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Remembering those tired years

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!

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.”

Read more

The truth about manipulative kids

manipulative kidsFirst of all I want to be clear that manipulative kids are not bad kids. They are children who have learned inappropriate behavior to get the things that they want and need.

I just plugged “manipulate” into Google and the defintion I got was this:

1. handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner. “he manipulated the dials of the set” synonyms: operate, work;
2. control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously. “the masses were deceived and manipulated by a tiny group” synonyms: control, influence, use/turn to one’s advantage, exploit, maneuver, engineer, steer, direct, gerrymander; twist someone around one’s little finger “the government tried to manipulate the situation”

All behavior serves a purpose. All behavior is a means to an end. We do things because we want things and because we need things. We need understanding. We need love. We need to express understanding and love. We also might want stuff like toys and new clothes and later bedtimes. As we get older, we become (one hopes) more skillful in using our ability to communicate and so less manipulative according to definition number two.

However getting to definition number one (handling in a skillful manner) necessitates a developmental trek through definition number two (turn to one’s advantange).

When I was 13 I started babysitting a little girl who was 2-years old. She used to cry when things didn’t go her way and I suspected she was making herself cry deliberately. So one day I asked her if she could make herself cry. Yes, she said and she proceeded to show me exactly how she did it.

“Do you ever make yourself cry to get cookies?” I asked. She affirmed that yes indeed she did. Aha! Busted! Only she wasn’t being sneaky at all; she was just doing what made sense to get cookies.

Kids are learning how the world works. They are not born with an instinctive understanding of subtle expectations and so they must learn our rules by trying them out and running up against them. We teach kids to say “please” to get cookies and they obediently say “please.” Sometimes, without meaning to, we also teach them to cry to get cookies and they obediently cry.

The 2-year old in my charge understood that crying got attention, which is a terrific and important developmental milestone and next she needed to learn the more subtle art of communicating appropriately. She didn’t know that crying — in the adult or the teen babysitter mind — is a last resort, a desperate measure. She didn’t know that we expected her to start using her words and to accept our limits. She was just beginning to learn that.

To learn that she needed to learn two things:

  • Limits. We caregivers had to start sticking to “no” even in the face of her adorable, heart-melting tears.
  • Empathy. She had to start the long journey of understanding that her needs and wants weren’t always going to take precedence.

If she didn’t understand those things, why would she stop? To her, crying — false or not — got her needs met. Why shouldn’t she want to get her needs met? Just as she happily said “please” so she happily scrunched up her face and sobbed. Both worked. How was she supposed to know that we really only approved of one?

So limits are super important.

But empathy is super important, too.

No child can put other people’s feelings above his own until he trusts that his needs will get met and until he believes that other people’s needs are just as important — and sometimes more important — than his own.

Those are really big lessons. Those are really hard lessons.

Some kids take longer to learn them because they have hard beginnings where lying outright or by omission was necessary for survival. Other kids just don’t have the developmental capacity yet. (Remember, child development follows a predictable path but every child’s path is her own, and sometimes their development can be uneven.) Finally some kids may not have learned it because their parents haven’t taught it to them yet. Or at least not taught it to them in a consistent manner that they can understand.

As long as it works, kids will keep on fake crying or telling fibs to get what they want. This is not because they’re awful people; it’s because they haven’t been taught that other people’s feelings matter as much as their own. This is also not because they’re parents are awful people; it’s because this is all really hard stuff and it’s harder for some kids than others and it’s harder for some parents than others.

Let’s talk about the parent piece a little bit. A parent who is very sensitive to their child’s feelings or a parent who has had trouble getting his or her own needs met or a parent who is feeling overwhelmed because of other life situations may be especially vulnerable to this struggle.

