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Cultivating Emotional Regulation in Children

Developing Your Child’s Muscle for Emotional Regulation

An outsider looking at your family would likely see your behaviors, reactions, mannerisms and yes, jokes, echoed in your child. This isn’t deliberate, children naturally learn from their environment, and they observe you all the time, taking in how you deal with a frustrating phone call, respond to their needs, and relate to your spouse. Those unconscious lessons are sometimes the most powerful ones. While you shouldn’t get performance-anxiety thinking about what kind of role model you are for your child, you should consider what you want them to see. Getting it right for your child is a powerful motivation to get a better handle on managing your own emotions.

There is important work to be done throughout childhood to give your child the tools needed for developing emotional resiliency. One way to think of this is that you are making sure they get the daily vitamin that allows them to develop a healthy relationship with their feelings. Just like the vaccines your child receives to protect them against disease, your work to help them develop the ability to regulate their emotions provides them with the inner strength and coping mechanisms to weather the challenges that your child will inevitably face throughout their life.

This emotional self-regulation begins in infancy as a child learns to sooth himself, for example, being able to fall back to sleep when awoken in the middle of the night. Learning how to share and take turns or developing the ability to concentrate on a given task or activity are also steps along this path. Even at this young age, parents play an important role.

  • Pay attention. Name and label feelings to help your child understand what they are feeling
  • Remain calm when your child gets upset.
  • Support and comfort your child when they are frustrated, tired or angry
  • Simplify tasks into manageable steps and help your child understand how each “bite” connects to the others. Acknowledge accomplishment and mastery both of the steps and the larger goal
  • Comfort using words, gestures and touch as cues like “You sound angry,” “You look sad,” or stroking a sobbing child’s back to comfort and calm them.
  • Show empathy, responding to what a child says or is trying to communicate

Most important is to be a good role model for your child. How do you handle stress? What happens when you get angry? Click here to read Emotional Regulation: A User’s Guide to learn more about managing your own emotions including suggestions for techniques you can use to do so.

Set your child you for success. Don’t push him beyond age appropriate experiences, activities or challenges. Emotional regulation develops over time, in synch with overall growth (click here for a checklist for kids and teens) Remember too that even if he is physically or intellectually precocious, their emotional development is likely not.

By the time your child begins school, her ability to reason will be developing. When she gets angry, you can help her rate her anger and talk through it, so she begins to understand what she is feeling, both emotionally and physically—you can print a chart to post on the refrigerator door for everyone in the family to refer to.

Start to link relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or visualizations you are already practicing, to managing feelings. Try this one: you go from being a robot with all your muscles clenched tight to releasing them to be a limp rag doll. This is an effective way to release tension without having to use a lot of words to explain what is happening. Try it together before watching an episode of a television show or playing a video game with your child, or after coming home from the playground. Make an observation about how doing it makes you feel; you’re planting a seed for your child to understand how he can use his body to help control how he feels.

As a child becomes more verbal and able to name the emotions he is feeling, you can practice coping “self-talk,” teaching them how to coach themselves through a stressful moment. This is something you can model. When a driver cuts you off on the way home from school, narrate what you are doing not to lose your cool. You could say: “That driver makes me crazy, but I’m not going to blast the horn. I’m taking a deep breath and relaxing my shoulders so that I can pay better attention to the road.” Another is to choose a silly word to use (like “marshmallow” or “fizzywhizzy”) when you want to swear at another driver. Adding humor into the equation of letting off steam is another great lesson.

Throughout childhood, talking about feelings is an important step in learning how to manage emotions. Name the emotion, whether it is negative like anger, sadness, stress, or positive like joy, excitement, anticipation. Accept the reaction; let your child know that whatever she is feeling is o.k. and is hard to control. What she can change is her actions, how she responds to the emotion. Find a way to help her to release it by expressing or acting in response to it, as long as she doesn’t hurt herself or someone else, whether it is by writing about them, talking to someone she trusts, giving herself permission to cry or laugh, taking time to relax, working out or channeling her feeling into an intense activity. These are all valuable steps to managing strongly felt emotions. Lastly, help your child figure out what she needs to take care of herself, what sooths her; it may be getting a hug, listening to a favorite playlist, taking a walk or nap, or getting support from a trusted friend. Just as it is important to name emotions, it is important to acknowledge and name what provides comfort. Naming is one way of knowing in both cases.

As your child approaches the teen years, as a parent, you need to step up your game. Adolescents react impulsively and instinctively. Their gut-level interpretation of emotions is controlled by the amygdala. It controls the fight or flight response, the basis of so many poor decisions made by teenagers. Remember that the part of the brain that reasons, plans, considers consequences and counteracts impulses, the pre-frontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. Throughout the teen years, the pre-frontal cortex gradually reins in the amygdala. As a parent, you can short circuit the gut impulsive reactions your teen is feeling.

As the parent, you’re the coach. By calming your teen, slowing her down to think through feelings, actions and consequences, you are helping her make better decisions, and a boost to her developing pre-frontal cortex. You can say: “I want to understand what you are saying – I know it is important. Can you speak to me calmly?” You can then help her consider more rationally what she is feeling and what she wants to do. This can be challenging because you need to juggle your own judgment with your teen’s and you don’t want to take over and draw conclusions and make decisions for her. Another way to think about your role as a parent, is to think about your guidance as providing options which she can explore and choose among. For example, if she sees an upsetting post on social media and she wants to immediately respond by posting something to get back at someone, you can lay out several alternatives that you know are safe and she won’t regret once she’s cooled down. While you have limited the choices, you haven’t taken away your teen’s ability to make a choice – while being a good parent, you’re also an empowering your teen to choose for herself.

Throughout the teen years, all parents and their offspring ride an emotional roller coaster as the push and pull of dependence and self-reliance, a teen’s emerging independent identity, brain development that allows for good judgement to blossom over time, are mixed together in a potent stew. To achieve the result every parent wants for their child, a successful launch into adulthood, instilling the skills of emotional regulation is a cornerstone of good and effective positive parenting. Read Taking Action to Cultivate Your Child’s (and Your Own) Ability to Successfully Regulate Emotions for ideas and suggestions for cultivating emotional resiliency in your family as well as links to additional articles and resources, including helpful YouTube videos to share with your family.

