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Mental Health

Surviving Divorce + Becoming Positive Coparents

By September 28, 2015 No Comments
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Last week a video of a little girl asking her divorcing parents to be nice to one another and to stop fighting went viral. We’ve decided not to post or link to the video because we think in this situation the little girl deserves privacy. But it spurred the question – what does a positive co-parenting relationship look like? Here, one parent weighs in.

I have been separated from my daughter’s father for almost three years. Our marriage wasn’t working, and it dragged out far longer than it should have. When we finally separated, we had to live together for several months while we tried to sell the house, which was a tricky situation. I will admit, at times we let our anger and sadness get the best of us and we fought in front of her (I’ll call my daughter N here). She was almost two at the time.  It’s not my proudest moment as a parent.

Living together while we went through the separation and divorce process was one of the worst things we could have done.  One night my then husband and I reached our breaking points. We had a horrible fight in front of N and it was something she should never have seen, and we knew we had to change. After the fight we agreed to only talk through our lawyers until we could begin mediation and that turned out to be the break we both needed to clear our heads.

Shortly after the fight my now ex-husband moved out and we hired a mediator to help us with our separation. Mediation was the only form of communication we had during that time, which allowed us some space away from one another, and it also hit us straight on that we needed to work together or we could seriously impact our daughter’s happiness. We had a lot of heavy issues to deal with but we both agreed that N was our top priority, and we needed to work as a team for her sake.

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health

Transparenting Pink Boys and Blue Girls

By September 21, 2015 No Comments
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You may remember last year when Transparent, an Amazon original comedy-drama series took home five Emmys at the 67th Emmy Awards, which was a big leap for the subject matter into the public eye – and yet another step toward positive, wide-spread visibility for a subject that’s still unfamiliar to people. The series depicts the process that a father of three adult children must undergo as he comes out to his family about his true transgender identity. Like Caitlin Jenner, Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono, the lead character of Transparent brings the experience to greater understanding. What is perhaps less known is that awareness of being transgender can often emerge as a young child, and the stories like those of Jeffrey Tambor’s character (pictured right) don’t always shed light on the fact that from early childhood, many transgender adults have struggled to be out and open about who they are.

For most parents, upon hearing the words “it’s a boy,” or “it’s a girl,” conjure up a picture of how their child will look, what the child will wear, toys they will like, and who they will marry.  All of these ideas are based on the assumption— and the expectation of most parents — that their children will be heterosexual and gender-conforming.

What happens, then, when our children do not follow the path we imagined when they came into our lives as babies?  Do we give our children space to express themselves without judgment, for example, when our sons want to wear pink converse sneakers or our daughters want to wear a necktie?  Many parents like myself absolutely want to expand gender roles for our children, and consider ourselves feminist, progressive, open-minded, etc.  Truth be told, however, when we see behaviors in our children that we associate with being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, we are often uncomfortable and may, out of fear or worry, say or do things to inhibit our children from being who they truly are.

It’s important to understand the meaning of sexual orientation and gender identity — very different aspects of who we are as humans —  are often conflated, and both tied up in conversations we have when talking about children who are not gender-conforming.

Sexual orientation is quite simply who we are physically/romantically attracted to; some people are solely attracted to the opposite sex, some to the same sex, and others experience attraction to both/all genders.  It is believed that sexual orientation is wired in us from birth and that by middle school a child is aware of this aspect of themselves regardless of whether they have acted on any feelings or shared them with anyone.

Gender identity is one’s innermost sense of being either male or female, or in some cases, both or neither. Gender identity is believed to be established by age 4, though for some children—and adults, coming out as transgender may be delayed based on fear of rejection, lack of safety, or simply not understanding their experience and not having a place to openly explore their feelings.

For most children, their assigned sex at birth (“it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!”) will match their gender identity. This is referred to as being cisgender (cis is pronounced like the “sis” in the word “sister”).  But for some children, they will have a profound sense of being a gender other than the one assigned at birth. For example, a three-year-old child assigned male at birth but who feels like a girl and wants to be girl, and is insistent, persistent, and consistent about this feeling, may in fact be transgender.  And for a growing number of children—teens in particular, there is a fluid, or non-binary gender identity that can include wearing a variety of “girls and boys” clothing, appearing androgynous, using the pronoun “they,” and other ways of eschewing the limitations or inaccuracy of either a male or female identity.

