Running on Highways

 

This past weekend I joined a group of moms from Southern California to run a 205-mile relay from San Francisco to Napa, California. The promise of wine-tasting and 48 hours of family-free time was enough to get me to agree to something so crazy.  Our team name was R.I.O.T. Moms, with the acronym for “Running Is Our Therapy” a fitting description for how exercise and outdoor time can rejuvenate even the weariest of parents.

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The past couple of months have reaffirmed my own parenting journey. My husband and I sold our house in the Pacific Northwest, closed up shop on our jobs, and headed south with kids and dog in tow to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area.  The promise of good weather and time to focus on family was all we needed to make the jump to a new adventure. Throughout this transition, which included my oldest starting kindergarten, my kids have been relying on each other and my husband and I in new ways.  Amidst the uncertainty they often look to mom and dad for stability, and that trust can be both reassuring and draining.  I’ve been practicing some meditation techniques, channeling my inner calm, so when the chaos threatens to take over – one child is crying, another is telling a loud story, the dog is barking, the dinner on the stove boiling over – I can take a deep breath and keep my core calm and regulated.

 

Children feed off our nerves. A child who easily becomes dysregulated is looking for outside sources of strength to bump up against.  Sometimes, this is figurative – needing a calm presence to reflect back to them the way to cope with a situation.  And sometimes they actually ARE bumping into things – crashing into you, into their sibling, hitting walls, or tripping over their own feet – to seek some sort of barrier or boundary to the chaos coursing through them.  How we react – kneeling down, modeling deep breaths and quiet words, giving hugs and pressure squeezes when needed, reflecting their emotions with words and simple phrases – can mean continued shouting and tears, or a de-escalation of the situation.

 

Running a relay takes you on beautiful trails through the woods, winding streets coursing through quaint little towns, and hot, gravely highways with semi-trucks roaring past. I have a hard time on those highways, thinking I have little shoulder to run on, my footing irregular and my temperature rising.  The sound from the trucks can be overwhelming, moving me to frustrated tears if I let it. A dysregulated child feels the same.  Senses on overload, fear of the unknown driving action, uncertainty of how to proceed. For many of our children, being unable to get the train pieces to fit together, or an incessantly itchy tag bothering their neck, is all that is needed to get on that chaotic highway.

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I worked on my meditation techniques during those miles. The face of calm on the inside.  Ironic, since I probably looked a hot mess on the outside.  Breathing, keeping my blood pressure at a steady state.  Visualizing my end goal and the steps to get there.  Using my thoughts and words to channel chaotic emotions.  These all mirror many of the strategies we use with children to help them regulate their bodies. Self-soothing strategies are lifelong lessons we can teach, to deal with frustration, chaos, and situations outside of our control.  Check out more links below to strategies you can use at home…

Avoiding Meltdowns

Self-Soothing Strategies

Behavior Strategies

Anxiety Management

And a big “thank you” to my fellow RIOT Moms, who persevered with me!  205 miles ain’t got nothing on us!

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Tips for the Weary Mom

We all experience fatigue in this job they call “parenting”.

One moment I can feel on my game, the house is tidy (ish) and the kids are happy, playing, and learning as they go.  The next moment I round the corner into the kitchen and find the dog licking spilled juice off the floor, while one child pleadingly calls to me from the bathroom to help her wipe her bottom.  At times it can feel overwhelming.  I was entrusted with these little humans? To raise, to teach, to keep safe in this world.  Me?  How can I manage?

Interestingly, I sometimes feel the same way at my job.  I’ve been entrusted with helping this child?  The one who struggles to learn?  The one who has such a thin line of perseverance that the slightest misstep can push them into dysregulation and a full meltdown?  The one who has been written off by his teachers, or labeled and filed away by a relative? And yet we do it, day after day, week after week.  We parent, we teach.  Because it does make a difference.  It does matter.

There are a few strategies I’ve learned to help me with those days when I am feeling especially weary.  The days when I wonder if I have it in me.  By focusing on a few things, I can move an otherwise overwhelming interaction into a positive one.

 

  • Let your face light up when your child walks into the room.  The first thing they see when they round that corner should be you, glad to see them, happy to have them here.  It can be a mood changer.

