Avoiding Holiday Overwhelm

Now we are into December, and the holiday season is officially underway.  How can you help you and your quirky kids focus on the enjoyment and minimize the overwhelm that can come with this time of year?

Self Care

The first step begins with parents because if you run out of positive energy, you have nothing to give your children.  This might mean different things for different people.  In general, I recommend that people keep doing all the things they normally do to help themselves manage stress.  If you exercise a few times a week, stick with it.  This is when you need it most.  If you need eight or more hours of sleep a night (as I do), make that a priority.  The same goes for regular meals, and so forth.  When you try to keep up your healthy habits, you will set a good example, and likely you will set a good framework for your family.

Maintain Children’s Routines

Most children with ADHD, learning disabilities or Asperger Syndrome do best when they live in a predictable routine.  The holidays are full of special occasions that interfere with the routine.  Of course, you will want to make some choices—don’t be a total Grinch about this, but consider what changes from routine your child can handle.  Mix the joy with the routine.  This will help avoid meltdowns due to being over-tired or over-stimulated.

First and foremost routine for children means regular meals and enough sleep.  Along with that go time for homework and time to relax at home.  Like adults many children really need some down time.  You probably know what that looks like for your child.  It could be time watching television or playing a video game.  For others it could be time to read or just to play quietly.  Be aware that if these times disappear for days on end, you could be headed for a meltdown.

Let Your Children in on the Plans

Once you make some decisions about changes in routine, be sure to let your children know.  For instance, you’ve decided that the whole family will go to your middle school child’s chorus concert, and this means that the fifth grader will miss his guitar lesson.  Be sure he is in on the plan.  And if he objects, consider some way to sweeten the deal for him.  Some children get anxious about changes in routine even when they very much want to go to the special event. As much as possible let your children know ahead of time about changes to routine so that they have time to and you know how they feel about  the circumstances.

Find Out What’s Important

I have been amazed at how very young children will remember events from a year ago very clearly.  They may believe that what they remember is the essence of the holiday.  It is likely that you do not remember these details.  It’s worth finding out what your children look forward to in the holiday.  Is it a special food you make or a concert you go to?  Perhaps it is a gathering with extended family.  You might find out that one child has his heart set on an event that won’t happen this year:  Uncle Charlie is going to your cousins’ for the holiday.  You can’t change Uncle Charlie’s plans, but it will help if your child knows ahead of time that he won’t see him this year.


The best holidays happen when all can join in happily.  This can mean skipping a community event in order to have time home as a family.  After all, aren’t we all looking for moments of connection at the holidays?  If you program for it, it is more likely to happen.


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Photo credit:  strawberryindigo on Flickr

Tis the Season

Last week was about gratitude or being thankful.  Now we move on to the season of giving (or getting?).  All over the world parents are trying to help their children stay in the spirit of the holiday, whatever holiday you celebrate. Hanukah has been influenced by the gift giving of Christmas, and African-Americans have Kwanza.  I must confess that I don’t know what Moslems do at this time of year, but I am sure that their children are influenced by the mighty media blitz that encourages us to commercialize these holidays.

So, what do you want your children to understand about the holidays?  Many of us would like children to think about the giving as much as the getting.  Young children are naturally self-centered, so they are very interested in the getting part.  It takes effort on parents’ part to communicate that there is value in giving.

This morning I found a brief mention of a piece of research that indicates that toddlers feel happy when they can give something to someone else.  The researchers found that the children were more happy when they gave away one of their own crackers than when they were given a cracker to give away.

I know that a piece of laboratory research is hard to generalize to the real world, but the basic idea is appealing to me.  If we can give our children opportunities to give something that they feel some ownership over, they get more satisfaction.  This is the part that takes planning.  I think it is important to take the time to involve children in planning their gift giving.

Some children have allowance that they can take to a store to buy something for a family member.  Even if the gift is very small it has meaning for the child.  I remember being told that my grandfather needed Scotch tape for Christmas, and I was able to buy that when I was very young.  I think that I must have felt good about it, because I can still remember him being pleased with the Scotch tape.

