Tween Confidence Part I: Foundations – May 2017

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My daughter has been a bubbly, outspoken girl since her first words. She is in the 7th grade and I fear she is losing her outgoing personality. She’s also less decisive and confident. I believe in raising assertive, young women and want to support her however I can. I would appreciate any tools, strategies, and suggestions to help my daughter find her inner-self and get back her sparkling personality.
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A: Your daughter “losing her voice” is a common phenomenon among female adolescents. In fact, Carol Gilligan’s theory of moral development highlights how young girls have a strong focus on survival and self-interest through their elementary school years. Then in preadolescence focus switches to selflessness and caring for others. Girls begin understanding the requirements for being an “ideal” girl and disconnect from their personality to salvage and maintain relationships. This makes sense given all the challenges in middle school: friendships developing and breaking, dating, puberty, bullying, differentiating between generic and name brand clothing, and developing body image concerns. In this two-part series, you will find strategies for building your child’s confidence. Part I is written below and will focus on setting the foundation for building self-esteem and confidence. Part II will focus on life skills to use with your tween and will be featured in next month’s Ask Anything.

The groundwork for any child’s self-esteem and confidence is what we model for them as parents. I believe all parents are doing the best they can given their current situation. You will likely find you are doing many of the recommendations listed in this newsletter. I encourage you to critically evaluate your parenting style while reading these pointers because some small changes can make an impactful difference in supporting your tween’s development.

  • Praise, Praise, Praise: Absolutely, praise your daughter. Think about your childhood for a minute. Do you have memories of reinforcement and praise from your family or criticism? Your goal as a parent is to build positive memories for your child, so take advantage of reinforcement opportunities when available. Focus praise on skills, competencies, and effort. Praising problem-solving abilities, math skills, and handling sticky situations is a great starting place. It’s natural to praise your child when they look nice, but going overboard on praise for beauty can teach young girls appearance is highly valued. Be specific in your praise of competencies, “You did a fantastic job making your plays in the game today. I was so proud when you hit the line drive past the short-stop.”
  • Listen: Like adults, our tweens often want to vent about their day. Take time to listen to your daughter rather than fix problems for her. She may want to vent how frustrating it is Sara is dating Robbie even though Bonnie called dibs. Ask her if she wants advice or help figuring out the situation, but refrain from fixing it for her. Tweens often are more interested in hearing about similar experiences you may have had than specific advice about what they ‘should’ do. Explain you always have open ears if she wants to talk about something.
  • Invest in her Interests: Offer support for your daughter’s interests and activities. If she’s interested in singing encourage her to join choir. The two of you can also brainstorm some songs she can practice at home. If she develops a passion in art, you can show enthusiasm about her artwork and buy some small supplies. Obviously, there are financial limitations to participating in all interests, but she may have a passion you can support at home or with low-cost activities at school or in the community.
  • Unconditional Love: Reassure your daughter you will always love her. It’s powerful for children to understand your love is not contingent on grades, 3-point shots, or 100 yard-dash running times. Children sometimes make these contingencies on their own, so it’s good to remind them your love has endless boundaries.
  • Encourage “I” Statements: One way to regain and strengthen your daughter’s voice is to practice and encourage I statements. Assertiveness develops as she expresses her wants, needs, preferences, and emotions. I teach my younger clients (and sometimes my adults), one of the most important sentences we can use is “I feel ______ when/because ______.”
  • Positive Self-Talk: The thoughts in the back of our minds become the soundtrack of our lives and affect our attitude, mood, motivation, and resilience. Teaching and role-modeling positive self-talk will help your daughter deal with failures and adversity as well as reinforce confident, coping statements. For example, “I tried my best on the math test today. I’ll study more and do better next time.” For social situations, you can teach your daughter to say, “I’m a bit nervous about going to the party, but I’m sure I will have fun once I get there.” You can also express how much you believe in her capabilities, courage, skills, and competencies.
  • Encourage a Healthy Body Image: Your daughter is at an age when physical looks become the focus of attention. Pop singers, models, and beauty ads are more predominant in tween girls’ lives than during elementary school. Simultaneously her body is going through several physical changes, which can be stressful for both of you. School clothes shopping can be both fun and anxiety-provoking. Unfortunately, you don’t know which until she is halfway through the pile of clothes in the fitting room. Modeling a positive body-image can help her toward accepting her body. Off-the-hand, unintentional comments about feeling fat, calorie counting, and clothes nothing fitting correctly can normalize a negative body image for your daughter. Better choices are to model caring about health and fitness, such as, “I am going to start going to the gym again after work; I feel better when I work out,” or, “I’m going to make a healthy choice and have fruit for dessert instead of ice cream.” Conversely, you can encourage a healthy body image by modeling exercise and being active, making positive statements about your body, and discussing how people come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Stay tuned next month for Part II.

