Becoming a Parenting Team

Any parent knows that one of the biggest challenges of being a parent in a two parent family is working with the other parent.  You can be in agreement about décor, finances and many other things, but it is likely that parenthood will bring out differences that you were only dimly aware of before.  Add to that a challenging or quirky child, and the differences can quickly become polarized so that you feel that one parent is too strict and the other is too lenient.  In all likelihood both parents hold part of the solution.

Any two people have definitely had different experiences growing up.  All of us had parents who did things we pledged we would never repeat.  At the same time there might be aspects of your parents’ practices that you feel were wise, and you would like to repeat.   Whether in trying to do as well as our parents did, or in trying not to repeat their mistakes, each of us can become rigid in our own approach.

Add to the mix a quirky child who might not be much like the way you were as a child, and the situation is primed for conflict.  There is no doubt that the situation challenges parents to negotiate and treat each other with respect under pressure.

Children learn very quickly where the differences are and how to exploit them.  I tell parents that any child worth her salt will sort this out and aim for the space in between the parents.  The child feels a great deal of control in this situation, too much control, and this contributes to a feeling of careening near the edge when it goes unaddressed.  Especially if parents disagree in front of the child, the child then feels empowered to ignore limits set by one parent.  The child then feels entitled to provoke that parent.  This is often when parents seek outside help.

The situation requires a kind of respectful listening and negotiation that will in the long run be good modeling for the child.

What to do?

  1. Agree to address the differences in a respectful way out of your child’s earshot.
  2. Listen to your partner.  Perhaps there is something useful in what she or he has to say.
  3. If you cannot come to agreement, seek outside help.
  4. Agree to try an approach and come back to it later to see how it is working.
  5. When either parent is in an unsure situation with a child (for instance, “Can we rent an R rated movie?” when you and your partner haven’t developed a clear policy on this), feel free to say, “I need to talk to Dad (Mom) about this.  We’ll get back to you.”  It is OK to let the child know you don’t know.

Children feel safer when they know their parents are working together, and this alone helps them maintain better behavior.  They are no longer “careening out of control” wondering who will put the brakes on and when.

Good luck with this challenging but rewarding endeavor in raising quirky kids.


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Strength in Community

Last week I wrote about the complicated feelings that parents have when their child is diagnosed with a learning disability.  While these feelings are all a normal part of coping with a special needs child in your family, they can interfere with your well being and your ability to advocate for your child unless you find ways to support and take care of yourself.

There is nothing like community to heal the shame, sadness, fear and anger that parents feel in this situation.  If it is painful for you to talk to parents of “typical” kids, find other parents whose children have special needs and cultivate relationships with them.  Below I’ll list some useful organizations.  At these meetings there is no shame in having a child with special needs because everyone is in the same boat.  Before you know it, you’ll be meeting with others for coffee or calling each other on the phone to share the latest outrageous story (sad or funny, or both).

When you become part of a community of this sort you experience many benefits.  You’ll find others who are more experienced and can share tips that have been useful to them.  You will find out about services in the community or school system.  Your fear about the future might decrease because you might learn about kids like yours who have had successful outcomes.  In time you will be the one to offer useful information to a newcomer, and this also feels good.  There is no doubt that community is healing.  Where can you find it?

  1. Under IDEA, the federal law that mandates special education, all school systems have PAC’s or Parent Advisory Councils.  These meetings can inform you about your rights and the services in your school system.
  2. In my area the Asperger Association of New England offers a wealth of educational and support services for parents and children.  Their website,, even offers a listserv useful to people outside the immediate area.
  3. Another organization that offers very useful information is the Federation for Children with Special Needs (  Within this organization parents can find useful information, support, and opportunities to volunteer and give back.  FCSN even has webinars on their page.

These are ways you can find and develop community that might help you diminish your shame, sadness, fear and anger.

Next, let’s think about how you see your child and where her strengths might offer community for her and you.  When you first get a diagnosis, you might only see her shortcomings.  But it is likely that there is much more to her than that.  Try to recover a more full understanding of who she is.    Does she have an encyclopedic knowledge of some topic?  I knew one boy who had nonverbal learning disability whose knowledge of geography took him to the state level competition in the National Geographic Geography Bee.  This gave him a little social capital in middle school.

Does she do well at individual sports rather than team sports?  Many children who cannot manage the social and physical complexity of team sports can excel at track or swimming where the main competition is against oneself.  I knew another boy who excelled on a swim team.  He enjoyed the camaraderie and the exercise helped manage his weight and his anxiety.