Let’s take Hansel and Gretel for example (you know I like to use fairy tales in my examples). When Hansel grows up, he may have trouble saying no to his kids. His own experience of being hungry and abandoned may color his empathetic response to his kids. If his daughter says, “But Daddy, don’t you love me?” He might have an especially hard time sticking to his limits. So she learns to whine and cajole and he grows increasingly frustrated with her. She whines harder, cries louder and he gets more distressed and hollers then gives in. So the cycle continues.

This is why there is no better mirror to our own unaddressed struggles than parenting; it’s the ultimate trigger.

I am not blaming parents here, remember I think worrying about who created the problem is a useless exercise. I’m saying that sometimes you get this child and that parent and together there is conflict. Such is the dance of parenting. Such is the dance of childhood. And such is the dance of counseling since seeing a child means that of course, you are also seeing the family.

When a parent uses the term “manipulative” to describe their child to me I know that this means that they’re getting frustrated, angry and discouraged. Manipulative is such a negative term that parents generally don’t use it with me until they’re at their wit’s end. Without needing to hear anything else I know this family needs help. I know the child needs help to build those empathy skills and I know the parent needs help feeling understood and supported.

Meanwhile, for those parents who are struggling to set and keep limits, I advise them to read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, the best and most useful parenting book ever written. (That’s not hyperbole. I’m dead serious.) It’s got great instructions on extricating yourself from the arguments so that you can maintain limits and on building your child’s empathy as you set those limits.

I’m working on putting my parenting classes online and this is the kind of thing we would talk about more in depth so stay tuned. I’m aiming for fall but we shall see.

Parenting an Anxious Child

Parenting Your Anxious Child(1)After last week’s information workshop about Kids & Anxiety, the parents expressed interest in an ongoing, drop-in group for parenting the anxious child. I think this is a great idea for several reasons:

  • Parenting an anxious child or teen is stressful. Peer support is a great way to feel less isolated and more hopeful. Getting encouragement from parents who know your struggle can go a long way to helping you help your child.
  • Overcoming anxiety is a matter of learning certain skills and practicing them regularly. We will learn anti-anxiety skills and discuss ways to implement them in your child’s daily life.
  • We will explore various options including but not limited to therapy, classes, workbooks and apps so that you can figure out what will work for you and your child. I will regularly share resources from around the community to help you be the best advocate for your child.
  • Since many anxious kids have anxious parents, we will also explore our own anxiety and talk about ways to support ourselves in becoming great role models for our kids.

I’ve decided to start the group on the second Wednesday of each month starting June 10th at 7pm. It will be a monthly drop in group and ongoing meaning that you can come when it makes sense for you.

If you are interested, please fill out the form below and I will add you to my list to get meeting reminders, which you will be able to unsubscribe from at any time. Or give me a call to learn more: (614) 301-8030.

Parenting an Anxious Child Support Reminders

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What Kids Understand

what kids understandParents can get stuck when it comes to talking to kids about difficult subjects. Sex, divorce, adoption — parents come to me wanting to know what to say and when.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because there aren’t easy answers. Like I always say, kids are individuals so even though we can look at child developmental tables and make general guidelines (like these from Child Welfare Information Gateway about adoption and these from Today’s Parent about the birds and the bees) applying them to your actual real life and actual real child is more challenging.

Like, what if you’re not comfortable with the topic? And what if your child is asking questions that the guidelines say they shouldn’t be asking yet? Or what if they’re not asking questions the guidelines say they should? Or what if your 7-year old asks while his 4-year old brother is in the car with you both? Whose development are you supposed to be talking to then?

Here’s the thing I want parents to know — those of you concerned about doing it wrong are unlikely to do that. Seriously. Parents who are putting thought into this — enough thought to read through this post — are pretty darn likely to be thoughtful in their sharing. So know that. Know that you may not say the exact right thing but that’s not the same as saying the entirely wrong thing.

Kids do get confused. We tell them things and they don’t understand it. This doesn’t mean that you told it wrong or that they weren’t ready to hear it. You say something and they listen and they think about it and they mix stuff up or get things wrong or forget what you said and then they need to hear you say it again.