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Emotional Regulation – A User’s Guide

Read the comments made about almost any online article about politics today and you’ll see unrestrained, unfiltered, emotional reactions. Imagine that you respond to everything that triggers a strong emotion in that way. That is a scary thought, also exhausting and unhealthy. Here we’re not talking about politics, but coping with the challenges and stress of the daily routine, family life and simply how you feel about yourself.

It is hard work to effectively manage and respond to strong emotion, but gaining self-mastery on this front will contribute to better physical and mental health, stronger relationships and family life lived on a more even keel. A big piece of this work involves what is commonly called “mindfulness,” which is a catch-all for a range of strategies, practices and practical steps you can use to build up your emotional immune system, your resiliency, so that you have more inner resources to call upon when facing some emotional challenge.

First, you need to understand the interplay between thoughts (including reactions to any given situation), feelings, and behaviors. We all have a reflexive response to something upsetting, like a driver cutting you off on the highway. Your thought:  that person is such an idiot.  You’re feeling: anger–you’re pissed off.  Your behavior: your body may respond, you may grip the steering wheel more tightly, you blurt out some curses or lay on the horn. Not good right? Best case scenario is that the moment passes without any consequences, but it is possible that your moment of road rage escalates into something ugly or more serious where someone gets hurt.

Second, you want to break that cycle. The goal of emotional regulation is not to deny the feeling, the anger at the other driver, but to respond in a way that breaks the connection between the angry thoughts and your behavior. You know how you react in that situation, it’s happened a thousand times before. Instead of laying on the horn, you want to regulate your emotional reaction by a conscious effort. When you feel your grip tightening on the steering wheel, you want to be able to recognize and acknowledge your anger and let go of it. You might: take a few deep breaths, relax your arm and shoulder muscles, or focus on the traffic around you by checking your rear-view mirrors.

It may not be easy to take that second step, but there is a set of strategies that you can learn, commonly called “emotional regulation,” based on a reset of your response to difficult situations. To accomplish this, the first step is to reduce your vulnerabilities, physical as well as emotional. Yeah, taking care of yourself is key.

It goes without saying that when you are well rested, healthy, and feeling positive about yourself and your life you handle stress better. The question to answer, and act on, is: “What can I do to improve my “baseline” well-being?” Using these questions as a framework, here are some suggestions for helping yourself:

  • When I get angry, what do I do? It can be hard to harness anger and keep it from getting out of control.  First, you have to recognize the feeling that is building in you as anger.  Then you have to make the conscious decision not to give in to the anger, but to let go of it.  Move beyond your anger and don’t dwell on what made you angry.  There are techniques and strategies that you can learn that will enable you to accomplish this important step.  The key is that these strategies aren’t about how you handle anger when you are feeling it, but about giving yourself new habits that will kick-in automatically.  This will take a lot of practice.  You have to do the work, and figure out what works for you.  And then you have to practice, so that when you are in a situation where you can feel your anger building, you will be able to better manage your emotions.
  • Am I taking care of myself, getting enough sleep and exercise, is my diet healthy? It’s no secret that healthy habits inoculate you against life’s inevitable hard knocks.
  • Self-care; am I able to carve out time for myself when I need it? More basically, do I recognize when I need to take a time-out? It’s important to build some time to decompress into your routine—it can be a simple as sitting at Starbucks to drink your morning coffee rather than jumping back into the car as soon as the barista hands you your cup. Why do you think the adult coloring books are so popular? Why not try it out?
  • Are you a glass half-empty or half-full kind of person? Ask yourself: “What can I do to change my thinking?” Your outlook really does affect your outcome. Shift your perspective: practice gratitude, adopt a positive posture (stand up straight, smile, look for the ray of sunshine), hang out with optimists and activists; believe in yourself, form a mental picture of success while setting clear achievable goals. Practice kindness; helping someone else does contribute to feeling better about yourself and it does good in the work.
  • Are mindfulness techniques in my tool box? Mindfulness is a mental state where you step back from what you are feeling and thinking and focus on the direct and immediate experience of what your senses tell you. This attention on what you are doing, the space through which you move and the environment around you, allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without self-judgement. This kind of thinking is like doing a set of crunches for your mind. Just as having a stronger core is essential to having a strong body, a mindful practice has a positive impact on well-being, physical and mental health.

Can you imagine a world where reading the comments to an online article or following a twitter thread leads you to say “Wow, what an interesting perspective, now I see the issue in a different way.” rather than screaming at the screen or adding your own angry or sarcastic diatribe? The life most of us live today isn’t very forgiving, and with its rapid pace and stresses, it is essential that to learn how to regulate and manage your emotions so that you still feel them but that they do not determine your actions. You should do this not only to live a healthier life yourself, but also be a role model for your family.

In TAKING ACTION, we have further suggestions for strategies for controlling anger, mindfulness practices and other ways to build up your emotional resiliency—for both yourself and for your family. In FURTHER READING there are links to learn more about the ideas, concepts and practices discussed in this article. 

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Successfully Launching an Independent Young Adult

The trajectory of the teenage years is a process of moving toward independence. Teens grow increasingly independent, disconnected from their parents, and become their own persons. This “launching” is never completely smooth; in fact, conflict is a necessary part of the separation process. This isn’t easy. It’s hard to let go and watch your child embark on their own life and it is challenging for teens to begin to be independent, to make decisions and act for themselves, and not to rely on parents for everything. However, there is much that you can do as a parent to facilitate your teen’s take-off and help them launch successfully. By acknowledging the milestones, you are recognizing that the time is coming. At the same time, you’re helping them to check off the skills necessary for living a successful adult life.

This process is normal, natural and necessary. Fight it and you’ll lose. The solution is to work with it as well as you can — by understanding what’s yours to control and what isn’t.

