Category Archives: Parenting Atypical Kids

Talking about Those Winter Blues

Does your child's mood affect everyone in the home?
Does your child’s mood affect everyone in the home?

It is the season of the blues. Whether it is caused by lack of sunlight, too little outdoor time or post-holiday season let-down, many people are starting to feel down in the dumps – right about now. It’s not just adults, but kids too. In fact, kids can begin to feel particularly edgy as winter progresses. There may be lots of reasons for that, but I want to look at how a child’s mood can affect your mood as a parent.
Parents are like most other adults: they are subject to bouts of happiness or sadness, euphoria or depression, optimism or despondency. However unlike adults without children, parents are more likely to feel these emotions based on how their children are feeling.

As the expression goes, ‘you are only as happy as your least happy child.’

When your child is struggling, it’s hard to not let it get you down.  It’s only natural to be upset by seeing the challenges that your atypical child encounters daily.  But if you let it affect your mood, then you can’t help your child regulate his or her moods, right? Grouchy kid, grouchy mom? Not a good combination.  You have to be at your best,  so that you can help your child learn how to regulate their moods and their mental outlook.  We naturally help children self regulate; one way is by  modeling encouraging self talk:  “you can do it!” or “it’s going to be ok, just relax”, or “it will only hurt for a minute, you can handle it”, these are important prompts to help encourage kids to model appropriate reactions.

But what happens when your mood becomes so submerged with your child’s mood   that you can’t distinguish your bad mood from their bad mood? Does this mean that your own mood regulator is broken or simply you have lost the divider between what is your own mood and your child’s mood?

Separating your mood state from that of your child is important. Adults often submerge their individual identities as they raise children, they become “a family 24/7” rather than an individual in a family. This is partially a normal response but it can go too far.

Here is an example: you are on a double date with another couple and you haven’t  been out with adult company for months.  You want to enjoy yourself but you can’t because you keep remembering your child’s morose face when you left and you keep ruminating on how much homework he has and wondering if he is able to do it without you and if she was able to eat dinner without you monitoring and if they are going to get to bed, it’s a school night and they can’t be tired tomorrow morning…….and on your brain runs, unable to enjoy your adult company and special time away from your kids.

Because what happens next is that when your kid has a bad day, your mood plummets like a stone down the well. When your mood becomes dependent on whether or not Timmy has had a good day or bad day, you lose the ability to be the anchor to the family instead of a reactor. And atypical children often have moods that need to be managed, not reacted to.

Parents, work on your mood tune-up!

It is important that parents find their emotional set-point apart from how their children are doing. That way, you remember that you are still YOU, and not just your kid’s mother or father.  This will come in handy both in helping your child self regulate as well as keeping you with one foot firmly planted in your individual life as a grown up person.

5 Quick and Easy Mood Tune-Up Tips

1. Listen to a happy tune:  Research has shown that people who listen to cheerful music can improve their mood.  Listening to music actually improves people’s moods  so turn that radio dial to a happy music station!

2. Smile:  the physical act of smiling has also been shown to improve mood.  Even fake smiles reduce stress. Studies by Paul Eckman and other researchers has shown that smilers exhibited lower heart rate levels after a stressful activity than non-smilers. So even if you aren’t feelin it, paste that smile on your face!

3. Do good:  do something good for someone else. Even a small gesture, such as giving a coin to a homeless person has been shown to lift a person’s mood.  Try it for yourself and see.

4. Do good for yourself: when is the last time you took a moment to treat yourself?  No, I don’t mean that bag of chocolate chip cookies. Maybe invite a friend out for coffee or excuse yourself after dinner to go for a long walk. Alone.

 5. Shake it up: exercise raises your natural endorphin levels.  The link between exercise and mood is well researched. Studies show that within five minutes after moderate moving produce a better mood.  Too cold to go outside? Turn up the radio and dance! Even for a few minutes will raise the mood barometer.

