The Virtues of Board Games

I like board games.  One of the perks for me as a child psychologist is that I get to play board games in the course of a day.  It helps children relax and talk about their lives, and I learn about them from the way they play.  But I also like board games for interactions at home.  They provide great ways for parents to spend a little time with their children.  Let’s face it—most parents are not that skilled at video games to join in.  And I might be showing my age here, but I don’t believe that video games offer the same type of engagement.

Some parents report that their children are sore losers so that it is hard to play with them.  I like to tell children that we can alter the rules as long as both players agree, and the rules stay the same through the game.  (That means don’t change the game when you’re losing.)  It’s possible to offer to play with easy or hard rules, depending on how the child is feeling. 

Parents can also help by reining in their own competitive instincts and offering to teach during the game.  This isn’t the same as just playing dumb and letting the child win.  When a child is about to make a move that misses a really good opportunity or that gives you a tremendous advantage, you can say, “Wait, can I show you what happens if you do that? Want to make another choice?”  This way your child avoids the shame and frustration of constantly losing (after all he’s younger).  As he learns the game, you can negotiate about withdrawing the supports.  As long as you both agree on the rules, it’s still a fair game. 

So, enjoy a ten or fifteen minute respite over Sorry or Checkers.  Let me know what games you enjoy with your children.  It’s brief, and it takes you both out of the business of life.

Watch for an upcoming Parents’ Corner newsletter in which I talk more about games and their usefulness.

What’s the Goal?

I spend much of my time as a Parent Coach encouraging parents that they can find ways to manage their children’s behavior.  I can understand why they have a hard time believing me.  After all, parents don’t come to a child psychologist before they have exhausted all their own and their extended family’s and their friends’ ideas.  So, they end up talking to me, hoping that I have some strategies for them, but feeling very discouraged and powerless.  Their darling 3 year old or 9 year old has them totally bamboozled.

I listen and I empathize.  I have seen a lot in my years of work and as a parent.  Nothing humbles a child psychologist like parenthood!  I remember years ago when I told a pediatrician who referred to me that I was pregnant, he said, “You’re good at what you do now, but you’re going to be better.”  I imagine that he spoke from his own experience.  When professionals can offer strategies in a spirit of camaraderie in addition to specific training, it all goes more easily.

Often parents get discouraged because they get stuck in all or nothing thinking.  Consider this situation.  A 10 year old girl is being insolent when she and her father are discussing whether she can go to a movie with a friend’s family.  The father tells her that he won’t talk to her until she can talk respectfully and that she should go to her room until she can do so.  Child goes to next room and continues to say rude things for a bit, but then becomes quiet when the parent does not respond.  The child never goes to her room.  In a few minutes she returns and asks, “Can I talk to you now?”   Was the parent successful?  Hmmm.  It depends on what you see as the goal.  Was the goal to get the child to talk in a respectful way?  If so, (and I think this is the goal), then bravo!  Success!  Start the negotiation again. On the other hand, if the goal is to have the child comply in every way, then this was not a success.  It isn’t all or nothing.  The goal was achieved, but not quite the way the parent wanted.  Life is like that.

If this parent wanted total success, he could insist that the child go to her room.  The child would like then become enraged and be very disrespectful.  After all, she’s being respectful now.  Why should she be punished? Children have a sense of justice, and this would smack of a power struggle more than justice.  Nothing encourages rage (in parent and child) like a power struggle.

Did the child win?  She didn’t go to her room.  However, she became respectful.  There is more work to be done on the “go to your room end.”  But if I were talking to this parent, I would suggest that he doesn’t need to send her to her room to get a result, at least not in this case.

So consider what your goal is.  You and your child might achieve it, but not in the way you intended.  But it is likely that you still achieved your goal.

Coming to Terms With What Is

Many parents have to come to terms with the child they have, rather than the one they were expecting in their dreams.  This is especially true for parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, or those on the autism spectrum.  The feelings engendered by this family situation are so complex.  There is denial and anger with your child for not doing his homework or “working harder” to have the academic success that perhaps you had.  After all, he seems smart (and probably is).  Then there is guilt about wishing that this young person were anyone but who he is.   There is sadness that this child does not make friends easily and is not invited to birthday parties.  There is anger at the unfairness. anger that other families do not have to go to IEP meetings, social skills groups, psychiatrist meetings, speech and language therapy, physical therapy.  It seems that the other families have children who excel at basketball and baseball and have no worries.  Of course, they might have worries, but not the ones that you have. As parents we feel the stigma when our children melt down in public places or cringe with fear before entering a party long after other children have outgrown those behaviors.   It is very hard to have a child with disabilities, especially of the invisible sort.

