Four Things You Might Not Know about Learning Disabilities

29269571_sIt’s about that time of year when the parent-teacher conferences start the first round.  Parents, don’t wait for teachers to confirm things that you suspect about your child.  Your child’s teacher has only known your child for a few short months, now is the time to check things out if you are worried.


Here is the link to an article I collaborated on about learning disabilities from Scholastic Magazine, By Stephanie Booth.

The first step to overcoming any learning struggle — whether it’s been diagnosed or not — is to get informed. We spoke to parents and specialists to get the facts everyone needs to know.


1. Early warning signs can be missed.

Usually, there’s nothing you can do to prevent a learning disorder. That’s because many experts think these conditions are present before birth, thanks to genetics (LDs tend to run in families) or because a baby was exposed to toxins like lead while in the womb.

Clues can crop up in preschool, but they’re easy to overlook, since children learn at their own pace and go through many phases. Still, many kids with LDs have difficulty rhyming words; pronouncing new words; or remembering everyday routines, like how to zip a jacket.
Parents need to trust their instincts. After all, we know our children better than anyone else does,” she says. As soon as you suspect an issue, she adds, bring it up to the school and get your child tested. The earlier the learning disorder can be identified, the sooner a child can get help from the school or from an outside specialist.

2. LDs have nothing to do with being smart.

Kids with learning disorders get unfairly labeled as stupid or lazy, but many are super-smart. It’s just that their brains work differently — and that gets in the way of their ability to learn

For example, brain scans have shown that dyslexic kids mainly use the right side of their brains to read rather than the left, which is the part that controls language and analysis. When kids decode words, the information has to travel farther (from right to left) before it can be understood. That’s partly why dyslexic kids are slower readers. For many people with dyslexia, words can blend together — or the spaces between them can disappear. Some dyslexic kids can whiz through big words but struggle with little ones like “at” or “for.”
Brain differences can affect another type of LD known as auditory processing disorder (APD). A child with APD hears perfectly well, but she cannot accurately interpret the sounds she hears: “I picked an apple from the tree,” for instance, may sound like “I picked an ample frog tree.” Even the simplest instructions are difficult to decipher for these kids, especially when the classroom turns noisy.
3. LDs affect life in — and out of — the classroom.

A learning disorder doesn’t magically disappear when the last bell rings. Kids who spend all day struggling in school may act out at home. If they have trouble staying organized in class, the same is true when they get off the bus.

