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.

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?

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!”

A Little Walkie Talkie

I knew my daughter had turned into a full-blown toddler when she became a Walkie Talkie. She careened around the room on two short little legs, jabbering away in a mix of babbling, single words like “Ko” (for our dog “Kodi”) and more than enough intonation to get her point across. Kids learn from their parents and their siblings: If you hold your cellphone up to your ear, chances are your child will find a rectangular shaped toy, hold it up, and begin babbling away. When you say words or phrases, they attempt to repeat. However, sometimes children need more than just modeling. They need a more direct approach to language expansion.
For the child who has passed the developmental milestones of engagement and is entering the world of language, parents become crucial teachers, especially for children who show little interest in using vocalizations, babbling, or stringing words together.  I was always taught to give children at least 5 seconds of wait time to respond to me.  5 seconds is a looong time.  However with a simple prompt: “Ready, set…” you may be surprised after 4.99 seconds when your child responds with a squeal “eeh!” to signal “go!”  That squeal can be shaped into many things, even “go”, over time.

Try this one out: Head to your local playground and get on the swings.  Warm your child up with the back and forth, back and forth, of swinging.  Do a few practice runs where you pull them up high, hold them suspended in the air, and say: “Ready, set…. Go!” and release them to a rush of wind.  Next, try holding them poised for the next takeoff, and prompt: “Ready, set…”  Watch for any little cue that they want the action to continue.  A pump of their legs, a squeal of nervous anticipation, or a “gah!”, and you release them, modeling the “Go!” they were aiming for with excitement and enthusiasm.  Repeat this activity as many times as you can before your arms fall off! 

Don’t forget that wait time… children process at different speeds and sometimes we as parents are quick to fill in the gaps for them.  But silence serves its purpose for those cognitive wheels to turn, especially as we remain poised with anticipation, a smile on our faces, our eyebrows raised… all waiting for that little sign that our toddler has something to add to the conversation.