How to Handle the Santa Myth

Q: I never meant to perpetuate the myth of Santa but have found myself going along with it over the past few years as my kids learned about it from other sources. Now my kids, 4 and 6, are full-on Santa believers and I feel guilty that I’ve somehow fed into this lie, plus there’s so much more meaningful stuff to be learned about giving gifts at the holidays. I work with them to think about what to give their sibling and we give to families in need. Eventually they are going to have questions about why we give gifts when Santa takes care of that. How do I turn this around to make holiday gift giving a lesson about love and giving, etc. without them feeling betrayed that their mom was lying to them all this time?

A: Ah, the Santa Myth. When your kid comes home from school raving about Old St. Nick it’s hard to be the one to pop their innocent, sugarplum bubble. So you don’t, and just like that you’re an accomplice. Parents have found themselves supporting the Santa myth at least as far back as the 19 th century when children flocked to see store Santas, when Salvation Army Santas rang their bells on street corners, and
when “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” echoed through the neighborhood every Christmas Eve. So, as with many parenting quandaries, you’re in a big and crowded boat. By the time we’re adults we think of Santa and the accompanying lies with warm nostalgia and it might be hard to remember why we should be thoughtful about how we drop this bomb. Though Santa might seem commonplace or even silly to adults, to a child he is magical and beloved; someone to whom they write letters and for whom they’re on their best behavior; someone whose approval (and reward!) they desperately want. Someone who is very real and on a very tall pedestal. So how to best end this long con without crushing your child’s innocence and trust? There are of course many ways to go about this, but here are three options to appeal to three major camps. Probably any one of these yields better results than being told by an older kid on the playground:

  1. Get them on the team. Before they pull back the curtain on their own, tell them they’ve grown so much, in height and heart, and they are ready to become a Santa Claus. Walk them through what they know about how Santa operates. Draw out the details of how he makes people happy by giving them what they need or want… in secret. It’s not done for the glory or the gratitude (or the Christmas cookies by the fireplace). Engage them in talking about the good feeling that comes from helping people, something they’ve no doubt experienced on both sides. Then give them their first job as the World’s Newest Santa Claus: secretly find a person who needs something and get it to them without ever revealing your identity to anyone. While this method of revealing might be mind-blowing, the idea is it’s overridden by the good feeling that comes from being a partner in (an altruistic) crime.
  2. If you’re a fan of the scientific method, take a page from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and plant some healthy skepticism in your child about Santa by asking them thought-provoking questions (“We’ve heard about Santa, but how do we know he’s real?”). Support their natural curiosity by
    encouraging them to come up with ideas on how to figure out what’s really going on. There might be some ‘splaining to do about the last few years of Santa talk, but giving your child the experience of using unbiased observation of facts and critical thinking to help figure out the truth might be worth it.
  3. And for those who prefer to emphasize faith over science, you can lovingly acknowledge that you have had the honor of doing the gifts all this time, and explain that it’s a longstanding tradition that they might carry on as parents, because adding magic to a child’s life in this way is priceless.

There is value in encouraging selfless giving, and in scientific thinking, and in childhood magic. Mix-and- match if you like; these myth-busters aren’t mutually exclusive. Whichever road you take, consider reminding your child that some of their peers might still be believers and that different families handle this in different ways, so keeping the secret to himself might be thoughtful. Then give him a Christmas cookie – that softens any blow.

Teaching Your Child About “Bad” Words – September 2017

Q: My partner and I disagree on how to deal with bad words with our kids. He uses foul language when he’s frustrated and doesn’t see that as a big deal. I do. I don’t want our kids walking around swearing when they’re mad or stub their toes. How should we handle this?

A: Once, when I worked in an elementary school, a child got a hold of the overhead system and said every bad word they knew before the microphone was taken. Between the power that comes from booming your thoughts to 500 other kids, and the power that comes from using “bad” words, I can only imagine this kid felt like the Master of the Universe for those five seconds. And while many of us adults were amused, his parents understandably were not. How do we make sure our kid makes different choice when given that moment of power?