We often hear the term “gender non-conforming” when referring to children who behave in ways that are not consistent with more traditional gender norms or gender roles.  This might include girls who are tomboys or boys who prefer to play with dolls.

What should we do as parents if our children are among those who express themselves in ways that suggest that might be LGB, or T (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender)?

The most important thing is to give children the room they need to explore who they are, and to express themselves openly and freely.  There is no way for us to know what any of these behaviors might mean with regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. Many children who enjoy gender expansive (gender non-conforming) behavior do not experience discord with their assigned sex at birth, and are not destined to be same-sex attracted.  But some will follow that path and, as parents there are things we can do from early on to create a safe, accepting environment if our children are in fact LGBT identified at some point in their lives.

How do we support our children in this process, no matter what path they end up on? We can avoid “gender policing,” which often shames our kids and shuts down their need to express themselves with clothing, toys, hobbies, etc.

Sometimes by habit, or reflex, we might say to our son who is eyeballing a play kitchen at Toys R Us, “those are for girls,” or when our daughter wants to play touch football with the neighborhood boys instead of encouraging her, we caution her with “that’s too rough for girls.”

I’m sure many of us say things that reinforce rigid gender roles without realizing we are doing it, and simply paying attention can reap dramatic changes in the level of comfort our children have to simply be who they are.  What we know about LGBT children—teens in particular, is that family support is the most critical factor in their overall well-begin.  Too many LGBT youth are rejected when they “come out,” and it’s that rejection that shatters the foundation of trust and security and sets up our kids to struggle emotionally, academically, and socially.  Believe me, our children are listening closely to what we say in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity, and what they hear will be their clues for whether or not they can trust us and turn to us when or if they need to share about those parts of who they are.

If you are a parent who believes your child may be transgender, based on the criteria that they assert their gender on a persistent, consistent, and insistent basis, there are many online resources to help you better understand “gender dysphoria,” the clinical diagnosis that applies to these children and to find highly experienced medical providers and mental health professionals in your area to help support them.

Transgender Actor Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine (courtesy: Time.com)

Transgender Actor Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine (courtesy: Time.com)

Transgender individuals are gaining visibility in the media with the popularity of shows like Transparent, as mentioned above, Orange is the New Black (featuring Laverne Cox, pictured left), and the widely-publicized transition of Caitlyn Jenner, to name a few. Jeffery Tambor, who won for best actor for the lead role in Transparent recognized the significance of his win by dedicating to the transgender community, saying, “thanks for your patience, thank you for your courage, thank you for your stories, thank you for your inspiration, thank you for letting us be part of the change.”

Likewise, there are many emerging voices of parents of transgender children who are now advocating for their children at school and in the broader community; many of their stories are told in books, in videos, and on their personal blogs and websites. The voices are out there – and I believe connecting with other parents of transgender children is incredibly empowering and certainly the best path toward being educated and informed about the best ways to support and take care of your children.

 

 

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

How to Survive When Your Toddler Throws A Tantrum in Public

By September 14, 2015 No Comments
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 Let’s face it: everyone is lucky if they survive the toddler years, parents and toddlers included. We’ve been lucky in that our son’s temperament is rather laid back, but we’ve had our fair share of breakdowns in the grocery store and family dinners out interrupted by unexplained temper tantrums.

One epic tantrum happened in our local grocery store while my husband was out of town for a week and I was about 25 weeks pregnant with our second baby. We needed groceries, leaving without food was not an option, and my son had a massive breakdown. Arms and legs flailing, and screaming. Getting down to his level and talking to him didn’t help, distraction didn’t help, he was unhappy and would not be pacified. I have to say part of me was impressed by the meltdown as it was sustained. That kid had stamina! It went on for about 10 minutes as I threw the last groceries into our cart and rushed to the checkout aisle.

As I rushed to check out, I apologized to everyone around me. I remembered judging mothers before I had kids, so I expected judgmental looks and whispers from passersby of “can’t she control her child?” Here we are, I thought to myself, karma has won, the shoe is on the other foot. I totally deserved this very public tantrum and any judgment I received from others in the store. But instead nearly everyone looked at me with pity and offered me the reassuring words, “don’t worry about it, we’ve all been there.” Thank goodness for caring strangers!

That helped me feel better about myself in the moment but didn’t help me prevent or stop the meltdown. So why do toddlers have tantrums in the first place and what can you do when a tantrum happens in public?