Besides dyslexia, Luke Reilly also has executive function disorder, so he struggles when he has to shift activities. To shore up these skills, Reilly gives her son a “to-do” list for the next morning that includes things most kids do automatically, including “put on your shoes.” She breaks down tasks for him step by step, has Luke repeat each step back before he does it, and reinforces the list with a chart. “The structure will eventually help Luke learn to do these things by himself,” explains his mom.
Still, it’s equally important to let kids figure stuff out on their own, particularly in areas they already shine in. “Luke is pretty intuitive and empathetic,” Reilly says. “I would never step in to help him in social situations the same way that I help manage his time and work.”
Reilly’s advice to parents: Have realistic expectations when dealing with the areas that a kid finds challenging. But set high expectations where kids show strengths and can stand on their own two feet. That’s another way to help boost self-confidence.
4. Kids with LDs have bright futures.
It’s normal for parents to feel anxious, angry, or crushed when their child gets diagnosed. The stats can be dire: 20 percent of kids with an LD drop out of high school, compared to 8 percent of other students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Almost half of all high-schoolers with an LD have fallen three grade levels behind in math and reading.
But experts urge parents to reframe the situation. While learning differences can’t be cured, with the right tools, kids can excel and be successful, says Dr. Eichenstein. “Kids with learning disorders have the potential to change the world because of their creative, out-of-the-box thinking. The challenge is keeping their self-esteem strong and helping them find their unique talents.”
Parents can do that in all sorts of ways. First, it’s crucial to find the right type of help. To aid her 9-year-old with dyslexia, Dawn Clarke, of Gig Harbor, WA, located a learning center through the International Dyslexia Association ( Their son Jones goes three times a week after school — and he’s gotten the encouragement and specialized program he needs to read well.
Clarke also gives her son plenty of opportunities to pursue other passions that come more easily. “I tell Jones his dyslexia gives him the ability to think visually, and that’s why drawing’s a natural for him.”
“Jones’s difficulties have really become an asset,” Clarke continues. “He’s a problem-solver and go-getter, and that comes from having to work so hard at things most of us take for granted, like reading. There are advantages to not being an average learner. Look at Steve Jobs!”
Is it a Learning Disorder — or Trouble Learning?
Struggling to master a subject doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a neurologically based delay. Here, a few ways to tell the difference, from Rita Eichenstein, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist:
It’s probably not an LD if your child . . .
  • Used to do fine in school. Divorce, death, family problems, dealing with bullies, or getting used to a new school can all cause setbacks or cause a good student to suddenly fall behind.
  • Benefits from short-term help. Extra attention from the teacher or weekly meetings with a tutor can get many kids over the hump.
  • Is able to follow through on complex instructions. Even if kids forget a step now and then, they mostly know what to do when parents or teachers tell or show them.
It probably is a learning disorder if your child . . .
  • Has had trouble with classwork from day one. A kid with an LD struggles with key academic skills, from reading comprehension to figuring out math problems.
  • Can’t keep up with tutoring. These kids need frequent sessions with specialized teachers and effective methods to stay on track.
  • Can’t get through a set of instructions. Kids find it difficult to remember all the steps they need to follow directions.
When Your Child Needs Help
All public schools must evaluate kids for free. These tips can get you started on the right path:
Gather info
Make copies of your child’s report cards and tests, along with teacher comments and your observations.
Make a written request
State the reason your child needs to be evaluated in a letter or e-mail and send it to school officials.
Get de-briefed
A team of education pros will interview you and your child, observe her in the classroom, review her history, and administer tests. Afterward, they should explain the results and diagnosis to you.
Figure out the options
Kids diagnosed with an LD are entitled to an individualized education plan (IEP) that spells out special services (say, speech therapy) provided by the school free of charge. If your child doesn’t get an IEP, ask for a 504 plan, which gives kids with learning issues special accommodations, like extra time to finish tests.
Don’t give up
Every district has different requirements for IEP and 504 plans. If you disagree with the evaluation results or services, you have the right to another screening. You can also pay out of pocket for a third-party expert. To find one, go to

The Day I Had To Tell My Son He Was Different

A common issue that many parents ask about is when  they should tell their children about their differences.  There is no single answer and each family may take a 7615524_s (1)different approach.  Particularly after having their child tested, parents want to know how to talk to their child about the results.  This article represents one parent’s version of how they handled this issue.

Reprinted from Kveller, October 14, 2014, written by Samantha Taylor:

When my very bright son’s grades started to plummet, we decided it was time to find out what was going on. In an attempt to help him, we subjected him to a sleep study, neurological exams, academic exams, and psychological testing. At the same time, Joey was struggling with skills for the standardized tests, so he was taking multiple practice exams and being pulled out of class to work with a reading specialist.

He was patient, and handled them all like a champ. Occasionally he’d ask about the testing. We’d give him a simple but truthful answer, and move the conversation along by talking about Minecraft.

After a few weeks, his questions started to change. Instead of asking what the tests were all about, he started to ask if there was something wrong with him, or if he was different than the other kids in his class. I noticed his self-esteem wasn’t doing so hot, and at homework time there were tears. He started to call himself stupid.

When my husband and I got the results of the testing, we were pretty surprised.His scores were off the charts high for memorization, spelling, and math. However, his scores for reading comprehension, specifically language processing, were extremely low. The team at school decided that he would benefit from 90 minutes per week of language therapy with a Speech and Language Pathologist.

On the way home in the car, it hit me. We need to tell him the results. His ego is deflated, and it shouldn’t be. He’s 9, and doesn’t need to know all of the specifics, but this kid has gifts. He needs to be reminded of that. He also needs to understand that he has a deficit, and he’s going to get help for it.

After consulting a mental health counselor (who had worked with us before) I was prepared to tell Joey all about the test results. My husband and I practiced the language we would use. This was a delicate situation; we wanted to handle it properly.

