What If She Fails?

Often I meet with parents who are very worried about their children’s achievement, usually in school, but sometimes in sports as well.  These are well-meaning parents who want the best for their children.  They want them to have the best opportunities, and they want their children to have accomplishments that they can feel proud about.

Unfortunately, parents’ anxiety about achievement can backfire on them.  This is when they might show up in my office. The pressure to achieve for the sake of achieving can take the joy out of learning.  It can obscure the individuality of the child and hide his or her passion.

I am not talking about parents who expect their children to put their best effort into homework and to study for tests and quizzes.  I am also not talking about parents who practice ball handling skills with their kids and cheer them on at the soccer game.  That is your responsibility as a parent, and it teaches your child responsibility as well.

Many of the children I see live in fairly affluent communities outside of Boston.  There is quite a bit of peer pressure among parents to do the best they can for their children.  The belief is that if children are very successful that they will be truly happy.  It is difficult to resist the pressure that parents feel at the soccer field or at the PTO.  One hears, “We signed Derek up for individual coaching so that his hockey game will improve.  He has to get up at six am on Thursday to meet before school, but he knows it’s important.”  Or one might hear, “We don’t feel that the math curriculum is adequate, so Jenny is going to extra math classes twice a week.”  These are children who are doing fine in school or in sports, but their parents feel the need to “enrich” their lives with extra classes or coaching.

A few parents I know ask, “Where is the fun in this?”  If your child truly loves baseball and has talent, by all means take her to the batting cage on the weekend.  While you are there, make sure that you have fun.  If your child does not have the aptitude for sports that require good hand-eye coordination, encourage her to try out swimming or track.  Sports are very good for exercise, learning to work with a team, and having the experience of pride in accomplishment.  It is important to keep them in perspective as one part of life, though.

Some parents who are very worried about academic achievement find that their children begin to resist the pressure to do better and better.  An anxious parent can forget to praise the B’s and A’s and focus only on the C’s.  This decreases motivation and leads to resentment.  It is important to accept your child for who he is.  If he consistently achieves below the level of his ability, you should talk to people at school.  Perhaps a learning disability is becoming a factor, and the school should do some testing.  Perhaps he was able to do the work in the early grades, but interference from Attention Deficit Disorder is getting in his way in the middle grades.  When parents explore these considerations, children feel understood.

In my experience children do well when their parents can accept them for who they are and encourage them to do their best.  Children benefit from balance in their lives.  They need to go to school and do their work, play sports if they like them, hang out with friends in unstructured setting (like your family room), hang out with you, and have time for solitary pursuits like reading or crafts.  They need room to find activities they love, like music or drama.  But they need space in their lives to just hang out.  Having faith in your child’s ability to be responsible and do well communicates good will toward her and increases her self-esteem.

I would be very interested to hear others’ opinions on this topic.  Do you feel pressure from other parents to involve your children in many activities?  Do you get very anxious when your child has difficulty in a subject?  Do you think I’m off base?  Let me know.


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Photo credit:  Slabcity Gang on Flickr

Finding Community

Over the weekend I attended a large family Passover seder with about fifty people in attendance.    The seder is a dinner with a liturgy that tells the story of how Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  It got me thinking about the value of community in raising children.

Participants ranged in age from late eighties to seven years old.   The elders told a  little about the family’s origins in Poland and their travel to America, and they reminisced about seders of fifty and sixty years ago.

Two little girls shared the responsibility of reading the four questions at the beginning of the seder.  As the evening progressed everyone, including the table of teens, took turns reading from the haggadah, the  booklet that gives the order of prayers, readings, and songs.  Later we all joined in songs and the teenagers sang with great gusto and tapped on their tambourines.  At one point we all marched around the room singing “Go Down, Moses.”  These were not alienated teens, at least not at this event.

Between courses I talked to people and learned about their connections.  There were strong connections between aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews, including  long distance visits.  An elderly couple joked that they had been “adopted” by this extended family.

There was also sadness.  All were aware that the woman who had graciously hosted  this gathering for decades was unable to now due to Alzheimer’s Disease.  Yet the next generation had prepared her recipes for us to enjoy.  Another man’s whole extended family gathered because they expected his mother’s death in a day or two.  There was a sense of knowing these losses and embracing them as part of the story of the family.  There had also been separations — one family was returning to repair a rift started over fifty years ago in the previous generation.

