The Fine Art of Distraction

My nanny and I were laughing the other day about my 15-month-old being a wiggly bag of worms on the changing table.  I mentioned that I try to distract her when I’m changing a messy diaper, in an effort to curtail her movement and keep her hands north of the mess.  I’ll ask her to point to her body parts: Where’s your nose?  Where’s your mouth?  Where are your…teeth?, and have her name animal sounds: What does a doggy say?  How about a cow?  Can you make a monkey noise?

Needless to say, at her recent pediatrician appointment, besides telling the doctor a resounding “No!” before her shots, my Roly-Poly demonstrated far more than the 3-word minimum.  With her trotting skills and language skills, I guess she is officially becoming “Walkie-Talkie #2″ rather than “Roly-Poly”!

It is amazing to me how distraction can change the direction of a toddler’s behavior meltdown or single-minded insistence that things go exactly. the. way. they. want.  Try these tips at home:

~When putting on your child’s shoes, rather than pinning their wiggly body down with one arm, start asking them questions about where you are going.

~Make up a song about anything, add the tune of a basic “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and serenade them through the store (Yes, I have done this…  As quietly as possible.  But it’s a lot better than a tantrum!)  I have made up a song about “I wonder what we should have for dinner… oh my, that’s too expensive… just one more can of this…” with a little drum action on the cart from my daughter.

~Use a toy or book to draw their attention to something else when you get the sense that they are about to head down the meltdown road.

~Keep your child well-fed and restedbut remind yourself that bad behavior is often your child just trying to understand limits and their place in the world.  Getting down on their level, making eye contact, and slowing the frantic pace of life can help them feel heard and secure in the uncertainty that surrounds their little world. 

~Keep a bottle of wine or some favorite tea bags handy for when they are sleeping like a little angel.

 

How do you positively redirect your child?  What tips could you add to this list?

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.)

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.

Just another day in the life…

I thought it was time for an update from the home front. I’ve written before here about when my first daughter hit the Walkie-Talkie stage.  My little Walkie-Talkie spends her playtime immersed in imaginative fairyland, complete with characters and drama.  Most naptimes have turned to “quiet time” at our house, and while she is in her room the stories really run wild.  She sings songs to her animals, talks to her dolls, creates elaborate stories to tell herself, and in general has a fine time high in her tower waiting for her prince (or mommy to come and tell her quiet time is over). I keep meaning to put a tape recorder in her room to hear exactly what she is saying, but what I can glean from my eavesdropping makes me laugh, and amazes me. Kids say the darndest things! This imaginative play has done wonders for my sanity, as I get a few moments every day to sit back and let her daydreams run wild.  I’ve written before about the power of free play, and I am even more of a believer as I raise my own kids.

Our newest addition, the “Roly-Poly”, is already five-months-old!  Her coos and gurgles have turned to bird-of-prey-style squawks, followed by big smiles and sparkling eyes to get our attention. From my “speechie” lens I’m always amazed by how quickly babies can change from day-to-day.  I’ve written before about baby signing here, and my husband and I are starting to use signs with our Roly-Poly, especially when she fusses, in an effort to show her that she can communicate a specific need or want. The circles of communication come so naturally to many babies – it makes me appreciate even more the parents who have to work extra hard for their child’s attention.  Communication is such a vital part of our lives, even from this age humans seek out and reinforce those interactions.  The Roly-Poly also likes to make those flirty eyes at 2:30am when I finally drag myself out of dreamland and stumble into her room.  That little girl know how to get her need met and keep everyone loving her to bunches.

Some of you may remember our family’s big experiment where we cancelled cable for 8 months.  It actually was a pretty easy switch, since we didn’t spend much time watching it normally.  I wanted to see if, as a family, we could stomach what I try to encourage many of my clients to do: significantly reduce our screen time. I have seen children for therapy who spend 3-4 hours every day in front of the t.v., and another couple of hours on the computer.  Seven hours in front of a screen is no good.  When we are focusing on self-soothing, increasing social communication, and exploring pretend play, screen time runs counter to what we are trying to accomplish.

I check my computer or iPad several times a day, and the iPhone has been my sanity while spending countless hours breastfeeding, so I didn’t focus on our overall “screen time”.  I’ll be the first to admit, that “window” to the outside world would be very difficult for me to totally eliminate.  Our Walkie-Talkie only uses the iPad on rare occasions, so our focus turned to the television.  We canceled the cable, caught a few shows on basic cable, but didn’t really miss the tube during our busy days.

