Talking with Kids: Avoiding Those One Word Answers

It wasn’t until I became a parent of teenagers that I recognized the value of asking my children ‘Open’ questions instead of ‘Closed’ questions. Closed questions call for one answer only, without room for discussion. Open questions invite your child to keep talking. Open questions show respect and they show that you want to listen. Open questions lead to open conversations that encourage both curiosity and uncertainty. Open conversations can offer us the surprise of new insight from our children. 

On most days I would pick up my children from school and ask, “How was your day?” I usually got a one-word answer. And then I discovered the value of asking a more open question like, “Tell me the best part of your day”. And when I did that the words spilled out! 

Just asking an open question isn’t always enough. I also needed to be fully present during the conversations. In a multi-tasking world, undivided attention is a precious commodity. Children need parents who listen with their eyes and ears. They need us to turn off the smart phone, computer, tablet, television, or other distractions that dilute the conversation. 

Conversation Starters

Children often need a little prompting and encouragement to share their thoughts. Conversation starters can help.

Here are a few examples of questions for parents to ask their children: 

  • What are you most curious about?
  • How do you learn best? By reading or seeing? By touching? Or by moving?
  • What do you wish I knew about you?
  • If you were in charge how would you change your educational journey to better meet your needs?

And questions for children to ask their parents:

  • Tell me about the teacher or mentor who made a difference in your life.
  • When you were in school what did you wish your teachers knew about you?
  • What is your favorite activity you like to do with me?
  • What do you love most about me?

Children don’t usually plan on having open conversations with us. As parents we need to create those opportunities and model how to have an open, respectful conversation where both parent and child are fully present and engaged.

Conversation Starters are an excellent tool for connecting with your child about something other than school, screen time and chores. If you would like a list of additional questions to ask your kiddos, email me at sally@parentwell.com.

To help parents improve communication with their children I offer a 6-session workshop designed to give parents support and strategies for long-term, sustainable changes that are specifically tailored to each family. In addition to communication, the workshop covers ADHD, executive function, connection, compassion, and calm. Contact me for more information.

 

Finding Calm in the Midst of a Meltdown

A common concern I often hear from parents is that they too have a hard time getting calm when their child is escalated. Taking time out for meditation, yoga or mindfulness exercises, though beneficial in the long term, aren’t really appropriate in the short term when you need to be physically present to help your child de-escalate. Here are four simple strategies to practice now and add to your parent survival basket to help you find calm in the middle of your child’s meltdowns. 

Square Breathing

Square Breathing (also known as 4-Part Breath or Box Breathing) can be done anywhere and you can teach your children to do it anywhere as well. This is a simple mindfulness technique that can help reduce stress and bring you back into the present moment. 

image via cherylschirillo.com

This picture above illustrates the simple process: 

  1. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts.
  2. Pause and hold your breath for 4 counts.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for 4 counts.
  4. Pause and hold your breath for 4 counts. 

You can download this jpeg and print it on a card or enlarge it and put it on the wall in your child’s room. We recommend adding this technique to a ‘Calm Basket’ – a collection of items that your child (she may need your input) puts into a box or basket that has a special place in her room. When your child is having an escalated moment, you can suggest that she go up to her room and find something in the Calm Basket to help her de-escalate. Besides the square breathing technique, you could fill the basket with books, Legos, stuffed animals, puzzles, coloring books and crayons. The list is endless – the key is to pack it with items that will help her calm down and find her center. 

The next three are easy relaxation techniques from Dr. Oz: 

Scrunch Your Face

This technique comes from Dr. Oz. Scrunch your face tightly for 15 seconds, then release. Repeat several times. The repetitive contraction and relaxation helps release tension you’re holding above the neck. 

Breathe In

Breathe in through your nose. While holding your breath, lick your lips, then blow out slowly through your mouth. The cool air helps you refocus and slow down. Do this several times till you notice your breathing/heart rate has started slowing down. 