Unfortunately, temper tantrums are a normal and important part of toddlerhood. Yes, ear piercing screams and flailing about because you won’t let your two-year-old play with a knife is perfectly normal. Frustrating for both of you, but completely normal.

What causes tantrums is actually highly dependent on biology.  Worry not, your child isn’t having a breakdown in Target because you’re a bad parent or because you use the wrong parenting philosophy.  Despite what some claim, the children of Attachment Parents and Tiger Moms have tantrums too, because it’s normal and natural. While toddlers have developed some level of autonomy through walking and basic language skills, they haven’t developed two important cognitive factors: 1. The necessary language skills to express themselves and; 2. self-control.

In the case of the first, it’s important to know all communication requires both receptive and expressive language. Receptive language is the language that we understand, i.e: When someone says “cup,” we understand it means a thing that holds liquid and that we drink out of. Expressive language is the ability to communicate to others, i.e. to say to someone, “I want the cup” and to refer accurately to a cup (instead of saying “cup” but meaning “plate”).

Receptive language develops first, with expressive language playing catch up. Unfortunately for toddlers this means that they often understand much more than they can express and that, of course, leads to frustration. Alternatively, sometimes they don’t have either the receptive or expressive language to understand or express how they feel and that too leads to frustration.  Essentially, it’s really frustrating to be a toddler.

As a comparison, we’ve all had the experience of needing to communicate with someone when there’s a language barrier. It could have been at work, or in your personal life but we’ve all encountered someone who speaks a different language from us who we need to communicate with but can’t, or struggle to.  It’s usually a really frustrating experience, even as an adult.

prefrontal-cortex NIH

Image of the brain and prefrontal cortex, c/o NIH

Essentially the same thing is happening with your toddler when they’re struggling to communicate with you. Unfortunately for them they haven’t yet developed the all important skill of self-control, which prevents most of us from breaking into an uncontrollable rage when we get frustrated. The development of self-control is linked to the part of the brain that also regulates emotion. This part of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex and it sits, appropriately enough, at the front of the brain. Unfortunately for everyone the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop. In fact, it’s not considered to be fully developed until age 12, with higher executive level functions not truly developing until we’re in our 20s.

As adults we’re used to being told “no” and for 90% of us we don’t fly off the handle when we hear the word. We might not be happy about it, it may frustrate us, but we don’t scream, yell and throw ourselves on the ground. This is because our prefrontal cortex has developed appropriately and we’re able to regulate our emotions and our reactions. For the other 10%, we’ve all encountered them in airports, on the subway and at customer service counters, and they’re usually acting like toddlers having a meltdown when receiving information they don’t like.

So take comfort fellow parents, if your child has a tantrum in public or otherwise, it’s not because you’re doing parenting wrong or have ascribed to the wrong parenting philosophy. It’s biology, pure and simple, and there’s nothing you can do to skip this developmental stage.

So now that you’re breathing a sigh of relief that your toddler’s public tantrum isn’t your fault, how are you supposed to handle it when the inevitable happens?  How do you manage your tiny, otherwise lovable ball of abject rage in the best way possible for them and for the sanity of those around you?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has great recommendations for handling tantrums and we use them in our home.  I would highly recommend you check them out, but I’ve summarized and organized them below as well.

Generally:

  • Catch Them Being Good: Praise is a powerful tool for any of us, but especially for children. Day-to-day when you catch your child being well-behaved, being patient and gentle, let them know you noticed and give them praise for behaving so well. This can help incentivize good behavior.
  • Zero Tolerance: Have a zero tolerance behavior for things like hitting, biting, kicking or throwing. Make sure your child knows that behavior isn’t acceptable as soon as it happens.
One of the "To Go Kits" Leslie and her husband keep available when they know their son is likely to have a tantrum. We use small toys, one with wheels, one soft, a book and triangle crayons. Triangle crayons are life savers, no rolling off the tables.

One of the “Go Kits” Leslie and her husband keep available when they know their son is likely to have a tantrum. Each has a toy with wheels, a soft toy, a small book and triangle crayons. Triangle crayons are life savers, no rolling off the tables.