I wanted Joey to know that this conversation was special, so my parents came over to watch the other kids. My husband and I got in the car to take Joey to his favorite Italian ice place and have the talk. On the way there Joey asked if he was in trouble, what we were going to talk about, and why his brother and sister were staying at home. I didn’t want to have the conversation in the car. The way I had prepared was to talk to him face to face.

We got our desserts and sat down. The talk went something like this.

“Joey, the reason we are here is to explain all of the testing you’ve been going through. We want you to know that we got all the test results, and thought we’d share them with you. You have an amazing memory. Your math scores were at the 6th grade level. Your spelling scores were at the 9th grade level. You have an amazing brain. There’s one thing you need help with. When your brain reads something, sometimes it has a hard time understanding what you’ve read. That’s why you’ve been pulled out of class to work with the reading coach. Now you get to work with another teacher to help you get better at that skill. This is just like someone who needs glasses to help them see better. You are an amazing kid with an incredible brain, and we just wanted you to know that. Do you have any questions?”

“Nope,” he said, in between bites of cherry ice.

“Really? You don’t have anything to ask us?

“Nope, I’m good,” he said.

My husband gave me that “let it go” look. So I did. I let it go. The conversation quickly moved onto Minecraft.

That night as I was tucking Joey into bed, I just couldn’t help myself. I asked him again, “Did you have a chance to think about what we talked about this afternoon? Do you have any more questions?”

“No,” he said. “Thanks for telling me. Do I have to take anymore long tests?”

“No, Joey,” I said. “That’s all done.”

“Cool, goodnight Mom.”

Sometimes I forget that he’s on his way to becoming a young man. He’s turning 10 next month. We can no longer expect that he’s not going to be curious about anything out of the ordinary. From now on, I’ve learned to keep him in the loop from the beginning. The thought that he assumed he was dumber than the rest of his class because of the excessive testing breaks my heart.

There comes a time when you realize your kids aren’t babies anymore. I’m going to start talking to him like the little man that he is slowly becoming before my eyes. With parenting there’s always room for improvement, and there’s always room for Italian ice.

13 Ways To Beat Stress In 15 Minutes Or Less

This was published in Huffington Post (9/19/14).  As parents of atypical children need to monitor and manage their stress, these tips are good reminders.  Read on for stress busting recommendations.

By Yelena Shuster

Ever felt like you just can’t unwind after a demanding week? That’s because stress triggers your body’s fight or flight response: your adrenaline starts pumping, your heart beats faster, and your blood pressure rises, explains Ash Nadkarni, M.D., an associate psychiatrist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. “Long-term overexposure to stress hormones can cause increased risk of health problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, and memory and concentration problems,” Dr. Nadkarni adds.

That’s not exactly a relaxing thought. So what should you do when calming classics like downward-facing dog and chamomile tea don’t work? Check out these alternative ways to de-stress recommended by experts and recent studies.

Wake up early.
waking up

It may feel counterintuitive to deprive yourself of sleep, but giving yourself an extra 15 to 20 minutes before you head out the door will leave you feeling more refreshed — and less frazzled. “Take time in the morning to center yourself,” says San Francisco-based psychologist Leslie Carr, Psy.D. “A lot of people shoot out into their days like a rocket ship and it never gets better from there.”

Consider that caffeine takes 20 minutes to be metabolized for you to feel its effect. During that time, think about your goals for the day or read something inspirational. You might find that your normally crazy day goes a little smoother.

Create a soothing space.
Research suggests that warm colors like red excite you and cooler, muted colors like blue, green, or grey relax you, says Molly Roberts, M.D., president of the American Holistic Medical Association — but surrounding yourself in any color you find soothing can help bring on calm. “The theory behind the use of color therapy is that colors enter the eyes, which then send messages along the nerve pathways to the area of the brain that regulates emotion,” Roberts says. “There are a lot of ways to surround yourself with colors that can ease stress throughout the day.” Her suggestions: at home, paint an accent wall; and at the office, drape a soothing-colored scarf over the back of your chair and change your computer screensaver.