Doing your own laundry, making decisions about healthy eating, figuring how to get stuff done are all steps along the way. Fighting boredom, sorting out conflict with peers, tolerating discomfort, finding solutions to problems are all skills that are essential to coping with life as an adult. So much in our culture makes it hard for children to develop these skills – helicopter parenting, the explosion in technology, so much structured play and activity and simply the amount of time parents spends on “parenting” are all contributing factors.

A caterpillar struggles to break from its cocoon – teenager sympathizes. However, if you were to cut it free prematurely, it would not survive. It needs to develop the strength it takes to break out of the cocoon in order to survive in the natural world. Similarly, children need to develop the skills, overcome struggles, and see others’ trust in them in order to develop their abilities to succeed. Home should be nurturing and protective but also offer reasonable obstacles to allow children to struggle and gain strength.

Teens should earn what they want with the demonstration of their abilities. For example, your daughter wants a new guitar. She needs to show a willingness to practice and to do some work to earn the instrument. Challenges should strengthen the child’s abilities to follow her dreams. Initiative must come from the child. The cocoon of home must challenge a child’s weaknesses and emphasize her abilities. The goal is to have young people pursue their interests yet experience reasonable consequences.

Sometimes parents vacillate between holding tight reins on behavior and using coercive methods to limit autonomy, and stepping back and allowing complete freedom and excessive leniency. You want to establish a reasonable degree of authority – teens still need a sense that there are boundaries and limits in their lives – and at the same time allow them the space to develop their independence.

As a parent, you need to be able to recognize and allow normal adolescent behavior, while identifying and addressing those behaviors that are linked to severe dysfunction or negative consequences. You don’t want to foster dependence by keeping your teen from their natural movement toward autonomy. Excessive caretaking leaves your teen unprepared to negotiate the world on their own.

At the other extreme, forcing autonomy, prematurely thrusting the adolescent toward separation and greater self-sufficiency before they are ready, is a recipe for failure that can undermine your teen’s self-confidence and willingness to take the necessary risks towards independence. This premature “push” toward independence, may be a result of frustration, giving up, feeling exasperated or burned out.

When you’re trying to break out of the habit of solving your teen’s problems, you need to find the balance between clinging or stifling caretaking and pushing your teen away too soon. This should be an on-going conversation with your teen. The goal is find a balance between your child learning how to negotiate their environment with you modifying the environment for him. Problem solve with him to find ways for him to ensure that take ownership for himself that takes you out of the equation. This ranges from helping him figure out how to get to school with all of his homework and lunch to turning in a major school project on time. At the start of this journey, your teen will be working on getting the simple stuff right and over time, building to more complex and significant accomplishments. (Check out the Taking Action section of our website for practical suggestions.)

There are going to be bumps along this path. As hard as it may be, realize that experimenting with drugs, alcohol & sexuality; changing goals or self-image; frequent break-ups of romantic relationships, interpersonal conflicts – especially with parents; moodiness does not mean that your teen has a mental health issue. However, if such behavior results in self-harm, hospitalization, school avoidance, or other life-threatening or severe quality–of-life impairing consequences, there may be a more serious issue and you should consult a health care professional.

Be aware of offering guidance before your teen asks for it. If there is an issue or problem to discuss, think about the language you use. Ask open-ended questions where your teen comes up with alternatives and possible solutions. Help your teen think through the steps to take or the possible consequences. Your role is to provide advice and direction but your teen should come up with the solution. Afterwards revisit the decision. Ask: How did it go? Would you do it differently next time? What problems did you have? What help do you need? You are teaching them how to learn from their experiences and to avoid making the same mistake multiple times as well as identifying what works well for them.

Just as it is difficult to be in the passenger seat when your teen is first driving and you find yourself pressing an imaginary brake pedal, letting your teen problem solve independently can be a challenge. In the end though, it is satisfying to see your teen begin to successfully navigate life’s challenges.

 

TAKING ACTION

While going to college is, for many teens, the big transition to independence, it isn’t the only one. When adolescents turns 18, they legally become adults. Before your child reaches that milestone, use this checklist of life skills to help them become confidently independent and to have a positive sense of competency in coping with routine life challenges.

  1. Make a meal and clean up afterwards
  2. Wake themselves up on time
  3. Do laundry from sorting to folding and putting it away
  4. Pump gas, even better, know what to do if they’re in a car accident
  5. Pitch in, best: without being asked; second best: only have to be asked once!
  6. Advocate for themselves — coach them the first time
  7. Pack their own bags
  8. Order and pay at a restaurant
  9. Talk to strangers, including: asking directions, clerks and cashiers in stores, at the bank
  10. Go grocery shopping
  11. Plan an outing
  12. Take public transportation including buying the tickets and navigating the system
  13. Online finance skills: how to use online services and understanding keeping personal data secure
  14. Make a medical appointment, pick up prescription at the pharmacy, call health insurance company with question or to find a doctor
  15. Know what to do if they’re in a car accident

Even if your child is still in elementary school, check out “12 Basic Life Skills Every Kid Should Know by High School” . This is a helpful list for figuring out what to expect from your growing child. Think about how you can help your child master these life skills. (http://www.parenting.com/child/child-development/12-basic-life-skills-every-kid-should-know-high-school).

Teens Taking Responsibility for Themselves

Give your college-bound teen the link to CDC’s webpage (College Health and Safety: https://www.cdc.gov/family/college/), which addresses these and other issues:

There are all kinds of tests in college–beyond those you take for a grade.

  • Social and sexual pressures.
  • The temptation of readily available alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy food.
  • The challenge of getting enough sleep.
  • Stress from trying to balance classes, friends, homework, jobs, athletics, and leadership positions.

One way you can do this is to have them add it to the contacts list in their phone.

They’re leaving home in a few weeks…Worried that you’ve forgotten something? This checklist is a useful reminder:

  • Make a plan – what do they do if they get sick?
  • Make a contract – if you’re paying, what are your requirements? Have your teen sign consent for you to get grade reports
  • Nuts and bolts – do they know how to do laundry?
  • What supports did they have in High School that will disappear?
  • Do they need to register with the Office of Students with Disabilities?
  • Create a budget together; identify who is responsible for which expenses
  • How will they choose classes? Plan their schedule?
  • What should they do if they feel homesick?