Some parents and children are good at crafts, and there are lots of ways that children can make useful items for gifts.  If you lack ideas, just start searching the internet for suggestions.  Getting to make something definitely adds to the sense of ownership.

Engage your children in planning their gift giving early so that you have time to involve them in the purchasing or making.  They will still be very concerned about what they will receive, but they will also experience the pleasure of giving a gift truly from themselves.


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Photo credit:  Gunna on Flickr

Can You Make Gratitude Go Viral in Your Family?

It may seem trite to write about gratitude this week on the eve of Thanksgiving, but I want to raise it as more than a holiday-related exercise.  An article in The Boston Globe this past Sunday described research findings that coincide with my own naïve observations about human nature.

The author, David Desteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, describes his research that shows that people who feel grateful for assistance they just received are more likely to be generous to someone else in need—thus spreading the gratitude and generosity and gratitude and generosity.   It could go viral!

Here’s a quote:

Such occurrences of indirect reciprocity — the extending of help to new people — is known to kick cooperation in a group into high gear. In the face of individual or societal tragedies, then, any phenomenon that can enhance such indiscriminate paying-it-forward stands as a key to resilience.

DeSteno is interested in helping people recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, but my interest is in helping family members become more cooperative and generous with each other.

When parents come to me for help with children who are uncooperative, I often tell them to start by thanking their child profusely whenever he or she does something right, whether asked for or not.  This could be, “Thank you for getting down to breakfast on time!”  Or it might be, “Thank you for starting your homework when I asked.”  Even, “Thank you for playing nicely with your brother.”  The last one might require you to think to offer thanks before the interaction goes sour.

Often after a week or two of this simple intervention parents report to me that their children are already more compliant and cooperative.  It doesn’t solve everything, but it really gets the wheels turning in the right direction.  I think of gratitude as keeping the oil changed in your car.  Everything just works better together that way.

Some experts have warned against over-praising children.  I think that the problem comes when parents praise for no apparent reason.  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to tell your children what a great kid he is or that you love him to bits.  But praise that is directly related to a behavior that just happened really teaches your child how to behave in the way you want.  It doesn’t lead to a swelled head—just a child who knows what you expect and how to earn your gratitude.  Then he or she feels more generous.  And on it goes.

So, consider starting this viral cycle in your family, and let me know how it goes.  I’d love to know.


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Photo credit:  Michigan Municipal League on Flickr

Why Does He Do That? Could a Learning Disability Be Involved?

In talking to a colleague today about a family we both work with I was reminded again about how confusing it can be to have a child with significant learning disabilities and how helpful it can be to parents to work with a clinician who gets the whole picture.

Say your child has a weakness in processing nonverbal information. You might even have a test report that tells you that.  But what does that mean in real life?  For one thing it can mean that this child does not understand sarcasm because he isn’t sensitive to tone of voice.  If you only hear the words, sarcastic comments sound mean.

For instance,

Child:  “Are you going to pick me up after school?”

Parent: (joking) “No, I’m going to Europe instead.”  (meaning, “Of course I’ll be there.”)

Child:  (wailing) “What?  How will I get to my lesson?”

Parent:  Sigh….

It is very helpful once parents and children understand this problem.  I know children who now ask trusted adults, “Are you being sarcastic?”  when they think they’ve heard something out of character.

A different type of problem arises when a child processes verbal information very slowly.  This can look like inattention or even disrespect if you get really annoyed by having your child tune out when you’re talking to her.  Once you understand her learning style, you can purposely keep your verbal instructions and explanations brief.  Actually, it is always helpful for parents to be brief, in my experience, but especially so in this situation.