Clean out your junk drawers.
When you’re feeling emotionally drained, chances are whipping out your Swiffer is the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, tidying up your home can also tidy up your mind. “Having a mindset of de-cluttering helps to manage stress,” says Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., a psychologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Pennsylvania. “Purging unused items gives a sense of order to your physical environment, which helps you feel calmer about your stressors.” She suggests starting with a small project, like your kitchen junk drawer. “Tangible or visible organization leads to emotional organization,” Napolitano says. If you’re ready to take it up a notch, schedule monthly donation pickups with Goodwill to keep yourself in the de-cluttering habit.

Visualize your stressful thoughts.

Your coworker just threw you under the bus. Your husband forgot to walk the dog. When it’s that kind of day, try thought diffusion, “a sort of visual mindfulness meditation, a way to sweep out whatever is buzzing around unhelpfully in your head,” says Erin Olivo, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and author of Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life.

Here’s how it works: Imagine your thoughts are like clouds in the sky, and let them drift by above you. “When you begin to observe your thoughts as mental objects that simply come and go, they become less unpleasant, less threatening and less emotionally powerful,” Olivo says.

Watch cat videos.
There’s a reason Buzzfeed links are popping up all over your newsfeed. There’s nothing that will relieve some tension like watching a baby masterfully dancing to Beyonce or a cat riding a Roomba in a shark costume.

“After a stressful day, looking at these funny things actually activates the part of the brain that delivers tranquility and a calm physiological response,” says Rose Hanna, a relationship counselor and professor of psychology and women’s studies at California State University Long Beach. “This decreases anxiety and helps tremendously with reducing stress.”

Sing your heart out.
The next time you’re feeling strung out, start belting it out. As sound reverberates through the body, your mind relaxes, whether singing in a chorus or meditatively chanting om, says Rita Eichenstein, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Towers in Los Angeles.

Singing has even been found to reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, and one case study revealed that singing prior to surgery reduced blood pressure (more research is needed). Not ready to unleash your inner Rihanna? Start by singing in the shower. “Singing tunes you love brings up positive memories and takes your mind off the stressors,” Eichenstein says.

Start a scrapbook.

We’ll admit it: stickers and colored construction paper seem so kindergarten. But getting in touch with your crafty side has mental health benefits. Think of it as your adult playtime. “Scrapbooking helps you focus, which diverts you away from stressful and difficult emotions, and also helps you feel connected to the people you’re scrapbooking about,” says Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D., a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist. And no, Pinterest boards don’t count. “There’s something about the tactile element of scrapbooking — cutting, pasting, positioning — that is probably more relaxing that posting online,” Savelle-Rocklin adds.

Pick up a physical hobby.
If scrapbooking isn’t your thing, try to find another activity to occupy your time. “What stress does to someone’s mind is flood it with thoughts,” explains Nadkami. “All of these thoughts knock about your head and they make you feel overwhelmed.” Sound familiar? The best way to stop the stress spiral is by refocusing your mind on one thought: Gardening focuses you on the physical feeling of the soil that you can hold in your hands. Knitting concentrates your thoughts on the predictability of loops of yarn. “The important thing is that you channel your energy into one thing and this, in turn, relaxes your mind by eliminating all of the distracting stresses,” says Nadkarni.

Clench your muscles (then release).
This technique was developed in the 1930’s and has been recommended ever since. “The idea behind progressive muscle relaxation is to first create muscle tension, then relaxation, to provide physical relief. A relaxed body often leads to a relaxed mind,” says Savelle-Rocklin.

Start by getting into a comfortable position, like lying down in loose clothing. Tense and relax each muscle group for five seconds at a time, starting with your forehead, then moving down to your eyes, lips, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, stomach, hips, thighs, feet and, finally, your toes. If any muscle remains tense after the sequence, tighten and relax it three or four times. Massage, shmassage.