 

FURTHER READING

Watch the Julie Lythcott Haims’ TEDTalk How to Raise Kids Without Over Parenting and check out her book How to Raise An Adult
Grown and Flown: Parenting Never Ends is a website for parenting teens and young adults from high school through the college years.
It’s not too early to start practicing:

The Six Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Adult Child

The following articles are geared to parents getting ready to send their child off to college.

How to have the pre-college conversation before you’re in the car driving them there.
Launching Conversations: Tips for Parents of College-Bound Kids

Letting go: Tips for Parents of New College Students

Launching your College Student

Feeling melancholy about your child going off to college?
Struggling to Let Go of My College-Student Daughter

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Make New Year’s Resolutions a Family Project

Are you already thinking ahead to the new year? Are you mentally writing your list of resolutions? Here are some suggestions for making those resolutions stick and using them as a teachable moment for your family.

Step 1. Set the right goal. Set specific goals for yourself, ones where progress can be measured, that you know you can reach, and that you define a finish line for yourself. Your resolutions should be relevant to your life now and their achievement will positively impact your life. Ideally, they should serve as way to reset ingrained bad habits. Include making time to accomplish your goal as part of the resolution. Make one of your resolutions something that everyone in the family can participate in.

Step 2. Find community to support your goal. Having a partner or joining a group is one way to get support. Another is to enlist your family. Make your goal your family’s goal. If your resolution is to exercise at least 3 times a week, set a time for the family to get out and move every weekend. Maybe it’s walking in the park Sunday afternoons for half an hour or going to the pool at the Y together for family swim. Whatever it is, make it part of your weekly schedule. Motivate yourself and share that motivation with your family. Make a chart and post it on the fridge; have your kids put the stickers on the chart to mark your accomplishments. Plan for rewards, and include the family in them; they’ll be invested in your success.

Step 3. Plan B and Consequences. You will stumble. Those 2 steps backwards are teachable moments – for yourself and for your family. If your resolution is to skip desserts and sweets during the week and you indulge in a donut one morning, have a plan to walk for an extra half-hour the next day or to pass on desserts the following weekend. Don’t beat yourself up—it’s important to have self-compassion, take responsibility and hold yourself accountable. It’s what you’re trying to teach your kids, right? There’s no better lesson. Not only will you feel good about your own resolutions, you will be modelling setting and accomplishing goals for your family.

For more suggestions about New Year’s resolutions, check out these articles:

How to Make (and Keep) a New Year’s Resolution

5 things to do now for New Year’s resolution success

 

 

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Active Listening Skills Enrich Your Parental Communication

Practice Active Listening with your Family

Have you walked away from a serious conversation with your child feeling like your words were just not sticking? Instead of fuming about how hard it is to get your child to pay attention, try picking up the other end of the stick and focus on developing your’ family’s listening skills. Start by looking at how you listen; as you become a better listener yourself, you will be able to help your child learn these skills.

It’s easy for the important things to go out of focus when you are getting your family’s dinner on the table, helping with homework and making sure your child has what they need for their extra-curricular activity. At times, children are telling us things and we just go through the motions of hearing, but we’re not really listening. When this happens we can miss little cues that tell us how they are doing and how they are feeling.

Think about a conversation where you felt the person you were speaking with really listened to what you were saying. It’s likely that person used some of these active listening techniques that made you feel heard and understood:

  • Eye contact
  • Attentive
  • Open minded
  • Listen to what the person is saying and picture it
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Ask questions to help better understand the situation
  • Empathize with the person
  • Give positive feedback

When you make a conscious effort to use these techniques, communication within the family will be enhanced. Your child will begin to mimic the behaviors observed from the adults around them, especially if you prompt them to use these techniques. Listening and hearing your child is crucial to their development. When your child is sharing a part of their day with you, it’s important to show that you are listening; knowing that they are being heard provides a sense of security and reinforces good self-esteem.

These active listening skills translate into situations when you want to be an active parent and help your child make good decisions. Listening well does not mean you always agree with what your child is saying. Children do look for affirmation from their parents;whether or not you agree with what your child says or how they handled a situation, take a step back and listen in order to try to understand where your child is coming from before jumping in with your opinion, ideas or judgment.

Take that opportunity to think about what it felt like at your child’s age; what things were like for you at that point in your life; what is a big deal to you then is not so important today.  Remember that children relate to things they have experienced, as an adult and a parent, you can provide perspective that can help a child think about and understand their own experience. Your child learns about how to communicate in every conversation they have. Making some of these techniques part of how your family talks with each other, you will be benefiting their ability to communicate with their peers, at school and in social situations generally. Being an effective listener helps make an active learner, as well as providing valuable skills for problem solving and resolving conflict. These skills also help build a strong foundation for your family’s relationships and communications; while important in daily life, they can be crucial when faced with challenging situations, and provide a framework for working out conflict.

Try using these tips to help you get the best out of a conversation with your family and will build bridges to better communication:

  1. Set up some one on one time with each on one your children, whether they are helping you make dinner, set the table etc.
  2. Focus on them, ask them how their day was, ask open ended questions, make sure they know you are interested on what they have to say.
  3. Try not to interrupt if they are telling you a story about some behavior you don’t really agree with, try to ask questions that are not judgmental, for example; “why do you think you reacted that way?” “how did you feel after you had that reaction?” help them sort through the emotions and come up with their own conclusions.
  4. Put yourself in their position, try to listen and not over analyze what they are saying, remember they are talking to you, they want to trust you with their stories and feelings.
  5. Maybe you can share an experience where something similar has happened to you, and you can offer some comfort.
  6. Restate parts of the story, so your child knows you are listening and this also helps you better understand the context of the story.
  7. Repeat with each child, sometimes having these conversations as a group may have some family members feel left out and not heard.

