Helping Your Rigid, Anxious Child with Gift Giving and Receiving

December 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

openinggiftsIs gift-giving stressful at your house?  Do you try to find things that your child would like, hoping to surprise her, but then learn that it was not what she had in mind at all?  Gift giving for children who are inflexible in their thinking can be a disappointing exercise in miscommunication.   It takes some careful communication ahead of time to have a happy gift-receiving experience. If you want to surprise you child with a gift, you probably should let go of that.  Children on the spectrum simply don’t do well with surprise.  (I apologize to those who celebrate Hanukkah that I thought of this too late for you.) Read more

Do Lies Make You See Red?

August 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

seeredMany times a year parents come to me for guidance about dealing with their child’s lying.  Usually the situation is that the child has been involved in some activity that she knows her parents disapprove of.  It could be sampling the frosting on a birthday cake before the occasion, or talking to strangers on line or downloading songs on iTunes without permission to use the parents’ credit card.  Parents are very upset about the problem behavior and about the lie.  Often they are somewhat surprised when I recommend that they focus on the behavior the lie was covering up rather than the lie.  I sound like one of those touchy feely psychologists who lets anything go.  Well, not really.  Here are parents’ worries and my responses.  And let me clarify that I’m talking about grade school age children here.

“I told him that if he would just tell me these things, I wouldn’t be so angry.  It’s the lie that makes me mad.”  Really?  You wouldn’t be mad to find out that your child was disobeying you?  We can’t know for sure because you can’t go back and have your child do it differently. I think that the problem started when your child decided or got tempted into engaging in forbidden behavior.  From that point on she had a secret to keep and the lie was a given.

“Why does she do this?  Is she going to be a criminal?”  I encourage parents not to  “jump into the future” about these lies.  In this situation a lie is really what we call “denial.”  Psychologists say that adults use denial when they do things like keep smoking even when they have heart disease.  Part of them is pretending there’s no problem.  Your child’s mind is essentially saying to her, “Let’s pretend this never happened.”  It’s an immature response, but what do we expect from a child?  In addition, when tempers run high, children are more likely to fall back on immature strategies.

In fact, I find more lying in families where parents are likely to fly into a rage about misbehavior and to punish harshly.  In those situations children become more angry and sneaky and they try mightily to avoid being found out.  Hence, they lie.

The lies I worry about happen with older children who might make detailed fabrications to cover up behavior that is planned, not impulsive.  Younger children who are caught in the act, or who are tempted by very attractive online options are in a different situation.

“So do I just let this go? That doesn’t seem right. I’ll always be worrying that she’s lying.”  Well, no, you can’t just let it go.  It’s very important to emphasize that you need everyone to be truthful in your family.  Just don’t make it the main issue.  Focus more on the behavior that your child is trying to hide.  Find out why this behavior was so appealing (not too difficult with the cake).  Explain what your concern is and come up with some ways to deal with it in the future.  Maybe you need better internet controls to protect your child.  Maybe you just need to get your child to help you patch up the frosting or apologize for spoiling the cake.  Those are the real problems.

I’m very interested to hear responses to this piece as I expect that some will disagree.  Let me know what your experiences are with lying in your household.

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Photo credit:  Visual Artist Frank Bonilla on Flickr

Is It Misbehavior?

October 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

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

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

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


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Phot o credit:  Alex Semenzato on Flickr

Back to School Jitters

August 14, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

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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Photo Credit: dos ojos on Flickr

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.

Click here to sign up for my newletter, Parents’ Corner, and receive my free report on how to improve morning routine with children who have ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or other executive function deficits:  Smoothing Out Your Morning.

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

February 20, 2012 by · 8 Comments 

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.


Click here to sign up for my newletter, Parents’ Corner, and receive my free report on how to improve morning routine with children who have ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or other executive function deficits:  Smoothing Out Your Morning.

Cliff Notes of Effective Parents

January 27, 2012 by · 4 Comments 

I want to share a “Cliff Notes” version of how to be a more effective parent.  These are the things I find myself advising over and over.  While they sound simple, I know they are not easy in the moment. I’ve been there too.  Here’s the short version.

  1. Be brief.  Kids really do stop listening after a couple of sentences.  It’s good to explain why, but if you’ve done that many times,  don’t say it over and over.  Lectures are not effective.
  2. Be calm. Directions given calmly are much more likely to elicit a good result.  Angry tone is likely to increase anxiety and or defiance.  Calm and firm can go together. 
  3. Be positive.  Tell your child the behavior you want to see, not what you are seeing and don’t like.  For instance, tell him to pick up his shoes rather than complaining about all the times in the past week you have tripped over the shoes.  That leads to the “not listening, fingers in ears, la-la-la” state of mind.  (See #1 above.)
  4. Listen. When a problem presents or persists, find out what your child would suggest.  This is especially true for older elementary school children and up.  You might agree or not.  Perhaps you can incorporate part of a child’s suggestion in your solution.  In any case, if you have listened and responded, your child will feel heard. Very important.
  5. Be respectful. Yes, even when you are not being treated with respect.  Stay to the high ground. Name calling, swearing, shouting — all actually model the behavior you don’t want.  (Not saying this is always easy.)
  6. End fruitless interactions.  This refers to the times you have said no to a second ice cream or a sleep-over.  You’ve even explained why in a respectful way, but your child persists in asking why, etc.  It is perfectly alright to say that you have said all you have to say on the topic and stop talking.  Hard to do with a very persistant child but very worthwhile. I wish you fortitude.

Good Luck in your challenging yet rewarding job of parenting!

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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.