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  • Still your hands, kneel down to eye level, and give your child your calm focus and attention.  If there is one thing I recommend to parents, it’s to kneel down in front of their child when they talk to them.  It does wonders.

  • Listen.  Really listen. Hear your child from where they are.

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  • Give a mental break.  Teach your children how to have quiet time.  Reinforce the idea of alone time with your child, where they can explore their own thoughts.  It might be five minutes at first, but build that resilience.  After lunch is usually a good time, and can give a much-needed pause to the busy day.

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  • When you come back together, center yourself on them.  Snuggle time for the fussy toddler.  Words and eye contact for the preschooler.  Use yourself as their calm center for the afternoon.

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  • Think of what their bodies need.  If the mood is sour, head outside.  No matter the weather, bundle up for a walk and go.  The fresh air and activity will be a game changer.

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  • If you’re staying in for the afternoon, feed their bodies.  Ride bikes in the garage, build forts by the couch, do sensory and physical play.  Put on some music and dance.

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Meet your child where they’re at, setting aside your adult pace to take in the world at their level.  By doing this, you are communicating at their developmental level, building language, problem-solving, and fostering exploration.  Kneel down and look into their eyes: the ones that reflect your image and that reveal their heart.  Kneel down.

Getting the Environment Right (and focusing on the positive)

 

 “He can’t sit still at school!”  “She always gets annoyed by her brother at home when they are playing!”  So often we want to focus on the problem areas, the situations where our children aren’t meeting our expectations, that we forget to look for clues in the activities and environments where they are excelling. As you work on communication skills with your child, give thought to the environments where they are thriving.

 

I work with children who can hold it together well at school, but unleashed upon the home environment, every bit of self-control seems to fly out the window.  They disobey, push their parent’s buttons, and antagonize their siblings.  Conversely, I also know children who can’t seem to focus at school on their academic work, but stay occupied and focused for an hour building a Lego set with 1000 pieces in their backyard at home.

 

You can find clues in your child’s favorite pastimes.  If they hold it together well at school, look at the structure in place within the school environment.  There is a set schedule, set rules, and announcements which are reviewed every day.  The expectations are consistent, the transitions mostly predictable, and the time for breaks and down time logical.  Some of our most difficult children need the most structure. They need overkill with repetition, transition preparation, and a review of expectations.

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If your child is falling apart at school, consider how their learning can tap into the multisensory environment they love at home.  Outside time, physical breaks, sensory reinforcement (like sitting on a wiggle cushion or having a hand-fidget), hands-on learning… all can help refocus and energize their learning.

 

What ideas can you find from the activities your child loves?  Why do they love that karate class?  How about digging in the backyard?  What makes them read for hours in the backyard hammock?  Make a list of everything you can think of that about that environment (“She loves reading fantasy, she can go at her own pace”), and include the sensory components of each (e.g. “it’s sunny and quiet, the hammock rocks back and forth,”etc.)  Then circle the elements of each activity that you could replicate for another, more challenging situation.

 

Need help?  List your child’s favorite activity and environment below, and we’ll come up with some ideas.

Kids Do Well If They Can

daydreaming at schoolBehind every challenging behavior is an unsolved problem and a lagging skill.

Every child demonstrates frustrating behaviors at times.  As they grow and develop, children challenge the world around them, sorting through their own feelings to find an individual voice.  Some children demonstrate mental overload by whining, crying, or withdrawing into themselves.  Others reveal behavior that is more outwardly-focused, such as yelling, shouting, and spitting.

Still for others, a mental switch is flipped, and being unable to process a situation takes them into a “fight or flight” response where they bolt from the situation, lash out physically, hit, punch, or kick.  The problem is, once the switch is flipped, they often don’t have the cognitive capacity to process the situation appropriately.  What’s a parent to do?

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Language processing problems, and/or anxiety often lie behind an apparent behavior outburst.  Consider the following list of skills (adapted from Ross Greene’s “Lost at School”) frequently found lagging in challenging kids:

-Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another

-Difficulty persisting on challenging or tedious tasks

-Poor sense of time

-Difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas simultaneously

-Difficulty maintaining focus

-Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsive)

-Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem

-Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words

-Difficulty understanding what is being said

-Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration so as to think rationally

-Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting social cues/poor perception of social nuances

 

These skills require quick and flexible thinkingMost children with behavioral challenges already know that we want them to behave.  They also would like to behave the right way.  What’s lacking are important thinking skills that allow them to regulate their emotions, consider the outcomes of their actions, understand their feelings and those of others, and respond to changes in a plan.  Such flexible thinking skills are challenged when the demands in a situation are more than the child is able to handle adaptively.