Over time, using these techniques will help develop your family’s listening “muscle.” According to Stephen Walton from The Positive Parenting Centre website: “It’s critical to model your capacity to listen and understand.  In turn, your child will instinctively develop active listening techniques of their own.  They will become less argumentative and defensive, become more democratic and develop emotional maturity.” Be the best listener you can be to help promote good communication and understanding among your family.  Active listening is not only about paying attention, it is about engaging in dialogue and one important pay-off is deeper and richer family relationships.

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Helping Your Family Cope: Responding to Terrifying Events

When another mass shooting takes place, as a parent it is can be challenging to manage your own reaction while figuring out how what to say to your child. The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network suggests that parents should start the conversation about what has happened, as not saying anything makes events seem more threatening. (Click here for their brief guide.)

Find out what your child already knows, and listen carefully for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears and concerns. Take the time to provide correction information and encourage your child to ask questions. Answer those questions directly, no matter how difficult the question. You might be asked whether something similar could happen here. While it’s important to answer honestly, your child may be looking for reassurance that your family will be safe. Find the right moment to talk about your own family’s plan for keeping safe in a crisis.

Limit media exposure, especially for very young children. Be aware that the constant barrage of news updates repeating the same information, especially when audio or video recordings of the attack are played, can be very disturbing to a child. Limit your own exposure to the coverage so that you can focus on what your child needs.

Don’t be surprised if your child’s behavior changes, even if you have a teen. Even if your teen isn’t talking, they may be thinking about what has happened. Keep the conversation going, be patient with your family (and yourself) and provide an extra dose of comfort and understanding. Reach out for help if you are worried that a family member doesn’t “bounce back” in a reasonable time. Sometimes traumatic events act as a kind of emotional trigger.

Be a positive role mode, express empathy for victims, and use this as an opportunity to share ideas for coming with difficult situations like this tragedy. Find the good in the story — how first responders acted, how people helped and protected each other or the people who lined up to give blood. While there may not be a concrete way to help in the way we sent relief supplies and contributions to Porto Rico and Mexico after the hurricane and earthquake — thoughts and prayers for the victims is an affirmation of care and concern that is important to express and share with your family.

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Summer Countdown to College Blast-Off

The summer before starting college is a time of transition for recent high school graduates, but before long the summer will have flown by and you’ll be packing the car to move your college freshman into the dorm.

To help ensure a successful launch, you should begin laying the groundwork now. Unlike in high school, summer work isn’t about reading 3 or 4 books, it’s about life skills and some serious conversations.

Start with the basics but don’t stop there.

  1. Laundry: make your teen do their own, from stripping their bed and throwing in the towels to sorting their clothes. Don’t take it for granted that they know how often they need to change the sheets, or how much laundry can go into the machine at once and how much detergent to use. It may seem obvious, but remind them not to leave wet clothes in the washer (mentioning laundry room etiquette isn’t a bad idea either and can be a helpful segue to a conversation about adjusting to living in a communal setting).
  2. Housekeeping: if your teen isn’t already helping around the house with housekeeping, a few practical lessons like sweeping the dust balls from under the bed, sewing buttons back onto shirts, advice about making sure that food left in the fridge isn’t a science experiment and keeping a box of baking soda in the fridge to absorb odors. Don’t just talk, enlist them in housekeeping at home now if they don’t help out already.
  3. Transportation: while your teen may know how to get into New York City and navigate the subway, they may not know ways of getting home from campus. Review the options and their costs. Hint: if coming home for Thanksgiving requires flying or taking the train, buy the tickets now. Make a hotel reservation for Parents Weekend now too — if you decide not to go, you’ll have plenty of time to cancel. Don’t freak out, but some parents make reservations for graduation now too!

If your child will have a car on campus, open the hood and review basic maintenance like checking the oil and other fluids, knowing where to go for service, and how to get help – walk them through calling AAA or the insurance company.

  1. Budgeting is a big issue. While the college’s meal plan may, in theory, cover most meals, your child will have other expenses. You’ll have to do some homework, but come up with a realistic amount for your child to manage and how much you will contribute. Talk about how to handle academic related expenses like books and materials, meals and entertainment, travel and unexpected expenses.

If your child doesn’t already have a checking account, open one now (assuming that they’ll be able to access their bank easily from campus). They’ll need to know how to write a check, send a payment electronically, know what ATM and other fees they’ll pay in various circumstances, and how to bank online securely. If you’re giving them a credit card, make the parameters for using the card are clear.

Include cell phone and data plans in this conversation, how much data they can use and how to manage their usage – reminding them to limit social media apps to Wi-Fi is one easy to rein in data consumption.

Health care: don’t leave doctors’ appointment and health forms for the last moment. If your child will be on your family’s health insurance at college, be sure the waiver form is sent in so you don’t get billed for the college’s plan. Be sure that your student goes to school with their own insurance card and know how the plan works (For example: is there a deductible? If they don’t feel well, where should they go for care; what to do in an emergency.) Ask them to sign a HIPAA release form at the doctor’s office so that you can interact with the doctor on their behalf.

Make sure they know how to get help if they’re in distress. Starting college can be an emotionally volatile experience and your child needs to know that you back them 100%. Many 18-year-olds go to college feel that if they stumble, they have failed; they need to know that they will stumble and that reaching out for support is a sign of success. For mental health, this support ranges from the RA in their dorm to the college’s counseling service, with hotlines and other services in between.

Academic support services at college aren’t just for students with special needs. Most colleges have resources to help with writing papers and working out math problem sets as well as faculty advisors who help map out your child’s academic progress. Review all the available resources together, consider making a cheat sheet for yourself so that you can make helpful suggestions when that tearful call comes. Know the college’s policy and procedure for communicating with parents, but if you are truly worried about your child, you should not hesitate to contact the college.

Your college student needs to know that it is ok to be a squeaky wheel. Not addressing a concern, whether emotional, physical, academic or social is not a sign of maturity. Using available resources is.