Then there is the child with ADHD.  This and other types of learning disabilities can be confusing because they have an uneven effect on children’s behavior.  Parents see a child who does not sit still long enough to do homework carefully and yet can play video games intently for long periods of time.  Parents will say, “He could do it if he’d try.”  Parents might also see uneven work in school.  In some subjects where the child has more natural interest and talent, grades are good and the work is not too hard.  But in another subject there are daily battles about work.  It is truly confusing.  People with ADHD are drawn to novel information, and that is what a video game serves up over and over.  Doing the same type of math problem twenty times is pretty dull to someone with ADHD.

I tell parents that kids with learning disabilities do well when the planets align—when they are interested, the task doesn’t challenge them in their weakness, they are well-rested, and so forth.

Parents and children in these situations have my sympathy because often it is evident that the children have average or above intelligence, but their performance is puzzling.  If you are wondering why your child acts they way he does, consider contacting a professional who understands cognitive as well as emotional difficulties.  The cognitive problems nearly always lead to emotional upsets, but this can be managed with good education at home and at school.


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Photo credit:  Elizabeth S. on Flickr

Pets are the Best Medicine!

This week I have been thinking about the benefits of owning a pet, a dog for me.  Ironically, I’ve been more aware because our dog has been sick.  This morning I was able to bring him home from the veterinary hospital where he had been for two days to treat pancreatitis.  Our family was sad and disturbed that our dear little friend was in such pain.  My husband and I slept poorly.  It reminded us of having a sick child back in the day.  Friends and extended family offered sympathy and encouragement.  Having him home, snoring on the living room floor, has restored some order to our home.  But he’s a dog, right? Why the emotional fuss?

Many times in my work I have found that children who are upset by problems in school or at home are comforted by their pets.  I am sure that many of you have seen this in your families.  There is something about a dog’s steady, patient attention that is consoling and calming.  (I’ll talk about dogs because I’m allergic to cats and that has severely limited my contact with them.  I understand from feline lovers among my friends that cats offer similar benefits.)

If you have a young dog who likes to play, playing with the dog offers a great break from homework or other stressful activity.  I find that just sitting on the floor to pet my dog, gives me a good cognitive break from work.  It refreshes my brain. Playing with a dog can get a couch potato child outside to throw a ball.

Recently I even saw a report of a study that shows that dogs in the classroom can help children learn to read!  A study done at the University of California, Davis showed that children who got to read aloud to therapy dogs in their classroom for ten weeks improved 12% more than their counterparts who did not have the same opportunity.  A dog is an attentive listener who does not criticize.  This is what many children need for them to practice reading and become more fluent.  Another report tells of a five year old program at the New York City Public Library in which dog and trainer teams visit branch libraries monthly.  Children can choose a book to read aloud to the dog, and children and adults are seeing similar benefits to the young readers.  This is definitely something to try at home if you child resists her daily reading assignment!

A report last summer in the Huffington Post reported research that children who grow up from infancy with a dog or cat in the house are actually more healthy—fewer colds and ear infections.  The post goes on to cite other research that shows that children and adults who have dogs have higher self-esteem, and they are less prone to depression.

I close with a salute to the four footed friends who enrich our lives.  I imagine that you also have good stories about how a dog or cat has offered you solace or given you a cause to smile when you needed it.  Give that animal a pat for me.  I’m going to take a break with Max.


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Hurricane Day Off

I have had a day off due to Hurricane Sandy, and for me it hasn’t been much of an inconvenience.  As I write in the evening, we still have power, and there is only a little water in our basement.  I am quite grateful.

I know that for others the day has been more trying, especially if you have lost power and you have young children at home.  Times like these take us back to earlier times when we didn’t have the electronic entertainments that we have today.

Late this afternoon I heard a loud bang, and then we lost our internet, phone and television service.  My husband and I were surprised at how much we felt disconnected.  No phone or e-mail?  In addition, my cell phone would not complete calls.  I looked out the window and saw the cause:  a tree that had stood in front of a neighbor’s house was now leaning on it, and it had taken wires with it.