Cork It

Hold a wine cork vertically between your teeth. Putting a gentle bite on the cork forces your jaws – a major holder of tension – to relax. (BTW, Dr. Oz adds, “. . . to not fight stress by emptying the bottle of wine into your body first.”

The Parent Survival Basketis a 6-session workshop designed to give parents support and strategies for long term sustainable changes, changes that are specifically tailored to your family. In addition to information about ADHD and Executive function the workshop also covers strategies to increase Calm, Connection, Compassion and Communication. For more information about the Parent Survival Basket workshop please email sally@parentwell.com.

We Are Hardwired To Connect

Neuroscientists have shown that our well-being depends on our connection to others. In fact, we are ‘hardwired to connect’.  Since our relationships with our children are some of the most important relationships we will ever have, why not create opportunities to nurture those connections, to nurture our children’s well-being?

I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.
~ Brené Brown

One way to connect with your children is to have regular family meetings. We started this weekly tradition when our youngest was a toddler. We met over dessert after Sunday dinner.

Need ideas on how to structure the meeting? We started with appreciations, which my husband and I modeled for the children, helping us all exercise our gratitude muscles. One of my fondest memories was watching our youngest give just one appreciation, to his best bud – our big white cat, Marshmellow.  We ended our meetings with a group hug (at least until they were teenagers LOL). There was often a palpable change in our interactions with each other when everyone had a chance to share good feelings.

In the middle of the meeting, we might have planned an upcoming vacation or a weekend outing. Family meetings are excellent opportunities to talk about schedules for the coming week, allowance, chores, screen time, and other household agreements. They can also teach children about respect and problem solving. Most importantly, family meetings give children a place to be heard and loved.

Other ideas for your meeting format can include:

  • Taking turns being the leader.
  • Reading the notes from last meeting.
  • Talking about old business.
  • Talking about new business.
  • Summarizing what everyone has agreed to do.

Once you have a routine in place, you can put the agenda on the fridge a few days before the meeting so everyone can add to it. I would keep the first couple meetings short and do something fun immediately after.

Would you like more information on ways to increase connections in your family? Check out The Parent Survival Basket, a 10-hour workshop offered privately or in a group at the Hallowell Todaro ADHD Center.

The Gift of Presence in Parenting

I’m reminded of a circus clown when I think back on what my days were often like raising our three children. I was juggling several things at once, not always well, but I managed. Every day seemed like a constant balancing act – making sure everyone’s needs were met. And more often than not I felt as if I was in that tiny clown car going round and round in circles.

I mention this because I think as parents we try to be more than we could ever possibly be, and in the process we end up not being fully present for ourselves, our partners or our children. There were times when I would be so involved in planning and making sure everyone was where they needed to be that I’d forget to take a breath and enjoy the moment. I live on an island near Seattle, and I could go days without fully appreciating the natural beauty surrounding me.

One day as I was driving mindlessly to pick up one of my children from school (I think they were in three separate schools at the time) I drove under two wooden bumblebees thrown over the power lines. To this day I have no clue as to who put them there or why, but I am certain they were meant for me. Without skipping a beat I said to myself, “Just Bee” and just like that something washed over me. I suddenly realized how not presentI had become.

As I continued to drive the car I started to notice my breathing, paid attention to my posture and how I was tensing my shoulders. I kept a closer eye on the speedometer (that was a good thing). The bumblebees are no longer there; but now when I drive under those power lines it’s a simple reminder to bring my attention back to the present moment.

And then my children became teenagers. The circus act calmed down a bit but my knack for multi-tasking did not. When my middle daughter was 16 she and I were having a conversation in our kitchen. She was sitting at the counter and I was standing on the other side pretending to listen to her while I was doing 5 other things. At one point in the conversation she reached across the counter and gently grabbed my face and said, “Mom, Mom, pay attention to me. I’m talking to you.”