They aren’t doing it on purpose.

The kids who are most often described as being manipulative are those least capable of pulling it off.

 

While a clear diagnosis (language processing disorder, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, etc.) is helpful in pointing us in the right direction, a child is more individual than their own diagnosis.  There are also many children who fall through the cracks in receiving a true diagnosis, meaning they don’t fully qualify for all the conditions of that disorder.  But you don’t need a diagnosis to have a problem.  You just need a problem to have a problem.

The situations which are most challenging for our children vary depending on the strength and development of their organizational and flexible thinking skills.  The challenge for parents and professionals is to break down situations where these behavior outbursts are occurring and develop strategies, in collaboration with the child, for better behaviorIt is also important to truly address lagging skills in processing and flexible thinking in order to fill the holes a in a child’s development.  Children who experience the most success with behavior modifications are those who are considered an integral part of the team, who are asked for their insight, who problem-solve with their parents and teachers, and who are asked for their opinions every step of the way.

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For more information on collaborative problem-solving, check out Dr. Ross Greene “The Explosive Child”

 

Anger… and Maintaining R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I’ve been working with several students on their anger outbursts and how to regulate their intense feelings.  Then I happened on THIS from Ahaparenting.com about how parents fight in front of their kids has a neurological effect on their children.  The strength and ferocity of the argument can cause a child’s stress hormone levels to escalate, which takes some time to diminish after an argument (this flight-or-flight stress response.)  A few tips for managing anger and keeping it from turning into a full-blown argument, from Dr. Laura Markham:

“Is it ever okay for parents to disagree in front of kids?  Doesn’t it model the resilience of relationships, and how to repair them?  Yes, if you can avoid getting triggered and letting your disagreement disintegrate into yelling or fighting.  For instance:

1. One parent snaps at the other, then immediately course corrects: “I’m so sorry – I’m just feeling stressed – can we try that over? What I meant to say was…” Kids learn from this modeling that anyone can get angry, but that we can take responsibility for our own emotions, apologize, and re-connect.

2. Parents work through a difference of opinion without getting triggered and raising their voices. For instance, if you and your partner have a good-natured discussion about whether to buy a new car, your child learns that humans who live together can have different opinions, listen to each other, and work toward a win/win decision – all respectfully and with affection. Having these kinds of discussions in front of kids is terrific, as long as you agree to postpone the conversation if one of you gets triggered and it becomes an argument.

3. Parents notice that they have a conflict brewing and agree to discuss it later. Hopefully, this happens before there’s any yelling — or you’ll be modeling yelling! And hopefully, you can close the interaction with a big, public, hug. If you’re too mad, take some space to calm down and then prioritize the hug in front of your child, with some little mantra like “It’s okay to get mad….We always make up.” This takes some maturity, but it models self-regulation and repair.”

When we teach our children and students how to handle their emotions, we want to make sure we are providing an appropriate model to back it up.  It is healthy to express emotions and not keep them bottled up inside, but we need to show our children a productive way to handle that anger.  An angry child can turn that passion into a quest to change to world, with the right guidance and structure.

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For tips on teaching your child to self-soothe, read my previous post here about essential tips for self-soothing.

Nature Inspires Wonder

We just got back from a day trip hiking the beautiful Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. I mentioned on my Facebook page how my 3-yr-old chatted the entire way up (probably because my husband and I were busy huffing and puffing with the kids on our backs!)

I’m always amazed by the magnificence of nature and how it lets us just “be” with each other. My children had our undivided attention, and the family bonding and communication time was wonderful.

A walk with your child may be just the thing needed for them to open up about their behavior, for them to tell you what’s going right or wrong in their day, and provides endless fodder for a toddler learning new words (“bird!” “tree… Green tree!” “Plane… Flying fast… Woosh!”)

Studies have shown the outdoors serves as a calming environment for children with attention difficulties, and even the most reticent adolescent will open up during a walk. Take a moment for yourself, as well, and enjoy.