Before heading out:

  • Set yourself up for Success: If you know your child is more likely to have a tantrum when they’re hungry or tired, before you leave make sure they’re rested and have eaten. Or pack a snack. We know our son throws tantrums when he gets bored, so we created these little “go packs” that we take with us whenever we’re heading to a restaurant, doctor’s office or any other place we know he’ll have to sit for a while. Pro tip: triangle crayons, they don’t roll away.
  • Know Your Child’s Limits: Just like adults, kids have good days and bad days. If you know your child is having “an off day” put off running your errand if you can.

During a Tantrum:

  • Distract: If you can, change rooms or locations, sing a song, offer up a toy or point out something in the area that they might find interesting. If you’re in a store, leave your cart at customer service and take your child outside for a change of venue.
  • Offer Alternatives: If possible, give your child some measure of control over the situation but offer them a choice of alternatives. For example, “we can’t go to Nana’s house today, but we can go to the park or to your friend’s house after this, which would you like to do?”
  • Pick and Choose Your Battles: We all know that consistency is best, but some days it’s a case of survival. It’s OK to compromise or give-in a little if you’re in a situation where you know you can’t leave (ie: doctor’s office) and you know your child has reached their limit.

When All Else Fails:

  • It’s OK to Walk Away: Sometimes you have to pack up your things (toddler included!), and go home. Consider the errand or the event a wash and go home to nurse your wounds. If the tantrum happens at home, it’s also OK to make sure your child is in a safe place (preferably with another trusted adult) and take a 10-minute sanity break. I have had to do both of these things more than once.

On the bright side, temper tantrums are a temporary phase, even though it doesn’t seem like it at the time. Most children outgrow regular tantrums by the time they’re three or four, with the odd tantrum remaining through ages five and six. In the meantime, may the odds be ever in your favor.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, Toddlers + Preschoolers

Talking about Death with Children, Starting with Pets

By August 11, 2015 1 Comment
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One of our readers wrote in looking for advice. She bought a small pet for her three-year-old daughter and the pet recently died. She’s worried that three years old is too young to talk about death and that it might scare her daughter. So we turned to expert Dr. David Rettew, a pediatric psychiatrist, for advice.

Death is a topic that is difficult for everyone but can be especially tough and confusing for children. The finality of death can be a particularly difficult concept to grasp, particularly for preschool-age and younger children.  Even for older children, a true understanding of death doesn’t just appear one day, but becomes gradually appreciated over time.

For children fortunate enough to be spared the early loss of a parent, friend, or loved one, the first real exposure to death often comes with a pet.  While not wanting to minimize how truly painful this can be for some kids, the event can provide an opportunity to introduce the idea of death without it being overwhelming.

In talking about the death of a pet with a younger child, it may be important to stress that death means that the pet isn’t not going to move in the future or “wake up.”  Another good aspect to cover is blame, as a child may mistakenly believe that forgetting to feed a fish one day or mistakenly tripping on the dog was the reason a pet died.  For those who have religious beliefs about death and an afterlife, it can be very comforting for children to hear those thoughts as well.  Perhaps most importantly, listen to your child and show that you are able to hear their questions and concerns.

A couple minor tips about language.  Even for younger children, it is often a good idea to use the word “dead” rather than something that sounds softer like “sleeping.”  The reason for this is that children think quite literally and may begin to associate sleeping with death.  Similarly, a pet or relative with a terminal illness shouldn’t be described simply as “sick” as it again may cause a child to worry that getting a cold may lead to dying. Phrases like “serious disease” or a “body no longer working” might help make establish that difference. If you’ve been through this discussion already and haven’t used all this type of terminology, however, don’t worry.  Most kids develop just fine with our well-intentioned but sometimes clumsy ways of explaining things to them.

Many parents naturally get somewhat emotional themselves in these discussions.  That’s fine and it is healthy for children to see that adults can show intense emotion and still remain intact.  At the same time, children can get overwhelmed and scared around adults who are extremely distressed.

When you do have this discussion, be open and ready for some pretty tough questions.  Are you going to die too someday?  Am I?  In answering these questions, a good general rule is to be a reassuring as you can without being dishonest.  For example, “everybody dies someday, but I’m expecting to be right here with you for a long long time.” Of course, probably the most common question after the death of a pet is – can I get another one?