OK, this time I really got it. Not only was I not fully present for the conversation but I was also missing out on a precious opportunity to connect with my daughter.

These are just two examples from my life that illustrate the importance of self-care. If you would like additional strategies, send me an email and we can schedule a parent coaching consultation. I can help you find that balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of your family.

Different Learners by Jane Healy, Ph.D.

When I was asked to promote Jane Healy’s book, I hesitated because one, I hadn’t read it and two, I have never written a book review. But since I am a huge fan of two of her past books (Endangered Minds and Failure to Connect) I was curious to read a book with a title that is intentionally ‘label free’. Within minutes I was hooked. Jane has done it again. She has the ability to turn science into practical, usable information while she is slowly selling you on a more holistic approach to supporting different learners.

My training as a PCI Certified Parent Coach has taught me to embrace the family as a living systems model and look beyond the child’s behavior (that’s generally why parents seek coaching in the first place), but I look at the whole family, environmental issues, day to day stressors, the child’s learning environment, etc. Jane completely supports that approach when trying to determine if a child has a learning issue and whether it is the result of genes, brain chemistry, environment or lifestyle.

I found myself nodding in agreement with her firm stance on limiting media in a child’s life and how we need to get our kids outside more often enjoying and exploring nature. And stress – painfully I have watched the detrimental effects on my own children. Jane makes several convincing arguments for why we need to slow it down, especially for students who learn differently. So many of them give up.

Jane does an excellent job describing the latest research on the brain in language that even I could comprehend – never did develop that analytical side of my brain! She talks about medication and rightly questions the amount of drugs prescribed to children. As parents we want our children to fit in and find success in school, but often medication is prescribed too quickly as a remedy. As Jane says, “In my opinion, expediency, convenience, or outside pressure are very lame reasons for messing around with your child’s brain chemistry.”

In her chapter “How Your Child’s Brain Works” she devotes the last few pages to motivation. I hear too often, ‘If he were just more motivated . . . “ So we tell our child to get motivated which Jane feels is “a waste of breath”. Jane has a few more thoughts about motivation – this is my favorite:

“One major reason for ‘motivation’ problems is that school curricula are often too rigid to accommodate a student’s need to learn differently and to repeat things for mastery. Policy makers, take note: expecting all students to achieve mastery without adequate support is a recipe for the ultimate motivation problem, dropping out.” (my emphasis)

I particularly liked her chapter on stress. She outlines the stressors our children face in this culture such as school, bullying, and social networking – factors that clearly contribute to an overload on the developing brain. I’m glad she advocates for slowing it down especially for teens. As parents we can become oblivious to what I describe as the silent stressors in our children’s lives such as Facebook, texting, and the Internet. I appreciate that Jane gives parents permission to set appropriate limits on the use of media while providing up-to-date research on screen exposure and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Appendices are as important as the rest of the book so don’t overlook those at the end. Jane provides a list of known learning disabilities. And she walks parents through the process of diagnosis with strong recommendations to get second and third opinions if necessary. And if you are like me and have a hard time with ‘psycho babble’ she recommends finding an advocate for yourself and your child.

Parents will find this book user friendly as well as a ‘call to action’. For all of us who are parents with different learners – Jane is our ‘Oprah’. She completely understands what it’s like to both be a child with learning differences and a parent who is struggling to get answers. Here’s one ‘call to action’: She encourages parents to advocate for those parents who cannot advocate for themselves. After reading this book those who learn easily will have a deeper understanding for parents of children who learn differently.  “We say we care deeply about our children’s learning. But do we care enough to do what needs to be done?”

From all of us, . . . thank you, Jane.

The Daddy Brain

In honor of Fathers Day, I thought I would share this article from the Greater Good Center. 

The Daddy Brain
By Jeremy Adam Smith | June 1, 2009 |
Moms aren’t the only ones whose bodies change after having a baby. Jeremy Adam Smith reveals the new science of fatherhood.

