Creating Order for the Disorganized Child

April 4, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

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

March 26, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

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

March 20, 2012 by · 8 Comments 

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?

March 12, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

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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Coping With Road Blocks

February 27, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

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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The Last Word

October 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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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