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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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”

 

10 Tips for Avoiding or Decreasing the Summer Meltdown

All kids have meltdowns.   Some kids fly off the handle, and lose the ability to process anything complex (including language!) around them. Other meltdowns may appear mild to the outsider, but to mom or dad are distressing. Some kids go through phases of extreme meltdowns, followed by periods of relatively few disasters.  But all kids have them.

Where does language fit into this?

When your child is overloaded, the first thing to go are the higher cognitive processes (like language and executive functioning/problem-solving abilities).  This means that your child is going to have a much harder time understanding what you are telling them, using words to express themselves, or problem-solve to come up with a solution.  So, not only is your child tired, hungry, or on sensory overload, but they have even fewer coping strategies than pre-meltdown.

It’s a signal to reset and recharge.  Just like adults, kids get overloaded, overwhelmed, and over-tired. Dealing with stressors is natural part of life, and we can teach our children positive ways to handle them. We can also be on the lookout for times when we can avoid or decrease the meltdown, both in frequency and intensity.

Here are 10 ways to avoid or decrease these meltdowns in your child:

1) Eat healthy.  Avoid high sugar and salt in your child’s diet.  We have heard about the ups and downs that come from a sugar rush.  Be very aware of what you are having your child put in his body.  It is as powerful as medicine!

2) Run one or two errands at a time. For the sake of efficiency, I always want to try to group my errands into one big blast of shopping mayhem.  But most children under 5 can only handle about two stops before needing a break.  Many children get sensory overload from shopping malls and grocery stores.  Try and recognize their need to take a break.

3) Use positive reinforcement. When your child is doing a good job of managing a tiring situation, build them up. Let them know that you recognize their perseverance. I try to recite the mantra in my head: “Ten praises for every one criticism.”

4) Get  regular exercise.  Like food, exercise is medicine for the body.  It will help your child regulate their emotions and behavior.  It will also help them decompress.  In my neighborhood, it is common to see entire families out for a walk in the evening.  It’s a great way to de-stress for kids and for parents.

5) Establish a soothing, quiet space where your child can be alone. A calm space can be a bedroom, a special place in the backyard, or even a space in a closet.  Depending on your child’s needs, make this a serene environment by using cool colors, comforting textures, and quiet. (For your child, “quiet” might be total silence, white noise from a fan, or soothing music.)

6) Maintain a routine. Meltdowns can often be a signal that your child is getting overwhelmed by choices or uncertainty.  A regular set of expectations can provide the structure to get back on track.

7) Get enough sleep. It’s hard in the summertime to get your children to bed on time!  It’s still light outside when my daughters head to bed in the Pacific NW. Blinds and blackout curtains can help with this, and a fan for white noise (to drown out the high school students down the road!) can help your child drift off to sleep.  Again, it goes back to routine, and sleep is a large part of your daily schedule.

8) Use signs, gestures, and facial expression to communicate with your child.  When your child is on the precipice of a meltdown, it’s time to scale your language way back. Try leading your child to a quiet corner, get down to their eye level, and use as few words as possible to bring them back around.  Your eyes and smile can speak more than a thousand words, and chances are, your child will be better able to process the feeling of warmth and understanding rather than your words.

9) Give your child an outlet for their energy. Summer is a great time for playing in the pool, running through the sprinklers, shrieking and letting loose. Make sure your child has access daily to such freeing pursuits.

10) Prep your child ahead of time on what to expect, and recap afterwards on how they handled the situation.  You can build your child’s language around a situation.  In the heat of the moment, during a meltdown, your child may not be able to use their words to express themselves.  Helping them decompress at a later time can also help them build language scripts to problem-solve during tricky situations.  Give them some strategies on what to do during a stressful time.  For example: “I could tell you were really tired at the grocery store this morning.  You did a great job of breathing slowly and asking Mom for a snack to get through it.  I liked how you used your words ~ ‘Hey Mom, I’m feeling tired!’ ~ to tell Mom how you were feeling.”  Help them identify their emotions (frustration, anger, etc.) so they can better use language to manage the situation.

One last note…

Don’t forget, you are their model!  How you manage your meltdowns can be helpful to your child.  “Mommy needs to take a break because she is getting frustrated.” Identify your emotions verbally so that your child can learn to map language onto what they feel.

Let’s Play a Game!

When I’m trying to get my two-year-old out the door and in the car, it is easy to become frustrated when she just won’t process language quickly enough.  “Please sit down, let’s get on your shoes… Tay, sit down… no, I know Daddy went out the other door… please, sit down… yes, we’ll go out the garage door… sit down… Taylor!”

This is a typical scenario for any toddler, as their little brains are learning to process all around them, sometimes everything at the same time.  Which includes the language we use as parents.  For a little child, slowing our speech and using fewer words and more gestures ~ and LOTS of patience ~ can help them understand what we expect of them.  But for some older children, slow processing of the world around them remains a significant speed bump to their learning.

There are a lot of different ways we understand our world.  And there are a lot of different brains out there which understand this world in different ways.  In the end, it’s a good thing.  While I can’t wrap my brain around black holes and scientific mysteries, there are folks who can.  It isn’t a coincidence that many CEOs have attention deficit difficulties.  Their brains allow them to absorb information quickly, come up with new ideas quickly, and have the energy to keep going in many different directions.  They just need a really good VP (or secretary) to help them keep the details in order.

When we talk about language processing problems, however, we are often looking at students in school who are having difficulty understanding the information in their classrooms (or at home) quickly enough to be successful.  Think about a third grade classroom.  There is a lot going on.  The teacher has just finished talking about the life cycle of a plant.  Now, the teacher is giving instructions (verbally) about what tasks to complete, the worksheet in front of the child contains written directions and written questions for them to complete.  There may be pictures to help the child decipher the assignment, but the majority of the information presented during those 15 minutes comes verbally.

If your child is struggling to understand all that he needs to in the classroom, there are a myriad of accommodations and strategies that can be implemented to help him.  There are also ways to support language processing at home.  After the list of task-specific strategies and homework accommodations, one of my favorite suggestions for parents is to play a game.  Many games work on quick processing skills, especially language processing skills.  Now, most of these games require some parent involvement, at least for younger children.  But older children can play with siblings, and in the end, everyone has fun!  So use this summer “leisure” time for games, and lots of them!

Here are my favorites and the skills they build:

-Apples to Apples (vocabulary development, metalinguistic strategies)

-Battleship  (active listening, visual patterning, integration)

-Bopit (integration, vigilance)

-Catch Phrase (integration, vocabulary development, output)

-Last Word (integration, vocabulary development, output)

-Marco Polo (localization, binaural interaction)

-Muscial Chairs (vigilance)

-Password (vocabulary building, metalinguistic skills)

-Read My Lips (lipreading/speechreading)

-Red Light-Green Light (vigilance, active listening)

-Rummikub (patterning, problem solving, integration)

-Scattergories (vocabulary building, metalinguistic strategies)

-Scrabble (integration, linguistic skills, visual patterning)

-Simon Says (vigilance, active listening)

-Taboo (vocabulary building, metalinguistic strategies)

-Telephone game (attention, active listening, discrimination)

-Twister (integration, critical listening)