And yet there is no one who can better advocate for our children than ourselves.  Even when we feel the negative feelings about them, we still fight hard for them to get the services they need.   To be truly effective at this we need to accept the children we have.  We need to delight in their successes, even though these might be small events for “typical” children. We need to join them in their quirky interests, like the encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics or geography.  We need to be supportive of their struggles.

Yet few of us are saints.  How do we come to a place of acceptance and advocacy?  I think that group support is essential.  Sometimes you can find that in your own neighborhood.  Perhaps there are a few other parents who are not ashamed to admit that their children have special needs.  An occasional coffee or lunch can be very helpful to decrease the  sense of isolation and stigma, and it can be an excellent source of information.  You could learn which professionals have been most helpful to others.  School departments have PAC’s, Parent Advisory Councils, mandated by IDEA, the federal law for special education services.  In some school systems the PAC offers good information and a way to learn more about what is offered in your school system.  In addition, at the meetings you meet other parents.  There there are organizations like CHADD for parents of children with ADHD or AANE in the Boston area for parents of children on the autism spectrum.  And there are a wealth of online supports and listservs.

Once you accept your child, you can reach out and find that you are not alone.

Many of you probably know the essay, “Welcome to Holland,” by Emily Perl Kingsley (c. 1987).  She describes the process of coming to terms with raising a child with disabilities with great sensitivity.  Here is a link to it.    Can you see the windmills yet?


Helping Your Child with Learning Disabilities or ADHD Get Ready for School

It’s almost that time.  The time that parents look forward to or maybe dread.  If your child has ADHD or learning disabilities, you may have found the summer a blessed relief.  Parents in this category dread going back to scenes in the morning, scenes about homework, lost papers, and so on.  On the other hand, you might be ready for your child to be in school for six hours a day.  Summer can also be a challenge with changing routines and much more together time.

Here are ten suggestions for preparing for school.

  1. Go to school a few days before it opens to find the new classroom and meet the teacher.  This is not a time for a conference.  The point of this visit is to reassure your child that she can find the room and that the teacher is a kind person.  It’s a quick visit, respecting that the teacher is trying to set up her room.
  2. If your child is going to a new school, walk to school a few times so that she is confident she knows the way, even if you will walk with her.  You are trying to remove as much novelty as possible.
  3. Go shopping for school supplies on your own at an off peak time.  I got this idea from a friend of mine many years ago.  She went to the local office supply store and stocked up on paper, pens, crayons, notebooks, whatever she thought her children might need.  When they got their supply list from the teachers, they chose items from the “home store.”  She later returned whatever they didn’t need.  This saved her a stressful trip with three kids in tow.  I was pretty impressed.
  4. Consider morning routines with your child.  How did last year go?  What worked and what didn’t?  Talk with your child about how you think things should go. Find out what she thinks.  When would you like her to get up, be dressed, have breakfast?  What will the rule be for TV in the morning?  None til you are dressed or none at all?  Many children will be helped by a list posted where they can see it–in their room or in the kitchen–where they can check off the steps as they accomplish them.
  5. Consider homework and bedtime routines.  Again, go over this with your child and be willing to negotiate (within reason).  Is there a break after school before homework?  Is there TV before homework is done?  Is there a limit on how much screen time (TV and computer) is allowed each day?  What is bedtime?
  6. Try to move bedtime earlier a few days before school actually starts.  While I think this is a good idea, I have also seen it really backfire, especially with middle school and high school kids.  For the older kids, you might just let them suffer through a few days.  They’ll get it.
  7. Once school is started, call your child’s teacher (or teachers) and ask to meet soon so that you can explain your concerns about your child and go over the IEP.  It is best to do this early.  That way the teacher knows you and you can establish a good working relationship. Establish how you and the teacher will stay in touch.  Parent-teacher night doesn’t allow time for this.  And you certainly don’t want to wait until a problem comes up.
  8. Look at your child’s room and other places in the home where her things are kept and organize these spaces.  Make sure that she knows where her things are.  This means shoes, backpack, jacket, lunch bag.  Of course, these arrangements will need maintenance, but it’s good to start off clean.
  9. Have you done the paperwork for any medications that will be taken at school?
  10. Set out the expectation that it will be a good year.  Communicate some excitement and talk about the interesting things that will come up in school.