The Best Gift of All

Courtesy of Ikar, Los Angeles
Courtesy of Ikar, Los Angeles

THE BEST GIFT OF ALL

Now that the gifts are unpacked and family celebrations are winding down, is it possible to include an often overlooked dimension to this winter season?

This might be the right time to introduce to your child an extra awareness of the world around us and to cultivate your own version of spirituality.  Recent research has found that children who are more spiritual are happier – and healthier.  This doesn’t necessarily mean typical religious practices but the research included qualities such as a child’s sense of personal meaning and their sense of basic values as kindness towards others, altruism, meaningful relationships and volunteering.  All of these things, the research found, were associated with a spiritual life and ‘enhanced well being.’

It is often said that children are more open to spirituality than adults who have become hurried, cynical or just too busy to consider adding a spiritual dimension to the day.  But children also need to be exposed to the possibility of expanding their consciousness outward, not just downward into the face of an ipad tablet, but outward to notice the gifts of nature and the wonder of living a life that transcends the material world.

When we elevate our children’s sense of wonder, we also open the possibility of having a child who just might be more contented, less hyperactive and more open to other types of  thinking that is not found automatically from living in the grind of the daily routine or found on TV.

Children who are atypical are often more vulnerable to the commercial influence of the shopping ‘gotta have it’ culture.  And parents of atypical kids are more stressed, and more invested in trying to make their children happy so they also may buy into the culture of ‘more’ while forgetting that there is another side to life.

Yet, just as spirituality is good for kids, it is also good for you, the parent. Even the most secular and least religiously affiliated parent can consider the possibility of connecting children to forces outside their own sense of self.  When we experience living as connected to the world as a whole, rather than the “me-me-me dimension” ,  lives become enriched.  Consider, for example, how you might feel after a morning volunteering at a homeless shelter rather than another trip to the local mall?

Providing perspective on life is important, especially for atypical children who are struggling in their own way and are confronted with a great deal of inner stress.  In this season of wonder and change for the new year, consider the possibility of adding an extra dimension to your life as well as that of your children.

5 tips to cultivating spirituality in yourself and in your children.

  1. Gratitude –   give thanks before you eat, not just for the food but for everything that allowed the meal to get to the table.  The farmer, the store, the truck that brought the food and the blessing of being in a country that has food in abundance. Get in the habit of pointing out your blessings, from the big things to the little things we all take for granted.  Children will learn what they see, and gratitude will help a child be more sensitive and appreciative.
  2. Practice wonder – a mindful contemplation.  Experiment with having a moment of silence and pay attention to how you are feeling.  Do this with your children.  Report to each other how it felt to be silent and what you were thinking and feeling.  You can do this before before bedtime, including breathing and stillness as a practice.
  3. Helping others – practicing kindness and giving are experiences that children can learn to model.  Volunteer as a family or just perform random acts of kindness, such as helping an older person open the door or take their groceries to the car for them.  It can open conversations for children that would not occur otherwise.
  4. Connect with nature – consider spending your evening with a contemplative walk outside and appreciating the stars.  Experience along with your child  a walk in the forest or a picnic at the beach. Take the time to look at the shore, the waves and the sky and point out details that might get overlooked. Consider the snowflakes as being unique and draw parallels to your unique child.  By having these conversations, you are exercising your child’s ‘spiritual muscle’ and are building more calm and resilient children as well enriching your self.
  5. Provide a spiritual role model – If you don’t feel like you can be a positive spiritual role model, try to find one for your child.  This will help your child connect outward and learn from others a more purposeful and positive outlook.

For more information on building spirituality in children, visit these websites:

www.Spiritualityforkids.com

http://www.livescience.com/3198-spirituality-religion-kids-happy.html

http://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Life-Children-Robert-Coles/dp/0395599237

Learn How to Play with Your Child: Support for Surviving Winter Break

Keep play simple!
Keep play simple!

