PARENTS’ BRAINS – PERFECTLY NORMAL, JUST DIFFERENT

 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? 

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!
EMBRACE YOUR NEW BRAIN! 

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.

MANAGING YOUR EMOTIONS AFTER YOUR CHILD’S SPECIAL NEEDS DIAGNOSIS

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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.

Asperger’s Syndrome and Violence: Let’s Stop the Finger Pointing

The recent events of violence this past week on the streets of Isla Vista, Calif., near the University of California at Santa Barbara, has 20752460_sleft scores of people shaking their heads in horror.  A media talking point noted that  the gunman was troubled and had been diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome.

A headline already anticipated an inevitable and reasonable reaction, “Asperger’s Syndrome To Be The Scapegoat For The Santa Barbara Shooting Like Adam Lanza?” Inquisitr asks[1]
Is there really a connection? There is an important saying in statistics: correlation does not imply causation. What this means is that just because some of the recent gunmen had a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome does not mean that people with Asperger’s are more likely to be killers, or even violent.  That would be equivalent of saying all Caucasian male teens are more likely to be killers, since most of the high profile mass shootings on campuses over the past 10 years have been Caucasian, and male and teen.  But just because that fact is true does not mean that you can point your fingers at young male Caucasians. Or people with Asperger’s.

WHAT IS ASPERGER’S ANYWAY?

Asperger’s syndrome is a diagnosis for people and children who are on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum.  Although as a specific category, the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” named after Hans Asperger who coined the term, has been deleted from the newest diagnostic manual, DSM-5,  it still has a strong following among parents and grown diagnosed children who refer to themselves as “Aspies”.  Aspies, are people whom you may know who are decidedly quirky. Different and obsessive, they may be excessively devoted to a narrow range of subjects and may struggle with interpersonal skills.  But just because they are socially awkward and obsessive does not mean that they are robotic.  Aspies feel things very deeply and the way they show their emotions may be non-conventional.  That still doesn’t turn them into killers.  An angry and vengeful Aspie is just as likely to turn to violent revenge as your next door neighbor’s son; in other words, the possibility exists but is random.  There is no research to suggest that people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome are more violent than any other group.

FINGER POINTING:

In the wake of a traumatic disaster, there is a huge desire to finger point.  With hurricane Sandy, it was the finger pointing at global warming. With 9/11, it was finger pointing at Muslims. And with violent shootings on campuses,  are we going to point to students with Asperger’s? The fault of course lies with the individual gunman ….and the rest of us as well.

Hear me out:

WHAT WE CAN DO:

There are 2 radical changes that need to happen in the USA:

1.  Expand mental health services:  as the numbers of kids with atypical disorders are expanding, the availability of mental health services must also expand.  The World Happiness Report of 2013 notes that even in countries which have available mental health services, the vast population of those who need these services are largely under-served.  We must make treatment available, not just for the identified child but also parenting support for the parents of that child.  It is inconceivable that mental health treatment or lack of it is left up to the individual parents, who largely have no clue how to help when they are struggling with their diagnosed child who is atypical.   We must lobby to increase support of all mental health practices.  There is no question that most interventions in the form of any type of psychotherapy can greatly help provide troubled people with improved coping skills and increased resources.

2. Practice radical kindness:  The truth is, there is more diversity among us than sameness, yet people are incredibly exclusionary.  This begins from the earliest ages.  Embrace those who are different, those who are socially awkward or not physically beautiful. Invite with an open heart those who are handicapped, intellectually weaker or neurologically atypical.  Teach your children to open their hearts to those around them who are of different skin color, different abilities and different social interests.  Teach by example.  Invite over a family who has a child who is struggling.  Talk to a person next to you in class who looks a bit quiet.  Remember that everyone is struggling for the same things: to be accepted, to be seen and to be appreciated. We can learn to become a more welcoming society if we only open our eyes to those who are struggling.  Bullying,  exclusivity, elitism and ostracization  are issues we can tackle, as adults, as parents and with and for our children.  We can do this.

 

[1] Read more at http://www.inquisitr.com/1265968/elliot-rodger-aspergers-syndrome-to-be-the-scapegoat-for-the-santa-barbara-shooting-like-adam-lanza/#43OF7WGETm2lhKvx.99

Is Sports a Game Changer for Your Atypical Child?