ADHD and Driving – April 2017

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My 15-year-old son is diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and eager to get behind the wheel of a car. I’m concerned he’s not mature, responsible, or attentive enough to manage this responsibility. After all, he forgets his homework half of the time. I know a driver’s permit is a rite-of-passage at 15-years, but what am I to do?
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A: Handing over the keys is an anxiety-provoking time for any parent, even more so for a parent who has a teenager with ADHD. The statistics are alarming as ADHD teens are four times more likely to have an accident while driving, six to eight times more likely to have a license suspended or revoked for poor driving, and practice less safe driving habits than their non-ADHD peers.

But years of research also suggest ADHD teens can be successful drivers. The winning formula includes significant preparation, minimizing distractions, and setting limits. As a parent, you will need to role model safe driving and ensure your teen has the tools to overcome the additional obstacles of inattention and distractibility caused by ADHD.

Preparation: You and your child should frequently practice driving together. When it comes to time-intervals for driving practice, the sweet spot is about 20-minute intervals. Less than 20 minutes does not accomplish much practice and more than 20-minutes can feel daunting at the beginning. These intervals can extend as you feel more confident with your child on the road. State Farm recommends a tiered driving process: Level 1 (0-6 months) driving only at daytime; Level 2 (6-12 months) driving extended into evening time; Level 3 (12-18 months) driving freely with established rules (see below). Parent and teen should log their driving times: date, time, conditions (daylight, dark, clear, rainy, etc.), location, and driving interval.

Another aspect is actually planning the trip: Where are you going? What is the driving time? Any problematic areas/construction we need to plan for? Is there an alternative route that would be better? Regularly having these conversations with your teen will teach them to think through the entire driving experience rather than just jumping behind the wheel. Once you arrive at your destination, you should also talk with your teen about what caused distractions while you were on the road. For instance, did billboard signs take away attention or was your teen focused on looking at the car on the side of the road rather than the car quickly stopping in front of them? You can use these conversations for an assessment of distractions and as a way to prepare for the next drive. The conversation can start by saying, “The last time we went out for a drive you mentioned difficulty paying attention to the road during open country. We’re going to be driving through the same type of area today, so let’s prepare for how we can manage that one today.”

Minimize Distractions: The first major distraction is the cell phone. You will want your teen to have their phone for contact and emergencies, but we have all seen those commercials about driving while texting. You can establish a rule that cell phones must go off or in silent mode and be placed in the console between the two seats. The console is an excellent location because it secures your phone in the case of an accident rather than flying off the seat and out of reach. You might think, but they may need to use Google Maps. Yes, they made need a GPS. Quite frankly, the early stages of driving should only focus on familiar locations where they do not need a map. After your teen successfully demonstrates good driving habits and ventures into more unfamiliar territory, consider providing a GPS rather than the phone. The GPS can be on the dashboard or windshield. It should be pre-programmed while they are sitting in “Park”. While a GPS device may seem out of date, it prevents distractions from text messages, phone calls, and App notifications.

The second distraction is music and or the radio. You can limit your child to pre-programmed stations so they are not fiddling while behind the wheel. Even more distracting is connecting Bluetooth and A/V jacks, so our recommendation is to stay with pre-set radio stations. CDs are also a good options but your teen should insert the CD he wants before putting that car in “drive.” Finally, set rules about appropriate volume levels.

Limits: Setting rules of no eating, drinking, and phone use are a great starting point. You may also want to limit music volume and the number people/friends allowed to ride with your teen. If on medication, your teen will want to continue taking medication as prescribed. Rules about reporting where your teen is going and completing a driving log upon return are excellent ways to keep your teen’s focus on the full driving experience. You should also tie your teen’s behavior outside of the car so it is associated with his driving privilege. Showing impulsive behavior or poor decision-making at school or with friends also suggests your teen is not ready to drive and his driving privilege can be taken away. As your son follows these rules, you can offer more freedoms like having one friend in the car.

Similar to coping with other aspects of ADHD, driving requires significant practice and patience. You will simultaneously need to be a coach, parent, and ally. Having candid (not critical) discussions to help your teen with distractions and provide positive coping statements will go miles with preparing your child for his driving journey.