Everyone deserves a break from their daily routine. That includes both parents as well as children.  For atypical kids, it’s especially refreshing to be released – if only for a few weeks – from the regimen of school, tutors, therapies and commitments.  It is also a time for parents to refresh their relationship with their children.  Too often, parents end up feeling like drill sergeants, marching their kids from one activity to the next, day after day of the unforgiving lineup of  daily activities.  Winter break is a time to replenish your bond with your child, to change hats from drill sergeant to an attuned parent who can actually engage, have fun  and  creating lasting memories.

“I HAVE NO CLUE HOW TO HAVE FUN WITH THIS CHILD”

How to play with your child  can be tricky. How does a parent suddenly switch hats, and rebound from their own sense of burnout in order to have a few great weeks of bonding time?  The simple release from daily activities is insufficient, in fact, some  kids can feel rudderless without their daily routine and don’t know what to do with themselves.  Parents, too, have often lost the art of play as they have slid into adulthood with its myriad of responsibilities, deadlines and managing little one’s temper tantrums.  Atypical kids are notorious for having difficulty with ‘typical’ fun activities, either from sensory overload, a preference for their own comfort zone or fear of the unknown.  If you are a parent of an atypical child, you know all too well the disappointment from previous attempts as ‘having fun’.

DON’T FAKE IT 

Here is an article in the Christian Science Monitor in which I and other professionals and parents discuss the options available to rediscover your sense of play.  In short, you can’t fake it.  Your child knows you well enough to know if you feel awkward playing catch or find a video game monotonous.  Finding an activity that both you and your child mutually enjoy together can become a cherished memory. It doesn’t have to be Disneyland or a trip around the world to click.  Sometimes, a mindful walk through the park picking leaves can be bonding, nourishing and…. fun!

KEEP IT FUN, KEEP IT SIMPLE, AND GET IN TOUCH WITH YOUR INNER PLAYFULNESS

Read on for more tips on learning how to play with your child and how to keep it fun and simple:

http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Family/2013/1216/Parents-and-play-re-learning-to-play-with-your-kids

Having “The Talk” With Your Child: It’s Not The One You Think

22338339_sFor many families, talking to your child about the birds and the bees is not the hardest conversation you will have.  For parents of atypical kids, the hard conversation will be the one that answers the question: “What is wrong with me?” “Why am I so stupid?” “Why don’t I have any friends?” or “Why am I so different?”

How do we help our children understand their issues and teach them to advocate for themselves? When and how do we start the process and when can we begin to expect more self reliance? This is a cluster of questions that I wish more parents asked.

Over the years, children have come to my office exhibiting a wide range of coping skills. The range of understanding their own strengths and struggles is wide and is not necessarily connected with their cognitive abilities or emotional intelligence.  I’ve listened to remarkably eloquent 10-year-olds speak about their dyslexia and how difficult it is for them to read. And I have witnessed hyperactive and restless teens who have no real insight into how they tick. It’s not that they are not interested in learning about themselves.  They have never had “the talk” with their parents or a therapist:  they still have no clue as to what their diagnosis really means and are often still dependent on others to help them pave their way without having a real understanding of who they are and why they need the help that they are receiving.

Sooner or later, though, all children will have to go out into the world and fend for themselves.  Kids of all ages are more confident when they have a good understanding of their own needs and have done the hard work to learn to accept their differences.

Demystifying a child’s condition—that is, telling children what their issues are and helping them come to grips with it—is an important and often overlooked part of parenting an atypical child. It can be difficult to approach this subject; layers of defensiveness and avoidance build up over years of struggling so that many children can be unapproachable.   Just as some parents have difficulty accepting that their child is different, it is even harder to help a child come to terms with his or her difference.  Kids do not want to be different.  And yet, almost all children with a difference, be it a learning disability, ADHD or autism spectrum, among other issues, understand or sense that they are uniquely challenged.  Having “the talk” can help your child get to the next level.