I might be idealizing, yet the experience got me thinking about the value of community where ever one finds it.  For some young adults in this family there were adults other than their parents to consult when they needed guidance.  There were other adults to value them when they were at odds with their parents.  As the evening wound down I observed people of the same age gathering to chat.  Perhaps they were talking about caring for aging parents;  or about the challenges of raises those spirited teens; or about their work and plans to finance college or retirement. The thing is, there were people who had similar concerns and who had known them for a long time.  The gathering expressed shared values.  Whether the young folks will take on the customs and beliefs of their elders is unknown, but they have a firm base to push off from.

Many of us exist in a variety of communities.  Some find community in a religious institution.  Others find it in the sharing while they watch their children play sports.  Some are fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood where people have decided to know each other.  Some parents of special needs children find community in advocacy groups for their children.  There they find others who understand living with a challenging child and who do not judge.

In his book, A Fine Young Man, Michael Gurian concluded that a boy needs support from within and outside his family at every stage of development.  He likened this circle of support to a clan in other cultures.  I would say that all children and parents need this support.  In our current culture it is unusual to find all the support in one community.  It takes work to find and nourish communities so that they are there for you.  Where do you and your family find community?


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Photo credit:  Nonie Vogue on Flickr

Creating Order for the Disorganized Child

Many parents talk to me with frustration about their children who strew their things throughout the house and then cannot find what they need when they need it.  Some of these children have ADHD or a learning disability that we know makes it hard for them to organize stuff.  Others are simply immature or undiagnosed.  Whatever the case, it is irritating for parents and children alike for parents to constantly remind children to put things away.

The first step is to get your attitude in shape.  If you are taking this behavior personally, you are probably quite angry about it.  “I didn’t have children to be a maid!”  Of course not.  Deal with your anger.  Accept that your child is not behaving the way you had hoped he would.  It does no good to blame yourself or your child.  When you can calm down, you will be ready to engage your child in some problem solving.

Most children need to be taught systems for keeping things organized.  Children with ADHD and learning problems have brains that find this type of activity quite difficult.  Teaching them requires more repetitions and more patience.  That said, children can be taught to take responsibility for keeping track of their things, even if they have learning disabilities.  They need patient coaching, but they can learn to be responsible.  Don’t give up and become the maid (or butler).

Now you can address the problem.  Try not to solve everything at once.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  What part of the messy chaos disrupts the family the most?  Is it the frantic looking for shoes  and homework in the morning?  Is it the dirty dishes and socks in the family room?  Choose one issue and begin.   At a calm moment start the conversation without blaming.  Blame only makes most children (or teens) feel bad and often want to argue. So describe the problem, “It’s really upsetting for you and me in the morning when you can’t find your things.  Do you have any ideas about what would help?”  Perhaps you child has ideas, but if you are just beginning this process, he or she might not.

Now you can suggest things like having a bin near the door where shoes and boots go.  Or suggest that the last step of homework is to pack the backpack and put it near the door.  If your child resists, listen to her objection and find out why.  This could help develop a solution that is more durable.  Once your child agrees to a new arrangement, you will need to cue her about it.  When she responds to the cue, make sure you praise her.  This is the best way to help a child learn a new behavior.

Good luck with initiating some routines that help your disorganized child stay a little more organized.


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Photo Credit:  Desiree N. Williams on Flickr

When to Stop the Conversation

Last  week I posted about listening to your child and trying to find times that your child is available to talk.  Many people commented on the value of just showing up to be available to talk.  It’s a challenge to us busy, goal-oriented parents.  In fact, last week I meant to write about this week’s topic but I realized that finding time to talk is really most important.

So, now I turn to the other. It often comes up when parents talk to me about problems with their children’s behavior.  The problem usually appears when you have set a limit.  Perhaps you have said that your middle school child cannot go to a rock concert with friends because you think the scene is too grown up for him.  There might be drugs and drinking. It is important to set a limit like this in the context of a discussion in which your child gets to explain why he wants to attend the concert and gets to tell you what he knows about the event.  You also should explain what you know and what your concerns are.  You can even empathize about the way it makes him feel to have to tell his friends he cannot go.  If it’s your judgment that the scene is inappropriate, you need to go with it.

The conversations that I advise against are the ones in which you find yourself explaining your position over and over to questions of, “But, why, Dad?”  There comes a time when you might say, “I have told you many times, and I am not going to discuss this anymore.”  Many parents are troubled by this and tell me that they feel rude when they stop the conversation.  They have heard that parents should listen to their children, but they haven’t understood that listening to badgering and manipulation is not helpful.

