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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.


Counseling by text

counseling by textThis is what my social media policy says about texting (this is part of the intake paperwork all of my clients receive and I have them sign something that says they have read and understand my policies):

You may text me with questions about appointment times, to reschedule or to cancel (please note my cancellation policies require 24-hour notice). You may also text me if you would like me to call you back. However please know that I do turn my phone off during client hours, meetings and outside of office hours so I cannot guarantee when I will read your text and get back to you. If you do text me, I will assume you welcome a text back. While it is unlikely that someone will be looking at these logs, they are, in theory, available to be read by our cell phone service providers. You should also know that any texts I receive from you and any responses that I send to you become a part of your legal record.

I’m a late adapter to texting and most of my clients are much more comfortable texting than I am. Originally I was reluctant to add texting to the ways clients can get a hold of me because our profession is still struggling to know how to ethically manage all these (fairly) new developments. After consulting with colleagues I decided to very cautiously add texting with clear limits. The reason I’m so cautious is:

  • People think of texting as immediate but I’m not on call 24/7. Unlike my voicemail where you’ll get a response that specifically says you may not hear from me for 24 hours (and will give you a referral number to Netcare in case you are in serious crisis) or email, which people don’t necessarily expect you to check constantly, texting feels like it should be immediate. But it’s not. I may not get the message until the next day and there’s no way to tell you that your text remains unread. (This is, for me, the greatest issue with texting; it gives the illusion that I am more accessible than I am, which is why I try to be so clear in my social media policy.)
  • Texting is a lousy medium for processing problems. It’s great for quick messages, “Hit traffic! Running late!” but not so much for big issues, “I saw my ex today and we had a discussion …” It’s best to save those issues for in-person sessions.
  • What you text (or email for that matter) — the exact words — becomes part of your paper record. Ethically I have to record any written contact we have and while your record is theoretically confidential there are times where other people could get access to it. (For example, if the counselor was subpoenaed by the court.) It’s one thing if a client rants about an annoying co-worker in session because I can record our discussion as, “Client shared frustrations w/colleagues” but it’d be another thing to have the whole rant there in the records verbatim because she sent it via text.

Some counselors have more flexible texting policies and some counselors do not text at all. It’s important that you talk to your counselor and be very clear about what she is open to when it comes to electronic communication.

Does normal mean acceptable?

puddleboat-insidePart of what we do in the Problem-Solving Parenting classes is figure out whether or not our children’s behaviors are normal and to-be-expected from kids that age. There are some things we just need to accept as part of parenting (babies are messy eaters) and some things we can influence (all typically developing kids will potty train eventually but caregivers can speed up or slow things down).

Learning what is developmentally appropriate for your unique child is one of the most important things we can do as parents. It helps us have more realistic expectations. But sometimes when we’re talking about what’s developmentally appropriate, parents get confused. They’ll either argue that I’m giving their kids an excuse to misbehave or they decide that there’s nothing they can do with the problem behavior but live with it.

Neither is true.

Babies will always be messy eaters. That’s a non-negotiable. But when it comes to 2-year old tantrums and 4-year olds who dawdle in the morning and 9-year olds who talk back and teenagers who miss curfew, there’s some room to work.

Understanding child development in general and the behavior of our individual children specifically helps us respond more appropriately.

Why are babies messy? They don’t have great motor skills just yet. And they’re also learning about their environment with pretty broad strokes (smell, touch, taste).

Why do 2-year olds tantrum? They’re easily frustrated, are lousy at transitions, have limited communication skills and are working at being independent.

Messy babies at meal times make sense. 2-year olds who tantrum also makes sense.

There’s not much we can do to influence motor skills other than give lots of opportunity and practice. But tantruming toddlers? That we can address.

  • Toddlers are easily frustrated; we can help them acknowledge their frustration.
  • Toddlers are lousy at transitions; we can begin preparing them for transitions ahead of time.
  • Toddlers have limited communication skills; we can give them words for their feelings and their wants and wishes.
  • Toddlers need the opportunity to practice independence; we can build in some developmentally-appropriate independence into their lives.

It’s easy to see that behavior (tantrums) and want to know how to deal with that behavior. But to get it at its source, we need to know what developmental needs are driving the behavior. Just because it’s normal for a 2-year old to tantrum doesn’t mean that we don’t have tools to help our kids with the task of growing out of them.



Score one for the nice boys

Being a mama’s boy, new research suggests, may be good for your mental health. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association by Carlos Santos, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social and Family Dynamics.

Santos recently conducted a study that followed 426 boys through middle school to investigate the extent to which the boys favor stereotypically male qualities such as emotional stoicism and physical toughness over stereotypically feminine qualities such as emotional openness and communication, and whether that has any influence on their mental well-being. His main finding was that the further along the boys got in their adolescence, the more they tended to embrace hypermasculine stereotypes. But boys who remained close to their mothers did not act as tough and were more emotionally available. …

Using a mental-health measure called the Children’s Depression Inventory, he also found that boys who shunned masculine stereotypes and remained more emotionally available had, on average, better rates of mental health through middle school. “If you look at the effect size of my findings, mother support and closeness was the most predictive of boys’ ability to resist [hypermasculine] stereotypes and therefore predictive of better mental health,” Santos says.

buddies-insidevia Emotional Openness May Be Good for Males’ Mental Health – TIME.

How about we stop this whole “mama’s boy” stereotype altogether, ‘kay? Let’s just say that human beings — male or female or self-identified other — are healthier and happier when they are allowed and encouraged to be in touch with their feelings and taught skills to communicate effectively.

I mean, duh, people. Really and truly DUH.

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