddy, without bopping your brother on the head.”
Goofus’s parents need to start looking for the good in him and pointing it out so that Goofus can start finding the good in himself. This can be really hard to do if you’re locked on molding your kid to be more like Gallant — it can feel like you’re allowing mayhem into your home if you’re not offering lots of correction. But you know that “be the change you want to see” quote? You need to SEE the change you want your kid to be before it ever happens.
Trust me, most kids know when they’re being rotten and they would like to find another way to be but they either don’t know how, or feel stuck in the immediate gratification or they think that’s the best way to get their parents to put all eyes on them.
Goofus’s parents need to see it for him. They need to ignore the filthy socks on the floor and instead say, “Thanks for changing your socks everyday.” They need to download one of those “100 Ways to Say Good Job” posters and memorize it so they have a whole bunch of phrases at the ready.
Now this is not empty praise; it’s finding new things to praise. It’s changing the atmosphere between parent and child and finding new ways to interact. It takes time to create a new way to be and it can be scary. It can feel downright neglectful not to call your kid out whenever he does something wrong so it’s important that both parents get in on the plan and have a clear idea about what’s non-negotiable (safety) and what they’re willing to ignore for the sake of building back a positive relationship.
For kids who are really entrenched, I think it makes sense to find a therapist. Many of the children I see who are acting out are struggling with other issues — anxiety, low self esteem, etc. It’s not fun to be Goofus, at least not all of the time.
Kids who self-injure tend to be particularly emotionally sensitive and vulnerable and suffer from what Dr. Hollander calls “emotional illiteracy.” They can’t name their feelings, let alone formulate a plan for managing and coping with them. Strategies that work with most kids, such as reassurance, minimizing the severity of difficulties, or offering to help them solve problems, can backfire with kids who self-injure.
When my son was about two and half I no longer knew how to parent him. He went from toddling baby I knew and adored to a stomping, glaring preschooler I didn’t understand. My tried and true techniques quit working and more than once I carried his screaming self out of the store, the library and away from the park completely baffled by his behavior. I felt guilty for his behavior, I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to quit triggering his anger and I really felt guilty because I sure wasn’t liking him much.
It seemed like neither of us could do anything right.
“I’m a terrible parent,” I cried to my husband. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m ruining him.”
It was my first lesson in how developmental stages could hit both of us. I knew he was going to grow and change but I didn’t understand that I would have to grow and change with him. It was only when I was commiserating (i.e., crying on the phone) with a friend whose daughter was exactly one month younger that I realized that I’d become stagnant. I was still trying to parent a toddler and he was trying to grow into a kid.
Parenting is anything but stationary. Our kids are growing all of the time and sometimes it takes a crisis in the relationship for us to realize that it’s time to change things up. We can’t parent a preschooler like a toddler; we can’t parent a teen like a tween. Those parenting plateaus — where kids and parents are perfectly in sync — are temporary. They grow, we grow and then we all have to readjust to each other.
I have found in my own life and in the lives of the families I see that the greatest push-pull comes when kids are edging to greater independence and parents haven’t caught up with this new scenario. There are predictable developmental windows when it’s easy to lose track of each other — when toddlers learn that they’re separate from their parents; when teens start looking to peers instead of mom or dad. But it can happen in less volatile times, too. Maybe a child wants the training wheels off or wants to choose their own clothes or wants to be left alone with a project. What was welcomed as attentive parenting one day is all of a sudden perceived as overbearing and we don’t even know when we crossed the line.
I tell this story a lot so you may have heard it but right around this same time when my son and I were first knocking heads he got furious with me because I didn’t remember his dream. He was trying to tell me about it at breakfast and he was so angry that I couldn’t remember it for him. For me, that sums up those trying toddler-preschooler times; he wanted me to psychically keep track of his inner thoughts and feelings but he sure didn’t want to hold my hand when we were crossing the street. No wonder I was confused, right? This stuff is confusing.
It’s painful to grow up (and not just for kids). It’s hard to make sense of these mixed messages — the 13-year old who mouths off and rolls her eyes then tries to climb onto your lap, the teen who won’t let you into his room but who wants to tell you the entire plot of Homestuck and exactly what he thinks of it. How are we supposed to know?
The answer is that we can’t know until we run into that brick wall and realize that our parenting needs updating. Conflict is a sign that things need to change. Sometimes what needs to change is our parental expectation and behavior. Sometimes it’s our kids who are dragging us to the next stage while we’re still trying to hammer away at the way things used to be.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. And it is often painful.
That first time was the worst. I really thought I’d broken him and that chaos and conflict were going to be a permanent reality. But we did work it out. I changed up my expectations, I built in more opportunities for him to feel independent and suddenly my sunshine son was back, both of us happy to be with each other again.
And after that I could recognize when the landscape was starting to change and knew to rewrite my map. Acclimating to the new terrain got a lot easier once I knew what to look for.
One of my most favorite things to do is help stuck parents because I’ve been there (boy howdy) and I know how hard it is. Hit me up if you’d like some support.
Last night for the Parenting Kids with Anxiety group we discussed the way anxiety can affect our kids’ bodies.
Somatic symptoms are often mistaken for something else, which can get in the way of getting appropriate help.
The most common somatic symptoms of child anxiety are these:
- Restlessness (inability to sit still, fidgeting with clothes or objects, chewing on fingernails, etc.)
- Stomach problems (butterflies, pain, nausea, a need to go to the bathroom)
- Heart palpitations (also panting, wheezing)
- Muscle tension (headaches, other aches & pains)
Behavior problems are common in anxious kids for several reasons including the somatic symptoms. Kids who are too tense and fidgety to sit still may be reprimanded in school, which may increase their anxiety. Anxiety is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD because it can make it so hard for kids to focus. However children with ADD/ADHD can also have anxiety and it may be missed because observers assume it’s part of the child’s attention problems.