One idea that can be helpful is to suggest that the family have a small ceremony for the pet.  This can be a nice developmental step in helping your child cope with death and loss. Other kids may want to draw a picture or create some kind of memorial.  If you child isn’t interested in any of those things, however, don’t push it.  People cope with loss in many different ways that can be healthy – if he or she is content with flushing a dead goldfish down the toilet, it is not a sign of a future serial killer. For example, after the funeral of my own father when I was 18 years old, my brother and I just built a bookshelf together for hours.  We had  never done that before nor have we since.

The question of children attending the funerals of relatives is another one that frequently arises.  While the answer obviously depends on many things, I would not be in a rush to take young children to funerals, especially for more distant relations.  If cultural or societal norms encourage this, then likely most children will take comfort in these customs.  Funerals may also be important for children who have lost someone close to them, as mentioned in the ceremony discussion above. In other situations, however, young children may be a distraction to other mourners.

There is no single “correct” way to have these difficult but important interactions with children.  Being thoughtful, available, reassuring, and honest, however, can help youngsters begin to cope with this painful but inevitable part of life.

Additional Resources:


 

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, School-Aged Children, Toddlers + Preschoolers, Tweens + Teens

Parents Matter. We Need to Stop Telling Them They Don’t.

By July 30, 2015 2 Comments
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At my 22-week checkup my Obstetrician had a frank discussion with me about “how I’m doing.” This wasn’t a discussion I ever had with my previous OB during my first pregnancy so I was a little surprised when it happened.

Before having been pregnant, I had expectations of loving the experience. Friends had said the time had some “uncomfortable” aspects, but that they felt better, healthier, and more in touch with their bodies during pregnancy. Meanwhile I was all of eight weeks pregnant with my first when I sobbed to my husband, “I don’t know if I can do this for another seven months!”

I went into this pregnancy expecting it to be different.  I knew what to expect this time and how to work around it, or so I thought.  And while the first few weeks were much better than my first pregnancy, I soon experienced terrible morning sickness that lasted until week 17 and have never really bounced back from it.

So, when my OB asked me how I was doing my response was, “I’m pregnant. I’ve been better.”

He broke the news to me that I was anemic, which didn’t shock me as anemia runs in my family. “So, iron supplements?” I asked, thinking this would be a simple solution. He said yes, but he also wanted me to take vitamin C and take care of myself because he could tell I wasn’t. How could he tell I wasn’t taking care of myself? I was showered, my hair was combed, I had on clean clothes, I was gaining weight, my prenatal tests were all normal.

What I realize now is that he was trying to tell me that I looked like I’d been hit in the face with a frying pan, and while I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I felt like I had too. He ordered that I get more sleep, eat healthier, and that my in-laws take my son for the weekend so I could fully rest. He even offered to write the last order down on a prescription pad.

Our conversation completely threw me. It was not a conversation I was expecting to have with my OB and for sure one I hadn’t come prepared to have that day.  I thought I had been taking care of myself. I took my prenatal vitamins, I was going to the gym whenever I could, and I was sleeping better than I had in my first pregnancy. My husband had taken on a huge chunk of the child care and housework, and my in-laws even watched my toddler son once a week, sometimes twice.

I told him that I had a lot more help than many women do. His response was that having help wasn’t the same as having enough help.

How Leslie usually spends her evenings.

How Leslie usually spends her evenings.

He asked me what I thought at the time were a series of unrelated questions.  What did I usually eat for breakfast? If I got breakfast it was usually a granola bar. How often did I eat? Three times a day, usually a snack before bed. What did I eat for dinner? Lean protein. What did I do when my in-laws took my son? Client work. Why was I still doing cardio at the gym despite ligament pain? It was best for the baby. How often did I wake up at night? How many fingers do you have? How was my energy level? I’m pregnant, I’m tired all the time. Did I ever have dizzy spells? Yes, a few times a day but I’m pregnant, that’s par for the course. When was the last time I did something for myself like take a long bath, read a book or have dinner with friends? I’m a parent and pregnant again, those aren’t things I have time for.

His words rung in my head as he said them, “pregnancy is not just about the baby. You matter too.”

During my first pregnancy when I’d brought up complaints of feeling excessively tired or not having the capacity to eat as healthily as I’d like, my previous OB’s response was that pregnancy was hard, nothing was out of the ordinary, and it was all about doing what was necessary to have a healthy baby at the end. After my son was born, family joked, “nobody cares about you now, we’re all here for the baby.” It took a week for my milk to come in and in the hospital when I fed my hungry son some formula to supplement what I couldn’t produce, a nurse admonished me, “you’re doing what’s easiest for you, not what’s best for him.”

