Tag Archives: Umbrella Parents

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.

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Umbrella Parents, Part 2: How Much Is Too Much?

Sometimes you have to retract the umbrella to find out what your kids are capable of.
Sometimes you have to retract the umbrella to find out what your kids are capable of.

Last post, I defined “umbrella parents” as parents who have to do what it takes to get their child’s needs served, even if it means looking like a ‘smother mother’ to other parents. I have always advocated parents being fully in the ring with their kids—and urge them to do whatever it takes to get their child’s needs met at school, camp, sports teams and elsewhere.

In that post, I also talked about executive function development and how it is often delayed in atypical children. This makes it essential for good parents to pave the way for their kids. Teachers, coaches, counselors and well-meaning parents of other children can be unintentionally cruel unless they are instructed otherwise. Your child clearly needs strong parental support as he or she is growing up.

But when does protecting your child become a habit rather than a necessity?

Or, as the exhausted mother of a teen put it, “Just exactly until when do we have to keep doing all of this?”

What Are Habituated Parents?

Umbrella parenting takes a lot of energy, planning and anticipating daily twists and turns of life. But eventually, it’s time to let go…. slowly. Sometimes this doesn’t happen fully until young adulthood, but it’s never too early to try to release the reins and see what happens, if only for a moment. Otherwise, parents risk becoming habituated to their children’s dependency and forget that the goal of umbrella parenting is to ultimately let go.

Here is an example of what I mean by a habituated parent:

Herbert is 11 years old. He’s so anxious about coming to me for testing that he is lying on the floor of the waiting room at his mother’s feet. She apologizes for him but does not make him sit up. He is, you see, anxious.

Herbert sullenly shuffles into my office and slumps into the chair. Mom checks that he has his backpack and enough snacks, and then tells him she loves him twice before leaving.

Who is the anxious one here?

Herbert slumps passively through his days while Mom takes care of all his needs. He is not developing the skills he needs to navigate the world independently or advocate for himself. Mom is too afraid for him to teach him what he needs to know. She has forgotten to retract the umbrella once in a while to help him learn to fend for himself.

Retracting the Umbrella

Instead of worrying yourself ragged like Herbert’s mom, try stepping back now and then, just a little.

You may start to notice that your child is capable of much more than you thought he could do. This change may come in stages, or progress at a more rapid pace. Take your cue from how things go in school. I find that many parents have no idea how independent or resourceful their child can be at school (or how polite and interactive), because he regresses as soon as he gets home.

Your child may be aware that she has a problem but is unable to act on the coping strategies she is learning right away. Once she matures that extra little bit, things suddenly click.

You may be surprised at how much your child can manage on his own, when you start to retract that umbrella bit by bit.  If you have been a vigilant umbrella parent for a while and are wondering if it’s time to step back,  take that baby step to see how it goes. Remember: even a small step can be a major accomplishment for your child. Give it a try and  be sure to share with us and with  other “positively atypical” parents and friends about your experience.

Next Post: Key teachable moments for every child.

When Is “Too Much” Just Enough?

Umbrella Parents
Umbrella parents always know when the rain is coming, and are ready with a metaphorical umbrella.

You know the ones.  The moms or dads with chronically worried faces, who pre-empt every group parent meeting to talk about their child’s special needs, and seem oblivious to the eye-rolling of parents around them.  The ones who wait outside the classroom at the end of each day to make sure their child is bringing home the right books. The parents who take the longest in the parent-teacher conferences.  “Helicopter parents.”   “Smother mothers.”

You know them because they are us and they are you. Parents of atypical kids do stand out from the rest; they take care of their children in ways that other moms and dads don’t have to, risking criticism from other parents and weary sighs from teachers.  They look like they are helicopter parents, but here is the truth that only you know:

They are doing what it takes to get their kid through the day.  Sometimes “too much” is just enough.

Hello, Umbrella Parents!

Instead of helicopter parents or smother mothers, I like to refer to these devoted moms and dads as umbrella parents. Good parents know what their children need, anticipate those needs, and take action. They are like weathermen who know when the rain is coming and are ready with a metaphorical umbrella.

When a child is diagnosed as atypical, I always explain to parents that they will need to be more attuned to the child’s needs than the average parent, at least for a while. Helicopter instincts are a very practical response to dealing with your special needs child.

Why? Because most atypical children experience some impairment and delay of their executive function.  Executive function is a broad term for the process that takes place in frontal lobe of the brain: the ability to anticipate, plan, problem-solve, organize, and self-monitor one’s social behaviors.  That pretty much sums up the job description of a parent, doesn’t it?

Umbrella parents don’t hesitate to protect their kids

When parents know that their children will have problems in particular areas, not only is it important to intercede, pave the way for them, and inform those adults who teach them, it is critical.  Teachers and coaches are busy running programs with lots of kids, and the problems of a single child just don’t stand out—until they do.

At that point, how the coach or teacher treats the child can lead to a series of humiliations, unfortunate discipline tactics, and subsequent self-esteem problems for the child. Coaches, counselors, and some teachers can be too aggressive in their tactics unless they are informed and instructed about better methods to deal with a child who is different.

So parents, do not hesitate to be your child’s advocate! Stand up, call it out, pay no attention to the other parents who think you are helicoptering. You are protecting your child!

The 5 W’s of  Umbrella Parenting

When your child is beginning a new class, team, or other activity, you have the chance to set the stage for a positive experience for your child and a good relationship with the teacher or coach. It is your chance to replace the “helicopter” label with “attentive and available.”  Just remember the 5 W’s:

  • Who? Who should be in the meeting? When you ask to meet with the teacher, coach or activity leader, it’s best if you bring along backup. The more people to support you, the better.  A spouse, neighbor or even your child’s therapist.  There is strength in numbers; moms rarely get heard as well as a professional who is saying the same thing.
  • What? What should the parent bring to the meeting? A note from a doctor or a one page recommendation list could help the process.  For example, a note could say: “Andy suffers from an auditory processing disorder. This means that he may not hear your instructions the first time. Please do not yell at him for this, but do repeat it a few times if he seems confused.  You could also meet with him before the game to see if he has any questions.”You could also attach a brief printout about the disorder for him to read. Note that what the doctor is saying is exactly what you will say, but somehow the doctor or therapist note provides more weight to your requests.
  • When? When should the meeting take place? The earlier the better. I often advise parents to meet with teachers a few days before school starts to debrief them on your child’s needs.  Depending on how many adjustments your child needs, you may want 15 minutes up to a half hour.Ask the teacher for “15 minutes of your time” just to briefly explain the situation and why you, the parent, will be hovering a bit throughout the year.
  • Where? Location matters. You will want privacy, away from other parents.  You also may not want to involve your child if he or she is not ready to talk about his issues (stay tuned for a future blog post on this)
  • Why? The point of this first little meeting is to set the stage with the teacher, explain what the situation is, and communicate that you are a calm, attentive parent and want to help the teacher so that your child is not disruptive and also is getting what he or she needs.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I will talk about the flip side of umbrella parenting: over-indulging your kid, soothing your own nerves instead of his, and when and how to let go.