Picky Eater – March 2017

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My 6-year-old is a picky eater and it seems like my family is drowning in a sea of mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and French fries. A tantrum is at the waiting if we even attempt to put a new food on her plate. What can we do to expand her palette?
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A: Unfortunately, picky eating is a normal part of child development albeit a cruel reality for many parents. Statistics suggest it can take between 10 to 20 presentations of a food before the child will begin to like it. Mealtimes can wreak havoc on your family when you have a picky eater because it can feel like an all-out control battle. Not to the mention the ever-growing concerns your child may not be meeting nutritional needs. You will find some strategies below to alleviate some of these problems. If extreme picky-eating is present (e.g., child likes less than 20 foods), contact your pediatrician.

  • Gradual exposure: Begin by introducing one, tiny bit of a new food. A crumb-like size of a carrot may be a good starting point. Verbalize positive coping statements while presenting the food by stating, “You’re going to do well with this.” For the pickiest of eaters, the child may first need to tolerate the crumb being on her plate for a few days before attempting to eat it. Reward your child with a food she does like after trying the novel food. Through gradual exposure, you can increase the amount of food you expose to your child (moving from pea-size to grape size) while decreasing rewards.
  • Preference: Give your child options of one food they would like to taste at some point. This allows your child to have some control in the situation. You can present two foods and ask which one they would eventually like to eat.
  • Snack time: Snack time introduction is a fantastic way to introduce new foods without disrupting your typical mealtime patterns. Snack time removes the pressure a child would typically experience at mealtime (feeling as if they are on stage) as well as you worrying about having an undisrupted meal with your family.
  • Make meals a long-term goal: It is easy to fall into the habit of providing constant snacks to your child since they are eating and you are avoiding any mealtime tantrums. In addition to introducing new foods, we also want your child to learn mealtime socialization. Mealtime is an opportunity to learn further social skills by having conversation with her siblings, passing food around, and discussing your day around the table.
  • Remain calm: As much as we love our children, they can engage in lots of behaviors to get attention from others. Refusing foods may be one of those methods because they are gaining significant attention, even though it is negative, and control of mealtime. Therefore, it is crucial for you to remain composed, calm, and in-control of the situation.
  • Preparation: Many parents have found including their child in food preparation helps decrease resistance and refusal. Having your child assist with mixing a sauce or making a pizza may spark some interest in new foods. She might enjoy licking a small sample off the mixing spoon.

Remember, kids have taste buds too, and some foods they truly do not like the taste of; do not force a child to eat foods they say they dislike. Taste buds change over time. Time and patience is the friend of parents of a picky eater. Many children move in and out of liking and disliking various foods as their own taste buds change, tolerance for flavors evolves, and they try foods prepared different ways. This is a process for most that goes into at least early adulthood, and even adults find at times they like a food they previously disliked for many years.

Child Indecisiveness – February 2017

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My first grader cannot make a decision to save his life. He freezes and then tantrums any time he must make a choice (shoes, lunch, etc.). What can I do to help during these times and improve his decision-making?
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A: Excellent question and it hits home for me. My parents recall horror stories from my childhood when I cried my eyes out because I could not decide whether to leave my grandmother’s house or spend the night. These scenarios can wear down a parent and tempers are easy to lose. You might even start labeling your kiddo as a “difficult child.”

Honestly, the world is full of decisions and they can become quite overwhelming for a young child. Think about everything you must decide as an adult just about yourself in the first hour of the morning: oatmeal or cereal, straightener or curling iron, wake up early for alone time or hit the ground running with the kids. As parents, we want to make sure we both ease these situations and model appropriate decision-making. Check out the following tips:

  • Limit options: Consider a child who has several items he could select as part of his lunch (fruit, vegetable, Sun Chips, and cookies). One reason indecisiveness occurs is because there are so many options. Furthermore, he may be choosing between several of his favorite snacks and would really like them all! If there are four options, remove one or two of them. Also, make sure the options have equitable value. For example, coloring or reading books are equitable while reading books and playing Pokémon Go do not carry equal value.
  • Begin small: You can enhance your child’s decision-making by first addressing low-hanging fruit (think outfits) to build success and confidence. Your child should be able to begin picking-out clothes when you limit his options to a few. After several successes with outfits, you can introduce a new decision to target. It often helps to create a hierarchy of targeted decisions so you can design a plan to help your son work toward more challenging decisions like spending time with cousins or attending a friend’s party.
  • Preparation: I am not a stranger to the chaos of a weekday morning: breakfast, clothes, food, and figuring out car rides for the entire family. It can be a stressful on everyone, maybe even more so for a kiddo who awakes cranky and has to make several decisions. You can alleviate some of the stress by having your child make decisions in the evening so he would have his shoes, breakfast food, and special school snack selected before waking the following morning.
  • Role model: Take time to role-model decision-making for your child as it occurs naturally in your life. Consider you are at an ice cream shop and need to select from three favorite flavors. You could say aloud, “Wow, I love them all so much. It makes it really hard to pick” and then you could model using “eenie meenie miney moe” as an effective strategy. Flipping coins is also a great way to help your children select between two options. Finally, provide your child with the reasons behind your decisions: “Today, I’m having fruit for dessert instead of a cookie. I had a cookie yesterday and we stay healthy by not eating too many sweets.”
  • Build-up self-esteem through reinforcement: Begin acknowledging your child when they do make decisions. Saying “Great job figuring that out” or “nice work flipping a coin to decide on a toy” can go a long way with your kiddo. These comments provide feedback to your child that he is doing well and is on the right track.
  • Do not criticize the decision: The inevitable question is, “What do I do when he makes (what I believe is) a terrible decision?” Sometimes we win as parents, sometimes we lose, and sometimes our child parades through the mall in a Batman costume he picked out for the day. In the beginning, you might just need to allow him to wear that Batman costume. He made the decision and he feels awesome in it! As your child improves his decision-making ability, you can talk to him about alternative decisions: “What might be a different or better decision right now?” Natural consequences will also occur sometimes. The consequence of deciding not to eat his lunch at school is the hunger he will experience during the afternoon.
  • Don’t do it for him: As tempting as it is to set clothes out for school, select all activities for evenings at home, and limit breakfast options to one brand of cereal to reduce tantrums and anxiety, decision-making is a valuable life skill. There will be up’s and down’s and he may occasionally need assistance, but with practice I expect you will see him make great strides.

Sleep for Adults – December 2016

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: What can I do to improve my sleep? The stress, and perhaps excitement, of the holidays is getting to me and I have been feeling tired all the time. Actually, it is not uncommon for me to experience sleep difficulties. In the past, I have been prescribed a sleep aid and have also tried an over-the-counter sleep aid. They work, but I would prefer to simply get a good night’s rest without relying on a sleep aid, especially as a long-term solution. Is there anything I can do, naturally, to get better sleep? I find I am a better parent when I am well-rested and not sleep-deprived!
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A: Sleep – we all need it but we do not all get enough of it. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million individuals in the United States suffer from a sleep disorder with Insomnia being the most common specific sleep disorder. Approximately 30 percent of Americans report short-term insomnia and 10 percent report chronic insomnia. Sleep is important to our physical and mental health and it’s alarming to hear the number of individual’s who do not get adequate sleep each night. Sleep allows our body and brain to recharge and repair. It is imperative to our overall wellbeing and greatly impacts our daily functioning. Statistics from the American Sleep Association indicate 35.3 percent of adults, 37 percent of 20-39 year-olds, and 40 percent of 40-50 year-olds get less than seven hours of sleep each night.

Following are tips for healthy sleep hygiene…

  1. Maintain a routine. You should go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Yes, even on weekends. A regular sleep schedule prepares your body for, and allows it to maintain, it’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Get out of bed within five minutes of waking, regardless of the number of hours of sleep you got that night. If you have been getting less than eight hours of sleep per night, or are used to going to bed very late, start with your wake time and count backwards to a time that allows you your average number of hours of sleep per night. For example, if you have to wake up at 7:00am and are used to getting six hours of sleep, start going to bed around 1:00am and slowly add 15 minutes increments to your sleep schedule. So, you would be in by 12:45am, then 12:30am, then 12:15am, and so on until you are at a time that allows eight full hours of sleep.
  2. Bedroom aesthetics. Not surprisingly, your bedroom should be a place of comfort and quiet. For a good night’s sleep prepare your sleeping area with a comfortable mattress, sheets, pillows, etc. Additionally, a cooler temperature is more conducive to good sleep, and of course, low, or preferably no, light source – that means from the light fixtures in your bedroom and light from technology. Also, position your alarm clock so that you cannot count the minutes while you are laying in bed. Complete darkness and cool temperature are best for sleep.
  3. The bedroom is only for sleep and sex. No watching television or reading while in bed because doing so associates the bedroom, and bed, with wakefulness. One should refrain from using technology too close to bedtime as well. Our body is cued by our environment to naturally prepare itself for sleep. Exposure to unnatural light sources disrupts the body’s natural production of melatonin, thus impacting sleepiness, if you will. Nowadays, many tech items have a setting that allows for turning off light sources that impact melatonin production.
  4. No napping during the day – for obvious reasons. Napping during the day takes away from the amount of sleep you need and typically creates difficulty in falling asleep at bedtime.
  5. Don’t lay awake for longer than 10-15 minutes. No tossing and turning and lying awake just waiting to fall asleep. If you do not fall asleep within 10-15 minutes of laying down, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing such as reading a book. When you start to feel sleepy return to bed and attempt to fall asleep again.
  6. Avoid food, drink, and substances that may interfere with sleep. Stop consuming food and beverages at least two hours prior to bedtime, especially items that contain caffeine. Additionally, cigarettes and alcohol impact sleep quality. Some people think alcohol as a depressant helps sleep, but it does not; because it raises body temperature, it results in waking after 2-3 hours of sleep and being unable to return to sleep.
  7. Develop a bedtime routine. You have a bedtime routing for the kids because you know it helps get them prepared for sleep! Adults benefit from a bedtime routine too. Your bedtime routine should be calming and quiet, such as a warm bath or shower, or some type of relaxation, meditation, or reading. Avoid activity, especially high intensity exercise immediately prior to bed.