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Tips to Quit

Convinced of the negative cognitive impact (see: attention difficulties, underdeveloped language systems, social communication difficulties, behavior challenges, limited abstract thinking…) of too much screen time? Where’s a parent to start?

I thought I’d follow up on my last post about Screen Time with a few practical tips for decreasing your child’s screen time. I’ll focus here on children up to 5th grade, with a follow-up for older students later.

(As my friend Kathleen and I joked the other day, you have a pass if you have a newborn in the house and are desperately trying to sink into a new family routine with siblings. You also have a pass if your child is sick. While nothing is better than being cuddled and read to all day, I understand you have other things to attend to! A favorite movie or show can do wonders to soothe feverish kiddos.)

As parents, we have to teach our children how to down-regulate to soothe themselves and get relaxation time. We want to end up with adults who are comfortable with their own thoughts and energy. Here are a few helpful ideas that have worked in my practice and in my own home:

If your child is 0-2 years old:

1. No screen time. Just turn it off. Put the remote controls out of sight, hide the iPad, and keep your phone in your purse. During this age range, it comes down to parent discipline. They don’t need it, and they won’t want it later if you start the good habits now.

If your child is 2-5:

2. Remember the power of distraction. Again, just turn it off. Keep the devices out of sight, and use the power of distraction (“Hey, let’s read this good book!”) to redirect attention when they start requesting (whining *cough*) for it.

3. Have other options for “down time” available. Books, books, books. The families that are most successful at this step have books, magazines, newspapers, postcards and letters available for their children in every room of the house. Also place out dolls, trains, play dishes ~ whatever their fancy for imaginative and pretend play.

4. Put on music to fill their auditory space. You can also start introducing books on tape or podcasts if they are having difficulty leaving the technology behind. This step works well for parents who need the time for themselves to accomplish something.

5. Ask them to help. I know, believe me, how much faster chores go when you can do them yourself. But a child who is helping around the house is not getting in trouble, is not complaining about being bored, and is getting positive quality time from their parents. And during this age, they like to help! Take advantage of it.

This is an important age for screen time structure. They won’t complain for it very often if they aren’t used to it. Go cold turkey if you can!

If your child is school-age:

6. Try the tips mentioned above. Set the structure in place, grit your teeth, and repeat the mantra that you are doing what’s best for their little minds.

7. Transfer screen time to a task-specific reward, rather than a “down time” activity. After homework completion or chores, say, the reward is 20 minutes (timed on a Time Timer or analogue clock) of iPad time. “Down time” on the weekends or afternoons is time for books, free play, sports, family games, etc., that foster communication and learning. Focus on rewarding a specific task (or positive effort -timed- on homework), rather than good behavior, or the screen time becomes a bribe rather than a reward.

8. Use screen time for research time. Spend some time with your child showing them how to look things up in Wikipedia, Google, or find supporting documentation for a book report. Help them use media as a tool.

9. Model other “down time” activities (like book reading, shooting hoops, etc.) Watch your grownup shows after they go to bed. I love a good Downton Abbey episode, but even that subject matter is too adult for most kids. And the ads on t.v… don’t get me started.

10. Go to the game. As one mom put it, if your child doesn’t have the attention span to attend a football game, they don’t have the attention span to watch it on t.v. Take them with you to the game. Or, if that’s not an option, organize a gathering and let the kids play in the garage or outside with their friends while you watch.

It can be done. One family I work with has six children, some with learning challenges, and all with varying temperaments and energy levels. Screen time is just not an option in their house. The computer and iPad are used on occasion for schoolwork, but the calm and steady demeanor of their parents keep these kids learning, creating, and interacting with each other throughout the day. Oh, and did I mention that this mom homeschools? It can be done.

(One last note: Lest you think I blame screen time for all our society’s woes, think again. I have two fabulous brother-in-laws who make a living in the video game industry. Their “technology” genius? Being able to communicate ideas clearly and effectively, energize and manage teams of people, and use social and pragmatic language skills to introduce new products. Those skills are acquired through hands-on learning, book reading, and interactions with people. Screen time can serve its place if used effectively, which I will delve into in a future post focused on our middle school and high school students.)