First, talk with your partner. With an open mind explore your own and your partner’s philosophies on swearing. Sometimes we get stuck on a rigid belief that something is “good” or “bad” but upon further exploration we find it’s somewhere in the middle, or doesn’t fit our thinking now and we’ve just held onto it for reasons that no longer exist. When you’re both clear with yourselves and each other on what you believe, work together to find a compromise about the policy at home. It’s important to present a united front on rules so kids aren’t confused or start playing parents against each other.

You’re right in noticing that the emotion your partner uses with the foul language is an important factor. Kids might not understand the definition of a word but it’s not hard to figure out from the accompanying emotion what it means. And children are little recorders, playing back language just the way they heard it. Sometimes kids are simply trying out new language, or doing it to get positive or negative attention from someone, but sometimes it’s used as a real expression of their feelings when their language is still limited.

While it’s tempting to ban words, that’s almost certain to have the opposite effect of what you want. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t say to your children, “Whatever you do, don’t ever go into this room because there are a lot of fascinating toys in there you can never play with.” You would expect at some point your children’s curiosity would get the better of them, right? So it is with words, which aren’t even behind a closed door but rather right there on the tip of their tongue! Additionally, parents often ban words in the heat of the moment, meeting the child’s anger with their own anger. Fear of punishment might stop the child’s use of prohibited language in the moment, but could encourage them to practice it in the privacy of their mind. It’ll pop out later, purposefully or by accident.

And let’s face it, unless your child does not and will not be exposed to other people, books, movies, TV shows or the internet, they will certainly learn all these words at some point. The goal isn’t to keep them from being exposed to words but rather to give them all the information they need to make their own good choices about what language to use. In an age-appropriate manner, teach them what the word means (literally and culturally); how it can affect other people; how it can affect how the user is viewed; and that it’s a weak substitute for more clear language about thoughts and feelings. Then, give them that other language.

Start with the basics: sad, scared, mad, hurt. As they become more comfortable with them you can get into more nuanced language: lonely, excluded, embarrassed, ashamed, worried, terrified, irritated, furious, etc. Help them come up with language for their thoughts also, since thoughts lead to feelings. What did that event mean to them that they ended up having such big feelings about it? This will not only help them develop strong language skills but also help you empathize with them during their struggle and strengthen the bond you have with them.

Then when you hear them using bad words, calmly redirect them to a better choice (and of course if the language was aimed at another person you might employ your regular consequences for being unkind). You could turn it into a fun moment by challenging them to come up with a silly word or phrase they can use instead. You’ll be grateful for it when they one day get their hands on a microphone.

Helping Your Kindergartener with the Homework Habit – August 2017

Q: My son is starting Kindergarten soon and I’m dreading the homework. It’s hard enough to get him to wash his hands without a tantrum sometimes, I can’t imagine him willingly sitting down to do work. I want to get him off to a good start so he has the best chance of developing a positive attitude about it through the years. Any ideas?

A: You are not alone. The word “homework” has negative connotations for many former students, and the thought of dealing with a child who also dreads it can be daunting. Plus, you’ve probably heard that homework now is a different creature than when you were in school –many things are taught differently and there’s more of it. Keeping a few things in mind can help you (and your son) stay in a good place with homework and each other once Kindergarten kicks off.

Remember that it is not your job to make your child do his homework. You are not his manager here. You are a guide, support, cheerleader, and minor resource. Let his teacher be the person who grades him; you be the one to help him parlay feelings about the grades into motivation to work. Removing yourself as the disciplinarian here allows you to stay out of power struggles (which you’ll always lose anyway, because all he must do is not do the homework). You can offer structure – in the form of routine and extrinsic motivation – but not micromanagement. You won’t nag, argue, convince, threaten, punish, or do it for him. This might be one of the first “big kid” things he gets to decide about – let him make his decision and then sit with the consequences (grades, mild embarrassment at not having it done, etc.). Since you are the parent you can choose to let a fun thing happen only after this necessary task is done. You probably do this in one form or another – no dessert until you’ve eaten veggies, no bubbles until you’ve picked up the Legos, etc. but that is still allowing your child to make a choice in their own life (the meat of every power struggle). Respect their choice.