Gopal Dayaneni is a stay-at-home father in Oakland, California. He still recalls the first time he gave a bottle to his six-week-old daughter, Ila. “I sat down with her in a rocking chair,” he says. “She totally took the bottle, right up against my body, comfortable and warm. She looked up at me and I was so taken with her.”

This story has a punch line: “After that, she never took a bottle again,” says Gopal. “She screamed her head off every time I tried.”
As infants and toddlers, both of Gopal’s children cried when their mom, Martha, left for work as a teacher, cried when she came back, and talked about her all day in between. This made for some very difficult days.Jeremy__Liko-LowRez                                                                               “They just love their mother more,” says Gopal ruefully.

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead would not have been surprised by Gopal’s situation. “Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents,” she once said. Far from an eccentric view, Mead distilled a scientific consensus that prevailed for centuries and persists (as a matter of opinion) to this day: Men are natural conquerors—Lotharios and breadwinners—while women are natural nurturers. As a result, men want sex, women want babies, and babies want their mothers. According to this view, involved fathers are, at best, a happy accident.

For this reason, to many people Gopal’s reverse-traditional family might appear “unnatural,” a word that my desk dictionary defines as “contrary to the physical laws of nature” and my thesaurus says is synonymous with “abnormal,” “aberrant,” and “perverted.” When the children of a caregiving dad like Gopal cry out for their mother, many people would hold this up as evidence on behalf of what some call “the traditional family”—meaning, a breadwinning father and caregiving mother.

But the new science of fatherhood has started to cast Gopal’s dilemma in a new light. In researching my new book, The Daddy Shift, I read every word I could find in peer-reviewed scholarly journals about caregiving fathers, breadwinning moms, and the science of sexual difference. I also interviewed dozens of parents like Gopal and Martha.

Here’s what I discovered: Where once it was thought that the minds and bodies of men were hardly affected by fatherhood, today scientists are finding that fatherhood changes men down to the cellular level. For more than a century, it was assumed that mothers, not fathers, were solely responsible for the care, life chances, and happiness of children. In recent years, however, research has revealed that father involvement is essential to a child’s well being, and that dads provide unique kinds of care and play that mothers often do not.

As a result, scientists and parents alike are developing a radical new conception of fatherhood, one whose role is not limited to contributing sperm and making money. This should be a comfort to us all during a time of economic catastrophe, when 80 percent of people being laid off are men and tens of thousands of fathers are being thrown into new roles at home. Women have been supporting families for decades, taking on breadwinning roles that were once considered impossible. And after 30 years of research and growing male participation at home, we are now also beginning to understand that fathers can also take on roles as caregivers.

Brains of our fathers
In the past, says University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane, researchers looked only at whether the father was present and married to the mother. They did not study how fathers interacted with their children or what impact fathers had on children’s development; no one studied how fatherhood might change a man’s brain and body.

But, says Coltrane, “in the late seventies researchers started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we measure what the fathers are actually doing? How do they parent?’”
In the decades since then, researchers have made a staggering number of discoveries about how critical father involvement is to child development, and how it can be cultivated. University of California, Riverside, psychologist Ross Parke is one of the pioneers of fatherhood studies. He and his colleagues developed a “systems view” that attempts to describe all the factors that influence a father’s involvement with his children:

  • His relationships with his own parents (did he have an involved father?) and in-laws (are they supportive of him?);
  • The mother’s attitude (does she welcome his participation?);
  • Timing of entry into the parental role (what pressures is he facing, especially at work?); and
  • Informal support systems such as playgroups and friendships (do other parents put social pressure on him to be involved, through example or comments?).

Read the rest of the article here.

The Quiet Power of Parental Love

I am reposting this fantastic article by Dr. Mike Bradley, one of my favorite parenting experts. His book, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy is a must for any parent with teens. No one knows teens better or understands the dynamics between parent and teen better than he does. Enjoy!!