The message was clear: You don’t matter.

I didn’t realize how closely I’d taken that message to heart until my new OB pointed out that much of what I’d categorized as taking care of myself was actually taking care of others.

I held back tears long enough to get out of the office and into my car, and bawled the entire way home. A blubbering mess, I arrived home to a very confused but concerned husband.

“But it’s just anemia, you can take a pill for it, right?” he asked,

“It’s so much more than that!” I sobbed.

Until that day I don’t think I’d processed how much the overt and implied messaging from those around me had truly impacted how I viewed myself. I really didn’t think that I mattered and trying to make myself matter to me involved a significant mental shift.

Since surviving my son’s first colicky few weeks I have said repeatedly that Western society does a terrible job of supporting new parents, but I hadn’t taken my own message to heart. From healthcare infrastructure to family structure, to societal expectations, we essentially give new parents a pamphlet on swimming, throw them into the deep end, and act confused when they start to drown or annoyed when they ask for a life raft.

When I asked other friends if they felt like they didn’t matter after having had a child the response was overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Many mentioned family that offered to help initially didn’t come through, or had nothing but ‘helpful advice’ about what was best for the baby, watched while they were struggling. Others mentioned how specific language made the feel like non-persons:

“I felt like a cow.  My family thought it was a joke to hand [my daughter] to me when she was hungry and say ‘this is your job now.’ Even when I had pumped milk in the fridge my mom refused to use it because she only wanted the best for her granddaughter.  What about her daughter?”  said one friend.

Another confided, “we had this big family dinner the night we brought [my son] home from the hospital. Everyone was there and it was this running gag for everyone to ask ‘oh are you still here?’ to my husband and I. Yes, I’m still here, cleaning up the dishes because everyone is cooing over the baby and I can’t sit down because I pushed another human out of my body 48 hours ago. Thanks for asking.”

The general state of Leslie's home office and living room over the last two weeks.

The general state of Leslie’s home office and living room over the last two weeks.  This is the definition of confessional blogging.

While these may seem like awkward jokes from friends, study after study after study has shown that new and expectant parents feel unsupported ,and that lack of support leads to poorer outcomes for the parent(s) and baby. Yet we as a society seem to persist in the mentality that in order for a baby to thrive the mother’s well-being has to be sacrificed.

The last two weeks has been a learning experience for me. I have been slowly re-learning how to take care of myself, while still working and caring for my family. It has not been easy and at times self-care has felt like one more thing on my to-do list. But I’ve noticed a difference.

Mentally, I’m more focused and my mood has improved. I have more energy and I no longer feel like I’ve been hit in the face with a frying pan. I’ve gone back to the gym, but I’ve traded in the treadmill and elliptical for the recumbent bike and am focusing on strengthening the muscles in my back and shoulders which will help me survive the impending third trimester.

Some things have had to be sacrificed. Our living room and basement perpetually look like they’ve been hit by a tornado. The laundry is washed, but hasn’t been folded and put away in two weeks and the stairs haven’t been vacuumed for the same amount of time. I’ve learned that these are signs that I am a good mother, actually. Because when I’m ok, it supports my family. Today, I feel better.

 

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health

Tragic Events, News Coverage, and Talking to Your Kids. Where to Begin?

By July 27, 2015 7 Comments
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Have you ever been driving in the car or preparing dinner and heard a TV or radio report about a terrible event that’s just happened? What was your reaction to the news story? Was your child with you? Were you worried about their reaction and wondered how you could help them and protect them?  Supporting and protecting your children around traumatic events – that’s what I want to consider with you here.

This is an interesting but distressing topic, and I’ll begin by saying how much I wish that this could only be a theoretical problem. Unfortunately,  as we all know violent crimes are happening everywhere in the world, the news always reports on them and often in detail so it’s only a matter of time until a child hears or sees it. With the recent shooting in in a theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, these concerns and challenges may be fresh in your mind. How do we explain this to our children? In our world, the best case scenario is that this will be a story about other families, families that you and your own family do not know.

In considering this topic, I thought about the many questions from families around the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks by terrorists on innocent American citizens, as well as about questions from families that have suffered a personal violent tragedy like the one in Lafayette. These are very different circumstances, but what I believe that what I have learned from these families and from my personal research can help us to help our children cope with such trauma.