Remember that your children are learning about how to interact with authority from you.  They are clumsy about it.  If you have given in in the past when you were badgered by your child (and I think most of us have), you will find that when you begin to end the conversation, you child might act dramatically wounded.  You may wish that your child would just stop without your having to stop the conversation.  Remember, you child is learning.  If you are consistent in this, most children begin to get it.

This comes up with children of all ages around different issues.  When you can calmly refuse to engage in an interaction in which you feel badgered and manipulated, you teach your child a lesson in respectful interaction.


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Photo Credit:  Tambaku the Jaguar on Flickr

My Kid Doesn’t Talk to Me

Child psychologists tell parents to listen to their children, and they should.  I have learned in my practice and in my life as a parent that it isn’t always clear how to get children to talk when you want to listen.

When children get home from school or parents arrive home from work,  parent asks, “How was your day?”  Answer, “Fine.”  “Anything interesting happen?”  “Nope.”  I can’t say that I know why this happens, but I know that it does.  So, when can you talk?

Many parents find that children talk when other distractions are excluded.  Younger children often get chatty in the bath.  Children younger and older share their day at bedtime.  For children and adults worries often come forth at this time.  For some it is helpful to share the worries at bedtime.  For others it can complicate getting to sleep.  In that case, it is better to stick to a bedtime routine that includes peaceful time with you but is structure, like a reading a book together.

Parents of teens know that the best way to find out what is going on is to drive in the car.  Without direct eye contact and the distraction of TV teens often talk about their lives:  drama with friends, worry about an assignment, the kinds of things you want to know. This assumes that the phone is turned off and the ear buds are out.  You can ask politely for your child to stop texting or turn off the ipod, but just the fact that she is doing this, tells you something about her willingness to be open with you.  Some groundwork needs to be done that goes beyond this piece.

I recommend that parents just “show up.”  When your child is watching TV, drop in to watch.   Maybe you can chat during commercials.  Your child might appreciate your interest in his show, whether it’s The Simpsons, Sponge Bob, or South Park.  In fact, you might enjoy the show yourself.  Sit and watch when your child is playing a video game and ask questions about it.  You could courageously try the game yourself if invited. Prepare to be laughed at.

During conversation at these times, it is important that you maintain a non-judgmental stance.  Be genuinely curious about the show.  Refrain from lecturing. You are trying to build a relationship and a space where your child might volunteer more about his life.  It is not the place for you to ask about tests or progress reports.  Those are topics that  might make your child defensive, expecting a lecture or judgment.  Of course, you need to know about those topics, just not in this context.

How do you get your children to talk to you?  How do you get around the ipods and the texting?  I would be very interested to hear.


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Photo credit:  SwedishCarina on Flickr

What is a Lie?

That’s a silly question, isn’t it?  We all know that lying is saying something that is not true and acting as though it is true.  Strictly speaking, that is the case.  What is a lie that a parent should be concerned about and what should parents do about it?  That is a more difficult question, and I think that all parents face this at one point or another.  Kids lie when they fear a bad outcome or when they don’t want you to know that they are messing up because you will be so upset or because they’ll be so embarrassed or all of the above.

Often this question shows up in my office when parents are in conflict with a grade school age child.  It can be infuriating to a parent to have an eight year old stand alone in the kitchen by the spilled juice and tell you he didn’t spill it.  Some parents find this tremendously disrespectful,  and they feel powerless in this situation.  As a result, they go to some effort to get the “offender” to admit his “crime.”  If you have a really fiesty child, he or she might continue to deny.  You can pursue this line of questioning and add punishments for lying and perhaps yelling and stomping as the conflict escalates.

My advice is to go with your common sense and the evidence you have.   Young children don’t want to get into trouble, and they do and say foolish things to avoid it.  Especially if you are somewhat harsh in punishment, your child is likely to deny wrongdoing.  Think of it as taking the fifth (in a very clumsy way).  So, if you walk into the kitchen and find juice all over the floor and your eight year old standing there, ask him to clean it up.  If he was not supposed to pour his own juice (because he might spill it), cleaning up the mess is a reasonable consequence.  He might continue to protest that he didn’t do it.  Avoid being sidetracked into that argument.  Stick with the evidence and logical consequence.  If you can keep your cool, your child will be less likely to deny the obvious in the future.