It’s spring and sports season is heating up.  For many families of atypical children, this is a stressful and maybe even sorrowful time.  6454232_s

Why? Because many atypical children have so much difficulty participating in mainstream sports activities.  This can be difficult for parents who fondly recall their own involvement with sports and deeply want their children to experience the same joy, camaraderie and health benefits.  Despite the fact that parents are well aware of  the importance of sports and exercise for children, many atypical children will end up at home in front of video games for a variety of reasons, either smarting from previous defeat, humiliation, or injury from a group sport, or fearful to try a sport, or simply uninterested.  And while there are a lot of good reasons to participate in sports,  there are also a lot of good reasons to protect your child from a sport that he or she may not be able to manage, especially competitive sports.  Issues such as sensory overload, processing difficulties, coordination difficulties,  ADHD or excessive shyness can contribute to a sense of ‘why even bother’ or a real fear that your child might become injured, humiliated or just not be able to ‘get it’.

“Limits will not define me, my will defines my limits”

This is the slogan of Bounce Out The Stigma, a sports opportunity for children with all types of special needs.  Mike Simmel started The Bounce Out the Stigma Project, Inc. in 2005 as a grassroots campaign to educate the public, teach healthy lifestyle choices and empower youth, based on his personal experiences.  He created the program that provides sport events and summer camps for children, regardless of which label they have. it is these labels that holds them back, not their ability, according to Mike.  Currently he offers programming for children with Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder ADD /ADHD, Bullying Events that Create Peer Mistrust, Epilepsy, Slow Motor Skills, Athletic Anxieties, Social Unease, Juvenille Diabetes,  Learning Disabilities, Self Esteem Issues, Adjustment and Emotional difficulties. You can learn more about Mike and his project at:  http://bounceoutthestigma.org/

While not every neighborhood can offer a program for every type of disability,  there are enough sports activities in every city to get all types of children involved.  Think beyond the typical big team sports if you haven’t been able to get your child involved in the top competitive sports.  Not every child needs a team sport but all children do benefit from movement. Think swimming, jogging, biking, or even participation in 5K walks with families for special charities. Don’t forget trips to the beach, an introduction to surfing,  miniature golf, or tennis or ping pong.  Some kids have success in martial arts or yoga or gymnastics.

Special Olympics offers opportunities in a variety of sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities; The Little League Challenger Division and the Miracle League both allow children with physical and mental disabilities to play baseball in a supportive, non-competitive environment.  These are but a few suggestions.

And the best sport of all, being outdoors with mom or dad.  Take a ball or a frisbee to a park or a picnic lunch to the top of a short hiking trail.  You will be creating positive memories and healthy habits for a lifetime, for the both of you.

What role did sports play in your children’s lives? Please share your experience so other families can learn from you!

How NOT to Raise a Child with a Disability

Originally posted on Raising 5 Kids With Disabilities and Remaining Sane Blog:

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When your child is a toddler, focus on all the things he can’t do. He’s not walking as soon as other children. He’s not talking as good as other children. It is embarrassing to take him out in public because everyone comments on his looks. Blame your spouse for his disability. Or, equally worse, blame God. Whey has He forsaken you? Why has He saddled you with this tremendous burden? Spend your child’s infant and toddler years lamenting the sadness, disappointment and loss.

As your child gets older and goes to school, always blame the teacher or the principal if he can’t do something. After all, it MUST be their fault. They are discriminating against your child if they try to make him behave or actually complete his school project. He has a disability! Doesn’t that come with the right not to have to do homework or obey the class…

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Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

Did you ever stop and wonder how some of our most colorful phrases made their way into our daily language? “Wake up and smell the coffee?” “Get with the program!” “Be there or be square”.  “Go with the flow”. “Hang in there!”

We use these phrases as a sort of idiosyncratic shortcut, a swath of color weaved through our daily language, a shortcut to express ourselves creatively.  Phrases pick up meaning in society seemingly by osmosis, overnight everyone is using the same phrase,  and we intuitively know what it means and in which context to say it.

“That and a dime will get you on the bus”  no longer has direct meaning since buses haven’t cost a dime for at least 40 years but we somehow understand the context.