Take deep breaths.
guy relaxed

No matter if you’re checking out in the supermarket or waiting to pick up your kids from school, take one minute to breathe deeply through your nose into your abdomen, says Roswell, Georgia-based physical therapist Samuel A. Mielcarski. He advises resting your hands over your lower ribcage or abdomen to help cue deeper breathing. “Breathing fully and deeply into the abdomen brings about a sense of calm because more oxygen is getting delivered to the body’s cells, which helps the body to relax,” explains Olivo. “This type of breathing also helps to increase what is known as the ‘relaxation response,’ which is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system involved with calming the body.”

Write mental thank you notes.
Change the course of your stressful thoughts with a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, suggests marriage and family therapist Alisa Ruby Bash, who practices in Beverly Hills, California. “Before stress gets worse, it’s so important to learn to harness your thoughts,” she says. “For example, when you notice the tension in your body, picture a big red stop sign. Immediately switch your thinking to start mentally focusing on all the things you are grateful for. Look around you to include anything you find beautiful or pleasant in your present moment.” Store a gratitude list on your smartphone so you can reference it any time things get hectic.

Feel your pressure points.
You’re stuck in traffic and feeling like you’re going to explode. Time to try pressure point therapy, a form of acupuncture you can practice on your own. “Pressure to certain points on the body can help to release muscular tension and promote blood circulation,” says Mielcarski. It’s easiest to start with the Third Eye Point, the space between your eyebrows where the bridge of your nose meets your forehead. Place your middle and index finger on it and hold the position for one to two minutes using gentle to firm pressure.

Smell the roses.

Research is mixed on scent therapy, but anyone who’s sniffed a bouquet of roses or breathed in the smell of the ocean knows that certain scents can be soothing. Brooklyn-based therapist and social worker La Shawn M. Paul recommends adding a few drops of your favorite scent to coconut oil after a relaxing bath so that the scent can linger longer. “It is believed that once inhaled, the scents alter the mood by stimulating various parts of the brain associated with emotion,” Paul says. Or try a scent that reminds you of nature, suggests Napolitano. “Smells like salt water or fresh rain are especially calming because they help you to think of life outside of your current stressor.”

A Good Kid CAN Shake a Bad Rap

A Good Kid CAN Shake a Bad Rap

My daughter tires of hearing teachers say, “I’m so glad you’re nothing like your older brother.” She readily jumps to the defense of the boy she begs me to put up for adoption each morning during breakfast. One by one, she names his endearing qualities: Intelligent, quick-witted, creative, loyal, athletic, enthusiastic, funny, joyous . . .

Despite his finer features, impulsiveness, lack of self-discipline, boisterous outbursts and poor timing carve a chasm between him and certain teachers. From grade to grade, his reputation follows him and grows. He’s labeled as one to look out for. There are teachers who cringe when reading his name on their rosters. No matter what I say, I can’t make them change their minds.

Assigning Labels

Patrician Herrin, a certified parenting, marriage and life coach with Life Management Group in Augusta asserts, “Every child will make mistakes and do things to test the waters.” Some will make big blunders like an act of vandalism or an over-the-top outburst at a teacher. Others will indulge in a series of small things, such as minor disruptions to class routines, telling white lies or trying profanity.

Poor judgment is part of the make-up of children. “They have a poorly developed frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the CEO of the brain. It helps a person plan ahead and predict the consequences of actions,” explains Dr. Rita Eichenstein, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and author of Not What I Expected: Parenting a Special Needs Child (to be released in April 2015).

The results of negative behaviors generally include others’ lasting convictions about the core nature of the child. It’s human nature to put people into simple categories. “Biologically, people need to assign categories of good or bad,” says Eichenstein. “It’s a primitive safety mechanism.” On some level, threat to oneself, one’s image or one’s offspring is being gauged. Making an attribution of good or bad is a survival tool.

Impressions also depend on an adults’ perception of and/or how well he or she connects with a child. Good kids sometimes get placed on the “bad” list, and sometimes a mischievous kid is given slack. “Some kids are just more likeable than others,” says David Bennett, a teacher at William V. Fischer Catholic High School in Lancaster, Ohio, and co-author of The Teen Popularity Handbook: Make Friends, Get Dates and Become Bully-Proof. “The likeable kids can avoid the label more easily.”