Teen Substance Use – November 2016

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: I am pretty sure my teenager has used drugs, but am not sure (how can I tell??) and feel a little in the dark and like I missed the boat on preventing this from happening. What do I do now?
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A: This is a question we hear often. Early intervention in teen substance use is part of deterring the problem. People too quickly think that they have missed the opportunity for “prevention” once a teen uses. Yet, there is still the opportunity to prevent continued use, to make this something that happened a few times versus something that turns into an on-going substance use and abuse problem.

Parents must educate themselves about red flags that may indicate substance use, so that they can respond quickly when a red flag occurs. The American Council for Drug Education website provides the following indicators that have been linked to possible drug use. These indicators should motivate you to explore more and clarify if it is substances causing the symptoms:

  1. Sudden decline in school achievement.
  2. Cigarette smoking.
  3. Marked shift in the child’s friends, especially association with known or suspected drug users.
  4. Serious erosion of parental trust in the child.
  5. Support by the child for the idea of legalizing marijuana.
  6. Marked personality changes. (Such as social withdrawal, a new guardedness in communication with family members, depression, changes in sleep patterns, etc.)
  7. Withdrawal from extracurricular activities that were previously important to the child.
  8. Cutting classes, tardiness or truancy from school.
  9. Deterioration in appearance and personal hygiene, or dramatic image changes.
  10. Increased secretiveness, unexplained phone calls, heightened hostility to inquiry, sudden onset of hypersensitivity.
  11. Going out every night. (Especially “hanging around” as opposed to scheduled youth activities.)
  12. Unexplained disappearance of family funds or family and personal possessions (to buy drugs) and/or appearance of unexplained money or items such as new clothes and CDs (from selling drugs).
  13. Aggressive behavior such as recurrent fighting, violent hostility, or other evidence of social alienation from the mainstream.
  14. Heavy use of over-the-counter preparations to reduce eye reddening, nasal irritation, or bad breath.

While a red flag does not provide enough indication on its own that your teen is using, each of these red flags should result in some action by the parent to explore what has caused it. Substance use can be ruled out, and early intervention can occur to help fix the problem, whether the problem is substance use or something else.

Position vs. Interest – September 2016

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: I don’t know how to talk to my teenager about a problem without it becoming an argument. I try to keep it going as a discussion for as long as possible but I admit I get really annoyed when she starts to shut down before I’ve even finished saying my side of things. It quickly turns into a yelling match with no one actually hearing what the other person wants or needs so nothing changes. What can I do to make this turn out differently?
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A: You’re not the first parent to have a yelling match with their teenager and you won’t be the last. But that doesn’t make the experience any less unpleasant, plus you’re right – no one benefits from an argument where neither person is heard and nothing is learned. In a previous post we addressed using John Gottman’s emotion-coaching parenting style to help connect with children in distress, and it sounds like implementing those concepts, steps, and mindset might be helpful in your situation. But let’s also talk about the concept of Position vs. Interest, which is best described by this little story:

There were two chefs who worked for the king. One day there was only a single orange and both chefs needed it for their dish. They fought bitterly over it, loudly declaring, “I need the orange!” “I need the orange more!” In the end they compromised and cut the orange in half, so one chef had half the amount of pulp needed to squeeze the orange juice, and one chef had half the amount of zest he needed for the dessert.

Had the chefs discussed why they needed the orange, they would have simply peeled it and each chef would have gotten exactly what he needed for his dish for the king. Instead they focused only on what they needed. They focused on their position (needing the orange) rather than their interest (why they needed the orange – for the pulp or the peel).