Ok, my daughter gave me permission to share this with you.

When she was 5-years old she started asking some very particular questions about her adoption. (She hasn’t given me permission to share those particulars so let’s just stay general.) I answered them. They weren’t easy questions — they were a little more in depth than those charts say she’d be asking — but she asked so I answered. Two weeks later she asked them again. A few days later she made a statement that made clear that she was still confused.

Each time was an opportunity to correct her confusion, to help her process the information and to move her forward in her thinking. After those three times she could talk about the topic clearly and could even reflect back on her confusion. She could explain to me why she thought what she did and — importantly — move past the facts that were tripping her up and share with me her feelings, which in some ways informed some of that confusion.

This is the thing about learning — learning needs to happen at different times and in different places to really stick. When we say, “I don’t think a child that age can understand that” we’re ignoring the fact that how children grow in understanding is through discussion.

Think about a common kindergarten activity, the one where you put a wet paper towel in a ziploc bag, stick a seed in it and tape the whole thing to the window so you can watch it germinate. Do kids really get what’s happening? Do they understand the entire complex process? No, of course not but they are beginning. We don’t wait until they get the hard core science and then tape the bag to the window, right? Of course not. We introduce it early, we introduce it again later, we build on the complexity, we answer their questions. We work to be age appropriate but we also push a little. A kindergartener is not necessarily going to ask you to show her how seeds grow but that doesn’t mean she won’t benefit from watching a bean sprout against her window.

New context and repetition leads to understanding.


Five Nights at Freddy’s: What it is

tunneldark-inside I decided to write this after someone on my Facebook posted about how scared her child is about this game. I’m hearing about it a lot these days — in the anxiety groups, in sessions and in my own home.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is a video game that has both computer and app versions (for Kindles, iPads, etc.). The plot is this: You work at a place like Chuck E. Cheese where animatronic animals come alive at night. You’re the security guard. Your job is to stay alive over all five nights. The animatronics are murderous and the game relies on a lot of jump scares to keep you tense. Here‘s the whole back story if you want to read it.

Besides the game, there are a number of YouTube videos of people playing it with commentary. (My daughter wants me to tell you that there are “not scaries” of it, too, for kids who want in on the game but can’t watch videos with the scary parts. But there are still a lot of jump scares in them. If I had to watch a Five Nights at Freddy’s commentary video, I’d watch this animated one because it’s not scary at all.)

I’m hearing from kids that this is at peak attention right now (in fact, as soon as I publish this they will probably move on to something else terrifying because it’s so peak it’s probably peaked) but I’m talking about it because if you’re not aware of it you should be and because the issue of viral fear on the internet is going to be an issue whether it’s Slenderman or Five Nights or whatever else the kids are talking about that we’re not hearing about yet.

And that’s really what’s important to know here. In our day it was Ouija boards and Bloody Mary in the mirror at sleepovers and in their day it’s what the internet has to offer. The big difference is that the internet has the capacity to make things more real. People can create whole worlds online to populate their creepy fantasies, which makes urban legends feel a lot less legendary and a lot more like fact. (My friend on Facebook says that what pushed her child over the edge is that people have created a digital footprint for the pizza place featured in the game to help cement the idea that the whole thing is real. Here’s a kid who made a video about that.)

What I’m saying is that Five Nights at Freddy’s may be what’s happening now but the challenge is not Five Nights at Freddy’s. The challenge is helping our kids be critical thinkers, to manage their anxiety, to figure out how to curate their own internet experiences and to stand up to people out to scare them.