Labels Dictate Behavior

Though teachers and other adults strive to treat each child the same, labels can get in the way. They dictate behavior toward people. Herrin cites the Rosenthal Effect and the Golem Effect to explain this phenomenon. The Rosenthal Effect describes the correlation between high expectations and success. “Kids who are given positive labels are more likely to be spoken to positively,” Herrin says. Conversely, the Golem Effect describes the correlation between low expectations and low performance. Herrin advises, “Adults’ negative thoughts about a child will come out in words and actions toward the child.” Likewise, kids live up to the expectations of others.

Seven Tips for Turning Things Around

Kids, this section is for YOU. It’s never too late to change your image. There’s no magic trick for creating likeability. It hinges on how you present the product and you are the product.

•    It’s a new school year with new teachers and new peers. Use this chance to make a new first impression. Arrive clean and well-groomed. Dress appropriately. Smile. Say hello to teachers and administrators when passing them in the hall. According to Eichenstein, these measures generate a positive Halo Effect. In other words, they construct a good image that has staying power in the minds of others.

•    Use eye contact and positive body language (such as good posture and un-crossed arms) when talking to adults and peers. Nod to indicate that you’re paying attention when they’re talking.

•    Change your wardrobe, if necessary. People can’t see the new you if you’re dressed in the rebellious clothing associated with the old you. Make sure your outward appearance matches the inward change you’re making. Re-branding can be as simple as re-packaging. (“Parents can actively rehabilitate the image of a kid,” assures Bennett. “Refuse to support an image that isn’t representative of your kid.” This means not buying clothing, accessories, piercings, hair color and so on that others relate with negative behaviors or attitudes.)

•    Accept responsibility. Learn to say, “I’m sorry,” when you mess up. Bennett says, “A simple apology to an authority figure makes a huge difference.” Then assure the adult of a plan to change. Ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it. “We tend to want to forget about [the incident],” Bennett continues, “but the tension builds. The ‘bad’ label sticks.”

•    If the “bad” label is due to a global issue rather than a one-time episode, talk it out with the people in power. Bennett says, “It’s hard to label someone when you’re communicating.” Opening up and airing things out and allowing adults to get to know you better leads to positive feelings. Everyone is more likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to a person with whom he or she has a more developed relationship.

•    “Win over the right people,” encourages Bennett. Connect with teachers and adults who have influence, the ones who have the ability to persuade their cohorts. They can advocate for you.

•    Understand that it’s harder to change the minds of peers. “Often peers label each other with titles that aren’t even true. But if it’s repeated often enough, the label sticks, whether it’s true or not,” says Herrin. She advises kids to make a change of scenery. Hang out with a different group. Try a different afterschool activity. Eat at a different lunch table. Trust that time will work in your favor.

I don’t want my son to become someone he isn’t. I love his every quirk. Nonetheless, I can’t talk other people into adoring him. My job is to teach him the skills he needs to win others over and to coach him through using them. The power of personal presentation and a plan for proper engagement will put his best face forward. And his sister will happily go back to begging me to put him up for adoption.

Lucy Adams is a freelance writer and the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children. Contact Lucy at


 20275871_ml Isn’t nature amazing. One minute you’re a young professional, armed with smart phone, briefcase and makeup, a multi-tasking warrior, juggling your bosses’ whims, healthy grocery list, yoga schedule and weekend social plans with your significant other.

And then. Along comes your baby.

What the heck happened to your brain

New moms are often shocked by the seeming metamorphosis that occurs when a baby is born. Your memory and your entire ability to keep pace with the outside world is erased. In it’s place is a weary albeit happy parent whose entire focus is when did baby last eat or needs a nap.

Is it nature? Absolutely. From the moment of conception or even before, young couples start hormonal and brain changes (yes, fathers too) that will see them through pregnancy, infancy and early childhood. Leave it to nature. The survival of the species, considered the ultimate challenge for each species, ensures that parents’ brains will be super prepared to welcome and nurture baby. That this increases some skills and decreases others is only natural.
Let’s start with women. Even when a woman first begins to dream about having a baby, her chemical nature begins to change, albeit slowly. Lost in pleasant daydreams, she can thank the neurotransmitter oxytocin that is slowly increasing to higher and higher levels. As she dreams, her focus is changing. Cortisol/ adrenaline drops as the soothing chemicals of oxytocin and prolactin increase. So her focus for work and goal oriented behaviors decrease as her internal feel good system ramps up. It’s like being in love. And she is. Albeit with a fictional idealized idealized person, the not yet even conceived baby. In fact, even holding someone else’s baby can create huge surges of oxytocin and longing.