Rome Wasn’t Build in a Day or Helping Your Child to Change Behavior and Feel Good About It

I applaud parents who hold their children to high standards of behavior.   But how do you get there when your child’s behavior is far from where you want it?  Of course, books have been written on this topic.  I’ll just mention one part of the process that I find is very important.  Mostly change happens in small increments.  Of course there are stories of parents who read their child the riot act and then next day that child was making her bed, picking up her room, and doing her dishes all before school.  I always wonder how long that behavior lasted, though.

Here is what I see that works.  Set goals that are realistic.  You can know in your head that you really want your child to make her bed and pick up her room before school, but start with something achievable.  Maybe you tell her to make her bed before school.  On the first day she pulls up the covers, but the pillow is on the floor.  How do your respond?  Praise the effort.  If this is more effort than you saw before, let her know that you notice and appreciate it.  At another time show her what you want done.  It is so easy to undo a complement with immediate criticism, ie, this is better, but what I really want is …..”  You child hears, “I did it wrong.”  If you can say, “Wow, you pulled up the covers.  Thank you,”  she hears that she did well, and she is still motivated.

Did you let her off the hook?  No, you didn’t  because you will show her what you want and express the optimism that she’ll learn to do it.  Also, you know what you want.  The difference is that she will do learn a new behavior and feel along the way that she is successful.  Sounds good to me.

Let me know what you think.

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What’s enrichment and What’s “pushing?”

Recently I have been thinking about “pushing” kids and how one knows whether or not to push a child in a given situation.  We’ve probably all observed parents we thought were pushig their children too hard.  I have met parents who are considering how their grade school or middle school child’s activities will look on a college application. Many of us have been at children’s sports events and heard the parent coaching from the sideline.  I know all these parents are doing what they think is best for their children.  Often they are offering their children opportunities that they did not have as children.  They may also in a community where many parents are programming their children’s lives in a similar manner.  From their point of view it looks like good care of the children

What is pushing and what is offering enriching  experiences and teaching valuable skills?

  1.  Are we having fun yet?   A friend of mine used to say to her children when they were playing sports, “Sports should be fun.  If you’re not having fun, we should find another activity.”  Of course,  your child won’t have fun every minute.  Sometimes the goal tender lets in a goal and feels wretched about it.  But overall, it should be fun.
  2. Your child should still have time for free play, hanging out time with friends.  Being with team mates in a game is not the same as hanging out together.
  3. There should be time for school work.  If your child has great difficulty with organization or works slowly due to ADHD or a learning disability, she will need more time for school work.  You might wish she should just be more efficient, but it’s possible that she just needs more time  Do you find yourself nagging about homework?  Maybe you need to rethink the schedule, not in a punitive manner.  This is just about being realistic about who your child is.
  4. Your child needs time to relax.  Everyone needs down time.  You child might be enjoying the activities, but if you perceive that as a family you are always rushing, you might want to make a change.  This is a way to teach your child about balance in life.
  5. The motivation to excel at the activity–whether music, drama or sports–should come mostly from your child.  Of course, there are times that you insist on practicing or on going to the game.  This is part of teaching your child to be responsible.  But overall, whose dream is being pursued?  Are you hoping for a sports scholarship to college?  Are you pursuing your dream through your child?  Think about where the motivation comes from.

There are valuable lessons that parent should insist upon.  Children need to be responsible about doing their homework, about helping out around the house, and about doing their best at whatever they do.  They also need to be taught to be good friends.  I like to think that as parents we offer children many opportunities to learn new skills and activities.   Sometimes our ideas work out very well, and sometimes they don’t.  This is how you and your child learn about who she is.  Maybe she has no skill for basketball, but she loves soccer.  Maybe she has no skill at sports, but she loves to play the piano or guitar.  All children benefit from a sense of accomplishment.  Hopefully they experience that in a number of arenas.  These activities provide settings in which to teach good sportsmanship, pride in accomplishment, and self-discipline.  It is my experience that these lessons come most easily when there is balance in life and a good fit between the child and the activity.