Help create an environment conducive to homework: a pleasant, well-lit, quiet area free of distraction and with all the needed tools to complete the job. Have him work at the same place every day and around the same time so he can quickly get used to a routine. Figure out what works best – some kids need to run around and blow off some steam between school and settling down for homework while some kids need to get right down to it so they don’t lose momentum. Similarly, some children like to have parents around to help them stay on track while others prefer privacy to do their job (since he’s a rising Kindergartener you might err on the side of being quietly nearby to encourage him to stay on task and be available for help in the beginning when needed). Remember that developing a new routine is a process and you’ll need to work as a team to figure out how to tweak what doesn’t work.

It might help your anxiety to remember that the goal of homework isn’t to turn in that piece of paper. The small and short-term goal is to reinforce what was learned in school; the bigger and long-term goal is to teach responsibility, independence, and project-management skills (time-management, planning, etc.). As with anything else in the world of parenting, if we focus too much on the concrete, immediate goal (getting the homework sheet filled out), we can easily lose sight of the more important life goals and end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

If it seems like the homework battle isn’t worth it, that it’s causing too much stress for you and your child, hurting your relationship, your child’s feelings about school, or his self-esteem – talk to his teacher. They want children to have a good initial school experience and can help you problem-solve based on their experience and what they’ve noticed about your child in class.

And you’re right, your attitude about his homework is critical because it can strongly influence his attitude. Shoot for a lightly enthusiastic one, viewing homework as a fun challenge. The attitude one develops about homework in elementary school can be the attitude one carries through middle- and high-school years when homework has a real benefit, according to various studies. In fact, it is because of these studies that an increasing number of parents and professionals have a schoolwork ban at home (even when their school does not). Some schools have implemented a no-homework policy because of research suggesting that elementary school homework has little value and can be detrimental to some children’s academic career (not to mention self-concept and self-esteem) when it causes undue stress very early on, resulting in them associating homework with daily misery. If the no-homework mindset fits your values and if your child is really struggling to get it done, you might consider finding out the school’s policy on unfinished homework and then try to work within that structure to help your child develop a good attitude about it with a manageable workload (mention your mindset and method to his teacher). The amount of time recommended by the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association is 10-20 minutes in first grade, with an additional ten minutes for each grade after. Many teachers and schools try to keep these guidelines in mind when assigning homework.

Helping Your Child Stay in His Room At Night – July 2017

Q: Since my youngest son could walk we’ve kept a doorknob cover on his bedroom door so he couldn’t get out and roam the house (our house doesn’t accommodate baby gates and we were worried about him hurting himself). Now he’s three and we’ve taken it off. He falls asleep pretty well but keeps coming out of his room at all hours of the night and very early in the morning to explore the house, snuggle with his brother, or wake him up to play (older brother is happy to oblige). We’ve added “stay in room” to our behavior chart (sticker reward – works well for other behaviors), and bought him a clock that turns green when he can come out… nothing has worked yet. The urge to explore and play is too strong I guess. Any advice?

A: We think once we’ve got our baby sleeping through the night, we’re golden. But then they have a newfound freedom of a big boy bed or an open door and we’re back to daytime zombie mode. Let’s face it, learning to stay in your room or bed is hard work. Bedtime is boring and kids have a natural and healthy desire to explore what’s around them. And to test limits. So both at once? And big brother is game?! Too much to resist! One thing to keep in mind (to keep your sanity) is that this is typical behavior and for many kids only lasts a short period of time.

First know that nighttime wakening is normal in the early years. But if there’s something in the environment or routine that is waking him up (Outside noises? Getting too much sleep during the day?), try to problem-solve that. If he’s coming out of his room because of fear (of monsters, or waking up and being alone which usually improves after age four, or nightmares which peak between age 3-6), you want to address that with compassion and empathy, and help him problem-solve to feel safe. If he’s going into his brother’s room to feel less lonely or to quell anxiety, help him get that need met in his own room (stuffed animal, security blanket, night light, picture of family, etc.). Of course, use good sleep hygiene to help him get into sleep mode (30 minutes before bed turn off screens, decrease stimulating activity, dim lights, have a relaxing bedtime routine).