Along with conception and pregnancy, brains begin to change more dramatically. Huge surges in certain neurotransmitters and drops in others prepare both parents chemically for parenthood. As women increase their prolactin, oxytocin- nurturing chemicals, dad’s experience vasopressin increases which make them more protective and vigilant in protection instinct ( think poppa bear).  Dads also increase in their levels of oxytocin, which is made even higher by skin to skin bonding with their newborn. So, for both genders, pregnancy hormones prime the brain to be open to reshaping when a newborn arrives.
Post delivery, moms experience huge surges in energy and positive focus (aside from baby blues, which is another topic), as well as hormonal changes right after birth, including increases in estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin. Anything that is related to the welfare of baby becomes prime focus. In short, priorities have changed. You might forget to change your poop stained shirt before you go out, but guaranteed baby has fresh diaper and is primed and ready to roll!

So, parents’ brains adapt to the demands at hand, with quite a bit of help from their evolutionary nature. While research has shown that new moms have definite short term memory loss, lots of other new skills will grow. Breast feeding, remembering a baby’s schedule, and other myriad of facts about babies and your baby in particular surge to the forefront of your brain. There are also areas of brain growth. Surges of energy in terms of multi-tasking the needs of baby are first and foremost in a mom’s brain. Particularly in the prefrontal cortex, the brain areas that are involved in planning and foresight, increases, which does help mom anticipate her infant’s needs. When it comes to her baby, mothers’ memory is much stronger.

Priorities Shift: Nature at its Finest!

Consider it the ultimate priority shifting. Both your brain and your heart are utterly in sync as you are completely smitten by this new little babe. It’s nature at its best. Let the car keys be found by someone else while you enjoy this most remarkable job of your life.

We will return to the topic of the challenges of parenting atypical kids next week.

After School Activities: How Much Is Too Much?

After School Activities: How Much Is Too Much?

This article first appeare15433604_mld in the Boston Parents Newspaper on Aug. 8, 2014

When I was in kindergarten, the school day consisted of playing, singing, lunch and a nap. After school, we played outside on the block. How times have changed!

Today, children of all ages are engaged in full day activities, packed with highly charged academics, brief respites of recess, short lunch periods and homework beginning in kindergarten. To add to the mix, parents are putting children into after school activities as young as nursery school.

After school activities developed in order to give children extra enrichment in areas that the school didn’t offer, such as the arts, team sports, extra interests such as karate, horseback riding or a swim team, musical training or gymnastics. While every parent looks forward to having a child participate and succeed in after school activities, when is it too much?

Children differ in their stamina, their willingness to cope with a long day and their drive to tackle many activities. I know children as young as 3 who happily attend ballet and gymnastics or children at 12 who cannot cope beyond the school day plus homework. All children need a combination of academics, relaxation/sleep and recreation. But the best balance for each child is different.

To set up an after school activity schedule, first talk with your child. Offer him or her one activity a week and talk about the different options. Be open to the idea that your child may be interested in very different activities than you expect. While many parents expect their child to participate in competitive sports, some children do not like or wish to do so. Respecting their wishes will allow the child to develop in his or her unique way. Don’t try to offer a compromise if it means your child will have to commit to too many activities. (“You can try that knitting class if you also agree to join my old basketball team; I know you will love it!”)

Sometimes competitive sports are offered too early. In my experience, most children do enjoy team sports if it is offered at the right time. Some kids do not get interested until 4th or 5th grade or later. Some parents want their child to concentrate on one thing in order to excel, such as piano practice several hours daily. Make sure that this meets both your expectations as well as your child’s wishes.