Often we enter a discussion (especially one where we expect some pushback) with our position very clear to us – I want her home by 10. I want him to get his homework done before playing a video game. Just as important as our what is our why – I want you home by 10 because I’m worried about you drinking at a late party or driving home late with post-partiers on the road. I want you to get your homework done before you get distracted for hours playing a game.

That might be the end of it. They might say, “Oh! I hadn’t understood. Sure, no problem!” (Hey, a parent can dream, right?) But more importantly, it might invite conversation from your teen on their whys. You might learn that she wants to stay out until midnight this time because her friend who moved away will be at this party and it’s her last night in town. Your son might tell you that he wants to play a video game before he starts his homework because the thought of getting down to homework after a whole day of school is too much and he needs to unwind first.

So at this point in the discussion there’s no yelling but even more importantly people are feeling respected, cared about, and understood. A person’s anger can begin to dissipate when they feel heard, and a sense of team is strengthened when one feels understood. And there is a connection that comes when you acknowledge that the other person’s needs are different from yours and are just as valid and valuable. So demonstrating that you hear what your kid is saying and digging deep to feel some compassion for their side of things will go a long way towards staying connected and not having your discussion devolve into an argument. And then the team is further strengthened when you work together to negotiate based on each person’s whys. You want your daughter not-partying and not-driving after 10. She wants to see her friend on her last night in town. Together you might decide to invite the friend to dinner or for a sleep over instead of meeting at a late party. Your video-game-loving son needs a break between school and homework. You want him to get his work done before he plays, lest he fail to do his homework and not develop good study habits. You two might decide to have him unwind before starting his homework, and then schedule homework breaks if doing it all in one shot is too much for him.

So remember that each time you practice expressing interest and not just position you are strengthening your relationship with your child and also modeling skills you want your child to develop – like approaching a conversation with curiosity and open-mindedness about the other person’s needs, wants, and concerns; empathy; and negotiation and compromise. Which is an even better end result than them grudgingly complying with your position (and then sneaking video games or a party after you’ve gone to bed!).

“That’s Not Fair!” – August 2016

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My kids (five and seven) are in a really annoying stage right now where everything has to be “fair.” Every little thing is scrutinized to make sure that the other sister doesn’t have a tiny bit more of a good thing or a tiny bit less of an unwanted one. I know it’s normal because I hear myself channeling my parents with “well sometimes life isn’t fair!” but I know adults who seem hung up on fairness and I don’t want my kids to turn out like that. How should a parent handle the not-fair stage?_____________________________________________________________________________________

A: When children complain about something not being fair they are usually saying something isn’t equal – he gets to stay up later than I do, I have more chores than she does. But as this visual illustrates, equality and equity are not the same thing. Equality refers to people getting the same thing; be it snack, support, or responsibilities. Equity refers to giving people what they need to be successful, whether success is measured in feeling satiated, feeling supported, or developing responsibility. So when a nine-year-old receives more of a snack than a three-year-old and they both finish feeling satiated, the snack wasn’t equal but it was equitable. If the nine and three-year-old both have the chore of washing the dishes, that is equal but not equitable (and not a good idea).

Not-fair moments are normal and healthy. Kids need to observe and wrestle with the concept of unfairness in life. What you’re worried about is a not-fair mentality. This results in playing the victim and blaming others every time things don’t turn out their way. The child constantly whining, “My teacher/coach/friend isn’t fair!” can become the adult constantly complaining, “My boss/spouse/life isn’t fair.” We need to help our kids with two things to prevent not-fair moments from becoming a victim mentality: acceptance and empowerment. Acceptance because life truly sometimes isn’t fair (you practice more than the starting player but you stay on the bench), and if you can’t accept that you will suffer (not struggle. We want kids to struggle sometimes because that is growth. Suffering is different). Empowerment because we often are in the position to make change – for ourselves and for others. Deciding something isn’t fair and then problem-solving a healthy and effective solution can and does change the world (think Civil Rights Movement).

Start by giving kids the vocabulary to talk about this (fair/unfair, justice/injustice, equal/unequal, equitable/inequitable, etc.), and then work with them on expressing their thoughts and feelings about the perceived injustice. Talk to them logically about the decision they take issue with, guide them in brainstorming a solution if one is available, and work with them on healthy communication and conflict skills if they decide to pursue it. If they don’t, work on radically accepting that which we wouldn’t have chosen. Restrain yourself from compensating for life’s unfairnesses by making them “right.” If Grandma gave the first grandchild $2,000 on their 18th birthday, but due to finances gave the next grandchild a Target gift card, what message do you send your young adult if you run out and buy them $2,000 worth of stuff just to make it “even”? If this is a pattern, they might learn that someone will balance out injustices for them and they won’t get good at acceptance or problem-solving.