  1. Consider making a contract with your student about their obligations. You and your child need to agree on academic expectations (GPA, number of credits that have to be earned in a semester). Consider asking your child to sign a release allowing you to see their grades and transcripts. When you have this conversation, remember that some students do struggle to adjust to college and it takes them some time to get find their academic footing; make sure your expectations are mindful of this; the last thing you want is for your child to be worried about what you are going to say if they are doing their best and they are struggling. You should have the same conversation for illicit substances. Talk through the consequences for drinking and drug use (including casual marijuana).
  2. Social and sexual pressures. There have been plenty of headlines about sexual assault on college campuses. Make sure you sit down and talk with your child about these issues and how connected they are to drinking. You may feel that you sound like a broken record, but the message that alcohol abuse has serious consequences is essential. Make sure your child knows how to take care of themselves and to look out for their friends. Talk through scenarios of what to do when handed a drink at a party or if a friend has had too much to drink. It’s not a bad idea to describe the symptoms and consequences of alcohol poisoning as it is not uncommon to find a fellow student passed out in the hall of the dorm. Don’t skip this conversation if your teen has never been interested in engaging in these behaviors in high school. Even if they will be living in the substance-free dorm they need this information.
  3. Encourage participation in an extra-curricular activity. It’s a way to meet people somewhere other than at parties; having a non-academic interest is a kind of safety valve that builds a social network and can help keep academic pressure in perspective. Exercise – even if it is playing Quidditch – and some kind of mindfulness practice are other important tools for scaffolding success at college.
  4. Make a plan for communicating with your child when they are at college. Plan to communicate reactively – don’t start your day by texting “just to say hi.” Let your child establish the rhythm for communicating with you, but set up a regular time once a week to check in. Once they’re at school, resist the temptation to call just to hear their voice. Before you wave good bye at the dorm in September, work out how you will communicate that you need a response from them and what are your agreed expectations. Care packages are always welcome, be they a batch of chocolate chip cookies, a gift card or a framed photo of a favorite photo of you together when they were little. Letting go isn’t easy, but an easy way to avoid being a helicopter parent by being reactive in communicating with your child, especially at the beginning of the Fall semester. However, you know your child best and if you sense that there are warning signs that something is seriously not right, trust your instincts.

This list could go on, issues like time management, finding a mentor and many others, but at some point, your child is going to turn off. Don’t make this a marathon session. Don’t start with a long conversation, begin with the building blocks of independence like sending them to the doctor’s appointment alone (if they are over 18), or having them make a budget for what they want in their dorm room and letting them loose to fill up a cart on the Bath, Bed and Beyond website. Make your own list of what issues you want to cover before the car gets loaded up at the end of the summer. Put what is most important to you and your family at the top and start your first conversation, maybe when you’re helping them sort their own laundry.

Lastly, savor this last summer with them home, in a flash it will be over and like the milestones of their first words, riding a 2-wheeled bike, and graduating from high school, this time will be a memory. Enjoy it and use it to ensure that your college student has a full tool-box for college success.

Taking Action

Give your college bound teen the link to CDC’s webpage (College Health and Safety: https://www.cdc.gov/family/college/), which addresses these and other issues:

There are all kinds of tests in college–beyond those you take for a grade.

  • Social and sexual pressures.
  • The temptation of readily available alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy food.
  • The challenge of getting enough sleep.
  • Stress from trying to balance classes, friends, homework, jobs, athletics, and leadership positions.

One way you can do this is to have them add it to the contacts list in their phone.

Worried that you’ve forgotten something? This checklist is a useful reminder:

  • Make a plan – what do they do if they get sick?
  • Make a contract – if you’re paying, what are your requirements? Have your teen sign consent for you to get grade reports
  • Nuts and bolts – do they know how to do laundry?
  • What supports did they have in High School that will disappear?
  • Do they need to register with the Office of Students with Disabilities?
  • Create a budget together; identify who is responsible for which expenses
  • How will they choose classes? Plan their schedule?
  • What should they do if they feel homesick?

Make time for family fun:

Cook together their favorite recipes, especially the easy ones that they can reproduce in their dorm’s kitchen to wow their roommates. Make index card copies of the recipes and an online version that you can send to them later in the year.

Sit down together to make a photobook online and order 2 copies, one for you at home and one to send with them to college.

Make plans to check something off of your child’s bucket list before they leave for school. If the whole family can participate, even better.

Further Reading

Additional suggestions for how to have the pre-college conversation before you’re in the car driving them there.

Launching Conversations: Tips for Parents of College Bound Kids

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maureen-price-tillman/launching-conversations-t_b_694622.html

Letting go: Tips for Parents of New College Students

http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/letting-go-new-college-students/

Launching your College Student

www.northshorecenterllc.com/userfiles/229143/file/Launchingyourcollegestudent.pdf

Feeling melancholy about your child going off to college?

Struggling to Let Go of My College-Student Daughter

https://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/01/struggling-to-let-go-of-my-college-student-daughter/

It’s not too early to start practicing:

The Six Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Adult Child

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/28/adult-children-parenting_n_1916536.html

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Mindful Parenting: Getting Your Emotions Under Control

Mindful Parenting Handout (pdf) English | Español

We live saturated with information, plugged into devices using applications that daily, hourly and minute-by-minute repeat and reinforce messages that convey information, anxiety and concern. As parents we not only have to figure out what age-appropriate access we want for our children, but also how to manage our own responses to this never-ending barrage.

This has nothing to do with any particular party or point of view. Being plugged in fans the flames of anxiety and outrage. The gulf between people holding opposing opinions often feels insurmountable. Change always produces anxiety and everyone can agree that things really did change with this election.

We’re familiar with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once someone has suffers a significant trauma, the emotional impact of each subsequent upheaval or disaster is amplified. For many people in metropolitan New York, whether or not you were personally affected, 9/11 was a significant traumatic event.  The toll from Super-Storm Sandy, the Great Recession, the 2016 election, and more personal events, like the death of a loved one, don’t entirely disappear. Loss of resiliency makes it harder to bounce back. Being aware of this helps to counteract the emotional rollercoaster caused by the latest upsetting event or news story.