This kind of “lying” or denial often fades out in later grades and middle school but if your child has difficulty with homework, it will persist.  Very often these are the children with ADHD  or some deficits in executive function (organizing time and stuff).  You ask, “Do you have any homework?”  The answer is, “No.”  After several days of this you become suspicious.  At this point let your child know that you need to talk to people at school to find out what the homework situation is.  Tell your child first to keep him in the loop, not to threaten him.  If he does know the scoop, he might tell you then.  But in my experience these kids might be confused and overwhelmed by homework and lacking the systems they need to keep up with it.  Once you are in touch with teachers, you can shift from punishing for lying to a more helpful stance of problem solving about homework. 

It turns out that “lying” probably tells you something about the relationship you have with your child.  If you are prone to explosive anger or harsh punishments, it is my experience that your child is more likely to “lie.”  Of course, the kindly, soft-hearted parents have kids who “lie” as well, especially if the children are overwhelmed with school work.  “Lying” is an immature way of solving a problem.  Your children are immature (because they are children), not immoral.  If you respond by holding them responsible (eg, “You need to do your homework.  Let’s figure out how to help you keep track of it.”) and helping with problem solving, there will be less need to “lie.” 

How have you dealt with this problem?  I would be interested to know.

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Good Prescription: Fresh Air and Exercise

This morning I took my dog for a slightly longer walk than usual because I’ll be away much of the day.  We went to a local park, and I let him off leash (don’t tell the city fathers).  As I watched him bound away from me, I lengthened my step and breathed deeply.  As I did so, I began to feel more energetic.  I felt the “sludge” of early morning clear from my brain.  I am not a morning person.

This simple experience reminded me of what I have seen over and over with children who have ADHD or anxiety or Asperger Syndrome.  Getting outside to move around helps calm nerves, improve focus, help transition to sleep.  It might not do all of these for your child, but even some could be a big help.

You might wonder when your children could have time outside when they have homework, tutoring, music lessons, and two working parents. In addition, many people live in cities where getting outside to shoot some hoops or kick a soccer ball is not so simple.  This is just a simple reminder that it can be worth your while to find ways to incorporate outside activity in your day.  Perhaps your child could walk home from school with friends or siblings.  Or  perhaps you find a park nearby that you can visit a couple of days a week.

Incorporating outside activity into your family’s routine involves setting up some routines.  If your child has grown to expect to use TV, computer or video games, whenever he is not doing homework, you would need to change the expectation.  I don’t say this is easy.  But parents can do that if they make it fun and positive.

Notice that I am not recommending playing on sports teams, though this would serve much the same purpose.  If your child enjoys playing sports, that is excellent.  However, many of the children I see have poor coordination.  After elementary sports the teams get more competitive, and these children no longer enjoy the team sports.  But your child can still enjoy getting outside and running around or riding a bicycle.  This is a lifelong habit that you can help instill.  Fresh air and exercise — good for the nerves, attention and spirit.


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Coping With Road Blocks

Recently a number of families I work with have been stymied by their childen getting stuck.  These are children with Asperger Syndrome, nonverbal learning disability, obsessive compulsive disorder, or some combination of those.  During the course of a normal day, these kids hit road blocks that trigger outbursts. Often the cause is a change in plans that seemed inconsequential to you.  You might say, “On our way home, I’m stopping at the grocery.  Want to come in?”  Child: “Nooooo.  You always do this, etc.”  Or you might say, “Your brother has a friend over.”  Child:  “I won’t go in the house.”  Or on a pleasant family outing to an ice cream store you say, “They’re all out of confetti sprinkles, but they have the chocolate ones.” Child:  “Noooooo.”

Any one of these scenarios can trigger an outburst that could last five to forty minutes or more.

You get the picture, and you have been there.  It is very frustrating for a parent to deal with this behavior.  It can seem as though your child is incredibly self-centered, immature or badly behaved.  When it happens in public, it is embarrassing.

You have a child who is wired to be rigid.  Imagine what it must feel like to have your anxiety peak over a minor change in routine.  Imagine that you are headed down the track on a bobsled run and suddenly the track has new turns.  You skid, you careen, and you might be pretty anxious and angry.  I think that is a little of what these children experience.  The emotional discomfort triggers the outrageous behavior.

So what is a parent to do?

First, consider the last paragraph about what a child experiences.  Try to have some empathy for your child.  It’s a tall order, but it is very helpful.

When your child is out of control, concentrate only on what will help him or her settle down.  This means that you cannot argue or reason with him at this time.  You simply do not have a rationale partner for this. On the other hand, I don’t mean offer him the world so he will quiet down.  Just don’t make it worse by arguing and scolding.  That means that you might be in a fairly awkward situation, but there is nothing to be done about it then—once your child is out of control the “horse has left the barn,”  so to speak.