Can she play a musical instrument?  How about a sense or humor? What about art?  Theatre can be a helpful way for some kids with Asperger Syndrome to try out different ways of being. Finding these areas of competence and nurturing them will be good for your child and you.  It gives you both something to feel proud of when school is tough.  Activities that draw on your child’s strengths can also give her a social network in which she can feel strong.

I would be interested to hear how others have coped with having an “atypical” child.


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Five Difficult Feelings Parents Have About Their Child’s Learning Disability

Often children get diagnosed with learning disabilities after some amount of time of difficulty at home, in nursery school, or in public school.  Parents or teachers have recommended an evaluation. The report comes back with a description of how your child learns and participates in the classroom as well as in social and family situations. A good report points out strengths and weaknesses and gives useful recommendations about how to be helpful to your child in and out of school.

Sounds good, right?  With a good evaluation, report, helpful educators and therapists children begin to do better and even thrive.  I want to focus on what parents experience when they confront their child’s difficulties, such as ADHD, a specific learning disability like dyslexia, Asperger Syndrome, nonverbal learning disability, or something else entirely.

Instead of feeling relief that they are at the beginning of remediation, many parents feel some uncomfortable feelings.  In my work as a Parent Coach I find it important and rewarding to give parents a place to acknowledge and come to terms with these feelings.

Shame:  Let’s face it—parents often feel that their children’s accomplishments reflect on them.  It hurts to find out that your child has an invisible difficulty that is interfering with her education and likely her friendships as well.  Even if you requested testing because you suspected a difficulty, most parents still hope to find out that there’s no problem and just a simple adjustment in school or life will help.  Maybe just an after school tutor.  Now that you know that there is a problem that can be managed but not necessarily be fixed, you might feel ashamed, as though there is something wrong with you that your child has a learning disability.

Anger:  I think that people tend to be more aware of this one.  Many people feel angry at school personnel for not understanding their children and causing unnecessary pain.  And one can be angry at your child (even if it isn’t rational) for having a problem that makes daily life more complicated.

Sadness:  This is a big one, especially when parents first get the news that there is a problem.  It is sad to accept that your child has a problem that will not go away.  This difficulty will probably affect your child’s life in some degree forever.  It changes the future for you and your child, and you need to rewrite the family narrative.

Fear:  What will the future look like?  I have often had parents sit with me and ask, “Will she be able to go to college?” “ Will she ever leave home and have a job?”  Often when children are struggling enough that people get an evaluation, the child may look very impaired.  After all, there are probably no services in place.  As a result, parents worry that things will never change or get better.  They have no experience with this new world of parenting a child with a learning disability.  With the people I see, I tell them that they just need to keep working to get their child the services she needs and not to give up on a bright future.  It will be a different future, but it does not need to be bleak.

These are uncomfortable feelings that are a normal part of coming to terms with your child’s learning disability.  It is helpful to accept the feelings as you move along to advocate for your child.  In next week’s blog I will talk about ways parents can take care of themselves to manage these feelings and become effective advocates for their children.


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Photo Credit:  Keltron (So far behind,  I’m in front of me!)

Monkey See, Monkey Do—How We Teach Values With Our Behavior More Than With Words

Sunday did not turn out as planned.  My husband and I offered a ride to church to a sweet, confused friend, and she gratefully accepted.  Unfortunately, when we picked her up, she had locked herself out of her house, and her husband had left already.  After church her husband was still not home.  Long story short, I invited her back to our house where she had lunch and told me stories about growing up in Southern California.  Around five o’clock she and her husband caught up with each other, and I took her home.   Both husband and wife were very grateful for my help.  I was glad that I had been able to adjust my plans for the day to be helpful, but I was also quite aware of the items still undone on my “to do” list.

Why relate this story here?  Throughout my son’s grade school and middle school years we had elderly grandmothers living nearby in nursing homes.  Whether he came with me on a visit or not, I thought about the example we set when we took time to visit.  (And I hoped that if I’m ever in a nursing home and dependent on his visits, he’ll remember this lesson.)

Children learn from our behavior.  It’s a scary thought sometimes.  They learn values from the values we live by.  When you share baked goods with neighbors, feed their cats when they are away, or babysit their child in a pinch, you are demonstrating a kind of relationship with people that you value.

This morning in The Boston Globe I read a review of the book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely.  The author says that we lie a lot and we fool ourselves about it.  He believes that we all want to think of ourselves as honest and good people.  But we also want to make money and get ahead, and this can lead to what he calls “cognitive flexibility.”  That’s jargon for telling yourself that the dishonesty doesn’t matter.  He also has done some research on this, and he concludes that people feel better and are more healthy when they consciously try to be honest.  It is worth considering what our behavior communicates to our children.  Ariely mentions such “lies” as lying about your child’s age to get her into a movie.  Another is bringing office supplies home from work (assuming you work for someone else).