SUMMERTIME IN ADOLESCENCE: WHEN ONE DRINK IS TOO MANY; AND A THOUSAND IS NOT ENOUGH

Mom and Dad sat stunned on my office couch. They were great parents, appropriately involved in their 15-year-old son’s life, trying not to over control while also attempting to keep him safe, toeing that elusive parental “balance point” the experts are always suggesting. Their son “Myles” also seemed great: good grades in an elite school, talented athlete, lots of friends- he seemed like the kid we’d all want for our son, with one exception: he had been drinking two-to-three times every week throughout the summer.

Their shock only increased as their son “came clean” about his drinking, which he was so at ease in admitting since “everyone does this” in his world. “You guys are the only parents who are so crazy about us (his friends) drinking,” he calmly explained. “Check it out. It’s no big deal, not like we’re doing drugs. The other parents are all cool with this, and some even drink with us. Why do you guys think all the sleepovers are never at our house?” He paused for emphasis: “Every single kid I know from school drinks at least as much as me.

This article’s title is an old adage from the drug rehab community which has now taken on a sobering (pun intended) new meaning for those of us whose hearts are tied to teenagers. It refers to the idea that one drink for an alcoholic can start a never ending binge of drug use (boozing) while chasing a feeling he can never achieve with the drug. We now have science proving that adage can apply to teen drinking as well. A 2012 study from the University of Florida (published in The Journal of School Health) found that alcohol is the feared “gateway drug,” the chemical which whacks vulnerable teen brains to promote other drug use to include heroin and cocaine, all used in succession to achieve that unattainable high. The increased level of risk is stunning: teens who drink have up to a 16-fold increased risk of abusing other drugs. But as Myles pointed out, the irony is that too many parents have a laid-back view of teen drinking, preferring to see i t as a harmless rite-of-passage instead of what it truly is: dangerous drug use. Teen brains simply aren’t equipped to handle the addictive and brain damaging impacts of ethanol (yes, Virginia, there is ethanol in your kid’s alcohol). So much so that a teen who begins drinking at age 14 has a500% increased risk of addiction over someone who waits to drink legally.

A related and dangerous irony is that too many parents who hate the fact that their teens drink have given up trying to stop them, feeling overwhelmed by the drinking culture. As Myles’ father asked, “Well, what can we do since everyone else is doing this? He has to have some sort of social life.” In response I offer two facts: the first is that while many older teens do drink regularly, at least half don’t. Teens tend to segregate themselves into groups of similar interests and attitudes and so it can seem to half of them that “everyone does this.” Of course, Myles’ response is that those sober kids are “dorks and dweebs” with whom he’d never associate, illustrating the problem of how difficult it is for a teen to socially reinvent himself at 15 in order to start to hang out with drug-free kids. So start communicating your drug position to your kid early on, before the teen friend choices get locked in. Researchers are constantly amazed to learn how so many teens (often one-third of them) don’t even know what their parent’s attitudes and beliefs are about teen drinking.

My second helpful fact is that parents who maintain a calm, loving, and firm anti-drug position have kids who tend to avoid using drugs (“Son, we love you far too much to let you do something that can terribly hurt you. We may disagree on this, but our position is firm. We are asking that you not drink until you are 21. You can have your sleepovers but only at our house until we can trust that this drinking has stopped”). A zero-tolerance policy is not a rage-filled police state but is rather a loving belief which, quietly expressed, definitely limits teen drug behaviors.

After a few sessions, Myles became the stunned participant, a teenager who stared in amazement at his parents, people he previously saw as being nice, reasonable folks who now sat firmly united in their “crazy” zero-tolerance alcohol policy, a loving expectation framed by concern for their child. Since these parents didn’t get so heavy about very many things, this “line in the sand” really stood out to their child. In his last session, Myles’ eyes betrayed his thoughts, revealing his worry that perhaps his folks were right, that his friends could be wrong, and that his drinking today might effectively take his life tomorrow. His dangerous belief about drinking was now open to change, setting the stage for healing growth.