I went across the street to check on them—like us, they had power, but no internet.  So, we sat and had a cup of tea and caught up on news.  This was a treat brought to us by Sandy.  Without her mischief, I would not have had this pleasant chat.  Not only that—as we chatted, her teenage kids carved their pumpkins.  I imagine that they were going to carve them sometime soon, but now with no internet, they sat in the same room with us and joined the conversation.  True, they still texted some, but I imagine that they were more available than they would have been if the internet had been working.

So, if you and your family are safe, I hope that you have been able to find some enjoyment in the sudden lack of technology and forced family togetherness.  I know that for people who thrive on routine—like many children—today might have been a challenge.  But if you can get out the legos, or a jigsaw puzzle, or even a deck of cards, there could be fun in going back to the “good old days.”

I would be interested to hear how some families passed the time today and for many—tomorrow as well.


Photo credit:  Michael Glasgow on Flickr

The Virtual Wheelchair Ramp: Making Accommodations at Home for Your Child’s Learning Style

In a meeting I attended last week in which we discussed handicapped accessibility for a building, we challenged ourselves to consider the mission of our group and whether our building reflects that.  In this instance we were considering accessibility for people who are physically handicapped, things like having an elevator or grab bars in the bathroom.

The discussion reminded me of conversations I often have with parents about accommodating their children’s learning or emotional disabilities.  Often the best way to help a child improve behavior is to change the environment to suit his or her needs.

For instance, if your child has difficulty with changes in routine, it is helpful to try to make your days, or at least parts of days, be predictable.  On weekends when most people like a change, your child might do better with a preview about what events are coming up.  Your child might benefit from a schedule written out or with pictures to show what is happening that day.

Some people might see this type of accommodation as coddling, but would they say that about putting in a wheelchair ramp?  When you adapt your expectations to your child’s current abilities and the way she thinks, she can be more successful and feel better about herself.  You are likely to have fewer meltdowns to cope with. And in time your child will grow to be able to take a little more of a challenge.  Success builds confidence so that children are willing and able to try challenges.

There are as many ways to adapt the environment or expectations for a child as there are children.  The adaptions all depend on who your child is and what her strengths and challenges are.  This means taking the time to notice what situations cause difficulties and then thinking about how things might be rearranged.  For instance, if you ask your child to go get three things from her room, and she regularly returns with one or none, you could scold her for inattention.  Or you could take note that she does not hold that much information in working memory, and you could give her a list next time.  It might work better.

As children get older, they often begin to use these adaptive strategies on their own.  They become more independent and they are able to shape their environment in some ways themselves.  I know adults who will ask their spouse for a written instead of spoken list of errands.  These people know what their working memory can and cannot do.  And they are more successful because of it.

Have you made helpful accommodations in your household?  I would be interested to know.


Photo credit:  Kecko on Flickr

What’s Normal?

I am away for a couple of weeks, so I have looked back in my archive, and I am recycling a couple of blogs from a year ago.  I hope you find them useful.

Lately I have noticed that parents I work with need information about normal child development. It’s quite reassuring to hear that a behavior is just what’s expected at that time.  I explain that parents are expecting too much self control from a three year old.  Or that they are expecting too much responsibility from a seven year old.  At times my message is that an eight year old would do better sleeping in his own bed and that he is capable of it.

This led me to look up some books from the 1970’s that you may have seen on your mother’s bookshelf. This is a series of books put out by the Gesell Institute of Human Development at Yale.  The series starts with Your One Year Old and goes year by year up through Your Nine Year Old.  There is also Your Five to Ten Year Old.  Most of the books are by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. and Frances Ilg, M.D.

The books in this series are brief with clear chapter titles so you can find what you want.

The series gives you a good idea of normal child development, including the ways that your child might be difficult—just because of the way he or she is developing at that time.  For instance, the authors talk about the six year old wanting to be more independent but having mixed feelings about it.  This leads to some confusing behavior.

Ames and Ilg also include good ideas for managing difficult behaviors.  The ideas are practical and caring—of parent and child.  Think of a kind hearted grandmother helping you out.