There is a lot of reinforcement for his behavior – he finds new treasures in the house, he gets to play with his brother, and gets your attention (even if it’s negative attention; most little kids prefer that over nothing). So, bring him back to his room without talking, without making eye contact, and without snuggling – in other words, make the event of being caught very boring for him. Use your behavior chart to positively reinforce the wanted behavior, but maybe upgrade the reward for staying in bed (e.g., temporary tattoo?). One suggestion for sticker charts is to have a variety of stickers and don’t let them pick ‘em! Otherwise they get really familiar with them so they are no longer special, plus there’s no eager anticipation about which one they’ll get.

If all that doesn’t work, some parents find good success with “door consequences.” Tell him the plan in advance: if he comes out of his room you’ll escort him back and close the door halfway. If he comes out again you’ll close it completely for 2 minutes. Then you open it all the way again and start over. This will only work if he wants his door open, and you only want to do this if he isn’t freaking out about being shut in his room. The goal is to teach, not traumatize.

Remember that whatever you try, do it consistently. Give a solution at least two weeks before deciding it isn’t working and trying something new. And if you start to lose hope, remember that this too shall pass. Your 16 year-old son might have other behaviors you’ll want to curb, but sadly, searching the house for snuggles in the middle of the night probably won’t be one of them.

Tween Confidence Part II: Daily Activities – June 2017

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.

A: Part II of this series continues addressing your tween’s self-esteem. While Part I addressed the groundwork for promoting a healthy self-esteem, Part II features life skills and activities you can incorporate into your tween’s life to build a confident, well-rounded daughter.

  • Media Literacy: Have regular conversations with your tween about social media. Discussing privacy, appropriate vs. inappropriate content, and frequency of use will guide her toward being a savvy user and avoiding common pitfalls. If appropriate, you can disclose some problems you encountered with social media. For example, you can describe a situation where a message believed to be private was seen by others.
  • Coping Skills: Self-soothing and emotion regulation skills are necessary during the tween years. Teaching your daughter to journal, relax, and practice diaphragmatic breathing during times of stress are life skills she can use for the rest of her life. Hot self-soothing skills right now are mindfulness-based activities and the coloring book craze.
  • Participation: A great way for your daughter to gain confidence around others is to have her participate in activities. Girl Scouts, a church group, or a youth team are ways she can be exposed to new people and further develop her social skills. These experiences encourage tweens to be more confident as they enter new social settings. People tend to be less prone to anxiety in new situations when they had significant exposure to novel circumstances in their past.
  • Diversity: Learn about a new culture, attend a community gathering, volunteer with Special Olympics, or visit with neighbors who moved from outside of the country. These types of activities promote both comfort and acceptance of differences.
  • Friendships: Support your daughter’s friendships by allowing her to have friends accompany family outings, such as shopping or playing mini golf. You can also help her navigate friendships by emphasizing her friend’s positive characteristics. For example, “Kendra is such a great friend. It seems like you girls are always inviting each other over. It’s important friends both invite us places and spend time with us when we request it.” Another lesson is teaching your daughter the value of face-to-face time versus device time. Tweens may be in constant communication with friends via text and Instagram, but it is more important to spend time together in person.
  • Fashion: Allow your daughter to develop her own fashion sense. Fashion is a critical aspect of identity. There are some limits to appropriate clothes (skirt length, etc.), but fashion is a way for her to reveal her personality.
  • Sports/Outdoors: Participation in sports and outdoor activities develops physical strength and motor coordination. While not every tween is eager to play catch with dad, time outdoors walking in a park or on the swing set with a sibling builds confidence in coordination skills. Time outdoors can instill a connection with nature, healthy risk-taking, and a sense of adventure.
  • Self-Esteem Boosting Projects: Activities geared toward self-expression provide an opportunity to build confidence. For instance, I like making self-esteem posters with clients by having girls cut out images from magazines and create collages representing themselves. Another idea is to create their name with each letter paired with a descriptor about themselves (for example: Loving; Original, Realistic, Inspiring).

Tween Confidence Part I: Foundations – May 2017

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.

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

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?

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

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?

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

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?

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

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!

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.