Some Children are Concrete Processors

But what about our atypical kids? As parents of atypicals, you know that atypical kids, no matter what their specific diagnosis, will process slang expressions differently.  What might seem like a fun way to announce it’s time to clean up or take out the garbage, “heave ho, hop to it, guys!”  or, in school a teacher may call out: ‘class, it’s time to wrap it up!”  can overwhelm or confuse a child who processes information in a slower paced and more concrete manner.  Many expressions that we use can be very confusing for some children.

A concrete processor is a person who understands language in a black and white manner.  They respond best to direct and clear instructions.  “Do you see that torn paper on the floor? Please pick it up now.  Thank you for being helpful!”

Concrete processors are young processors.  We would never use sarcasm or slang to talk to a very young child but as a child grows, we expect him to pick up the lexicon. But many atypicals have difficulty with this particular aspect of social speech.

Unfortunately, most concrete processors, whether they have a diagnosis of Aspergers, autism, auditory processing disorder,  non-verbal learning disorder, ADHD or other types of learning or processing issues,  are often in situations where the language is not clear enough.  Even in schools where teachers are informed that a particular child has difficulty processing language may not understand what to do with that information.

Take Julia for example.  10 year old Julia came home from school confused and overwhelmed.  Diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder, her impatient teacher had evidently decided she was too slow that day.  Her teacher snapped out her favorite one liner, “wake up and smell the coffee!”.  Julia later said to her mom in tears, ‘what was she talking about? I wasn’t sleeping and I don’t drink coffee!

This is not an isolated incident.  I often emphasize to parents and teachers how to eliminate sarcasm and use direct language to help a child understand what they are asking.

Ron, a 9 year old child with Aspergers, was a child who needed some interventions.  I met with his teacher to explain  how to direct his young student into more pro-social behaviors.  I told the teacher, “be direct, give an example, practice with him”.

The next day, here is what the teacher advised Ron:

Be nice.”

The interesting thing is, Ron thought he was being nice! He couldn’t translate that not making eye contact, picking his nose and standing too close to other kids was considered ‘not nice’.   No one told him that! He couldn’t infer that “be nice” meant all of those things.

Even neurotypical children stumble over abstract language.  How often do we project expectations on our children using language that is vague or sarcastic? I have found that when that happens, chances are, we are not focusing on what specific behaviors we expect from our children, only that we are tired, impatient and would like a little break.  So we shout, “ give me a break!” or “move it or lose it!”  “chillax!” which seems perfectly reasonable from our perspective.

But I have seen enough bewildered children’s faces to know that what seems perfectly reasonable in adult-speak has no traction in their mini-me world.

Here are some real world translations from parent to child:

When you say, “Give me a break”  it really means:

I am exhausted. I have worked so hard all day taking care of you. I am about to lose it if I do not get a few minutes of peace and quiet!

What you could say:

“It would be so nice if you could play quietly for 5 minutes so I could take this phone call.   Here, I will set a timer.  Do you think you could be my best boy and do this for 5 minutes? What will you play with? Play dough? What a great idea! Thank you so much. I love you.

When the teacher snaps “Wake up and smell the coffee” it really means:

“I like things done quickly. In fact, I pride myself on how fast I can get my students to work. You, Julia, are slow. It frustrates me. I know you have a disorder but I am choosing to ignore that fact because you are messing up my program.

What the teacher could say:

“Hey Julia, it seems that you need a little extra time to get that desk cleaned off.  Would you like some help?”

When the principal says to the student in his office “just be nice” it really means:

I honestly have no clue how to instruct you to be more pro-social. I wish you would be nice and kids would like you better.  Don’t make strange noises.  Don’t stand too close and breathe on people.”

What he could say:

Hey Ron, it looks like you are looking for a friend today. Some days are like that. Would you like to help Ms. Smith in the library?

It’s helpful and fun to teach atypical kids how to use and understand slang expressions and they will enjoy them too, in the right context.  But do remember that  they require direct teaching.  So the next time you want to tell your child ‘Take a chill pill’ make sure they know what to do with that.  Because, they just might answer, “I don’t take pills and should I put it in the refrigerator?”