I am not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue.  I am rather pleased about yesterday, but in general, I’m no better than most.  This is just a reminder to us all to consider what our behavior and how we spend our time communicates to children.

I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.  Let me know!


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Treatment for Those Late Summer Blues

This week I have been hearing about sadness about the end of summer sneaking up on us.  I look at the calendar and see that school starts in three weeks, and I know that in many parts of the country it starts sooner than that!  Meanwhile, dusk is arriving sooner.  Last week I wrote about back to school jitters.  This week I want to address the fact that it is still summer!  As I said to one young client, what do you want to do with this part of your summer?  There’s a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, that ends with the lines, “Tell me, what is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?”

That might be too grand a thought, but maybe not.  Summer, leisure, pleasant times with our families, these are all things that we need to plan for and grasp when we can, just as we need to grasp the summer days while they are here.

So, is there something that you have wanted to do with your children (or without them) that you can still fit in?  What means summer pleasure and leisure to you?  What would you be sad to miss come October?  Can you manage to fit it or something like it into your life?

Here are some of the thoughts that come to my mind:

Going to the beach (ocean or lake)

Bike riding in the country or through a park

Canoeing or kayaking

Going to a summer release movie

Working on a jigsaw puzzle, or playing a family game

Spending an entire afternoon reading


Going to an amusement park or water park

A trip to a zoo

A trip to a museum (Many public libraries lend out membership cards to decrease the entrance fee)

Going to an outdoor concert, movie, or play

Camping out


Lying in the grass and watching clouds go by

A picnic

Swimming, playing in surf

A visit to a fine ice cream place

Fried clams (in my part of the US)

Lobsta dinna 🙂

Some of these take a day; some take much less time.  The point is to find enjoyment—on your own and with your family.  Make sure that you find a few times when you can say, I really wanted to do this, and I am doing it!  Living a healthy life involves balance and finding pleasure in the midst of busy-ness.

Good luck with this.  I would be happy to hear from you what you plan to do.  For myself, I’m going to the shore for a few days.  🙂


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Back to School Jitters

We are into the second full week of August, and I have received my first call about a child who is anxious about school starting.  The reminders are everywhere.  The advertisements are on television for back to school supplies and clothes.  Children with learning disabilities and others who are simply anxious  are beginning to have difficulty sleeping at night.  They might also be more irritable and rigid during the day.  How to cope?  This is no fun for parents either.

  1. The first step for parents is to recognize that this change is about worries; not bad behavior.  Set limits on behavior, but address the cause.
  2. If your child isn’t talking about it, bring it up yourself from time to time and wonder what her thoughts and feelings are.  Some kids are going to new schools, and they are worried that they will get lost, or won’t have friends in their class, or that there will be mean kids there.  Others may have heard that the work is much harder in the next grade, and they worry that they’ll have too much homework.  Just talking about these worries is helpful.
  3. Validate.  It is very tempting to tell your child, “Don’t worry.  Things will be fine.”  If your child knew how to stop worrying, she would.  It’s more helpful to say that you understand. Sit with your child and the worries first.  Just understanding helps decrease the anxiety.  Arguing increases it.
  4. Check out the school.  For some kids, especially those with Asperger Syndrome and Nonverbal Learning Disability, it is difficult to anticipate how things will look and feel in a new grade.  Start taking a walk, bike ride, or drive to the school every few days.  This helps your child get acquainted with the route, if it’s a new one, and just review if it isn’t.
  5. Visit the school.  As the start of school approaches, teachers will be in their classrooms setting up.  Go on in and introduce yourselves.  It will be very helpful for your child to see the classroom and meet the teacher.  Don’t stay long.  It’s a busy time for teachers, but most will understand why you are there.
  6. Remind your child of the anxiety management strategies he has already learned.  See my June 2012 blog, “What’s in Your Toolbox?” for suggestions.

Oh, and equally important enjoy the rest of your summer!  Keeping your child busy will also help manage the end of summer worries.


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Say Please!

I’m on vacation this week, so I checked back in my archives to find a blog post that I thought would be helpful.  I’ll be back live in a week.

How do you get your children’s respect?  How do you know that they respect you?  Is it that they obey?  That’s a big part of it when they are young.