There are good ideas for age appropriate ways to interact with your child, to encourage creativity, and good toys to provide for your child.  I especially like that the books were written before video games, computers and smart phones were such a part of our lives. The ideas are low tech.

Some of the suggestions and examples will be quite dated.  You have to give them a break on that.  But overall, child development has not changed in thirty years.  These books have some real gems to offer.   You can find them on Amazon or in your library.


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Photo Credit:  Elsewhere Artist Collaborative on Flickr

The Last Word

I am away for a couple of weeks, so I am recycling two blogs from a year ago.  I hope that you find them useful.

I have been thinking lately about having the last word.  Often when things get tense between parents and children, both sides want to get the last word.  It’s a pretty normal impulse.  But when parents insist on the last word, it doesn’t contribute either to problem solving or family harmony.

Say you have told your child for the third time to start his homework.  You are pretty aggravated by now, and your voice shows it.  He finally turns off the TV and stamps off to his room, saying, “Whatever you say, your majesty,”  or worse.  You see red (rightly so), and you have a choice.  You could say, “Come back here, young man.  You talk to me with respect.”  Or you could take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and notice that he is complying (at last) with your request.

But, you say, “Didn’t he win?  I don’t want him to think he can be fresh and get away with it.”  I don’t think he won if he did what you asked.  I agree that he shouldn’t be rude, and that’s an issue you still need to deal with.  If you can work on compliance, so that you don’t have to ask three times, I’ll bet that you won’t have the problem with your child having the last word.  In a conflict, no one wants to knuckle under and “say uncle.”  For many children “the last word” is a way to comply and save face.

So, if your child does comply, but with the “last word,” it’s a step on the way.  A good one.  Enjoy.


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Photo credit:  Tim Fields on Flickr

Is It Misbehavior?

Lately I’ve worked with grade school children who have “misbehaved” in some pretty major ways.  We have running away from organized activities, hitting family members, and yelling insulting things at parents, to name a few.   These are reasons for parents, teachers, and therapists to put their heads together to figure out what is going on and help these children to behave better.  That’s what the orangutan in the picture is doing, I think.

In all cases I am advising the parents to go easy on the punishment.  Is this because I’m one of those free-thinking, loosey goosey psychologists?  Well, I don’t think so.  I certainly agree that children should not behave in this way.  The children know this as well.  They all feel quite bad about themselves.  The parents are at a loss because punishments are not leading to better behavior.  Yet they know that they cannot tolerate this behavior and be responsible parents.

This gets to my title.  When you simply think of bad behavior as bad behavior, you are likely to want to deal with it with punishment.  We get further by trying to understand and helping children to learn better ways to deal with frustrations.  Often “misbehavior” is an immature or impulsive solution to a problem.  If adults can join with children in trying to understand the problem, they can also help children learn better strategies. Here are some thoughts about how to do this.

  1. Adopt a problem solving, questioning approach.  This might help you be more calm as you address the problem.  Problems don’t get solved when the participants are very angry.
  2. Accept that you are in a bad place and it might take a some time to figure out what else to do.
  3. Involve your child in the problem solving and questioning.  This might help you understand what the trigger is for the behavior.
  4. If your child has a learning disability, consider how this might be affecting his or her coping.  For instance, a child who has great difficulty with transitions, might act out when surprised by a change in routine.
  5. Instead of punishing consider brainstorming some alternative behaviors and praising your child whenever he or she uses them.
  6. If you do punish, keep it brief—something like no screens for the rest of the day.  Define this ahead of time, so your child knows that if he does _______, he will lose screens.  Only use punishment if you are also praising or rewarding the good behavior.

I know that this is a tall order.  Many people need the help of a psychologist or therapist to help with the problem solving.  But in time, many families learn to do this.  When they do, they can get past “misbehavior”  with less disruption to all.  I wish you well.  And I would be interested to know what strategies have been helpful in your family.


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Phot o credit:  Alex Semenzato on Flickr