Sometimes, though we hold back from talking to them about it, hoping they will ‘straighten out’ or become more ‘typical’ so we won’t have to have the conversation. But if your child is going from therapy to therapy on a weekly basis, he deserves the benefit of a good solid talk to explain what is going on in his brain and what are some techniques to help him.

In reality, for many families, “The Talk” happens in stages, as the child grows and is more able to understand the information and adapt him- or herself to the demands of the larger world.

What Does Your Child Need to Know?

Here are the steps that kids need to go through in order to become fully active in their own care:

  • Stage 1 – Awareness:

Knowing and accepting that everyone learns differently and has different needs.  No one has it all.  Learning that each person has unique needs and everyone needs help in becoming the best person they can be. Talking to your child about different talents and pointing out the ways that they are uniquely talented (as opposed to a sibling or neighbor who excels in another area) is a good way to make the concept resonate.

  • Stage 2 – Getting information:

Finding the name for what they have and learning about it (if a name exists).  This is an important step as learning what Dyslexia or ADHD or Autism Spectrum are can elicit different reactions in children.  Some children may feel relieved that there is a name for what they have. Other children may be frightened or annoyed and scared that there is something ‘wrong’ with their brain.  Finding the best way to deliver the information is important.  Some parents can read their child a book, for others, a trip to an informed therapist can help pave the road.  Many parents are more comfortable in reading the child a book that help describes a child that struggles in similar ways.  Children take comfort in hearing that they are not the only ones with this type of difference.

  • Stage 3 – Monitoring:

Learning the best interventions, accommodations, and what works best for them.  For many children, this is where a solid neuropsychological assessment can make the difference.  A good assessment should have a list of optimal interventions, discussions about a child’s learning style and a roadmap of accommodations that will work best for your child.  In older children, it is advised that the child be part of the debriefing plan, to learn more about themselves from a professional who has just tested them.

  • Stage 4 – Self Advocacy:

Knowing how to talk about it with others becomes important as a child grows up.  This is a critical transitional step that helps a child move from dependence to self reliance.  This should begin to happen in high school, if not sooner.  Children may need to practice how to speak to teachers, coaches or other adults about their particular conditions.  For sure by the time teens are preparing for college, this information should be clear, crisp and effective.  I often coach my older teens in scripts to use when speaking to high school teachers or college professors.  Don’t hesitate to use a script and to role model how to discuss their differences with others.

These stages may not happen in a neat, orderly sequence. In fact, a child may take until his 20’s to get all the way through all four stages. Ideally, we’d like our kids to have all four stages in their toolkit as they navigate through life.

Nancy Bly, former Dean of Students at Park Century School in Culver City, CA, http://www.parkcenturyschool.org/  said, in an interview, “the best time to discuss a child’s disabilities and how they learn is as soon as they perceive a problem and it is identified. The most important thing is that kids get enough information and awareness about their own learning style and learning needs to be able to advocate for themselves. Even the youngest child needs to feel comfortable in asking for help, the first step in self advocacy.”

Even if your child isn’t lucky enough to be in a special needs school that builds their self advocacy skills, having “the talk” with them on an ongoing basis in a supportive manner will go a long way to build a self reliant and confident young adult.

Parents, Here Are Your 6 Teachable Moments!

Parents, Here Are Your 6 Teachable Moments!

19221587_sA teachable moment is supposed to be a moment when your child’s attention has landed on something you want him to learn—and he is actually ready to learn it. More often, parents use “teachable moment” as code for “catastrophe.”  As in, “William dropped all his stuffed animals in the toilet and then flushed it. Ah, that was a teachable moment.”

In everyday life, the challenge for parents is to recognize teachable moments and follow through. It’s not really a matter of waiting until your child is ready to grasp the lesson. It’s a matter of repeating the lesson so often that, sooner or later, it sinks in and becomes second nature.