But then the Oregon Duck football season started.  Needless to say, in order to get his sports fix, my husband asked for the cable back. We’d already gotten in a nice rhythm of not watching television, and our oldest daughter didn’t expect it as part of her day, so we turned the cable back on.  Realistically, I’d say we currently catch about 3-4 hours of grownup shows a week (mostly On-Demand, I hate commercials!), a couple of hours of sports, and my daughter watches about 1 hour per week. Her favorite shows (again, On-Demand usually) are the Super Why! super reader shows, and Angelina Ballerina. We’ve established that it is a special, irregular treat, so she doesn’t expect it every day. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that as parents we are often on our last strands of patience, and the television can be a sanity saver. Some children are very high-energy and need some forced down time. In my opinion, however, what is important is to continue to practice having your child entertain themselves, because it’s the only way they will learn to regulate their behavior, play through boredom, and explore some of their deeper cognitive capacities.

With that, I’ll leave you with this little tidbit from the Walkie-Talkie tonight: “When you go to bed, you rest your body and your hair… AND your brain!”

Anxiety: When is it too much?

“I’m late, mom. I’m late! I can’t be late! I have a test… We have to go… NOW!” A moderate amount of anxiety in kids is actually normal, and helps them show up and achieve at school. A little bit of anxiety will help your child study for the next test, hoping to do well. It will get them pumped up for their next big game, help them get all their homework in their backpack, and keep them trying their best. Most high-achievers have learned to harness their anxiety and use it for their benefit, all the way into adulthood.

But when anxiety starts to cause negative behaviors, avoidance, and fear, it turns into a maladaptive force for your child. (A mental health professional would look at the intensity of your child’s distress, the impact on how they are functioning, and the duration of their fears to determine an underlying anxiety disorder.) I’ve worked with children who run away from situations, who refuse to speak to their teachers, who push and shove and mouth off, all resulting from underlying anxiety.

Parents see physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches, occurring frequently. Oftentimes there are negative behaviors, like tantrums and avoidance, which occur at home or on the way to school. Social settings may cause your child significant stress, if they are having difficulty processing the complex relationships of their peers.

If your child is having excessive worry, trouble with uncertainty, and extreme emotions associated with an event, there are some things you can do at home to help alleviate their worries.

1. When children are uncertain, give them choices rather than deciding for them.

“I know Joe’s birthday party sounds overwhelming, but he invited your because he is your friend. Should we try to go for a little bit? How long?”

 

2. Allow children to struggle, make mistakes and learn by trial and error vs. taking over

“I know you were worried about that science test, so you stayed up really late studying. But this morning you seemed extra tired. What’s your game plan for the next science test?”

 

3. Label and accept your child’s emotional response rather than criticizing them

“I can see that this is making you worry. You yelled at your sister earlier, and now you’re being short with me. It’s really hard to give a report in front of the whole class.”

 

4. Promote your child’s development of creative self-help strategies

“Let’s use your three “calm” strategies before we work on this presentation anymore.”

Calming strategies can be anything that works for your child. For example:

*Deep, long breathing (have your child lie on the floor with a book on their belly and try to “push” the book up with each breath”)

*Visual imagery (take a “special journey” to a favorite place by talking about what you see, hear, and feel)

*Give a concrete name to their anxiety (e.g. “The Dragon”) and help them “fight back” mentally to beat their enemy. From “The Anxiety Cure for Kids: A Guide for Parents: “Anxiety is like an imaginary Dragon in your head. The dragon seems to be really scary. You can learn to tame the dragon with help from the Wizard you also have in your own head. The Wizard will teach you powerful magic to tame the anxiety Dragon.”

 

5. Attend to “brave behaviors” and ignore anxious behaviors (crying, frequent questions.)

“That’s good breathing. You are being so brave.”

 

If your child is having heightened levels of anxiety which are negatively affecting their life, it is wise to consult with your pediatrician. Most children do not grow out of untreated anxiety, so the earlier it is treated, the better the prognosis. A therapist can also help educate you in home strategies to make your daily interactions more positive and reassuring for your child.

Breathing through the behavior…

I’ve been working with one of my middle school students on recognizing when he’s about to have a meltdown and helping him take the steps to alleviate his stress. He’s been working on it for several years now, every since 4th grade meltdowns would leave him inconsolable and violent. Back then, he just couldn’t process what was happening around him quickly, and the language load of a teacher giving him instruction and discipline was too much. Slowly, though, we’ve been able to help him take control of his own impending meltdowns. He has learned to breathe, take breaks and remove himself from the situation, and come back and use some language to work through the process.
Even parents and professionals working with kids need to remind themselves to breathe sometimes. How we model this for our kids during stressful situations can go a long way towards helping them learn the strategies in their own life.
Take a look at this article about the benefits of teaching kids how to relaxhere… We all could use a little breathing time, no?