Play Time With Your Child–Fun Leads to Cooperation

Often parents come to me feeling quite frustrated with the relationship they have with their child.  They report that the child is defiant, disobedient and rude.  Often the child has ADHD which only compounds the difficulties.  Whatever, the cause, it is a painful situation for all involved.  Parents feel unappreciated and angry.  Children report that they feel their parents don’t like them.  In fact, they all love each other, but they do not know how to improve the situation.  Hence the visit to the child psychologist.  Parents want to find out how to get their children to do as they are told.  This is a reasonable goal. Children want their parents to stop nagging; this is also a reasonable goal.

Some parents are taken aback when I recommend they spend twenty minutes a day with their child doing whatever the child wants.  “What? they wonder. ” This child is disrupting the family, and I am supposed to spend special time with her?  Shouldn’t I wait on that until she is compliant?  Are all child psychologists on the child’s side?”    Here is the reasoning behind this.  Before you can assert your authority without nagging and scolding, you need to build a better relationship. Children comply and obey in large part because they feel cared for and understood.  It is not a good relationship if a child obeys only because the parent has authority.  I think of this twenty minutes as investment.   It gives you relationship capital to draw upon when you have to tell her to turn off the television and start her homework.

Here is what you do.  Tell your child that you want to set aside twenty minutes a day (or fifteen but not less) to do an activity that she chooses.  That’s right.  You might end up playing blocks, Barbie, or X-Box. You might watch a television show.   As long as this is an activity that you allow in your home, it’s an acceptable choice.  Your job is to take an interest in the play and let your child take the lead.  Perhaps you will only watch your child play a video game, but you can ask questions and remark upon his or her skill.  Perhaps you’ll be ask to take a controller yourself in which case, you might be soundly beaten.  Again, you can ask for advice and model good sportsmanship.  I think you are getting the picture now.  This is time that your child structures.

You might think that this would be a good time to ask about homework or to remind your child to take out the trash when you are done.   This is a conflict free zone.  Your task is to interact with your child without asking questions about anything besides the present activity and without giving advice.  Of course, if your child asks your thoughts on how to play a better game of mancala, you can reply.

I have been interested to note that many other professionals recommend this strategy when beginning to work on children’s behavior.  In his excellent book, Parenting Children with ADHD, Vincent J. Monastra, Ph.D., recommends spending fifteen minutes a day “doing something nice with your kid.”  He recommends this because, “kids need a reason to learn” new behaviors.  Your relationship with your child is a big motivator.  Russell Barcley, Ph.D., another expert on ADHD, ( also makes this recommendation in his writing about parenting children with ADHD.   Some of you might be familiar the work of pediatrician, Stanley Greenspan, M.D., author of The Challenging Child (  He has strategy he calls “Floor time.”  Floor time encompasses much more than I have described here, but it starts with joining your child in a pleasant activity of the child’s choice.  From there Greenspan explains how a parent can involve the child in interactions that ask for more mature complex behaviors in very small steps.

Look for my newsletter coming soon with more ideas about using play to improve your relationship with your child.


Free play

One night last week I came home from work and heard unfamiliar sounds in my back yard.  There was a whiffle ball game going on in the back yard next to mine.  Five or six children played on their own and their voices drifted over to my screened porch.  Every now and then the game spilled into my not so neat perennial garden when the fielders missed a ball.  “To your left, Matt, in the tall flowers,” I called.  He tiptoed over, found the ball, and resumed play.  It’s clear to me that it’s more pleasant to have children playing in the neighborhood than to have a pristine garden.  No six foot fence separates our yards. By dusk all was quiet.  I presume they went inside for a bath and bedtime.

Last week was the first full week of summer for children in my town.  Many summer programs start this coming week.  Last week, there were lots of opportunities to hear parents and children hanging out.  Prior to this the children were busy with homework after supper.  If they weren’t  doing homework, they might have been at a baseball or soccer practice.  Maybe they were practicing their instruments.  They were busy.

But last week there was leisure for many families.  Parents did not need to get the children up and out by a certain time.  And children could play outside on their own.  I heard from families I work with that the relaxed schedule was very welcome.  Of course, not every family can enjoy this respite.  Many working parents must have their children in some sort of care unless they are on vacation.