All families are different and so are all the people in them, so some of my considerations will resonate for some readers, and not at all for others. In fact, this will be a successful article only if everyone likes some parts and hates others! The one universal truth is that each parent’s most honest response to a news story, given in the most gentle, respectful way possible is the response most likely to help a person of any age to begin to contemplate it. I will say that again, more summarized: gentle honesty is the best policy. This is true even if each of a child’s parents have entirely different responses to a story.

Think about this statement in relation to 9/11 – this was a terrible thing and some of us were more directly affected than others, but we were all affected. Helping a child grasp that an event of this magnitude would affect anyone enormously and everyone in different ways helps them to learn to trust their own feelings. It also helps children learn that you can’t have “wrong feelings.” Parents talking about their own feelings and reactions to this kind of event help children learn to express themselves effectively in difficult circumstances.

The same is true when a family suffers a violent event. A parent’s honest reaction, when fully understood, is what best helps a child to assimilate an event. As in any other situation, answering all of your children’s questions honestly is most helpful, even when you admit that you don’t know all the answers. A child also needs to learn as he or she grows that not knowing or understanding all of the answers is a part of the experience of being human.

Having said all of this, it is important to consider the imagery and audio that we are exposed to. Even the news media prepares us for exposure when it tells us that images or sounds may be disturbing to some viewers. Images and sound bites that are especially distressing need some filter or preface, usually in words, but, like the news media, I think you can say to a child something such like:

“The news is showing pictures of what happened, but I am still upset by them and I don’t think you should see them.”

A young child will usually be satisfied with such an explanation. An older child may be more insistent and I have found that two responses can be helpful: one is to point out that, in the same way as some movies are too distressing and disturbing, so are the images and sounds from some events. This does make sense to many older children. The other response (for others approaching adolescence who may be harder to convince), is that parents may decide to watch the images with that young person. Good things to do in this circumstance are to point out the news media’s warning concerning the disturbing aspects of the report and to watch the young person’s reaction. If you can see them becoming disturbed or upset, you can ask them if they need to stop watching or listening, and you can even shut off the report.

Children & Tragedy: The Boston Bombing (Photo Via: Salzburg Academy of Media & Global Change)

Children & Tragedy: The Boston Bombing (Photo Via: Salzburg Academy of Media & Global Change)

For some guidance, this is a link to the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system.  This can support you in considering when you want to allow your child to see or hear disturbing imagery or sounds.

In relation to actually watching or listening to a news report, I have found that children and youth are most interested in this when they know someone who has been directly involved. This is related to that instinct to know exactly what happened to someone, in part because it helps some of us deal with the denial that we all have when something terrible is happening. A parent and a child can be of two different minds about this and, as a parent, one has to try to be sensitive to this. Letting a child know honestly, “I didn’t watch myself (or I wish I had not watched) because I don’t want to remember this about Jane.”

If a child or teen says they have to know, and you likely know people who feel that knowing what happened is a support to those affected or harmed, then you can find a trusted person to watch this with them. After some events, like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing, family resource centers are set up to help people and families deal with what is happening. For an event affecting fewer people such as the shooting in Lafayette, children’s hospitals and Community Health agencies have resources to help those of all ages who are dealing with a traumatic event.  For further resources of this nature, you can refer to the National Institute of Mental Health’s resource list here.

I have one final piece of advice, learned from a colleague many years ago: remember to look after yourself first before trying to assist your child. It’s difficult because it’s not your first instinct. But those who travel on airplanes have an easy way to be reminded. Every time you fly, the safety message tells you: remember to put on your own mask before trying to help somebody else. It’s a personal reminder to look after yourself first so that you are fully able to look after your children.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, School-Aged Children, Toddlers + Preschoolers

Forget Your To-Do List. What We Need is a To-Don’t List.

By June 9, 2015 1 Comment
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Here at The Scientific Parent, in addition to our trusty pack of hamsters on wheels that power our lights, there are just two of us making the blogging magic happen. Leslie and I are research junkies and writers in different phases and types of motherhood, and above all, we’re perfectionists with what we put out there on the web for all of you readers to enjoy. We take our craft seriously and we appreciate the people who join us here to read our blog.