As with almost all of the issues we tackle in this column, working on this starts in the home. In Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish point out that children don’t need to be treated equally, they need to be treated uniquely. One child might need more TLC than the other after being snubbed at school; another might need more help with homework. Giving each child the same thing could remove any chance of fighting about “fairness” but might not be meeting the need or want of each kid. Give according to need: How much applesauce would you like? How many hugs do you need tonight? But what about when your kids pull out the big guns – “Who do you love more?” Instead of answering with “I love you both the same” consider being even more genuine and thoughtful by speaking to the specialness of your love for them: “There is no one else like you in the world and I love you uniquely.” I’m not promising you won’t get the eye-roll and “Moo-ooom!” but at least this answer is absolutely true.

Navigating Different Parenting Styles – July 2016

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My husband and I share the same values and goals but we parent differently and I’ve noticed when we are both with the kids they act up more. I get extremely stressed out – partly because he gets annoyed easily at regular kid stuff (being loud), and partly because he is less vigilant about safety than I am (holding hands in parking lots). I think they’re acting up because the stress level is higher. He loses his patience quickly and gets a little harsh (although it seems that everyone but me moves on quickly; I become a complete stress case). He thinks they’re acting up because I’m not firm enough with them. I think I know what works with the kids because I’ve spent more time with them and read a lot of parenting books, but I don’t know how to get my knowledge across to my husband. I’m thinking of calling a team-style family meeting to get at common goals and agreements, and then we can all help each other stay in check in a positive way. Any thoughts on how to go about this?
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A: Great question, because who among us with a parenting partner hasn’t been chafed by the other parent’s style at times (if not often)? It’s inevitable, and it’s why a fire department has one fire chief, a restaurant has one head chef, and a gorilla troop has one alpha. It’s just simpler if one person (or gorilla) is calling the shots.

It sounds as though when the family is all together the stress is increased for a couple of reasons: your husband’s lack of patience with regular kid stuff and your stress about his reaction. And then, since our children feed off our energy, perhaps the kids bring their own stress into the mix. Plus by this time these dynamics are probably predictable so there’s anticipatory stress which can jump start the whole thing. The trick is to decrease the stress in every way possible.

The idea you suggested to decrease stress is a good one – bring the whole family in on it, name the problem, brainstorm solutions, and get some quality control in there. But first, the family leaders need to get on the same page. Imagine how awkward it would be if the ‘Presidents of the United Family’ gave the State of the Union address only to end up contradicting each other and arguing about how to handle things? Chaos and mutiny would ensue.

It sounds like you and your husband are on the same page about some of the most important things: values, goals, and the fact that the current method isn’t working the way you want it to. That’s a great start. Commit to first having conversations (because this could be a process, not a quick fix) without the kids where you two explore what you want it to look like when you’re all together. If you find that you’re not on the same page about something, talk about not only what you want but why you want it. For example, one of you might want to intervene on kid arguments because tantrums are annoying and everyone gets in a bad mood, and the other person might want the kids to be able to argue with each other so they can figure out how to compromise and problem-solve on their own. It’s not unusual to find that one parent tends to work towards resolution of the immediate problem (e.g., a tantrum) while the other parent tends to work towards a more permanent long-term solution of a bigger issue (e.g., being entitled – normal for little ones but it does not age well). If this is the case, expect to have ongoing discussions since this could indicate a difference in parenting philosophy. But even in these cases, both parents usually want the same outcome for their child (e.g., to become an adult who can manage their emotions, listen, compromise, problem-solve, and work on a team). They just have different ideas on when and how to start working on it.

Once you’ve agreed on the goals, talk about ideas on how to get there. Important: Don’t get sidetracked with blame and defensiveness; keep it factual about what’s worked and what hasn’t, remembering that you’re on the same team here and everyone wants to do what works. Don’t get hooked on “my idea” – your partner might have a surprisingly good one that you won’t notice if you go into this with a closed mind. Once both of you are clear on what the expectations are for the kids and parents, take it public. Invite the kids to share their experience of the double-parenting situation with you. Maybe they feel more stress and don’t like it. Maybe they love the pandemonium because it’s meeting a need they could get met in a different way. After fully listening, explain why it’s not working for you and your husband (and the kids), share what you’ve mapped out, and invite them to add any ideas they might have to improve things. Then, clearly define a manageable, reasonable set of expectations (there’s room for adding, adjusting and refining later) and explain what will happen if they do cooperate and if they don’t. Positive incentives (especially concrete ones for younger kids, and don’t underestimate the power of praise!) can do wonders for getting buy-in and starting new habits. Avoid immediate consequences for not cooperating – new habits can be hard to start, plus they might be struggling with the same anticipatory stress you have (read here about what to do before setting consequences, and read here about how to use natural and logical consequences). Consider making a visual reminder for the expectations (list of words for kids who can read, pictures for those who can’t) and get them involved in making it – coming up with the words, decorating the poster, etc.