Nonetheless, last week gave me a welcome reminder of the benefits of free play.  I could hear children settling disputes on their own, developing their social skills.  I heard parents playing ball with their children and teaching them the finer points of sports. I heard older children teaching the younger ones the rules of the game. All of these facilitate child development.  Children develop socially and cognitively through play.  Many of these same processes happen in organized activities.  But we tend to forget that children can experience these benefits without the structure of a sports team or a dance class.  Our lives are not organized to allow this much of the time.  Next week it is likely that most of these children will be in organized camp activities where they will continue to experience the benefits of play, I hope.

Last week it was a pleasure to hear and see children and families enjoying summer play.


Summer Routines for You andYour ADD Child

Last week I wrote about some ways to find interesting activities for you and your children.  The next task is to think about how to incorporate activities into a reasonable routine for your family.  For the first few days it is delightful to let everyone sleep in (including you, perhaps) and let the day unfold as it will.  But before long, you and the children will chafe. It is hard to get kids going when they’ve become used setting their own agenda.  And soon they become bored.

  • We know that children with ADD and Executive Function Disorder do better with predictable routine.  Once you’ve set a schedule (loosely defined) your children are more likely to go along with it and cooperate with transitions.
  • We also know that these children seek novelty.  While some parts of the day will be the same from day to day, you can vary the day and add interest by planning outings (see last week’s blog).
  • Schedule time that children entertain themselves.  This gives you time to make phone calls, pay bills, or read your own book.
  • Plan with your children how much time they can spend watching television, using the computer, or playing video games.   You can set a specific time of day for these activities.  Or you can set an amount of time for the day.
  • Be clear with your children about their responsibilities, such as, picking up their things, making their beds, reading on their own (for children who don’t choose this themselves), practicing an instrument, and so forth.
  • Vary the activities so that there are quiet times and physical activity times.  Remember that your children will be calmer and more focused if you get them moving for part of the day.  Some will do this on their own.  Some will need to be signed up for swim lessons or have a family bike ride.
  • Make sure that you include time that you spend with your children playing a game, walking to the library, riding a bike–whatever you might enjoy.
  • Consider trading child care with another parent so you get some time off.  Summer brings much more togetherness.  You and they could use a break.  Camps bring this break, but play dates can as well.

If you can establish a routine, transitions will be much smoother.  You will know when you will get a break, which can add to your patience.  Your children will likely be more happy with a range of activities.  Now, enjoy your summer and Happpy Fourth of July!

Summer and Your Child with ADD

All of a sudden school is out and the children are home.  They are looking at you for activities, or they might assume they are beginning eight weeks of unlimited television, computer and video games.  Not your vision of summer?  Let’s think about it together.  Many families can provide their children with a week or two of camp at a local Y or scout camp.  But that still leaves a lot of summer free time.   Don’t get me wrong.  I think it’s great for children and parents to have a rest from tightly scheduled school year routines.  But we know that kids with ADD do better when they have some structure,  predictability and new things to look forward to.

Look around your area for low-cost, entertaining events and activities for children.  Many towns offer these.

  • Check out your local library.  A weekly trip to the library can be a pleasant outing.  Everyone gets books and maybe videos.  Free.  In addition, many libraries have fun summer reading  lists and related events for children.  There might be a story hour for younger children.
  • See whether your town offers events for children in the summer.  There might be a puppet show or a magic show.
  • Look for a public place to swim.  Many pools and beaches offer swim lessons and even swim teams for the summer.  It’s a great way to keep you child in shape and entertained for part of the day.
  • Team up with another family.  Perhaps you can share child care.   If you take the children one day, another Mom could take them on another day.  Both win.
  • Back at the library, find out whether they have passes to local museums.  I know that mine does.  You have to sign up in advance, but this could give you and your children something to look forward to.
  • While we’re on museums, they also are likely to offer activities for children in the summer.
  • Sign up for a fun class.  Again, check museums and town listings.  I’ve known children who took classes in rocketry (make your own), photography, and drawing.
  • Purchase a new toy that will keep you child entertained for awhile.  Get a new lego set, arts and crafts supplies, or a slip-n-slide.

I think you get the idea.  One can find activities that won’t break the bank.  Go ahead and take your children to an amusement park or a water park as well, but activites like these will fill the many days in between big events and camp.

Next week I’ll blog about setting a summer routine for those disorganized children with ADD and executive function disorder.