But sometimes it’s hard for us to get all of our Scientific Parent tasks wrangled, especially when our collective and individual to-do lists seem too long to tackle and we’ve been playing dueling viral banjos for weeks, alternating between who’s sick and who’s not. We think summer colds are the worst! Though in a few months, it’ll be something else. But right now? Yeah. We wanna punch summer colds in the face! Congestion, runny noses, fevers, and active boy kiddos are what characterize our hectic lives right now.

So today I’m proposing a to-don’t list. For us, for all of you, for your friends (spread the word!), when we all need it the most.

I’ve spent time researching this and I can verify that there’s no scientific data that says that a once-in-a-blue-moon allowing of your child to eat takeout in front of the TV (in lieu of a well-balanced meal at the dinner table) will permanently damage them. Let’s be honest here. Life is nutty and the last thing our kids need is for us to get nutty. I promise they won’t end up on Maury Povich crying and needing a bootcamp dress-down if they have a Lunchable for dinner and watch SpongeBob SquarePants for the evening. So read on, bold readers, for our to-don’t list for you!

TO DON’T:

  • Don’t ignore the signs you’re clearly sick, and say it’s “nothing.” If you’re sick, keep integrity around your health and take care of yourself like you would your children when they’re sick. You’re human too, and you need to get better! Your behavior around it can also teach them self-love and self-care, and who better to learn those sick-time behaviors from than you? Plus, you’ll feel a lot better when you’re hydrated, fed, and appropriately medicated.
  • Don’t make parenting difficult when it doesn’t need to be. If you’re super tired, it’s okay to rest. We give you permission. Look at your bed! It looks amazing. Go lie down! Find a safe way for your kids to be secure and/or cared for, and take that rest, Mom or Dad. You need it too. On that note, it’s also perfectly fine to get a babysitter so you can sleep and lounge for a day if you are craving it. A rested parent is one who can be present with their kiddos. A babysitter for some non-productive time on your part will not break your kids. We mean it. Non-productive. Put down the scrubber, yo.
  • Don’t punish yourself for opting to reduce your stress once in a while – for example, letting them eat cereal for dinner, sending them to go play when you need some quiet, or allowing them to watch cartoons or play video games as a distraction. You probably have some fond memories of those days when you were little. What you don’t remember is your mom or dad keeled over on the couch, relieved you were out of their hair for a little bit. Should you do this as your automatic solution to things?
    cereal Behold, the holy grail of the To-Don't list: cereal for dinner!

    Behold, the holy grail of the To-Don’t list: cereal for dinner!

    Probably not. But it’s not going to break your kid if you skip the dinner drama that an exhausted version of you might put yourself through, and just let everyone hang out doing what they want and nibbling easy foods. Or have the kids make those oh-so-awesome discombobulated PB&Js they do so well, and watch them beam while you enjoy the fabulous dinner they made you. Plus, you’ve probably eaten unhealthier stuff out of the office vending machine and cleaned bigger messes. Who cares for a night or two? Choosing a less stressful path instead of a more stressful one can go a long way for your ability to recharge, and it shows kids what it looks like to manage stress too.

  • Don’t equate a clean house, scheduled activities, and the “best” ways to do things with you being a loving parent. Loving parents are parents who love their kids and make sure the kids know it and feel it. Parents who do things with and for their kids are parents who do things with and for their kids. They may or may not be loving – it’s not connected unless you insist it is. How you define yourself and your actions has a huge bearing on how you’re going to feel about yourself. A dirty kitchen this weekend in favor of watching movies and bumming around with the kids? Sure, why not. I promise we won’t come and judge it. If you have a dishwasher, stuff it all in there and turn it on without rinsing. It comes out dirty? Run it again! We heard that the dishwasher police are on summer break.
  • Don’t forget to say no when you need to – and don’t forget to say yes when you want to sometimes! It’s okay to say no and not make it mean anything about you as a parent or person. It’s also okay to say yes, we’re all going to bed 7 p.m. today! You deserve to be loved and cared for, and you can put both you and your kids first at the same time more often than you realize. Happy parents go a long way to making happy kids.

So with that, the two of us sniffly bloggers are signing off for the day, grabbing a bowl of cereal on each of our respective coasts and hanging out with our boys.  Our dishwashers are full of unrinsed dishes on the Pots and Pans settings and we’re okay with it. Come join us and spend a little extra time loving yourself today! There’s always another day to nail this whole Super Parent thing tomorrow.

 

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health