Remember, this is all part of the process of raising kids so don’t expect a quick change. Tell them you’ll meet again in a month (sooner for the two parents) to applaud improvements and make adjustments to what isn’t yet working. Keep it a team feel, like you said, but remember that strong teams have solid leaders so if you have a little revolutionist on your hands, remember you’re the Presidents.

And bring snacks – meetings are always better with snacks.

Preschooler Lying – June 2016

Written by Lepage Associates on . Posted in Ask Anything!

Q: My 3-year-old daughter has been telling lies lately. Outlandish ones and small ones, often for no apparent reason. My husband and I disagree on how to handle it, but both are afraid of this behavior getting worse if we don’t curb it. Suggestions?
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A: It’s understandable to feel confused or even concerned about this new behavior in your generally honest-to-a-fault preschooler, but rest assured that lying at this age is normal. Although “lying” suggests manipulation, and oftentimes it’s more innocent than that.

Let’s talk about actual lying first. Kids typically learn to lie between ages two and four, and it’s considered a milestone because it shows they have learned that their mind is separate from other people’s minds. True lying requires higher order thinking, like anticipating consequences, organizing information, and guessing at what the other person is thinking and feeling. It involves independence, perspective taking, and emotional control – major players in good social skills, which is why some experts suggest that failing to figure out when and how to lie well can lead to problems later in life. Preschoolers sometimes lie to avoid getting into trouble or to get something they want, but if they do it’s a pretty simple lie and they generally give themselves away if there’s further questioning.

So how should you handle it when your preschooler lies?

  • Don’t set traps. If you know she ate a cookie, don’t ask her if she did so you can try to catch her lying. That doesn’t build trust.
  • As much as possible stay calm about small infractions. Real lies happen because the child fears the consequences. The more our child trust us to still love them and think well of them when they’ve done wrong, and to not hurt them physically or emotionally, the more they will tell us the truth. So getting mad about small things increases the chance that a child will choose to lie next time to avoid your anger and the consequences that go along with it (shame, loss of a toy, etc.).
  • State what you know to be true matter-of-factly (“I see you ate a cookie”) and remind her of the rules (“We eat cookies for dessert, not snack.”).
  • Engage her in a compassionate discussion about why she did it and what to do next time (“If you’re hungry, tell me and I’ll get you a snack.” “If you’re excited about the cookies we baked earlier, draw a picture of you eating one and we can talk about how great it’ll be to have one for dessert.”). If it’s an onerous task she’s lying about (washing hands), empathize with her and help her make it more fun (sing a silly hand-washing song). Teach her to use her brain for identifying a problem, expressing it, and problem-solving rather than for lying.

Now for other non-truths. The preschool set have minds that are still struggling to distinguish between imagination and reality, and they figure it out by exploring the boundary there. Sometimes they explore it out loud and in your presence, and due to their limited verbal abilities it sounds like a lie. They might be enjoying a fantasy (“I saw a fairy on the playground today”) or imagining success (after seeing an older child tie a shoe they tell you that they tied their own shoe). They might be using it as a way to protect themselves when they feel overwhelmed (“I saved my brother when he fell off his bike” after seeing her older brother wipe out).

Here’s how to handle non-truths:

  • Do nothing.

Research shows that allowing your preschooler to exist in this flexible place between fact and fiction helps them figure it out at their own natural pace, develop trust in you, and strengthen self-esteem. So play along with a fantasy (“A fairy! Wow. What did she look like?”), and help her dream of success without praising her for it (“Tying your own shoes is a very handy thing to be able to do.”). When you can tell she’s using fantasy protectively, acknowledge what she felt (“That must have been scary seeing your brother fall off his bike”), or wished she felt given her fantasy (of saving him – “You must have felt so relieved.”). It’s okay to let these non-truths go at this tender age – you’ll have plenty of opportunity to address real lying in the coming years since kids only get better and better at it. Stay tuned for this in a future post!