Kids who are anxious may act irritable, mouthy, weepy and generally difficult. Part of this has to do with the somatic response; most of us act yucky when we feel yucky.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are real — they’re part of the Fight/Flight/Freeze fear reaction. In other words kids aren’t making them up or making themselves sick to get out of the things that make them anxious.
When we are afraid, our bodies go into protective mode. Our muscles get tight so that we’re ready to react. Our adrenaline kicks up, which makes us get sweaty and makes our heart and breathing come faster. The cascade of chemical reactions in our bodies can also wreak havoc on our tummies. This physical response not only prepares us to stay safe, it also tells us that we need to be afraid. In other words, anxiety happens on a self-perpetuating loop.
Imagine a 9-year old who wakes up worried about a report she has to give later that day in front of her class. As she’s getting dressed, thinking about the report, her stomach starts to hurt. She heads down to the kitchen only to find that she can’t eat breakfast. She starts to worry about throwing up in front of the whole class and this makes her stomach hurt even more. She can’t stop picturing how awful it will be to humiliate herself and she finds herself worrying even more about the report she spent all last evening getting just right. Her thoughts are worried. Her emotions are worried. Her body is worried, too.
As parents we need to help our kids spot the loop and interrupt it. This takes practice and attention.
For somatic symptoms, parents can help their children identify their physical response to anxiety. In the kids’ groups we’ve taken outlines (like Gingerbread Men) and drawn in where we feel our worries. Kids are often surprised and relieved to find out that symptoms like sweaty hands or shakiness are common. Knowing what’s happening can help children feel more in control of their anxiety response.
Interrupting the physical part of the anxiety loop means addressing the physical symptoms. Deep breathing, hugs, rocking, and taking a time-out can all help children get their bodies and minds calm. Taking a cool drink of water or splashing cold water on one’s face or wrists can help decrease sweaty symptoms or decrease blushing.
I also really like a set of muscle relaxation exercises created for children with autism who need to prepare for blood draws. They’re simple and easy to remember even for very young children. Some of them are unobtrusive enough that kids can do them under their desks at school or in the car before heading off to an event. You can find them in this PDF, Taking the Work Out of Blood Work, on pages 11 to 13.
The exercises take practice to get good at them and parents can do them with their kids before bed since that’s a great time to practice getting calm. That way when children do start to feel anxious, they’ll be prepared with familiar exercises they already know how to do.
If you’d like to come to the next group, just sign up for an email reminder at the Parenting Kids with Anxiety web page.
But in fact at the time she took those photographs Rebecca had just been tired, tired in that way a woman with a child and a husband and a house and a job and a life gets tired, so that it feels like a mild chronic illness.
from Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
This lady looks better groomed than I did when I was that tired. Look, her hair is even brushed! And hoop earrings! Who does that with a toddler around?
I’m enjoying this novel but I really loved this line because it rings so true. I remember being that tired with both of my children (although the first time around I didn’t have a job but I did have a boy who did not sleep through the night for the first three years of his life). I see that tired in my clients, moms with babies or young children or trying to juggle too much.
That level of exhaustion is isolating. It’s hard to get out of the house and it’s hard to be present with friends when you get there. Sometimes, I remember, you feel like you must be doing it wrong to be that tired but that’s just how some stages of parenting are. Other people may wear it better or have golden kids who actually sleep or who are more comfortable with chaos. But that doesn’t make the rest of us — the yawning, forgetting, scatter-brained and exhausted rest of us — inadequate. We’re just tired.
Personally I am not one of those women who love the baby stage. I like them better when they start to talk (and even better when they start to talk back) so the hardest time for me is having a baby in arms or a baby lolling around on the floor while I try to keep my eyes open lying next to them bored out of my mind but ready to smile when they glance to make sure I’m there, ready to coo back, ready to pick them up and turn them around so they can make their way like inchworms away from the bookshelf or towards the squeaky toy.
Both my kids get mobile early — scootching off the baby blanket by four months, cruising by six, first steps before nine months (my daughter) and just after (my son). This meant I was trapped next to them on the floor for most of my days since neither had any tolerance for places you prop babies so a person can do things like run to the bathroom or eat a piece of toast in peace without the baby wailing.
I know I did things like cook, clean, drive the bigger kid elsewhere, and — during my daughter’s infancy — write the things people were paying me to write. But what I remember is feeling caged in by babyness, caged in by that full-blown, heady and drunken exhausted devotion. Short-tempered and love-addled, forgetting where I put down my coffee, forgetting to eat lunch, forgetting to shower because I was so busy attending to the cut-in-half grapes, the tushie wiping, the Raffi songs, the dusty chew toy that somehow rolled under the couch and all the minutiae, the nauseatingly tiny, demanding details of parenting small children. And oh boy, were there days I resented them and felt guilty for my resentment so that everything felt worse and even more exhausting.
When I see that reflected in the faces of my clients I tell them it will get better (because it will) and sometimes they believe me but sometimes they don’t or they are too exhausted to summon up belief. But parenting does get easier (and harder but not so physically hard, which makes the other parts easier). That time that engulfed me, I realize now, was such a short line on the map of my parenting career. But I’ll never forget it, never stop empathizing with the tired mom pushing a stroller or trying to coax a toddler into a carseat or trying to reign in a bouncing preschooler (or several) while she tries to grocery shop.
Parenting is hard. But it gets easier. Hang in there.
Because it’s not the media or skinny, out-of-proportion Barbie dolls or even peer pressure that is the No. 1 cause of body issues for young girls.
It’s their mothers.
“Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image,” said Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of Mayo Clinic’s eating disorders program and a child psychologist. “Even if a mom says to the daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.”