When parents of young children come to me for Parent Coaching, they often ask for help with compliance.  Their children don’t “listen.”  I think that most parents have this problem at one time or another.  I know that I did.  Parents find themselves telling a child over and over to do the same thing.  Often they report, “He doesn’t do it until I yell.  I don’t want to yell all the time, but that’s the only way he’ll listen.”

I begin by talking to parents about how they tell children what to do.  We talk about the importance of getting your child’s attention, perhaps with a light touch on the shoulder.  I also advise parents to tell a child very clearly what do to. “Pick up your room” is not specific enough for many young children.  They need to hear, “Put the toys in the bin and put your clothes in the drawer.”  In fact, some need to be told only one thing at a time, but that’s for another blog.

This all goes fairly well, but some parents, especially Dads, are surprised when I advise them to say “please” and to use a firm but kind tone of voice.  I am sure that these people are telling me how they were raised.  Somehow it hurts their own sense of authority to say “please” to a child.  I hear that children should just do it.  Why do we need to be so polite to kids?

One reason is that you want them to treat you politely.  Children learn best from the behavior we demonstrate.  This produces a wince from many of us.  All parents have their moments.

Another reason is that harsh commands tend to make people (even young children) angry.  Never mind that you are the parent and you are in charge, if you rely on requests like “Get in here and pick up this room before I make you,” your children are quite capable of demonstrating that “you aren’t the boss of me.”  We’ve all been there.

The third reason is that it works.  Be clear. Ask for a specific behavior. Be calm and take the edge out of your voice.  And yes, say please.  See how it works.  And let me know.


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Why No One Can Have it All

A few times this summer I have come to think about the challenging  job of raising children and how parents share that work and balance it with the demands of paid work.  As I  noted in an earlier post, I attended a college reunion earlier this summer.  Most of my classmates have grown children by this time.  A  couple of conversations turned to the complications of sharing child rearing.  One woman professional remembered that her husband was totally unwilling to leave work when a child got sick at school or day care.  This happened despite the fact that it appeared that his schedule was more flexible.  (Of course, in the interests of full disclosure, I need to say that I have not talked to him about this.) Others had similar stories.  I realized again how fortunate I was that my husband was a teacher who was willing to take over child care when he got home in the afternoon so that I could continue my practice which tended to run into the early evening a few days a week.

The issue came up again when The Atlantic magazine published an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  She described her time working for the State Department under Hillary Clinton and commuting on weekends to her home in Princeton, NJ to be with her two teenage sons and her husband.  Eventually she found that a job that made a 24/7 claim on her life was incompatible with being the kind of mother she wanted to be to her sons, especially one who was having a difficult time adjusting to high school.  My response was something like, “Duh.”

If having it all means being able to compete in a job that has to come first in your life,  then I don’t believe that women or men can have it all.  They cannot compete successfully in such a job and have a rewarding family life.  Life becomes one-dimensional, mostly about work.  In our society it is still more acceptable for men to have such jobs and make such choices.  It seems that Anne-Marie Slaughter came to a place that she was unhappy with this one-dimensional life.  I have worked with many families in which fathers were unavailable because they had committed to such demanding work.  The mothers and the children in these families suffered from the father’s relative absence.  And I believe that he missed out as well.  I do not mean to imply that these men were less concerned with family, though perhaps some were.  They simply had bought into the assumption that work came first.

So far I have talked about two-parent  families.  Let me hasten to add that it is that much more complicated for single parents to achieve some balance.  Some single parents have to work long hours because there is no other income to support the family.  The single parents that I know  who are doing well have good supports in family and friends who help them out when they cannot clone themselves.

Ultimately, I think that it is a problem in our society that the jobs that are seen to be most prestigious are incompatible with a good family life.  Outside of those extreme demands parents have to make delicate deliberations all the time about sharing the work of parenting.  With children who have special needs the demands are even greater.  Will there be enough emphasis in the years to come on the need for the workplace to be family friendly?  Will women (or men) who want the flexibility to be available for their children need to accept the “Mommy track?”

I would be very interested to hear how others have negotiated this path, especially in light of the needs of a child with special needs.


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Your Children and the Aftermath of the Colorado Shootings

It has happened again.  A dreadful event has broken through our sense of safety in our own communities.  The news complete with interviews and diagrams of how the shootings happened is everywhere–on the internet, the TV, the radio, and in the newspaper.  I hope that you have been able to shield younger children (like 8 and younger)from this exposure.

However, it is likely that your children have heard about the tragedy.  I want to share with you a few resources that I think are quite helpful in guiding parents as they support their children at this time.  These articles emphasize  six basic steps.