What is a parent to do? We have to engage this issue on three fronts:

  1.    Manage your own reactions; be aware of the face you present to your child and how you talk with your family about issues and concerns. This isn’t only about what is age-appropriate information, but how to talk to your child about fears and anxiety.
  2.    Control the 24-hour news cycle. How much information is too much information? You want your child to be involved in civic life, but does that mean they should have an open window to the full range of what you’re thinking and feeling? Your answers to these questions are highly personal; whatever you decide, you should be aware of the effect on your child’s sense of well-being and security—regardless of the risks and dangers you feel.
  3.    Learn how to disagree and how to have a dialogue with someone with a different viewpoint. Living where polarization and not compromise is the norm in politics is one thing, but think about how the behavior seen on the nightly news would translate onto the playground. Children need to see dialogue and compromise modeled.

The first step is to become aware yourself, about how you are reacting – whether it is to something you read on your Facebook feed or your response to an “idiot” driver in front of you when you’re rushing to get your child to school on time.

Here are some suggestions for taking that first step:

This may sound simple, but it is powerful. Just unplug. Park everyone’s smart phone or tablet when you walk in the door at the end of the day. After checking in after dinner, resist the urge to read the umpteenth update.

Identify the positive and name it. This doesn’t mean that the causes of your stress are to be ignored. Try to find something good in your day. The positive feelings you generate will empower you to face the scary stuff.

Practice some mindfulness techniques when your blood begins to boil. Step away from what you’re reading, think about the present moment; really pay attention to your child, focus on what they are doing and try to identify and think about what all of your senses are telling you. Think about making that moment an indelible memory.

Come up with your own “curse” to use when you feel a blast of frustration while driving. That made up expletive allows you to vent but also introduces humor into the moment, a valuable tool to diffusing anger.

Focus on keeping your interactions human. Really look at the grocery store cashier, smile and ask how their day is going when they start to ring up your purchases. Let that car trying to pull out of a parking spot on a busy road go, rather than racing around it.

Express gratitude; this includes to your spouse and children for simply making you smile. Say it and mean it.

Show empathy and act on it.

We’ve all be through a lot lately. Bringing your own emotional thermostat under control is a first step to managing stress and anxiety. Not only are you reducing your own levels of anxiety, you are laying a strong foundation being able to help your child learn to regulate their emotions.

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Taming Technology

The start of a new year is a time when many people make resolutions. Often, within a month or two those resolutions are sheepishly neglected. Now that you and your family are back in a routine after the busy holiday season, it’s a great time to reset everyone’s tech time.

Just because you may need your child to work the remote or your tween rolls their eyes when you ask them about Facebook and you remember that Facebook is sooo yesterday, you shouldn’t throw in the towel, put in your ear buds and settle for feeling uneasy about the latest app your child may or may not be using.

Managing your family’s technology use is important for several reasons. Your child’s brain development is impacted (click here to read more); social media savvy is part of twenty-first century social skills; and figuring out how to keep your family active and healthy while they’re plugged-in is a challenge that won’t be going away (click here for ideas on encouraging your family to develop life-long health habits).

How then do parents guide their children’s use of electronics when it is common to see smart phones and tablets in the hands of many children and it can be challenging for many high school students to manage without access to a computer?

Take the time to review guidelines for children’s media use (like those of the American Academy of Pediatrics here) and to map out for yourself how your family members, including yourself, need to use technology.

It may make sense to try to log everyone’s use – sometimes just facing the facts (how much time is spent looking down at a smart phone, how many text messages are sent and received in a day or how many hours are spent in a sedentary way in front of a screen) is enough of a wake-up call to change behaviors and routines.

Take time to think about your family’s values and goals. Think about what habits you want to cultivate in your children. Use a family meeting as a time to engage, as a family, in thinking about what is gained by having a cell phone “corral” where everyone in the family parks their devices during dinner; about the life-long benefits of being physically active every day; talk about the importance of a good night’s sleep, and that putting away devices an hour before turning out the lights contributes to a restful night.

Getting your family’s online time or video gaming under control may seem daunting, but it is like setting any other limit. You need to think about your family’s values, set and enforce the limits and boundaries that fit into those values, and model appropriate behavior. You can use a tool like The Family Media Plan to customize your family’s guidelines on screen time.

Don’t skip the step of learning about how your child uses social media and games. Become your child’s mentor in navigating the complicated life of a “digital native.” (Check out The Mentorship Manifesto to learn more.)

  • Sit down, pick up a controller and play. Don’t just lecture your tween on their phone becoming a body part.
  • Get past their hostility and ask them what they like about Snap-chat (or whatever App has taken its place) and what they don’t like. For them “social media” really is social, it is how they engage with their peers, so the emotional issues of adolescence are part of their electronic lives.
  • Explore what makes them happy and what is hurtful and upsetting. Start a conversation about what they are feeling and how their actions can change that.
  • Help them to understand that the reason their friend may not have responded to the dozen text messages your child sent may have nothing to do with how much they are liked,
  • Encourage them to think twice before sending a sarcastic reply to a friend or forward an inappropriate photograph and to consider how their words might be misunderstood.
  • Don’t forget to help them fix it when a message they sent blows up in their face; help them understand however fleeting the message may seem in cyber-space, the hurt caused by words can last a lifetime.
  • No matter how uncomfortable talking with your teen about “sexting” may make you both feel; it is an important conversation to have.

There are dangers out there. Teach yourself and your family to own your cyber-identities. Take steps together to protect your information. The half-life of photos online is radioactive; it doesn’t go away and can haunt someone forever. Model good habits by asking your child permission to post their photograph on your Facebook page (click here for a great article explaining why).

The next step: put down the tablet now; log-off the computer; or turn the alerts on your phone and put it away. You can follow up on the links in this article later. As one media expert puts it: Stop Texting, Enjoy Life. Now.