So choosing after school activities needs to be a blend of your child’s unique interests, their level of stamina and your intuitive understanding of what would be best for your child. Remember that children should not be expected to be on the go all day every day. Having fun, blowing off steam or enjoying a great time with their friends after school is just as importance as winning that trophy for the soccer league.

While structured activities are fine, remember to teach your child the joys of casual socialization and relaxation. Remember to include weekly time to be together as a family for family bonding and closeness.



Originally published in New York Metro Parents, July 28, 2014

All expectant parents share certain feelings—excitement, nervousness, and happy anticipation. When their son or daughter is born, a new feeling emerges: anxious calibration. How does my child compare to all the rest?

When a child is diagnosed with a disorder such as a learning disability, autism spectrum, speech delay, sensory delay, or is just clearly “different” or quirky, the parents’ world can be profoundly shaken. Every parent is on an emotional journey, but for parents of atypical kids there is no roadmap to warn of the pitfalls or point out the best scenery. It is unknown territory.

Until recently, the well-being of these parents has rarely been noticed, let alone addressed. All the attention is focused on the child. That’s understandable, but it is also a big mistake. Doctors, teachers, and therapists depend on parents to be the primary managers of their children’s treatment. If the parent is exhausted from the relentless day-in, day-out challenges, it has an impact on his or her ability to manage that treatment. If Mom is hopeless and depressed, it affects her child. If Dad is angry, distant, or frustrated, the rest of the family is affected. Although these feelings are normal, they have the potential to be destructive. Luckily, there is a way to manage them. It begins by recognizing the feelings—good, bad, and ugly—and learning about them.

What the Journey May Look Like

In my work with parents of atypical children, I have seen that parents go through certain predictable emotions as they become accustomed to their child’s condition. The emotional phases are fluid, with parents often moving in and out of the various feelings several times over the course of a month, a week, or sometimes even a day. These are not just psychological reactions; they are hard-wired into your neurophysiology in the same way that primary responses such as fight-or-flight are hard-wired. The emotions you can expect as a parent of an atypical child may include:

Denial or Emotional Numbing: Although you may have sensed in your gut that something is not quite right, a common response to hearing that your child has a diagnosis is to freeze emotionally while your mind processes the news. That paralysis often takes the form of emotional numbing, and you may go into “autopilot” mode or even deny that there is a problem: “There’s nothing wrong with our son! Boys will be boys!”

Anger or Aggression: As the numbing effects of denial begin to wear off, you are confronted with the reality of the situation. That can be painful, and the pain is often redirected and expressed as anger. Friends, family, teachers, and doctors all can become the target of a parent’s anger, as can the child. It’s especially crucial that you recognize when you are in an anger phase and find an appropriate outlet, as families with atypical children have a higher-than-average rate of divorce and domestic violence.

Bargaining with Fate or Seeking Solutions: A common response to feeling helpless about a child’s condition is an urgent need to gain control over the problem. This is a positive impulse. However, our brains are geared toward simplifying information so that it aligns with what we already believe or understand. Parents may decide, “The Internet says this condition is over-diagnosed! I’ll just put our son on a diet…change schools…convert to Buddhism…pray daily.” Some alternative approaches do work, but the challenge is to weigh reason-based solutions against the lure of magical thinking.

Depression, Isolation, or Shame: Unfortunately, these emotions are somewhat unavoidable when parenting an atypical child. But self-awareness can help you manage your darker moods. For your child’s sake as well as your own, you need to learn self-care strategies for overcoming your occasional bouts of sadness.

Acceptance: Coping with the reality that your child has special needs is a deeply personal experience. Although nobody can fully understand all the emotions you’re going through, getting the support you need will help you reach an inner equanimity and an acceptance of the unique and very real child whose parent you are.

The dignity and grace shown by a number of parents with whom I have worked is truly inspiring. One mother told me, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I never would have wished this condition on my daughter, but having a child with autism has enriched our lives. Our family has grown closer, our capacity for empathy has expanded, and our other children have an extra measure of compassion and social awareness.”

No one expects you to be a saint simply because you are the parent of a child with challenges. But my experience with families like yours has shown me time and again that the journey you are on will be full of unexpected feelings and events—sometimes difficult, and sometimessurprisingly joyous.