1  Be aware of your own feelings and how you might be communicating them to your child.  Take care of yourself.

2.  Limit access to news at this time.  The repeated exposure is likely to be more upsetting to children.

3. Be ready for feelings about the shootings.  Don’t assume that you know what your child feels.  Instead, be available in times to talk (bedtime, in the car) and ask questions.  Don’t wait for your child to bring it up.  Validate feelings.  The emotional upset from this event might bring up feelings from earlier upsetting times in your child’s life.  It’s OK.  Just be available to deal with it.

4.  Keep your home a safe place for having and expressing feelings.

5.  For older elementary school children and up emphasize that this is really a rare event. It does not change whether you are safe in your neighborhood.

6. Find ways that your children can express compassion to someone who needs it in your neighborhood.  These actions are empowering.  Perhaps there is an elderly person who needs a visit.  Maybe you could make a contribution to a food pantry.

Here are the helpful links that I received this morning from the Massachusetts Psychological Association Disaster Response Network.

Resources for Mass Shooting Tragedy


APA – Psychology Help Center:



Red Cross:


  • “Red Cross Support Colorado Community After Tragic Shooting”;

  • Taking Care of Your Emotional Health After a Disaster


NYU Child Study Center:


  • School Shootings: Helping Teens Cope– A Guide for Parents. Institute for Trauma and Resilience




  • “Five Tips for Talking with Kids about Scary News”




  • Disaster Distress Helpline


PTSD Research Quarterly:


  • Impact of Mass Shootings on Survivors, Families and Communities



Play: Serious Business that Teaches Life Skills

This week I have been reading Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. and Sam Wang, Ph.D.  The authors describe brain development and child development, linking the two in a very instructive way.  Along the way, they debunk a number of myths, and they offer research data to support all they describe.  While some of the book gets fairly technical in its description brain anatomy and function, it also gives practical examples of ways parents can foster their children’s development.  The authors particularly reassure parents of infants that being a good enough parent and providing a good enough environment is all your baby needs to have her brain develop well.

Aamodt and Wang have an interesting chapter on the development of self control and the importance of play.  Self control develops quickly between 2 and 7 years old.  Then it slows down, but continues to develop through adolescence. People can increase their self control throughout adulthood by practice.

The authors describe a psychology experiment done with preschool children, commonly called the marshmallow experiment.  The researcher shows the child one marshmallow on a table.  She tells the child that she can have two marshmallows if she waits a few minutes without eating the first one until the researcher comes back.  The child can ring a bell at any time to bring the researcher back, but then she gets only one marshmallow. The average wait time for a four year old is six minutes.  The extent to which children can wait on this simple task is correlated with their SAT scores, their ability to cope with stress and to concentrate in adolescence.  It is also correlated with math and reading skill in elementary school.  Self control is also important in social skills.   Children with greater self control on the marshmallow task are rated is less angry and fearful and higher in empathy.  Clearly this simple task measures something that is central to success in school and social situations.

The four year olds who are good at waiting on the marshmallow task use strategies to distract themselves.  They cover their eyes, turn their back, or tell themselves a story.  We know that children and adults (see Will Power by Roy Baumeister, Ph.D.) can improve self-control by practicing.  Of course, it takes self-control to have the discipline to practice.

Parents can provide children with pleasant experiences that offer the opportunity to practice regulating their behavior.  In very young children warm, supportive parenting contributes to self-regulation.  In older children playing board games gives children a fun way to learn self-control.  They have to wait their turn and manage their feelings if someone else is winning.  Of course, if your child consistently loses, you will need to choose a less challenging game.  Consistent failure isn’t fun and doesn’t teach.  In elementary school structured play with others such as in beginning sports or scouts give enjoyable opportunities to practice self-regulation.  Multi-step activities like art or building projects also help children maintain self-control so that they can achieve the goal.  Imaginative play also contributes to this skill set.  In imaginary roles children practice skills they need to manage the social and academic world.  When playing school, one child gets to be the teacher and another has to take instruction.  Pretend roles call for practicing self-control that might be difficult in real life. For instance, the authors note that a four year old who is asked to stand still like a guard outside a castle will stand still four times as long as a four year who is simply told to stand still.

In play children learn to regulate their own behavior.  Self-regulation is a skill that children then bring to whatever setting they are in.  Aamodt and Wang value self-regulation over learning to follow rules or obey adults’ requests.  It is a more adaptable skill that is not dependent on a particular situation?

What is your experience in teaching your child regulate her behavior?  Have you found that particular activities have fostered growth?  I would be interested to hear.


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