Here are the skills I believe parents of atypical kids should try to teach their children, along with the right moments to do the teaching.

1. Eye contact: You and your child run into someone you know or are introduced to someone new. Your child stares shyly downward and says nothing or mumbles, “my airplane got lost.”

Your teachable moment: BEFORE your child is approached, remind your child what is expected.  SAY: ‘Neighbor Joanie is walking over to us, remember to look her in the face and say hello’.   If your child is not doing so, don’t be shy, say it aloud: “Look her in the face and say ‘Hello’ ! Good for you!” Every child is capable looking someone in the eye when they are introduced, even if it takes years of training. Don’t hesitate to keep reminding.

2. Manners:  Every child is capable of saying please, excuse me and thank you—again, even if it takes years of training.

Your teachable moment: Every single time your child asks for or accepts any item, task, or favor. Also: You must model this behavior by saying please and thank you yourself, every single time. Your child can learn to do this, and it will make so much difference later on in his or her life.

3. Simple conversation skills: Your child should be able to hold up his or her end of a basic conversation, including asking questions: How are you? What do you like to do in school? Who are your friends? What are your hobbies?

Your teachable moment: Driving in the car is a great time for parents to rehearse these conversations with children so they are at ease with the questions and ready to roll. They can help you make up the questions and, of course, they get to answer the questions too. Model having back and forth conversations with imaginary people or friends, don’t hesitate from adding some humor to it, kids love to laugh at absurdities, like what to say to Mr. Elephant at the zoo or Mr. Ralph who, of course, owns Ralphs grocery store.

4. Planning and organizational skills:  How to clean out a backpack. How to neatly put papers in a folder without them getting crinkled. How to lay out clothes the night before (also builds good planning skills). How to prepare lunch with their parent the night before.

Your teachable moment: After homework is done but before TV privilege time. Now is the time to run through all the necessary prep work for the next day.  The trick is forcing yourself to take the time to teach these skills in a patient and relaxed way at the end of a long day. It’s always so much easier just to do it yourself, right? Don’t! Your little Johnny needs to pack up his own backpack and put it right by the front door all my himself. He can do it!

5. Nutrition: Children must eat foods that are not white. I lost count as to how many parents have told me that their child will only eat exactly 3 foods, over the years. How did that happen? Eating a healthy diet is the most important brain-building activity.

Your teachable moment: Start young. Give them nutritious food before they have an opinion. The world of natural food is delicious! Whole Foods offers cooking classes for kids or you can buy simple cook books with pictures and experiment.  Do not succumb to every plea for orange-dyed snacks, and oversalted, oversugared pseudo-food that only benefits food industries but certainly not your child.  DO NOT. EVER. PLEASE.

6. Entertainment: Do not introduce your child to iPads or iPhones until at least age 5.  You have control until then.  Use your parental control and your wisdom. Please.  One parent I know equated the iPad to vodka for an alcoholic. It can be that addictive. Why would you want to do that to your child? From age 0-5 is the time for a child’s sensorium to develop, including sensory relationship with the world. That does not include using a finger to swipe for immediate gratification, but does include crawling, touching, tasting, sensing and interacting with real people in real time.

Your teachable moment: Any moment when you are stressed and it would be so much easier just to hand over the device. No, make that BEFORE you are stressed.  PLAN AHEAD.  Are you going to be in the car for a long stretch? Doctor waiting room? Long meeting? Long car pool line? Remember drawing on a scratch pad with crayons? Picture books? CDs? If you can’t listen to Radio Disney for one more second, try movie soundtracks or children’s classics like “Peter and the Wolf.”  Plan to have conversation topics or plan songs from your childhood to teach your child while waiting. Teach them finger games or other ways to entertain themselves for those few minutes.

There are many more teachable moments that are available to parents if they can be mindful and alert to their children’s behaviors.  What are some teachable moments that have worked for you?