Embedded Links in this article:

Impact on children’s brain development: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain

Keeping your family active: https://www.healthiergeneration.org/live_healthier/get_moving/

American Academy of Pediatrics parents’ resources, including guidelines for children’s media use:

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/AAP-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

 

Family Media Plan: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx

The Mentorship Manifesto proposed by Devorah Heitner

Why I Started Asking Permission Before Sharing My Kids’ Photos on Facebook by Heidi Stevens: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/stevens/ct-ask-kids-permission-for-facebook-pix-balancing-0904-20160904-column.html

It’s a big step from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for children’s media use, issued in October 2016 to figuring out how to manage technology in your own home. The AAP’s guidelines are a good starting point:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx

But how to translate these into what works for your family; getting your family’s online time or video gaming under control may seem daunting, but it is like setting any other limit. You need to think about your family’s values, set and enforce the limits and boundaries that fit into those values, and model appropriate behavior. You can use a tool like The Family Media Plan to customize your family’s guidelines on screen time.

Become a more alert digital user. Talk about buying digital devices before you make a purchase of a new technology. Engage your children in a conversation about the benefits and downsides of introducing the latest electronic device – whether it’s a smart thermostat or an Amazon Echo. When appropriate, the limits to using the device should be part of the conversation.

Keep electronics in common areas of your home. Don’t put a television or computer in your child’s bedroom. Create a digital corral for everyone in the family to keep their devices; everyone’s cell phones go there at dinnertime and at night. Getting our digital lives under control means that everyone in the family follows the same rules. It doesn’t do any good if your child’s smart phone is put away when you go out for pizza, if you’re answering work emails.

Make a plan to change your family’s use gradually: introduce the goal at a family meeting and brainstorm together what boundaries to set and how to follow them. Don’t just tell your child to put away the tablet and “do something.” Have alternatives, like board games or craft supplies, readily available. Help your child find something else to do. Accept that you may have to deal with a bit more whining or listening to your child say “I’m bored.”

Develop your own tech-savvy and understanding of the intersection of technology and human values. Think of yourself as your child’s technology mentor more than their digital monitor. When your tween comes downstairs feeling sad and says that they don’t have any friends and explains that their friend didn’t immediately respond to all the text messages they sent out, it’s a teachable moment about empathy. Ask your child if they always respond instantly upon receiving a text. Aren’t there times when they’re busy doing something else or don’t have their phone with them. Children and teens are just learning how to communicate and how to calibrate their responses. Teach them to ask themselves: “Are you sure you really want to send this?” when they’re angry or upset. Help them figure out how to fix it if something they have sent hurt someone else. Remember that you, as a parent, can get lost in the fog of your own digital use, making you inaccessible to your child. Repeat the mantra for yourself as well as your child: “Stop texting, enjoy life.”

There are a number of helpful resources, from the Family Media Plan mentioned above, to helpful books, blogs and online resources. Check them out!

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Sharing Family Values with Teens

A key part of your communicating with your child is about your underlying values and the expectations you have for your family.  Before you read any further, take some time to figure out with your partner what is important to you and what expectations and boundaries you have and how far are you willing to compromise. If you are clear about what the line in the sand is for your family choosing your battles becomes easier. Then, pick your spot (where no means no and you are committed to enforcing the consequences for your teen crossing that line) and stick to it. If it is clear to everyone in the family, dealing with your child, or in a more significant way, your teen, become much less emotionally charged.

When a child is small, we often use boundaries to protect them and keep them away from harm or danger. As they grow older and become teenagers, these boundaries naturally shift and change, but it’s still important to maintain your boundaries so that your teen knows what kind of behavior is acceptable, and feels safe knowing that you care. As all parents know, children like to test the limits of their boundaries and teenagers are no exception. In fact, they can be particularly adept at digging their heels in when orders are given. One way to stop this happening is to let them know why something is important.

Boundaries work far better if they are made and agreed together with teenagers. When teenagers understand the reasons behind your decision and see that you’ve taken their opinions into account, they may be more motivated to co-operate.

Rules can help you keep your child safe, but as they get older you will need to negotiate and let them take more responsibility for their own safety. There may be times when your values conflict with the values that your children are learning from other people and the media. This may be when you find yourself negotiating.

Talk to your teen and let them know what is important to you and why. Give them a chance to respond, and make sure you really listen. When you are genuinely willing to compromise, you may find that the conversation is much more effective, as your teen gains a sense of responsibility. Work out what is really important to you and what you could let go. Too many boundaries can cause resentment and be impossible to maintain, so strike a balance and be prepared to re-negotiate.

Shifting gears in how you communicate with your teen can feel awkward as you, as a parent navigates the balance between their growing maturity and independence and the challenge of guiding them to make good choices. It’s a given that there will be conflict, but have been working to keep the lines of communication open with your teen, the hard conversations may be easier.

  • Find neutral times to talk about the big issues; for many families, a car ride to the mall to run errands is a good opportunity for such conversations.
  • Give your teen a choice about participating in some family activities. Encourage them to join in, but this is a step toward independence.
  • Share your own experiences, using “I” messages. Treat your teen with respect, as an equal by asking open-ended questions and listening without passing judgment.
  • Practice what you preach. Teens see hypocrisy very clearly.
  • Don’t try to solve their problems for your teen, but help them work out a solution or make a plan of action. Check back to see how it went.
  • Appreciate their positive qualities and make a point to celebrate these.
  • It isn’t easy when boundaries are crossed and there have to be consequences for bad decisions to make clear that your teen still has your unconditional love. Find an opportunity to make sure that your teen knows they will always have your unconditional love.

There will be conflict and everyone will be feeling strong emotions. Exercise self-awareness to manage your own reactions. Breathe deeply, and slow down to help keep in control. Now have that hard conversation with your teen.

Further Reading 

Suggestions from the perspective of a 20-something:
30 Ways to Connect with Your Teen

A roadmap for clarifying your own family’s values:
Values Matter: Using Your Values to Raise Caring, Responsible, Resilient Children

Help with holding firm with boundaries:
Setting Boundaries with Teens: Sticking to “No”

Guidance for navigating conflict with teens:
 Conflict management with teenagers

A one-page reminder of 10 things that are important in parent-teen interactions:
10 Principles for Parenting Your Teens

What’s the best way to find out what’s going on with your teen?
How to Listen and Get Through to Your Teen

 

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