Middle grade kids have some developmental demands that make them particularly vulnerable:

  • They are shifting to be more peer-oriented and independent, meaning that if their 10-year old friend says it’s true then his voice might carry a tad more weight than your voice of reason does;
  • They become more aware of the wide, wide world and the scariness in it, which is why they may be fascinated by scary stories;
  • Their bodies are changing and/or their friends’ bodies are changing and/or they’re becoming more aware of impending change, which may cause them to sublimate this fear into urban legends. Think about it, adulthood is for real and true pretty scary but kids can’t really verbalize this kind of existential fear. It’s a lot easier to be terrified of murderous robotic rabbits.

And now you see why Goosebumps were all the rage for middlegrade 90s kids, too, right? These fears serve a developmental purpose and many of our kids will need grown up help to meet that challenge and grow past it.

So what can concerned parents do?

Set limits: Learn about parental controls. Turn on YouTube safety mode. If you want to install a blocker then by all means do. You may want to create rules like screen time happens in community rooms of the house or that certain apps may not be installed on a child’s tablet. You decide and stick to it.

But be realistic: You can limit access to these games and web sites and videos but you do need to know that your ability to do this will be hampered both by the limits of parental control and by all the kids whose parents don’t block access. Between phones and iPods and Kindle Fires and family computers at someone else’s house, you need to expect that even the most protected child is going to catch sight of these things. That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and have a Freddy’s free for all. No, you can still limit it in your home because you’re not just trying to protect your child from the sight of it, you’re also modeling how we care for ourselves in the internet age. We are modeling that if something disturbs you, you should click out. So, yes, live out your family values and set those limits up but don’t assume your work then is done. You’re still going to need to deal with it because your child is going to need to deal with it.

Focus on real consequences instead of punishment: Part of learning to handle the internet and peers is messing up. Kids have to watch a video sometimes to know, oh rats, I should not have watched that. Very often that sinking feeling is a big enough consequence that you won’t need to create any of your own. The internet has a lot of yucky things on it and even the tightest of parental controls won’t keep all of it from slinking through. It is very likely that children will see naked ladies and creepy videos on purpose and on accident. Talk about this possibility before it happens. Talk about what your family values are around this. Talk about what you expect them to do. Let them know that if they see something online that they don’t like, you want to hear about it. When the time inevitably comes, listen with sympathy and then reiterate the rules. What can they do (if anything) to prevent the likelihood of that happening? What should they do if it happens anyway?

Explain to them about their vulnerability: Let them know that this is part of being 8 or 9 or 10. Explain that scary things won’t always feel this scary. Let them know that you are there to help them get through this developmental hurdle. Talk to them about fears that they used to have (that they’d go down the bathtub drain, for instance) and tell that this is like that. You can say, “I know Five Nights at Freddy’s seems really real but it’s no more real than the bathtub drain.” Promise them that they won’t always be this scared. Sometimes knowing that there is a way out (even if you can’t see it) can help. And along those lines…

Share your own middle-grade struggles: I’m not saying sit down and watch old school Poltergeist with them but talk to them about the thing that scared you when you were their age and tell them how you grew out of it. This can be a good exercise for you, too, to remember how scary unreal scary things can be; to maybe come up with solutions (what worked for you?); and to give your child a concrete demonstration that these fears can be conquered. (Ok, maybe you still wouldn’t keep a clown doll at the end of your bed but I bet you no longer quake in fear about that tree outside your window, right?)

Help them get to the bottom of things: You don’t need to bookmark Snopes.com on your kid’s tablet but you can teach them basic information about truth, lies and urban legends. Understanding the way stories get written, how they spread and why we do it can help diminish some of their power.  How Stuff Works has a series of posts on urban legends and AmericanFolklore.net has resources for teachers and parents who might want to delve in further. For some kids, being able to get control in this way can help them feel more powerful and less scared.

Ask for help: Come to the Kids & Anxiety workshop next week to learn more about helping kids handle their worries appropriately. If you can’t be there, contact me and ask for my hand outs. If you think your child might benefit from counseling, let me know. If I’m not the right person to help him or her, likely I know a therapist who can. I’m also going to be running a group again this summer and you can learn more about that here.