And all of that was accomplished without a single shouted word or scary threat. That’s the quiet power of parental love.

Dr. Mike Bradley
Dr. Mike BradleyTelephone Consultations
Just a reminder that Dr. Bradley provides telephone consultations for parents and teen helpers (counselors, therapists, and so on). Dr. Bradley’s wife Cindy (another 30-year veteran in the teen trenches) is also available for consultations. Get details.

Speaking Engagements
Interested in having Dr. Bradley speak to your parent group or professional organization? Find out more.

Q & A Videos on 20 Teen Issues with Doc Mike
Check out Dr. B’s website where you’ll find short videos on many of your sleep-destroying worries about your teen. Watch videos here.

Parents of Toddlers – Perfect Your Ignoring Skills!

pouting-child-girlParents often find themselves in an internal debate between punishment and discipline, especially if they were raised in a fear-based environment that focused on punishment. Many parents today want to do this differently and raise their children in a more democratic environment. In doing so, the pendulum has swung far to the other side and some parents have given the locus of control over to their children. More on that topic another time.

I thought I would focus today on a very effective discipline strategy for your toddler – IGNORING. What I like most about this strategy is how easy it is. And it’s respectful. Over all I think ignoring is a positive way to discipline toddlers. First a few words about discipline. The goal of discipline is to teach children how to be responsible for themselves and how to cooperate with others. It’s our job to show them a different way to behave. As parents of toddlers you are quite familiar with inappropriate behaviors such as whining, teasing, mild crying, power plays, interrupting, begging for treats, arguing, swearing and temper tantrums. Though these behaviors usually are not dangerous to children or other people, I think we can all agree they can be very annoying and generally occur when we have the least resilience to respond with forethought.

The good news is that these behaviors can often be eliminated if they are systematically ignored. (Please note, if your child is hurting someone or is in danger, you can’t ignore that behavior.)

Steps to Remember:
 Avoid eye contact and discussion (and I do mean ALL discussion!) while ignoring.
 Physically move away from your child but stay in the room if possible.
 Be prepared for testing and she will test.
 Be consistent. If you ignore the whining today, ignore it tomorrow as well.
 Combine distractions with ignoring.
 Return your attention as soon as misbehavior stops.
 Give attention to your child’s positive behaviors.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
Ask your child at a calmer time if she would like to learn some other ways to handle frustration. Teach her to tell you in words how she feels instead of using an emotional display. Pay attention to ways you may be setting your child up to have a tantrum. Most kids don’t start off with a tantrum. You may be arguing, demanding, controlling, and fighting with her until she throws a tantrum in exasperation. Ask your child what she would like you to do when she is having a tantrum. Do this at a time when you can discuss it calmly. Give choices like, “Would you like a hug, or would you like me to just wait until you’re over it?”

If at any time you feel you need additional support don’t hesitate to contact me – the first phone consultation is free.

Parents, be proactive! Learn how to set appropriate boundaries before the crisis. Gain the confidence to Parent Well … every day!

Rethinking Family Meetings

I have a lot of respect for the folks at Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life at Berkeley. As you would expect they often report on the positive aspects of parenting. Summer can be a chaotic time without the school schedule. One way to help everyone feel grounded is to have a family meeting once a week. I’m a big fan of family meetings. If you are new to the concept check out the FAMILY MEETINGS PDF I give to my clients to help them get started.

Here’s a recent Greater Good article promoting family meetings by Christine Carter, Ph.D., Rethinking Family Meetings:

Every year I rethink our family meetings at the beginning of the summer, when all of our routines are changing anyway, and this June has been no different—except that I recently read Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, which puts a big emphasis on family meetings. (read more here)

And a short video:  Rethinking Family Meetings.