When your child is calm, you can address the situation again if it is still relevant.  But the passage of time may have changed this.

Punishments are not helpful this type of problem. Your child needs to learn to recognize his or her emotional discomfort and learn coping strategies.  No amount of punishment or reward can teach this.

Using empathy, begin a conversation with your child about how to manage the outbursts.  Consult a psychologist if you need to, to help with this.  Once your child is learning some strategies, incentives can be helpful to motivate him or her to use them.

Good luck.  This is a long process.  Because it has to do with neural networks, it will take some time for your child to learn to cope with it.  The important thing to understand is that you do not have a spoiled child—you have a rigid one with poor coping skills.

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You’re too soft! You’re too harsh! When Parents Can’t Agree

Most parents know that they are supposed to agree on childrearing.  It’s better for children if parents present a united front.  That’s all well and good when you agree.  What about when you don’t?  If you have a child who has ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or anxiety, it is likely that you are presented with behaviors and situations that you did not expect.

Here is a quick list of the major points in coming to agreement.

  1. Acknowledge that it is hard work.  Ross Greene, Ph. D, who wrote The Explosive Child, says he assumes that parents are doing the best they can.  I totally agree.
  2. Find time to talk about the problems without children present.  Difficult, but essential.  Worth the effort.
  3. Try to find and express some empathy for each other. Do you understand enough about your partner’s background and disposition to understand why he acts the way he does?  Perhaps you might ask.
  4. Without blaming tell your partner what you see and how you like things to be.  “I know that Sally pushes your buttons, but I really need you not to explode in anger at her.”  Or, “When I have set a limit with Sally, please do not renegotiate with her.  That undermines me.”  Be willing to listen.
  5. Find where you agree and set a goal for how you want Sally to behave.  This might be, “Start your homework after a 30 minute break after school.  Do this with cooperative behavior.”
  6. Talk to your child together about your expections.  Sally sees that there is a new regime.  She has less room to manipulate, and she will test the system, but ultimately, she will be comforted by this approach.
  7. Follow through.  If Sally goes to Dad to renegotiate the homework agreement, he should politely refuse to engage.  If Sally starts to negotiate with Mom, Mom might need to walk away, but the basic expectation (Start your homework), still stands.
  8. Repeat.  Over and over.  Find a time to talk.  Express understanding and empathy.  State your needs without blame.  Come to an agreement about a goal.  Explain it to your child.  Back each other up.

Sometimes it is too difficult to start this process on your own.  That is where a Parent Coach can be helpful.  I enjoy this type of work because it is so helpful to parents and children.


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Where’s Your Child’s Strength? Bolstering Self Esteem in Children with Learning Disabilities

Having a learning disability is exhausting.  Whether your child has ADHD, or a Nonverbal Learning Disability, or a Language Based Learning Disability, or Asperger Syndrome does not matter.  Learning differently from the way school is taught is hard work.

In order to obtain proper educational services for a child, one must define the difference or deficit.   The child needs to fail to make progress in order to qualify for services.  This is simply how the law is written, but it means that a smart child often has to experience frustration and failure before appropriate services are put into place.  Even if the services are helpful, their delivery distinguishes the child from other learners — the child has to leave the room for support in reading or math, or a special teacher comes in. It is a situation that can grind down self esteem.

What to do?  Where are you child’s strengths?  Perhaps you have some excellent teachers in your school who know where your child has particular talent.  Perhaps you know and can encourage you’re her to take a chance on a non-academic pursuit. These are the parts of life that teachers and parents can encourage so that the child feels competent, even gifted.

I once knew an art teacher who had a depressed teenager with nonverbal learning disability in her class.  She raved about his skill and originality.  His parents had no clue.  The boy had been so down on himself that he denigrated everything he did, including his drawing.  With the teacher’s encouragement he took some drawing classes and produced some fine work.  It helped turn his life around.

Another student I knew who had nonverbal learning disability was on the chunky side.  His parents wanted him to play sports to get exercise and to practice social skills, but his poor coordination made it impossible for him to enjoy any sport with a ball.  His Dad got him involved on a swim team where he excelled.  He was on a team, but he was swimming to beat his own time.  The swimming also helped with his anxiety.

These are just two stories.  There are more.  There are kids who are writing wonderful poems, often about their challenges.  Others I  know are on speech or debate teams.  The precise logic involved in those activities fits their thinking well.  Playing guitar or any other musical instrument can provide calming comfort.  Other children I know excel at archery.

It is as important to find activities in which your child excels as it is to provide tutors and social skills groups.


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